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‘Once upon a time’—and we pull in our deep chairs, you quietly, I with a quick impatient jerk that scrabbles up the hearth-rug and worries your tidy soul. But you yourself have forgotten the blinds! Draw them close, lest the Zeppelins catch us at our story-telling, whilst I put the carpet to rights again and pile up logs (we sawed them ourselves, didn’t we?) upon the fire. One must save the electricity these hard times. And now—you have your knitting and I the fountain-pen you gave me: it has not run out, for a wonder! pen and fat, blank scribbling book. Are you ready? The postman has gone by for the last time tonight—no letters—but the news was not so bad today—the Russians have taken prisoners—our front is quiet—we dare forget the war for an hour.

Think—we are beginning a book! Do you remember our breathless hour three years ago? We were overwhelmed by our own daring—such grubs as we, to dream of spreading wings, real, published, book-cover wings, black or red (you were soberly for black, of course, and I for red) with gilt lettering across them. In anticipation we enjoyed ourselves so hugely that the book itself had much ado to get written at all. But the war has ended that keen pleasure of ours, as it has ended better things. We begin soberly now-a-days—‘Once upon a time——’

Once upon a time, before the war——

You know, Adam and Eve must have reckoned that way! Can’t you hear them telling stories to Cain and little Abel?

‘Ever so long ago, when the tree of knowledge was still pink——’

‘Once upon a time, before the apples were ripe——’

Even so, Collaborator (clumsy title, but even in the Imperial Dictionary it has no synonym) even so—once upon a time, before the war, there lived a hero and a heroine—and their relations.

And, you know, we got as far as that four months ago.

It’s not so easy, writing a book!

Let us run over our facts.

The hero is called Justin, and the girl, Laura—Laura Valentine. I know you dislike it, but it is my turn to choose, and honestly, if you think it over, you will find that ‘Laura’ is the only name for her. She is real enough already to make me sure of that. Laura—grave, graceful, ageless word, fits like a glove my Laura, our Laura, so unmodern in her ways and thoughts, for all she was born in ’94. Yet the name stands, to you, for ringlets and bottleneck shoulders, for simpers and sighs and Harry and Lucy? But those were its evil days, when it was befrilled and crinolined by the same spirit that figleafs Apollo and measures the Milo Venus for a pair of stays. The name has older memories, older even than its Italian gardens and passionate poets, memories old as sunshine and song and the laurel-tree itself. Indeed, that enchanted bush, that grave tree with blood-red berries, that panting girl within stiff bark and quiet leaves, reminds me not a little of Laura, our own bewildered Laura, when Love, the crazy torch-bearer, came rioting down the Brackenhurst lanes, to break through the garden fences of her ignorance, and, entering, set the quiet house of her mind afire.

And so, unless you insist, we will keep the name: it has taught us already something about her.

What is she like—to look at?

She is shadowy as yet, but I think you said, and I agreed, that she has soft, shining eyes—shining, not sparkling—and is wonderfully light on her feet. I think, what with the sway of her pretty figure, and her quick white hands that are the only restless things about her, she has, though she is not a little woman, a fugitive, thistledown air, that makes you want to dance with her. Yet she cannot dance: never troubled to learn. Dancing bored Justin. Her dancing days were over before she learned that it is not always wise to humour Justin.

Thus far Laura Valentine. The name grows on you, doesn’t it? That is why you are such a perfect Collaborator. I can always persuade you into agreeing with me.

But ‘Justin’—less easy to conceive, eh? Yet, knowing Laura as little even as we do, he should be obvious—prose to her verse: she, the glove for his hand: the red and white halves of an apple. Laura implies Justin as day implies night, winter—summer, sunshine—rain. We should be justified in leaving them, at the end, wooed and wedded and a’, in a very rainbow of happiness. And yet—I doubt.

They fit too well, complement each other too perfectly. I foresee complications. Suppose—only suppose—that, nicely adjusted as their ages are with seven years between them in the love season, there should yet be a hitch? She, as girls do, may have grown in a day, an hour, in the swiftness of a handshake, into a woman: have entered into that heritage of knowledge, and instinct that is more than knowledge, that Lilith willed her, and Helen perfected, and Rachel and Monica, Grizel and Mother Goose, have all passed on: while he? Suppose that he does not grow up at all? I only say, suppose! I have not as yet an idea of how the story develops. We are still groping for our hero—don’t even know if he were short or tall.

