Read by Silas Hawkins
There are people and places which exist in bubbles of time. I am such a person. The British Club was — is — was such a place.
Late afternoon. As always, hot. This is a country with no seasons. The coarse, worn grass of the lower tennis court. Mixed doubles. Harry at the net.
Yours! cries Harry, lunging at my backhand lob. Yours!
The ball hits Harry’s racquet and we watch it lift, hang for an instant and float into the rhododendrons.
Out, says Yvonne, my partner, unnecessarily.
Game, set and match, I say. Thank you, Harriet. Thank you, Harry.
But Harry’s back is turned to us. He stands, staring at Harriet.
Where were you, Harriet? Where were you?
Oh, God! says Yvonne. Not again.
Behind you, Harry. On the baseline.
On the baseline, Harry. Behind you.
Harriet answers calmly; Harry boils with fury. This is how tennis games with Harry and Harriet always end. Harry’s recriminations; Harriet’s patience. Embarrassing to witness; manifestly unjust. Harriet’s tennis is elegant, educated; Harry plays like an enraged turkey. Harriet wins points; Harry loses them. This is how it always is.
Yvonne collects her cigarettes. I follow her off the court and we sit on a rusting garden roller.
Poor Harriet, I say.
You feel sorry for her? asks Yvonne, and blows a smoke ring.
Why does she tolerate him?
Because she’s his wife?
Yvonne snorts. She has a low opinion of wives having once been one herself. But that, as she says herself, was in a different incarnation.
When Harry and Harriet join us in the bar, Yvonne and I are finishing a second Singapore Sling and thinking very seriously about a third.
Anyone for bridge? says Harry.
Tennis, gin and bridge. Yvonne groans but this is how time passes here.
The British Club is no longer what it must have been in its colonial heyday. The lawns and terraces are returning to the wild; the restaurant opens fitfully; the musty volumes in the library disintegrate on the shelves. But the tennis courts are still in use, the bar does brisk business and the cards room is frequently occupied. More recently, a shallow paddling pool has been added to the amenities. This was to have been a swimming-pool but the abrupt resignation of Donald Dunne, the Treasurer, and the subsequently-discovered shortage of funds dictated a less ambitious scheme.
To a newcomer, the attractions of the British Club’s gloomy rooms and faded furnishings are not obvious but it serves a purpose. I think of it as a retreat from the world’s glare, or an unnoticed fold in the fabric of time. When I share this thought with Yvonne, she gives me a look that confirms I should keep such notions to myself.
I doubt if the British Club’s original members – those stern servants of the Empire – would approve our present membership. We are no longer exclusive. Jaded Australians, drifting Americans and despondent Swedes float freely alongside urbane Lebanese, some Brazilian opera singers and an engaging family of Koreans. We have mining engineers, plantation managers, teachers, accountants. No missionaries, but this is not a rule. We are very relaxed although, had we known, we might have drawn the line at Harry. A delay in his travel plans meant that Harriet’s arrival pre-dated his by several weeks. She was introduced by a colleague from the local teacher training college where she lectures. We assumed that the husband, when he arrived, would be in the same mould as the wife. We were wrong. It is not that Harry is disliked exactly but he has an ability to displease. He is adept at discovering a person’s deeply-held convictions and disputing them. Although he seldom wounds, he regularly offends. Captain Stone, the Club Secretary, will not speak to him.
I smile tightly and hope my irritation doesn’t show.
Sorry, partner, says Harry, trumping my winner for the second time that round. Just trying something.
I always partner Harry when we play bridge. It’s the only way to survive the evening. If ever Harry partners Harriet, the game descends into a succession of bitter post-mortems. Harriet plays bridge perfectly efficiently but no one can be expected to interpret Harry’s bidding or the logic of his game play. Harriet’s failure to understand is seen by Harry as wilful obstruction and provokes him to a frenzy. My own shortcomings Harry is more willing to forgive.
Whenever you’re ready, Harry, says Yvonne, lighting another cigarette.
Be with you in a minute, says Harry, studying his hand.
The ceiling fan turns slowly while we wait.
That gecko, I say, indicating the motionless lizard on the wall, has the sly eyes of Donald Dunne.
So he has, says Yvonne. Perhaps our late lamented Treasurer has been murdered by pirates in the Sulu Sea and reincarnated as a reptile. Quite right too!
What? says Harry, sharply.
Nothing, says Yvonne. Play a card, Harry, please.
Are you believers? asks Harry, putting down his hand.
Yvonne and I look at each other. This is likely to be tricky territory.
Believers in what? I ask.
In reincarnation, says Harry.
It’s a useful device for poorly-plotted stories and Hollywood movies, says Yvonne. But isn’t it terribly passé?
Harry ignores her and looks at me.
I don’t know, Harry, I say. I neither believe nor disbelieve. I find it saves a lot of trouble.
So you don’t have ‘memories’?
Of previous lives.
No, Harry. Sorry. In fact my memory of this one is often a little hazy.
Harry suddenly looks so crushed that I regret my flippancy.
Tell me about your ‘memories’, I say.
You won’t sneer?
Harriet and I have memories of twelve different lives, says Harry.
Harriet has ‘memories’, too? says Yvonne.
We both have ‘memories’, says Harry.
To her credit, Yvonne says nothing, while the ceiling fan turns above us and Harry recounts a succession of incarnations from Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, to Victoria, Empress of India. It’s a singular list which terminates with Harry as second butler in an Edwardian country house in Leicestershire.
