From a Novel in Progress
I denied my father three times, but he only died once. The Obituaries Editor of the Times was responsible for my first denial. I was living in London with my wife, Jane Sheridan, and things were not going well. At University College, where I was teaching philosophy, I had become one of those figures whom students romanticise and sometimes pity. I didn’t have the proper qualifications, and the classes I gave were printed on the curriculum brochure in a different coloured ink from the main lectures. Insultingly, the university paid me by the hour! The faculty was beginning to look at me as if I were dead, the students as if I were somewhat grotesquely alive, but it amounted to the same thing.
I was in debt, and my childhood friend Max Thurlow offered to help. He is now a successful, what you might call intellectually deluxe columnist at the Times – the type who mentions Tacitus or Mill every other week – and knew that the newspaper prepared its major obituaries in advance of the subjects’ deaths, and that most of them were written by freelance contributors. So Max mentioned my name to the appropriate editor, Ralph Hegley, and said that I could write obituaries of philosophers and intellectuals. Hegley asked to have lunch with me. We met at a restaurant in Covent Garden – expensive Italian, snowy tablecloths, steamroom hush, Pompeian ruins of cheese on a silent trolley. We sat at a window table. On the street, where the cars were parked in convoy, a traffic warden was going from car to car, pen in hand, like the waiters soliciting orders inside the restaurant. Hegley had a huge head, was middle-aged, sickly lugubrious, pale. He was finely dressed in a double-breasted suit as thick as a straitjacket, and a rich silk tie plaited in a fat junction. But he wore oddly childish shoes, soft and rubbery as slippers. ‘I have bad feet,’ he explained, when I glanced at them.
‘I’ll order for you if you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘There are certain do’s and don’ts at this restaurant. It takes years to acquaint yourself with this little civilisation.’ As he said this, he looked around with a strange contempt on his face.
Hegley explained that freelancers wrote advance obituaries of selected ‘candidates’. He was especially interested in philosophers who were known to be unwell, or rapidly declining with age. He became impatient, and irritably coaxed the loose change in his trouser pocket as he put names to me.
‘How’s Althusser? And that other chap in Paris, the Romanian, Cioran. I hear he’s not too well, it’s the Romanian genes. Any Americans? We tend to miss ‘em, then we have to do a rush job once they’ve gone. I don’t like rush jobs. That’s for other papers, all right? Oh, and we need someone to update our Popper piece; pep it up a bit. I’ve heard he’s a wee bit poorly.’
Catching on, and knowing nothing about the apparently welcome illnesses of various world-philosophers, I invented several ailments.
‘I’m told,’ I said, ‘by various colleagues at UCL, that Gadamer is not very well.’
‘Jolly good. Add him to the list.’ As usual when lying, I felt warm, light-headed.
‘And Derrida has never had tremendously good health. That’s well known.’
‘Is it? Right, let’s snatch him before he . . . self-deconstructs – isn’t that his word?’
I left lunch with four commissions – Cioran, Popper, Derrida and Gadamer – each paying £200.
But I never wrote one of those obituaries. Other things got in the way. I have been trying to finish my PhD thesis for eight years, and I seem to have a distaste for finishing things. For two years now, I have been neglecting the PhD for a private project which is called the ‘Book against God’ (BAG). In it I copy out apposite anti-religious quotations, and develop arguments of my own about theological and philosophical matters. It has swelled to four large notebooks. It has really become my life’s work, as far as I am concerned. And whenever I was about to begin one of those damned obituaries, I found myself drawn to some crucial novelty in my BAG, and the day would disappear into theology and anti-theology.
Eventually Hegley got tired of waiting, sent me an irritable letter. It had been three months, he complained, and he had received nothing. Should he still consider me as the writer of the proposed obituaries? I don’t cope well with pressure. I was keen to stay on Hegley’s order-form, and suddenly I realised that the most decisive way both to explain my tardiness and to appeal for sympathy would be to tell him that I had been lately dealing with my own, rather proximate obituary: I told Hegley that my father had died a month ago, and that I had not had an ungrieving minute to deal with the work in hand. Hegley wrote back with his condolences. Of course I should take as much time as I wanted with the pieces.
This worked so well that I told a similar lie a month later, after I received a letter from the Inland Revenue about outstanding taxes payable on various part-time jobs I had had over the years. Usually I ignore these kinds of communication, but I opened this one to find myself summoned to attend a ‘hearing’ in Wembley. There I would be ‘assessed’ by government auditors. If there were any extenuating circumstances, a reason for the tardiness of my payments, I should explain myself in writing, and this letter would be read out in my defence at the hearing.
