That afternoon Quentin, hoping against hope that his strategy would work, was led to the Tuxford home, which proved to be smallish and two-storey. Paul dumped his bag and, asking him to wait while he got Dad up, disappeared into one of the rooms off the hall. There was one other reception room, and the kitchen and bathroom were obvious at the back. Evidently, because of the stairs, the father lived solely on the ground floor. That suited Quentin. After a few minutes, during which querulous noises seeped through the door, he was ushered into the bedroom.
Arthur Tuxford was a ruin of a man. Quentin would not have recognised him. Though no more than forty, he looked seventy. As he sat in an armchair, unshaven and haggard and hunched in pyjamas and dressing gown, his whole body was quivering.
“Sir! Dashed good of you to look me up!” He held out a trembling hand, which Quentin shook. “Can’t help calling you sir, you know, not after Clayton and all those times you had me on the mat!”
That too suited Quentin. And he would rub in the difference of rank.
“I’m sorry to see you like this, Major Tuxford. Though I’m hardly a picture of rude good health myself.”
“No surprise, sir, after what you’ve been through. You’re a dark horse, you know, but I’ve heard great things about you. All we knew at school was that you’d got damaged in the trenches. But old Bungy Ransome — remember him, your adjutant in ’17? — he was my CO in North Africa in the last war. Gave me the low-down on you. How you got your first DSO at the Marne. How you got your second at the Somme before your leg was smashed. The gassing you got at Passchendaele. And he said your leadership was out of this world. Yet you kept it all under your hat!”
Quentin had to tune his language to what this man would understand.
“Naturally I did. After all, it’s not the done thing to blow one’s own trumpet, is it?”
“Course not. Boy!” That was approaching a bellow. “Aren’t you going to offer the colonel … the professor a cup of tea? Take a seat, sir.”
“Not yet, thank you. I’m going to give Paul a hand.”
Quentin’s nose had located the commode next to Arthur’s chair. He lifted the lid and took out the pot. Leaving Arthur gaping with astonishment, he stumped with it to the bathroom and disposed of the contents. Then to the kitchen, where Paul was in the throes of making toast, boiling the kettle, and setting out corn flakes and all the etceteras of breakfast on a tray.
“May I join you for the meal, P? I’m taking over.”
Paul gaped, rather like his father.
“Yes, taking over. After we’ve eaten, you do your prep and then get your head down. I’m staying up overnight with your Dad, and from now on I’ll deal with the meals and the shopping and suchlike, though I’ll need a bit of steering at first to get the right thing done at the right time. Your job is to keep a low profile and catch up on your sleep. Leave everything else to me. All right?”
“But …” said Paul.
“No buts, please. Trust me.”
Paul, astonished, shut up. What with his game leg, Quentin did not dare to carry a tray, and Paul had to take it in. Arthur began to expostulate that he was ashamed that a guest should do menial work, that the boy was perfectly capable, that …
Quentin brusquely interrupted. “Leave that, Major Tuxford, until we’ve finished. We’ll talk about it afterwards.”
The major, apparently to his own surprise, obeyed, and Paul’s face was a sight.
The meal, on Arthur’s part, was messy. He could manage toast, but Paul had to guide the teacup and spoonfuls of corn flakes to his mouth. Because Arthur rarely cooperated, dribbles often spilled down the front of his dressing gown which was already much stained from previous mishaps. Each time Paul was snapped at. After watching for a short while, Quentin took over. The snapping stopped. But there was scope, he decided, for improvements to the equipment.
Breakfast over, Paul took the tray back to the kitchen and gave a quick guided tour of where things were. Quentin, sending the boy to do his prep, washed up. Then he returned to Arthur. What he was going to do was despicable. Bullying the sick — and especially a former pupil — was not to his taste, even if it was bullying a bully. But for Paul’s sake it had to be done.
In the event it proved not only surreal but quite ludicrously easy. Quentin had never had a dog. But it was, he guessed, rather like training one out of bad habits, with the enormous advantage that the dog was already accustomed to obedience. Had it not been serious it might have been funny. And all the time he was wondering how this broken caricature of a soldier, as thick as two planks, could be the father of the son.
“Major Tuxford,” he began, “do you realise that your son is grossly overworked?”
“What’s that? He’s young. He’s active. He has no problem with his chores.”
“Nonsense. You may like to think so, but you’re wrong. His days are already full of school work and prep. He’s at an age where boys need their sleep. And he’s at breaking point. If he breaks, where will you be?”
“But if he doesn’t do the chores, sir, who will?” That was almost a whine. “Granted, he doesn’t jump to it as a soldier should. But are you suggesting I’m unreasonable?”
This was the crunch.
“Major Tuxford, have you ever had superiors who were unreasonable?”
