Time and time again, p.3
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       Time and Time Again, p.3

          

  Charles waited for a word of encouragement, then decided that the boy's friendly face was itself one. He continued: 'Besides, I'll be off duty for good in a few more years. I'd thought of buying a place in the country if I can find something that isn't too huge or too cute. How would you like that?'

  'You mean a place like Beeching, dad?'

  'Oh no, much humbler . . . but I'm sure you don't remember Beeching.'

  'I do--because I remember Grandfather there.'

  'Really?'

  'There was a big white fireplace and once a hot coal fell out on the rug and Grandfather squirted soda water over it. I think that's really the first thing I remember about anything.'

  'I don't recall the incident, but there was certainly a big white marble fireplace in the hall, so perhaps you're right. . . . Much TOO big--the fireplaces and everything else--we used to consume fifty tons of coal a year and still the rooms were chilly in the winter. Think of trying to get fifty tons of coal nowadays to heat a private house. . . . No, the place I might look for would be small and modern--just to settle down in after I've retired. Not too far out of London, but quiet.'

  'You might be lonely. You're so used to London.'

  'Don't forget there's the book I'll be writing.'

  'You're really going to do it?'

  Charles smiled; the book was almost a joke because it had been talked about for so long. Whenever Charles said anything witty at a dinner party, which was fairly often, people were always apt to exclaim: 'You know, Charles,' (or 'Stuffy' if the occasion were intimate or ribald enough) 'you really ought to write a book some day', to which Charles would answer either thoughtfully 'Yes, I suppose I might', or confidently 'That's exactly what I intend to do.' But nobody really believed he would, whatever he said; somehow he dined out too often and lived too elegantly to seem capable of such sustained effort. So one day the book would astonish everyone by actually appearing--published by Macmillan, he hoped, and at not more than twenty-five shillings, if the price of things didn't go up any more. But it would offer a further surprise by being the kind of book few would expect from him--a really serious and authoritative piece of work--in fact, that of a man WHO OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN MADE AN AMBASSADOR. Charles could even extract wry satisfaction from the thought that this lesson would be learned too late, for he was fairly certain now that it WOULD be too late. He was disappointed, but realized that the character he had built up for himself would not allow him to show it.

  Anyhow, it was his secret intention that the book should reveal rather startlingly that behind the façade he really did know his job, and it pleased him in rueful moods to invent comments he would most like his friends to make--not to him but amongst themselves. 'Really, you know, I've read worse. Well-documented--almost scholarly in spots. Didn't think Stuffy had it in him. The Observer gives it the big article--calls it "a footnote to history".' The phrase suited Charles's humility at the shrine of Clio, and also his own experience, derived from Gibbon, that footnotes were apt to be more interesting than the larger print. Not, of course, that there would be much of that sort of thing in it--just a few titbits here and there . . . mostly it would deal with the Balkan and Greco-Turkish problems, would record matters of which he had been both witness and student, such as that delineation of the Macedonian frontier that had made him (for what it was worth, and it appeared nowadays to be worth nothing) the greatest living authority on the ethnographic history of the Sanjak of Belar-Novo. (Which was the only unique distinction he ever claimed for himself, and often, like so much else that he said, it raised a laugh.)

  So he replied to Gerald, thinking of all this and trying not to seem portentous: 'I really ought to tackle the damn thing, Gerald. My career, though far from outstanding, hasn't been entirely uneventful. . . . Rome--Bucharest--Athens--I happened to be there at interesting times. And other places. Some day I'll tell you about them.'

  'I'm looking forward to the book.'

  'Oh yes, that would probably be easier for both of us. You could skip when you were bored.'

  Gerald gave his father an appraising glance which he turned into a smile. 'You know, dad, you're a bit prickly, aren't you?'

  'Prickly?' Now came the perfect cue. 'I've been called STUFFY in my time, but PRICKLY . . . Well . . .'

  But Gerald passed over 'stuffy' without interest. 'I mean, you put up your defences even when nobody's attacking.'

