The Brave: A Novelby Nicholas Evans
There's little love in eight-year-old Tom Bedford's life. His parents are old and remote and the boarding school they've sent him to bristles with bullies and sadistic staff. The only comfort he gets is from his fantasy world of Cowboys and Indians. But when his sister Diane, a rising star of stage and screen, falls in love with one of his idols, the suave TV… See more details below
There's little love in eight-year-old Tom Bedford's life. His parents are old and remote and the boarding school they've sent him to bristles with bullies and sadistic staff. The only comfort he gets is from his fantasy world of Cowboys and Indians. But when his sister Diane, a rising star of stage and screen, falls in love with one of his idols, the suave TV cowboy Ray Montane, Tom's life is transformed. They move to Hollywood and all his dreams seem to have come true. Soon, however, the sinister side of Tinseltown casts its shadow and a shocking act of violence changes their lives forever.
What happened all those years ago remains a secret that corrodes Tom's life and wrecks his marriage. Only when his estranged son, a US Marine, is charged with murder do the events resurface, forcing him to confront his demons. As he struggles to save his son's life, he will learn the true meaning of bravery.
Powerfully written and intensely moving, The Brave traces the legacy of violence behind the myth of the American West and explores our quest for love and identity, the fallibility of heroes and the devastating effects of family secrets.
Ever the master of intense and complex relationships, Evans has crafted a time-traveling plot that admirably juggles issues of identity and fidelity to one's self and one's principles."Carol Haggas, Booklist"
In his first novel in five years Evans displays a sure hand at drawing characters and their motivations and settings as diverse as a gloomy boarding school, glamorous Hollywood, and the wide-open spaces of the West. This should appeal to all lovers of good storytelling."Dan Forrest, Library Journal"
The Brave is an engrossing tale that ... suggest[s] that, as Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." Fans of The Horse Whisperer won't want to miss this complex and satisfying story. For readers who have not had the pleasure of reading Evans, but are looking to get lost in a big novel with larger-than-life characters, The Brave is sure to fit the bill."Kelly Blewett, BookPage
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Read an Excerpt
The BraveA Novel
By Nicholas Evans
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Nicholas Evans
All right reserved.
THEY FOUND the tracks at dawn in the damp sand beside the river about a mile downstream from where the wagons had circled for the night. Flint got off his horse, the odd-looking one that was black at the front and white at the back, as if someone had started spraying him with paint then had second thoughts. Flint knelt down to have a closer look at the tracks. Bill Hawks stayed on his horse watching him and every so often glancing nervously up at the scrubby slope that rose steeply behind them. He clearly thought the Indians who had kidnapped the little girl might be watching. He pulled out his gun, checked it was loaded, then holstered it again.
“What do you reckon?”
Flint didn’t answer. To anyone else, including Bill Hawks, the tracks just looked like holes in the mud. But to Flint McCullough they told a whole story.
“Must have ridden downstream in the water so as not to leave tracks around camp,” Bill said. “You can see this is where they came out.”
Flint still didn’t look at him.
“Uh-huh. At least, that’s what they want us to think.”
He swung himself back into the saddle and steered his horse into the water.
“What do you mean?”
Again Flint didn’t reply. He rode across the shallows to the opposite bank, then followed it downstream another thirty yards or so, his eyes scanning every rock and clump of grass. Then he found what he was looking for.
“Flint? Mind telling me what’s going on?”
“Come see for yourself.”
Bill rode across to join him. Flint had dismounted again and was squatting on the bank, peering at the ground.
“Darn it, Flint, will you tell me what you’re up to? What are we waiting for? Let’s get after them.”
“See here, among the rocks? More hoof marks. Deeper ones. The tracks on the other side are kinda shallow. No riders. It’s an old Shoshone trick. They turn some horses loose then double up to send you off on the wrong trail. This here’s the way they went.”
Bill Hawks shook his head, impressed and a little irritated, as people often were, by Flint’s brilliance.
“How much of a start have they got on us?”
Flint squinted at the sun.
“Three hours, maybe three and a half.”
“How many of them?”
“Three horses, five or six men. Plus the girl.”
Flint mounted up and the two of them rode away along the riverbank.
It was his mother, calling from the kitchen. She always got the timing wrong. Tommy pretended he hadn’t heard.
She appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Come on, now. It’s half past eight. Up you go.”
“Mum, it’s Wagon Train. It goes on for an hour.”
She looked confused. The familiar evening smell of gin and cigarette smoke had wafted with her into the sitting room. Tommy gave his most angelic smile.
“It’s the one I love most. Please.”
“Oh, go on then, you little rascal. I’ll bring your milk.”
Flint had found the little white girl a few days earlier, wandering alone in the wilderness. Her dress was torn and stained with blood and her eyes were wide with terror. The major questioned her gently about what had happened but she seemed to have lost her voice. Flint said she must have been with another wagon train that had run into a Shoshone raiding party and that somehow she had managed to escape. Then, last night, the Indians had crept into camp and snatched her from her bed.
But Flint McCullough, who was without any doubt the bravest and cleverest scout in the entire world, would find her, kill the Indians and bring her safely back.
In this evening’s episode Flint was wearing his tight-fitting buckskin jacket with the fringed shoulders. Tommy, naturally, was wearing the same. Well, almost. His mother had made his jacket out of some beige fabric left over from her new bedroom curtains but the result was too big and baggy and, to be honest, nylon velour didn’t look anything like buckskin. Still, it was better than nothing and he had a hat and a gun belt with a real leather leg-tie on the holster that were both a bit like Flint’s. And the black Peacemaker six-shooter with the white handle, the one his sister Diane had given him for his birthday, looked so convincing that Tommy thought he could probably use it to rob a real bank. For this evening’s adventure he had loaded it with a new roll of caps, the pale blue ones which came in a white tube and made a much better bang than the cheaper red ones you got at Woolworth’s.
It was early September and the evenings were closing in. The air that drifted through the big bay window was cool and smelled of rain-soaked dust and apples rotting on the lawn. A blackbird was singing loudly in the old cherry tree and down across the meadow that stretched away from the foot of the garden, a cow was calling for its calf. Tommy was sitting at one end of the enormous new sofa. It had red and green flowers all over it that made you dizzy if you stared at them too long. It had come with two matching armchairs and they took up so much space you now had to squeeze sideways to get to the television set, which stood in one corner of the room in its important mahogany-veneered cabinet.
The house had once been a farmworker’s cottage on to which his parents had built an ugly extension. Despite a unifying coat of whitewash, the place seemed at odds with itself. It stood in an acre of garden on a gentle, wooded hill from whose crest you could see the steady encroachment of the town as, one by one, farmers sold their fields to developers. Work was already under way on a massive four-lane motorway which would go all the way from Birmingham to Bristol. Tommy’s father could often be heard complaining that the area wasn’t really countryside anymore.