What have you fancied, of all possible types? You must distinguish, you know, between the Justin of Laura’s fantasy, Jupiter Tonans when he is not Tom-Fool, and the Justin of sheer fact, who, worthy man, has not the imagination to be either. You must not protest. He is, as Laura and his mother are fond of agreeing, a dear, an utter dear, if you like (I never know which face is the prettier to watch as they say it) but imaginative, never! Not, at least, as far as the story has run. We are discussing the middle of the book by now, have hurried on so, shall have to go back to our beginnings soon. Let us hope people will not find it confusing. Not, I repeat, dear solemn man, with one lonely spark of imagination—and little enough humour. Collaborator, he positively must not have a sense of humour or he would never collect birds’ eggs. And it is essential, as you will see later, that he should collect birds’ eggs—with passion. We were saying that he possibly does not grow-up at all. ‘Grow’ would perhaps be the better word, for, in a sense he has been, at every age, definitely grown-up; has indeed, except for the birds’ eggs, never been youthful. There are some early photographs.... (No, there are none of Laura—she was a high-tempered child. She sat still once for love of a non-existent canary, but you did not deceive her twice.) But Justin ‘took’ beautifully. In all the innumerable pictures his bright squirrel of a mother never tired of showing Laura, he is exactly the same. Justin with rattle: Justin enjoying his toe: Justin with spade and pail and a seascape: Justin with blazer and bat: Justin and a smudge of moustache: Justin aggressively clean-shaven: Justin at any age from three to thirty; but never the incipient Justin, the developing Justin, never grub and chrysalis and moth, but Justin Homunculus, Justin in enlargement, never Justin in growth.

Pleasant, yellowed pictures, for all that, of a squarish face with an obstinate mouth and intent, solemn eyes. Solemnity is perhaps the first quality that would be impressed upon you if you should interview Justin. Here, you would perceive, was one who took life, revolving as it did upon the axis of Henry Justin Cloud, with becoming gravity. He was not pompous, but his slow-moving mind would be alarming because its very intentness upon such facts as it grasped rendered it unobservant, to the point of inhumanity, of anything to which its attention had not been attracted. And you would not find its attention easy to attract. Upon your honour, unless you were careful, you might find yourself at times, his creator though you were, a trifle in awe of Justin. Laura certainly was. This, you know, is curious, for, as a rule, nothing but a keen sense of humour can wake in a man’s eye that comprehending twinkle that alone intimidates a woman of poise. And Justin, we know, had no sense of humour at all.

What? You protest once more that without a sense of humour he cannot be a hero? I am shocked. Who are we, to fall foul of Henry V, and Mr. Rochester, and Garth Dalmain? Nevertheless, if you insist——

To tell you the truth, I am rather glad that you do insist. Unless our hero and our heroine have a sense of humour there is no chance at all of a happy ending: and in these days a happy ending, for a conscientious scribbler holding the mirror to nature, would be so manifestly untrue to life, would be so consequently inartistic, would be, in short, such a blessed relief, that one is tempted to leave a small chance, a stray peg on which to hang a wedding garment, should sir and lady, at the last, combine to send out invitations and include their chroniclers.

So Justin is to have an embryonic sense of humour; that is to say, he shall have, at least, eyes in his head, and will one day, you are sure and I hope, learn to see with them; but at the crisis of his life I fear he will be still purblind, wearing the pedantry his own spiritual myopia has induced, like smoke-coloured spectacles upon his Roman nose.

Thus far, in his turn, Henry Justin Cloud. He has stirred at last, and the girl with him, in the shadows of this half-planned tale in which we, too, wander uncertainly, ignorant of their story, guessing at their fate, knowing only, with a touch of awe, that out of nothingness they have been born and must continue, linked and struggling, to an appointed, undiscovered end.

And here, suddenly, in the vague muddle of my mind or yours, but as certainly as if he were sitting beside us, Justin lights his pipe. And the spark, flaring up like a thought, shows Laura at his elbow, shows how soft and pale and eager her face is as she looks at him—and that she has beech-red hair. And the light fades again more quickly even than it came, and leaves us still sitting over the fire, but with two new, solid facts to guide us: Laura, we have seen it with our eyes, loves Justin, and Justin loves, at least, his pipe. Which, for one evening’s work, Collaborator, is not so bad!

Time for bed, I think. But tomorrow, if the news is good, and war-work done, and it is too rainy to garden, we will pull up our chairs again, and perhaps, with luck, get on with Chapter Two.

Ficción y literatura
noviembre 4
Rectory Print
Babafemi Titilayo Olowe