Tag: short story
First published in the June 1970 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 10, No. 3)
Like a statue too finely carved, too finished and perfected, the boy looked fragile, ever in danger of being injured. The exquisitely pointed nose, the cupid’s bow drawn almost to the point of snapping, the slender chin were assets in a girl, not in a boy. He smiled with a look of joyful wonder, and he approached you trustingly as if he didn’t even know about getting hurt. So, it is said, the penguins approached the first explorers — with complete trust, no fear, no thought man might be any less innocent than they.
The headmaster had led him into our classroom late one morning in the middle of the second term, told us his name—Silvio Guidi—and left. The teacher asked him his age. He was twelve, two years younger than nearly everybody else, and a full four years younger than one boy—Matteo, a lanky old repeater who already spoke in a man’s, low and throaty, voice. The teacher, perhaps to get a laugh out of the class, sat the new boy next to him saying, ‘Four years younger than you are Matteo, and a lot smarter, I’m sure’. Matteo took the words good humouredly. He was the clown of the class, and seemed to enjoy it. The boys laughed at the mere mention of his name. He had an incredibly long reach. If you laughed too loud, sometimes for no apparent reason, you might get your head cuffed by him even if you were on the other side of the room. No one in the class room felt quite safe.
At break, the boys milled round Silvio to ask him all sorts of questions. Matteo wanted to know if he had any sisters. No, he was an only child. He certainly looked it. He seemed so intact, so whole, and new, as if he had been privately educated, at home, by a tutor. But it wasn’t so at all. He came from a nearby town, Poggibonsi, a name that sounded sufficiently funny to the boys to start teasing him about it. ‘Poggibonsi, bonsi, bum,’ they chanted around him, and pushed him at the sound of ‘bum’.
‘But are you sure you haven’t any sisters?’ Matteo kept asking him.
Silvio seemed more amused than annoyed. ‘No,’ he said.
‘What does your father do?’ someone asked him.
‘I don’t have a father,’ he replied.
‘Why?’ Matteo asked, open-mouthed, as if he had come on something that he could exploit.
‘He died,’ Silvio said. ‘In the war.’
There was a moment of silence. Matteo got some reproachful glances.
‘But you do have a mother?’ a boy broke in.
‘Oh, yes,’ Silvio said. ‘My mother is alive.’
She came for him at half past twelve. We saw her outside the school’s columned entrance, a pretty blonde, not much taller than her son, and with a smile that she lavished, as he did, on everyone, but which was not quite as pure as his, being flavoured with a touch of coquetry.
She took him by the hand, and swinging his arm, they went off together. As they left the school yard and reached the street through one of those archways that in Siena again and again repeat the motif of the town gate, they looked the same age, or just about.
The prettiness of the woman hadn’t passed unnoticed by the boys. Matteo especially, seemed struck. The next morning, no one teased Silvio, and Matteo kept saying in Silvio’s presence, ‘Have you seen his mother? Have you seen what a mother this guy’s got?’ Silvio smiled his amused smile, and laughed when Matteo asked him to introduce him to her.
‘I’m serious,’ Matteo said.
The young boy laughed more, and looked at the others. Oh, this Matteo was certainly a curious fellow. What was the matter with him?
‘When are you going to introduce me to her?’
‘Well,’ Matteo said, giving him a shove, ‘what’s there to laugh about?’
Silvio looked away, unable to dissemble.
Matteo followed him, and gave him another push. ‘So what’s there to laugh about, I’d like to know. If you won’t introduce me, I’ll introduce myself.’
But he didn’t dare. Day after day, she came regularly at 12.30 to fetch her boy. Each time, Matteo looked at her wistfully, and slunk away. In her absence his boldness returned. He protested about Silvio not introducing him. He insisted that he do so. And yet from the way he withdrew when she appeared, one wondered if, should Silvio introduce him, he had the courage to look at her, to shake hands or to say a word.
As the days passed some of the boys made friends with Silvio. Two or three of them would walk with him and his mother a little way. Not Matteo. Matteo seemed awed by her and kept his distance. She seemed like a schoolgirl among the boys. Absolutely happy. Always holding Silvio by the hand, she talked and joked with them as they walked. Soon, she knew and called a few by name. One wondered if, being new in town, these children were her only friends. Then, one day, she noticed Matteo looking at her from a distance.
‘That one there,’ she said, ‘what’s his name?’
‘That’s Matteo,’ the boys said in a chorus.
She beckoned to him without hesitation. ‘Come here, Matteo,’ she said, and Matteo sidled over looking at the ground. On his way he kicked the gravel, and raised a little dust.
‘You are Matteo.’
‘But you’re not a child.’
‘He’s sixteen,’ two boys said at once.
‘Oh,’ she said with what sounded like appreciation, and looked up at him.
He came nearer and put an arm over Silvio’s shoulder.
‘Eh, Silvio and I,’ he said, and made a gesture with his other arm.
‘You are friends?’
‘We sure are.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘That’s what I like.’
Silvio looked around him. Everyone was friendly. But he didn’t seem surprised, it was probably something he was used to. His mother could accomplish this and more.
Matteo, having been introduced, now never failed to join Silvio and his mother after classes. The escort of three or four boys accompanied them down the main street. They dropped out one at a time as they came to some side street, but not Matteo. He couldn’t bring himself to leave them and went right to their doorstep, on the street that led to where I lived, at the other end of town, though it was quite out of the way for him. And he carried Silvio’s big Latin dictionary for him and any parcels for her. One day, I saw them approaching the house. As they got to the doorway and Matteo was about to turn back and say goodbye as he always did, she said something to him, and they all went inside the house. From that time on, Matteo’s work improved considerably, and toward Silvio he became as protective as a father.
It was an early May day. The war was considered over, though it had not yet been officially declared. A Russian junior lieutenant went through the streets of the destroyed Berlin. He didn’t know the city and had to catch solitary passers-by and inquire the way several times. The passers-by tend to try to run away the moment they saw him, because Berliners were afraid of the Russians. They were so afraid that it took them a while to realise what he wanted. Yet, when they found out that he had no wish to kill or rob them, they brightened at once and readily told him which direction to go.
The name of the junior lieutenant was Yevgeny; he was twenty two years old. He looked very young – like a teenager in uniform – but he felt confident, just as all Russians in Berlin at that time. He made haste. He had precious little time for doing whatever he was planning to do. He was in such a hurry that the risk of getting shot by someone from a hiding place didn’t bother him as much as it should.
He gave a sigh of relief when he came into the street he sought. That area had been less affected by bombing and artillery fire; there were fewer damages, less debris.
“So there is a good chance that the house is intact. If the house is intact, then, technically, the apartment is intact too. If the apartment is intact, those who lived there probably had a decent chance of survival,” Yevgeny reflected. “Only if he had not moved since before the start of the war, though. It’s been a long time – that must be considered too.”
He had to walk down the entire length of the street to figure out house numbers. The house he sought was nowhere to be found. Passers-by shook their heads when he showed them a small, lined slip of notebook paper on which the address was written, and asked in a mixture of Russian and German if they knew where Alexander Braun, an ophthalmologist, lived.
There was not enough time left to continue the search. He almost lost heart and wondered if he would return without achieving his goal for which he had gone there, when he met a boy who pushed a heavily loaded old bicycle through mounds of dirt and debris. After glancing at the address the young Berliner suddenly nodded his head in recognition and undertook to show the way for five cigarettes.
“If this is the case, it means he hasn’t moved out in twenty years. I’m lucky, I’m darn lucky,” Yevgeny thought.
The youth accompanied him as far as the front door of a quite intact apartment house. Yevgeny gave him the promised cigarettes and said – in awful German –
“Stop smoking. Smoking is bad for your health.”
The young Berliner grunted something incomprehensible and shuffled away through the rubble with his bike.
Yevgeny looked at his watch. It was eleven thirty now.
“Just ten more minutes – and that’s the end of it. If I could find him in ten minutes it would be a miracle.”
He ran up the steps and began checking apartments in search of Doctor Braun. The boy with the bicycle had pointed at a window on the second floor, but no one came to answer the door of the indicated apartment, and he didn’t see the name Braun on the doorplate. He thought that the miracle wasn’t going to happen and the boy had lied to him, yet he decided, for all that, to try his luck for the last time. He knocked on all doors and yelled with all his might: “Alexander Braun! I’m looking for Dr. Alexander Braun!”
Scared people began peeping out of the doors that seemed never to open. The most audacious of them ventured to step into the stairwell, looked at him curiously, glances interchanged.
Alexander Braun was found surprisingly quickly. A door upstairs opened, Yevgeny heard a man’s loud voice saying in German: “I’m Dr. Alexander Braun. What do you want from me?”
Yevgeny dashed up the stairs and stopped before the doctor – a tall, slightly stooped, carelessly shaven man in his fifties.
“Dr. Braun, is that you?” he repeated in Russian and gazed at the man persistently.
“What do you want from me?” the doctor said nervously.
“I am Yevgeny. Yevgeny Antipov. My stepfather’s family name is Antipov. My mother’s name is Ksenia, her maiden name is Ledovski. I –”
“Yevgeny? Zhenya?” Braun murmured in Russian, “Are you really Zhenya?”
Yevgeny glanced around. The neighbors were watching intensely.
“I’ve got about five minutes. Can we talk in your apartment? This isn’t a conversation meant to be heard by strangers.”
“Yes!” the doctor said, harsh, embarrassed, catching himself, “Yes, yes, you are right, please, come in!”
He moved slightly to one side to let his visitor pass in front of him. A tense woman of middle years stood in the hall’s shadows. Startled, she backed away a step and asked the doctor in German what that Russian wanted. Braun responded with a few brief sentences, also in German, of which Yevgeny could only decipher that the woman’s name was Martha and Braun called him his son from Russia.
All three of them came into the big living room and stood there, the men opposite one another, the woman regarding them a little way off. They all were equally confused. The doctor scratched his unshaven cheek in bewilderment, shook his head and began to fuss about.
“Please, sit down… er, Yevgeny… What an unexpected meeting – especially at such hard times! If you wait Martha and I will try to treat you to something. A patient paid me with six eggs yesterday.”
“No,” Yevgeny said resolutely, “In five minutes I’m out of here. Our battalion is being moved from Berlin. Besides, I’m not hungry. We’re well fed. I brought you this.”
He swung his canvas bag off his shoulder and took out several tins of canned beef. The woman by the door gasped. Yevgeny glanced at her and was struck by her gleaming hungry eyes.
“Wait! Five minutes? How can that be?” Braun ignored the cans. “What’s the rush? Eat with us and tell us all about you family. You mustn’t leave so quickly.”
“No time left. I spent the whole morning looking for your house.” Yevgeny said. “If I’m not back soon they’ll call me a deserter.”
“That is impossible, impossible…” Braun said helplessly.
The woman by the door tried to speak – Braun resented her efforts, quite forgetting that he should shift into German, “Martha, please, don’t interfere with me.”
“She is your wife?” Yevgeny asked.
“She’s my friend’s widow. But we’ve been living together for a long time” the doctor said a bit guiltily. “I hope you understand me. It just turned out this way, you know. Please, don’t think I’ve been unfaithful to your mother.”
“I understand,” Yevgeny nodded. “Mom also married when it was clear that you wouldn’t return from abroad.”
“How is she? How have you all been living?” the doctor asked ardently, jumping at the chance to establish at least an illusion of the shared past with this Russian junior lieutenant of whom he knew nothing.
“Mom’s all right. She lives with my sister in Murmansk now. We relocated for dad’s work,” Yevgeny said.
“Dad?” Braun repeated softly.
“I regard him as a father. He brought up my sister and me. He still believes I don’t know about you. Mom destroyed all documents, pictures. I knew nothing until I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t discovered a letter of yours. You had already written from Germany – you had written that you had been missing mom, my sister and me and looking forward for the time when we would come to Berlin. Mom kept that letter for some reason.”
“You all still could have moved abroad then! At that time, the Bolsheviks hadn’t yet closed borders!” the doctor exclaimed, “I did hope that Ksenia and you would be released from Russia. I hoped to the end.”
“You had said in that letter: ‘I have a great wish to see my little son. I suppose, Zhenya is already talking properly.’ When I read this I compared some facts and guessed what it was about. Mom denied all at first, but then confirmed that my sister and I had another father, and he’s a German. It was a shock.”
“Don’t you remember anything about me?”
“Sometimes I think I do. My memories are not very vivid. Sometimes I could recall a big man holding me high in the air, having me laugh. But maybe I confused you with dad.”
“It was me. We often played like that,” Braun said with a rueful smile.
“My sister remembers you better. But mom convinced her that you were her uncle who had gone to the Far East and had died there. She still knows nothing about you.”
“Yes, well, Ksenia certainly did the right thing being silent on this point. One had better not say anything about a relative abroad. It’s for your own good,” Braun frowned judiciously and, after a pause, added out of place, “But it hurts to think about it.”
“Mom burned the letter, but I could remember the address. I didn’t speak to anyone about my other father afterwards. When the war started I didn’t know yet if I wanted to see you. But when I ended up here, I thought I shouldn’t miss the chance if I could get it.” Yevgeny broke off, fumbling for words, “I am very glad to have found you.”
Braun started to say something, but had to control the spasm in his throat.
Yevgeny glanced at his watch. “Well, I must be going now.”
“No!” Braun exclaimed hotly, “Zhenya, please, don’t leave me yet! A few more minutes!”
“I can’t,” said Yevgeny firmly, “They’ll consider it desertion.”
“You will be back soon? When will you come back?” Braun asked hopefully.
“I don’t think I ever will.” was Yevgeny’s short answer.
He held out his hand to his father.
Braun made an awkward attempt to hug him, “Leave your address.”
“No,” Yevgeny said. “You shouldn’t write to us.”
“I won’t! I promise – I’ll never write to anyone of you!” His father cried eagerly, “I just want to keep something as a connection to you.”
After some hesitation Yevgeny said, “Give me paper and a pencil.”
The doctor bustled about even more in excitement, searching for a pencil and paper. He brought a prescription form on the back of which Yevgeny scribbled his Murmansk address.
“Never write to this address,” he warned sternly again as he handed the form to Braun.
“No no,” Braun assured him.
Yevgeny nodded, squeezed his hand and went to the door.
Martha, who was still watching them, stepped aside for him again.
But before leaving the room he turned back, “Maybe we’ll see each other again sometime in the future. We’ll have a meal together and talk things over thoroughly. We’ll learn all about each other, just like a real family.”
He went quickly out.
Braun sank down on the chair, the piece of paper clutched in his hand. There were tears streaming down his face. His eyes fell on the cans which stood on the table beside him and, in a rush of uncontrollable emotions, he brushed them to the floor.
Martha came and began to pick up the cans. One of them rolled under the table and the woman had to scramble for it on her hands and knees.
“See, Martha, how cruel our world is,” Braun said to her, “Going with the army through Europe to Berlin is the only chance for the son to meet his own father. How stern are realities of life! How dark are our times!”
Martha pulled the can from under the table and got up. She stared at the doctor silently, groping for words of comfort. The hardships of the war years have dulled her on the surface – deep down she still was a person of tact and kindness, capable of empathy.
“Maybe you’ll meet again one day,” she said at last, using almost the same words which Yevgeny had said a few minutes ago.
In Madrid, not far from the great museums that line the streets, old men row boats in the morning hours at Retiro Park. These are old men, but these are small boats. There is no vast sea here, just a man made body of water surrounded by tourists and a stone monument flooded with birds. With the morning light emerging, these men set out in rowboats, leaning back as far as their ageing spines will allow. Across calm waters, the men manoeurvre the oars. They manoeuvre the oars with poise, letting them enter the surface almost silently, propelling the boats backwards without words.
Here, they rent boats by the hour. There are no destinations, just patterned ripples in the water, with the sun rising gently and the early morning joggers circling like vultures. They are old men with the bodies of old men, and rowing offers them physical activity. It allows for their limbs move the way they did years before, and it requires a measure of coordination and strength. It provides the men with just enough work to make them feel as if they are still men, with the virility of men, capable of doing manly things. Alone in a boat, with nothing but their thoughts, oars, perhaps a wind jacket on mornings when the gusts blow stronger, the old men don’t need to rely on anyone else. They are out of the way of the joggers and strollers, and they move unimpeded to their own rhythms, their independence temporarily restored, with knees bent and legs stretched out before them. Javier was one of those men who rowed boats.
Javier lived in a small apartment near the Reina Sofia Museum. The Reina Sofia was a glorious monument to Modern Art, perched just across the way from the Atocha train station in the heart of Madrid. Although there was nothing modern about Javier, he liked to go to the museum, and he liked to go there very often. He liked to go there and ride the modern glass elevator up and walk down the sterile halls until he stood squarely in front of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.
Javier felt an unspoken bond with Picasso and with Guernica. They shared a lot of time together at the Reina Sofia, but it was more than that. They shared a history of compassion, of understanding. Picasso wasn’t a soldier, but he knew war and he knew pain. Guernica captured the horrors of battle and destruction, and Javier liked to stand in front of the painting, letting the images wash over him, into him. Javier wasn’t a painter, but he had been a soldier, and he knew what it was like to feel the despair that one can only feel in the presence of death, the presence of unnatural death. There was nothing glamorous or glorious about it, and soldiers weren’t so much brave as dutiful in his opinion. He had done his duty and he had seen great loss. Standing in front of Guernica reminded him that Picasso had too, that he wasn’t alone, and that even the greatest atrocities could be beautiful when depicted in art. They were hauntingly beautiful for the manner in which they conveyed a moment in time, and they summoned powerful feelings in those who gazed upon their canvases. Guernica was such a painting, and people young and old, from all over the world, came to the museum to see it.
One of the things Javier liked about the Guernica exhibit was that small replications of Picasso’s drafts of the painting were lined up on the opposite wall. Here, Javier had the chance to see the sketches and analyze them. Javier thought it was fascinating to consider what Picasso had included in his early drawings, what he chose to omit, and what he decided to add later on. These alterations had fundamentally changed the complexion of the painting. They altered the narrative. Most people only see the finished product, he thought. Few ever obtain a real sense of what it took for the artist to arrive here, on the precipice of greatness. This was the case in nearly every profession. We love or despise the shell, the veneer, the facade, with very little knowledge of what sits beneath, the underbelly, where the substantive quality often lies.
Most people walked into the room at the Reina Sofia unaware of the drawings on the opposite wall. They walked in and were, understandably, overwhelmed by the massive canvas sweeping across the wall before their eyes. The size and scope of the piece are truly astounding, and it wasn’t unusual to hear people gasp upon seeing it for the first time. The painting literally took their breath away. It was that magnificent, a remarkable tour de force of emotion and power and possibility, and Javier always enjoyed being in the same room as the great painting.
And yet, he often found himself standing with his back to the canvas and to the crowds, as he gazed upon the sequence of drawings that had brought Guernica to its eventual conclusion, its inevitable conclusion. He was curious about Picasso’s thought process, his experiments with different images, and what ultimately brought him to this most terrifying conclusion that would be the finished piece. It seemed unfathomable that Picasso could draw in a manner that was both childlike and spare and still find ways to illuminate the absolute terror that people felt, innocent people, who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The painting captured an element of fate, but the drawings revealed that this piece was, although well conceived, born from raw emotion, from reaction, and only later did it become a more appropriately detached response to the day the village was bombed. Javier was continually struck by the distance between the first sketch and the original, and he envied Picasso’s ability to go back, remove things, and reshape the narrative. War didn’t allow you to do that. It was final and unforgiving and there were no second drafts or revisions.
Javier had been in the Navy. He liked the water, and he enjoyed working on ships. Being on the water made him feel like the world was endless, adrift in the vast, blue sea, completely aware of his infinitesimal place in the universe. This was where Javier felt most comfortable. He didn’t fear the sea, the way it could rear its head at any moment. He embraced it. Whenever he was caught in a storm, he felt an uncommon sense of calm. The boat wasn’t likely to sink. You just needed to ride it out and move through the ups and downs. Sometimes, you were tossed clear across the deck and other times you just rolled gently over modest undulations. Either way, you were a passenger of sorts. The only choice was to accept it, to lean in, and to find a way to let nature know you weren’t ever going to fight her–come what may. Javier could make peace the elements regardless of the consequences. The actions of men were harder to accept.
In the mornings, Javier would leave his small apartment and head for the park. He would stop briefly for a cup of coffee and a tostada with olive oil and fresh, blended tomato. He always stopped at the same place, and they knew his order. He sat calmly and drank his coffee. He liked to drink coffee before he headed for the boat. It warmed the insides of his body, and it reminded him of those days when he needed to be prepared for a brisk wind out on the open seas. The coffee was good here, and the people who worked there were always agreeable. He sat near the window, looking out at the busy street and dreaming of the open seas while cars rushed by.
From there, Javier would walk past the elegant Palace Hotel, where many great dignitaries had stayed, and head past the Ritz and up towards Retiro Park. It was only a slight incline, but he felt it more than he had in his youth. The ground wasn’t like the water, he thought. Although it didn’t move, it provided an element of resistance that he felt in his spine, in the base joints of his knees, and he longed to get inside the boat. Inside the boat, things were easier. The world was less complicated, and even his body responded in a way that seemed to forget how old it was.
These rowboats were primarily rented by tourists, usually later in the day, perhaps with their children, when the sun was high in the sky and a warm glow eased over the water. Javier liked to arrive before the day took flight, and he was always the first man through the turnstile. He was the first man through the turnstile, and he was always alone. He had spent years on boats with men, many of who were now dead. He had liked the camaraderie then, but now he liked to be alone in the boat. He was nearly always alone, and this was comfortable for him. He never married, and he had no children. He was alone, but he wasn’t lonely. They weren’t the same at all, he thought, and he liked to take to the water with only himself in the boat. There would be nobody else to take care of or instruct. There would be nobody who required he make idle conversation, and Javier could simply sit down in the boat, grab the oars, take a deep breath, and propel his small craft backwards across the man-made body of water.
On his way home from the park, he would often eat lunch near the museum and stop in to see Guernica in the early afternoon. This was a nice time of day to see the painting, and Javier liked to go to the Reina Sofia when fewer tourists were there. He liked that it was near his apartment, and he liked that it was bright and clean. Most off all, Javier liked that Picasso’s Guernica was there. It was an added benefit that he liked one of the docents.
She was slightly younger than Javier, in her early seventies he estimated. She was tall and lean and had let her hair grow grey. Perhaps grey wasn’t the best description. It was silver, after all, with a fresh sheen, and she wore it magnificently. The lines on her face magnified her age, but she carried herself with an elegance that was uncommon. It was uncommon, and her poise was unmistakable. This was only the case in women who had lived to the point where there was nothing left to prove. Javier had searched the world over for a woman like that only to come up empty.
