The Breath of Night: Extract

In a preface to the novel, Philip Seward explains his initial acquaintance with Julian Tremayne and connection to the Tremayne family.

I first heard of Julian Tremayne during my all-too-brief engagement to his great-niece. Having been named for him, she felt a special affinity with him, not least given the circumstances of his murder. Julian was an English missionary who went out to the Philippines in the early 1970s. After more than a decade as a parish priest, he was implicated in the assassination of a local military commander and thrown into jail. The preposterousness of the charge, which even his enemies held to be a blatant attempt to intimidate him, provoked international outrage. The government, bowing to concerted diplomatic pressure, sent Julian home. Three years later, after the fall of President Marcos and against the wishes of his family, he returned to the Philippines where, travelling in a remote mountainous region, he was captured by a band of Communist guerrillas who brutally killed him. Even in death he was not silenced, since there have been reports of mysterious occurrences at his grave.

I treat such reports with a healthy scepticism. My own opinion, for what it is worth (and I am only a paid chronicler of Julian’s story), is that the world would be a happier, more equitable and, indeed, more spiritual place without religion. I say ‘without religion’ but not ‘without God’. By that I mean the God who can be found in the paintings of Raphael, Caravaggio and Roualt, the music of Tallis and Bach, the poetry of Donne and Herbert, as well as in countless individual acts of charity, right down to my own youthful sponsored walks on behalf of Christian Aid. I come from a long line of middle-of-the-road Anglicans. My father and grandfather, no doubt along with generations of Sewards before them, take the view that God, if not exactly an Englishman, is of an English disposition, deploring excessive religious zeal as much as any other intemperate display of passion. The Tremaynes, on the other hand, are an old Roman Catholic family, whose ability to survive the vicissitudes of post-Reformation, pre-Emancipation politics demonstrates the strength of their faith.

Julia and I met at Cambridge in the spring of 2003. She was reading modern languages and I history of art. Were I writing about her, I would fill paragraphs, chapters even, with tributes to her beauty, intelligence, generosity, glamour, wickedness and wit, along with the more intimate information that now seems obligatory in any account of a love affair. My concern, however, is with her uncle, and so I shall pass swiftly on to my first visit to their family seat, Whitlock in County Durham. The house was early Tudor with Dutch gables and russet brickwork. An east wing of Portland stone, added in the wake of the quarrying boom of the 1830s, gave it an asymmetrical charm. The current owner was Julia’s grandfather, Gregory Tremayne, who had served as a junior minister under Mrs Thatcher. Since his wife’s death the previous year, his daughter Isabel, Julia’s mother, had acted as her father’s hostess.

Julia issued me with such an extensive list of dos and don’ts regarding her grandfather that I was dreading my visit. In the event, Gregory (he was studiedly informal) could not have been more hospitable. I had scarcely taken off my coat when he offered to give me a guided tour. I was fascinated by the pictures, which were far superior to the usual country-house mishmash, but less enamoured of some of the other exhibits, notably in the trophy room. Bears, polar and grizzly, an elephant with yellowed tusks, a stag with arboreal antlers and many lesser specimens gazed glassily from the walls. Two skins, a lion and a tiger, were spread on the floor like crime-scene silhouettes. This gruesome menagerie had been gathered by Gregory’s great-uncle Lennox, in his quest to eat every animal named in the Bible except, of course, for the griffons and unicorns. Julia, anxious that I should not be misled by family legend, dismissed Lennox as a fraud, claiming that the dishes of crocodile, jackal and wolf described in his diaries attested simply to the range of his travels and his reluctance to offend the culinary tastes of his hosts.

My second visit to Whitlock was in the summer of our graduation, when Julia and I went up to announce our engagement, only to find the news overshadowed by that of her grandfather’s terminal cancer. His imminent demise cast doubt on the future of the estate. The slate quarries had been closed for years and the tenant farms no longer paid their way. Julia’s father, Hugh, was willing to underwrite his wife’s inheritance, but at the cost of sweeping changes, both administrative and aesthetic, which aroused as much opposition from the family as from the local residents. Within a year of his father-in-law’s death, he leased several hundred acres of unprofitable pasture to a wind farm. ‘Thirty turbines whirling away at an annual rent of £100,000 each. It’s an ill wind,’ he said, with a wry grin.

Meanwhile Julia and I moved to a flat in Battersea and took the first steps in our planned careers. Eighteen months later, both had been abandoned: mine by circumstance; hers by choice. Much to my chagrin, she was lured away from translation work by a friend who was setting up as a party organiser. Not even the ready supply of gourmet leftovers could reconcile me to the switch. My own dream lasted longer. Through a family friend, I was taken on by a Duke Street gallery dealing in Old Masters. After a year spent largely ‘below stairs’, cataloguing and researching, I sold a Cranach workshop painting of the Gadarene Swine to a Russian billionaire. Unfortunately, I had failed to do sufficient research into either the picture or the buyer. The former was not the simple gospel illustration it appeared, but a deeply unpleasant anti-Semitic satire, and the latter had recently rediscovered his Jewish roots. Fearing a scandal, my boss ‘reluctantly’ let me go. I did the round of London galleries but, whether their regrets were genuine or my reputation had preceded me, there were no jobs. Disillusioned, I reinvented myself as a critic, writing pieces for everything from scholarly journals and glossy magazines to sale catalogues and websites.

Then on 21 June 2007 everything changed. Not only the date but the time is for ever imprinted on my mind: 2.10 a.m., which, curiously, I see not on the elegant watch face I checked when the telephone woke me but in the clinical display of a digital clock. Julia and I had been invited to Kent to celebrate her Aunt Agnes’s seventy-second birthday. I had to stay in town for an opening at the d’Offay gallery, so Julia drove down with her younger brother Greg. Of course I blame myself. Even if we had taken Greg’s car, I might have offered to drive since, according to the autopsy, he was three times over the legal alcohol limit, or, at the very least, have insisted on his reducing his speed, which the skid marks showed to have been about eighty miles an hour. Had all else failed, I could have persuaded them to put up the roof and perhaps have saved their lives.

Ten days later I sat beside Isabel and Hugh at the funeral in the elevated family pew which, despite its whiff of feudalism, had the virtue of screening us from public view. Scores of friends came up from London, as did my parents along with my brothers and their wives, yet, for all their expressions of sympathy, I felt that my grief was marginalised. There was an unspoken assumption that I was young and would fall in love again but there would be no such grace for the Olliphants, who had lost both their children. In crude terms, it was as though their pain were not doubled but squared. Conscious of that and that Greg had been unattached, I promised to keep in touch. While I resisted returning to Whitlock, I spent several strained evenings in Chelsea, where we each tried to pretend that our memories made up for our loss. When, a year or so later, I met Belinda, a cellist with the LSO, Isabel and Hugh professed to be thrilled, inviting us to dinner where they quizzed her as if she were a prospective daughter-in-law. Their manner was so brittly polite that I resolved to refuse any further invitations even after I had broken with Belinda. For two years I restricted myself to Christmas card contact until, out of the blue, I received a letter from Isabel asking me to Whitlock to discuss a matter of mutual interest. Intrigued, and not a little nostalgic, I set a date.