This little fable, being an unashamed fairy tale in the classical mould, is brazenly larger than life, and the love story which it tells is by no means of the usual kind. Through it there also runs a vein of Greek poetry. Please do not let that put you off, because Greek poetry is not as intimidating as you may think. The best of it can get you in the guts.
The Greek Anthology, a collection of 4,500 short poems written over two millennia from the seventh century BC to the fourteenth AD, is an anthology in the normal sense. But the word means literally a collection of flowers, as from a garden; and the Greek Anthology is also a garden. Among its unweeded acres of admittedly humdrum doggerel there blossom many flowers, some of pungent wit, some of exquisite beauty. A number — not, I hope, too many — are quoted here in translation.
The difficulty is that the originals are often so delicate, or so punchy, that they defy neat rendering in English, and most translations, while supplying a meaning of a sort, are wretched substitutes. For the benefit, therefore, of those with any poetry in their soul, I would like to get across something of the feel and the rhythm of the Greek. But because few these days can read the script, let alone understand the language, this is easier said than done. A specialist computer programme is needed to display full-blown classical Greek, and even modern Greek script with minimal accents will be beyond most people’s reach.
So, by default, I have transliterated the originals, a process which raises minor problems of its own (ē and ō indicate long vowels, e and o short). If you are not interested, simply skip them. But if you read them aloud, you may get some idea of the reality. The exact pronunciation is much less important than the metre, which in all our examples is elegiac couplets, as in the English parody once known to many a schoolboy:
Down in a deep dark dell sat an old cow munching a bean-stalk.
Out of her mouth came forth yesterday’s dinner and tea.
The story is set in England in the 1960s, when plenty of pupils at public and grammar schools still learnt Greek, and a few came to love it. In this respect, if in few others, both of the protagonists reflect myself — the precocious young Mihangel who in his early teens was already a devotee of the Anthology, and the current creaky version who, with three quarters of a century on the clock, remains a devotee to this day.
The 1960s was also a crucial decade in the gay history of England. To be homosexual was dangerous. Not a single public figure was out. But attitudes were beginning to change. Good gay literature was gradually gaining acceptance. On this side of the pond, where Gore Vidal and James Baldwin were almost unknown, the incomparable Mary Renault had already led the way with her groundbreaking novels The Charioteer (which nobody in America dared publish for another six years) and The Last of the Wine. And while the battle for gay equality is still not wholly won today, its first resounding if partial victory was the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, just as its latest is the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, passed forty-six years later on 17 July 2013.
Non-Britons, on reading the details of how both of these became law, may well be perplexed by our parliamentary system. But then we Britons often are too.
My thanks to Alan, Ben, Cole, Hilary, Jerry, Paul and above all Pryderi for their comments, and to Jonathan for reminding me of my youth.
25 July 2013
The old man lowered himself onto a box tomb and laid down his stick. As he recovered his breath he looked around, hoping to dispel the mist of melancholy that today lay upon him. It was years since he had set foot in the Ruston Municipal Cemetery, and he found it pleasant. The stone was nicely warm from the early July sun, leafy shrubs offered shade, birds chirruped in the branches, homely daisies and dandelions spangled the grass. And it was closer to home than the park, which would anyway be raucous with infants screeching at their mothers and Lambrettas droning illegally along the footpaths. The cemetery, being empty of living humanity, was almost — he chuckled wryly — as quiet as the grave, and he had no objection to the reminders of mortality that clustered forest-like around him.
He read the nearest inscription, the one almost beneath his backside. Robert Beervault, it said, who fell asleep on 14 November 1880, aged 47, beloved husband of Lucy. He wondered how so singular a surname had arisen. His own, mercifully, was more mundane, even if he would not have chosen his first name for himself. Quentin Fowler, his inscription would one day read, who fell asleep … at some unforeseeable date in 1960 or thereafter. Aged … 70 or upwards. Beloved husband of … nobody. Which reminded him of that unhappy epitaph in the Anthology:
Hexēkontoutēs Dionusios enthade keimai,
Tarseus, mē gēmas; aithe de mēd’ ho patēr.
