‘Ain’t the war nearly over?’ said Alf Bittersweet.
‘I don’t think they care,’ said Peregrine. He chose for them from his hamper a paper packet of water biscuits, tinned meat and a small round of cheese. These he laid out on the table between them before fetching out a spirit burner and a small nest of pans. With lard from a tobacco tin there was soon the smell of the jellied meat frying to which Peregrine, still speaking as he cooked, added anchovies from a glass jar and a dash of sauce from a bottle whose contents he would only describe as one of his little secrets. Soon and the meat was served on a tin plate for which he apologised to Alf, who accepted the offer gratefully. Peregrine repeated the process once more and when both had eaten the hot he insisted that Alf should start on the cold.
Across the river and from a warehouse flame blew out from the uppermost doors, the derrick set there catching too. The chuck-chuck-chuck of a light machine gun could be heard nearby. A gramophone played something French that Alf did not recognise. Below them in the street a woman wailed. There came a faint bang and the chuck-chuck-chuck stopped.
There came such a detonation then that the wall nearest them shook. A fine silt of new dust drifted down. Peregrine ignored it, his hair now the colour of brick. Only when he picked up a mug did he frown. He looked surprised to see it dirty. He said, ‘Alfred has the wine suffered?’
It seemed not and on being asked Alf opened it to pour a cup for them both. It was he was told a very inferior year, and hardly worth leaving to breath.
‘Those militias that liked the pretence to being soldiers might have pulled back, and from what you say the dashing young things with royalty in their eyes have sailed away in stout galleons. I believe I should join them.’
‘Please, lather me a little. It is quite bad enough that a war poet is expected by fate and audience both to venture into such bloody valleys, without where one brings a little colour having it ruined by stark and crude reportage.’
‘Do they pay you by the word?’
‘I will be surprised if ever they will pay me at all. On the besides of which, money is so vulgar. This is why I insist on being paid in guineas, the principle you understand as I have earlier already found for myself pearls and certain pieces of jewellery. Hidden of course, and not here.’
‘I don’t think I’ve met a poet before,’ said Alf. Not liking the wine he set his mug close to the edge of the table.
‘Poet is what I am, but rarely what I do. What others would have me do. I shall miss,’ he said, gesturing, ‘all this. Might I ask if you are a very bad man?’
The sharp little jump in the conversation did not take Alf by surprise. He had in any case only been half listening. This was all very nice but Peregrine had the same veneer of respectable oddity as had Lord Rockingham. There had probably been classes on it at Harrow. Alf missed London, or at least the more homely parts of it where a man might get badly beaten, occasionally killed but almost never served up wittily in a peppercorn sauce - but in all events not engaged first in conversation. He could not decide if this poet’s insanity (for clearly that was the case) leant itself to murder but Newcastle was hardly the place anyone visited purely to discuss what god wanted them to do next. Or maybe it was; Alf did not know. So he nodded because either it would act to warn the poet, or if it meant he was to be punished then at least it would be then sooner rather than later and so therefore avoid the almost inevitable recital. Alf had not met many poets but they seemed to be a breed not reluctant to give a reading. He said, ‘I’m bloody awful.’
‘Right you are, sweetie.’
‘I have overseen murder. I have betrayed my fellow man. I stood by whilst horror was done in the name of a king that was shortly thereafter punished, and rightly so. I am without the ability to change what I have done, and without the will to enact penance for it. As one very bad man to another do you think we can ever be forgiven for our sins?’
‘You don’t talk to god do you?’
‘Not habitually and certainly he has never, I would say, answered. Do you say then I should pray?’
‘Couldn’t say, see, I don’t really hold with sin. Was it round here then that you kept your library books out too long?’
‘It was Poland.’
‘Don’t be too hard on yourself. That’s a long way to go just to return a book.’
Peregrine half smiled and rested a finger on his forehead feeling a headache. He said, ‘Whilst a subordinate protested and even tried as I should to avert the crime I did nothing, allowing politics and my orders to prevent me from doing as I should. Is it not better that we try and fail to fight that which is wrong than to do nothing and allow it? Did not Edmund Burke not famously say that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing?’
‘Bollocks,’ said Alf. Peregrine, who perhaps moved in different circles to Alf, made to protest when he had been expecting some maudlin sense of shared futility. Alf who had done what some would call evil was pretty sure that still he would have done it whether someone had told him not to or otherwise. Importantly, and who was anyone to say they were good? How many bands of bastards did what they did and claimed to be right? How many had the honesty to know they were bad, that they did what they did and what some would say was evil? Alf said so adding, ‘I’m not saying there ain’t bad people that do very bad things, because they’re people, and people by nature are bastards. If you want to be forgiven why don’t you piss off back to Poland and do something about what you think you did?’
‘Ah, but what can one man do?’
‘I couldn’t say. Me, I’m off. Lovely grub, ta.’