Monday, May 08, 2006

Tomorrow in the battle think of me

Wilfrid Ewart was my grandmother’s brother. He is a significant, if bizarre, player in Javier Marías’s novel Negra espalda del tiempo. Having survived a large part of World War one in the trenches Ewart was found shot through the eye, a pool of blood on the balcony, in his room in the Hotel Isobel in Mexico city on the morning of New Year’s day 1922. He had written a successful novel,Way of Revelation, a period piece; and also - to my mind one of the all-time great bits of journalism about the Irish troubles - A Journey in Ireland, an account of a walk from Cork to Belfast in 1921 when he was captured both by the English and the IRA.
Marías draws on Hugh Cecil’s The Flower of Battle but my memories of my great uncle, derived from a sort of time travel to an old country house where apparently some of the dead end up, are different. Here is one:

I was sitting in the boothouse with Jack, and in comes Wilfrid, tall, hot cheeked, exquisitely turned out, distressed, still holding his starched linen table napkin with `Lion and Garter Hotel, Oxford` embroidered in one corner.
"Wisha," says Jack, reading the symptoms, "what’s wrong now?"
"They were making the most unsavoury suggestions."
"Who, now? Come on and be sitting yourself down and I’ll pour you a cup of tea."
"It’s not the hour for tea. I’ve just had coffee." But Wilfrid sat himself down on the stool, in a triangle now with Jack over towards the big coke boiler and the tea things and me on my jam tin under the small window so thick with webs that it let in only the gentlest and coolest of the light. Jack got up and went to the stove and the blackened kettle that also did as a teapot. He poured tea for no-one but Wilfrid, nor did he ever take Wilfrid at his word when he said he didn’t want the tea. Sure what was the point of coming to the boothouse at all if you didn’t want a cup of tea.
"Oh very well, as you will." Wilfrid took the mug and sipped noisily, slurping off the surface ripples under his perfectly trimmed moustache.
"Now," said Jack, "tell us what ails you."
"Nothing ails me. What should ail me? Fit as a flea. It’s this unwholesome obsession with sexual matters."
"Oh aye, and how did that come about?"
"They were having another go at me about Dolly Rawson’s breast."
"And which one was that?"
"Which one, how should I know which one. What do you take me for?" Wilfrid closed his eyes with a put-upon expression, almost as if he was about to whimper. "The left," he said, after a few moments.
"Beneath which the heart beats," said Jack. "No, I meant which one was Dolly Rawson. I don’t recall."
"For Pete’s sake, man, get a grip of yourself. There’s only one Dolly Rawson."
"Of course," said Jack, "of course there was."
We were on difficult ground. Wilfrid was so fastidious.
And yet Marías, making the point that the putative site of Ewart’s death, by stray bullet, in a puddle of blood, became a selling point for many hotels in Mexico City which could only fraudulently make that claim, writes: `El poeta canadiense Witter Bynner y su amigo William Johnson siguieron a Lawrence (David Herbert, el célebre responsable de El amante de Lady Chatterly) y su esposa a la ciudad de México en marzo de 1923 para descubrir que Lawrence les había reservado alojamiento en el Hotel Monte Carlo. Los dos se escandalizaron al darse cuenta de que por un extraña coincidencia su cuarto anteriormente había sido ocupado por un amigo de los cuartro, un inglés llamado Wilfrid Ewart.`
A friend of all four of them! Wilfrid, this great uncle of mine sitting in the boothouse talking about "unsavoury suggestions" was a friend and presumably an admirer of the writer of Lady Chatterly whose gamekeeper, as I remember, says things like... well, you’ve no doubt read it yourself.
"Look," said Jack, "did we not have this very conversation every day for the last infinity of days, did we not have it but an hour ago, and did we not say that, would you want Dolly Rawson to be not a girl, not a young woman at all, but a fine young boy, clean of limb and golden of mien and as beautifully spoken as you could wish and entirely of your own mind, then sure would that matter a jot or a tittle, and sure it would not."
Wilfrid turned his cold patrician gaze upon the black boot boy. "Why?" he said. "Why this obsession among the low born, the prospective bride’s mother, Boots, with perversion and vice? Have I ever, for one moment, suggested that I was a secret sodomite? Have I ever suggested that I entertained within my bosom a festering desire to commit lewd and unnatural and deeply repellent acts?"
"Well put like that," said Jack, "no, I suppose you haven’t."
"Suppose?" Wilfrid had an unpleasantly petulant shriek for so tall and imposing a man.
"Och calm down, for Christ’s sake," said Jack. "I’ll tell you the beginning of a wee and very short story, and you can tell us the end."
In fact I recognised the story, it was some Irish man of letters, not Joyce, certainly not Becket, possibly Yeats though a bit common for Yeats, maybe St John Gogarty, or Synge; I bet it was Synge, almost certainly Synge. But Jack it was who seemed to recall, "I was walking once between the bog and the mountains, oh it was one of those days of summer with the bees in the heather and the smell of the whin flower on the breeze, and larks never the one wasn’t singing when the other dropped to earth, and I’d been on my feet since dawn, and not a soul had I seen but the odd turf cutter in the distance, and one cart upon the road, and up afar a wee cabin, back from the road, with, you know, roses and willows, so I turned towards it to get me a drink of water and maybe a bit of bread, and I came to the half door, and knocked upon the lower half which was closed, and there came a woman, a fine young woman, and all she had about her was her skirt wrapped at the waist, and she said, I’m all alone, ‘tis a month back since my only man was buried.' "
He stopped. Wood pigeons cooed in the elms. A large tortoiseshell flew in the door, and out again. The coke stove muttered its acrid internal flare, deep within its huge cast iron belly. There was, inevitably, the murmur of innumerable bees.
"Well?" said Wilfrid.
"Let me read you a minute." Jack went over to the dark back of the room where there were shelves of a sort for his equipment and tools, and took out a volume bound in green linen. He sat down, opened it, and began:

