Reflections

Reflections (jpeg)

I love the soft and shifting colours that play on the plaster wall of the church as the sun shifts and flickers through the stained glass.  I like the notion that, just as in Plato’s myth of The Cave, we only ever see a pale and blurred version of reality (whatever that may be), and that as we change position, as the sun and the clouds shift, what we can see reflected on the wall changes also.

And so it seems like a fitting subject for this year’s Christmas card, because Christmas is supposed to be the time of year for reflection. I am told that the pagans believe that at the Winter Solstice the earth and the sun stop moving for an instant at the darkest point in the calendar, and I like that idea also. We all get to stand still for a moment, and for once in the year our perspective doesn’t change. Then the world starts turning again, and off we go on another journey around the sun.

My creative process is pretty straightforward – I sit down with my pal Steve in his lovely studio in Suffolk, and I begin browsing through all the photographs I have taken in the last year (and beyond). I pick a few likely subjects and then my intuition tells me which it is going to be. Then, when the picture in complete, and take it home and sit in front of it and ask myself what needs to be written, and a poem comes.

Here it is.

Reflections

We run, push on, push through.

We grit our teeth, we take the hit.

We knuckle down and chew the bit.

We fight our corner, or give in.

We keep our armour on regardless.

No one penetrates our hardness.

In time, we make our sacrifices;

Time, and place and people fade –

And dims the mystic grand parade,

Whose story set our early star

And pointed to what we could be,

Which now only the others see.

Occasionally it flares before us

Like Christmas lights that dimly pass,

Or in the bottom of a glass.

But when the final quarter’s done,

A line is drawn, the book is closed;

The deal is not what we supposed.

And all that’s left is breath, and love,

And wonderment at what we are,

And trusting that we came this far.

 

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The House in the Woods

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New Hampshire in the Fall. The seasons change, we come and go like falling leaves, and always we must find a place to call home. This was a small segment of hillside one brilliant sunny afternoon in October at Bretton Woods in the White Mountains, when scanning the technicolour patchwork through my telephoto lens I spotted a house tucked away among the maples and evergreens, and it immediately called to me as the theme for this year’s greeting card. It plays to the themes of permanence and change, of wilderness and refuge, of nature and civilisation, and how we move through life negotiating our passage between these things in our own way. The art is to stay in relationship with each, and with each other, and with ourselves.

Falling Leaves

When young we are green,

Bright, pliant and full of sap.

And then the veins begin to show

The fringes turn to brown

And then to black.

We choose a different colour as we age:

Gold, crimson, russet and rich yellow,

While some of us remain dark green and merely shed.

We try to flourish on the branch we chose;

We try to mellow.

Some leaves have fallen: we remember them,

And trust in turn that we shall be remembered:

The way our colours danced along the sun,

The way we rustled in an autumn breeze

In late September.

We are much brighter, gathered

In the silent host along the hill,

Than standing on a solitary mound.

Our different hues present the patchwork tone

That is the heart and soul

Of human ground.

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The Commitment (Part2)

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Son #1 and Son #2

When you have never experienced major surgery, recovery is a journey in itself. It would be easy to dwell on the weeks it took to heal, and the months it took to regain a reasonable amount of fitness, and the realisation that I will probably always now tend to lose resilience suddenly if I overtax myself. The physical legacy of five-and-a-half hours of abdominal surgery carries its own psychological weight, but what was especially interesting was the effect that the experience had on my life generally, and my relations with those around me.

I was committed to returning to work a month after the operation. It was tiring, but I was glad to be doing it because I do really enjoy my work. I nearly added a rider to that last sentence ‘despite all the bullshit that sometimes surrounds it’, but what changed for me was that the bullshit no longer meant very much to me. It was as if I had been released from the burden of always taking people in authority seriously, of always doing my best for them – be they individual clients, organisations, or the managers who give me work.