The docent had an air of nobility about her, but it was nobility void of ego and arrogance. She was old enough to have seen her beauty fade, but she was young enough to remember before it had. Still, she glided through the museum halls with a contentment, a knowingness of the past and acceptance of the present that seemed to allow her to age with unusual ease, to smile more willingly, and to say hello with an affection that illustrated how terribly unaffected she was by the passage of time. This quality was incredibly attractive to Javier, and he always looked forward to crossing paths with her on his stops to see Guernica. Javier tried to visit the museum multiple times a week.
In fact, Javier visited the museum so often that it almost seemed as if he was coming by to check on Guernica, to make sure it was still hanging on the wall, that it hadn’t been touched or damaged or moved without his permission. The painting meant a great deal to him, and he felt a sort of ownership over the canvas. He counted on it, needed it, and so he felt compelled to look in on Guernica on a regular basis.
Now that Spain had moved beyond the era of Franco, Guernica served as an important reminder of the past for Javier. He watched the young people in Madrid, and he knew they couldn’t really fathom the Spain of Franco and that the civil war was merely something the learned about in school. They lived with freedoms in the wake of the unimaginable horrors that befell the people of Guernica, who were bombed so savagely and cowardly by Hitler in 1937.
But, to Javier, Guernica wasn’t simply a painting about war or even the Spanish Civil War or even Franco for that matter. It was a painting about the innocent. It was a painting about children who deserve to be safe and protected, about mothers who bring them into the world, and it reflected their vulnerability amidst the savageness of warfare, cold and soulless and without a moral code. It was about pain and fear and unexpected death and destruction. And it was about Spain–the bull and the horse forever linked, intertwined both in the bullring and outside of it, evoking pride and pain in the hearts of Spaniards the country over. Yes. This was his Guernica, his Spain, and stopping by the Reina Sofia made him feel good that he had taken the time to remember these feelings. Spain’s history was important to him, and stopping by the museum allowed Javier to pay his respects to the past.
When Javier climbed into the boat each morning at Retiro Park, the calm of the small body of water astounded him. The stillness of the surrounding trees on all sides. The frozen stone sculptures and steps looming quietly. The day before it became a day, before loss and fear and worry could possibly descend upon it. As he propelled his small boat across the water, a feeling of endless tranquillity poured into his body underneath the rising sun with the air still cool and birds just waking up in the trees. It was a feeling so perfect, so completely in harmony with the universe, that he couldn’t possibly imagine anything in the day ahead that could change it. He couldn’t imagine that the world could ever grow dark, and he thought this must have been how the people of Guernica felt before their village was destroyed. Their little town had no reason to be a target. There was no military base in Guernica, no advantage to be gained by opposing forces except fear and shock and intimidation. Guernica was merely a terrifying message, sent from those in power by way of the dismemberment of the innocent, the limbs of mothers and children blown to bits beneath the endless skies of Basque Country in the north of Spain. Alone in his boat each morning, feeling the beauty of life course through his veins, Javier was not so different from the people of Guernica before the bombings–trusting in his surroundings, comfortable with the beauty his eyes digested, and wholly unaware of what the future held.
When Javier looked at the sketches of Guernica, he couldn’t stop thinking about how the most subtle changes impacted the entire composition. He thought Picasso was a brilliant painter, and he enjoyed contemplating what Picasso might have been thinking as he evolved the piece of art over time. It was a statement, but it was also art, and it seemed the more Picasso detached himself from his first emotions upon hearing the news of the bombing, the more powerful the piece of art became. It offered a more objective viewpoint, and it illustrated some of the cold, hard truths of the worst of humanity–illuminating the impersonal disregard humans could have for one another when they felt justified. Javier liked to look at these small panels. He liked to look at the panels and imagine Picasso in his apartment in Paris when he received the news. He liked to think of the rage and the tears and the transformation of emotion into art, of a moment into the momentous, of helplessness into hope. This is what he saw when he looked at the progression. He saw hope that the artist can only summon through great suffering. Hope that rises, like an arm from the ashes, protruding from the rubble, reaching out as the world crumbles all around. Guernica was, after all, about the prospect of hope, somehow, some way, deep in the future.
Now that Javier was an old man, his future was not nearly as long as his past. He knew this, and he thought about this as he rowed across the serene waters. He thought about this as he watched the sun rise from his boat. And he thought about it each time he said hello to the docent at the Reina Sofia.
It was a crisp fall day. He woke early and rowed as he did each day. On the way back from Retiro Park, Javier walked past the Prado Museum on the way to the Reina Sofia, past the statues of Velázquez and Goya, thinking of the 3rd of May even though it was only October. The Spanish painters knew death, understood death, he thought. Like Velázquez and Goya so many years before him, Picasso knew what it meant to experience fear, to be at the very end, and face the firing squad. He understood the terror one felt when there was nowhere left to run, when your luck had run out, and the wheel was about to stop. Yes, Spanish painters knew this better than anyone he thought, and this was always apparent in their art.
At the Reina Sofia, Javier made his way towards Guernica. When he arrived in the room, there was a crowd of students there, who stood somewhat patiently while the elegant docent spoke to them about the painting. Javier watched as she pointed towards the canvas, the graceful curve of her arm still attractive, and her eyes filled with wonder as she shared her enthusiasm for the work with the students.
When she was finished speaking, she asked the students to take fifteen minutes in the room without saying a word and without glancing at their phones. Fifteen minutes to look and see and hear and feel Guernica, to smell the smoke wafting through the village after the attacks and hear the cries of mothers at the sight of their dead children. The students gazed forward at the wall, as she stepped behind them only to see Javier with his back to the canvas, his eyes travelling across the small sketches of Guernica on the opposite wall.
He just stood there plainly, with his back to the crowd of people, staring at the sketches, in a room with no windows, with the rain now streaming down the glass of the exposed elevators that flanked the building. He just stood there, arms behind his back, bent slightly at the waist, leaning his head closer to try and get a better look. It was then he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that he wasn’t the only one with his back to the painting. The docent was looking in his direction, with her back to the students and also the painting. For a moment they were the only two people in the room, along with Picasso that is, who would likely have approved. It was nothing more than a coy, knowing smile that a woman can only give when she is older than 70 and knows that time is running out. Javier knew this, and he liked to think he was a man who was always prepared. But he was not prepared for this. He was prepared to row his boat in the mornings alongside other old men, and he was prepared to walk to the Reina Sofia and look at Guernica in the afternoons. But he was not prepared for this. He was not prepared to hope, really hope, not now, at his age. Hope, for a man his age, could only place him on the brink of despair. Even death didn’t summon fear so much as inevitability. Hope was different, and Javier didn’t dare hope, not even here at the Reina Sofia before Guernica where Picasso had spilled his hopes so powerfully across the canvas.
He had been in wars and seen the faces of death and stared blindly into sunsets, but her gaze felt like a hundred pairs of eyes levelling themselves at him, knowing and devastatingly beautiful. He had seen her so many times before and been fine. Although her smile was disarming, it was sweet and he had never been intimidated by it. Moreover, he had always been ready for it, coveted it like the stars or the moon or the sea. Only now it felt different. And he wasn’t sure if it was the painting or the room or the thought that only hours before he had been rowing in the most tranquil waters. Oh those tranquil waters, quiet, where old men in boats set out each morning completely at home and unafraid.
He had no choice but to meet her eyes and stare back into them. There was no averting her glance. They were there, alone in a crowded room, with the students facing Guernica. They were there, just the two of them, with only their thoughts, their considerable years, and days gone by that hung like the cracked, worn edges of his mouth–dry and sick with worry. All he could do in the moment was bow respectfully in her presence, doff his cap, and saunter out of the room, breaking the silence of the students by whistling a tune so old that only the two of them had ever heard it before.
BY DAVID JOSEPH
Early on a Saturday morning in October I met Vivian at Liverpool Street Station. Stevie had a painting in an exhibition opening that night, and they were down for the weekend staying with her agent, Alex. I had just returned from a brief visit to Italy and instead of going straight back to Cambridge we had agreed that I would join them. After all, Stevie’s painting was a portrait of me.
I had only a leather weekender bag with me, and Vivian slung it over his shoulder, offered me his arm, and we wound our way out of the writhing crowds of the station. I let him lead me south, not thinking of where or why we were going. Stevie was, according to Vivian, so on edge with agonised suspense about the opening as to be unbearable. He had left her with Alex and fled.
The air surged coldly at us, and I walked closer to Vivian, who wore a charcoal dark woollen coat. When we came across a florist I slowed, thinking of Stevie.
So why did you go to Italy? Vivian asked as we examined bunches of fragrant lilies. Careful how you answer, through: Camille came to dinner while you were away and he seemed rather down in the mouth, and although not even Stevie’s most persuasive attempts could extract much from him, we figured out that you were the cause of his troubles. Have you two broken up?
We aren’t together.
But you obviously are, in some sense. Or have been.
No. I’m not asking you to define my interactions, Vivian. I’m capable of doing that myself, and Camille isn’t my boyfriend.
Well, it looks like he is.
Appearances can be deceiving, mate.
Well, if you’re sure.
Fuck off, Vivian.
So, how was Italy?
Nice, yeah. I met a friend in Milan and we went to Lake Como for a few nights, hung out, took in the sights etcetera.
You hung out. With a friend.
Yes. Next topic. Vivian laughed quietly at this. I threw him an impatient look and crouched down to breathe in the sweet smell of the tumbling late roses. Their petals were tinted with apricot and creamy pinks, and I gathered them into my hands.
These ones? Vivian asked, and I nodded. While the florist wrapped them in swathes of brown paper and tied a pink velvet ribbon around it all, I burrowed into my weekender and brought out Camille’s cashmere jumper, putting it on. Outside, we turned down Threadneedle Street.
I’m not going to comment on your jumper, Vivian said, and laughed.
Good, I replied. Do you have a cigarette?
They should be in my pocket, Vivian said. His hands were full of the flowers, so I dipped my hand into his coat and helped myself, lighting two.
Thanks, Vivian said, as I held one up to his lips. We picked up pace and I tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow. The flowers were gathered between us in a futile attempt to shelter them from some of the wind.
So, how have you been? I said.
Do you honestly want an update on all the thrilling things we old marrieds have been occupying ourselves with while you’ve been flitting around Italy and so on?
Something like that.
Well, it’s more of the same. Stevie panicking, yours truly callously attempting to get some work done.
You’ve been writing?
I have, in fact. Thank god. Finally! Vivian grinned at me and I laughed.
That’s brilliant, I said.
It feels good. I think I’m writing a short story at the moment – at least, that’s what I’m calling it, I don’t want to overthink it.
Cool. Hey, do you mind if we duck into the Royal Exchange? I need a replacement perfume.
By all means, Vivian said, inclining his head comically.
In the store, I asked for a bottle of my standard scent. As I waited for the assistant to hand me my purchase with suitable aplomb, Vivian smelled the tester curiously.
It does smell like you, he said, his expression ambiguous. It feels almost too intimate, he murmured, eyebrows hovering humorously.
Yes, perhaps this was indiscreet of me, I laughed. I do hope you won’t mind?
I’m just trying not to appear too delighted, Vivian laughed.
Perhaps now would be a good time to segue into a discussion of À la recherche du temps perdu?
Yes, we do seem to be preoccupied with olfactory experiences today. Perhaps we should have tea, and partake of madeleines while vigorously debating the finer point of Proust’s navel.
Would teatime be time enough for La Recherche? I asked with mock-solemnity.
No chance, Vivian said. But it’s a start.
We drank tea among the verdite columns of the Ned and then walked west along Cheapside. St Paul’s rang out the hour and we decided to visit the whispering gallery if the crowds weren’t too bad.
It’s interesting to regard the city as a spectacle, Vivian said. I was a boy here, I mean. The city is very familiar to me, but today it appears strange. It must be your company.
I’m curious about the notion of places as legible. Not just in terms of the poetics of space, but as a cultural artefact. One moves through the city and apprehends its signs and markers, the changes in architecture that indicate the evolution of time, the differences of economies, and the jumps in ethnic identity of localised zones. And then too there is so much literal text inscribed onto the city’s surface. All those place names, and advertising.
I really like this idea, Vivian said. The city as a text: it’s interesting.
Like, I often have this sensation when I’m walking through town, or when I’m at the supermarket, being overwhelmed with disparate information. It’s as disorientating as the endless newsfeed of social media. Vivian laughed at this.
I’ve never thought of it like that. You’re right, though. Sound too is another one. The music of the city, or some such: overheard conversations too, and the ebb and flow of traffic.
Right: noise pollution, and the hum of the city. This is also true of light.
Indeed, the city has a filthy halo of light pollution.
Weird, isn’t it? This pollution as a trace of culture, I mean. Also, I think that for most people nature is nowadays the least legible it has ever been.
Because the majority of the population is so urban, you mean?
Yeah. Like, perhaps in cities like this people are still capable of reading the weather, predicting its daily changes so as to dress accordingly. But few people know the names of the trees in the avenues, the birds hunting tobacco crumbs. Let alone anything less urban than that. It weirded me out when I moved to England for university. No one could tell me the names of the trees or birds. I had to buy a book to teach myself the Latin.
It’s actually quite unusual for someone to want to know those things. Vivian smiled. Especially some one of –
If you say something about my generation, I interrupted warningly. He laughed.
Alright, you caught me.
It makes you sound so old.
Yeah, well. Ageism works both ways, mate, I smiled. I’ve read so many fucking think pieces that either malign millennials as the laziest and most narcissistic, entitled generation, or defend their predicament as a social rather than individual challenge.
What do you think?
Perhaps that the dilemma is not one of character but of means; I’m not sure.
What kind of means? Are you speaking financially?
Yes, in a way. I mean, I’m not interested per se in the millennial dilemma, but there is an increasing disparity between income groups that I believe is problematic. One manifestation of this gap is generational, but I also think that this economic instability is fundamentally infantilising in its effect on people.
You mean that a lack of income security renders people dependent? That’s true, whether on the state or parents, I can see that. But what about the emergence of so-called job snobs? People who refuse to work in a role that they think is beneath them?
Honestly it’s more often the salary than the role itself that is objectionable. This depreciation of labour is two-sided, and has financial consequences. The employee doesn’t value the worker, so doesn’t reflect the significance of the labour in the pay. Therefore the worker doesn’t value the labour, as it offers them no material reward. Capitalism is where feelings of solidarity go to die.
You would make a great unionist. I suppose you would support a universal income, too, with your youthful socialist leanings.
You do like misrepresenting my ideas as naïve, don’t you? I suppose it is easier to be amused than provoked into actual independent thought.
I’ve offended you, Vivian said apologetically.
You’ve made me think you naïve, I said, and we laughed.
Well, I am, really. I’m still profiting from the system that limits your peers and perpetuates classism.
Yes, you belong among the ranks of landlords.
Is ownership of property really so malevolent?
Well, yeah. Having to rent, coupled with having to rely on a casual income, is essentially crippling people. It offers no possibility of future security.
So I am the oppressor? Obviously I am speaking from the swampiest of moral grounds; I’ve inherited private means and property so obviously belong to that most despicable class of shareholding landlord baby boomer despots. I know I’d the bad guy.
Well, obviously. Owning a property makes you a card-carrying member of the capitalist bourgeoisie. You are protective of your financial security, and that makes it impossible for people poorer than you to eke out any semblance of security. You harness a profit from their struggle. And economically, people only really matter to society as property-owners, which is to say as shareholders within the economic model our society upholds.
You’re basically saying that poverty has become an entrenched problem within first world countries. I appreciate that these are increasingly inequitable times.
In a sense, yes. Our time is marked by inequity on so many levels: people of colour are poorer than their white counterparts. Men earn more than women. These are issues of race and gender, yes, and have wide-ranging consequences, which at their worst include racist hate crimes, and sexual violence. But the most constant and insidious level at which this inequality registers is economic. And people won’t have the time or means to act as their own advocates unless they have financial security. The threat of losing a job, and not being able to afford a place to live is too real, otherwise.
I’m assuming you also disapprove of rags-to-riches stories as capitalist propaganda?
Rather. Poverty infantilises people, yes. But it condemns them to suffering in multiple and complex ways, while capitalism disseminates this false ideal of meritocracy, which perversely teaches us to think of those who don’t get a to-riches ending, that is to say the poor, as being without merit and therefore deserving of all the suffering heaped upon them. It upsets me so much.
You’re a good person. Of course it upsets you, there is so much that is grossly unfair in the world. And I hate to ask, but how are your socialist tendencies paid for? Aren’t you here on mummy and daddy’s money?
Yeah, I can see how much you hate asking, I said, laughing. But I know what you mean.
We had reached St Paul’s, and came around by the back way, through the gardens, where leaves were already swirling to the ground. The cold wind sent the leaves frisking over the grass and paths, picking up pieces of litter as they moved like a creeping mould over everything.
I thought about how hard I’d tried when I first came to England to assert myself in crowds far worldlier than those I was accustomed to, and how I had grown to despise this. How my stance and voice had betrayed their origins by changing, rapidly and almost beyond recognition. But even at home, even in school, I had been asked this question, had it demanded of me that I state my position in society. I had long accepted the idea that whatever my answer was it would be unbelievable to someone. And now that I felt so far from my former selves I was taken up by a perverse inclination to insist upon my background, to insist that I was an outsider.
Of course, I said, as an individual my ability to pay my own way is reliant on the capitalist model. But no, my parents don’t pay for me. My privilege has a different face. I’m dependent on a scholarship; it pays my university and college fees, and I get a liveable allowance. My so-called academic merit has been deemed worthy of financial support. But I am essentially on the make.
What do you mean by that: on the make? Vivian asked, looking amused.
Oh, just that I am socially mobile in a way that misrepresents my economic status. Education has ruined me in terms of being able to fit properly within the binaries of rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged. It means that I’m a hypocrite, and that the socialist principles I espouse are not reflected materially in my lifestyle. I smiled at Vivian, who looked both bemused by this dissection of things that to his way of thinking shouldn’t be spelt out, and endeared to me.
I rather suppose I am guilty of misjudging you, Vivian said. He looked at me with a wry smile, and I laughed. I just assume that because you’re at a good university, he went on: that because you go to a very prestigious college, because you have read similar books to me and you can talk about Beethoven and Proust and because in the winter you wear a fur coat, I assume that your economic background is one of similar privilege to mine.
Vivian and I were almost the exact same height, and his shoulder felt dependable as we walked beside one another, in a way that I knew was misleading. He was waiting for me to reply, watching distractedly where we went, which was through the leaves towards the front of the cathedral, to the pale steps where a society wedding party was lingering in its finery.
That fur coat cost me six euro at an op shop, I told him.
Okay. But you have to admit, your taste appears expensive, educated: privileged. And then there is your voice.
Fuck you. What’s wrong with the way I speak?
You know, I’ve spoken to Stevie about this – about you, I mean; but in terms of your accent rather than finances.
What a horrifying prospect.
Well, quite. You’re precise, and eloquent: obviously educated and cultured, and speak in a way that demonstrates a rarefied level of understanding. But it is your accent itself that is disorientating. Stevie recognises some Australian idiom in it, but of a bygone era: her grandparents, with their money and post-colonial cultural cringe. But it’s also European in some turns of phrase, modern and Americanised in others, and an utter throwback in its turns of plumminess, which taken alongside your eccentricities has led a lot of people into thinking that you are rather posh. Your accent sounds moneyed.
When really I’m a fraud?
Yes, you really are the most dreadful phony. But no, perhaps an anachronism, but also a bastard child, or changeling: you are something quite new, as well as something out of a bygone time. Not an arriviste, perhaps, but as you say, someone on the make, culturally speaking. A self-made renaissance woman, I suppose.
I think that last bit was the nicest yet most morally ambiguous thing you’ve ever said to me, I laughed.
Well, I suppose that means I shouldn’t go on and say that your physical appearance also suggests a kind of privilege.
I made a face of distaste and Vivian laughed.
It’s true, he said. You are so beautiful that people are bound to assume your life is easy, that things are given to you on silver platters and you will never have to work to prove yourself.
That’s such a revolting misrepresentation, I replied.
Is it? Is it really? I mean, I admit it’s sexist.
Wow, that’s so self-aware, how admirable of you. Should I thank you for objectifying me, now?
We went into St Paul’s together, laughing, and Vivian joked: I’m trying my hand at this new-age man thing. I think I’m really pulling it off.
Please stop, I said.
Vivian laughed and we made our way up through the cathedral until we were standing beside the curve of its dome. St Paul’s was surprisingly quiet, and bore the traces of the wedding that had just taken place. There were very few people about, but lots of flowers.
Up in the whispering gallery we walked away from one another, directing our talk into the stone, sitting down when we heard each other from around the curve. We looked at each other from our positions of distance, and around ourselves at the cathedral itself.
Iris? Vivian’s voice came to me.
You know the story I’m writing, he said, and paused.
What about it?
My skin went cold, and I knew I could endure anything. When I took a breath it was steady, and I said: aren’t they all?
Sylvia Plath Watched Us Sleep, But We Don’t Mind was the third prize winner in our Short Story Competition 2017.
We’ve been married three years when Sylvia Plath appears in our bedroom. There is a chair in the corner, an old French Louis XV-style copy in walnut and cream. The seat is soft, flecked with grey fur at the edges where the cat likes to sit. The cat doesn’t sit there any more, though. There’s no space. Where there was once the cat, now sits Sylvia.
When I first see her there, collar like a ruff of white lace around her neck, I assume she is a new cleaner sent by the agency, that she is waiting for me to give her instructions on bleach versus white vinegar, to tell her whether we want our sheets ironed or left creased, because of the bedspread. Nobody can see what’s beneath the covers if there’s a bedspread. You can leave behind the detritus of a day – toast; those crunchy, black paper envelopes that hold After Eights; condoms; tear-splatter stripes of mascara. Life’s hidden intimacies.
She sits on the chair just so, and I can tell she isn’t a cleaner by the way she crosses her legs at the ankle, like she doesn’t have anywhere else to be. She doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me, her face open and closed at the same time. It is a look that says, I see you. I stare back at her, confused, and then it dawns on me that it is eleven at night and you are downstairs, watching TV, and it is Friday, and she is Sylvia Plath.
I know her from the reddish-brown of her hair, the girlish Alice band, the plainness of her dress, her eyes. Those haunted eyes. I know her from that old copy of The Colossus from 1998, a first edition, the one we have on the bookshelf with her name in orange on the front. The Colossus and Other Poems. She sits on the cover like she is sitting on our chair: young, cross-legged and decidedly, stubbornly alive. Yet I know she is dead. I know that she took her own life at 30, the age I am now. I know this, and the knowing leaves questions hanging in the air like smoke.
Ten… nine… eight… I let most of my breath out in one go, like the helium in that shiny-red, heart-shaped balloon you gave me with some flowers for my birthday. I moved it from room to room, hoping it would snag on a nail, the cat would prick it with a razor claw, hoping it would wither. In the end, I snipped it with scissors in the kitchen when you weren’t looking and stuffed it in the bin.
Three… two…. My lungs deflate, making me dizzy. I breathe in again, look at Sylvia and nod. She nods back. We share a mutual sense of resignation. Then she settles back in the chair, her hands neatly stacked in her lap.
