Book: The Temptation of Jack Orkney
His father was dying. It was a telegram, saying also: YOU UNOBTAINABLE TELEPHONE. He had been on the telephone since seven that morning. It was the housekeeper who had sent the telegram. Did Mrs Markham not know that she could have asked the telephone authorities to interrupt his conversations for an urgent message? The irritation of the organizer who is manipulating intractable people and events now focussed on Mrs Markham, but he tried to alleviate it by reminding himself that Mrs Markham was housekeeper not only to his father but to a dozen other old people.
It had been a long time since he had actually organized something political; others had been happy to organize him — his name, his presence, his approval. But an emotional telephone call from an old friend, Walter Renting, before seven that morning, appealing that they 'all' should make a demonstration of some sort about the refugees — the nine million refugees of Bangladesh this time — and the information that he was the only person available to do the organizing, had returned him to a politically active past. Telephoning, he soon discovered that even the small demonstration they envisaged would be circumscribed, because people were saying they could see no point in a demonstration when television, radio and every newspaper did little else but tell the world about these millions of sufferers. What was the point of a dozen or twenty people 'sitting down' or 'marching' or even being hungry for twenty-four hours in some prominent place? Surely the point of these actions in the past had been to draw public attention to a wrong?
Now the strength of his reaction to Mrs Markham's inadequacy made him understand that his enthusiastic response to Walter so early that morning had been mostly because of weeks, months, of inactivity. He could not be so exaggerating details if he were not under-employed. He had been making occupation for himself, calling it stocktaking. He had been reading old diaries, articles of his own, twenty or more years old, letters of people he had not seen, sometimes, for as long. Immersing himself in his own past had of course been uncomfortable; this is what it had been really like in Korea, Israel, Pretoria, during such and such an event; memory had falsified. One knew that it did, but he had believed himself exempt from this law. Every new day of this deliberate evocation of the past had made his own part in it seem less worthwhile, had diminished his purposes and strengths. It was not that he now lacked offers to work, but that he could not make himself respond with the enthusiastic willingness which he believed every job of work needed. Of his many possibilities the one that attracted him most was to teach journalism in a small college in Nigeria, but he could not make up his mind to accept: his wife didn't want to go. Did he want to leave her in England for two years? No; but at one time this certainly would not have been his reaction!
Nor did he want to write another adventure book: in such empty times in the past he had written, under noms de plume, novels whose attraction was the description of the countries he had set them in. He had travelled a great deal in this life, often dangerously in the course of this war or that, as a soldier and as a journalist.
He might also write a serious book of social or political analysis: he had several to his credit.
He could do television work, or return to active journalism.
The thing was that now the three children were through university he did not need to earn so much money.
Leisure, leisure at last! he had cried, as so many of his friends were doing, finding themselves similarly placed.
But half a morning's energetic organizing was enough to tell him — exactly as his mother had been used to tell him when he was adolescent — 'Your trouble is, you haven't got enough to do!'
He sent a telegram to Mrs Markham: ARRIVING TRAIN EARLY EVENING. Flying would save him an hour; proper feeling would no doubt choose the air; but he needed the train's pace to adjust him for what was ahead. He rang Walter Kenting to say that with the organizing still undone, urgent family matters were claiming him. Walter was silent at this, so he said: Actually, my old man is going to die in the next couple of days. It has been on the cards for some time.'
'I am sorry.' said Walter. 'I'll try Bill or Mona. I've got to go to Dublin in fifteen minutes. Are you going to be back by Saturday? — oh, of course, you don't know.' Realizing that he was sounding careless or callous, he said: 'I do hope things will be all right.' This was worse and he gave up: 'You think that a twenty-four-hour fast meets that bill better than the other possibilities? Is that what most people feel, do you think?'
'Yes. But I don't think they are as keen as usual.'
‘Well, of course not, there's too much of bloody everything, that's why. You could be demonstrating twenty-four hours a day. Anyway, I've got to get to my plane.'
While Jack packed, which he knew so well how to do, in ten minutes, he remembered that he had a family. Should everyone be at the deathbed? Oh, surely not! He looked for his wife: she was out. Of course! The children off her hands, she too had made many exclamations about the attractions of leisure, but almost at once she signed up for a psychology course as part of a plan to become a Family Counsellor. She had left a note for him: 'Darling, there's some cold lamb and salad.' He now left a note for her: 'Old man on his way out. See you whenever. Tell girls and Joseph. All my love. Jack.'
On the train he thought of what he was in for. A family reunion, no less. His brother wasn't so bad, but the last time he had seen Ellen, she had called him a Boy Scout, and he had called her a Daughter of the British Empire. Considering it a compliment, she had been left with the advantage. A really dreadful woman, and as for her husband — surely he wouldn't be there too? He would have to be, as a man? Where would they all fit in? Certainly not in that tiny flat. He should have put in the note to Rosemary that she should telephone hotels in S—. Would the other grandchildren be there? Well, Cedric and Ellen would be certain to do the right thing, whatever that was: as for himself he could telephone home when he had found what the protocol was. But, good God, surely it was bad enough that three of them, grown — up and intelligent people — grown-up, anyway — were going to have to sit about waiting, in a deathbed scene, because of — superstition. Yes, that was what it was. Certainly no more than outdated social custom. And it all might go on for days. But perhaps the old man would be pleased? At the approach of a phrase similar to those suitable for deaths and funerals, he felt irritation again: this would lead, unless he watched himself, to self — mockery, the spirit of farce. Farce was implicit, anyway, in a situation which had himself, Ellen and Cedric in one room.
Probably the old man wasn't even conscious. He should have telephoned Mrs Markham before rushing off like that — well, like a journalist, with two pairs of socks, a spare shirt and a sweater. He should have bought a black tie? Would the old man have wished it? (Jack noted the arrival of an indubitably 'suitable' phrase, and feared worse for the immediate future.)
The old man had not worn black or altered his cheerfulness when his wife died.
His wife, Jack's mother.
The depression that he suspected was in wait for him, now descended. He understood that he had been depressed for some time: this was like dark coming down into a fog. He had not admitted that he was depressed, but he ought to have known it by the fact what he had woken up to each morning was not his own expectation of usefulness or accomplishment, but his wife's.
Now if Rosemary died... but he would not think about that, it would be morbid.
When his mother died, his father had made the simplest of funerals for her — religious, of course. All the family, the grandchildren too, had stayed in the old house, together for the first time in years. The old man had behaved like a man who knew that his grief ought not be inflicted on others. Jack had not been close to his mother: he had not liked her. He was close to no member of the family. He now knew that the loved his wife, but that had not been true until recently. There were his beautiful daughters. There was his son Joseph, who was a chip off the old block — so everyone insisted on saying, though it infuriated Joseph. But they could not meet without quarrelling. That was closeness of a kind?
He ought to have been more attentive when the mother died, to the old man, who had probably been concealing a good deal behind his mild dignity. Of course! And, looking back ten years, Jack knew that he had known what his father was feeling, had been sympathetic, but had also been embarrassed and unable to give anything of himself — out of fear that more would be asked? — had pretended obtuseness.
