[ The V.I. HomePage | Back to the V.I. Literary Archives Menu | Part I | Part III ]
With the permission of T.Wignesan, editor of Bunga Emas:
ONE MORE WAR
On Sundays, as on every other day of the year, Erhard was on duty. On Sundays, however, he went out of his tiny world of pigs and cows, of fowl and women, to work. This made a great difference to him. He packed his ammunition bag, cleaned and tested his double-barrel on the barn door, pulled his unchoked Mercedes out of his tool shed and drove off to his hunting grounds along the Crailsheim Road. The road cut through hard bitten mountain terrain. Sometimes, when the wind scoured the thin veneer of ice, stretched tightly over the road, he drove, wrapped in the ineluctable air of a robot, not bothering to look out for the bad patch downhill. His own huddled settlement of Eschenau, cupped by the Schlegelsberg, was a few kilometres west of Obersontheim, another little village which became the springboard for local game enthusiasts. During summer, he often took the long northern road to Reibach over the Ellwangenberg range, not that more game was to be had there, but simply that he wanted to be away from everybody else. He did not quite mind summer at home though. There was grass to gather or corn to be cut. He played the technician in his farm. He kept his farm machinery well oiled, took them out into the hills and brought them back safely loaded with fodder or harvested corn. The women and children - all relatives, widowed sisters-in-law and their offspring - did the hack work. They cut and bound the corn in the fields, milked and fed the cows, cleaned the stable and gathered the fallen apples on the slopes of the Bühle stream.
Once a week, during summer, Erhard was compelled to go into the marketing town of Schwäbisch Hall with his produce of eggs, apples, meat and milk, his obvious delight in this regular expedition never flagged. And when winter came, his trips to Hall grew less frequent: he only went to buy lace and wool for the women. In between such chores, he took out his private collection of guns and polished them in readiness. He was especially fond of his Luger pistol, a memento of the last war. He never brought down his Luger from the attic which contained all his collection and which also served as a cold storage for his fresh meat during winter and a smokehouse for Schinkenwurst during summer. Much as he loved fishing to any other strenuous sport, he rather fancied himself as a hunter, but never quite as a farmer, except perhaps as an overseer on his farm. He had quite a record in the War. He never spoke about it, and when he did, he was completely sober. Only once I heard him refer indirectly to the War.
"Have you ever been overseas," I asked.
"Where do you mean?"
"I mean, England."
"Ach so! England! Seventeen times and never touched the ground," he mused. He never tried to extend this remark although he wanted very much to make a joke of it.
Perhaps the reason for his fear can be found in his flabby belly or in his now sluggish gait or the years of lonely toil during which his new responsibilities settled on him or in his gruesome plethoric hands and arms which seemed to have very little connection with the rest of his body. He was in the habit of reading aloud from the local weekly the interminable series on Queen Soraya. He seldom paused or reflected during the reading. He often ventured an explanation on the intricacies of fashion by comparison with what he had seen in the old Berlin. He even made bold predictions about what next week's edition had to say about Soraya's activities. Only when someone said something about the War or when he accidentally read aloud some reference to a belated War Crimes prosecution did he show signs of being slightly perturbed. But, inevitably, he wrapped himself in enervating silence. His demeanour on such occasions had the effect of a conditioned reflex. Once, Aunt Hilda, a Berliner by marriage, caused him some embarrassment during morning coffee.
"Mein Gott," she cried, "in the old days, Inge could have rid herself of the whooping-cough for a mere 25 marks. They just let you use their aeroplanes. They never fussed. Believe me, if Inge could only be taken up in the air for a while, the cough will disappear. Why can't somebody do something. The Führer allowed it. What is the Tempelhof there for?"
Erhard froze on his bench, for once seemed to react, stopped munching his cheese and walked out.
The thing that worried him most was his aim. He was not quite sure whether it was his War-worn airman's eyes or his middle-aged spread which came in the way of the swish of fire. Lately, he gazed helplessly as he dolefully followed the escape track of the hare or deer over the thicket, momentarily stunned by the reverberating crack-cracking over the angles of the pinewood range.
"Los, we go," Erhard decided in his meek, boyish voice. We took the precarious journey over to Obersontheim. "We can ask Müller if the road up Crailsheim is bound with glatteis." The hunt always began in this way, mechanically. Usually, a long silence preceded his opening words.
As we moved over the ice-bound road, it soon became clear we had to do our hunting in the neighbourhood. Motoring, however, when it did not quite continue to snow, proved unadventurous. The night took care of that. The landscape too, the impeccably spread mantle of snow and the pinewood decoration had been worked over in the dark.
When we arrived, Müller was already on his fields after hare. No one seemed to think it worthwhile to go after deer. On the dashboard of Erhard's Mercedes was pinned a piece of ruled paper with his own archaic German flowery handwriting, the words:
"The Hunter's code of honour is that he should protect and preserve the game. A sportsmanlike hunt is fit and proper, for the Creator honours every creature."
We parked the car along the deserted road and crossed the field on foot to where Müller stood stock still. We saw that he had already bagged two, and were afraid he would not want to join us. After a little persuasion, we made an appointment for a collective hunt over in the plain at the foot of the great Pinewood hills.
