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Authors: Louis de Bernieres

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BOOK: The Dust That Falls from Dreams
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Rosie pulled a wry face. ‘I’m rather afraid I might be going off him. All that breathless flinging and so on. And that wisdom in women one is really beginning to pall. It’s so condescending, don’t you think? As if women don’t have any nouse of their own.’

‘I’ve always thought that. I mean that it’s condescending, not that women don’t have any nouse. I still love the one about the
fish, though, and the one about the funeral of God. I expect you need a break from Rupert B. You’ll probably get your enjoyment back if you leave it for a while. I see you’ve taken the cover off, or did you lose it?’

‘I put it in a drawer. It was getting awfully tatty, and that photograph of Brooke in his huge poetic cravat was beginning to irritate me.’ She reached over and brushed a small ball of fluff from his jacket. ‘You know,’ she said, settling back into her seat, ‘now that we’re here I’d like to start writing poetry again. I think I’m going to be inspired.’

‘Again?’ he said, raising an eyebrow, in quest of an explanation.

‘I used to win the poetry prize every year at school. But it was always old-fashioned stuff. You know, I loved Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and people like that, and I still love them really, but I don’t think we can go on writing all that thee and thou stuff any more, do you? And striking poses? And coming up with strange word orders just to accommodate a bad rhyme? I think it’s got to be more up to date somehow.’

‘At Westminster we memorised reams of heroic narrative verse,’ said Daniel. ‘ “Horatius at the Bridge”, and so on. I can still recite them perfectly. “Lars Porsena of Clusium, / By the nine gods he swore, / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more…” If you recited them faultlessly, you got plus marks, and if you failed badly enough, you got beaten.’

They both laughed. ‘I want to be a proper Georgian poet,’ said Rosie, ‘but how will I keep up to date? I can’t rely on lucky accidents, like yours, when you found Eleanor Farjeon in Margate. You know, be aware of where the tide is flowing, and know what to be inspired by? Who to read for useful tips?’

‘Just drop a line to Cave’s in Colombo and tell them what you want. That way you’ll only be two months out of date at most, and a heavy little parcel in brown paper and tied with string will arrive every few weeks or so.’

‘Can we afford it?’

‘Well, if it gets too much we can cut back. I’d have thought that books would be the last thing to give up. Why don’t we take it in turns to read a book, so we can talk about it afterwards?’

‘That would be fun. As long as I don’t have to read too many things about aeroplanes.’

‘It’s a pity you don’t read much French,’ said Daniel. ‘My more intellectual French friends tell me that we’re writing the most interesting modern poetry in the world. Claudel, Jules Laforgue, and so on.’

‘When we get the books you can go over them with me,’ said Rosie. ‘I want to learn to speak better French anyway.’

‘The best thing is to pay attention when I’m chattering to Esther,’ said Daniel. ‘It’s always best to learn the same way as a child.’

‘There’s a newish poet called T. S. Eliot,’ said Rosie. ‘He’s considered a bit shocking, so I’m going to try and find out more about him. I saw something called “Prufrock” and it really is quite different from anything else. The metre is terribly loose, but it’s still obviously poetry. I’d love to be able to write like that.’

They looked out over the garden, which was terraced in three stages down the mountainside below. A wizened gardener was on his hands and knees, apparently doing intricate things with individual blades of grass. On the right there stood a fantastically tall red turpentine tree, straight as a guardsman, and on the second terrace, next to a croquet lawn, there stood a round white gazebo. The beds were planted with busy Lizzies and red salvia. A tiny squirrel with a black stripe along its spine approached the place where they sat, went up on its haunches, and sniffed the air to discover what they were. Rosie threw it a cashew. It suddenly occurred to her that ‘Gilbert the Filbert’ had stopped going round and round in her head. What a relief it was. She seemed to have so much more space for other thoughts.

‘We’re an ill-assorted pair, aren’t we?’ said Daniel.

Her heart seemed to stop for a moment, and she looked up at him with a kind of horror. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked, knowing perfectly well what all the possible answers might be, except for the one that he came up with.

‘I’ve just spent several years killing hundreds of people,’ he said, ‘and you’ve just spent years saving the lives of hundreds of people.’

‘Hundreds? You’ve killed hundreds?’

‘Yes. If you include the ground attacks through 1918. I must
have killed hundreds. I saw it with my own eyes. Either bombed or machine-gunned. Mostly machine-gunned.’

‘But you had to, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, on the face of it. Even so, one can’t help but wonder. How much sorrow and mourning must have come out of it.’ He paused ‘…and how much waste. I must have killed people who were going to be musicians, or poets, or doctors, or scientists. People who loved their children. I might have killed the German Rupert Brooke.’

‘Don’t forget they were trying to kill you too. You probably killed a lot of petty criminals and murderers and wife-beaters and dog-kickers as well.’

Daniel laughed. ‘No doubt.’

‘And they were doing the same to us. Think of poor Fairhead’s little sister. She might have got married and had six beautiful little children, and one of them might have grown up to be a genius.’

‘Or a lunatic.’

‘Well, we cannot possibly ever know, can we?’

‘What if Ash had survived and you’d married him instead of me?’

‘We wouldn’t have had Esther. Would you want to live in a world without Esther?’

