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Authors: Alan Hackney

I'm All Right Jack

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I’M ALL RIGHT JACK

ALAN HACKNEY

T
HE HOT
sun beat down on Sunnyglades Nature Camp, and Stanley Windrush gulped at the gates. Whenever he came to see his father it seemed to be hot. Had it only been cooler he could have got away with it, but in weather like this he knew beforehand, with a sinking heart, that Mr Habakkuk in the reception room would insist on his being naked like everyone else.

“I don’t think your father’s in his cabin,” said Mr Habakkuk. “He’s in the grounds somewhere. Let me know if you can’t find him.”

Stanley heard this news with a sinking heart. To scour the woods for his father meant, as he well knew, a long agonizing hobble through the pine needles. His town shoes would only have added to his indignity, and he could never remember sandals.

Cringing distractedly along the paths he began to beat the woods. Twice he turned back at warning notices:
DANGER!
Beyond
this
point
you
can
be
seen
from
the
road.
He was making his way towards a murmur of voices when a loud and alarming rattling froze him. A snake! Then an exclamation of “Double three!” and a peep over a low bush confirmed that it was only a drooping family group playing ludo.

“Excuse me,” said Stanley, bowing an exit. The man rose, and put on very thick steel-rimmed spectacles to watch him go.

He found his naked father at last, mushrooming near the lake with a little chip basket.

“Seen any
amanitopsis
vaginata
?”
his father called out as he approached. “Oh, it’s you, Stanley. How are you? Any trouble with your trains? I’m looking for grisettes.”

“Oh, I’m very well,” said Stanley uneasily. His father’s remarks unsettled him with their apparently medical or
perhaps Parisian flavour, but it became clear he was speaking of fungi.

“Several of us picking today,” observed his father. “Including that fellow Greenblatt.” He indicated another pinky-white, middle-aged figure peering about under shrubs on the far side of the lake. “Extraordinary how insincere some people are. We have the simple life here, as you know, with us all plain to behold. Yet the fellow wears a beard. Sheer ostentation. I suppose when everybody’s been
converted
to The Way it’ll be about the only form of
ostentation
left. H’m. I say, look at this!” he cried suddenly, plucking what appeared to be a small human skull from a tuft of damp grass. “
Lycoperdon
giganteum!
Very fine specimen.”

Stanley looked dubious.

“Giant puff-ball,” said his father shortly, and thrust it into his basket with the other fungi, slightly nettled at his son’s lack of enthusiasm.

Later, outside Mr Windrush’s hut, they set to work peeling for cooking.

“And what are you thinking of doing now?” his father asked casually.

This was not an easy question to answer. Thinking of an answer had taxed Stanley’s capacities through most of his last term at the university. What with the long interlude of his Army service and one thing and another, it seemed to him at times that he had been at Oxford, on and off, for most of his life. Stanley had, in fact, fallen for Oxford’s notorious illusion of timelessness, and was now alarmed to realize that after
this
vacation he would not be going back. With his Third Class in the Final Honours School of English slung on his shoulder he must now strike out
unassisted
along what the chaplain at school used to call Life’s Highway.

“Lots of young fellows seem to be going in for the Foreign Office,” said his father. “Quite a shortage of recruits of the right sort. Seems to be a lot easier than it was in my day.

“I suppose the usual thing is to stay at home for a bit
and look round, but you never seem keen to stay here very long somehow. You’re wrong, of course. It’s the only place a gentleman
can
stay these days. However, please don’t let me stand in your way. You know, your mother always used to put a sixpence in with mushrooms, but it’s all nonsense. No fungus ever turned a sixpence black, poisonous or not. Would you get the tomatoes? They’re inside, in a bowl covered with
Health
And
Efficiency
.”

Inside the hut there was a minimum of basic furniture, indeed hardly enough horizontal surfaces to support the objects that had accumulated to bear witness to Mr Windrush’s multitudinous interests. Some of the more solid of the objects were usefully employed as
paperweights
, for he tended to keep the windows open day and night. Parts of his abandoned manuscript on the history of the English Music Hall were thus pinned down, as were pages of his current manuscript ‘The Uncluttered Spirit’, an assessment of the contribution of nudity to culture through the ages—a project started some years before as a thank-offering, but now largely abandoned through lack of evidence. Mr Windrush was a sensible man in his eccentricities and would never hesitate from mere pride to lay aside anything that became unpromising. Thus, his maritime rug-wool sweater hung ready to hand behind the door for when the sun went in. If it became chillier, he put shorts on as well.

Stanley came out with the tomatoes to find his father cutting the big puff-ball into half-inch slices.

“You know,” said Mr Windrush, “these Socialists talk about the Foreign Office being one of the last outposts of privilege. At least, they used to. Personally I’m all for any of these last outposts. Why not have a shot at that? You might do well in it.”

“I do know some people going in for it,” admitted Stanley. “Two or three chaps with Firsts, and a lot of Roman Catholics.
They
get in all right. Then send them to Paris or Rio.”