But Tommy loved it. He’d lived here all his life. He didn’t care much for the front garden. It was too small and prim and civilized. But if you walked out through the back yard, up the crumbling red brick path, past the old greenhouse and the derelict raspberry cages, you found yourself in a world altogether less tame. And it was here, where the willow herb and nettles and brambles ran rampant and nobody but he ever ventured, that Tommy spent most of his waking hours. It was his own, secret Wild West. Indian country.
He’d made a few friends at the little local school that he’d been going to for the past three years and sometimes went to their houses to play. But his mother rarely allowed him to invite them back. Tommy didn’t really mind. He knew the other boys thought he was a little odd and too obsessed with westerns. They often preferred to play soldiers or cops and robbers and even if he could persuade them to play Wagon Train, there was always a fight about who got to be Flint McCullough. The fact was, Tommy preferred to play on his own. Anyway, all the best cowboys were loners.
He had Flint’s walk off to perfection. And the way he tilted his chin and lifted an eyebrow when he was thinking or squatting to study some tracks or poke the embers of a fire to see how old it was. In the wild end of the garden, in the little clearing where he’d whacked down the brambles, Tommy even had his own horse, the fallen limb of an old sycamore with branch stumps exactly where the stirrups should be and some brown string tied to another stump for reins. He would swing himself into the saddle just like Flint, easily or in earnest, depending on what the story playing in his head required.
There were deeper things to emulate too, things that were more difficult for an eight-year-old fully to grasp. These were all about what was going on inside. Flint could read a man’s character as shrewdly as he could read hoofprints in the dust. He kept his thoughts to himself, rarely smiled and only ever spoke when he had something crucial to say. In his solitary adventures, Tommy would assume these manly traits, humming the theme tune or the more dangerous music they played whenever Indians appeared. And when the plot required, he would speak (aloud, but not so loud as to be overheard by anyone walking up the lane beyond the hedge) in Flint’s western drawl.
He didn’t always play Wagon Train. He liked being Red McGraw from Sliprock too, the fastest draw of them all. He would stand like Red, looking dangerous, in front of his bedroom mirror, his hand hovering over his gun, and recite the words with which the show always began:
In the town of Sliprock, lawless heart of the Old West, where the many live in fear of the few, one man stands alone against injustice. His name is Red McGraw.
Sometimes, for a change, he’d be Rowdy Yates from Rawhide or Cheyenne Bodie or Matt Dillon. Maverick was okay too, except he spent too much time sitting around in saloons and wore funny town clothes. Tommy preferred those who wore buckskin and rode the range, fought Indians and caught rustlers and outlaws. What he definitely never played, wouldn’t be seen dead playing, were any of those silly, cissy cowboys, the ones who carried two shiny silver guns, like Hopalong Cassidy or The Lone Ranger, and had holsters with no leg-ties. How could you be a serious gunfighter without a leg-tie? Worst of all were the ones who sang, like Gene Autry and the ridiculous Roy Rogers.
His mother had reappeared now, a glass of milk in one hand, a plate with a slice of apple pie on it in the other, a fresh cigarette jutting from her lips. Without shifting his eyes from the screen, Tommy took the milk and pie.
Flint and Bill Hawks were hiding behind some rocks now, spying on the Indian camp. Night had fallen and the Indians were all asleep around a campfire, except for the one keeping watch over the little girl, and even he looked as if he was nodding off. The girl was tied to a log and looked pretty miserable.
“Be careful now. No spills, please.”
She took a puff of her cigarette, blew the smoke at the ceiling and stood with her arms folded, watching for a while.
“Oh, he’s the one I like, isn’t he? What’s his name?”
“No, the actor I mean.”
“Mum, I don’t know.”
“Robert something or other. He’s so handsome.”
Just as Flint and Bill were about to launch their rescue, on came the commercials. Tommy’s mother groaned and left the room. To his parents commercials were “common.” Respectable families only ever watched the BBC which had the good taste not to show any. Tommy couldn’t see what the problem was. In fact, the commercials were often better than what went either side of them. Tommy knew most of them by heart. Like Diane, he’d always been a good mimic and sometimes when his parents had visitors, his mother would ask him to do the Strand cigarette man. Under protest, pretending to be more reluctant than he really was, Tommy would leave the room and a few minutes later slouch in again wearing his father’s old trilby and raincoat with the collar turned up, puffing moodily at an unlit cigarette he’d taken from the silver box on the lounge coffee table, and say: You’re never alone with a Strand. It always got a big laugh and sometimes people even clapped. For an encore, while he still had on the outfit, his mother would ask him to do Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet.
Oh, Mum, he would groan with fake embarrassment, which would naturally prompt a pleading chorus of Oh, go on, Tommy, please! So he would duly adjust his face to its most serious, manly expression and, in Sergeant Friday’s deadpan delivery, announce that the story they were about to see was true and that only the names had been changed to protect the innocent. The facts, ma’am, just the facts.
By the time he’d finished his apple pie, Flint and Bill had everything pretty well sorted out. The Indians all got shot or ran away, the little girl was rescued and when they got back to the wagons, her daddy had turned up. He had a bandage around his head but was otherwise okay. They gave each other a tearful hug then sat down with everybody else around the fire for supper. It was bacon and beans, which was the only thing Charlie the cook seemed to know how to make.
Just as Flint had so cleverly guessed, it turned out that the other wagon train had been attacked by a Shoshone war party who apparently wanted the little girl to be somebody’s squaw, though Tommy wasn’t quite clear what that might involve. Anyway, she got her voice back and it all ended more or less happily, as it nearly always did.
Tommy took off his cowboy hat and sat fiddling with the brim, eyes glued to the screen until the theme tune and the credits had finished.
“Come on, Tommy,” his mother called from the kitchen. “Up you go. Your father will be home any minute.”
He carried his empty glass and plate through to the kitchen, which had recently been modernized. Everything was now covered with pale blue Formica. His mother was standing by the stove, stirring a pan and looking bored. On the radio, the BBC newsreader was saying that the Russians were planning to send an unmanned rocket to the moon.
His mother’s real name was Daphne, but she hated it, so everyone always called her Joan. She was a short, rounded woman with plump arms and fair skin that flared red whenever she got cross, which happened quite often. In fact, her reddish brown hair always looked cross, especially on Fridays when she had it redyed and set into a helmet of tight, wiry curls.
Tommy washed his glass and plate in the sink and left them on the draining board where his mother’s cigarette lay propped in an ashtray, oozing smoke. Beside it stood a cut-glass tumbler of gin and tonic. She always poured her first the moment Big Ben struck six o’clock on the radio. This was probably her third.
“What time will Diane be home?”
“Late. She’s getting the last train.”
“Can I stay up?”
“No, you cannot! You’ll see her in the morning. Go on now, up you go.”