‘No, but I’d rather live in a world that still had Ash. I expect you would too, if you were honest.’

‘You can drive yourself mad with what ifs, can’t you? If ifs and ans were pots and pans –’

‘– There’d be no need for tinkers’ hands.’

Rosie looked down over the valley. ‘Just think, if Esther has children, there will be a whole new line of people who only existed because Ash was killed. Thousands and thousands, as time goes on. Ash would have made one future if he’d lived, but instead he made another one by dying.’ She fell silent for a few moments, then said quietly, ‘Before Ash died he told me that he would be the keeper of my soul.’

‘Perhaps he is,’ said Daniel. ‘I’d like to think he’s keeping an eye on both of us. We were all in the Pals, weren’t we?’

On the mountain slope opposite rose rank upon rank of tea plantations, topped by wispy cloud. Thousands of feet below them,
from a valley floor that would one day, long after they had gone, become the serene and majestic Lake Castlereagh, a mist began to rise and swell.

‘You were right about the climate,’ said Rosie. ‘It’s been like a lovely morning in May all day.’ She looked up at him and he saw that her eyes were softening with emotion. ‘Thank you. You really have brought us to paradise, I think. All I need now is to find something useful to do. I don’t want to spend all my time on Esther, or just sitting around reading. Is that awful of me? We are going to get an ayah, aren’t we? And the estate has its own clinic.’ She looked down at her hands. They were ready for work, and you’d never know they’d been burned. She thought of Dr Scott, of his essential goodness, his efficient compassion.

‘You won’t be singing “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” then?’ said Daniel.

‘Not for quite a while. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story could end here?’

‘End here? What on earth do you mean? We’re only just starting.’

‘I mean wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could all end with us being perfectly happy in a wonderful place, with all our troubles behind us, and nothing having gone wrong yet. Wouldn’t this be a good moment for the whole world to come to an end? Everything going dark, quite suddenly, like a candle blown out?’

Daniel bent down and kissed the top of her head. ‘I do know what you mean, but it wouldn’t really be wonderful at all, would it? You’d miss out on the best parts of the future. What about Esther being the first of thousands? As far as I can see, one gets happiness in periodic bursts. You slog through the rest of the time, making the most of the better moments, and just hanging on until the next burst comes. Let’s do our best to enjoy this one, shall we? Later on there’ll be other moments just as good, wouldn’t you think? As for tomorrow, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as far as I’m concerned. And anyway, it’s Esther that matters now.’

‘And any more that might turn up,’ said Rosie. ‘Did I tell you that I started to write a poem about you?’

‘About me? Gracious!’

‘I’ve only got the title and one line so far, though.’

‘What’s the one line?’

‘ “I’d have you take me further on this journey to my heart.” ’

Daniel was momentarily confounded. Then he said, ‘Is that the first line?’

‘Probably. But you never know with poems. They have a mind of their own. It might be better as a last line, or the last line of every verse.’

Daniel repeated the line to himself, and counted on his fingers. ‘That’s perfectly iambic. It’s an iambic heptameter.’

‘You know about metre?’

‘Don’t be so surprised! I have hidden depths. And a terrific aversion to being beaten by the English master. And what’s the title?’

‘ “For Daniel” of course. And by the way, I’ve been thinking, I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve decided that I’d like everyone to call me Rosemary rather than Rosie. Apart from you. You can still call me Rosie, if you like.’

‘I normally call you darling, don’t I? I’ll call you Rosie if I’m angry, perhaps, and Rosemary when I’m being reproachful. I’ve noticed that you don’t call me anything. Not darling or dear, anyway.’

‘Something will come spontaneously, I expect. One of these days. We’ll have to wait and see what it is.’

‘I’ve always wanted someone to call me sweetheart,’ said Daniel, ‘but definitely not
. Or

His eye was caught by a scuffling movement near at hand, and he stood up to look. Not far from where he had been sitting he saw, huddled in a corner beneath a vine, a small bird in a strangely contorted position. He picked it up gently, bringing it over for Rosie and Esther to see. It had a claw of its left leg caught on the topside of its wing. ‘Must have been scratching its head,’ said Daniel. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

‘Daddy, don’t kill it, Daddy,’ said Esther.

‘Honestly, sweetie! Of course I won’t.’

‘It looks like a very tiny magpie,’ said Rosie. ‘Do you think you can untangle it?’

Daniel sat down, and carefully bent the left wing down as he lifted the claw from its trap of pinions. The bird remained perfectly
calm. Then her father let Esther stroke the top of its head, and he carried it to the edge of the veranda. He opened his hands, and they watched as it hesitated, hastily straightened a feather on its chest, and flew out over the valley, banked, dived and disappeared.


With thanks to those who read early drafts and gave me good advice which I did not always like; and to my grandfather’s Canadian friends, whose contributions will, I hope, bear fruit in future volumes; and to Ralph McTell, for his friendship, and his peerless guitar playing, and for reassuring me that if you know how many guitars you have, then you don’t have enough, and for letting me have ‘I’m writing with my finger in the dust that falls from dreams’ in return for a simple bribe of a pint in a Great Yarmouth pub.

BOOK: The Dust That Falls from Dreams
3.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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