This was how I found myself about three weeks later, sitting at an unnatural table – that caramel-municipal sheen found in so many offices – opposite four men in suits, one of whom was reading out my letter. It explained that due to the recent death of my father, and the heavy business related to the tidying up of his estate, I had fallen behind in the paying of my taxes. I was truly sorry to have found myself in this position but the last three months had been a period of grief and shock as well as distraction, and might I presume on the leniency and compassion (this word underlined) of the assessors to grant me another six months to get my taxes in order? This was read out in a flat, bored voice so that, if one closed one’s eyes, one would swear that the reader – a terribly thin man – was simultaneously doing something else. I kept my eyes down, and strove to appear slumped in grief.
The stay of execution was granted. Of course, my father was alive then. I had calculated that an extreme measure would work. I would not have written those letters had I known that my father would indeed be dead within a year of my writing them.
But we can’t schedule our sins.
The third of these ‘denials’ (as I now think of them) took place after my father’s death, and was not a lie, but by then it felt like one. When I told Jimmy Madeiros, the manager of the Underground Porter-Packer division at Harrods, where I worked for a few months, that my father had recently died, and that therefore I couldn’t continue with the job, I was telling the truth. But it felt like a lie because I had the sense that he didn’t really believe me. So I felt a bit cheated. When I’m not lying I almost think I should get credit for it; it is like that wise saying in the Talmud – ‘the thief who lacks an opportunity to steal feels like a honest man.’
As I said, Jane and I were having difficulties in London. Money difficulties, certainly. She taught the piano at the Guildhall (she still does), and got occasional lump sums when she played a recital. I had my shillings from UCL – when they felt like employing me. We had a pleasant small flat, owned by Jane, in the hilly area of Islington. It was the top floor of a gabled Victorian house. From the high window you could see half of the policeman’s helmet of St Paul’s dome, and further on, a glimpse of Parliament’s spires, and its loyal river selflessly flowing between its crowded banks. At dusk, holding a drink by the window and waiting for Jane to return home, I loved to see the city streetlights arrive in amber hesitations. But London was swallowing everything we earned. My extravagant tastes were surely not helping. For these I blame my late father.
In 1959, Father, who had been teaching theology at Durham University, resigned his job and became a priest. He was bored with teaching and keen to have a parish. He took command of a little church in the village of Sundershall, about ten miles west of town. No doubt he reckoned that the difference between a university lecturer’s salary and a vicar’s stipend was small enough that no sudden impoverishment would consume his family. But my parents’ finances were sickly; in my memory Father seems to be continually driving into town to meet ‘the bank manager’, to arrange for ‘another lease of life’. Though my parents weren’t ascetic, indeed they were quite worldly by instinct, our life was materially thin, strained through the sieve of their finances.
All that necessary rationing produced extravagant tastes in me, and an avoidance of the ordinary wherever possible. For instance, I never blow my nose into a handkerchief, because the nasal trumpeting has always sounded plebeian to me. (I clean my nose quietly and secretly.) I like beautiful objects, rich foods, rare atmospheres. It sometimes seems to me that I’m on a quest to naturalise and enhance all the textures and substances with which I grew up: where my parents had a reproduction of a Russian icon, I yearn for the real thing; where they wore nylon, I will wear cotton; their wool must become my cashmere, and their méthode champenoise only ever my Veuve Clicquot. I can’t divorce this impulse from my secularism. The secularist, as I certainly consider myself, has a duty to be worldly, to take the pagan waters at spas of his own choosing. Don’t I have Nietzsche, one of my favourite philosophers, to support me? And Camus, the Algerian bather-seducer. It was my parents’ duty, as Christian models, to stifle their appetites in preparation for eternity’s fattening. As far as I’m concerned, the secularist, who has only this life to live, should stretch and warm his worldly hours, and make a long summer of every season. Now it’s true that in my present circumstances, while I write these memoirs, living alone in this rather vile bedsit – all day the traffic pounds past my window – I do not have much opportunity for extravagance; but my day will come.
Anyway, to return to my marriage. My lavish habits, not to mention the requests of the Inland Revenue, had got us pretty badly into debt, and this was one of the reasons for the frequent arguments that Jane and I had. Jane also intensely disliked my lies. Well, I dislike my lies, too. Morality aside, lies add to the general confusion of my life, a confusion I sincerely want to reduce. Quite often, I might be happily minding my own business, and then suddenly a mental irritation reaches me, and I remember some little deceit I have committed, and I realise that I still have to extricate myself from the confusion it has left in its wake. This happens less now, because in my present life I see so few people. But when Jane and I were still living together, my lies were always getting in the way of harmonious relations. I might, for instance, have declined a supper invitation with the Impeys by quickly inventing a prior engagement with the Davidsons; but then the Impeys happened to know the Davidsons, and might discover my untruth; so, as an alibi – and this happened on one occasion – I had then to phone the Davidsons and fix up supper for the same night on which I had originally declined to see the Impeys.
