Authors: Susanna Johnston
Tags: #Fiction, #Humour
Printed ISBN: 9781783341344
Ebook ISBN: 9781783341344
E-book production made by
Published by Gibson Square
Copyright Â© 2016 by Gibson Square
âWicked, great comic characters.'
'Remarkably seductive and unsettling qualities. As a storyteller she is almost dangerously observant, darkly funny and absolutely ruthless. She has, too, an acute understanding of human nature and a remarkable visual sense; but it is her refusal ever to soften or romanticise that enables her to maintain her lethally sharp edge.'
Susanna Johnston is a novelist and former feature writer for
. Her acclaimed works of fiction include
Lettice and Victoria
. She is married, with four daughters, and divides her time between Lucca and Oxfordshire where she lives with her architect husband.
The brothers, almost from birth, disapproved of smoking â long before it became fashionable to do so â although neither of them ever came within many miles of being fashionable.
Malise did strain at times to attain a worldly air but Christian never attempted it.
They were born, sons to a withered scion of a Scottish ducal family and his bible-believing wife who lived in an ancient farmhouse in a rural part of Hertfordshire.
In a Spartan nursery they were taught to redeem and to reform. When Malise was no more than four years old he, with the help of his mother and much attention to detail, mended the foot of an inherited rocking-horse that they were not allowed to ride or to play with on Sundays. As he patted putty into a front hoof, Malise frowned crossly at the wobbliness of his miniature spatula. His mother, Madeline, spoke quietly. âRemember, Malise. A good workman never blames his tools.'
Madeline had a large flat face and two large flat plaits were pinned to the top of her head by pale hair pins. Very much later Malise remembered her words and, later still, congratulated himself on never having blamed his tool for anything.
Malise's mother often explained to him âI chose your name, dear, upon learning that it's Gaelic origin came from the words âServant of Jesus.' She loved and rejoiced in the name although it unnerved her when the occasional visitor mispronounced it.
Christian needed no explanation for his given name.
Their father, older than his wife, was quiet and stately. He passed his time studying, in a wandering way, maps and atlases. A vast globe rotated on his desk but he had no desire to travel.
Although the farmhouse was rambling, the âboys' were expected to share a bedroom. Two narrow wrought-iron beds stood on, as was also laid in the nursery and bathroom, beige linoleum floor covering. A solitary picture hung on one of the walls. It was a much reproduced coloured print of the shining figure of Jesus â with only the faintest suspicion of a cross in the background. Under it was written âAll Things Bright and Beautiful.'
Apart from this reproduction, the room was bare. A copy of the Bible lay beside each bed and on each hard pillow lived a Teddy bear. These Teddy bears remained with the boys until the end of each of their lives.
Malise was perfectly formed. He had blue eyes, fair curls, a strong body and classical features.
Christian, four years younger than his brother, was a poor replica. They were alike but Christian's hair grew lower over his brow. His cheeks were rough and ruddy and his movements clumsy. From the word go he had been unable to pronounce his r's which made it a tall order when it came to saying his name. He deified his brother who delighted in calling him âCwistian.' Nearly every day he made the small boy repeat, after him, the words âI tripped up on the slippery road after the soft refreshing rain.'
By the time Christian was five, his brother nine, they read tracts, set out for them by their mother, and wrote down sayings to pin up on a cork board in the nursery. âNeither a lender nor a borrower be' was the favoured one. Although money was not scarce in the family, it was extremely important that they learn the value of it and how it should never be spent unnecessarily, particularly on others.
Malise learnt and recited these dictums aloud.
Christian uttered little for fear of mockery.
Such was their life until one Wednesday, when the boys were ten and six respectively, their mother died in her sleep. She had been weakening for many months but the fact of her illness had never been mentioned in front of her sons.
In Madeline's dead hands she clasped one verse of her favourite hymn â written shakily as she struggled with a relief nib dipped into black ink and began â
In every condition, in sickness, in health
In poverty's vale or abounding in wealth â¦.
Some months earlier, when she knew her strength to be failing and with a small legacy of her own, she had commissioned a portrait of Malise to be painted. Every strand of his golden hair glistened on canvas. Whilst trying hard not to bracket this work of art with her own image of Christ, the enamoured mother hung it as an icon above her table.
Poor little Christian, unpainted, did nothing but worship his Adonis of a brother and sometimes, in secret, prayed before the picture as and when he was allowed to greet his mother in the mornings â before she lost herself in hours of prayer.
Neither boy was allowed to attend their mothers' funeral but watched the hearse from a dining-room window as it drove her slowly away, followed by their father on foot.
Soon after that they began to be incongruously playful together. It was Malise who, with scientific patience, showed Christian the way â as soon as the overhead light (the only one in the room) was switched off. The beds were hard and narrow so they used the floor. With no mother to hear them recite their prayers, there was little danger of interruption â since their father kept to his own forlorn quarters.
It started as a semi-game with Malise ordering a dazzled Christian (alive with joy that his brother wished to play with him) to lie on the floor.
âNow' the older one would say, âSqueeze me as if I were a toothpaste tube. Start at the bottom, of course, as mother taught us to do with toothpaste.'
