Excerpt of Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
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"I am the way, the truth and the life": he is to hear this many times on his
father's lips. The way, the truth and the life. You go on your way through life
telling the truth. George knows that this is not exactly what the Bible means,
but as he grows up this is how the words sound to him.
For Arthur there was a normal distance between home and church; but each place
was filled with presences, with stories and instructions. In the cold stone
church where he went once a week to kneel and pray, there was God and Jesus
Christ and the Twelve Apostles and the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly
Sins. Everything was very orderly, always listed and numbered, like the hymns
and the prayers and the verses of the Bible.
He understood that what he learned there was the truth; but his imagination
preferred the different, parallel version he was taught at home. His mother's
stories were also about far distant times, and also designed to teach him the
distinction between right and wrong. She would stand at the kitchen range,
stirring the porridge, tucking her hair back behind her ears as she did so; and
he would wait for the moment when she would tap the stick against the pan,
pause, and turn her round, smiling face towards him. Then her grey eyes would
hold him, while her voice made a moving curve in the air, swooping up and down,
then slowing almost to a halt as she reached the part of the tale he could
scarcely endure, the part where exquisite torment or joy awaited not just hero
and heroine, but the listener as well.
"And then the knight was held over the pit of writhing snakes, which hissed
and spat as their twining lengths ensnared the whitening bones of their previous
victims . . ."
"And then the black-hearted villain, with a hideous oath, drew a secret dagger
from his boot and advanced towards the defenceless . . ."
"And then the maiden took a pin from her hair and the golden tresses fell from
the window, down, down, caressing the castle walls until they almost reached the
verdant grass on which he stood . . ."
Arthur was an energetic, headstrong boy who did not easily sit still; but once
the Mam raised her porridge stick he was held in a state of silent
enchantmentas if a villain from one of her stories had slipped a secret herb
into his food. Knights and their ladies then moved about the tiny kitchen;
challenges were issued, quests miraculously fulfilled; armour clanked, chain
mail rustled, and honour was always upheld.
These stories were connected, in a way that he did not at first understand, with
an old wooden chest beside his parents' bed, which held the papers of the family's
descent. Here were different kinds of stories, which more resembled school
homework, about the ducal house of Brittany, and the Irish branch of the Percys
of Northumberland, and someone who had led Pack's Brigade at Waterloo, and was
the uncle of the white, waxen thing he never forgot. And connected to all this
were the private lessons in heraldry his mother gave him. From the kitchen
cupboard the Mam would pull out large sheets of cardboard, painted and coloured
by one of his uncles in London. She would explain the coats of arms, then
instruct him in his turn: "Blazon me this shield!" And he would have to
reply, as with multiplication tables: chevrons, estoiles, mullets, cinquefoils,
crescents argent, and their glittering like.
At home he learned extra commandments on top of the ten he knew from church.
"Fearless to the strong; humble to the weak," was one, and "Chivalry
towards women, of high and low degree." He felt them to be more important,
since they came directly from the Mam; they also demanded practical
implementation. Arthur did not look beyond his immediate circumstances. The flat
was small, money short, his mother overworked, his father erratic. Early on he
made a childhood vow and vows, he knew, were never to be swerved from: "When
you are old, Mammie, you shall have a velvet dress and gold glasses and sit in
comfort by the fire." Arthur could see the beginning of the storywhere he
was nowand its happy end; only the middle was for the moment lacking.
Excerpted from Arthur
& George by Julian Barnes Copyright © 2006 by Julian Barnes.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.