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 Sunday’s excerpt, click here…
Yesterday, we met William, one of Chloe’s great great grandfathers. Personal letters to his close friend, Teddy, are being mysteriously returned to him one at a time. William’s hiding in his old nursery, but his mother has found him, and she wants a word…
Your Affectionate Friend
(Chapter 5 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
(part two of seven)
Mother had caught him up here in the nursery, watching the carriages splashing through the puddles on Hastings Road, muddied with the run-off from the building works. William had no business being there, but then neither did she, which made it particularly unfair that she had found him. Of course, discovering her son amongst his old playthings only fuelled her maternal instinct, and William had been forced to endure a full half hour of fond reminiscences before Mother got to the point; the reason for her expedition throughout the house to find him. She wished to discuss his marriage.
Actually, not the marriage, but the timing of the wedding itself. Despite three years of official engagement and an unofficial understanding that stretched into barely remembered childhood, the moment, it seemed, was coming fast upon them with inordinate haste.
The sudden urgency was unsettling.
‘Alice has waited long enough, don’t you think?’
‘I hardly know. I’ve seen her so rarely of late.’
‘But she writes. I presume you reply. The ardour still burns.’
‘It does still burn, William? The ardour?’
Was there a correct way to respond to such a question from one’s own mother? He turned back to the window, just in time to see Patrick make his polite escape. Lucky fellow.
‘You cannot assume that any position your father might find for you will allow you to remain in Dublin.’
‘Malacca seems more likely.’
‘Exactly. You have your degree now. You might be gone at any moment, and if you do not take Alice with you as your wife, then I don’t know what I shall have to say to Mrs Marrable.’
‘You are never at a loss for what to say to Mrs Marrable.’
‘William.’ It was the exasperated tone. The rain continued its efforts to wash the mud clean from Hastings Road. Mr James stepped off the pavement and very nearly lost his footing and his dignity. The view from up here really was quite entertaining.
‘William.’ Not exasperation now. Concern. Sympathy? She was so difficult to read sometimes.
‘When two people have known each other as you and Alice have, for so long, growing up together, observing the natural metamorphosis of boy into man, and girl into woman…’
‘It would only be natural. That is all I will say. And, if discretion is observed…’
‘Are you really asking whether Alice and I have been intimate?’
‘I do not judge.’
The raindrops ran down the windowpanes. On the far side of the street a stray dog kept its eyes down out of the rain and ran with apparent purpose from the direction of Lansdowne, disappearing towards Donnybrook.
‘William, you do understand what I’m talking about?’
‘Four years of medical studies, Mother. What kind of physician should I be if I did not understand the mechanics of procreation?’
‘So much more than mechanics, Dear.’
The dog was gone. Mr James had safely navigated his way home. Even the rain had begun to cease. He turned to face her. ‘Alice and I have been companions and more these twenty years. You will have us married by the Spring. I am sure I can wait a few months more.’
‘And how do you think Alice views your admirable self-restraint? It hardly speaks to the passion of your attachment, does it?’
‘Alice knows how much I love her. How much I respect her.’
She sighed. One of her significant sighs. ‘Chivalry is all very well and fine. All I’ll say is how cold and lonely it can be stuck up on a pedestal. Mrs Marrable and I were saying, just the other day…’
‘Please God, Mother! You’ve not been having this discussion with Mrs Marrable?’
‘We are women of the world. As is Alice. And that’s all I’ll say.’
She had left him then, alone in the nursery. He was a little boy again, scolded unfairly for some incomprehensible misdeed, unjustly punished for an innocent childish misdemeanour that broke a rule he would never understand.
Of course, he loved Alice. He had always loved her. She was beautiful, clever, exciting. He enjoyed her company. Her smiles. And he liked it that she liked him. She made him feel interesting. Worthy, even. Comfortable.
So, why had Mother’s words, her incredible suggestion, left him sick to the stomach? Was that truly what Alice wanted? Did that explain her recent coolness? Surely not. And what was he supposed to do, anyway? Spirit her away to a sordid hotel? Service her like some sweaty stallion?
He stood up, and paced the room; a giant in amongst the children’s furniture, looming above Helen’s dolls and the ranks of his own tin soldiers.
The toybox in the corner taunted him; its secret contents gnawing at him, calling to him, aggravating the nausea he already felt.
The letters had been there in the box all the time, tucked behind the building blocks, underneath the spinning top that never span. All through his interview with Mother, his words had been there, silent but menacing, ominously within reach. She could so easily have opened the box. She had stroked the mane of the rocking horse. She had picked up the chalk, and drawn an apple on the slate. What if nostalgia had led her on to an awful discovery?
What if it already had? Perhaps she came up here periodically, just as he had, seeking solitude, or solace in the dusty memories.
He rushed to the box, opened it, and reached down to where the letters lay hidden. They were still there. He pulled them out, holding the small bundle carefully, as if it were contaminated.
From the outside, they were all but identical; the accumulated correspondence of a glorious extended Summer, returned in relentless succession over the course of one dreary week in a miserably wet November. Only the variations in the Post Office’s cancellation stamp marked out one from another. He selected one from the bundle; the one where the ink stamp had left a black smear across the corner of the envelope. There was no point taking the letter from its envelope, but he did so anyway, re-reading his own words, re-living the moments when he wrote them and when he got them back.
My Dear Teddy, What have I done to provoke you to write such a letter? Whatever it may be, it was done without malice or intent. Please forgive me.
You demand that we should sever all ties, but that we can never do. Even if I could bear the thought of separation, our families would not hear of it, and our mutual friends would not understand. Of course, if it is your wish, I will burn your letters, but I cannot so easily erase the memory of our dear friendship, nor can I accept that it should be cast aside so thoughtlessly.
You say that you have found the pure Love of Our Saviour, but is our love not equally true? You use awful words to describe something that was ever pure and honest. You have found Christ, and cast me aside. Is that Christian?
I beg you, write to me again. Tell me how I might undo whatever wrongs I have done you. Take back your uncharitable words, and embrace me once more as your affectionate friend, William.
Join me tomorrow for an emotional confrontation with Teddy.
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.