Restless Extract

William Boyd
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Restless

Restless
Chapter One

 

When I was a child and was being fractious and contrary and generally behaving badly, my mother used to rebuke me by saying: 'One day someone will come and kill me and then you'll be sorry'; or, 'They'll appear out of the blue and whisk me away — how would you like that?'; or, 'You'll wake up one morning and I'll be gone. Disappeared. You wait and see.'

It's curious, but you don't think seriously about these remarks when you're young. But now — as I look back on the events of that interminable hot summer of 1976, that summer when England reeled, gasping for breath, pole-axed by the unending heat — now I know what my mother was talking about: I understand that bitter dark current of fear that flowed beneath the placid surface of her ordinary life — how it had never left her even after years of peaceful, unexceptionable living. I now realise she was always frightened that someone was going to come and kill her. And she had good reason.

It all started, I remember, in early June. I can't recall the exact day - a Saturday, most likely, because Jochen wasn't at his nursery school - and we both drove over to Middle Ashton as usual. We took the main road out of Oxford to Stratford and then turned off it at Chipping Norton, heading for Evesham, and then we turned off again and again, as if we were following a descending scale of road types; trunk road, road, B-road, minorroad, until we found ourselves on the metalled cart track that led through the dense and venerable beech wood down to the narrow valley that contained the tiny village of Middle Ashton. It was a journey I made at least twice a week and each time I did so I felt I was being led into the lost heart of England — a green, forgotten, inverse Shangri-La where everything became older, mouldier and more decrepit.

Middle Ashton had grown up, centuries ago, around the Jacobean manor house - Ashton House - at its centre, still occupied by a distant relative of the original owner-builder-proprietor, one Trefor Parry, a seventeenth-century Welsh wool-merchant-made-good who, flaunting his great wealth, had built his grand demesne here in the middle of England itself. Now, after generation upon generation of reckless, spendthrift Parrys and their steadfast, complacent neglect, the manor house was falling down, on its last woodwormed legs, giving up its parched ghost to entropy. Sagging tarpaulins covered the roof of the east wing, rusting scaffolding spoke of previous vain gestures at restoration and the soft yellow Cotswold stone of its walls came away in your hand like wet toast. There was a small damp dark church near by, overwhelmed by massive black-green yews that seemed to drink the light of day; a cheerless pub — the Peace and Plenty, where the hair on your head brushed the greasy, nicotine varnish of the ceiling in the bar — a post office with a shop and an off-licence, and a scatter of cottages, some thatched, green with moss, and interesting old houses in big gardens. The lanes in the village were sunk six feet beneath high banks with rampant hedges growing on either side, as if the traffic of ages past, like a river, had eroded the road into its own mini-valley, deeper and deeper, a foot each decade. The oaks, the beeches, the chestnuts were towering, hoary old ancients, casting the village in a kind of permanent gloaming during the day and in the night providing an atonal symphony of creaks and groans, whispers and sighs as the night breezes shifted the massive branches and the old wood moaned and complained.

I was looking forward to Middle Ashton's generous shade as it was another blearily hot day - every day seemed hot, that summer - but we weren't yet bored to oblivion by the heat. Jochen was in the back, looking out of the car's rear window -he liked to see the road 'unwinding', he said. I was listening to music on the radio when I heard him ask me a question.

'If you speak to a window I can't hear you,' I said.

'Sorry, Mummy.'

He turned himself and rested his elbows on my shoulders and I heard his quiet voice in my ear.

'Is Granny your real mummy?'

'Of course she is, why?'

'I don't know . . . She's so strange.'

'Everybody's strange when you come to think of it,' I said. 'I'm strange . . . You're strange.'

'That's true,' he said, 'I know.' He set his chin on my shoulder and dug it down, working the muscle above my right collarbone with his little pointed chin, and I felt tears smart in my eyes. He did this to me from time to time, did Jochen, my strange son - and made me want to cry for annoying reasons I couldn't really explain.

At the entrance to the village, opposite the grim pub, the Peace and Plenty, a brewer's lorry was parked, delivering beer. There was the narrowest of gaps for the car to squeeze through.

'You'll scrape Hippo's side,' Jochen warned. My car was a seventh-hand Renault 5, sky blue with a (replaced) crimson bonnet. Jochen had wanted to christen it and I had said that b ecause it was a French car we should give it a French name and so I suggested Hippolyte (I had been reading Taine, for some forgotten scholarly reason) and so 'Hippo' it became - at least to Jochen. I personally can't stand people who give their cars names.

'No, I won't,' I said. I'll be careful.'

I had just about negotiated my way through, inching by, when the driver of the lorry, I supposed, appeared from the pub, strode into the gap and histrionically waved me on. He was a youngish man with a big gut straining his sweatshirt and distorting its Morrell's logo and his bright beery face boasted mutton-chop whiskers a Victorian dragoon would have been proud of.

'Come on, come on, yeah, yeah, you're all right, darling,' he wheedled tiredly at me, his voice heavy with a weary exasperation. 'It's not a bloody Sherman tank.'

As I came level with him I wound down the window and smiled.

I said: 'If you'd get your fat gut out of the way it'd be a whole lot easier, you fucking arsehole.'

I accelerated off before he could collect himself and wound up the window again, feeling my anger evaporate - deliciously, tinglingly - as quickly as it had surged up. I was not in the best of moods, true, because, as I was attempting to hang a poster in my study that morning, I had, with cartoonish inevitability and ineptitude, hit my thumbnail - which was steadying the picture hook - square on with the hammer instead of the nail of the picture hook. Charlie Chaplin would have been proud of me as I squealed and hopped and flapped my hand as if I wanted to shake it off my wrist.


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