The first summer of the new millennium, twelve months since Mary died, and Richard comes to Henry asking if he might take Harry, Henry’s eldest, to Royal Ascot. Harry is eight, nearly nine, nearly finished with his first year boarding; the younger children, freed from Harry’s field-officer discipline, have upset every room in the house save the formal drawing room, which is vacuumed and dusted but retains a whiff of the cigarettes smoked in it ten or twenty years ago. The seat cushions are threadbare, worn down by a succession of bottoms; Henry thinks it is like seeing women’s legs through long skirts. Richard wears white linen trousers and a white silk shirt, and crosses his legs at the knee.
‘I’m afraid we’re no-smoking here now,’ Henry says, when Richard tries to light a fag. ‘I don’t mind what us grown-ups do, but I’m beginning to feel quite strongly about not subjecting the children to it.’
‘Your father smokes. He does it in front of the children. I saw him once smoking while he was actually holding Philippa.’
‘He can’t be reasoned with.’
‘I just think Harry should take part in life,’ Richard says. ‘He’s not really mourning. Children that age don’t.’
‘How would you know?’
Richard has just come back from the South of France and is sunburnt. Not around his eyes, he’s been wearing sunglasses. The long bridge of his nose, his long cheekbones, are brown and peeling. His yellow hair is stiff from weeks of swimming in the sea. When Henry bathes now, he notices that his own forearms and stomach are equally pale; at Oxford he used to tan around the silly shape of his rowing suit.
‘I didn’t mourn for my father,’ Richard says.
‘You were older. And it was your father. And you had your inheritance, that must have been some consolation.’
‘I’ve already got a box. Not in the royal enclosure, obviously, so he won’t need tails. He can wear what he wears to mass.’
‘He’s still at school.’
‘If you sent him to a day school in town it wouldn’t matter. He’ll have the Benedictine ethos drilled into him well enough when he goes to senior school, don’t you think?’
‘Don’t you start. They’re not your children, they’re not any more yours than they were before.’
‘But I know you better than anyone. I should have a say in what you do with yourself. And the kids are “yourself”.’
‘Well, he’s at school,’ Henry says. ‘Three weeks to the end of term.’
The morning of the twenty-second is bright, but cool enough that even in his morning coat (he is overdressed, Richard is in a pearl-grey suit and beautiful) Henry doesn’t sweat. He stands on the balcony when the course is empty. It is like a beautiful painting of an empty racecourse. Inside, the box is filled with horrible people: Henry had expected homosexuals, but in fact it is family, all the other Lancaster cousins. Henry’s father is in someone else’s box, in another enclosure, with Henry’s illegitimate half-brother Beaufort, who is showing them all up by having a beautiful well-mannered wife. Henry can’t stand men with wives now; he can’t stand women. I am thirty years old and my life is over, he thinks. I am so young and I have nothing. When he inherits his father’s land he will give it to the church, he will establish chantries to say masses for his soul. No, no, what is he thinking, it’s a summer day, a little cloudy now but not raining, which is the most you can ask for in England. He’s smoking too much, but no young children are here.
‘You didn’t bring Edward?’ asks Henry, when Richard steps onto the balcony.
Richard is drinking champagne and eating a savoury pastry. He says, ‘If I’d asked him, I’d have had to ask his family.’
‘I would have liked to see the Langleys.’
‘You don’t know what it’s like to have people looking at you who are imagining you shagging their son.’
‘That’s how people used to look at Mary and me.’
‘I don’t mean recognising you as the sire.’ Richard looks down; the horses are being led to the starting gate, their hindquarters gleaming against the green. ‘People don’t really imagine the horses shagging.’
‘They do if they care about breeding.’
‘So your father imagines horses shagging?’
‘He hasn’t had horses in years,’ says Henry. ‘He sold them with everything else.’
‘Oh please. You’ve still got the houses, and at least some of the land. More land than I’ve got.’
‘But you still keep horses.’