Diane was twenty-four and lived in London, near Paddington Station, where she shared the top floor of a big old house with three other girls. Tommy had been there only once when his mother took him to London to see a doctor in Harley Street. Diane came home almost every weekend and the moment she arrived the house was at once filled with light and laughter. She always brought him a gift of some sort, something funny or unusual and often, in his mother’s opinion anyway, entirely unsuitable for a boy his age. She would bring the latest records that everyone in London was dancing to or the soundtrack of some new musical she had been to see. On her last visit she’d brought West Side Story and they played it again and again on the gramophone, singing along with it until they knew every number by heart. Tommy had been singing I like to be in America ever since.
Diane was more fun than anyone else in the whole world. She was always playing tricks on people, even total strangers. She would phone up, pretending to be someone else and do naughty things that grown-ups weren’t supposed to do, like swapping the salt and the sugar or propping a mug of water on the top of the bathroom door so that whoever walked in got soaked. Their mother would erupt (which was precisely what Diane wanted), while their father would put down his newspaper and sigh and say, Diane, please. What sort of example is that for the boy? Could we perhaps try to be a little more responsible? And Diane would say, Yes, Father, sorry, Father, then behind his back, pull a face, imitating him, or put her thumbs in her ears and stick her tongue out and go cross-eyed and Tommy would try not to laugh and usually fail.
Diane was an actress. She wasn’t really famous yet but everybody agreed she soon would be. There was already another, older actress called Diana Bedford, so she used their mother’s maiden name and acted under the name Diane Reed. Tommy was enormously proud of her. He had photographs of her and newspaper articles and large posters of the plays she had been in pinned to his bedroom wall, alongside all his western posters and pictures.
The photo he liked best was the one from a glossy magazine in which she was wearing a black satin evening gown and big sparkly earrings and a white fur stole draped around her shoulders. She was outside the Café Royal, a famous London restaurant where all the stars went, and it was night-time and she had her head tilted back and was laughing as if someone had just cracked a great joke. Tommy had never seen anyone more beautiful. The headline said CATCH A RISING STAR and underneath it said: Diane Reed—Face of the Sixties. His mother, who managed to pour cold water over almost everything, had observed that since it was still only 1959, perhaps this was jumping the gun a bit.
As he lay in the bath tub, Tommy was aware again of the feeling at the top of his stomach. It was a ball of dread that was getting steadily bigger, like the stacks of strange new clothes on the spare-room bed. Two pairs of grey flannel shorts, two grey sweaters, four grey shirts, six pairs of grey knee-length socks, four pairs of underpants and vests, sports shorts and shirts (one white, one green), a dozen white cotton handkerchiefs, a green-and-yellow-striped tie, and finally, the dark green blazer and cap, each emblazoned with a yellow badge of two crossed swords and a shield with the school motto, Semper Fortis, written on it. Tommy’s father said this meant you always had to be brave, in a language called Latin, which Tommy would soon be learning even though it was “dead” and nobody ever spoke it.
On to every item of clothing his mother had stitched a small tape that said BEDFORD. T. Tommy had never seen his name written like that. It was painted the same way on the big black trunk and the wooden “tuck box” that both stood, gradually being filled, on the floor beside the bed. It seemed strange to be going to live in a place where nobody cared what your first name was. But in just two days’ time that was where he would be.
Exactly why his parents were sending him away to boarding school, he still couldn’t understand. When they’d broken the news, he thought he must have done something wrong and they didn’t want him around any longer. He knew Diane was against the idea. He’d heard her arguing with them about it downstairs one night last winter after he’d gone to bed. She’d been sent away herself when she was eleven to a grim place called Elmshurst in the Malvern Hills and hated it so much she ran away three times. The last time, about a year before Tommy was born, she’d apparently been delivered home in a police car. So, knowing how awful it was, why would his parents want to do the same to him?
Diane never held back when it came to family arguments and it generally wasn’t long before she would start shouting. At which point his mother would storm out of the room, usually slamming the door, while his father would stick his pipe in his mouth, hoist his newspaper and pretend he wasn’t listening, which was a sure way to make Diane even angrier. Among his mumbled replies to her attack that particular night about boarding school, all Tommy could make out were phrases like do the boy good, toughen him up a bit, make a man of him. Tommy had always been in a hurry to grow up, but even so, eight did seem a little early for manhood.
He’d never dared ask his father to explain what precisely the process might involve but his mother assured him that going off to boarding school was simply what all boys from respectable families did. Anyway, she said, he should count himself lucky because some children were sent away when they were only six. What was more, as Tommy had heard her telling Auntie Vera (and anyone else who’d listen), Ashlawn Preparatory School for Boys was considered to be one of the best in Worcestershire. Its list of famous old boys included a man who had once played rugby for England, another who’d helped design the Mini and an army major who had won the Victoria Cross fighting the Japanese.
“What did he do?”
“I’ve forgotten, but I know he was very brave.”
“Braver than Dad?”
“Of course. All he ever did in the war was get shot.”
His father had fought against the Germans and been shot in the leg which was why he still limped a little. He’d even been a prisoner of war for a while though, rather disappointingly, he hadn’t escaped, as they always did in films. Tommy was as keen on bravery as he was on manhood. The two things went together. All those hours watching westerns hadn’t been for nothing. He’d wondered lately how Flint McCullough would react to being sent off to boarding school. No tears, for sure. A tilt of the chin, perhaps. A manly nod. Tommy tried but the ball of dread in his stomach didn’t seem to want to shift.
At its core was the problem everyone—well, his parents and a long line of doctors—had been trying to solve for as long as he could remember. It was the great shame that blighted their lives and was probably the reason they didn’t want him to live with them at home anymore.
It didn’t happen every night. He could go two or sometimes even three nights in a row and then his mother would get all excited.
“Well done, Tommy, that’s it! You’ve cracked it! Good boy!”
Then, the next night, as if some spiteful goblin inside him were playing tricks with them all, it would happen again: he would wake in the early hours to the silence of the house and that familiar warm wetness between his thighs. And he would lie there, cursing and hating himself and silently sobbing with rage and self-pity.
Nobody seemed to be sure why he wet the bed. His mother claimed it was the result of a bad attack of mumps at the age of three. This, she maintained, had weakened his waterworks. One doctor, the one Diane called The Trick Cyclist, said that Tommy was doing it on purpose, just to get attention. He prescribed a routine of reward and punishment. And for about a month, they had put it to the test. A dry night and Tommy was allowed to stay up for an extra half hour. A wet one and he wasn’t allowed to watch television or have any ice cream or chocolates. It was soon clear that the only effect of this routine was to make everybody miserable and bad tempered and, like all the previous remedies, it was eventually dumped and off they trooped to see another doctor, then another.
The one they went to see in Harley Street provided them with a special new kind of rubber undersheet. It had already proved, he told them, a great success in America and was fitted with electric sensors and a length of black rubber cable that you had to plug in to the wall. At the first hint of wetness, even the slightest trickle, it would administer an electric shock—nothing too severe, the doctor assured Tommy’s mother, just enough to rouse the boy—and set off an alarm bell. Tommy didn’t know how much it cost, but judging by his mother’s expression when she saw the invoice, it was obviously a lot.
