William Ewart Gladstone , four times prime minister of Great Britain and Ireland, died of a cancer of the palate on the 19th of May 1898. Ascension Day. It was fitting, Bill’s father said, for a Christian gentleman. It was at moments like these, he thought, when you could detect a pattern in the world.
Now they were travelling to stand with the crowds and bear witness at Mr Gladstone’s funeral. They had been occupying a train compartment for over four hours, sat opposite each other, their knees touching all the while even though it would have been easy for one of them to have changed their position. It was the longest amount of time Bill had ever spent alone with his father. He had brought a book, and despite not reading it or even flicking through its pages, had preserved an air of intent throughout the journey, gripping it tightly in both hands so that the spine and the far edge of the cover were darkened by sweat. If his father noticed this, he gave no sign. He had a knack for not noticing the things Bill wanted him to: the springy hair on his legs visible when he rolled up his trousers in summer, for example, or the darker, closer hair creeping across his belly, exposed when he stood waiting for his mother to hand him a clean shirt. Or his persisting with the reading of dull but valuable books, like this one.
They had exchanged only a few words since waking in the near dark and threading their way through dim streets to the station, seating themselves and allowing the gathering light to describe them to each other as the hours passed. Looking at his father, who accepted his gaze unquestioningly, his arms folded, one finger tapping in rhythm with the chug of the engine, Bill began to feel that he had never looked at him properly before. He noticed how his father’s hair kinked at the front, seeming to switch direction almost as an afterthought, and how his nose too lost its line, finishing rightwards of where it began; saw that his side-whiskers were so spare that white skin showed through. His father was not old, Bill remembered, as he registered also the slenderness hugged by his shirt, the spread of his thighs on the seat, even the flex of his finger as it drummed on the upper part of his arm. He had been barely 19 when Bill was born, only three years older than Bill was now, a fact which filled his son with excitement and foreboding – that life could begin so soon, the future vanishing in its arriving.
Bill pondered for a moment how his father might have felt at this age, what forecasts he had made and what fears had walked at his side and whether they in any way resembled his own, before deciding it was a thing unknowable. They were not alike, father and son. The question of likeness had only recently presented itself to Bill, with an insistence he found distressing for the answers it had provoked. He had never been happy – even, or especially, as a child – that his father was Welsh and Methodist, while he and his sisters were English and Anglican, like his mother. It did not feel right to attend separate churches, no matter what people said; Bill had never shaken his old fear that they were communing with a different God, that a wrong choice had been made, by someone, and that they risked separation in the next life. More guiltily, he found his father’s accent embarrassing, especially if he had been drinking sufficiently that the words lagged on his tongue and he chose to sing in the silly, sad language none of them understood.
These things taken together seemed to Bill oddly crude, considered in a family: obvious mistakes for some reason left uncorrected, marring the overall effect. But this question of likeness, or unlikeness, went deeper. There was a sentimental streak in his father, an imperturbable optimism that Bill found perplexing for its lack of foundation. All his life his father had worked as a gardener at the big house. He was now a deputy, with several men beneath him, but Bill had frequently walked into the estate and seen him indistinguishable from the others, stooped over a muddy patch of ground in his shirtsleeves, sweat glistening on his nape and ringing his collar. On other occasions Bill had watched him quietly trimming, pruning and pulling-up, his concentration cleaving to the task of bequeathing perfect absence. This seemed to Bill barely to constitute a life. His own ambition was embarrassing in its extent and kept him awake at night. It centred currently on his becoming a teacher, but he anticipated – in fact could almost see, signalling just at the edge of his consciousness – something much greater, an unexpected, fated circumstance that would allow him to make his mark.
All this was connected to Mr Gladstone. For as long as Bill could remember his father had greeted Mr Gladstone’s every pronouncement with a hungry credulity, had memorised his sayings, acquired and embossed his opinions, admired and held up his goodness, made him the lodestar of the family’s fortunes. Deciding that they would travel to London for the funeral, despite the cost, Bill’s father told him by way of justification, ‘He has done as much for you as I have.’