‘The one mare in Lancashire; and I don’t really keep her, I board her at the place up the road. And that’s just so I have something to walk round the park. I can’t help having a park I’ve got to walk round.’
‘What about a dog?’
‘Edward’s family have enough dogs for us all.’
Richard wipes his buttery fingers with his handkerchief, the embroidered one he keeps in his inner breast pocket. For some reason Richard, great lover of beauty, prefers to deposit his snot in a piece of fabric rather than use a tissue like everyone else. There was a time, about five years ago now, that Richard was ill and did a lot of hacking of phlegm into silk squares. Henry had never asked if Edward washed the handkerchiefs himself or if they went out with the other laundry; he isn’t sure which items soiled by which products of Richard’s body would constitute a hazard. He sometimes pictures a tiny wet speck of Richard’s breath landing on his lips or in his eyes and starting an infection that will kill him. Once, the phlegm was streaked with blood and Richard said, ‘I’m marked for death, ha ha!’ Henry hates when Richard jokes like that: it’s his soul in the balance.
When Richard goes inside, Thomas Woodstock swaps places with him. Master of the commonplace, Thomas has several lines of suitable discourse, including golf and money problems.
‘My wife has been telling me we should be feeding the cat. Not our cat. Well, she says it is; she says we got it from a neighbour who found a litter in his barn. And the thing has been living in our house, pissing in our garden, nibbling our flowers, killing mice and shrews and things, and Eleanor says we should be giving it stuff from tins. I don’t think it needs it; there are enough wild creatures about, I should think. Even fish – do house cats go fishing? The thing is, I can’t remember which of the neighbours was the one to palm the cat off on us. It must have been Philip Westbrook, he’s always giving us dubious things in jars. You don’t know him. He does something at the university. Not in any way that had to do with you when you were there; he’s at one of those colleges which are very out of the way. But the question is, what would you do? Would you feed the cat?’
Henry has been making noises: ‘Ooh, ahh, hmm, mm,’ perfected during many such conversations with MPs, dons, tenant farmers, Anglican clergy who had been introduced to him socially, et cetera. He has been thinking: my wife is dead! You’re nearly fifty and you’ve had your wife for thirty years and you haven’t even had any children, you’ve had her all to yourself the whole time, you pig. When Henry and Mary were at Oxford, she would lie in his bed all night. At dawn he would escort her back to her college and from there go to Lauds with the Dominicans at Blackfriars, where sometimes Richard could be found.
Henry drives to Yorkshire to collect Harry from school. The day is grey, the atmosphere hangs low to the ground, keeping the greenery moist. The boys – these astonishingly young-looking boys in their serious dark suits – are restless, caught between the need to be obedient and that summer desire to roam. Harry shows a promising ability to deny the desire. He has packed his things with the greatest efficiency, his housemother says. She seems relieved to have reason to praise him, this pitiful three-quarters orphan. He participates readily in conversation with the headmaster, and Henry is thankful that he himself is able to stand at a remove and keep quiet; no old boy can talk to a headmaster without the awkward feeling that he’s being shaken down for donations. In Henry’s schooldays, the boys had been much more ‘seen and not heard’. And his father had chosen to leave his mother, and he’d had to find some way not to mention it when asked by masters about holidays. At least he hadn’t ever been at school with Beaufort; Henry was sent to board in Yorkshire and Beaufort was kept in London, schooled at the Oratory, so that he could return each evening to his mother’s house, which his father occupied as if it were his own, as if there wasn’t a hugely expensive house in Belgravia which was being left empty. Well, that was when their father had money.
Harry, like many boys of his age and class, has an interest in Ancient Rome. The Classics master complains to Henry that the English master, a hearty Australian novice who has just entered the monastery, has given Harry a volume of Macaulay: Harry should start reading Ovid in the original, the Classics master says.
