The Half Brother

Francis Wyndham

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.

He turned up one morning about a fortnight later, having commandeered an army jeep at Devizes, where he had been attending a course exclusively for Majors. Throughout the 1930s, Jack’s arrivals at our village had been god-like: emerging, goggled, from a long low Bentley with hyperthyroid headlights; or descending onto the local football pitch at the bottom of Spring’s Hill in a skeletal flying machine, only too aptly named a Moth and disconcertingly reminiscent of the expensive toys from Hamleys with which he embarrassed my birthdays. This latest visitation, though inevitably less glamorous, was in a subtle way just as dramatic. Jack’s tall gaunt trunk and unevenly articulated limbs managed to banish from his battledress any suggestion of a uniform; his peaked cap concealed his bald crown and dignified the wild, woolly white hair round his neck and ears. He climbed out of the jeep, stretched, belched, pissed against a cedar in the drive and proposed a walk to his favourite pub in a hamlet ten miles away.

Jack was a pub snob. He wouldn’t be seen dead in a saloon bar, and many were the authentic ‘publics’ I’d sat in with him, surrounded by fascist farm-hands and their goitred mothers-in-law, dodging the dangerous darts as they sped from dainty thumb and forefinger to the pitted corky board, trying to master the rules of cribbage (‘One for his Knob’) and staggering, beer-bloated, to the Gents – a midge-haunted half-wall of cement in a benighted backyard.

‘But you’ve only just got here!’ said my mother. ‘There’s plenty of drink in the house ... I’ve talked to the Manor and you can fish there whenever you want.’

‘Wonderful!’ said Jack. ‘I’ll walk up as soon as we’ve had our lunch. All right, then, let’s forget about the pub. I can stay till tomorrow morning: any exciting plans for tonight?’

‘There’s a film on in Hungerford with Hedy Lamarr,’ I suggested.

‘Or we might have some bridge, if I can get hold of the Admiral,’ said my mother.

‘Bridge!’ Jack decided. ‘Hedy Lamarr must be as old as Methuselah by now.’

He entered the house, accompanied as ever (or so I felt) by an invisible spirit of pure hedonism which quickened the atmosphere with its promise of an extended treat while setting an unnervingly high standard for any prospective participant. There seemed to exist a law (as far as one knew, unwritten) forbidding the world to subject Jack to one moment of boredom; to be in his company was to share in the privilege thus afforded, while running the risk of breaking the law oneself. He poured himself a large whiskey and soda and, after some galvanic contortions, settled himself beside it on a sofa; my mother and I prepared ourselves contentedly for the fun his presence always guaranteed.

Jack’s dissipated past revealed itself in his face and made him look almost twenty years older than his age, but in spite of this there was still something boyish about him, both in behaviour and appearance. His candid enthusiasm, his ungovernable touchiness, retained an adolescent innocence; the clumsy movements of his bony body suggested the physical uncertainty of a child rather than the stumblings of an elderly party. Behind the benevolent beam, or offended scowl, of a grizzled patriarch, the short nose, wide smile and cleft chin evoked the attractive lad, cheeky and vulnerable by turns, that he must once have been.

He had loved, but been shy of, my father, and their relationship had never fully emerged from a crippling cocoon of embarrassed reserve. With my mother he could be more comfortably – even cosily – affectionate, treating her as he might have done a sister, with genuine respect, artless trust and a touch of amused condescension. Their cordial intercourse had given birth to several family jokes, the ritual repetition of which bound them yet closer together. Both belonged to – had indeed invented – the Four O’Clock in the Morning Club, whose insomniac members were entitled to ring each other up at that lonely hour. These healing conversations might largely consist of warnings about an imminent New Moon, for they shared a fanatic belief in the danger of glimpsing such a phenomenon through intervening glass. (Spectacles, and on occasion windshields, they decided, ‘didn’t count’.) Their attitudes towards superstition were alike: serious to the point of solemnity, but moderated by an enjoyably guilty sense of the absurdity in abandoning rationality to this vertiginous extent. It was in fact the silliness of the traditional taboos (involving ladders, cats and salt) that attracted them, while in some complex fashion deepening their faith, as if they felt it fitting that so cruel and arbitrary a mystery as fate should provide clues to its intentions and means of forestalling them in banal or frivolous forms. A favourite family joke was about Jack saying one morning: ‘Did you hear a terrible crash in the middle of the night? Well, that was me, touching wood!’

