The Half Brother
Jack ‘did a Jack’ and missed our father’s funeral. He had taken his new girl to the Gargoyle Club the night before and had woken with such a monumental hangover that the train had left Paddington before he was out of bed. Explaining this to my mother on the telephone later in the day, he had boasted not only about the hangover but also about the new girl, who was just seventeen and had a marvellous figure – almost like a boy’s. The joke was that he had been given twenty-four hours compassionate leave because of the funeral. ‘Father would have been amused,’ he said.
‘Oh darling, I’m almost glad you weren’t there,’ said my mother. ‘It was a nightmare: you couldn’t have borne it. Cousin Dodo kept on saying: “What are your plans?” Wasn’t that typical?’
‘Typical,’ said Jack. ‘How Father would have laughed.’
‘I can’t stand it when people ask me about my plans ... Oh, Jack, isn’t it awful, feeling awful?’
‘Awful,’ said her stepson. On this subject he was indeed an acknowledged expert, and there existed a list of proscribed places (Villefranche. Sao Tome, Bordighera, Colwyn Bay) where Jack had experienced – with an intensity that elevated them into family legend – the dusty depths of le cafard.
In order to take Jack’s call, my mother had been forced to re-enter my father’s study because that was where the telephone was. During the last weeks of his illness my father’s bed had been moved downstairs to this seldom-used room: it was here that my mother had nursed him and here that he had died. The appearance of the bed in the study had been disturbing from the start, as confusedly ominous as a phrase out of context; now, stripped and desolate, it just looked pointless. One of its sides was set against a low book-case which ran the length of the wall. This contained, among other ‘uniform editions’, the complete works of Turgenev, in fourteen tall grey volumes, translated by Isabel F. Hapgood. (My father had been military attaché at Saint Petersburgh before the revolution, and A Sportsman’s Sketches was his favourite book.) The top of the book-case formed a bedside shelf, on which bottles of chalky medicine and boxes of little green pills were still scattered among the few art objects surviving from Stars, the vast Victorian Gothic pile near Salisbury Plain where my father had been born. These included Chinese porcelain bowls of pot-pourri, enamel ikons by Alexander Fisher and a life-sized effigy of Horus, the ancient Egyptian god of the sky in the shape of a falcon, whose right eye was the Sun and whose left eye was the Moon. Fashioned out of dark rough stone, this squat and sinister statuette concealed beneath its flat tail a tiny trapdoor which opened onto a dusty cavity housing the brittle yellow bones, supposedly undisturbed since the second century BC, of the original bird.
Talking to Jack had upset my mother. The telephone was navy blue, shaped like a daffodil with a flimsy bracket protruding sideways from its upright stem: she had difficulty in replacing the receiver on this when their conversation was over. She was crying. ‘Darling Jack,’ she said. ‘His voice sounded so like Yvo’s. He’s coming down as soon as he can ... ’ She looked distractedly round the room and her gaze was arrested by sight of the falcon. ‘Do you know, I’m sure that bird brings bad luck. I’ve always thought it was creepy but Yvo did love it so ... It was next to his bed when he died: now I know it’s unlucky. Oh, please, do help me to get rid of it!’
‘You mean, throw it away?’
‘Or sell it, or something. I know that Yvo always laughed at me for being superstitious, but I’m sure that Jack would understand.’
Jack and I were half-brothers, although he was old enough to be my father. Jack’s mother had died of influenza in 1919 and four years later the widower had surprised and relieved his son by a second marriage, this time to somebody much younger than himself: indeed, my mother was an exact contemporary of Jack’s. My father retired from the War Office to a small house in Berkshire where my mother started a chicken farm and I was born. Jack had recently inherited Stars, left to him by a cousin in a will which overlooked my father in order to avoid unnecessary death duties; when the will was made it had seemed unlikely that my father would remarry and even more so that the cousin would die so young. Jack offered to give Stars to my father, who refused it: in return, Jack undertook to pay for my education. As things turned out, this promise was not kept.
Jack soon sold Stars (which became first a secretarial college and then a lunatic asylum before mysteriously burning down) and most of its contents; for a brief period he was a very rich young man. He had had a sad time at boarding-school while my father was soldiering abroad, and a grim time as a subaltern during the First World War; now he was doggedly determined to have a good time at last. His money was spent on racing cars, aeroplanes, a famous wine cellar, a collection of ‘modern’ pictures and a series of difficult, exquisite girls. He enjoyed among his contemporaries a comfortable reputation for privileged Bohemianism, scandalising some by his licentious behaviour and distressing others by his ‘arty’ inclinations, but avoiding the kind of unpopularity that might threaten his status as a proud member of White’s Club. When my father died, the Second World War was ending and Jack, nearly fifty, was broke.
On the day after the funeral, my mother returned to the subject of the falcon. By now she had succeeded in infecting me with her sense of urgency in the matter, which just stopped short of panic. So this is what I did. I packed Horus in a cardboard egg-box (before petrol-rationing she used to sell eggs to Quaglino’s, nipping up to London and back in the Baby Austin while my father anxiously awaited her return) and caught the carrier to Hungerford station. After an hour the up-train sidled in: Kintbury, Newbury, Thatcham, Aldermaston, Theale, Reading West ... from Reading it was non-stop to London. My arms aching, I queued for another hour before a taxi took me to a shop in St James’s called Spink’s. There I asked to see an expert on Egyptian art. He was quite young, with white lashes. I unpacked the antique. He offered me a hundred pounds for it, which I happily accepted. Free of my sacred burden, I wandered round the capital: saw an old film called Naples au Baiser du Feu at Studio One, then gravitated down Oxford Street to Bumpus where I stole a novel by I. Compton-Burnett (I think it must have been Elders and Betters) before catching the six o’clock home. The whole transaction was accomplished during a halting adolescent reverie, and I never gave a thought to Jack. There, I was to discover, I had made a mistake.