“…Summon the staff in my study – quickly. No not you – you. Huxley, you come with us too – quickly, quickly, he’s below.’ So, swept along, wafting down the gallery, I was given to realise that Muir Fisher and myself were an advance welcome party for unexpected dignitary. But what kind? Royalty? a business man with an ambition to have a pavilion named after himself? These little prostitutions I was already adept at completing. We clattered down the stairs. A thin wire-taut young man was standing in the hall. He was wearing a great coat with a 2nd Lieutenant’s insignia and was examining our brave new plaque for the honouring of the Repton war dead. The noise of our advance made him turn his head. Even without the coat and the careful scanning of the names, one could have told what he was. You could see them evrywhere, our scapegoats, translucent beings through whom a diffuse despair seemed to phosphoresce. When they were your brothers or your friends you hid the awkwardness of imminent death with high strung laughter, and when they were strangers you tried to find dormant gratitude. But today we were apparently going to offer this one school sherry in congratulation for his coming immolation.
Fisher squeezed his hand and endeavoured to pull him towards the staircase and our assembling staff up above. But he was bird-nervous and wise to us. He did not want to play caesar in our vicarious pageant, discovered other engagements and urgent trains. But how nakedly they wanted him; how they wanted him their pipped sacrifice to drink their sherry and so carry their sins of complacency out of the old stones.
I was pushed forward as last and desperate bait – ‘meet mr Huxley, who is in your old house’. I extended a helpless hand, he took it fleetingly. I was overwhlemed by the need to apologise for myself, and for this absurdity. I wanted to tell him I was all but blind otherwise I would be about to absorb bullets and horror too. I wanted to tell this putative war hero the story of my life and beg him to absolve me. I wanted him to know i didn’t think sherry a suitable recompense. His desperateness to be gone was contagious. I wanted to go with him, to run madly out of those doors and reclaim a little dignity. For a moment the mad thought of catching his khaki slipstream, but then he was gone and I remained, with Fisher and Muir and their bitter disappointment. It happened so quickly I did not even know the name behind the eyes until long afterwards, when I discovered it on our other (smaller) plaque of living war heroes. ‘Rathbone – Phlip St. John Basil. MC (1918)’. His little brother John died in that war. It was our first meeting, but in later years he had entirely forgotten my part in the obscene little drama…”