Summer Reading 2022
All week, starting properly on Sunday 17th July, I’ll be sharing excerpts from a standalone chapter from my work-in-progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson.
Scroll down for Sunday’s excerpt. If you enjoy it, please tell everyone!
Your Affectionate Friend
(Chapter 5 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
(part one of seven)
There was another letter waiting for him. The same plain, white envelope. The same neat, unremarkable hand.
WILLIAM WYMAN ESQ., 23 HASTINGS ROAD, BALLSBRIDGE.
No return address. No overt warning of its hideous contents.
Mother had placed it on the table, neatly squared with his cutlery. Short of eating his breakfast off it, there was no way to avoid the ambush. She was watching him, waiting for him to pick it up, anticipating the delicious moment when he would colour, and tuck the letter away into his inside pocket. She was delighted. Delighted by the letter and what she thought it contained. She had no idea.
When the first one arrived last week, he had been caught unawares. It had been a day like this one. Nothing extraordinary. Nobody left in the dining room, but Mother and Helen, idling away the first few hours of an idle day. He’d been running late for an audience with old Professor Foxwell, angling for a junior position in the Anatomy Department, so he’d barely noticed the unassuming envelope lying on the sideboard. She’d been watching him then, too, scolding him affectionately for his hurried, standing breakfast as he ate directly from the serving dishes, ravenous, but anxious to be on his way. When he’d spotted the letter, he’d considered leaving it until his return, but there’d been a couple of kidneys still congealing in the dish and he’d told himself a few more minutes would make no difference to Foxwell. So, he’d popped another kidney in his mouth, and taken up the envelope. He had opened it, right there in front of his mother and sister. He wouldn’t be making that mistake again. They hadn’t seen the contents of the envelope, but they had seen him gag on the kidney, and stumble from the room.
They had come after him, worried. Concerned. He’d been evasive. Refused to show them the letter. Laughed it off, unconvincingly. And, when Mother leapt to the wrong conclusion, he had allowed it to go unchallenged. Indeed, he had embraced it gratefully by way of a careful denial which Mother took as confirmation of her suspicions. The envelope’s contents was taken to be a love letter from Alice. A billet-doux, and a saucy one at that.
Now, he slid the latest envelope into his pocket, and sat down to a less hurried breakfast. No kidneys today. He had little appetite.
‘I don’t know why she tries to disguise her hand.’ Mother was disappointed with his calm demeanour. ‘I watched Alice Marrable form her first letters as a child, and she can’t fool me.’
If only it were that simple.
Breakfast completed, William stepped into the hallway and dared to examine the unopened envelope. Mother was right, the address was certainly written in a disguised hand; upper case and devoid of character, just the same as all the others. There was only one person who could have written it, and it certainly wasn’t Alice, yet the handwriting betrayed no evidence of Teddy’s confident, cursive strokes. It was an enigma. A painful puzzle.
There was nothing puzzling about the contents of the envelope, however. A letter dating from back in the Summer. The hand immediately recognizable; a scratchy, spidery, uneven scrawl that he had never been able to improve. The hand, and the words, were his own.
Wednesday, 21st August
My Dear Teddy, I was never so pleased as when I received your letter. I wish you would write more often. Sailed with Brookes and his set yesterday, out beyond Wicklow. Inclement, hence no bathing. But it is a lovely place – we must borrow a boat when you get home, you and I. I shall teach you to dive. Brookes was tiresome as ever and complains he never sees you. The gas is playing up and I have no candles, and as I have no news worth relaying, I shall finish. Dublin is dreary without you, and I am a dreary fellow. Write to me soonest,
Your affectionate friend, William
There was nothing else. As before, it was simply his own letter, returned to him in a plain white envelope. He had written this one back in August when Teddy had gone off to London in sanctimonious pursuit of his new-found calling.
They had never taken that boat. Never sailed. Never dived. On reflection, Teddy had never replied to the letter. What a pointless trifle it was; the composition of a moment, forgotten as soon as it was posted. Embarrassingly brief. And shallow. And careless.
But was it incriminating? Surely not. It was a trifle; the sort of note any fellow might write to a chum. Even so, he glanced around before replacing it in his pocket; Mother had the practiced habit of emerging unexpectedly from rooms she had not been seen to enter.
It could only have come from Teddy, of course. But why would he choose to return it some ten weeks later, and in such a provoking fashion? Why the cruelty? The slow, drawn-out torture. The disguised hand. The hurt that flowed from the empty envelopes as he pulled out each one of his own foolish letters.
The view from the nursery windows took in a wide swathe of Hastings Road and the facades of the new homes emerging from their scaffolding across the way. For almost a year, the nursery had been his own private box to a secret theatre; a troupe of foul-mouthed, open-shirted gallants had strutted upon the timber boardwalks of the scaffolding, oblivious to their one-man audience watching from the darkened room opposite. But the superstructure was complete now and the players had moved backstage. The only performance now visible from the window was a comedy double-act on the pavement outside; Mr James had caught Patrick Lloyd unawares, and engaged him in intense conversation. The weather was atrocious, and poor Patrick was doing his best to get away, but Mr James was as unrelenting as the rain. Both men were hunched up; water running off their hats and down their buttoned-up Ulsters. William leant forward to wipe condensation off the window and get a better view.
‘William, are you listening to me?’
Of course, he was. What choice did he have? He had done his best to avoid it, but she had him cornered. At least he was warm and dry, unlike Patrick.
He spent most of his time at home avoiding one parent or the other. Conversations with Father were thankfully few and far between, but they inevitably turned on the subject of William’s future career and, now that Summer had passed, they were becoming more frequent and more insistent. The old man had correspondents in every corner of the Empire, any one of whom might have a position for a middling-decent Trinity graduate. A brief note from Father and all would be settled. All William had to do was choose which corner of the Empire to die in, and whether it should be from malaria, diphtheria or yellow fever. If none of those options appealed, there were always openings in lunacy.
Thankfully, Father could usually be avoided, and he clearly took no more pleasure in the interviews than William did. Mother was more difficult. She was tenacious, and, today, she was everywhere. If the weather had been less dreadful, William would have walked to Forty Acres, or simply strolled down to goggle at the crowds queuing for entry to the Exhibition. As it was, his galoshes were still damp from yesterday’s attempt to avoid her, and the rain had shown no sign of relenting.
Join me on Monday morning for a no-holds-barred chat with William’s mother.
I hope you enjoyed that glimpse 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.