From a Whitbread Award–winning author: A WWI novel of loyalty and friendship “graced with the immanent lyrical talent of the Irish writers at their best” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
Born to an aristocratic family on an estate outside of Dublin, Alexander Moore feels the constraints of his position most acutely in his friendship with Jerry Crowe, a Catholic laborer in town. Jerry is one of the few bright spots in Alec’s otherwise troubled life. The boys bond over their love of swimming and horses, despite the admonitions of Alec’s cold and overbearing mother, who scolds her son for venturing outside of his class. When the Great War begins, he seizes the opportunity to escape his overbearing mother and taciturn father, and enlists in the British army. Jerry, too, enlists—not out of loyalty to Britain, but to prepare himself for the Republican cause. Stationed in Flanders, the young men are reunited and find that, while encamped in the trenches, their commonalities are what help them survive. Now a lieutenant and an officer, Alec and Jerry again find their friendship under assault, this time from the rigid Major Glendinning, whose unyielding adherence to rank leads the two men toward a harrowing impasse that will change their lives forever.
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How Many Miles to Babylon?
By Jennifer Johnston
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
Because I am an officer and a gentleman they have given me my notebooks, pen, ink and paper. So I write and wait. I am committed to no cause, I love no living person. The fact that I have no future except what you can count in hours doesn't seem to disturb me unduly. After all, the future whether here or there is equally unknown. So for the waiting days I have only the past to play about with. I can juggle with a series of possibly inaccurate memories, my own interpretation, for what it is worth, of events. There is no place for speculation or hope, or even dreams. Strangely enough I think I like it like that.
I have not communicated with either my father or mother. Time enough for others to do that when it is all over. The fait accompli. On His Majesty's Service. Why prolong the pain that they will inevitably feel? It may kill him, but then, like me, he may be better off dead. My heart doesn't bleed for her.
They are treating me with the respect apparently due to my class, and with a reserve due, I am sure, to the fear that I may be mad. How alarmed men are by the lurking demons of the mind!
Major Glendinning has not been near me, a blessing for which I am duly grateful. He will never make a man of me now, but I don't suppose he'll lose much sleep over that. There were moments when I almost admired him.
By now the attack must be on. A hundred yards of mournful earth, a hill topped with a circle of trees, that at home would have belonged exclusively to the fairies, a farm, some roofless cottages, quiet unimportant places, now the centre of the world for tens of thousands of men. The end of the world for many, the heroes and the cowards, the masters and the slaves. It will no doubt be raining on them, a thick and evil February rain.
The padre comes to visit me from time to time. He showed me yesterday the gold cross he wears under his viyella vest, pressing into the black hairs that seem to ramp over his chest.
'Have you Faith?' he asked me.
He didn't put it quite like that. He had a more sophisticated way of phrasing things, and also a certain embarrassment in asking what he made sound like an almost indecent question.
'I've never really thought about it.'
'Now is perhaps the time to think.'
I wished that he would go away. I was not, nor am I now, in the mood for soul wrestling, that is a pastime for those who have time to spare.
'It's a bit late now I fear, Padre. Faith is to comfort the living. It seems to me to be irrelevant for the dead.'
'You are alive.'
'Comfort perhaps ...'
'I am comfortable, thank you. I ... I wonder always why you ... you know ... you ...' I put out my hand and touched his dog collar, 'well, representatives, seem to get such satisfaction in making us afraid of death. Be joyful in the Lord. Come before his presence with a song. That's not quite right, I know, but the drift is there. I shall sing gladly.
How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten, sir.
Will I get there by candlelight?
Yes and back again, sir ...'
I croak rather than sing. He held a hand up in distress.
'Your frivolity makes me uneasy.'
'I'm sorry. No need. We all must have our own way of dying.'
He pushed the cross back in through his shirt and fastened it up. He left soon after. I was sorry that I had distressed him.
As a child I was alone. I am making no excuses for myself, merely stating a fact. I was isolated from the surrounding children of my own age by the traditional barriers of class and education. Not that I was educated in any formal way. A series of ladies taught me a series of subjects until at the magic age of ten I was handed over to the curate who, presumably to supplement his tiny income, spent several hours each day trying to teach me mathematics, English literature, a smattering of French grammar, and of course Latin. Latin was his subject and his face would begin to glow with pleasure as the moment arrived for us to open up one of the numerous books we translated together. On days when I felt particularly unkind I would fumble and stumble over the words and watch maliciously the visible disintegration of his pleasure. He smelt delicately of peppermints. Once every hour or so two of his white fingers would probe into his waistcoat pocket and pull out the small white sweet which he would slip into his mouth almost as if he were performing some minor criminal act.
