Nightingale: London 1966
By Ben Aaronovitch
Since the war it had become impossible, during his infrequent visits to London, to persuade Hugh to visit the Folly we naturally gravitated to the Navy and Military. The food was not a patch on Molly’s but like most of the survivors Hugh complained that there were too many ghosts at Russell Square for him to be truly comfortable.
‘I’m surprised that you stay there yourself,’ he’d said on an earlier trip. ‘But then you were always made of sterner stuff than us mere mortals.’
The chaps have always needed to set me on a plinth this way. I can see it in their eyes. If the Nightingale can take it so can I, they say and who am I to disabuse them or tell them of the nights I have spent pleading with the spirits for some peace. If only there were ghosts in truth, after all I had been educated in a dozen different ways to rid myself of those.
I, of course, could not abandon the Folly without first abandoning Molly and that was not something I was prepared to do. This duty had proved a strong enough thread upon which to hang my sanity, that and the stubborn streak I had no doubt inherited from my mother.
Hugh was in fine fettle that afternoon his son had recently taken a position with an old established firm in Hereford.
‘One had feared that he would be drawn to the bright lights of the Metropolis,’ said Hugh. ‘Instead I am graced by his presence most weekends. He’s taken a great interest in the bees of late.’
‘And how are the hives,’ I asked.
‘Thriving naturally,’ said Hugh. ‘I have a talent if I do say so myself.’
I’ve always thought Hugh’s desperate striving for normalcy was undermined by that strange quixotic urges of his. I’ve seen photographs of his ‘tower’ in Herefordshire and his interest in insects predated the war. David used to rag him unmercifully about his frequent field trips abroad.
‘Hugh is our modern Darwin,’ he once said. ‘Only he takes his inspiration from beetles not snails.’
I remember Hugh in those dark forests on the Ettersberg. He’d dropped his staff and picked up a rifle and with every action of the bolt he swore at the German infantry as if they were responsible for the things we’d seen.
We all reached the limitations of our art that night.
‘And speaking of our mighty capital,’ said Hugh over our Castle Puddings. ‘I’ve been hearing the most extraordinary things. The gypsies who came for the harvest this year said that there was a woman who’s claiming to be goddess of the River Thames. A coloured lady no less.’ Hugh grinned and waves his fork as if it was my fault. ‘Is this true? Is it even possible?’
I said that it seemed entirely possible and that I had met the young lady in question and she seemed entirely agreeable if somewhat forceful. Hugh expressed interest in how the Old Man of the River might be taking this new turn of events and I told him with the same indifference he’d shown to events below Teddington Lock these last hundred years or so.
‘I thought the old town felt different,’ said Hugh and a I felt a sudden moment unwarranted alarm.
‘Different in what way?’ I asked.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ said Hugh. ‘A certain frisson, a sense of excitement, youth, energy,’ he trailed off and shrugged.
‘The miniskirts?’ I said because Hugh had always had an eye for the ladies.
‘You don’t feel it then?’
‘I can’t say that I do.’
‘And yet you seem much more cheerful,’ said Hugh. ‘Has something changed?’
‘You remember what David used to say –“ everything is change”?’
‘I remember that you invariably responded with plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,’ said Hugh. ‘Perhaps you were both right.’
After lunch I gave Hugh a lift to Paddington to catch his train. During the drive he suggested that I might trade in my perfectly serviceable Rover P4 for something more modern and went as far as to quote Marcus Aurelius – in the original Greek no less.
Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.
I hardly saw what that had to do with my choice of automobile but once he’d put the idea in my head I began to see the advantages of perhaps acquiring one of the new model Jaguars. At the very least it would impress my colleagues at Scotland Yard.
And perhaps a new suit in the modern style to go with it.