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

The Third Earl - III


Richard Jurgens - 2010-07-06

In the ballroom, the micro-scenes of a bourgeois wedding were in progress. An assortment of upper middle-class characters had been dancing to Abba, Wham! and Queen and getting totally sloshed in the English way. Niceness hung in the air like a Bond Street perfume. Now it was the time of slow dances.

The bridegroom’s father, CEO of a successful gold brokerage, was dancing formally with the bride’s mother, a straight-backed former prima donna of the London stage. Her father, the country doctor, was dancing rather less formally with the bridegroom’s stepmother, a lady some years younger than her husband. The bride’s younger brother was dancing with a little girl in a pretty flounced dress. Around them were circling men whose shirts were rumpled and women whose dress straps were descending. In the middle of it all floated the newly married couple.

The DJ had put on “Heaven”. Jeremy was oblivious to anything but the smell of his Bella’s hair and the music. It was probably the music that had been playing when they first looked into each other’s eyes. “Now the band in heaven/ they play my favourite song …”

More to the point, this was the kind of audience Hilton had secretly been hoping for. He’d been happy to make a modest life for himself in underground Amsterdam. Who wouldn’t have? But recently he’d been nagged by a sense that something was missing in his performances on home turf. Sadly, his audiences didn’t always appear to get every nuance, shading, or telling little rhyme. This gig was an opportunity to break through to a new and critical market. Who knew what contacts there might be in this well-heeled crowd. He’d been psyching himself up for hours.

He noticed an older man in a rather nice suit standing nearby who had been pointed out to him as an uncle of the bride. He was nursing a tumbler of gin and tonic while he observed the dancing. The expression on his face was ambiguous, somewhere between politeness and contempt.

“Great wedding,” said Hilton.

The man turned his mask in acknowledgment of having been spoken to. “Indeed.”

“She’s a lovely girl,” Hilton persisted. “I’m sure they’ll be very happy.”

“Are you?”

“Jeremy and I were neighbours back in Johannesburg when we were growing up. I’m glad to see him doing so well for himself.”

“That he is,” the man replied, frowning. “He’s in a new line, I hear. Dot com shares, I think they’re called. They’re all the rage. Know anything about them?”

His mask reverted to its ambiguous, slit-eyed consideration of the bridal couple. The saxophone slid into the last verses of the song. “Now when this kiss is over/ we’ll start over again ...’

“Uh, no,” Hilton said.

The man glanced at Hilton’s cap-and-bells and well-filled African print outfit. “No, I didn’t think so,” he said.

“Actually, I’m supposed to tell some stories tonight,” said Hilton. “Jeremy asked me to.”

“You’re an actor?”

The word, as he used it, carried strong connotations of unsavoury, and possibly criminal, activity.

“Well, yes,” said Hilton. “But mainly I tell stories.”

“I see,” the man said. “You’re a sort of clown.”

Hilton thought of the alternative films and theatre pieces he’d performed in over the years, the bad language, the ubiquitous drugs, the gratuitous sex. Ironically, the uptight old cunt wasn’t too far wrong.

                                                           *

The members of the bridegroom’s party had gone outside for a smoke.

“They must have a lot of gardeners,” Sparks said, looking at the cricket field-sized lawn. He had turned up a few minutes before, having been delayed at the B&B by a long call home.

“A whole brigade of them, probably,” said Barry Bravo.

He was a restless man with a grooved face that suggested hard living. Until recently he had been working for the intelligence services in South Africa, but there’d been some sort of putsch and he’d had to leave the country. Now he was teaching at a language school off Leicester Square. He was with his girlfriend, a pretty woman in a slightly retro Afro-chic outfit. She was stoically observing the roughneck dope circle unfolding on the lawn of the stately house with crossed arms: ja, hey, boykies.

Jeremy appeared out of the shadows. “There you are!” he said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

“Just in time, bru,” said Barry Bravo.

Jeremy noticed Sparks. “Hey, dude, got some whisky?” he said.

In fact, true to form, Sparks had coolly brought a supply of drugs through Her Majesty’s customs. He nodded in recognition of Jeremy’s joke as he mulled some of it in the palm of his hand. Barry Bravo, meanwhile, was preparing the bottleneck. Yet somehow the atmosphere didn’t seem convivial.

Jeremy noticed the woman. “Hello. Having a good time?”

“Hello yourself. Yes, so far. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, though.”

“Oh? Are we running out of booze?”

“They have issues,” Barry Bravo’s girlfriend murmured, nodding at the men.

“Wanna bust?” said Barry Bravo, offering Jeremy the charged bottleneck.

They knew the protocol. It was instinctive. They’d all grown up with it in far-away Jo-burg, if on different sides of the fence. You always passed the pipe clockwise. You didn’t gob it up. You didn’t hold on to it too long. And only a poes refused the privilege of busting.