Not long after the incident with the Inland Revenue, Jane and I quarrelled quite fiercely about a foolish situation. A couple neither of us wanted to see, Danny and Catrine Hillier, had phoned and invited us to a dinner party. Not forthright enough to refuse, and caught off guard, I said that we would come, making a mental note to phone them nearer the time and decline with an invented excuse. But then I forgot, as I usually do, and suddenly on the day itself Jane reminded me that I had done nothing about it. It was too late to cancel; it would be very rude. I came up with an ingenious plan. Jane and I should not go to the party, but we should appear at the Hilliers at exactly the same time the following night, as if we had simply got the date wrong by a day. The Hilliers would either be out (we could leave a note, the best possible option); or they would laughingly forgive us for our honest mistake, offer us a drink we could easily refuse, and then send us on our way. I struggled to get Jane to accept this plan. She would not. Instead, we went to the dinner party, Jane all the while furious with me for not having had the courage to decline the invitation when we first received it.
Jane understands nothing about lying. She has no sympathy, no understanding of my motives or of the joy of a lie, and no sense of proportion. It’s a curious aspect of lying – looking at the phenomenon philosophically – that for most people the size of a lie has no relation to its perceived potency. People like Jane cannot distinguish between small lies and large lies; for them, the act of lying is always itself an enormity, and comes in only one size. God did the same in Eden. After all, Adam’s sin was actually very small, but God inflated its consequences ridiculously. Jane treats every lie as if it were asparagus – which, whether I eat one spear or ten, makes my urine smell with exactly the same pungency. Whenever I told a lie, irrespective of its size, Jane would mount an enormous campaign. She almost needed to take the day off in order to spend it arguing with me and trying to correct me. (She is immensely thorough, very clean, diligent.)
Sometimes our marriage was hell really, and I don’t blame Jane for getting angry. What did her now 30-year-old husband amount to? I was barely tolerated at UCL; I moped about the house all day in a dirty paisley dressing gown (but made of very good silk); and instead of finishing my PhD, I fiddled in ecstasies – and they are ecstasies – with my BAG. Finally we had one crisis too many, and when I offered to leave for a while, promising to finish my thesis, Jane did not object. She merely said: ‘Where would you go?’ ‘Home,’ I said. It was the first word that occurred to me.
So I packed all my books and went home for a while. UCL hadn’t wanted me for the Christmas term anyway. I took the train, four hours northwards. It was late October. Wintry trees passed us at great speed; their gnarled bare branches looked like the roots of themselves.
The station at Durham was quiet. Baskets of red and yellow municipal flowers hung on metal chains, offerings from the ceiling itself. The owner of the ugly little sweet stall, which had been there as long as I could remember, was eating one of his own chocolate bars, and reading a tabloid newspaper through half-moon glasses. From somewhere came a transistor radio’s plastic sizzle.
There it was again: all the roofs, and the brown life of the river, and the grey cathedral, which stands over the town watching it, and its two enormous towers, each of them showing a dark, louvred belfry – when I was a boy I used to think of those belfries as God’s lungs. Two of the saints of the early English Church are buried in that cathedral. Over the centuries the authorities dug the poor fellows up, to prove that they had miraculously never decomposed, or to heal supplicants. Given the use they demanded of them above ground, why did that crowd ever bother to bury saints in the first place? Father used to joke that if all the limbs of St Francis of Asissi claimed as relics had really belonged to him, he would have been a millipede. And below the cathedral, there was the grey main street, the cloudy café owned by the Italian family called Bimbi, the old cinema whose carpets had always been moist, the bookshop owned by the humourless man who left his wife for a man, and the student union building, looking like a restaurant kitchen, the fliers and hurried posters pinned to its punished green door like patrons’ orders.
And, walking along that main street, pale, reticent Northerners. The regular daily exchange between acquaintances is a wary glance, and a swift, simultaneous ‘OK?’, the word being both question and its own answer. It always rains a great deal in Durham, and then the grey streets and grey bridges stream with greyness, and the ladies of the town emerge wearing curious transparent plastic head-scarves, as if they are cultivating their hair in little hothouses.
My parents came to Durham in 1951, and it surely looked the same then as it does now. I was born in Sundershall in 1960. I too am a Northerner then, though the Buntings have no historical connection to the North. My mother came from Devon, my father from Kent. Nor was either side distinguished. Despite my fondness for grandeur, I’m unable to tell you what the Buntings were doing during the Reformation, or even the Counter-Reformation. As far as I can tell, our family was completely invisible, no more than a conspiracy of inklings, until my great-grandfather became a schoolmaster in Kent, and his son became a headmaster in Essex, and his son, my father, Peter Bunting, fought with distinction, while only a very young man, in the Second World War, and after it was over went up to Brasenose College, Oxford – the first time a Bunting had been so elevated, and unfortunately the last, since I was a student only at University College London.
