The Witch Of Exmoor Part 14

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Rosemary is at first embarra.s.sed by the vast amount that Nathan and Baxter Coldstream seem to have eaten and drunk at their last supper, and by the detailed account from patronne, fellow diners and cab-driver of Nathan's staggering last hours. Those pigs' feet, so retro, so gross, so indigestible, so monstrously non-kosher, cause mirth even in a coroner's court, and the coroner makes a point of dwelling upon them. But Rosemary rallies and wins through. Even the laughter had been full of admiration. Rosemary decides to be proud of Nathan, not ashamed of him, and once she had adopted this policy it is as though the lock upon her heart is opened and the flow of her old love for him released. She is proud of his exploits. He has done well.

She is fortified in this position by the sincere and extravagant gestures of affection which greet her on all sides. His colleagues claim they will miss him horribly, and they shower her with flowers and other tokens of esteem. The flat by the Thames is transformed into a conservatory in memory of Nathan Herz. Bouquets with mysterious messages arrive from unknown ladies, and Rosemary decides to greet these too with pride. (The Eagleburgers send a case of champagne: is this or is this not in poor taste?) Rosemary is invited to dinner by Baxter Coldstream, and they dine in the very restaurant where Nathan had consumed his last trotter. Baxter drunkenly implores her not to blame him, and tells her that he blames himself for not insisting on taking Nathan to Carlucci's.

And it is true that if Nathan had opted for common sense and an earlier night he would not have ended up in the river. What can he have been doing, down there at the water's edge? Can it have been a suicide attempt? This, to the relief of all, is finally ruled out. Nathan had nothing to commit suicide about, confirm his boss, his colleagues, his friends, his wife, his mother, his stockbrokers. Since Christmas, life had been looking good for Nathan. He had come up with an acceptably risque and imaginative plan for health insurance, he had braved the invoicing of the forgotten clients and been warmly forgiven, he had been given a clean bill at his last medical, and he had won five hundred quid on a tip on a horse at Lingfield. What more could a creative director in a rising advertising agency want? Had he known something about the market that n.o.body else knew? Had he had a secret grief?

Baxter, holding Rosemary's freckled hand over the Armagnac, and squeezing it until her widowed diamonds pinch, a.s.sures her that never had Nathan been in better spirits. They had had a cracking evening, a smashing evening. Nathan hadn't had a care in the world. They'd reminisced about their first meeting at Sharp MacMa.n.u.s all those years ago, and about the night they'd spent carousing after it with Nathan's old college pal, the night they'd ended up in Bow Street. And had Rosemary ever heard the story of the Combined Biscuit Christmas Party?

Rosemary, who has for years fastidiously avoided male tales of debaucherie and camaraderie, who has avoided many a company function, listens with new-found longing, with sympathy reborn. He had been quite a lad, her Nathan. She and he had had good times together too. Baxter is right, one must remember the good times. She sniffs, her nose turning pink with emotion, and returns the pressure of Baxter's fingers. She will miss Nathan. Somewhere beyond the comforting pleasures of this wake lies lasting loss.

But Rosemary's sorrow, ameliorated by recaptured love, will be as nothing to the sorrow and horror of Daniel and Patsy Palmer. Nathan Herz's death was one of happy ease in comparison with the violent death of Simon Palmer. How had his parents not seen the warning signals? Where had they been looking, as Simon descended into the pit? Will Paine could have told them, had once even tried to warn them, but he is not here. Emily had observed symptoms, but even the cool, the sensible Emily had not seen how far things had gone. She too had looked the other way. Simon's tutor (who happened, alas, for these crucial weeks to double as his personal tutor) has been too preoccupied with his own worries to pay Simon much attentionand anyway, all that loco parentis stuff had seemed to him old hat. If the idle young of the idle rich wanted to spend their time tripping, hallucinating, needling or ghetto-blasting, what was that to him? Half of them were schizoid anyway. Simon Palmer had almost certainly been schizoid. The only papers he'd even managed to turn in had been disorganized and demented. Hardly worth the marking.