Jeremy had become an MBA and a trader in the city and all that stuff, but he recalled that he’d been red-blooded once. He grasped the bottleneck and set it stoutly to his lips.

“Maybe you shouldn’t, brother,” said Sparks. “It’s strong stuff. All the way from Amsterdam.”

“Thank you, comrade Sparks,” said Barry Bravo.

Sparks shrugged and held the flame of his silver Zippo to the jagged mouth and Jeremy set the mix glowing. He took a sharp intake of breath, then another. The bottleneck blazed red and orange.

“There’s a taste of home!” he said. He smiled. Then his eyes glazed, and he folded like a rag doll on to the lawn.

                                                          *

In the bright high ballroom of Chartham a group of wedding guests were collapsing on chairs and sofas after dancing the macarena, which was all the rage that summer. The sexy hip movements of the dance had occasioned much laughing.

“I’m looking for Jeremy,” a voice said. “You haven’t seen him, have you?”

It was the bride, Bella. Like her mother, she was neat and trim, with the erect carriage of a ballet dancer. Her eyes were bright with happiness.

“Uh, not really,” Hilton said. “Actually, I’ve been hoping for a word with him myself.”

Jeremy was still keeping him waiting in the wings. He was a clown, a fool, to be caught up in the events and motives of other people’s lives like this.

“You know how he is,” he continued, improvising. “We used to call him Zebedee when we were at school. Sproing! Always somewhere else.”

“Zebedee?” she said. “How funny. How true! I’m going to use that.”

“You didn’t get it from me.”

“Who else could it be?” she said. “You’re the only one he was at school with.” She touched his arm. It was a nice gesture. It made him feel trusted.

The uncle chose that moment to wave at the DJ to shut down his noise and clapped his hands.

“I know you are all tired from your exertions on the dance floor,” he said. “I thought I’d make a quick announcement while enough of us are still compos mentis.”

An expectant hush fell in the great ballroom. Hilton knew instantly what the uncle had been like as a younger man – a sly, horribly repressed individual. He had probably enjoyed playing Graham Greene’s Hate Game. And in all those years he hadn’t changed.

“It appears we have a guest with us who has come all the way from Jeremy’s home town to tell us stories,” the uncle continued inexorably.

He gestured with a courtly, malicious gesture at Hilton. Astounded – for obviously he, Hilton, must have demanded to be announced – all eyes turned on him.

*

There’d been no question of leaving the bridegroom out on the lawn, of course. Sparks had slung him on to his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and they’d sneaked their comatose host past the heavy red ropes and up the grand carved staircase that led to the private wing without anyone seeing them.

Barry Bravo’s girlfriend stood at a door in the long patrician corridor, keeping watch. The plan, Hilton discovered later, had been to prime Jeremy with Sparks’s whisky and then put his head under a cold tap. Then they’d clean him up and get him back to his wedding, good as new, no one any the wiser. She admired the stately corridor with its pictures and busts in alcoves and its rows of clearly private doors. She’d seen some of those pictures in books, surely.

She became aware that the rescue operation in the room wasn’t going smoothly. Through the door she could hear the two men’s voices. To judge from the clink of glass and the slight whoosh of plumbing they were getting on with the “treatment”, but they were also arguing.

“Hi,” said Bella, appearing suddenly at the top of the stairs.

Barry Bravo’s girlfriend had lived with him through all the years in exile, the years of underground work in Gaborone, Harare and Lusaka. She’d learned to cover for him.

“Hi,” she said.

But the sound of male voices in low-voiced, persistent argument could still be heard through the door. She’d been right, earlier: the two men did have issues. They’d trained together in Angola, and had also been on a number of missions to countries in the East Bloc together. In fact, they’d been in East Berlin on a counter-surveillance course, all those years ago, when Sparks Mchunu had defected to the West.

“Ought we to be here?” said Bella.

“I’m just, you know – ”

“Ah,” said the bride. She didn’t know, but it would be gauche to ask. “Well, I’m just looking for my husband.”

Luckily a reply was unnecessary. The door opened and Jeremy emerged. He looked surprisingly fresh, considering, although his collar hung skew. Bella’s eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms. But her doubts diminished when Sparks and Barry Bravo appeared behind him.

“Darling,” Jeremy said. He took Bella’s hand.

So far so good. But behind him, Sparks and Barry Bravo were arguing again in fierce undertones. Something Sparks said caused Barry Bravo to grasp him by his shirt. The two men grappled each other and began to yell. Their wrestling brought them to the top of the staircase.

*

In the ballroom, Hilton was facing his audience. In a way, the moment was the sum total of his life. To entertain these people he would have to defeat Miss Warlocke.

