Born in England right before the Great War (War World I to most of us), Amory Clay and her irrepressible personality came into contact with many of the events of the 20th century, from Weimar Berlin to London and its violent black-shirt riots to the Rhineland with the Allied troops and to the political tangle of war-torn Vietnam. But here, novelist William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach, A Good Man in Africa) presents her as a young girl, puzzled and a bit wary when her talented but troubled father insists on taking her away from her boarding school in midweek for an afternoon ride. Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay, published in September by Bloomsbury, can be purchased at booksellers and at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.
‘But that’s miles away. I’ve got to be back for prayers, Miss Ashe said.’
‘There’s a lovely little tea house I know–very cosy. We’ll have you back in time for your devotions, don’t worry.’
We drove north away from Worthing and the coast, over the Downs on the road for Horsham, Papa talking about Peggy and her unending flow of achievements, her bursary, her acclaim at the Royal Academy of Music–my sister, the prodigy.
‘How’s Xan?’ I asked, keen to hear less of Peggy.
‘Oh, you know Xan. Mooning about, talking to himself. He’s breeding guinea pigs–he’s got dozens. Keeps him busy.’
‘How’s he doing at school?’
‘Very badly, by all accounts. Thank goodness for you two girls. I think my son’s a goner.’
‘That’s an awful thing to say, Papa! Xan has real . . .’ I thought. ‘Xan sees the world differently to the rest of us.’
My father glanced at me over his shoulder for a moment.
‘We all see the world differently from each other. There’s nothing unusual in that. That’s the whole point–we all have unique vision.’
It made no sense to me so I looked out of the window as we motored through Findon and Washington.
‘What did you want to talk to me about?’ I asked, after a while.
‘My novel,’ he said. ‘I’m halfway through. It’s going terribly well.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘The war. I’m telling the truth. The unvarnished truth. Nobody’s ever written anything like it. I’m going to call it Naked in Hell.’
‘I don’t think people want to read about the war. They want to look forward.’
‘You can only look forward with confidence if you know the truth about your past.’
‘There’s the sign for West Grinstead!’
But, rather than turn right, my father turned left, down a narrow lane between dense hawthorn and elder hedges that led towards a beech wood.
‘Where are we going, Papa?’
I saw a fingerpost that said ‘Hookland Castle’ and then, through the trees, caught a glimpse of a silver expanse of water, a long thin lake. The lane we’d taken led us directly to its southern edge, curving round into more woodland up ahead that partially screened the castle with its battlemented tower. Maybe there was a tea room at the castle, I thought, as we arrived at the lakeside. It was man-made, I could now see, part of a vast landscaped park, the water grey and corrugated by the breeze. There was some sort of classical Greek temple-folly on a small round island. We seemed to be going faster all of a sudden and my father glanced back at me,his face contorted in a strange grimace, as if he were fighting to
keep back tears.
‘I love you, my darling girl. Never forget that.’
And then he turned the wheel abruptly to the right and we swerved off the metalled road with a bump, roared across a thin strip of grass and the car fell headlong into the lake. The impact with the water flung me forward against the front seat, blasting the air from my lungs. I screamed as the light darkened as we plunged beneath the water and a monstrous whooshing and gurgling noise filled the interior of the car.
Then, almost instantly, the Crossley hit the bottom, our fall stopped, and the car canted over a few degrees. Water was rising through the floor and small jets sprayed in from the window mountings. My father had fallen sideways, away from the wheel, and seemed
unconscious, his head leaning against the window at an odd angle. I felt the seconds slow to minutes. I crouch-stood, now knee deep in water, screaming–Papa! Papa!–but he didn’t respond. I kicked off my shoes and shrugged myself out of my heavy coat. I wrestled with
the door handle but I couldn’t push it open. It gave only an inch or so as the water pressure from outside was too powerful. I unwound the window and a great torrent rushed in, bitter cold, the level rising almost instantly, it seemed, to my waist. But now the door would
open and I fought my way out and swam my way up and emerged, choking, gasping, in a second. The Crossley was barely submerged, its roof just two feet below the surface. I clambered on to it and stood up, sucking in huge lungfuls of air. I could see the tracks
we had made on the turf before the car had leapt over the stone banking of the lake edge and dived. Our momentum had driven us twenty feet or so into the body of the lake. A few strokes would take me to safety. Man-made lake, therefore not very deep, I thought, with preposterous rationality. Then I remembered my father.
I jumped back in and ducked under the surface to see that the interior of the car was now full of water. My father was floating in the space between the front seat and the windscreen, his eyes open, bubbles rising from his parted lips as his lungs emptied. I opened the front door–it opened easily–and grabbed the waving end of his regimental tie and pulled. He slid buoyantly out and I pushed him up to the roof before crawling on to it myself, grabbing him round the neck with an armlock like a wrestler, and raising his head so he could breathe.
This was all I could do, I reasoned. He had only been underwater a few seconds–surely he wouldn’t have had time to drown. So I sat there and waited, holding him up and, on cue, he coughed, water dribbled from his mouth and he opened his eyes.
‘What happened?’ he said, and coughed again, vomiting more water.
‘We’re safe,’ I said. ‘What were you trying to do to us?’
‘Oh, God. Oh, God, no!’ he shouted. He shrugged off my arm and stood up. For an awful moment I thought he was going to fling himself back into the water.
‘Papa! No!’ I stood up and grabbed the sopping front of his jacket. He looked at me with awful intensity, putting his hands on my shoulders.
‘It wasn’t meant to be like this, Amory.’ His voice sounded calmer, almost reasonable. ‘I didn’t want to go on my own, you see. I wanted you to come with me.’
A car had stopped in the lane–the driver no doubt arrested by the sight of two people apparently walking on water, and tooted its horn. I turned and waved and shouted that we’d crashed into the lake.
‘I’ll call the fire brigade! Up at the castle,’ the driver shouted through the open window. ‘Two minutes!’ He drove off at speed.
My father shifted his position on the Crossley’s roof, and the car beneath us wobbled slightly. He ran his hands through his dripping hair.
‘What a mess,’ he said. He put his arm round my shoulders and smiled at me, a strange little smile. A mad smile, his eyes dead.
‘I thought the lake was deeper,’ he said. ‘Thought I’d read somewhere that the lake here was exceptionally deep.’
Excerpted from Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay by William Boyd. Copyright © 2015 by William Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.