Here I lie, Dionysius of Tarsus, sixty years old, not married. I wish my father had not been either.
While he did not regret his birth or his failure to marry, he did wish he had had a companion beside him down the years, someone like-minded to live with and to love. Despite his friends, and they were many, he had long been conscious of an inner loneliness. The thought did nothing to ease his melancholy. Yet a tombstone, he supposed, was a not inappropriate perch, given that his life now lay behind him. No, he corrected himself: not his life, but his formal professional life. He belonged, in that sense, to the past. He had marked his final exam papers, chaired his final committees, cleared his office, and bidden farewell to his colleagues in the department. All that remained was graduation day at the end of the month, which he would attend to applaud his final batch of students as they received their degrees. With that sole exception, his life, or whatever might be left of it, was his own, to lead exactly as he pleased.
Hitherto, at least the outline of his routine had always been dictated by others. As infant, schoolboy, undergraduate, graduate, soldier, hospital patient, schoolteacher, lecturer and finally professor at Ruston University, he had done what was expected of him. When — and only when — that first duty was under his belt had he done whatever else he thought he ought to do and, as far as time allowed, whatever else he wanted. The war and the hospital apart, he had enjoyed it all. But now, for the first time in his life, nothing was expected of him. He was wholly his own master.
Because an academic never fully retires, there was no shortage of things to do. Reading, for which time had never been enough. Writing, with umpteen projects piled up and awaiting attention. And travel. He had visited most of the classical sites, some of them many times, always under his own steam. But that steam had now run out. His mobility was dwindling by the month; which prompted him to shift his bad leg into a more comfortable position. His colleagues, however, in throwing his retirement party, had presented him with an exceptionally generous cheque which, they insisted, was to be spent on a Mediterranean cruise of his own choosing.
“Take care you don’t turn into a fossil, Quentin,” they had said. “You’ve still plenty to look forward to. Get out. Enjoy life.”
He would certainly enjoy a Hellenic cruise. Given his physical state, it was the ideal way to travel, with accommodation and food and transport all provided, and visits laid on to remote places totally inaccessible to a lame and breathless old man who was no longer able to do things under his own steam.
Old man? Well … yes and no. The prescribed three score years and ten hardly counted, these days, as genuinely old. But he knew he was old in body. Looking after himself was already tiresome. At some point in the foreseeable future he would no longer be independent, and the prospect of an old folks’ home was detestable. More important still, what was going to happen inside his head?
Reading and writing and travel were all very well. But there was one ingredient of his past that he was going to miss dreadfully — the ingredient which, all the way down the years, he had enjoyed above everything else. He would no longer be in touch with youth, whether schoolboys or undergraduates. His body might have slunk towards decrepitude, but it was his students who had kept him young at heart. There was every reason to think that they — or most of them — had appreciated him. Beyond all doubt he had appreciated them. But now he had students no more.
At this point in his ponderings he realised that he was no longer alone. Sitting on a similar tombstone thirty yards away was a boy. He was wearing the dark blue blazer and striped tie of Aveling College, an independent day school nearby, and he was engrossed in a book. It was a small but chunky book in an olive-green binding with a gold monogram on the front cover. Having taught classics for well-nigh half a century, Quentin could not fail to recognise, even at that distance, a volume of the Loeb Classical Library. There were four or five hundred in print, the Greek works bound in green, the Latin in red, text and translation on facing pages, not exactly scholarly editions but a reliable and much-loved starting point for the novice and the amateur.
He was surprised. The boy would hardly be doing his homework in the cemetery — surely he would leave that until he reached home. And he looked as if he was about twelve, which seemed very young. Few of that age read Greek for pleasure. That might with luck come later, but for the first few years of learning the language most boys regarded it as a chore. And while Aveling College was of good academic repute, its current classics teacher was a far from inspiring character. Quentin had no high opinion of George Burrell, who had once been a student of his own; and one of the less enjoyable students for the simple reason that his mind, though clever, was pedantic and devoid of any noticeable glimmer of literary or historical insight. Yet here was a young pupil of Burrell’s apparently reading Greek for pleasure. He felt a glow of approval for the lad, and wondered which Loeb volume it was.