I came across this cartoon, which says it all:

Single gram of fuck

For the first time in living memory, I was able to say this in a completely relaxed way. It didn’t mean I wasn’t available fully for my clients, or was uninterested in helping them. But nothing I could do would ever hold a candle to what I had just been through, and nothing about work could ever be that serious again. There were going to be days when I set myself to one side, abandoned work and simply gave not a single gram of fuck. And strangely enough, once I had started doing this, I began to put more heart and soul in to my work and my relationships than ever before. Colleagues have noticed how much more empathic and insightful I am when I am relaxed in this way. Less is apparently more, indeed.

In and around the family, interesting things began to happen. One of the first people to visit me the evening after the operation was my ex-wife. She had of course come to see our son, but she stopped by to see me and bring me a large basket of fruit and goodies and to say ‘thank you’. She told me that other members of her family had stepped forward to be next on the list of donors should our son need a second transplant. We have maintained a civil relationship in order to deal with matters affecting our children since our separation and divorce, twelve years ago, but have kept a distance from each other. The gesture touched me.

The photo at the top of the page shows my younger son visiting his older brother a few days after the operation. They are like chalk and cheese, these two, and have had some spectacular fallings-out over the years. But he came, and again the gesture was appreciated. Perhaps they will find their way back to each other as a result.

And the boy himself is doing well. He has to cope with now bi-weekly blood tests, so remains on the alert for a phone call which tells him to report back to the transplant ward in response to indicators of rejection. It has happened a couple of times, and it means a long day of discomfort following a biopsy, but it seems that the medication regime is more of an art than a science and getting that right is what has caused the problems. He managed a 1-mile run eight weeks after the operation and ended up sitting on the pavement gasping, but he’s back at work now and playing touch rugby with his mates. He has his life back.

Life throws stuff at you. Shit happens, as those witty little postcards say. Grace, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is how well you respond.

Now I have no idea where that comes from, whether grace is some innate genetic property or whether we learn it from our elders. My next post in this series will explore the nature vs nurture argument through the lens of a man who had a profound influence on me as both a child and an adult.

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The Commitment (Part 1)

The Scottish mountaineer of the 1930’s WH Murray related how one day when he was high up in the Cairngorms preparing for an expedition to the Himalayas, he found himself needing to cross a stream that had come into full spate. Approaching nightfall, it was raining heavily and the temperature was falling rapidly

He decided that he could probably jump the stream if he was not carrying his weighty rucksack, and so he took it off and heaved it over the stream. As it landed on the far bank, he realised the nature of the commitment he had just made. If he now chose not to jump, then he would spend a cold and uncomfortable night in the freezing rain without his tent or sleeping bag. He was now truly committed to jumping. He also realised that the episode had taught him much about his commitment to mountaineering and the risky expedition upon which he was about to embark. Later, about to embark for India, he described it thus:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”

I came face to face with the nature of commitment at 8am on the 17th of February this year, as I was prepped in a reception ward at Addenbrookes Hospital for major surgery. I was about to donate a kidney for my son, Sam, who had been diagnosed with kidney disease three years earlier and was now at the point of needing dialysis. A new kidney would give him the chance of 10-20 years of normal life if all went well, instead of being tied to a dialysis machine three or four times a week.

There had been scans and tests and together we had discussed the operation with consultants and counsellors. I had lost 14 kilos in body weight in the 18 months leading up the operation, and was as fit as I had ever been. And yet in that sparse green-and-grey prep room, sitting alone on the bed waiting for the surgeon to visit me, I suddenly realised the true nature of the commitment I was making.

I realised that within the next hour I would be put to sleep and that I might not wake up. The chances of that happening were slim, but identifiable. It was a five-and-a-half-hour operation of abdominal surgery under deep anaesthetic. It was also an entirely voluntary procedure. I didn’t have to do it, and no physical harm would come to me if I got up and walked out of the hospital there and then.

And so, as I sat there in my draughty hospital gown With the grey early morning light falling like lead over the concrete superstructure of the hospital buildings, a question came to me. Was I content not to wake up? If something went wrong and I died, would the life I had led have been enough? Could I allow the possibility of it ending there and then? And If I did walk away, could I live with the consequences of that?

I let the question sit under my heart for a few moments until I found the answer – it was enough, and I would rather not live than evade the risk. I felt calm and clear, and not a bit afraid.