After Oxford, Peter Bunting met my mother, Sarah, and came to Durham University to train for the priesthood. It was after his ordination that he became a lecturer in theology at the university. The Buntings rented a pretty house near the cathedral. I never lived in it, but I know it well. It has four large weary steps, depressed in the middle like saddles, rising to a solid blue door hemmed with a bruised brass strip.
I walked out of the station, and made my way to one of the patiently shuddering taxis waiting in line outside. The driver looked at me when I told him where I wanted to go. ‘That’s a long drive, mind,’ he said, ‘it’ll cost you.’ He drove fast: the catch of a junction or two, the swill of a roundabout, and suddenly we had left town, and the landscape was rising, rising, and turning to hill and wiry moor.
‘What d’you have in Sundershall?’ he asked, half-turning. I explained the family connection.
That seemed to close the conversation until we entered Sundershall – a single corridor of low cottages opening out onto the green release of a lawn shaded by three or four unremarkable trees. A theatre of hills surrounds the village. It was said that a cricket team in their hospital whites – from far away, doesn’t a cricket match look as if someone is inefficiently being rescued? – had once played every summer on the green, but I have never seen one. There are two pubs for every church in this valley, something of which I approve; one of them, the Stag’s Head, looks onto the green. In summer, the open door shows rows of wine glasses suspended by their bases from the ceiling.
When I was fifteen or so, Max and I would nose around outside, keen to be let into this sour cave, while the publican, Paul Deddum, standing behind his row of tall, ornate ale-levers like a little boy behind toy soldiers, would redly yell at us to ‘get your nebs out of here’ – and looking at me: ‘or I’ll tell your da and he’ll tell God.’
As the taxi entered the village, I saw Terry Upsher, who did some gardening for my parents, disappear into the dirty general store, which was always cold, exactly the same temperature in winter or summer. Terry lived on the main street in his father’s old house. When his father was alive, they used to walk around together, Terry shouting at his deaf father, who walked slightly ahead of him, as if they were a Muslim husband and wife. Terry had never left the county, and never been on a train. It was pleasant to see him, even at a distance. I was very fond of one of his verbal peculiarities. He said, ‘the part of it is’, when he meant ‘the point is’, or ‘the thing is’. Sometimes, when I was little, we used to sit on the wall of the vicarage garden, and Terry might say, haltingly, ‘the part of it is . . . I don’t feel very champion at the moment,’ or ‘the part of it is . . . that there bush is finished.’ Then he would stand up and wander off.
The car went up a gravel drive, and on the right a simple church came into view, built from big, graceless blocks of grey local stone. The crowded graveyard in front of it looks, with its grey slabs, like the abandoned quarry that furnished the church.
The vicarage is the same age as the church, but built of sandstone, with leaded, ecclesiastical windows in a Gothic style, whose old glass is beginning to buckle with age. At the door was the brass bell-pull that had so delighted me when I was young. It was marvellous to see the long cord, which stretched from the door along the hall, moving so calmly while the sprung bell at its end convulsed. It seemed so easy to request something: a simple pulling of this wire, and people were summoned, came running. I opened the door; there was the familiar gloom and heaviness of wood, the sparse decoration on the wall – engravings of the cathedral, an architectural drawing of Guy’s Hospital, the copy of the Russian icon with all the battered allure of its false gold – and the grandfather clock, still trying to hypnotise with its pendulum.
My mother emerged from the dining-room, and characteristically wiped her mouth and pulled her blouse down, in preparation for kissing me.
‘Thomas dear!’ she said. ‘Tommy. Are you all right?’ She held me. Unfortunately this has been her question since I went away to university.
‘Yes, all in all, I am.’ Her grip relaxed a little.
‘You’re dyeing your hair,’ she accused.
‘I am not dyeing my hair. What colour?’
‘It’s darker than usual.’
‘It’s been getting darker for the last ten years. My hair is dying – maybe that’s the way round,’ I said gently, in a tone of mock-weariness, as if I were the adult and she the child.
‘Nonsense, you have a fine head,’ she said. ‘Are you . . . are you bathing?’
‘Yes, bathing, washing.’
‘Oh, now and then,’ I said breezily.
‘Tom, it’s not really something to make light of.’
‘Please tell me that I don’t smell.’
‘No, no, but you don’t look very clean, somehow.’
‘Well I don’t feel very clean,’ I said, smiling.
