Originally, President William Jefferson’s poetic spirit, one hears (6)
It is now well past mid-day and I am still alive. I have not been struck by a thunderbolt or been the victim of a revolutionary outrage. The Folly Bargères shows no signs of hitting an iceberg and I have yet to feel an overwhelming urge (like the Duke of Dorset in Zuleika Dobson) to hurl myself into the Isis. I still feel like I could throw up at any moment with each lurch of the barge but I have given myself strict instructions to consume no further alcohol. Instead, I am cradling a flute of cranberry juice and trying to look compos mentis. Lunch is a buffet affair and I restrict myself to the plainest of hog-free viands and victuals for fear of tipping a delicate pH balance one way or the other. I find myself talking to Marie-Claire’s father, a philosophy don, about the latest incumbent of the White House and about Araucaria, the Tiger Woods of crossword-writing.
Phil gives me a nudge and I remember that, despite the bride’s initials, I am supposed to be the MC around here and there are speeches to be made. So I call the assembled throng to attention and invite the bridegroom to take the first knock. Phil thanks everyone he has ever met in his life, one at a time and in great explanatory detail, before reciting a sonnet he has written for his radiant wife. It really would be a shame to throw up in the middle of this, so I concentrate on checking that the rhyme scheme is satisfactorily Petrarchan (it isn’t). Marie-Claire blushes appropriately and then delivers her own far pithier take on the whole business of getting married in the twenty-first century. Her dad also gets to wax philosophical for a while, advising his new son-in-law to brush up on his snooker skills.
After the warm-up acts, it is, of course, my turn. A Best Man can be as rude as he likes, as long as he’s funny and has first-hand experience of some of the more embarrassing moments in the bridegroom’s life. I am fairly confident my carefully-honed mixture of wisecracks and anecdotes will knock ’em dead as I rise groggily to my feet and retrieve my speech from my inside pocket.
Or rather, I don’t. The document I pull out is not a speech but the letter I have grabbed from the doormat in Osney. I scrabble around in all my other pockets but there can be little doubt about it – in my drunken panic this morning, I have completely forgotten to bring my script. What on earth was I going to say? My mentis is not compos at all. It is a tabula rasa, a palimpsest. I cannot remember a single word.
Everyone is chuckling politely at what they take to be my comic buffoonery. But all I can do is own up.
“I’m sorry, folks. I seem to have left my speech at home. All I have is this letter from my solicitor.” More laughter. “No, really, this is the only thing I have!”
“Well, you’d better read us that, then!” some wag shouts out. It turns out that this proposal reflects the mood of the baying mob. I make various gestures designed to indicate that this is a ridiculous idea and/or I have gone down with TDS (Temporary Dyslexia Syndrome) but my audience will have none of it.
“Come on, Alex. No speech, no fee!” Phil smiles. “Besides we all want to know how your solicitor plans to get you off on those embezzlement and heresy charges.”
In the end, there is nothing for it but to rip open the letter and find out what is written inside. I’m hoping it’s just a perfunctory couple of lines announcing that Procter & Harrison have been appointed as executors but I discover that there are actually a couple of sheets of densely-printed text.
Dear Alex [I start],
Firstly, it was good to see you again, albeit in such unfortunate circumstances …
[I explain briefly that my uncle has died]
I am writing to you in some haste for two reasons. The first is to convey confirmation of the fact that you are the primary beneficiary of your uncle, Mr Alan Jeffrey Hogg’s will. You will appreciate that it is still a little too early to give you a precise indication of the size of your inheritance but a conservative assessment, based on the recent sale value of his property and scrutiny of his other investments, suggests that you should expect to receive a sum in the low seven figures …
[This gets an inevitable “ooh” from the audience. I take the opportunity to catch my breath.]
… the low seven figures, certainly at least £1.3m. I should be in a position to provide a little more detail in terms of the provisional valuation of assets and timescale early in the New Year and we will proceed with probate with all due haste.
[All around me, wedding guests are cheering. They seem to be genuinely pleased at my windfall. I try to think what I could do with all this money but absolutely nothing comes to mind.]
The second matter is rather more personal and pressing. Alex, I owe you a huge apology. It was only after we spoke at the funeral that I remembered a practical joke I had played on you all those years ago. I had almost forgotten it and assumed you had long since done likewise but your casual remark that you were expecting some form of catastrophe on 30th December tells me that you have not.
