London Magazine, 01 August 1978
Nothing had ever inspired Dexter to greater heights of emotion than the faint lyricism he now felt at the sight of a dog’s discarded bone at the centre of a deeply green lawn that stretched to a row of beeches, all now darkening in the twilight. Had he been a perfectionist the chill in the air and the ache in his stomach would have weighed heavily against such extravagance, but, as the sky lightened at the expense of the earth, Dexter was happy.
For hours he had been sitting in the deck chair which was set to hold his back as nearly vertical as possible. From behind the thin grey hair and the top of his scalp could just be seen projecting over the faded green and orange striped canvas. From the front he appeared crumpled …. almost broken, yet strangely prominent against the background of the house which was unlit except for the glare silhouetting the revellers in the French windows of the lounge. An alarming paralysed grin had been fixed on Dexter’s face for the past forty-five minutes.
Unexpectedly his dry lips had begun to move. He was whispering as he stared at the bone.
“And after the emperor is thus interred, no man shall be so hardy as to speak of him before his friends,” he breathed.
“Many cause themselves to be interred privately by night, in wild places, and the grass put again over the pit, to grow; or they cover the pit with gravel and sand, that no man shall perceive where the pit is, to the intent that never after may his friends have mind or remembrance of him. Then they say that he is ravished into another world, where he is a greater lord than he was here.”
Damn right, mused Dexter as his lips stopped moving, damn right. He had first read those words forty-seven years ago and they had been a meagre comfort ever since, to be repeated at times of extreme depression or apparent elation – in both cases ready to be ravished into another world at a moment’s notice. A harsh laugh from the party behind the partly-open windows just behind him caused an even harsher inward laugh in Dexter as he, yet again, thought how difficult it would be for him to be a lesser lord.
Dexter’s lordship had become an easy ability to be the centre of attention. His nominal minions, he knew, had been watching him as they sipped their drinks. Not that he was much to look at, a couple of inches of grey scalp and his body indicated by the taut canvas, but they would all have been looking long and hard, no doubt about that.
The bone looked fairly fresh. The disgusting Ralph must have left it there that morning, having been diverted from his usual procedure of burying such fragments at the foot of one of the beeches. Ralph was the perfect dog for James and Elizabeth. Elizabeth, the unpleasantness that had somehow formed from Dexter’s seed was, he knew, intelligent. Behind him she was talking to her friends. They were listening to her talk to them and probably they liked her, certainly they would be allowing her to drag them round by their elbows. Ralph would be dozing in the kitchen.
Dexter liked to dwell on how much he could hate his daughter. He told himself she was without character and made himself giggle silently when he thought of the way Elizabeth and her mother had always believed they had ‘got on’ and been able to tell each other things he couldn’t possibly be told. And Dexter liked to imagine that one day it would come home to his daughter how little she had ever known; though it was a pity she would outlive him and he would never again look out on a bright Elizabeth-less world. He had done so once and he had known he was doing it.
It was now very cold. More noise seemed to be coming from the people behind him, but quite suddenly Dexter found himself remembering another deck chair in which he had sat watching a cricket match between two village teams. He recalled it had been a tense struggle with the result uncertain until the very last over. The bowler was a tall blond man with a beard, who bowled with fearsome speed and accuracy, but the timid, rather useless batsman had scored the winning runs by snicking one through the slips. Dexter felt again his sharp pang of disappointment and he recalled how surprised he had been that he cared. As the ball reached the boundary he realized that, without knowing, he had studied carefully the whole game. Each movement had registered as being intensely significant.
Now – just when the bone seemed to be performing some mysterious alchemy upon him. Not one to be receptive to such imaginings, Dexter stared hard at the bone. The effort of concentration made him hallucinate, amorphous dark shapes unglued themselves from the grass; their arms raised, they floated into the profound sky and obscured the rising moon. Blinking quickly, Dexter found himself staring at humped herds of sheep on the law. He sighed, irritated by these painterly malfunctions. In involuntary embarrassment he raised a hand, rubbed his eyes and massaged his brow. A pain shot through his arm. This surprised him, accompanied as it was by an unnatural quickening of thought in his mind. The effect seemed synthetic, though he had taken none of the stimulants or depressants he had collected over the years.
