Time and time again, p.21
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       Time and Time Again, p.21

          
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  Charles did not think the remark either sincere or sensible, but a few days later when Gosford died suddenly of a heart attack, he remembered it. By that time the letter of resignation must have been passed to higher levels--unless, through deliberation or neglect, Gosford had kept it in his desk. In the latter event it would be there for his successor to handle. Yet his successor, when in due course he met and talked with Charles, did not mention it; so Charles didn't either. And in the meantime there came for him an official transfer to the Foreign Office.

  * * * * *

  Charles stayed in London, waiting for something he thought might happen at any time. It was like picking steps across a snow slope under cliffs that at any moment could dislodge an avalanche. The simile pleased him with its memories of happier days and its assurance of belonging still to at least one kind of an élite. He found a flat in Kensington, not far from his own in Chelsea, and established his father there with Cobb to look after him. None of the other Beeching servants wanted to come to London and Charles did not blame them. But Cobb was devoted to the old man, and Havelock undoubtedly returned an emotion of some sort. Since he was apt to treat his friends with far less consideration than most of them would a butler, it could well be said that he treated Cobb like a friend.

  Charles told his father the reason for the move, and met with no objections. The fact that the government could think of him as a potential threat to national security seemed only to gratify Havelock's ego, and much as he disliked the attitude Charles was glad of it as an aid to making the transition easier.

  Meanwhile Jane and Gerald stayed in Cheshire, where Charles joined them whenever he could, but this was not very often or regularly. There was pressure of business at the Office, and most evenings he worked late.

  Early in the new year, 1940, Havelock was approached by a man who wanted to buy Beeching. Charles took him for a business man of some kind, and assumed that the rather high price he offered was either folly or the measure of his anxiety to move his family out of the likely area of air-raids. Neither Havelock nor Charles would entertain the idea at first; then all at once it began to seem attractive. Beeching was run down; it needed extensive repairs that could not be made till the war was over; the upkeep was wasteful, war work and enlistments had taken most of the staff, and there were tax considerations that made a sale more advantageous than it might ever be again. So Havelock sold Beeching. A few months later Charles learned that government engineers were laying out a huge airfield that took in most of the land, with the house left standing but derelict just beyond the end of a runway; but he could never discover exactly how much profit had been made on the resale.

  * * * * *

  In the drawing-room of his sister-in-law's house Charles would exchange news with Jane when he arrived there for a few days. The style of conversation was the same, but how different the items from those of earlier years. A First Secretary in a foreign capital in peacetime had been in some sort of swim; a minor Foreign Office official visiting his wife and child in an English country town during the phony war was in a backwater almost as stagnant as the war itself. Only family affection could compensate for the tedious train journey; but Charles was always thus compensated.

  'Gerald looks well, Jane--I swear he's an inch taller than when I saw him last.'

  'Probably. He's found a new playmate--the Grandison girl who lives at the stone house past the bridge.'

  'Grandison?'

  'They're a leading family here--own the local picture theatre amongst other things, so Gerald gets in free whenever he wants.'

  'Fine. I'm glad he's so happy. . . . Grandison, did you say?'

  'I know--you're thinking of the Grandison who used to be our pet Attaché. I don't believe he's any relative.'

  'Wonder what happened to him. I'll look up the List when I get back. . . . How are Birdie and Tom?' (Jane's sister and her husband.)

  'Tom thinks he'll be sent to India. Birdie's worrying about it.'

  'Not a bad place to miss the war in.'

  'We're missing it so far here.'

  'Till it starts.'

  'But for Gerald I'd rather live in London whatever happens.'

  'I get more comfort thinking of you here.'

  'How's Havelock?'

  'In great shape. He did an amusing thing the other day--he left the flat in the morning and took the first on the right and then the first on the left and so on till the middle of the afternoon. By that time he was somewhere round Muswell Hill--at least that's what he said. Then he came back by bus.'

  'Why is it so amusing?'