That afternoon at twelve-thirty, we picked up Müller, who suddenly came out of a fence as we passed, stooping through barbed wire. As we pushed along, at a mere trot, we were joined by Karl with his two-year-old dachshund, "Waldie". The news had got around electrically and everybody concerned was alerted. From now on, all the day's events would go past like clockwork, without cause for regret, complaint or any pause for checking any of the details of the project. We moved as though some unfelt disciplinary code informed the plan in all its details. Like the sure and steady success of Erhard's farmwork.
We turned into some outhouses at one corner of the rectangular plain. We had remembered to stock ourselves with cigarettes - Salem and Ernte - especially the former which had the habit of sticking on to the lips while one end went up in quick flames even before the tobacco ignited. Like wet twigs sending out a heap of smoke after the initial petrol blast. During the hunt, we stopped only occasionally for a quick puff, and this brand was a needy psychological persuasion against the cold. The wind came in spasms. A flapping gust would arrive and blow in curling streams past us.
We were expected. Claus, a stern obedient lad of about thirty, who was leaning against the official village noticeboard, the Amtliche Nachrichten, turned quickly when he caught sight of us, and let out two sharp clipped notes. The high wooden windows in the central house smacked open like wings. For a moment, a shadowy form lurked in between the poorly lit stillness, and then, abruptly, the window shut, with a loud clank of the bolt going under a strong palm.
A decrepit old man, with no gun or weapon, except for a cudgeon-like stick, came out of the barn door. They called him der Alte Colonel. Claus was his son. Like the orang outang, der Alte's face was inflexible. Although his eyes were sunk in folds of crinkly skin, whenever opened they had a faraway look about them. Everybody, within fifty yards of his presence, was drawn to him in silence. Clad in a threadbare forester's jacket and dark riding gear with heavy jackboots, he had a canvas sling bag over his side and an umpire's squatting stick, looped in a leather strap through his arm.
Until he came on the scene, there was quiet. Then, after a moment's manifest respect for him, the men broke into a melee of back-slapping, hand-shaking and fondling "Waldie" in between. Then der Alte moved over to the old Mercedes and spread an old hand-drawn cloth map on the hood of the car which glinted under the clear sky. We gathered around him in silence. Using his stick as a pointer, he began:
"This tree is the centre of the plain. We'll work around it, sweeping the far edges of the road on one side and the river on the other. First, down this way on the right to the road at the far end and up again to the houses. Then down again. We'll repeat the same movement on the left down to the river. This way we will not only have covered every bit of ground on the plain, we will have driven the hare up against the wall at the base of the hills. Remember the wall. No one is to go over. Not even if you see deer. Not yet anyway. Not this time."
He paused to look around. The men looked intently at the map. Claus lit his cigar for him.
"Karl will lead with "Waldie". Emil and you to the right. Claus and the old one to the left. Keep a distance of about twenty yards between yourselves as you move forward in a line - never to the fore, never to the rear. I will move up to the centre and take up post. If everything's clear, let's move. Gott mit uns!"
They have all been through this rigmarole before. But they felt compelled to let him have his way. The grounds belonged to him, or at least, so it appeared ever since he came to the village at the time the Russians converged on Hitler's bunker. The previous owners had disappeared. The men also knew how annoyed he would get if they did not keep to his plan and follow his every instruction.
The rectangular plain we were going to methodically scour was, by measure of eye, about three by four kilometres. Only the long, battered wall, in its jaggedness, broke the even flatness of the hunting ground. The wall itself must have been a remnant of the days of strategic defence. Little mounds of accumulated earth lay in hardened clumps. The arable land itself was vibrantly chunky, tilled and crusted in crinkly snow turds with the brown showing through it all.
"This is surely, believe me, hard work," moaned Erhard. "Why can't I be reasonable and stay home. Somebody always starts it up and it becomes Mein Gott sheer hard work. Why did I think it up; now I've got to go through with it, to the end. How simple it would all be if I remained home and only chased after the eels in the Bühle."
We had covered nearly half the ground when "Waldie" took up the scent and began to whine nervously. Der Alte looked through the tiny gaps of his clenched fists, serving as makeshift binoculars for his short-sighted eyes, in the direction of "Waldie's" growing interest and annoyance, and let out three sharp notes from his army whistle. Karl looked at him again to make doubly sure he was not over-riding instructions. He could not do otherwise: his training in the old days was near natural in its inbred obedience in times of emergency and sense of secrecy. He was one of the original Werewolves and fifteen years after still remained in a state of preparedness.
Karl stooped and unleashed the dachshund.
Every weapon in the hands of the men was poised in readiness.
"Waldie" made for a groove in the neatly tilled ground some forty yards away from us. Before he could cover half that ground, a couple of hare, stood up on their hind legs, pricked their ears up in unison, and bounced away in different directions. The hare ran in ever widening circles, making for higher ground near the wall. Not until they moved could we see them. Then, in a moment, every cartridge and pelt in the guns spluttered. "Waldie" was chasing now one and then the other, and therefore did not get close to either of them. Suddenly, everybody stopped firing and watched one hare, the other had disappeared, tracing a wide laborious arc that was bound to be broken by the wall. Karl caught up with "Waldie" and restrained him. The wall seemed to absorb the hare. They turned to the patch which held their first blast of fire, and proceeded to look for the other, kicking the crusty chunks of earth over with their boots. Hardly five yards away from where Erhard stood, a shivering hare, blood splattered all over its beige fur, leapt and bounded with a start, apparently on three feet.