Malise taunted Christian as well as practicing antics on him and often chanted âyou are the stone that the builder rejected' as he conducted sexual experiments. After each session he would take Christian to the chilly bathroom for a wash. There he always pointed to one of the many maxims that covered walls throughout the house. âPlease remember, don't forget. Never leave the bathroom wet.'
Christian remained doting and admiring. Together they went, Malise first, of course, to a daily, local private school â fees were paid by the distant ducal trust.
A heavily built spinster neighbour called for them and ferried them to and fro. She had pity for the motherless boys and designs on their father.
The ritual seldom varied. Alyson, as the spinster was called, nearly always shouted out a loud âcooeee' in the dark hall. âI've left a little something on the kitchen table so that you and your Daddy can have a bit of a tuck in tonight.' Malise was squeamish and, even then, detested the way that Alyson spoke of their father as âDaddy.' That was something that never changed even with the passing of many years.
By the time Malise, a prodigiously handsome thirteen year old, went off to public school, the boys had become accustomed to a step-mother â Alyson, the one to have driven them (and continued to do so in the case of Christian) to day school. She was flat footed, flat voiced and not at all interfering. Nonetheless she wanted to mother the boys and was not to be trusted where âpopping in' to say goodnight was concerned. In some ways this made their rituals more exciting and the expectation of one of her appearances heightened the intensity. She did once find them on the floor together but tip toed out of the room and closing the door quietly behind her, padded downstairs to tell her dozing husband âIt was refreshing, if naughty after lights out, to see them ragging and getting on so well together.'
All that ended when Alyson, accompanied by Christian â silent and stifled in the back seat â drove Malise and his trunk (Teddy bear packed) to the nearest station. Christian's life emptied as the train puffed away. Alyson made an attempt to kiss Malise goodbye but the plan misfired as the boy held her at arm's length.
Poor Christian! Malise gone. His hero. His idol. Their chilly bedroom a contaminated temple.
He was, at least, at school during the day in term time and tending his vegetables at weekends and on summer evenings â but he was miserable, lonely and isolated. With floundering desire he tried to make friends with other pupils but nobody took much notice of him. One of the dingier masters, however, remarked that Christian had a melodious singing voice and invited him to join the church choir. It met only once a fortnight for practice in a wooden hall and he was driven there and back each time by his step-mother. She did nothing without a sigh and an indication that her duty was being done. Nearly every time she told Christian âYour Daddy is very proud that you have joined the choir.'
At choir practice he again failed to get nearer to any of the boys or girls. He just sang louder and louder until he was ordered to lower his voice. One evening, however, a miracle occurred. The master who had invited him to join the choir also invited him to become a member of the local boy scouts.
Malise's absence during term time was an agony to him but the feeble crushes he formed, at school and at scouts, gave him hope even though, as happened each time, nobody responded to his overtures.
The church hall (known as the Mission Room) was dismal and cold. The piano, a tinkling, reedy instrument, rattled and seldom more than six singers (none of them as tuneful as Christian) came to practice. The choir master, the one whom had also invited him to join the scouts, had a speech impediment. Every time he uttered the hard letter âc' it resounded like a pistol shot. Christ. Christmas. Christian. Choir. This impediment drew Christian instinctively towards the choirmaster.
Scouts took him to camp for a whole week. Each difficult word uttered by the master â club and camp â made the boys giggle. Poor Christian was uncertain as to which side to champion. Nobody wanted to bond.
Malises's holidays from school became the focus of his being. His dreams and desires lay in the prospect of rolling around with his brother on the linoleum in the dark.
When Malise returned from school for the holidays his need to use his brother as a sex object had disappeared. Evaporated. No further interest. The overhead light was turned off but nothing happened. Malise, clearing his throat, ordered Christian to put away his childish things. He, himself, had, he announced, become a man although Teddy bears were still permitted.
Malise enjoyed boarding school. Many of the boys and several of the masters fell for him; his looks, his composure, his lofty manner. He, too, joined a choir but his was a majestic one and boys sang to a world class organ. He revelled in ancient church music. It reminded him dimly of his mother, although he never thought of his father or Christian or of the upheavals he might have caused at home.
There were certain things that he found rather wonderful at school â particularly the boys bathing room where half a dozen tubs stood in two rows, all in sight of each other. No cordoning off. Older boys gazed in his direction. One of the masters, a Mr Scarlatti became besotted with him and allowed him the use of a spare shed in the school grounds. Malise had begun to show an interest in mechanical objects (not unlike himself) and told Mr Scarlatti that he needed a motor bicycle to tinker with in his spare hours. The master rescued one from a scrap heap and handed Malise enough cash with which to buy spare parts. His parts, too, he felt, were spare and he intended to continue being sparing with them as he resisted advances from boys and teachers. He became conceited â treating the motor cycle as he had treated Christian in their early childhood â riding it as an inanimate object. Mr Scarlatti would watch, glowing with pride, from a corner of the shed. âYou'll be a scientist my boy. One day we will see you in lights. Film star. Singer. Politician. Who knows? You are capable of big things.'
Malise paid him little attention. Nor did he pay much attention to learning. He seldom wrote to his father and never to his brother.