“Lord yes. Old Tubby Steevens, he treated his batman like dirt. Put him on a charge if his breakfast wasn’t cooked right. Damn it, batmen aren’t cordon bleu chefs. And Bill Foster — don’t think he ever slept a wink. Always digging you out at unholy hours for something that wasn’t urgent.”
Quentin sighed. Perfect examples, but the point had still not sunk into this obtuse skull. Rub it in, then.
“Major Tuxford, has it never crossed your mind that you are behaving just like Bill Foster and Tubby Steevens? Constantly snapping at Paul, digging him out at unholy hours? It’s hardly surprising that it’s wearing him out, and that he resents it. Can a dog-tired soldier be efficient? Well, I am now taking over. Paul’s under orders to rest. So snap at me instead. And you won’t have to dig me out at unholy hours because I’ll be up with you all night. If you want lunch at two in the morning and a cup of tea at five, I will get it, not Paul. He is not to be disturbed. Do you understand?”
Arthur’s mind, it seemed, could not cope. He floated off into a daydream, not asleep but miles away, staring vacantly into space. This, Dr McLaren had said, was a standard reaction; but how much of the message had he absorbed? Did he still, as at school, listen to the voice of authority and, though it might take longer now, obey?
When he came round he seemed to have forgotten the conversation, and buried himself in yesterday’s paper. At two Quentin put together some lunch — a basic meal, as Paul had instructed, of bread and cheese, a slice of cake, and an apple. At five he made tea. At seven, flagging by now, he woke Paul, who seemed refreshed. He set about preparing dinner, which was no hardship because, as he reassured the anxious boy, he was unmarried and had always cooked for himself. At eight the nurse dropped in to administer the daily injection. Then he served the meal. There were many fewer complaints over the feeding. The lesson seemed to have sunk in. Three quarters of an hour later he saw Paul off to school. He helped Arthur into bed and washed the dishes. At nine he phoned Mrs Marshall his charlady and arranged for her to do an hour’s cleaning at the Tuxford house every evening.
Finally he wheezed out to the shops. He bought not only food but, at the chemist’s, an infant’s feeding mug and a large bib and, at a junk shop, a wheeled bed-tray. Onto it he loaded his other purchases and, by using it as a walking frame, easily trundled it back. He went to his own home to collect a few clothes and his washing gear. Returning to the Tuxford house, he did not feel up to tackling the stairs and camped out in the sitting room. Totally exhausted, he went to sleep with the satisfying feeling that his duty had been done. Or rather that it was beginning to be done, for there was still a long way to go.
He was up for Paul’s return. He bathed Arthur and shaved him. He made breakfast, which he himself wheeled in on the bed-tray. Arthur, when he complained at having to wear a bib and drink tea from the spout of a plastic mug, was firmly told that utility took precedence over dignity. Thus the new regime was established. The topsy-turvy detail can be glossed over, for the labour was tedious. In outline, Quentin oversaw Arthur by night, ministered to his needs, and endured hours of repetitive military reminiscence. By day he slept. In between he did the cooking and shopping and laundry. Paul helped when he could, but Quentin insisted on him having nine hours of sleep every night.
Arthur’s demands and complaints dwindled almost to nothing. Dr McLaren, on his next visit, was impressed. The patient, he suggested as Quentin saw him out, was already so much more amenable that he might even be persuaded into hospital. Quentin was alarmed. The next stage of his plot would be much easier to achieve at home. No, he said, he was managing very well. Let Arthur stay.
Paul was transformed. As he caught up on his sleep he grew in confidence and cheerfulness,
and he seemed to regard Quentin as a miracle-worker. Over the next few weeks his voice settled
and now rarely skipped an octave. Whenever they were awake and in the house at the same time
and the patient had no needs to be met, he and Quentin talked. Often enough it was about
ancient Greece, which had first brought them together and where their minds most met. But let
it not be thought that they discussed nothing else, for they ranged far and wide over almost
every subject under the sun. They made no attempt to conceal their conversations or their
laughter, and the more Arthur heard them the more he took notice.
“The boy gets on very well with you, doesn’t he?” he asked out of the blue one night, looking up from the previous day’s post, which had set him grumbling.
“He does. And I with him. He’s highly intelligent.”
“Hmm …” Arthur returned to his letters. “Damned bureaucrats! I
don’t understand it. Can you make any sense of these, sir?”
Holding back a handwritten letter, he passed two others to Quentin and lapsed into apathy. Both the letters were about the aggravating little details of life that beset so many a mortal. A gas bill for a ridiculously large sum was easily dealt with. By poking under the stairs Quentin discovered that the meter reader had miscopied what the dials said. He wrote a stern reply with the correct reading. The other was from the Inland Revenue, sending back Arthur’s tax return with the complaint that the figures did not add up. As he checked them, his eyes widened. While the army invalidity pay was modest enough, the investments yielded a surprisingly large income. And it was true that the figures did not add up. He wrote another reply, apologising for a simple arithmetical mistake and giving the correct total.
