Losing Nelson (Barry Unsworth)

book cover

first pullquote

second pullquote

third pullquote

  my own first experience of death was on a Sunday morning, during a stroll in the country. It came in the form of one sick rabbit, which my father stamped on. I was five years old--it is one of my earliest memories. My brother, Monty, was with us; he is three years older. We were out on a country walk with my father. This was in Surrey, where we lived then--it was two years later that we came to live here, in this house. We were walking along a footpath, not very wide, clay-coloured, dusty--I suppose there had been no rain for some time. Open, heathy country. I have worked out that it was a Sunday; we were generally taken for walks on a Sunday morning if the weather was fine enough, while my mother, unaided on this day of the week, saw to the lunch.

We met the rabbit, or it met us--it was coming from the opposite direction, hopping slowly towards us along the edge of the path, not seeming disabled or distressed, not at first, though slower than you would expect a rabbit to be in the open and in full view. When we were quite close, it stopped, and I saw the gummy bulge of its eyes and I knew there was something badly wrong with this rabbit. Its head was too big. At the last moment, when we were almost upon it, fear supervened; it made an effort to get away, leaving the path and going off perhaps three yards into the grass. Then it stopped again. I saw now that the rabbit was trembling all over. I looked at my father's face to see what we were to make of this business, but there was no expression on his face at all. A last impression of the bloated head, the swollen, suppurating eyes. Then my father, without a word, stepped off the path, approached the rabbit, raised his right knee well above the horizontal, and stamped down with force a single, plunging motion. Then he briskly but thoroughly wiped his shoe in the grass.

Strange how clearly I could remember these actions in their exact sequence, yet had no certain recollection of the dead rabbit, nothing I could be sure belonged to the time. Images of pulped or squashed rabbits visited my mind frequently enough afterwards and still sometimes do, but I can never be sure they are authentic. The stamping and the wiping I remember well, however, the gray flannel trouser leg, two or three inches of greenish sock, the stout, cherrybrown brogue; this last could not have been much below my eye level at the time, when raised to stamping height--he was a tall man. He looked at us and I remember his face. We have put the poor beast out of its misery, he said.

I don't know what I felt about this or what I feel now. We crave a dominant note, we seek in memory for the single element, one stain to colour the whole. But the tints do not blend, the colour eludes us. There was no balance in the thing. The dreamlike preliminaries, the loping, lolloping rabbit, my father's casual stepping aside, the violence of the plunging shoe, that brisk rubbing in the grass.

We have put the poor beast out of its misery. He included Monty and me in that decisive act. It was true, he had done a merciful thing. A paradox too difficult for a child to appreciate, the intention of mercy expressed in a gesture so seemingly brutal. And then there was the look on his face, a certain look of alertness, almost eagerness, as he scanned our faces to see if the lesson had gone home.

That is the earliest memory I have of my father's face; the latest is the face of his death, that settling of stillness, as if he had answered his own question. But what lesson was it that he was seeking to bring home to us? This is the nature of reality, this is what the world is like, a place of suffering and pain which a man must confront with decision? Something like pleasure on his face, a sort of brightness; not at killing the rabbit, I don't think he took the smallest pleasure in that, but at the stern message implicit in it. He was observing his sons' faces, driving home a moral, making a useful dent on the soft minds of Monty and me. The memory is all violence now, like the springing of a trap in a silent place; the moral side of it has been diluted. In later years my father seemed often to be held in that same incommunicable woe of the rabbit. Not his eyes, not the alertness of his glance, that was unimpaired.

I did not want to think about this. Horatio was my refuge, as so often. I felt the impulse to look again at the face of his father. For some minutes I lay there, summoning resolve. Then I got up, put on my heavy dressing gown, and went along to the kitchen, with the idea of making some tea and taking it down to the basement.

* * *

Childhood memories are so helplessly subject to tampering. So difficult not to take a chisel to them, or a brush. Sure memory of it is only sunlight, of being first high up as we walked, then low down between the hawthorn bushes, my mother in a light blue summer coat, no hat, her hair loose, blown sometimes across her face. Later days of similar weather must have got into the picture, but to me the essence of May is concentrated in that afternoon of broken cloud and hazy sunshine, the silver gleam of the birches, the hawthorn blossom everywhere in profusion, pink and white, accompanying us along the path like a prodigal bridal.

We had driven out to Devil's Dyke, to where the road crosses the dyke on the Newmarket Downs, not far from the racecourse. The footpath ran along the top of the dyke and it was high at first, you could see a long way across the downs on either side. To children from London the openness was exhilarating, the broad views, the vast sky crisscrossed with singing larks. The larks were stitching up the sky, so my mother said, that day or another. Who had torn it? Some giant, I imagined. I am not sure, she said; perhaps it tears itself. But the larks are busy stitching it up. Smiling, flushed with the sun, her reddish brown hair falling sometimes across her face. Blue eyes, like mine.

Then the dyke flattened down into wooded gullies, with clumps of alder and scrub willow. Names not belonging to that day, learned later. The path was more winding, less clearly defined, there were possibilities of detours and shortcuts. My father set Monty and me on to a game of his own devising, in retrospect totally characteristic of him, a game of observing and competing and reporting. Perhaps he had seen that we were flagging. In any case, a good way of getting rid of us for a while. We were to go on ahead, take careful mental note of everything, and return to make a full report.