Your shoes are heavy on the stairs. They make the glass lights on the ceiling below jingle and shake. You come into the bedroom. You look from me to Sylvia and back again. Spit foams at the corners of your mouth. You remind me of a goldfish with pop-eye.
“What the fuck is she doing here?” You point accusingly, as though she is mine.
I shrug. “I don’t know,” I say. This makes you madder.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Your voice has risen a couple of octaves. It sounds the way you sounded when we were fourteen, when you’d throw gravel at the porch to let me know you were waiting, leaving a spider-web of cracked glass. I’d tell Dad I was going for milk and slip out of the door sideways, in a dress with lemons embroidered on the collar. I would mutter, “Alright?”, my heart a snare, and climb up on the saddle behind you. I’d press my face into the back of your black-and-white striped Adidas tracksuit top and close my eyes, breathing in ash and beer and salt. My toes would drag along the concrete as we coasted down the hill and it would burn red-hot but I wouldn’t lift my feet up.
“How did she get in? Did you let her in? Why isn’t she talking? Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with her? Is she homeless or something?” You go close to Sylvia, wave your hand in front of her face, punch the wall. Paint scatters.
It goes on like this. You’re still talking, but I can’t make out the words, and I wonder if I’ve gone deaf, or if your voice is so high with rage that it’s reached that mosquito alarm pitch only young people can hear. We’re not young anymore, so I can’t hear you. We’re not young anymore.
Later, after you’ve stalked off to the bathroom to brush your teeth, to shave, you get into bed, one eye on the chair, watchful and wary. You are wearing the underpants I asked you to throw away two Christmases ago, the ones that hang down to your knees.
“Is she just going to sit there like that, or what?” you say, grunting with displeasure the way you grunt when someone asks us for money when we’re outside a restaurant.
I shrug again, but this time I don’t say I don’t know. We sleep.
You’ve left for work by the time I wake up, and I don’t know if you kissed me goodbye. I feel sluggish and press myself deeper into my pillow, tiredness like a coat I can’t take off. Then I remember her. Sylvia. I open my eyes and rub grit from the corners. I stare at the ceiling. I imagine what I’ll say when you come home, when I tell you about the dream I had.
“I dreamed Sylvia Plath was sitting on that chair in the corner of our bedroom,” I’ll say, my voice sounding at once amused and tinged with irony. “We had a fight about it. You punched a wall.” I’ll probably run my fingers through my hair in that way you once said made me look cute. I’ll be ready to laugh or to dismiss the conversation, depending on how your day has gone. You’ll say, “Who?”, as disinterested as if she was someone I work with.
I push myself up on my elbows, shaking off pins and needles. I look across the room to the chair, and there she is.
She’s wearing different clothes to yesterday. A cardigan, heavy wool, though the heating is on and the brass thermometer on the bedroom wall reads 22 degrees. There is a brown-and-white checked hem running from her neck to her waist, decorated with buttons. She is pregnant, which is strange, because in that instant I realise that I am too.
“Of course,” I think, staring with wonder at Sylvia Plath, at her belly’s gentle roundness, at her sober smile. She wears the same downturned lips and high cheekbones as yesterday. I guess she is six months – seven? – gone. I know it the way pensioners in the street tell young women who didn’t ask that it’s “definitely a boy”.
I feel it stir somewhere deep within me; tiny, sunflower seed, not 2mm long. I picture myself like Sylvia, months from now, belly like a road map, filled with the whirls and ripples of impatient life. I imagine myself, stumbling from bed, cow-heavy and floral, like her Morning Song.
I wonder what you’ll say when I tell you. The last time, the time it didn’t work, you grew flat and distant. I used to catch you staring into space, your hand close to your mouth but not quite touching. If I asked, you’d look at me blankly for a few seconds, then say, “Huh?” and, “I’m fine”, but the top of your nose would wrinkle with irritation. I couldn’t help myself. I asked you ten, twenty times a day, willing you to give me any other answer but “fine”, willing myself to believe you.
“This time,” I say to Sylvia, determined, nodding my head like it makes a difference, “it’ll be okay. This time it’ll stick.”
I place the flat of my hand against the softness of my belly. This time, I tell her, I will do pregnancy yoga and antenatal classes. I won’t skip out because I am embarrassed by the demonstrations, by the teacher’s giant, woolly model of a vagina, by the photos of huge, swollen women who don’t look a bit like me in birth pools, stained red. I’ll take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, and extra iron, and omega-3s. I’ll stop smoking. Drinking. Coffee, vodka. Maybe even wine. I won’t clean out the cat’s litter tray any more when it’s overflowing and stinking, that will be your job, and I’ll stop eating cheese with mould in it. I’ll go to bed early and I’ll – we’ll – take a photo of my belly, every week. We’ll go for gentle walks in the forest on Sundays and I’ll set aside two, five to ten-minute periods of the day, every day, for mindfulness, to bond with the baby. I’ll even join an NCT group.
“Did you do all of those things?” I ask Sylvia, doubtfully. She places her left hand on her belly – she looks about eight months pregnant, I decide, not six – and stares dolefully out of the window.
“I was amazed when I found how easy she was,” she tells me but doesn’t tell me: Ted and Sylvia, 1961, an interview, uploaded to YouTube. I place the words in Sylvia’s mouth now, like a kiss. “I had wondered if I would feel swallowed up by motherhood and never have any time to myself. But somehow, she fitted in beautifully.”
“You loved Ted, didn’t you?” I ask. I fancy she is telling me with her eyes what I’ve read about, about how she wanted to meet Ted Hughes because she’d read some of his poems, and she’d been impressed by him, and they went to a party in London, and then somehow, ended up married.
I think about how we ended up married. It didn’t begin at a party, like Sylvia and Ted, but at the back of the bus, in 2001. You called me “babe” and stuck your hand down my top to feel the silky lining of my bra.
We “did it” for the first time two weeks later in the park in Bethnal Green, after it was dark and the wardens had locked the gates. You helped me climb over the metal spikes. I put my hand in somebody else’s piss and wiped it on my jeans, but you didn’t mind. You held it anyway and led me to a bench where we drank cheap, warm cider that tasted like sweets. It made my head spin as I looked up at the stars. This, I thought. This is the love I dreamed of.
“It” happened. I could feel the wet grass against my back, the cold air on my thighs. It was rough, like holding my hand under the cold tap until it was numb and aching; hot, like carpet burn on my knees; sharp, like the stitches the doctor said I had to have, and I knew I had to have them, though every fibre in my body wanted to pull away. When it was over, you kissed me and said I was special, that you’d never let me go.
I lay back against the pillows again and ask Sylvia what it was like for her as a child. “I was happy, up to the age of about nine, very carefree and I believed in magic,” she says-said through the small speaker in my phone. “At nine I was rather disillusioned. I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and became more realistic and depressed.”
I nod sympathetically. “I understand,” I say.
When I was a child, everything was cold and I had to sit in my room while my parents got drunk in the kitchen. I would stay perfectly still in the quiet dark, listening to them laugh and joke and fizz and sometimes my mother would stamp upstairs and throw open the door and hiss, her teeth bared like the wild cats in the alley next to the supermarket. Sometimes she’d grab my arm so tight it would leave bruises and tell me I was a “bad girl”.
I like it when you call me a “bad girl”, though. I know it turns you on, because you growl a little bit and slap me and say, “oh, yeah, oh, fuck, yeah.”
I tell Sylvia about the day my mother died. I was nine, and she forgot to pick me up from school, and so I walked home, and climbed through a window because I didn’t have a key. Inside, everything was messy and smelled of wet, and she was in the kitchen, slumped over a bowl of milk. The milk had a film across the top of it, like custard. I touched her and she was a mannequin, one of those plastic women with both arms cut blunt at the wrist, smile fixed, eyes blue and glazed. She wasn’t my mother anymore. I wondered if she ever was.
Thinking about this makes me feel sad. I get up and put on a dress, something pink to draw my mind towards daylight. I go downstairs and watch TV, and somehow, the day passes. Nervous moths bash and crash into my ribcage.
When you come home, you don’t hug me or say hello. You slump on the sofa in your crumpled suit, the remote-control slack in your hand, your laces undone and trailing like worms on the carpet.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” I swallow, hovering at the edges. You sigh and nod your head sideways to tell me I’m in the way of the TV.
“I’m pregnant,” I say, biting my lip until I taste blood.
You turn to me, frowning. “What?”
“Pregnant,” I repeat.
You stare at me. The remote slips from your hand and clatters off the sofa to the floor. You press your fingers to your temples. You breathe in, your cheeks filled with air, and out, in one, quick burst. You push yourself up with your hands and stand. The sudden movement makes me flinch. I take a step back.
“I’m going for a walk,” you say, not looking at me as you leave the room. I put my arms around myself and hug myself tight as the front door slams. I don’t know when you’ll be back. The cat wanders in and winds himself around my legs like a question.
Above my head, the glass lights jingle and shake like bells, and I feel an aching. I stare up at the ceiling and wonder if Sylvia has gone or if she’ll stay another night, tonight – please, just one more night – and watch over us while we sleep.
‘So. What do we want today?’
I’m sitting in my local barbers chair, caped up like a clown – my head bulging through the top like a glob of cream forced through a chefs piping bag. Nobody looks good in a barbers cape. If ‘clothes maketh the man’, then capes maketh the man look like an idiot. A faint smell of cologne, old magazines and tobacco lingers – with an unsettling trace of halitosis. John, my old Greek barber, stands behind me, hands resting on my shoulders. His eyes meet mine in the mirror. When I first met John, I had thick brown hair like Mick Jagger in his prime. Now, there’s more hair on my ass than my head. This rather narrows my style choice.
‘The usual thanks John. Number two on the head, three on the beard.’
It’s passed closing time. The radio is off, and the glass door is locked. Piles of hair and whiskers lie in clumps on the floor like coughed-up fur balls from a giant cat. The two other barbers have gone, lighting cigarettes the moment they exited. It’s just me and John. Out come the clippers, and the clipping begins.
John’s been a barber here for forty eight years. He was hoping to rack up half a century, but next week he’ll be shown the door -kicked out by developers who bought the building last Spring. The barbershop only takes up a thin slice of the Art Deco block, but they want to renovate the lot – increase rent on the shops below, and convert the top level to apartments. Such is the way of the inner city. John often laments that he didn’t buy the whole building when he had the chance in the late 1970’s, before Sydney prices went crazy. Instead, a Turkish woman did – the fact that she was Turkish really sticks in John’s craw. Anyway, she clung on to it until her recent death, her children cleaned up, and the old Greek barber is out on his ear.
John doesn’t want to, but he will probably retire. Too much hassle trying to find new premises, and his son Dimitrios isn’t interested in taking over. Dimitrios worked here for a few years but now he’s a DJ in Ibiza. Not surprisingly, exchanging a life of tapas, cocaine, and sun-kissed Dutch girls, for one of grooming old men and Hipsters, doesn’t appeal. Last month I said to John that when he retires, at least he’ll have more time for fishing. John looked at me as if I had six heads, as if I couldn’t have suggested anything more ludicrous.
‘I hate fishing,’ he told me, eyes locked with mine in the mirror. ‘Waste of my time. You want fish, just go to ‘Polous Brothers.’
He wasn’t keen on my suggestion of a holiday in Greece either.
‘What for? My family’s here. Greece is a mess. Too many relatives wanting money.’
I’ve stopped trying to lighten John’s mood. Now, as I sit in the dimly lit room, the last rays of the Autumn sun sneaking through the top of the glass door, I’m aware that this is the end of an era. I’ve been coming here for over twenty-five years. My son, Joe, had his first haircut here. But this is the last time John will cut my hair. I’ll probably never see him again.
‘How’s the family? Your boy?’ he asks.
‘Bit of a madhouse as always,’ I say. ‘But Joe’s working hard. Saving up to go backpacking.’
I didn’t tell John that I’d recently discovered my nineteen year old son had been fired from his bar job for stealing money, and that it then dawned on me that I wasn’t going mad thinking that cash had been going missing from my wallet on a regular basis for a while now, and that I didn’t have the courage to tell my wife because we’d both know what this behaviour would tell us, and that my faith in my son was very much shaken. So I lied.
‘Ah, good. Good. Where’s he going?’, asked John.
‘Mostly central, southern Europe, I think. I’m not really sure. Originally he was talking about Spain, but the plans seem to change all the time. I think he wants to spend some time Croatia though. A bit cheaper.’
‘Ah, Croatia! Those girls will eat him alive eh?’
I smile. ‘I think that’s what he’s hoping for.’
What I was saying wasn’t all bullshit. Joe had recently talked about wanting to travel to Croatia. I’d suggested that he better fucking well stop stealing, work and save hard like a normal person, and not spend all of his money on getting wasted. Some of my ‘suggestions’ came out angrier than I intended. But I’ve had chats like this with Joe before. He’d be alright for a time but it wouldn’t last. What’s so disappointing about his latest effort is that he has, at least to my knowledge, been going well. He’d been working at the bar for four or five months. He was behaving himself. They liked him.
Usually something will piss Joe off and he’ll hit someone, or do a runner. The first facility Joe went to, he lost it when they tried to give him a blood test. Started swearing at the doctor and throwing things around. They kicked him out. The last time, we’d paid for this expensive place in the mountains, and he’d had a fight with a girl after he asked her for a cigarette. She’d refused and called him a ‘scab’, so Joe decided to flip a table over and walk out. Hitch-hiked back to the city. This happened on the first morning he was there. He arrived home just a few hours after us. Before Joe had lost the bar job, I thought he was on the way up. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know anything.
John changes the clippers to a smaller setting, and begins tidying up around my ears and nape. I glance into the mirror and check out the decor for the five hundredth time, but take it in more closely because it’s the last. The room is narrow. Black and white checked linoleum floor. Beige laminex counter with two chipped pink porcelain sinks. The three barber chairs face the long mirror. Long straight razors sit in tall glass jars of blue disinfectant. Scissors and combs rest on small white towels. Electric clippers hang off hooks, and boxes of tissues and rolls of crepe paper lie within reach. On the wall behind me, old photographs of hair models wearing stone wash denim are pinned slightly out of level. An old poster has illustrations of the essential styles of the period – ‘The Continental’, ‘The Businessman’, ‘The Ivy League’, ‘The Crewcut’, ‘The Caesar’, ‘The Hollywood’. John has a glass display cabinet at the end of the counter containing a few crappy products for sale – a round plastic scalp comb, a couple of green cologne bottles, a tin of moustache wax, some nail clippers. They’ve been for sale since my first visit. A new design element is blue-tacked to the mirror in front of me. It’s a postcard of a voluptuous nude woman kneeling at the waters edge – her wet black hair reaching the small of her back. Her body’s facing away, but she looks alluringly over her shoulder – the promise of heavy breasts obscured. Blue water. Blue sky. Blazing sun. ‘HOLIDAY IN CRETE’ in embossed gold lettering is printed across the skyline. The postcard was as tacky as hell but it looked like heaven.
‘She’s new John’, I say.
‘Ah, yes, a friend sent it. I never saw anyone like that in Crete before – I’m waiting for her to turn around.’ We both share a laugh. John clears his throat. ‘Where’s he working?’ John asks.
‘Joey, your boy.’
‘Just down the road. At Gus’, the butcher. Do you know him? He’s the father of one of the boys Joe used to play soccer with.’ This is true. I managed to talk Gus into taking Joe on.
‘Gus. Yes. I know him. He’s from Naxos. He’s closing down soon too. Supermarket’s taken his business. Your boy, he wants to be a butcher?’
’No. God no. He’s just helping out. Sweeping up, fetching meat from the fridge, that sort of thing. I’m not sure what he wants to be.’ I pull a hand out from under my cape and wipe my forehead. I feel hot.‘The last couple of years have been pretty tough,’ I add.
John stands upright and pauses. He shakes his head a little and gives me a ‘I-understand-but what-can-you-do?’ shrug, in the mirror. He’s had his own difficulties with his daughter. The old barber shuffles to the front of my chair and motions with his scissors if I want my eyebrows clipped. I decline. Glancing towards the back of the shop, I remind myself not to forget my jacket like last time. Too many things on my mind. Where my jacket hangs, there’s a couple of waiting chairs and a magazine table. Magazines you’d find in any barbershop around the world. Articles about the Royal family, how to jump like Michael Jordan, essential suits for Winter, celebrities who suicide, collectable wrist watches from the 60’s, the allure of the Maldives, and of course, how to get a six pack for Summer.
‘It’s good, he’s working, it’s good’ mutters John as he begins to lather up some shaving cream for my neck and beard-line. ‘You should be proud of your son. The world is full of so many bloody bastards.’
He tells me about his sister, an accountant, who does the books for one of the biggest brothel owners in the city. This fella owns four. ‘High class’, whatever that means. His sister says that eighty percent of the girls are on drugs. And these girls are beautiful. ‘Beautiful!’ He tells me how they take drugs to cope with the work, and how they hobble home exhausted at the end of their shift. But they find it hard to sleep, and have to take sleeping tablets to knock themselves out. Then they have to get back on it again the next day, to get their energy back. Prepare themselves for more men. He tells me many of the girls also sell drugs for the brothel owner – to the businessmen, the politicians, the lawyers, the doctors, the sportsmen of this city – the men who run the place, tell us how to live, laud it over us. And these girls take the drugs with them – dope, coke, ice, whatever – putting their income up their noses, into their lungs, into their arms. And then they’re in a loop. A blur. Only a few are able to save for their future, and get out before their looks fade and their value falls. One Russian girl his sister knew was different. Always in control. Strict. Driven. Never touched the drugs. Narrowed down her clients to those she could control and exploit – no weirdos. Saved like a demon. After eight years she had bought two apartments in the city and left the industry. But she was a unicorn.
John could be very chatty when he got on a roll. I was finding it difficult to keep my eyes open. The feeling of the straight razor scraping down my neck was exquisite, and my head lolled onto my chest. John lapsed into silence as he splashed some cologne onto his hands and rubbed them firmly over my neck and scalp. And that was that. Finished. He whipped off the cape and brushed me down.
‘All done’, he says. I ran my hand through the stubble around my jaw, over my head, and stood up. ‘Thanks John’, I said. I handed him twenty five bucks, and we shook hands. His grip was firm and his eyes were watery. I looked away. Thankfully there was a knock on the door. John broke from me to unlock it. It was Joe, my son, who must have finished his shift down the road at the butchers.
‘Hey Dad, saw you through the door,’ he says.
John hadn’t seen my son for years and was astonished by his six foot three frame. He clasped Joe’s wide shoulders and beamed, looking from me to Joe and back again, as if to locate some resemblance. Joe looked bemused.
‘So handsome! He must look like his mother, no?’ John joked. He turned to Joe. ‘Let me give you a haircut. A little trim.’
‘No, I’m good thanks’, replied Joe, ruffling his unruly thatch.
‘Come on Joey. Sit down, please. My treat,’ protested John.
‘Joe. Take a seat,’ I said, glaring at my son with firm insistence. Joe cottoned on that maybe he should sit.
‘Sure, why not,’ says Joe.
Joe sat down, just as he’d first done over fifteen years before. When he was a little boy. When his little feet dangled above the ground. I wandered over to the waiting chair, sat down and pulled out an old magazine. John fitted the white crepe paper around Joe’s neck, and fastened the cape. He placed his hands on my sons shoulders and locked eyes with him in the mirror.
‘So. What do we want today?’
I could see him from beside the door. He was surrounded by men in suits, pointing at the ceiling, looking at their drinks or at what their wives were doing. I remember the sight of them perfectly, as though it was yesterday, but strangely enough, always without sound.
I put my hand on the door knob, in the same way that one of the men had put his hand on the back of his chair.
Harry came up behind me and looked into the room. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Are you spying?’
‘Looks to me like you are.’ He seemed pleased to have found a weakness in me. But I saw him decide to go away, and I walked into the room to stand at the bay windows. A man cycling past waved at me.
Later, we went into the common. We played by the railway line, trying to throw sticks over the fence. It was broken in places, but none of us dared to go close to the openings. We went to the pond and threw stones in it, before one of the mothers told us not to.
Most of them had gone by the time we came back. When we came in he appeared from the garden and began telling us a story about a train crash that had happened years earlier. Harry told him the truth and he smiled at both of us. ‘You’re a funny boy Robert,’ he said to me, ‘you never say what you think, do you? Do you really think it will be less true if you say it?’
We went to bed and I began to pray. I remembered all that had happened that day; the men with their polished shoes; their wives carrying bags, looking at where things should go best; Harry and Victor chasing each other around the pond before falling out over a five-pound note.
Finally I closed my eyes as tightly as I could and whispered, too loudly: ‘and God bless Charles.’
That is 19 years ago.
‘This is Victor, Robert. He is three.’
I looked through the railings at a brown-haired boy. ‘Will I sleep in here?’
‘No no, this is Victor’s room.’
‘Where will I sleep?’
‘On the other side of the house. Victor needs lots of peace and quiet. You understand that, don’t you? He’s very sick unfortunately.’
‘Funny boy.’ Charles looked at his shoe, turned the tip of it a few times on the carpet, and then took a large breath. ‘Come, let’s leave him. You’ll have lots of time to play with him when he’s a bit older. What do you think; will you be a friend to him?’
‘Yes. I think so.’
‘Good stuff.’ He turned towards the door and held out his hand for me. I looked back one last time at the boy. For the first time I noticed two big white and orange machines beside the cot, quietly humming away. One of them, I remember, had a sticker of a dragon on it.
Jacqueline had red hair. I wondered for a long time why she looked as she did. In the living room’s bright lights, her face appeared very pale and I think she might have had green eyes, but I can’t remember. I have photographs of her, of course, but I won’t look at them.
The quiet stairs on a Sunday. The black and white photographs of men in uniforms and women with parasols or sitting on elephants. The piano with its silver candle holders. The bookcase with no books bought after the 1950s on it. The living room with its newspapers and low table, made from old railway sleepers. And always Jacqueline; the only one I remember always being there, whatever the weather or event.
She nodded at me when I first met her, and said hello as though it was once and forever. She had nothing to say, it seemed, but there were times when she talked to Charles for a long time, in a quiet voice, and he would look concerned then and wring his hands, start to say something, but eventually think the better of it and sigh.
I can see her now, tidying away glasses; drinking red wine with Charles on a Sunday; unsmiling, tall, stick thin.
I learned early on that she wasn’t an enemy. But also, that she would never be a friend. Something indefinable, something she’d seemingly rather die than talk about, had taken all of that away.
‘Aren’t you afraid?’
Two black beetles scurried about, fleeing from the stick I had picked up and was now bothering them with. I flicked one of them back at the little hole it had appeared from and it lay black and white in the sunshine. They would forget I had scared them and would dig and feel their way across twigs and half decayed leaves, hurrying towards God only knew what. I put the stick into the hole the beetles had come from again, but no other ones came out, though a few black ants had attached themselves to it.
‘Where are you, you shit?!’