Bill had for most of his childhood eagerly participated in this worship. He used daily to ask for news of Mr Gladstone, thinking of him as like a story that never ran out. His father would read from the paper over their tea, over the scraping of cutlery, delivering the speeches word for word in his thick, swelling accent, pausing between sentences to scoop something off his plate, breathing loudly through his nostrils as he chewed, his eyes running ahead, zig-zagging through the columns on the page. There was a portrait engraving of Mr Gladstone kept on the mantelpiece that Bill would look at in these moments, to help fix in his head an image of the man his father ventriloquised. He would picture him on the platform, guessing at the moments he might have thumped on the lectern in righteous anger, or pointed into the crowd, demanding their support – Bill imagined standing in the throng, the pushing heat of the bodies pressed around him, and Mr Gladstone, elevated above them, seizing him with a look, extending a finger, finding in him a representative of the people. He would close his eyes and try to hear the echo of his famous voice, making an effort to remember that he did not, in reality, speak like a Welshman.
It was only recently that Bill had looked again at the portrait on the mantelpiece and seen from the caption underneath that it was by Millais, one of whose pictures was in the city gallery; somehow he had never really thought of it as a painting before, seeing it simply as Mr Gladstone, the same way he made no distinction between all those paintings of Christ on the cross. There he was: standing in profile with one hand clenched over the other, with his swivelling eye, dark and glinting and hawkish, the jutting collar seeming almost to support his chin. From a distance you might take him for a vicar, Bill reckoned, but if you looked closely you could see a tightness about the lips, pulled back slightly against his teeth, and an invisible pressure drawing the heavy black eyebrows down close over his nose. When Bill had asked, his father told him it had been painted around the time Mr Gladstone was beginning his Midlothian campaign. Bill knew this part of the story too, how he had pelted Disraeli with words hurled from platforms, pulpits, carriage steps, train windows, balconies; had built them into a high purifying wave, sweeping across the country, which when it retreated left behind a gleaming Liberal administration headed by one W.E. Gladstone. ‘He was deeply grieved,’ Bill’s father said, confidingly, and Bill noticed the proud way he looked at the picture as he spoke, as though Mr Gladstone’s silence was only an exaggerated modesty and it rested on him to garner the applause the great man would not seek for himself. ‘He was angry at the condition the Tories had brought us to. He wanted to put things right. You can see that in him.’ And here he pressed a heavy finger where Mr Gladstone’s necktie was, leaving a faint smudge on the glass.
It was not, of course, the case that Bill had thrown over Mr Gladstone completely. If he had, he would not be on this train, washed and scrubbed, a stripe of soap dried on the back of his ear. He was only more sceptical in his outlook. Indeed, he considered that his judgment was worldlier than that of his father – more reasoned, even.
Something had happened recently to confirm this in Bill’s mind. At school two years previously, Peter Kearney – a short, pinched boy with hair on his upper lip and eyebrows like soot smudges – had begun to taunt him, at first only about small things, but subsequently about things more serious, like the quality of his handwriting and the answers he gave in class and how they reflected on his prospects. Then he had started to hurt him, standing heavily on Bill’s heels as they waited in a line, or slamming his hand on his fingers as he walked past his desk. These incidents could charitably be attributed to clumsiness, but then one day Bill joined in the laughter when someone joked about Peter Kearney smelling of the bog, and he had turned savagely, shoving Bill to the ground and slapping him so hard in the face that blood had risen and pricked the surface of his skin.
When Bill told his father about Peter Kearney that evening, he expected to be bolstered in his indignation, sure that this moment would provide an opportunity to learn how to stand and hold his fists. Instead, his father listened quietly, almost flinching at some of the harsher details. Then, when Bill was finished, he made him sit down and told him with slow emphasis that the Irish had been subject to much injustice, that they had been denied their rights, and treated as criminals and outcasts in their own country. Peter Kearney was to be pitied and helped – he was not a bad boy, he was only expressing the very natural frustrations of his countrymen. Mr Gladstone believed in a union of hearts, and Bill must practise it. They must keep fighting for Home Rule, for a parliament in Dublin, so that the Irishman could at last be reconciled to the Empire, and live on terms of equality with his fellows. Did he understand?
Bill had nodded and murmured words of agreement, but he knew then what he understood and his father did not. And the day before yesterday, even while they were preparing for their journey to London, he had found out that Peter Kearney had been put in prison, found guilty of robbery and assault. He had hit a shopkeeper over the head and run off with his takings, only being apprehended weeks later when a witness passed him in the street and recognised him by his eyebrows.