Simon's unexpected body had to be identified by its fingerprints. He hadn't washed pleasantly with the friendly tides as Frieda Haxby and Nathan had done; he had been taken out by a lorry as he walked the wrong way along the hard shoulder of the slip-road leading on to the M3 at the exit that leads to Hartley Bessborough and on to the Old Farm. He had been obliterated, smashed, and run over repeatedly, like a fox or a badger, like a cat or a dog or a motorway bird. The lorry had not stopped; nor, it seemed, had some of the cars that followed it. It was a dark wet night with bad visibilitybut even so, even so. After the identification of the body, some reports filtered through from motorists who had seen a wild figure walking southwards on the wrong side of the dual-carriageway of the A34, waving its arms like a windmill and lunging occasionally at the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. A drunk, a tramp, a crazed traveller, all had a.s.sumed: all, including Judge Partington, who, his licence regained, had been driving himself to a dinner at his old college in Oxford. Greatly to his credit, Bill Partington had not suppressed this sighting, as he so easily might have done, but had reported it as soon as he realized the import of the ghastly apparition: red jersey, some kind of tattered-looking green jacket, dark gla.s.ses, fair hair, average height, unsteady gait, carrying a white plastic bag ... Partington was not a bad witness, though this was in itself little comfort to Patsy and Daniel Palmer.

There was, indeed, little comfort. All they were told, all they could tell themselves, is that he could not have known what had hit him.

Patsy will never recover from the impact of this blow. Mothers, it is said, do not. Daniel, being a man, appears to take the shock more calmly, but he has become even drier than he was before, and finds no solace save in his work. His smile now has the chill of winter frost. He has sustained a double loss: not only has he lost his only son, through what he himself chooses bitterly to describe as his own contributory negligence, but he has also lost his home, in which he had taken such a proper pride. For it is clear within weeks of Simon's death that the Palmers cannot continue to live at the Old Farm, unless they live in it as a prison. There is no way to leave the Old Farm without driving along the stretch of road that killed Simon. This they know they cannot do. So they put the house on the market, and wait. The market remains sluggish, as it has been for years, and property prices are low. They may have to wait for a long time. The pond silts up, the lawn is not mown, bindweed embraces the sundial, and ground elder ramps around the roots of the wistaria. Dock and nettles smother the vegetable garden, and greenfly swarm on the roses. Water drips unnoticed through the leak over the study window. The Aga burns still, but Patsy no longer troubles to cook. The Palmers think they will move east, perhaps to Suffolk, to a smaller house, somewhere without memories, without history.

Patsy's grief is compounded by her fear that Simon had been making his way home as a first and last plea for help. And he had not reached it. Well, a mother, even a bad mother, would think that, wouldn't she? She tells this fear to none save harmless, pallid Sonia Barfoot. Sonia accepts the confidence and offers no comfort. Sonia Barfoot is a connoisseur of pain. She accepts, she absorbs, she forgives.

Would it comfort Patsy Palmer to know that things have turned out better for Will Paine, her surrogate son? Will has fallen on his feet, as he puts it, in Sydney. He is apprenticed to a landscape gardener and he is learning the names of plants. He loves working in the open air. The sun suits him. He is healthier and stronger than he has ever been. He thanks Patsy Palmer for this transformation, and sometimes thinks of sending her a postcard. Without Patsy and Frieda, where would he be?

We may turn, now, to the D'Angers. They are slowly and painfully on the mend. Slowly, with the professional help of Lily McNab, Benjamin D'Anger rises from the depths, and begins to emerge from the decompression chamber she has constructed for him. David and Gogo watch and wait. Benjamin will never be as he was, omnipotent and brave. He will not take the whole globe on his thin shoulders. He will dive no more into the bottomless. But he will survive. Or so says Lily McNab.

Gogo finds herself spending more time with her widowed sister Rosemary, who now has time on her hands. They lunch in the hospital canteen, or in a cheap and crowded little Italian trattoria off Queen Square, or in a vegetarian Indian self-service bas.e.m.e.nt restaurant at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road. They talk about their children, their mother, their husbands. They become friends again. They speak of poor Patsy, poor Daniel, poor Simon, and of the admirable character of Patsy's little Emily, who has grown old before her time. They speak of their strange childhood in the old Mausoleum, and of the damage that it has done to them, and of the games they played in the attic. They speak of poor Aunt Everhilda, whom they had never known, and their poor little nameless half-sister, who had died in a gas oven. They speak, obsessively, at length, of their vanished father, so little mentioned for so long; so many children now are fatherless, but in their day they had been lonely in their special social role. They piece together their fears of the past and for the future, and each time they meet a new pattern emerges, a new seam is st.i.tched. One day they will make sense of their ancestry. Are they unique, are they freaks, are they throw-backs, are they pioneers of a new order? Frieda had left them with so many questions unanswered.