I dropped my stick instantly and ran quickly towards the far end of the clearing. He didn’t shout again, but I heard him thrashing about in the woods behind me. He was hitting trees and bushes, stopping to be able to break things properly. I slid into the river bed, powder dry, and ran hunched down beneath fallen tree branches. I stopped and looked back, but I didn’t see him, not now, nor could I hear him. I tried to think where the river would go, and decided it must loop back on itself at some point.
Soon I got to a wide-open space where indeed the river arched itself back through low-lying fields. I cut my hand on tall reeds and then I sank into a black-deep finger of water. I went completely under and I suddenly thought I could leave it all now. I could stay here, to be nosed at by eels, never to be found but in three thousand years, oddly preserved.
But I felt too angry to stay under.
I got out of the ditch and went back the way I came. I got back to where the others were playing and I saw him instantly. He stood on a wooden walkway, low above the water, and was pointing at something far beneath. I walked up to him, past my bag and shoes, and pushed him into the water.
He came out, taking his time, apparently not thinking I could do anything else. He wasn’t crying; he wasn’t even that upset; in fact, he looked very calm, almost too quiet. He came right up to me, looked me in the eyes, until his nose touched mine. Finally, he said, just to me: ‘Aren’t you afraid?’
‘No,’ I lied.
He stepped back slowly, careful not to step on my toes, glanced at the woods beside the lake, and then he walked past me.
I have no idea what he did afterwards.
Two years ago, I was best man at his wedding.
She is happy to be alone with me, but she is also nervous.
It seemed an age since I had said anything. I felt embarrassed, I realised, and noticing myself realising, I blushed, cursing myself inwardly.
‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ she said suddenly. I didn’t know what to say, but felt encouraged when I saw she had stopped speaking.
What she’d said had brought us closer; if also impossibly apart.
Harry came down the stairs and lay his hand on her shoulder. ‘Not too late tonight darling’, he said, ‘we’ve a lot to do tomorrow.’ She smiled up at him.
It was time for me to go.
‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ I said to myself, walking home. No-one had ever told me anything so beautiful or so true.
That, at least, was something.
‘What do you study?’
‘English Literature. You?’
‘History.’ He looked at the book I held open. I thought how funny it was that he’d come up to me, standing in a row of books, before Thackeray, on the third floor of the library, most people being away for the holidays, downstairs or in the park. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘Waiting for a friend,’ I lied.
‘Come out for a smoke?’
‘Tom,’ he said.
We went out into the day, a high blue sky and a wind that didn’t come close, staying along the square’s open windows. He had Marlboro Reds, which he said he’d bought in Sweden. I slept on his friend’s couch that night.
I still know him today. I think he lives with his wife in Fulham.
Splitting the universe
The pubs down the road were getting quieter. I switched off my laptop, went down the stairs, came back up again and phoned Ellie. She’d cooked vegetables and carved out avocados that now stood under a napkin.
‘I don’t know what to do with the wine.’
‘Oh don’t worry, I’ll be home soon.’
‘I thought about you today.’
‘Should I hate you, I was thinking?’
‘Well, I don’t think you’re honest. You’re not, are you?’
‘In what way?’
‘Are you really at work? I bet you went for drinks with your friends.’
‘Oh no. I’m finished.’
‘Do you feel love for me?’
She waited, as if my answer could split the universe. ‘Ellie, you know I do.’
There was a pause, but then she said: ‘I can’t open the wine.’
‘Yes of course. I’ll get a corkscrew, don’t worry.’
‘Yeah well, I don’t drink much anyway. It’s for you.’
Later, we ate by the light of two candles, little shocks disturbing our drinks from the trains. The avocados were brown around the edges but Ellie had made mustard to go with them.
We went to bed after Newsnight.
We went to the hotel on Friday night, the train arriving after ten at Oxford. The lights of a tractor ran over the walls as we walked up the drive, the wind coming over the fields and through the trees above us.
We stayed in bed until midday the next day. Ellie stopped herself several times from talking about her classes, and I tried not to mention my unanswered emails. We ate lunch by a large window downstairs, joking about how much we’d listened to Dido already.
We read upstairs in the afternoon. I put my head on her knees, holding up Either Side of Winter. Ellie ran her hand through my hair, talking about the amount of times she’d finished before everyone else, and still had had to wait.
I kissed her.
On Sunday, we went to the river. There was enough sun and we lay where we could put our feet in the water. Ellie lay on her back, her eyes closed. I went close to her, reached to hold her hand, but then stopped and checked my mobile instead. A small grey fly scurried down my arm, flew up when it reached the first hairs of my hand, and landed on her shirt.
In the evening, I tried to talk to her, but finally went into the bathroom. I ran both taps, took off my shoes and sat on the edge of the bath. I could hear her laugh as she spoke on the phone to her mum.
‘I burnt my legs. See?’
‘Oh yeah? I got burnt on my shoulders and in my neck.’
‘Let me see?’ She ran her hands softly over my back. She tried to pull down my shirt at the back; stopped and unbuttoned the top button; and began feeling for sunburn. She went to get some water and then she wet her fingertips, tracing the outlines of my shoulder blades. ‘It’s not that bad,’ she said when she’d had enough, ‘it will go away.’
I turned around and looked at her standing by the bookshelves. She was looking intently at a piece of paper, holding one of the flat grey stones of her necklace very still. She stood just out of the sunlight, which slanted behind her onto a row of blue Tolstoys.
I’d seen her search for me on trains, in hallways, at parties, in cafes, bookshops, restaurants, cinemas and galleries. I’d heard her call me in countless places; her voice not always nice to hear. I had a thousand text messages from her, scribbled notes, birthday cards, signed books and even a long letter which she had page numbered, circling the numbers with large loops, but one that we didn’t talk about anymore.
She stood there, reading something I didn’t recognise, completely still.
Now or never it must be said, I thought.
Minutes earlier, this might even have been true.
He couldn’t see me. I saw him look past and below me, his face and shirt lit up from the hallway. He looked slightly annoyed, as though I was too far from him; like now he’d have to shout, something he detested.
‘Why did you go up Robert?’
I felt the odd sensation of making sure of your expression though no one can see you; an actor in the wings. My feet felt awkward and heavy and I tried to make it better by standing on one leg. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Why don’t you come down? We can take Max out; you know he loves it when you’re back.’
I shouldn’t have told him anything, I thought. Or made up some story.
‘Anyway, you should talk things over. What do you think she’s going to do? Bite you?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous…’ I whispered.
‘You’re such a funny boy Robert. Why don’t you just say what you think?’
‘It’s not working. What’s there to talk about?’
‘You can’t just…oh Robert, would you please come down? I can’t just stand here. I can’t even see you!’
‘I’ll be a minute.’ I had no intention of going to face him again.
‘You should talk about it. At least with me. You’re not afraid of me, are you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Good, so come down.’ He stepped away from the stairs and went into the living room.
Nothing good could come of talking of course. Nothing ever had.
But I went to see Charles in the end, and let him try once more.
It would probably be God next, patiently perhaps.
By Andre van Loon
Thank you so much to everyone who entered The London Magazine‘s Short Story Competition 2016. We were delighted to see such a large volume and high standard of entries. Judges Max Porter, Erica Wagner and Angus Cargill have made their decision, and we are very pleased to announce the winners:
First place: The Match Factory by Emma Hughes
Second place: I Have Called You By Your Name by Anne O’Brien
Third place: The Ideal Husband Exhibition by Dan Powell
Each of these short stories will be published in upcoming issues of The London Magazine as well as online. The winners will be awarded their prizes at a ceremony held at the House of Commons Terrace Pavilion in March.
We would like to extend a special mention to those who were shortlisted, your short fiction also impressed our judges and magazine staff:
The Fog Harvester – Marie Gethins
Strange Monument No. 1 – Kevin Klinskidorn
Five Parts – Amanda Oosthuizen
Big Fish – William Pei Shih
Snow – Sally Syson
London City Ghouls i: Matt and Rakel Don’t Go Out – Toby Parker Rees
Take The Well – Mark Wagstaff
We’d also like to thank our judges for all the time and effort they put into reading the submissions, and thanks also to our readers, Ludovico Cinelli, Rufus Cuthbert and Victoria Lancaster, who aided the selection process!
With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to judge Max Porter and found out about which writer never fails to inspire him, which three books he’d take if he were stranded on a desert island, and what advice he’d give to this year’s competition entrants.
What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed?
I’m reading Lian Hearn’s Japanese adventure series Shikanoko, Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice, and some Peter Stamm short stories.
And what specifically did you like about it?
I like the very controlled and worthwhile magic realism in Lian Hearn’s books, and the sex, and the painterly way she has with violence. They’re hugely entertaining and I need that because I ‘literary fiction’ all day every day.
What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?
That’s a horrible question and I refuse to answer it. Oh OK. On Monday it was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. On Tuesday it was The Swimmer by John Cheever. On Wednesday it is The Country Funeral by John McGahern. Thursday The Early Deaths of.. by Jesse Ball. And so on.
I’d choose The Lottery for a space capsule I suppose. Because it is devastating, exquisitely well designed, witty, political, mythic. It tells vast truths quickly and with poise. It is perfect.
Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?
If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?
Refuse to answer. Ok, Odyssey, Shakespeare and a massive cheat Poetry anthology.
What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?
You should let the story do what it needs to do and not corral it harmfully into another shape. Stories are lethal tools, let it be. Consider how many we’ll have to read and show us quickly why we need to pay attention to yours. Do not waste one single word. Finish well, all the greats do.
Max Porter is an editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. His authors include Han Kang, Eleanor Catton, Ben Marcus, Sarah Moss and Caroline Lucas. His debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers was published in 2015. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and will be translated into 23 languages. He lives in South London with his family.
With The London Magazine Short Story Competition now open for submissions, we delved into our archives for inspiration and found this short by Thomas Hardy from May 1903. The story was accompanied by illustrations by Gordon Browne.
The traveller in school-books, who vouched in dryest tones for the fidelity to fact of the following narrative, used to add a ring of truth to it by opening with a nicety of criticism on the heroine’s personality. People were wrong, he declared, when they surmised that Baptista Trewthen was a young woman with scarcely emotions or character. There was nothing in her to love, and nothing to hate–so ran the general opinion. That she showed few positive qualities was true. The colours and tones which changing events paint on the faces of active womankind were looked for in vain upon hers. But still waters run deep; and no crisis had come in the years of her early maidenhood to demonstrate what lay hidden within her, like metal in a mine.
She was the daughter of a small farmer in St Maria’s, one of the Isles of Lyonesse beyond Off-Wessex, who had spent a large sum, as there understood, on her education, by sending her to the mainland for two years. At nineteen she was entered at the Training College for Teachers, and at twenty-one nominated to a school in the country, near Tor-upon-Sea, whither she proceeded after the Christmas examination and holidays.
The months passed by from winter to spring and summer, and Baptista applied herself to her new duties as best she could, till an uneventful year had elapsed. Then an air of abstraction pervaded her bearing as she walked to and fro, twice a day, and she showed the traits of a person who had something on her mind. A widow, by name Mrs Wace, in whose house Baptista Trewthen had been provided with a sitting-room and bedroom till the schoolhouse should be built, noticed this change in her youthful tenant’s manner, and at last ventured to press her with a few questions.
‘It has nothing to do with the place, nor with you,’ said Miss Trewthen.
‘Then it is the salary?’
‘No, nor the salary.’
‘Then it is something you have heard from home, my dear.’
Baptista was silent for a few moments. ‘It is Mr Heddegan,’ she murmured. ‘Him they used to call David Heddegan before he got his money.’
‘And who is the Mr Heddegan they used to call David?’
‘An old bachelor at Giant’s Town, St Maria’s, with no relations whatever, who lives about a stone’s throw from father’s. When I was a child he used to take me on his knee and say he’d marry me some day. Now I am a woman the jest has turned earnest, and he is anxious to do it. And father and mother say I can’t do better than have him.’
‘He’s well off?’
‘Yes–he’s the richest man we know–as a friend and neighbour.’
‘How much older did you say he was than yourself?’
‘I didn’t say. Twenty years at least.’
‘And an unpleasant man in the bargain perhaps?’
‘No–he’s not unpleasant.’
‘Well, child, all I can say is that I’d resist any such engagement if it’s not palatable to ‘ee. You are comfortable here, in my little house, I hope. All the parish like ‘ee: and I’ve never been so cheerful, since my poor husband left me to wear his wings, as I’ve been with ‘ee as my lodger.’
The schoolmistress assured her landlady that she could return the sentiment. ‘But here comes my perplexity,’ she said. ‘I don’t like keeping school. Ah, you are surprised–you didn’t suspect it. That’s because I’ve concealed my feeling. Well, I simply hate school. I don’t care for children–they are unpleasant, troublesome little things, whom nothing would delight so much as to hear that you had fallen down dead. Yet I would even put up with them if it was not for the inspector. For three months before his visit I didn’t sleep soundly. And the Committee of Council are always changing the Code, so that you don’t know what to teach, and what to leave untaught. I think father and mother are right. They say I shall never excel as a schoolmistress if I dislike the work so, and that therefore I ought to get settled by marrying Mr Heddegan. Between us two, I like him better than school; but I don’t like him quite so much as to wish to marry him.’
These conversations, once begun, were continued from day to day; till at length the young girl’s elderly friend and landlady threw in her opinion on the side of Miss Trewthen’s parents. All things considered, she declared, the uncertainty of the school, the labour, Baptista’s natural dislike for teaching, it would be as well to take what fate offered, and make the best of matters by wedding her father’s old neighbour and prosperous friend.
The Easter holidays came round, and Baptista went to spend them as usual in her native isle, going by train into Off-Wessex and crossing by packet from Pen-zephyr. When she returned in the middle of April her face wore a more settled aspect.
‘Well?’ said the expectant Mrs Wace.
‘I have agreed to have him as my husband,’ said Baptista, in an off-hand way. ‘Heaven knows if it will be for the best or not. But I have agreed to do it, and so the matter is settled.’
Mrs Wace commended her; but Baptista did not care to dwell on the subject; so that allusion to it was very infrequent between them. Nevertheless, among other things, she repeated to the widow from time to time in monosyllabic remarks that the wedding was really impending; that it was arranged for the summer, and that she had given notice of leaving the school at the August holidays. Later on she announced more specifically that her marriage was to take place immediately after her return home at the beginning of the month aforesaid.
She now corresponded regularly with Mr Heddegan. Her letters from him were seen, at least on the outside, and in part within, by Mrs Wace. Had she read more of their interiors than the occasional sentences shown her by Baptista she would have perceived that the scratchy, rusty handwriting of Miss Trewthen’s betrothed conveyed little more matter than details of their future housekeeping, and his preparations for the same, with innumerable ‘my dears’ sprinkled in disconnectedly, to show the depth of his affection without the inconveniences of syntax.
It was the end of July–dry, too dry, even for the season, the delicate green herbs and vegetables that grew in this favoured end of the kingdom tasting rather of the watering-pot than of the pure fresh moisture from the skies. Baptista’s boxes were packed, and one Saturday morning she departed by a waggonette to the station, and thence by train to Pen-zephyr, from which port she was, as usual, to cross the water immediately to her home, and become Mr Heddegan’s wife on the Wednesday of the week following.
She might have returned a week sooner. But though the wedding day had loomed so near, and the banns were out, she delayed her departure till this last moment, saying it was not necessary for her to be at home long beforehand. As Mr Heddegan was older than herself, she said, she was to be married in her ordinary summer bonnet and grey silk frock, and there were no preparations to make that had not been amply made by her parents and intended husband.
In due time, after a hot and tedious journey, she reached Pen-zephyr. She here obtained some refreshment, and then went towards the pier, where she learnt to her surprise that the little steamboat plying between the town and the islands had left at eleven o’clock; the usual hour of departure in the afternoon having been forestalled in consequence of the fogs which had for a few days prevailed towards evening, making twilight navigation dangerous.
This being Saturday, there was now no other boat till Tuesday, and it became obvious that here she would have to remain for the three days, unless her friends should think fit to rig out one of the island sailing-boats and come to fetch her–a not very likely contingency, the sea distance being nearly forty miles.
Baptista, however, had been detained in Pen-zephyr on more than one occasion before, either on account of bad weather or some such reason as the present, and she was therefore not in any personal alarm. But, as she was to be married on the following Wednesday, the delay was certainly inconvenient to a more than ordinary degree, since it would leave less than a day’s interval between her arrival and the wedding ceremony.
Apart from this awkwardness she did not much mind the accident. It was indeed curious to see how little she minded. Perhaps it would not be too much to say that, although she was going to do the critical deed of her life quite willingly, she experienced an indefinable relief at the postponement of her meeting with Heddegan. But her manner after making discovery of the hindrance was quiet and subdued, even to passivity itself; as was instanced by her having, at the moment of receiving information that the steamer had sailed, replied ‘Oh’, so coolly to the porter with her luggage, that he was almost disappointed at her lack of disappointment.
The question now was, should she return again to Mrs Wace, in the village of Lower Wessex, or wait in the town at which she had arrived. She would have preferred to go back, but the distance was too great; moreover, having left the place for good, and somewhat dramatically, to become a bride, a return, even for so short a space, would have been a trifle humiliating.
Leaving, then, her boxes at the station, her next anxiety was to secure a respectable, or rather genteel, lodging in the popular seaside resort confronting her. To this end she looked about the town, in which, though she had passed through it half-a-dozen times, she was practically a stranger.
Baptista found a room to suit her over a fruiterer’s shop; where she made herself at home, and set herself in order after her journey. An early cup of tea having revived her spirits she walked out to reconnoitre.
Being a schoolmistress she avoided looking at the schools, and having a sort of trade connection with books, she avoided looking at the booksellers; but wearying of the other shops she inspected the churches; not that for her own part she cared much about ecclesiastical edifices; but tourists looked at them, and so would she–a proceeding for which no one would have credited her with any great originality, such, for instance, as that she subsequently showed herself to possess. The churches soon oppressed her. She tried the Museum, but came out because it seemed lonely and tedious.
Yet the town and the walks in this land of strawberries, these headquarters of early English flowers and fruit, were then, as always, attractive. From the more picturesque streets she went to the town gardens, and the Pier, and the Harbour, and looked at the men at work there, loading and unloading as in the time of the Phoenicians.
‘Not Baptista? Yes, Baptista it is!’
The words were uttered behind her. Turning round she gave a start, and became confused, even agitated, for a moment. Then she said in her usual undemonstrative manner, ‘O–is it really you, Charles?’
Without speaking again at once, and with a half-smile, the newcomer glanced her over. There was much criticism, and some resentment–even temper–in his eye.
‘I am going home,’ continued she. ‘But I have missed the boat.’
He scarcely seemed to take in the meaning of this explanation, in the intensity of his critical survey. ‘Teaching still? What a fine schoolmistress you make, Baptista, I warrant!’ he said with a slight flavour of sarcasm, which was not lost upon her.
‘I know I am nothing to brag of,’ she replied. ‘That’s why I have given up.’
‘O–given up? You astonish me.’
‘I hate the profession.’
‘Perhaps that’s because I am in it.’
‘O no, it isn’t. But I am going to enter on another life altogether. I am going to be married next week to Mr David Heddegan.’
The young man–fortified as he was by a natural cynical pride and passionateness–winced at this unexpected reply, notwithstanding.
‘Who is Mr David Heddegan?’ he asked, as indifferently as lay in his power.
She informed him the bearer of the name was a general merchant of Giant’s Town, St Maria’s Island–her father’s nearest neighbour and oldest friend.
‘Then we shan’t see anything more of you on the mainland?’ inquired the schoolmaster.
‘O, I don’t know about that,’ said Miss Trewthen.
‘Here endeth the career of the belle of the boarding-school your father was foolish enough to send you to. A “general merchant’s” wife in the Lyonesse Isles. Will you sell pounds of soap and pennyworths of tin tacks, or whole bars of saponaceous matter, and great tenpenny nails?’
‘He’s not in such a small way as that!’ she almost pleaded. ‘He owns ships, though they are rather little ones!’
‘O, well, it is much the same. Come, let us walk on; it is tedious to stand still. I thought you would be a failure in education,’ he continued, when she obeyed him and strolled ahead. ‘You never showed power that way. You remind me much of some of those women who think they are sure to be great actresses if they go on the stage, because they have a pretty face, and forget that what we require is acting. But you found your mistake, didn’t you?’
‘Don’t taunt me, Charles.’ It was noticeable that the young schoolmaster’s tone caused her no anger or retaliatory passion; far otherwise: there was a tear in her eye. ‘How is it you are at Pen-zephyr?’ she inquired.
‘I don’t taunt you. I speak the truth, purely in a friendly way, as I should to anyone I wished well. Though for that matter I might have some excuse even for taunting you. Such a terrible hurry as you’ve been in. I hate a woman who is in such a hurry.’
‘How do you mean that?’
‘Why–to be somebody’s wife or other–anything’s wife rather than nobody’s. You couldn’t wait for me, O, no. Well, thank God, I’m cured of all that!’
‘How merciless you are!’ she said bitterly. ‘Wait for you? What does that mean, Charley? You never showed–anything to wait for–anything special towards me.’
‘O come, Baptista dear; come!’
‘What I mean is, nothing definite,’ she expostulated. ‘I suppose you liked me a little; but it seemed to me to be only a pastime on your part, and that you never meant to make an honourable engagement of it.’
‘There, that’s just it! You girls expect a man to mean business at the first look. No man when he first becomes interested in a woman has any definite scheme of engagement to marry her in his mind, unless he is meaning a vulgar mercenary marriage. However, I did at last mean an honourable engagement, as you call it, come to that.’
‘But you never said so, and an indefinite courtship soon injures a woman’s position and credit, sooner than you think.’
‘Baptista, I solemnly declare that in six months I should have asked you to marry me.’
She walked along in silence, looking on the ground, and appearing very uncomfortable. Presently he said, ‘Would you have waited for me if you had known?’ To this she whispered in a sorrowful whisper, ‘Yes!’
They went still farther in silence–passing along one of the beautiful walks on the outskirts of the town, yet not observant of scene or situation. Her shoulder and his were close together, and he clasped his fingers round the small of her arm–quite lightly, and without any attempt at impetus; yet the act seemed to say, ‘Now I hold you, and my will must be yours.’
Recurring to a previous question of hers he said, ‘I have merely run down here for a day or two from school near Trufal, before going off to the north for the rest of my holiday. I have seen my relations at Redrutin quite lately, so I am not going there this time. How little I thought of meeting you! How very different the circumstances would have been if, instead of parting again as we must in half-an-hour or so, possibly for ever, you had been now just going off with me, as my wife, on our honeymoon trip. Ha–ha–well–so humorous is life!’
She stopped suddenly. ‘I must go back now–this is altogether too painful, Charley! It is not at all a kind mood you are in today.’
‘I don’t want to pain you–you know I do not,’ he said more gently. ‘Only it just exasperates me–this you are going to do. I wish you would not.’
‘Marry him. There, now I have showed you my true sentiments.’
‘I must do it now,’ said she.