The guard called in the corridor that they were nearing London. For some time the window had opened onto whatever part of the city lay below, and Bill looked out at the blackened buildings piled up against a compact grey sky; from this vantage the criss-crossed washing lines appeared like bunting left over from celebrations long forgotten, the streets resembling those in a picture book, tantalisingly curtailed. They were slowing now, the engine making short rapid breaths. The city gave way to a high expanse of mossy red brick and then a mouth-like darkness through which the train pushed, emerging panting into the cavern of the station.
As the scene through the window steadied and fixed itself, Bill’s father was examining a piece of paper, the tip of his tongue angling into the chip in his front tooth. Bill knew he was committing to memory the directions he had been given for getting to the abbey. It was strange to think that he was just as much a stranger to the city as Bill was, though Bill realised he felt more rather than less dependent on his father as a consequence. ‘We will have to be quick if we are to make the procession,’ his father said, brushing his trousers down before standing and opening his satchel for Bill’s book, making no remark on its sweat-damp cover as Bill placed it alongside the bottles of water and the sandwiches his mother had wrapped in paper for their lunch.
They stepped onto the platform behind a pair of well-dressed ladies, so that the smoke-ridden and whistle-torn air wore for a moment the dissolving sweetness of perfume. It was cold, the spacious stone chill of a church, and Bill fumblingly buttoned his jacket as they walked. The background din of footfall and chatter, the mingled shouts of newspaper and bun sellers, was overlaid by the roll and rattle of baggage trolleys, the flashing clarity of passing conversation. They came to a ticket office, and Bill watched as his father handed over yet more coins to a peak-capped attendant, drawing them out of his pocket in such a way that he knew they were the only ones left on his person, that he had brought only the money they needed and no more. Bill looked again at the busy, beckoning tradespeople, with their stalls under awning, their filled baskets and stands, and placed them mentally behind glass, their secrets kept in plain sight. His father tugged at his sleeve.
Bill did not like the Underground. He did not like the queasy lamp-lit darkness of the platform, or the fug, the way the air smelled like clothes left too long next to the fire, its stale, ashy heat dusting his tongue. He did not like either the crowds that filled in the gaps around him and his father, pushing them closer together so that they were forced to keep balance by shifting on their feet. When their train arrived they boarded a smoking carriage by mistake, layering another odour, sharp and sour and ticklish, on top of the other.
It was perhaps the noise, the jolting, lurching racket that pummelled the sides of the carriage and roiled underfoot, that encouraged Bill to speak.
‘Peter Kearney has gone to prison, father. For robbery and assault.’
They were sat next to each other, their knees touching. Bill had turned slightly inwards, speaking almost onto his father’s shoulder, in the manner of a whispered confidence, though a whisper would not have been heard.
Bill’s father turned. Their faces were only a few inches apart. Bill thought again how young he looked.
‘Peter Kearney. The boy from school – the Irish boy.’
‘Ah.’ His father’s tongue worked back into his chipped tooth, as if searching for the memory. ‘Well, that is a sad thing.’ There was another pause; nearby a man was sucking on his pipe. ‘You must count yourself lucky you never found yourself in that poor boy’s position.’
Bill did not say anything in response. He regretted that his father still did not understand – could not see that Peter Kearney had chosen not to learn, preferring to bully and beat; that he did not deserve happiness and success. That perhaps it was the case that the Irish had a weak character. That perhaps Mr Gladstone was wrong.
Arriving at Westminster, eyes smarting as he climbed back into the day, Bill had a rush of awareness that he was about to witness a moment in history. Outside the station was a press of newspaper boys, a babble of voices, a jigsaw of shoulders and hats. Looming above them was one of Parliament’s towers, the clock telling ten past ten – Bill had seen it in drawings and photographs, but was unprepared for its goldenness, the way it glinted and gleamed even under a grey sky. His father was looking up at it too, but Bill felt his hand steering him to the pavement’s edge, where they stood waiting for a gap in the traffic that two policemen were directing away from the route of the procession. Though he could not get proper sight of it – the bridge to his left was hillocked by stalled carriages and wagons – Bill could smell the river on the dampness of the wind.