  'Because of the idea of anyone following him--if he still is being followed. They'd probably put some old chap on the job--after all, keeping an eye on a man of eighty wouldn't seem much--and then he does a seven-mile walk all across London to nowhere! Just struck me as a bit funny. . . . But he probably isn't being followed.'

  'You think they won't do any more about the letters?'

  'They haven't done anything yet.'

  'Except upset your career.'

  'You mean the transfer to the F.O.?' (He hadn't told her about his letter of resignation--time enough to worry her if and when it had to be used.) 'That might have happened anyway.'

  'I don't think it would in your case--at least not for long. You were so high up on the List and I'm sure they had something good for you.'

  'Perhaps they still have.'

  'Not till this business about the letters blows over.'

  'Well, it will . . . let's hope.'

  'Providing he doesn't send any more.'

  'I think I can guarantee that. Cobb watches him--it's more feasible, in the small flat. I see him too for a short time most evenings.'

  'As if you hadn't enough to do nowadays.'

  'He's often quite good company.'

  'You're very tolerant, Charles.'

  'Well, I look at it this way--quite apart from his being my father-- I sometimes think when he's at his best--not being too eccentric, that is--suppose we'd met him at some big party--as a stranger . . . we'd both come home afterwards and talk about him. We'd say, Who WAS that man?--not just his name, but WHO? He's a WHO . . . and you can't say that of everybody.'

  'Not even of everybody you like.'

  'No.'

  'And you CAN say it--sometimes--of people you don't like.'

  Charles accepted the implication, then answered: 'I don't blame you, Jane. I daresay you feel that but for him we'd be having a much pleasanter time somewhere else.' An obscure desire to take her side in the argument made him continue: 'Yes . . . think of Vińa del Mar in February--the Cavalhos giving a party at that Chinese restaurant overlooking the sea. Not that I was ever terribly keen on the Cavalhos . . . or on Chinese food either.'

  'Andy . . . tell me something, will you?'

  'Yes, of course.'

  'What happened at Beeching the night before I had the operation?'

  Charles's face acquired the sudden protective blandness which he was afraid she knew only too well.

  'What happened? Why, nothing. . . . What do you mean?'

  'During dinner.'

  'Dinner. Let's see, I don't think we had dinner--it was more a sort of supper--very late. Blainey was there--I'd met him at the station. . . .' He was stalling for time, of course. Since only three persons could have told her anything (Havelock, Blainey and Cobb) he did not think she could possibly know the whole story; but she clearly knew something, and he wanted to find out how much before he gave his own answer. It was a familiar situation in diplomacy, though Jane, being equally familiar with it, unfortunately knew all its tricks. He waited for her to speak while she too waited for him. Presently he said: 'If you tell me what's on your mind, I could better try to remember, perhaps. . . .'

  'I just wondered what had happened.'

  'But why should you think anything had happened?'

  'When I saw Blainey weeks afterwards, just before Gerald was born, he asked me how I liked Havelock. I don't think he would have, in the way he did, unless he'd formed an odd impression himself, and as he'd only seen him that one time at dinner, I wondered what had happened.'

  Jane always told the truth, though she did not always tell all the truth, and Charles felt reasonably certain now that she knew nothing definite, but had merely been made shrewdly suspicious by a question that Blainey had put rather naďvely. So he answered, with confidence: 'Oh, I wouldn't doubt that Blainey got an odd impression--did anyone meeting my father ever get anything else? All I remember is that we talked a lot--nervous tension--on my part, anyhow. Matter of fact Havelock would have kept Blainey up all night if I'd let him--got in one of his reminiscent moods about law cases--you know how he is at those times. . . . I think the tension affected us all.' Charles had often found that to tell the truth, casually and unimportantly, is a very effective substitute for a lie, with the additional advantage that it never requires retraction afterwards. Having told the truth in this way, he put in a little further probing of his own. 'A pity surgeons are always so busy. I'd like to see Blainey again. Did he say what HE thought of Havelock?'

