This song, you know this song! He hadn’t but soon came to as it became an anthem to all the best things that lay outside. The parties of Vang Vieng especially, and everyone who went to those parties knew that song. He must listen to that song again. That song with such ease would bring all that once been sliding back in front of him: the sunny bus journey to the costume warehouse, drinking vodka walking through town, building up courage to buy cigarettes. In those days he had been sure he was faking it. But now, looking back, the cold bare truth of it all had been there, climaxing in the sloppy drunkenness of his eighteenth birthday. In their phoney house parties and failed attempts at taking drugs they had been living much closer to what they envisioned on the sparkling horizon than they ever would have believed. Or so he came to believe.
And as he listened to that songs again, what came back was not a longing for what he desired, but for what before he had been living in ignorance.
He took himself back to the table.
‘And that, I believe, is where it began. I don’t know the exactitudes. Bobo found a quiet resolution that she was to keep as long as I knew her. And my father, well … All I know is that he got through Bobo’s eighteenth with Bordeaux, the eighteen months of their engagement with a few crates of the stuff, and was half drunk as she walked up the aisle.’ His grandfather was still talking. He remembered that he had asked the original question, but whether that question had been answered while he daydreamed, whether this was the long-winded answer, or whether the question had been cast aside entirely, he was unsure.
He surveyed the table in front of him with languid eyes. Like soldiers there was a row of three green wine bottles down at the corner of the table between where his father and grandfather sat. Speaking to them, the old man looked into its centre, resting his head on one white and gnarled fist that punched into his chin. His father was next to him, straight backed and still, looking at his grandfather, gently but with indifference. After a minute or so he would turn to the china shelf opposite behind Sofia, and then to his wine glass, and then back to the old man again. He was circling the wine in his glass as a steady tempo and occasionally this grabbed the gaze of their old storyteller. The rising and falling waves of wine attracted the drooping eyes into an uneasy flicker before returning to the centre of the table once more. Apart from this involuntary shifting of his gaze his grandfather was still. His face had fallen into unconscious exhaustion. Only his mouth moved up and down, sluggishly and heavily between each sentence where it rested dead shut. In the longer pauses between words his eyes-lids began to fall before the spinning wine caught his attention again and the mouth was roused once more into speech. A sonorous flow, now impossible to follow, just words and phrases here and there that he comprehended a couple of seconds late each time meaning he missed what then came next.
‘Did Aunt Margaret know Lady Florence?’ That had been his original question. Where on earth were they now? His grandfather was talking about his parent’s engagement. Though Bobo was only approaching her eighteenth birthday, upon the return to London, everyone was poised for what must surely follow after the events of that summer. The incident with the stallion had changed everything, or rather, his grandfather said, it had crystallised what had been growing in the wings for some time. Margaret, Bobo’s sister, had speedily extracted herself and this was a relief to everyone. With delicacy, the pleasure taken in this was unspoken. Such was the utter fullness of the sister’s departure - complete with all souvenirs that she had sown together to begin her life and the last shadows of her memory on the faces of either him or Bobo - not even an absence was felt when she left. Just a never been. The other parts of their little group and their little lives sunk into the space she had vacated, and they found themselves up against each other a little too close, like the last few in a game of Ring-a-Roses. But that which pulled them together, that which had forced Margaret to extract herself, that presence which hovered amongst their little society and each felt at the back of every thought, was tiptoed around, and not looked directly at, and certainly not mentioned.
His father was spinning the wine again.
Chocolate wrappers were strewn across the table, as were a few plates and saucers that had escaped his father’s earlier after dinner sweep, and there were a couple of ashtrays, one by his grandfather and another by Sofia. Around his father’s place it was tidy. He had smoothed and folded his chocolate wrappers and stacked them into a little pile on his plate in front of him. His eyes weren’t glazed like his grandfather’s but neither were they engaging in what was being said. They were quiet, calm eyes, disconnected by choice and deigned to look at other things, a collection of spittle in the crook of the old man’s mouth, the coast line in the background of a photograph on the shelf, at the shimmering veil of alcohol sliding down the inside of his wine glass. Comfortable and relaxed, those eyes had long ago ended taking any real interest in his father’s face.
He stretched out a hand to grab a chocolate from the box in front of him. His arm sprung up faster than he expected and almost knocked over his blooded wine glass. His hand fell into the box of chocolates and his fingers writhed about in search. It was full of the wrappers Sofia had thrown back in. He could not see inside from his position and unwilling to shift himself up he fumbled blindly. Fear swept over him as he realised there might be none left.
He was too drunk to even wonder at the eloquence of his grandfather at this time of night. ‘The spectre, brought shinning into centre stage, at this distance, and without the backdrop that had been, lost a definable brilliance and became a vague cloud of unease. At rare times it flashed into indubitable existence – perhaps in the corner of the drawing room one afternoon – but then disappeared again. Leaving the sunflowers and returning to London, and the breaking up of their tight little party, what they had been dancing around appeared to dissolve in the city’s smog, and though each caught a scent of it now and then, noticed a glimmer of sparkle in the evening light, none could now grasp on to what they had been sure was coming before. Having not recognised its storming approach to each other when it had been clear, having kept their dignity in refraining to comment so soon, back in London, any certain trace of it that’s groove might have been carved in their collective memory was absent. Soon each began to doubt themselves and disbelieve that it had ever been.
‘As summer finally set for another year the promise would have perhaps disappeared forever if it hadn’t been for my father whose gigantic sunny optimism and acceptance of what was, what always had been, and what certainly ever would be, propelled him to the peak of the wave that towered about them, over the sunflowers and through the streets of London. Of this wave the little currents of Bobo’s circle were only a spitting whirl of froth on the enclave. As my father’s personal bubble swooped up the curve of the wave so he brought with him the other strings of froth, and became their shining helmsman leading them forward. Unsure whether now to look up at the promise that had been resurrected or to be discreet and risk disappearance again, all were in a nervous tense expectancy right up to the week of Bobo’s eighteenth. With hair sprouting thinner and more frantic from their heads, each received the news of the engagement with excitement and exhaustion spinning in their eyes.’
Bertie Digby Alexander