ajhall (ex_ajhalluk585) wrote in maryrenault,

Besieged Fortress

Ralph/Laurie. Seven Years Later, Gibraltar, London and elsewhere. Usual warnings and disclaimers.

Laurie finds himself with a dilemma he needs help to resolve - and resolves to seek it.

Laurie found himself at loose ends the next day. Challans - after making what Laurie thought of as a ridiculously disproportionate (though nonetheless heartwarming) fuss about the fragments in the attaché case - had given him a brisk order not to clutter up the scene until told it might do some practical good.

"Morris," Challans had said, "is at heart a gentleman. And his profession is still one which claims some gentlemanly values. Furthermore, while he could - of course - sue you, what use would it be? Perhaps he gets his advance back - so what? It might have been generous for a second novel, but it isn't as if it was enough to make a ha'porth of difference in the fortunes of his firm. Or - at best - you deliver a rushed, late, resentful book, and force him to make the best of it. And as I said, his authors are already somewhat unsettled. Once the news got round - and I assure you, it would get round - his problems would merely be compounded. Especially if it were known to have been Longenhurst's doing. No; let me tackle Morris. And keep your head down until I've done it."

So Laurie found himself thrown upon the chilly comforts of the intensely - ironically - respectable private hotel near Russell Square he had booked practically at random. Fairly soon that morning the atmosphere of godliness, stale boiled cabbage and horsehair proved too oppressive to linger in. He was driven to wander out into London, with no specific object in view and the few ideas which came to him seemed to be ruled out either because of war damage or Austerity.

Eventually he found himself in the British Museum, where the galleries still had the odd, denuded appearance which denoted that much of the permanent collections had not been retrieved from caverns in the Mendips or whatever other refuge had been found for them against the Blitz.

But there was enough remaining in the Graeco-Roman galleries to give him, nonetheless, a sense of homecoming which had eluded him so far. He had spent too much time here, stolen hours in half-term holidays, a sketch-book on his knee to provide some kind of alibi against overly inquisitive grown-ups, who would not have understood. These were not exhibits; they were the friends and companions of his youth: the discus thrower concentrating all his thoughts and hopes on the eternal Olympic now, the young ephebe gentling his horse as it reared before the battle that was the first blooding for them both, the grave senator receiving the news of defeat or victory with the same impassion stoicism.

Those sculpted robes had draped exactly so over those marble limbs for two millenia, and those eyes had looked gravely out across the ruin of civilisations which were now no more than names, and still gazed non-judgmentally down at him. For the first time it seemed in years Laurie found himself with space to think at last.

It was some hours before he went out into the streets of London, and now he had a direction to his movements.

Once Laurie had determined on returning to England the notion of going down to his home village and doing something about his mother's grave had been haunting him as a duty to be performed. The thought of meeting the Rev. Straike had been daunting - and of course, while in ordinary circumstances one might hope to dive in and out of the village without risking the encounter, the churchyard was so much Straike's particular property, especially since the Vicarage front windows overlooked that the encounter was more than probable, nor could one expect that tact or family feeling would deter the Rev. Straike from pressing it.

It was hardly a meeting to which anyone could look forwards. But Laurie had sternly pushed such doubts away as cowardice, though they had remained as a small, tight, unhappy knot below his midriff.

Beneath the cool archaic scrutiny of the friezes other thoughts had been able to emerge.

What was the point of visiting his mother's grave at all? A ritualistic piety, like Antigone breaking Creon's commands to sprinkle dust on her brother's broken body? A superstitious observance, the placatory appeasement of the household gods? A dare, proving to himself, like a child running up to a house where lives a ferocious watchdog, that he could conquer his fear of Straike's unctuous disapproval? Or a genuine manifestation of faith?

Laurie had not so much lost his faith as woken up one day at school - sitting in the bluebottle-haunted chapel, with the service droning interminably on - with a vague sense that any God who allowed someone like Mumps Jepson to entreat him at length in that nauseating nasal whine without striking him dead on the spot from a sense of pure aesthetics was a rather poor excuse for a Supreme Being. Later on, of course, the various Buchmanites and OICCU members one encountered in College had done their best to save his soul (especially since he had become known to be associated with Charles Fortescue and his set, whom those types distrusted with a deep instinctive loathing, despite having - Laurie supposed - too much innocence to understand how right they were). They had retreated baffled before Laurie's unshakeable conviction that their faith existed mainly to convince themselves that they had an importance to the universe which all empirical evidence indicated they completely lacked. And even his brief acquaintance with Andrew had served less to convince him that Christianity was a serious belief than that it was one that serious people might believe.

At that time it had not occurred to Laurie to wonder how his mother had felt about the same matter. During his childhood she had always appeared thoroughly, conventionally faithful - he would have thought that the sun would stop in its tracks sooner than think of his mother being late for Morning Service on a Sunday, or preferring the easy option of a lie-in, and her marriage had seemed to be an unequivocal throwing of her lot in with the Church, and all that entailed in terms of his perpetual exile.

Nevertheless, during the few scattered, guilty weekends he had been pressured into spending at the Vicarage during the War (conscious of his stepfather's eye on him as if Straike were a Government spy, and Laurie a suspected fifth columnist being watched for a fatal slip) he had started to reach a different conclusion. His mother had been an accomplished actress, much in demand for village pageants and amateur productions 'got up' for worthy causes. But Laurie had learned to detect when his mother liked the part allocated to her and when - with infinite grace, as ever - she had accepted a role she did not care for. The parts she liked she threw herself heart and soul into, whereas those she did not - she adopted with even more conspicuous fervour. The last two or three weekends he had spent at the Vicarage, he had detected a familiar note about her too-energetic embrace of church business.

Would it, in truth, be cowardice if he avoided the encounter altogether? The memorial in the churchyard was a symbol, nothing more: his mother was not there, not in any sense that mattered. And if she were - how would she feel if Straike did see him, and made a scene?

He remembered her long-ago views on the school performance of Hamlet.

"So vulgar, that fight in the grave scene . You can hardly imagine that Ophelia would have thanked either her young man or her brother for making such exhibitions of themselves." And then, laying her hand confidingly on his arm, "Not that one can blame you, dear. You played it in a most dignified way."

There was no help for it. The friezes had given him what counsel they could, but he needed another human mind to help him clarify what he truly wished to do.

Someone with clearer judgment than he, who might cut through the competing claims of self to the bedrock of what was right below.

He found the name in the telephone book without difficulty. It was the same address as the one he'd noted down seven years ago, almost incredibly given how the East End had suffered through the war. He thought, momentarily, of calling ahead to see that there was someone there, but that, suddenly, felt like cheating.

On a whim, throwing himself upon the fates, Laurie made his way towards Holborn tube.

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