The old house was Church property, divided into units for old people who had been good parishioners. None had been friends before going to live there, but now it seemed that they were all close friends, or at least kept each other company in a variety of ways under the eye of Mrs Markham who also lived there, looked after the house, after them. She put flowers in the church and mended surplices and garments of that sort — she was fifty, poor old thing, Jack now told himself that he was over fifty, although the 'baby of the family', and that his sister Ellen with whom he was to spend an unknown number of days was fifty — five, while his boring brother Cedric was older still.
This train was not full and moved pleasantly through England's green and pleasant land. There were two other people in the compartment. Second class. Jack travelled second class when he could: this was one of the ways he used to check up on himself that he was not getting soft with success — if you could call what he had success. His brother and sister did, but that was the way they looked at life.
One fellow — passenger was middle — aged woman, and one a girl of about twenty-three or -four, who leaned an elbow on the window ledge and stared at Buckinghamshire, then Berkshire, then Wiltshire, all green and soft on this summery day. Her face was hidden behind glittering yellow hair. Jack classed her as a London secretary on her way home for a family visit, and as the kind of young person he would get on with — that is, like his daughters rather than his son.
He was finding the company of his girls all pleasure and healing. It seemed to him that everything he had looked for in women now flowed generously towards him from Carrie and Elizabeth. It was not that they always approved him, far from it; it was the quality of their beauty that caressed and dandled him. The silk of their hair flattered, their smiles, even when for somebody else, gave him answers to questions that he had been asking of women — so it seemed to him now — all his life.
Though of course he did not see much of them: while living in the same house, upstairs, they led their own lives.
The woman, whom he disliked because she was not young and beautiful—he was aware that he should be ashamed of this reaction, but put this shame on to an agenda for the future — got off the train, and now the girl at the window turned towards him and the rest of the journey was bound to be delightful. He had been right — of course, he was always right about people. She worked in an office in Great Portland Street, and she was going for a visit to her parents — no, she' got on' with them all right, but she was always pleased to be back in her flat with her friends. She was not a stranger to Jack's world; that is, she was familiar with the names of people whose lives expressed concern for public affairs, public wrong and suffering, and she used the names of his friends with a proprietary air — she had, as it were, eaten them up to form herself, as he, Jack, had in his time swallowed Keir Hardie, Marx, Freud, Morris and the rest. She, those like her, now possessed 'the Old Guard', their history, their opinions, their claims. To her, Walter Kenting, Bill, Mona, were like statues on plinths, each representing a degree of opinion. When the time came to give her his own name, he said it was Jack Sebastian, not Jack Orkney, for he knew he would join the pantheon of people who were her parents-in-opinion, and, as he had understood, were to be criticized, like parents.
The last time he had been Jack Sebastian was to get himself out of a tight spot in Ecuador, during a small revolution: he had escaped prison and possibly death by this means.
If he told this girl about that, he knew that as he sat opposite her, she would gaze in judiciously measured admiration at a man retreating from her into history. He listened to her talk about herself, and knew that if things had been otherwise — he meant, not his father's dying, but his recently good relations with his wife — he could easily have got off the train with the girl, and persuaded her to spend the rest of her holiday with him, having made excuses to her family. Or he could have met her in London. But all he wanted now was to hear her voice, and to let himself be stimulated by the light from her eyes and her hair.
She got off the train, with a small laughing took that made his heart beat, and she strode off across the platform with her banners of yellow hair streaming behind her, leaving him alone in the brown compartment full of brown air.
At the station he was looking for a taxi when he was his brother Cedric. A brown suit that discreetly confined a small stomach came towards him. That suit could only clothe a member of the professional classes, it had to be taken into account before the face, which was, as it happened, a mild pale face that had a look on it of duty willingly performed.
Cedric said, in his way of dealing all at once with every possible contingency: 'Mrs Markham said it had to be this train. I came because Ellen has only just come herself: I arrived first.'
He had a Rover, dark blue, not now. He and Jack, defined by this car and particularly accurately in this country town, drove through soothingly ancient streets.
The brothers drove more or less in silence to the church precincts. As they passed in under a thirteenth-century stone archway, Cedric said: 'Ellen booked a room for you. It is the Royal Arms, and she and I are there too. It is only five minutes from Father'
They walked in silence over grass to the back door of this solid brick house which the Church devoted to the old. Not as a charity of course. These were the old whose own saved money or whose children could pay for their rooms and for Mrs Markham. The poor old were elsewhere.
Mrs Markham came forward from her sitting-room and said, 'How do you do, Mr Orkney?' to Jack, smiling like a hostess at Cedric. 'I am sure you would all like some tea now,' she directed. 'I'll bring you some up.' She was like the woman on the train. And like Ellen.
He followed his brother up old wooden stairs that gleamed, and smelled of lavender and wax polish. As always happened, the age of the town, and of the habits, of the people who lived in it, the smell of tradition, enveloped Jack in well-being: he had to remind himself that he was here for an unpleasant occasion. At the top of the stairs various unmarked doors were the entrances to the lives of four old people. Cedric opened one without knocking, and Jack followed him into a room he had been in twice before on duty visits. It was a smallish, but pleasant, room with windows overlooking the lawn that surrounded the church.
Sister, Ellen, in thick grey tweed, sat knitting. She said: 'Oh Jack, there you are, we are all here at last.'
Jack sat. Cedric sat. They had to arrange their feet so as not to entangle in the middle of the small floor. They all exchanged news. The main thing that had happened to the three of them was that the children had all grown up.
The grandchildren, eight of them, knew each other, and had complicated relationships: they were a family, unlike their parents.
Mrs Markham brought tea, of the kind appropriate to this room, this town: scones, butter, jam, comb honey, fruit buns, cherry cake, fruit cake. Also cream. She left, giving the three a glance that said. At last it is all as it should be.
Jack asked: 'Have you seen him?'
'No.' said Cedric a fraction of a second before Ellen did. It was clear that here was competition for the perfect disposition of this death. Jack was remembering how these two had fought for domination over each other, and over, of course, himself.
'That is to say,' said Ellen, 'we have seen him, but he was not conscious.'
‘Another stroke?' asked Jack.
'He had another before Christmas,' said Cedric, 'but they didn't tell us, he didn't want to worry us.'
'I heard about it through Jilly,' said Ellen. Jilly was her daughter.
And I through Ann,' said Cedric. Ann was his.
Jack had now to remind himself that these names represented persons, not samples of pretty infancy.
'He is very close to Ann,' said Cedric.
'He is fond of Jilly too,' said Ellen.
'I suppose there is a nurse in there?' asked Jack. 'Oh of course, there must be.'
'There is a day nurse and a night nurse, and they change places at dawn and dusk,' said Ellen. 'I must say, I am glad of this tea. There was no restaurant on the train.'
