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He walked the other way, trying to ease his stiff legs, down towards High Street Kensington. Kensington Palace looked beautiful, floating on the morning mist, illuminated as if from within by the early sun, and the statue of Victoria – the Bun Penny – glowed like a pearl. This is how Terence should have painted it, he thought.Damn Terence.
He stopped in at the Lyons Tea House, and ordered tea. He stared at the thick white cup until the waitress suggested he buy another or move on, would you, because there’s others need the table, and then buying another, and another. I should go to Sir Alfred’s, he thought. Apologise, at least, for staying out, even though I can’t explain. He’ll think the worse of me . . . but then I think the worse of him . . .
Oh, it’s not his fault.
I should go home, he thought. But he knew he wasn’t going home. What – talk to Mum about it? Or Dad? This was not a situation a young man took home.
Where does a young man take this situation? he thought, and he laughed, a sleepless, angry, hungry, lonely, embarrassed, humiliated laugh. He knew perfectly well where this was leading. It was inexorable.
His seventh cup of tea stood cold in front of him.
He was still damp through from the park when he went up to the recruiting station. He had calmed down a little, but not much. He was going to do it. He bloody was. With him gone, Nadine could go back to Sir Alfred’s. He’d prove himself a man, in the army. Hard work. Proper work. No nancy stuff – no art. Make Nadine proud. Or knock her out of his system.
‘Here I am,’ he said to the recruiting sergeant. ‘You can have me.’ He gave him a big grin. Change. Big and total change.
You only had to be five foot five now. He was sent in the back to be looked at. He stripped off and flung his shoulders back, coughing in the cold back room while another posh man held his balls. Was he eyeing him up? Stop it, Riley, they’re not all like that. Next behind him was a tough and scrawny Cockney youth who said, apropos the balls situation: ‘They’ve always got you by the bollocks one way or another, ain’t they? The women and the money and the fuckin’ upper classes . . .’
Riley grinned again. Here we go. That’s more like it.
He went next door to fill in forms. Name, address (he put Sir Alfred’s); next of kin (Mum and Dad); DoB (26 March 1896), height and weight (5 ft 9 ins, 10 st 11 lbs), eyes hair complexion (grey black pale). Wages – half to Mum and Dad. Regiment: no idea – you tell me. Length of service: one year or duration of war. Duration of war, of course. He didn’t want to spend a whole year in the army.
Riley had one day before reporting for training. They wanted to get them out there quickly.
Mum and Dad, Sir Alfred, Nadine.
He went round to his parents’ that night. He stood in the street by the front door, and he leant against it, and he recalled his mother’s face when she talked about her dad, and abroad, and the first wave of soldier’s cowardice came over him. He did not want to see her look like that at him. She’d think she was losing him. (Riley hadn’t noticed that she already knew she had already lost him, not to the Hun or the army, but to people who spoke nice, and knew the point of things of which she had never heard.)
He peeled himself off the door and ran up Praed Street towards the Waveneys’.
He looked up at the windows. The drawing-room lights were off, upstairs’ were on. It’s too late to call now.
He thought of Nadine in her nightgown, brushing her Mesopotamian hair. He thought of the curve of her waist under his hand, and he ran across the road, back over the railings into the park, and he hardly had to touch himself to the thought of all the parts of her before he came.
Oh, God, I am so . . .
He didn’t fall for the one that it made you go blind, and the palms of your hands hairy. But it was hardly . . . Still, no signs of disease yet. How would it show?
Oh, God, how can I even think of her? That clean and beautiful girl?
Her parents are right, Sir Alfred is right. A good marriage, not to me. Leave her alone, Riley. Know your place. If she likes you (she likes me), all the more reason to leave her be.
He wiped his hands on the grass, and on his trousers, and walked on up to Sir Alfred’s. Mrs Briggs opened the door – and fell on him, hugging and scolding. Messalina stood behind, and crooned at the sight of him.
‘I’ve joined up, Mrs Briggs,’ he said.
She fell away from him, saying: ‘Oh dear me. Oh dear me, Oh, you good brave boy.’ And she ran, almost, her skirts swaying, to call for Sir Alfred.
‘I’ve joined up, Sir Alfred,’ he called, one hand on the dog’s head, as the old man was still on the stairs, coming down through the dim light, one hand on the polished banisters. ‘I hope you don’t mind . . .’ It sounded so pathetic. But he did hope Sir Alfred didn’t mind. He was aware he was being precipitous.
Sir Alfred emerged into the light of the hallway. ‘No,’ he said mildly. ‘No, I’m . . . proud of you.’
Mrs Briggs was crying, and talking about underwear. Mrs Briggs had no children of her own.
Sir Alfred took Riley by the hand, and held it firm. ‘Congratulations, Riley,’ he said. ‘When do you leave?’
‘Tomorrow, for training,’ Riley replied, conscious of remnant spunkiness. I’ve lived six years in this house, with these two, he thought. One third of my life.
‘Mrs Briggs, give him something nice for dinner,’ Sir Alfred said. ‘And, Riley, come up and say goodbye in the morning.’
‘I’ll lay out your studio, sir, before I go,’ said Riley. ‘And I’m sorry about last night and today, sir . . . and what we were talking about.’ He felt suddenly and desperately sad.
‘Well,’ said the old man. ‘Well. Just as well. I know these are big decisions.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Riley said. He was proud of that.
The next morning he went early to the Waveneys’ house.
He couldn’t go in. He couldn’t do it. Be sneered at by those people he had thought liked him.
He stood across the road, under the trees of the park, by the bus stop. He didn’t have long, if he was to drop off the letter at his parents’ house, and be in time to report at the station.
He prayed for her to come out.
Go to the door, you fool!
His legs did it without him – hurtled him across the road, up the path to the door. Quick and fumbling, he started to stuff the letter he had written the night before through the letterbox – and the door moved before his hand. Opened. Jacqueline – Mrs Waveney – stood there.
‘Oh, hello, Riley,’ she said, her head drawn up and back on its long neck, and he looked at her and saw that he had understood the situation perfectly.
He shoved the letter at her, and he said, ‘There’s no need to worry, Mrs Waveney. I’ve joined up. If you’re lucky, I’ll get killed. Nothing to worry about then, eh?’
He grinned at her boldly, then turned and sauntered away. That’s done it. If I ever could of, I couldn’t ever now.
Could have, Riley.
He posted the letter to his parents as there wasn’t time to get up there.
I’ve gone to join in the war. I am taking a Tale of Two Cities with me to put me in the mood for France and fighting but I don’t know if there will be much reading. I’ll write to you again.
With love from your foolish boy
He didn’t put, when I’m a soldier back from the war I’ll be a proper man, not the type to enjoy the touch of another man after four tots of whisky.
He didn’t know you weren’t meant to put ‘love’.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I’ve been thinking and I think you are right about art being a bit nancy, so I am joining the army and will be in France soon, Doing my Bit as they say in the papers. I am sorry not to say goodbye but they are sending us off for training (I think I am going to need quite a lot of that) immediately so there’s no time really. Tell the little ’uns they had better be good while I’m gone and I’ll bring you back something nice from France for Christmas, from your very loving son who hopes you’ll be proud of him, yours faithfully, Riley Purefoy
Now is it ‘faithfully’ or ‘sincerely’? Sir Alfred had told him once – ‘faithfully’ if you’re using the name, ‘sincerely’ if you’re saying ‘Dear Sir’. . . or is it the other way around?
He couldn’t remember. He put ‘yours faithfully’, because he felt more faithful than sincere.
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