Besieged Fortress: Next Part
London proves more tricky to navigate than the currents through the Straits - especially for a landlubber.
The next few days were, then and forever afterwards, a blur. Challans' enthusiasm for the idea had been unbounded, and his energy in promoting it scarcely less so. To his somewhat bewildered amusement, Laurie found himself dragged into a succession of meetings with people Challans thought might be useful, even attending one or two of the infamous cocktail parties. The whole process had culminated in a long discussion in the over-chromed bar of a big hotel somewhere in the West End with an America who from an unfortunate resemblance in features and overall air of well-fed and manicured self-satisfaction Laurie had initially been inclined to write off as a transatlantic take on the Longenhurst model. Fortunately for the success of the evening, a passing reference to Algeçiras Bay, in the context of one of Laurie's sketches, had produced the wholly unexpected biographical sidelight that the American - Baxter - had an intimate knowledge of Spain: as a reporter during the Civil War he'd slogged from one end of the country to the other, mostly under fire. Under that slightly too emphatic suit he'd still got the shrapnel scars to prove it. If he looked, now, as though he was enjoying the comforts of home a little too much no-one could deny he'd earned them.
The evening caught fire in mutual reminsciences of field station expedients and the fantastic grotesqueries of war. Rather later Laurie caught Challans' bird-bright eyes on him, and the ghost of a small, knowing smile.
Laurie left the bar with a commission for an initial series of six articles, and an ingenious set of proposals for paying expenses and advances in dollars outside the sterling area which led him to suspect that despite surface appearances the New Yorker had more in common with Tómas and Philippe that he would ever have with Longenhurst. Laurie hoped - with a wry recollection of past disputes about how the conflict between the pragmatic and the proper course was ever to be resolved - that Andrew would not press him too closely on the financial details.
But Laurie would, during the few days that followed, have at least welcomed an opportunity to avoid such pressing. There had only been time for two visits out to The Beeches, and he had seen Andrew on neither of them. Even that first time Laurie thought he had detected Dave looking at him with a half-questioning air, as though trying to gauge whether Laurie might, perhaps, have an ulterior motive for his presence.
Once that suspicion had rooted itself it became impossible on Laurie's later visits even to mention Andrew - no matter in the most prosaic and fleeting of contexts - without the self-consciousness that his tone, his expression - even the tint of his skin which, as ever, blushed betrayingly at the slightest awkwardness - was subject to the scrutiny of those keen, unembarrassed, non-judgmental eyes.
Laurie would have liked to put Dave's mind at rest, but this was something Laurie was unable to disentangle even for himself.
Laurie's first sight of Andrew long ago had had such an impact on his own personal universe that in looking back into his own history he found himself mentally assigning events before and after his stay in the EMS hospital near Bridstow.
Their recent reunion had been almost equally disturbing, though not in any way he could have predicted. It was as though over the intervening seven years - which accounted for how many decades of subjective experience for all of them? - Andrew had changed almost beyond recognition.
Grown up, you mean?, the baleful inner voice which had been his constant companion these last few weeks commented. But that particular thought was a bitter one, and he shied from it. The voice did not press the matter, though he caught a faint breath of mocking, bitter laughter in his ears.
Certainly no-one could argue that the man Andrew had become was anything other than admirable. And yet, when Laurie had, stumbling awkwardly, tried to convey some flavour of the sort of thing one simply did not say, Andrew had merely smiled.
But that, too, merely emphasised how far behind was the past. With a pang Laurie saw Andrew's features no longer composed themselves into the cool, detached amusement which the sculptors of the Museum friezes had sought to capture in marble. Instead, his expression conveyed a warm, wry appreciation of the excellence of God's jokes, whether encompassed in the duck-billed platypus or in one's own absurd mortality. One would have thought it wholly charming, had one not seen what it had replaced.
He'd stretched back in the hard kitchen chair, taller - surely - than Laurie remembered, wholly at ease in his own skin.
"I shouldn't say I'd got very far. But I daresay I wouldn't have got anywhere at all if I hadn't had a boost by people giving me credit for seeming, just long enough for me to realise it was time I started being instead, and that I needed to try to grow into that. Having someone start one off in the right direction; that's more important than anything. After all, even St Paul didn't know which end of the road was the right one in the beginning."
Almost there was a pin-prick of resentment at the carelessness of his ease. Oblivious, Andrew continued.
"You know; I think that book you gave me helped remind me what I'd missed, not keeping on with Greek through everything. After that, I tried to do more. I ended up re-reading The Seven in the ruins of Thebes. On the hillside, with the cicadas whirring and the smell of the wild thyme, and the German guns advancing all the time on the position so we knew we'd be having to get the wounded out before nightfall. About the last place, one would have thought, to need someone like Aeschlyus to tell one what an idiocy war is. The absurd thing was, when I finished, there were tears in my eyes. And then the shelling started again, and we had to run to our stations. Which made the whole mess seem even more futile than it had before."