A few moments later the door opened and a man in green scrubs entered. He sat down opposite me and introduced himself as the surgeon in charge of my operation. He wanted to know if I had any questions about the procedure, and that I was happy to go ahead. I realised that there was only one thing I wanted to know – that I could trust him. I looked into his eyes and told him, and the way he looked back at me gave me my answer. We smiled and shook hands, and then he left.

The fact that you are reading this tells you one thing: I did wake up. What happened next, what I discovered about myself and the journey this experience sent me on will be revealed in Part 2.

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Season’s Greetings

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vado

 

 

 

 

 

This is Vado, a small fishing village in the Arctic Circle on the far North-East coast of Norway. It inspired this year’s poem:

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Far North

This is the long night,

The sea ice slipping and feinting

Over the tenuous swell of iron-grey water,

And everything silent in the stone-hard cold.

We should remember

That no-one lives alone

In a place like this.

In the feathery golden days of summer

We can please ourselves,

Life one great carousel that whirls and sings

While we fill up the glasses.

The Far North recollects us:

The fish don’t catch themselves,

And it takes more than one to haul the net.

Where on earth, in such a place,

Would we ever be

Without each other?

 

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Lois & Howie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lois & Howie

 

My old and dear friend Lois celebrated her marriage to Howie on Thursday with her friends and family at Glemham Hall in Suffolk. I felt especially privileged at they had asked me to write a poem celebrating the event. If this isn’t scary enough, Lois wrote (she and Howie live in New Hampshire) that she trusted me enough not to want to see the poem before I read it at the ceremony.

No pressure there, then!

I finished writing it on board a cruise ship the week before. Now, a cruise isn’t the holiday I would routinely choose for myself, but the gift in this particular adventure was the number of delightful elderly couples that we met on board MS Minerva. It set me thinking about how hard it is to build a new long-term relationship in middle age and beyond, when we have decided for ourselves what fits us and are generally much less willing to sacrifice our well-worn comforts for something new.

And so I wrote this. Lois and Howie loved it, and I loved reading it for them, because as you can see in the picture, they really have found something special in each other.

 

When people find each other in middle age

A miracle occurs;

For often they have given up in rage

At life’s vicissitudes,

And retreating into silence then,

Lead lives of solitude

And quiet despair.

 

The key that will unlock one’s heart

Is lost or rusted,

A broken, shrunken part

That seems too hard to mend.

Happiness folds into acceptance;

A letter that we now will never send,

A silent dare.

 

To see the spark, to step across the border

To risk one’s sense of self

Requiring courage of a different order;

Requiring faith,

Learning to step in time again,

Learning how to keep for each the sacred heart that is

The silent dove.

 

Lois and Howie, we see how far you’ve come:

This is your time,

This is your coming home.

We wish the road shall always rise to meet you;

We wish you happiness unbound;

May happy hearts be always there to greet you,

Go with our love.

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Its alright MA (I’m Only Bleeding)

Big surf

It has been over six months since I last posted. Half a year. A lot has happened – ‘real life as broad as it is long’ to quote Sophie Hannah – and only now do I feel ready to start writing again.

I chose this photograph ‘Big Surf’ – taken off the coast of Spain, because it has felt a bit like this. Sometimes I have felt like the guy on the board, sometimes like the people standing watching the immense wave advance.

‘You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf’ is how the saying goes, and I have been learning how to surf some of life’s biggest waves.

To summarise: in January I learned that my ailing dad’s illness was, in fact, a terminal cancer; my mother received a preliminary diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s. The anxiety of my father’s illness made her short-term memory problem worse; her irrational behaviour aggravated my dad’s anger and resentment at his own condition. Helping them through it became a nightmare. He died in April, and now with my brother and sister I am trying to help my mother come to terms with the loss of a 64-year relationship.

One month after my dad died, my father-in-law died, quite suddenly but peacefully. His health had been slowly deteriorating, but his death was unexpected when it came.

One month after that, my son’s kidney disease was found to have deteriorated to the point where he is likely to need a transplant in order to avoid dialysis within the next six months. After weeks of screening, it emerges that I am the only willing and compatible donor, and so I am preparing myself for this significant event. My son and I are scared, but I have learned to try and use fear as a tool to focus me on the risks and use my intuition. Another wave.

