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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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8 poets making it new
samples
smylonnylon
share
caveat
generation z
blt
lutwidge finch
rel(ev)ations
the back of beyond
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“No, it is perfect,” the Colonel said excitedly. “Because, in a way, I owe this all to you. You see, the day I lingered with you and Tabby over that delightful lunch at Simpson’s (which you so generously paid for, don’t think I have forgotten), well coming home that very evening was when I met my bride.”

“Really?”

“It is God’s truth,” he said solemnly, touching the medals on his chest.
It might be noted here that the Colonel was not lying, consciously. He had a wonderful plastic memory and honestly believed whatever left his lips, no matter how outrageous or blatantly false it was. This gave him a sincerity that often succeeded in getting people to do what he asked, not so much because they believed him but because he had so obviously convinced himself, and his more polite victims could not bear to burst his bubble.

“I am staying at the Hall,” Finch protested one last time. “I do not have the proper clothes.”

“Come as you are, Mr. Finch. I told you, none of that lace curtain stuff for us. I am a son of the soil, myself. It is that church over there. Saint-- Saint Someone’s, I’m sure. In an hour. Oh! And could you give me five pounds? We did not bother to fuss with publishing the banns, all in keeping with the modest ceremony. Don’t want a bunch of her fancy relatives trooping out. Have to tip the chaplain a bit extra for that. It is your responsibility, you know, as best man. Thank you. Now I must be off,” he called, before Finch could answer. “I have so much to do. It is the greatest day of my life. Thank God for you, sir.

Thank God!”

On a hillside, where the road paused before descending into town, Lady Tabitha took deep breaths, filling herself with resolve. What she would have to say was not easy. He thought I was an angel until last night. Now he suspects I am a whore. To tell him the truth, that I am a woman, risks losing everything. For what does he want with a woman, one among many? It troubled her that at breakfast today, unthinkingly, she had replied to Miss Ethyl’s query, No, she had never been in love. It came to her again now, this nagging wish for certainty, where all she felt was the opposite. “Oh you will know when you are in love,” her mother had told her. But that woman’s sad history was no example to follow. Did my mother love my father? she wondered. Am I about to make the same terrible mistake? But her feet were moving forward. Her body, in some sensible way, knew what was right. Her mind, in a deep, wordless place, was rehearsing what it would say. The hardest thing in the world is to ask for help. Her emotions were methodically taking down their walls, brick by brick, throwing open their gates, spiking their guns. It was in this state of nakedness she came upon the object of her affections, and what she saw made her blood run cold.

Lutwidge was a small distinct figure in the distance. He was engaged in discussion with someone she could not see at first, but evidently the two speakers were close, since from time to time the man touched Lutwidge’s shoulder or waved forcefully. Once, he pounded his chest, as if to swear the veracity of an assertion. A familiar gesture. Then the two turned as the other man took his leave and she saw...Yes! There was no mistaking it. Johnny Carter’s bald head, high protuberant eyes and dyed mustache. My God, he was even in uniform, as he had often dressed on the pier, for those night promenades he insisted would be good for Tabitha’s health. Chinese lanterns and the obscene slap of black wavelets against rotted wood. Johnny Carter here, in Little Dipping. It could only mean one thing. Yes, she knew she was in love now, because the rending pain she felt, imagining what they were discussing, was more than she could bear. Clearly Lutwidge had made inquiries, as any man of standing would, about the woman he was about to marry. She remembered the fateful meeting at Simpson’s, her fears then, so amply justified now. Take your blood money, she silently challenged the Colonel, as she saw him accept from Lutwidge a large bank note. Why not? Here at last is the final morsel you will peck from my mother’s corpse. Take it! There was an overwhelming taste of bitterness in her mouth. Finch was still staring after the departing Colonel, in a state of stunned bemusement, she supposed.

Go to him now, a voice told her.

So this is the world, she thought. Your bed is made and you must lie in it. God forbid you were young, or innocent, or unlucky. To hear the Colonel tell it, no doubt she had been a depraved vixen of thirteen, wise beyond her years, practically offered up by her desperate, pandering mother, eager to maintain her hold on the man once her own fading charms proved inadequate.

The horror of it was: she could easily have been convinced this scenario was true, despite knowing in her heart it was not.

Go to him, the voice repeated. But she was frozen in place. The past was inescapable. She turned before Lutwidge might see her and walked quickly back to the Hall.
Nan was just stirring. Colonel Carter assisted the natural process by jogging her shoulder and whispering in her ear.