‘Why?’ he asked, dropping the off-hand masterful tone he had hitherto spoken in, and becoming earnest; still holding her arm, however, as if she were his chattel to be taken up or put down at will. ‘It is never too late to break off a marriage that’s distasteful to you. Now I’ll say one thing; and it is truth: I wish you would marry me instead of him, even now, at the last moment, though you have served me so badly.’
‘O, it is not possible to think of that!’ she answered hastily, shaking her head. ‘When I get home all will be prepared–it is ready even now–the things for the party, the furniture, Mr. Heddegan’s new suit, and everything. I should require the courage of a tropical lion to go home there and say I wouldn’t carry out my promise!’
‘Then go, in Heaven’s name! But there would be no necessity for you to go home and face them in that way. If we were to marry, it would have to be at once, instantly; or not at all. I should think your affection not worth the having unless you agreed to come back with me to Trufal this evening, where we could be married by licence on Monday morning. And then no Mr. David Heddegan or anybody else could get you away from me.’
‘I must go home by the Tuesday boat,’ she faltered. ‘What would they think if I did not come?’
‘You could go home by that boat just the same. All the difference would be that I should go with you. You could leave me on the quay, where I’d have a smoke, while you went and saw your father and mother privately; you could then tell them what you had done, and that I was waiting not far off; that I was a schoolmaster in a fairly good position, and a young man you had known when you were at the Training College. Then I would come boldly forward; and they would see that it could not be altered, and so you wouldn’t suffer a lifelong misery by being the wife of a wretched old gaffer you don’t like at all. Now, honestly; you do like me best, don’t you, Baptista?’
‘Then we will do as I say.’
She did not pronounce a clear affirmative. But that she consented to the novel proposition at some moment or other of that walk was apparent by what occurred a little later.
An enterprise of such pith required, indeed, less talking than consideration. The first thing they did in carrying it out was to return to the railway station, where Baptista took from her luggage a small trunk of immediate necessaries which she would in any case have required after missing the boat. That same afternoon they travelled up the line to Trufal.
Charles Stow (as his name was), despite his disdainful indifference to things, was very careful of appearances, and made the journey independently of her though in the same train. He told her where she could get board and lodgings in the city; and with merely a distant nod to her of a provisional kind, went off to his own quarters, and to see about the licence.
On Sunday she saw him in the morning across the nave of the pro-cathedral. In the afternoon they walked together in the fields, where he told her that the licence would be ready next day, and would be available the day after, when the ceremony could be performed as early after eight o’clock as they should choose.
His courtship, thus renewed after an interval of two years, was as impetuous, violent even, as it was short. The next day came and passed, and the final arrangements were made. Their agreement was to get the ceremony over as soon as they possibly could the next morning, so as to go on to Pen-zephyr at once, and reach that place in time for the boat’s departure the same day. It was in obedience to Baptista’s earnest request that Stow consented thus to make the whole journey to Lyonesse by land and water at one heat, and not break it at Pen-zephyr; she seemed to be oppressed with a dread of lingering anywhere, this great first act of disobedience to her parents once accomplished, with the weight on her mind that her home had to be convulsed by the disclosure of it. To face her difficulties over the water immediately she had created them was, however, a course more desired by Baptista than by her lover; though for once he gave way.
The next morning was bright and warm as those which had preceded it. By six o’clock it seemed nearly noon, as is often the case in that part of England in the summer season. By nine they were husband and wife. They packed up and departed by the earliest train after the service; and on the way discussed at length what she should say on meeting her parents, Charley dictating the turn of each phrase. In her anxiety they had travelled so early that when they reached Pen-zephyr they found there were nearly two hours on their hands before the steamer’s time of sailing.
Baptista was extremely reluctant to be seen promenading the streets of the watering-place with her husband till, as above stated, the household at Giant’s Town should know the unexpected course of events from her own lips; and it was just possible, if not likely, that some Lyonessian might be prowling about there, or even have come across the sea to look for her. To meet anyone to whom she was known, and to have to reply to awkward questions about the strange young man at her side before her well-framed announcement had been delivered at proper time and place, was a thing she could not contemplate with equanimity. So, instead of looking at the shops and harbour, they went along the coast a little way.
The heat of the morning was by this time intense. They clambered up on some cliffs, and while sitting there, looking around at St Michael’s Mount and other objects, Charles said to her that he thought he would run down to the beach at their feet, and take just one plunge into the sea.
Baptista did not much like the idea of being left alone; it was gloomy, she said. But he assured her he would not be gone more than a quarter of an hour at the outside, and she passively assented.
Down he went, disappeared, appeared again, and looked back. Then he again proceeded, and vanished, till, as a small waxen object, she saw him emerge from the nook that had screened him, cross the white fringe of foam, and walk into the undulating mass of blue. Once in the water he seemed less inclined to hurry than before; he remained a long time; and, unable either to appreciate his skill or criticize his want of it at that distance, she withdrew her eyes from the spot, and gazed at the still outline of St Michael’s–now beautifully toned in grey.
Her anxiety for the hour of departure, and to cope at once with the approaching incidents that she would have to manipulate as best she could, sent her into a reverie. It was now Tuesday; she would reach home in the evening–a very late time they would say; but, as the delay was a pure accident, they would deem her marriage to Mr Heddegan tomorrow still practicable. Then Charles would have to be produced from the background. It was a terrible undertaking to think of, and she almost regretted her temerity in wedding so hastily that morning. The rage of her father would be so crushing; the reproaches of her mother so bitter; and perhaps Charles would answer hotly, and perhaps cause estrangement till death. There had obviously been no alarm about her at St Maria’s, or somebody would have sailed across to inquire for her. She had, in a letter written at the beginning of the week, spoken of the hour at which she intended to leave her country schoolhouse; and from this her friends had probably perceived that by such timing she would run a risk of losing the Saturday boat. She had missed it, and as a consequence sat here on the shore as Mrs Charles Stow.
This brought her to the present, and she turned from the outline of St Michael’s Mount to look about for her husband’s form. He was, as far as she could discover, no longer in the sea. Then he was dressing. By moving a few steps she could see where his clothes lay. But Charles was not beside them.
Baptista looked back again at the water in bewilderment, as if her senses were the victim of some sleight of hand. Not a speck or spot resembling a man’s head or face showed anywhere. By this time she was alarmed, and her alarm intensified when she perceived a little beyond the scene of her husband’s bathing a small area of water, the quality of whose surface differed from that of the surrounding expanse as the coarse vegetation of some foul patch in a mead differs from the fine green of the remainder. Elsewhere it looked flexuous, here it looked vermiculated and lumpy, and her marine experiences suggested to her in a moment that two currents met and caused a turmoil at this place.
She descended as hastily as her trembling limbs would allow. The way down was terribly long, and before reaching the heap of clothes it occurred to her that, after all, it would be best to run first for help. Hastening along in a lateral direction she proceeded inland till she met a man, and soon afterwards two others. To them she exclaimed, ‘I think a gentleman who was bathing is in some danger. I cannot see him as I could. Will you please run and help him, at once, if you will be so kind?’
She did not think of turning to show them the exact spot, indicating it vaguely by the direction of her hand, and still going on her way with the idea of gaining more assistance. When she deemed, in her faintness, that she had carried the alarm far enough, she faced about and dragged herself back again. Before reaching the now dreaded spot she met one of the men.
‘We can see nothing at all, Miss,’ he declared.
Having gained the beach, she found the tide in, and no sign of Charley’s clothes. The other men whom she had besought to come had disappeared, it must have been in some other direction, for she had not met them going away. They, finding nothing, had probably thought her alarm a mere conjecture, and given up the quest.
Baptista sank down upon the stones near at hand. Where Charley had undressed was now sea. There could not be the least doubt that he was drowned, and his body sucked under by the current; while his clothes, lying within high-water mark, had probably been carried away by the rising tide.
She remained in a stupor for some minutes, till a strange sensation succeeded the aforesaid perceptions, mystifying her intelligence, and leaving her physically almost inert. With his personal disappearance, the last three days of her life with him seemed to be swallowed up, also his image, in her mind’s eye, waned curiously, receded far away, grew stranger and stranger, less and less real. Their meeting and marriage had been so sudden, unpremeditated, adventurous, that she could hardly believe that she had played her part in such a reckless drama. Of all the few hours of her life with Charles, the portion that most insisted in coming back to memory was their fortuitous encounter on the previous Saturday, and those bitter reprimands with which he had begun the attack, as it might be called, which had piqued her to an unexpected consummation.
A sort of cruelty, an imperiousness, even in his warmth, had characterized Charles Stow. As a lover he had ever been a bit of a tyrant; and it might pretty truly have been said that he had stung her into marriage with him at last. Still more alien from her life did these reflections operate to make him; and then they would be chased away by an interval of passionate weeping and mad regret. Finally, there returned upon the confused mind of the young wife the recollection that she was on her way homeward, and that the packet would sail in three-quarters of an hour.
Except the parasol in her hand, all she possessed was at the station awaiting her onward journey.
She looked in that direction; and, entering one of those undemonstrative phases so common with her, walked quietly on.
At first she made straight for the railway; but suddenly turning she went to a shop and wrote an anonymous line announcing his death by drowning to the only person she had ever heard Charles mention as a relative. Posting this stealthily, and with a fearful look around her, she seemed to acquire a terror of the late events, pursuing her way to the station as if followed by a spectre.
When she got to the office she asked for the luggage that she had left there on the Saturday as well as the trunk left on the morning just lapsed. All were put in the boat, and she herself followed. Quickly as these things had been done, the whole proceeding, nevertheless, had been almost automatic on Baptista’s part, ere she had come to any definite conclusion on her course.
Just before the bell rang she heard a conversation on the pier, which removed the last shade of doubt from her mind, if any had existed, that she was Charles Stow’s widow. The sentences were but fragmentary, but she could easily piece them out.
‘A man drowned–swam out too far–was a stranger to the place–people in boat–saw him go down–couldn’t get there in time.’
The news was little more definite than this as yet; though it may as well be stated once for all that the statement was true. Charley, with the over-confidence of his nature, had ventured out too far for his strength, and succumbed in the absence of assistance, his lifeless body being at the moment suspended in the transparent mid-depths of the bay. His clothes, however, had merely been gently lifted by the rising tide, and floated into a nook hard by, where they lay out of sight of the passers-by till a day or two after.
In ten minutes they were steaming out of the harbour for their voyage of four or five hours, at whose ending she would have to tell her strange story.
As Pen-zephyr and all its environing scenes disappeared behind Mousehole and St Clement’s Isle, Baptista’s ephemeral, meteor-like husband impressed her yet more as a fantasy. She was still in such a trance-like state that she had been an hour on the little packet-boat before she became aware of the agitating fact that Mr Heddegan was on board with her. Involuntarily she slipped from her left hand the symbol of her wifehood.
‘Hee-hee! Well, the truth is, I wouldn’t interrupt ‘ee. “I reckon she don’t see me, or won’t see me,” I said, “and what’s the hurry? She’ll see enough o’ me soon!” I hope ye be well, mee deer?’
He was a hale, well-conditioned man of about five and fifty, of the complexion common to those whose lives are passed on the bluffs and beaches of an ocean isle. He extended the four quarters of his face in a genial smile, and his hand for a grasp of the same magnitude. She gave her own in surprised docility, and he continued:
‘I couldn’t help coming across to meet ‘ee. What an unfortunate thing you missing the boat and not coming Saturday! They meant to have warned ‘ee that the time was changed, but forgot it at the last moment. The truth is that I should have informed ‘ee myself, but I was that busy finishing up a job last week, so as to have this week free, that I trusted to your father for attending to these little things. However, so plain and quiet as it is all to be, it really do not matter so much as it might otherwise have done, and I hope ye haven’t been greatly put out. Now, if you’d sooner that I should not be seen talking to ‘ee–if ‘ee feel shy at all before strangers–just say. I’ll leave ‘ee to yourself till we get home.’
‘Thank you much. I am indeed a little tired, Mr Heddegan.’
He nodded urbane acquiescence, strolled away immediately, and minutely inspected the surface of the funnel, till some female passengers of Giant’s Town tittered at what they must have thought a rebuff–for the approaching wedding was known to many on St Maria’s Island, though to nobody elsewhere. Baptista coloured at their satire, and called him back, and forced herself to commune with him in at least a mechanically friendly manner.
The opening event had been thus different from her expectation, and she had adumbrated no act to meet it. Taken aback she passively allowed circumstances to pilot her along; and so the voyage was made.
It was near dusk when they touched the pier of Giant’s Town, where several friends and neighbours stood awaiting them. Her father had a lantern in his hand. Her mother, too, was there, reproachfully glad that the delay had at last ended so simply. Mrs Trewthen and her daughter went together along the Giant’s Walk, or promenade, to the house, rather in advance of her husband and Mr Heddegan, who talked in loud tones which reached the women over their shoulders.
Some would have called Mrs Trewthen a good mother; but though well meaning she was maladroit, and her intentions missed their mark. This might have been partly attributable to the slight deafness from which she suffered. Now, as usual, the chief utterances came from her lips.
‘Ah, yes, I’m so glad, my child, that you’ve got over safe. It is all ready, and everything so well arranged, that nothing but misfortune could hinder you settling as, with God’s grace, becomes ‘ee. Close to your mother’s door a’most, ’twill be a great blessing, I’m sure; and I was very glad to find from your letters that you’d held your word sacred. That’s right–make your word your bond always. Mrs Wace seems to be a sensible woman. I hope the Lord will do for her as he’s doing for you no long time hence. And how did ‘ee get over the terrible journey from Tor-upon-Sea to Pen-zephyr? Once you’d done with the railway, of course, you seemed quite at home. Well, Baptista, conduct yourself seemly, and all will be well.’
Thus admonished, Baptista entered the house, her father and Mr Heddegan immediately at her back. Her mother had been so didactic that she had felt herself absolutely unable to broach the subjects in the centre of her mind.
The familiar room, with the dark ceiling, the well-spread table, the old chairs, had never before spoken so eloquently of the times ere she knew or had heard of Charley Stow. She went upstairs to take off her things, her mother remaining below to complete the disposition of the supper, and attend to the preparation of tomorrow’s meal, altogether composing such an array of pies, from pies of fish to pies of turnips, as was never heard of outside the Western Duchy. Baptista, once alone, sat down and did nothing; and was called before she had taken off her bonnet.
‘I’m coming,’ she cried, jumping up, and speedily disapparelling herself, brushed her hair with a few touches and went down.
Two or three of Mr Heddegan’s and her father’s friends had dropped in, and expressed their sympathy for the delay she had been subjected to. The meal was a most merry one except to Baptista. She had desired privacy, and there was none; and to break the news was already a greater difficulty than it had been at first. Everything around her, animate and inanimate, great and small, insisted that she had come home to be married; and she could not get a chance to say nay.
One or two people sang songs, as overtures to the melody of the morrow, till at length bedtime came, and they all withdrew, her mother having retired a little earlier. When Baptista found herself again alone in her bedroom the case stood as before: she had come home with much to say, and she had said nothing.
It was now growing clear even to herself that Charles being dead, she had not determination sufficient within her to break tidings which, had he been alive, would have imperatively announced themselves. And thus with the stroke of midnight came the turning of the scale; her story should remain untold. It was not that upon the whole she thought it best not to attempt to tell it; but that she could not undertake so explosive a matter. To stop the wedding now would cause a convulsion in Giant’s Town little short of volcanic. Weakened, tired, and terrified as she had been by the day’s adventures, she could not make herself the author of such a catastrophe. But how refuse Heddegan without telling? It really seemed to her as if her marriage with Mr Heddegan were about to take place as if nothing had intervened.
Morning came. The events of the previous days were cut off from her present existence by scene and sentiment more completely than ever. Charles Stow had grown to be a special being of whom, owing to his character, she entertained rather fearful than loving memory. Baptista could hear when she awoke that her parents were already moving about downstairs. But she did not rise till her mother’s rather rough voice resounded up the staircase as it had done on the preceding evening.
‘Baptista! Come, time to be stirring! The man will be here, by Heaven’s blessing, in three-quarters of an hour. He has looked in already for a minute or two–and says he’s going to the church to see if things be well forward.’
Baptista arose, looked out of the window, and took the easy course. When she emerged from the regions above she was arrayed in her new silk frock and best stockings, wearing a linen jacket over the former for breakfasting, and her common slippers over the latter, not to spoil the new ones on the rough precincts of the dwelling.
It is unnecessary to dwell at any great length on this part of the morning’s proceedings. She revealed nothing; and married Heddegan, as she had given her word to do, on that appointed August day.
Mr Heddegan forgave the coldness of his bride’s manner during and after the wedding ceremony, full well aware that there had been considerable reluctance on her part to acquiesce in this neighbourly arrangement, and, as a philosopher of long standing, holding that whatever Baptista’s attitude now, the conditions would probably be much the same six months hence as those which ruled among other married couples.
An absolutely unexpected shock was given to Baptista’s listless mind about an hour after the wedding service. They had nearly finished the midday dinner when the now husband said to her father, ‘We think of starting about two. And the breeze being so fair we shall bring up inside Pen-zephyr new pier about six at least.’
‘What–are we going to Pen-zephyr?’ said Baptista. ‘I don’t know anything of it.’
‘Didn’t you tell her?’ asked her father of Heddegan.
It transpired that, owing to the delay in her arrival, this proposal too, among other things, had in the hurry not been mentioned to her, except some time ago as a general suggestion that they would go somewhere. Heddegan had imagined that any trip would be pleasant, and one to the mainland the pleasantest of all.
She looked so distressed at the announcement that her husband willingly offered to give it up, though he had not had a holiday off the island for a whole year. Then she pondered on the inconvenience of staying at Giant’s Town, where all the inhabitants were bonded, by the circumstances of their situation, into a sort of family party, which permitted and encouraged on such occasions as these oral criticism that was apt to disturb the equanimity of newly married girls, and would especially worry Baptista in her strange situation. Hence, unexpectedly, she agreed not to disorganize her husband’s plans for the wedding jaunt, and it was settled that, as originally intended, they should proceed in a neighbour’s sailing boat to the metropolis of the district.
In this way they arrived at Pen-zephyr without difficulty or mishap. Bidding adieu to Jenkin and his man, who had sailed them over, they strolled arm in arm off the pier, Baptista silent, cold, and obedient. Heddegan had arranged to take her as far as Plymouth before their return, but to go no further than where they had landed that day. Their first business was to find an inn; and in this they had unexpected difficulty, since for some reason or other–possibly the fine weather–many of the nearest at hand were full of tourists and commercial travellers. He led her on till he reached a tavern which, though comparatively unpretending, stood in as attractive a spot as any in the town; and this, somewhat to their surprise after their previous experience, they found apparently empty. The considerate old man, thinking that Baptista was educated to artistic notions, though he himself was deficient in them, had decided that it was most desirable to have, on such an occasion as the present, an apartment with ‘a good view’ (the expression being one he had often heard in use among tourists); and he therefore asked for a favourite room on the first floor, from which a bow-window protruded, for the express purpose of affording such an outlook.
The landlady, after some hesitation, said she was sorry that particular apartment was engaged; the next one, however, or any other in the house, was unoccupied.
‘The gentleman who has the best one will give it up tomorrow, and then you can change into it,’ she added, as Mr Heddegan hesitated about taking the adjoining and less commanding one.
‘We shall be gone tomorrow, and shan’t want it,’ he said.
Wishing not to lose customers, the landlady earnestly continued that since he was bent on having the best room, perhaps the other gentleman would not object to move at once into the one they despised, since, though nothing could be seen from the window, the room was equally large.
‘Well, if he doesn’t care for a view,’ said Mr Heddegan, with the air of a highly artistic man who did.
‘O no–I am sure he doesn’t,’ she said. ‘I can promise that you shall have the room you want. If you would not object to go for a walk for half an hour, I could have it ready, and your things in it, and a nice tea laid in the bow-window by the time you come back?’
This proposal was deemed satisfactory by the fussy old tradesman, and they went out. Baptista nervously conducted him in an opposite direction to her walk of the former day in other company, showing on her wan face, had he observed it, how much she was beginning to regret her sacrificial step for mending matters that morning.
She took advantage of a moment when her husband’s back was turned to inquire casually in a shop if anything had been heard of the gentleman who was sucked down in the eddy while bathing.
The shopman said, ‘Yes, his body has been washed ashore,’ and had just handed Baptista a newspaper on which she discerned the heading, ‘A Schoolmaster drowned while bathing’, when her husband turned to join her. She might have pursued the subject without raising suspicion; but it was more than flesh and blood could do, and completing a small purchase almost ran out of the shop.
‘What is your terrible hurry, mee deer?’ said Heddegan, hastening after.
‘I don’t know–I don’t want to stay in shops,’ she gasped.
‘And we won’t,’ he said. ‘They are suffocating this weather. Let’s go back and have some tay!’
They found the much desired apartment awaiting their entry. It was a sort of combination bed and sitting-room, and the table was prettily spread with high tea in the bow-window, a bunch of flowers in the midst, and a best-parlour chair on each side. Here they shared the meal by the ruddy light of the vanishing sun. But though the view had been engaged, regardless of expense, exclusively for Baptista’s pleasure, she did not direct any keen attention out of the window. Her gaze as often fell on the floor and walls of the room as elsewhere, and on the table as much as on either, beholding nothing at all.
But there was a change. Opposite her seat was the door, upon which her eyes presently became riveted like those of a little bird upon a snake. For, on a peg at the back of the door, there hung a hat; such a hat–surely, from its peculiar make, the actual hat–that had been worn by Charles. Conviction grew to certainty when she saw a railway ticket sticking up from the band. Charles had put the ticket there–she had noticed the act.
Her teeth almost chattered; she murmured something incoherent. Her husband jumped up and said, ‘You are not well! What is it? What shall I get ‘ee?’
‘Smelling salts!’ she said, quickly and desperately; ‘at the chemist’s shop you were in just now.’
He jumped up like the anxious old man that he was, caught up his own hat from a back table, and without observing the other hastened out and downstairs.
Left alone she gazed and gazed at the back of the door, then spasmodically rang the bell. An honest-looking country maid-servant appeared in response.
‘A hat!’ murmured Baptista, pointing with her finger. ‘It does not belong to us.’
‘O yes, I’ll take it away,’ said the young woman with some hurry ‘It belongs to the other gentleman.’
She spoke with a certain awkwardness, and took the hat out of the room. Baptista had recovered her outward composure. ‘The other gentleman?’ she said. ‘Where is the other gentleman?’
‘He’s in the next room, ma’am. He removed out of this to oblige ‘ee.’
‘How can you say so? I should hear him if he were there,’ said Baptista, sufficiently recovered to argue down an apparent untruth.
‘He’s there,’ said the girl, hardily.
‘Then it is strange that he makes no noise,’ said Mrs Heddegan, convicting the girl of falsity by a look.
‘He makes no noise; but it is not strange,’ said the servant.