Suddenly conscious (cold breath on the back of his neck, and the hairs rising) of another presence in the room, another's corner to defend, Laurie had snapped,
"But Aeschylus fought at Marathon, all the same."
For the first time Andrew's voice had held the hurt, almost sulky tones of a much younger man, flicked on the raw by some stinging dismissal from his elders, and too unsophisticated - or honest - to disguise it.
"But it was after Marathon he wrote Seven against Thebes. Don't you think it would have made some difference?"
And Laurie, suddenly remembering perhaps too much, had caught his breath, and then made a business of getting up to make more tea, lest Andrew might have noticed.
No. It was hardly as if he were in a position to enlighten Dave about ulterior motives.
It was easier to avoid mentioning Andrew altogether. And they not were gravelled for want of other matter. With Baxter's dollars greasing the wheels, and a slight relenting on the part of the Treasury (encouraged by Laurie's renewed contacts with one or two of his war-time colleagues - he had not imagined, he thought ruefully, that the drier reaches of the Civil Service would be susceptible to the snob-appeal of literary fame, particularly of the scandalous variety, but he had been wrong about that) they were in a position to start sooner than he had expected. The pressure of last minute business was frightening. There was enough to keep Laurie occupied so thoroughly until the planned date of embarkation as almost to preclude any hope of further visits to The Beeches.
He wondered, as he made his way to the Tube station on the last occasion, whether Andrew would be sorry about that fact. And whether Dave would be glad of it.
Laurie had, however, not without trepidation, found time to accept Baxter's unexpected invitation to dinner at the Savoy shortly before his planned departure date. The American, it seemed, was finding post-War London infinitely tedious, and yet pressure of business kept him there. And certainly the horrors of "Evening Dinner" at Laurie's hotel would have driven the primmest Vestal to sup with Caligula, did the food but promise to be better than at her home table.
Not thirty minutes into events Laurie realised he had worried unneccessarily. Baxter had summed him up on their first meeting with a shrewd, assessing eye, and put any other ideas - had he had them at all - into a box most plainly labelled Might-Have-Beens. Once or twice during the evening Baxter had looked at Laurie with a quick, subtle glance, as if to say, "Had things been different, we might have shown each other something, you and I. What a pity your thoughts are so evidently bent elsewhere, and that I am too much of a pragmatist - and, perhaps, of a romantic - to accept the challenge of trying to turn their direction."
But there was nothing anyone could possibly object to in his manner; the contrast with certain recollections was profound. Laurie tried - to the extent, at least, that it would not lead to further complications - to show that he had noticed, and was grateful.
Both food and conversation flowed more freely than Laurie - with a slight shock - realised he had experienced since Ralph had left Gibraltar. Almost unconsciously, he found he had embarked on the story of Philippe's notebook, and, seeing nothing but a profound and understanding interest in Baxter's expression, had gone to the cloakroom to retrieve it from his overcoat pocket.
It was not a story he had thought either Andrew or Dave would appreciate - Philippe's values were so far removed from theirs as to make even giving the two things the same name seemed somehow wrong. Ralph would have understood, of course, but then - somewhere between the cheese and the dessert Laurie fully appreciated this for what seemed like the first time - the burden of that little rectangle of leather and paper, dried blood and obligation was too urgent to wait until he could - he surprised himself with the stubborness with which his brain refused to say "might" - discuss it with Ralph.
But for the meantime this smooth, slightly paunchy individual with the too-groomed hair and the concealed shrapnel scars, Laurie realised, would do. He would understand.
Baxter heard the story and nodded, gravely. Sure there were contacts he could invoke; people he could communicate with. Someone would be bound to know someone. It would be an honour to do what he could. He'd expect first publication rights if Laurie found there was an article in it, mind. That OK? He could contact Laurie by wire, after he left for Europe, of course? Via the F.A.U? Really? Unexpected, but: a fine organisation. He'd known a man who'd been wounded in the assault on Monte Cassino, who - now this might surprise Laurie -
It continued, unexpectedly, a good evening with nothing to mar it. Walking home - it was hardly more than a mile, and the few fugitive taxis were full, or going off duty - Laurie reflected that it had been the longest period he could remember in which he'd not worried over either Ralph or Andrew.
He lay awake beneath the thin blankets of the hotel trying to think why that might be so. But dawn had broken over the smoky slates of London before he abandoned the attempt to puzzle it out, and slept at last.