How wise they had been, they agree, to marry out, to alter the gene pool. Nathan is now enshrined in both their hearts as a hero, and Jonathan and Jess show every sign of inheriting his fine qualities. Rosemary, a reformed daughter-in-law, visits Nathan's mother weekly with the children, and learns to make chopped liver. She draws the line at gefilte fish, but she improvises an excellent method of turning herrings from the deli into her own version of chopped herring, with the aid of a few turns in the food-processor, some sour cream, an onion and a hard-boiled egg: she imparts the recipe to Mrs Herz. Mrs Herz is delighted with these new attentions. They don't quite make up for the loss of Nathan, but they certainly do help.

Rosemary puts the riverside apartment on the market, and then, as soon as a prospective buyer comes to look at it, takes if off again. She has decided to stay where she is, for with Nathan's life insurance polici es and his company pension she can well afford it. And she has grown fond of the river. It keeps Nathan's memory alive. She watches the tides at night, as he once watched them, and she feels no ill-will. The river keeps her company. And the neighbourhood, despite the recession, is improvingone day the new gallery will be built, one day the new theatre will be finished. Already a smart new restaurant has opened on the ground floor of the Ceylon Quay: it serves oysters and lobsters, sea ba.s.s and seaweed, and its shop sells dark sweet balsamic vinegars and an olive oil of the month. How Nathan would have loved it, Rosemary sometimes sighs.

Rosemary Herz is to be seen at low tide, standing on the slipway, gazing at the proud painted cast-iron pylons of the London, Chatham & Dover Railway, at the huge stained green and white stone piers of the bridge, at the twelve strange red granite columns that march across the water, at the pebbles and pots and pans and shoe soles of the sh.o.r.e, at th' gulls and cormorants, at the driftwood barges. Invicta, claims the bridge, with its heraldic horse and its heraldic lion.

Unvanquished too, in their way, are Gogo and David. Gogo's marriage adventure had been more daring than Rosemary's, and it has weathered storms, but is now in clear water. The relationship of Gogo Palmsr and David D'Anger has ever been marked by courtesy and respect; through these dull virtues they have stayed afloat.

David D'Anger prospers. He is now the elected Member for Middleton, and his party is the party of government. Its majority is slim, but it will serve. David is pleased to have been elected, and by a very respectable margin, for the alternative would have been most unpleasant, but it must be said that he is increasingly disillusioned with party politics and indeed with his own party. It seems to have moved far from where it had stood when David, as an ardent student, had first joined it; it is now, as every journalist says five times a week, almost indistinguishable from the opposition. The Just Society recedes over the h orizon, in a haze of talk and compromise and phrase-making. Egalitarianism and redistribution are words to avoid, concepts to deplore. Perhaps, David wonders, he has been wrong all along? Perhaps he should retreat to the cloister of theory, and accept the new Chair of Sociology at Northam University? (It has been offered to him.) He cannot quit yet: he must serve his time like a man. And anyway, it is all very fascinating. The customs of the House, its intrigu es, its gossip, its allianceswho would have thought he would ever make it to here? But he finds the composition and lineaments of his const.i.tuency of even greater interest than the House. It is a vast living social research project all his own, attending his examination. He resolves to be a good const.i.tuency man, to look after his flock like a good shepherd, to chart its structure like a good sociologist. Even if he can't change much, at least he can record it properly. He will collect statistics that have never been collected before. You can't push a b.u.t.ton and wake up in the new world. But you can pay close attention to the bit that you inhabit. And he has been a very lucky man. He has won Middleton, and he will work for it, and it will work for him. He has been given a licence to nose about in its backstreets, its highstreets, its outlying dormitory villages, its pubs and its nursery schools.

He resolves to give up his media persona and his TV slots, for: he is finding it increasingly difficult, now he is no longer in opposition, to toe the party line. He does not want to speak out and be dismissed as an ignorant college boy, hijacked by the corner-boys of the hard left. Better to keep his mouth shut, to bide his time. Academe will always take him back.

News of David D'Anger's change of tack reaches the Leader, who accosts David casually one day in a corridor of power and asks if it's true that David has been turning down TV opportunities and discontinued his contract with Race to 2000. Yes, says David. That's political suicide, says the Leader, smiling his boyish smile. For me or for the party? inquires David. For you, of course, says the Leader, still smiling.