All at once a dread took possession of the bride’s heart, like a cold hand laid thereon; for it flashed upon her that there was a possibility of reconciling the girl’s statement with her own knowledge of facts.
‘Why does he make no noise?’ she weakly said.
The waiting-maid was silent, and looked at her questioner. ‘If I tell you, ma’am, you won’t tell missis?’ she whispered.
‘Because he’s a-lying dead!’ said the girl. ‘He’s the schoolmaster that was drowned yesterday.’
‘O!’ said the bride, covering her eyes. ‘Then he was in this room till just now?’
‘Yes,’ said the maid, thinking the young lady’s agitation natural enough. ‘And I told missis that I thought she oughtn’t to have done it, because I don’t hold it right to keep visitors so much in the dark where death’s concerned; but she said the gentleman didn’t die of anything infectious; she was a poor, honest, innkeeper’s wife, she says, who had to get her living by making hay while the sun sheened. And owing to the drowned gentleman being brought here, she said, it kept so many people away that we were empty, though all the other houses were full. So when your good man set his mind upon the room, and she would have lost good paying folk if he’d not had it, it wasn’t to be supposed, she said, that she’d let anything stand in the way. Ye won’t say that I’ve told ye, please, m’m? All the linen has been changed, and as the inquest won’t be till tomorrow, after you are gone, she thought you wouldn’t know a word of it, being strangers here.’
The returning footsteps of her husband broke off further narration. Baptista waved her hand, for she could not speak. The waiting-maid quickly withdrew, and Mr Heddegan entered with the smelling salts and other nostrums.
‘Any better?’ he questioned.
‘I don’t like the hotel,’ she exclaimed, almost simultaneously. ‘I can’t bear it–it doesn’t suit me!’
‘Is that all that’s the matter?’ he returned pettishly (this being the first time of his showing such a mood). ‘Upon my heart and life such trifling is trying to any man’s temper, Baptista! Sending me about from here to yond, and then when I come back saying ‘ee don’t like the place that I have sunk so much money and words to get for ‘ee. ‘Od dang it all, ’tis enough to–But I won’t say any more at present, mee deer, though it is just too much to expect to turn out of the house now. We shan’t get another quiet place at this time of the evening–every other inn in the town is bustling with rackety folk of one sort and t’other, while here ’tis as quiet as the grave–the country, I would say. So bide still, d’ye hear, and tomorrow we shall be out of the town altogether–as early as you like.’
The obstinacy of age had, in short, overmastered its complaisance, and the young woman said no more. The simple course of telling him that in the adjoining room lay a corpse which had lately occupied their own might, it would have seemed, have been an effectual one without further disclosure, but to allude to that subject, however it was disguised, was more than Heddegan’s young wife had strength for. Horror broke her down. In the contingency one thing only presented itself to her paralysed regard–that here she was doomed to abide, in a hideous contiguity to the dead husband and the living, and her conjecture did, in fact, bear itself out. That night she lay between the two men she had married–Heddegan on the one hand, and on the other through the partition against which the bed stood, Charles Stow.
Kindly time had withdrawn the foregoing event three days from the present of Baptista Heddegan. It was ten o’clock in the morning; she had been ill, not in an ordinary or definite sense, but in a state of cold stupefaction, from which it was difficult to arouse her so much as to say a few sentences. When questioned she had replied that she was pretty well.
Their trip, as such, had been something of a failure. They had gone on as far as Falmouth, but here he had given way to her entreaties to return home. This they could not very well do without repassing through Pen-zephyr, at which place they had now again arrived.
In the train she had seen a weekly local paper, and read there a paragraph detailing the inquest on Charles. It was added that the funeral was to take place at his native town of Redrutin on Friday.
After reading this she had shown no reluctance to enter the fatal neighbourhood of the tragedy, only stipulating that they should take their rest at a different lodging from the first; and now comparatively braced up and calm–indeed a cooler creature altogether than when last in the town, she said to David that she wanted to walk out for a while, as they had plenty of time on their hands.
‘To a shop as usual, I suppose, mee deer?’
‘Partly for shopping,’ she said. ‘And it will be best for you, dear, to stay in after trotting about so much, and have a good rest while I am gone.’
He assented; and Baptista sallied forth. As she had stated, her first visit was made to a shop, a draper’s. Without the exercise of much choice she purchased a black bonnet and veil, also a black stuff gown; a black mantle she already wore. These articles were made up into a parcel which, in spite of the saleswoman’s offers, her customer said she would take with her. Bearing it on her arm she turned to the railway, and at the station got a ticket for Redrutin.
Thus it appeared that, on her recovery from the paralysed mood of the former day, while she had resolved not to blast utterly the happiness of her present husband by revealing the history of the departed one, she had also determined to indulge a certain odd, inconsequent, feminine sentiment of decency, to the small extent to which it could do no harm to any person. At Redrutin she emerged from the railway carnage in the black attire purchased at the shop, having during the transit made the change in the empty compartment she had chosen. The other clothes were now in the bandbox and parcel. Leaving these at the cloak-room she proceeded onward, and after a wary survey reached the side of a hill whence a view of the burial ground could be obtained.
It was now a little before two o’clock. While Baptista waited a funeral procession ascended the road. Baptista hastened across, and by the time the procession entered the cemetery gates she had unobtrusively joined it.
In addition to the schoolmaster’s own relatives (not a few), the paragraph in the newspapers of his death by drowning had drawn together many neighbours, acquaintances, and onlookers.
Among them she passed unnoticed, and with a quiet step pursued the winding path to the chapel, and afterwards thence to the grave. When all was over, and the relatives and idlers had withdrawn, she stepped to the edge of the chasm. From beneath her mantle she drew a little bunch of forget-me-nots, and dropped them in upon the coffin. In a few minutes she also turned and went away from the cemetery. By five o’clock she was again in Pen-zephyr.
‘You have been a mortal long time!’ said her husband, crossly. ‘I allowed you an hour at most, mee deer.’
‘It occupied me longer,’ said she.
‘Well–I reckon it is wasting words to complain. Hang it, ye look so tired and wisht that I can’t find heart to say what I would!’
‘I am–weary and wisht, David; I am. We can get home tomorrow for certain, I hope?’
‘We can. And please God we will!’ said Mr Heddegan heartily, as if he too were weary of his brief honeymoon. ‘I must be into business again on Monday morning at latest.’
They left by the next morning steamer, and in the afternoon took up their residence in their own house at Giant’s Town.
The hour that she reached the island it was as if a material weight had been removed from Baptista’s shoulders. Her husband attributed the change to the influence of the local breezes after the hot-house atmosphere of the mainland. However that might be, settled here, a few doors from her mother’s dwelling, she recovered in no very long time much of her customary bearing, which was never very demonstrative. She accepted her position calmly, and faintly smiled when her neighbours learned to call her Mrs Heddegan, and said she seemed likely to become the leader of fashion in Giant’s Town.
Her husband was a man who had made considerably more money by trade than her father had done: and perhaps the greater profusion of surroundings at her command than she had heretofore been mistress of, was not without an effect upon her. One week, two weeks, three weeks passed; and, being pre-eminently a young woman who allowed things to drift, she did nothing whatever either to disclose or conceal traces of her first marriage; or to learn if there existed possibilities–which there undoubtedly did–by which that hasty contract might become revealed to those about her at any unexpected moment.
While yet within the first month of her marriage, and on an evening just before sunset, Baptista was standing within her garden adjoining the house, when she saw passing along the road a personage clad in a greasy black coat and battered tall hat, which, common enough in the slums of a city, had an odd appearance in St Maria’s. The tramp, as he seemed to be, marked her at once–bonnetless and unwrapped as she was her features were plainly recognizable–and with an air of friendly surprise came and leant over the wall.
‘What! don’t you know me?’ said he.
She had some dim recollection of his face, but said that she was not acquainted with him.
‘Why, your witness to be sure, ma’am. Don’t you mind the man that was mending the church-window when you and your intended husband walked up to be made one; and the clerk called me down from the ladder, and I came and did my part by writing my name and occupation?’
Baptista glanced quickly around; her husband was out of earshot. That would have been of less importance but for the fact that the wedding witnessed by this personage had not been the wedding with Mr. Heddegan, but the one on the day previous.
‘I’ve had a misfortune since then, that’s pulled me under,’ continued her friend. ‘But don’t let me damp yer wedded joy by naming the particulars. Yes, I’ve seen changes since; though ’tis but a short time ago–let me see, only a month next week, I think; for ’twere the first or second day in August.’
‘Yes–that’s when it was,’ said another man, a sailor, who had come up with a pipe in his mouth, and felt it necessary to join in (Baptista having receded to escape further speech). ‘For that was the first time I set foot in Giant’s Town; and her husband took her to him the same day.’
A dialogue then proceeded between the two men outside the wall, which Baptista could not help hearing.
‘Ay, I signed the book that made her one flesh,’ repeated the decayed glazier. ‘Where’s her good-man?’
‘About the premises somewhere; but you don’t see’em together much,’ replied the sailor in an undertone. ‘You see, he’s older than she.’
‘Older? I should never have thought it from my own observation,’ said the glazier. ‘He was a remarkably handsome man.’
‘Handsome? Well, there he is–we can see for ourselves.’
David Heddegan had, indeed, just shown himself at the upper end of the garden; and the glazier, looking in bewilderment from the husband to the wife, saw the latter turn pale.
Now that decayed glazier was a far-seeing and cunning man–too far-seeing and cunning to allow himself to thrive by simple and straightforward means–and he held his peace, till he could read more plainly the meaning of this riddle, merely added carelessly, ‘Well–marriage do alter a man, ’tis true. I should never ha’ knowed him!’
He then stared oddly at the disconcerted Baptista, and moving on to where he could again address her, asked her to do him a good turn, since he once had done the same for her. Understanding that he meant money, she handed him some, at which he thanked her, and instantly went away.
She had escaped exposure on this occasion; but the incident had been an awkward one, and should have suggested to Baptista that sooner or later the secret must leak out. As it was, she suspected that at any rate she had not heard the last of the glazier.
In a day or two, when her husband had gone to the old town on the other side of the island, there came a gentle tap at the door, and the worthy witness of her first marriage made his appearance a second time.
‘It took me hours to get to the bottom of the mystery–hours!’ he said with a gaze of deep confederacy which offended her pride very deeply. ‘But thanks to a good intellect I’ve done it. Now, ma’am, I’m not a man to tell tales, even when a tale would be so good as this. But I’m going back to the mainland again, and a little assistance would be as rain on thirsty ground.’
‘I helped you two days ago,’ began Baptista.
‘Yes–but what was that, my good lady? Not enough to pay my passage to Pen-zephyr. I came over on your account, for I thought there was a mystery somewhere. Now I must go back on my own. Mind this–‘twould be very awkward for you if your old man were to know. He’s a queer temper, though he may be fond.’
She knew as well as her visitor how awkward it would be; and the hush-money she paid was heavy that day. She had, however, the satisfaction of watching the man to the steamer, and seeing him diminish out of sight. But Baptista perceived that the system into which she had been led of purchasing silence thus was one fatal to her peace of mind, particularly if it had to be continued.
Hearing no more from the glazier she hoped the difficulty was past. But another week only had gone by, when, as she was pacing the Giant’s Walk (the name given to the promenade), she met the same personage in the company of a fat woman carrying a bundle.
‘This is the lady, my dear,’ he said to his companion. ‘This, ma’am, is my wife. We’ve come to settle in the town for a time, if so be we can find room.’
‘That you won’t do,’ said she. ‘Nobody can live here who is not privileged.’
‘I am privileged,’ said the glazier, ‘by my trade.’
Baptista went on, but in the afternoon she received a visit from the man’s wife. This honest woman began to depict, in forcible colours, the necessity for keeping up the concealment.
‘I will intercede with my husband, ma’am,’ she said. ‘He’s a true man if rightly managed; and I’ll beg him to consider your position. ‘Tis a very nice house you’ve got here,’ she added, glancing round, ‘and well worth a little sacrifice to keep it.’
The unlucky Baptista staved off the danger on this third occasion as she had done on the previous two. But she formed a resolve that, if the attack were once more to be repeated she would face a revelation–worse though that must now be than before she had attempted to purchase silence by bribes. Her tormentors, never believing her capable of acting upon such an intention, came again; but she shut the door in their faces. They retreated, muttering something; but she went to the back of the house, where David Heddegan was.
She looked at him, unconscious of all. The case was serious; she knew that well; and all the more serious in that she liked him better now than she had done at first. Yet, as she herself began to see, the secret was one that was sure to disclose itself. Her name and Charles’s stood indelibly written in the registers; and though a month only had passed as yet it was a wonder that his clandestine union with her had not already been discovered by his friends. Thus spurring herself to the inevitable, she spoke to Heddegan.
‘David, come indoors. I have something to tell you.’
He hardly regarded her at first. She had discerned that during the last week or two he had seemed preoccupied, as if some private business harassed him. She repeated her request. He replied with a sigh, ‘Yes, certainly, mee deer.’
When they had reached the sitting-room and shut the door she repeated, faintly, ‘David, I have something to tell you–a sort of tragedy I have concealed. You will hate me for having so far deceived you; but perhaps my telling you voluntarily will make you think a little better of me than you would do otherwise.’
‘Tragedy?’ he said, awakening to interest. ‘Much you can know about tragedies, mee deer, that have been in the world so short a time!’
She saw that he suspected nothing, and it made her task the harder. But on she went steadily. ‘It is about something that happened before we were married,’ she said.
‘Not a very long time before–a short time. And it is about a lover,’ she faltered.
‘I don’t much mind that,’ he said mildly. ‘In truth, I was in hopes ’twas more.’
This screwed her up to the necessary effort. ‘I met my old sweetheart. He scorned me, chid me, dared me, and I went and married him. We were coming straight here to tell you all what we had done; but he was drowned; and I thought I would say nothing about him: and I married you, David, for the sake of peace and quietness. I’ve tried to keep it from you, but have found I cannot. There–that’s the substance of it, and you can never, never forgive me, I am sure!’
She spoke desperately. But the old man, instead of turning black or blue, or slaying her in his indignation, jumped up from his chair, and began to caper around the room in quite an ecstatic emotion.
‘O, happy thing! How well it falls out!’ he exclaimed, snapping his fingers over his head. ‘Ha-ha–the knot is cut–I see a way out of my trouble–ha-ha!’
She looked at him without uttering a sound, till, as he still continued smiling joyfully, she said, ‘O–what do you mean? Is it done to torment me?’
‘No–no! O, mee deer, your story helps me out of the most heart-aching quandary a poor man ever found himself in! You see, it is this–_I’ve_ got a tragedy, too; and unless you had had one to tell, I could never have seen my way to tell mine!’
‘What is yours–what is it?’ she asked, with altogether a new view of things.
‘Well–it is a bouncer; mine is a bouncer!’ said he, looking on the ground and wiping his eyes.
‘Not worse than mine?’
‘Well–that depends upon how you look at it. Yours had to do with the past alone; and I don’t mind it. You see, we’ve been married a month, and it don’t jar upon me as it would if we’d only been married a day or two. Now mine refers to past, present, and future; so that–‘
‘Past, present, and future!’ she murmured. ‘It never occurred to me that you had a tragedy too.’
‘But I have!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘In fact, four.’
‘Then tell ’em!’ cried the young woman.
‘I will–I will. But be considerate, I beg ‘ee, mee deer. Well–I wasn’t a bachelor when I married ‘ee, any more than you were a spinster. Just as you was a widow-woman, I was a widow-man.’
‘Ah!’ said she, with some surprise. ‘But is that all?–then we are nicely balanced,’ she added, relieved.
‘No–it is not all. There’s the point. I am not only a widower.’
‘I am a widower with four tragedies–that is to say, four strapping girls–the eldest taller than you. Don’t ‘ee look so struck–dumb-like! It fell out in this way. I knew the poor woman, their mother, in Pen-zephyr for some years; and–to cut a long story short–I privately married her at last, just before she died. I kept the matter secret, but it is getting known among the people here by degrees. I’ve long felt for the children–that it is my duty to have them here, and do something for them. I have not had courage to break it to ‘ee, but I’ve seen lately that it would soon come to your ears, and that hev worried me.’
‘Are they educated?’ said the ex-schoolmistress.
‘No. I am sorry to say they have been much neglected; in truth, they can hardly read. And so I thought that by marrying a young schoolmistress I should get some one in the house who could teach ’em, and bring ’em into genteel condition, all for nothing. You see, they are growed up too tall to be sent to school.’
‘O, mercy!’ she almost moaned. ‘Four great girls to teach the rudiments to, and have always in the house with me spelling over their books; and I hate teaching, it kills me. I am bitterly punished–I am, I am!’
‘You’ll get used to ’em, mee deer, and the balance of secrets–mine against yours–will comfort your heart with a sense of justice. I could send for ’em this week very well–and I will! In faith, I could send this very day. Baptista, you have relieved me of all my difficulty!’
Thus the interview ended, so far as this matter was concerned. Baptista was too stupefied to say more, and when she went away to her room she wept from very mortification at Mr Heddegan’s duplicity. Education, the one thing she abhorred; the shame of it to delude a young wife so!
The next meal came round. As they sat, Baptista would not suffer her eyes to turn towards him. He did not attempt to intrude upon her reserve, but every now and then looked under the table and chuckled with satisfaction at the aspect of affairs. ‘How very well matched we be!’ he said, comfortably.
Next day, when the steamer came in, Baptista saw her husband rush down to meet it; and soon after there appeared at her door four tall, hipless, shoulderless girls, dwindling in height and size from the eldest to the youngest, like a row of Pan pipes; at the head of them standing Heddegan. He smiled pleasantly through the grey fringe of his whiskers and beard, and turning to the girls said, ‘Now come forrard, and shake hands properly with your stepmother.’
Thus she made their acquaintance, and he went out, leaving them together. On examination the poor girls turned out to be not only plain-looking, which she could have forgiven, but to have such a lamentably meagre intellectual equipment as to be hopelessly inadequate as companions. Even the eldest, almost her own age, could only read with difficulty words of two syllables; and taste in dress was beyond their comprehension. In the long vista of future years she saw nothing but dreary drudgery at her detested old trade without prospect of reward.
She went about quite despairing during the next few days–an unpromising, unfortunate mood for a woman who had not been married six weeks. From her parents she concealed everything. They had been amongst the few acquaintances of Heddegan who knew nothing of his secret, and were indignant enough when they saw such a ready-made household foisted upon their only child. But she would not support them in their remonstrances.
‘No, you don’t yet know all,’ she said.
Thus Baptista had sense enough to see the retributive fairness of this issue. For some time, whenever conversation arose between her and Heddegan, which was not often, she always said, ‘I am miserable, and you know it. Yet I don’t wish things to be otherwise.’
But one day when he asked, ‘How do you like ’em now?’ her answer was unexpected. ‘Much better than I did,’ she said, quietly. ‘I may like them very much some day.’
This was the beginning of a serener season for the chastened spirit of Baptista Heddegan. She had, in truth, discovered, underneath the crust of uncouthness and meagre articulation which was due to their Troglodytean existence, that her unwelcomed daughters had natures that were unselfish almost to sublimity. The harsh discipline accorded to their young lives before their mother’s wrong had been righted, had operated less to crush them than to lift them above all personal ambition. They considered the world and its contents in a purely objective way, and their own lot seemed only to affect them as that of certain human beings among the rest, whose troubles they knew rather than suffered.
This was such an entirely new way of regarding life to a woman of Baptista’s nature, that her attention, from being first arrested by it, became deeply interested. By imperceptible pulses her heart expanded in sympathy with theirs. The sentences of her tragi-comedy, her life, confused till now, became clearer daily. That in humanity, as exemplified by these girls, there was nothing to dislike, but infinitely much to pity, she learnt with the lapse of each week in their company. She grew to like the girls of unpromising exterior, and from liking she got to love them; till they formed an unexpected point of junction between her own and her husband’s interests, generating a sterling friendship at least, between a pair in whose existence there had threatened to be neither friendship nor love.
Transcribed by Alice Troy-Donovan
The village lay among the great red rocks about a thousand feet up and five miles from the sea, which was reached by a path that wound along the contours of the hills. No one in Pete’s village had ever travelled further than that, though Pete’s father had once, while fishing, encountered men from another small village beyond the headland, which stabbed the sea twenty miles to the east. The children, when they didn’t accompany their fathers to the shingled cove in which the boats lay, would climb up higher for their games — of ‘Old Noh’ and ‘Ware that Cloud’ — beneath the red rocks which dominated their home. Low scrub a few hundred feet up gave place to woodland: trees clung to the rock-face like climbers caught in an impossible situation, and among the trees were the bushes of blackberry, the largest fruit always sheltered from the sun; in the right season the berries formed a tasty sharp dessert to the invariable diet of fish. It was, taking it all in all, a sparse and simple yet a happy life.
Pete’s mother was a little under five foot tall; she had a squint and she was inclined to stumble when she walked, but her movements to Pete seemed at their most uncertain the height of human grace, and when she told him stories as she often did on the fifth day of the week, her stammer had for him some of the magical effect of music. There was one word in particular ‘t-t-t-tree’ which fascinated him. ‘What is it?’ he would ask, and she would try to explain. ‘You mean an oak?’ ’A t-tree is not an oak. But an oak is a t-t-tree, and so is a b-birch.’ ‘But a birch is quite different from an oak. Anyone can tell they are not the same even a long way off, like a dog and a cat.’ ‘A dog and a c-cat are both animals.’ She had from some past generation inherited this ability to generalize of which he and his father were quite incapable.
Not that he was a stupid child unable to learn from experience. He could even with some difficulty look back into the past for four winters, but the fur-thest time he could remember was very like a sea-fog which the wind may disperse for a moment from a rock or a group of trees, but it closes down again. His mother claimed that he was seven years old, but his father said that he was
nine and that after one more winter he would be old enough to join the crew of the boat which he shared with a relation (everybody in the village was in some way related). Perhaps his mother had deliberately distorted his age to postpone the time when he would have to go fishing with the men. It was not only the question of danger — though every winter brought a mortal casualty along with it, so that the size of the village hardly increased more than a colony of ants; it was also the fact that he was the only child. (There were two sets of parents in the village, the Torts and the Foxes, who had more than one child, and the Torts had triplets.) When the time came for Pete to join his father, his mother would have to depend on other people’s children for blackberries in the autumn or just go without, and there was nothing she loved better than blackberries with a splash of goat’s milk.
So this, he believed, was to be his last autumn on land, and he was not much concerned about it. Perhaps his father was in the right about his age, for he had become aware that his position as leader of his special gang was now too incontestable: his muscles felt the need of strengthening against an opponent greater than himself. His gang consisted this October of four children, to three of whom he had allotted numbers, for this made his commands sound more abrupt and discipline so much the easier. The fourth member was a seven year old girl called Liz, unwillingly introduced for reasons of utility.
