‘An Appropriate Distance’

This story was first published in Haverthorn magazine in April, 2016.

 

When Win stepped into the Archway Road he knew two things already: one, that there was a bus coming, and, two, that he didn’t give a damn whether it hit him or not.

On awaking in Archway hospital eight days later, he learned another thing.

‘Christ almighty,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said, holding his hand in mine.

‘I always thought,’ he said, ‘that toothache was the worst you could get. But it isn’t. This is worse than that.’

I signalled for a nurse.

The heart inside Win’s broken ribs was broken too, but that was a pain of which he didn’t speak. I never enquired after it. It was a pain of a different order.

He did speak, and furiously, of the pain and the break in the middle finger of his right hand, which was his spinning finger.

‘It’ll never come good,’ he said. ‘It’s like a violin. You can’t just break it and mend it and expect to make the same music from it as you did before.’

I saw him weep, once, over that finger. That was the only time I saw him weep. I suppose that when I wasn’t there he wept over the whole lot: broken finger, broken heart, broken ribs.

He was cradling his right hand in his left as if it were a dead thing.

‘It’ll never fucking come good, Ben,’ he said.

On the day when he awoke at St George’s he asked me if I had heard anything of Henry. Before I could answer he seemed suddenly to recollect – he rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and lifted a hand to forestall my reply, and nodded. ‘Of course,’ he said, quietly.

He didn’t cry, then. Nor did I, but I did, five or ten minutes later, in the hospital corridor, holding my hat over my face, and, too, in my cab to Paddington, and in a crowded compartment on my train to Oxford, and in the street, Turl Street, right in front of Lincoln College and a group of four undergraduates mending a bicycle – each time holding my damn hat over my face.

Later I went to see Virginia. We talked about William James and grief: what would grief be, James asked, without its sobs, its tears, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone? Virginia said that it would be nothing; I thought that it would at least be something, but didn’t say so.

Then after that we both wanted to, but I couldn’t get it up.

‘I’m just tired,’ I told her, as she buckled her shoes.

I was. I still am.

Instead of sex we walked in the meadows. We were sensible of the townspeople’s opinion. We did not hold hands. At the sagging gate that led into the meadows I offered her my crooked elbow but even that Virginia declined.

‘Caesar’s wife,’ she murmured. She roped the gate carefully closed behind her.  

Julius Caesar of course divorced his second wife, Pompeia, because it was said she had abetted the politician Clodius in his seeking to enter the sacred rites of the Good Goddess in the guise of a woman.

‘Was she?’ Virginia asked me. ‘Getting, you know, seen to by Clodius.’

‘Oh, I expect so.’ I cleared my throat with a harumphing sound. ‘Good-looking boy, by all accounts. Though on the pretty side.’

‘He would have fitted right in here,’ she said. ‘All these pretty boys.’

Virginia was handsome and not pretty, and sensitive, at thirty-four, to the fineness of young undergraduate bone and the fairness of young undergraduate skin. Her own bones were rather heavy; she was prone to erythema in the skin of her cheeks and throat (she flushed the colour of plum-jam when aroused and when angry – perhaps she flushed, too, when she was embarrassed, but I don’t believe I ever saw Virginia embarrassed: a desirable quality, of course, in one’s psychiatrist).   

Swallows skimmed the tips of the wavering grey-green grass in the meadow by which we walked. There were a few flowers (though I am not good at knowing flowers).

 

In the year that Mallory and Irvine were lost on Everest (our father wore a black crêpe armband), Win married Elizabeth at the Methodist chapel at the Archway junction. She was only twenty years old – an undergraduate reading English at St Hugh’s. The wedding was on the last weekend of August, nineteen twenty-four. It rained but no-one gave a damn (save for the minister, who had bicycled from Holloway). Win borrowed father’s frock-coat, and Elizabeth – Lizzie – wore wildflowers. The Middlesex second eleven formed a laughing guard of honour in the London drizzle – and then, with a cold spread and seltzer toasts waiting for us at Hargrave Hall, not to mention Father and Mother and the sodden minister, Win led Lizzie and me and the cricketers across the road, to an Irishmen’s pub. We drank stout. In fact Win – in spite of my plucking at his sleeve – drank three stouts. Lizzie drank a glass of whiskey and when we left she left her wildflowers behind.

Henry Benjamin Claypit was born in late May.

‘A bloody close run thing, that,’ Win murmured when we met (sentimentally, at the same Irishmen’s pub) to wet the new baby’s head.

That was the beginning of Win’s first season in the first eleven. At the Oval in August he bowled Jack Hobbs for fifteen and went home with the bails in his trouser-pocket. At Trent Bridge Harold Larwood knocked two of his teeth loose but he hit forty-six anyway.

 

When he stepped into the Archway Road in the November of nineteen forty-five, Win knew – and had known since the spring – that the body of Henry Benjamin Claypit lay lifeless and undiscovered in a ruined span of Normandy meadow.

They’d named him Benjamin after me.

Win and I had met that afternoon, not at the Irishmen’s pub but not far away, a mile or so up Highgate Hill (I was breathless by the time we reached it), a wood-panelled place called The Merchantman. It was a Wednesday afternoon and quiet. We drank Suffolk light ale, and we didn’t talk about Henry. We talked about Win’s retirement, or, rather, his refusal to retire; we talked about my book on Aristophanes, and we talked about Thomas Beecham and Citizen Kane, and we talked about Lizzie’s new exhibition – we didn’t say a thing about Henry. I suppose we ought to have. I think I ought to have.

