The Crossing

Chapter 6

Summer arrived in London – on the calendar, at least. To Roy’s mind, the weather remained miserable: cold, gloomy and damp. Still there was no coal, and by now he was convinced the stuff was a mythical substance, a grubby kind of philosopher’s stone. They went on writing without delay, starting on the third section of the book. In this chapter, set in London in 1860, the silver mirror had returned to England, where it would haunt the next in the Irskine family line: a handsome, high-minded young vicar.

Sylvie showed no surprise when she saw the heading on the first page.

‘It’s all set in London in 1860,’ she said, screwing a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter.

Roy looked up from his pad. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Your style – it’s very Victorian. You’re very Victorian, Bridgey old boy. Vintage Victorian,’ she added, hastily. ‘The best.’

Roy sat frozen in his seat, looking wounded. Of course, he thought, I am. Old and out-of-place, just like my books.

‘I’m sorry,’ Sylvie said. ‘I shouldn’t have been that blunt. It’s just that I think you could do something more, um, contemporary. If you wanted to.’

‘You’re wrong. I’m the last Tasmanian Tiger. A creature on the edge of extinction that can’t change its stripes.’

‘Can’t or won’t? It’s all very endearing, but the world is changing; books are changing.’

‘Deteriorating,’ Roy growled, a scowl on his face.

‘That’s very Victorian. What, may I ask, have you read?’

‘Enough to know.’

‘Very vague. What are you reading now?’

Roy fiddled with his fountain pen. ‘The immaterial Dickens.’

Sylvie sighed. ‘Dickens is dead.’

‘His body, yes, but not his being. It’s there in his books.’

He felt like a fool, of course, as soon as he said it.

‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘To me, the classics are like faces in the silver mirror – they haunt us. They’re ghosts; they don’t feel real.’

‘It’s fiction. No book is real.’

‘You can’t believe that!’ Sylvie cried, leaping up and going to the window. Then she went on, in a low voice: ‘“But the women wanted another form of life than this, something that was not blood-intimacy. Her house faced out from the farm-buildings and fields, looked out to the road and the village with church and Hall and the world beyond. She stood to see the far-off world of cities and governments and the active scope of man, the magic land to her, where secrets were made known and desires fulfilled. She faced outwards to where men moved dominant and creative, having turned their back on the pulsing heat of creation.”’

‘I stand corrected,’ Roy said, quietly. ‘What is it?’

The Rainbow.’

‘Always rain but never a rainbow. Whose is it?’

‘D.H. Lawrence.’

Roy nodded slowly. ‘Man with a beard. I remember his visit to Australia. I see you know that passage by heart.’

‘They’re Lawrence’s words but my feelings. It was as if I’d written them when I first read them.’

‘Sounds familiar,’ Roy said, wryly.

‘You should be thankful. D.H. brought us together, in a way. I’d read Kangaroo, you see, so I felt I had a connection to your country.’

‘There’s more to us, you know, than exotic animals.’

‘We’re all exotic animals – that’s partly the point. Anyway, Kangaroo’s a man not an animal. Although, now that I think about it, you remind me more of Somers, the Englishman.’

Roy raised an eyebrow. ‘A good thing, I hope.’

‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘Somers is clever. He’s a writer and a seeker of truth.’

‘And a great Briton?’

‘No, not so much.’

‘Does he find what he’s looking for in Australia?’

‘Well . . .’

‘I thought not,’ said Roy.

Meanwhile, on the page, young Irskine’s inner conflict had begun in earnest. Torn between his asceticism and his attraction to a married woman, a survivor of the siege of Cawnpore, the young vicar was descending into madness, his mind filled with visions, some supplied by the silver mirror, some by his own feverish imagination.

‘Cawnpore sounds ghastly,’ Sylvie said, a few days on. ‘“The massacre of helpless Englishwomen and children – the room found ankle-deep in blood by the avengers.” Was it really that bad?’

‘To the British it was. No doubt the Indians saw it differently. Looking at it now, though, it was just another skirmish on the imperial frontier.’

Sylvie stared at him over the top of the typewriter. ‘Somers is a pacifist, like you. In Kangaroo, they try to conscript him to fight, but he isn’t deemed fit.’ She snorted. ‘As if any man, any person, is fit for – for that. Anyway, it takes strength, real fitness, not to fight.’

