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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

The Third Earl - II


Richard Jurgens - 2010-07-01



Over at the Britannia it was too early for the evening crowd, and dead quiet. Kitchener, of course, stared grimly from a wall. The publican was manning his ornate draught taps with the boredom of a helmsman on a routine voyage. Hilton was tempted to tap on the counter with a coin and say, “Now look here my good man …”

“You’ll be wanting your friend,” the man said.

He looked like a former wrestler, but then, it was hard to tell; most British men under a certain age looked like former wrestlers these days.

“So he’s here,” Hilton said. “Thank god. I hope he hasn’t torn up the place. He goes crazy if he’s had too much to drink – especially spirits. You haven’t been letting him drink whisky?” He was rewarded by the oily gleam of alarm that appeared in the man’s eye.

“Your friend’s quite a character,” the publican said; “I’ll say that.”

Other performers didn’t have to put up with this shit, Hilton thought. Obstacles to his preparations for the evening were popping up at every turn like targets on a live shooting range. He fought an impulse to throttle the fellow. Proud of his restraint, he merely raised an eyebrow.

“His lordship’s in the private bar,” the man said, indicating a heavy door on the other side of the room.

In the right mood Sparks could be very convivial, Hilton knew, especially when booze was involved. The man made friends wherever he went; he received postcards from people he’d dined with in Kigali and Ouagadougou or had drinks with during stop-overs in Rome or Cairo. He worked for some sort of international NGO. But “his lordship”? Lord Mchunu? It had surely been the speediest elevation to the peerage in history.

The private bar was actually just a room stuffed with leather armchairs and nineteenth-century prints of hunting scenes. There was a lovely view of a garden running down to boathouse on the bank of a tree-lined river. Toad Hall would be somewhere just over the horizon.

Sparks was sitting in an armchair by a low table, engaged in conversation with a cultured-looking older gent in a cravat and red corduroy jacket. Sparks himself, in his off-duty gear, looked like a militant reggae star: he had added dark glasses to his usual short beaded dreads and green military jacket. On the table between them stood a bottle of whisky, half-full, and several heavy cut-crystal glasses.

“Comrade!” said Sparks.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Hilton said pointedly.

“Ah, there you are,” said the gent. “Do join us.”

He rose to shake Hilton’s hand. It was an ingrained courtesy, merely, but pleasant all the same. It seemed to suggest shared citizenship in a world where people behaved decently and helped one another along the bumpy track of life. Hilton had pegged him as a semi-retired antique dealer, or a seller of rare books, perhaps.

“You friend was just entertaining me with some stories of his exploits in Africa and the Communist Bloc,” said the bookseller.

“Yes, we’ve certainly seen some interesting times,” said Hilton.

“I was telling all about you too, comrade,” said Sparks. “How you are our mbongi, back in Amsterdam. Our teller of tales.”

“Well, thanks, man,” said Hilton. This was more like it. He felt a guilty rush of affection for Sparks, about whom he’d been entertaining some distinctly black thoughts earlier. He decided that it might be safe to sit down.

“Have some whisky,” said the gent. “No? All right, I’m sure we’re ready for another.” He poured generous dollops and sat back in his armchair. “So, I’m led to believe you’re a storyteller?”

“Yes,” Hilton said cautiously. It didn’t sound very legitimate, he had to admit. It sounded like “tinker”, or “poet”.

“How interesting,” the gent said. He leaned back in his armchair and arched his hands. “Well, then, perhaps you’d consider telling us a story.”

“Here?” said Hilton.

“Why not?” said the gent.

He indicated the gorgeous room, the old softness of the leather on the Chesterfields, the carved wood panelling, the country scenes of the chase, the ornate gilt clock on the mantle piece, the view on the garden through the leaded windows. The windows were oddly similar to the ones in Hilton’s dream earlier. Outside, a blackbird was fluting his ornate serenade to the dusk.

Hilton had been thinking about the stories he’d do tonight. He had them lined up in his head like good little soldiers.

“All right,” he said. “This is the story of ‘The Hunter and the Fox’.

A hunter had got lost one day;
he heard his friends hallooing
somewhere in a distant wood,
and who knew what the hounds were doing.

And he was trotting down a tree-lined lane
sunk in deserved embarrassment
when in a field he saw a dash of red.
He needed no encouragement.

Off after her the hunter charged.
If he brought home the Fox’s brush
he’d be the hero of the hour!
And so he chased her through thick bush

and all across his neighbours’ fields –
running for her life the Fox ran helter-skelter
flashing her red tail in the sun
to reach her den and shelter.

At length the hunter and his horse
arrived all puffed out at their goal
to find Miss Fox regarding them
from the safe darkness of her hole.

‘Without your dogs, without your bullies,
dear sir, you’ll never get my tail,’
said she with subtle grin. ‘Now run along
and if you dare to – tell your tale.’”

“Splendid!” said the bookseller heartily, rather to Hilton’s surprise.

“Very nice, comrade,” said Sparks. “When was it written?”

Hilton would have given him the stiff middle finger, but maintained propriety in the presence of the gent in the corduroy jacket.

“Have another drop,” said the bookseller. He did not need Sparks’s permission to add another tot or two to his glass. “Talking of tales, you’ve heard the story of how Mr Mchunu here climbed the Berlin Wall? Quite extraordinary.”

                                                          *

A short while later a maroon Jaguar Mk 2 drew out of the parking area at the Britannia. It turned into the quiet high street, past the Mad Hatter, and glided past the garage and into the countryside, where the fields and hedgerows lay under the golden haze of an English summer evening.

“What about some music?” said the bookseller. He slotted a CD into the player. Hilton had expected opera, but the old duffer was a Beatles fan.

The reception was being held at a place called Chartham, and he’d offered Hilton a lift; he was going in that direction, apparently. Hilton had seized the opportunity. This way, at least, the hit man would arrive at the venue early and get his routine on track. Sparks, meanwhile, had gone back to the Mad Hatter for a bath. He’d turn up at the reception later, he said. Despite his annoying insouciance, things had come out right in the end.

The bookseller drove with a gloved hand on the wheel, silently singing the words of the songs. They were both happy enough to enjoy gliding through that gorgeous afternoon as “Let it be” unfolded on the car stereo.

Hilton savoured the smell of the leather seats, the polish of the walnut finish, the supernatural smoothness of the engine. He wasn’t particularly interested in cars, not being a driver, but he could certainly appreciate quality when he saw it. His father had had a car just like this one, only his had been (fittingly) white. Hilton had spent many hours in it, being ferried to and from school by Morrison, his father’s Malawian driver. He had even deflowered a girl on its back seat once – Jeremy’s cousin, as it happened. She had been visiting during a summer holiday, and there had been a fuss about it. (Well, she’d looked sixteen.) He wondered if she was among the guests, and if he would recognise her. Or she him.

The car turned into an arched gate with a little gatehouse. Chartham stood at the end of a winding drive lined with chestnut trees like guardsmen standing to attention. Its central part, in red stone, a complex masque of intricate mini-columns, curlicues and leaded windows, was supported on either side by wings that had been added later, in different styles and other shades of stone. A lawn like a cricket field rolled down from the Renaissance-style viewing gallery to a shady copse. On a hill, half-hidden among green trees, the white columns of a folly gleamed in the early evening.

Hilton was relieved when the bookseller gunned the Jag up the private road. It was a considerable distance to the house.