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'Amanuensis'- A Short Novel - Recap of Chapters 1 to 7
Text-only version of the novel's opening chapters for those who prefer to read them without waiting for daily installments. To read/listen to the rest of the book, please subscribe.
Part I, Chapter 1
That morning, a hard rain like someone knocking on the door roused me from a harrowing dream.
In it, I’d been walking alone through a dark house—trespassing, more or less, without intending to. How I got there was a mystery, but I felt innocent of any wrongdoing. I suppose a sense of privilege propelled me. I felt as entitled to my intrusion as that explorer whose recent burial excavations in Egypt had been reported with much fanfare in the press. Giving no thought to the dead and how they might feel about my presence, I wondered if I too might find gold in this dark place.
I hadn’t gone very far when an old man, bandaged like a mummy, began to creep along behind me. Pretending nonchalance, I began to walk faster. But I knew he was near even when I didn’t turn to look. A rank, medicinal smell emanated from his body, which I took to be embalming fluid. When I was no longer able to contain my fear, I started to run.
I ran past cavernous yellow-mouthed fireplaces and rows of armless white statues, women mostly, with uncovered breasts that made me feel all the more exposed. But I didn’t have time to explore my own insecurities. The old man was like a dog—teeth bared, nipping at my heels, gaining on me at every turn.
When I looked over my shoulder again, he was very close. His long bandaged arm reached for my neck, and I opened my mouth to scream. But I could hear only the thumping rain and my heaving breath.
I woke up.
The rain that morning struck the house like a faucet turned sideways, and I felt as if the whole world were closing in on me. Instinctively, I reached across the bed to touch the tangle of red hair on Ian’s chest. But his pillow was cold. I got dressed and made a pot of tea.
Downstairs, I sat in the jutting bay window trying to collect myself. A small black-and-white dog scampered across the street, its fur wet and matted with rainwater. I drank my tea and watched the dog huddle beneath a green wheelbarrow used as a planter by our neighbor. The rain grew persistent, striking the window in slanting silver needles.
This was weather the cuckoo likes. That’s what my father would say, standing with thumbs in his vest pocket, addressing some imagined jury in the clouds. I never took to Thomas Hardy the way he did, but the opening line of the old poem seemed to fit my mood that morning. Despite the tea, I was still feeling a bit cuckoo myself. The dream had shaken me.
The sinister old man seemed to gain on me even as I sat wide awake in my own house, trying to pretend a cup of Earl Grey might set me right. But the dream was only half of what troubled me that day. What bothered me even more was the way I’d left things with Ian.
It was a late spring morning with signs of clearing in the distance. The chilly, prickling rain seemed to permeate the glass. I looked up to inspect the ceiling. But my sense of seepage was just the trick water sometimes plays on the ear. The roof was fine, apparently. It was my marriage that had sprung a leak.
The view from this side of the house offered no trees, just a river of wet concrete and long rows of yellow daffodils bearing up bravely beneath the flat white houses across the street. I suppose Hardy’s chestnut spikes were tumbling to earth somewhere. But I couldn’t see any.
What I could see from my window-seat was the drenched cap of a delivery man. His head, bent low against the light rain, sank into the raised collar of his coat. A leather strap across his chest glistened in the gray light as did the brown satchel at his side. This was not at all the sort of person the wife of an RAF pilot wants to see after her husband has flown off to fight Hitler.
The strong wind that had been pushing the rain sideways all morning shoved me back into the foyer a little when I opened the front door. Surprised, the postman widened his eyes as if I had just sprouted wings. He had the cherry-cheeked face of a boy and spoke with a pronounced East End accent.
“Good day, ma’am,” he said, handing me a yellow envelope and thanking me for the tip. His voice had the pitch of a soprano, and for a moment I thought he might be a girl. So many men had already shipped out.
I slid a fingernail beneath the envelope’s flap and tried to steel myself against the worst. Across the foyer, the gilt-edged mirror my parents had given us as a wedding present stared back at me. It framed a pale, dark-haired woman, eyes half-closed, her narrow back against the paneled door, trying to keep the stiff upper lip we English are known for.
