A Lifetime Burning - Extract
The Dunbars are a good-looking family – even the old ones – and massed in black, as they are now, impressive. Clearly the gene pool has never been muddied with inferior stock. Was it in fact ancient in-breeding that produced such refinement of feature, such acute sensitivity, such intelligence? The Dunbars aren’t telling. We’re a canny and a clannish lot, loyal to a fault - even when we hate each other. A Dunbar will stand by another to the bitterest of ends - even the black sheep. Especially the black sheep. (And I should know - flighty Flo, dear Aunt Flora, poor Reverend Wentworth’s mad wife who, for everyone’s sake, really should have been kept in the attic.)
The Dunbars have an effective way of dealing with miscreants. You could call it assimilation, I suppose. We simply pretend the black sheep is white. As Hugh once said in one of his sermons, ‘There’s none so blind as those who don’t wish to see.’ There was a lot the Dunbars didn’t wish to see.
And so we didn’t.
Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair. The entourage helps of course – a bevy of attractive and attentive men hovering, pandering to her every wish. Dora has loved us all in her own peculiar way and the Dunbars have returned that love with loyalty and devotion. Only I stepped out of line. And of course Colin, but he was instantly forgiven on account of his extreme youth and my extreme wickedness.
Dora’s wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory’s son – like Rory, but much darker. The awkward boy has matured, as I (being something of a connoisseur in these matters) always knew he would, into a handsome man. But today Colin stands, as ever, in Theo’s shadow.
Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo’s Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through. Nevertheless, Hugh and Theo are close - to spite me, perhaps. Theo adores Hugh, protects him, supports him – at the moment quite literally. At nearly eighty, Hugh’s tremendous height and bulk are bowed. Leaning heavily on Theo’s slender frame, he droops, like an ancient, gnarled tree, his thick black mane now white as a wizard’s.
There has been much love in this family – some would say too much – and not a little hate. The most unlikely love has been Hugh’s for Theo and Theo’s for Hugh. Against all the odds… I doubt Hugh ever contemplated revenge since he regards himself as even more of a black sinner than me, but if he’d wanted to settle old scores, loving Theo and making Theo love him would have been a masterstroke.
Rory weeps. My brother stands between his wife Grace, as plain and four-square solid as Grace has always been, and Colin. (My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son.) Colin fidgets, clearly embarrassed by his father’s tears. My husband and son are dry-eyed; my mother, stunned by grief, is stoically composed; my sister-in-law Grace can barely disguise her relief.
Grace hated me. I can’t say I blamed her - she had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on to the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. That’s what Grace would say. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.
Rory and I haven’t spoken for thirteen years, but my twin brother, my childhood companion, the other half of my life, the other half of my self weeps, weeps for me, his dead sister, who burns.
Like a witch.
‘It is better to marry than to burn.’
The elderly man bearing a marked resemblance to an Old Testament prophet appears to be talking to himself.
‘Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians. Chapter seven, verse nine.’
‘Oh,’ Theo replies vaguely. The younger man, though tall, is still shorter than his companion. He is thin and his delicate, almost feminine features are drawn. He appears young at first but closer examination reveals many fine lines about his eyes and mouth suggesting a greater age, or at least a fondness for the outdoor life. His thick, fair hair, brushed vigorously in honour of the solemn occasion, is being coaxed by a gentle summer breeze into its natural state of unruly curls.
As the men wander round the parched crematorium flowerbeds, Theo finds himself wishing his mother had died in the spring. July has little to offer apart from blowsy hybrid tea roses and vulgar gladioli. Not Flora’s flowers at all. He tries to think what she would have preferred. Something blue perhaps, to match her eyes. Delphiniums. Larkspur. Cornflowers. Theo finds the botanic litany oddly comforting.
Hugh resumes his grumbling. ‘Trust St Paul to take a dim view of marriage. What did he know about it anyway? Lifelong celibate! Homosexual, probably. Poor bugger…’ The old man loses his footing and leans more heavily on Theo.