We enjoy this wordplay and teasing. It is our pact, our way of evading differences; with my father it was never permitted. I was supposed to listen to his jokes. ‘Where’s Daddy?’ I asked. He was in his study, writing a sermon, said Mother. I had rarely found my father writing a sermon, and sure enough when I entered, Peter Bunting was sitting in his armchair reading, a newspaper held up in front of his face as if he were a hearth and the newspaper were being used to make the fire catch. The air was cool and still in the study, an invisible reprimand to the room’s material chaos. Papers were piled so extravagantly on the floor and desk that they no longer resembled paper; they now seemed like games, childish invitations to play and further scatter the room. An old dog-basket had four or five large books in it, all of them wide open at a chosen page, and placed upwards on top of each other in a swift spasm of research, presumably abandoned long ago. Three drawers of the desk were sticking out, panting to spit their contents onto the floor. The only surfaces unmolested by anarchy were the books on the many bookshelves, whose clean rounded spines were as ordered as organ pipes, and the walls, which were covered in a clean cream wallpaper; its ridged, irregular pattern of bumps and trails always looked like a map that had lost its markings. There was nothing hanging on the wall except a cheap, dove-coloured cross.
Of course, Father knew that I had been in the house for several minutes. He put his paper down, raised his round, bald head (with its small, truffle ears) and said: ‘Everything all right?’ Years ago my parents had decided that I should call them by their first names, but I found myself unable to call my dad Peter. So I said nothing. He looked thinner to me.
‘Look at this!’ he said, and directed me to a photograph in the newspaper. There were three bespectacled bishops, pompous in their skirts. The long cassocks appeared to be designed to hide things. ‘One of these men is a fraud. Which one, do you think?’
‘How are you defining fraud?’ I asked, feeling a familiar rise of irritation at my father’s genial confidence.
‘Intellectually vacant, crudely evangelical approach – “my saviour in Christ” – has personally healed 18 cripples and cast devils out of teenage girls, always setting up youth clubs everywhere –’
‘OK, yes,’ I looked again, and selected the man on the left, for no better reason than that his spectacles were larger than the others’.
‘Wrong. It’s the one in the middle. Can’t you seen him vibrating with zeal?’
Father stood up, rustled the newspaper to the floor, and again asked: ‘Everything all right?’ He looked away as he asked. It was generally the first thing he said when meeting friends or relatives. It gave him the air of one who had just woken up in a hurry. Father was a great Christian optimist. He liked to joke that, ‘unlike many people, I am searching for the secret of unhappiness.’ He was genial, very erudite, and funny, and this delightful combination was spoiled only by a measure of vanity. He rather prided himself on his worldly sense of humour, aware that this was rare in priests. For instance, he wrote book reviews for a journal of theology, which sent him advance copies of the books, and he had removed a sticker from one of these and glued it to the favourite of his six different Bibles. It read: ‘This is an advance copy sent in lieu of a proof.’
This was pretty characteristic of his humour and of his faith. He was hospitable to all enemies. He was born in 1919, and, as I said, fought in the Second World War. It was a family story that once a German plane was coming in to attack Peter and a group of soldiers, who had become detached from their battalion. There was no time to hide. Young Peter had the idea of waving at the plane, in friendly fashion. It worked, or so Father claimed; the German pilot, too high to see the uniforms, mistook the waving soldiers for Germans, and flew by.
He was just as tenacious and optimistic as a priest. He should have retired by now – he was 71, after all – but wanted to die ‘in harness’.
As pleasant as ever, Father took my hand and shook it. His shirt had two buttons open at about the level of the heart; he liked to put his hand inside it and palpate his chest, especially when involved in his favourite occupation, which was to sit in his armchair, legs immodestly splayed, and listen to Romantic music on his elderly record-player. The reticent passion of Edward Elgar was the sound of my childhood, the sound of the Malvern hills in summer (though I’ve never seen them, in fact), the valleys as gentle as stomachs, the fatherly oaks with their green brains, and the grass flattened by the shoes of walkers – all the warm messages of summer cut down, mourned by Elgar’s scything intervals. He had an old record from the 1930s, with a very young Yehudi Menuhin playing Elgar, the 15-year-old violinist ridiculously photographed in plus-fours, so that he seemed to have very long ankles, and Elgar, a grey, stern, stiff old man, his white moustache a frozen waterfall over his lip. Menuhin, in a note written when he was much older, described this first encounter with the great English composer: how Elgar played a few bars of his Violin Concerto with the boy at the piano, then told him that he was quite happy with his playing, was sure the recording would be fine, and he was now going to the races. Menuhin found this to be ‘very English’.