Then there was an interruption. A trio of uniformed youths appeared, boisterous, ties loosened, collars undone, clearly on their way home. As they passed the solitary boy they taunted him.
“Tuxford! Might have guessed! Swotting away as usual! Why can’t you do something more groovy? Silly little twat!”
The boy did not rise to the bait, although he seemed to blush, and as soon as they were out of sight he stowed the book in his bag, stood up, and walked on. He was small for twelve, and he plodded as if a heavy burden rested on his shoulders. When almost abreast of the old man he cast him a casual and weary glance.
Quentin took it as an opportunity. “Nice to see someone reading Greek!” he said.
His boldness surprised himself. There was no harm in a teacher passing the time of day with one of his own pupils. But, in the current suspicious climate, to chat up an unknown boy was open to misinterpretation.
The boy too was surprised. He stopped in his tracks to look Quentin in the eye.
“But how did you know it was Greek?” he asked.
His voice sounded as if it was in the awkward and uncompleted throes of breaking.
“Can’t mistake a Loeb.” The old man pointed at the school bag. “Which one is it?”
The boy pulled out the book and shyly displayed the spine. Quentin’s surprise turned to astonishment. He had expected something like Herodotus or Xenophon, whose tales could be quite exciting. But Volume 5 of the Greek Anthology was the last thing he had envisaged, even though it had just been in his mind.
“Bless my soul! And are you enjoying it?”
“Oh yes!” The boy showed no reluctance to talk. “Well, some of it. There are whole chunks that are boring, and I do skip a lot. But some of the poems are clever. And the best ones are beautiful.”
Quentin’s approval deepened.
“The flowers among the weeds. I couldn’t agree more. But there aren’t many of your age who’re fans of Greek, let alone of Greek epigrams.”
“I suppose not. Pretty well all the other boys at school are mad on film stars, or football teams, or train spotting. Like that lot.” The boy nodded to where the trio had disappeared. “They think I’m strange.” He smiled ruefully. “Perhaps I am.”
“I wouldn’t say strange. Unusual, yes, which isn’t the same thing at all. What got you into the Anthology?”
“Well, we started Greek nearly three years ago. And once I began to be able to read it by myself, it sort of gripped me.” He looked up at the sky in search of words. “I think it’s partly the language. The sound. And the rhythm. Hexameters, elegiacs, iambics. And partly what it says. The ideas. They’re so neat, or they can be. So … snappy. I like Latin too, specially poetry, but I like Greek more. I … well … I feel more Greek than Roman.”
It spoke to the old man’s heart. He too was infected by that spontaneous sense of identity. It was precisely how he had been smitten when he was young, though not as young as this.
“The same with me. I couldn’t put it better myself. But was it Mr Burrell who put you on to the Anthology?”
“Oh heavens no! Not him! I just came across it in the school library. Do you know Mr Burrell, then?”
Quentin chuckled. “Indeed I do. I taught him as an undergraduate. How do you find him as a teacher?”
The boy hesitated for so long that the old man supplied the answer himself, disloyal though it might be to a former student.
“Never mind. No need to hunt for something tactful to say. I take the point.” He chuckled again. “Would I be right in guessing that he doesn’t encourage you to think for yourself, or to enjoy what you read? That he’s a stickler for all the tedious stuff like the future passive participle of verbs in -mi, and enclitics, and genders?”
The boy actually grinned, nodded vigorously, and without apparent effort he recited:
“Grammatikou thugatēr eteken philotēti migeisa
Paidion arsenikon, thēluon, oudeteron.”
It was at this point that Quentin fell in love. Although it wore a worrying veil of fatigue, the guileless young face under the straight fair hair was very beautiful. But it was not in the usual sense that he fell in love. He could easily have done so long ago, back in the days when he was in full working order, but not now. What he did fall in love with was the boy’s mind.
This stripling had quoted, from memory, a couplet by Palladas, who was a poet so obscure that few professional classicists, off the cuff, would readily pin him down. What was more, as a commentary on Burrell’s pedantic approach to teaching Greek, it was so apposite that it would have sparkled on the lips of a professor. For it said, in the racy translation he had himself concocted in his youth:
The schoolmaster’s daughter got screwed by a suitor.
