‘My aunt was thirteen years older than Bobo. She was already crawling out of her youth as her sister was emerging out of childhood and into her beauty. My father was engaged to my aunt first, you see. But one summer he fell in love with Bobo. Over card games and chess. She would slink up to him and ask if they could play a game and he wouldn’t be able to say no, and they would play, and she would ask for one more, and he would lose on purpose until he realised he could no longer win. I can see him at it now, twirling a circular counter in his hand under the table, while attempting to raise her eyes to his …’
‘He used to do it to our nannies and young waitresses on holiday in Portugal-’
‘But my mother’s eyes would be fixed on the ball, the board, the table, watching his hands. It’s how she always was.’
‘Yes I remember her teaching us Poker and it was just like that: eyes on the table, on the cards, on the chips, only looking at us for a moment to check we were paying attention-‘
‘But it was over chess that Dad fell in love with her. And after chess he would chase her in the garden or try and catch up with her in badminton … and it was perfectly obvious, to my aunt at least, what was happening.’
That which was perfectly obvious to his grandfather’s aunt was hidden from his father. Bobo didn’t see it either, lost behind the wonder of her own ascendency and the world it brought. And because it was perfectly obvious, it was only a matter of time before the loser, without a struggle, gave up trying to find reason or compensation for the perfectly obvious, or look for what lay beyond the reflection, and joined the great multitude who pass gently from reproach to lament to submission.
The food had been set down. He had already finished his wine and now he swallowed the last of his water. He picked up the bottle and filled everyone’s glasses up as they had also finished. He then did the same with the water jug.
‘The Book of Secrets was a book owned by a lady called Florence Baxter-White. She was a great lady of society in London between the wars. She was also a great friend of Bobo’s. She would host these fabulous parties, and at these parties, when the guests would be leaving, she brought out this great book in which she asked them to write a little remark or impression of the evening, or a snippet of gossip perhaps. Because it was like a visitors’ book apart from that no-one would be able to read what the others had written-’
‘A cloth,’ his grandfather said, ‘with a circle cut out of it was placed over the pages when someone was writing in it so they could only see their own blank space and their own words.’
‘And there was absolute trust that Florence would show the book to no-one-’
‘When Florence died, hit by a taxi on Marylebone Street, she left the Book to Bobo. But –‘
‘It never reached Bobo-’
‘Years and years after that summer it was …’
‘Fantastic chicken, Dad.’
Years and years after that summer, working on the dry banks of the Thames, Bobo’s sister found herself forced by unhappy circumstance to seek her sister at one of Lady Baxter-White’s fabulous parties. Waiting, she stretched her neck like a stalk’s through red curtains to the dancing beyond.
‘Her ersatz presence at Florence’s attracted the attention of a guest by the name of Hoogerwerf, who on discovering her identity, subjected her to a celebration of her sister from great purple lips …’
‘I am yet to pin that little tyke down in a game of tennis! One of these days … Tell me, was she so delicious when she was younger?’
And it was only a few months after that-
‘Could you pass the potatoes, Dad?’
'The elder holds the secrets of the younger! My aunt was entrusted to pass on the book to Bobo but on the day Florence died she spirited it away. It was only a few months later when-’
‘Are you finished here Dad?’
Only a few months later, as men in black and white shuffled about the Baxter-White house, a young girl, a favourite of Florence’s, hid the Book of Secrets in an old stone oven in the garden kitchen while she attempted to reach Bobo.
But no-one knew where Bobo was. The house was filling up with more sweeping black coats and jackets and they young girl began to panic. Just as she was about to shriek to the other young girls that they ‘simply light the oven and let the Book burn!’ one of them said that she had recently seen Hoogerwerf with a woman who claimed to be Bobo’s sister. They hadn’t believed Bobo to have a sister but Hoogerwerf, who was holding his hanging head in one of the long corridors of the house was brought forward and consulted and irritably assented that there did indeed exist ‘a tall, dry giraffe of a woman’ who called herself Bobo’s sister. Enquiries were made and the reality was verified and before midday the dry giraffe with the weak flutter of a resurgent heart was being hustled down the back passageways of the Baxter-White house and then presented with the Book of Secrets with the fierce instruction that it was to be delivered to the hands of no-one but Florence’s ‘Darling Bobo’. Little moist hands pushed her down the garden: ‘Tell her to send a note when she has received it. To Victoria!’ And then with a desperate nod the door was slammed shut.
Cut off from the garden, standing still, amidst a damp, charcoal alleyway Bobo’s sister clasped the Book of Secrets to her bosom. Summer was ending and the chill morning, with clouds overhanging, held the essence of decay. Her long trembling fingers stroked the black leather and played at the while linen cloth that poked out of the Book’s white lips.
Bertie Digby Alexander