  'Do I? Maybe a conditioned reflex after so many years in the Service. I'll try to unlearn it when I'm just a retired old has- been writing a few pages a day in that terrible handwriting of mine-- or perhaps I ought to learn to type and spare the eyesight of some unfortunate secretary.'

  'How long do you think it will take you?'

  'Two or three years--maybe more. I won't mind.'

  'Sort of a labour of love?'

  'Well, certainly not of profit. As I said, my career hasn't been outstanding enough to send the public scurrying to the bookshops.'

  'Still feeling prickly? I don't know what's eating you, but I'd say you haven't done so badly. Whatever sort of life you've had, you're fifty-three and you don't look anything like it.'

  Charles beamed; from his own son, on his own son's seventeenth birthday, and at such a moment, there could have come no more timely reassurance. 'Fifty-TWO,' he corrected. 'Not fifty-THREE. I was born at the turn of the century, on July 28th, 1900.'

  'That's a fine beginning. The Story of My Life, by Charles Anderson. Chapter One: "Early Years".'

  'Good heavens, no; not that sort of thing at all. It's my WORK I shall deal with--I'll begin when I took up my first post.'

  'Why? What's wrong about the early years? Didn't you have a good time then?'

  'Of course.' Charles seemed slightly embarrassed. 'Nothing to complain of. That's why there wouldn't be much to write about.'

  'NOTHING TO COMPLAIN OF'

  Charles had just finished prep school in the summer of 1914; he started at Brookfield while those tremendous opening battles of the First World War were ending an age. The Somme, Jutland, and Passchendaele came to him later as headlines in the daily papers that reached Brookfield about mid-morning, at which time the school butler clamped them to the stands in the reading-room. Not till the lunch hour did the boys get a hasty glimpse over the shoulders of other boys, and usually after they had satisfied a much greater eagerness to discover who was on the list for the afternoon's compulsory games. There was neither stupidity nor callousness in this--merely the knack (so often necessary in life) of putting first things second. Many of them had brothers and some fathers in the war; all knew that if it lasted long enough they would be in it themselves. Charles had joined the school cadet corps, and with more effort than zeal was picking up the rudiments of being a soldier, drilling twice a week under a ferocious sergeant who taught him exactly where to lunge into an enemy's body with a bayonet. He did not think he would be very good at it, and was comforted to learn from Old Boys on leave from the front that most fighting was done with other weapons. In the evenings, when drills and games and lessons were over for the day, he relaxed in his School House study talking to friends and drinking coffee-- sometimes, when he was on his own, reading poetry. He even wrote some, which was duly published in the Brookfeldian under the pseudonym 'Vincio'. It had no special merit.

  The school was then in charge of old 'Chips', who had been summoned from retirement to plug a hole in the wartime shortage of masters. Chips ran things with a benignity that made Brookfield more than tolerable to several boys who might otherwise have found it unpleasant. Charles was among them--by no means a misfit, but temperamentally not what many people would have called a typical public schoolboy. Since Chips doubted that such an animal existed Charles got along with him very well indeed, and it was Chips who made him a prefect despite warnings that boys who were bad at games were rarely good in authority. Charles, however, proved excellent-- somewhat on the lenient side, but wise in his decisions and a steady handler of crisis. One of his duties was to keep order in the junior dormitories during the hour before lights-out, and he found this easiest to do by being friendly and chatty. The youngsters liked him and called him 'Andy', a nickname that spread throughout the school. On Sunday nights he would read aloud a chapter from some favourite blood-curdler; he read well and enjoyed reading, and once, during a tense moment in Dracula, a listener fainted--an event which gave Charles singular and lasting renown.

