"Almost" Part 1: Chapters 1-3
Chapter One During the first months of the Great War, Reginald loved to run to the edge of the white cliffs of Dover and lie panting on the grass, staring out over the English Channel. He loved listening to the rumble of guns and the flashes of light from France, where there were always ashen clouds, even on sunny days. His father Quentin lived in those clouds, and Reginald truly believed he was a species of thunder-god, who strode miles at a step and bit down on white lightning with tobacco teeth. Reginald did not really remember his father being home, home in the way his mother was, sitting and knitting and sighing and, from time to time, wandering with the other mothers, from house to house, with tears in their eyes and handkerchiefs to their faces. Home was a large, rambling house, a very English house, which was cold in the endless rain and spacious and creaky and covered with doilies crocheted by dead grandmothers and walled by pictures of chilly men who never smiled, not from any angle. The cabinets were glassy, glossy, containing plates and cups that were never used. It was a very quiet house. There were servants, but they were all very old, or women. It was a world without men. Reginald hated spending time alone, and so spent a lot of time with his friends. Mostly they fought elaborate wars with sticks and old tennis balls. They aimed and boomed from the corners of their mouths, fell in heaps, dragged each other to safety, healed with a touch and argued over wounds and accuracy. They strove mightily to send their small braveries over the Channel to shore up the resolves of their fathers. When his father left, Reginald was the ‘man of the house,’ and he did press-ups and tried to run without panting, half-expecting to receive a tiny gun and a little helmet and to be sent to France to run with the feet of the giant soldiers...
"Almost" Part 2: Chapters 4-6
Chapter 4 In the confusion and horror of her war years, Ruth found herself unable to educate her children about right and wrong. Every word she imagined speaking seemed hollow in her own ears. The evil of the Great War, the ghastly effect it had had on her own family, own marriage, own soul – lent scant weight to the little ethics, from which grow the great ones. Ruth did not greatly care if Tom lied, or stole, or ate too much, and so his education was left to Reginald. But children can never really teach other children about right and wrong. The only lesson children can inflict on each other is conformity, and this was about as far as Reginald got before Tom abruptly wrenched the rudder from his hand. At first, Tom was so naturally compliant that sometimes, when he stood in front of wallpaper, Ruth half-expected him to assume its colour and texture. He was very different from Reginald, who was rarely compliant, rarely rebellious, and fundamentally quite cold. Through the haze of her loss, Ruth still strove to understand her eldest son. Reginald’s coldness was hard to penetrate. He was often attentive, high-spirited, and could be very funny, but he had all the spontaneity of a statue. He gave dry kisses and distant hugs; his eyes never shone, and his cheeks rarely flared red or white. He has an old soul, thought his mother – and if he did, it had a lot to do with her, who was from the old world, and was full of old corpses too long unburied. Ruth’s general exhaustion (or, as Quentin put it, her ‘lack of resources’) was not helped by the fact that she had given birth to one morning child and one night child. Reginald got up early, and would sometimes drag Tom out of bed in the half-dark of dawn to play with soldiers or read comics or build a Sopwith Camel biplane out of balsa wood and black thread. Tom enjoyed all these things (especially building aeroplanes), but did not like to get up until the third call for breakfast. Almost like a photograph, Tom developed in the dark. Unless he was extraordinarily tired, he could never fall asleep before one or two o’clock in the morning (and if he did get to sleep early, his rest would be broken by endless bouts of waking, so that it seemed that night had been little more than a passage of dark, jumpy dizziness). Being a prisoner of the general cult of morning people, he was not allowed light at night and so he developed excellent night vision, and good games of semi-darkness. One of these was ‘arctic explorers.’ In the blue moonlight of his window, his sheets looked like vast fields of ice; his pillow, properly plumped, was a glacier or ice mountain. His blanket, a dark frigid sea. His toy soldiers? Intrepid Arctic explorers, or secret Swedish commandos. Their goal? An ancient weapon locked in the depths of ice, which would end the war and bring ’em all home. Tom’s imagination was detailed to the point of near-gruesomeness. A fair number of his toy soldiers lacked hands, arms or legs, which was because the intrepid Arctic explorers had a habit of getting snowed in (a white gym sock, laid across their sleeping forms) and ended up eyeing each others’ frozen extremities with narrowed and hungry eyes. One had even eaten himself, and was just a head.