We were therefore astonished by the violence of Jack’s reaction when my mother told him (in a thoughtless aside during her account of the recent horror of her husband’s last illness and the present misery of her bereavement) about her sudden dread of Horus and impulsive decision to sell it. He started up in his seat, accidentally kicking over the tumbler which contained his whiskey and soda: the glass shattered and the drink seeped into the threadbare Aubusson carpet, leaving a stain similar to those already made by the messes of Martha, my father’s favourite dachshund. His face had gone stony with fury and his voice had acquired a barely intelligible parade-ground bark. ‘No, it’s not true! You can’t have done! I don’t believe it! Jesus Christ, this is just too bloody much! My dear girl, all I can say is, I only hope you never realise exactly what you’ve ... I mean, what in the name of? ... of all the imperial idiots! ... to do such a damn-fool thing ... why on earth didn’t you consult me first? Would that have been too much to expect? That statuette was the only object of any real value among all the rubbish which my grandparents collected at Stars. What did you get for it? A measly hundred quid? Clearly you’ve been swindled ... God knows what it’s worth, but that’s not my point, my point is that it’s a fantastically beautiful thing in itself, a work of art, for Christ’s sake! But I suppose that means nothing to you – it can’t do – well that’s not your fault, I see that, but the thing that I can’t get over is that you knew perfectly well that Father adored it. You had no right – neither of you did – to get rid of it like that without letting me know. Apart from anything else, I’d have treasured it as something to remember Father by – I haven’t anything else of his. He was my father too, you know!’

My mother stared at Jack as if he had gone mad. Incapable of speech, she hurried unsteadily from the room and out of the front door. We could see her, through the window, wandering about the garden, as if distractedly seeking some means of escape. I wanted to join her but felt paralysed by shock. Jack’s neck and cheeks were rust-red; he looked as if he were about to weep. When at last he spoke, his voice was husky but softer and the tone was no longer bullying but one of rough comradeship – man-to-man. ‘Shit, I seem to have spilt my fucking drink! Pour me another one, will you, there’s a good chap. Sorry about that outburst – but women can be such cunts sometimes, can’t they? You’d better explain exactly where you took the sodding thing.’

I did so, and then he strode outside to apologise to my mother: from the porch I watched them embrace. His visit was spoilt, but not irreparably ruined. He fished all afternoon and spent the evening listening to Mozart on the radiogram; he left before breakfast on the following day. A week later, he rang up from a call-box, reversing the charge. I answered the telephone. Jack told me that he had been up to London and bought back the falcon from Spink’s. ‘But they really jewed me – charged me a hundred and ten for it. I make that a clear profit of ten per cent for them. But never mind, all’s well that ends well! There go the pips ... Goodbye!’

The private nursing-home was near Sloane Square. I found Jack on the first floor in a large, high-ceilinged Edwardian room furnished only by a narrow bed, a small table with a Bible attached to it on a chain, an easy chair upholstered in a jazz pattern of oatmeal and nigger brown, an immense wardrobe of carved oak, and a chromium-fitted wash-basin of aggressively clinical appearance. Wearing a voluminous jibbah, he was standing with his back to me looking out of the window at a white building of Oriental design across the road. ‘Wouldn’t you say that was some sort of Mosque?’ he said. ‘Well, it isn’t. Apparently it’s a Christian Scientist church!’ He gave a hearty, social laugh and gazed round the room in an uncertain way, as though it were he and not I who had just entered it for the first time.

He had been incarcerated here for ten days, ‘drying out’. A popular doctor of the day specialised in curing alcoholics by a series of injections intended to stimulate those cells of the brain where in his opinion a congenital debility had caused the original craving, combined with a brutal form of aversion therapy. On starting the treatment, a patient named his poison – whiskey, gin, brandy, rum, champagne: Jack had opted for whiskey. From then on, this was the only liquid available to him; if the gleaming new wash-basin had functioned at all, whiskey would have spouted from its taps; while regular and supervised intakes of an emetic called antebuse guaranteed that every sip of it would make him vomit. The doctor had achieved some spectacular successes by this method, and it looked as if it had worked with Jack. He had telephoned earlier in the week, asking for some clean clothes, his chequebook and some ready cash to be brought round to Wilbraham Place as they were letting him leave that morning and he had a lunch date at the Etoile with a promising girl.

I put the suitcase on his bed. ‘Here are the things you wanted.’

‘Thank you, darling,’ he said absent-mindedly.