Only once they were beyond the traffic could he see the crowds, a vast ink spill, a slow trickling of black, channelled by lines of silver-studded police. When they’d come out of the station the sound of voices had been almost festive, the kind of noise he associated with firework displays and concerts in the park, but the deeper they went, the quieter it got, till the sound was like a rustling, the shallow rushing of a stream, with just the thump thump of feet beneath it. Walking crampedly beside his father, Bill divided his attention between Parliament on his left – his eyes tracing the veins and whorls on its exterior – and the view across the square, where he could see people bunched at open windows and on balconies, even, in three cases, on roofs, men leaning composedly against the chimney stacks, occasionally waving at those below. A banner stretched between two buildings said in wide red letters: A PEOPLE’S THANKS AND GOD’S BLESSING. Bill had never seen so many people all together – on the ground it was hard to tell them apart, they moved and kinked like a snake. Hawkers were pushing through, with photographs, orders of service, memorial buttons, handkerchiefs, a penny book telling the story of Mr Gladstone’s life – they didn’t shout, though they might as well have done, for the way their voices carried. The crowd bulged round them and then slipped back into its old shape, pressing on.
He was not just witnessing a moment in history, Bill decided, but helping to make it, contributing to it by mixing something – leaving something – of himself in this mass. One of many thousands present to mark the passing of a famous Englishman, united in an impressive display of national grief – that was how the papers would phrase it. It was his youth’s tribute, his salute to the past. He tried out a few more phrases in his head, imagining how he would tell it to his mother; to his students, when it came to that.
Gradually they came to a halt, as the crowd thickened and knotted in an area diagonally opposite the abbey, which pointed up and up to where a few clouds had parted by inches, trapped light escaping through the gaps. Bill followed his father as he shuffled sideways between groups, spying corridors between planted feet, tapping on shoulders, manoeuvring for a better view. They stopped finally a few rows behind the rail – Bill shifted slightly to accommodate a lady’s bonnet and a glossy policeman’s helmet occupying too large a place in his field of vision. The people around them were speaking in low tones, though Bill wasn’t sure whether this was still out of respect, or because they did not wish to be overheard by so many strangers.
‘Very humble job,’ a man was saying. ‘Not to say rough. Three quarter panels, and one and a half framing.’
‘Very humble,’ replied another man. ‘I’d say it was rough. That’s village funerals they’d be used to, isn’t it. But he wanted it.’
Bill turned and saw that they were talking to a young woman; she was paying them distracted attention, her eyes flicking to the road. Two carpenters, he supposed, from their clothes as much as their conversation. They must have queued to see the coffin yesterday – his father had been unable to get the time off for that. It looked as though they had come straight from their work. Dust was silted at the corners of their noses. They had bands of black crêpe tied round their arms.
‘I couldn’t look at it,’ said the first man, ‘and not think what a job I could have done. It was all I could think about. God forgive me for it.’
‘I was the same. Pride in the profession, isn’t it,’ said the other. ‘But he wanted it.’
Music was playing inside the abbey, notes occasionally freeing themselves from their pattern and floating out. Bill wondered what it was like. He had a rapid sense of all the people inside being borne down on by all the people outside, of a great quiet pressure packing them in their seats. His mother had promised to go to the service at their church at home. There were services being held all over the world, in all the countries of the Empire. He pictured his mother sitting down about now in her usual place, perhaps with his sisters, the familiar faces. He thought of dry heat in Australia, where he had an uncle and cousins he’d never met; of sweating jungles in India; of wild prairies in Canada. He thought of Peter Kearney in prison. There was a spatter of rain. He could smell his father’s jacket. Across from him, on the other side of the road, behind their own line of policemen, were boys his age, wedged alongside their own fathers. He stared, and they stared back, without seeming to.
Something was happening. Craning his neck, Bill saw an advancing line of men in florid red and gold, their eyes fixed on the road ahead, as though embarrassed by the shocking contrast they offered to the banks of black around them. The atmosphere was very still; the noise of the city had become muted, reduced to a low thrum over which could be heard the wind, the plaintive whine of an instrument, the shuffle of feet – somewhere a child gabbled in a laughing voice and was shushed. Behind the men in uniform came another phalanx, this time in frock-coats. Bill could see the hats before he could see the faces, floating like ships on the horizon. ‘The Commons,’ said someone with a programme. And as they approached, Bill recognised the man at the front. Smart, sharp, eyeglass screwed in.