They met among the ruins at the edge of the village. The ruins had always been there, and at night the children, if not the adults too, believed them to be haunted by giants. Pete’s mother, who was far superior in knowledge to all the other women in the village, nobody quite knew why, said that her grandmother had spoken of a great catastrophe which thousands of years ago had involved a man called Noh — perhaps it was a thunderbolt from the sky, a huge wave (it would have needed a wave at least a thousand feet high to have extinguished this village), or maybe a plague, so some of the legends went, that had killed the inhabitants and left these ruins to the slow destruction of time. Whether the giants were the phantoms of the slayers or of the slain the children were never quite clear.
The blackberries this particular autumn were nearly over and in any case the bushes that grew within a mile of the village — which was called Bottom, perhaps because it lay at the foot of the red rocks — had been stripped bone-bare. When the gang had gathered at the rendezvous Pete made a revolutionary proposal — that they should enter a new territory in search of fruit.
Number One said disapprovingly, ‘We’ve never done that before.’ He was in all ways a conservative child. He had small deep-sunk eyes like holes in stone made by the dropping of water, and there was practically no hair on his head and that gave him the air of a shrivelled old man.
‘We’ll get into trouble,’ Liz said, ‘if we do.’
‘Nobody need know,’ Pete said, ‘so long as we take the oath.’
The village by long custom claimed that the land belonging to it extended in a semi-circle three miles deep from the last cottage — even though the last cottage was a ruin of which only the foundations remained; of the sea too they reckoned to own the water for a larger and more ill-defined area that extended some twelve miles out to sea. This claim, on the occasion when they had encountered the boats from beyond the headland, nearly caused a conflict. It was Pete’s father who had made peace by pointing towards the clouds which had begun to mass over the horizon, one cloud in particular of enormous black menace, so that both parties turned in agreement towards the land, and the fishermen from the village beyond the headland never sailed again so far from their home. (Fishing was always done in grey overcast weather or in fine blue weather, or even during moonless nights, when the stars were obscured; it was only when the actual shape of the clouds could be discerned that by general consent fishing stopped.)
‘But suppose we meet someone ?’ Number Two asked.
‘How could we?’ Pete said.
‘There must be a reason,’ Liz said, ‘why they don’t want us to go.’
‘There’s no reason,’ Pete said, ’except the law.’
‘Oh, if it’s only the law,’ Number Three said, and he kicked a stone to show how little he thought of the law.
‘Who does the land belong to?’ Liz asked.
‘To nobody,’ Pete said. ’There’s no one there at all.’
‘All the same nobody has rights,’ Number One said sententiously, looking inwards, with his watery sunk eyes.
‘You are right there,’ Pete said. ’Nobody has.’
‘But I didn’t mean what you mean,’ Number One replied.
‘You think there are blackberries there, further up?’ Number Two asked. He was a reasonable child who only wanted to be assured that the risk was worth while.
‘There are bushes all the way up through the woods,’ Pete said.
‘How do you know?’
‘It stands to reason.’
It seemed odd to him that day how reluctant they were to take his advice. Why should the blackberry bushes abruptly stop their growth on the border of their own territory? Blackberries were not created for their special use. Pete said, ‘Don’t you want to pick them one time more before the winter comes?’ and they hung their heads, as though they were seeking a reply in the red earth where the ants were making roads from stone to stone. At last Number One said, ‘Nobody’s been there before,’ as if that was the worst thing he could say.
‘All the better blackberries,’ Pete replied.
Number Two said after consideration, ‘The wood looks deeper up there and blackberries like the shade.’
Number Three yawned. ‘Who cares about blackberries anyway? There’s other things to do than pick. It’s new ground isn’t it? Let’s go and see. Who knows . . .’
‘Who knows?’ Liz repeated in a frightened way and looked first at Pete and then at Number Three as though it were possible that perhaps they might.
‘Hold up your hands and vote,’ Pete said. He shot his own arm commandingly up and Number Three was only a second behind. After a little hesitation Number Two followed suit; then seeing that there was a majority anyway for venturing further, Liz raised a cautious hand but with a backward glance at Number One. ‘So you’re going home?’ Pete said to Number One with scornful relief.
‘He’ll have to take the oath anyway,’ Number Three said, ‘or else…’
‘I don’t have to take the oath if I’m going home.’
‘Of course you have to or else you’ll tell.’
‘What do I care about your silly oath. It doesn’t mean a thing. I can take it and tell just the same.’
There was a shocked silence: the other three looked at Pete. The whole foundation of their mutual trust seemed to be endangered. No one had ever suggested breaking the oath before. At last Number Three said, ‘Let’s bash him.’ ‘No,’ Pete said. Violence, he knew, wasn’t the answer. Number One would run home just the same and tell everything. The whole blackberry picking would be spoilt by the thoughts of the punishment to come.
‘Oh hell,’ Number Two said, ‘Let’s forget the blackberries and play Old Noh.’
Liz, like the girl she was, began to weep. ‘I want to pick blackberries.’
But Pete had been given the time to reach a decision. He said, ‘He’s going to take the oath and he’s going to pick blackberries too. Tie his hands.’
Number One tried to escape, but Number Two tripped him up. Liz bound his wrist. with her hair ribbon, pulling a hard knot which only she knew — it was for such special skills as this that she had gained her entry into the gang. Number One sat on a chunk of ruin and sneered at them. ‘How do I pick blackberries with my hands tied?’
‘You were greedy and ate them all. You brought none home. They’ll find the stains all over your clothes.’
‘Oh, he’ll get such a beating,’ Liz said with admiration. ‘I bet they’ll beat him bare.’
‘Four against one.’
‘Now you are going to take the oath,’ Pete said. He broke off two twigs and held them in the shape of a cross. Each of the other three members of the gang gathered saliva in the mouth and smeared with it the four ends of the cross. Then Pete thrust the sticky points of wood between the lips of Number One. Words were unnecessary: the same thought came inevitably to the mind of each one with the act: ‘Strike me dead if I tell.’ After they had dealt forcibly with Number One each followed the same ritual voluntarily. (Not one of them knew the origin of the oath; it had passed down through generations of gangs like this. Once Pete, and perhaps all the others at one time or another had done the same in the darkness of their beds, tried to explain to himself the ceremony of the oath: in sharing the spittle maybe they were sharing each other’s lives, like mixing blood, and the act was solemnized upon a cross because for some reason a cross always signified shameful death.)
‘Who’s got a bit of string?’ Pete said.
They tied the string to Liz’s hair ribbon and jerked Number One to his feet. Number Two pulled the string and Number Three pushed from behind. Pete led the way, upwards and into the wood, while Liz trailed alone behind; she couldn’t move quickly because she had very bandy legs. Now that he realized there was nothing to be done about it, Number One made little trouble; he contented himself with an occasional sneer and lagged enough to keep the cord stretched fight, so their march was delayed and nearly two hours passed before they came to the edge of the known territory, emerging from the woods of Bottom on to the edge of a shallow ravine. On the other side the rocks rose again in exactly the same way with the birches lodged in every crevice up to the skyline to which no one from the village of Bottom had ever climbed, and in all the interstices of roots and rocks the blackberries grew. From where they stood they could imagine a blue haze like autumn smoke from the great luscious untouched fruit dangling in the shade.
All the same they hesitated a little before they started going down; it was as though Number One had retained a certain malevolent influence and they had bound themselves to it by the cord. He squatted on the ground and sneered up at them. ‘You see you don’t dare…’
‘Dare what?’ Pete asked, trying to brush his words away before any doubts could settle on Two or Three or Liz and sap the uncertain power he possessed.
‘Those blackberries don’t belong to us,’ One said.
‘Then who do they belong to?’ Pete asked him, noting how Number Two looked at Number One hopefully as though he expected an answer.
Three said with scorn, ‘Findings keeping,’ and kicked a stone down into the ravine.
‘They belong to the next village. You know that as well as I do.’
‘And where’s the next village?’ Pete asked.
‘For all you know there isn’t another village.’
‘There must be. It’s common sense. We can’t be the only ones we and Two Rivers.’ (That was what they called the village which lay beyond the headland.)
‘But how do you know?’ Pete said. His thoughts began to take wing. ‘Perhaps we are the only ones. Perhaps we could climb up there and go on for ever and ever. Perhaps the world’s empty.’ He could feel the way that Number Two and Liz were half-way with him — as for Number Three he was a hopeless case; he cared for nothing, but all the same if he had to choose his successor, he would prefer Number Three’s care-for-nothing character than the elderly inherited rules of Number One or the unadventurous reliability of Number Two. Number One said ‘You are just crazy,’ and spat down into the ravine. ’We couldn’t be the only ones alive. It’s common sense.’
‘Why not?’ Pete said. ’Who knows?’
Perhaps the blackberries are poisoned? Liz said. ‘Perhaps we’ll get the gripes. Perhaps there’s savages there. Perhaps there’s giants.’
‘I’ll believe in giants when I see them,’ Pete said. He knew the shallowness of her fear; she only wanted to be reassured by someone stronger than herself.
‘You talk a lot,’ Number One said, ‘but you can’t even organize. Why didn’t you toil us to bring baskets if we were going to pick things?’
‘We don’t need baskets. We’ve got Liz’s skirt.’
‘And It’s Liz who’ll be thrashed when her skirt’s all stained.’
‘Not if it’s full of blackberries she won’t. Tie up your skirt, Liz.’
Liz tied it up, making it into a pannier, with a knot behind above the opening of her small plump buttocks. The boys watched her with a certain interest to see how she fixed it. ‘They’ll all fall out,’ Number One said. ‘You ought to have taken the whole thing off an’ made a sack?
‘How could I climb holding a sack? You don’t know a thing, Number One. I can fix this easy.’ She squatted on the ground with a bare buttock on each heel and tied and retied the knot till she was quite satisfied that the pannier was firm.
‘So now we go down,’ Number Three said.
‘Not till I give the order. Number One, I’ll release you if you promise to give no trouble.’ ’I’ll give plenty of trouble.’
‘Number Two and Three, you take charge of Number One. You’re the rear-guard, see. If we have to retreat in a hurry, you just leave the prisoner behind. Liz and I go ahead to reconnoitre.’
‘Why Liz ?’ Number Three said. ’What good’s a girl?’
‘In case we have to use a spy. Girl spies are always best. Anyway they wouldn’t bash a girl.’
‘Pa does,’ Liz said, twitching her buttocks.
‘But I want to be in the van,’ Three said.
‘We don’t know which is the van yet. They may be watching us now while we talk. They may be luring us on and then they’ll attack in the rear.’
‘You’re afraid,’ Number One said. ‘Fainty goose! Fainty goose!’
‘I’m not afraid, but I’m boss, I’m responsible for the gang. Listen all of you, in case of danger we give one short whistle. Stay where you are. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Two short whistles mean abandon the prisoner and retreat double-quick. One long whistle means treasure discovered, all well, come as quick as you can. Everybody got that clear?’
‘Yah,’ said Number Two. ’But suppose we’re just lost?’
‘Stay where you are and wait for a whistle.’
‘Suppose he whistles — to confuse?’ Number Two said, digging at Number One with his toe.
‘If he does gag him. Gag him hard, so his teeth squeak.’
Pete went to the edge of the plateau and gazed down to choose his path through the scrub; the rocks descended some thirty feet. Liz stood close behind him and held the edge of his shirt. ‘Who are They?’ she whispered.
‘You don’t believe in giants?’
‘When I think of giants, I shiver — here,’ and she laid her hand on the little bare mount of Venus below her panniered skirt.
Pete said, ‘We’ll start down there between those clumps of gorse. Be care-ful. The stones are loose and we don’t want to make any noise at all,’ He turned back to the others who watched him with admiration, in envy and hate (that was Number One), ‘Wait till you see us start climbing up the other side and then you come on down.’ He looked at the sky. ‘The invasion began at noon,’ he said with the precision of an historian recording an event in the past which had altered the shape of the world.
‘We could whistle now,’ Liz said. They were halfway up the opposing slope of the ravine by this time, and they were both out of breath from the scramble. She put a blackberry in her mouth and added, ‘They’re sweet. Sweeter than ours. Shall I start picking?’ Her thighs and bottom were scratched with briars and smeared with blood like blackberry juice.
Pete said, ‘Why, I’ve seen better than these in our territory. Liz, don’t you notice, not one of them’s been picked. No one’s ever come here. Those ones are nothing to what we’ll find later. They’ve been growing here for years and years and years — why, I wouldn’t be surprised if we came on a whole forest of them with berries as big as apples. We’ll leave these little ones for the others if they want to pick them. You and I will climb up higher and find real treasure.’ As he spoke he could hear the scrape of the others’ shoes, where they followed behind and the roll of a loose stone, but they could see nothing because the bushes grew so thick around the trees. ‘Come on. If we find treasure first, it’s ours.’
‘I wish it was real treasure, not just blackberries.’
‘It might be real treasure. No one’s ever explored here before us.’
‘Giants?’ Liz asked him with a shiver.
‘Those are stories they tell children. Like Old Noh and his ship. There never were giants.’
‘Not Old Noh?’
‘What a baby you are.’
They climbed up and up among the birches and bushes, and the sound of th. other’ diminished below them. There was quite a different smell here: hot and moist and metallic, far away from the salt of the sea. Then the trees and bushes thinned and they were at the summit of the hills. Looking backwards Bottom was hidden by the ridge between, but through the trees they could see a line of blue as though the sea had been lifted up almost to their level by some gigantic convulsion. They turned nervously away from it and stared into the unknown land ahead.
‘It’s a house,’ Liz said Vs a huge house.’
‘It can’t be. You’ve never seen a house that size — or that shape,’ but he knew that Liz was right. This had been made by men and not by nature. It was something in which people had once lived.
‘A house for giants,’ Liz said fearfully.
Pete lay on his stomach and peered over the edge of the ravine. A hundred feet down among the red rocks lay the long structure glinting here and there among the bushes and moss which overgrew it — it stretched beyond their sight, trees climbed along its sides, trees had seeded on the roof, and up the length of two enormous chimneys ivy twined and flowering plants with trumpet-mouths. There was no smoke, no sign of any occupant; only the birds, perhaps disturbed by their voices, called warnings among the trees, and: a whole colony of starlings rose from one of the chimneys and dispersed.
‘Let’s go back,’ Liz whispered.
‘We can’t now,’ Pete said. ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s only another ruin. What’s wrong with ruins? We’ve always played in them.’
‘It’s scary. It’s not like the ruins at Bottom.’
‘Bottom’s not the world; Pete said: it was the expression of a profound belief he shared with no one else. The huge structure was tilted at an angle, so that they could almost see down one of the enormous chimneys, gaping like a hole in the world. ‘I’m going down to look,’ Pete said, ’but I’ll spy out the land first.’
‘Shall I whistle?’
‘Not yet. Stay just where you are in case the others come.’
He moved cautiously along the ridge. Behind him the strange thing not built of stone or wood — seemed to extend a hundred yards or more, sometimes hidden, sometimes obscured by trees, but in the direction which he now took the cliff was bare of vegetation, and he could peer down at the great wall of the house, not straight but oddly curved, like the belly of a fish or…He stood still for a moment and looked hard at it: the curve was the ‘enormous magnification of something which was familiar to him. He went thoughtfully on, thinking of the old legend which had been the subject of their games. Nearly a hundred yards further on he stopped again. It was as though at this point some enormous hand had taken the house and split it in two. He could look down between the two portions and see the house exposed floor by floor — there must be five, six, seven of them, with nothing stirring inside, except where the bushes had found a lodging and a wing flickered. He could imagine the great halls receding into the dark, and he thought how all the inhabitants of Bottom could have lived in a single room on a single floor and still have found space for their animals and their gear. How many thousand people, he wondered, had once lived in this enormous house. He hadn’t realized the world contained so many.
When the house had been broken — how? — one portion had been flung upwards at an angle, and only fifty yards from where he stood he could see where the end of it had penetrated the ridge, so that if he wished to explore further he had only to drop a few yards to find himself upon the roof. There trees grew again and made an easy descent. He had no excuse to stay where he was and suddenly aware of his loneliness and ignorance and the mystery of the great house he put his fingers to his mouth and gave one long whistle to summon all the others.
They were overawed, and if Number One had not so jeered at them, perhaps they might have decided to go home with the secret of the house locked in their minds with a dream of one day returning. But when Number One said, ’Softies, Fainties…’ and shot his spittle down towards the house, Number Three broke silence. ‘What are we waiting for?’ Then Pete had to act, if he were to guard his leadership to the end. Scrambling from branch to branch of a tree that grew up from a plateau of rock below the ridge, he got within six feet of the roof and dropped. He landed painfully on his knees upon a surface cold and hard and smooth as an egg-shell. The four children looked down at him with awe and waited.
The slope of the roof was such that he had to slide cautiously downwards on his bottom. At the end of the descent there was another house which had been built upon the roof, and he realized from where he sat that the whole structure was not one house but a succession of houses built one over the other and over the topmost house loomed the tip of the enormous chimney. Remembering how the whole thing had been torn apart he was careful not to slide too fast for fear that he should plunge into the gap between. None of the others had followed him; he was alone.
Ahead of him was a great arch of some unknown material, and under the arch a red rock rose and split it in two. This was like a victory for the mountains with which he was familiar; however hard the material men had used in making the house, the mountains remained the stronger. He came to rest with his feet against a rock and looked down into the wide gap where it had come up and split the houses; the gap was many yards across, but it was bridged by a fallen tree, and although he could see only a little way down, he had the same sense as he had received above that he was looking into something as deep as the sea. Why was it he half expected to see fishes moving there?
With his hand pressed on the needle of red rock he stood upright and looking up was startled to see two inscrutable unwinking eyes regarding him from a few feet away. Then as he moved again he saw that they belonged to a squirrel, the colour of the rock: it turned without any hurry or fear, lifted a plumy tail and neatly evacuated before it leapt into the hail ahead of him.
The hall—it was indeed a hail, as he realized, making his way towards it astride the fallen tree, and yet the first impression he had was of a forest, with the trees regularly spaced as in a plantation made by men. It was possible to walk there an a level, though the ground was hummocked with red rock which here and there had burst through the hard paving. The trees were not trees at all but pillars of wood, still showing in patches a smooth surface, but pitted for most of their length with worm-holes and draped with ivy which climbed to the roof fifty feet up to escape through a great tear in the ceiling. There was a smell of vegetation and damp, and all down the hail were dozens of small green tumuli like woodland graves.
He kicked one of the mounds with his foot and it disintegrated immediately under the thick damp moss that covered it. Gingerly he thrust in his hand into the soggy greenery and pulled out a strut of rotting wood. He moved on and tried with his foot a long curved hump of green which stood more than breast high — not like a common grave — and this time he stubbed his toes and winced with the pain. The greenery had taken no root here, but had spread from tumulus to hump across the floor, and he was able to pluck away without difficulty the leaves and tendrils. Underneath lay a stone slab in many beautiful colours, green and rose-pink and red the colour of blood. He moved around it, cleaning the surface as he went, and here at last he came on real treasure. For a moment he didn’t realize what purpose those half translucent objects could have served; they stood in rows behind a smashed panel, most broken into green rubble, but a few intact, except for the discolorations of age. It was from their shape he realized that they must once have been drinking pots, made of a material quite different from the rough clay to which he was accus-tomed. Scattered on the floor below were hundreds of hard round objects stamped with the image of a human head like those his grandparents had dug up in the ruins of Bottom — useless objects except that with their help it was possible to draw a perfect circle and they could be used as forfeits, in place of pebbles, in the game of ‘Ware that Cloud’. They were more interesting than pebbles. They had dignity and rareness which belonged to all old things made by man — there was so little to be seen in the world older than an old man. He was tempted momentarily to keep the discovery to himself, but what purpose would they serve if they were not employed? A forfeit was of no value kept secret in a hole, so putting his fingers to his mouth he blew again the long whistle.
While he waited for the others to join him he sat on the stone slab deep in thought pondering all that he had seen, especially that great wall like a fish’s belly. The whole huge house, it seemed to him, was like a monstrous fish thrown up among the rocks to die, but what a fish and what a wave to carry it so high.
The children came sliding down the roof bringing Number One still in tow between them; they gave little cries of excitement and delight; they were quite forgetful of their fear, as though it were the season of snow. Then they picked themselves up by the red rock, as he had done, straddled the fallen tree, and hobbled across the vast space of the hail, like insects caught under a cup.
‘There’s treasure for you,’ Pete said with pride and he was glad to see how they were surprised into silence at the spectacle; even Number One forgot to sneer, and the cord by which they had held him trailed neglected on the ground. At last Number Two said, ‘Coo! It’s better than blackberries.’
‘Put the forfeits into Liz’s skirt. We’ll divide them later.’
‘Does Number One get any?’ Liz said ‘There’s enough for all,’ Pete said. ‘Let him go.’
It seemed the moment for generosity, and in any case they needed all their hands. While they were gathering up the forfeits he went to one of the great gaps in the wall that must once have been windows, covered perhaps like the windows of Bottom with straw mats at night, and leant far out. The hills rose and fell like a brown and choppy sea; there was no sign of a village anywhere, not even of a ruin. Below the great black wall curved out of sight; the point where it touched the ground was hidden from him by the tops of the trees that grew in the valley below. He remembered the old legend, and the game they played among the ruins of Bottom. ‘Noh built a boat. What kind of a boat? A boat for all the beasts and Brigit too. What kind of beasts? Big beasts like bears and beavers and Brigit too…’
Something went twang with a high musical sound and then there was a sigh which faded into silence. He turned and saw that Number Three was busy at yet another mound — the second biggest mound in the hall. He had unearthed a long box full of the oblongs they called dominoes, but nearly every time he touched a piece a sound came, each a little different, and when he touched one a second time it remained silent. Number Two, in the hope of further treasure, groped in the mound and found only rusty wires which scratched his hands. There were no more sounds to he coaxed out of the box, and no one ever discovered why at the beginning it seemed to sing to them.
Had they ever experienced a longer day than this even at the height of mid-summer ? The sun, of course, stayed longer on the high plateau, and they could not tell that night was already encroaching on the woods and valleys far below them. There were two long narrow passages in the house down which they raced, tripping sometimes on the broken floor — Liz kept to the rear, unable to run fast for fear of spilling the forfeits from her skirt. The passages were lined with rooms each one large enough to contain a family from Bottom, with strange tarnished twisted fixtures of which the purpose remained a mystery to them. There was another great hall, this one without pillars, which had a great square sunk in the floor lined with coloured stone; it shelved upwards, so that at one end it was ten feet deep and at the other so shallow that they could drop down on to the floor, on to the drift of dead leaves and the scraps of twigs blown there by winter winds, and everywhere the droppings of birds like splashes of soiled snow.
