Monday 5th December

Fail to declare a stick (5)

Some 24 hours later, Phil, back from Amsterdam, picks up various text-messages and voice-mails and deigns to call round at my bachelor gaff in Osney with Marie-Claire in tow.

I explain patiently that I have done his dirty work for him and determined that his young ex-wife has not, after all, been drowned. I exaggerate the gruesomeness of the experience a little for effect but I figure he deserves it – why is he swanning off around Europe while an escalating manhunt for Hattie is taking place? Shouldn’t he be out with a torch, inching his way across Hampstead Heath or Green Park, searching desperately for clues? Failing that, surely some form of “thank you, Alex” would not go amiss?

“The odds against it being Hattie must have been ten thousand to one,” Phil says blithely, when I have completed my tale. “I’ve no idea why they thought it might be her.”

“Well, possibly because she loved walking down by the Serpentine. You used to walk there with her yourself!”

Marie-Claire cuffs Phil playfully about the ear.

“You didn’t tell me that!”

“I’m sorry, M-C, I’d completely forgotten …”

It turns out that Phil has taken to squiring his latest squeeze around exactly the same haunts as he had frequented with his wife in years gone by. I must admit I’d credited him with a little more style and originality than that. And, as for taking a lovely name like Marie-Claire and reducing it to the bare initials, well, I can only apologise on his behalf.

“Yes, M-C and I were in Hyde Park only a couple of weeks ago when we went to the Schoenberg at the Festival Hall. I was hoping to pick up a few ideas for our Stones gig.”

Schoenberg? Are you sure you wouldn’t like GDP to have a crack at the Second String Quartet? Is ‘Gimme Shelter’ no longer a big enough challenge for you?”

“There are a few sides to me even you don’t know, Alex. For instance, did you know I once planned to be a lawyer?”

“Yes, I can imagine a career in conveyancing would have paid a little better than academe.”

“I figured I could represent all those stroppy rock stars. Punks’ attorney Phil, that’s me! Punks’ attorney Phil!”

“Yes, yes, I got it the first time. Instead you became D.Phil Phil. But Schoenberg?”

“It was my idea,” Marie-Claire says. “I was just trying to pretend I had these high-brow musical tastes. And it seems to have worked!”

The two lovebirds chuckle merrily together and I resist the temptation to improvise a sick-bucket from one of their crash helmets. Why do most women have such unbelievably poor taste in men? What would a ridiculously beautiful young woman like Marie-Claire see in Phil? OK, he’s tall, slim, good looking (in a conventional sort of way) and one of the brightest young academics in his field, holding down one of Oxford’s top jobs. OK, his family’s loaded and he’s got a full head of hair, but apart from all that? Is it too much to ask that a sensitive, intelligent young lady should see the subtler merits of one such as myself? Or indeed, specifically, me? It doesn’t help that I’m a couple of inches shorter than most of the women I fancy and that my shiny pate is balding fast, almost as rapidly as my “career” is going downhill, but these things are mere superficialities. In a better world, in a juster world …

But this is the only world I’ve got, for the next few weeks at least, so I laugh along with my friends.

What seems to have worked?” I hardly dare to ask.

Phil and Marie-Claire exchange glances.

“We-ell …” says Phil evasively. Marie-Claire picks up the baton to save him further embarrassment.

“We’re getting married.”

“Married!?”

“Er, yes. Is that such an odd thing to do?” Marie-Claire titters nervously.

A second feels like a lifetime as my vocal cords have turned to spaghetti.

“Well, congratulations!” I splutter at last. My words hang icily in the air. “That’s splendid news! When’s the happy day?”

“We’ll probably just creep away somewhere,” Phil says.

“Oh no, we won’t,” Marie-Claire corrects him. “We’ll certainly have a bit of a do, possibly on the 30th.”

“The 30th?” I gulp. “The 30th of December?”

“Sure, why not? Just a quiet affair, as Phil has been married before.”

“I thought he still was!”

“What, to Hattie?” Phil laughs uneasily. “No, no, the paperwork came through, months back – you remember?”

“You don’t think the timing is a little …” I try desperately to find the mot juste.

“You mean, what with Hattie having gone missing? Well, that does have something to do with it, actually.”

“In what way?”

“It’s the kids, you see. Charlie and Xan. They need a proper home.”