Not only was Father rarely seen writing a sermon, he was rarely seen reading a book. Yet I had never discovered any ignorance on his part. Growing up, I feared him, for there was nothing he didn’t know. The stock of his knowledge was continually bubbling, and any novelty or spice could be added to it, without a fundamental change to the flavour. An extraordinarily sure mind, calmly enriching itself, very flexible and alert. He sat in his study, I now know, and played puzzles and word-games, and worked out in advance the puns and allusions and little jokes he loved to display in company. I remember that he had made a mildly anti-semitic variant of the old English poem:
Western wind when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
Father’s version, which he murmured every so often when the television news showed tendril-haired Jews nodding their heads at the Western Wall, threw cold Anglican water on their Oriental messianism: ‘Western Wall when will thou show?’ And I would hear a contented little laugh from his high-backed chair.
Yes, I was almost always surprised, in conversation or argument, by my father’s knowledge. When did he acquire it? And Father, I suspect, knew that the mere display of that knowledge sufficed to subdue me. Once, in my early twenties, we were arguing in our usual way, by indirection, about some aspect of morality. I must have said something rash, for Peter calmly reprimanded: ‘That’s rather a Postmodern idea, I think, this collapsing of all hierarchies.’ The argument ended there, for suddenly he was describing my thought to me. Peter Bunting knew it instinctively, in a moment. He didn’t need to read any books of Postmodernism; he just absorbed this information swiftly and mercilessly. It was rather the way he watched whodunnits on television. Invariably, he fell asleep after fifteen minutes, because, he said, he had already worked out who had done it, and was ‘jolly bored by the rest’.
Mother was at the door. Her small frame was fronted by an apron, whose strings she had not tied but stuffed into the pockets of her loose, dark-brown trousers. My parents were both trim, almost dainty, physically quite elegant (Peter’s dishevelment existed only in his study). I was always struck by how closely they stood together. They had everything they needed. They had made a kind of Swiss bank account of each other’s mannerisms so that the originator was no longer identifiable. For instance, I don’t know which parent first began to purse their lips, but they both did it. Father believed, for apparently spiritual reasons, that at least one meal a day should be eaten with the hands; for years Mother resisted this eccentricity, yet as they got older, both of them ensured that lunch was taken with bread, which they used to scoop their plates, in place of cutlery, and now Mother had begun to take credit herself for this peculiarity. They communicated wordlessly. Sometimes, in the evenings, Sarah came into Peter’s study, and, with one hand vertical and the other placed horizontally across it, made a letter ‘T’, while looking quizzically at her husband. And though they drank tea every night, from the same art deco cups and saucers, the event seemed to give them the same pleasure every night; there was no death by repetition in their marriage. Quite the opposite, it was as if only by repetition they knew the exact weight of everything.
Oh if I could only have learned from this. I find myself incapable of repetition, and I marvel now at this aspect of their lives, at their emotional resourcefulness. On one of the many dark days, as the general optimism was needlingly challenged by a Northern rain (which quietly leaked through the window of the unheated bathroom, making a cold domestic silt in the corner of the window ledge), both parents, sensing danger like animals, said, simultaneously: ‘What about a fire? In the sitting room?’ And that stopped the rain.
Mother, with flour on her cheek, was beckoning us to the dinner-table. As I walked by her, I smudged the flour off with my finger. ‘What was it?’ she asked. I felt my parents look at each other, felt them walking behind me, close to each other. An irritation, a burst of jealousy went through me, but then my mother said: ‘Dearest, have you been packing things up? Books, books and more books, probably!’
‘A month or two in the North could be an eternity,’ I said, with a laugh.
‘Ha! Yes, hell is other people without any books,’ said Peter. ‘Now, will Jane be able to join you?’
‘Possibly for a short while,’ I said.
‘And Jane doesn’t mind losing her husband for a few weeks?’ asked Mother, looking very directly at me, but smiling. It suddenly occurred to me that my parents had probably never spent a night apart.
‘Well she’d rather I stayed, of course. But this is really all for the PhD. Present sacrifice for future gain. By the way, she played a very good recital last week for some of the students and also the general public. A lunchtime concert.’
‘Schumann?’ asked Father, all-knowingly.
‘Umm, yes, in fact, she did play some Schumann, I think.’
‘Probably the Kinderszenen.’
‘Exactly right Dad, yes. And some Beethoven and Mussorgs –’
‘Pictures?’ asked Father.
‘Yes, Pictures. Yes. Yes.’ I stopped for a moment, controlled my annoyance, and then went on.
‘About fifty people there, I was astounded, and only one of them seemed to be eating his lunch so for once it wasn’t a picnic with muzak or a sonata for sandwich papers but there was a problem with an old man at the back – who started humming the tune quite loudly at the end of the Mussorgsky, and this same man came up at the end and bowed low and gave Jane a bunch of flowers he must have been hiding in his coat, because I had turned round several times to frown him down and hadn’t seen them.’
