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 returns home, worried that somebody else is sending the letters, but also touched that Teddy had been holding on to them, despite having ended the relationship. His mother has guests, and William attempts to avoid their company…
Your Affectionate Friend
(Chapter 5 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
(part four of seven)
‘William, is that you?’ It was a summons.
Mother’s circle was wide, but she had her favourites. It was no surprise to find her sat with Mrs Marrable, but it was a shock. Had she followed him here, taken a short cut and arrived ahead of him? No, that was impossible. It was a coincidence. Unless this was the terrible answer to the question that so haunted Teddy. But Mrs Marrable was a transparent woman, and right now she radiated nothing but exasperated affection. ‘There he is. Sure, but your ears were burning just now, William.’
William kept his composure. ‘After all these years, I am amazed you still find anything of interest in me to discuss.’
‘Oh, you’re a constant source of surprise, Darling.’ It was Alice. He hadn’t noticed her, in the bay window. She must have watched him mount the steps outside. Had she read anything in his expression? Had there been anything to read?
‘Alice. How wonderful.’ He almost stumbled as he crossed the room and kissed her, aware all the time of their matronly audience.
‘Mama believes we’ve had a spat, you visit so seldom.’
‘Nonsense. I’ve been pre-occupied, is all.’
‘Well, if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…’
‘And here you are.’
The letters in his pocket weighed him down. Surely, all three women must be wondering about the package so conspicuously pressing against his chest, holding his jacket pocket out stiffly over his thumping heart.
‘Alice was just telling us about Teddy’s preparations for Africa.’ Apparently, there was to be no inquisition on the letters.
‘Yes, I have just seen him.’ He hadn’t meant to reveal that, but the memory of their encounter was fresh on his mind, and his conscience.
‘So, the mountain did go to Mohammed, after all…’ There was a glint in Mother’s eye, pleased that he had apparently heeded her words of advice from this morning, ‘Such a shame that I had already invited Alice here with Mrs Marrable.’
‘We must have crossed paths, William. We didn’t see you, did we, Alice?’ Mrs Marrable could tease him quite as well as his own mother.
Alice joined the fray. ‘Perhaps William saw us first, and took evasive action.’
‘I would never…’ He would never avoid Alice, but everyone in the room knew he would happily take an alternative route if it meant avoiding her mother. ‘I took a turn about Forty Acres first. Perhaps that is how we missed each other.’
‘Still, you got to see Teddy before he leaves.’ Was Alice watching him closely as she spoke, or was the burden of his pocket’s contents getting to him again?
‘I did.’ He said as little as possible, but there was an agenda in the air, and he was clearly expected to say more. ‘I didn’t stay long.’
‘Did you speak to him? About Africa?’ Mrs Marrable was anxious.
‘Well, in passing. He seemed quite determined.’
Mrs Marrable sighed with disappointment. ‘We have all tried to dissuade him. I thought for a moment you might bring him to his senses. You are such good friends.’
‘He goes where he is called, Mother.’
William glanced at Alice, surprised to find her such an advocate for her brother’s missionary zeal. ‘Won’t you miss him?’
‘We will all miss him, William. But we can’t burden him with our feelings on the matter. We can’t hold him here against his better judgement. What kind of friend would you be if you did that?’
He had tried to make his excuses, but neither mother was prepared to let this opportunity pass them by. The pretence was made that Mother and Mrs Marrable had important wedding business to discuss and the presence of either of the parties involved would only complicate matters. He and Alice had been instructed to walk together, unchaperoned.
So, here they were, much like old times, wrapped up against the cold, strolling down the Avenue. Alice led the conversation, and seemed anxious to be agreeable, but there was something forced in her manner. She had never been a prattler, but today she prattled, leaving William unable to keep up. Every sentence began with ‘Do you remember…’, as though she were trying to remind herself of their entire courtship, to reinforce the ties that would bind them legally in the Spring.
They strolled past the grand entrance to the Exhibition, choked again with visitors now that it was about to close. It was four months since they’d stood on that same spot for the arrival of the King and Queen, and now it was winding down. Not soon enough, presumably, for those wretched Somalis in their faux village; the Dublin climate in November was a far cry from that of the Horn of Africa.
They had visited the village together; he, Alice and Teddy. The cultural display had been the talk of Dublin and the highlight of the Exhibition, which meant they’d queued for well over an hour in weather that was unimaginable now. The Somali Village was surrounded by a plaster imitation of a high adobe wall; a decorative fortress to protect this corner of Africa transplanted to an Irish city park. Once inside the great wall, the illusion was complete. Here was Somaliland; its inhabitants, its livestock, its buildings, under a sun that barely touched the dark skins of the “exhibits”, but which burnt into the pink necks of the incongruous Dubliners, jostling to gawp at an alien culture.
He should have seen it. The moment that led to everything since. But he had been too busy gawping at the tribal chieftain, wrapped in leopard skin, sat in his throne room surrounded by tall, bold women who might have been servants, but who a bored Irish guide insisted were the chieftain’s wives. Alice had been shocked, and William had teased that she would always be Wife Number One. Teddy’s absence had only been noticed when they had both looked to him to settle the argument.
They had found him, eventually, among the goats on the Somali farm, away from the leopard skins and the spears, examining an elderly man’s swollen arm. A horsefly bite, probably, but it had become infected, and the poor chap was in a miserable state. Teddy, it transpired, cared not whether the chieftain had one wife or six, nor whether polygamy was an appropriate model for the better parts of Dublin Society. What he cared about was the physical and spiritual welfare of the Africans. And from that acorn, that insect bite, everything else had followed. The long nights of tortured self-reflection, the moral discourse with his bewildered family and friends, the letters to the Foreign and Colonial Office, the journey to London and the meetings with the Swedish Overseas Lutheran Church, even the flirtation with the French Catholic Mission, all of it culminating in his commitment to take charge of a new hospital in some God-forsaken corner of the African desert. And in the midst of all that, a reaffirmation of his faith, and a hostile rejection of everything he and William had found together.
Join me tomorrow as William continues in his attempts to keep the truth from coming out.
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.