‘It says in this poem,’ says Harry, from the passenger seat of Henry’s old convertible, ‘that “they gave him of the corn-land / that was of public right.” Isn’t that like our land?’
‘Not exactly. Our ancestors were given the land by the crown.’
‘In exchange for our feats of war.’
Harry’s grandfather John tells that part of the story often enough. To Henry it seems ill-mannered to take much pleasure in someone else’s military accomplishments. He says, ‘There are a lot of great men who’ve ended up with useless descendants.’
‘Like Alexander the Great,’ says Harry.
‘And Richard’s father.’
‘No, don’t say that. Has someone told you to say that?’
‘It’s what we think, isn’t it? I haven’t told Richard, I know I can’t tell him to his face.’
‘We respect Cousin Richard, whatever he does.’
Harry says seriously, ‘I do.’
In London, in the enormous townhouse Henry’s father had bought and once lived in, children’s noise comes up from the garden. Harry makes his brother Tom get on hands and knees and carry him like a pony. Then they play ‘Agricola and his British slave’. Henry, in the study, overhears them through the open windows. It’s too warm in the house for Henry to be comfortable; he takes off his jacket and tie, undoes his cuffs, pushes up his sleeves. When he goes out onto the terrace, the stale damp heat of the early evening makes him think of last summer, when every sunset looked like the end of a garden party and he couldn’t make himself weep. He kept thinking, ‘I should go out tonight, I might see Mary Bohun.’ Those nights in June ten years ago were worth, he thinks, all the conquering and plundering and bloodshed of the last two millennia. You were young and strong, with breeding and education; you put your hand on a sandstone wall and looked, by the electric exterior light, at your cousin Richard the Duke of Lancaster, who was telling you, ‘She’s gone home already, she didn’t really want to stay the night.’
Later Henry would see Richard ill and enjoy it, which he would confess and do penance for. It is the nature of sin to recur. In ‘95 Richard was very ill and seemed unlikely to recover. Henry stopped visiting him, in town or in the country; he had a feeling he, Henry, would catch something. Not the virus itself, but one of the incidental ailments, something ending in -osis or -iasis that made him think of corrupted flesh and Greek grammar. Henry had already got psoriasis, which was incurable, and worrying made it worse. He grew huge maroon patches that he begged his doctor to examine: it could have been Kaposi’s Sarcoma, he said (which actually Richard never had).
Now Richard is well. His skin is pinker, his cheeks fuller, like he is turning back into a child. He rides horses; he plays tennis. He is seen again at parties with members of the family, or with old school friends. He doesn’t go to mass and he turns Henry down when he asks. Harry goes willingly; he is impatient to make his first communion, he is the oldest boy in his year and must wait for the others to grow up. The first Sunday after he comes down from school, he and Henry walk together through Knightsbridge to St Edward the Martyr’s, and he provides his father with evidence that he has reached the age of reason. He knows what sex is, he says, and he can quote Aquinas. There’s no need for that, Henry says.
Richard asks Henry if he’d like to meet at their club for a drink before dinner. When Henry arrives, Edward Langley is there: he’d been brought in as Richard’s guest. For all the hundreds or thousands of times they’ve seen one another, they have never all three met here. Edward is good-looking; he’s as tall as Richard, with broad shoulders and red hair. He wears an American-style jacket and a tie with a subtle repeating pattern, tiny four-petalled flowers in white and darker blue. At school he had worn ugly spectacles, but now wears smart gold-and-tortoiseshell ones.
Henry, aware of himself as the religious maniac imagining lascivious tableaux of sin, can’t keep from picturing Richard and Edward fucking. It’s just because Richard had talked about it that day at Ascot. It isn’t that Henry is scandalised; there are all kinds of sin in the world. And there are ugly things about the human body that are not sins in themselves. He has seen his wife giving birth to his children, surely that is a wetter and more painful experience than ordinary buggery. But it is awkward to have to picture it when you are at your club, at a small round table in the bar, with one of Richard’s knees nearly knocking against your left knee and one of Edward’s nearly knocking against your right.