In short, you are not going to die on 30th December. At least, I have no reason to expect that you will, and I was the person who was responsible for this fear in the first place. I am truly sorry. It was all a consequence of my own relationship with my uncle, Fred, and my youthful fascination with locked door mysteries and impossible challenges. Uncle Fred used to travel round the country plying his trade at various fairs and festivals. He was a regular at the St Giles Fair in Oxford, for instance. His nom de plume was Solomon Sage and he used to tell people’s fortunes. Depending on his assessment of the paying customer, he’d peer into a crystal ball, pretend to read a palm or scrutinise an astrological chart, although he had a healthy scepticism for all those predictors. In reality, he picked up on all the physical and conversational clues that were available to him – it’s amazing how much you can guess about someone just by looking at them. The more he practised, the luckier he got and most customers left his booth convinced they had been given some sort of insight into their future.
I knew that our whole gang was going to the fair that year and I was pretty confident that I could persuade some or all of my classmates to have their fortune told. I collected a few mugshots with my digital camera and compiled a dossier of all the information I could possibly find, before handing the whole thing over to Uncle Fred. With most of the boys, I only had things like date of birth, favourite football team, and so on, but in your case, I had several pages worth, because we had been the best of friends for some time and I had got to know your family. I knew your heroes, your ambitions, everything. It was obvious you’d end up at your father’s old college, a real no-brainer.
But Uncle Fred did far too good a job – how could he fail with such a big advantage? The tricky bit came when you asked how long you would live. That is not a question anyone should ever ask but when you are young you think you are going to live for ever. He refused to tell you but you pressed him and pressed him (at least, that’s what he told me afterwards) and in the end, because there was a queue of paying punters waiting in the wings, he made up a date. To him, December 30th 2016 sounded an impossibly long way off, and I’m sure it did to you too. When we spoke about it at the time, you seemed to shrug it off and I tried to convince you it was all rubbish. I did not guess that it would be preying on your mind in years to come.
Uncle Fred died in 2008 so I am apologising on behalf of the two of us. It was a stupid trick to play. I must track down other classmates on LinkedIn or Facebook and make sure none of them is labouring under a similar misconception.
So as well as a seven-figure sum, I grant you a new lease of life! Happy New Year!
It is hard to believe that I am able to read this entire letter aloud without collapsing in a quivering heap. The news seems too good to be true. All those years of needless worry and suspense! But even now I am already rewriting my life-history – how could I possibly have believed such a prediction? The putative reader of these Hoggblogs will have pooh-poohed such an idea from the outset. You’re right, it was ridiculous, I never believed a word of it, did I?
As I struggle to hold back the tears, the wedding party stands and applauds me. Phil and Ozzie leave me bruised with their celebratory high-fives and back-slaps and the kiss I get from Marie-Claire lasts a micro-second longer than decorum demands of a bride. Mine has been an unusual prothalamion but the applause shows no signs of abating and I have no idea what more to say. In fact, the clapping seems to have intensified and turned into a gasp of surprise. An irrational panic seizes me – has my audience suddenly realized that my flies are undone? – but most of all I just feel nauseous and dizzy. It is vital that I get out of the cabin immediately before I throw up. Attempting to wave apologetically, I stumble out through the nearest door to the stern of the boat, vaguely conscious that that is the right end to be. No one has followed me out, which is a great relief.
I crouch over the guard-rail and heave convulsively. What little I have eaten and drunk disappears into the greeny-grey waters of the Thames. Fortunately, this is a very quiet stretch of the river and there are no witnesses to my embarrassment. We are still careering downstream at some pace, having recently passed Sandford Lock. The banks are thickly covered with bushes and a row of pylons in the distance disfigures the South Oxfordshire skyline. The icy air does not seem to be making me feel any less nauseous and I decide to stay put until I am ill a second time. I feel so rough I can hardly bring myself to contemplate the good news I have just received. I should feel elated and astonished as a curse is lifted and I suddenly have a bit (OK, a lot) of money in the pipeline. And yet, and yet …
I don’t know which comes first, the voice or the touch on my shoulder. But the combination of the two at a moment when the Folly Bargères is pitching left and right are almost enough to send me flying overboard. I grab the rail and hang on for dear life. It can’t be! I haven’t heard that voice for nine months or so. It is the last voice I expected to hear today. I must be dreaming!
Even as I turn round, I am convinced that this must be a cruel trick played on me in my delirium. But the evidence of my eyes is clear enough. It really is Hattie, alive and well. I am completely lost for words. But that is not the only shock. Hattie is wrapped up snug and warm in a thick winter’s coat and in her arms she is cradling a baby, swathed in so many layers that I can barely see its tiny face. For an instant I wonder whose baby Hattie could possibly be looking after but there is something so natural about the two of them that there can be only one possible conclusion.
