19 November 2018

Joseph and Charlie were formally introduced to each other on the island of Mykonos, on a beach with two tavernas, at a late luncheon in the second half of August, just around the time when the Greek sun hits its fiercest heat. Or, in terms of the larger history, four weeks after Israeli jets bombed the crowded Palestinian quarter of Beirut, in what was afterwards declared to be an effort to destroy the leadership, though there were no leaders among the several hundred dead – unless of course they were the leaders of tomorrow, for many were children.

 ‘Charlie, say hullo to Joseph,’ said somebody excitedly, and it was done. Yet both behaved as if the meeting had scarcely taken place: she by pulling her revolutionist’s frown and holding out her hand for an English schoolgirl’s handshake of quite vicious respectability; and he by casting her a glance of calm and tolerant appraisal, strangely without ambition.

‘Well, Charlie, yes, hullo,’ he agreed, and smiled no more than was necessary to be polite. So it was actually he, not Charlie, who said hullo. She noticed he had the military mannerism of pursing his lips just before he spoke. His voice, which was foreign and held under close arrest, had a daunting mildness – she was more aware of what was held back than what was given. His behaviour towards her was thus the obverse of aggression.

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Her name was actually Charmian but she was known to everyone as ‘Charlie’, and often as ‘Charlie the Red’ in deference to the colour of her hair and to her somewhat crazy radical stances, which were her way of caring for the world and coming to grips with its injustices. She was the outsider of a rackety troupe of young British acting people who slept in a tumbledown farmhouse half a mile inland and descended to the shore in a shaggy, close-knit family that never broke up. How they had come by the farmhouse in the first place – how they had come to be on the island at all – was a miracle to all of them, though as actors they derived no surprise from miracles. Their benefactor was a wealthy City company that had recently taken to playing angel to the itinerant stage. Their tour of the provinces over, the troupe’s half-dozen cadre members were astonished to find themselves treated to rest and recreation at the company’s expense. A charter whisked them there, the farmhouse stood welcoming, and spending-money was assured by a modest extension of their terms of salary. It was too kind, too generous, too sudden, too long ago. Only a bunch of Fascist swine, they had joyously agreed when they received their invitations, could have behaved with such disarming philanthropy. After which they had forgotten how they came to be there, until one or another would sleepily raise his glass and mutter the company’s name in a querulous, half-hearted toast.
 

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'You wait till my revolution dawns,’ she’d warn them, in a drowsy voice. ‘I’ll have the whole bunch of you babies out there tilling turnips before breakfast.'


Charlie was not the prettiest of the girls, by any means, though her sexuality shone through, as did her incurable goodwill, which was never quite concealed by her posturing. Lucy, though stupid, was gorgeous, whereas by accepted standards Charlie was rather plain: moche, with a long strong nose and prematurely shadowed face that was one minute childish and the next so old and mournful you feared for her experience of life this far, and wondered what more was to become of her. Sometimes she was their foundling, sometimes their mother, the one who counted the money and knew where the anti-sting was, and the sticking- plaster for cut feet. In that role, as in all her others, she was their largest-hearted and their most capable. And now and then she was their conscience, bawling them out for some real or imagined crime of chauvinism, sexism, or Western apathy. Her right to do this was vested in her by her class, for Charlie was their bit of quality, as they liked to say: privately educated and the daughter of a stockbroker, even if – as she never tired of telling them – the poor man had ended his days behind bars for defrauding clients. But class will out, whatever.

 
 
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And finally, she was their undisputed leading lady. When evening came, and the family took to acting little dramas to each other in their straw hats and flowing beach gowns, it was Charlie, when she cared to take part, who was the best at it. If they decided to sing to each other, it was Charlie who played her guitar a little too well for their voices; Charlie who knew the protest folk songs, and sang them in an angry, mannish style. At other times they would lounge together in sullen council, smoking marihuana and drinking retsina at thirty drachmas a half-litre. All but Charlie, who would lie apart from them like someone who had smoked and drunk all she needed long ago. ‘You wait till my revolution dawns,’ she’d warn them, in a drowsy voice. ‘I’ll have the whole bunch of you babies out there tilling turnips before breakfast.’ At this, they would pretend to take fright: where will it start, Chas? Where will the first head roll? ‘In bloody Rickmansworth,’ she’d reply, harking on her storm-tossed suburban childhood. ‘We’re going to drive all their bloody Jaguars into their bloody swimming pools.’ And they would let out wails of fear, even though they knew that Charlie herself had a weakness for fast cars.

Meanwhile they loved her. Indisputably. And Charlie, for all that she denied it, loved them in return.

Whereas Joseph, as they called him, was not part of their family at all. Not even, like Charlie, a splinter group of one. He had a self-sufficiency that to weaker souls was a kind of courage by itself. He was friendless but uncomplaining, the stranger who needed nobody, not even them. Just a towel, a book, a water-bottle, and his own small foxhole in the sand. Charlie alone knew he was a ghost.

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Her first local sighting of him occurred the morning after her big fight with Alastair, which she lost on a straight knockout. There was a central meekness in Charlie somewhere that seemed to attract her fatally to bullies, and her bully of the day was a six-foot drunken Scot known to the family as ‘Long Al’, who menaced a lot, and quoted inaccurately from the anarchist Bakunin. Like Charlie, he was red-headed and fair-skinned, with hard blue eyes. When they rose shining out of the water together, they were like people of a separate race from anyone else around, and their sultry expressions advised you they knew it. When they set off abruptly for the farmhouse, hand in hand, speaking to no one, you felt the urgency of their desire like a pain you had endured but seldom shared. But when they fought – which had happened that previous evening - their rancour cast such a blight over tender souls like Willy and Pauly that they slipped away until the storm was over. And on this occasion so had Charlie: she had crept off to a corner of the loft to nurse her wounds. Waking sharply at six, however, she decided to take herself for a solitary bathe, then walk into town and treat herself to an English-language newspaper and breakfast. It was while she was buying her Herald Tribune that the apparition occurred: a clear case of psychic phenomenon.

He was the man in the red blazer. He was standing right behind her at that moment, choosing himself a paperback, ignoring her. No red blazer this time, but a tee-shirt, shorts, and sandals. Yet the same man without a doubt. The same cropped black hair frosted at the tips and running to a devil’s point at the centre of the forehead; the same brown and courteous stare, respectful of other people’s passions, that had fixed on her like a dark lantern from the front row of the stalls of the Barrie Theatre in Nottingham for half a day: first the matinée, then the evening performance, eyes only for Charlie as they followed every gesture she made. A face that was neither softened nor hardened by time, but was finite as a print. A face that to Charlie’s eye spelt one strong and constant reality, in contrast to an actor’s many masks.

She had been playing Saint Joan, and going nearly mad about the Dauphin, who was miles over the top and upstaging every speech she made. So it was not till the final tableau that she first became aware of him sitting among the schoolchildren at the front of the half-empty auditorium. If the lighting hadn’t been so dim, she probably wouldn’t have spotted him even then, but their lighting rig was stuck in Derby waiting to be sent on, so there was none of the usual glare to swamp her vision. She had taken him at first for a schoolteacher, but when the kids left, he stayed in his seat reading what she took to be the text of the play, or perhaps the Introduction. And when the curtain rose again for the evening show, there he was still, in that same central spot, his placid unresponsive gaze locked on her exactly as before; and when the final curtain fell, she resented it for taking him away from her.

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