My father left a sackful of debts, which of course made everything even more desperate for Mother. I loved them both. Not equally, that would have been too ideal. But Mother had an ample allocation, which she knew. We were happy together. It filled us with pleasure to be the family we were. There are no childhood grudges hanging in my mind like old meat. Fathers legacy to me was the unrequited portion of his ambition. Because he died so young this came to a sizable bequest, inferior in neither quantity nor zest. From the moment I got my hands on it I desired nothing less than complete success in everything that I did.
Top of my list was to honour the memory of my father, which I swore to do as I knelt praying for his soul.
Next: a mansion with a flagpole, sobbing fountains, a butler, footmen, cigars, concubines, racehorses, silken scarves and monogrammed underpants. A portrait of my woman done in crusty oils showing clearly her emerald rings and the richness of her bosom-salad, to be framed with the most glittering vulgarity my money could buy. This is for the front hall of the mansion, a knock-over to greet my visitors. I have wanted a blond birchwood desk in an office the size of a banqueting hall so that the butler bringing my coffee has to approach for sixty paces down a narrow red carpet. I have wanted a hothouse and its dusky perfumes, bushels of womens flesh and raw anchovies and French wines, to gorge myself on life, cramming everything in together, with both hands, as a man out of the desert goes at a swag of grapes.
Ason must always tie up the accounting with his father.
Its the final obligation.
George, my darling impetuous father, whose black curly hair like karakul lamb, his luminous eyes and tropical skin had won him the nickname Pushkin from his legion of Russian friends, had just been made up to junior partner in Hodge & Co. The gaffer, as my father referred to Potter Hodge, had collapsed and died during a municipal dinner in Manchester.
I remember so well his return with the news of his promotion. Surprise, triumph, beatitude, all were splashed like gallons of fresh paint across his face, which was bulging at every pore and resembled a brown paperbag stuffed with bulls eyes. A partnership in Hodge & Co.! And cotton the thing! Wealth, solid dependable English wealth was at last within his reach. The barrel was rumbling towards him. He had only to whip the bung out and stick his hand inside.
A price was naturally payable to get my aristocratic mother to live in Britain, which she called a petity suffocating island, pronouncing the last word with the maximum derision that could be expressed by her tilted nose and a fading gesture with one plump white hand. Father, acting in full the character of the real Pushkin, gave her an IOU for his love in perpetuity and packed the two of us off to London to wait for him. He was going to undertake a last trip to the cotton fields around Tashkent. His spies had brought him early news that cottonleaf worm was ravaging the crop. He was feeling his way to a spectacular coup that would wipe out his debts at one go. I know this, I know it as well as I know my name.
It was night. We were leaving Moscow for England, Mother and I. The giant bull-nosed locomotive at the head of the courier trains five, dark blue, twenty-metre coaches was smouldering its way up to the buffers, dribbling ankle-high wisps of steam. Father flung his arms round me. I pressed my face against his foxy newlytrimmed whiskers and hung on. He patted me, he moved my coat up and down my back like a separate skin, he hugged me closely and held me off. Charlie Doig, Im going to make us rich and when Ive done it Ill show you how. Then well make some team, by God! Doig et fils, Moscow, Tashkent, the world! We embraced, we kissed, the first bell went, and I entered the train in the footsteps of Boltikov, the sugar king, whod barged into our farewell party at the station and smoked endless Northern Light cigarettes, holding them between his third and fourth fingers. (They came in a pink box with the manufacturers name printed in Sargasso Sea blue on the papers. Their shape was oval, like Boltikov.) So we parted, Mother and I into exile, Pushkin to his doom. In the midst of his tour, which had hitherto been a lap of honour, he was bitten by a flea. This was not the common hopper Pulex irritans, the travelling companion of all Russians. I now know it to have been Xenopsylla cheops, a very different article whose host is the brown rat.
Excerpted from White Blood by James Fleming Copyright © 2007 by James Fleming. Excerpted by permission of Atria Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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