There is much more that could have been (and may yet be) written about this, but it hasn’t felt right to share any of it until now. And that’s a strange thing to say when you think of yourself as a writer, and so I thought it was worth exploring in itself.

I am grateful to the late, great Harry Wilmer – a Jungian therapist of great humanity and wisdom – for an insight which may explain my position. In his book ‘Quest for Silence’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Quest-for-Silence-ebook/dp/B007HAU97A/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375367701&sr=8-1&keywords=wilmer+silence&tag=6519986691-21) Wilmer writes about the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter ‘s study of the Japanese concept of ‘MA’:

“The key to Japanese culture lies in the asymmetrical intervals: spacing, rhythms of writing, designing, music, dancing, the arts. Above all, it lies in the ability to see and feel space. The MA perceived as an area of change  – of hues, brightness, shape – becomes symbolized in all sorts of gestures, idioms etc…and comes to be symbolized in the area of freedom. Practically every aspect of Japanese life asserts the integrity of the interval perceived as meaningful pauses…In contrast, practically every aspect of Western life asserts the exclusive integrity of things, objects, masses. Spaces between objects aren’t perceived as integers at all.”

Carpenter is another one of my heroes. His book ‘Oh What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me’ was an real eye-opener when I encountered it in my second year at university. It taught me to think twice before judging other cultures. What Wilmer and Carpenter are saying is that spaces and intervals are not valued, and that attempts to define them (in order to ascribe value) render them meaningless. The point about spaces is that they are spaces, and essentially unknowable except to those experiencing them.

And so I instinctively chose to enter MA, intuiting that I was in a liminal transitional space, a rite of passage which required my undivided attention, and which could not benefit from any attempt to define or bound it through a definitive writing process. It’s funny, but when I first came across Harry Wilmer I intuitively knew that this man had something important to say to me. Several years later, I realise the gift that he gave me. In the land of adventure, nothing happens by accident.

This is a rich place, full of joy and sadness. It is a challenge to stay connected with those you love when your world is rocked thus, when the tsunami appears to be about to overwhelm you. Everything is uncertain: relationships – with people, work, life, self – all need to be renegotiated.

It takes courage to walk with your board towards the water.

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Moon Rise Over Half Dome

It is my tradition to paint a Christmas card each year, and to write a poem to accompany it. Here is this year’s.

Wherever you are, whatever you do, have a good one. After all, the world didn’t end, did it?

Moonrise over Half Dome

Moon Rise over Half Dome

Trinity

The planets swing along
their intimate and invisible orrery
and reveal themselves to us
in relationship:
the Earth we stand upon,
the moon that shadows us,
illuminated by the hidden sun.
It is enough to take the breath
and sink in wonder. This is how relationship works:
orbits and gravitational pull,
twisting in reflected light,
the mutual donation of love, friendship and understanding
that unfolds our better selves
and transforms the possible.

Both poem and painting were inspired by Ansel Adams, during a visit to Yosemite in January. We actually witnessed the moon rising during sunset over Half Dome, a rare event made rarer by the fact that we were able to reach the vantage spot at Glacier Point, normally closed in winter but open this year for the first time in decades.

Adams wrote this about love, friendship and art. A remarkable man, a wonderful artist and a man I would have cherished as a friend.

“Art is both love and friendship, and understanding – the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is a re-creation on another plane of the realities of the world, the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the interrelations of these.”

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End Game

They were white, hard little ovoids and they skittered over the table top when he poured them out of the bottle. Two or three fell onto the carpet and he stooped to pick them up, gathered them all together with the crook of his hand into a small pile, and counted them. There were probably enough.

The room was warm. The windows were closed and the heating had been on all day. The air was still and heavy. Outside, the street lamps had just come on, casting a baleful orange in the gathering dusk. It was starting to rain, and he could hear the occasional wet hiss of car tires on the street.

He was trying to remember everything, trying to put every episode in its right chronological order, but the memories were crowding around him, shouting for attention and causing his mind to jump about and lose the thread. Part of him knew that this was because of his anxiety, but another part wanted so much to have everything complete, tidied and tucked away.

