(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 26, Nov 2019)
First of all, it’s his voice I hear – holding forth in the next room. A shock (a nasty shock, if I’m honest) after fifty years, but instantly recognisable: if you’re going to adopt the received pronunciation of the British ruling class, you really need a deep voice to go with it – something Dr Braithwaite lacks. If it hadn’t been for the squeaky voice, I probably wouldn’t have recognised him after such a long absence: the ‘young fogey’ tweed-jacket and the brogues that had so marked him out as a posturing twit when an Oxford Don at thirty, now appear natural camouflage at eighty.
Friends and relatives, colleagues and neighbours, all have me down as easy-going, even a bit of a soft touch. That’s probably true as far as it goes, but it’s not the end of the story. The fact is that I maintain a warm regard for ninety nine percent of humanity by nurturing simultaneously a consuming hatred of a tiny minority. All the hated minority are bad apples, of course, but probably not as evil as I like to paint them. Sigmund Freud surely got a lot of stuff wrong, but he was right on the money when he wrote about ‘projection’. That’s what I’ve been doing: I’m able to forgive my acquaintances their trespasses with a gentle smile, because I’m projecting my anger, frustration and abhorrence onto a very small number of habitual offenders. I know I’m doing it, but they’re either persons I’ve never met (for example, a particularly pompous and disastrous politician), or persons from my distant past. So it has seemed to me a harmless foible, despite the murderous feelings that can sometimes take hold of me. And of all those dark eminences whose recall can provoke thoughts of blood and revenge, the darkest is my old Oxford tutor, Dr Braithwaite.
Dorothy and I have been once-a-week, volunteer guides at Castle Curdle ever since we’ve both retired. Most of the volunteers prefer the castle when it’s busy, but quiet days don’t bother me: I enjoy my solitary thoughts in the great dining room, among the portraits and the porcelain – the clutter of a futile aristocracy. When I heard Braithwaite’s voice through the open door to the library, I’d been musing over a little double-figurine in the china display cabinet: two arctic explorers, Nansen and Major Frederick Jackson, shaking hands in a million-to-one-chance meeting in the middle of the arctic wastes – the chance meeting that saved Nansen’s life.
Braithwaite is squeaking at length about the library’s eighteenth century long-case clock: he’s got the right period, but the wrong maker – a typical historian’s error. As he enters the dining room, among what I later learn to be a cluster of great-nephews and great-nieces, I turn from the display cabinet, prepared for my own arctic chance encounter. But he passes by me – a mere flunkey – without a glance.
He gestures towards the great dining table: ‘What sparkling conversations must this table have witnessed, eh? How many times must the porcelain and the cut-glass have been outshone by the wit of the diners? The subtleties of a local Jane Austin… The verities of a local Sir Robert Peel… Ah, if only I had lived in that age…’ His relatives, either dazzled or cowed, murmur their agreement. I silently recall the extracts from the butler’s account book, on display in the kitchen. They demonstrate beyond contradiction that the conversations that the table had witnessed must have routinely degenerated into the maunderings of a drunken rabble.
He turns to one of the equestrian portraits: ‘The young laird on, no doubt, his favourite horse. See how the artist has captured the sheen on the horse’s flanks, the poise of the rider in easy command of the animal? What nobility!’(In point of fact, the ‘noble’ in question had gambled away a huge fortune and racketed his way to an early death.)
Braithwaite was hobbling and leaning heavily on an odd, large, walking stick, a typically mannered choice – I imagine it’s what is termed an alpenstock. I murmur to one of the young relatives that if the old fella can’t manage the grand staircase, I can take him up in the lift. She smiles her thanks: ‘I’ll tell Great-Uncle John.’ As they move out of the dining room, I take up the rear.
Braithwaite then proceeds to hold forth to the great-nephews and nieces about the portraits lining the lower part of the grand stairwell. Years ago, I thought I’d detected the source of the animus that Braithwaite had shown towards my teenage self: I had come to Oxford from the same undistinguished grammar school in the same northern industrial town as Braithwaite – plainly, I had unwittingly reminded him of a past he had wished to bury. And that was the source of his slights and petty cruelties, and why he’d tried to get me sent down from the university. But what on earth lies behind his insane worship of eighteenth and nineteenth century aristocratic life? Surely, he’s too knowledgeable a historian not to recognise that his temple is built on a cesspit?
I stand quietly aside, waiting to perform my menial duty as bell-hop. The tiny two-person lift (wood-panelled, early twentieth century) is rather temperamental – hence the house-rule that it is only to be operated by paid or volunteer staff, not by visitors. If the button to the basement is pressed accidentally, instead of the button to the upper floor, then the occupant will be trapped down there until an engineer can be summoned – a matter of hours. I speculate, happily, about the sturdiness of Dr Braithwaite’s bladder.
My projected victim is led, still squeaking and gesturing, towards the lift. As I usher him inside, I see him squinting at my name-badge. I hesitate for a moment. And then I follow him into the lift and press the button to the upper floor. We stand eyeball to eyeball, as the lift creaks and judders upward. I see no dawning recognition in his wizened face. As he shuffles past me out of the lift, I whisper: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ The lift doors are then closing to return me to the ground floor, and I watch him turn back, slack-jawed, to look at me. Then he is gone from my life forever.
On the drive home, Dorothy turns to me and says, ‘Why the quiet smile?’