‘Lancaster Park,’ Richard says, ‘is in a really pitiful state. I had been putting everything off because I thought I’d die before I’d suffer any of the consequences. And it’s all structural; it’s not that the wallpaper is faded. And they’re always ringing me to say the builders need another six months. Soon we’re not going to be able to pay them. I actually fear seeing the man from Coutts in the street.’
This is only of interest to Henry because Henry’s father, as the next-eldest brother of Richard’s father, is Richard’s heir. There have been two rounds of death duties in the past twenty years: once Richard dies, and Henry’s father dies, Henry will inherit nothing of Richard’s but the title and the debt. Henry faces this with equanimity. It will be sort of like being a monk.
‘Your eyes would pop out of your thick little skull,’ Richard goes on, ‘if you knew how large my overdraft is. So I thought we could put the drinks on your tab.’
‘I don’t mind. You can sell the houses and live here at my expense if you like.’
‘What, no, I’m not going to be your mistress.’
‘I couldn’t put my mistress up at my club.’
‘Have you been seeing anyone, by the way?’
‘No,’ Henry says.
‘Oh, I understand, you’ve been spending all your time with the children.’
‘What was that, thirty seconds of teasing? No wonder you haven’t got a mistress.’
Edward has a stupid, wandering look which really annoys Henry. He keeps glancing up at the picture behind Henry, an eighteenth-century hunting scene in which Henry has never found much interest. Horse, hounds, a placid groom . . . Henry looks Richard in the eye and thinks: My wife is dead. Now I have got to sit here with you, and our old schoolmate who has it up the arse from you. I am trying my best to be reasonable. Surely you can understand.
‘At our place it’s the plumbing,’ Henry tells them. ‘You know, the lead pipes . . . everything made out of lead . . .’
And then what will be left for his own son? For sweet serious Harry, who seems to have been made to be an acolyte, in some other time? If Richard were to have a child it would be born with the disease already in it.
Richard has other plans with other people; he and Edward ride off in a cab, and Henry watches from an upper window like a malevolent figure in a detective story, except that it is beautiful summer and the flowers in the squares are blooming. Richard had been wearing a perfume with hideous neroli.
At home in bed with the lights off and the children asleep upstairs, Henry tries to wank. The windows are open, the curtains held in place by the weight of the humidity. He tries to remember what it was like to be sixteen or seventeen, insatiable, wanking in the shower before breakfast, reassembling pictures from dirty magazines in his mind’s eye. He used to imagine, in quite an innocent way, coming inside of a girl and making her pregnant. Now that’s out. Of course, he’s considered thinking about Richard: this occurred to him at school, when he first found out about Richard and Robert de Vere. But he doesn’t want to. It would be better if what he felt was repressed desire; then it would be a temptation, a snare of the devil, to be resisted or indulged and atoned for. Disgust is something else. Shame felt on behalf of another is intolerable. Henry pulls up his striped pyjama trousers; he gets out of bed and goes downstairs to watch telly. He finds a programme with breasts prominently depicted and makes himself finish, for the sake of completion more than pleasure, certainly more than desire, which requires one to imagine a future in which the desire might be fulfilled. He wipes the semen off his stomach with tissue, fearing a stain the launderers might see.
‘Take him somewhere,’ Henry tells Richard over the phone. ‘This week, please. There must be something on.’
‘Oh, you can’t stand having him at home? Haven’t you got some women who will do that sort of thing?’
‘I do want you to see him occasionally.’
‘What for? I teach him to be selfish, I encourage him to speak French. I sneeze and cough and smoke and occasionally bleed in his vicinity.’
‘I’ve never thought you’d corrupt him, or hurt him, or infect him. I’ve said that from the beginning. It just gives you pleasure to think that I’m against you.’
‘You believe that I choose pleasure over duty, and family, and country, and God, and the very integrity of my self.’