For the first time during all this grave business, Erhard laughed. Soon everybody was laughing and pointing to the pool of blood on the ground where the wounded hare had crouched in fear. The decision to keep "Waldie" on the leash was automatic. The old man who accompanied Claus, egged on by the others, went after it. Armed only with a knobbly stick and dragging his bad left leg behind him and advancing at every step only with his right, he stumbled and hobbled over the neat rows of tractor marked grooves. Suddenly, as though seized by paroxysms, the men threw their shot-guns down and roared with laughter. At every stroke of the old man's stick, the hare evaded the blow by just a leap, and fell panting on its sides, its eyes pale and widened, its coat soaked to the bone in slushy blood. Meantime, der Alte had come upon the party and pointing to Erhard, bellowed, "Achtung! Schiessen!"
Erhard picked up his gun carefully, took aim and fired. The hare leapt in a fury and scampered across the field. Step by concentrated step, Erhard advanced, his entire strength welling up to his full height, the freshly piled snow giving way under his boots in wheezy, bubbling sounds. When he reached the spot where the hare lay, stiffening in the cold, too weak to move, he raised his right foot and brought it down on its head and held it there for a while. Balancing the double-barrel over his shoulder with his left arm, he picked up the creature by the hind legs, held it high for everyone to see and flung it in the direction of the old cripple who was standing close by.
All through the afternoon they roamed the plain systematically, according to the original plan devised by der Alte. They neither encountered another hare nor did they fire another shot.
When they came to the end of the hunt, they propped themselves against the wall and pensively proceeded to chew their sandwiches and take lingering gulps with their bottled Most.
"Ah, damn, it's better than sitting at home with the women and children or ruining the afternoon fishing," Erhard blurted out. Der Alte rose instantly and shouted, "Los, nach Hause!" They rose collectively at the command and prepared to make their way back diagonally over the plain. No sooner they were a hundred yards away, "Waldie" whined and barked sharply. Everybody turned and looked over the wall.
On the slope of the hills above the wall, a herd of deer, among them a wholesome stag, stood preening their heads. A few yards away, a few young ones grazed on the foliage, undisturbed.
THE ALTAR CLOTH AND THE POPE
"Ah ye serious?" the salesgirl said.
"Yeah, says I," he said. O'Brien's beady eyes had that faraway look that barely dipped below the rim of his pint of bitter. For a few absorbing moments he held that look as he drew in the precious liquid. The tips of his right hand pressed against the chipped pentagonal shapes of the glass. In the distance, it looked like a tiny octopus clasping a honey-drenched hive, its tentacles draining the bitter-nectar through the holes of the hive. As he blinked to continue his tale, the clearer spaces of the glass gave the impression of a magnified eye of a fly.
And the salesgirl at Schabbys walked right away to the buyer with a request to attend to O'Brien. It made her feel important when she had to go to her immediate boss with a request. The buyer listened to O'Brien and was not impressed, but was willing to grant that it was an interesting enough story to bring to the notice of the director.
So up they went, O'Brien first into the lift, patronisingly ushered in by the staid, serious-minded buyer. They were followed for no apparent reason by the salesgirl who trailed rather hesitantly on the threshold, looking at the buyer for his consent. Since it was an exceptional circumstance even in their store, he looked away as if to say, "You can come in on this if you want, but I'm not saying anything."
The director pondered over the long-term effects of the occasion and seemed amused. He got up, smothering O'Brien with coaxing glances, much as though he had already witnessed O'Brien's triumphant return from Rome and was now smiling his best before the local press photographers. If it came to that, he thought, he would give his own version of the adventure as though it had all started from his desk.
He summoned his store artist and proclaimed that no altar cloth would be fit for the Pope's eyes that did not carry the magnificent crest of his establishment.
"See that you give this gentleman cost price, you understand!" he announced without taking his eyes off bewildered O'Brien's face. At which voice, the salesgirl felt that the message was directed to her, and showed her unnoticed self to their surprise by crying out: "Thank yew, Sir, thank yew . . ." as though the concession was made in her favour.
The day O'Brien made up his mind to hitch-hike to Rome to present an altar cloth to the Pope was when he returned to Dublin after his peregrinations in England. He had left behind in Dublin a life that he would sooner cry over than forget. Before his father gave up drinking, he made sure he gave up his job as well. That was his father's logic. "Yew can't have money and not drink as well," he would say. So his mother went out to the fashionable district as a cleaner to keep the home. Then, it was, the days when O'Brien waited for father to return with the dinner were gone. Now mother was sure to bring pastries and plums that he had already grown to link up with the other rich district. But O'Brien loved his father. There was the time when all the boys of the neighbourhood were showing off their confirmation suits, and O'Brien cried all night for fear of the morning.
But when morning came, Dad was there knocking early on O'Brien's waking ears. Hardly were they soaped, and Dad dragged him along to main street and woke up the draper with gusto and fitted O'Brien out grand in a boastful suit.
