A long way home

The rear lights glowed red through the purple shadows at the end of the driveway. The car remained stationary for a moment before turning left out of the gate, down the hill towards Mellstowe, headlights illuminating the hedgerows as it disappeared along the winding lane. Michael and Carol stood on the gravel driveway, following the nimbus of light until it was lost from view at a turn where the lane swept down into the valley.

“Well, that’s that. I’m sure they enjoyed themselves. You certainly did them proud with dinner, I don’t expect we will get anything quite so good in London tomorrow,” he said, tightening his arm around her shoulders.

“The fish was the hit of the night. It’s easy to satisfy anglers who provide their own main course. Bud would have eaten the bones of his catch if he could. I never saw a man so proud of his dinner,” said Carol, laughing softly. “I’ll go in and clean up, there’s not much to do. Cindy stacked the dishwasher, she’s a dear. Are you coming?”

“I’ll stay out here for another cigarette. It’s a lovely night,” he said planting a peck on her forehead.

“All right, don’t be too long. Remember we’ve an early start in the morning.”

She went inside the house. He stood in the gathering dusk looking across the valley. The country was dark beneath a sky struck through with the brazen clouds of sunset, an archipelago of brilliantly lit islands edged with gold and crimson. The skyline on the opposite side of the valley was softly darkening, the mist rising. He could still make out the steeple of St Marks and, on the other end of the village, the silhouette of the ruined tower of Bodwin manor. A white mist slowly filled the depths of the valley, enfolding the fields down by the river.

He walked to the verge of the well-kept lawn that swept down from the Queen Anne house atop the rise and sat on the stone garden bench. The evening was calm and peaceful, the scent of roses and honeysuckle heavy in the early autumnal air. He took a deep breath, savouring the redolent atmosphere, feeling at ease, rested, well fed and content. 

It was nice to see Bud and Cindy again, friends of long standing, reminders of the life they had left in the US, the better parts of it at least. Good to be able to offer them some decent hospitality on their first visit to Europe. Like many Americans they were tentative about travelling abroad; it is unlikely they would ever have come over except to see how their friends were handling the first year of retirement in England.

Astonishing that it was only a year since they moved from Atlanta to Mellstowe. So much had occurred in the interim, what with settling the purchase of the house, winding up their affairs in the US, transporting furniture and effects, moving in, developing the first tentative contact with neighbours and becoming known in the village. Now he felt they had been here much longer, settled, as though he had finally come home. Even their furniture fitted easily into the house. The oak and mahogany Georgian pieces collected over many years, so often seemed like artefacts of an alien culture in their houses in Boston, New York and finally Atlanta. Now they looked in their element.

He reached for a cigarette from the dull metal case, remembering the retirement party at the Agency’s head office in New York slightly more than a year ago. No one gave cigarette cases as gifts any more but for him they made an exception – the gunmetal came from British canon used at the Battle of Waterloo.  It was McCarthy’s doing of course, honing in on his friend and long-term colleague’s enthusiasm for all things Napoleonic, also recognising that he was never going to quit the habit. As he tapped the cigarette on the case he recalled the engraving, too dark to read but he knew it by heart.

To a Stalwart who left his mark on many of the Agency’s most notable successes over 25 years of service – from his friends and colleagues who wish him many years of health and happiness in well-earned retirement.

It was the guarded and ambiguous tone he regarded as the real tribute. It came as a result of many hours of internal wrangling, his retirement, like so many of his years of service, generating controversy and heat. There were more than a few in the Agency outraged that he was leaving with full entitlements rather than being sacked and charged. He took a bitter satisfaction in recognising that his supporters were using the event to shift the balance of power even more decisively in their favour. The final victory was as sweet as many of the others that marked a career of serious, if occasionally disruptive, achievement.

 He was glad to be out of it now, he recognised, as he drew in the aromatic smoke of Virginia and Turkish tobacco, a reserved blend made by a tobacconist on The Strand. His decision not to take an administrative role but to remain in the field had sidelined him in the power game. He took the posting in Atlanta ahead of a position on the board in New York, preferring the lone hand he had always played instead of the bureaucratic machinations of interdepartmental rivalry. It was a move that effectively curtailed his career, but he was ready for it. At 53 years and financially secure, he had another life in mind for the next phase of his allotted span.