‘Well, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know what you want me to do with him,’ Richard says. ‘He’s missed the races.’
‘He likes tennis. You should take him to play.’
‘I’ll take him to Wimbledon.’
‘To the championships? No, that’s just sitting there eating cakes. He needs someone to wear him out a bit. And bully him a bit; he’s been bullying his brothers.’
‘You sound like your father. Or my father. That must have been what our grandfather was like. Do you ever wonder why I’m so different?’
‘You’re not,’ Henry says.
‘You think I have the fighting impulse? The thing that makes men men?’
‘Yes,’ Henry says.
‘You know, if we were in ancient Athens, you would have considered it an honour for me to shag your sons, once they were of age. And they were warriors.’
‘They were pagans.’
‘Yes, well, they couldn’t have been Christians.’
‘What about this Thursday?’
‘Oh all right. I’ll take him to Holland Park. Tell Mrs Elliot to dress him smartly, don’t send him in whatever grubby whites he wears at school.’
Henry remembers when he had a body. He played tennis with Richard at school, he in his grubby whites, Richard all-over resplendently glowing under a thin, total cover of cloud. He strained his limbs, he broke out into a clean sweat that made him feel alive and a part of things. The other boys on the courts thought, there’s Richard and Henry Lancaster. Sometimes in summer they played on the cracked, weedy court at Lancaster Park, where the building works and the groundskeeper’s electric tools drove the songbirds away. They played doubles with the people Richard liked, his mother or his tutor; or Robert de Vere, whom Henry didn’t know Richard was shagging until they were caught. He’d known Robert was a favourite of Richard’s, but that’s why he’d thought the friendship was pure. When you like a boy at school you run errands for him, and accept his abuse happily. Then you grow up. Henry saw Mary naked for the first time when they were nineteen and he’d told her he wanted to marry her. He had been staying with her people in Oxfordshire, in the Tudor stone cottage with the Victorian bougainvillea where he could sneak out of the spare room and reach her door in two long steps. She had a walnut dressing-table with a mirror that faced the bed; she stood at the foot of the bed and rested a hand on a bedpost, bending one knee slightly so that her hips were at an angle. She had thick coarse yellow hair that she’d brushed too roughly, and her upper row of teeth was over prominent. He wanted to be inside of her and come inside of her and make her pregnant, and watch her stomach get round and her breasts fill out, and have her lie down for him tired with the weight of their child in her, Henry’s son. Richard didn’t understand. Richard had rejected it, this sacred all-pleasurable gift. For what? For sickness of the body, flu and pneumonia, meningitis and toxoplasmosis, infections bacterial and viral; for the giving-up of the body to these lesser creatures, these endlessly-replicating parasites. But Richard is alive and well, and Henry takes pills that will put him to sleep so he can survive another eight hours. Unmoving, buried in himself, dreamless. When he is awake he lies in his big soft bed and listens to his children’s footsteps, their graceless going up and down stairs. The smallest ones cry. Henry’s elbows and knees itch; he grows plaques up and down his limbs. He grows grey hairs, and his wrinkles fix themselves to his face. He passes mirrors and thinks: you can never go back . . . He is an ancestor, he has had his son, he has lost possession of the world.
Harry comes home with his curls lank and brittle from having been wet with sweat, then dried under the long summer sun. His whites are still white but wrinkled from use, and his tennis shoes are scuffed. Richard double-parks his yellow Porsche in front of the house and goes no farther than the hall. He stands on a single white tile of the chequered floor like the final piece in a game of chess. He is aware of the effect, and Henry disparages his vanity with a cross look.
‘Cousin Richard won three of three,’ says Harry, ‘but that’s because his limbs are longer than mine. And we saw Roger Mortimer there, so we gave him lunch.’
‘You mean Richard gave you lunch,’ Henry corrects him.
‘But I entertained him, I mean Richard made me entertain Roger Mortimer. I told him about Wales and he told me about Scotland. He said I could come play with his daughter if I liked, but she’s only five and a girl anyway.’