There was a photograph on the bedside table. It was black and white, about three inches by two, a tear on one edge and creases in the glossy surface of the print. Three figures stood in army uniforms outside a Nissan hut. The taller man had his officer’s cap at a jaunty angle, his long square face grinning broadly, his elbow resting on the shoulder of the man next to him. The second man was smaller, with dark wavy hair, and was laughing at the camera. And he recognised himself as the third man, tall also but slightly stooped, smiling but with hooded eyes that looked away to one side.

He looked at the hand that shielded the pills. It was shaking slightly, liver spotted and creased. He picked up the bottle and unscrewed the cap, and poured a large measure into the glass tumbler. They only left you plastic glasses in hotel bathrooms these days, so he had wandered down to the breakfast room and filched a glass tumbler from one of the place settings. If you are going to drink a decent whiskey, you had to have a proper glass, he thought. It reminded him of his service days in Basra, just after the war, when the only glasses they had in the mess were dimple pints, but no beer or mixers, and so everyone drank dimples of neat gin from these huge glasses. He smiled.

He looked at the photograph again. He supposed it had started around then, just before they all went off for officer training. Penny was just about to go off to nursing college and on an impulse he had asked her to marry him. He was leaving too, and nobody then knew whether the war would last or where they would end up. They had been on a few dates, and she seemed to accept that they had become an item, without ever really agreeing to it. And then his papers came through, and she announced that she was going off at eighteen to do her bit as well, and so he seized the moment.

She said yes, and kissed him full on the lips, and they had danced the night away and then told her family over tea the following Sunday. He was hurt that they didn’t seem to take the news that seriously, except for Eddie, who was livid. He’d warned Peter off, telling him to stay away from his sister, engagement or no, and the eyes beneath the jaunty cap had taken on a flinty toughness that was normally reserved for the rugby field. Peter had tried to laugh it off, and reminded Eddie about the WAAF he had promised himself to in return for unspecified favours, but that had provoked such fury they had nearly come to blows. Gordon had stepped in and settled it with a drink, reminding them that Penny had already turned him down and if anyone deserved their sympathy it was him, but the damage was done. A few months later in a Lyons tea house in London Penny broke off the engagement. There wasn’t anybody else, she said, but they just weren’t right for each other and she felt it was only fair to give him his chance of happiness.

He hadn’t understood then, but he had a better inkling now of why she’d done it. He had worshipped her, always had from the moment as a seventeen year old he had been introduced to Penny on his first visit to the Old Rectory one summer’s day in 1942. She was barely fifteen, but she enchanted him because she had opinions and wasn’t shy about sharing them. And she grew into sultry dark beauty over the next three years that added a subtle complexity to the charm and certitude that made her, to him, irresistible. She was different, and she kept him at a distance even after they became engaged. He saw now that his infatuation was what had put her off, and that it must have seemed unnatural, if flattering, and so she got away as soon as she could and broke off the engagement.

He took a large sip of whiskey – an island malt, his favourite, peppery with the slight smokiness that reminded him of an unstruck match. Another moment came to mind. He took another sip. It was the 1970’s, and he was driving around Wheathampstead looking for an address. He and Sally had just separated, he had been forced to give up the hotel and he was working in a pub near St Albans.  He had received a letter from Gordon in Singapore, which had said that Penny was going to be visiting England that summer, and further enquiries had narrowed the dates down so that he knew she would be staying with Eddie that week.

He hadn’t seen Eddie for years. They had gone their own ways after the war, Gordon travelling the world for an oil company, ending up in Singapore with a family. Eddie had married too, not happy and always restless so the grapevine said, but he’d raised a family and was living comfortably, commercial director with a large building firm. Sally had tried to make him happy, he realised now, but he had refused the invitation. Inside there was always a coldness, and she had recognised it and thought that perhaps children would warm him up, but they never did. He had been a dutiful father, but always withdrawn behind the invisible barrier he had built around himself. He had tried to keep busy – a restaurant, then a series of pubs, and finally the hotel, long hours and little time for reflection. It hadn’t worked, and by the time he and Sally parted company she had resigned herself to failure, and he had begun to loathe himself.

