A Conversation with Mr. Remington
"You ask me, Mr. Remington, a very honest question: to look at your photograph that your University department sent me and and describe the man I see in it. I thank you for expecting my honest answer.
I see an arrogant man, cranky, self-centered, superior, not interested in being interrupted, or in your personal vanity, in fact, you look unkempt. You’re British, busy, you don’t believe in women’s worth, but you do believe in Noblesse Oblige, as you have a presumption of British superiority. You are an over-eater. You wear a sweater that is perfectly suitable in that the silk threads are visible, but you have out-grown the sweater, and you don’t care. I imagine it has dribbles of salad dressing, a good tart mustard, and red wine—more likely port. I know you are a highly thought-of professor at Cambridge, but your presence in the photograph does not reflect your position. And, in fact, here I sit with you today and your are wearing the same rather tumbledown clothes."
“Well, well, how very interesting,” Remington said slowly, eyeing me with curiosity. His forehead lines straightened. He did not smile but a hint of amusement lurked in his now forward face, in a mouth about to speak.
But I interrupted his thought, “Then I see the books you are carrying in your right hand: The Regeneration Trilogy, Pat Barker’s books on the First World War. That you would carry a woman’s view on the horrors of war, really an anti-war book, compels me to think you are not the man I perceived.”
“You certainly fell into the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ theory, didn’t you,” he said with a small laugh.
“Perhaps I did. Please explain, I’m ready, I want to hear.”
“Pat Barker is an excellent writer who has captured the spirit of a terrible war. I listened to her story, and I learned something I didn’t want to know.
“And you are correct, I am unkempt—quite shabby, really. Also slightly cranky, certainly an over-eater. This bloody sweater...it could expand with me a bit more, I tell it.” With a frown, he pulled on the sweater’s front. “Yes, port, again you are quite correct.”
Remington sat back in his over-stuffed armchair and, with a sigh, rested his head. He started his story, “We drank a bit of port that night at the usual Sunday night gathering of students at my home. We spoke of their future and books, of course.”
“I imagine you are speaking of a somewhat entitled student’s future?”
“Indeed yes, I always assumed the university student’s entitlement was well-deserved. Why not, we’re a strong bunch, thinking people. The British should do the leading. I mean, it’s obvious—I’m elderly—entitlement is the world I inhabit.” Remington shifted in his chair. “But you see, dear interviewer. . . tell me again, what is your periodical? Ah yes, The Guardian. Because I am seventy-eight, I now am old enough to listen.
“I would not have read these books had not a student brought them to us that night two Sundays ago. I mean, what would a woman know about war. She would sentimentalize it, not get to the point. How could she? You're a woman, perhaps you would agree," he said eyeing his interviewer. "Well, perhaps not."
“The boy recounted Barker’s story, but he questioned the compassion for the psychological wounds of war. Shell Shock was a term used in the hospitals, even if they were hiding conscientious objectors. The goal of the hospital was to get the soldiers back in shape, any shape, to go out there and be blown up again. The boy queried all of this.”
"But why did these stories affect you?”
“Let’s have some port, shall we? Always easier for conversation, especially speaking about my new thoughts on entitlement, which have led me to new thoughts on voice.”
“Voice?” I asked.
“Yes, we English have such a steady voice and we’re so certain, so absolutely certain, that our voice is correct.”
“And, after reading the books, you thought differently?”
He paused and looked at me, “Many soldiers became mute. They couldn’t talk about the horrors they had endured, so they lost their voice. But, it was thought that only the lower class—and many called them the scared boys, even cowards—turned mute.”
“Yes?” I asked, perplexed.
Remington poured another glass. “You see, my grandfather became mute. And we did not want to think of him—first of all—as lower class and, most certainly, not as a coward.” Mr. Remington's brow had wrinkled again. “We told people he had been wounded, that he had become mute from a bullet.
“We made his emotional pain insignificant. We dismissed his self-worth, his anguish. What we did was shameful. And, I had buried it until Pat Barker made me remember.
“So, the facade of arrogance lingers, the port still drips down my sweater front, and will perhaps increase, but my voice is softening, and I want to hear the sound of my grandfather’s pain—indeed, the sound of my own pain.”