Bedford Park: Prologue

Or is it the illusory world

That falls from reality

As we look? Or are we

Like a thunderbolt hurled?

One or another

Is lost, since we fall apart

Endlessly, in one motion depart

From each other.

D. H. Lawrence, ‘Tommies in the Train’

 

Eastern Atlantic, 1912

I start on this last, the ninetieth, London notebook once the Mizen Head and the whole ragged claw of the Irish coast passes from view.

Cherbourg, Queenstown and then this nothing. A priest took to one of the tenders at Queenstown and, leaving Southampton, we sucked the New York free of her moorings. She missed us by four feet.

‘The power,’ the captain laughed, ‘the power!’

‘One speech! I am going all this way for one speech. But it must be done, it must be done!’

Stead speaks in exclamation marks, a common habit among the Englishmen I have known. As ever, he is delighting in the sacrifices demanded of him by his urgent destiny. His passion contrasts strangely with the gentle shafts of sunlight playing on the starched linen. Everything in this room is both pale and very bright; it is the brightness of the sea. Pale brightness in which I seem to float … It was like this when I left Chicago.

‘Of course, on the subject of universal peace no sacrifice can be too great. Everything wrong in the world is a divine call to use your life in righting it, eh, Cal?’

The linen-muted sounds of lunch hover above the iron-muted thunder of the engines, whose vibrations form concentric circles in my wine. This churning machine keeps us alive on the ocean where we don’t belong, and so much decorative care to hide the effort involved! The cream gilded salon of this steamship is immensely long. Superficially, it is Jacobean in style or, at least, the ceiling is – strange for a modern ship, but the English, I discovered long ago, don’t like things to look like what – or when – they are.

Something in Stead’s last statement awakens me.

‘Universal peace? I thought you were speaking on spiritualism.’

‘Cal, for goodness’ sake!’ Stead cries with kindly exasperation.‘We have discussed this at length. I am to address the Men and Religion Forward Movement Congress at Carnegie Hall.’

I am sure he is right, we must have discussed this. Stead is two years older than me and looks that at least, thanks to his tumultuous beard and the ill-fitting and uncoordinated clothes of an absent-minded old man, but he acts and thinks as if he were at least twenty years younger. He is holding his own against the clawings of the years more effectively than I. My memory, in particular, is not what it was, but the notebooks preserve the essentials.

I ran into Dora in the street a few days before we sailed and failed to recognise her, the golden hair now dimmed somewhat but the eyes still blue and alert. She was, it seemed, someone who reminded me of Dora. I stared, empty eyed, lost.

‘Oh, Cal, are you quite with us?’

‘Yes, yes, I am so sorry …’

‘Dora.’

‘Dora. I know. Forgive me. Please. Forgive me.’

Then my old heart leapt like a frog as I gazed into her still-dear features. She has not changed. Age, in her, has just brushed the surface … a slight blurring.

‘Forgive you? Oh, Cal. I am so sorry I could not …’

‘I get so distracted.’

‘I know. You must look after yourself, you are very important to us.’

‘Important …?’

Important to them – think of that! I have attained importance but too late, too late! I am sixty-one and, already, I have become an old fool, begging forgiveness from women in the street whose names escape me, and this was a woman I loved … passionately, I latterly realised. But she said ‘important to us’ – whom did she mean? Or perhaps the point was I was not especially, singularly, important to her. She had, at the last, proved that beyond doubt.

‘The Americans still have not come to terms with the matter of Russia; they are a modern people but they are not truly forward looking. They need a little more simple truth if they are to progress.’

Stead is summarising the contents of his lecture, apparently forgetting that I am one of these naive Americans. I need not listen; it is all very familiar.

The sleeve of this coat is worn – there is a distinct shine around the cuff. I have not noticed that before. It is not like me; I was known about town for my fastidiousness in these matters. I always like to feel finished when I leave the house or, today, stateroom. Perhaps it is like me as I am now, an old fool. Frank would say I always was. He has known me long enough – forty years! – and must have amassed a good deal of evidence for the prosecution. What difference does it make? Neither more nor less than Frank’s seductions or Dora’s worried look or Stead’s speech. What difference does anything make? Voyaging to London and, then, twenty- four years later, voyaging home. What difference?

Frank.

Frank is a sentence: subject and predicate. Frank is the doer of what is done to the done to. Ugly, vulpine, potent and yet, here’s a thing I have always found strange, repeatedly he falls ill. So do I. I am frail. I suffer sneezing fits, a swollen face, breathing difficulties. I was, from the first, written off, not a survivor, not fully born into this world, almost transparent in my almost absence. The Colonel’s disappointment with me in later life was merely an extension of his disappointment at discovering he had a transparent son with an enfeebled constitution. It was not the Chicago way.

I accepted this. I assumed I was the sickly – nasty word that! – type. But when Frank is sick it is an afterthought, a footnote to his vigour. Being sick is an aspect of his masculinity. For me, it is effeminacy, a sign of my submission. I would lie down; Frank would buy machines, a pump to cleanse his stomach, a tube to cleanse his bowels, or he would engage in alarming diets and frantic exercise. I think this means he has faith, faith that he is more than his body, which is, to him, a thing in the world, one more obstacle to be overcome. I lack such faith; my body is me, its shortcomings mine. My body is a picture of my soul but Frank’s impatient soul inhabits his thickened body. After our deaths, my body-soul will moulder while Frank, free of mere body, will be haranguing Stead at one of his séances.

‘I watched him on Blackheath – what a moment that was! I loved him and, for a time, I think he loved me. Such greatness!’

Stead has moved on to Turkey and Gladstone. I remember his unconsummated ‘affair’ with Madame Novikoff. Frank thought Stead had looked up ‘affair’ in the wrong dictionary. It is not his failing that, in his innocence, he attracts passionate women, though Frank claims he is more animal than he could ever admit.