Over the past three years, since demobilisation from the Army, things had gone badly for Jack. His formerly flamboyant style cramped by money worries, he had found it hard to cash in on any one of his several remarkable gifts; unlike the 1920s, this second post-war period had so far shown few signs of favouring the dilettante. One of his love affairs had taken a fatally serious turn: he had become obsessed by a young woman and continued to be so long after she had grown tired of him and left him for somebody else. This setback had bred in him neurotic fears about loss of potency; groundless at first, they had perversely sapped his confidence to a point where they seemed to be justified. It had not taken long, in this discouraging atmosphere, for the epicurean wine-lover, honoured by the Wine and Food society for his wide knowledge and discriminating palate, to degenerate into a drunk; but the degeneration was only partial, and Jack was a drunk determined to be cured.

To fetch the suitcase and some of its contents, I hd travelled down on the previous day to his lovely, melancholy mill house by a Sussex marsh, scene of many fabulous orgies, treasure hunts and fancy-dress balls between the wars. Set in a damp, wooded hollow, its picturesque little rooms, once hung with nudes by Modigliani and Matisse, were echoless though empty. I turned the pages of the Visitors’ Book, where liverish guests had attempted to write witty comments on the food, the drink and the company after those famous weekend parties that had sounded so enviable to the uninvited. Many of these inscriptions contained private or topical references and no longer made sense to an outsider, but ‘Widows are wonderful!’ clearly celebrated Jack’s Veuve Cliquot, and one of his literary friends had composed an ingenious anacreontic about prize-winning hangover. As I walked away from the house, down the sloping croquet lawn to the silver pool, over the rickety bridge across the tranquil stream and up the steep lane of stubborn clay to the main road, I turned back for a last look. Was this because I sensed (as one often does) that something indoors was observing my departure? Then I noticed (what I had not registered before) a shapely shadow on the sill of an attic window: the once-familiar outline of Horus the holy bird.

‘How are you feeling?’ I asked Jack now.

‘Never better. In fact, I’ve got some very, very good news indeed. I didn’t say anything about it before because I wanted to get this ghastly cure over and done with first. I’ve got a job! An extremely well-paid and – not to put too fine a point on it, as they say – really rather a grand and important job. That’s why I took the cure – to make certain I’d be up to it.’ Disarmingly pleased with himself, he struck an attitude. ‘You are looking at the Middle East Correspondent of the Sunday World, no less! The paper with the biggest circulation in Fleet Street!’

Jack had had no previous experience of journalism, but had proved himself as a writer ten years earlier with a highly readable travel book, Bulletin from Barbary, about his adventures with nomadic tribesmen in North Africa. The World’s Foreign Editor, a White’s Club acquaintance of Jack’s, had remembered this while looking for a suitable expert to cover the Arab-Israeli war and had commissioned him to contribute a series of special articles at an unusually high rate of payment. Jack’s sympathies were fiercely pro-Arab; in political arguments he would often point out that anti-Zionism and anti-semitism were two quite separate things, implying (but never quite confirming) that in his case they did not co-exist. The proud male dignity of the Berber warriors had made a strong appeal to his aesthetic sense; he found in the wearing of loose robes a comfortable liberation from buttons, braces, collar-studs and sock-suspenders; and there was nothing in the subjection of women at odds with his own erotic tastes.

‘I start in a fortnight! Just time to fit in a crash course in Arabic at the Berlitz school!’ I began to congratulate him, but he cut me short. ‘Which reminds me – I don’t want to interfere – but isn’t it about time for you to begin thinking about your future career? Everybody tells me that it’s quite out of the question nowadays to keep oneself by writing – there’s far too much competition and practically no demand. So you’d better put that idea right out of your head. If you don’t feel cut out for the Diplomatic, or the Army, or the City, I couldn’t understand more ... neither did I ... but I do believe that in modern socialist Britain it’s essential to be technically equipped to earn your own living, to acquire some basic skill which is always going to be needed, whatever happens. Mightn’t you perhaps take a course in something or other? I don’t know what – glass-blowing, or something? Think about it, anyway. I know it’s great fun sitting in the cinema all day but it doesn’t really lead anywhere. Your mother’s so sweet and I’m sure she’d be frightened of upsetting you so I thought I ought to speak to you instead ... Look, I’m going to be late at the restaurant if we go on gassing like this, be an angel and pop downstairs and get them to order a cab for me, will you?’