In the early hours of the first night they tried it, there was a blue flash and a loud bang and Tommy was launched out of bed like a space rocket. He landed on the floor with a burn on his bottom that took two weeks to heal.
These last few months, with the date of his departure to the brave and manly world of Ashlawn Preparatory creeping ever closer, the hunt for a cure had escalated to a kind of frenzy. And the more they all talked about it, the less control he seemed to have over his bladder.
All summer long he had been taking some little yellow pills, which were supposed to make him sleep so lightly that he would wake when he had to pee. They didn’t succeed in waking him but all day long he felt like a different person, like some crazed character from a cartoon. He’d never had more energy in his life, was unable to sit still, not even for a minute, and was so noisy and frantic that a few days ago, his mother couldn’t bear it any longer and flushed the remaining pills down the toilet.
The latest—and what would probably be the last—attempt to stop his bed-wetting was to prop the foot of his bed up on two stout logs. His mother had read about it in a magazine. The idea, she explained, was to relieve the pressure on his bladder by harnessing the force of gravity. This meant that Tommy had to sleep with his feet at an angle of about thirty degrees to the floor. So far he had wet the bed every night and woken each morning crumpled against the wall with a stiff neck.
By the time his father arrived home, Tommy was in bed, trying to banish thoughts of boarding school by reading one of his collection of Illustrated Classics, Custer’s Last Stand. General Custer was one of Tommy’s real-life heroes. There was a full-page picture of him, in his buckskin suit, completely surrounded by bloodthirsty savages, a smoking gun in each hand, his long yellow hair flying in the wind.
Arthur Bedford was an accountant and worked for a company that made parts for motor cars in Birmingham. Tommy didn’t really have a clear idea about what this involved except that it meant looking after money and being very good at arithmetic, which was, by a long way, the most horrible subject in the world. The mere word division made him shiver. So it seemed only natural that his father came home looking weary and miserable. Though, come to think of it, he nearly always looked that way. This probably had something to do with the fact that he was always being criticized or nagged by Tommy’s mother. Whatever the poor man did or failed to do seemed to irritate or annoy her.
The only occasions his father looked happy were when he was in the greenhouse, tending his tomatoes, or in his little workshop at the back of the garage, where he would sit for hours on end with a magnifying glass and a little lamp strapped to his forehead, carefully piecing together broken bits of porcelain. People would send him their smashed vases and plates and cups and saucers to mend. He was very good at it. When he’d mended something you wouldn’t guess it had ever been broken.
The most exciting, if slightly puzzling, thing about him was that he belonged to a club so incredibly secret that you weren’t allowed to ask him anything about it, nor even mention that you knew about it. They called themselves The Freemasons and held secret meetings once a month on a Thursday evening at a place called The Lodge. They had a special secret handshake so that they would know immediately if you were a real member or a spy trying to infiltrate them. Tommy’s father kept all his secret Masonic equipment in a slim brown leather suitcase which he hid on top of the wardrobe in his bedroom. Tommy had once sneaked a look inside it, expecting to find some sort of deadly weapon, like a ray gun or something, but all he found was a little blue-and-white satin apron, some strange-looking medals and badges and a magazine called Health & Efficiency which had pictures of naked women in it. He didn’t tell anyone, not even Diane. She didn’t seem to know any more about The Freemasons than he did, except that at their meetings at The Lodge everybody had to roll up their trouser legs and put hangman’s nooses around their necks. She said it probably had something to do with golf because a lot of the men at his father’s golf club were Freemasons too.
Tommy heard his father’s car now, crunching across the driveway and into the garage. It was a new Rover 105S in two-tone green with beige leather seats and a walnut dashboard and his father treated it as if it had been made personally for him by God. The car door clunked shut and Tommy pictured his father walking slowly around, inspecting the paintwork for any tiny chips. He did this after every trip, however short, then, with a soft cloth and a bottle of methylated spirit, he would clean the squashed insects from the headlamps and the grille.
Arthur Bedford’s reaction to his son’s bed-wetting was much the same as it was to most things Tommy did. He remained wearily aloof. Cleaning up, changing the sheets and doing the laundry, along with almost everything to do with the children, was women’s work. Tommy knew perfectly well however, from the sighs and the occasional overheard remark, that his father saw the problem as part of a general pattern of feminine weakness.
It had only recently begun to dawn on Tommy that his parents were a lot older than those of other children his age. His mother was nearly fifty and his father nearly sixty. People often thought they were his grandparents. His mother had once explained that they had tried for many years for a little brother or sister for Diane but that God hadn’t wanted it to happen. Then, at last, along came Tommy. He was a blessing, she said. What had changed God’s mind Tommy didn’t know. And he wasn’t quite sure about the blessing bit either, because he’d once overheard Auntie Vera describe him as an accident. Perhaps it was possible to be both.
“Good heavens. Still awake, are we?”
His father was peering in from the landing outside Tommy’s bedroom, his unlit pipe sticking like Popeye’s from the corner of his mouth. This meant he had to talk with his teeth clenched, which made him sound like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The opposite of Tommy’s mother in almost every respect, his father was tall and thin, with lots of bony angles to him. His clothes always seemed to have enough room for two of him. His hair was thick and floppy and silvery white except at the front where it was stained yellow by smoke from his pipe.
“Wagon Train,” Tommy explained.
He stood, swaying a little, outside the bedroom door as if he couldn’t decide whether to come in or say goodnight from where he was. He made a little jutting movement with his chin.
“That old fellow’s going to miss you.”
Tommy didn’t know what this meant. He put Custer’s Last Stand down and watched his father step carefully among all the toy cowboys and Indians who waged constant war across the carpet. He looked as if he wanted to sit down on the bed but then noticed its strange angle and the logs propping it up and decided it was safer to stand. The bedside lamp made his baggy cavalry twill trousers glow while his top half remained in shadow. He plucked the teddy bear from the pillow and Tommy realized that this was the “old fellow” he’d been talking about.
“Hmm. Poor old chap’s looking a bit worse for wear.”
It was true. Old Ted had bald patches and bore the scars of many repairs. He’d once belonged to Diane and had been the victim of countless fantastic misfortunes. He’d been tortured and hanged, burnt at the stake, tossed from windows and subjected to hugely invasive surgery.
“Can’t I take him with me?”
His father laughed.
“Teddy bears at prep school? Good heavens, no! What would they think?”
“What would who think?”
“Staff, other boys, everyone.”
“Doesn’t everyone have a teddy bear?”
“Only when they’re little.”
He ruffled Tommy’s hair.
“Don’t worry, we’ll look after him.”
He tucked the bear back into bed.
“Well, better see what the old girl’s done to my supper. Lights out now.”
He bent down and for a moment Tommy thought he was going to kiss him, which he hadn’t done for years. But he was just looking for the lamp switch. His tweed jacket smelled of smoke and the whisky he’d been drinking at the golf club.
