Authors: Melvyn Bragg
Remember Me . . .
Also by Melvyn Bragg
FOR WANT OF A NAIL
THE SECOND INHERITANCE
THE CUMBRIAN TRILOGY:
The Hired Man
A Place in England
WITHOUT A CITY WALL
THE SILKEN NET
LOVE AND GLORY
THE MAID OF BUTTERMERE
A CHRISTMAS CHILD
A TIME TO DANCE
A TIME TO DANCE: the screenplay
THE SOLDIER'S RETURN
A SON OF WAR
CROSSING THE LINES
SPEAK FOR ENGLAND
LAND OF THE LAKES
CUMBRIA IN VERSE (edited)
RICH: The Life of Richard Burton
ON GIANTS' SHOULDERS
THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH
12 BOOKS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Sceptre
An imprint of Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette Livre UK company
Copyright Â© Melvyn Bragg 2008
The right of Melvyn Bragg to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Extract from âAn Irish Airman Foresees His Death' by W.B. Yeats reproduced by kind permission of AP Watt Ltd on behalf of GrÃ¡inne Yeats. All rights reserved.
âThe Lady is a Tramp' Words & Music by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart Â© 1937 (renewed) Warner/Chappell Music Ltd, London W6 8BS. Reproduced by permission.
âIt's Now Or Never' by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold published by Rachel's Own Music LLC administered by A. Schroeder International LLC. Used by permission, international copyright secured.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Epub ISBN: 9781848942479
Book ISBN: 9780340951231
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
Death is now a welcome guest.
When I am laid in earth,
May my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Libretto by Nahum Tate for
Dido and Aeneas
by Henry Purcell
She was silhouetted against the log fire, sitting on the floor, her legs drawn elegantly to one side, her right arm as it were a prop, in her left hand the cigarette. When Joe saw her as he came, nervous through loneliness, into the grand drawing room of the riverside house, he went across to her tentatively but immediately, perhaps already sensing a fellow loneliness, captured by the dark silhouette, darkened further by the deep purple dress she wore, which, he would learn, was her only good dress. He was attracted across the quietly convivial room full of strangers by the sadness of her isolation and the space around her.
There was the mystery of her, from the beginning, the difference about her. Joe would often come back to that first image. It was not love at first sight. It proved to be not much of a conversation. He wanted to tell her that she looked like the engraving of Shelley in his book of the poems, but he could not summon up the nerve.
They smoked. He poured her a glass of red wine from the cheap bottle he had brought. He never could remember much of what they talked about but he always remembered not telling her, not then, that she looked like Shelley. Even many years later when it finally proved to be the time to tell her story, their story, to their daughter, to tell it in full as far as he could, it was this picture of her to which he returned, the silhouette, which made him want to cry out again for the violent death, the wounded life. He could find so much, fathomless, which came from that first accidental encounter. He did not know then that like him she was still numb and lost in the aftermath of a love which had taken almost too much to bear; he did not even sense that, and as for the rest
she was and in ways remained as unknown as an undiscovered planet. Whereas before her, from the first he felt transparent; he believed she could understand everything about him. To the end, he held onto the conviction that she saw right through him.
The party went on around them but it was as if the volume had been turned down by someone aware that the two of them needed all the silence and stillness they could get to nurse the feeble pilot flame of this slight encounter. Nothing should have come of it. They were not meant to meet, he never felt that nor did she, nor did they pretend. But for a splicing of accidents they would never have met at all: and yet, given the way this unsought fragile conversation was to wrench their lives, mark, brand and gut them, it came to seem impossible that their life could have been lived on any terms other than those to be set in motion in these unplotted moments. A million taunting reasons never to meet each other. Trajectories in different quarters of the universe. The worlds of their deeper past so far apart. All they had to build on was the temporary companionship of strangers. But the pilot flame stayed alive, that night, in the week before Christmas, in the rather rundown Victorian manor house by the Thames just outside Oxford, leased by American art students, log-lit, candlelit, everyone shadowed, the flickering lights stroking a glass or revealing the sudden fullness of a glance across the room.
In the early days, Joe had liked to dwell on the high odds that led to their meeting. It lent the glamour of the miraculous. Even sticking to the narrow window of that evening, so many exceptional factors had been required. She had stayed on in Oxford rather than return to France following another bitter exchange of letters, so bitter that for the first time in her life she would not spend that season in her own country with her own family. Jonathan, one of the Americans in the art school, had taken pity, knowing, as they all did, what had happened between Robert and herself, what a cruel breaking apart it had been, and though this friendly soul did not know the worst of it he knew enough to seek her out and persuade her to come to Shillingford that evening where there was to be a gentle party for the left-outs and leftovers. Several students from their art school had missed her over the past weeks, he said. She was persuaded partly out of her good manners, partly because
the American was kind; mostly, though, because the family she worked for was on holiday and the house was cold and its emptiness intensified her dread.
On that evening, Joe had been standing in front of the Oxfam shop in Broad Street wondering whether to go back to the library for a last couple of hours. For the first time he had stayed on at the university for an extra week. The excuse was that he needed to catch up on his work, but a stronger reason was that he was reluctant to go home to Wigton and see Rachel, whom he still loved, as happy now with someone else as she had been for so long with him. The Oxfam window could trap him. One late afternoon he had been convinced that Rachel would come to see him and he had gone to the station and waited until the last train arrived and departed and still he sat on the station bench as if he could will her to appear before him. On the way back that night he had stopped in front of this Oxfam shop, bewildered with his need for her, and looked at the rows and rows of second-hand paperbacks, attempting to staunch the bleed of hopeless passion by trying to memorise the titles and authors.
Roderick called him from across the street, clipped military syllables cracking through the icy air. Off to some party, sure Joe would be welcome, just grab a bottle at the off-licence next to the bus station. An American GI met at a concert, very bright, at the Ruskin School of Art. Party would be full of arty types but could be fun.
Yet that was no more than the tip of it, Joe would think later. He could so easily have walked back by the High Street and not the Broad. He could have stayed in the pub for another drink as he very nearly did. She could have changed her mind about the invitation as she had so often done about others in the past few weeks. Roderick might not have spotted him across the street. He could have said âno'. She could have been in another room and not silhouetted against the log fire. Someone else could have been talking to her. The possibility of their meeting could be sliced so thin it would disappear altogether like the thought of parallel lines meeting only in infinity which had once made him giddy. He could still sweat at the thought years on. What if he had missed her? If destiny meant anything surely they were destined not even to know of each other's existence let alone to meet, and yet out of this would come
an embrace to the death: so perhaps, he thought, later, chance was their destiny.
It seemed very difficult to ask her name. âNatasha,' she said and waited, but Joe took time to enjoy the name, the charm of those three syllables falling like quiet notes in a Romantic sonata, a name unique in Joe's personal experience and pronounced in a silver-toned English which managed to sound both pure and foreign.
âFrench?' he guessed.
The response was a barely perceptible smile.
âJoe,' he announced.
âThat's American. GI Joe.'
âNo it isn't!' He spotted no playfulness. âJoe's plain English.' Once again the brief smile across features as pure and foreign as the accent. Again she waited. âIt's Jewish, to be fair,' he said. âThe coat of many colours.'
âThat's Joseph. I prefer Joseph.'
His aunt Grace, who had aspirations, had wanted him to be called by his âfull name'. âCall him Joseph and he'll get Joe,' she had warned, âand Joe's common.'