"Oye know it now, he played at Bingo hard all night and won," O'Brien reminisced.
But when Dad died, O'Brien went through a strange awakening. Just at that time too Matt Talbot died, flogging himself to death, as penance for his ruin in drink and as a tribute to "He that walked barefoot and came on an ass feeding the poor." Matt became a household word for him, and mother was always there to wash his and Dad's sins in Matt's wounds. O'Brien grew to worship the saintliness of Matt's act of self-mortification.
He had returned to Dublin only after Mother was buried. It was only when he went to cry at Mother's grave that the whole world changed for him. Mother, by some uncanny chance, was buried at the foot of Matt Talbot's grave. That was when all his ideas came to him. That was when the poor for whom the St. Vincent de Paul's bothered, did not seem quite right. All these young lads and girls talking shop about charity did not mean anything to him, especially when they indulged the good money in fireside teas, between work, no doubt. The shanty towns of Hong Kong became as much of his life's care. And now, years after, driving his London bus up Edgware Road, he worried over his West Indian conductor as much as he was unquestioning when his only son, he is educating in college, demanded forty quid for a holiday.
That day when he set out from Dublin, only those at Schabbys held out any hope for him, especially the director. Others who had helped him to organise a concert for the passage money gave up the idea when Kennedy walked right into the pub with the collection-box. Once over the channels, his route was less tiresome. There were peaches and plums all the way to Rome. And when he arrived at the Irish Embassy in Rome, broken, dirty but cheerful, the man behind the counter was quick to offer him a box of twenty Afton Majors. Soon he was packed off to the Central Committee of Pilgrims, and a thousand lire piece and free clothes and food and putting up for a week, during which time, his request to present the altar cloth personally met with little encouragement though it was accepted with good grace. When he was just about to leave for Dublin, the old priest with the long beard turned up and asked him to prepare himself for an audience with the Pope.
"I've never seen any face like his. I can describe your face. I can't describe his eminence. When I told him how I hitchhiked, his face lighted up, and he looked up and laughed happily. He seemed to give off joy. And when I told him how I got the cloth at cost price with the free painting on it after the concert failed to raise money, he laughed out loud, kissed his ring and gave me his blessing."
The news flashed back that O'Brien had seen and given the altar cloth to the Pope. The director prepared himself, cancelled his holiday to the Hebrides, and came down to all the departments. He saw to it that everybody would recognise O'Brien as soon as he came in. He saw to it that a generally better state of cleanliness was observed for so pure a being now as O'Brien that sheltered in the Vatican in the presence of the Pope must of needs consecrate the store. And he issued an edict that all O'Brien's relatives should be given cost price in the linen department.
Many times he had felt he should call up the local newspaper and give away the authoritative version of the story. But then he was satisfied, his version had already taken deep root in all the buyers' minds with strict instructions that it was no secret. For days now, the director was on all floors, in order not to be out of the picture, should O'Brien suddenly breeze in. After all the townsfolk were saying of O'Brien that he was a "right little god, that is!
O'Brien handed around free salmon sandwiches at the opening of a pub on Charing Cross Road and declared: "If I had my way, I mean, if I win the pools or something, what would I do with the fifty thousand. I'd build a house with a huge kitchen, and in the middle there would be a cauldron, and in it, I'll put good old prime beef, a lot of it, and I'll make a stew. I'll let the word out that it is free, full twenty-four hours of it, no, twelve hours of it. And those that are proud and can't make it during the day, I'll ask them to come by cover of night, and if they are still stubborn, I'll have a van out there, and I'll go from door to door, sneak in by the back door and fill out their pots. Yes, sir, that's what I'll do!"
"Why don't you go out there if you feel that way about them," I asked.
"They think I'm a little god, I can't work miracles!"
THE BOGEY IN THE TALL TREE OF THE LONG NAME
"Get out of it. You drive me insane droning on like this. You know what I told you all along. Don't come here with your emotional problems. Not that I am not sympathetic. Not that I do not understand. Just that I have already long ago told you what you can do with her. And, now, all that I can tell you is - get down to work. There is no other way. Don't come to me ten years later, and tell me you thought you were always meant to be ... er . . . civil servant ... or ... something like that. 'Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?' . . . to quote Henry James from the Ambassadors. Uhh!" Evans threw his head up in mock, despondent exhilaration.
He picked up a page and surveyed his calligraphic hand. The marginal notes left no room on the page. He glanced studiously at the fresh copy jutting out of his typewriter. Three pans of water were boiling furiously on the stove in the annexe, and he darted across from his little world of correctly opened books, innumerable magazines and copious files he had carefully laid out for the day's work. He dropped the parsnips and turnips and fillet, each in its appropriate container. He talked to Kangesh all the time in his own brisk, urgent manner. He never allowed a conversation to die out. All the time his eyes kept darting back to his typewriter which he had to remove to have his lunch. Then he detested company. For nearly forty years he had remained it seemed all alone, and he objected to anyone watching him when he sat down to eat. Everything in his life was ordered. He had managed this only because he was single, and he liked to think that years of determination and discipline went into it. He measured everything out. Even the time he allowed his innumerable callers was worked out weeks ahead. But he was far more patient with Kangesh. "You are a pest, aren't you?" he would say, and let him overstay his time. Evans never felt the need for someone to look after him. He was sure of himself: the right amount of green to take, vitamins to balance the meal, the extra money in book reviews he had to earn to stock his library. "It's strange, isn't it, that the Chinese and Indians never seem to take enough green in their food?" The occasional squash game kept him physically fit. His career had already been decided upon soon after he came down from Cambridge. Only time was a nuisance in the way of his getting closer to his goal. Lunch was ready.