The Leader is said to be telegenic, but he is not nearly as good-looking as David D'Anger, and he does not have the incalculable positional advantage of being a man of colour.

David is summoned to a more formal meeting, at which he agrees to accept appearances on named programmes on agreed topics. He reserves his right to refuse Any Questions, Question Time, or anything else that resembles a quiz show. He insists that his manner on such programmes would be in the long run counter-productivewhether for himself or the party, he does not say, and they do not at that point think to ask. But his reply does lead his leaders to wonder what David D'Anger's view of the long run might be. Is he playing a deep game? What are his political ambitions? n.o.body with the gift of the gab like David D'Anger ever refuses to appear on TV. Backbenchers queue up to get themselves on radio phone-ins. David D'Anger is a dangerous man, a man to watch. Who does he think he is?

So David's reputation grows, and, as he retreats, he advances.

Plans for the film of Queen Christina also advance, and Benjamin D'Anger's fortune augments. It will not be as vast as his parents had at one point feared and hoped, for Frieda, it is discovered, had not invested hundreds and thousands of pounds in high-interest bank accounts, stocks, shares and building societies: the 34,000 in her current account had represented a fair proportion of her liquid a.s.sets. The money she scattered so violently upon Will Paine is gone for ever, which is just as well, as it appears to have come from an illegal American bank account on which much tax would have been and indeed may yet be owing. (The position is expensively unclear.) At the time of the sale of the Mausoleum she had already divested herself of various random sums, mainly to old-fashioned, global, respectable charities such as Oxfam and Amnesty International. There were one or two surprisesshe had, two years before the sale, and therefore at the height of her dubious relationship with Cedric Summerson, bought 5,000 worth of shares in Grisener International, a conglomerate which owned reputable brand names in the processed food business, and less reputable subsidiaries, including the infamous Hot Snax, manufacturers of Butler's b.u.mperburgers. These shares, which she had kept, had done spectacularly well, and would bring in a tidy sum for young Benjamin. Less profitable had been her stake in the Severn Barrage, but even here she had not lost much.

The bulk of her wealth lies, putatively, in the value of her copyrights, now extended by European law for seventy years from her death. Benjamin's grandchildren may live to enjoy their profits, and it seems that profits there will be, at least for the next decade. The old cla.s.sics never go out of print, and continue to appear in several languages. Queen Christina has been given a new lease of life, and may become, who knows, a box office hit, a cult text: there are plans for a paperback tie-in. Of course, the whole enterprise may be a flop, as the hardback had been, but at least it can't lose money, or not for the Haxby estate. Movies are a gamble, literature is a lottery. Who can tell what time will bring?

Ashcombe, the trustees agree, is a liability rather than an a.s.set. Are they therefore ent.i.tled to dispose of it at a loss? And how much in law and in ethics are they obliged to consult young Benjamin?

It is clearly in young Benjamin's financial interest to sell Ashcombe and keep the Hot Snax shares. But is it in his moral interest?

The trustees discuss this at length, for they do not, it seems, see eye to eye. David D'Anger is in favour of consulting Benjamin, or would have been had Benjamin's mental state been less precarious, whereas Lord Ogden of Grotius takes the view that it is his prime duty to protect the boy's legacy and Frieda's investments. In the matter of Hot Snax, Lord Ogden prevails. David is secretly relieved: n.o.body can blame him for not standing up to a man of Ogden's weight, and even David hesitates to a.s.sert his right to devalue his own son's money. Ogden is famed for his shrewd legal and financial brain, and Frieda's intentions in appointing him had been clear enough. David submits with a good grace, and with a good grace Ogden concedes on the lesser matter of Ashcombe. If David wants to involve the boy in any decisions regarding the house, of course he may.

David and Gogo think it may be good for Benjamin to apply his mind to Ashcombe. They consult Lily McNab on this: she is professionally reluctant to offer anything as clear as an opinion, but she does not disagree.

So we may prepare to take leave of Benjamin D'Anger, rich, clever, wise and sad, as he contemplates the prospects of his ruin by the sea. Twice he revisits it, once with his parents in the spring, and again with his cousin Emily in the late summer. Many a time has Emily rehea.r.s.ed to him the tale of the hind's flight, and now she tells it once more, as she drives him round the thrilling hairpin bend of Porlock Hill. Benjie listens, absorbed, as he makes his way with much relish through a bag of Maltesers.