'I wonder if I could see him?' asked Jack, and then corrected it: 'I shall go in to see him.' He Knew, as they spoke, that all the way on the train he had in fact been waiting for the moment when he could walk into the little bedroom, and his father would smile at him and say — he had not been able to imagine what, but it must be something that he had been able to imagine what, but it must be something that he had been waiting to hear from him, or from somebody, for years. This surely was the real purpose of coming here? That what he had in fact been expecting was something of coming here? That what he had in fact been expecting was something like a 'deathbed scene', with vital advice and mutual comfort, embarrassed him, and he felt that he was stupid. Now he understood that embarrassment was the air of this room: the combat between elder brother and sister was nominal; they skirmished from habit to cover what they felt. Which was that they were in a position not allowed for by their habits of living. Jack had a vision of rapidly running trains — their lives; but they had had to stop the trains, had had to pull the emergency cords, and at great inconvenience to everyone, because of this ill-timed death. Death had to be ill-timed? It was its nature? Why was it felt to be? There was something ridiculous about this scene in which he was trapped: three middle-aged children sitting about in one room, idle, thinking of their real lives which stagnated, while in another room an old man lay dying, attended by a strange woman.
"I'am going in,' he said, and this time got up, instinctively careful of his head: he was tall in this low-ceilinged room.
'Go in without knocking,' said Ellen.
'Yes,' Cedric confirmed.
Jack stooped under the door-frame. An inappropriate picture had come into his mind. It was of his sister in a scarlet pinafore and bright blue checked sleeves tugging a wooden horse which was held by a pale plump boy. Jack had been scared that when Ellen got the horse a real fight would start. But Cedric held on, lips tight, being jerked by Ellen's tugs as a dog is tugged by the other dog who has fastened his teeth into the bit of meat or the stick. This scene had taken place in the old garden, for it had been enclosed by pink hydrangeas, while gravel had crunched underfoot. They must all have been very young, because Ellen had still been the classic golden-haired beauty: later she became large and ordinary.
What he was really seeing was his father sitting up against high pillows. A young woman in white sat with her hands folded, watching the dying man. But he looked asleep. It was only when he saw the healthy young woman that Jack understood that his father had become a small old man: he had definitely shrunk. The room was dark, and it was not until Jack stood immediately above his father that he saw the mouth was open. But what was unexpected was that the eyelids had swelled and were blue, as if decomposition had set in there already. Those bruised lids affected Jack like something in bad taste, like a fart at a formal meal, or when making love of a romantic sort. He looked in appeal at the nurse, who said in a natural voice which she did not lower at all: 'He did stir a moment ago, but he didn't really come to himself.'
Jack nodded, not wanting to break the hush of time that surrounded the bed, and bent lower, trying not to see the dying lids, but remembering what he could of his father's cool, shrewd, judging look. It seemed to him as if the bruised puffs of flesh were trembling, might lift. But this stare did not have the power to rouse his father, and soon Jack straightened himself — cautiously. Where did the Church put its tall old people, he wondered, and backed out of the room, keeping his eyes on the small old man in his striped pyjamas which showed very clean under a dark grey cardigan that was fastened under the collar with a gold tie-pin, giving him a formal, dressed-up look.
'How does he seem?' asked Ellen. She had resumed her knitting.
'Unconscious,' said Cedric.
Jack asserted himself — quite easily, he saw with relief. 'He doesn't look unconscious to me. On the contrary, I thought he nearly woke up.'
They knew the evening was wearing on: their watches told them so. It remained light; an interminable summer evening filled the sky above the church tower. A young woman came through the room, a coat over her white uniform, and in a moment the other nurse came past them, on her way out.
'I think we might as well have dinner,' said Ellen, already folding her knitting.
'Should one of us stay perhaps?' corrected Cedric. He stayed, and Jack had hotel dinner and a bottle of wine with his sister; he didn't dislike being with her as much as he had expected. He was even remembering times when he had been fond of Ellen.
They returned to keep watch, while Cedric took his turn for dinner. At about eleven the doctor came in, disappeared for five minutes into the bedroom, and came out saying that he had given Mr Orkney an injection. By the time they had thought to ask what the injection was, he had said that his advice was that they should all get a good night's sleep, and had gone. Each hesitated before saying that they intended to take the doctor's advice: this situation, traditionally productive of guilt, was doing its work well.
Before they had reached the bottom of the stairs, the nurse came after them: 'Mr Orkney, Mr Orkney...' Both men turned, but she said 'Jack? He was asking for Jack.'
Jack ran up the stairs, through one room, into the other. But it seemed as if the old man had not moved since he had last seen him. The nurse had drawn the curtains, shutting out the sky so full of light, of summer, and had arranged the lamp so that it made a bright space in the dark room. In this was a wooden chair with a green cushion on it, and on the cushion a magazine. The lit space was like the detail of a picture much magnified. The nurse said: 'Really, with that injection, he ought not to wake now.' She took her place again with the magazine on her lap, inside the circle of light.
Yet he had woken, he had asked for himself, Jack, and for nobody else. Jack was alert, vibrating with his nearness to what his father might say. But he stood helpless, trying to make out the bruises above the eyes, which the shadows were hiding. 'I'll stay here the night,' he declared, all energy, and strode out, only just remembering to lower his head in time, to tell his sister and his brother, who had come back up the stairs.
'The nurse thinks he is unlikely to wake, but I am sure it would be what he would wish if one of us were to stay.'
That he had used another of the obligatory phrases struck Jack with more than amusement: now the fact that the prescribed phrases made their appearance one after the other was like a guarantee that he was behaving appropriately, that everything would go smoothly and without embarrassment, and that he could expect his father's eyes to appear from behind the corrupted lids — that he would speak the words Jack needed to hear. Cedric and Ellen quite understood, but demanded to be called at once if... They went off together across the bright grass towards the hotel.
Jack sat up all night; but there was no night, midsummer swallowed the dark; at midnight the church was still glimmering and people strolled talking softly over the lawns. He had skimmed through Trollope's The Small House at Allington, and had dipped into a book of his own called With the Guerrillas in Guatemala. The name on the spine was Jack Henge, and now he wondered if he had ever told his father that this was one of his noms de plume, and he thought that if so, it showed a touching interest on his fathers part, but if not, that there must have been some special hidden sympathy shown in the choice or chance that led to its sitting here on the old man's shelves side by side with the Complete Works of Trollope and George Eliot and Walter Scott. But, of course, it was unlikely now that he would ever know... his father had not woken, had not stirred, all night. Once he had tiptoed in and the nurse had lifted her head and smiled; clearly, though the old man had gone past the divisions of day and night, the living must still adhere to them, for the day nurse had spoken aloud, but now it was night, the nurse whispered: 'The injection is working well. You try to rest, Mr Orkney.' Her solicitude for him, beaming out from the bright cave hollowed from the dark of the room, enclosed them together in the night's vigil, and when the day nurse came, and the night nurse went yawning, looking pale, and tucking dark strands of hair as if tidying up after a night's sleep, her smile at Jack was that of a comrade after a shared ordeal.
Almost at once the day nurse came back into the living-room and said: 'Is there someone called Ann?'
'Yes, a granddaughter, he was asking for her?' 'Yes. Now, he was awake for a moment.'
Jack suppressed: 'He didn't ask for me?' — and ran back into the bedroom which was now filled with a stuffy light that presented the bruised lids to the nurse and to Jack.
'I'll tell my brother that Ann has been asked for'
Jack walked through fresh morning air that had already brought a few people on to the grass around the church, to the hotel, where he found Cedric and Ellen at breakfast.