It all went to plan, apart from the health trouble that brought on his retirement after three years in Atlanta. It was a shock, of course; he had always been as strong as an ox, his vigour and endurance legendary among colleagues. He worked hard and played hard over the years, setting a pace that many failed to match. Visiting the clinic for chemotherapy and failing under its toxic impact brought everything into sharp relief. Suddenly there was an urgency to make his life as he wanted it to be, to continue with the Agency seemed absurd. He committed himself to realising his dreams.

He was still on medication, there were the pills to take every day, but he felt the worst had passed. This last year had been a tonic to him, getting away to England, buying the house and transforming his life. He was grateful for the opportunity, thankful for the care of the nurses at the clinic, the wake-up call without which he would still be plugging away in Atlanta instead of enjoying this long twilight of a Dorset autumn. And that reminded him, it was time to take his pills. He looked at his watch, luminous in the dark. The sky to the west had faded to a delicate, dark-blue, vignette. Above him the stars were brightening, and he could feel the first damp of the rising mist as it swirled around the bottom of the garden. Somewhere in the gloom towards the copse an owl hooted, ghostly and portentous. He stood from the garden seat and took one last look over the valley before heading towards the bright fall of light spilling from the doorway, his footsteps pleasantly crunching on the gravel.

* * *

The drawing room was cleared of the coffee cups and port glasses they had sat over after dinner. He could hear Carol moving in the back of the house. The fire still flickered in the capacious fireplace, an unnecessary indulgence really at this time of year, although it did keep the damp at bay. He laid it for the last night of Bob and Cindy’s visit to conjure the atmosphere of a cosy drawing room. It lit up the book-lined room, the old wood surfaces with glints of reflective cut glass and burnished metallics the shadows. He settled into an armchair to the left of the fire. Carol came into the room bearing his medication on a tray.

“Time for your medicine,” she said. “Have you got your chart? Can you remember which is which – it’s two green ones and a red and a white. How are you feeling?”

He recognised the concern in her eyes as she bent over him and for an instant it was almost as though he was back in hospital in Atlanta. He could almost feel the presence of Nurse Mamie in the room alongside Carol.

He had grown close to Nurse Mamie during his illness. They forged a bond from the day he arrived at the clinic. Badly shaken by the doctor’s diagnosis, he was wholly unprepared for the personal quality of the welcome bestowed on him by this mature, black, woman. On his arrival she enfolded him in a tight, warm, embrace. He was so startled by the sudden tactile encounter he could only stand amazed while she patted the back of his neck and murmured words of welcome and encouragement. Never the most approachable of men, he had on occasion been accused of being too tightly wound, his enemies, and even some of his friends, considering him a cold-blooded fish, a description he rejected. However he did recognise that he was distant with strangers, formal and guarded, with a reserve that he accepted as part of his make-up.

The approach of the wide-hipped, Nurse Mamie, someone he admitted later to himself he would never have had any dealings with, let alone physical contact, outside the clinic, caught him unprepared. As a culmination of the previous week’s effects, the cancer diagnosis, learning the dismal prognosis then enduring the first gut wrenching pain, her embrace demolished at a single stroke his stoic acceptance of the cruel joke life had played on him. Standing there in overcoat and scarf, hands occupied with briefcase and newspaper, his face buried in the ample shoulder of Nurse Mamie Taylor, he felt tears spring to his eyes. It was only with the greatest effort he did not break down into a blubbering heap. She smelt of cinnamon and cream.

* * *

He sorted the appropriate menu of medicines from the containers on the tray. The texture of the pills and the little plastic paper cup of water brought back the reality of the cancer ward with startling clarity. He could almost smell the faint antiseptic of the Piedmont Clinic in Atlanta. It would always stay with him now, a reminder of how fragile, precious and short life is.

He did his best to reassure Carol. He was feeling fine, no hint of pain, the disease was in remission, which as the doctors pointed out was the most that could be hoped for. It was another battle he intended to win. She stroked his face and he reached for her hand. They had always been close, even through the long years when their work kept them on different sides of the country, often on different continents, but they had drawn even closer in recent times. He smiled at her and was surprised to see tears glisten in her eyes. She leaned over and kissed him on the mouth.