I didn’t know exactly where Ian was. But I knew he hadn’t flown to America. The cable was from my father’s old university friend who had been living across the pond now for several years. I could almost hear his voice as I read it.
Rita: Your services urgently needed for hush-hush assignment in the U.S. Princely compensation. All expenses paid. I’ve contacted Mrs. Reid at your agency. Decision entirely up to you. Please reply at once. Travel and other details to follow.—Uncle J.
The rain continued its relentless assault against the house. But all I could hear was the hammering of an anvil inside my chest.
End of Part 1, Chapter 1
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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Part 1, Chapter 2
The last time I’d set foot inside Waterloo Station was the day Ian left. I remember stepping out of the taxi and looking up while he paid the fare. The day was gray and dull, matching my mood. We’d just begun the ste climb through Victory Arch when I noticed the sun breaking through the clouds like a red-capped swimmer bobbing to the surface of a gray sea.
I took it as a good omen. A sign that Ian was right about the war. That it would be over in a few months. That he’d be back home soon. And we’d get on with our life together the way it had been in the beginning, when everything seemed bright and beautiful. Not the way things had ended the night before.
Ever since he’d been accepted into the Royal Air Force, he’d been behaving badly. The blue uniform and silver wings that set him apart as one of “The Few” revealed irksome aspects of his personality, which were quite new to me.
I first noticed the change when we joined three other couples at the pub one night. All the other men were unmarried pilots on dates with attractive women who were pretty in ways that I am not. I like to think I’m reasonably attractive, but I’ve never wanted to be judged by my looks alone. And until Ian joined the RAF, I hadn’t felt a need to arch my eyebrows with a pencil or vamp it up with elaborate pomps, rolls, or curls. I was Rita Alexander. Not Rita Hayworth, and I didn’t want to be.
Ian and his friends had become pretty cocky after earning their wings. They called themselves The Four Horsemen, bragging that they’d descend on Hitler like the mythic punishers in the Bible. I understood the need to psych themselves up. But in the midst of this pre-battle bravado, one of these “horsemen”—Neil Sommers—made a particularly offensive remark.
“I hear the ministry plans to remove the color bar,” he said. “Don’t know why they think a bunch of lazy Black blokes from the Caribbean can be of any use to us. We’ve already got one Nigger. That ought to be enough. He belongs to one of the Wing Commanders.“
“That’s what he calls his dog,” Sommers laughed.
He looked too chunky to be a pilot, thick-necked with hair that fell over his brow like blond bangs. He had beady blue eyes and ears that seemed too small for his head. I didn’t like him.
“It’s a Black Lab,” he said, sounding as if he’d just pulled a rabbit from a hat. “They’re training it as a sniffer. I’d wager a month’s pay that dog will help us a lot more than the niggers they’re bringing over from Jamaica. Can’t imagine any getting into the RAF, though, even if they do lower the color bar. Most likely wind up as brown jobs or wingless wonders.”
The other women tittered. They’d been clinging to the men’s arms or draping themselves around their necks all night. But I didn’t like the comment. My mother had been passionate in her support of The League of Coloured Peoples. At first, I wrote this off as another of her suffragette-like crusades. But after I heard the league’s founder deliver a blistering speech at Cambridge, I became intolerant of our national indifference to the Black man’s cause.
“What are brown jobs and wingless wonders?” I asked.
Sommers blew the head off his beer and laughed. “They’re our inferiors,” he said, lifting a pinky and pointing his nose in the air.
Finally, Ian said:
“Brown jobs are what we call army blokes, Rita. It’s because of their khaki uniforms. Wingless wonder is really an affectionate term. It’s how we refer to the ground crews. They can’t fly, but they make sure our planes do.”
I was glad to be let in on the jargon, but learning these terms did not erase the unpleasantness of Sommers’s remark, which lingered over us like the smell of rotten eggs.
I worried that Ian had become close friends with a creep like that. But It would have been easier to forget that night if I hadn’t noticed other changes after he received his wings. He took to preening before the mirror, more obsessed with his hair than I’d ever been with mine. Failing to grasp that it was not a compliment, he loved learning that pilots were known as “Glamour Boys.”