He said that no, he had not been wanted, but that Ann was wanted now. Ellen and Cedric conferred and agreed that Ann 'could reasonably be expected' never to forgive them if she was not called. Jack saw that these words soothed them both; they were comforting himself. He was now suddenly tired. He drank coffee, refused breakfast, and decided on an hour's sleep. Ellen went to telephone greetings and the news that nothing had changed to her family; Cedric to summon Ann, while Jack wondered if he should telephone Rosemary. But there was nothing to say.
He fell on his bed and dreamed, woke, dreamed again, woke, forced himself back to sleep but was driven up out of it to stand in the middle of his hotel room, full of horror. His dreams had been landscapes of dark menacing shapes that were of man's making — metallic, like machines, steeped in a cold grey light, and scattered about on a plain where cold water lay spilled about, gleaming. This water reflected, he knew, death, or news, or information about death, but he stood too for away on the plain to see what pictures lay on its surfaces.
Now Jack was one of those who do not dream. He prided himself on never dreaming. Of course he had read the 'new' information that everyone dreamed every night, but he distrusted this information. For one thing he shared in the general distrust of science, of its emphatic pronouncements; for another, travelling around the world as he had, he had long ago come to terms with the fact that certain cultures were close to aspects of life which he, Jack, had quite simply forbidden. He had locked a door on them. He knew that some people claimed to see ghosts, feared their dead ancestors, consulted witch-doctors, dreamed dreams. How could he not know? He had lived with them. But he, Jack, did not consult the bones or allow himself to be afraid of the dark. Or dream. He did not dream.
He felt groggy, more than tired: the cold of the dream was undermining him, making him shiver. He got back into bed, for he had slept only an hour, and continued with the same dream. Now he and Walter Kenting were interlopers on that death-filled plain, and they were to be shot, one bullet each, on account of nonspecified crimes. He woke again: it was ten minutes later. He decided to stay awake. He bathed, changed his shirt and his socks, washed the shirt and socks he had taken off, and hung them over the bath to drip. Restored by these small ritual acts which he had performed in so many hotel rooms and in so many countries, he ordered fresh coffee, drank it in the spirit of one drinking a tonic or prescribed medicine, and walked back across sunlit grass to the old people's house.
He entered on the scene he had left. Ellen and Cedric sat with their feet almost touching, one knitting and one reading the Daily Telegraph. Ellen said: 'You haven't slept long.' Cedric said: 'He has asked for you again.'
'What! While he had slept, his energies draining into that debilitating dream, he might have heard, at last, what his father wanted to say. 'I think I'll sit with him a little.'
'That might not be a bad idea.' said his sister. She was annoyed that she had not been ‘asked for'? If so, she showed no signs of it.
The little sitting-room was full of light; sunshine lav on the old wood sills. But the bedroom was dark, warm, and smelled of many drugs.
The nurse had the only chair — today just a piece of furniture among many. He made her keep it, and sat down slowly on the bed, as if this slow subsidence could make his weight less.
He kept his eyes on his fathers face. Since yesterday the bruises had spread beyond the lids: the flesh all around the eyes and as far down as the cheek-bones was stained.
'He has been restless,' said the nurse, 'but the doctor should be here soon.' She spoke as if the doctor could answer any question that could possibly ever be asked; and Jack, directed by her as he had been by his sister and his brother, now listened for the doctor's coming. The morning went past. His sister came to ask if he would go with her to luncheon. She was hungry, but Cedric was not. Jack said he would stay, and while she was gone the doctor came.
He sat on the bed — Jack had risen from it, retreating to the window. The doctor took the old man's wrist in his and seemed to commune with the darkened eyelids. 'I rather think that perhaps...' He took out a plastic box from his case, that held the ingredients of miracle-making: syringe, capsules, methylated spirits.
Jack asked: 'What effect does that have?' He wanted to ask: Are you keeping him alive when he should be dead?
The doctor said: 'Sedative and plain — killer.'
‘A heart stimulant?'
Now the doctor said: 'I have known your father for thirty years.' He was saying: I have more right than you have to say what he would have wanted.
Jack had to agree; he had no idea if his father would want to be allowed to die, as nature directed, or whether he would like to be kept alive as long as possible.
The doctor administered an injection, as light and as swift as the strike of a snake, rubbed the puncture with one gentle finger, and said: ;'Your father looked after himself. He has plenty of life in him yet.'
He went out. Jack looked in protest at the nurse: what on earth had been meant? Was his father dying? The nurse smiled, timidly, and from that smile Jack gathered that the words had been spoken for his father's sake, in case he was able to hear them, understand them, and be fortified by them.
He saw the nurse's face change: she bent over the old man, and Jack took a long step and was beside her. In the bruised flesh the eyes were open and stared straight up. This was not the human gaze he had been wanting to meet, but a dull glare from chinks in damaged flesh.
‘Ann,’ said the old man. ‘Is Ann here?’
From the owner of those sullen eyes Jack might expect nothing; as an excuse to leave the room, he said to the nurse, ‘I'll tell Ann's father.’
In the living-room sunlight had left the sills. Cedric was not there. 'It's Ann he wants,' Jack said. 'He has asked again.'
'She is coming. She has to come from Edinburgh. She is with Maureen.'
Ellen said this as if he was bound to know who Maureen was. She was probably one of Cedric's ghastly wife's ghastly relations. Thinking of the awfulness of Cedric's wife made him feel kindly towards Ellen. Ellen wasn't really so bad. There she sat, knitting, tired and sad but not showing it. When you came down to it she didn't look all that different from Rosemary — unbelievably also a middle-aged woman. But at this thought Jack’s loyalty to the past rebelled. Rosemary, though a large fresh-faced, greying woman, would never wear a suit which looked as if its edges might cut, or have her hair set in a helmet of ridges and frills. She wore soft pretty clothes, and her hair was combed straight and long, as she had always worn it: he had begged her to keep it like that. But if you came to think of if, probably the lives the two women led were similar. Probably they were all more alike than any one of them would care to admit. Including Cedric’s awful wife.
He looked at Ellen's lids, lowered while she counted stitches. They were her father's eyes and lids. When she lay dying probably her lids would bruise and puff.
Cedric came in. He was very like the old man — more like than any of them. He, Jack, was more like their mother, but when he was dying perhaps his own lids... Ellen looked up, smiled at Cedric, then at Jack, they were all smiling at each other. Ellen laid down her knitting, and lit herself a cigarette. The brothers could see that this was the point when she might cry. But Mrs Markham came in, followed by a well-brushed man all white cuffs and collar and pink fresh skin.
'The Dean,' she breathed, with the smile of a girl.
The Dean said: 'No, don't get up. I dropped in. I am an old friend of your father's, you know. Many and many a game of chess have we played in this room...' and he had followed Mrs Markham into the bedroom.
'He Had Extreme Unction yesterday,' said Ellen.
'Oh,' said Jack. 'I didn't realize that Extreme Unction was part of his...' He stopped, not wanting to hurt feelings. He believed both Ellen and Cedric to be religious.
'He got very High in the end,' said Cedric.
Ellen giggled. Jack and Cedric looked inquiry. 'It sounded funny,' she said. 'You know, the young ones talk about getting high.'
Cedric's smile was wry; and Jack remembered there had been talk about his elder son, who had threatened to become addicted. What to? Jack could not remember: he would have to ask the girls.
