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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A View of the Empire at Sunset

A Novel

Caryl Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Going Home

The bleak afternoon had been made all the more dispiriting by having to overhear Leslie on the telephone busying himself with his attempts to make arrangements for their potential sea voyage. Finally, her husband sat down heavily in the armchair and began to annoy her by continually seeking reassurance that the recent misunderstanding between them was now resolved. After sharing a life together for nearly eight years, her husband still seems incapable of admitting that things between them have never been quite right. He has, as he promised her he would, attempted to provide her with a stable financial environment that might compensate for her difficult down-at-heel years on the Continent, but his efforts in this department have been an unquestionable failure. Keen to please her in other respects, he has tried to demand little of her in the way of an explanation of both her past and her present, and she has certainly never pressed him about his own history, but as a consequence, she often feels as though they barely know each other and she wonders if the decent thing to do would be to release this man from what he once referred to as “occasionally boorish behaviour.”

She is standing in deep shadow to the side of the bay window in their lacklustre Bloomsbury living room and staring out at the leafless oak trees that decorate the iron-gated square. Then, recognizing that she has temporarily forsaken her husband, she turns towards him and smiles weakly, and Leslie’s nervous face lights up with relief.

Eventually her tired husband empties his pipe and slowly rises from the armchair. He slips on his jacket and overcoat and cheerily announces that he is stepping out for a twilight stroll. She hears the front door rattle shut and then looks down into the lamplit street and watches him striding away from the house, and this is her prompt to pick up the small stool and carry it through into the bedroom. Having carefully eased the shabby suitcase from its hiding place on top of the narrow wardrobe, she places it lengthwise on the bed and opens it in a manner that causes the dusty object to unexpectedly resemble a book. Only now (as she tries to ignore the freckles of age that are beginning to pepper the backs of her hands) does it occur to her that there are two problems. First, she is unsure of just how long Leslie imagines they might tarry in the West Indies; second, she doesn’t own anything that will be even vaguely suitable once they reach their tropical destination. In England she has come to understand that a nice bright shawl and a decent pair of shoes will typically suffice to fool most people, but back home eyes are more discerning and she will be held to higher standards. Once she returns to the West Indies, she has no desire to make an exhibition of herself.

She sits wearily on the edge of the bed and tries hard to reconcile herself to the fact that a woman who has journeyed even a short distance beyond the age of forty no longer has any right to expect admiring glances, but she continues to find it difficult to abandon all hope. Of course, money would help to ease the embarrassment of the spectacle she presents, but any mention of the thorny subject tends to plunge Leslie into a monosyllabic mood. Last night, however, her husband surprised her with talk of an unforeseen windfall and the possibility of a voyage to the West Indies. She stands and opens both the top and the bottom drawers of the dresser and confronts the reality of her situation; it is true, there is not a single article of clothing that merits serious consideration for the upcoming journey, for, having been washed and ironed too frequently, all of her clothes are shiny and hideous in appearance. Having closed the drawers to the dresser, she shuts the empty suitcase and turns the key in the tiny lock. Leslie’s frustrating telephone calls have led her to believe that it might well be weeks before her husband secures confirmation of their passage, for apparently winter is the most popular season in which to set sail for the region. This being the case, there is still time for her to broach the idea of a shopping expedition, but not quite yet, for betraying either enthusiasm or anxiety has never played any part in the detached manner in which she generally likes to conduct herself with her overly sensitive husband.

Last Saturday night there was no need for Leslie to burst into The Rose and Crown and embarrass her in front of everyone. He took her firmly by the arm and ordered her to be quiet, and then topped his performance by apologizing to the stupid landlord for her behaviour. (“I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid there’s a little bit of a drink problem.”) But what she was saying was correct: unless somebody woke up and took notice, this new chancellor, Herr Hitler, would soon be tramping his muddy boots all over the map of Europe. It wasn’t as though anybody in the pub disagreed with her, but at some point the landlord must have telephoned her husband, for suddenly Leslie made his entrance and began to coax her towards the door, all the while urging her, with an impatient sharpness, to please moderate her behaviour. When she started to shout, he barked at her in a firm whisper, telling her to either hold her tongue or keep it down. “You seem to be unaware of the ill nature of the emotions you arouse.” She snatched her arm away and smartened up her dress with the palm of her hands, then she reminded him that the only reason she had come out for a quiet drink to begin with was to get away from his miserable presence, which was creating a foul atmosphere in their rooms. Once they were out on the pavement, and safely beyond the hearing of those in the pub, Leslie stared at her with a strangely distracted look on his face before raising his tone and beginning to affect a modulation that the poor man clearly hoped might come across as authoritative. “Why, Gwen, do you insist on leaving your good sense in glass after glass of wine? I’m afraid I simply don’t understand you.”

All day Sunday she refused to talk to him, although he tried desperately to be pleasant. He asked her to please try and understand why he had been forced to remove her from the pub. “Dearest, it was a bad business. You were talking loudly to yourself, and the patrons were simply ignoring you.” But what rot, they were not ignoring her, they were asking if she was actually in sympathy with this Herr Hitler, which they must have known was a stupid question. “Of course I’m not,” she said. “I speak French, not German. Why would I want to begin the process of acquiring another bloody language?” By late Monday afternoon she had decided to allow things between herself and Leslie to thaw a little, for she could sense that her demure husband was troubled by a letter he had received in the morning’s post. She tied on a headscarf and, without a trace of bitterness, asked if there was anything he would like her to pick up, as she intended to venture out to the shops. A newspaper, perhaps? Her husband smiled and shook his head. “No, thank you, Gwendolen. I’ll just listen to the evening news on the wireless.” When she returned, he poured them both a glass of sherry and then looked up and wondered if she might consider discontinuing her two-night exile on the sofa. Before she had time to frame a response, he pressed on and shared with her today’s surprising revelation regarding an unexpected legacy from his late father, the Reverend Tilden Smith. He held the solicitor’s embossed stationery in both hands as though it were some kind of offering and suggested that now that he appeared to be “in funds” it might make sense to think about renting a nicer place, perhaps in Chelsea. Meanwhile, he wondered if she would be amenable to his treating them both to a voyage to the West Indies, for he understood how desperately she wished once again to see her birthplace. He paused, his brow wrinkled in perplexity as though unsure how his suggestion might be received, but she said nothing and so he felt obliged to continue. He informed her that he had some inkling of how much it might mean to her to reacquaint herself with her island. Was a West Indian sea voyage something she might consider?

Copyright © 2018 by Caryl Phillips