A year has pa.s.sed since Benjamin paid his first and last visit to his grandmother at Ashcombe. So much has happened since then, reflect he and Emily in mutual silence, as the story of the hunt ends and the car gains the summit and the road flattens and unwinds. Deaths, illnesses, elections. Emily has elected not to go to university this autumn after all; she has given up her place at Newcastle, where she had been accepted to study archaeology, and has chosen instead to take a short course in something called Media Studies in a rechristened polytechnic in Glamorgan. Daniel and Patsy were not pleased by this change of plan, but they are too demoralized as parents even to think of arguing with her. She gave them as her reason that she was 'sick of the past', but her real reason is not obvious. (Benjie guesses it; they have an appointment with Bristol Jim the photographer on the way home.) Benjamin thinks not about the past, but about the future, as he watches the moor for signs of deer or ponies. The future no longer oppresses him with its black pot lid, its cavern roof of horror, but the way forward and out and up to the light and air is by no means clear to him. He is well aware that Lily McNab has been suggesting to him, over the past few months, that he is not as special, nor as responsible, nor as predestined as he had thought himself to be. He is not Benjamin, nor Emmanuel, nor Beltenebros. He can choose to be ordinary. n.o.body will blame him if he is not the first and the best. He has pretended to go along with her on this, and he has made the same pretence to his parents. But deep in himself he still believes he has a special destiny, and that if he does not find it he will have greatly failed.

A special destiny, but what shall it be? As squire of Ashcombe, or as saviour of Guyana? There are too many choices.

His father seems to have become bored by Guyana. He is sunk in the parish pump politics of a not very interesting area of West Yorkshire, or so it sometimes seems. He has abandoned Demerara. (Has Lily McNab, at second hand, been in some way responsible for this? If so, David is not aware of it.) Saul Sinnamary urges Benjamin to return to Guyana, as he himself frequently does, but who wants to spend his one and only life on aeroplanes, in transit, a perpetual tourist, belonging neither to one place nor another? Lily McNab seems to believe Benjamin should abandon dreams of returning, and settle, as she has done, in England, and accept that for better or worse he is British. Angels tempt Benjamin from all sides, and he does not know which are the good ones, which the bad. He must not listen to the wrong voices, but which are they?

Benjamin D'Anger stares at the moving moor, and puts another Malteser into his mouth. He sucks it, luxuriously, letting the soft milk chocolate coating melt, and then feeling the honeycomb within collapse and crush against his tongue. It is wicked and delicious. It will rot his teeth.

Benjamin and Emily have an appointment to meet the land agent from Taunton at Ashcombe, but when they arrive there is no sign of him. It is a warm and sunny afternoon, so they open the doors and windows for an airing, then wander out on to the lawn. The garden is better kept now than it had been in Frieda's day, for a man comes once a week from Oare to cut the gra.s.s, trim the hedges, round up the weeds, poison the creepers. The house too has been tidied: the worst of the furniture has been sent to auction, Frieda's knicknacks have been confined to a tall corner cupboard, and her paintings brought back to London. (They, like Hot Snax, are worth a surprising amount, though unfortunately the Leland was ruined when the hind put her foot through the canvas. n.o.body has yet dared to tell the painter of the strange fate of his work, though when, at last, Benjamin comes to confess, he will claim to be strangely flattered. Painters are, luckily, quite mad. Turner used one of his own favourite piecesa view of Blythe sandsas a cat flap.) Emily and Benjamin lean on the parapet between the urns and gaze down at the flat and shining water. The ivy has been spray-gunned from the urns, and they have been planted with scarlet geraniums.

'What do you think, Em?' asks Benjie. 'Do you think there's a curse on it? Do you think Frieda put a curse on it?'

'It doesn't feel like it, at the moment,' says Emily, sniffing the salt on the air, listening to the raucous yelping cry of a gull, to the soft distant rattle of pebbles.

'What should I do with it, Em?' asks Benjie.

She puts her arm around him, as they lean together against the warm lichen-spotted stones of the wall.

'A hotel?' she suggests. 'A rest home for old poets? A conference centre? What do David and Gogo say?'

'You know David and Gogo. They don't say anything. They want me to say.'

'Do they want you to get rid of it?'

'I don't know. I'm not sure if they know.'

'It doesn't seem a sad place, to me,' says Emily. 'Despite everything. I think Frieda was happy here, in her own way.'