“I’ll see you later. Don’t stay up too late, we’ve an early start tomorrow,” she said as she gathered up the tray and quickly left the room.

He reached over and poured himself a good glass of Redbreast from the decanter, before settling back comfortably. He let his eyes drift around the capacious room with its heavy brocade armchairs and Persian carpet, cases filled with medals and memorabilia of the Battle of Waterloo, a large antique globe of the world, woodcut prints and line engravings of rustic scenes around the wall and a carved Regency desk in pride of place beside the bay window. A reasonable copy of an oil portrait of the Iron Duke in full regalia occupied the corner directly opposite the door. The glass-fronted bookcases reached almost to the ceiling, filled with volumes that represented but the tip of the iceberg from years of avid reading and collecting.

A map desk in the corner was littered with rolled maps of Waterloo, some of them originals as used by the participants in the battle, others contemporary in preparation for their planned trip to the battlefield across the Channel next week. A rack of swords on the near wall reflected in the firelight. Mounted cross pistols on the other side of the room had been used in a fatal duel in the latter years of the 18th century. A recent addition was the case of brightly coloured fishing flies and a large mounted pike over the mantelpiece, evidence of his newfound enthusiasm for the stream. It was, he felt, a room that reflected his taste and personality.

Carol had taken a free hand with the rest of the house, a chore he was more than happy to leave to her and one he considered she had done to perfection, but the drawing room was his after deciding not to make a study in the room fronting onto the western gable. After all the years they were apart he did not want to be closeted away, and besides Carol was quite as avid a reader as he – most of their evenings were spent in comfortable companionship, immersed in books.

He was feeling pleasantly tired; it had been a long day, starting before dawn when he and Bob had left the house to trek down to the river beat rented for the season. The dew was heavy in the meadows and their waders were quite wet enough when they reached the bank. In recent months the river had provided good fishing, some rough angling along with trout and the occasional salmon. It was Bob’s stroke of good fortune to land the good-sized fish that provided dinner that night. A perfect way to finish a stay in the country.

Although his own efforts were not so rewarded, he relished standing in the slow flowing stream as the sun burnt away the last wisps of mist from the oily surface. He stood near the bank casting with an increasingly accurate motion, still developing the skills and discovering the joys of fly-fishing. These were the moments that produced the epiphanies of the lived life; the stillness of the dawn, the birdsong from the thickets, the quivering waking of the countryside on a perfect September morning. Like spires piercing the quotidian, bestowing significance on existence, they replenished a man’s aptitude and appetite for joy.

He recalled other moments of such transforming exultation. He was young, in his teens, cycling into the teeth of a fierce March westerly gale across the Fifteen Acres in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, on his way home from school, the sky streaked with high slivers of blown white cloud, his face and hands glowing with exertion, wild joy and laughter bubbling up inside him as though he were riding on the edge of existence. At mid-point across the wide open park, intoxicated with the wind, the light, the air and his own stirring strength, he veered from the black, wet, road and pedalled with all his might across the plain, weaving around the tussocks, heading towards a herd of deer grazing close by the American embassy. Before they were aware of his presence he was among them, yip yipping! Waving his arms, galvanising them into leaping flight. The bicycle skidded from under him and he somersaulted through the air, landing flat on his back. He lay there, laughing up at the rain-washed blue sky, spreadeagled, panting, exultant, transformed.

Then there was the morning when he joined the Agency in New York, walking up 5th Avenue past St Patrick’s, glorying in the bustling thronging sidewalks, the warm May sunshine like a blessing from a cloud-free perfect sky, so conscious that he had achieved a goal, a first step in a sought-after career. He could not help beaming at the hurrying crowds, the sunlit buildings, the traffic cops, and the skyscrapers in serried ranks marching towards the horizon. He felt this city was his natural milieu, the centre of the world and now, finally, he was part of it. He stopped on the sidewalk, breathing it all in, every sensation, before throwing his arms into the air and startling even the bustling New York street with a glad cry of, “Yes!”