"And now, I'm going to kick you out. Alright!" He looked pleadingly at Kangesh, and walked up to him and straightened his tie. "How am I going to get all this work done. I wish to God there were fifty hours in day. Then, at least, I won't be in a frenzy.... Look, it's not that I don't want to listen. I wholly sympathise. But you are going on and on in the same way, and see what's already happening to you. Right, cheer up, and goodbye. And next time you come here, let's hear you have got something done." With that, he stood at the door patiently until Kangesh got out of sight.
Kangesh shoved his grey, felt cap over his mop-like hair, adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles over the butt of his nose (the glass tipped always slightly over his right eye and which gave him, he thought, what Evans said made him look like a "bogey" - a new word he added to his vocabulary), the muscles of his face flexed, an expression that adroitly gobbled his wobbly eyes into their sockets and gave his nose that unmistakable pudginess.
"Ah ! It's easy for him to talk. He has six hundred years of unswerving English tradition to gear his orderliness." Kangesh did not eschew the habit of talking to himself. It was the one consolation he had in his helplessness. He could retort at will, and he found that he could listen better to others as well as himself when he did this. Only by this means he often triumphed at all his arguments he foolishly entertained, not without a sense of marvelling at his own words and repartee. Over more than ten years now, he had been moving from place to place and from country to country, often living among a people who did not care for him or did not understand his feelings, urges or aspirations. Nearing thirty now he was more self-reliant and preferred to listen to his own counsel, and was prone to look lightly upon himself for the mischievousness with which he involved anyone in this habitual one-sided argument that gave him an unfair advantage over his intended victims in whose company, however, he lacked the capacity to appear brilliant.
Today he felt there was a difference in the final tirade he had received from Evans. He knew he was no more a young lad in whose whims he could expect anyone, even Evans, to indulge. He had been drifting all his life. He had aim but he had no tangible future. He had a son and he had no base to work upon. Two years had gone by since an organisation picked him up and sent him overseas and brought him back to a life that promised nothing and demanded more than he could evidently pay. Now when he pulled the latch of the gate into its socket, and walked away, he felt Evan's eyes following him. For the thousandth time he realised he was alone, and that's the way he was going to be when he faced up to himself. Whether he suddenly resolved to make a new start or just passed through another paroxysm of self-contained pain, he was unable to know. It was almost always like this with him. Always a dilemma. Always neatly divided in his mind. Only he knew what he was going through. Several thoughts plagued and possessed him. He would start by working them out with care, and eventually, at the end of the day, as usual (he always woke up ready to face up to it all) he would have to choose, one way or the other. He never knew once even if he actually did choose, for he soon regretted the choice, and the entire process began again. Nobody had the patience to listen to him. He knew that, and yet he persisted. Those who did, invariably never understood him or gave him, he thought, bad advice. Others like Evans who truly sympathised with him, consoled him, and soon found themselves worrying as much as he did, and consequently, knew no solution as well. Perhaps they were pitying themselves as much as he did. He needed to get it all out of his mind at one and the same time. It was all too complicated. When he did get some of it out, and precious little too, it only cleared the way for more, and since he could not do it all in one day, he had to go round to his friends once again, and as they kept no dossier on him, he had to start all over again, or he had to remind them of it, ask them pointedly, "Do you remember or shall I tell you about that incident?" Sometimes they remembered, vaguely though, and did not want it all repeated for fear of disclosing they were less indulgent, and he would float over it to some other stage, having actually lost them on the way. The result was disastrous. Either they simply told him to get out of it all . . . "forget her, damn them, run away" or with added fury, "fight them all, give it to them, what do they think they are. . . ." He did not know how best he could use this advice. And he managed to get out of this difficulty when he thought of what Evans had to say: "I think no matter what anybody tells you to do, you will do what you want to do. I can see that coming." He did not know whether Evans said this because he knew Kangesh only too well or whether this was the best advice he could give. Now he was out on his own. Once again into the anonymity of the street. Vicarage Gate swung and disgorged itself into High Street Ken. Sallow faces lumbered up or were catapulted into it. Babies, babies and sad faced mothers or au pairs from the Continent pushing prams on the pavements. Guards under the lantern standing watch, vans pulling up perennially into that low tower house on the left, with the letters E R and something in between them, impeccably printed on their rear doors which unceremoniously parted the letters. And always, as always, a constant maidenly whirring sensation took possession of this old-world Kensington charm that he could never really pin down in anno domini. He ventured to think his memory would dare to place them down in descriptions by Dickens (he lingered long at the age of ten in the pages of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, vainly conjuring another life away from the Japanese régime in his colonial country). Or he thought he might apply another name like Evelyn Waugh. He knew he was wrong. His reading was quite vapid. He cursed himself for not reading. But what did it matter. It was a place that consoled him. He felt at home here, but he could not get away from the feeling that he was some kind of thief. He felt this usually when he got indoors. Then he knew he had no business being in this or any land. . . . Ah, Mexico, he thought, wasn't that a land where he would unnoticeably blend. . . . Then it was that the images shrunk from the blotches on the blotting paper of his brief outing. He remembered the stretched blossoms of faces like skin over drums, bobbing up and down the pavements, half concealed and they trembled, and he could hear their hearts thumping, wildly, burningly, and he was frightened. What was he doing here among a foreign people. They did not want him. He saw the leer on the face of the Sainsbury shop assistant as he asked for a pound of stewed steak, the mechanical gesture of his hand thrusting before him two solitary copper coins, and he vividly recalled two and nine with an apostrophe somewhere on the impervious cash register. He saw himself thrust and jerk through the threading pavements and doors as he rubbed and jabbed by flapping robes of wool, and every time someone turned to give him a nasty look, he was yards away uttering an indistinguishable apology. He wondered if they understood him then for he was frightened of his own voice, a guttural, spiritual noise that came up like a lump of musty rheum. All along he pushed and he strained, always trying to straighten from a terrible fear of holding on to something. He remembered that he either scurried or skulked, both actions reminded him that he was either running away so that he would not be noticed or that he was being pressed down and pushed. This he remembered well.
