The Umbrella Club (2009)

excerpts

I

The first time I saw Axel Glover he was standing stark naked in a wide shaft of sunlight in a back room of the Asherby Town Hall, a half-smoked cigarette in one hand and a copy of His Majesty’s Enlistment Regulations in the other, held discreetly over his private parts. Dust-motes in the air about him, and the gently twirling smoke, gave him a kind of aura. He seemed, momentarily, blurred with light.

It was a warm day in May 1915. The Army, desperate for men, had sent recruiting parties to various district towns to try to bolster the country regiments. The response, at least in Asherby, wasn’t quite what they had hoped, but there were ten or twelve of us being processed one by one in the only place available. The mobile enlistment unit seemed to be competing for the title of the most disorganised in the country, and to judge by the excruciating slowness of things was doing very nicely. Unbeknownst to me as, in one half of the back room that had been divided by an old stage curtain, I waited for my medical examination, a scuffle of some sort had broken out in the hall itself – perhaps for no other reason than that it was something to do – and the elderly officer who had been interviewing me had gone out to help his colleagues try to calm the combatants down. I had grown tired of waiting by myself at the abandoned desk and, hearing something from the other side, had lifted the curtain to see whether there was any sign of life. Axel hardly turned a hair. With an aplomb I would soon discover was almost second nature to him, he smiled, gestured to the open box on the Medical Officer’s table, and asked me if I would like a cigarette.

‘Army issue, I suspect’, he said, ‘and a little harsh. But beggars can’t be choosers. I prefer Cutter’s, but one has to go to Exeter for it apparently, and even Cutter’s won’t get me to Exeter.’

I don’t think Axel ever told an outright lie, but that particular claim seems, in retrospect, a little unlikely. Axel would in fact do a great deal on a whim. Going down to Exeter for the right kind of tobacco seems the least of it, especially if it gave him the chance to tear down the country lanes in his mother’s Hispano-Suiza. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.

To be the first balloon across the highlands of New Albion. It may seem a strange desire, but to be the first to balloon across such a dark and rugged stretch of mystery seemed like a worthy life’s ambition, a way of encountering one of the last frontiers while at the same time, hydrogen permitting, staying more or less out of trouble. I must admit that the paradox, the sheer anomaly, held some appeal too, even for me: the thought of the Nisha, that graceful green-and-red-striped globe – the achieved perfection of her – floating so easily over those jungle-covered, primeval peaks and ridges; the thought that down there in that darkness might be eyes staring in wonder or terror at something they could never possibly have seen before.

New Albion was Axel Glover’s Dream, his Idea, his Mission. To be sure, it came to him late in his life, by which I mean very near to what I have to suppose was the end of it, which if we are to believe it has ended must have ended before the age of thirty, but it came with the force of a dramatic and irresistible realisation, absurd as it might have seemed to others, a kind of sudden certainty. To get through this life, he once told me – to pull yourself through its day-to-day pettiness and routine, all the pointless conversation and activity you seem to have to have for conversation’s and activity’s sake, let alone the inevitable crippling disappointments – you have to have something to be disappointed about; you have to have something, a Z, let’s say, that you can tell yourself is the reason you bother at all with the whole laborious process of getting from A to B, or G to H, or wherever it is you start from or finish in the relentless Shoulds and Have-Tos of everyday being. You have to have a way to motivate yourself to cook an egg yet again, and eat it yet again, to clean and dress yourself yet again, wait for the bus or the train again – things that from any other angle would be only the most depressing evidence of the absolute futility of existence.

Faith used to perform this function, Axel said, as if it had once done so for him, but that was gone now. And a war, too, could sometimes give you a reason, for a short time anyway. I suppose I might have suggested sex as a third, if I had thought to do so at the time, since I was, then, quite excited about it, but I’m not sure the motion would have carried. Axel never seemed so much inclined. He would most likely have considered it as one of the false dreams and petty missions with which the majority attempts to hide from itself the meaninglessness that would otherwise be staring it in the face. God was a Sadist if he existed at all – something we both came to agree upon – and given what we had experienced in Arras and Paschendaele, notions of Duty and Country were no less absurd.

There is also, and although I didn’t come to wonder about it until much later, the matter of the Shadow. It can’t just be any Idea or Mission. It has to have a certain shape, a particular contour. And it is the Shadow that determines it. The Idea is in the shape of the Shadow. And the Shadow itself is determined by things that have happened to you. Perhaps this was the real difference between Axel and others, perhaps even between Axel and me. Perhaps it is possible to need no Idea, no Mission. Perhaps one needs these things the more there has been behind you to build up a Shadow in the first place. The benign and the easy things don’t do it. Love doesn’t, gentleness doesn’t – or at least they don’t do so alone. It is the darker things, mostly, and in Axel’s case they weren’t all apparent. The early death of his father, yes, – we had that in common – and the loneliness of his childhood, and the War later, and what he saw as the betrayal by his mother, but that may have been too late to have much effect. Who knows? With Axel there seemed always to have been other things.

You spend your life filling it. That is the point. The Shadow is cast out in front of you, by the things that have happened behind, and it creates a sort of vacuum, an empty space, a no-man’s-land that you have to fill, by doing whatever it is that you do. Artists, whenever they paint a picture, are filling in a small portion of the Shadow. And, I suppose, writers, climbers, balloonists are doing so too.