Summer Reading 2022
All week I’m sharing excerpts from a standalone chapter from my work-in-progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson.
To read previous excerpts, click here…
William is being haunted by intimate letters sent to his childhood friend, Teddy, which are being mysteriously returned to him. Teddy is equally shocked by the discovery that William’s letters have been stolen from Teddy’s room, and might be used to blackmail them both. William takes an awkward stroll in the park with his fiancée (and Teddy’s sister), Alice, where she reveals that she is the one who has been sending the letters. She knows all, and she had hoped that the threat of exposure would scare William into ending all communication with her brother.
Your Affectionate Friend
(Chapter 5 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
(part six of seven)
‘You took these letters from Teddy’s room. You tortured me with them.’ He snatched the remaining letters from Alice’s hand. ‘I’m sorry. But this…’ William clenched the letters in his fist, and then thrust them away deep into the pocket of his Ulster. ‘This is an unconscionable betrayal.’
‘You talk to me of betrayal?’
‘You steal into your brother’s room, you rifle through his belongings…’
‘They were lying on his desk.’
‘And what? Having leapt to all the wrong conclusions, you design to blackmail me? Your fiancé?’
‘No. There was no blackmail. I made no demands.’
Her vehemence drew the attention of a young nanny, who glanced at them both as she wheeled her perambulator past them on the other side of the gravel path. What would she think? What had she heard?
Alice must have shared his thoughts. She waited until the nanny was out of earshot. When she spoke again her tone was measured, but there was no disguising the tremulous flutter which lay beneath it. ‘I could not speak to you about your odious proclivities. How could I?’ All the energy, all the anger, was now gone. She looked tired. ‘I thought your own words might bring you greater clarity. Divorced from the sentiment of the moment, you might see them as I saw them. As others would see them. I thought fear of your own exposure might persuade you of the right course of action.’
‘You don’t understand.’
‘I think I do. I am coming to a fuller understanding of who and what you are.’ She seemed to find some confidence, and looked him in the eye. ‘Teddy is broken because of you. Can you not see how you ruin him?’
There was no more rain, but the trees which lined their path continued to shed the morning’s showers, dripping forlornly on their heads and shoulders. ‘I stood down, Alice. If you have read my letters, you know that. I have barely seen him since the Summer.’
‘And this morning?’
He could have dissembled. He could have said that he had called upon her, and only met Teddy by chance. But that would not do. Not anymore. ‘I believed that my letters came from him, that he was the one returning them to me. I could think of no other explanation. My only reason for calling upon Teddy was to understand why he sought to hurt me.’ Perhaps that wasn’t the only reason, but it would have to do. The truth, but not the whole truth.
‘You have given him up?’
‘He is going to Somaliland.’
She shook her head. ‘And what of us, William? You have barely seen me since the Summer either. When he is gone, is there anything left for us?’
‘You are my best pal, Alice.’
‘We are not children, anymore.’ There was a flash of that anger again, but it passed. She had never looked so miserable, nor so beautiful.
‘What would you have me do?’ Whatever it was, he would do it, no matter the hurt. ‘I won’t hold you to our engagement. I release you from it.’
‘How can you say that? On what grounds? How should we explain that to our families? Our friends?’ She was right, of course. ‘We are bound to each other, William, however painful that might be. I will be your wife, and you will be… whatever kind of husband you can.’
He had escorted her home in silence, and then taken a long trek down to the strand at Sandymount. The flat grey sea suited his mood, and he walked with aimless determination, marching as far as Seapoint before taking a moment to actually think. It was getting dark, and he stood for a long while, his back to the Martello tower. Across the bay, the lighthouse flashed in the gloom twice a minute. He was heading for the rocks himself, surely. No lights or sirens in the fog to keep him from disaster. Alice had dragged him onto the point, and time and tide would do the rest, pulling his life apart.
How could they ever be happy together now? After this? He still loved her, but already that was tainted by the memory of the way she’d looked at him. Her harsh words. She certainly felt little love for him; her feelings surely more akin to distaste or revulsion. Could he continue to love someone who despised him? Wasn’t bitterness and resentment a more likely outcome? What a hellish prospect for them both. Yet there was no alternative. Alice was quite right. They couldn’t end the engagement without calling down suspicion and worse.
He turned for home, no longer marching, but walking as if into a stiff breeze, reluctant to hurry, but too cold to stay out long in the dark.
On his return, there was a telegram waiting for him. He ripped it open.
To: Mr William Wyman 23 Hastings Road Ballsbridge
Must speak before depart Somaliland. Campanile at five.
Already, it was five and twenty past. It was a half hour walk to college, but, if he ran, he could be there by twenty to six, perhaps.
Mother had heard him come in, and wanted to know what was so urgent that it required a telegram. He hadn’t had the clarity of mind to come up with a plausible lie, nor the common sense to take the telegram with him. He’d promised an explanation upon his return, and run back out the door and down the steps. He’d bumped into Charlie Hubbard on Northumberland Road, and spent two or three agonising minutes trying to get away. By the time he rounded the library, it was gone quarter to.
Teddy was still there, standing beneath the arch of the Campanile, cupping a cigarette in his hands, and stamping impatiently to keep warm. William pulled up, his chest heaving, and his own hands trembling, whether from the cold, the physical effort, or the anticipation of seeing Teddy.
No-one else could have made him run so far, and so fast. Teddy stood in the shadows; the familiar straight back, the head held erect, the faint glow of the cigarette catching his cheekbones. The relief was more debilitating than the run had been. If he took a moment or two, it was not to catch his breath.
Teddy saw him. He dropped the cigarette, crushed it swiftly underfoot, and strode across the open square, ushering William into the shadow of the library.
‘I’m sorry, Teddy. I didn’t see your telegram until twenty minutes ago.’
‘It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.’
‘I ran.’ A daft thing to say, but he couldn’t help it. ‘You waited.’
‘We couldn’t leave matters as they were.’
‘It broke my heart. Our last words to each other should not be angry.’
He placed a hand on Teddy’s arm, but Teddy pulled away from him. ‘You think I summoned you here to make our peace? William, my boat leaves tomorrow morning. By my calculation, there are at least four, maybe five, of your damned letters still out there, hanging over us both like the sword of Damocles. I can’t postpone my journey, so it falls to you. You will have to make a deal with him.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Doyle. I am sure it’s Doyle. I thought it was one of the maids to begin with, but they’re barely literate. They wouldn’t see the potential value, but Doyle… He sees everything. He knows. And he’s damned clever.
Join me tomorrow for the final excerpt as William is forced to confront the impossibility of his situation.
I hope you’re enjoying these glimpses into the tortured life of young William. If so, I’d take it as a personal favour if you’d share it with all your book-loving friends, and encourage them to join our adventure.