Now he was working himself up. His mind pounded away all the time, the same old theme, the same old merging throng of emotions, thoughts and ideas - despairing, fighting and forcing within themselves, gathering tempo and a weird rhythm he had gradually come to recognise, whirling and whizzing, and then a lull, as he managed to take inventory, and then effortlessly he careered into it again, and again, and he heard Evans calling him a "masochist" ... "masochist" and he cursed himself . . . "you are a damned masochist," and he couldn't stop himself, and he carried on and on, and he heard Joe's final utterance. . . "you are a coward, fight them . . . you are killing yourself ... this is suicide ... fight ... fight." But then he thought Joe is a lawyer, and he gave in. If he fought her or her people for his son, it would kill her or she would kill herself as the final blow in his penultimate humiliation, and it would confound the child's life. Or if he won, she would be paying costs from his money which she could so usefully avail herself with to procure another man she could love and live with, so very easily from the shambles of her inexcusable past with him. But then his mind turned and he saw their lurid designs, and saw the avaricious, conspiratorial faces of her lawyers and mother-in-law who would never ever forget that he had seen them for what they were, and he thought himself a Jew when Joe's deafening voice called out ... "Warsaw Ghetto ...Warsaw Ghetto." He wondered and became far more confused. He took consolation in the thought that if he fought her (anyway, she was not to blame, they were ... well, perhaps, somewhat ... ) he would be fighting his own son whom he did not know, who did not know him, and many others did, and above all he was growing up to be one of them, one of all the Struwel-Peters.
But it did not end there. Much more crowded into his mind. He felt a growing urge to evaluate and enumerate the surge of that brief clamp on his mind. He remembered that this came naturally to him. All his life he had been doing and going through this same process, only it appeared that now the contents grew and gathered to make the ritual less thorough and less sincere. The more he indulged in this time-keeping of the events of his life, he felt he was doing it less for himself. He began to distrust himself. Then he got serious with himself again, and he felt that he was pitying himself. In moments such as this when he was alone in his room, his thoughts, mostly of recollection, were very clear and coherent, only sometimes they worked themselves into a knot, mainly because he wanted them to be so for the next such occasion to unravel. He knew this and did not seem to mind.
Meticulously, with the affected devotion of the pilgrim he scrapped the ShweDagon Pagoda of his memory, and laid each leaf of gold upon the tar at the base, back in its place. He knew he exchanged gold for gold, and yet only the process mattered. Leaf upon leaf, in endless succession, and like a Burman staggered by his own creation, gazed upon the sky and felt that consolation in the act, the sound of the bells high on the cluster of diamond, jade, moonstone, opal pinhead tintinnabulated only in the pilgrim's ear. Beautiful cobras kept the interior chambers of the Pagoda. His mouth convulsed, and he thought the soporific Kundalini stirred at his coccyx. The last days of the winter relented, and a mellowness filtered through the pulpiness of the day and lingered on after lighting up time. Freshly painted wire-netting went up for the private park in Bryanston Square where he had never seen anyone really resting. Darkness came with a toll: suddenly as if all the colours embedded in the walls and trees, metal and man, came out and danced in the veins of his eyes. Swiftly in the intoxication of his melancholia, he noticed the lanterns, and lights inside bay-windows dwindle down until the dying day made moth-balls of them in the hanging air. Now, he mused he would not have to go back to his room, which for the first time in all his life he had to himself.