“Up girl,” he said, in the tones of an animal trainer, that same mix of stagy affection and genuine threat.

“It is bad news,” she whispered, still in a dream. “They have come for me.”

“Indeed they have, Nan,” he said heartily, having no time for her hysterics. He was already, in his mind, her husband, in legal possession of a large fortune, if his informant was correct. His second act, after buying himself a large box of Corona-Corona cigars, would be to rein in her disturbing chatter. “Come girl, it is your big day.”

She opened her eyes and squinted.

“Johnny,” she said.

“How well I remember last night,” he proclaimed. “When you gave me all that a woman can give a man.”

“No,” she protested, quite clear for once. “I only--”

“And I, in turn,” he went on, “have decided, in the same spirit, to make of you what few would think possible.”

“I am sick,” she said. “I cannot--”

“--an honest woman, of course! Come, my dear. We shall go down into town today and be married.”

He waited to see what effect this would have. He had never proposed to a woman before, and felt himself quite moved. A tear trembled in the corner of his eye. Since, however, the black pomade he used on his mustache had run out yesterday, he took care to smear it sideways along his cheek.

“Married,” Nan said, sitting up.

“You are not already?” The horrible thought seized his mind.

“Oh no. Who would marry me?” she asked, looking down.

“The offer is on the table,” he said, sensing his victory, the token resistance overcome. “I have paid off the vicar, lined up a witness, and...look.” He produced a small, tubular band of gold. “The ring from the nose of Deccan savage. I got it off a sapper who survived the Mutiny. Always carried it with me, waiting for the right girl.”

“But Johnny,” Nan said gently, “it is what I have been trying to tell you all along. I cannot be with you as a woman is with a man, as a wife is with a husband. It is my sickness, you see. The man who knows these things...I saw him last night. He warned me--”
“I do not wish to hear this,” the Colonel said angrily. Despite his bluster, he was rather prudish when it came to such matters. “I am speaking of love, of true affection, not the coupling of barnyard animals. What we have done, just...being with you these past few weeks, has given me more pleasure than I ever expected to have in my life, certainly more than I have ever deserved.” He wiped away more tears. It is strange, the roundabout ways we come to express our feelings. Here he was, motivated by greed, intent only on deception, yet pouring his heart out as he had never done before, discovering, indeed, feelings he had never seriously suspected himself of having. There arose in him a shocking current of desire, stronger than anything he had ever felt. “You must marry me, Nan, or I shall die.”

“No Johnny,” she said sadly. “I shall die. But if it will please you, I will become your wife.”

She rose and touched his wet cheeks, then calmed and soothed him with motherly words as he buried his face in her breast. Beyond him, she gazed, with troubled, haggard eyes, down onto Little Dipping, and the spire of the town church.

Finch returned to the Hall in no better mood than he had left it. He was tired being taken advantage of. It was not just being touched for five pounds (he would have paid ten times that amount to see the Colonel safely struck from the lists of the unmarried), but the encounter was in some way symbolic of a general tenor to his life. His mild, sunny disposition invited people to be more and more outrageous with him, as if to counter-balance his own too-sane nature. Take Tabitha, for instance, he argued at random (or so he thought, in fact it was last night, preying on his mind the whole time), of course he wanted her, more than anything, but he had, in the past, shown restraint because he respected her, and the result, apparently, had been to goad her into a humiliating display both could hardly help but regret. This was the reason he had absented himself so early, giving her a chance to recover, to come down the stairs in the morning without her cheeks burning in recognition and remembrance should she find him at the breakfast table. But now, as he covered the last few elm-lined steps to the door, he allowed himself to feel a natural resentment at being pushed this way and that by her moods like some piece of flotsam on the tide. “I love her, confound it,” he said. “And all I want in return is her love. Not to be used like one of her ballroom beaux in some grotesque parody of flirtation.” All this was expressed in his quickened pace and a hardening of his features as he threw back the door. Had he met Tabitha just then, once again all might have been well. He was frankly angry, and this genuine emotion might have dissolved the differences between them just as effectively as her intended remorse earlier. Alas, it was not Lady Tabitha who was the recipient of this terrible frown, but the Baroness Tattson.

“You have heard,” she said, mistaking his look for one of reaction to bad news.

“Good morning,” he said. “No. Heard what?”

“She is gone.”