When Arthur came back to the world, Quentin produced his replies, explained them, and got a tremulous signature on them ready for posting.
“By God, sir, you’re well organised! Thank you!”
By now it was two in the morning and time for lunch. Arthur, once fed, returned to his previous subject.
“The boy’s cheered up since you stepped in, sir. You’ve got influence with him. Might I ask you to do me a favour? I expect him to go into the army, but whenever I raise the subject he turns mulish. Could you persuade him to change his attitude?”
“Major Tuxford, I will do nothing of the sort. His talent is for the arts and especially the classics. That is where he wants to go and where I hope he will go. All credit to him for standing up for himself. He simply isn’t cut out for the army as you were. And can a reluctant soldier be a good soldier?”
Arthur, taken aback again, did not reply.
“In ancient Greece, on which I am best informed,” Quentin went on, “there were two approaches to life. One was represented by the Spartans. They waged war, they fought hard, they willy-nilly obeyed orders. Three hundred, for example, were sent to Thermopylae in 480 BC to withstand hundreds of thousands of invading Persians. Needless to say, every one died. Their memorial read — I’ll spare you the Greek —
“Go, tell the men of Sparta, passer-by,
That here, obedient to their word, we lie.”
Arthur nodded approvingly. “That’s good,” he said. “Very good. Been to Thermopylae myself, you know. Devilish terrain. Fought there in ’41, trying to stop the Huns. Just like the Spartans.”
“The other approach,” Quentin persevered, “was represented by the Athenians, who strove for peace.”
May the gods forgive him. That was the grossest distortion of history. But it was in a good cause, and this ignoramus would hardly pick him up on it.
“When you were in Greece,” he asked, “did you see the Acropolis and the Parthenon?”
“Yes. Dashed fine place.”
“And which is remembered now? Athens, which laid down the whole basis of our civilisation in art and architecture and literature and philosophy? Or Sparta, interested in nothing but tribal squabbles? When we think of ancient Greece we think of Athens, don’t we? And that, Major Tuxford, is because the pen is mightier than the sword.” May the gods forgive him the clichés too. “It is art that lasts.”
“But damn it, there has to be an army.”
“As long as there is strife, yes. But why did you join the army, Major Tuxford? To work for peace? Or to work for eternal strife?”
Arthur had his moments of lucidity, and he could not admit, even though it might be true, to waging war for the sake of it. Wrong-footed, he drifted off again into a mental vacuum. When next he came back he had on his mind what seemed to be a wholly different matter.
“Never been married, sir, have you?”
“Hmph. Can’t stand queers. One or two of the masters at Clayton … you know … abused boys. But never heard a hint that you did.”
Quentin fancied — or hoped — he saw where this might be leading. “Major Tuxford,” he said solemnly, “I give you my word that I have never abused a schoolboy, and never will.”
“That’s good enough, sir. Always knew you were a white man.”
He returned to his handwritten letter and brooded again. “Look, sir, I’m in a difficulty. My sister Agatha wants me to take the boy out of Aveling and get him into Hornsby for next term. You know, in Surrey, specialises in training boys for the army. Waives its fees for orphans of officers. But he’s not an orphan yet. And you think he shouldn’t go into the army at all.” Something, then, had sunk in through the thick skin. “Interfering woman. Reckon she’s after a bigger slice of the boy’s money when I do go west. If I had any other relatives I wouldn’t put him in her hands. What do you think, sir?”
“Are your parents not alive?”
“Died in the blitz.”
This was the moment. Feeling it was too good to be true, Quentin made his proposal: that, as a residual duty by a former housemaster to a former pupil, he would be prepared to assume Paul’s guardianship when the time came.
“Good God, sir, that’s noble! Hoped you might, you know, but didn’t dare ask. There’s decency for you, and selflessness! Small wonder you got where you did in the First War! I’m terribly grateful, sir. How do we set about it?”
Quentin mentally mopped his brow. “A new will, I think. May I see your existing one?”
“Bureau, top right drawer.”
Sure enough it left the whole estate to his wife, and on her death to his son, with Agatha as executor and guardian and trustee until Paul came of age. His wife, having no significant assets of her own, had not made a will at all.
“Who’s your solicitor?”
“Harold Garrett, in town. Whistle him up, sir, please.”
One essential point had first to be confirmed, although there was little doubt. As soon as Paul was up, Quentin got him by himself.
“P. A very important question. Would you like me to be your guardian instead of your aunt?”