'Saul says I can turn it into a bird sanctuary. He's got a thing about bird sanctuaries, ever since he started reading up the life of this Yorkshire explorer called Waterton, who owned acres of Guyana and married a Guyanese princess and came home and turned his estate into a bird park. Saul's making a TV programme about him. He says we're probably all related. Waterton, and the princess, and the Sinnamarys, and the D'Angers.'

'Well, so what?' says Emily. The ethnic bit loses her.

'I don't see the point in turning this into a bird sanctuary,' says Benjie. 'It's a bird sanctuary already. Look.'

They watch a large black birdrook, crow, jackdaw?as it perches in the ash tree. It struts, puffs itself out, settles, hunches up its shoulders, squawks. Various unseen small birds answer chippily. The black one hunches again, squawks again. It is sinister, ridiculous. A robin hops out of a bush and comes to perch on the urn near Benjie's right ear. A blue t.i.t of preternaturally vivid and primal blue and yellow and cream swings provocatively from a twig. A wren scuttles noisily in the undergrowth. These birds are indifferent to people. They think they own the place. They are brazen.

The water shimmers, and a great ruffle of breeze sweeps over it, turning the pale-blue silver to slate and back again. It is irresistible. They have to go down. They abandon the land agent, and answer the call of the sea. They are ill-shod for the expedition, but who cares? They run down the lower lawn, and out of the wooden gate at the lowest end of the garden, and into the steep lane that descends to the beach. They scramble down, dislodging stones as they go,past the high banks studded with the flat green discs of pennywort, straggled with the long leggy green stalks and white stars of st.i.tchwort, pierced by the pale green cowls of arum lilies. They jump down the log-edged steps, which somebody has repaired since Frieda's day, and on to the shingle. A kingfisher hovers, flirts its wings, and darts away from their approach in a flash of pink and emerald-blue.

They begin to pick their way westwards, towards the grey point, over pebbles, over rocks, across patches of mud, across pools, across the living crunch of limpet and barnacle. Benjie's trainers serve well enough, though they are soon soaked through, but Emily's slither and slip, and from time to time she has to take them off to get a grip. Soon her feet are bleeding, but she has no wish to turn back. They reach the point, and there is another point, and beyond it another, headland after headland, reaching on to the open Atlantic. On they go, pausing from time to time to examine a wondera striped stone, a sh.e.l.l, a plastic bottle, a viscous amber suckered stump of oarweed, a cork, an ancient lobster-pot. They come across a whole tree trunk, lying above the waterline, of a bright rusted orange, soaked to a chewed fibre, and a great root, four feet across, k.n.o.bbled and whiskered like a giant celeriac which clings still to the rocks it grew amongst. They find a solitary, shipwrecked Brussels sprout, and a pierced metal barbecue tin. They clamber across sloping diagonal slabs of sliced violet, across rounded fissured boulders of hard blue-green, across beds of burnt sienna that have been scarred by satanic knives. They look up at the wooded crags above them, and listen to the drip of waterfalls. They hear the roar and grind of water rushing down a cleft in the cliff, and come across a miraclea river which disappears steeply into the shingle, then bubbles up with renewed force and turmoil three yards further down the slope to the sh.o.r.e. They round the second point, but still they cannot turn back, for there, ahead of them, tucked under the hill, is the old kiln, and above it is the third point of Hindspring. So on they go, and onwards, to the next point and the next. They are young, and on they g- The land agent, when he arrives, may find himself waiting for some time.


Frieda Haxby Palmer stretches, yawns, and adjusts the brim of her panama hat. She takes a sip of her gin and tonic. The cooling wind lifts her hair slightly, and the smell of the sea is sharp. She is utterly content. She is in heaven.

'Well, I must say,' she says, as she reaches for her pocket binoculars to scan the archipelago. 'I think this is absolutely splendid. Don't you?'

Nathan agrees. He seems to be drinking a more than acceptable Gewurztraminer, a wine which he might have found a little sweet in his previous incarnation, but here it seems just the ticket.

Belle, the dear innocent, is enjoying a gla.s.s of applejuiceit is of the purest Pearmain, she a.s.sures them.

All three of them are enchanted by their fate. This is so very much pleasanter than anything they had ever thought of. They are not quite sure how it has come abouthave they done anything very special, to be so lucky as to find themselves sailing on a fine crimson-sailed three-masted schooner across a sunlit sea to what can only be the Isle of the Blessed? Or does everybody come here in good time? Better not to question too closely. Better just to sit here, in these comfortable blue-and-yellow-striped deckchairs, and accept with grat.i.tude whatever the white-robed crew may bring. For this is the voyage to end all voyages. And it is free.