In the street, someone is leaning on their horn. Richard leaves his white tile to look through the narrow window at the side of the front door, which then he opens in order to shout: ‘Drive around it, you miserable bastard!’ But he shuts it again and says to Harry, ‘I’ve got to run now, darling. Did you enjoy yourself?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ Harry replies.
While Harry had been out, Henry had left the older children with the au pair and the younger ones with the nanny, and had gone alone to Richard’s house in town. The house was less grand than perhaps Richard would have liked: less grand than Henry’s, but that one didn’t count, it had only been bought half a generation ago. Richard’s house is the family’s, occupied by Lancasters since about the time that Catholics were allowed to purchase land again. It was a narrow brick edifice in a narrow street, not near to any park or square. In the hall, the walls were taken up by huge old speckled mirrors. Edward Langley was there, in a blue and white striped linen shirt and faded blue jeans, looking frightened by Henry’s also being there.
‘They’re not here,’ Edward said. ‘They’re not coming here; Richard said he’d take him straight to Holland Park and then straight back.’
‘I’d like to stop in for a bit anyway, if you don’t mind.’
‘I’ve just been on the phone, I’ve been trying to sort out some things about Lancaster Park . . . as usual . . .’
‘It’s all right,’ Henry said.
He was left in the kitchen on the lower ground floor while Edward went upstairs to ring people from the study. ‘There’s tea if you want it,’ Edward said. ‘Any but the oolong in the smaller tin, that’s Richard’s special one.’ Henry went through all the fine things in the cupboards until he found the bleached-paper bags of orange pekoe that probably were given to the builders when it was this house’s turn to be maintained. While the kettle was on the hob, Henry picked up the phone that was hung on the wall by the door to the old butler’s quarters, and for a few minutes listened in on Edward’s conversation: ‘I know it’s not what they prefer, but the thing is that there’s always more than one thing going, and they’re always these things that are absolutely utterly urgent and need to be done straight away, and it’s like that at any of these houses, and they know that, and surely they’ve experienced that before and been able to tolerate it before…’
Edward came back down smoking, the way Henry’s mother used to do after she’d had some confrontation with the housekeeper. It must have been stained somehow and I didn’t see it happen, so who does that leave? He tapped his ashes into an ashtray that Richard had stolen from a hotel in Paris.
‘Did you want me to offer you a fag? Richard told me you were giving it up. For the children.’
‘Well, I’ll have one if you’re offering, thanks.’
Edward gave him a cigarette out of his packet of Gitanes, then a silver-plated Zippo engraved with a date and the letter R.
‘It’s all right, we’re all sinners in this house,’ said Edward.
‘Stop. Don’t make allusions, don’t implicate – I mean don’t imply –’
‘Say what you came for then, and I’ll give it to you, if I can. I haven’t stopped trying to give you what you’ve wanted from the beginning, which is for me to keep pretty well out of your way.’
‘I never said that.’
‘But now you’re in my house –’ They had discussed this before, this question of whether anything of Richard’s could be said to belong to Edward as well. ‘In the place where all my post is addressed, anyway. The place where I keep all my clothes.’
‘I’m sorry if you feel I’ve been unfair . . . I think Harry will understand it all eventually, whatever any of us do. It’s difficult to try to preserve the innocence of a child whose mother has died.’
‘There are boys in the senior school who know about Richard. One of them will bring it up just to see how Harry takes it.’
‘Not while he’s so young still. We weren’t like that with the small boys when we were at school.’
‘It doesn’t matter what it is anyway,’ said Edward, ‘all that matters is that he knows there’s a secret which we’re keeping from him. For you it was your father’s mistress; it was more or less the same for me, except that in the end my mother stayed. I remember what it was like – not wanting to say anything, ever, in case you said the wrong thing and exploded your family. But don’t you think this is a different time?’