  Considering that he was bad at games (which he pretended to enjoy, nevertheless, but which he actually detested), Charles was quite popular at Brookfield, and fairly, though not enormously, happy there. He made a few close friends who stayed friends in later years, and besides Chips there was another master who influenced him--a young Frenchman named Brunon who visited the school once a week to give art lessons to a few eccentrics. Art at Brookfield was an alternative to chemistry; on reaching the fifth form one could choose, and as the laboratory promised better fun than the studio, it was favoured by most. But Charles liked M. Brunon and was encouraged by him to develop an aptitude for painting, so that he whiled away many a pleasant hour in the school grounds, producing small water-colour landscapes so quickly that he would often give them away to onlookers and thus conciliate those who might otherwise have scoffed at such a hobby. One such painting by Charles hangs in the head's study at Brookfield today; it shows the school roofs beyond the trees in winter when clouds are rolling up for a storm. It is not as mediocre as the poetry he wrote (indeed, for his age, it shows distinct promise), but its chief interest perhaps is that a schoolboy should have wanted to go out in such weather for such a purpose. You can almost see that the clouds on the horizon will bring snow, not rain.

  Like most male members of his family, Charles was intended for Cambridge when the time should come, and it was Chips again who suggested his entering for a history scholarship, despite an absence of encouragement from home. Charles did not win the scholarship, but came so near to it that he was awarded an exhibition entitling him to enter the University in the following September--that is, if the army did not claim him first, which it probably would.

  His last term at Brookfield was in the summer of 1918, when the war, despite a heartening turn of the tide, still looked desperately far from a finish. He was now of military age, but found that by joining the Cambridge University O.T.C. he could, for a short time at least, combine the profession of arms with actual residence at a college. It seemed a miraculous device for getting a little pleasure before being killed, for at that stage of the war second-lieutenants on the Western Front did not live long. To Charles the war was something he would face, like compulsory games, when he had to, but he had no romantic illusions, and the poetry he wrote, if it ever touched on the subject, was more in the spirit of Siegfried Sassoon than of Rupert Brooke.

  During that autumn of final battles that few could guess were final, Charles formed fours on the cobbled quadrangles and night- manoeuvred on the fenlands along the Ely road. He wore a uniform that looked like an officer's, and sometimes on dark days he was mistakenly saluted by non-commissioned men on leave from France. When this happened he felt he wanted to run after them and apologize, but of course that would have been absurd; so he either saluted back, which seemed presumptuous and was certainly incorrect, or else ignored them, which made him feel churlish. (The problem, with its absence of any completely satisfying solution, was a sample of many that plagued him in later affairs.) In the main, though, life was pleasant and not too military--the O.T.C. adjutant, for instance, was a history professor who could lecture on the machine gun as gently as on the Holy Roman Empire.

  Charles was given college rooms that dated from the early seventeenth century, and when he returned to them after a route- march old Debden, who was his gyp, always had a hip-bath and a can of warm water waiting in front of the sitting-room fire. (The college had not yet installed any other kind of baths.) After rinsing himself in this meagre but traditional fashion Charles would dress, drink a cup of tea, and sally forth into the twilit town. The buildings in the narrow streets had an air of stooping over him protectively as he walked; he liked to push open the side- door of Heffer's bookshop in Petty Cury and spend an hour or so reading what he could not afford to buy. Then back to college in time for dinner in Hall, where he would drink his pint of beer under the portraits of old collegians who had been in their time the kings and counsellors of England.

  Charles loved Cambridge with an ache because separation hovered so close and perhaps so tragically. Then all at once the war ended. Along with millions of other youths throughout the world he was reprieved--catapulted without warning into the idea of a future. After the initial thrill there was a curious feeling of anticlimax. He got drunk several times and took part in a riot with which the armed forces stationed in the town and district celebrated the end of the slaughter. The change was so abrupt that emptiness rather than happiness followed the withdrawal of other sensations, and as day after day passed by, each one so full of events abroad that even the palate of a historian must be jaded, Charles sought peace of his own by a process of wishful reasoning. England had won, and as a young Englishman he might well concede the timeliness of having been born in that birth-year of the century, so that he was old enough to have been ready, yet too young to have been called upon. He had been luckier than his best friend at Brookfield, killed in Mesopotamia, or than his brother Lindsay, stuck in a German prison camp awaiting repatriation. Perhaps these were reasons why he lacked the completely festive spirit, though he knew his own good fortune was to be alive. And also to be English. For with half Europe starving and another half in revolution, England, after the long ordeal, was still recognizably herself, and Cambridge was beginning to breathe again to an ancient rhythm of its own. The long Latin grace, which had been discontinued when there were so few undergraduates to read it, was resumed in Hall before dinner; professors brushed up their old lectures (Bury on Rome, Quiller-Couch on English Literature, Coulton on the Middle Ages), and for a victory banquet the gold plate of the Tudor founders was taken out of bank vaults and laid reverently along the high table. Meanwhile in some vague way the O.T.C. disbanded or dispersed or seemed merely to vanish, and there was nothing left for Charles to do with his khaki uniform except pay an exorbitant tailor's bill for it and have the overcoat dyed chocolate brown for civilian use. Then term ended and he went home to Beeching to spend that first Christmas of the new era that people would call post-war till the word became far too sadly confusing.