Paul’s gasp and hug and beaming smile were answer enough. He was beaming as he went off to school. At nine Quentin dialled Mr Garrett’s number, put the receiver into Arthur’s hand, and stood over him as he gave instructions. Then he took the receiver back and gave instructions for a new will of his own. At Quentin’s suggestion, Arthur wrote to Agatha to inform her of what he was doing. The very same afternoon the solicitor knocked at the door armed with two new wills. In Arthur’s, Agatha’s name was simply replaced by Quentin’s. Should Quentin die before Paul’s twenty-first birthday, the duties would revert to Agatha. Mr Garrett made sure it was understood, and there and then it was signed by Arthur and witnessed by Mr Garrett and by Mrs Marshall who was doing her cleaning. Signatures on another document transferred to Quentin the power of attorney. Finally Quentin’s new will was dealt with, leaving everything to Paul. Once again it had been as easy as that.
As Mr Garrett went out, Paul came in, still beaming. For days thereafter he kept looking at Quentin as if he could not believe it. Quentin could hardly believe it either.
At intervals Quentin went home to check his mail, and next Saturday morning, with Arthur safely asleep, he suggested that Paul go with him. His house was a sprawling bungalow. It might seem over-generous for a single man, but he needed it for his books, which overflowed from his study into most of the rooms. After the relative pokiness of the Tuxford house, Paul was delighted with the spaciousness and especially delighted with the books, which embraced the whole of classical antiquity and a great deal more besides.
“Oh, wonderful! You’ve got far more than the library at school! May I look?”
“Of course. Help yourself.”
Quentin got on with his mail. After a long silence he glanced up to see Paul standing absorbed beside the serried ranks of Loebs, a green one open in his hand. Already? Well, it had to happen sooner or later. A tell-tale gap on the shelves confirmed the suspicion. Yes, it was Volume 4 of the Anthology.
“So now,” said Quentin mildly, “you know why that one isn’t in the school library.”
Paul jumped guiltily and snapped the book shut. He nodded, red in the face.
“No need to be embarrassed, P. Having read all the rest, you wanted to read that one too. That’s absolutely right and proper. Knowing you, I’d have been surprised and disappointed if you hadn’t. Come and sit down, because we need to talk about this.
“Look. Mr Burrell’s in charge of your classics, so he has every right to decide whether Strato’s Musa Puerilis goes into the library or not. But, for myself, I don’t much like censoring or bowdlerising.” Paul’s brow creased. “That means rewriting supposedly naughty bits — sanitising them — to protect supposedly innocent readers. Just as that Loeb translates the supposedly naughty bits of Strato into Latin rather than English. Not the wisest of ploys, because it points you straight to the naughty bits. And into the bargain it adds to your vocabulary, Latin as well as Greek.”
Paul was looking much encouraged, and nodded again with a hint of a smile.
“I admit,” said Quentin, “that censoring is sometimes necessary. But not in this case. Not for someone of your age who’s meant to be learning about the Greeks. What Strato’s talking about was part of the Greeks’ culture, and neither he nor they were in the least ashamed of it. So why should we be ashamed for them? Why should we prudishly skate over a significant factor in their lives? I take it you already knew about their attitude to love?”
Paul no longer seemed in the least embarrassed. “Oh yes. I’ve read Plato’s Symposium.” But not, Quentin was quite sure, at George Burrell’s suggestion. “Which of course is full of what they thought about it. Heavenly love rather than common love, and finding your other half, and all that. And I’ve got The Last of the Wine. You know, Mary Renault …”
“Excellent! Now there’s a novel that tells more about Athenian life in the late fifth century BC than any scholarly tome that’s ever been written.”
“You do have to, um, read between the lines,” Paul continued. “But it’s perfectly clear what was going on. The only thing that worries me is that Lysis is quite a bit older than Alexias. They’re the erastēs and erōmenos, the lover and the beloved. So Lysis is always leading the way. I wish they’d been more equal. Anyway, The Last of the Wine put me on to an earlier book of Renault’s, The Charioteer. It’s set in the present day, or near enough, not in ancient Greece …”
Quentin nodded. He had read it too. Its hero Laurie was another soldier whose leg had been
smashed, in his case at Dunkirk.
“… but its title is taken from Plato’s other book about love, the Phaedrus.”
“And have you read that?”
“Oh yes. It’s a super image, isn’t it? Of love as a chariot.”
Plato likened love to a chariot pulled by two horses — the black one of the bodily passions, unruly and always wanting to go its own way, and the white one of the heavenly emotions, pure and obedient. The soul is the charioteer who has to balance their opposing instincts and try to avoid being overturned or going off course.
“But,” Paul went on, returning to the subject, “the characters in The Charioteer who’re gay …”
“Oh, it’s the in-word for queer. Didn’t you know?” Paul seemed to enjoy being one up on Quentin for once. “It’s new. I think it comes from America.”
“It would.” Quentin could sometimes be quite old-fashioned. “Yet another good word, then, that’s been commandeered and redefined. Like queer. Sorry, I interrupted.”