‘We’re not keeping secrets from him. I’ve never lied to him. I’ve answered every question he’s asked.’
‘Have you ever actually said the words “AIDS” or “homosexuality”?’
Edward had a proud little severe frown, but it must have taken a great deal of courage for him to say the words himself. The Langleys had been barristers, respectable Hertfordshire Anglicans, since about the time of Thomas Cromwell; they had only become Roman Catholic in the early twentieth century, after the conversion of a dubiously-reformed aesthete who had been a hanger-on of Henry and Richard’s great-grandfather. There was always the sense that they were fighting to transcend their inborn conventionality. So Henry felt it was sweet, really, and in its own way honourable, that Edward would stand up to him like that.
‘He’ll learn the vocabulary soon enough,’ Henry said. ‘And then he’ll have the rest of his life to be responsible for what Richard’s done.’
The phones rang, the one on the kitchen wall with a jolting, cheap noise, then another upstairs distantly, in a different tone. Edward answered the one in the kitchen with a worried hello, then sighed and rolled his eyes and said, ‘I don’t know yet either, I’m afraid. I’m waiting for the estate manager to tell me what the roofers have said.’
Henry went upstairs intending just to leave. But when he reached the top of the narrow wooden staircase that connected the lower ground floor to the upper, he came out into the hall and faced the fine central staircase with the cream-white runner which seemed to compel him to ascend. Richard had had the mirrors brought in, Richard had chosen the runner; when they were children, the runner was a worn-through maroon and the walls were hung with the pictures their ancestors had collected, portraits of themselves by society painters, or Biblical scenes by second-rate students of the Old Masters. Some of those pictures were still there in the first-floor corridor. The bedroom door was open.
As a child, Richard had lived in a little room on the third floor adjacent to the nursery and the nanny’s room. He slept in a single bed with an institutional iron frame: above it a crucifix, across it a sun-bleached print of a Madonna with a conventionally idealised face. That had been his father’s childhood bedroom, and his father’s before that, and his father’s before that. Now Richard was the last of a line that had been unbroken for seven generations, longer than this house had existed, and he lived with his lover in the room where fathers and mothers used to live. The bed was an extraordinary thing, a nineteenth-century Louis Quatorze with gilt wood and a silk-satin headboard. Richard had installed a new canopy in his favourite ultramarine blue.
There were a lot of other fine antiques and objets d’art. There was a feminine dressing-table, low and wide, with a large oval mirror of the kind that girls like Mary didn’t have; it seemed to Henry like the kind of furniture that might have been found in the boudoirs of fine French courtesans in the era of Versailles. Besides the perfume bottles there were a lot of pill bottles and blister packs. Henry looked at the labels but couldn’t tell what most of them were. He felt superior, then remembered how many pill bottles were in his own bedrooms. However the disease had been acquired, Richard was at least actually ill. Henry was just a hypochondriac who couldn’t face grief sober. He wished the house would burn down with Richard and Edward in it. Richard had wanted to die! Richard had asked to die! For that he’d been rewarded with all this: health, and a healthy lover to lie beside him at night.
From the doorway Edward said, ‘I thought I’d find you here.’
Luckily Henry was already considered generally to be insane, so did not have to be embarrassed. He said, ‘I was just remembering your poetry, the stuff you published in the school magazine.’
‘Oh . . . yes. Why?’
‘There were some you wrote about Richard, weren’t there? Before you really knew him? I mean sort of references to Apollo and that sort of thing?’
‘Oh, gosh, don’t remind me. That was a long time ago. That was when you were in love with Caro Conyngham. Well, von Stackelberg, now, of course. Have you seen her lately? She and George just had a little daughter.’