‘Stead,’ he once announced, ‘exudes semen through his skin. Ectoplasmic. The women smell it. He doesn’t give lectures, he gives emanations.’

Frank always says too much and I always remember the wrong things.

‘He turned a mob baying for Russian blood into an army ready to march against the Ottomans. We shall never see his like again. He bestrode the nineteenth century like a colossus.’

Stead’s high-mindedness is seasoned with his usual spice of yellow journalism. He sees himself bestriding the twentieth century; then, at other times, there is this gentleness …

Absent-mindedly I reach for my notebook to record this thought. I fill a notebook about every three months and have done so ever since I arrived in London, ninety notebooks ago. They were to form the basis of a book, I used to tell myself. In some moods the book was to be called Titans, in others Lost Titans and, in yet others, Last Titans. In one much darker mood, I considered Chaos the most appropriate title, though neither this nor any of the others sounded like the book I wanted to write – should have written. My American friends preferred London Swells and Agent Pinker, as we knew him, advocated Modern Madmen: The London Set. I pointed out there was no such set and, by the standards recently set by Herr Doktor Freud, they could hardly be said to be that mad.

‘None of that matters, you poor Yankee innocent, think headlines!’ Pinker cried. ‘Reviews! Making a splash of it! Do not be held back by the exact truth of the matter.’

The notebooks remain just that, notebooks, in their special little trunk in the cabin. They will be found one day, doubtless, and I shall be reborn long after my death as a great documenter of this peculiar moment, that monstrous city and that enchanted suburb.

For my pre-mortem existence, they were a waste of time. I shouldn’t have been writing such things anyway. Fordie always told me that ‘the only occupation fitting for a proper man in these centuries is the writing of novels’. I guess fiction is truer than all this modern noise and I failed to be fitting and proper. I should have stayed in Chicago with its fires and the pork bellies. They were true enough.

‘Cal, my friend, are you all right?’

I had passed my hand over my brow and closed my eyes, interrupting Stead’s monologue. I had been, somewhere beyond any conscious strategy, concealing the bad manners of reaching for my notebook. Stead’s eyes, even when, as now, gazing at me in concern, seem fixed on something beyond as if seeing through me – their clarity and penetration forming a sharp contrast with the man’s general dishevelment. This face, for a moment, bewilders and shames me. Stead, of all people, deserves my attention. Stead is not Frank.

In truth, I am not quite all right. I had ordered Fordie’s recommended lunch for both of us from the alarmingly knowing steward. We have had the Colchester Natives and were awaiting the pâté and then the quail with grapes. The Ponte-Canet ’06 already hangs heavy on my brow and the oysters, combined with memories of pork bellies and Frank’s semen remark, have left me feeling faintly ill. The long salon pulses slowly …

‘Forgive me, Stead, merely a wave of fatigue and perhaps the motion of the ship.’

I gesture vaguely in the direction of the Atlantic, which our vessel cleaves at twenty-three knots. ‘Not less!’ the captain had cried.

‘But it is dead calm! I shall fetch a doctor.’

He twists awkwardly in his chair, straining the buttons of what seem to be several waistcoats, seeking the steward.

‘No, no, it’s nothing …the wine … Fatigue often strikes me these days. I lack your inner fires; mine, such as they were, appear to have gone out.’

The words express a familiar failing of mine. I have always favoured discomfort over action. It is a fault that has held me back from so much, from everything, this reluctance to make things better for myself. I suffer in silence, not out of heroism but indolence or, on this occasion, embarrassment. The idea of a doctor bearing a bag bustling to my side in the midst of this crowded room is intolerable – the eyes of people gauging the extent of my decline, the days, hours or minutes left to me. Happily, I am relieved of this anxiety. Stead relaxes and smiles, an action that rearranges his entire beard. He leans over and pats my knee.

‘No, no, the truth is your mind had wandered. I’m sorry I was boring you, you have other things on your mind. You are going home. You are leaving England.’

At the words ‘leaving England’ I see myself in a painting, a noble figure standing on the deck, scarf blown back, a look of fierce courage and concentration on the task ahead. Leaving means this comfortable room, the grand staircase, the monumental furniture, the starched linen, all the accoutrements of a grand English house to ease my passing

‘Yes, leaving England where so much happened …’ I murmur vaguely.

Stead looks concerned again.

‘I think we should abandon lunch and get you outside.’

He summons the steward, cancels the remainder of the lunch and leads me away. A few heads turn, nothing too intolerable. Outside, he finds me a port-side chair facing directly into the brilliant sun and, as I recline, he tosses a blanket over me.

‘Have rest, Cal, my old friend. Your London years have left you exhausted. No wonder! Twenty-four years is long enough in the maw of the modern Minotaur. You are going home!’

He leaves me, his eyes fixed contentedly on the beyond.

My London years! I sailed to London to learn how to be modern and now I sail back, none the wiser. Yes, I am going home. England is just behind me, America far ahead. The day is cold, bright and clear – there is salt on my lips – droplets clutch at the railings. The ocean wants to claim all things, and will. The ship drives westward, washing me with time passing, with brightness and empty air. I half-close my eyes to blur the people that come and go; the hot, bright knives of the sea and sky cut and melt their bodies. They pay me no attention. How could they? I am only half here. This is what it is like to leave and be left, to become the departed. The pleasant emptiness of the air is all about me. It is emptying me. My feelings have become memories, my memories have become gossamer, ectoplasm, a faint shimmer of the past in the blue, the infinitely blue, clarity of the present. Now, ghostlike, I shall dream for a time – of a girl practising ‘a tinker shuffle picked up in Donegal’ and of Frank. Frank the killer.


top ▲