'I suppose he wants a church service and to be buried?' asked Jack.
'Oh yes,' said Cedric. 'I have got his will.'
'Of course, you would have.'
'Well, we'll just have to get through it all,' said Ellen. It occurred to Jack that this was what she probably said, or thought, about her own life. Well, I've just got to get through it. The thought surprised him: Ellen was pleasantly surprising him. Now he heard her say: Well, I suppose some people have to have religion.'
And now Jack looked at her in disbelief.
'Yes,' said Cedric, equally improbably, 'it must be a comfort for them, one can see that.' He laid small strong hands around his crossed knees and made the knuckles crack.
'Oh Cedric,' complained Ellen, as she had as a girl: this knuckle-cracking had been Cedric's way of expressing tension since he had been a small boy.
'Sorry,' said Cedric. He went on, letting his hands fall to his sides, and swing there, in a conscious effort towards relaxing himself. 'From time to time I take my pulse — as it were. Now that I am getting on for sixty one can expect the symptoms. Am I getting God? Am I still myself? Yes, no, doubtful? But so far, I can report an even keel, I am happy to say.'
'Oh, one can understand it,' said Ellen. 'God knows, one can understand it only too well. But I really would be ashamed...'
Both Ellen and Cedric were looking at him, to add his agreement — of which they were sure, of course. But he could not speak. He had made precisely the same joke a month ago, in a group of 'the Old Guard', about taking his pulse to find out if he had caught religion. And everyone had confessed to the same practice. To get God, after a lifetime of enlightened rationalism, would be the most shameful of capitulations.
Now his feelings were the same as those of members of a particularly exclusive Club on being forced to admit the lower classes; or the same as that Victorian bishop's who, travelling to some cannibal-land to baptize the converted, had been heard to say that he could wish that his Church admitted degrees of excellence in its material: he could not believe that this lifetime of impeccable service would weight the same as that of these so recently benighted ones.
Besides, Jack was shocked: to hear these sentiments from Ellen, looking as she did, leading the life she did — she had no right to them! She sounded vulgar.
She was saying: 'Of course I do go to church sometimes to please Freddy.' Her husband. 'But he seems to be losing fervour rather than gaining it, I am glad to say.'
'Yes,' said Cedric. 'I am afraid I have rather the same thing with Muriel. We have compromised on Christmas and Easter. She says it is bad for my image not to be a churchgoer. Petersbank is a small place you know, and the good people do like their lawyers and doctors to be pillars of society. But I find that sort of trimming repulsive and I tell her so.'
Again they waited for Jack; again he had to be silent. But surely by now they would take his opinions for granted? Why should they? If they could become atheist, then what might he not become? The next thin, they'll turn out to be socialists, he thought. Surely all this godlessness must be a new development? He could have sworn that Ellen had been devout and Cedric correct towards a Church which — as far as Jack had been concerned — had been irritation, humiliation, tedium, throughout his childhood. Even now he could not think of the meaningless services, the Sunday school, the fatuity of the parsons, the social conformity that was associated with the Church, without feeling as if he had escaped from a sticky trap.
Ellen was saying: ‘As for me. I am afraid I find it harder to believe as I get older. I mean, God, in this terrible world, with new horrors every minute. No, I am afraid it is all too much.'
'I quite agree,' said Cedric. The devil's more like it.'
'Yes,' said Jack, able to speak at last. 'Yes, that's about it, I'm afraid.' It was the best he could do. The room was now full of good feeling, and they would have begun to talk about their childhood if the bedroom door had not opened, and the Dean come out. The smile he had shed on the nurse was still on his healthy lips, and he now let it benefit the three, while he raised his hand in what looked like a benediction. 'No, don't get up!' He was almost at once out of the other door, followed close by Mrs Markham.
The look the three now shared repudiated the Dean and all his works. Ellen smiled at her brother exactly as — he realized in capitulation to a totally unforeseen situation — his own wife would have done. Cedric nodded private comment on the stupidities of mankind.
Soon Cedric went to the bedroom, to return with the report that the old man looked pretty deep in. Then Ellen went, and came back saying that she didn't know how the nurse could bear it in that hot dark room. But as she sat down, she said: 'In the old days, one of us would have been in there all the time?'
'Yes,' said Cedric. All of us.'
'Not just a nurse,' said Ellen. 'Not a stranger'
Jack was thinking that if he had stuck it out, then he would have been there when his father called for him; but he said: I'm glad it is a nurse. I don't think there is very much left of him.'
Ann arrived. What Jack saw first was a decided, neat little face, and that she wore a green jacket and trousers that were not jeans but 'good' as her aunt Ellen used the word. Ellen always had 'good' clothes that lasted a long time. Ann's style was not, for instance, like Jack's daughter', who wore rags and rubbish and cast — offs and who looked enchanting, like princesses in disguise. She kissed her father, because he was waiting for her to do this. She stood examining them with care. Her father could be seen in her during that leisurely, unembarrassed examination: it was both her right and her duty to do this. Now Jack saw that she was small, with a white skin that looked greenish where it was shaded, and hair as pale as her father's had been. Her eyes, like her father's, were green.
She said: 'Is he still alive?'
The voice was her father's, and it took her aunt and her uncle back, back — she did not know the reason for their strained, reluctant smiles as they gazed at her.
They were suffering that diminution, that assault on individuality which is the worst of families: some invisible dealer had shuffled noses, hands, shoulders, hair and reassembled them to make — little Ann, for instance. The dealer made out of parts a unit that the owner would feed, maintain, wash, medicate for a lifetime, thinking of it as ‘mine’, except at moments like these, when knowledge was forced home that everyone was put together out of stock.
'Well,' said Ann, 'you all look dismal enough. Why do you?'
She went into the bedroom, leaving the door open. Jack understood that Ann had principles about attitudes towards death: like his own daughters.
The three crowded into the room.
Ann sat on the bed, high up near the pillow, in a way that hid the old man's face from them. She was leaning forward, the nurse — whom Ann had ignored — ready to intervene.
'Grandad'' she said. 'Grandad! It's me!'
Silence. Then it came home to them that she had called up Lazarus. They heard the old man's voice, quite as they remembered it: 'It's you, is it? It is little Ann?'
'Yes, Grandad, it's Ann.'
They crowded forward, to see over her shoulder. They saw their father, smiling normally. He looked like a tired old man, that was all. His eyes, surrounded by the puffy bruises, had light in them.
‘Who are these people?' he asked. ‘Who are all these tall people?'
The three retreated, leaving the door open.
Silence from the bedroom, then singing. Ann was singing is a small clear voice: All things bright and beautiful.'
Jack looked at Cedric. Ellen looked at Cedric. He deprecated: 'Yes, I am afraid that she is. That's the bond, you see.'
'Oh,' said Ellen, 'I see, that explains it.'
The singing went on:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
The singing went on, verse after verse like a lullaby.
'She came to stay with him,' said Cedric. ‘At Easter, I think it was. She slept here, on the floor.'
Jack said: 'My girls are religious. But not my son of course.'
They looked blankly sympathetic: it occurred to Jack that his son's fame was after all circumscribed to a pretty small circle.