“Well …” Paul tried to pick up his thread. “The gay people in The Charioteer aren’t very nice at all. Apart from Laurie, that is. And the whole thing sounds so … so … furtive. So dangerous.”
“It is, now. More dangerous than ever. Do I take it, then, if I may ask a very private question, that you have a personal interest in all this?”
Paul must by now have been wholly convinced that Quentin was not going to blast him, and did not hesitate. “Oh yes. I’m gay. Do you mind?”
“No, I don’t. But does your Dad know?”
“Heavens no! He’d throw a fit.”
“Well, keep it that way. Now, do you just think you’re gay? Or are you sure?”
“Oh, I’m sure. I know myself well enough by now.”
“Good. Like the Delphic motto.”
“There were two mottoes carved on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Gnōthi seauton, know yourself, and Mēden agan, nothing in excess. Admirable guides for life.”
Quentin could see the information being filed away.
“Oh! That’s good! Mr Burrell’s never told us that.”
“But another very private question,” Quentin went on. “Have you ever …?”
“Done anything? No. Not with anyone else. I don’t know anyone to do it with. Let alone anyone to love, like Alexias and Lysis in Last of The Wine.”
Quentin thought deeply.
“Look, P. I’m going to preach you a sermon. I don’t want to, but I have to. In 1957 — three years ago — the Wolfenden Committee recommended that homosexual acts should no longer be treated as crimes, provided they were in private and between consenting adults. At first it looked as if the climate was going to improve. The Homosexual Law Reform Society was set up to lobby for the law to be changed, and so far there’ve been three attempts at getting a bill through Parliament.
“But all of them have been voted down before they made any progress, and in fact the climate’s worse now than it was before Wolfenden. The police seem to be waging a vendetta against anyone who’s queer … sorry, gay. Only a few months ago two students of mine were arrested. They’d been very discreet, and it was purely by chance that the police came to know about them. I went to court to vouch for their characters, but it didn’t do any good. They’re both behind bars for two years. Which they wouldn’t be if they’d been in bed with girls, because the law discriminates against a whole section of society.
“For my part, I see nothing wrong in homosexuality. Nothing shameful. And when you have two youngsters like Alexias and Lysis who’re in heavenly love — genuine spiritual love — rather than in pursuit of quick gratification, it’s positively beneficial. Spiritual love of whatever kind isn’t something to be suppressed. You see what I mean?”
“Yes.” Paul was very serious. “I do. I think the same.”
“But the sad fact remains that any sort of love between men is dangerous, and it will remain dangerous until the law’s changed. It will be changed, one day. It has to be. But meanwhile be careful, P. Be very careful. Don’t do anything hasty or rash. Don’t go in for what The Last of the Wine calls market-place love. Don’t jump into casual relationships like so many of those camp queers in The Charioteer. You have got ideals, haven’t you, that you’d like to live up to?”
“Oh yes. For heavenly love. Like in the Symposium.”
“Cling to them, then, as Laurie tried to with Andrew until someone spoiled it all. Wait for your other half to turn up, as one fine day he will. That’s the point when you need to start considering what to do about it.”
“And by then, Q,” Paul said, “you’ll be my guardian. Don’t worry. When it happens — if it happens — I’ll consult you. May I borrow Volume 4 and catch up?”
As they left, Paul stopped in the hall in front of a picture. It was a colour print of a painting, a lively and naturalistic scene with a large bull seen broadside on, slender youths dancing in front and behind, and another flying through the air above its back.
“Gosh! Is that bull-leaping? Like they did in Crete? I’ve read about it in another of Mary Renault’s books. The King Must Die.”
“That’s right. It’s one of the famous frescoes from Knossos. You can see all of them there, together with King Minos’s throne room, and the labyrinth where Theseus killed the Minotaur. Or so they say.”
Paul’s eyes were ashine. “And where’s this place?”
The next picture was an atmospheric photograph looking down a steep valley flanked by towering crags, with ruins stepping down its floor and, far below, a wooded plain extending to a distant sea.
“Delphi. The navel of the earth. Those cliffs are the Phaedriades, from which they threw down condemned criminals. That’s the theatre in the foreground. Those big columns are all that’s left of the temple of Apollo, where the oracle was. And where those mottoes were.”
“Wow! But what’s it like there, Q? I mean … what does it feel like?”
“It feels stark. Hard. Dry. Hot, usually. Cicadas chirping all around. It feels half-way to the heavens, perched high above that sea of olive trees. There’s a sense of power, of vast antiquity and mystery. You can easily imagine it as the centre of the earth. That gods still live there.”
Paul’s eyes were still shining. “I’d love to see it. The only picture in our classroom is the Parthenon. All right, it’s a wonderful building, but the photo makes it look dead. Or as if it’s, um, posing for you. But in this one Delphi looks alive. I mean, ancient Greece is long gone, but you ought to be able to bring it back.”