There was also the piano teacher who used to come down once a week on the train from Dublin. I remember little about him except for his ineffectiveness as a teacher and the reason for his going. My mother would come into the drawing-room towards the end of each lesson and sigh restlessly from her chair, fretted by my lack of progress. He was a nervous man who became almost insane in her presence. His hands would shake, and he would begin to tear distractedly at the dark stains of hardened food that decorated the front of his jacket as he watched me play. The drawing-room smelt of apple-wood and turf, and, in the autumn, the bitter end-of-the-year smell of chrysanthemums which stood in pots massed in one of the deep bay windows, shades of yellow, gold, bronze and white, like a second fire in the room. The black ebony case of the Steinway grand reflected the flowers. The music teacher was ridiculously out of place.
He rose and approached my mother, bowing at her as he crossed the floor. Masses of golden birds flew in gigantic curves on the blue carpet under his sad shoes. It must have been autumn because the smell of the flowers and his words are tangled together in my mind.
'Yes. Ah yes. He comes along very nicely ... the little fellow. You do notice ... yes ... progress ... I feel. I do hope you are being ...'
His faded eyes twitched as he spoke. His finger picked and picked. Soon, I thought silently, there will be a hole.
'... satisfied.' He bent low over her as he spoke the word. She moved her head slightly away from him.
'Oh, yes. Progress. Of a kind, I suppose.'
She waved him away with her hand, and he straightened up. I sat at the piano unmoving. I had developed the technique of listening to a fine art. I could become at will as still and invisible as a chair or a bowl of flowers.
'Such a deal of your talent, Mrs. Moore, has rubbed off on the ... um ... little fellow.'
Overcome suddenly by the thought of the stains, he spread his grey long fingers out over the front of his coat, like two very dead starfish on a beach. I played an arpeggio softly and my mother waved her hand towards the door.
'Your train, Mr. Cave. I mean you mustn't miss ...'
'No. No. Of course not. Well ...' He paused and looked around the room as if he were trying to memorise it for use during his darker days. 'I'll be on my way so. Time and ... oh ha ... trains wait for no man.'
He bowed once more to my mother. She smiled with her lips, but her eyes passed him by. He turned to me.
'And you, young fellamelad ... till Tuesday. Mind you practise now.'
He moved towards the door. Suddenly I felt some sort of emotion towards him. I no longer remember what it was, and I slipped off the chair and followed him out of the room and across the dark back hall. In the semi-darkness he reached out with a hand and squeezed my shoulder gently.
'Such a beautiful woman, God love her. So ...' Words failed him.
'What a lucky little fellamelad you are to have a beautiful mammy like that.'
'Have you a coat?'
I pulled with both hands at the brass door-knob and the door came open letting in the east wind. Some letters fluttered on the long mahogany table, and shocked flames twisted for a moment out of the grate and then recovered their equilibrium.
'Coat? No coat, sonny.' He gave a little laugh. 'I never feel the cold.'
A lie, I thought. He was a man, I'd have said, who had never felt warm in his life, or well, or momentarily gay. He stepped bravely out into the evening, and bowed once more before going down the steps.
Father was in the drawing-room when I got back. I stood in the embrasure just outside the door and listened to then voices.
'... But go he must. I simply can't bear the thought of having him in the house any more.'
'My dear Alicia, you are absurd.'
'No. Not remotely.'
'But what can I say?'
'An excuse. You must be able to think of something. Anything. He has such an appalling smell.'
'I can hardly say that. Come now.'
I could hear her skirts swish as she moved across the room.
'He must be ill. Some terrible disease. I get the feeling he's leaving it lying around all over the place.'
She opened the window and the wind rattled in.
'He's like someone who's been eaten by life and there's nothing left but this terrible smell ... More, more air.'
Another window sighed open.
'He's a good teacher. You said so yourself.'
'Frederick, I can't abide him in this house any more. I can't speak more plainly. I shall teach the child myself.'
There was a very long silence. My father's face would show little emotion. His voice would show little emotion, but there were times when he would twist his hands together in a gesture of incredible violence. Mother never appeared to notice, or if she did it was of no interest to her.
'Dragging his disease and poverty into my drawing-room. You will write, won't you.' It was a command rather than a question. I heard a quick sigh from father.
'If you insist.'
'Oh but I do.'
The piano teacher never appeared again. My mother became bored or exasperated quite soon by the clumsiness of my fingers and after a while the piano lessons ceased.
It must have been when I was about twelve that the question of my going to school arose, arose that is, as far as I was aware. The dining-room in the daytime was unwelcoming. It faced north and that cold light lay on the walls and furniture without kindness. Luncheon was the only meal I ate with them. Breakfast and high tea I munched alone in the schoolroom. At least I could read, or scribble into my exercise book the prep that I hadn't finished at the regulation prep time. I never minded being alone. I suppose now that I come to think of it I had never known anything else. Even with them I was alone, and I was the only thing that made them not alone. I don't mean by this that they led enclosed lives. To the contrary, they were excellent, generous hosts, and presumably lively guests, but when that side of their lives was quiescent they each retreated into some kind of wilderness of their own. Their only meeting place was the child.
