The two men struggling on the floor of the Clerks' Room differed widely in appearance: one young, of slender build, dressed in cotton and denim, with honey-coloured hair worn rather long and a pleasing delicacy of feature; the other perhaps in his sixties, tending to plumpness, wearing a pinstriped suit, with the round, pink face of a bad-tempered baby and very little hair at all. They rolled this way and that, as it seemed inextricably entwined, uttering indistinguishable cries and groans, whether of pain or pleasure I could not easily determine. A ladder was also involved in the proceedings.
I concluded after a few moments that their entanglement was neither hostile nor amorous, but of an involuntary nature on both sides, the result, very possibly, of an accidental collision between the older man and the ladder at a moment when the younger was standing, perhaps imperfectly balanced, on one of its upper rungs.
“Sir Robert — Sir Robert, are you all right?”
Selena's voice, as she ran forward to assist the older man to his feet, conveyed a tactful mixture of deference, apology and concern — it seemed likely that he was one of her clients. If so, this was not the moment to lay claim to her attention: I withdrew, thinking that a pleasant half hour or so could be spent in visiting Julia Larwood in the Revenue chambers next door.
At 63 New Square I found Julia sitting at her desk, surrounded by papers, tax encyclopedias, half-empty coffee cups, and overflowing ashtrays, more than ever resembling in appearance some particularly dishevelled heroine of Greek tragedy. I concluded that she was working on a matter of some importance.
“Yes,” said Julia, waving hospitably towards an armchair. “Yes, I am. I'm writing a letter to my aunt Regina. She is in urgent need of my advice.” She spoke a trifle defensively, no doubt aware that I would find the claim improbable.
Julia's aunt Regina, having spent several periods of her life in more distant parts of the world, had now chosen, as I recalled, to settle in Parsons Haver in West Sussex — a charming village on the banks of the Arun or the Adur, I forget which, of the kind that Londoners are usually thinking of when they dream of the pleasures of rusticity. Having at one time in the Middle Ages flourished as a seaport, it has long since been deprived by the changing coastline of any commercial importance; but its cobbled streets, its knapped flint cottages and its fine Norman church continue to attract the discerning tourist and those in quest of an idyllic retirement.
Regina Sheldon herself, whom I had once or twice had the pleasure of meeting, had also struck me as having something about her appearance which savoured of the mediaeval. As a girl, I suppose, she would rather have put one in mind of a good-looking pageboy at the court of one of the Plantagenets; now, though her figure was no longer boyish and the dark auburn of her hair must have owed less to nature than to her hairdresser, one could still imagine her as the same pageboy, grown up to be an ambassador or a rather worldly cardinal. Having married four husbands and brought up two sons, she professed to have retired from matrimony: the chief outlet for her talents and formidable energies was a small antique shop, adjoining the discreetly modernised cottage in which she lived.
There were few areas in which I could imagine her requiring the benefit of Julia's wisdom and experience.
“She has a tax problem,” said Julia. “If you'd like to read about it, while I finish writing this—”
She offered for my perusal a letter running to several pages, written in distinctively elegant but perfectly legible manuscript.
24 High Street
Monday, 14th June
Now do please read this properly as soon as you open it, instead of putting it somewhere safe and forgetting about it. There's something I need your advice on — I think it's the kind of thing you're supposed to know about — and it's much too complicated to explain by telephone.
It all started in February last year, when Maurice and Griselda and I were sitting in the Newt and Ninepence. And don't be tiresome, Julia, you know perfectly well who Maurice and Griselda are, or if you don't it's quite disgraceful of you.
Maurice Dulcimer is the vicar at St. Ethel's. Well, in a manner of speaking — the Church Commissioners decided that St. Ethel's was too small to have a full-time vicar to itself, so he's been rationalised into an assistant curate — but they let him go on living at the Vicarage and everyone still calls him “Vicar.” I always invite him to dinner when you're down here and you usually seem to amuse each other.
And you certainly ought to remember Griselda — Griselda Carstairs, my neighbour, who does people's gardens and has cats. The first time you met her she was weeding my rose bed and you spent ten minutes flirting with her before you realised she was a woman, not a young man. And I do think, Julia, though of course I wouldn't like you to be the sort of girl who's obsessed with sex, that you ought to be able by now to tell the difference. Just because Griselda has short hair and was wearing trousers—
Well, as I say, there we were in the Newt, as we usually are on a Saturday morning, helping each other to finish our crosswords and talking of this and that. And it turned out that we were all a little bit richer than usual, to the tune of four or five hundred pounds each. Maurice had written an article on Virgil for one of the up-market papers, and been quite well paid for it. Griselda had been left a small legacy by someone whose garden she used to look after. And a charming American tourist had walked into my antique shop and bought some things I'd quite despaired of selling.
So we had an extra round of drinks to celebrate and talked about how to spend the money. By and by, though, we began to realise that it wasn't actually quite enough. Not enough, I mean, to do anything exciting with. When Maurice and I were your age, five hundred pounds was a very large sum of money — it could almost have changed one's life. And even when Griselda was your age, which isn't nearly so long ago, it would still have been pretty substantial. But nowadays — and yet it seemed a shame just to put it in the bank, and let it trickle away in everyday expenses.
“It would be awfully nice,” said Griselda, “if it were about twice as much.” Which summed up our feelings in a nutshell.
Maurice thought we might put it on deposit, and leave the interest to accumulate for a while. We were working out how long it would take for us to double our money in that way, and getting a bit depressed about the answer, when Ricky Farnham came in.
