They would dress for dinner if cast adrift in the lifeboats, so still steaming safely to Africa there should have been no excuse. That there was at all was entirely down to my surprising new ally in Henry Lord Rockingham. He says, “Unless black die is tailored it’s worse than...” he makes a pretence of looking for the words before deciding upon, “...You.”
The men are all in dinner jackets, their patent leather shoes shine, and their wives all alike a branch of gaunt birds stare at me either aghast or amused. Now it’s pointed out to me I can see what Henry means. Formal dress looks very smart, it even suits two of them at the table and one of those is in uniform. I smile at that last in neat red and black. What other job lets you marry in your work clothes? The others either saw their tailor in younger years or bought from the peg, and it doesn’t work as well as they believe. I’m in my usual scruffy layers, and not even the scruffy layers of the time; the father’s suit and stud collar, cap and boots. I have the boots but the Dutch don’t even have paratroopers yet.
“Are you a pirate? I would have suggested a brigand,” one game old bird says, “But here we are at sea.”
Henry laughs. “This is Mr. Morgan. He’s a friend of a friend. You must excuse his appearance; he ‘s from the future don’t you know.”
“The Kent Morgans, farmers?” the old bird asks.
“Lambeth mostly, music hall.”
The military gent guffaws, the old bird nods as if time travel is a more preferable explanation. They’re all returning to Africa and being the last of the Empire they’re all proudly dotty. They’re more English than the English but spending their lives far from England they’re both at once set twenty years in its past, and to my ear at least twice that looking to the years ahead. They talk in their own patois; clipped public school that easily includes phrases from both their own Swahili and others that have spread amongst them from across that continent and through India. They don’t have a look at anything, they have a shufti. A funny smell is a funk. They say okay, and it rhymes with rocky. It’s a public school version since for most the schools they boarded at were very much their only experiences of England at all. And they all freely admit they’re dotty. Now and then they slip into Swahili without noticing it at all. Curiously they would all consider it presumptive for an African to speak English and so they all speak a half-dozen languages. I presume it’s Swahili. I speak only a little German and bar-Spanish.
I am seated beside the military gent and opposite the old bird. Henry’s acceptance of me is encompassing. When I admit that I am a writer and an occasional sketcher they all seem much happier. Long hair, dresses like a rogue, needs a shave; all very Bohemian. And as I say they’re all rather dotty too. It’s their nature, their lives, being so very English so very far from home they all go a little strange and are comforted by those that are likewise. It’s not all white mischief with needles and anything-goes, far from it. The military chap, a major by his epaulettes, is a fierce exponent of naturalism. He is very proud of his scratchy little wife whom he introduces with a cannon-flare of a smile, pointing out her fine chest despite her spare frame. “Not dropped more than an inch in ten years,” he tells me, adding that all that attention from the late King (Edward I presume) must have worked some sort of magic. He calls it the ‘royal issue’. He thinks that hilarious and laughs in the manner of a man telling his favourite joke for the hundredth time. His wife laughs gently with him not at all put out.
“From the future?” asks the old bird.
“Oh, you mustn’t pay any attention to Henry,” I say.
She however has, “Do you travel here often?”
I admit that I don’t. It’s not quite as others do. I at times slip into my former lives, usually at some pinch point. I’m about to enter my third cycle as it were, that’s where I’m going to now. Events repeat themselves and whilst I don’t always remember I do recognise certain things. And that in itself is rare enough. It’s far more common for me to slide, which is sidewise. I realise she is only being polite, so stop.
The major noticing a gap in the conversation gallops in. “There’ll be war soon,” he says with a bounder’s-relish.
He snorts at that. “Have you seen the steerage passengers?” I have not of course and say so. He nods, “Italian girls. They’re being sent to Abyssinia to keep their chaps happy. It’s a very unpopular war. They all think it’s a jolly little adventure down there. That won’t last.”
“So is this when you were younger?” the old bird, ignoring the new conversation, persists with the last.
“Hardly, I was born in the 1960s,” although only just.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “There is a me that travels more at will, but even then not much further beyond that point. That me never had to grow up though. It’s all still sixth-form politics and enjoying himself. I can’t fault any of that. I’m lucky in that I don’t dislike how I was, whenever that might have been. Indeed at times I suppose I find myself having to live up to it. I know people that dismiss their past, even sneer at their former selves. Silly really, I was very good at being a young man, somewhat less so at being middle-aged. Where I’m going now I’ve been treading the same circle for ten years and the footprints worn in it are like inverse stepping stones. I’m going to break the loop. Or rather, the loop has been broken.”
She understands politely. “But not for yourself? I know your type, young man. There’re a lot like you, though perhaps not enough. You see yourself as honourable. The ends do not justify the means, there is no greater good? There is however right, and wrong.”
“I had a conversation about that very recently.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. I would suppose it helped.”
It did. I say, “I have a daughter. Or two, rather. But the one needs me. She is... odd, and given she can rarely cope with a change to mealtimes what is coming will break her. Or it would, or will, so she needs me. It is none of my doing, but what comes next will be. A pinch point as it were. But things repeat, there are patterns. I am sorry, this must all seem like very small potatoes. Things are going to get very much worse for you, all of you, here and now. It’s all a matter of perspective.”
The old bird looks at the soup that we have been served. She says, “And being here you have gained that perspective?”
“You should have your hair cut.”
I laugh at that. “Last man standing,” I say.
There is a knock on the door. The hills are dark outside the window. I feel happier than I have done for days. It’s all a matter of perspective and I need reading glasses.