Now and Then - William Corlett
"Now and then" - a phrase issued casually, without thought. How often had Christopher Metcalf thought about Stephen Walker since they were boys together thirty years ago? His now and then is every moment of every day. His life stands still after his intense, passionate affair with Stephen.
Years later, an urbane, successful, but remote man, he comes across a picture of Stephen, and the entire affairs unwinds in his mind, as painful as if it were yesterday, as if he were still that boy in that bleak, loveless environment trying to force someone to feel passion as he did.
This book describes the longing and heartache of love as no other I've read. It's almost heart-stopping in places as Christopher's journey to find Stephen - a journey both physical and metaphorical - is told in a totally truthful and painful style. Minor characters are beautifully realised in all their hideous glory: family, teachers, friends.
I read this book in a day - no reflection on its depth or length but because to not finish it was intolerable.
Being English, I found this stifling, upper-class world of the English Public School very familiar and believable. If you aren't familiar with fagging and prefects and the rigours of all-boys schools, then this book will make you weep with pity for these repressed, passionate boys.
I can't recommend this book too highly.
Do you remember your first love?
Very few of us end up partnered for life with the person with whom we shared
youthful feelings. Imagine that 30 years later you have known no other. That
you have passed through life building a successful career and friendships without
ever again feeling love or sharing passion.
Chris Metcalfe is a book editor, approaching 50 years old, and single. His father dies and he is called back to the family home he'd left long ago to escape his adolescent self. Sorting through a box of mementoes, photographs and memorabilia carefully kept by his mother, he is faced with a ghost from his public school past: Stephen Walker, a prefect two years older than Chris, with whom he shared a brief but intensely passionate affair. He was so much in love that when it ended he decided never to go through anything like it again. Middle-aged Chris is distant from his family and disconnected from his feelings. He shut down and locked emotion away to shield himself from hurt. There is a gaping hole in his life he'd kept always for Stephen, for, like Peter Pan, he never properly grew up.
The writer skilfully inter-links Now (late 80s) and Then (late50s/early60s) as Chris finally confronts the traumatic story of love and betrayal that forms the core of this book. It's a powerful and moving evocation of adolescent love and desire, and lost innocence. Relentlessly honest and deeply personal, you feel every hurt and anguish experienced by the young Chris, left with a broken heart and shattered dreams, feeling like an outsider watching his own life. A painful book to read, it doesn't spare the reader's feelings but is never sentimental.
The supporting characters too are vividly drawn. The portrayal of family relationships is sharp and will strike a chord in most readers. The novel speaks to us all. We might have gone through something similar whether unrequited love or personal betrayal. We have made choices that we knew at the time would not be in our best interests but we made them anyway, helpless in the face of desire or duty. Maybe we identify with Chris's mother, a woman whose life has close parallels with her son, locked into a loveless marriage and living in a house she detests, bitterly regretting the wasted years. Chris's parents never displayed physical affection in front of their children. His mother tells him bitterly that they were too respectable for love. One of the wonderful things about this book is her late blossoming. Their relationship develops, freed from old inhibitions by alcohol and widowhood. She is determined to put things right and not to allow Chris to follow her example. It is never too late to grab hold of life.
Corlett is particularly adept at skewering traditional English middle class repression that allowed parents to dispatch their offspring to boarding schools that were rife with cruelty and coldness, designed to turn boys into men. Your heart will bleed for these poor boys, thrown together in close confinement, knowing little of love, with all that emerging sexuality- the very fabric of the buildings is seeped in nocturnal emissions.
What happens to Chris once his involvement with Stephen is over almost defies belief in this modern age. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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