Dexter caught his rising panic with a wrench of his will and swung his mind round to concentrate on the party behind him. Yes he could see James and Elizabeth entertaining – greeting whom? Stuart, Dora, Angus, Vic, John, Hilda, Hilary, Hal … Possibly – possibly others. Dexter found he has gasped and was hot.
The moon had risen, full and perfect above the beeches. Dexter’s mouth fell open and he stared in wonder at the soft haze that surrounded the disc and the vast misty ring filling a qauerter of the sky – surely had had never seen that before.
The sound of breaking glass interrupted him briefly, but now the warm swelling inside his head was clearly beyond his control. Forcing himself to relax, he determined to see whatever was happening as clearly as he could. A window opened somewhere behind him and childish whispers could be heard – Harry and Margaret who should have been asleep hours ago. Hours ago – the phrase echoed several times, lost meaning and grew into cloudy red mushrooms.
With a novel passion he saw the cricket match again. And with an intensity that drove saliva into his mouth, he saw a tremendous arc of figures in red drapery reach over the field – each squashily fragmented as they dissolved into the earth: into gravel and sand.
The remains of a reflex panic trapped his mind as he felt a sharp blow at the back of his head.
Dexter rose slightly and then pitched forward from his sea on to the grass, into the grass.
“…just a glass cylinder that fits on to the lens. Inside there’s a curved mirror so each picture shows the complete 360 degrees. I almost sent off for one.”
“Wouldn’t every picture look precisely the same?”
Elizabeth didn’t bother to expand on her paradox and, picking up her glass from the mantlepiece, she glided off, leaving Vic the photographer staring after her.
“Oh she’s always doing that, don’t worry. Can I fill you up?” asked James creeping up to the bewildered cameraman.
“Yes – no, I haven’t got a glass. A whisky anyway.”
James moved over to the drinks table and stood there fiddling with bottles and glasses without really knowing what he was doing. His attention was fixed on the strange sight of Dexter in his deck chair in the middle of the law and the twilight.
What is the old sod doing? he wondered. He says he’s not coming to dinner and then he sits outside like some bloody ghost.
“One for me too. How’s the photography coming along? James winced as the dreadful John grabbed his arm.
“Never realized you had so many friends. No – sherry please.”
“Neither did I. Who are you?”
“Tell me how are the destroyers anyway?”
James looked blank.
“The kids – remember you children, little Harry and little Margaret.”
“Oh bowling along.”
James marvelled at the way his manner and speech had taken on John’s bantering tone. Over John’s shoulder he noticed Elizabeth, standing in a ludicrously over-emphatic posture, talking to four wives. The photographer was leaning on the mantlepiece being talked to by somebody whose name he always forgot. And Angus, a maddening, bulky, tweed-suited figure, was slumped in an armchair with a bottle of beer and an empty glass.
“Could say the same about Michael. God I’ve bred a handful there.”
“I would have been stunned if you had done otherwise, John.”
Five men and five women – all assembled and correct, like putting together some banal, intense domestic drama. James really felt he ought to write a novel, if only to establish he was above such stuff.
John was still bantering on about his son – the child’s unusual wit, his quirky vision of human nature and the ease of his demeanour with little girls.
James snapped his mouth shut, realizing it had fallen open, and suddenly, glancing apologetically at John, took two quick steps over to the photographer and gave him his drink, artfully dodging the eyes of the man whose name he could not remember. In doing so something made him look upwards over the mantlepiece at a convex mirror in a gilt frame. He saw his own enlarged head and slender body vanishing towards an impossibly distant pair of shoes. Elizabeth and ger group were a cluster of gracefully curved reeds. John appeared about to fall over and Angus looked much as he did normally.
But at the sight of the darkening lawn, the still-bright sky and Dexter in his chair, motionless, all by some freak included in this warped scene, James trembled. He turned away quickly as an icy wash swept up his body and looked directly out of the window. Dexter was still there – exactly as he had been half an hour ago, except now James thought he could see a dark object on the law a few feet in front of him. He hadn’t noticed that before.
He turned wondering what to do next. Something to divert the chill was what he needed, but the rest of the room seemed to make him more anxious. He pushed away from the window like a poor swimmer leaving the side of the pool and immediately caught a glass with his sleeve. It fell on the floor, shattering. Quickly James started pushing the pieces to the side.
Everybody had turned to face him. Elizabeth called to him to leave to it for the time being and added a semi-jocular ‘clumsy oaf’ to the order. Again James tried to re-establish his equilibrium.