Question they may not, but they may converse. They have established that all had died by water, and now they sail upon the water. A myriad of little rainbows sparkle in their wake, and the rise and fall and swell of the sea soothes them like babes unborn. How wonderful it is to be dead, and without fear! Though, as they discuss their various endings, they discover that none of them had died in fear. Not even Belle.

Frieda, as the senior citizen of the party, tells her story first. She describes her delightful residence at Ashcombe, and the many agreeable rambles surrounding it. She tells them of her mushroom expeditions with Will Paine, and their suppers of fungus stew, it was a fungus that undid me,' she says, with high good humour. 'I was walking along the coast path one evening, just beyond Hindspring Point, when I saw beneath me the orange winking of a patch of chanterelles. It was a very steep patch of moss and bracken and old tree rootsthere'd been a bit of a landslip a couple of years ago, I was toldand a sheer drop beyond thatso I knew it was very very stupid of me to try to scramble down. But I just couldn't resist. I had to have them. And of course, like a b.l.o.o.d.y fool, I lost my footing, slipped, and fell. And that was it. I must say, to do myself justice, I've climbed down a lot worse bits of scree in my time. You should have seen Sweden! But I suppose I am getting on a bit. Anyway, that's what happened. And my last thoughts were, Frieda Haxby, you're a b.l.o.o.d.y fool. That's all I remember. Telling myself I was a b.l.o.o.d.y fool. I didn't feel a thing.'

And she laughs, and knocks back what is left of her gin and tonic.

Belle is next to speak. Her tale, which had so haunted Nathan Herz, is short, like her life, but heard by the ears of eternity it is not sad. For here is Belle, unblemished, to speak of it. 'It was party time,' she says, smiling. 'I was with my friends. We'd been drinking a bit, I suppose, and some of us were a bit highyou know what it's like. It was a great evening. You know what I mean. August, you know. A great night. We were all having a good time. And thenwham. Not a big crunch, but wham. And I remember thinking, thank G.o.d Marcia couldn't come. She had a rotten cold, poor Marcia. I suppose something hit me on the head. I can't remember a thing.'

She pauses, sips her juice.

'A short life and a merry one,' she says. 'That's what I had. What more can you ask?'

'You never asked for much,' says Nathan, fondly. So Belle remembered nothing of the looming dredger, the fierce tide flowing fast through the piles of the bridge, the water bobbing with cans and bottles, the women in their summer dresses, the clinging to belts and buoys and driftwood and plastic chairs? All this was gone as though it had never been, in divine amnesty, and Belle's hand was miraculously restored. 'You never asked for much,' repeats Nathan, with indulgent admiration. 'In fact, if you ask me, you were seriously underpaid. People exploited you. You should have asked for a rise.'

'Oh, get along with you,' says Belle. 'Anyway, I wasn't talking about money. Men are always talking about money. There are more things to life and death than money.'

'Still,' says Nathan. 'I think you should have had a better innings. It wasn't fair.'

'Innings, outings,' says Belle. 'It's all the same to me.'

Nathan tells her that she is blessed with a happy temperament. Belle a.s.sures him that his temperament is pretty good too and that he'd always been, well, popular in the office. Frieda listens to the young things with approval and nods like an old sage who has foreseen it all.

Nathan describes his own adventure next. He is still at a loss as to how to explain his actions. He can remember quite clearly his win at Lingfield (the horse had been called Easy and Over) and his dinner in Greek Street. He can recall his happy maudlin chat with Baxter Coldstream, his mellow yet slightly troubled sensations as the cab bowled over the bridge. He remembers walking down to the river, and down the steps, and down the slipway, and standing in the river in his shoes. 'I must have been p.i.s.sed out of my mind,' he says, shaking his head. 'I keep trying to tot up how much we'd hadit can't have been all that much, can it? But I remember thinking, if I walk down into the water now, it will all be all right. So I did. And it was. And here I am. I must have had a heart attack, I suppose. Is that what they said?'