The baby was masculine, feminine, neuter.
Quentin laughed in sheer delight. This boy was surely one in a million. He had imagination and insight and wit, in a combination so rare for his age that never once in his long career had he met it personally.
The boy, delighting in the delight, laughed with him and sat down on the tombstone, laying the Loeb beside him. He seemed not only willing but positively glad to talk. Was it because he was naturally friendly? Or innocently unaware that overtures from strange and possibly dirty old men were potentially dangerous? Or simply in dire need of sympathetic company? These were questions that demanded answers before very long.
“Don’t ever dream,” Quentin warned, “of quoting that to Mr Burrell. Does he even know you’re reading the Anthology?”
“I told him. But he didn’t seem to approve.”
“No, he wouldn’t. Still less would he approve of his pupils wasting their time — as he would see it — on memorising such trivia.
“How many of the poems have you learnt by heart?”
“Oh, maybe ten. Most of them by Palladas.”
“Ah yes. Grumpy old blighter, wasn’t he? Or most of the time — that schoolmaster verse is one of his lighter moments. But no doubt you had a right to be grumpy if you were a pagan in Alexandria in the late fourth century, with the Christians pulling down your temples left right and centre.”
“Is that what happened?”
“It did. Not a nice time. Why does he appeal to you?”
“His grumpiness, I suppose. I often feel like that. Pessimistic. Hopeless.”
Quentin gave him a sharp look, but hardly dared to respond, not on so short an acquaintance. He changed the subject slightly.
“I see you’re on Volume 5, the last one. Are you ploughing through them in order?”
“Yes. It’s taken me months. I like to read a bit, if it’s fine enough, before getting caught up at home. But I can’t spend too long on it. Still, I’m almost at the end now. I’ve skipped a lot of this one” — he tapped his book — “because most of these poems are late and boring. But I haven’t seen Volume 4 yet. It isn’t in the library, or even in the catalogue. I asked Mr Burrell why, but he wouldn’t say.”
Quentin knew precisely why Volume 4 was absent from the shelf. It included Strato’s Musa Puerilis or The Boyish Muse, which was a large collection of homoerotic — indeed pederastic — verses. Some were very explicit. All of them, in the eyes of the Burrells of this world, would be unfit for youthful reading. Better not pursue that subject. Not yet.
He scratched his beard. Sometimes the scars still itched, even after forty-odd years.
“May I ask how old you are?” he ventured instead.
“How old?” The boy, unconscious of Quentin’s train of thought, was surprised again. “Thirteen. Nearly fourteen.”
Older than he looked, then. Older, almost, than he sounded.
“And I’m sorry to say I’m seventy,” the old man replied enviously. “Five times your age. But, believe it or not, I was fourteen once. I wish I were again.”
The boy smiled and relaxed yet more. “I haven’t seen you here before. Have you just come to Ruston?”
“Oh no. I’ve been here since the war. World War II, that is, not the Napoleonic War. Before then I taught at a public school near Brighton.”
“Oh! Which one?”
“Gosh! My Dad went there! Did you know him? His name’s Arthur Tuxford.”
“Goodness me! Yes, I did.”
It was no great coincidence. As with every teacher of long standing, so many pupils had passed through his hands that he regularly bumped into them or their offspring, even in the most unexpected of places, and he still corresponded with not a few. Arthur Tuxford had been an opinionated bigot with all the makings of a bully and a tyrant, a boy — dare one say it? — cut out for the military life. He had adorned — or encumbered — the house ruled by Quentin himself, who slapped down his excesses with all the authority at his command. But while at the time young Tuxford accepted rebuke with surprising obedience, it had seemed probable that on leaving school he would revert to type. He was an unlikely father for this peaceable and intelligent son.
“Yes,” was all he said. “Didn’t he go into the army?”
“That’s right. And he stayed in it till three years ago. I’ll tell him about you. What’s your name?”
“Quentin … I apologise for that, but it’s not my fault … Quentin Fowler. Late professor of classics at the university here. Just retired.”