A butler? I ask.
Harriet was the housekeeper, says Harry. We’ve never been Oliver Cromwell or Joan of Arc but we’ve always been us.
Yes, always. Of course we have to find each other first which can take years.
And are you always man and wife? I ask.
Harry looks puzzled.
You’re never brother and sister? Or father and daughter?
Never, says Harry. We’re not related by blood.
Harriet says nothing. Does she believe in their pasts as fervently as Harry? I would like to ask her but it seems indelicate. Almost an invitation to infidelity. Harry picks up his cards and the game continues. At the end of the evening, Harry takes my arm.
I’d prefer it if you didn’t mention this conversation to anyone else, he says. It might be misunderstood and cause Harriet embarrassment. I’m sure you understand.
I’m not sure that I do but nevertheless I nod.
Following Harry’s revelation, nothing changes. Except perhaps that behind the short, round, truculent figure in a faded bush-jacket, I sometimes see a column of other Harrys – in wing-collars, gaiters, jerkins, ruffs, pantaloons, perukes – and always beside him, Harriet.
If you have the impression that nothing much happens at the British Club, you’re correct, but you must understand that the Club’s purpose is not excitement. Our calendar has two high-points, however, the first being the annual mixed doubles tennis championship.
In the ballot to decide partners Harry draws someone’s giggly daughter and they are eliminated in the first round. I find I am fortunate enough to draw Harriet and, during the course of a satisfying day, we proceed elegantly from round to round, triumphing sweetly in the finals. Together we hold up the modest trophy and drink a toast to our worthy opponents.
By this stage, Harry has already drunk several toasts and he drinks many more throughout the evening. When I leave the bar to clear my head, I find him by the paddling pool in serious mood. For a minute or two we stand in silence.
You must be very proud of Harriet, I say.
Ah, says Harry.
She’s a talented tennis-player.
Yes, Harriet is exceptionally talented. She plays golf quite as well as she plays tennis and she plays badminton better than both. She can crochet, knit, mend fuses, ride a motorbike, speak French, Italian, Greek and a little Mandarin. She has a first aid badge, a private pilot’s licence and she’s a cordon bleu cook. Also, he says, raising his eyes to mine, she understands trigonometry.
I search for something to say but nothing occurs to me.
Ah, says Harry. Exactly. I let Harriet down, you know. I always have done. It’s a difficult thing to live with.
I’m sure she doesn’t think so, I say.
There’s only one thing Harriet can’t do, says Harry. She can’t swim. Isn’t that remarkable?
Remarkable, I say.
And together we stare into the shallow water of the paddling-pool.
Our second high-point is the reception held to celebrate the Sovereign’s official birthday. A buffet supper is laid out on white tablecloths in the library, and a mix of nationalities discover an odd enthusiasm for the British Crown. We are addressed by a frail, white-haired gentleman who enjoys some enigmatic consular status and who appears at no other time of the year. The loyal toast is followed by rush to the bar and celebrations begin in earnest.
Harry — perhaps spurred on by patriotism and wearing an unusual set of medals which no one asks him to identify — makes himself remarkably agreeable to everyone.
You know, says Captain Stone, the Club Secretary, Harry really isn’t such a bad type. He looks at me with kindly reproach. I think you may have misjudged him.
I cannot recall judging or misjudging Harry. Indeed it is my practice to judge no one in the hope that this will discourage them from judging me but I say nothing. Instead I help myself to the vintage Armagnac which only appears on this occasion. The rest of the evening passes peacefully until I wake to find myself being shaken vigorously by Yvonne.
Come at once, she says. Something shocking’s happened.
Reluctantly I follow Yvonne across the croquet lawn to the paddling pool. There we find a small group which includes Captain Stone and Dr Kumar, our local doctor. They are bending above the fully-clothed body of a woman. Harriet.
She’s been in the water for several hours, says Dr Kumar.
The pond’s no more than eighteen inches deep, says Captain Stone. How could she drown?
Either she fell in and passed out, says Dr Kumar, or else she passed out and fell in. Dr Kumar does not approve of alcohol. That’s all I can say.
Has anyone told Harry?’ asks Yvonne.
No one has and it is agreed I am the right person to undertake the task. I don’t know why.
Later we stand at the paddling pool. Harry shows no outward signs of distress. Grief affects people differently. We remain silent for some time while I try to think of something suitable to say.
It must be comforting to know that before long you and Harriet will be together again, I say.
Harry look at me blankly.
In your next incarnations, I say.
Ah, says Harry. But for the moment I’m alone.
I’m sure you’ll manage, I say.
Oh, I’ll be fine, says Harry. In fact I look forward to the time when I’m alone. Harriet always goes first.
Drowns, said Harry. Harriet always drowns. She can’t swim, you see.
Always? I ask faintly.
Always, says Harry.
And together we stare at the paddling pool.
Dr Kumar felt there was no need for an inquest and Harry did not stay long after the funeral. Harriet is buried under a jacaranda in the old colonial cemetery. The inscription on the headstone reads:
HARRIET — WIFE OF HARRY — ALWAYS
Always by Nichol Wilmor was read by Silas Hawkins at the Liars' League Give & Take event on Tuesday, December 13th, 2011, at The Albany, Great Portland Street, London.