But a mile further on a shifting patch of blue vividly contrasted with the hillside’s emerald green. A dark-haired handsome girl accompanied by a child came down the roadside.
“And where might you be making for?”
“Tullamore.”
“Have you your fiddle with you?”
The girl looked meaningly at my rücksack.
“Are you not the fiddler from Tullamore? Will you play us a tune?”
“I am travelling though Ireland. Perhaps I shall write an account in the newspapers.”
“Is that so? Will you give me one then?”
To be taken by the same person for a local fiddler and a vendor of newspapers is not everybody’s experience. Our colloquy continued for some minutes. When I continued my journey the girl and child were laughing amazedly, still unable to make me out…
After a while I sat down to rest near a cottage. An unkempt peasant woman brought me a glass of milk…

Jack paused, his finger on the page. "Well?" he said.
"Well what?"
"Do you recall her countenance?"
"The unkempt peasant woman. She was not attractive. She was a slattern."
"Ah come on now, sir. She gave you milk, you took the milk, you drank the milk, she refused payment. She was a decent woman. Just a little déshabillée, maybe."
"Killing. Absolutely priceless."
"What’s that then?"
"Your lingo. I mean, Boots… Déshabillée. Priceless."
"Je voudrais," said Jack, unperturbed but steady and meaningful, " vous rappeler que pendant la guerre quand nous étions par example à Paris q’étais moi-même, d’habitude, quand nous nous metions dans quelque mauvais pas, c’était moi qui pouvait nous nous tirer de la merde, par ce que vous, monsieur, vous parlez Français comme un cheval."
"Didn’t I say he was killing?" Wilfrid turned to me, almost giggling.
"And was she?" I asked.
"Was she what?"
"Déshabillée."
The shutters came down again. "Certainly not. As my man here has pointed out, she was a perfectly decent woman, if scruffy."
"Ah, but it’s the other," said Jack, "that dark-haired handsome girl, that your man here is interested in. Now what was she saying to you there?"
"I have written it as it was. It is transcribed from my notebook."
"No, what was she saying to you? She asks if you’re the fiddler, she says will you give her a tune. You talk about newspapers. She asks will you give her one then. Man, sometimes I think you are the dumbest individual on God’s whole earth."
Wilfrid glared at him with a very confused expression.
"Was she beautiful?"
"I’ve said, she was handsome."
"Was her hair up or down."
"As I remember, it was gathered at the nape of her neck. She loosed it as we talked."
"Oh, Jesus, there’s some great tragedies in this world. Was it lank, was it dull like a donkey’s back?"
"It fell in coal black glossy curls all the way to her waist."
"A hunched back was it?"
"As straight as a hazel wand."
"And loins like a lyre, no doubt. Well, the legs on her, maybe they’ll be the saving of us yet, the legs on her, are we talking Mullingar heifer here, are we talking beef to the heel?"
"As I remember, they were good enough legs to dance the night away."
"A slender lass - but, don’t tell me, with a chest as flat as a board."
Wilfrid sobbed.
"History, repeated as farce," said Jack in perfect mimicry of Wilfrid’s beautiful pre-1914 accents.
"It was not a farce."
"But you write, `When I continued my journey the girl and child were laughing amazedly...”`
Wilfrid put his face in his hands and wept, and Jack made no attempt to comfort him. Eventually he raised his noble head, a few spikes of the manly coiffure sprung free, as when bits of veneer are lifting. "There was a child with her, for god’s sake."
"Waiting to be sent home with a silver sixpence."
"I don’t believe in droit de seigneur."
"I’m sure no more did she. I don’t know what she believed in. Sure I don’t know what my own Ma believed in, but I was real enough, and none the worse for it, no more than your average human being, conceived, born, not yet dead. All I’m telling you is the honest truth."
"You’re telling me nothing, nothing, nothing," screeched Ewart. A stagger and lurch, the door like a camera shutter opening and closing its tall rectangle of blinding light.
Jack sat twiddling his thumbs for while. "Huish," he said.
"Clos," I agreed.

2 comments:

Pedro Terán said...

Very good. I'll print it and read it very carefully.

Fascinatingly, the reader (or just me, anyway) has a strong anticipation that fiddling will turn out to be used as a sexual allusion. But the newspapers thing got me confused, it honestly made me change my mind even with the "laughing amazed" mute accusation, because also the child laughed amazed.

Jago said...

It is complex, it has me confused too. Partly it's because it's from a longer piece - Jack is teasing Wilfrid, but also talking from the point of view that he would have played the situation very differently... out of respect for the potential of a beautiful woman, of course. Glad you liked it anyway.
Incidentally when I googled Ewart I got A Bibliography of Literary Theory, Criticism and Philology
by José Ángel García Landa (University of Zaragoza, Spain) Do you know him or of him?