“Golly! Then I know about you too! You did the Plato and Thucydides that we use!”
Those were school editions of selected passages, which he had published back in the thirties.
“They’re much better,” the boy added generously, “than our Xenophon and Homer texts.”
“Thank you. And it’s handsome of Mr Burrell to use them.”
“I’m not going to tell him I’ve met you, if you don’t mind. He likes to think he’s the cat’s pyjamas. That he’s the only one who can teach us anything. So he wouldn’t be pleased to hear that you know better than he does, and there’s no point in annoying him.”
There was nice judgment there, and a nice sense of tact.
“But Dad … Well, he always knows best too, but I think he would like to meet you again. I hope he does, because it might cheer him up.” The boy yawned hugely, a polite hand in front of his mouth. “Sorry … It’s high time I got home. He’ll probably be awake by now.”
Awake by now? How strange. And Dad’s son looked as if he needed a good long sleep.
The boy put the Loeb away in his bag and stood up, squaring his shoulders as if for an unwelcome task.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” he asked hopefully.
“I will. Same time. Unless it’s pouring. I’ll see you then.”
“Good. Thank you, Professor Fowler,” he said with well-brought-up formality.
“I don’t feel a bit like a professor when I’m in a graveyard. Call me Quentin, if you can bear to.” The boy looked dubious. “No, you’d obviously rather not. What’s your name?”
“Ah! Then what about minding our Ps and Qs? Would you be happy if we called each other P and Q?”
Paul nodded, smiling.
“Goodbye then, P. Till tomorrow.”
Quentin returned to his pondering. There was a precious spark there, to be fanned by every means possible. With the utmost care, of course. Youth, he knew all too well, was delicate. Promising sparks could all too easily gutter out, whether from too little fanning or too much. But this spark had been caught early. He had the feeling in his bones that he — that they — were at the beginning of a long and rewarding road. Might he have a student of a sort after all? A private and unofficial pupil?
His melancholy well and truly dispelled, he creaked to his feet, found his stick, and limped home, where he took down Volume 4 of the Loeb Anthology and read Strato’s Musa Puerilis with a wistful smile on his lips. He was remembering how, a month or two ago, a nightingale had sung outside his window, calling for a mate.
By four o’clock next day he was back on his tombstone. The cemetery was less idyllic now. The sun was behind clouds, a wind was shaking the leaves, the grass had been mowed, the daisies and dandelions were gone. Soon, however, Paul appeared, closely followed by the same trio who taunted him more volubly than before. When they saw Quentin they fell silent. He fixed them with his sternest and most schoolmasterly eye and chanted at them:
“Polla laleis, anthrōpe, chamai de tithē meta micron.
Siga, kai meleta zōn eti ton thanaton.”
You’re blathering, man, and soon you’ll be dumped underground. Shut up and, while you’re still alive, get into practice for death.
Bemused, almost cross-eyed, they went their way. Paul was giggling.
“Hullo, P,” said Quentin. “A bit harsh, that, but it seems to have worked. Don’t pay them any attention — it’ll only encourage them. How are you?”
“All right, thanks.”
“It’s in my bag. But today there’s you to talk to.”
Pleased, Quentin looked at his watch. “You’re released on the dot of four, it seems. Is that your standard stint, nine to four with an hour off for lunch? Six hours hard labour?”
“Just like the Anthology says, then.
“Hex hōrai mochthois hikanōtatai. Hai de met’ autas,
Grammasi deiknumenai, zēthi legousi brotois.”
Six hours are most suited for toil. Those that follow, when written in letters, tell mortals to live.
“I did read that one,” said Paul, “but I’m afraid I couldn’t understand it.”
“No blame for that. The point is, you see, the Greeks didn’t have special signs for numerals as we do. Instead they used the letters of the alphabet. Alpha for one, beta for two, and so on. So numbers seven to ten were zeta, eta, theta and iota. Which spell zēthi. Which is of course the irregular imperative of zō and means ‘live!’”
“Oh, I see. But …” Paul counted on his fingers “… zeta’s the sixth letter, not the seventh.”