“They’ve got a proper home, haven’t they?! I remind him. “Auntie Liz is looking after them just fine. Besides, you keep telling me that Hattie will be back any day now.”

“I’m sure she will. But what if she isn’t? I’m their father after all. Trouble is, Hattie’s family doesn’t see it that way, so there may have to be a court hearing and it would really help if I could demonstrate that there is a stable family situation that the kids would move into. Just until Hattie reappears.”

“You mean there’s a custody battle?”

“You could call it that.”

“That’s not the reason for getting married,” Marie-Claire assures me. “It’s just the reason for getting married now.”

“It always was one of Phil’s favourite institutions,” I note sweetly.

“If at first you don’t succeed …” Phil smiles forbiddingly. “Anyway, we’d appreciate it if a Russian prince could be prevailed upon to …”

“Yes, please, Prince Alexy …”

“Yes, yes, very funny.”

“Just to say a few words?” Phil suggests. “Probably not the same few words as last time.”

“As best man, you mean?”

“I don’t think you’d need a title as such, but …”

“I did mention my slight problem with 30th December, didn’t I?”

Phil looks at me blankly.

“You can’t get time off work on a Friday? Don’t worry, the college is shut between Christmas and the New Year.”

“No, it’s nothing like that. I did mention it, but you seem to have forgotten.”

“You’ll have to remind me.”

“The small problem that I might be dead on December 30th!”

Marie-Claire seems suitably alarmed but Phil treats it all as a big joke.

“Ah yes, the Witch of Endor. How silly of me to forget. What time of day are you expecting to peg out? We could schedule an early start, make sure you fit it in OK before your untimely demise ….”

“Well, thank you for your sympathy, Phil. That’s what friends are for, I guess.”

“Come on, Alex. You can’t possibly believe any of that nonsense, can you? All that Mystic Meg stuff? I could ask Ozzie, if you like. But something like this might be just the thing to distract you from such maudlin thoughts. Then on New Year’s Eve, you can say ‘gosh, I’m still alive, and that was quite a good bash last night, wasn’t it?’”

“We’d really appreciate it,” adds Marie-Claire.

What can a poor boy do?

“Is it going to be some kind of ghastly vegan affair?”

“Yes,” says Phil.

“No, it certainly isn’t,” says Marie-Claire. “It will be a carnival of carnivoraciousness. Plus some veggie-burgers for the groom.”

The two lovebirds wait hopefully for my verdict.

“In that case, OK. You know how I love the sound of my own voice. And there are forty-seven skeletons in Phil’s closet that still need airing …”

“It’s lucky I’ve brought my chequebook,” says Phil. “Those skeletons need to remain securely buried!”

“So where are you thinking of having this ‘bit of a do’?”

“I’ve given it some thought,” says Marie-Claire. “The Alington Room’s a possibility, I guess. But it’s all a bit fuddy-duddy and conventional. I’ve decided we should hire one of those houseboat restaurants on the Thames…”

“You mean, actually out on the river?”

“Yes, the Thames,” Phil confirms. “I thought you would have heard of it.”

“But the Thames is …”

“The Thames is what?”

I struggle to find the words to express an appropriate level of trepidation.

“Put it this way: if you feared drowning on a certain day, would you book a seat on the Titanic?”

“Alex, this isn’t the Atlantic we’re talking about. It’s the Thames or, rather, the Isis as it dribbles its way past this fair city. It’s hardly more than a puddle in places.”

“Have you seen the Isis this week? If all this rain persists, the levee will break long before Christmas. There will be plenty enough water to drown in. You’ll have to make some other plan! If I’m to be Best Man, you’ll need to stay firmly on dry land.”

Phil and Marie-Claire take their leave and I put on Act II of Before the Dawn for what seems like the 50th time since the package arrived from Amazon. Already I know every lilt, nuance and swirl of this reworked version of the Ninth Wave suite. This is definitely the music I want to drown by.

And in the evening Dad and I watch Mr Turner on Film4.  The movie focuses on the last 25 years of JMW Turner’s life, long after he painted Univ and the High St, the picture that adorns my bedroom wall. It is a film that seems intent on realizing Turner’s worst fears that new technology, i.e. the camera, would render the visual arts redundant. Who knows what digital trickery lies behind those sumptuous and Turneresque film sequences? It is apt that Turner dies as a result of a bug contracted while attending the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, the very year that Osney Island was colonised.

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