Women threw themselves at him, and he gloried in it. But I didn’t mind that so much. After all, I was his wife. Surely, some of that was to be expected. What really got my knickers twisted was when he encouraged it, openly flirting with other women in my presence. I’d always heard that clothes make the man. But was it possible that a uniform could change him?
End of Part I, Chapter 2
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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Part 1, Chapter 3
We had dinner and went dancing the night before he shipped out. Just as we were leaving, a full-bosomed red-lipped blonde threw her arms around him, planting a big wet kiss right on his mouth.
“Kill a Jerry for me, won’t you, luv?”
She looked at me cooly as if seeing me for the first time, then said: “Gotta share the wealth, dearie. No harm meant.”
I don’t think of myself as particularly insecure. But I’ve always felt undesirably flat-chested when pitted against a woman whose breasts torpedo half-naked into a room. Ian had never complained about my body. And yet, there was something invasive, almost Hitlerian, about the blonde’s cleavage, which seemed to give her unfair advantage. I felt like Poland—outgunned.
Ian, of course, didn’t mind her at all. He even produced a match to light her cigarette. The prolonged encounter stretched my nerves almost to the breaking point. But I held my tongue, loosening it only when we reached home.
“What’s happened to you, Ian? You’re behaving like an imbecile.”
“And you’re acting like a jealous old cow,” he said. “Why the hell don’t you grow up? Don’t you realize that I’ll be risking my life out there every single day?”
I wanted to say, “Yes, darling, I do realize that. And I’m deliriously proud of you for being so brave and smart and handsome. I don’t want you to risk your life, and if there were any way I could go fight Hitler in your place—or at least alongside you—I would drop everything and go with you.”
But I didn’t say that. What I said instead was:
“And don’t you realize that you’re a married man? Or doesn’t that mean anything to you anymore?”
After that, I said some other things I shouldn’t have. Then went up to our room and slammed the door. We’d had a few other skirmishes during these first few months together. Whenever I retreated to the bedroom in tears, he eventually came after me. But on this night, I listened for his knock, and it never came. He spent the rest of the night on the sofa downstairs. I cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, we did one more terrible thing. We went through the motions of normalcy as if the previous night hadn’t happened at all. I poached his egg, then made his tea and toast, muttering only such words as were necessary to get us through the ritual of breakfast. The chill wind between us showed no sign of warming. Neither of us apologized. We just carried on, saying little, hailing a taxi outside our flat like an aging, long-married couple chained together by habit.
End of Part I, Chapter 3
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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Part 1, Chapter 4
The Pied Piper
In sharp contrast to the bright spot of sunshine we’d seen outside Victory Arch, the steamy air inside Waterloo Station that day was dismal. It smelled of carbon, wet dirt and metal. A swell of voices roared over the squeal of brakes. Rail cars being hitched together at the last minute clanged like church bells.
I took Ian’s arm more as a matter of ownership than affection. But tried not to cling too tightly. What I hoped was that he’d feel my body next to his and be reminded that we were still basically newlyweds. I wasn’t hoping that he’d throw me down on the platform and make passionate love to me in front of God and everyone. But I did hope he’d apologize before getting on that train. Because I wasn’t going to.
We threaded through a platform crammed with soldiers. It looked as if entire hospital wards had been dumped there too. We saw bandaged patients and the white-haired elderly pushed along in wheel chairs. Two leashed dogs trotted behind their owners, sniffing at the stained concrete for whatever it is animals find interesting there.
Hundreds of flushed-faced boys and girls with scuffed shoes and knees to match chattered away as if heading to a picnic. One of the boys stole a kiss from a nearby girl, a cute little blonde who slapped him handily. Another boy had his wrist tied to a smaller, younger fellow who must have been his brother. I half expected the lot of them to throw off their school caps at any moment, sending their adult supervisors into fits of insanity. Each child bore an identifying lapel tag, and I knew without inspecting their cardboard kits that each contained a government-issued gas mask. Operation Pied Piper, which I’d been reading about in the newspapers, had begun.