‘Jane is so very pretty I do awfully understand the impulse,’ said Peter, with an enthusiastic vagueness. ‘Who was he?’
‘No idea,’ I said. Actually, it turned out, Dr Wilkerson was an old piano teacher of Jane’s, but I felt I had been obliging enough and it gave me an immature pleasure to withhold from my parents, especially my father, sitting there so receptively, information that would only make them happier and more genial than they already were.
‘What about your news?’ I asked, rather rapidly.
This was my mother’s cue; it always has been. She likes to tell stories, and imitate the voices of neighbours and friends with a high-pitched, soft snort of pleasure that makes her nostrils dilate. She creeps into people’s accents like an aristocratic burglar going through someone’s bedroom. Often it takes several seconds for me to realise that Mother has ‘disappeared’, and is inhabiting another voice.
I don’t remember, now, exactly what she said, but I do recall that my father laughed, and, in far-flung amusement, knocked over his wineglass. ‘Oh dash,’ he said, as the wine bloodied the blue tablecloth. He left the room, was gone several minutes, but returned only with a packet of cigarettes.
Father smoked every kind of tobacco; he passed that love on to me. His parishioners still recall a Harvest dinner in the church hall, in 1976, at which their vicar smoked a pipe before sitting down, a cigarette between courses, and a small cigar with his coffee. After that event, Mother had said that Peter was less like a smoker than a door-to-door salesman for tobacco, demonstrating its varied uses. I used to love watching him smoke when I was a little boy. When he exhaled, the cleaned, rare smoke took so long to emerge that his lungs seemed to be manufacturing it.
Mother appeared not to care that he didn’t choose to clean the stain on the tablecloth. She quietly left the room and returned with a cloth. Father struck his match, holding the flame to the end of the cigarette for too long, as if he were lighting a pipe, so that it burned fiercely. Charred streaks journeyed along the paper.
‘You know, Petie,’ Sarah said, ‘it’s the cigarette that’s having a cigarette, not you. It’s half-gone already.’
‘Oh my dear you are solicitous,’ he smiled. ‘Why shouldn’t the cigarette have a bit of a smoke? When I smoke my cigarette am I smoking it or is it smoking me? Thomas knows who I am paraphrasing, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I said, irritated in spite of myself, and resisting the old family game by refusing to supply Montaigne’s name.
‘One of the great Renaissance essayists,’ Father continued. ‘Possibly Christian, but more likely an agnostic and sceptic, and sensibly hiding his heresy from the authorities. But then, que sais-je?’ he finished, self-mockingly.
‘I’ve always disliked that idea of covert blasphemy,’ I said, perhaps a bit hotly, ‘like concealing a gun. It seems untruthful, dishonest.’ I said this, despite my own multiple dissimulations and deceits. I wasn’t at all sure why I was saying it, except to resist my father. I didn’t even believe what I was saying. My own ‘heresy’, after all, was covert for most of my adolescence. It was still essentially covert around my parents.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Peter. ‘That’s because you, Tommy, are so certain about it all, you see belief and unbelief as absolutes and absolute opposites. But what if they are closer than that to each other, I mean belief shadowed by unbelief and vice versa’ – he pronounced it vicey-versa – ‘so that one is not exactly sure where one begins and another ends. Then, “lying” about belief is not like concealing a gun, is not really like lying at all, but more like telling your wife that you slept well when in fact you spent the night racked by insomnia.’
‘But it’s still untruthful,’ I said, somewhat amazed that I was speaking these words so brazenly.
‘Well, well,’ said Father soothingly.
One reason that he and I found it so difficult to express our differences is that Peter Bunting brought his immense capacity for evasion into our arguments. Whether consciously or not, he reversed the places from where meaningful argument might issue. Peter, the supposed believer, the great parish priest, the former lecturer in theology, aerated his faith with so many little holes, so much flexibility and doubt and easy-going tolerance, that he simply disappeared down one of these holes. Of course, in English fashion, we never actually argued at all, not properly, had not really done so since I was about twenty; but the shape of how we would argue if an argument ever arose continually haunted our wary discourse, and neutralised any potential conflict before it began. I like the phrase ‘pseudo-statement’, which I first learned at university. Father and I only ever had pseudo-arguments.
After their tea ritual, my parents prepared for bed. There was a scene, repeated throughout my childhood, in which they used to debate who should first use the bathroom (the other bathroom was unheated).
‘Would you object, my dear, if I went first?’ said Father.
‘Of course not, my love, but please do remember not to keep the hot tap running while you do whatever you do in there, or there’ll be none left for the rest of us.’ Once, when asked more exactly, ‘what it is that you do in there’, Father had replied that he read either the Gospel of St Luke, or seed catalogues, the kind sent by companies to gardeners for mail-order. When Mother laughed, he seemed not to understand, pursed his lips, and then burst out: ‘Yes yes I see that the New Testament and a seed catalogue are essentially the same thing. But I’m telling the truth!’