“Well, you once did a course in Japanese, didn’t you?” said his father. “That’s almost as good. They’ll probably
send you to the Canary Islands. I should put in an
application
right away.”

*

Stanley was rushed to hospital the next day, and spent a fortnight recovering from the effects of his father’s fungus casserole. He was pleased to receive a letter from him during the final stages of his recovery.

My
 
dear
 
Stanley,

I
really
must
apologize
for
the
delay
in
writing
to
you.
I
was,
of
course,
informed
by
the
hospital
authorities
of
your
condition
and
they
assured
me
verbally
that
although
you
were
then
on
the
danger
list
you
were
in
the
most
capable
hands,
which
relieved
me
a
great
deal.

It
is
curious
to
note
that
I
personally
suffered
no
ill-effects
and
I
can
only
put
down
your
indisposition
to
the
accidental
inclusion
of
some
amanita
phalloides,
a
variety
often
noted
for
its
fatal
effect.
My
survival
I
must
chiefly
ascribe
to
robustness
induced
by
more
natural
living
conditions,
but
I
do
not
wish
to
preach.

You
may
be
interested
to
hear
that
Greenblatt (the
man
I
pointed
out
to
you
with
the
beard
)
died
in
the
evening
shortly
after
you
left.
At
the
inquest,
which
I
attended,
the
coroner
saw
fit
to
make
what
was
to
my
mind
a
most
timid
and
misleading
warning
statement
on
the
dangers
of
eating
anything
but
the
cultivated
field
mushroom (
Psalliota
campestris
).
Nonsense,
of
course.
I
am
enclosing
Ramsbottom’s
‘Edible
Fungi’
for
you.
It
is
quite
a
good
elementary
work
and
may
while
away
some
of
your
time.

The
last
ten
days
have
been
pretty
full,
what
with
the
funeral
and
the
annual
conference
of
Natural
Union,
which
was
held
here
this
year.
We
have
our
excitements,
you
see.

Let
me
know
how
your
Foreign
Office
application
is
going.
Mr
Habakkuk

s
nephew
is
with
the
Fiji
Police,
incidentally,
and
often
sends
back
interesting
evidence
on
the
effects
of
clothing
a
barbarous
people.

My
 
best
 
wishes
 
for
 
your
 
recovery.

                                              
Your
affectionate,

                                                                      
Father

The day after this there came application forms and
duplicated sheets of information about appointments in the Senior Branch of the Foreign Service.

There seemed to Stanley to be more ways than one of entering and he began a diligent search through the papers for the easiest. Every second person he had met at Oxford had at one time or other tried to get into the Foreign Service or the Administrative Class of the Home Civil Service. From time to time batches of them used to go for a highly-strung weekend to a house in rural Surrey where the Civil Service Commissioners ran for some years a series of country-house parties. Some candidates went rather plaintively dressed for the future part in black jackets and pinstripes, others in tweeds as academic as they were
non-country
, with pastel woollen ties. Many went simply in order to stay at a country house, in an era of high taxation that made such a visit something to be snatched at, like a dish before it went off the menu.

All, when they got there, found themselves shown into Nissen huts in the grounds, and the whole business like an intellectual War Office Selection Board, the institution from which this expensive project had, in fact, developed. It was useful to have read economics and to be familiar with Planning. Some had irrelevantly christened the thing ‘Dr Edith’s Summerschool’.

All this, however, Stanley now found to his relief, had been abandoned in favour of a day in London, or a rather difficult examination, or ‘in exceptional cases’, they said, an appearance before a board without a preliminary interview.

There was a good deal in the sheets of information about ‘analysing reports from foreign countries’ and the Foreign Service officer abroad ‘playing an active part in the affairs of the local British community, who will frequently look to him for a lead’, home leave from unhealthy posts, and women candidates being required to be unmarried or widows, but of more interest was an enclosure about certain posts where there was particular need of candidates with a knowledge of Oriental languages. Stanley calculated that he might, for once, be welcomed with open arms.

So Stanley filled in his form, and in due course a card noting this was filed among a thousand W’s in the Records Branch of the Civil Service Commission in Burlington Gardens.

*

“Civil Service Commission,” said Stanley to the
taxi-driver
.

Candidates for interview were asked to be a quarter of an hour early, but Stanley disliked waiting about and had allocated most of this quarter-hour to the taxi ride from Victoria. As they waited in dense traffic at Hyde Park Corner he realized the foolishness of this.

“You in any particular hurry, mate?” asked the driver through his glass slide. He could see Stanley in his mirror, shifting anxiously about and craning round to look at public clocks.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I’m going to be terribly late,” said Stanley.

“So’s every other bugger, by the look of it,” pointed out the driver. “Gibback dair!” He humped the vehicle a foot obliquely forward as a car tried to nose into his lane.

“I think I’d better …” began Stanley desperately, leaning forward, but a sudden spurt heaved him back into his seat.

“Can’t you possibly go some other way?” asked Stanley, as they began to edge at less than walking pace along Piccadilly.

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