‘D.H. again,’ Roy said. ‘There was an aeroplane in the war with those initials. D.H., V.C., R.I.P. – so many letters. T.S., T.E., P.G. It’s all very mysterious, like a secret code.’ He paused. ‘Perhaps I should revert to my initials and become a true man of letters. R.T. Bridges, author and coward.’

‘R.T.? Radio Times?’

Roy grimaced. ‘If only.’

Sylvie came and stood before him. ‘Tell me more, R.T. Reveal your secret code.’

Roy looked down, regretting his recklessness, regretting everything.

‘Royal Tasman,’ he mumbled. ‘Royal-bloody-Tasman, that’s me.’

‘Oh my.’

‘My mother,’ he muttered, red-faced.

‘Mothers,’ Sylvie said, with a laugh.

Roy thought of his sister. ‘Hilda’s initials are H.M. But that was an accident.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because there was room for only one monarch in my mother’s life.’

Roy clambered to his feet. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, thickly, and went out into the hallway, wondering where he was and what he thought he was doing. He’d almost stopped shaking when Mrs Raddle came up the stairs, half-hidden behind a hillock of linen.

‘Not locked out are you, Mr Bridges,’ she asked, going by.

He steadied himself. ‘No, Mrs Raddle, not really.’

His landlady turned to look at him.

‘Proving a handful, is she? Well, between you and me, Mr Bridges, I’m not surprised. She looks like one of those modern gels to me. Flappers, they call ’em, although I can’t tell why.’

‘Butterflies,’ Roy said. ‘She likes butterflies.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Nothing,’ he said.

Towards the end of the month, newspapers reported the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie. Alarmed, Roy bought her latest book on the way back from the club.

‘See,’ he said, showing Sylvie. ‘I read more than the classics. I’m not the old stick-in-the-mud you think I am. Not always.’

Sylvie tore herself away from a sentence she was finding particularly hard to decode.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,’ she said, studying the cover. ‘Another whodunnit. No wonder Agatha’s run away: she’s bored out of her brain.’

‘I hope she’s safe,’ Roy murmured.

‘You’re as bad as the rest!’ Sylvie cried. ‘Ever the gentleman. Well, I hope she’s perfectly unsafe, because that, I think, is what she needs to be. To write something less cosy and quaint.’

‘But this book is different,’ Roy protested. ‘They say it has a twist with a twist.’

‘Pooh. Nothing’s ever straight to start with.’

Nine days later Christie was found at the house of a friend, suffering, it was said, from memory loss. Sylvie was sceptical.

‘There’s a mystery here,’ she said. ‘A real one, at last.’

Roy looked at her, quizzically. ‘Isn’t this what you want fossils of fiction to do: forget and begin afresh?’

Très bien,’ Sylvie said, in delight. ‘But apparently the old Agatha is back.’

Finishing Roger Ackroyd, Roy was amazed at the audacity of its ending. If Christie could break the mould, he thought, then perhaps he was capable of doing so, too. Certainly, Sylvie seemed to think so, for as the days went by she became more openly critical, picking apart his purpler passages.

One afternoon, she sat back and threw up her hands.

‘Really, Bridgey old boy, you’re impossible,’ she said. ‘“Roseate veil upon statue of ivory
 . . . .”? It’s like the description of a family crest rather than a person. I don’t even know what roseate means. Red, I suppose. A statue of ivory? She’s a woman not a slab of stone. And the four dots? I suppose you mean they made love. If so, why not say so. We’re all adults here.’

Write that they had made love? The thought made him blush. So he kept his head down and his pen up, scribbling away at the page. Like Irskine, his infatuated vicar, he wasn’t sure he could contain himself much longer. Even his dreams had begun to centre on Sylvie. Inevitably he had found himself drawing upon them in his writing, and he felt like squirming as she read the words back to him. Irskine’s struggle to control his urges and fantasies – so much like his own.

‘One thought clear through horror: Flight!’

He remembered writing that sentence. It was she, though, who had flown, the day’s work done, leaving him to calm his nerves with brandy and cigarettes.

Chapter 7