by Dolores Healey
Three taps on the door. The shuffling, as it is, of distant mercuries in powder. Smoke: outside. His secretary, the Oxonian Mary, who until now can’t get over the fact that she positively can’t sing (and what of that, Mary?) announced that a pale young boy, handsome and blue-eyed was waiting for him in the ante-room. She would have told him the Herr was occupied with matters of the state (she was fond of platitudes) but she recognised the boy to be the Herr’s former student. Ah! But what does Herr Doktor care?
Coughing, she went out. Scorsese, magical things. Would The Herr care for a cup of tea? He said he would, thinking of something else, but eager to have Mary away.
Mary gone, he was seized by the desire to weep but had to gag himself, lest Mary, herself a hypochondriac, intrude upon his silence again with her tactless, irrelevant questions. But what use is crying after three decades of indifference? He felt foolish. He hated himself.
But there was no time for him to answer his mother’s last question. He had to leave.
And he departed to the mercy of Allah.
—Burton’s Thousand and One Nights
The young duke, blind and penitent, lay amazingly rigid in his ancestor’s canopied bed in Swansea. It was a tragedy to die so young, yet in that short lifetime (of lavender and picturesque decadence) he had been thrice-loved and a hundred times loving, a Shakespearean scholar, a silversmith, a thief, a hopeless, godless philosopher. In 1981, he decided to learn German to woo Bertha the barmaid whose breasts are impossibly large and whose heart impossibly cruel; in 1985, he had to die. His life seemed to him every night for the last twenty years (he is 28 now, and had started to count his years from the rain-muffled silence of the fateful October morning when he was eight and he found out he was in love and cannot forget nor undo the discovery ever since) the cruel substance of the bedtime Arabian tales her governess used to tell him: a pastiche of inherited memories, a vacuum, a daydream. Had he ever been there at all, strolling along the Po with a hideous old dog he pretended to love so as not to make her mother cry? dozing, dying? He was watching his life before he could live it, and it felt all the time the only right thing. He had looked upon death as a peaceful repose, an escape from the cruelty of this world, out if discontent of a life he was too cowardly to live. He had always longed for death, had looked upon the living with scorn, the dead with envy, the dying with admiration. Yet now that death has come at last to escort him (he the kindly doorman, stooping, always, to conquer) into the repose he had always been seeking, he realised how false all his love had been. He had always loved life, and cannot bear now to part with. He had at least to acknowledge it.