Except for the soldiers and a small legion of porters shoving baggage carts along the crowded platform, all were London refugees fleeing Hitler’s imminent attack on our homeland.
End of Part 1, Chapter 4
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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Part 1 Chapter 5
Now, nearly six months later, very little seemed to have changed when I boarded a train for Southampton, the first leg of my journey to America.
“You needn’t come with me,” I told my parents, who hadn’t listened.
“Why don’t you humor us, Rita dear? After all, it’s not as if we’re dropping you off at school. You’ll be gone for several months, maybe longer.”
My father’s voice had a slightly ironic, theatrical quality that must have been quite useful in the courtroom. It was the one thing he seemed to have in common with Uncle J. And perhaps that explained how my father, whose devotion to Spinoza, hard facts, and the rule of law, could maintain a lasting friendship with a man whose life was wedded to the make-believe.
His love of Spinoza had begun at university, where he found something of himself in the philosopher’s distinction between “adequate” and “inadequate” ideas. He fell in love with Spinoza’s belief in the indomitable primacy of reason and had taken up the principle like a religious vocation. Reason became the engine of his success, the sharp edge of his incisive arguments in court.
Unfortunately, he’d been unable to set aside Spinoza in his personal dealings. I’ve long felt that beneath his charming, statesmanlike demeanor, he looked down on anyone too strongly influenced by “inadequate ideas,” which Spinoza identified as emotion or intuition. In other words, inadequate people—like my mother and me. He never came right out and said this, but it seemed to hover always in the background, masked by his keen intelligence and personal magnetism.
And yet, there had never been one day in my life that I did not worship him.
“But it’s you two I’m worried about,” I told them as we queued up to board the train.
My father still wore his Hamburg like a statesman and kept his graying mustache as trimmed as when I was a child. But lately, his powerful voice, which had always reminded me of the gong at the start of a Rank film, had become phlegmy. It was beginning to sound like someone singing through a papered comb.
My mother, to whom I owe my rawboned physique and a fondness for language, now looked less like the leggy tennis player of her flapper-girl photographs and more like a fallen soufflé.
She wore a voluminous tweed suit and lavender blouse with a single strand of pearls draped elegantly round her neck. All her girlishness gone, she was now what’s known as a handsome woman. Self-sufficient and proud. But I worried about her more than my father. And I suppose that’s because I too thought her inadequate in some way. Though keen to put a good face on their marriage, as perhaps all couples do, something had been amiss in theirs for a long time.
End of Part 1, Chapter 5
@2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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Part 1 Chapter 6
Mother had set aside her youthful ambition to become a writer in exchange for motherhood and marriage to a promising young barrister. But it had cost her. I was only twelve when I came upon the first signs of “mother’s ruin,” the many Beefeater bottles tucked in the back of her lingerie drawer, hidden behind canisters of flour and coffee, or at the bottom of a clothes hamper. Over the years, her once animated, heart-shaped face had become fixed, a mask concealing more than I would ever know. My affection for her, though tinged with pity, was insurmountable
In fact, I felt sorry for both of them. When I was ten, my brother Freddie died in a drowning accident at the age of fourteen. His death left a gaping hole in all our lives, but it was particularly hard on my parents. I lost a brother I looked up to and admired. But they lost a son.
It was only natural that they’d become protective of me after the accident. I understood that. But at times, I felt like a chunk of saltwater taffy, pulled in opposite directions by the two people I loved most in the world.
My father had always hoped Freddie would follow him into the law. When fate removed that possibility, he transferred that wish to me. He was always talking about Ivy Williams and Helena Normanton, who’d been the first women admitted to the bar.
“There’s no reason why you can’t do that, too,” he would say with his booming gong of a voice. “And it doesn’t hurt to have someone in the family who already knows the ropes, you know.”
He had called me into his study and sat behind his desk chewing on the tip of his unlit pipe the first time he said this. I’d felt as if I were being asked to volunteer for a suicide mission. “I wouldn’t get in your way, of course, but you could always turn to me if the need arose,” he said. “In time, you might even be able to take the silk, rising to the rank of King’s Counsel.”