I shook his hand when we parted on Highgate Hill. I was to trudge downhill to the Tube station; he was to walk the couple of miles through the cemetery and across the heath to Hampstead, for tea with a friend – although, he added, with a cricketer’s weather-eye on the gathering sky, it might be the best thing for him to head back inside, have another drink, and see if the rain passed by.

‘Right ho,’ I said.

I think he did go back inside. Then (I think) he walked down to the Irishmen’s pub at the Archway junction, and drank there for a while. He didn’t go to tea with his friend in Hampstead, if there even was a friend in Hampstead. He stepped into the Archway Road, and a bus broke his spinning-finger in three.

He wouldn’t have been drunk. Win could take his beer. He would only have been, I think, hopeless – that is, without hope, and perhaps incapable of it. He was hopeless that afternoon and I suppose he stayed hopeless.

Now his body lies broken and lifeless under the cold, wet sod of Holywell cemetery.

 

‘We are not talking about Win, Professor Claypit,’ Virginia said, patiently. ‘We are talking about you.’

‘But there’s so little to say about me,’ I protested, and smiled self-effacingly. ‘I’m – well, I’m just like everybody else.’

Virginia pursed her lips and re-crossed her legs.

‘Nobody is just like everybody else,’ she said.

During our ‘sessions’, as she calls them, Virginia calls me by my professional title – that is, she calls me ‘Professor Claypit’. It maintains (she maintains) an appropriate distance.

I am supposed to call her ‘Doctor Graves’, if I call her anything at all, but for the most part I do not call her anything at all.

‘Win once said that I was an exceptional man who would never do an exceptional thing in his life. I think he was right.’

‘We are not talking about Win,’ Virginia said again.

It was a train, an express train to London, from, I think, Manchester. Of course he knew that the train was coming; he knew that an express train would do the trick where the Holloway bus had failed. I don’t know if he had business in Strawberry Hill – tea with a friend, perhaps – or if he went there only because he knew there was a level-crossing there. He bicycled there; they found his bicycle.

‘Perhaps we might talk about Henry,’ Virginia said. It felt as though she were making a concession.

‘He was a good young man. A fine batsman. A moderate scholar. A fine soldier, I would think. Just another fine young man killed in the war.’    

‘Just like everybody else?’

I nodded – not to agree (I didn’t agree, how could I agree?) but to acknowledge that Virginia had scored a point.

‘No. He was special. He really was. I know he would have been a fine soldier. I know that from watching him at the crease.’ I smiled at my own absurdity. ‘But I would have known it anyway. From when he was a boy.’

‘Why?’

‘Because – ’ I hesitated. When I had hesitated for long enough Virginia said: ‘Because he was Win’s boy. We are still talking about Win.’

I shrugged my shoulders.

‘Perhaps we are,’ I said. ‘But then perhaps I don’t know how to talk about anything else.’

I couldn’t look at Virginia’s face. It is difficult for her, I know. We oughtn’t to do this. I ought to make an appointment with one of her colleagues, Mendel, the Hungarian, or Jaynes, with his bow-tie and bad teeth.

But I can’t talk to them. I can barely talk to Virginia. I can barely talk at all.

 

Yesterday I went to see Lizzie. I took the train to London and a cab to the house in Bloomsbury. While I waited on the step I adjusted the band of black crêpe I was wearing on my arm.

Lizzie came to the door in an ivory blouse and a skirt of mitosis blue. She began to cry when she saw me. I can’t say why, but I felt certain, somehow, that she had not cried before now; that she had cried neither for Henry nor Win but that now she cried for me in my black crêpe arm-band.     

We drank tea in her studio. There were flowers everywhere. Flowers, and paintings of flowers, messy and abundant with colour. May sunshine made the tea sparkle when Lizzie poured it from the pot.

Lizzie is my age: forty-one. She’s still pretty.

I wanted to ask her how she did it, when I cannot, when even Win could not. Do what?, she would say. I wouldn’t be sure: I would gesture vaguely at the paintings and the sunshine and the skirt of mitosis blue. All this, I would say.

How would she have answered? I don’t know. I only sat and drank the tea.  

 

I asked Virginia if we could end the session. I even called her Doctor Graves. I asked her if she would put down her notebook, and come to bed with me. In spite of herself, she smiled, and the skin of her throat flushed dark pink – but she did not put down her notebook.

I suppose it was just as well. There seems little sense, these days, in our going to bed together.

‘Did you cry?’ she asked. I had told her about my visit to Lizzie, and Lizzie’s tears at the door.

‘No,’ I said, truthfully. ‘Not then.’

‘Later, though?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Later.’

There are no flowers in my rooms, nor any paintings of flowers. It has never occurred to me to put any there.

‘It is strange,’ I offered, ‘not being anybody’s brother, when one has been a brother for so long.’

Virginia did put down her notebook, then, and touched my hand.      

I am nobody’s brother. The phrase, in my head, has a force to it. Not the part about being nobody’s brother, although of course that’s true, and has a force of its own: my only brother is dead, twice dead; his bones are buried in the mud, and when I think of them, him, I ache, I physically ache –

Not that, but the first part. I am. It’s true, and I must remember it. I am.

 

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7 thoughts on “‘An Appropriate Distance’

  1. A well spun story. Did Win spin again?
    (I ask as an ex leggie with 4 pins in the spinning shoulder. I feel his pain)

  2. I found this unexpectedly this afternoon, the way it happens sometimes with the internet, and couldn’t just leave without saying how much I was touched by it. Such a light touch, beautifully written. Thank you for it.

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