‘Take it easy, Dad. The paving’s uneven here. I wish you’d brought your stick.’
‘Don’t need it, my boy.’ The old man halts and breathes heavily, giving the lie to his claim. He speaks eventually and in quite a different tone. ‘I did love your mother.’
‘Dad, don’t upset yourself. It’s all over and done with. Long ago. Let’s go home.’
‘I tried to love Flora. But my kind of love wasn’t enough. She needed more than I could give her and, God knows, I needed more than she could give me. Mutual misery should have brought us together. It was one of the things we had in common.’
Hugh draws himself up to his full, imposing height so that Theo has to look up into his face. The remarkable brown eyes are barely dimmed; there is passion still. ‘But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.’ He snorts and raises a finger to admonish the absent saint. ‘In this – as in so many things – St Paul was wrong!’ He shakes his white head. ‘Flora and I married and burned…’
Rory is now composed. As Grace drives them home she steals a glance now and again at his profile and wonders if her husband will ever age. At fifty-eight, there is something of the superannuated schoolboy about Rory. His sandy hair is now threaded with silver but it still flops across his forehead when he moves his head suddenly, which he is inclined to do. His thick fair eyebrows have become untidy but his face is still lean, the skin almost unlined. Grace scowls at her own furrowed brow reflected in the rear-view mirror and envies the blessing of Dunbar genes.
Rory, staring straight ahead, announces suddenly, ‘You know, Flora always thought she’d burn in Hell.’
‘She didn’t really believe in all that mumbo-jumbo, did she?’
‘I think she did. She was a vicar’s wife. Goes with the territory.’
Rory is silent for a while, then resumes. ‘I don’t think she saw it like that. Hell wasn’t a place she was afraid of going to, you see. My sister spent most of her life there.’
Grace lifts a hand from the wheel and lays it on her husband’s. Despite the summer heat, Rory’s long fingers are chilled.
In a Sydney wine bar a young woman sits alone with a briefcase and a bottle of wine. There is only one glass on the table but the bottle is nearly empty. A folder of documents lies open in front of her, unregarded as she fingers a dog-eared postcard, tapping the table with it nervously. One side of the postcard is covered in a black, uneven scrawl. The other shows a botanical print: Fritillaria meleagris, the snakeshead fritillary, checkered purple and white. Her favourite flower. She wonders how long it took to find a postcard of it and drinks again, turning the card over and over, as if rotation might eventually generate a different message.
Charlotte Dunbar - at thirty-one she hasn’t married and believes she never will - steels herself to read the postcard again. The message is unchanged.
I’ve asked Grace to forward this to you. She won’t give me your address. I don’t expect you to reply but I wanted you to know that my mother has been found, but she was dead. The cremation will take place on July 21st. I’m OK but my father took it very badly.
All love, as ever,
Cameo photograph: my father, Charles Gillard
Extract from Chapter 18
Pictured: the Angel Roof, Blythburgh Church, Suffolk
It was as if God had just popped out for a minute. The church waited breathless and still, expecting His return at any moment. Absence was the word that reverberated in Theo’s mind. An absence of people, of sound, of colour. What remained was a mournful and monumental simplicity. Here was a church that had once been great. Now it had a forgotten, almost neglected air, a dim glory, as faded as the bleached paintwork of the angel roof where the gaudy hues of medieval artists had been scoured away by the sands of time, leaving only traces of pigment here and there on the great wooden rafters and central bosses. The twelve pairs of wooden angels, with their disproportionately large carved wings were pale, anaemic creatures whose beauty was enhanced rather than diminished by their absence of colour. Theo gazed up at the roof, his shaggy golden head thrown back at a dizzying angle and regarded them. It seemed for a moment as if their ashen wings were about to flutter. He wondered if the angelic host beat their wings when the church was empty, like toys coming to life at night in the nursery. He thought it possible. In this place anything was possible.