‘He takes after me,' said Jack.
‘Ah,' said Cedric.
‘A lot of them are religious,' said Ellen, brisk.
'It's the kind of religion that sticks in one's craw,' said Jack.
‘Simple faith and Celtic crosses.'
‘I agree,' said Cedric' Pretty low-level stuff.'
'Does,' the level matter?' asked Ellen. 'Surely c'est le premier pas quicoute?'
At which Jack looked at his sister in a disbelief that was meant to be noticed. Cedric, however, did not seem surprised: of course, he saw Ellen more often. He said mildly: 'I don't agree. One wouldn't mind if they went on to something a bit more elevated. It's this servants' hall village green mother's meeting sort of thing. Your spend a fortune trying to educate them decently and then it ends up in... My eldest was a Jesus freak for a few months, for example. After Winchester, Balliol, the lot.'
What is a Jesus freak?' inquired Ellen.
What is sounds like.'
Normally Jack would have cut out emotionally and mentally at the words 'servants' hall', but he was still with them. He said: What gets me is that they spout it all out, so pat and pretty, you know, and you get the feeling it might be anything, anything they had picked up or lay to hand — pour epater les bourgeois, you know.'
At this he had to think that the other two must be thinking, but were too polite to say, that his own socialism, a degree or two off full communism when he was in his teens, had had no deeper cause. This unspoken comment brought the conversation to a stop.
The singing had stopped too. It was getting dark.
'Well, ' said Ellen, 'I tell you what I'm going to do, I am going to have a bath and then dinner and then a good night's sleep. I think Ann is meeting Father's requirements better than we could.'
'Yes,' said Cedric.
He went to the door, and communicated this news to his daughter, who said she would be fine, she would be super, she would stay with her grandad, and if she got tired she could sleep on the floor.
Over the dinner table at the hotel, it was a reunion of people who had not met for a long time. They drank some wine and they were sentimental.
But the little time of warmth died with the coffee, served in the hall, which let in draughts from the street every time somebody came in.
Jack said: 'I'll turn in, I didn't sleep last night.' 'Nor I.' 'Nor I.'
They nodded at each other; to kiss would have been exaggerated. Jack went upstairs, while Cedric and Ellen went to telephone their families.
In the bedroom he stood by the window and watched how the light filled the lime outside. Breaths of tree-air came to his face. He was full of variegated emotions, none, he was afraid, to do with his father: they were about his brother and his sister, his childhood, that past of his which everything that happened to him these days seemed to evoke, seemed to present to him, sharp, clear, and for the most part painful: he did not feel he could sleep, he was over-stimulated. He would lie on his bed for a rest. Waking much later, to a silence that said the night had deepened all around him, with the heaviness of everybody's sleeping, he started up into a welter of feeling that he could not face, and so burrowed back into sleep again, there to be met by — but it was hard to say what.
Terror was not the word. Nor fear. Yet there were no other words that he knew for the state he found himself in. It was more like a state of acute attention, as if his whole being — memory, body, present and past chemistries — had been assaulted by a warning, so that he had to attend to it. He was standing, as it were, at the alert, listening to something which said: Time is passing, be quick, listen, attend.
It was the knowledge of passing time that was associated with the terror, so that he found himself standing upright in the dark room, crying out: 'Oh, no, no, I understand, I am sorry, I...' He was whimpering like a puppy. The dark was solid around him, and he didn't know where he was. He believed himself to be in a grave, and he rushed to the window, throwing it open as if he were heaving a weight off himself. The window was hard to open. At last he forced it, leaning out to let the tree-air come to his face, but it was not air that came in, but a stench, and this smell was confirmation of a failure which had taken place long ago, in some choice of his, that he had now forgotten. The feeling of urgency woke him: he was lying on his bed. Now he really did shoot into the centre of the room, while the smell that had been the air of the dream was fading around him. He was terrified. But that was not the word... he feared that the terror that the terror would fade, he would forget what he had dreamed; the knowledge that there was something that had to be done, done soon, would fade, and he would forget even that he had dreamed.
What had he dreamed? Something of immense importance.
But as he stood there, with the feeling of urgency draining away and his daytime self coming back, even while he knew, as powerfully as he had ever known anything, that the dream was the most important statement ever made to him, the other half of him was asserting old patterns of thought, which said that to dream was neurotic and to think of death morbid.
He turned on the light, out of habit, a child chasing away night-fears, and then at once switched it off again, since the light was doing its job too well: the dream was dwindling into a small feeling that remarked in a tiny nagging voice that he should be attending to something. And Jack was chasing after the dream: No, no, don't go...
But the feeling of the dream had gone, and he was standing near the window, telling himself — but it was an intellectual statement now, without force — that he had had a warning. A warning? Was it that? By whom? To whom? He must do something.. .but what? He had been terrified of dying: he had been forced to be afraid of that. For the first time in his life he had been made to feel the fear of death. He knew what this is what he would feel when he was in his fathers position, lying propped on pillows, with people around him waiting for him to die. (If the state of the world would allow his death such a degree of civilization!)
All his life he had said lightly: Oh, death, I'm not afraid of death, it will be like a candle going out, that's all. One these occasions when, just like his brother Cedric, he checked up on himself for internal weakness, he had said to himself: I shall die, just like a cat or a dog, and too bad, when I die, that's that. He had known the fear of fear of course: he had been a soldier in two wars. He had known what it was to rehearse in his mind all the possible deaths that were available to him, removing pain and horror by making them familiar, and choosing suitable ways of responding — words, postures, silences, stoicisms — that would be a credit to him, to humanity. He knew very well the thought that to be hit over that head like an ox, stunned before the throat was cut, was the highest that he could hope for: annihilation was what he had elected.
But his dream had been horror of annihilation, the threat of nothingness... it already seemed far away. He stretched his arms up behind his head, feeling the strength of his body. His body, that was made of fragments of his mother and his father, and of their mothers and their fathers, and shared with little Ann, with his daughters, and of course with his son — exactly like him, his copy. Yes, his, his body, strong and pulsing with energy — he pushed away the warning from the dream, and switched on the light again, feeling that that was over. It was one in the morning, hardly the hour, in an English country hotel, to ask for tea, for coffee. He knew he would not dare to lie again on that bed, so he went down, to let himself out. He was going to his father.
Ann was wrapped in blankets, lying on the floor of the living-room. He knelt by her and gazed at the young face, the perfect eyelids that sealed her eyes shut like a baby's, incisive but delicate, shining, whole.
He sat on his father's bed where Ann had sat, and saw that the old man was slipping away. Jack could not have said why he knew, but he did know the death would be this day: it occurred to him that if he had not had that dream, he would not have known; he would not have been equipped to know, without the dream.
He walked the rest of the night away, standing to watch the bulk of the old church dwindling down under a sky lightening with dawn. When the birds began, he returned to the hotel bathed and with confidence work his sister and brother, saying that yes, they could have breakfast but should not take too much time over it.
At eight-thirty they arrived to find Ann again crouched up on the bed near the old man, crooning to him bits of hymn, old tunes, nursery rhymes. He died without opening his eyes again.