In fact, Mother went first, and Father, backing more amply into his armchair, crossed his legs at the knees. Glancing at the raised shoe, I saw the pavement-coloured sole, unusually clean. ‘It’s – ’ Peter hesitated – ‘marvellous that you are with us, Tom. We’re looking forward so much to having you here. You’re coming to work up here, on the, er, the, the, thesis, yes?’
‘Yes, Dad. As I said. I’ll get it finished here. Not that it needs special time. It’s nearly finished anyway.’
‘I meant . . . I mean . . . that if you are having any difficulties, Jane and you . . . here, the home, is . . . obviously.’ The last word was said matter-of-factly, as if in a kind of onomatopeia the word enshrined its own obviousness. Father used it a great deal, and it usually made me sad. But I was grateful, and said: ‘Thank you, Dad.’
Peter stirred, mended his legs, rose. ‘Well it’s Sunday tomorrow, and I have the 7.30 Communion before the big service, so I shall push off now.’ Passing, he kissed me on the crown, keeping his hands in his pockets.
Left alone, I thought of nothing for a moment. My father’s favourite word hung in the aftermath. ‘Obviously’. The obvious and the hidden. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts. ‘Am I hidden, and my parents obvious?’ I thought. Yet what was obvious to me seemed opaque to them – my lack of religious faith, my ‘philosophising’, my attention to the pain and suffering of things . . . And here I was, back at home again, the garden where I played as a little boy. There was rain outside, I could hear the first falter of it on the grass and the old path leading to the church, growing stronger now, the clouds were confessing their harvest. The earth’s salivation – ‘oh that’s quite good,’ I thought, ‘that’s as good as anything Dad could have invented.’
The rain was now tramping on the roof; a drop invited itself down the chimney onto a log, was hissed away. I climbed the stairs to my old bedroom, calling out ‘Goodnight’ to my parents. Mother had turned on a light in the bedroom. I saw the familiar outlines of my childhood, confused by some of the furniture my parents had added in my absence. The single bed was innocently narrow, the chaste white sheet turned down at the head like a Puritan collar. Next to the bed was a crooked little altar-table. It had been used for many years by Peter as a private communion-table, for himself and those parishioners too old to endure a long service in the church. He had retired the table when it became unsteady, citing scripture: ‘And I took the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and broke them before your eyes’ – something like that.
There were two shelves of children’s books, still eagerly coloured. There was much heavy, ugly furniture in the room. Really, my childhood was full of heavy, ugly things. Father had always insisted on giving me ‘the best’ available object for my birthday, even when it was ugly, and despite my parents’ poor finances. Armed with an order from me, Father planned his mission around ‘the best’. As I opened it, the wrapping-paper crackled on the ground, where it resentfully retained the shape of the gift it had clothed, and Father used to say, ‘This is generally considered the best of its kind available,’ in a rather stiff, unnatural way, an important look on his round face.
When I was little, adulthood seemed a regime of such solidity. I used to wander through the house turning over the ungainly possessions my parents had acquired. In their bedroom was a heavy oak wardrobe filled with clothes that hung like dead curtains; this morbid plenitude was shocking, since my own little wardrobe was quite empty; there was a heavy bed, a dressing-table with wing-mirrors; a gentleman’s clothes-horse, with a wooden arm that extended like a public sign, on which to hang trousers. This contraption reminded me of a scarecrow; it seemed to belong outside. In the bottom drawer of a large chest were rows of silver metal cylinders, each with an old, unsmokable cigar in it. On the end of each cylinder was painted a rosy escutcheon, on which a knight on his horse gave a strange, shrunken smile. These had belonged to my father’s father; now the very things which had killed him were kept as relics of his existence.
For no good reason, or none I can recall, I used to think of my parents’ bedroom as the ‘bush telegraph’. It was an old-fashioned phrase Father used; it meant ‘the grapevine’. One heard something on the bush telegraph. In the bush telegraph was the wardrobe, which was ‘the hangman’, with its hanging things; the trouser-press was ‘the scarecrow’, and the drawer of cigars was ‘the coffin’.
I sat on my old bed, and looked at my feet. Why ‘the coffin’? Why ‘the hangman’? There were days so exciting when I was a boy that each morning was a delicious surprise, a joy adults can only mimic when they are fortunate enough to make a long journey by night, so that they can arise in an undiscovered place in the morning and see it in the first light. When anyone asks me, I say that my childhood was happy, and for once I am not lying. Wasn’t it an orchard, my childhood? But why, then, the worm? Tell me.