Richard drives away, and Harry goes alone to bathe. Henry goes upstairs to the nursery, sits in an armchair that doesn’t rock, holds Philippa in his arms while Mrs Elliot tells him about the baby’s habits. She likes the zoo-animal nesting dolls with the monkey inside the lion inside the giraffe inside the elephant. She and Blanche have learned how to play together at the little plastic kitchen set. In the park yesterday she tried to eat a worm and Humphrey stopped her, but John crushed the worm underfoot. Mrs Elliot has been observing what kind of people they are turning out to be. Henry has the feeling it is all foretold: there is nothing he or she or any of the au pairs or grandparents or cousins can do to change it. Philippa has fat little fists which she uses with only the barest recognition of their effects. She tugs the loose unstarched collar of Henry’s shirt, then yanks his forelock so hard a few hairs come out. Once, he and Mary fought and Mary got red in the face and said, ‘I’m having your child! Your child! Your child! In me!’ Then Henry had gone to sleep alone, feeling selfish and foolish. They were like children pretending to be their parents. Henry’s father had said, ‘You’ve barely left school, what do you want to be married for? Spend a year or two on the Continent before you decide. Don’t be continent; go off and try some other women.’ God, Henry is sick of the summer. He hates feeling damp around the neck and the groin, he hates trying to sleep without a cover.
Harry’s hair is still wet when he enters the nursery; he’s dressed himself in shorts and a football jersey, clean white socks and dirty trainers. Henry tells him he can go outside alone, but Harry says no, he wants to show him how Philippa can walk if he helps hold her up. He’s been practising with her since he got back from school. If he could take the baby to school with him he could train her in half the time; and once Philippa has learned to walk he will have to start her on reading. She can turn the stiff pages of a baby book, but she isn’t really reading, he can tell.
In the study, at the window overlooking the garden, Henry fiddles with the half-empty packet of fags he keeps hidden behind a leather-bound Walter Scott that had come down to him somehow from his and Richard’s forefathers. You can’t do it, he thinks, you’ll die horribly and leave the children orphans and also they will have asthma and be shorter than normal and the boys will be impotent and the girls will miscarry or die in or after childbirth, and Richard will raise Harry and smoke in front of him and give him AIDS and die of it himself and there will be more death duties and Harry will be bankrupted and die without dignity, without having a son, and the country will be overtaken not by foreigners and degenerates but by those who are better and stronger than you. All the while you might be suffering in hell. But how else to face the next five minutes? While the sweet-smelling air and the green leaves shine through the open window. Say a rosary, think of the children growing up.
No, he thinks, you’ve done enough wrong: you can do this, too. Why not light the fag, why not get your cock out and think of – Oh, anything – the plump and rosy secretary at the office of the children’s psychologist; Richard and Robert de Vere lying together in the tall grasses behind their boarding house at school, Richard slobbering and Robert too afraid of him to tell him not to, and one of the monks in his dark habit floating up over the hill. Richard coming almost innocently, looking up at the stars. Mary rigid beneath Henry, saying, ‘Ouch, ow, no, it hurts,’ but looking up at him and smiling, giving him sweet conciliatory laughter; Richard pink, shiny, soft, like an angel, saying yes, come inside me, I want it; and Mary with Henry’s semen dripping out of her cunt, and Richard with the virus still inside of him, like a child that though it would never be born would go on growing forever, till the mother itself was a feeble parasite, till the mother itself was dead.
Henry comes so hard that everything goes out of him. He keeps himself from falling with a hand to his desk, he devolves gracefully until he is on his knees, though he lowers his eyes to avoid the gazes of the Blessed Virgin and all the angels and saints. Oh, God, no, he thinks, but really not yet. There is time for him to redeem himself; he will feel true contrition and do penance truly, he will go to mass and receive the Host, he will go to Jerusalem again and touch the Sepulchre of Christ. He finishes his cigarette now. He washes his hands without looking in the mirror. He goes downstairs, outside, onto the terrace and down the stone steps, into the garden and the rich yellow sunset, and finds Harry, so that he can put his hands in Harry’s child-soft hair and tell him, ‘You’re lucky your soul’s your own.’
Image © Thomas Berg