* * *

The fire in the quiet room had settled to glowing embers, small licks of flame still enlivening the hearth. He savoured the moment, tasting the smoky bite of the whiskey. It was late and he would soon to bed. They were leaving early for London in the morning, meeting up with Bob and Cindy for lunch at the Savoy, in the Grill, a perennial pleasure he intended to introduce to their friends. In the early years it was an extravagant indulgence but one he had maintained from his first trip back to London after starting with the agency in the US. Later, on his own or with Carol on vacation, a lunch at the Savoy was essential. It signified his enthusiasm for all things English, a particularity he no longer bothered to query.

Ironic that such an anglophile as himself should spend so much of his life in the USA. In their peregrinations along the East Coast, every house had progressively grown more anglicised, filled with objects collected on vacations that covered ever more of England; the Cotswolds, Home Counties, Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall. It was on such a trip ten years ago they first saw the house in Mellstowe, a Queen Anne country seat, elegant on its prominence on a summer’s morning. After stopping the car they sat looking at it for a while before exchanging a glance that required no amplification. They had found their home.

He stood up, looked around the room before raising his glass in an ironic salute to the shadowy figure of the Duke in the corner and drank the remaining whiskey. At the door he paused, turning for a last look. It felt as though he was in passage, moving through significance, crossing barriers unseen for the first time. He frowned, shrugged, turned off the light and made his way upstairs to bed.

* * *

It proved to be a bad night of confused dreams and intimations of dread, night sweats and sudden startings. He imagined Carol and Nurse Mamie peering down at him, concern on their faces, he could almost feel the needles in his arms. The nightmare that was the cancer clinic in Atlanta remained strong, it had been a terrifying experience leaving an indelible impression on him.

However, the morning turned out bright and sunny and he woke glad the night was finally over. He threw back the coverlet and jumped eagerly from the bed, stripping his sweat-drenched pyjamas before wrapping himself in a silken robe. From the bedroom window the sun-lit sweep of valley gleamed all the way to the red-roofed houses of the village opposite. The river shone silver as it curled through golden meadows where the last of the harvest lay in bundles ready for gathering. The sky was marvellously blue with only a platoon of small white clouds sailing high across the void. He threw open the windows and breathed in the smell of new-mown hay and jasmine. Sheep dotted the home paddock, grazing safely, and he counted them with the enthusiasm of a new entrant into the business of raising livestock. Everything seemed to be just as it ought.

After showering he dressed with some care; beige shirt, tan slacks and brogues, a bright light-hearted tie with a pear motif and the first wearing of a new hounds tooth jacket recently acquired from Harrods. As a final touch he adjusted a handkerchief in his breast pocket.

He was about to open the door and go downstairs when he suddenly felt faint and clutched at the bedpost for support. A gust of pain doubled him up, knocking the breath from him, forcing him to sit heavily on the bed, clutching his side. A dread, familiar, acrid taste grew stronger in his mouth and a rising tide of nausea threatened choke him. This was how it had been in Atlanta but he thought he had left it behind him. Falling back he lay across the bed trying to ease into a comfortable position. It should pass, it always did, he would not let it spoil today’s trip.

He had developed a technique over the long months of chemotherapy in the clinic, a way of stilling his racing heart and quieting the fear that threatened to bury him. Whenever the pain became too much he would, by an effort of will, remove his attention to an imagined world, created in the most part from his reading, relying strongly on a few favourite books that evoked a world with which he felt an affinity. Over the years his preference had settled on English novels of a certain style and redolence, especially those of the Poldark saga, the epic family history of Cornish romance but there were others; The Barchester Chronicles, Thomas Hardy’s great Wessex novels, P.G. Wodehouse’s arcadian comedies, Agatha Christie’s village detective stories, quiet seaside tales of espionage and elegant murder mysteries. All contributed to animate an imaginative realm he had cultivated ever since first discovering the Sexton Blake detective stories in his early youth, providing a dimension where his relationships and aspirations came together in a satisfying sense of self.

In his imaginative retreats from the Atlanta clinic he would find himself walking briskly along cliff tops of Devon, shouldering into the gale before stopping in on the Major at Rosebud Cottage to plan tomorrow’s shooting. Or he might be taking a leisured stroll down into the village on a sunny morning for a Sunday pint or two at the local pub to go over the harvest prospects with the locals, the fate of the local cricket team and the merits of winners at the village fete’s agricultural competition.