They returned to the Tuxford house, where Quentin went to bed. As he dropped off he thought he heard the nightingale again. But he must have been mistaken. It was morning, and it was well past the mating season.
Thus their routine continued until the end of July, when several things happened in close succession.
First, much as the specialist had predicted, the endgame began. One evening, when Paul had just returned from school, Quentin went to Arthur Tuxford’s room and found him still asleep. He could not wake him. Dr McLaren, when summoned, confirmed that he had entered a coma and arranged for an ambulance to the hospital. As it departed, Quentin hugged Paul and was hugged back. A new phase was unfolding. Hitherto it had been a mere promise, not yet was it the full reality, and at first neither was ready to comment. An hour later they went to the hospital, and again next morning which happened to be a Saturday and Paul was free. But visiting a patient who is dead to the world and has no hope of awaking is unrewarding for everyone concerned, and Quentin saw no reason for Paul to be constantly and artificially dutiful. Indeed Paul himself had no wish to be dutiful. He was still, it seemed, in a slight state of shock, but still dry-eyed and now devastatingly frank.
“To be honest, Q,” he said as they came out, “I hope he goes fast. I know it sounds mean. But nobody can do any more for him. He’s getting nothing out of life. He’s as good as dead. When Mama died I cried buckets, but I don’t feel a bit like crying now. Is that wrong?”
“Not in the least. It’s entirely understandable. You see, when someone dies whom you love, you grieve. Maybe for them, if their end was painful. But mostly for yourself, because you’ve lost something valuable. That’s why you cried for your Mama. A lot of grief is selfish, and none the worse for that. And it often mellows into gratitude when you remember happy times from the past. But your Dad … you’ve never really known him, have you? You’ve never had happy times with him. So you aren’t crying, because he isn’t valuable to you.”
“And because,” said Paul, “I’ve now got someone else instead, who’s far more valuable.”
Both could now, with relief, revert fully to normal daytime life; and this was the moment, they agreed, for Paul to move. He packed his clothes and books and paraphernalia into cardboard boxes. Quentin packed Arthur’s personal papers into more boxes. They turned off the gas and electricity, locked up, and with the help of Quentin’s car migrated to the bungalow only a hundred yards away. Paul unloaded the boxes, and as soon as the front door was closed behind him he uttered a big sigh and hugged Quentin again.
“Thank you, Q. Only one more step to go.”
Having chosen which of the spare rooms to take for his own, he set to sorting out his possessions — this for keeping, that for the secondhand bookshop, another for the dustbin. Quentin sat with him to provide company in his new habitat.
At one point Paul was brooding over a photograph. He showed it to Quentin.
“This is Mama.”
It was a studio portrait by a Ruston photographer of a distinctively beautiful woman with straight blonde hair. It was very clearly from her that Paul, in no way his father’s son, had inherited his looks; and his qualities too?
“You said she was German, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. But her English was very good, though she always had an accent.”
“How did she and your Dad meet?”
“No idea. She told me a lot about her younger days. She grew up in East Prussia — it’s in Poland now — and at the end of the war she managed to get out, I suppose as a refugee. But she wouldn’t say anything about the war or what happened next. Or about Dad, for that matter … I’m going to put this on the mantelpiece.”
At another point he chuckled. “Look, Q! My passport! Isn’t the photo ghastly?”
He passed it over. True, like many a passport photo, it did not do Paul justice. But, at the mere sight of it, a plan sprang into Quentin’s head, ready-made and fully-formed. He checked, and the passport was still valid.
“Have you been abroad much?”
“Only once. To Paris for a weekend with Mama. That was just before Dad came home, and there hasn’t been a chance since.”
“Well, we can’t make any plans with things as they are now. But would you like a holiday as soon as it becomes possible?”
“Oh yes please! Can we go to Paris again? We didn’t have time to do nearly as much as we wanted.”
“Let’s wait and see.”
The next Thursday saw three events. Quentin spent much of the day at the university graduation ceremony, where he congratulated his final students, wished them well, and talked to their parents. His academic duties were finally over.
It was also the start of Paul’s eight weeks of holidays, and he came home with his school report for the term. Quentin read it. Very good, almost throughout, with an especially glowing tribute on his German. A few teachers remarked that he always seemed tired. There was just one snide comment, from George Burrell: ‘Would do better if he concentrated on learning the essential detail rather than wandering away into Cloud Cuckoo Land.’
Quentin snorted. “Don’t let that put you off, P. You wander as you like. It’s far more valuable.”
And thirdly it was Paul’s fourteenth birthday. Quentin gave him an illustrated guidebook to Greece which was rapturously received, and they went to a nearby restaurant to celebrate. Over the meal he told Paul about the graduation.