“Emptied the bilges, have we?”
“Let’s see if we can have a dry night then, hmm?”
“That’s the spirit. Night-night, old chap.”
Tommy lay on his back, staring at the slice of yellow light that angled across the ceiling from the landing while he performed his nightly ritual, reciting in a whisper one hundred times, I will not wet the bed, I will not wet the bed, I will not wet the bed…
His parents were watching the TV news in the sitting room. A man was talking about President Eisenhower coming back to London from Scotland where he’d been to visit the queen. His first name was Dwight but everyone called him Ike. He seemed like a nice old man. Tommy had a photo of him shaking hands with John Wayne.
His thoughts drifted back to Flint and how clever he was to have found those hoofprints by the river. He wondered what would have happened to the little girl if she hadn’t been rescued from the Indians. Worse than boarding school, for sure. Just two days more at home and that was where he would be. The place had looked pleasant enough in the spring when his mother and father had taken him to see it. Vast rolling lawns and lots of trees. Football pitches. A gym with ropes you could climb. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad after all.
Somewhere in the float of these thoughts, Tommy must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew was that the house was all quiet and the landing light had been switched off. Someone was stroking his forehead.
“Hello, my darling,” she whispered.
She was kneeling beside his bed and he had the impression that she’d been there for some time. She leaned closer and kissed his cheek. She was still wearing her raincoat. Her hair smelled of flowers.
“Have you just got here?”
She kept stroking his forehead. Her hand felt soft and cool. In the dark he couldn’t see her face clearly but her smile was sad and somehow he knew she’d been crying.
“What’s the matter?”
She put her finger to her lips.
“Sshh. You’ll wake them. Nothing’s the matter. Just happy to see you, that’s all.”
Now it was his eyes that welled with tears.
“What, darling? What is it?”
“I don’t want to go to boarding school.”
He started to cry and that started her off again. She gathered him up in her arms and he buried his face in the warm scented softness of her neck. And they clung to each other and wept.
A SHLAWN PREPARATORY School for Boys was an imposing Gothic mansion in red brick, complete with ramparts, ornate turrets and various reputed ghosts. It stood on a low hill in twenty acres of parkland planted with oaks and cedars and girdled by a six-foot wall topped with barbed wire of ambiguous purpose. The mansion had been built by a Victorian industrialist who had risen from the slums of Birmingham to make his fortune in the colonies, a fortune which he promptly lost, whereupon the building, intended as a monument to his elevated social standing, became instead, for the next seventy years, a home for the mentally deranged.
During the First World War the clientele was expanded to accommodate a hundred and twenty shell-shocked soldiers and only when the last of them had died or otherwise departed were its decaying corridors and dormitories modestly refurbished as a school. There were smarter, more expensive prep schools in the county to which the sons of established upper- and middle-class families were dispatched. Ashlawn was for the more transitional, both upward and downward, whose social aspirations or pretensions outstretched their means.
For the benefit of the outside world and fee-paying parents, the impressive iron gates, adorned with the school crest and motto, Semper Fortis, were regularly repainted and the half-mile meander of driveway rigorously weeded. But in the darker, more remote reaches of the mansion itself, where parents were less likely to stray, little had changed in half a century. The flaking gloss paint, in shades of institutional brown and pale green, remained untouched; the original pipework clanked beneath the worm-ridden floorboards; the iron-framed beds, painted in chipped black enamel, still had slots for the canvas straps that had once restrained the unruly; and the wooden benches of the dank and fetid changing room still bore the etched initials of the demented and the desperate.
For the new arrivals, or newbugs, as they were not so affectionately known, fresh faced and swamped by their oversized uniforms, the changing room was one of Ashlawn’s most fearful places. One of the first things they discovered was that this was the chamber to which boys were summoned after lights-out for official beatings by the staff and, at almost any other time, for less official but much more inventive torture by the school’s many bullies. The walls above the engraved benches were lined with neatly named pegs and wire cages where the boys kept their sports kit. The air was laced with the smell of wet and putrefying socks. Except for a grimy skylight in the adjoining shower room, the only light came from a single bare bulb that dangled from a fraying cord.
It was here that Tommy Bedford, three days and three miraculously dry nights after his arrival, now stood in his baggy knee-length rugby shorts and spotless white shirt, trying to untie the laces of his rugby boots. They had been knotted tightly and intricately to the wire of his cage and his fingernails were bitten too short to free them. His games group was being supervised by the house tutor, Mr Brent, who Tommy already knew was the strictest and meanest of all the masters. The other boys had already set off for the playing fields and, as the echo of their voices faded from the corridor outside, panic was rising in his chest.
“Naughty newbug. Going to be late for games, aren’t we?”
Tommy didn’t yet know many of the older boys but he knew this one. Everybody knew to steer clear of Critchley. And of his henchman, Judd, whose leering face now appeared in the doorway behind him. They were probably about eleven years old and were in Remove B, otherwise known as Dumbos, the class they put you in if you were stupid or lazy or both.
“Oh, dear. Got our laces in a muddle, have we?” Judd said.
“What’s your name, newbug?”
“Oh, you’re the Log Boy, aren’t you?” Critchley said.
He was tall and sinewy, with flaxen hair that flopped over his forehead. Judd was squat and broad, with a meaty butcher’s-boy face. Tommy busied himself with the laces, pretending not to have heard. Nor did he look at them. One of the first things newbugs learned was not to get caught staring at older boys. If you did they would tell you to face off and probably punch you or get you in a headlock. From the corner of his eye he could see the two boys sauntering closer.
“Are you deaf as well as stupid, Log Boy?”
“No, sir—I mean, no, Critchley.”
“I said, you’re the Log Boy, aren’t you?”
“What are they for then?” Judd said.
“What are what for?” His voice sounded tiny, crimped with fear.
“The logs, you slimy little turd.”
Matron had been informed about Tommy’s bed-wetting but, so far, nobody else knew. He’d already been teased about the logs and, on Diane’s advice, had told anyone who asked that he suffered from poor circulation and that sleeping at an angle helped his blood flow better. He started to explain this but didn’t get very far. Critchley grabbed hold of his ear and began to twist it.
He lashed out and knocked the hand away. His knees were shaking and he felt his bladder begin to loosen.
“Oooh, look.” Critchley sneered. “Log Boy’s got a temper.”
Tommy glared at them, his heart thumping.
“Face off!” Critchley yelled.
Tommy looked down and in the same instant, Judd stepped behind him and pinned his arms behind his back. Critchley had hold of both ears now and twisted them until Tommy thought they were going to rip loose from his head. He felt the tears starting to roll down his face and, far worse, a warm trickle down the inside of his thigh. Critchley must have smelled it for he let go of Tommy’s ears and stepped back to watch.
“Oh, dearie, dearie me, what’s going on here?”