  'He said "You've got a rum fellow for a father-in-law".'

  'That all? I'd call it a mild diagnosis. . . . And then what did YOU say?'

  'I said I knew I had.'

  Charles laughed. 'If this damned war ever gets over, let's ask Blainey to dinner. . . . God, it would be something to live a civilized life again, wouldn't it? Not that it's too bad in London-- putting on a tin hat once a week and having drinks in pubs. Our friends abroad should see me. I often wonder whether some of the German Secretaries and Attachés we used to meet are doing the same in Berlin. . . . Talk about rum fellows--it's a rum world altogether. . . .'

  * * * * *

  Six months later the word 'rum' was hardly one that an Englishman would have chosen--with Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France already victims, German armies just across the Channel, and the first air-raids on London beginning. Charles did his duty ON as well as beneath the roofs of Whitehall, and of the many exciting moments that came to him a few were fairly unpleasant.

  Early one dark morning, as he was leaving his fire-watching post after the 'all clear' sounded, he learned of an emergency summons for extra helpers in a certain street in Notting Hill where a large bomb had fallen. With others, he responded. When he got there he found that several five-storied houses had collapsed into rubble, under which were buried numerous victims, some of whom might still be alive. Rescue squads were already at work, boring and digging and passing out baskets of brick and plaster. Charles took a place in the line, and presently volunteered when a call was made for someone thin enough to crawl beneath a beam towards an elderly man who was pinned down under a mass of debris. Charles reflected as he did so that he wasn't really so thin; it was the other fellows who just happened to be stouter. He worked for perhaps an hour, scrabbling bricks out of the mess and passing them behind him. He was getting closer to the man, but still not close enough to do anything for him. Not having had experience of this sort of thing before, he kept thinking he was slower than anyone else would have been, and this spurred him to extra exertion. From sounds outside he judged that the raiders had returned and were dropping more heavy stuff in the neighbourhood. The man who was pinned down groaned quietly from time to time; presently the groaning stopped. By the time Charles finally reached him he was dead. There was no point then in continuing to work at that particular place, so Charles withdrew from the hole and went to help somewhere else. This went on till past dawn. He worked in a vacuum of sensation, not feeling any of the expectable emotions--neither fear of the still falling bombs, nor pity for the dead and injured, nor anger or indignation at anybody or anything in particular. His most conscious thought, almost amounting to a worry, was that he wouldn't be much good for some rather important work at his office later in the day.

  About eight o'clock the 'all clear' sounded again and Charles, with a local warden, left the scene of what was so genteelly called an 'incident'. The street was close to where Havelock lived, and Charles was not utterly astonished to find his father standing at the corner, fully dressed and looking quite spruce. They exchanged a greeting, but no more; Charles felt now his own exhaustion and wanted nothing so much as to get to his flat and have a bath. His companion, a sturdy rough-spoken friendly fellow, commented: 'That old bloke your dad?'

  'Yes,' said Charles. 'He lives just round the corner.'

  'Don't you want to take 'im 'ome, then--make sure 'e's all right?'

  'Oh, he's all right. I'll see him later.'

  'Bin a narsty one, though, tonight--some of the old folks need a bit of cheerin' up after it.'

  'My father doesn't. He enjoys it all.'

  'WHAT?'

  'It excites him. All the bombs falling and the fires and everything.'

  'Go on--I don't believe it!'

  'It's a fact. I wanted him to go away when the raids started, but he wouldn't. He likes it here.'

  'Wot's the matter with 'im then? Is he loony?'

  'Yes,' said Charles.

  But he did not often lose his nerve enough to speak with such nerveless detachment.

  * * * * *

  It was true, though, that Havelock was in London from choice. After the opening nights of the heavy September raiding Charles had seen no reason why his father should stay, since he could just as well live with Cobb on the coast or in some inland town. The affair of the letters seemed to have blown over, at least for the time, and Charles had heard no more from anyone about his own letter of resignation. Even if Havelock were still on any secret list of suspects, he could be watched as easily in one place as another. But the old man himself declined to move. It was perhaps too much or at least too simple to say that he enjoyed the raids, but they certainly fascinated him; in some obscure way they offered a challenge and a reassurance of destiny, as if every bomb were aimed at him personally, so that every raid he survived represented a personal victory.

