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  • Published: 30 April 2024
  • ISBN: 9781787335004
  • Imprint: Jonathan Cape
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $34.99



Monday: late winter, bad weather. The River Alder, fattened by continuous rain, went in spate through Aldleigh and beyond it, taking carp and pike and pages torn from pornographic magazines past war memorials and pubs and new industrial estates, down to the mouth of the Blackwater and on in due course to the sea. Toppled shopping trolleys glistened on the riverbank; so also did unwanted wedding rings, and beer cans, and coins struck by empires in the years of their decline. Herons paced like white-​coated orderlies in the muddy reeds; and at half past four a fisherman caught a cup untouched since the ink was wet on The Battle of Maldon, spat twice, and threw it back.

Late winter, bad weather: the town oppressed by cloud as low as a coffin lid. A place spoken of in passing, if at all: neither Boudicca nor Wat Tyler had given it a second glance when they took their vengeances to London; and war had reached it only as an afterthought, when a solitary Junkers discharged the last of its ordnance and extinguished four souls without notice.

Thomas Hart was at his desk in the offices of the Essex Chronicle, surveying the town through a dissolving window. At that hour and from that vantage, lights appeared as fires set by travellers that crossed a soaking fen: strip-​lights in the shoe shops and newsagent’s not yet shuttered for the night, and in the cinema and bowling alley opening for business two miles out of town; lamplight in the bar of the Jackdaw and Crow, and streetlights coming on down London Road.

A man of fifty, Thomas Hart, and a man of Essex, for his sins: tall, and retaining as much hair as he had at forty, which is to say more above the collar than the brow. Dressed, as has always been his habit, in clothes chosen to be admired by the observant – a jacket, single-​breasted, in Harris tweed; a white shirt cuffed with silver links; a tie of oatmeal knitted silk. A face he does not deceive himself is handsome, but understands to be memorable: the nose not symmetrical, but of a pleasing emphatic size; the eyes large, direct, and approaching green. An air altogether of occupying a time not his own – might he be more at ease in an Edwardian dining room, say, or on a pitching clipper’s deck? Very likely.

Thomas was surveying an object on his desk. Two leather discs about the diameter of his own hand were fastened with a tarnished pin; the lower disc was painted blue, and mottled with markings he couldn’t have made out even if he’d been inclined to try. The blue showed through a large hole cut in the upper part, and gilded letters at the rim showed the months of the year, and the days of the month, and the hours of the day. Thomas touched it as if it carried a contagious disease. ‘What,’ he said, ‘do you imagine I should do with this?’

A younger man was sitting at the edge of the desk, swinging his foot. With the downcast gaze of the guilty he turned the upper disc with his finger. The hole moved. The blue persisted. ‘It belonged to my father,’ he said. ‘I thought you might make something of it.’ Nick Carleton, editor of the Chronicle and grieving son, looked with unconcealed amusement about the small office, which – despite the plastic venetian blinds, and the computer’s hard drive humming as it laboured at its work; despite the twentieth century wearing itself out on the pavements three floors down – gave the impression that at any moment a gramophone might strike up a Schubert lieder.

‘I was sorry,’ said Thomas gravely, ‘to hear of your loss. The death of a father,’ he said, frowning at the window, ‘is at the same time both quite proper in the order of things, and incomprehensibly stupid.’

‘I never saw him use it,’ said Carleton, containing tears, ‘and I don’t know how it works. It is a planisphere. A map of the stars.’

‘I see. And what do you imagine I should do with it?’

The evening was coming doggedly in. Wind seeped over the concrete windowsill, and a bewildered pigeon struck the glass and slipped from view.

‘You’re our longest-​serving contributor,’ said Carleton, flinching at the bang. ‘Our most admired. Indeed I should say our most popular.’ I’m beginning to speak like him, he thought: Thomas Hart is catching, that’s the trouble. ‘I’ve often heard it said that it’s a consolation – that’s the general feeling, as I said to the board – to wake on Thursday morning, and find your thoughts on Essex ghosts and literature and so on, before turning to the matters of the day.’

‘Literature,’ said Thomas mildly to the planisphere, ‘is the matter of the day.’

‘Your work has an old-​fashioned feel,’ Carleton pressed on. ‘You’ll allow me that. I argue that’s your charm. Other papers might seek out some young person to be the voice of their generation, but here at the Essex Chronicle we pride ourselves on our loyalty.’

‘I could hardly have asked to be the voice of a generation,’ said Thomas, ‘since there is only one of me.’