During most of his childhood his father had been writing the book for which he had later become famous: The Rise and Certain Fall of the South African Reich. It had required extensive research abroad, when Hilton had been left in the care of a succession of English housekeepers. None of them had been anything like Miss Warlocke, of course. But they had shared one trait: they had all spent as little time or money on housekeeping as possible. Jeremy, the rich boy next door, had often been his only resource.

He took a breath and launched into his opening spiel. This crowd was drunk; they’d just been dancing. He decided to skip the courting stories and go straight into “The Marriage of the Elephant and the Flea”. He felt his voice relaxing, and he saw the hostile “Who-the-fuck-are-you?” expressions in all those eyes change to “Okay-mate-you’ve-got-thirty-seconds”.

And they got it, immediately. At the end of the first part someone echoed back the refrain, “It’s just the way of things, we don’t know why.” He had them! He was gonna rock!

That was the moment when Sparks and Barry Bravo came tumbling down the stairs into the great entrance hall, wrestling with each other and yelling in fluent tsotsitaal.

                                                         *

Outside, the night air was cool, and the stars were bright above the trees at the far end of the lawn, where the fields began. Summer smells were drifting on the breeze: dew on mown grass, a lake cooling after a warm day, the loamy richness of an ancient soil.

Hilton had thought it best to slip out during the commotion that had followed the sudden appearance of his pugnacious compatriots. He pictured the bed he’d lain on so briefly that afternoon back at the Mad Hatter. It was far away, along a twisting, maze-like route of country lanes now deeply swathed in evening shadow. And I have miles to go before I sleep.

“Pleasant, isn’t it?” a voice said. A heavy-set man had emerged from the gathering darkness. He was dressed in a tie and cardigan, as if for an evening at home with Mozart on the gramophone. It was the bookseller. Hilton was surprised. He hadn’t noticed him among the guests earlier.

“Lovely,” Hilton said cautiously.

“Care for a dram?”

Hilton saw that the man had a bottle with him and a couple of whisky glasses.

“Don’t mind if I do,” he said.

The old chap sloshed generous portions.

“Usually take mine with a drop of soda water,” he said. “Sometimes one needs something stronger. Well, bottoms up.”

Hilton drained his glass. The whiskey burned like napalm through his system.

“A pity, just now,” said the man. “You had them going, all right.”

Hilton said nothing. He was learning to say nothing.

“We get fights at weddings quite often, you know,” said the old man. “It’s the damnedest thing. My theory is testosterone. Young men, still unattached, suddenly afraid they won’t become alpha males themselves and propagate. Of course, it happens to most of them in the end anyway.”

“It must be lovely here when there aren’t all these people about,” Hilton said.

“Ah, yes,” said the old man, his tone that of a man of property talking to another. “The place costs a lot in upkeep, of course. Last year we had to redo the entire roof. The cost of labour these days. Ruinous.”

Mentally, Hilton allowed his jaw to drop. Outwardly, he hoped that he kept his composure.

“Another dram?” said the Earl, the lord and master of all this beauty.

Hilton didn’t mind if he did. His day of surprises dropped away like a discarded rocket booster.

“I don’t mind telling you: I do get rather tired of seeing day-trippers around the place,” the old man continued. “Gets like a bloody museum around here sometimes. Still, it’s worth it, I suppose … Here, let me show you something.” He took Hilton by the elbow and pointed to a wall of one of the wings of the house, which was splendid in the lights. “Do you see?”

Hilton saw an elegant face of carefully worked red stone in the floodlights. The stone was rather pitted in places, as if the house had once come under heavy fire.

“Exactly,” the fellow said. “Sixteen forty-six that was. A gang of Cromwell’s Roundhead thugs. Shot up everything in sight, including a statue by Bellini, so the legend goes. That was in the third Earl’s time, of course. Sent the bastards packing. Cromwell, Blair, the lot of ’em, eh? Here, have another drop.”

Hilton accepted another well-filled tumbler. The stars of Somerset were spinning.

*

Most of the wedding guests had gone when Hilton returned to the house later. He’d woken up in the middle of the vast dark lawn.

Flunkeys were piling chairs in the ballroom and clearing away the remains of the plentiful supply of food and drink that had been provided. Hilton found Sparks and Barry Bravo on the magnificent Renaissance balcony. No sign of the girlfriend. No doubt she’d departed to her comfortable room.

Sparks was hidden in a pungent cloud of smoke. Having taken his fill, he passed the bottleneck to Barry Bravo. Here they were, the mortal enemies of an hour before, happily passing the peace pipe.

“You’re lucky, bru,” said Barry Bravo. “We were just going to leave.”

“I was chatting with the Earl,” Hilton said.

“Must have been a long conversation.”

“Look, what the hell happened earlier?” said Hilton. He wanted his bed.

“Forget it, comrade,” Sparks said. “It’s history.”