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 cut off all ties with William on his return from London, but why would Teddy return the letters, and why do so anonymously?
Your Affectionate Friend
(Chapter 5 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
(part three of seven)
Possibly, this was a mistake. William had completed three nervous circuits of the tree-lined street and its neighbours before daring to pause outside the familiar black iron gates. There was just enough sun that the wet flagstones steamed gently.
There was no reason to suppose that Teddy was at home, nor that he would be alone, but he had to make the attempt. If there were others in the house, then he might miss the opportunity to confront Teddy, but they would not suspect his motives. He had never needed an excuse to call, and Teddy’s mother, at least, would be pleased to see him.
He climbed the steps, and rang the bell. Doyle was prompt as ever, and gave him no chance for second thoughts. He had just missed the ladies of the house, apparently, but Mr Edward was at home. Doyle took his hat and coat, and left him in the drawing room. There were new curtains at the windows, their bright novelty emphasising the familiarity of the rest of the furnishings, and testament to the infrequency of his visits in recent months. The room was uncomfortable, as it had never been before. He stood by the windows, listening for footsteps on the stairs, his eyes skittering across the patterns on the wide Persian carpet.
When Teddy arrived, he was alone. He slid quietly into the room, closed the door, and made no attempt to approach William. He looked tired. Brittle. He was dressed, but his golden hair was darkened by yesterday’s Macassar, and he was unshaven.
‘What do you want?’
William smiled. Despite everything, it was so good to see him, to be alone with him, to be at the focal point of his attention. He had seen him only once since his return from London; across a room crowded with chattering fools. Teddy had glanced away. Before that it was the Summer. Graduation, and afterwards under the grey granite of the Campanile, laughing and joking now that they’d passed their exams. Being caught there as the bells tolled was supposed to mark you out for failure, but it only applied to undergraduates; they could chime all they like now, Teddy and William had moved beyond their reach. And then, suddenly, Teddy had moved beyond reach altogether.
‘I thought I made it perfectly clear.’
He had. Perfectly.
But, still, to be in the same room as him. ‘Are you well?’
‘Yes, I’m well.’ It was curt. Angry. A blunt dismissal of the social niceties. ‘Why are you here? If you’ve come to bid me farewell, you’ve left it very late. My boat leaves tomorrow morning.’
So soon? He was barely back from London. ‘I didn’t know. You are determined, then?’
‘Did you imagine this was a passing fancy? That I would change my mind? I am called, William. This is my purpose, my God-given work.’
‘You could do God’s work in Ireland.’
‘There’s nothing for me here.’
Nothing, and nobody. Is that truly what he meant? It was hard to reconcile the gaunt, joyless man avoiding his gaze with the boy he had grown up with, with the soulmate he had found last year.
Teddy appeared to be struggling too. He glanced up at William, and there was sorrow and pain as well as anger. ‘It was kind of you to call. But our association must end now. It is God’s will that I go to Somaliland, but it is also His will that we should be parted, that past sins should be accounted for, that temptation should not be put in our way. This is a fresh start, William. For both of us.’
Self-righteous, of course. As ever. But he had never been cruel until now. ‘Why, Teddy? I have accepted the dissolution of our friendship; is that not punishment enough?’
‘I don’t punish you, William. Only myself.’
‘I have burnt your letters.’ Like burning his own hand. ‘You insisted, and I have done it. Am I to burn my own letters as well? Is that why you taunt me? I do not regret a single word of them. They are honest and true. If you would have them destroyed, thrust them into your own fire. Don’t ask me to do it. I shan’t.’
Teddy seemed genuinely perplexed. ‘They are burnt. I have done it. We could not risk their discovery, William. It was for the best.’
‘Damn you, for a liar!’ He had never spoken to Teddy like that. Never spoken to anyone like that. But it was true, and Teddy did not deny it. How could he?
The letters were in William’s pocket. Six of them, in their near-identical envelopes. He withdrew them, and held them out.
There was no sign of recognition from Teddy. Apprehension and confusion, perhaps some element of fear, but no hint of familiarity. Teddy took the envelopes from William and examined them carefully, ‘What are they?’ Warily, he began pulling a letter from its envelope. It was less than halfway withdrawn when he stopped. He knew it then. Recognised it. He cast his eyes to William in panic, then pulled each envelope open sufficient only to verify its contents. For a moment he held the evidence at arm’s length, his breath held. He released all at once; the letters dropping to the Persian carpet just as a ragged breath signalled a return to his senses. A mute outstretched hand begged William to wait, and he left the room without a word.
Teddy’s footsteps shook the stairs and ran the length of the corridor above. The door that opened and slammed shut was the door to Teddy’s bedroom. Faint scrabbling sounds came down through the ceiling, and an exclamation. Then silence.
William’s eyes were drawn back down to the envelopes, which cut pale rectangles into the carpet; six angular intrusions into the rich reds and blues. He gathered them up and, for want of a better receptable, replaced them in his pocket.
The returning footsteps were more measured. Almost laboured. When Teddy reappeared, he was even paler than before. He closed the door carefully and took a moment before finding his words. ‘I was weak, William. You will call me a hypocrite, and a fool, but I couldn’t bear to destroy them. They were hidden, but they are gone. There were a dozen of them, but they are all gone.’
William had walked straight home. Fled, actually. Teddy’s distraught confession had quickly turned to bitter condemnation of William for having written such foolish words in the first place. And William himself had twisted and turned through so many exhausting emotions he no longer knew what he felt. It was the injustice that hurt most. And yet, Teddy, who said he felt nothing, had kept the letters; he dreaded their discovery and disclosure, yet he had kept them, out of fondness.
Then there was the other question, of course; if it wasn’t Teddy returning the letters, then who was it? And why? But that was barely worth considering; it was not Teddy, and it never had been.
As soon as he came through the door, Mother’s voice swam out from the drawing room, the voice she reserved for social occasions, discussing the relative fairness of the afternoon’s weather in comparison to the morning, which had been less fine, to be sure. He made a half-hearted attempt to creep past, but he never stood a chance.
So, if it’s not Teddy…? Join me tomorrow for a walk in the park with Alice, William’s long-suffering fiancée.
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.