He remembered the well-ordered verges and the artificial mock-Tudor linearity of the Wheathamstead suburb as he had driven around, until he struck lucky and a young man walking a dog turned out to be Eddie’s younger son, who directed him to the house. Jenny had been there alright, and but Eddie hadn’t wanted to let him into the house. Jenny had argued and won him around, as she always could, but the hour they spent in the G-plan lounge had been a disaster. He was still stuck in his 1942 self, and she had moved on, was happy with her life. When he realised that the look in her eyes was pity, he had left. They hadn’t spoken in the twenty years since.

He scooted the pills around the smooth wooden veneer and took another long sip of whiskey. After six months in a psychiatric ward and another twelve in a halfway house he had managed to lose the loathing, but the tiredness simply would not leave him. The medication just left him feeling numb, less than half a human. He had nothing left to offer the world, or himself. He stretched across the bed and picked up four of the pills and put them in his mouth, and washed them down with a large mouthful of liquor. Then he re-filled the glass. It would be such a relief, he thought, as he reached out again.

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Once Upon A Time – part 3

Someone emailed me to ask if the General in ‘Part 2’ was the same person as the boy in ‘Part 1’. The answer is ‘yes’. And here is Part 3…….

 

The small house was damp and crowded. The various bodies assembled therein gave off the usual mixture of affects: the itchy fug of men who have been in the saddle far too long; a smell of sweat, stale cigar smoke and cheap cologne; the gentle murmur of serge cloth, leather and metal that accompanies every movement. There was a faint and unaccountable whiff of mustard that men came across from time to time, some even pausing to sniff the air surreptitiously.

It was early afternoon, but the room was dimly lit by the intermittent sun, and the crowd of men inside the parlour could barely move without blocking the light. Two were seated at the simple round occasional table in the centre of the room, while the remainder stood back against one wall. The majority were dressed in dark blue, and only two in light grey.

The two men who sat at the table had known each in another war, which now seemed a world away from where they now sat. The man in grey was fifteen years older than The General, who wondered if the distinguished lieutenant colonel of engineers of those days would remember the young captain he had been. Now the older man’s hair was as grey as his uniform, and he had the look of someone made older than his time by life. A man of reserved gesture and speech, his movements nonetheless also betraying the stiff arthritic nature brought about by too many days spent in the field in inclement weather. The General’s beard was close-cropped, and still for the most part retained its natural colour, but his brow was furrowed. He had woken early with a pounding headache that had not shifted despite mustard presses and a long gallop, had not relented until the message arrived that the final business was about to be done. These men were here to end the war, and both knew it would be done that day.

They had shaken hands, and attempted some very brief small talk. Did the older man remember him from their days in Mexico, as he certainly did the other? The reply was courteous, but brief. He had no such recollection, although he did remember the fact of their meeting. If The General took offence, he did not show it. He continued with some memories of the campaign on which they had fought together, as if only too aware of the bristling energy behind him that came from his commanders and aides, at long last confronting their mortal enemy. The older man interrupted, his expression blank except for the obvious pain at the humiliating nature of the situation betrayed in his eyes, determined not to prolongue his own or his peoples’ agony for one moment further.

“I suppose, sir, that the object of our present meeting is fully understood?”

Here was the crux. He knew that The General held all the cards. His army, diminished by disease, starvation, desertion and fighting, had been harried for weeks by the blue hordes. It was barely an army in anything but name, held together by the personal loyalty shown to him and his commanders.He knew they would fight if he asked them to, but he knew also that the remorseless power of the enemy could no longer be effectively resisted. Some of his younger lieutenants had wanted to take to the woods in in small bands to continue the war, but he knew where that would lead – the land would be devastated by the enemy’s marauding cavalry who would hunt down and kill without any particular discrimination, a license for further suffering that his people simply could not stand.

Was it to be an unconditional surrender, his army taken into captivity and possibly never to return home? The hatred on the other side had grown as the war had progressed, had multiplied with every bloody nose and frustrated plan that the stubbornly resistant rebel nation had delivered. The cost had grown too high, it seemed, for gentlemanly agreement, and blood would have to be paid for in blood.