“And honorary degrees,” he ended, “were awarded to two eminent scientists. Here in Ruston the proceedings are in English. But at Cambridge the Public Orator has to hold forth in Latin, which confronts him with such knotty problems as finding Latin versions of ‘nuclear physicist’ and ‘molecular biologist’.”
“Mmm. I suppose,” Paul observed, “he has to do it in a roundabout way. For nuclear physicist ‘a man who searches out the nature of the atom’ or something.”
“That’s right. It reminds me rather of that Brazilian who translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin and had difficulty with ‘hot buttered toast.’ It reminds me too of a piece we were given at school to turn into Latin elegiacs — an advertisement from a nineteenth-century American newspaper, which has stuck indelibly in my mind:
“If you want a really fine unsophisticated family pill, try Dr Rumbolt’s liver-encouraging, kidney-persuading, silent perambulator, twenty-seven in a box! This pill is as mild as a pet lamb, and as searching as a small tooth-comb: it don’t go fooling about, but attends strictly to business, and is as certain for the middle of the night as an alarum-clock.”
“Golly!” Paul giggled. “That’s a real stinker! Can you remember the Latin you turned it into?”
“Mercifully no. It was probably very stilted. So many translations were, back in those days. Look at the English ones in the Loeb Anthology — dreadfully dated in language. Full of I ween and thou wert.”
“I suppose they were trying to be poetic,” Paul suggested, spearing a chip. “And failing. But it’s terribly hard to do a translation that says what the original says without losing the poetry.”
“Agreed. In fact well-nigh impossible. Do you know that Callimachus in the Anthology, for instance — his elegy for Heraclitus?”
“Oh yes! It’s got to be my favourite!”
Paul recited it word for word, with enthusiasm.
“Eipe tis, Hērakleite, teon moron, es de me dakru
Ēgagen, emnēsthēn d’ hossakis amphoteroi
Hēlion en leschē katedusamen. Alla su men pou,
Xein’ Halikarnēseu, tetrapalai spodiē.
Hai de teai zōousin aēdones, hēsin ho pantōn
Harpaktēs Aidēs ouk epi cheira balei.”
“That’s right,” said Quentin, impressed yet again. “Well, a fairly straight version would go rather like this, wouldn’t it?
“I heard you were dead, Heraclitus, and I fell to tears when I remembered how often we both sent the sun to bed. There you lie, my friend from Halicarnassus, turned long ago to dust. Yet your nightingales survive, on which Death, the robber of all things, shall not lay hands.”
“Yes. But I’ve never understood those nightingales. What do they mean?”
“It’s usually taken to be the title of a book of poems Heraclitus had written, though I’m not at all convinced.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Well, much the best-known translation is William Johnson Cory’s, which is at least poetic if a little mawkish.
“They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy silent voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
“What do you think of that?”
“Mmm,” said Paul. “It isn’t bad, considering that translating anything into rhyming verse is harder still. But it pads it out an awful lot. It’s much longer than it needs to be. I wonder … could it go into English elegiacs?”
“Hmm. Longfellow did have a go at hexameters, but I’m not aware of any serious attempt at English elegiacs. Still, worth trying.”
There and then Paul took a paper napkin, looked into infinity, scribbled, thought again, crossed out, and scribbled more.
“How about this? Half the length of Cory’s, but I think it’s all there.
“So you are dead, Heraclitus. I wept fond tears on recalling
How we would oft, we two, weary the sun to his bed.
Lifeless your frame, old friend, but your nightingales linger immortal —
Death’s all-clutching claw never shall snatch them away.”
Truly this boy had poetry in his soul.
What with his holidays and unlimited rest, Paul’s recovery was complete, and mercifully soon the endgame came to an end. Ten days later, as they were having breakfast, the phone rang. Quentin went to answer. He returned to the table and put his hand on Paul’s.
“This is it, P,” he said flatly. “That was the hospital. Your Dad died an hour or so ago, still unconscious, unaware of what was happening. So now we’re thrown together, for better or worse. But for my part, I couldn’t be happier.”
Paul looked back with a worrying lack of emotion. “Nor me,” was all he said. His eyes were far away. Once again, Quentin suspected, shock was suppressing his feelings. “Otherwise,” he added after a minute, “I’d be on my way to Middlesbrough. Thank you, Q.”
Quentin spent a busy morning. He phoned an undertaker to do the needful, Mr Garrett the solicitor to set the appropriate legal balls rolling, Auntie with the information, and Aveling College to say that he was now Paul’s guardian. He picked up the necessary chit from Dr McLaren and took it to the registrar to register the death. He put together all Arthur’s financial papers and drove them to the solicitor’s for the process of probate to get under way. He was careful to explain to Paul the steps he was taking. One day the boy would be called upon to do the same for him.