It was seductive, to be an explorer, to break new ground before the adults, to be able, just for once, to tell them something they didn't know, couldn't know. I remember the excitement of running ahead. I kept close to Monty at first, thinking that if I looked where he looked I would see what he saw, a tactic wholly mistaken--I could not know what messages were being conveyed to him, and he, wanting to outshine me, offered no clues.

So I developed ambitions of my own, and from the very beginning they were enormous. I wanted to have something outstanding to report. I wanted to find another pathway, one that nobody else knew about, a sort of secret alternative to the one we were on. Did it start there, the fascination with the parallel track, the private access, a life to run alongside my own life?

Down into those wooded hollows, plunging down, looking for the big scoop. Cardinal error, looking for what you hope to find rather than looking at what is there before you. My father would not have made that error, nor did Monty. I was lost in the confusion of detail, not knowing the names of things. Flowers, birdsong, broken sunlight.

Meanwhile my brother, sober and methodical, three years older, not distracted by grand designs, pursued his observations. When I saw him run back I ran after him, wanting somehow to share in the credit, but then I had nothing to report, I stood silent under a blank sky. Monty had seen tracks of a dog, a big dog, in a place where the ground was soft; he had seen a colony of ants in a dead tree; he had seen briar roses in the hedge. He brought back, concealed till the moment of presentation, a pheasant's tail feather, a piece of the chalk on which the downs rested. Good work, Monty. Try again, Charles--use your eyes, boy, you must learn to use your eyes.

But my eyes were clotted with failure. My mother was smiling, but she knew what I was feeling, she knew my distress. Did I know hers? So difficult, across this ocean of time, to see her, to know. She spoke very quietly to me, a little aside. Perhaps you will see some oxlips. The yellow flowers with leaves like primroses. Not among the trees, they grow on the banksides. They like the chalk, you know. My father could not hear, but he saw, he guessed. No special treatment, Dorothy. The boy must learn to use his eyes. But I knew that with my eyes I could not win.

I knew there were creatures called moles, and they fascinated me because they were black and blind and had a mysterious alternative life under the ground. What more triumphant thing than to see one in broad daylight? I reported that I had seen a mole.

My father's face at once took on a certain gleam. I think he understood from the beginning that I had made it up, but he didn't say so, he expressed no hint of scepticism, offered me no joking way of escape. That was not his way. No, he led me on with questions, friendly questions.

Gracious me, a mole. Did you hear that, Dorothy? What was it like?

I said it was little and velvety-black and explained that it kept its nose close to the ground as it went along because it couldn't see very well.

What was it doing when you saw it?

I said it was just walking along; it was enjoying the sunshine after being in its dark burrow underground.

Is that all it was doing, just walking along?

Some hint of disappointment in my father's voice. My report was not dramatic enough. I said that I had seen it eating something.

Really? Now that is really interesting. What was it eating?

I think my mother attempted to intervene at this point. I have a vague memory of some words, an expression of remonstrance on her face as she looked at my father. But he was enjoying the game too much.

No, no, fair play. The boy must be allowed to make his report. What was it eating?

I said it was eating a piece of sandwich. It seemed reasonable--I had seen scraps of old picnics blown down there.

The trap was closed. My father's face lost its smile. Moles don't eat sandwiches. Look me in the eye, Charles. You didn't see any mole at all, did you?

I didn't see any mole, Monty said. I was in the same place that he was and I didn't see any mole.

You know how imaginative he is, my mother said. Don't be hard on him, he got carried away.

You told us a deliberate lie, didn't you? The whole thing was a lie.

Still that gleam of alertness about his face. Not anger, not reproach. He was interested, he was waiting for my confession. Then the moment of inspiration. No, I said, it wasn't a lie, it was a trick. His face changed as I spoke. This was unexpected, it was not part of the entertainment.

Come, you must learn to face up to things. Admit it was a lie and we'll say no more about it.

Not a lie, a trick, it was a TRICK.

I was afraid of him in all his moods, but that afternoon I was afraid of humiliation more. This was the fear that made me obstinate, that gave me one of the few triumphs of my childhood. For I did not retract.

He was enraged. He had been ready to put the rabbit out of its misery, but if I would not admit to being a liar, where was the rabbit? He made me walk back on my own, behind the others, in disgrace. Until you own up, until you learn to face the music. But I never did own up.

It was not that I thought him in the wrong or myself in the right. At the time I believed his anger was due to outraged principle, my failure to face the music and so on. Only much later did I come to understand the true nature of my offence: I had spoiled his game. But I knew even then, as I trailed behind the others, forlorn but unrepentant trickster, knew that I had held out against an adversary immensely more powerful on his own ground and I had done it by not yielding, not admitting--I had done it by not showing. I began to learn the lesson then: reveal yourself and you are lost, you are crushed. It is by concealment that we avoid the fate of the rabbit under the boot.

author's page
Bold Type
Bold Type
Bold Type
Excerpted from Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth. Copyright © 1999 by Barry Unsworth. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.