Thousands of miles away from his birthplace, and he was not even a simple part of his own gregarious community in London. Most of all he disliked his countrymen's sense of humour. He did not know whether he hated himself more for attaching himself to their interests or whether they hated him for his refusal to chuck in his lot with them. Yet he indulged in their life. He had become inextricably involved ever since he returned to his country on that overseas mission. What irked him most was that they rejected him. They preferred to have the Westerner do things for them even now. To them Kangesh was an upstart. They rejected as an illogicism that any one of them had it in him to do something worthwhile for themselves. Yet more than a sense of belonging compelled him to be with them, and sometimes to interfere in their affairs. They used him when they could so long as they did not have to acknowledge his usefulness. It was then that he tried to divest himself of any claim to his primordial company. He would work himself into an uncontrollable frenzy by letting himself into raving arguments with them on any topic during which he allowed them to outshout and deride him.
He got clear of his countrymen as soon as he could bear them no longer, but not until he had made himself thoroughly sick of their company and had a good reason to shut himself up in his room. But not today. He walked on straight to the Speakers' Corner and drowned himself in the babble of noises, till the hot breath of pressing bodies suffocated him. Everyone there seemed supercharged with energy and the babblement knocked in his brain. Those of whom he recognised there had an air about them that threatened to importune one another. Man or woman, they made a brazen pass, and he became frightened by their inexorable zest. He wanted to but could not cry, and as in all such occasions, his face sagged and lost its identity. Everything he saw or heard reminded him of her, and his limp body pushed itself into the Park where once, not so long ago, he had slept for months on its meadows when he did not have a room to himself. It hurt him to think that the place was now the watery underside of a car park. He made for that hollow in the bracketed tree in the middle of the field by the barracks which was his first private domain. There in that hollow he had been safe many a night before. Promptly before five when the policemen made their rounds again, he stirred to move on to the Underground where he rounded off his sleep. He recalled the bearded Hungarian refugee, the only other inmate of the park, who eyed him fixedly every morning, and though they never spoke to each other, they thought of each other as jealous discoverers of a private country. And then it was he made his way to Victoria Station, and with a tuppenny h'penny ticket he journeyed in his sleep, round and round the Circle Line, until the gentlemen and lady commuters squeezed morning papers and dangled cases down on his jogging head. Out at the same station again, he was ready for another day.
Today, a whole room to himself, he could not go back. He did not want to return to his room. Only the other day someone he knew heard from her, and she had damned him with Antony's own words: "But Brutus is an honourable man ...." He did not know what to do, the words of her letter (that is what he thought it meant) toiled on and on in his mind, and he found himself mouthing Mark Antony's speech. He put the letter out of his mind and recapitulated the original text for its effect, and continued to linger over the murder of Cinna, the poet, and he thought, how ironic, his relatives had always called him "Cinna!" Her own words then took over. "I do not blame him ... I do not want him any harm.... He has every legal and human right ...." and all the rest contorted itself in an onrush, unable to enunciate in his mind, but he knew what it meant. His so-called friend dropped him or rather wanted to see him danmed, for he found a new friend in her, someone who will thank him profusely and sign herself "yours," and punctuate all her sentences with his name, and elevate him into "a man of good intentions." The blackguard! he thought, and that was all he could do.
He slumped down against a tall tree on the rolling side of the Serpentine and listened unseeingly to the little island interpolating its impalpable sounds in the whirring-buzzing tone in the back of his ears which had collected from the skirts of the Park he left behind. Occasionally the island geese complained ecstatically and pigeons grumbled. The people all around him slinked away from his sight, and the people in his memory broke loose... "the trouble with you," Evans would say, "is that you live in the past ...in the monotonous past ..." And he wondered why Evans bothered with him at all. He had nothing to gain from him. Nothing at all. And still he persisted. Yes, he was the kind of friend he wanted and needed. But he was not a companion. He knew it was useless, he needed a constant companion. All his friends he turned into companions soon turned sour, and he invariably lost them or they turned against him. Good thing, he thought, he cannot make Evans a companion. He reviewed them all, one by one, and felt a sorrow that peevishly altered to self-pity. He hated himself for this, and hated himself with a fury that broke upon his former wife suddenly, and he cursed till he grew stiff and dumb. The hate oozed out of him in pain when he saw he could not fight back. They had him nailed. There was nothing he could do but submit and live a humiliating death, and he felt for the Jews, the Jews for whom he felt even before he met the Germans. All the details of his own post-war Konzentrazionslager life in Germany came back to him and taunted him and he cried when he thought of his son they kept from him, "Damn, damn," he yelled and lay stupefied.
The policemen made their rounds in twos ushering people out. He wondered why they never saw him, and he remembered how like a bogey he rudely awoke in the old days to yell at a policeman who came close to rouse him up in the middle of the small hours. He sighed when he recalled how that policeman lingered watching him and rejoined his mate on his beat. Again, everybody left in a hurry, and he was back with himself, all to himself. Only that refugee was not around. He may have been in the clink away from the winter waiting for the summer to warm up. At least, he gets his meals regularly, he thought. But, he knew that the refugee would forego even that to become king of his domain again.
A clean bed and room awaited Kangesh. Food that he could break out of tins was all well stocked. Books and a little transistor to keep vicarious company with. And if he wanted, surely a woman to share it all with. But he would not stir. The entire process of making up to a woman and getting her down to it repelled him. He was frightened to get back to his room and merely sit around until sleep came, and with sleep, the hours of getting ready for sleep again. He hated to brush his teeth, comb his hair, shave, dress up, put on a tie, write letters, take his wash to the launderette, buy the food in, cook, eat, wash up, make a few telephone calls, the pictures all he may have seen, whether to take in the telly, what programmes, where, not that student Hall certainly, go for a stroll, which direction, to read, what to read, there is ever so much, should he brush his shoes or not and why should he, no one really looks down at his feet, where should he go for a while after all this hard work, whom to be with, and he would give up. He hated sleep for it promised all this again the next day.
