The digested classic: 7 June

'It's not a bad camp, Sir,' said Hooper. 'A big, private house with two or three lakes. You never saw such a thing.'

"It's not a bad camp, Sir," said Hooper. "A big, private house with two or three lakes. You never saw such a thing."

"Yes I did," I replied world-wearily. "I've been here before."

I had been there; first with Sebastian more than 20 years before on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the sentences heavy with nostalgia. We had met several months earlier when he had been amusingly sick in my Oxford rooms. He had begged my forgiveness and thereafter allowed me to be his friend.

"Jump in the boot, Charles," he had said, placing his teddy bear, Aloysius, on the front seat beside him. We're going to have champagne and strawberries with Nanny."

"You d-d-do know that my s-s-stutter is to let you know I'm a p-p-proper homosexual," drawled the aesthete Anthony Blanche some time later in the manner of the Wandering Jew, "and to l-l-let the reader know your's and Sebastian's c-c-campness is p-p-purely p-p-platonic. And n-n-ow is as good a time as any to fill in the b-b-backstory of Sebastian's family. His father, Lord M-M-Marchmain, lives in Venice with his mistress, while L-L-Lady Marchmain remains at B-B-Brideshead. His eldest sister, L-L-Lady Julia, is rather aloof. The youngest, C-C-Cordelia, is a hoot."

I returned home rudderless and without money that summer. "I'm in queer street," I told my father.

"Why don't you get a job then?" he replied.

Such common sentiments irked me greatly and it was with some relief that I received a telegram from Sebastian. "I'm bored and you're the only person I know desperate enough to drop everything and come immediately," it read. That summer was very heaven as we lay sketching, drinking and being clever.

"Let's go to Venice to see Daddy," Sebastian chirruped one day. "I'll pay."

"Welcome to the palazzo," growled Lord Marchmain. "Don't you hate Catholicism?"

Sebastian and I were inseparable the following year. Perhaps I should have noticed then that Sebastian's sadness was giving way to sullenness and that he was becoming a drunkard, but I was intoxicated with pleasure myself that I, a mere agnostic member of the middle classes, should be allowed such proximity to Catholic aristocrats.

"I want a drink," Sebastian shouted.

"You have done a very bad unCatholic thing by giving Sebastian whisky," Lady Marchmain reprimanded me icily. "I banish you from Brideshead."

Knowing my place in the world, I had no feelings whatsoever about losing my friendship with Sebastian. Not even a jejune irritation. It was not until sometime after, when I met Rex, Julia's arriviste Canadian fiancé, in Paris, that I heard how Sebastian had escaped the clutches of Lady Marchmain's appointed chaperone, stolen money from Blanche in Constantinople and run off to Tangier.

Rex and Julia's wedding was a quiet affair. I later learned their plans had had to be hastily changed.

"Rex has been previously married," had shrilled Lady Marchmain. "Why didn't you tell me?" Julia had wondered.

"Because if I had there would have been no last-minute Catholic hand-wringing," Rex laughed.

I returned to London to observe the General Strike and it struck me as strange that if the lower orders really didn't want to work, why didn't they do nothing in the first place like me?

"Mummy is dying," sobbed Julia. "She wants to apologise for being so beastly to you."

"I absolve ourselves of any wrongdoing," Lady Marchmain whispered. "Now run along to Tangier and see how Sebastian is getting on."

Sebastian lay bearded and unkempt, preyed on by a parasitical German. His upper-class charm shone brightly, though his alcoholism was still a bit of a problem. "I'm staying here," he slurred.

Ten years passed, years in which I did agreeably little. My theme is memory, that winged host. Unfortunately mine is not that good, because on my return to New York from sketching in Mexico, I was unable to remember the name of my son or that my wife had been pregnant when I left.

"Gosh. Really?" I said, when Celia told me the news.

The storm raged, divinely symbolic of my inner turmoil. I took Julia in my arms and kissed her hard.

"Thank God Celia was unfaithful first so I'm not a cad," I murmured.

"And I thank the Almighty that Rex is having an affair as well."

"Then let's get married once we're both divorced."

The arrangements were proceeding amicably when Julia announced her father had returned to England to die. "Come back to God," the priest threatened. Lord Marchmain made a sign of the cross and died.

"See how Daddy has returned to Catholicism," Julia cried. "Sebastian is working for a monastery, Cordelia is doing good works, so I too must embrace my Faith. We can't be wed after all."

"I quite understand," I said, deferential to the last. Brideshead looked at peace as we marched through its gates. I made my way to the chapel and prostrated myself. I too could be a Catholic.

· John Crace's Digested Read is in G2 on Tuesdays.

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John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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