Tommy’s long green woollen socks absorbed some of the flow but soon he was standing in a small but spreading puddle. Judd released his arms and stood beside Critchley, their two faces contorting with delight and revulsion.
“How disgusting. Log Boy, you are disgusting. What are you?”
Tommy didn’t answer. Judd grabbed him by the ear.
“What are you?”
“Disgusting,” Tommy said quietly, trying not to whimper.
“That’s right. Disgusting.”
There were footsteps coming down the corridor now and from the important click of steel-tipped heels all three boys knew it was one of the masters.
“Tell him we’re here, Log Boy, and you’re dead meat. Okay?”
Tommy nodded and the two boys darted past him and disappeared into the adjoining shower room. Tommy stood where he was, ears aglow, while the footsteps came closer and stopped. The kind and ruddy face of Mr Lawrence, who taught English and Latin, leaned in around the open door.
“Hello, who have we here?”
Mr Lawrence glanced down at the puddle at Tommy’s feet.
“Ah. Hard luck, old chap. Let’s get you cleaned up, shall we?”
Fifteen minutes later, Mr Lawrence delivered Tommy, in a giant pair of borrowed shorts, down to the muddy plateau of the playing fields. It was starting to rain. Mr Lawrence had a quiet word with Mr Brent, who nodded and snapped at Tommy not to be late again then started yelling at another boy whose shirt wasn’t properly tucked in. Tommy must have looked petrified because Mr Lawrence, as he left, put a hand on his shoulder and winked.
“Semper fortis, Bedford,” he said quietly. “Semper fortis.”
Mr Brent blew his whistle and, with the icy autumn rain whipping around their knees, Tommy and two dozen other miserable eight-year-olds spent the next ninety minutes running around in the mud and hurting one another and being constantly hectored by Mr Brent.
It seemed more like years than days since he’d stood on the gravel forecourt, waving goodbye to his parents and Diane. He could still see his sister’s distraught face looking back at him through the rear window as the Rover pulled away down the driveway. She had been more upset than any of them, even Tommy. The new boys had been told to report to school an hour earlier than the older boys. Tommy had helped his father and Diane haul his trunk and tuck box into the hall, where Mr and Mrs Rawlston, the headmaster and his wife, stood chatting with the other new parents. When it was their turn, his father gave his customary hard handshake (perhaps even a Masonic one) and Tommy noticed Mrs Rawlston wince a little. Diane didn’t shake hands because she was crying too much.
“Righty-o then, Tommy,” his father said. “We’ll be off now.”
He held out his hand and Tommy braced himself for the squeeze. “Good luck, old chap.”
There were tears in his mother’s eyes now too. He’d never seen her cry before. She kissed him on the cheek. Tommy was biting his lip. His father had told him several times that to be seen blubbing wasn’t a good idea.
“Matron’s got the logs,” his mother whispered. “Don’t let her forget.”
It was the way Diane hugged him that finally put him over the edge and turned on his own tears. She was sobbing and her face was streaked black from her eye make-up.
“Come on, old chap,” his father said, glancing around. “Let’s have none of that.”
When the parents had all gone, the newbugs were shepherded into the dining hall for tea with Matron. There were about twenty of them, some still snivelling, some simply wide-eyed with shock. They were all told to stand around a long table laid with plates of sandwiches and lurid yellow fruitcake. Miss Davies, the matron, was short and wide and wore a blue uniform and round glasses whose lenses were so thick they made her eyes appear huge and fierce. This, along with the starched white wings of her headdress, made her seem like an overweight bird of prey preparing to swoop. She took her place at the head of the table, bowed her head and clasped her hands together. Tommy noticed she had long whiskers on her chin.
“May the Lord make us truly grateful,” she said in a broad Welsh accent. “Amen.”
One or two of them muttered Amen. But clearly not enough for Matron. She made everyone repeat it.
“And say it as if you mean it.”
They did and she told them they could be seated.
“Tuck in now, boys.”
There was a choice of water, milk or tea from a huge metal teapot. Tommy chose milk.
For about five minutes nobody, not even Matron, uttered another word. She kept checking the time on the small stainless steel watch pinned to her bosom. Outside in the corridors they could hear the voices of the older boys arriving. They sounded happy to be back, which Tommy found both perplexing and slightly encouraging. He studied his fellow newbugs. Nobody seemed hungry. They were mostly just staring at their plates. The only one still crying was the boy sitting next to him. He had a podgy pink face and dark curly hair and glasses with pink frames in which the left lens was frosted so that you couldn’t see his eye. The name tape on his sodden handkerchief said WADLOW. P. His crying was so loud and vigorous that it was soon the focus of attention for the entire table.
“Hush now, boy,” Matron chided gently. “That’s enough. Eat your sandwich.”
Wadlow obeyed but it didn’t stop his crying, merely modified its tone. Tommy noticed the boy sitting opposite him was grinning. He had freckles and a shock of dark red hair and was the only one at the table who seemed to be enjoying himself. He was by now on his fourth sandwich. He gave Tommy a wink and Tommy, who had never been able to master the art of winking, gave him a forced little smile instead. He was just starting to think he might have found a friend, when Wadlow started to make a strange gurgling sound, leaned forward and threw up, spectacularly, all over the table. A dozen other boys promptly burst into tears.
The red-haired boy was called Dickie Jessop and Tommy was pleased to find they were in the same dormitory and in the same class. Over the next couple of days the two of them became friends. Dickie’s parents lived in Hong Kong and he only saw them once a year when he flew out there for the summer. He had been at various boarding schools since he was five years old and after just one day told Tommy that Ashlawn wasn’t half as bad as others he’d known. He was funny and was always cracking jokes and didn’t seem afraid of anyone or anything. He was cheeky with some of the teachers and the older boys but did it with such charm that they didn’t seem to mind. Best of all, he adored westerns and knew almost as much about them as Tommy did. Tommy asked him who his number one cowboy was and without a moment’s hesitation Dickie said it was Flint McCullough from Wagon Train. They shook on it.
At teatime on that third day, after rugby, Tommy told him quietly about his encounter with Critchley and Judd in the changing room, though he left out the part about wetting his pants and pretended to have acted rather more courageously than in fact he had.
Dickie heard him out then nodded gravely.
“We’ll get ’em,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Don’t worry. You don’t have to. I will.”
Tommy was dry again that night. That made four nights in a row. He’d never gone that long before and felt cautiously elated. He had upped his nightly recitation of I will not wet the bed to two hundred times and it seemed to be working. After breakfast, when he went to Matron’s room for his daily spoonful of cod liver oil, she almost smiled at him.
“Well done, boy,” she mouthed. “Keep it up.”
One week. If he could go one week, he’d beat it forever. But take it a night at a time, he told himself.
Some of the boys in his dorm made remarks about the logs that propped up his bed. And on one occasion, in the bathroom, a boy called Pettifer, who seemed to be jealous of Tommy’s friendship with Dickie, called him Log Boy. Dickie grabbed him by the throat, pinned him against the wall and threatened blood-curdling consequences if he ever said it again.