His feet felt wet. This winter had ruined the pavements, and twice he had to resole his shoes, and he economised with only one pair, and this saved him the bother of choosing what shoes to wear. He lay there just thinking all the time - if he had not been too harsh to her - but never really following what he thought over, till he remembered the appointment next day with the big man who was responsible for pulling him out of a dead end.
There was nothing more to do but wait for morning and see. He knew if he went back to his room, there was an admission of defeat, defeat from what he did not quite grasp. Then there was the appointment in the morning with the big, kind man who after all did not quite know him, did not quite understand him, may have thought he was well-educated, well-informed, may have thought he was conducting his life usefully. A kind man, he certainly did not know what he was getting him out of. Kangesh had often thought about this and wondered. Why should he have been sent out on this mission only on the strength of a couple of chance encounters with the big, kind man who himself had said: "I remember you, I remember your poems. You see I read nearly twenty different writers every day, and yet, I remember your poems from over a year ago." But he did not say anything about them then.
Why then did they send him out? There was no way he could really know. When he thought about this, he felt like leaving all his work as it stood in his room, never wanting to return to it.
He could never forget the look of disgust on the face of the big man after all the arrangements were made, when Kangesh sat and talked incoherently about some conditions of his work. The big man stretched himself to his full height, obviously disturbed, darted to a side gently, held out a limpid hand, and said after finding Kangesh still around: "You can go," and himself busied to leave.
He knew there was something wrong, but he could not quite detect it. The other men in the organisation packed him off without quite knowing how or why he came to receive all this good fortune on his own terms too. And they were somewhat annoyed that they had to send him without knowing what he was like. When he got out there, their man out there almost made it plain that it was all a mistake. From then on the control tower lost contact with him. As quickly as he was sent there, he managed to get himself into trouble by making enemies of people who were born to be his enemies, and they were satisfied. The mission was simple enough, and he achieved it, but he was not quite the right man in their eyes who should succeed. So he wrote back: "I shall not leave this place until I have finished what I came out here to do." They were not interested. Kangesh was worse than they thought. They could not even ditch him.
As he lay there thinking about it all, he knew that his future was not what it looked like when he left. He did not mind for himself at least thwarting their authority, but when he thought of the tall man, he felt more than shame. He returned to realise that all his doubts about them were true.
"It's no use," he thought. "You can't fight them. You can't fight the world which they have neatly divided for their purpose. You do not fit into it all. It's no use. They can break you. Why they may not even bother to break you. They will just drop you. And that is enough damage. The other half will murder you, and they nearly did, for coming out on their ticket. And where are you - with yourself, and you don't want yourself, do you? What can you do with your stupid victory? You are too unimportant for anyone to feel happy about your victory. Last of all, your own people will. And all that time, your own son's time, who in any case you would never have had. So you are back where you were. Only you have no time to put the cat away."
He wished he had not to keep the appointment the next day, for he worried over what the big, kind man would say, and he thought he heard his gentle voice pronounce:
"But, you are ungrateful. Think of all the things you have gained."
"Yes," he heard himself reply, "yes, but where does gratitude end and ingratitude begin?"
He thought over this and did not know whether he should keep the appointment in the morning.
He felt the blue eyes of the big, kind man deaden on his face, and he tried to shake his attention off by rambling incoherently to himself. He grimaced innocently at this giant out of the thirties, and for a doubtful moment thought the big man's legs dangled on the shoulders of someone he thought looked like Christopher Caudwell. This was unthinkable, and in his abashment, he tried to erase this image from his mind. The more he tried, the stronger the image sketched itself. It was more than a compulsion which forced him to argue out this irrational image, but it was his own defence that he was most concerned about.
"Espousing the right cause doesn't make righteous men of us all! Surely all that it takes for me to be on the side of the righteous is to say, I don't believe in the other side. If I said I don't believe in the men on both sides, where does it put me! Certainly without a right as an individual to be vested with any belief."
Now he thought he had angered them all and the greater was his reluctance to keep that appointment. He knew himself and knew what he would say.
The fog had settled over the joints of the Serpentine and lay for hours, it seemed, like a swab of cotton wool over an open wound. Only the moving wind could be seen furrowing the surface like a plough bull set to course with a weight. The wild fowl, the white-collared doves and pigeons on the sprayed banks talked in hushed tones. The gathering dew dripped on his raincoat from a hole in the trunk of the tree he leant against. His eyes appeared glassy. He reached into his dulled mind to awaken his senses and looked at the roots under him. The rumbling Underground shot between Green Park and Knightsbridge. He gazed at a single primrose on a slender stalk and cast his mind upon the deliberately strewn patches of primula on the Bayswater Road end. Then he stood up and whispered:
"What is it doing all alone in the roots of this massive tree?"
He turned and moved in the direction of his room.
Last update on 10 December 2005.