Fiction | The Mercedes by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan, unknown portrait, and from The London Magazine, February 1970

Anna Kavan (née Helen Woods), perhaps most famous for the psychological, otherworldly fiction of Asylum Piece (1940) and Ice (1967), was described by science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss as “De Quincey’s heir and Kafka’s sister”. The following short story was originally published in The London Magazine in February 1970, just over a year after her death in 1968, and was accompanied by an essay on Kavan written by her close friend and fellow writer Rhys Davies, which is available to read online.

Anna Kavan

The Mercedes

For some reason taxis are always scarce in my district. Late on a wet night, the few there were would certainly be engaged, if their drivers weren’t already sitting comfortably at home in the warm. So I was worried about getting one for M, who’d looked in earlier in the evening on his way to visit a patient. He’d seemed quite happy talking about the wonderful big Mercedes he was going to buy as soon as he had enough money, and the wonderful time we were going to have driving about in it together—which was a semi-serious game we’d been playing for years. Then the clock had struck, and he had suddenly jumped up and said he must go at once, as if the patient couldn’t survive another half-hour without him.

At this point the telephone rang, and it was his wife, sounding annoyed and worried because the patient had rung up to say M hadn’t arrived, and she’d guessed he was with me. She said I ought not to have let him stay because he got tired so easily since his illness, and shouldn’t be out so late. In fact, on such a filthy night, he shouldn’t be out at all, and it would be my fault if he got ill again in consequence. When I asked if she wanted to speak to M, he shook his head violently at the other end of the room, refusing to be involved. I didn’t blame him. It was a relief when the receiver clicked down. The final orders were for him to go home at once, in a taxi, on no account must I let him walk.

‘No taxi,’ he said immediately, when I told him: and he went to the door for his overcoat. I only managed to stop him by getting there first. I knew how he hated being frustrated by practical things, and trying to get taxis from my house was always frustrating, but I said I must have one tonight. Holding on to him with one hand so that he couldn’t slip out, I pulled the curtain back with the other to show him the weather. I was surprised to see how much worse it had got while we’d been talking and taking no notice of it. Sleet was driving across the street, filling its whole width with a whitish blur, hiding the houses on the opposite side. The wind was booming and blowing a gale, exploding against the window as if it meant to burst into the room; the tree outside groaned and creaked and lashed the glass with its branches. It was evident, even to M, that walking was out of the question. He threw himself on to the sofa, and sat there limp, his legs stuck out straight in front of him, looking the picture of gloom, and muttering to himself:

‘Even the weather’s against me…. I can’t let the patient down….’

‘Yvonne says you’re not to worry about the patient but go straight home.’

Still he sat gloomily staring at his shoes, not answering me. After a while, he sighed and murmured, ‘It can’t be helped…’ which was one of his phrases. I always thought all his disaster and disappointments were in it, as well as his courage and everything else. He’d come to live in exile in this country after losing everything in his own, and had had a terrible time, one way and another.

I said, ‘Now I’m going to get you a taxi,’ trying to sound cheerful as if rows of cabs were waiting to be called into the house, although I knew it would be a near-miracle if I got one. Crouching on the floor, far too nervous to sit on a chair, I dialled the taxi rank and prayed for an answer. There wasn’t one, of course. So I kept on dialling different ranks and numbers, getting more and more anxious each time I heard the bell at the other end ringing vacantly in the dark distance.

Behind my back, M kept muttering sadly, ‘If only I had my Mercedes…’ Obviously he was ill and tired, and it struck me for the first time that he’d begun to look old. I could hardly bear it. It seemed so awful that he, who was such a brilliant doctor and so good to his patients, couldn’t afford even a cheap car to take him to them in this ghastly winter, while they were all racing round like maniacs on four wheels. There was nothing on earth I could do about it—except will a taxi to come. And still there was only that empty ringing, as remote and indifferent as if it was coming from outer space. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t hear him move. But when I looked round he had gone, the door was wide open, his overcoat gone from the hook. I shouted, ‘Wait! Come back” dropped the telephone and dashed after him.

Struggling into his coat as he went down, he was already at the foot of the stairs, and before I could reach him vanished into the street. A great gust of icy wind came charging into the house when he opened the door, nearly blowing me backwards. The light swung round and round crazily, shadows went leaping in all directions, everything was distorted. I don’t know whether I jumped or fell down the last few steps, but somehow I got outside. The wind yelled back at me, tore violently at my hair and clothes, doing its best to force me back indoors. I couldn’t think with all that booming and tearing; and with sleet driving into my eyes I couldn’t see either. Yet I was dimly aware of a strange large shape looming in front of me, impervious to the weather.

The storm ended abruptly. Quite suddenly the wind dropped, the sleet turned to a gentle rain, through which the street lights appeared, quietly shining. M and I were on the pavement together, and the mysterious shape revealed itself as an enormous car standing right in front of my door, as if it belonged there. It looked like an electronic car, brand new and gleaming like ebony, with long, low, graceful lines and slender, thrusting, glittering fins.