After lunch the undertakers rang back with a date for the funeral. He passed it on to Auntie and to Arthur’s regiment. Confident that Paul was in a fit enough state, he sent him off to the High Street with a long shopping list. The moment the coast was clear he picked up the phone again, and was mightily encouraged by what he heard. Having rung the solicitor once more to check that the timing of his plan was acceptable, he waited agog for Paul’s return, and once the purchases were stowed away he sprang his surprise.
“The funeral’s on Thursday, P, and on Friday we’re going away. On holiday.”
“Oh!” Paul’s face lit up. “Where to?”
The dam at last broke. Paul burst into tears and flung his arms round the old man.
“A Hellenic cruise,” Quentin explained, patting his back. “For three weeks. Fly to Athens, do the antiquities there. Then Delphi overland. Then ship to Corinth, Mycenae and Epidaurus. Then Constantinople, Troy and Ephesus. Lots of islands, ending with Rhodes and Santorini and Crete. And back to Athens.”
“Oh, Q!” Paul was incredulous. He wiped his face. “But how? I mean, it’s so soon …”
“By great good fortune. I rang up the cruise company and they had a last-minute cancellation.”
“But it must cost a bomb!”
“When I retired my colleagues gave me a nice fat cheque to be spent on a Hellenic cruise. So I’m only paying for you. And the firm was so pleased to find a taker for the cabin that it let me have it at a discount. It sounds a very good one, too. For you, the fly in the ointment is that you’ll have to share it with me.”
“Oh, I don’t mind that! In fact I’m glad. But won’t there be things to do here? Winding up Dad’s stuff?”
“These things move slowly. Mr Garrett says he doesn’t expect any questions to arise within the next month. And clearing your house and selling it can perfectly well wait until we get back.”
The next few days were crowded with preparations. And then the funeral took place.
It is not perhaps usual, on such an occasion, for a newly-orphaned son to be bubbling with high spirits. While Paul did behave with proper decorum, he was clearly not sunk in grief. Miss Agatha Tuxford, as expected, proved to be a poisonous woman. Miffed at being passed over as guardian, she was even more disapproving now, and showed it. But, behind their poker faces, they could laugh it off. Quentin must — simply must — last long enough to see Paul to twenty-one and keep him out of her clutches. Apart from her and them, and the undertakers and the parson, the only person present was a uniformed lieutenant colonel.
Immediately after the interment Auntie left in a hurry and a huff. The parson engaged Paul with ponderous and no doubt unwelcome commiserations. The lieutenant colonel buttonholed Quentin.
“Is that Major Tuxford’s widow?” he asked, looking doubtfully after Auntie as she disappeared through the cemetery gates.
“No. That’s his sister. His wife died last year.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that. So do I take it you’re the boy’s guardian now, sir?”
“That’s right. Quentin Fowler’s my name.”
“I’m Hubert Shuttleworth. Once a brother officer of Arthur Tuxford. Presumably you knew him well?”
“Oddly enough, no. I taught him at school, but thereafter I never saw him until a month or so ago.”
Shuttleworth’s eyebrows went up.
“He had intended Paul,” Quentin explained, “to go into the guardianship of his sister. But when we met up again he asked me to take Paul on instead.”
“Oh. May I ask if you liked him?”
“Quite frankly, no. I didn’t.”
Shuttleworth seemed relieved, and he relaxed. “Nor did I. Strange bird, wasn’t he? Not the most endearing character.”
“May I ask you, then, why you’ve come to see him off?”
“The regiment called for volunteers, and I stepped forward. Not out of any friendship, I assure you, but from plain and simple curiosity.”
“About his wife and the boy. After all, her background was — shall we say — unusual. So too was the boy’s start in life. I was curious to see how he was shaping.”
“He’s shaping extremely well. His intelligence is vastly greater than his
father’s ever was. But over his start in life you have me at a disadvantage. I know his
mother hailed from East Prussia, but no more.”
Shuttleworth was looking at him sideways. “It sounds as if Arthur never told you the full story.”
“Full story? You make it sound very cryptic. No, I know no more than that. Nor does Paul.”
“Oh dear. That’s awkward. Arthur did tell me something about it. It was a secret then, and it had to be. But now that Arthur’s beyond the reach of the law, I suppose it needs to come out. Sooner or later the boy really ought to know about his origin, but this is hardly the occasion to spell it out … Tell you what — if you’ll give me your address, I’ll write to you with what I remember. May I leave it to you to decide how much of it to pass on to him, and when?”
Quentin, mystified, gave him his card. The lieutenant colonel neatly detached Paul from the parson for a few words. Then they went their ways, leaving Major Arthur Tuxford in Ruston Municipal Cemetery where, unfulfilled, unlovable and unmourned, he was soon forgotten.
Early next morning Quentin and Paul were at the airport.