‘It’s Joe Chamberlain,’ he whispered to his father.
At the same moment, there was a yell, going off like a gunshot. ‘Home Rule!’ An Irish accent. The crowd rippled, turning, murmuring, drawing itself into tight circles of indignation. Joe’s face didn’t change; the line of MPs moved along. The Irishman, whoever and wherever he was, went quiet. There was nothing to be seen. Silence settled again on the rows of grim faces, walking solemnly in step, small stones spitting from under their feet. The crowd, relaxing, watched them file into the abbey, each row swallowed in turn. Guarding the door were boys from Eton, Mr Gladstone’s school. They looked pale, proud of their place.
There was a long pause. Flags fought against the wind and were straightened out by it, only to begin furiously protesting again. The quiet was becoming oppressive. Bill’s feet hurt, the pain reaching up to his knees. He wished he were able to move from his place but he had room enough only to lift each leg in turn, gingerly, the foot kept flat, as though he had stood on something, twice. On the other side of the road a woman collapsed and her limp body was passed backwards over the heads of the crowd. Bill saw that she had bare ankles. Her shawl flapped loose and another woman caught it, passing it back too, so that it followed after the ankles like a personal emblem.
Finally, Parliament’s clock struck 11, deeper and grander than the bells of the abbey. Bill felt a childish pleasure in its volume, seemingly magnified in proportion to the capital. This was the time the coffin was due to set off from Westminster Hall, and he glanced at his father to observe his reaction. He was surprised to see him looking pained, his eyes narrowed and his mouth open, as though the tolling had knocked the wind out of him.
Bill remembered how Mr Gladstone’s death, like his life, had come in instalments. Each evening his father had read the medical bulletin from the paper over their tea. Bill was not certain what exact form a cancer of the palate might take, but he thought of it obscurely as being like a burn in the mouth. There would be a softening, he suspected, a tingling absence; he imagined being unable to eat, a hunger that could not be satisfied. It was horrible, when the reports lost their varnish of hope, becoming bleakly monotonous, to share in the suffering, to think of the Grand Old Man in pain while they sat comfortable in their seats. Eventually, he had found himself wishing for an end, a silence, a leaving-off. He could not tell what his father wished, but detected a lingering quality in his readings, like that point in a novel when the action has finished, but still you thumb the final pages, willing another end. On the day Mr Gladstone died they had eaten in silence.
A few days later Bill found in the paper the final photograph of Mr Gladstone published for the public. It had been taken as he set out for a drive, propped against a cushion, staring directly at the camera. His face was scaled by age, sucked-in at the cheeks; his head, vulnerable in its angularity, hatched by straggling, searching hair, was shrunk deep into the black shell of his coat; his lean, gnarled hands lay flat on his knees. Bill wondered why he had posed for it in his dying, what impulse was strong enough for him to endure the fussing of the photographer, with pain tugging at his every breath. There was no way of guessing from his expression what his thoughts might have been. Bill tried to imagine the slide and snap of the camera, the brief moment when life took the shape of art, and then Mr Gladstone shaking off his pose, maybe even speaking a few words, but found he could not. He saw only a man who had lived and now was dead.
They could hear the distant clopping of hooves. More people came past. The House of Lords this time, the person with a programme said. Bill nervously anticipated another yell, but there wasn’t one. There were the bishops: old men with accentuated faces, not very different from some of the men his father drank with, if they were put into fancy dress. And then others – foreign royalty, apparently, though they didn’t look so different either. And behind them, at last, were the horses, drawing a coffin draped in white cloth. Walking with it he recognised the Prince of Wales and Mr Balfour, both of them bigger than he’d expected, loosed from the newspapers.
The men in the crowd reached up and took off their hats in unison, a movement like the beat of a massive wing, briefly agitating the air. There came a quick push from the rows behind, and Bill performed a frantic tiptoe, grasping the elbow of the person in front to steady himself. The same thing happened on the other side, and he saw for an instant the widening of many eyes, strained mouths, a flood of animal anxiety.
The coffin was very close.
Bill’s father’s hand closed unexpectedly around his own, the hard white calluses pressing against his skin.
The coffin drew level, shining white, containing the man for whom Bill was named.
‘He spoke for us,’ his father said.
Bill saw that his father was weeping, and realised that he was weeping too. For the greatness of some lives, and the smallness of others.