“Alex!?” Hattie whispers at last. “I’m so sorry to shock you like that. Are you not well?”
Somehow I manage to recover the power of speech.
“Hattie, how marvellous to see you! How truly, truly wonderful to see you! We thought you were …”
“Dead? Oh, I’m so sorry, Alex, to let you think that. You don’t know what it was like. I had to get away from London. I felt I was going mad. I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, not even Liz, not even … you.”
I gaze at mother and baby, shaking my head. I am conscious that there are tears in my eyes and I wipe them away.
“There’s no need to apologise,” I start.
“I just wanted to go somewhere where I could have my baby and decide what I was going to do next. I went to Ireland and stayed at the house of an old college friend called Jenny. I owe her so much. And now there is a new person in my life. Also called Jenny!”
As if on cue, the baby gurgles and splutters. I feel sure that the infant should not be out in the open air on such a winter’s day but I am no expert on childcare.
“Jenny is a lovely name,” I offer lamely. “But …”
In the end I cannot resist the obvious question. In my heart of hearts, I already know the answer. Hattie gazes at me for a moment as if to ask how foolish I can possibly be.
“Who do you think, Alex?”
There is no bitterness or recrimination in her voice, just a steely calmness. I search in her eyes for some sort of confirmation. The truth seems almost beyond comprehension.
“It’s all right, Alex. I know it was just a drunken fumble.”
“Is it really nine months since that night?”
“It was March 25th. Not a night I’ll forget in a hurry.”
The date my forefather got sent down from Univ. Shelley too, of course.
“Part of me wanted to keep it a secret from you for ever. But having a baby changes the way you think. I knew I had to tell you. You are the father, after all. So here I am.”
I am suddenly conscious that there are numerous eyes gazing at us through the cabin window. Am I the last to know about all this? The tears are flowing freely. But this is no time for self-consciousness. I must hold my daughter. Hattie intuits this and hands the baby across. I have to surrender my grip on the guard-rail in order to take the baby and support her against my chest. It is hard to put into words my feelings – it is the most extraordinary moment of my life. I had never wanted to have children, never felt capable of being responsible for a child and yet, now that the moment has come, I know that it is the best thing that has ever happened to me. And considering the other things that have happened to me in the last half hour alone, that is quite something.
The number of eyes pressing at the cabin window has doubled and I do not feel well enough to perform as I should for such an audience. I sense that Hattie feels similarly uncomfortable. She has many other people to see and a baby is a star performer at any wedding. We agree that we will go back into the cabin separately and later, when the fuss has died down, we will find a quiet moment to reflect. I need a little time to think, that’s for sure, and it’s easier to ponder out here than it will be inside, especially now that the party is starting in earnest.
Honestly, I did not see this coming! Perhaps you did, reading astutely between the lines. If so, I applaud your perspicacity, but it may just be a sign that you have read too many Victorian novels and confused them with real life. My personal peripeteia seems suspiciously neat and yet I can’t help but reflect that it breaks the pattern of history. Hattie has not succumbed to the fate that seemed implicit in the story of Harriet Westbrook.
Hattie didn’t weigh down her pockets with stones and walk out into the Serpentine, like her predecessor. An unexpected pregnancy now does not entail the same social stigma as it did two hundred years ago. No one on the Folly Bargères is treating her as a pariah – on the contrary, Phil and all his friends are cooing over her as if she were the prodigal son. Even Marie-Claire seems genuinely happy to be upstaged. She is secure that Phil is now hers and the reappearance of his ex-wife is a blessing, a load off everyone’s mind, not that Phil had seemed overly concerned in the first place.
As baby Jenny is passed blithely from one set of hands to another, cooing and wriggling in time-honoured fashion, I feel a little resentful. That’s my baby you are treating like the cabaret! How can I possibly have developed such paternal feelings in the space of half an hour?
But what of my feelings for Hattie? She has regained the bloom in her cheeks that she had before she married Phil and I see now that she has dressed in the brightest of clingy frocks for the wedding, showing off her spectacular, maternal figure. Am I in love with her? I am certainly in lust. And what about her feelings for me? After nine months of living with the consequences of my carelessness, I could hardly blame her if bitterness and resentment are the predominant emotions she feels. It’s clear that she has told no one the name of the father as there are few furtive glances in my direction. Perhaps everyone is too drunk to guess.