Cedric said he would deal with all the arrangements, and that he would notify them of the funeral, which would probably be on Monday. The three children of the old man separated in good feeling and with kisses saying that they really ought to see more of each other. And Jack said to Ann that she must come and visit. She said yes, it would be super, she could see Elizabeth and Carrie again, how about nest week-end? There was to be Pray-in for Bangladesh.
Jack returned to his home, or rather to his wife. She was out. He suppressed grievance that there was no note from her: after all, he had not telephoned. She was at another class, he supposed.
He went to see if anybody was in the girls' flat. Carrie and Elizabeth had made rooms for themselves on the top floor, and paid rent for them. They both had good jobs. There was an attic room used occasionally by Joseph.
Hearing sounds, he knocked, with a sense of intruding, and was bidden to come in by Carrie, who seemed in conflict at the sight of him. This was because she, like the others, had been waiting for his coming, waiting for the news of the death. She had prepared the appropriate responses, but had just finished cooking a meal, and was putting dishes on to the table. A young man whose face he did not know was coming towards the table, ready to eat.
Carrie was flushed, her long dark hair fell about, and she was wearing something like a white sack, bordered with deep white lace.
'My father died,' he said.
'Oh, poor you,' said Carrie.
'I don't know,' said Jack.
'This is Bob,' said Carrie. 'My father. Dad, would you like to eat with us? It is a business lunch, actually.'
'No, no,' said Jack. 'I'll see you later.' She called after him:
'Dad, Dad, I'm sorry about Grandad.'
'Oh, he was due to go,' Jack called back.
He cut himself bread and cheese, and rang Walter's office. Walter was back from Dublin, but had to fly to Glasgow that afternoon: he was to appear on television in a debate on the Common Market. He would be back by midday Saturday: the Twenty-Four-Hour Fast would start at two o'clock Saturday. Thirty people were expected to take part. It was a good thing Jack was back: he could take over again.
But what was there to be done?
Nothing much really; he should keep a tag on the names. Some might decide to drop out again. Considering the scale of the horror at that moment taking place in India, the mass misery, it would be a surprisingly small turn-out — he was sorry, he had to leave, a car was waiting.
It is normal to feel, on returning to the place one lives in, after having been away, that one has not left at all: this is not what Jack was feeling now. Whether it was because he was so tired, or because he was more upset by his father's death than he knew, he felt at a distance from his commonplace self, and particularly at a distance from the Jack Orkney who knew so well how to organize a sit-down, or a march, or how to produce such occasions properly for the Press or television.
Walter's contrasting the numbers of the people involved in the Bangladesh tragedy with the numbers who were prepared not to eat, publicly, for twenty-four hours in London had struck him as bathos, as absurdity, but he knew that normally that was how he would be reacting himself.
Now he tried to restore himself by summoning well-tried thoughts. Every time the radio or television was turned on, every time you saw a newspaper, the figure nine million was used, with the information that these refugees had no future, or none of a normal kind. (India's short, sharp, efficient war that reprieved these same nine million was of course months in the future.) But there was nothing to be done; the catastrophe had the same feeling as the last, which had been Nigeria: a large number of people would die of starvation or would be murdered, but there was no power strong enough to stop this.
It was this feeling of helplessness that seemed to be the new factor; each time there was something of the kind, the numbers of people grew larger, and the general helplessness augmented. Yet all that had happened was that great catastrophes were being brought to the general attention more forcefully than in the past. Not long ago, as recently as thirty years ago, it had been commonplace for small paragraphs in newspapers to say that six, seven, eight million people had died, were dying of starvation, in China: communism had put an end to famine, or to the world's hearing about it. A very short time ago, a decade, several million might die in a bad season in India: the green revolution had (possibly temporarily) checked that. In Russia millions had died in the course of some great scheme or other: the collectivization of the peasants, for instance.
The most shocking thing that had happened to his generation was the event summed up by the phrase 'six million Jews'. Although so many millions of people had been killed or had died in that war, and in a thousand awful ways, it was that one thing, the six million, which seemed worst. Because, of course, as everyone knew, it had been willed and deliberate murder... Was it really any more deliberate than the nine million of Stalin's forcible collectivization? And how about that nine, or ninety, million — the never-to-be-known figure for the deaths of black men in Africa caused by white men in the course of bringing civilization to that continent? (This figure, whatever it was, never could accumulate about it the quality of senseless horror that had the figure for the death camps and gas chambers under Hitler. Why not?) During the next twelve months, between twelve and twenty-four million would die of starvation in the world (the figure depended on the source of calculation) . The twelve months after, this figure would double — by the end of a decade, the numbers of people expected to die annually of hunger was beyond calculation... These figures, and many more, clicked through his well-stocked journalists head, and against them he heard Walter's voice rather tetchy, critical, saying that there would only be thirty people for the Twenty-Four-Hour Fast.
Yes, of course it was ridiculous to think on these lines and particularly when you were tired; he had been thrown off balance worse than he knew. He would sleep for a little — no, no, better not, he would rather not, he would not go to his bed unless Rosemary could be with him. Well, there were things that he ought to be doing he was sure: for one thing, he had not read the newspapers for three days, or listened to the news, He regarded it as his responsibility to read all the newspapers every day, as if knowing what was bad could prevent worse. He did not want to read the papers; he wanted to sit down and wait quietly for his wife. This made him guilty, and he was associating his reluctance to plunge into the misery and threat of the newspapers with the brutalizing of everybody, everyone's acceptance of horror as normal. Well, it was normal — when had storms of blood and destruction not swept continuously over the globe?
His will was being attacked: he had no will. This was why he needed to see Rosemary. This thought, he knew, had put a small whimsical grimace on to his face; the grimace was for the benefit of an observer. The observer was himself: it was there for the sake of his pride — a very odd thing had happened between him and his wife. For a long time, in fact for most of the marriage, they would have said that they were unhappily married. It had been a war marriage of course, like those of most of their contemporaries. It had begun in passion, separation, dislocation. They had felt, on beginning to live together for the first time, when they had been married for nearly six years, that their good times had been stolen from them. Then three children: they had turned Rosemary into an obsessed, complaining woman; so he had seen her, and so she now saw herself during that period. He was most often out of England, and had many affairs, some of them serious. He knew she had been in love with someone else: she, like himself, had refused to consider a divorce because of the effect on the children. There was of course nothing remarkable in this history: but some of the men the knew had divorced, leaving first wives to bring up children. He knew that many of his friends' wives, like Rosemary, had been obsessed with grievance at their lot, yet had been dutiful mothers.
Various unhappy balance had been achieved by himself and Rosemary, always regarded as second-best. Best was in fantasy, or what other people had. Then the children grew up, and were not longer there to be cooked for, worried about, shopped for, nursed — suddenly these two people who had been married thirty years discovered they were enjoying each other. They could not use the word 'a second honeymoon' because they had never had a first. Jack remembered that at the other end of what now seemed like a long tunnel of responsibility, worry, guilt — relieved by frequent exile whose enjoyability caused more guilt — had been a young woman with whom he had been more in love than with anybody since. He relaxed into the pleasures of his home, pleasure with Rosemary, who, appreciated at last, took on energy and poise, lost her listlessness, her reproach, her patience under neglect.