  Towards the end of the year there came a lull in air attacks, and Jane (using this as an excuse) joined Charles at the Chelsea flat, leaving Gerald in Cheshire. But when the lull ended Jane also refused to leave. Charles could not convince her that he worried about her safety even more than he took pleasure in her company. But DID he? He often asked himself the question afterwards, speculating how much had been in his power, even had he chosen to exercise it.

  Besides a desire to be with Charles, she soon had other reasons for staying where trouble was. She found a job with the local authority, arranging shelter for bombed-out families; in this she became an instant success and (to Charles's dismay) quite invaluable. Sometimes when they both returned to the flat, she from the Town Hall and he from his varied duties in Whitehall, it was long past midnight. Then if there was no raid they could have a meal of sorts and a few hours' sleep before morning took them to work again. It was hard, and amidst these compulsions, to remember that they were financially well off--hard, and also, as a rule, irrelevant. Money was still the lubricant, but it was not the driving power of this new kind of life; it conferred a few small privileges, but no large immunities. To Charles these months in London during the blitz reminded him more of his schooldays than of anything else--the physical austerities, the extraordinary way one enjoyed any small pleasure that came unexpectedly, the regular almost taken-for-granted ordeals (now the raids, at school compulsory games), and over it all a sense of time passing that must, if one were lucky, bring some eventual finality--the end of term, or the end of the war. Towards Christmas, so Havelock assured Charles, Hitler missed a terrific psychological opening wedge into the Londoner's heart. He should have announced, with all possible propaganda fanfare, that raids would be totally suspended during the festive season, that London could put on its lights, enjoy social engagements, and sleep the good sleep for a whole week. The British authorities, naturally, would then have warned that Hitler was not to be trusted and would have insisted (rightly) on continuing every precaution; after which Hitler should very simply have kept his word. The curious psychological effect of this would have been to make Londoners feel almost grateful for not being killed, and irritated with their own rulers for being over-zealous. At least that was the way Havelock worked it out; but since to make Hitler popular was neither Charles's desire nor within his power, the argument remained purely academic.

  Charles was an averagely good citizen, performing his duties by day and night no better or worse than tens of thousands of other Londoners--that is to say, without any special heroism, but with a good deal of conscientiousness. The time he crawled under the ruins of the house to try to free the trapped old man was the nearest he ever came to a personal exploit; there were other ticklish moments, some of them even more unpleasant, but none that put him so close to the centre of any stage. He did not want such a position, anyhow, and if chance had decreed it for him he knew his friends and colleagues would have responded with far more badinage than applause.

  Charles's happiest moments at this period of his life (and they had a piercing intensity while they lasted) were the rare ones when he and Jane found themselves at home with nothing much to do in some small pocket of the immediate future that seemed to have miraculously detached itself from the rest. The flat was near the river, and on raidless nights they would stroll along the Chelsea Embankment before going to bed, watching the tugs horn their way under the Albert Bridge and wishing they had a dog. But of course this was no time for having dogs in London. Or wives either, Charles sometimes thought during raids. The safe moments with Jane were precious because of the fears that at other times beset him. He had never felt so alone with her, dependent on her, worried about her--and, perhaps because of it all, so close to her.

  And there were other moments, weirdly and painfully happy, when he had checked after raids to find that all was well with Jane and he could then unclench the muscles of his stomach and join a group of tired men clustering round a mobile canteen to drink tea. It was the least palatable liquid he had ever tasted--sticky and oversweetened and pale with condensed milk; yet he found in it a flavour that again reminded him of schooldays--of horrible concoctions prepared and enjoyed in his study after a football game that he had particularly loathed.

 
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