Briefly Carleton considered the other man, of whom he’d made such a study he might have been appointed professor of Thomas Studies at the University of Essex. He knew, for example, that Thomas was a confirmed bachelor, as they say, never seen in the company of a beautiful young person or a stately older one; that he had about him the melancholy religious air of a defrocked priest, and was known to attend a peculiar little chapel on the outskirts of town. He had a courtly manner considered an affectation by those who didn’t like him, and irresistible by those who did; and if it couldn’t be fairly said that he was strange, there was certainly the impression of his being the lone representative of his species. Of Thomas Hart’s family, companions, politics, tastes in music and weekend pursuits, Carleton knew nothing, wondered often, and would never ask. That Thomas had worked for the Chronicle since 1976 was easily established, as was the fact that he’d published three brief novels since that date. Out of a sense of delicacy Carleton never mentioned that he owned all three of these, and found them elegant and elliptical, couched in prose that had the cadence of the King James Bible, and concerned with deep feeling suppressed until the final pages (when some confusing event ensued, generally in bad weather). Were Carleton his literary agent, he might have pleaded with the other man to allow himself, in fiction at any rate, to say what he really felt, and not veil it all in atmosphere and metaphor; but he confined himself to glancing sometimes at the cheap green notebooks that attended Thomas like spoor, and were now stacked three deep on his desk (Monday, he read surreptitiously; late winter. Bad weather –). It hadn’t occurred to him that Thomas wouldn’t know a planisphere when he had his hands on it, or that a tentative suggestion he looked to the stars would be so unwelcome. Blinking, he recalibrated his idea of Thomas Hart, and became persuasive: ‘Loyalty,’ he said, ‘is a key concern of ours. But it is increasingly felt that you might benefit from new material, and it struck me you might like to write about astronomy. You see’ – he reached for the planisphere, and moved it – ‘this is today’s date, and so you’ll find Orion in the south.’

‘Astronomy,’ said Thomas, with the look of a man tasting a bitter substance. He turned the disc. He extinguished the stars.

‘In fact,’ said the editor, ‘it struck me that you could write about this new comet.’ He made a withdrawal from the store of knowledge inherited from his father: ‘It’s a Great Comet, you know, with naked-​eye visibility. People really go in for that sort of thing. Bird’s Custard once put a comet on their adverts. Perhaps it’s a bad omen, and there’ll be a disaster, then we’ll have something for our front page’ (he brightened here at visions of catastrophic fires).

‘What comet?’

‘Thomas! Do you never look up? They call it Hale–Bopp.

It’s been on the news.’

‘Hale–Bopp,’ said Thomas. ‘I see. I never watch the news.’

He raised the planisphere towards the editor. ‘I have no interest in astronomy. This comet could crash through the window and land on the carpet and I’d have nothing to say about it.’

Carleton refused the planisphere with a gesture. ‘Keep it. Give it a try. We have to think of something, Thomas: circulation is down. Do you want to write about this sheep they’ve cloned in Scotland, or about the general election? Celebrity gossip, perhaps, or the sexual intrigues of the Tory cabinet?’ He received a look of admonition, as if he’d stained one of those pristine white cuffs.

‘I am too old,’ said Thomas, ‘for new tricks.’

‘These days,’ said Carleton, hardening his heart, and further depleting the store of his inheritance, ‘a good pair of binoculars offers more or less the same magnitude as Galileo’s telescope. Five hundred words, please. Why don’t you start with the moon?’

‘Is there a moon tonight?’

‘How should I know?’ – Carleton was at the door; Carleton was almost free – ‘I’ve always found it unreliable. Five hundred words, please, and six if the night is clear.’

‘These days,’ said Thomas, ‘the nights are never clear.’ With bad grace he lifted the planisphere to the weak light seeping in, and turned the upper part. The perforation slid over the painted leather, and half-​familiar names appeared on the ground of blue: Aldebaran. Bellatrix. Hyades. Well, then. Five hundred words, and six if the night was clear; and meanwhile he was behind on his correspondence. A solitary letter in the steel tray, the flap lifting and the stamp not straight; the letter signed boldly in blue ink:

James Bower
Essex Museum Services
17 February 1997

Dear Mr Hart

I think I have some information that might interest you.

As I’m sure you know, we’re doing renovation work at Lowlands House, and it has turned up some interesting documents. We think they may relate to a woman who lived at Lowlands in the nineteenth century, who disappeared and was never discovered. I’ve always enjoyed your column, and remember especially your account of going in search of the Lowlands ghost – and it occurred to me the legend might even be connected with this disappearance! Could you be persuaded to come and visit me at the museum? We are open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. I’m always at my desk.

Yours sincerely

James Bower

Thomas put down the letter. Was it possible the strip-​light briefly dimmed, and summoned out of shadow the figure of a vanished woman, now returned? It was not. Thomas smiled, and turned again towards the window. The stunned pigeon had left its greasy imprint on the glass, and it rose like the Holy Ghost behind the venetian blinds.

Enlightenment Sarah Perry

A story of love and astronomy told over the course of twenty years through the lives of two improbable best friends

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