But as the other two had predeceased him, they cannot enlighten him on this matter. Instead, they turn their attentions to a very agreeable lunch which has materialised on deck. If this is death, they think rather well of it. They may be an oddly a.s.sorted little trio, but they seem to have plenty to talk about as they enjoy their unpretentious salmon mayonnaise. They discuss, for example, the sceneryNathan is of the view that they are somewhere in the Med, whereas Frieda opts for the Swedish archipelago in good weather. Belle is not into the naming of places, but she nevertheless volunteers the Canaries. Not that she'd been there, but she'd seen the brochures. It doesn't really matter where they are, does it, for it is all quite heavenly, says Belle.

The table is cleared, and coffee arrives, and the ship sails on.

'Well,' says Frieda, wiping her mouth and fingers vigorously on a large sky-blue napkin. 'That was delicious.'

She turns to Nathan, with a smile of replete satisfaction, of happy antic.i.p.ation.

'Now, Nathan,' she invites, 'you must tell me how young Benjie enjoyed his nice surprise. Such a remarkable boy. How's he getting on? Were they all astonished, or had they guessed?'

Nathan is for a moment at a loss. Is there ignorance in heaven? Yes, he can see there is. He coughs, mutters, prevaricates.

'Well, there's been a few setbacks,' he explains, i'm sure it will all work out for the best, but when I left I'm afraid there were a few problems. Benjie hasn't been very well.'

'What do you mean, not very well? Been sick has he?' asks Frieda, with the robust contempt of the immortal. But as Nathan begins to mumble out an account of Benjie's depression, his fever, his suicide attempt, her manner softens. She listens with what is almost a parody of concern.

'And you think all that's just because he came into a bit of money?' she asks, appearing to be sincerely bewildered.

Nathan nods. He may not be a hundred per cent convinced by some psychological interpretations, but this one seems to him to be pretty obvious.

'Well, blow me,' says Frieda. 'Who'd have thought it? I meant to cheer him up, give him something to play with. What I'd have given for a bit of backing at his age!'

Nathan feels free to point out that she had done well enough without any backing. And goes on to suggest that the unexpressed envy of the rest of the family had not been very good for Benjamin.

Frieda laughs, but not very happily.

'Well,' she says, quite testily, 'I'm very sorry. I didn't mean any harm. Just a bit of fun. Perhaps I should have left it to David after all.'

'That might have been even worse,' says Nathan.

Frieda rallies, grows indignant. 'What do you mean, worse?' I suppose you mean the rest of you would have liked that even less, do you? Well, I don't suppose it was very well intended. To tell you the truth, I got sick and tired of hearing Mr Sugar-wouldn't- melt-in-his-mouth-D'Anger go on and on about social justice, as though you could get it by waving a wand. The Just Society! Let him have a try, I said to myself. Let's see if the n.o.ble D'Anger presses the b.l.o.o.d.y b.u.t.ton. But then I thought better of it. Of course he wouldn't. Who would? So I thought I'd experiment with Benjie. Give myself a generation to play with. I wonder what happened to those Grisewood shares. Did they hang on to them?'

But Nathan knows nothing of Grisewood, and cannot enlighten her.

'Oh well,' says Frieda, after a few moments of sulky silence. 'So I got it all wrong. I just wanted to shake things up a bit, that's all. I mean, everything happened too slowly, back there.'

'I'm sure n.o.body blames you,' says Belle the peacemaker. 'I'm sure it will all work out for the best.'

'You know nothing about it, young woman,' says Frieda, who is mortified by the revelation of her own obtuseness. Ha? she handed on a poisoned chalice to young Benjamin? Has she favoured and undone him, as Gladys had favoured and undone Everhilda? How stupid can she have been?

'Then tell me about it,' says Belle, equably. 'Tell me about this Just Society. Whose idea was that?'

'It's a long story,' says Frieda.

'Well,' says Belle, putting her head back and shutting her eyes in the warm sun, and feeling the pleasant heat beat on her eyelids, 'we don't seem to be in much of a hurry.'

In heaven there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage;, nor shares nor the buying nor selling of shares. But there seems to be food, and there is no reason, reflects Nathan, why there should not be conversation. As Frieda remains silent, Nathan prompts her.

'You could tell Belle,' he says, 'about the Veil of Ignorance. That's where it all begins. I'm never quite sure if I got to the bottom of it. Now's my chance.'

And so they sail on across the sparkling ocean, in happy seminar, towards the Isles of the Unimagined, until kingdom come. Maybe one of them will get it right this time.

'Jump for it!' cries Emily Palmer, as the tide comes in. And Benjamin D'Anger jumps.

January 1996.

Porlock Weir.


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