  * * * * *

  Beeching is gone, and there are hardly traces of it except on old maps and in the memories of a later generation of combatants who will soon themselves be no longer young. For during the Second World War an airfield was laid out almost at its front door, and the house itself, for some time derelict, was patched up and made into an R.A.F. club. One night in 1943 a bomber taking off for Germany crashed into the roof and exploded; there was nothing much left when the fire had burned out. Because of censorship no mention of the disaster appeared in the papers. Charles, who was then at the Foreign Office, did not hear of it for several days, and then, of the house itself, he spoke whimsically rather than sadly, for the moment was not one for sentiment over bricks and mortar. 'It was a decent house, and a great many people must have had fun in it. They were having it, too, up to the end.' He recalled also that his father had always had a premonition that the place would some day be destroyed by fire. 'It bothered him whenever he thought about it. He had a sort of canvas chute made to let down from the top-floor windows and at least once during every school holiday when I was young we had a fire drill with everybody sliding down to the front lawn and getting sore bottoms.'

  There is a photograph in an old Gloucestershire guidebook that shows Beeching with a landau waiting in the drive outside, and this may well have been the vehicle that preceded Sir Havelock Anderson's first car, which he bought when Lindsay and Charles were children. In the photograph the house looks imposing, with its three floors grouped around and above the much enlarged portico--a merging of inherited elegance and Victorian solidity that somewhat spoilt the proportions but not at the expense of character. The house and surrounding glebe-lands had been with the Andersons since about 1700. Before then the family had lived in Yorkshire and Scotland, and there was an Anderson who had fought under Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen in 1586.

  At the side of the house a small square breakfast-room overlooked the terraced gardens; it was in this room that Charles, whenever he recollected or dreamed about him, could most often see the father he had known as a small child--the tall, already silver-haired figure, not stout but plain big, staring out of the window with his back to the door through which Cobb bustled in and out with cutlery and crockery, and through which, about eight o'clock, Charles himself would cautiously enter--cautiously, not because he was in any fear, but from an unwillingness to face an ordeal of contact which he instinctively felt was mutual. Charles was seven years younger than Lindsay, so that his feeling for him was one of hero- worship rather than partnership; it had always seemed to him that his brother lived with his father in a world of grown-ups. The other meals of the day Charles took in the schoolroom with a governess, Miss Simmons, but breakfast was the immovable family feast, and for this reason marked inexorably the passage of early years--winter mornings when the lamps were lit and dawn paled on the frosted panes and Cobb would hold each page of The Times before the fresh-lit fire to dry out the dampness--smells of coffee and bacon and kedgeree along with those of warmed paper and the methylated spirit flickering under sideboard dishes; summer mornings when sunlight moved in slow slabs over the carpet and wasps buzzed in for the marmalade . . . chatter about plans for the day, in none of which he was ever included . . . the handful of mail which Cobb brought in with a wastepaper basket. . . . Aunt Hetty's glance across the table as envelopes were slit one by one and their contents amiably destroyed or grimly noted or merely stuffed into one of the huge poacher's pockets that his father's tweed coats always had . . . his aunt's look of relief when a familiar crunch sounded on the gravel outside, this being the signal that Havelock had ordered the car and was going to be away for at least the morning.

 
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