To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgement on oneself.
The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.
W. H. Auden
MOAB IS MY WASHPOT
‘Look Marguerite… England!’
Closing lines of The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934
FOR SOME REASON I recall it as just me and Bunce. No one else in the compartment at all. Just me, eight years and a month old, and this inexpressibly small dab of misery who told me in one hot, husky breath that his name was Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce.
I remember why we were alone now. My mother had dropped us off early at Paddington Station. My second term. The train to Stroud had a whole carriage reserved for us. Usually by the time my mother, brother and I had arrived on the platform there would have been a great bobbing of boaters dipping careless farewells into a sea of entirely unacceptable maternal hats.
Amongst the first to arrive this time, my brother had found a compartment where an older boy already sat amongst his opened tuck-box, ready to show off his pencil cases and conker skewers while I had moved respectfully forward to leave them to it. I was still only a term old after all. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure what a conker skewer might be.
The next compartment contained what appeared to be a tiny trembling woodland creature.
My brother and I had leaned from our respective windows to send the mother cheerfully on her way. We tended to be cruelly kind at these moments, taking as careless and casual a leave of her as possible and making a great show of how little it mattered that we were leaving home for such great stretches of time. Some part of us must have known inside that it was harder for her than it was for us. She would be returning to a baby and a husband who worked so hard
that she hardly saw him and to all the nightmares of uncertainty, doubt and guilt which plague a parent, while we would be amongst our own. I think it was a tacitly agreed strategy to arrive early so that all this could be got over with without too many others milling around. The loudness and hattedness of Other Parents were not conducive to the particular Fry tokens of love: tiny exertions of pressure on the hands and tight little nods of the head that stood for affection and deep, unspoken understanding. A slightly forced smile and bitten underlip aside, Mummy always left the platform outwardly resolute, which was all that mattered.
All that taken care of, I slid down in my seat and examined the damp shivering thing opposite. He had chosen a window seat with its back to the engine as if perhaps he wanted to be facing homewards and not towards the ghastly unknown destination.
‘You must be a new boy,’ I said.
A brave nod and a great spreading of scarlet in downy, hamstery cheeks.
‘My name’s Fry,’ I added. ‘That’s my bro talking next door.’
A sudden starburst of panic in the fluffy little chick’s brown eyes, as if terrified that I was going to invite my bro in. He probably had no idea what a bro was.
The previous term I hadn’t known either.
‘Roger, Roger!’ I had cried, running up to my brother in morning break. ‘Have you had a letter from – ‘You call me bro here. Bro. Understood?’ I explained everything to the broken little creature in front of me. ‘A bro is a brother, that’s all. He’s Fry, R. M. And I’m Fry, S. J. See?’