M, who was always fascinated by expensive cars, went up to examine it closer. I stood looking on. Now there wasn’t a sound. After all the commotion of wind and sleet, the sudden stillness seemed queer to me, even slightly disturbing, though he didn’t appear to notice. Except for ourselves the short street was deserted, and all the windows were dark. There was traffic in the main road at the front of the hill, quite near us, but passing as if in a silent film. The rain had stopped altogether, leaving the street a black river, while the reflected lights swimming across to glitter much more brightly on the magnificent car.

‘It’s a Mercedes,’ M exclaimed suddenly in a voice of triumph, as if he’d known all along.

I wasn’t exactly surprised myself. But I was thinking more about him. He was smiling, his face was shining and gay in the light, he looked younger and happier than he had for years. How could I have imagined he was looked old? He called out, ‘Come and look,’ but I was too fascinated to move. It was so long since I’d seen that mischievous, gay, twinkling smile of his that I’d almost forgotten it. All at once, I saw that he’d opened the door of the car; or else the car itself had opened it. ‘Come and look’, he repeated, smiling over his shoulder at me. So I went and looked inside the Mercedes with him. The ignition key was there in its place.

It certainly was a marvellous car, a real beauty. I touched the seat, which was covered in some soft precious stuff, mink perhaps, warm, luxurious, smooth as velvet. The instruments on the dashboard sparkled like jewels.

‘Shall I get in?’ M asked, glancing sideways at me with a brilliant smile. His face wore a look I’d forgotten entirely: an adventurous, young, sly, delighted, audacious look which seemed to belong to the dim past when I’d first known him. At this moment, its reappearance was bewildering, startling, it gave me a little shock; which I suppose was why I didn’t see him actually get into the car. But there he was, sitting behind the wheel.

The door was still open. I could have followed him. There was nothing to stop me getting in and sitting beside him. Why did I hesitate? Why was I so terribly nervous? I thought, suppose the owner suddenly comes and finds us? but knew this wasn’t the real reason.

‘He won’t,’ M said, reading my thought. ‘He’s already here. I’m the owner.’ I didn’t feel like smiling, but smiled because he was joking. But was it a joke? Somehow it hardly seemed so. He looked so right, so at home, in the driver’s seat, as if that was his proper place. Still without quite knowing why, I was starting to feel really frightened. If only he’d ever get out of his car and stand on the pavement with me… if only I could just touch him…

He didn’t move. Everything was so quiet, as if the silence was listening. Down in the main road, light traffic kept passing as usual, in full view, but without a sound. My little street held its breath, the house stood watching, attentive to us. I turned my head quickly, and caught the one opposite which has a cross on the roof in the act of moving forward to see us better.

I’d only looked away for a second, but when I turned back to the car the door was shut and I couldn’t see M properly any more. At once I felt terrified, seized the handle, tugged and wrenched it with all my strength, twisted it frantically from side to side. Nothing happened.

‘Open the door! Do get out… please… Don’t sit there any longer, for heaven’s sake! It’s not our Mercedes… You simply must get out!’ Pounding the door with my fists in a panic, I hardly knew what I was saying.

The door didn’t open. But now I could see M again quite clearly. He was looking at me through the windows and smiling. The glass must have shut off his voice, I only heard him say, ‘It can’t be helped…’ The words seemed to come from somewhere a long way off.

Suddenly, to my horror, the car started to move. I sprang to the door again wildly, determined to open it and get in, or else drag him out. Too late. The Mercedes was far out of reach already, my hands only grasped the air. ‘Stop!’ I shouted in desperation. ‘You can’t leave me behind!’ All these years he’d been saying we’d drive off together, I simply couldn’t believe he would go without me. Like a lunatic, I started running faster, while all the time the car was gliding away from me faster and faster as smoothly and silently as water flowing downhill, and just as inevitably. Nothing I could do could possibly stop it; but still I rushed on in pursuit. There wasn’t a sign or a sound from inside it. The street lights fled past like small moons, the houses swung round to watch. Tripping over uneven paving, splashing through puddles, I didn’t look where I was putting my feet, but kept my eyes fixed on the back of the receding car until it reached the main road, where it disappeared instantly among all the others.

I stopped then. What could be more futile than chasing a high-powered car in a street full of speeding traffic? I couldn’t have gone on running, in any case—I had no more breath. Besides, by now I knew it was useless. All my efforts, all my telephoning for taxis, had been for nothing, since M had abandoned me in the end. I knew there was no hope of ever seeing him again. Hadn’t we always said we would never come back?

Words by Anna Kavan.
Originally published February 1970


                                                            Anna Kavan was born in 1901, the only child of a wealthy British family. She began publishing under her married name, Helen Ferguson. During this time, she was introduced to heroin by her tennis coach in order to improve her game. She suffered a breakdown after the end of her second marriage, and was committed to an institution to treat both her depression and her addiction. She published her two best-known novels after this experience, Asylum Piece and Ice, under ‘Anna Kavan’, the name of a character in an earlier novel. She died of heart failure at her home in London in 1968. — Biography from Penguin.

For more information on Anna Kavan, visit the Anna Kavan Society.

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