Before we know it, we are safely back to Folly Bridge and the party is adjourning. I jump ashore, an undrowned man. Plenty of folks are heading over to the Univ Beer Cellar where a few bevvies have been laid on. Hattie is busy wrapping up Jenny against the winter cold.
“Do you think we could head off somewhere?” I suggest.
“Somewhere far from the madding crowd?”
So the three of us make the short walk up St Aldates, a little regretful that we can’t go to the second of the two pubs named after Hardy novels by the late, great Noel Reilly. St Aldates is surprisingly busy. Someone on a bicycle has been struck by an old Stag MK11 – the cyclist looks to be in better shape than the Stag’s wing-mirror but an ambulance is standing by.
As we pass Carfax, I see close behind us a young man in a wheelchair being pushed by someone who is a dead ringer for the second of the two men I glimpsed at Univ. Perhaps it is just the incongruous shades he is wearing. Hattie and I lug the carry-cot complete with Jenny and all her clutter through the doors of the pub. I sort out some drinks while Hattie gets herself organised in a convenient corner.
“Are you in a rush to get off somewhere else?” she asks. “That’s not the first time you have looked at your watch!”
“I’m just glad to be alive!”
“What on earth do you mean?”
And so I tell her – the whole Drowned Hogg Day story. If I spin it out long enough, the midnight hour really will strike and I will have survived. I feel reasonably confident that the alarm clock will not ring tomorrow to reveal that I am trapped in the Oxford equivalent of Punxsutawney, if only because I don’t actually own a radio-alarm. The predictions were right all along – December 30th is indeed the day my life ends … and a new one starts. I have gained a family and a fortune in the space of half an hour.
“So … what are your plans?” I dare to ask at last.
“I might move to America and find myself a log cabin big enough for myself and three growing children …” Hattie looks at me askance. “Or I might stay in London – Charley and Xan are settled there, after all. But I hate London. This is the place for me. No wonder you’ve never left! How does anyone leave Oxford? Trouble is, I can’t afford to rent a one-bedroom flat here, never mind actually buy something.”
“I could lend you a fiver,” I offer generously.
“A tenner might help us all get here on the Oxford Tube,” she laughs.
“I can’t have you travelling on that,” I say. “Not after last night. But now that I have come into my great expectations, I feel it is time I became a man of property. I will buy you a house.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Alex!”
“What’s ridiculous about that? When I woke up this morning, I didn’t have a penny in my pocket and I’d quite like to return to that blissful state as quickly as possible. If I can do a good turn along the way …”
“Ah sure ahm!”
“Very well. On one condition.”
“That you come and live there too. Jenny needs a father and the other two could do with a man about the house. Or does the idea fill you with dread?”
I am forced to admit that the idea does not fill me with dread at all. It fills me with the deepest possible joy and anticipation. Hattie shakes her head in bewilderment. And for once in my life I do the right thing. I lean across, slowly and deliberately, and kiss her full on the lips. I lack the words to describe the magic of that moment. If this is my groundhog day, I will never tire of this. No frog transformed into a prince ever felt happier than I.
Perhaps sensing that she is no longer quite the centre of attention, Jenny starts to cry in her little carry-cot. I wonder that a sound so loud could come from such a tiny pair of lungs. Hattie plucks her daughter out of her swaddling clothes, checks to left and right and unfastens the bodice of her dress. As her right breast is released from the confines of her maternity bra, I catch a glimpse of its plump softness before Jenny latches greedily on. I too long to be pillowed on my fair love’s ripened breast. Reading my mind, Hattie chuckles and I blush.
“This day was perfect,” Hattie tells me. “You couldn’t have planned a day like this.”
“Well, you can. It just takes an awful lot of work.”
“Jenny has two parents now. But we should have had ten times more fun making this baby!”
“Is it too late to catch up now?” I hardly dare to ask. Hattie seems unembarrassed but doubtful.
“How gentle can you be?”
“What, a clodhopping fool like me? I’ll give it my best shot!”
“Well, you’d better call a taxi, then. My room at the Old Parsonage should be just about big enough for the three of us …”
As Jenny continues to chomp and dribble contentedly, I go outside in search of mobile phone reception. Snowflakes tumble on me, the first of 2016, and I think again of Phil Connors and Rita, breaking the cycle at last. At the end of St Ebbes, I catch another glimpse of the cripple in the wheelchair and I make a mental note to count my many blessings. The night is only just beginning …