Spires and skies. Rooks. Woodpigeons. Binbagged haybales.
Noah drank of the wine and became drunk. Genesis nine. In his defence, it may well be that Noah had had enough of water.
I usually work on the train. Well – usually I don’t take the train; I drive, like most people – but now that I’ve been on the wrong end of a disagreement with a breathalyser and a truculent constable (don’t get me started), I take the train, and usually, when I’m on the train, I work. I’ll have an article to finish, or proofs to correct, something like that. Actually the proofs of my new book are in my briefcase: it’s called ‘Slaves Cannot Breathe’.
There’s a story there. My editor, Evan, was four-square against that title (it’s from Cowper, of course); why not, Evan pleaded, some saw from Shakespeare, or a commonplace from Kipling? – people won’t have heard of the Cowper, he said.
That, I told him, rather proved my point.
I’m not working today, in any case. Partly I’m looking out of the window at these high grey skies and these baggy-trousered rooks busy in the stubble. And partly I’m reading. Barbara found this among my mother’s things.
The story of Job is a story of endurance, not of patience. Patience is when nothing happens. Patience requires strength. One couldn’t say that Job had an easy time of it. But then neither could you say that he ever had much cause to complain of boredom. Job had faith. Patience requires strength.
It’s a Bible. Don’t mistake me, I’m a Christian, or in any case a man born of a Christian country, which is pretty much the same thing – but I feel rather a fool reading it on the train. People who see me – well, they don’t know that this is rather more than a Bible. They might think that I’m just a nutcase.
If they do, well, then, I think that says more about them and about what this country is coming to than it does about me –
But still, I admit it, I hold the book close to my chest and I cover the gold-embossed spine with my hand. In fact I cradle it – and not only to hide it from the eyes of others. I cradle it because it’s fragile and because it was my father’s.
A girl came up and spat at my feet. I think she had intended to spit in my face but when it came to it her courage failed her. She handed me a white feather. I remember thinking that even that must have taken some spunk. She was pretty, too. One Corinthians four, I said. She said, You’ve got a nerve.
My mother didn’t like to talk about my father. Even at the end, she didn’t speak of him. I remember, in fact, the last time she did speak of him. It was over dinner, a dinner of chops and peas, and she said: ‘He couldn’t abide lamb, your father the coward.’
I walked out, leaving half a chop on the plate. Why did I do that? I never even knew my father. I was born in nineteen forty-four. My father died the following year. We don’t know precisely when.
Nebuchadnezzar commanded that, at the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery and dulcimer, everyone had to bow down before a golden idol. And when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down, he had them cast into a fiery furnace. I feel like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. At the sound of the fife and drum, all men must do the bidding of the king, and bow down to the fat golden idol of war. And I refused – and so I am cast down.
I didn’t know this book existed. It was only yesterday evening, while Barbara was digging through a box of my mother’s things (I’d only brought it from the home the day before – mother had only died the day before that) – there it was, in a shoebox, with a grooved cake of resin for my father’s violin and an envelope of Rhodesian postage stamps. I looked the stamps up in Gibbons’. They aren’t worth anything.
sing hymns. The acoustics are pretty good. There’s a bright side for you.
He was a dissenter, my father. We oughtn’t forget that this England of ours was built not only by kings and bishops but by dissenters, naysayers and trespassers. Slaves cannot breathe in England – if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. Cowper, of course. I’m proud that my father was a dissenter. I’m a libertarian – just as every Englishman ought to be.
My father carried his dissension rather too far for my mother’s tastes.
It all seems rather hard. Thinking of May, and little Christopher. I don’t complain. I can see the hand of Providence in this. But, by Jove – it does seem rather hard.
The handwriting is sometimes hard to decipher.
Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the son of God. Daniel three. If they were not alone then I am not alone.
He didn’t write much. I might be finished with it (although in a sense I don’t think I shall ever be finished with it) by the time I reach Haverchurch. My agent, Marcus, tells me that the Haverchurch branch of Barnaby & Since is the second-largest in the south-west. What are you going to give ‘em?, he asked me. I laughed, and said I was going to give ‘em hell.
I was planning to read an excerpt from my second book: ‘The Going Down Of The Sun’. It seemed appropriate. There’d been more dreadful reports in the Sentinel from Afghanistan, someone’s son, someone’s husband dead in the desert – and there’s that crew of bloody swindlers sitting pretty up in Westminster and talking about defence cuts, and then there was a leader column in the bloody Correspondent pretty much ordering the PM to give it up for a bad job, and sod the cause those boys gave their lives for (a little thing called liberty) – God it all just made my blood boil –
I was planning to give them what for.
I received a letter when I was at Hartlepool. It was from a man named Davies. I’d been at school with him. He said that every man who didn’t join up on the day war was declared ought to have the word ‘traitor’ carved into his forehead with a bradawl. I wrote back and told him that I hadn’t declared war on anybody. I cited Romans twelve. The funny thing about it is that if he’d said such a thing to my face I think I’d have punched him in the nose.
The pages are grey. The printed ink is legible enough but my father’s words in pale-grey pencil are hard to make out.
I look at the white skin of my thumb against the grey paper. It strikes me that my father’s skin would have been just the same shade of grey – towards the end, I mean. Usually, it would have been white, like mine.
I suppose everyone forgives everything in the end.
He refused to fight, so they sent him down a coal-mine. He was a mile beneath South Shields when the tunnel caved in. He had a packet of sandwiches and a Bible – this Bible. And he had a pencil. This is his journal.
And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the Lord. Isaiah two. But I’m not here because I’m afraid. I am afraid. But that isn’t why I’m here.
He kept on writing, after a fashion, even after the light ran out. There are four pages (scrawled across the book of Job) that I can’t interpret. He kept on writing, I suppose, until the air ran out. Six weeks later they recovered his body.
Here’s Haverchurch. I close my father’s Bible.
I don’t feel like giving anyone what for. For a moment I consider calling Marcus and cancelling the reading – but then I decide that I will read, not from‘The Going Down Of The Sun’, but from my father’s Bible – that is, my father’s journal.
Mother’s funeral’s tomorrow. For the sake of various octogenarian aunts I’ll have to read from the Bible then, too – but I know, now, that it won’t mean anything, and I shan’t cry (as I’m crying now), because it’ll just be a lot of damn words, and they won’t be my father’s words, which mean more than Job and Isaiah and all the rest of them put together – even the ones that I can’t read because my father, whom I never met, wrote them in the dark.