“Well observed! I should have explained. There was once an extra letter between epsilon and zeta, called waw or digamma and pronounced like a w. It used to be in the regular alphabet, but it fell out of use in ordinary writing and survived only as the numeral for six. So zeta really is seven.”
“Oh, right. I get it now. Mr Burrell never explains that sort of thing.”
No, he wouldn’t.
“So now that you’ve got your statutory six hours out of the way, you can let your hair down and live.”
To his alarm he saw tears welling in Paul’s eyes and beginning to roll down his cheeks.
“Oh Lord! What’s up? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”
“It isn’t you,” said Paul in a small voice. “It’s me.”
He subsided into a full-blown fit of weeping. Quentin had some experience of weeping boys. Undergraduates did not weep, or not in his presence. But in his housemaster days at Clayton, younger boys — though never this boy’s father — had occasionally come to him for comfort if driven beyond endurance by some disaster. Then, he had put an arm round them. Then, that was entirely permissible, in private, given that he was in loco parentis. But now he was in public, and he was not in loco parentis. In an agony that it might be seen and misunderstood by a passer-by, or even worse by the police, he put an arm round Paul. Not to do so would be simply inhumane.
For a couple of minutes Paul, head against Quentin’s shoulder, sobbed his heart out, before pulling himself together and breaking free.
He wiped his face. “Sorry,” he said haltingly. “It’s just that I can’t let my hair down. I don’t have a life at home. It’s my Dad. It’s not his fault. But it’s so bloody difficult.”
Spasmodically the story spilled out. From school, Arthur Tuxford became a professional soldier and served throughout World War II. Once that was over he married a German wife, brought her to England and, leaving her here, promptly returned to the army of occupation in Germany. He was still there when Paul was born, and he became (as Quentin cynically remarked to himself) a professional absentee father. Then he was called to the Korean War. Next, by way of light relief, he was seconded to the Sudan Defence Force. When Britain pulled out of that country he was directed to fight EOKA in Cyprus.
But while in the Sudan he had unknowingly contracted sleeping sickness. The first mild stage he had interpreted as a bout of flu, and it went untreated. The second and chronic stage waited for two years before developing. But when the parasite finally crossed from his blood to his brain, his nervous system was affected, and he was invalided out of the army. The last three years, apart from spells in hospital, he had spent at home.
Quentin knew a little about sleeping sickness. A couple of his former pupils, shouldering (as the jingoistic phrase put it) the white man’s burden in darkest Africa, had been bitten by tsetse flies and paid the price. It was a disease, he had heard, even more unpleasant than most.
In the case of Arthur Tuxford there was a further cruel twist. Although he had the option of a hospital bed, he was becoming ever more dogmatic and irritable and insisted on sweating it out at home. “Saves taxpayers’ money,” he snorted, “which is better spent on the armed forces.” For two years he was cared for by his long-suffering wife. Then one evil day, while gardening, she jabbed herself in the foot with a fork and within a week was dead of tetanus. Paul was devastated. He had barely known his father until he came home as a wreck, and had therefore depended solely on his mother. And when, in view of the new circumstances, the doctor suggested either full-time hospital treatment or a full-time nurse at home, Tuxford senior would have none of it. The one would be an excessive drain on the state’s funds, the other on his own.
And so Paul became the sole carer. He bathed and shaved his father. He tried to keep the house clean. He did the laundry — luckily they had a washing machine. He bought the food and everything else — luckily the High Street and the shops were close by. He cooked. But his father’s body clock had been thrown by sleeping sickness into disarray. As the name implied, it made him sleep during the day and wake at night. And at night he was liable to make unreasonable demands of his dog-tired son, just as a tyrannical school prefect might make of his fag or an officer of his batman, and he complained incessantly.
“It isn’t so bad in the holidays,” said Paul bravely. “I can change my sleep pattern to match his. But not in term-time. He likes to have his lunch at two in the morning and a cup of tea at five. I’m usually up half the night. At least I don’t have to give him his injections. The nurse comes in to do that. He’s on something called melarsopol, which I think is made from arsenic. But it doesn’t work with everyone, and it isn’t working with him. Not now. He’s getting worse and worse. It can’t be long before he dies.”