A sacred place in Jack’s life was reserved for his men friends. Furiously resented by his lovers, and humbly respected from a distance by his relations (who were seldom allowed to meet them), they represented a stabilising constant in his erratic emotional history. Most legendary of these – and in a sense the most myterious – was Tony, a cheery little man who ran an art gallery in Mayfair. Tony had none of the obvious qualities (talent, wit, fame, wealth) which distinguished the other men friends and perhaps for this reason was ideally suited to fill the important role of confidential crony. It was from Tony that we heard the news of Jack’s death. A sniper’s bullet had hit him in the chest while he was incautiously standing without cover to take a photograph of a skirmish between Israeli troops and the Arab Legion: according to one rumour, he had been wearing Arab clothes at the time, but another eye-witness reported that he had been dressed in khaki. Whatever the circumstances, this must have been that moment, which he had spent so much of his life dreading, when there just wasn’t any wood around to touch. He had been working for the newspaper little more than a month; the Foreign Editor later forwarded a meagre parcel of personal belongings (a pocket diary, a cigarette lighter, an initialled handkerchief) but failed to recover his body; for reasons of diplomacy, the incident was played down in the Press.

My mother organised a memorial service for Jack at a Chelsea church. I sat next to his last girl, a streaky-haired beauty called Bobbie, who hadn’t yet been properly taken in by the men friends and came as a shock to the longer – established mistresses. She cried miserably throughout the ceremony, incurring the disapproval of many in the congregation who seemed to feel that they had a greater right to grief but somehow lacked her facility in expressing it. Somebody gave an address about Jack, saluting him as an exemplar of the traditional British eccentric aristocrat with romantic leanings towards Islam: the names of Burton, Blunt and Lawrence were invoked. A theatrical clergyman read from Ecclesiastes: ‘Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home ... ’ The words awoke suppressed, unwelcome memories of my father’s funeral and I suddenly understood why Jack had been unable to face coming to that.

After the service, several of the mourners paused blinking in the porch to point out that, moving though it had been, there was no doubt that Jack would have far preferred his friends to remember him by a party. ‘With bags and bags of booze,’ said Tony. Catching sight of me, he squeezed my arm. ‘Just the chap I want to see ... Listen, so sorry, I should have told you sooner only there was a balls-up made by the solicitor. Dear old Jack asked me to be his executor, you know, and he’s mentioned you in his will. It seems he added a codicil at the last moment, just before he went off to the Middle East – says something about knowing that you’ll understand what he means by it. Anyway, he’s left you a sort of statue thing – not cash, I’m afraid, old boy, worse luck! I’ve got it for you at the gallery. Queer-looking object – not my period, so I’ve no idea what it would fetch. A hawk ... ’

I thought: ‘It must never come back in the house – never.’ That afternoon I called round at Tony’s gallery, where an exhibition of paintings by Derain was being hung. The falcon was waiting for me in an office at the back. I raced with it to Spink’s: my demeanour must have appeared both frantic and furtive, almost as though I suspected that I was being followed. The albino expert on Egyptian art was still there; did I only imagine that his smile of recognition suggested that he had been expecting my return for the past three years? I placed the god before him. He offered me a hundred pounds for it, which I happily accepted.

When I left the shop I was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling of joy in which were mingled confidence, security and relief. It seemed to me certain that, by disposing of the falcon this second time, I had somehow managed to ward off the evil eye for ever. A curse had been lifted, a demon exorcised. I had a confused sense of triumph in having struck an easy bargain: it was as if I had been granted some unearned immunity, had been rewarded for doing nothing at all by a plenary indulgence. My mother and I would be safe now, for the rest of our lives ... But my mood of mysterious exaltation was accompanied by a nagging, trivial desire to understand the exact nature of the commercial transaction that had just taken place. The triple sale of the statuette contained a puzzling element, like those simple mathematical problems, Brain Twisters or Brain Teasers, which are sometimes used in IQ tests. What, in the matter of the ownership of Horus, had really happened? Had anything been materially gained, and if so, by whom? I had nearly reached Paddington before I had succeeded in working out the answer.

My mother and I had got rid of the falcon and had made two hundred pounds. Spink & Son Ltd had recovered the falcon and were ninety pounds down. Jack had lost both the falcon and a hundred and ten pounds. The six o’clock train had left the station, bearing me back home, and was passing Waterer’s Floral Mile before I remembered that he had also lost his life.