Their dorm was long and narrow with sixteen metal beds, eight each side, all with identical scarlet wool blankets. Every boy had a peg for his dressing gown and a metal chair on which to put his neatly folded clothes. Tommy’s bed was the nearest to the door and this position carried with it the duty of keeping cave (which was apparently Latin for beware and was pronounced KV) and sounding the alarm at the approach along the corridor of Matron or “Whippet” Brent.
All the staff had nicknames: Mr Rawlston, the headmaster, was Charlie Chin because he didn’t have one; Matron, being Welsh and fierce, was The Dragon; and Mr Lawrence was Ducky or The Duck, for reasons Tommy had yet to discover. Nobody however needed to explain Mr Brent’s nickname. It referred both to his pointed canine features and to his reputation for administering the most ferocious beatings. His instrument of choice was a red leather, hard-heeled slipper, which left bruises known to last two weeks. Every night, at eight o’clock, when he came to turn off the lights, he would creep along the corridor in the hope of catching boys in the act of some beatable offence, like pillow fighting or reading a comic or an unsuitable book.
It was on the fifth evening that Tommy was to discover the burden of responsibility that his post as dormitory lookout truly entailed.
The boys had all returned to the dorm, scrubbed and energized, from the bathroom and Dickie Jessop was holding court. He had a seemingly endless repertoire of dirty jokes and rhymes. Few, if any, of his audience understood the sexual references, but they all laughed loudly to pretend they did. Displaying ignorance in these matters could transform you in a moment into a target for derision.
Except for Wadlow and a few others, too shy or unusual—and thus already excluded from the pack to be prey for the likes of Critchley and Judd—they were huddled on and around Dickie’s bed, listening to a recital of rude limericks.
“Here’s another,” he said.
“A lesbian once in Khartoum
Took a nancy boy back to her room.
As they climbed into bed
The nancy boy said
Who does what and with what and to whom?”
Tommy didn’t understand this one at all but he roared with the rest of them. Nobody seemed to have noticed that it was drawing close to eight o’clock. He was sitting alongside Dickie, basking in reflected glory. They were now generally considered to be best friends. Both had their backs to the door.
“Okay,” Dickie said, holding up his hands for quiet. “Here’s one I made up. How about this…
“There once was a Whippet called Brent
Whose cock was exceedingly bent…”
It was at this moment that Tommy noticed the grins beginning to vanish from the faces of the boys sitting opposite, the ones who had sight of the door. He turned to see what they were looking at. Standing just inside the doorway, leaning against the wall, was Mr Brent. He had his arms folded and a strange half-smile on his face. Everyone had seen him now. Except Dickie. He was too carried away by his own brilliance to have noticed the sudden chilling of the air.
“… To save Matron trouble,
He stuffed it in double
So rather than coming, he went!”
He laughed proudly and rocked back on the bed and it was only when he became aware that this one didn’t seem to have gone down so well that he looked at the faces around him and then turned to see what they were all staring at.
Mr Brent unfolded his arms and gave three slow claps.
“Very good, Jessop. Quite the poet, I see.”
There was a ripple of nervous laughter and Tommy thought for a moment that it was all going to be treated as a joke. Mr Brent still had that odd little smile on his lips. Then suddenly it was gone.
“All right,” he snapped. “Into bed, everyone.”
He watched them scatter like mice to their holes and when all was still, all eyes upon him, his finger poised on the light switch, he added quietly:
“I’ll be seeing you later, Jessop. Lights out now! No talking.”
He flicked the switch and they all lay frozen with fear in the darkness until his footsteps had faded along the corridor.
“You were supposed to be keeping cave, Bedford,” Pettifer whispered from the other side of the room.
“I know,” Tommy said. “Sorry, Jessop.”
Dickie didn’t answer. It was about half an hour before Mr Brent appeared in the doorway again and told him quietly to put on his dressing gown and slippers and to report downstairs to the changing room.
“Good luck, Dickie,” Tommy whispered as Jessop shuffled past his bed. But again he didn’t answer. For a long while nobody dared speak. Like Tommy, they were probably all imagining the scene. They knew the routine from the older boys, who always enjoyed scaring the newbugs. Dickie would be told to remove his dressing gown and bend over the wooden bench so that his nose was touching the wire mesh of one of the cages. And Mr Brent, in his shirtsleeves, would first slap the heel of the red leather slipper in the palm of his hand to give your imagination a little taste of what was to come. You never knew until the last moment how many strokes to expect. It was usually three, four or six, depending on the severity of the offence.
The silence that now hung over the upstairs of the school seemed to hum with fear and fascination. Every boy in every dormitory was listening. They all heard the distant dull clunk of the changing-room door being shut. Tommy held his breath. There was a long pause. Then the first muted thwack. And in the grateful safety of their beds, the whole school winced and silently began to count.
Sometimes, if the victim was young or insufficiently brave, you would hear him cry out. But not tonight.
Tommy didn’t know if there was a God, but in case there was, he began to pray. And not just for Dickie, that he might bear the pain, but also that he would forgive him and still be his friend.
Then silence. The listeners began to breathe again.
Now Dickie would be putting his dressing gown back on and then suffering the final humiliation of having to shake Whippet’s hand. To absolve him, to thank him for his trouble.
When he came back to the dormitory, Dickie didn’t say a word. There were a few whispered hard lucks and well dones and one idiot even asked him how it had felt. But Dickie didn’t answer, just climbed back into bed, turned on his side and pulled the sheet and blanket up above his ears. Tommy couldn’t tell if he was crying. For a long time nobody spoke. Then, across the darkness from the other side of the room, he heard Pettifer’s venomous whisper:
“Should have been you down there, Log Boy.”
Tommy wet the bed that night. It was just after three in the morning and he lay weeping in the soggy warmth, wondering what to do. As quietly as he could, he pulled off the bottom sheet and tiptoed with it to the bathroom, wincing at every creak of the floorboards. Not daring to switch on the light, he sluiced the sheet in one of the big cast-iron baths then did the same with his pyjama bottoms, wringing them out as best he could. Then he tiptoed back to the dormitory and remade the bed, freezing whenever anyone shifted in his sleep, hardly daring to breathe, scanning the other beds in case someone was awake and watching him in the dark. He climbed back into bed and spent the rest of the night shivering and wet, his head churning with fear. Perhaps no one would notice.
Routine required that the boys strip back their top sheets before breakfast to let the beds air. And the yellow wet stain on Tommy’s was as plain to see and almost as fascinating to his peers as the dried blood on the seat of Dickie Jessop’s pyjamas. Dickie’s stain was a badge of heroism, Tommy’s of undiluted shame. Pettifer was the first to notice. He held his nose as he walked past.
“Bloody hell, Log Boy, what a stink! How revolting.”