Roll on the day, thought Quentin uncharitably. While he did feel guilt at wishing death on anyone, he was appalled by the story. But he could hardly say so, strongly though he suspected that Paul felt the same.
“I’m sorry,” he said, knowing how inadequate it was. “It must be dreadful, for both of you. Small wonder you’re at the end of your tether.”
“Sometimes I feel,” said Paul, his lip trembling again, “just like Palladas said.
“Gēs epebēn gumnos, gumnos th’ hupo gaian apeimi.
Kai ti matēn mochthō, gumnon horōn to telos?”
Naked I came on earth, and naked depart beneath it. So why do I toil in vain, seeing the end is nakedness?
Quentin was seized with rage. This burden so selfishly imposed on the boy was driving him into the pits. It went far beyond the reasonable. He would ask if he could help. No, he would help without asking and without being asked. But he still had questions.
“When your father does die, what will happen to you?”
“I’ll go to my aunt,” was the unhappy reply. “His sister. In Middlesbrough.”
“Do you like her?”
“No. And she doesn’t like me. She’s just as military-minded as Dad. They expect me to go into the army too. But I want to write, or teach, or both. Like you. Mama used to take my side. But Dad and Auntie think I’m sissy.”
Quentin’s rage deepened. “I’d like to talk to your Dad.”
“And he’d like to talk to you.” Paul, blissfully unaware of Quentin’s rage, brightened a little. “He was really chuffed when I told him I’d met you. He thinks the world of you.”
Did he now? That suggested a possible line to take.
“When’s the best time? This very moment?”
“Well, no … I’ve got to do some shopping. Then he’s got to have a bath. And then I’ve got to get breakfast. You see, he lives totally out of phase with everyone else, so to save trouble I do too — breakfast in the evening, dinner first thing in the morning. And the doctor said he’d drop round at six. It’d be better if you came tomorrow — no shopping, no bath, no doctor.”
“All right. Who is his doctor?”
“Dr McLaren, in Bournemouth Avenue.”
That was promising. He was Quentin’s doctor as well. Ruston was a nicely small and close-knit town.
“And what army rank does your Dad hold?”
Paul was surprised again. He could not know the plan hatching in Quentin’s head.
Excellent too. Dad could hardly be a high-flyer to have risen no further in a long career. And if he still reacted to authority as he did twenty-five years ago … it was a long shot, but worth trying.
That seemed to button up all the outstanding questions except one: why, with such a tyrannical father and such an arrogant teacher, was the boy so absurdly trusting?
“P, there’s something that worries me a bit. Yesterday I popped up out of nowhere. You’d never seen me before. You do know, don’t you, that there are dirty old men around who might, ah, have designs on you?”
“Oh yes. Mama warned me about talking to strangers.”
“So why did you trust me straight off?”
Paul seemed to be searching for a reason that might sound valid. “Well, you weren’t exactly a stranger. You knew Mr Burrell. You knew Dad. I knew you from your books.”
“But you didn’t find any of that out until well after we’d started talking.”
Paul, visibly throwing in the towel, admitted to his weakness if not his disobedience. “All right, then,” he said in a small voice. “I was desperate for someone to talk to. Someone who understood. And the moment you spoke to me it was obvious you did. And surely anyone who likes the Anthology can be trusted.”
One of Quentin’s guesses had been right, then. And possibly another, that Paul was a naturally friendly soul.
“Well, thank you very much. That’s a good enough reason, and nothing to be ashamed of, because it’s not in the least your fault that you were desperate. And I’ll do my level best to live up to your trust. Now, one final and practical question. Where do you live?”
“So that’s why you take a short cut through the cemetery. And it’s handy, because I live only just beyond, in Sidmouth Avenue. All right, P. Off you go and do your shopping, and get as much sleep as you can. Don’t give up hope, whatever Palladas may say, because you aren’t toiling in vain. Really you aren’t. We’ll meet here again tomorrow, and then you can lead me home.”
“Thank you, Q. I’m not usually like this. But sometimes …”
“I know. I know. Sometimes things just get too much.”
Dismissed with a clap on the shoulder, Paul went.