At the end of yet a third hail they came, all of them, to a halt, for there in front of them, in bits and pieces, were five children staring back, a half-face, a head cut in two as though by a butcher’s hatchet, a knee severed from a foot. They stared at the strangers and one of them defiantly raised a fist — it was Number Three. At once one of the strange flat children lifted his fist in reply. Battle was about to be joined; it was almost a relief in this empty world to find real enemies to fight, so they advanced slowly like suspicious cats, Liz a little in the rear, and there on the other side was another girl with skirts drawn up in the same fashion as hers to hold the same forfeits, with a similar little crack under the mount below the belly, but her face obscured with a green rash, one eye missing. The strangers moved their legs and arms, and yet remained flat against the wall, and suddenly they were touching nose to nose, and there was nothing there at all but the cold smooth wall. They backed away and approached and backed away: this was something not one of them could understand. So without saying anything to each other, in a private awe, they moved away to where steps led down to the floors below; there they hesitated again listening and peering, their voices twittering against the unbroken silence, but they were afraid of the darkness waiting, where the side of the mountain cut off all light, so they ran away, screaming defiantly down the long passages, where the late sun slanted in, until they came to rest at last in a group on the great stairs which led upwards into a brighter daylight where the enormous chimneys stood.
‘Let’s go home,’ Number One said. ‘If we don’t go soon it will be dark.’
‘Who’s a Faintie now ?’ Number Three said.
‘It’s only a house. It’s a big house, but it’s only a house.’
Pete said, ‘It’s not a house,’ and they all turned with one accord and looked their questions at him.
‘What do you mean, not a house?’ Number Two asked.
‘It’s a boat,’ Pete said.
‘You are crazy. Whoever saw a boat as big as this?’
‘Whoever saw a house as big as this?’ Liz asked.
‘What’s a boat doing on top of a mountain? Why would a boat have chimneys? What would a boat have forfeits for? When did a boat have rooms and passages?’ They threw their sharp objections at him, like handfuls of gravel to sting him into sense.
‘It’s Noh’s boat,’ Pete said.
‘You’re nuts,’ Number One said. ‘Noh’s a game. There was never anyone called Noh.’
‘How can we tell? Maybe he did live hundreds of years ago. And if he had all the beasts with him, what could he do without lots of cages? Perhaps those aren’t rooms along the passage there; perhaps they are cages.’
‘And that hole in the floor ?’ Liz asked. ‘What’s that for?’
‘I’ve been thinking about it. It might he a tank for water. Don’t you see, bed have to have somewhere to keep the water-rats and the tadpoles.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Number One said. ’How would a boat get up here?’
‘How would a house as big as this get up here? You know the story. It floated here, and then the waters went down again and left it.’
‘Then Bottom was at the bottom of the sea once?’ Liz asked. Her mouth fell open and she scratched her small buttocks stung with briars and scraped with rock and smeared with bird-droppings.
‘Bottom didn’t exist then. It was all so long ago…’
‘He might be right,’ Number Two said. Number Three made no comment: he began to mount the stairs towards the roof, and Pete followed him quickly and overtook him. The sun lay flat across the tops of the hills which looked like waves, and in all the world there seemed to be nobody but themselves. The great chimney high above shot out a shadow like a wide black road. They stood silent, awed by its size and power, where it tilted towards the cliff above them. Then Number Three said, ‘Do you really believe it?’
‘I think so.’
‘What about all our other games. “Ware that Cloud”?’
‘It may have been the cloud which frightened Noh.’
‘But where did everybody go? There aren’t any corpses.’
‘There wouldn’t be. Remember the game. When the water went down, they all climbed off the boat two by two.’
‘Except the water-rats. The water went down too quickly and one of them was stranded. We ought to find his corpse.’
‘It was hundreds of years ago. The ants would have eaten him.’
‘Not the bones, they couldn’t eat those.’
‘I’ll tell you something I saw — in those cages. I didn’t say anything to the others because Liz would have been scared.’
‘What did you see?’
‘I saw snakes.’
‘Yes, I did. And they’re all turned to stone. They curled along the floor, and I kicked one and it was hard like one of those stone fish they found above Bottom.’
‘Well,’ Number Three said, ’that seems to prove it,’ and they were silent again weighed down by the magnitude of their discovery. Above their heads, between them and the great chimney, rose yet another house in this nest of houses, and a ladder went up to it from a spot close to where they stood. On the front of the house twenty feet up was a meaningless design in tarnished yellow. Pete memorized the shape, to draw it later in the dust for his father who would never, he knew, believe their story, who would think they had dug their forfeits — their only proof — up in the ruins at the edge of Bottom. The design was like this:
‘Perhaps that’s where Noh lived,’ Number Three whispered, gazing at the design as if it contained a clue to the time of legends, and without another word they both began to climb the ladder, just as the other children came up on the roof below them.
‘Where are you going?’ Liz called out to them, but they didn’t bother to answer her. The thick yellow rust came off on their hands as they climbed and climbed. The other children came chattering up the stairs and then they saw the man too and were silent.
‘Noh,’ Pete said.
‘A giant,’ Liz said.
He was a white clean skeleton, and his skull had rolled on to the shoulder-bone and rested there as though it had been laid on a shelf. All round him lay forfeits brighter and thicker than the forfeits in the hail, and the leaves had drifted against the skeleton, so that they had the impression that he was lying stretched in sleep in a green field. A shred of faded blue material which the birds had somehow neglected to take at nesting-time still lay, as though for modesty, across the loins, but when Liz took it up in her fingers, it crumbled away to a little powder, Number Three paced the length of the skeleton. He said, ‘He was nearly six feet tall.’
‘So there were giants,’ Liz said.
‘And they played forfeits,’ Number Two said, as though that reassured him of their human nature.
‘Moon ought to see him,’ Number One said, ’thatwould take him down a peg.’ Moon was the tallest man ever known in Bottom, but he was a foot shorter than this length of white bone. They stood around the skeleton with eyes lowered as though they were ashamed of something.
At last Number Two said suddenly, ‘It’s late. I’m going home,’ and he made his hop-and-skip way to the ladder, and after a moment’s hesitation Number One and Number Three limped after him. A forfeit went crunch under a foot.
No one had picked these forfeits up, nor any other of the strange objects which lay gleaming among the leaves. Nothing here was treasure-trove; everything belonged to the dead giant.
At the top of the ladder Pete turned to see what Liz was up to. She sat squatting on the thigh bones of the skeleton, her naked buttocks rocking to and fro as though in the act of possession. When he went back to her he found that she was weeping.
‘What is it, Liz ?’ he asked.
She leant forward towards the gaping mouth. ‘He’s beautiful,’ she said ‘he’s so beautiful. And he’s a giant. Why aren’t there giants now?’ She began to keen over him like a little old woman at a funeral. ‘He’s six feet tall,’ she cried, exaggerating a little, ’and he has beautiful straight legs. No one has straight legs in Bottom. Why aren’t there giants now? Look at his lovely mouth with all the teeth. Who has teeth like that in Bottom?’
‘You are pretty, Liz,’ Pete said, shuffling around in front of her, trying in vain to straighten his own spine like the skeleton’s, beseeching her to notice him, feeling jealousy for those straight white bones upon the floor and for the first time a sensation of love for the little bandy-legged creature bucketing to and fro.
’Why aren’t there any giants now?’ she repeated for the third time, with her tears falling among the bird-droppings. He went sadly to the window and looked out. Below him was where the red rock had split the floor, and up the long slope of the roof he could see the three children ambling towards the cliff; awkward, with short uneven limbs, they moved like little crabs. He looked down at his own stunted and uneven legs and heard her begin to keel again for a whole world lost.
‘He’s six feet tall and he has beautiful straight legs.’
Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli.
From The London Magazine Stories 11, 1979
Then the brothel was raided. Christ, he’d only gone down to Spinoza’s to confront Patience with her handiwork. She hadn’t been free when Morgan ﬁrst arrived so he had chatted to the owner, Baruch — as his better-read clients whimsically dubbed the diminutive Levantine pimp – for half an hour or so, and watched the girls dancing listlessly under the roof fans. His anger had subsided a bit but he managed to stoke up a rage when he was eventually ushered into Patience’s cubicle. ‘Hey!’ he had roared, lowering his greyish Y-fronts, ‘Bloody look at this mess!’ But then his tirade had been cut short by the whistles and stompings of Sgt. Mbele and his vice squad.
The day had started badly. Morgan woke, hot and sweaty, his sheets damp binding-cloths. Three things presented themselves to his mind almost simultaneously: it was Christmas eve, in four days he would be catching the next boat home from Douala and he had a dull ache in his groin. He eased his 17½ stone out of bed and started for the bathroom. There, a hesitant diagnosis set off by the unfamiliar pain was horrifyingly conﬁrmed by the sight of his opaque, forked and pustular urine.
He dropped off at the local clinic before going into the ofﬁce. Inside it was cool and air-conditioned. Outside, in the shade cast by the wide eaves, mothers and children sprawled. And inside he ruefully confessed to a Calvinistic Scottish doctor, young and unrelentingly professional, of his weekly visits to Patience at Spinoza’s. Then a plump black sister led him to an ante-room where, retreating coyly behind a screen, he delivered up a urine sample. The clear tinkle of his stream on the thin glass of the bottle seemed to rebound deafeningly from the tiled walls. With a cursoriness teetering on the edge of contempt the doctor told him that the result of the test would be available tomorrow.
He vented his embarrassment and mounting anger at his ofﬁce, Nkongsamba’s High Commission, turning down all that day’s ‘applications for visas out of hand, vetoing the recommendations of senior missionaries for candidates in the next birthday honours and, exquisite zenith of the day’s attack of spleen, peremptorily sacking a ﬁling clerk for eating fu-fu while handling correspondence. He began to feel a little better, the fear of some hideous social disease retreating as time interposed itself between now and his visit to the clinic.
After lunch his air-conditioner broke down. Morgan detested the sun and because of his corpulence his three years in Nkongsamba had been three years of seemingly constant perspiration, virulent rashes and general discomfort. He had accepted the posting gladly, proud to tell family and friends he was in the Diplomatic Service, and had enthusiastically read the literature of West Africa, searching, with increasing despair, ﬁrst in Joyce Cary then through Graham Greene right down to Gerald Durrell and Conrad, for any experience that vaguely corresponded with his own. When the cream tropical suit he had so keenly bought began to grow mould in the armpits – a creeping greenish hue eventually encroaching on the button-down ﬂap of a breast pocket-he had forthwith abandoned it, and with it all hopes of injecting a literary frisson into his dull and routine life. But, thank God, he was leaving it all soon, next boat from Douala, leaving the steaming forest, the truculent natives, the tiny black ﬂies that raised ﬂorin-sized bites. What would he miss? The beer, strong and cold, and, of course, Patience, with her lordotic posture, pragmatic sex and her smooth black body smelling strangely of ‘Amby’, a skin lightening agent that sold very well in these parts.
Morgan came home after work. There had been an unexpected fall of rain during the afternoon. The air was heavy and damp, great ranges of purple cumulus loomed in the sky. He climbed up the steps to his stoop shouting for Pious his houseboy to bring beer. There on the stoop table lay his copy of Keats, sole heritage of his years at his plate-glass university. He had come across it while packing and had glanced through it, with nostalgic affection, at breakfast. Now, carelessly left out in the rain, it sat there swollen, and steaming slightly it seemed, in the late afternoon heat – a grotesque papier-maché brick. He picked it up and bellowed for Pious.
He stood under the cold shower allowing the stream of water to course down his face plastering his thinning hair to his forehead. A startled Pious had received the sodden complete works full in the face and when he scrabbled to pick it up Morgan had booted him viciously in the arse. He smiled, then frowned. The sudden movement, though producing a satisfying yelp from Pious, had done some damage. Pain pulsed like a belisha beacon from his testicles, now, he was convinced, grown palpably larger. He counted slowly from one to ten. Things were ganging up on him, he was beginning to feel insecure, hunted almost. Only three days to the boat, then away, thank Christ, for good.
An obsequious chastened Pious brought him the gin on the stoop. Morgan poured two inches into a glass full of ice, added some bitters and a dash of water. He hated the drink but it seemed the apt thing to do; end of a tropical day, sundowners and all that. It was dark now and unbearably humid. There would be a storm tonight. Fat sausage ﬂies brought out by the rain whirled and battered about him. Ungainly on their wings one landed in his gin and drowned there, straddled on the cubes. His shirt stuck to his back, the minatory hum of a mosquito was in his ear. Crickets chirped moronically in the garden. He would go and sort out that Patience.
* * *
In Sgt. Mbele’s fetid detention hall Morgan had two hours in which to repent that decision. Finally he managed to impress Mbele, a grinning stubborn man, with, also, the help of a 30 kobo bribe, that as he was an assistant district commissioner he possessed diplomatic immunity, and that he would take it as a personal favour if the sergeant wouldn’t mention him in his report. H.E., though proﬂigate himself, admired a sense of decorum in his subordinates.
Leaving the police station Morgan decided there and then to abandon his car at Spinoza’s and instead go to the club — a ten minute walk — and get drunk. The Recreation Club, as it was inspiringly named, had been built for the expatriate population of Nkongsamba in the heady days of the Empire. A long rambling high—ceilinged building, surrounded by a piebald golf—course and tennis courts, it preserved, with its uniformed servants and airmail copies of British newspapers, something of the ease and tenor of those times. As Morgan approached it became evident that quiet inebriation was out of the question. Gerry and the Pacemakers boomed from the ballroom, coloured lights and streamers were festooned everywhere. It was the Christmas Party. Morgan, scowling and black-humoured, brutally shouldered his way through the crowd around the bar and drank three large gins very quickly. Then, moderately composed, he sat on a bar stool and surveyed the scene. The men wore white dinner jackets or tropical suits and looked hot and apoplectic. The women sported the fashions of a decade ago and appeared strained and ill—at-ease. There were few young people; young people did not come to the tropics from choice, only if they were sent like Morgan.
‘Um, excuse me’ a tap on his elbow ‘it is Mr Morgan isn’t it?’
He looked round. ‘Yes. Hello. Mrs . . . Brinkit, yes? Erm, let me see. Queen’s Birthday, High Commission last year?’
‘That’s right’. She seemed overjoyed that he had remembered. She was tall and thin and just missed being attractive. Thirtyish, late, probably. She wore a strapless evening gown that exposed a lot of bony chest and shoulder. Her nose was red, she was a bit drunk but then so was Morgan.
‘Doreen’ she said.
‘Doreen. My name.’
‘Christ yes. So sorry. And your husband, ah, George, How’s he ?’
‘It’s Brian actually. He would be here but Tom, our dachshund, ran away and Brian’s been out all night looking for him. Doesn’t want him to catch rabies.’
‘A la recherche du Tom perdu’ eh? Mbahaha.’ Morgan laughed at his joke.
‘Pardon?’ said Doreen Brinkit smiling blankly and swaying gently up against him.
Morgan drank a lot more and danced with Doreen. They became very friendly, more by force of circumstances — they were both alone, unattractive and needing to forget it — than by desire. At midnight they kissed and she stuck her tongue in his ear. There was no sign of Brian. Morgan remembered them now from the cocktail party at the High Commission. Brinkit small bald and shy. Doreen six inches taller than him. Brinkit telling him of his desire to leave Africa and become a vet in Devon. Wanted kids, nothing quite like family life. No place for children Africa, very risky, healthwise. No place for you either Morgan had thought as he looked at the man’s little eyes and his frail earnest features.
Some time later in a dark corner of the ballroom Doreen squirmed and hissed ‘No! Morgan! Stop it. . . honestly, not here.’ Then more suggestively, ‘Look why don’t I give you a run home. I’ve got the van outside.’
Breathless with excitement and lust Morgan excused himself for a moment. On his way to the lavatory he reﬂected that possibly it hadn’t been such a bad day after all. God. A real white woman. Wor.
But then a ﬁve minute session of searing agony in the gent’s toilet brought home to him — with an awful clarity — the nightmarish signiﬁcance of the lyrics in Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’. He reeled out of the toilet, eyes streaming, teeth clenched, and collided with a small ﬁrm object. Through the mists of tears the prim features of his doctor shimmered and formed, mouth like a recently sutured wound.
‘Oh! Morgan, it’s you. Well, I won’t waste any words. Save you a trip tomorrow. Bad news I’m afraid. You’ve got gonorrhoea.’ As if he didn’t know.
* * *
The VW bus was parked up a track off the main road some miles out of town. The jungle reared up on all sides. Heavy rain beat down remorselessly. Inside, lit by the inadequate glow of a map light, Morgan and Doreen Brinkit lay in the back, spacious with the seats folded down. Doreeen moaned unconvincingly as Morgan nuzzled her neck. His heart wasn’t in it. His mind was obsessed with a single image, rooted there since he’d heard the appalling news, of a rancid gherkin astride two suppurating black olives. With a shudder he broke off and took great pulls at the gin bottle he’d purchased before leaving the club. His brain seemed to cartwheel crazily in his skull. Bloody country! he screamed inwardly. Bloody ﬁlthy Patience! Three rotting years just to end up with the clap. He drank deep awash with self-pity. A tense frustrated rage mounted within him. Distractedly he looked round. Doreen was tugging at the bodice of her skirt, all tulle and taffeta reinforced with bakelite and whalebone. She pulled it down revealing an absurd cut—away bra that offered her nipples like canapés on a cocktail tray. Morgan’s rage was replaced by a spasm of equally intense lust. What the hell, he was on the next boat from Douala, clearing out. She was desperate for it. He reached up and switched out the map light.
But then somewhere in the prolonged pre—coital tussle, Doreen’s dress Concertina-ed at her waist, Morgan’s trousers at his knees, the rain drumming on the tin roof, the air soupy with sweat and deep breathing, Morgan took stock. Perhaps it was when, spliced between Doreen’s pale shanks, she breathed come on Morgan, it’s O.K., it’s O.K., it’s the safe time of the month and Morgan looked up at the windscreen awash with water and images began to zig—zag through his mind, like bats in a room seeking an open window. He thought of his testicles effervescing with bacilli, he thought of pathetic Brian Brinkit searching for his fucking dachshund in a downpour, then he thought of impregnating Doreen, his putrid seed in her womb, Brian’s innocent alarm at the diseased monster he’d inadvertently produced, he thought of Brian diseased too, a loathsome spiral of infection, a little septic carbuncle festering in Africa behind him. And he realized as Doreen’s grunts began to reach a crescendo beneath him that, no, in spite of everything — Patience, Keats, Pious, Mbele, the stinking heat and the clap — it just wasn’t on.
He withdrew and sat up breathing heavily.
‘What is it Morgan?’ Surprised, a tint of anger colouring her voice.
What the hell could he say? ‘I’m sorry Doreen’ he began pathetically, desperately running through plausible reasons. ‘But . . . it’s just, um . . . well I don’t think this is fair to Brian. I mean . . . he is out looking for Tom, in this rain.’ Then, despite himself, he laughed, a half—suppressed derisive snort, and Doreen abruptly burst into tears, sobbing as she tried to cover herself up. Morgan sat and finished the gin.
‘Get out!’ Morgan looked round in alarm. Doreen, hair all over the place, face tracked with mascara, shrieking at him. ‘Fucking get out! How dare you treat me like this! You ﬁlth, you fat sodding bastard!’ She started to pummel him with her fists, pushing him towards the back of the van with surprising strength. Somehow the door sprang open.
‘Hang on Doreen! It’s pouring. Let’s talk about it.’ She was hitting him about the head and shoulders with the empty gin bottle screaming obscenities all the while Morgan fell out of the back of the van. He scampered out of the way seconds later as she reversed violently down the road. Morgan sat on the verge, the jungle at his back, rain soaking him completely. ‘Jesus,’ he said. He wiped his wet hair from his forehead. For some curious reason he felt lightheaded suddenly hugely relieved. He got to his feet noticing unconcernedly that his trousers were covered in mud. Then, for a brief tranquil moment, the rain beating down on his head, he felt intensely exhilaratingly happy. Why? He couldn’t really be sure. Still… He set off down the track, a bulky dripping ﬁgure, humming quietly to himself at first, and then, spontaneously, filling his lungs and breaking into a booming cockney basso profundo that spilled out into the dark and over the trees.
‘Hyme a si—i—inging in a ryne, hyme a singing in a ryne.’
Cicadas trilled in his path.
© William Boyd 2015
This short story appeared in The London Magazine Stories 11 in 1979, a London Magazine Editions publication selected by TLM editor Alan Ross. Alongside it was short fiction by writers including Nadine Gordimer, Graham Swift and Milan Kundera.
In August 1960 The London Magazine published V. S. Pritchett’s short story ‘The Wheelbarrow’ alongside four poems by Derek Walcott and reviews by Louis MacNeice, Roy Fuller and Frank Kermode. Pritchett, himself an avid short story writer, professed that to write a short story ‘is exquisitely difficult’ yet – as his word choice suggests – it was also one of his favourite forms to practice. In fact, when interviewed by The Paris Review Pritchett spoke openly of his preference for short fiction:
The short story appealed to me straight away because of its shortness, and I preferred it to the novel. It represents a certain vision of reality that consists of isolating the incident. The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward. Many critics have noticed this about my stories.
At the start of the new millennium the Royal Society of Literature founded The V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize to commemorate the centenary of the author who was widely regarded as one of the finest English short-story writers of the 20th century. The prize is awarded to the best unpublished short story of the year.
Tonight the RSL celebrate the presentation of the annual prize with the judges who will discuss the complexities, the wonders, the highs and the lows of writing short fiction. This year’s judges include Somerset Maugham Award winner Adam Mars-Jones, Dylan Thomas Award winner Rose Tremain as well as editor Philip Hensher who has spent the last two years surrounded by short fiction in his quest to curate The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, published just last month.
Eudora Welty went as far to say that ‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’. Read an exclusive extract from ‘The Wheelbarrow’ as it first appeared in The London Magazine below:
She did not hear him. Her face had drained of waking light. She had entered blindly into a dream in which she could hardly drag herself along. She was looking painfully through the album, rocking her head slowly from side to side, her mouth opening a little and closing on the point of speech, a shoulder rising as if she had been hurt, and her back moving and saying as she felt the clasp of the past like hands on her. She was looking at ten forgotten years of her life, her own life, not her family’s, and she did not laugh when she saw the skirts too long, the top-heavy hats hiding the eyes, her face too full and fat, her plainness so sullen, her prettiness too open-mouthed and loud, her look too grossly shy. In this one, sitting at the cafe table by the lake when she was nineteen, she looked masterful and at least forty. In this garden picture she was theatrically fancying herself as an ancient Greek in what looked like a night-gown! One of her big toes, she noticed, turned up comically in the sandal she was wearing. Here on a rock by the sea, in a bathing dress, she had got so thin again — that was her marriage — and look at her hair! This picture of the girl on skis, sharp-faced, the eyes narrowed —who was that? Herself — yet how could she have looked like that! But she smiled a little at last at the people she had forgotten. This man with the crinkled fair hair, a German — how mad she had been about him. But what pierced her was that in each picture of herself she was just out of reach, flashing and yet dead; and that really it was the things that burned in the light of permanence — the chairs, the tables, the trees, the car outside the cafe, the motor launch on the lake. These blinked and glittered. They had lasted and were ageless, untouched by time, and she was not.
For more information about the event visit The Royal Society of Literature website here.
By Thea Hawlin