Do you remember Ricky? Square shouldered and brick coloured, with a handlebar moustache to show he was once in the RAF, and a rather lively taste in ties? He came to dinner once when you were down here, and took a great fancy to you — I think not reciprocated. Not your type at all, poor Ricky, even if he weren't thirty years too old — you like them willowy, don't you, and he definitely isn't that. (I dare say Maurice would have been your type when he was younger — he must have been very willowy.) Still, Ricky's not a bad chap, as long as one's firm with him. I'm quite fond of him really, though over the past few months—
But that's neither here nor there. The point is that until he retired he'd spent most of his life looking after pension funds and investment trusts and things like that, so he seemed like the very man to advise us about our problem. He wasn't at all keen on the deposit idea.
“Booze,” he said, “I can understand. Expensive restaurants I can understand. Fast women and slow horses, God knows I can understand. But throwing your money away on bankers — that's what I call sheer senseless waste.”
What we wanted, said Ricky, was equities, by which he seemed to mean shares in companies. And as what we were talking about wasn't our life savings, but a little windfall that wouldn't do us any good anyway unless we could make it grow a bit, not shares in the big companies that everyone's heard of, but in what he called “double or quits” companies. By which he seemed to mean that they either do very well very soon or go bust. And he happened to have just heard of one which might be the very thing for us.
It was pure chance that I was the one who actually bought the shares. Ricky had told us, you see, that one of the disadvantages of investing small sums was the high cost of dealing, so we'd decided to pool our resources and invest all the money as a lump sum. And as I had some banking business to deal with anyway on Monday morning, I said I'd arrange about the shares at the same time.
We looked in the paper every morning to see how they were doing, and for a week or two nothing happened at all. Then suddenly the price began to go up quite quickly — something to do with a takeover, I think. When they were worth nearly twice what we'd paid for them, Ricky said it was time to sell, but if we wanted to reinvest the proceeds he knew of another company which looked rather promising. So we did, and more or less the same thing happened — the second company didn't do quite as well as the first, but well enough to encourage us to go on investing.
After we'd reinvested three or four times, Maurice began to have scruples — I suppose it comes of being a clergyman. Giving all those sermons about not laying up treasure on earth is bound to have an effect on one, isn't it? He seemed to feel the whole thing was becoming too important to him, and distracting his mind from higher things.
“When I find I'm reading the financial page before I've even looked at the crossword,” he said, “I think it's time to stop.”
Griselda and I didn't feel quite the same about it. I paid Maurice his share of the money, and reinvested ours in a company called Giddly Gadgets, which was Ricky's latest tip. It didn't do nearly as well as the others, though, and we hardly made any profit at all. We began to wonder whether it might be some kind of warning that we were being too greedy, or a sign that Ricky was losing his touch, and we were still trying to make our minds up what to do when I found out that Ricky —
But that, as I say, is neither here nor there. The point is that we decided to stop. We just took the money and — well, spent it.
Maurice had already spent his. He has a weakness for old books and manuscripts, and he'd gone up to London for the day and fallen into temptation. An illuminated frontispiece for a copy of some poems of Virgil — Venetian, fifteenth or sixteenth century, illustrating a scene he says is from one of the Eclogues — it really is quite lovely. (He's longing to show it to you, by the way — he says it's just your sort of thing.) But then he had a bad conscience about spending so much on purely personal pleasure and made a large donation to the fund for maintaining St. Ethel's. And then he realised that St. Ethel's also gives him personal pleasure, so he gave the rest to a charity for the homeless — poor Maurice!
Griselda spent most of hers on a rather splendid greenhouse and new baskets for the cats, and I had new central heating put in. After that, and a few presents and celebrations, I had just enough left to go to Paris and stay with your aunt Ariadne for a week — which, as you know, is about as long as we can spend together before we quarrel about politics.
And if that were the end of the story it would be an extremely satisfactory one from everyone's point of view. But it isn't.
I had a wonderful time in Paris, eating and drinking too much and seeing old friends from art school, and came back feeling ready for anything. I thought that I ought to make the most of it, so I sat down straightaway and did my accounts, so that I could put in my tax return. (No, Julia, it would not be better if I had a professional accountant — the accounts of the antique shop are childishly simple, and I'm damned if I'm going to pay someone to do something I can do perfectly well myself.)
When I'd finished, I took the accounts along to the income tax people in Worthing — it's always better to do it in person, so that one can explain anything they don't quite understand — and just to be helpful I took my bank statements as well. I handed everything over to a young man in horn-rimmed glasses, who seemed at first to be perfectly sensible and obliging, and he noticed an entry in my statement arising from one of the share sales. And when I explained what it was, he asked me to send him a list of all the shares I'd bought and sold during the past year. Which I did, that same afternoon.
And now he wants three thousand pounds.
When I first got his letter I thought it was just a mistake. I rang up and explained to him that shares are capital, not income, and I shouldn't have to pay income tax on them. But he said it made no difference, and he was very sorry if it came as a shock to me.
It's all very well for him to say he's sorry — which I don't believe he is at all — where does he think I'm going to get three thousand pounds from?
Well, I know, of course, that when I tell Maurice and Griselda they'll raise their share of it somehow, and so shall I. But we're all going to find it a bit difficult — it's twice as much as we had in the first place, and, as I say, we've spent all the money, mostly on things we can't get it back for. I dare say Maurice could sell the Virgil frontispiece, but I think it would break his heart.
So before I spread alarm and despondency, I'd very much like to know whether you agree with me, or with the beastly young man in horn-rimmed glasses. I enclose a copy of the list I sent him and of his beastly letter. I'm almost bound to see Maurice and Griselda in the Newt on Saturday, so I'd be most grateful if you could let me know by then what you think.
Excerpted from The Sibyl in Her Grave by Sarah Caudwell. Copyright © 2000 by Sarah Caudwell. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.