It was a form of meditation really, a sanctuary of the mind from the assaults of pain that nailed him to the bed and which not even the strongest drugs could assuage. It was a technique he shared with Nurse Mamie when the pain subsided, describing it as he would a dream, telling her where he had been, the snatches and glimpses of the land and his movement through it. After a while she could tell when he was using it by the determined composure of his features that often, despite the pain that racked his body, would soften into a smile.

Surprisingly the images that came as he lay across the bed this time were not of an idyllic England with rustic villages and tranquil lives but scenes from the Atlanta clinic. He was back in the all too familiar room, surrounded by medical staff who after their customary examinations and injections drifted away leaving Nurse Mamie at his bedside.

The bond between them had strengthened when he was admitted to the clinic as a full-time patient. She came to see how he was four or five times a day, never failing to administer a warm slow embrace of recognition, an assurance he was more than simply another patient.

Now as he lay with eyes tightly shut across the bed in the upstairs room in the house at Mellstowe, withdrawing from the sudden shocking return of pain and nausea, he tried to remember how he had said goodbye to her. There was a scene missing. He would never have left the clinic without saying goodbye to her, they had become so close, friends for life. Strange he could not recall it. When he tried, the recollection came to him of her sitting beside his bed, eyes brimming with sadness, holding his hand, encouraging him to describe the imaginative world of his dreams. It was an image he would always remember.

The pain gradually went away, wasting itself in the brightness of the bedroom, leaving him feeling light and clear-headed if a little tired. Relieved, he rose from the bed, went to the window and peered out. The day continued in its glorious riot of evanescent life. Downstairs Carol was waiting in the open doorway looking elegant and beautiful in a slim back trouser suit with a velvet collar over a red knitted top. A brightly coloured Hermes scarf set off her complexion. He thought she had never looked lovelier.

Checking keys and wallet he paused, about to close the door, struck by the now familiar feeling of leave taking. He recognised the same emotion that came to him the previous night, a sense of finality, of crossing over.

The hallway had already taken on a sense of long-established familiarity, of well-settled order. The wide staircase descending to the dark polished tiles, the hanging horse brasses, an old etching of early London, a stand filled with walking sticks and umbrellas, the whole bathed in a mellow light from the lead windows; it resonated with him, filling him with a sense of completeness. He felt as though he had lived here all his life, that this was the home for which he had always searched.

Carol called from the car parked in the driveway. He softly closed the front door and locked it, smiling quietly to himself. A warm light breeze ruffled his hair as he crossed to the Jaguar, standing, gleaming, dark green on the gravel. He slipped easily into the driving seat, leaning across to plant a light kiss on Carol’s cheek. They laughed in unison at the sheer, absurd, perfection of it all.

The door closed with a satisfying chunk! London was a three-hour drive away, a little longer on the minor roads he intended to take. Today was a day for leisurely motoring through ripe countryside, along woody lanes by flowering hedgerows. And besides, they were in no hurry, no hurry at all. The engine purred into life, he put the top down the better to enjoy the day.

“To the Savoy, m’dear?”

The car rolled crunching over the gravel, down the driveway. At the bottom by the gate he braked for a moment, took one last look up at the house on the hill, before turning left onto the road, accelerating smoothly, heading down towards the river crossing.

* * *

It was late in the cancer ward of the Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. Soft lights cast a glow around the bed. Mamie recognised it was over the moment he left. His shallow breathing came to a halt, a faint susurrus of air leaving his emaciated body for the last time. It had been such a long, bitter, struggle; she had never known anyone to put up such a fight against the inevitable. Slowly she relinquished his hand and laid it on his chest. With light fingers she brushed his calm features, nodding at the slight smile that seemed to remain on the thin, pain-racked, lips. Sighing deeply, she stood heavily from the chair where she kept the final vigil. It was too early to telephone Carol, let her sleep. There was time enough for that.

Now that he was home, there was time enough for everything.

In memory of my brother, Michael Howard (1946 -1999).

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