Tommy wet the bed again the following night and every night for a week. No one called him Log Boy any more, though not for fear of reprisals from Dickie Jessop, who now mostly ignored him. It was simply that someone had come up with a better nickname, the obvious one. He found it painted on his tuck box one morning in a sniggering amendment to his proper name.
To all of Ashlawn, from now on, he was no longer Bedford, but Bedwetter.
TOM REGRETTED coming almost as soon as he got there. He’d never much liked the man and liked even less the twist of jealousy that seeing him always inspired. Some people just brought out the worst in you. Truscott Hooper, known to friends and sycophants alike—both well represented here this evening—simply as Troop, was sitting at a little table in the far corner of the crowded college hall, signing copies of his book. There was a long line of adoring fans, some of whom Tom recognized. They should have known better.
Troop was on tour, publicizing his new bestseller, a thriller set in postinvasion Iraq. He was on the cover of this week’s People magazine and Tom had seen him on the Today show. The book was already being made into a movie. It featured the same hero as the last three books, finely tailored to the spirit of the age (former Special Forces operative Brad Bannerman, dangerous but with the heart of a poet, wrongly disgraced for a misunderstood act of bravery, et cetera). Tom hadn’t read any of them. It was hard enough to watch them sit gloatingly at the top of the bestseller lists without running the risk of discovering they were also actually rather good. That was what the critics said anyhow. There was nothing more galling than a fellow writer who managed to sell millions of books and get good reviews. It stole all legitimate grounds for contempt.
No sane New York publisher would include Montana on a book tour for an author as big as Troop. Fewer than a million people lived there and most of them had better things to do than read books. No, Troop’s presence here this evening, the return of the famous author to the bosom of his alma mater, the University of Montana, Missoula (to which he had already apparently made a lavish donation—you could almost hear the library sprouting new wings), had nothing to do with selling books. It was, it had to be—in Tom’s view—simply an act of patronizing vanity.
Troop was, by a long way, the most successful novelist ever produced by the UM creative-writing program. When Tom enrolled, in the mid-seventies, Troop was in his third year and already a star. He’d sold short stories to The New Yorker and was about to have his first novel published. At six-feet-five, he was literally, as well as professionally, head and shoulders above everyone else. He was dressed tonight, as always, entirely in black. It was a kind of trademark. The black beard and flowing black hair were grizzled now, but this—Tom had to concede—only gave him an even greater gravitas. They were both in their mid-fifties but Tom was the only one who looked it.
Troop’s handsome face had been on posters all over town for weeks and this evening’s talk in the university’s largest auditorium had been a sellout. There were even people standing at the back. The speech had been infuriatingly witty and modest and interesting and the applause at the end had made the windows rattle. Admission to this champagne reception afterward was strictly by ticket only.
Just as Tom was looking for somewhere convenient to park his glass so he could leave, he became aware of a young woman hovering in front of him. She was smiling a little tentatively and had clearly been trying to attract his attention while he’d been scowling at Troop.
“You’re Thomas Bedford, right?”
“Yes, I am. I’m sorry, I…”
She held out her hand and he shook it, a little too hard. His five-year-old documentary series on the history and culture of the Blackfeet had recently aired again on PBS and Tom imagined she must have recognized him from that. Or maybe she’d been to one of his occasional lectures here at UM. She was good-looking in an unflashy kind of way. Late twenties, he guessed, maybe thirty. Fair skinned and freckly, thick auburn hair bundled up in a green silk scarf. Tom pulled in his stomach and smiled.
“Karen O’Keefe,” she said. “We have the same dentist. I saw you there a couple of weeks ago.”
He tried not to look crestfallen. There was an awkward pause.
“Did you enjoy the talk?” she said.
“Oh, Troop always puts on a good show.”
“Not exactly. We were on the writers’ program here together. He was a couple of years ahead of me,” he couldn’t resist adding.
“I wanted to kick him.”
Now Tom was interested. He laughed.
“Really? Why was that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. All that phony modesty, when you can see from a hundred miles he’s got an ego the size of Everest. If he could write a decent sentence, I might feel more charitable.”
Tom smiled, trying not to look too pleased.
“Are you a writer?” he asked.
“A filmmaker. Like you. Except you’re a filmmaker and a writer. And I’m not suggesting I’m on anything like your level. I really enjoyed seeing your Blackfeet series again, by the way. And I loved the book. Great piece of work. Kind of definitive. I must have given it to a dozen people.”
“Thank you. That accounts for about half the total sales.”
A fan. Tom wasn’t used to it. He got the occasional letter, of course, but it had been years since he’d had an encounter like this. He was almost lost for words.
“How come an Englishman has this great passion for the West?” she said, filling the pause.
“Oh, that’s a long story.”
But it didn’t stop him telling it. He had it perfectly honed: the childhood obsession with cowboys and Indians; how he’d grown up in little countryside and how, when he came to live in the States, the sheer scale of the real thing had blown him away; then his fascination at discovering the brutal truth behind all that myth and legend.
“You mean, like, the true story of the West.”
“Yes. I remember that first time I went to Little Bighorn—”
A hand clamped his shoulder and as he turned, Troop locked him in a bear hug that squashed Tom’s glasses into one eye. Luckily he’d finished his drink or it would have soaked them both. The Tommy had given him a shock. He thought he’d lost that name forever at boarding school. Along with his innocence and much else besides.
“Hello, Troop,” he said. “How’re you doing?”
“Good, man. Good! And all the better for seeing you.”
Troop partially released him but was still gripping Tom’s upper arms with his massive, hairy hands so that he could inspect him.
“You’re looking good, man. You must work out?”
“No. Never have, never will.”
“How’s that gorgeous wife of yours—Jan, right?”
“Gina. We split up fifteen years ago.”
“Shit. I’m sorry. You had a daughter, right?”
“A son. Daniel.”
“Daniel. How’s he doing?”
“Okay, I think. I don’t see a whole lot of him. He’s in Iraq at the moment.”
“Jeez. A journalist?”
“No, he’s with the Marines.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Won’t we all.”
Tom turned to Karen O’Keefe, who was watching them with a wry little smile. He introduced them and noted the way Troop fixed her with his dark eyes and gripped her arm while he shook her hand, holding it a few moments longer than was necessary. Tom had seen Bill Clinton do the same many times on TV.
“Karen is one of your greatest fans,” Tom said.
“There’s no accounting for taste,” Troop said.
“Actually, I’ve never read a word you’ve written,” Karen O’Keefe said. Tom was getting to like her more each moment.
“Well, that’s okay too.”
“Too drenched in testosterone, I’m afraid.”
“And you know that even though you’ve never read a word I’ve written.”
“You’d probably call it female intuition.”
Troop smiled but his eyes had already hardened.
He turned to Tom.
“Still living in Missoula?”
“Don’t seem to be able to escape.”
Excerpted from The Brave by Nicholas Evans Copyright © 2012 by Nicholas Evans. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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