Lunch, that day, was almost over. The cheese and what must have been almost the last of the celery were on the table. I could see through the window the rippling daffodils barely open under the chestnut trees beyond the avenue. A mare with a foal at her tail neatly cropped the spring grass.
'How would you like to go to school then, child, Alexander, hey?' The question took me completely by surprise, but anyway my mother answered for me.
'Frederick.' Her voice had a warning in it.
He smiled briefly in her direction. A smile that could hardly have reached her down the length of the dining-table.
'Hey then, my boy?'
'I hadn't really thought about it, father.'
'Well think about it. Now's the time. Meet a few chaps of your own age. Broaden. Polish you up a bit. Games,' he said without any enormous conviction. 'Pass the celery please.
I passed him the celery.
'Mr. Bingham is more than adequate.' Her voice was north-north-east cold.
'Perhaps a widening of outlook would do no harm. There are other subjects which Mr. Bingham ...'
'He is delicate, Frederick. You must not put his health at risk.'
'In your eyes he is delicate, my dear. I see few signs of it. He has just eaten a most remarkable lunch.'
'Dr. Desmond ...'
'Dr. Desmond is an ass.'
'Frederick, pas devant ...'
'My dear good woman, you know perfectly well that Dr. Desmond will say anything you want him to say.'
'You make the most absurd remarks.'
I watched the daffodils and kept my mouth shut. Their words rolled past me up and down the polished length of the table. Their conversations were always the same, like some terrible game, except that unlike normal games, the winner was always the same. They never raised their voices, the words dropped malevolent and cool from their well-bred mouths. Green ringlets of apple peel fell from my mother's fingers on to her plate.
'We agreed on this a long time ago. You remember. You remember very well. Perfectly. The time the child had pneumonia.'
'The situation has changed.'
'Never. It will never change.'
She placed a sliver of apple in her mouth and snapped it shut. Father sighed and folded his napkin carefully along the creases.
'Mr. Bingham is charming,' said mother.
'His charm is not in question.'
'I have no intention of remaining alone in this house with you. I have already said that. Made myself quite clear, I thought. Perhaps you didn't believe me.'
'I suppose I believed you. I almost always do. It was a long time ago.'
I must have moved, breathed too deeply or something. His eye fell on me.
'You may be excused, Alexander.'
I got down from my chair and left the room. I could feel their eyes watching me as I crossed the miles of floor.
So I missed the formalities of education, whatever good they might have done me. Equipped me better perhaps for the situation I now find myself in? I doubt it. Mr. Bingham taught me the basic facts, whatever other knowledge I have inside my skull I have acquired myself. I will admit to being rather short on team spirit.
Jerry was around always. The stable-yard was where he was always to be seen. He had a neat facility for keeping out of the way of the horses' hooves and the fists of the more quicktempered men. I noticed his feet before his face. In the summer they were bare, dust-grey and with soles obviously as hard and impervious to stones, thorns, damp, as were the soles of my expensive black leather shoes. In the winter he moved awkwardly in a pair of men's boots tied on to him with string. We never spoke, barely even nodded, and yet I knew that he wasn't just there for the horses, he was as aware of me as he was of their polished perfection.
The lake lay slightly below and to the south of the house. In the summer it was hidden from the ground-floor windows by the thick leafiness of the shrubs and trees beyond the lawns. In the winter you were always conscious of the grey moving water, which changed sometimes in a matter of minutes to dazzling silver, or blue with tiny frothing waves, endlessly rippling and pushing at the rushes. Beyond, the bog stretched up to the stony peaks of the hills which protected us from the world. They too, like Jerry's feet, underwent their seasonal changes, from the golden whin-flowered gaiety of the spring to the black and dun of clear winter days with the shine of water lying after the rain had passed. Some mornings when I looked out of my window the hills seemed so close that I only had to stretch a hand out beyond the glass to touch them, other days they were unsubstantial, pale, almost in another world. Had I been able to get there by candlelight I would most certainly never have got back again sir. The swans floated for nine months of the year to and fro on the water, sometimes taking off with a great cracking of their wings, then, overcome with the energy they had used up, they would allow themselves to drift on the wind like huge crumpled pieces of paper hurled up in to the sky. Mother's daily ritual was to stroll down the gravelled path to the lake after tea to feed them. They would eat from her fingers light yellow sponge cake, or paper-thin bread and butter broken into small pieces, remnants from the tea table. Occasionally they would heave themselves out of the water and follow her up the path, displacing the neatly raked gravel with their ungainly feet. She would turn and wave them away, clapping her hands softly together, to admonish rather than to alarm.
'The earth is not your element, my loves. Go now. Shooshy, go.'
I heard her call once to them in a voice so unlike her own recognisable voice that for a moment I felt a glow of love for her.
Excerpted from How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 1974 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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