"Almost" Part 3: Chapters 7-9
Chapter Seven Reginald had all the attributes of a successful school boy, highly respected prefect, and future scion of the intellectual empire of the West. He had almost no inner life, and so no hesitations, no conflicts, no doubts. Everything was unconscious, everything assumed; he had all the fate of defenses disguised as instincts. Tom, on the other hand, was quite often wracked with doubt. His relationship to rules, for instance – unlike Reginald’s – was complex. One day, at boarding school, Tom vaulted the iron fence over to the sanatorium to retrieve an errant soccer ball, and on return had been met by a grim-faced group of prefects. His brother lurked in the background. “Attaboy, Tom,” said Edward the Head Prefect, a fresh-faced boy of glassy, soulless perfection. “Not many new boys have the guts for that kind of move.” “Um – thanks,” said Tom, rolling the ball in his grimy hands. “Against the rules, of course, so you’ll have to take your licks, but we can all admire a renegade. Cheers.” Tom took a step backwards. “Well, I shan’t do it again.” “I am quite convinced of that,” smiled Edward. “That is what we prefects are all about. It’s why we patrol. To ensure that no-one does anything wrong twice.” “The Empire is built on daring and obedience, Tom,” added Reginald. “You have the first. Now, you must learn the second.” “Come on then,” said Edward, leaning forward and pinching Tom’s earlobe painfully. They surrounded Tom and marched him up to the Headmaster’s office, and he had to wait outside while they made their report. After a few minutes, Tom was called in. The Headmaster was a deity of the Old Empire, with a pale face, jug ears, a high, broad forehead and delicately thinning, colourless hair. “Sit down, Tom,” said the Headmaster. The prefects left the office; as he passed, Reginald pinched the flesh on Tom’s hip savagely, almost making him cry out. Tom said nothing, though. He knew the rules; it was only honourable to squeal down the chain of command. “So, Tom, you took it upon yourself to retrieve this football – which I would, actually, appreciate you leaving in the hallway.” Tom got up, put the football outside, came back, and sat down again. The Headmaster stared at him blankly for a moment, then said: “This is your first transgression, so we shall have to have a little chat about it. Is it my understanding that you in fact know that it was against school rules to go over the sanatorium fence?” Tom tried to speak, then swallowed and tried again. “Yes, sir, I did.” The Headmaster leaned forward. He seemed very tired, which in Tom’s short experience always was the first sign of impending violence from authority.
"Almost" Part 4: Chapters 10-13
Chapter Ten Quentin enjoyed taking Reginald to his study for an after-dinner drink. Tom was sometimes invited, but knew from experience that he would not be drawn into the conversation. The last one he had attended was in 1925, when Reginald was 17, and Tom 15. “So, my boy,” said Quentin, pouring a large cognac for himself, a small one for Reginald, and a glass of water for Tom. “Do you know that today, a great treaty was signed between England, France, Italy and Germany, at Locarno.” “Someone said something,” said Reginald, reaching for the glass. He quickly sunk into ‘his’ armchair, the possession of which had been the subject of pitched battles between himself and Tom in their early years, until Tom had realized that he was fighting against Reginald, rather than for the chair, and gave it up, enduring Reginald’s constant smirks of triumph whenever he got the chair without complaint – even now, six years after the end of the conflict. “This is very good news,” said Quentin, “and I wonder if you can tell me why.” “Well,” said Reginald, swirling his glass under his nose. “It means that Germany isn’t being just treated as a conquered nation any more.” “Yes, very good. It will pave the way for her entrance into the League of Nations, mark my words. And it means that England, France and Italy, rather than just seeing themselves as the winners of the Great War, are now prepared to guarantee the borders of France and Belgium with Germany. And the Allies are removing the military Control Commission and the last of the occupation troops from German soil. That will go a long way towards restoring Germany’s faith in herself.” “Why Belgium?” asked Reginald. “Sorry?” “Why does the Treaty of Locarno guarantee the borders of Belgium, when she’s not even a signatory?” “Well, glance at the globe, and tell me.” Reginald leaned forward, twirling the globe at his feet, tracing his fingers over the borders of France. “Because – because the French share a border with Belgium?” “Yes, but why else?” Reginald sniffed. “Don’t know.” Quentin grinned, leaning forward. “Think defense.” “Hm.” “Think Maginot…” “Oh!” “Yes?” “Well,” said Reginald excitedly, jabbing his finger. “The French are building the Maginot line on their eastern borders, as a defense against the Germans, but not on their northern borders, which they share with Belgium.” “The great fear of the French,” said Quentin, sitting back with a grunt of satisfaction, “is that Germany comes through Belgium in through the north. As in the Great War.” “Oh, so if Belgium is invaded…” “Compromised,” corrected Quentin. “Sorry?” “Say ‘compromised.’ It’s more sophisticated. ‘Invaded’ sounds like you’re still playing with lead soldiers.” Reginald shrugged. “All right, then if Belgium is compromised, then England has to come to the aid of France.” “Which means that Germany will have to think twice about coming at France through the north. So France can focus on its defenses in the East, against Germany itself.”