John was now crouched by Angus, both looked intent, so James was forced to join Elizabeth and friends.
“Shall we eat?”
“Just a minute. It’s true, I can see you don’t believe me. She just dened it – and there was that bloody toilet roll in her bag. I just stared at it – I was astounded.”
Elizabeth stopped and James tried to move her towards the door.
“It’s incredible,” commented Dora, a large bovine woman in a flowery dress who was moving her head from side to side in wonder.
“Well I think it’s typical,” mumbled the woman standing beside her, whom, James realized dizzily, looked almost exactly the same as Dora.
He was waiting for the cooing and cheaping to subside and tried to time his next intervention so that Elizabeth would hardly notice he had said anything. This time it worked and they began heading towards the door. Elizabeth, thinking she appeared to be floating, gathered together photographer and anonymous whom she surprisingly addressed as “Ivan”. Pushing them along with one hand as they talked, she lowered the other on to John’s shoulder; he glanced up, said something in an undertone to Angus, and stood up.
James left the room followed by photographer, “Ivan”, Elizabeth and John. Angus paused and stretched his arms with a series of soft grunts – he felt as though he had been in the armchair for hours. Vaguely thinking he would check how late it was he glanced out of the window to see if it was still light. It was, just light enough to see the deck chair, the canvas now slack, a crumpled shape on the lawn in front of it and two small objects nearby. He rubbed his eyes but the darkness was thick enough to conceal further detail and the rubbing made phosphene dance over the lawn. He shrugged his shoulders and joined the others. Food at last, he thought.
“Half naked, brown skinned and strong,” read Harry, “the warrior stood at the entrance of the hut, his eyes gleaming strangely in the gloom.”
“Sssssh!” interrupted Margaret. She was kneeling in her night dress by the door. Harry was reading sat up in bed. The curtains next to him were open. He sighed – yet again Margaret was thinking she had heard somebody coming up the stairs, somebody who would discover her long after her bed-time, still playing with and being read to by Harry.
Harry looked out of the window. Grandad was still sitting on the lawn as the light faded, he seemed to be staring at that bone Ralph had left. He suddenly felt a wave of irritation and annoyance.
“Oh, there’s no one coming,” he said impatiently and threw the book across the room. Margaret jumped and then subsided into a sulky look. She walked over to the bed, sat down at the end, and joined Harry in staring at Grandad on the lawn.
“What’s he doing there?”
“Probably moaning as usual,” said Harry, repeating one of Elizabeth’s remarks.
“What are they doing downstairs?”
“Still in the lounge drinking. Mummy’s making a lot of noise.”
“She always does. You’d think somebody would go out and speak to Grandad.”
“I don’t think he’d want that. He doesn’t look in a speaking mood.”
“How can you tell? You can’t even see his face from here.”
Harry stared harder at the old man trying to imagine what he was thinking about – probably emperors and old books and strange journeys, that’s what he was usually thinking about. Harry wondered if he’d be like that when he grew old, just spending his time sitting in a deck chair. His father told him to “have some respect” for Grandad’s age – but why? There didn’t seem much point if all the years of his life had given him just enough to know how to sit in the middle of the garden staring at a bone. This thought filled him with an obscure anger.
“Why don’t we talk to him?” said Harry and, without waiting for Margaret’s answer, he got up to open the window.
“What are you doing?” hissed his sister.
“Just opening the window.”
Harry picked up a cricket ball that had got in the way from the window sill and opened one half of the window wide. He leaned out and thrilled at the cold, dampish air hitting his face. The talk from downstairs became louder. Margaret pushed in beside him.
“What are you going to do?” she whispered.
“Keep quiet, he’ll hear us.”
For a few moments they stared at Dexter and as they watched he seemed to grow tenser, but they were both too excited to think about it. Harry grew even more impatient and then quickly extricated his arm from between himself and Margaret and lobbed the ball towards Dexter.
“No,” hissed Margaret desperately. But the ball curved with astonishing accuracy through the cool air straight for Dexter. Margaret put her hands over her mouth and pulled herself back into the room. Harry was transfixed by the sight.
The ball landed with a thud on Dexter’s head and, to Harry’s horror, he simply fell forwards out of the chair and lay still.
“What’s happened?” called Margaret from the far side of the room.
“Nothing – it missed him,” Harry lied out of fear.