The reception area to the Hall was a natural setting for histrionics. Marble statues of forgotten ancestors stood with their knees crooked, wearing pleated skirts, tights, and clanky-looking swords, while great multicolored pillars of jasper and sham ivory rose only to stop in midair, refusing to take responsibility for a ceiling whose depiction of the astrological heavens was inaccurate without being either fanciful or quaint. The Baroness, having seen Finch approach from a window, had positioned herself dead-center before the first huge rounded step of the stair and now thrust a letter out, so it was lit by a ray of morning sun.

“Gone? To the fair?” Lutwidge asked, wishing to deflate the lady’s melodrama, though this time he suspected, she might have cause.

“No, you fool,” she snapped. “She is gone. Packed. Commandeered a carriage. I did not know until it was too late. Not that anything I could have said would have stopped her, I suppose. She is a guest, free to come and go.”

“But where--?”

“The eleven-eighteen, no doubt. There!” She cocked her head, hearing the train whistle blow. “You won’t catch her now. Where have you been?”

“Out,” Finch said irrelevantly. “I take it that is for me?”

“I found it on her bed. She left me a note as well, merely saying she was summoned to Town.” The Baroness regarded him sharply. “I am told by my servants there were many comings and goings last night. I trust you did nothing to upset Tabitha. She is a very fragile girl, you know.”

“She has a will of iron,” Finch protested.

“Perhaps. But like the pure form of that metal she will break before she will bend.” The

Baroness watched Lutwidge finger the envelope. “I will not stay while you read that. I must be off anyway, to the fair. But first, swear you did nothing beastly last night.”

“Alas, I was the perfect gentleman,” Finch murmured.

“Then I am truly puzzled,” the Baroness sighed, and took herself away.

Finch traced his fingers over the envelope’s handwriting, and sniffed at the scented pages within. Though he dreaded reading the contents, still he thrilled at what he held, for this was, ironically, the first letter from Lady Tabitha he had ever received.

The bleatings, lowings, deep grunts and belches of the fair were just as Choir remembered. And we haven’t even reached the animal pens yet, he thought grimly, glaring at the peasantry, overfamiliar in their happiness. Some touched their caps as they saw him but others merely grinned, drunk, no doubt, at eleven in the morning. How you would look in the stocks! Choir smiled back. Your wrists and ankles securely contained by seasoned oak, your head straining forward, tongue lolling, eyes vacant as they are now but with a glaze of respect to them. Many thought, seeing him this way, genial, returning their greetings, that he was a man of the people, a good sort.

Miss Ethyl, conversely, with her girlish enthusiasm and affected exclamations (which were sincere, despite being affected, she was simply nervous) no doubt made a less favorable impression.

“Look at that charming broomstick!” she bawled, perhaps envisioning it hung in a picturesque hermit’s shack, for certainly she had never held a broom with the intention of sweeping. “And those curious yellow slippers.”

“Yes. Quite,” Choir said absentmindedly. It came to him again that the hand so desperately clutching his sleeve was worth sixty thousand pounds. Sixty thousand pounds per anum!

They came to the field where the races were run.

“What is it that appeals to you so about this competition?” she asked.

“Oh, the good clean fun of it, I suppose,” he answered, trying with his stick to cripple one of these ragamuffins scooting round his feet. “And the chance to go off with a pretty girl at ten in the morning has its points as well.”

“Oh, my Lord,” she giggled.

He swore he could actually feel her bliss, as if her arm were no more than a tube for transmitting sensations. She certainly is gripping me tight enough for that, he complained. Speaking of pretty girls, having done his duty before King, Country, and the Baroness this morning, he must seek out Lady Tabitha later in the day. Last night he had perhaps been foolish, lobbing such explicit thoughts into her head. But one of the girl’s appeals was that you could say anything to her. She fancied herself so modern nothing could shock. People like that, he reflected, are so often hoisted on their own petard. Still, of her sort, this de Bourneville woman was first class. As for the creature on his arm at the moment, she was what he believed was called an insurance policy, which Lord knew he needed, considering the dangerous compact he had just entered into.

“And which team is our money on?” Miss Ethyl asked.

“Our money,” he said bitterly, “is on the Hall’s houseboy, James, and his brother over there.”

“So democratic of you, knowing their names.”

“All houseboys are James,” Choir yawned. “Just as all footmen are Charles.”

“I see you have brought someone for luck,” Mister MacIntyre said, bowing low to Miss Ethyl. “You have an old man at a disadvantage.”

He was, it is true, alone, wearing his own set of battered tweeds and a rakish hat. Instead of a cane, he held one of those seat-tops that rest on the end of a pole.