Next day Quentin called on Dr McLaren. Having known and respected each other for years, they were on easy terms.
“Angus, I’m becoming embroiled with the Tuxfords. I’ve met Paul and I’m about to see Arthur. From everything I hear, their ménage is a mess, and I intend to do whatever I can to help. I want your professional view of it, please. Confidentiality be damned.”
The doctor smiled. “Just like you, Quentin, to stick your oar in. And you’re absolutely right, it is an unsatisfactory set-up. Very well, I’ll spill some of the beans. Here goes. The basic trouble, needless to say, is Arthur’s illness. But equally basic is the fact that he’s one of those awkward sods who always know best. It’s simply the way he’s made. I suspect he’s been blinkered and obstinate all his life.”
“He has. I taught him as a boy.”
“Did you indeed? Well, he’s even more blinkered and obstinate now. I’m no expert on trypanosomiasis — in fact I’d never met a case before — but I gather that’s one of the ways it hits you. And when a patient really sticks his toes in there’s parlous little even a doctor can do.”
“Don’t think I don’t sympathise with him. But I’m much more worried about Paul.”
“Ah yes. I take my hat off to that boy.”
“Do you know he’s almost at breaking point? Overwork, lack of sleep, carrying responsibilities far too heavy for a thirteen-year-old who has his school work on top of everything.”
“Breaking point? Is it as bad as that? Whenever I ask him he says he’s coping well enough. And yesterday evening he was positively cheerful.”
Interesting news. Was he, Quentin, already beginning to serve as a father-substitute? Had his comforting actually boosted Paul?
“That’s just him being brave. An hour or two earlier he was sobbing on my shoulder in desperation. He’s barely staying afloat.”
“Oh dear,” said Dr McLaren. “No, that’s not good. But at least the problem isn’t likely to last long.”
“What’s the prognosis, then?”
“For Arthur, grim. Beyond melarsopol, which isn’t working, medicine has nothing to offer him. He’s going downhill quite fast. When the specialist last saw him, he thought he’d soon be in a coma, maybe within a month from now. The moment that happens, of course, I’ll get him straight into hospital. He won’t be in a position to object any more. And once he’s in a coma, death’s likely to follow in a few weeks at most.”
“Hmm. Is he compos mentis?”
“A lot of the time he’s lucid enough. He looks after his own affairs — pays bills and suchlike. But I believe his sister holds power of attorney against the day when it becomes necessary.”
“And what’s his physical state?”
“Poor. He’s just mobile enough to get himself to the commode and back. But beyond that he’s incapable of fending for himself. There’s chronic fatigue. Limited concentration — if he fails to follow something he wanders off into apathy, but he comes back. Tremor and reduced coordination — often he can’t even get a cup to his mouth without spilling it. And all of that feeds the irritability.”
“Is he safe by himself?”
“I reckon so. He sleeps all day while Paul’s out. How were you thinking of helping?”
“Taking over by night. Bathing him. Doing the laundry and the cooking. Keeping him out of mischief. Diverting his irritability from Paul. Letting the boy get the rest he needs.”
“Can you really do all that, Quentin? You’re none too agile yourself.”
“I do fend for myself, as you very well know, apart from cleaning the house. And so I can fend for someone else too. And I can get my charlady to clean the Tuxford house. But what I really want to know, Angus, is how best to handle Arthur. Keep him sweet by humouring him? Or discipline him into being more reasonable with Paul?”
“Wouldn’t humouring him only encourage the unreasonableness? But disciplining … well, it’s a nice thought. He might be less unreasonable if there was someone who could put their foot down hard. But how the heck do you propose to discipline a bluff soldier-man like him?”
“That’s exactly the point. He’s unimaginative, or he used to be, and deference to seniority is in his blood. He’s free to take it out on his underlings — he’s senior to Paul, so he pulls rank and expects obedience. But soldiers obey their superiors, and I’m senior to Arthur. He’s only a major. I’m a colonel, or I was. I can pull rank with him. Twice over, in fact. I was once his housemaster.”
“Which doubtless counts for even more than military rank.” Dr McLaren laughed. “Quentin, you never cease to astonish me!”