"Almost" Part 5: Chapters 14-16
Chapter Fourteen Tom and Reginald went to school within two years of each other, and this produced an unexpected Renaissance within the Spencer household. It was not immediate, but it was unmistakable. Two weeks after Tom went away to All Souls, Ruth came down for breakfast. Quentin glanced up from his newspaper, stunned. At first he thought that she might be sleepwalking; it had not happened for – what, eight years? Catherine – at Tom’s request – had been kept on as a cook, and she handled it magnificently. “Good morning, Ruth,” she said with great imperturbability. “Are you hungry?” “I am,” Ruth murmured, touching her throat. “I really am.” “Two eggs,” smiled Quentin. “Eggs sunny side up. One piece of brown toast, unbuttered.” Ruth smiled faintly and sat down. Quentin sat still, afraid to speak, of startling her back upstairs, to her dark nest. They ate in silence. Quentin lowered the newspaper from time to time, just a shade, to watch his wife eat. Her cheeks coloured slightly, and he realized she was aware of his stare, and raised his paper – again, very slowly. She went back to bed after breakfast, but gradually, intermittently, she began to appear more often, like a ghost straining for corporeality. Something was stirring in her heart. Some sort of light was breaking over her exhausted inner armies. Not a healing, not quite, but a sort of armistice. Quentin had not put aside his political aspirations, but they had been delayed. The by-election he hoped to run in had come and gone while he was still paralyzed by his wife’s hostility. She had agreed to refrain from proclaiming her beliefs, but he had had the following conversation with the Conservative party head. “Well,” said Mr. Watkins, who was tall and thin and had a close-cropped sheen of silver hair. “You possess unremarkable credentials, having had no parliamentary experience, no close affiliation with the Conservative party, and scant financial resources. However, these are not utterly insurmountable, insofar as a man with ability, drive and oratorical power can position himself as the outsider who can ride into town and clean things up. But, to pursue the American metaphor, perhaps, beyond good taste, you cannot do this without a credible posse. And my inquiries have led me to the understanding that you are in possession of a rather singular wife.” “I have talked with Ruth,” said Quentin, stressing her name in the hopes of transforming her from crippling hibiscus to fallible human being, “and she fully supports my desire to serve my country.” “No doubt,” said Mr. Watkins dryly. “Yet we have before us several possible candidates, and their wives have performed every kind of social service, from running the Red Cross to sitting on Means Test committees to running political seminars explaining why the League of Nations failed to check Japanese aggression in Manchuria to our understandably-confused constituents. Whether we like it or not, a man is judged by the company he keeps. When offered a candidate with a shut-in wife, voters might legitimately question the man’s ability to keep a steady focus on the job. It is the contention of the Conservative party that the current decade will contain within it grave dangers, and will require a tenaciously steady hand at the tiller. By all appearances – and with all due respect – you are not that man.” It was a kindness to even receive that depth of explanation, Quentin knew, and did not press the issue...