I wondered if he’d have felt the need to offer similar assistance to Freddie had he lived. To what extent was his generosity fueled by the fact that I was a girl, given to emotion and other inadequacies? But it did not matter. I had no interest in a legal career.
Nor did I wish to pursue the course my mother laid before me. She was glad when I was accepted to Cambridge, but her idea of a higher education was that I should become a suitable spouse for a wealthy, ambitious young man. She might as well have been promoting a marriage out of Pride and Prejudice. Instead of becoming adept at painting and the piano as young ladies did in the time of Jane Austen, I was to become the glib companion of some as-yet-unknown man who might one day become Prime Minister.
But I wanted no Mr. Darcy. I wanted love. And for a while, I had secretly hoped to become a writer. I often scribbled poems in my diary and imagined what it might be like to pen an entire novel populated by creatures of my own imagination. I even started a novel while I was at Cambridge, an experience that felt more right than anything I’d ever done.
It was during this time that I discovered an unfinished novel of my mother’s while rummaging about our attic. I sat on the floor in the slatted light of a louvered gable, reading the yellowed pages of what could have been a remarkable book if only she’d finished. It was enough to bring my own ambitions to a screeching halt. I felt I’d never be able to write anything nearly as good. Seeing what she might have become, it seemed all the more pathetic that she should forego her talent for family life, only to succumb to alcohol after Freddie’s death.
If losing him had made my parents fiercely protective of me, it caused me to feel the same about them. The war with Hitler only exacerbated my apprehensions about their safety.
“You need to get out of London, too,” I told them. We had just taken our seats in a musty compartment, which retained the odor of every cigar that had ever been smoked there.
My mother patted my hand and pressed her lips. “We’ll be fine,” she said. But the gesture seemed to contradict her words. “We’re heading to East Anglia in just a few days. It’s far too tight for all three of us with your grandparents hobbling about. And frankly, it will be a comfort for us to know you’re safe in far-away America.”
“Yes,” I said ruefully. “Far-away and stubbornly isolationist.”
End of Part 1, Chapter 6
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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Part 1 Chapter 7
The sun was burnt orange and slightly lower in the sky when we reached Southampton. Its Titian light danced across the rippling waves like a line of chorus girls. A brackish mist replaced the musty smell of the train as cries of yellow-billed gulls pierced the air. Flapping and fluttering above the docks, they were in for a disappointment if they expected the usual handout from this vessel.
I said goodbye to my parents at the end of the jetty. Then turned to make my way up a ramp that led to the silver belly of the amphibious Yankee Clipper. But my mother tugged on my parka mid-step, pulling me towards her.
“Did you remember to pack wool socks in your holdall, Rita?”
The question was as bizarre as it was bizarrely timed. If I had forgotten them, what was I expected to do, run back to the flat?
“Yes,” I lied. “Just like you told me to.”
“Good. It could be chilly on the flight, you know. And you don’t want to catch cold before you arrive for your assignment.”
I turned to go, and she stopped me again.
“And Rita dear, just a word of caution about American men. Cheeky, the lot of them. I remember when they came over during the last war. They’re notorious cads with no manners whatsoever. You’ll want to watch out for them.”
“Thanks, Mummy. But Uncle J. said we’ll be quite sequestered most of the time. I don’t think there’ll be a problem.”
“And Rita, Houseman probably won’t want you calling him Uncle J. when you’re working together,” my father said. “You’ll need to be professional at all times.”
I knew what was happening. It was what they’d done ever since Freddie died. I couldn’t blame them for wanting to hold on.
We stood at the end of the jetty, feeling the water’s undulating sway beneath our feet. Three sides of a scalene triangle bound by blood and bereavement. Acutely aware that once upon a time there had been four.
“Yes, I do know, Dad. I’ve never called him that in public, ever. And I don’t plan to start now. But I’d better go, you two, before this plane takes off without me.”
My mother let go of my parka, and I threw kisses to them before turning again toward the ramp.
End of Part 1, Chapter 7
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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