He looked across the table at The General. Sooner or later, he had said two years ago, having just dispatched yet another adversary to shameful retirement, they will find someone who can fight. And here he was, this stubborn bulldog of a man who looked as if he was just about to ram his head through a wall, but with the glint of intelligence in his eyes that made him truly dangerous. The bulldog had gotten his teeth in and had simply refused to let go, confident in his ability to wear the other down and in doing so diminish his opponent’s main advantage, that of  tactical surprise and manoeuverability.

But there was a softness in those eyes as well, and the old man could see it. The others were impossible: gawky mad Sherman – not there that day, but his malign spirit now cast a shadow right across the South – and that obnoxious little spitball Sheridan; pushy Rawlins, the man from nowhere. Hateful, vindictive men who would sooner see him hang as utter a civil word, now standing behind their champion and glaring at him.

The General silently acknowledged the shift in the conversation with a brief nod of the head.

“The terms I propose are those stated substantially in my letter of yesterday…”

The rest of the words were lost. He allowed himself a sigh of relief. There was to be no further humiliation, but an honourable surrender of arms and a parole for every man. He began to think of home, and family, and the quiet repose that a proper bed might bring at last. His army was no more. Pete Longstreet had been right after all. He had claimed to know The General well enough from their service together before the war – they were of an age. “Sam is an honourable man, in his own lights. He knows how this should end,” he had said. He glanced out of the window and saw McLean, the owner of the house, pacing up and down beside the picket fence. Poor man, he had fled with his family from the Manassas battlefield three years before, leaving his farm and livelihood behind, in search of somewhere away from the war. Well, the war has touched us all now, he thought, and will for some time to come.

Had The General the presence of mind to look with his softer eye,  it would have been plain that the only fight left in his adversary was centred on the further avoidance of the agony of shameful surrender. But he too was fixated on his inner state, on his desire to honour the other man’s seniority, his courage and the peculiar integrity that led him to fight simultaneously for two causes, one of which he believed in passionately and they other he did not. This man had fought to the bitter end for an honourable principle that defended the indefensible. He had fought for his homeland because it was his homeland, right or wrong – but what could be more wrong than the practice of shackling men and taking their lives and labour as a chattel. Nevertheless, he would honour that which was honourable, and every thought was directed towards the maintenance of the other’s dignity, and the observance of proper protocol. He was not much of a man for protocol, and conscious that the angels of history were hovering in the room, he wanted to get it right.

“A general suspension of hostilities”, he began, “would be most beneficial in avoiding the further effusion of blood.” There were other armies, hard pressed and desperate no doubt, but still a potential threat. Here was a chance to end it all, here and now, and the enemy would listen to their senior commander.

Invited by he older man to specify his terms, The General did just that. Adopting the posture he used at his camp desk, and taking up pen and paper, within minutes a sheet of tersely worded sentences took shape, clear and unequivocal like the orders his staff were by now used to receive from him. In a final gesture, he stipulated that the officers could keep their sidearms, and the cavalry their horses. For some it would be a long ride home, and The General knew that a horse made all the difference to the viability of a hard scrabble homestead. ‘I served my hard time scraping a living from the land’ he thought. ‘God save them.’

The rest was ritual. The pointless inspection of the surrender document itself, the preparation of copies, the signatures – it took forever while the two men sat stiffly while the clerks and aides conferred in hushed tones, and Sheridan and Rawlins gleamed triumphantly. Finally, when all was done, they shook hands once again, and went their separate ways. The General returned to his field command post  to compose a telegram to his President. “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.”

The old greybeard’s ride was slow and painful, surrounded at every step by anxious soldiers who asked the same question over and over ‘General, are we surrendered?’, in reply to which he could only fight back his tears and nod. If it seemed like the end of a world, it most surely was.

Back at the McLean house, chaos reigned. Souvenir hunters descended on the parlour like furious vultures, stripping everything. The furniture not purloined by senior officers was chopped to pieces and sold in lots. Ten dollars for two brass candlesticks, fifty cents for a strip of carpet. McLean refused the money, and was left surveying the wreckage of a second home. It was an awful portent of the years to come.

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