It had been the completeness of her revival that was the only thing disturbing about their being in love again: Jack lived marvelling that so little a thing as his own attention should be enough to nourish this creature, to burnish her with joy. He could not help being guilty anew that so little an effort towards self-discipline would have produced the kindness which could have made this woman's life happy, instead of a martyrdom. Yet he knew he had not been capable of even so small an effort: he had found her intolerable, and the marriage a burden, and that was the truth. But the thought he could not come to terms with was this: what sort of a creature was she, to be fed and made happy by the love of a creature like himself?
And Rosemary was not the only woman he observed enjoying a new lease of life. At parties of 'the Old Guard' it was enough simply to look around at the wives of the same age as his own wife, the women recently released from nursery and kitchen, to see many in the same condition, without having to ask if a second honeymoon was in progress — and here was another source of unease. He was not able to ask, to discuss frankly, or even to raise the matter at all, and yet these were friends, he had been with them, worked with them, faced a hundred emergencies with them — but they did not have with each other the friendship of the king that would enable them to talk about their relationships with each other, with their wives, their wives with them. Yet this was friendship, or at least it was as close to friendship as he was likely to get. Intimacy he had known, but with women with whom he was having affairs. Intimacy, frankness, trust, had, as it were, been carried inside him, to be bestowed on loved women, and withdrawn when that love had ended because he was married. So it was not that he had not know perfect intimacy; it was that he had known it with several people, one after another. What was left now of these relationships was a simplicity of understanding when he met these woman again — those that he did meet, for after all, many of these affairs had taken place, in other countries. But even now he had to admit that this state had never been achieved with his wife, as good as their relation now was: for what he could not share with her was a feeling he could not control that he had to value her less for being so satisfied — more, fulfilled — with so little. Himself.
Yet, for all these reservations, the last two years had been better than anything he had expected with a woman, except in the expectations of his dreams about marriage so long ago. They went for holidays together, for weekends to old friends, to the theatre, for special meals at restaurants, and for long walks. They made little treats for each other, gave each for long walks, They made little treats for each other, gave each other presents, had developed the private language of lovers. And all the time her gaiety and energy grew, while she could not prevent herself watching him — not knowing that she did it, and this humbled him and made him wretched — for the return of the old tyrant, the boor. Always he was aware that their happiness lacked a foundation.
But what foundation ought there to be?
Now he wanted to tell his wife the dream he had had about death. This is why he had been longing to see her. But he had not allowed himself to understand the truth, which was that he couldn't tell her. She dreaded change in him; she would feel the dream as a threat. And it was. For another thing, this new easy affection they had would not admit the words he would have to use. What words? None he knew could convey the quality of the dream. The habits of their life together made in inevitable that if he said: Rosemary, I had a terrible dream, well no, that was not it, its terribleness is not the point, wait, I must tell you — she would reply: Oh Jack, you must have eaten something. Are you well? — and she would run off to get him a glass of medicine of some sort. Her smile at him, while she handed it to him, would say that she knew, they both knew, that he didn't really need it, but she enjoyed looking after him when at last he was enjoying being looked after.
Tea-time came. Jack watched the young man from upstairs walk away under the summer's load of leaf. The telephone rang twice, both times for Rosemary. He took messages. He saw Elizabeth come up the path to the side door, nearly called to her, but decided not. He sat on into the summer afternoon, feeling that it was appropriate to be melancholy: it was what was expected of him. But that was not it! It was as if he had no substance at all, there was nothing to him, on purpose, no worth... something was draining quietly away from him, had been, for a long time.
Elizabeth came running in, saying: 'Oh Father, I am so sorry, you must be feeling low,' Caroline came after her. Carrie was now dressed in a purple shawl over tight red cotton trousers. Elizabeth, still in what she had worn to work, had on a dark-green trouser suit, but her own personality had been asserted since she came home: she had tied her hair back with an exotic-looking piece of red material, and it was making a froth of gold curls around her face. His cold heart began to stir and to warm, and they sat themselves down opposite, ready to share his grief.
Rosemary now came in, a large, tall woman, smiling and shedding energy everywhere.
‘Oh darling,' said she, 'you didn't telephone. I am so sorry. You have had tea, I hope?'
'He's dead,' said Elizabeth to her mother.
'He died this morning,' said Jack, not believing that it had been that morning.
Rosemary slowed her movements about the room, and when she turned to him, her face, like the faces of her daughters, was not smiling.
'When is the funeral?'
'I don't know yet'
'I'll come with you,' said Elizabeth.
'I won't' said Carrie. 'I don't like funerals. Not our kind of funeral.'
'And I won't either if you don't mind,' said Rosemary. 'That is, not unless you want me there.' A glass and decanter had appeared beside him, and Rosemary was causing Whisky to descent into the glass in a gold stream.
The whisky was not he point, the women's serious faces not the point, the funeral and who was at it, not the point.
'There is no need for any of you to come,' he said. And added, as he had been afraid he might: 'It wouldn't be expected of you.' All three showed relief, even Elizabeth.
Rosemary hated funerals: they were morbid. Carrie, being sort of Buddhist, believed, apparently, in putting corpses out for the vultures. Elizabeth's Christianity, like Ann's, was without benefit of church services.
'Oh no, I want to come with you,' said Elizabeth.
'Well, we'll see.'
He told them about the death — a mild and well-ordered affair. He said that Ellen and Cedric had been there, and watched for his wife's humorous glance so that he could return it: she wanted to convey sympathy for having to be with his family even for two days. Then he began speaking about the Twenty-Four-Hour Fast. He did not ask if they would join him, but he was hoping they would.
Now, while Rosemary had early on been inculcated with his life-wing opinions, during all the years of their unhappiness his activities had been seen by her as being in some subtle way directed against her, or, at any rate, as depriving her of something. But recently she had several times gone with him to a meeting or a demonstration. Looking guilty, she said that she couldn't join the Fast, because she had a lecture Saturday night, on Stress in the Family. She made it sound funny, in her way of appearing like an intelligent child submitting to official pedantry; but there was no doubt she would be at the lecture. Carrie said nothing: she thought any kind of politics silly. Elizabeth said she would have joined the Fast, but she had a demonstration of her own on Saturday.
Jack now remembered Ann's programme, said that Ann was coming at the week-end for a Pray-in. It turned out that this was the same as Elizabeths. Both girls were pleased that Ann was coming, and started talking about her and her relations with her parents. These were not very good: Ann found them materialistic, conventional, bourgeois. Jack was not able to be much amused; he found himself in sympathy with Cedric, possibly even with his sister-in-law. Probably Elizabeth and Carrie said to their friends that their parents were materialistic and bourgeois. He knew that his son Joseph did.
The girls had been going out for the evening, but because of the death, and wanting to cheer their father up, they stayed in to supper. Rosemary's new practice, now practice, now that the decades of compulsive cooking, buying, fussing, were done with, was to keep food to its simplest. She offered them soup, toast and fruit. The girls protested: the parents could see that this was because they needed to do something to show their sympathy. Rosemary and Jack sat hand in hand on the sofa, while the girls made a long and delicious meal for them all.
They went to bed early: it was still not quite dark outside. But he needed to make love with his wife, feeling that here at least the cold which threatened him would be held at bay.
But the shell of himself loved, the shell of himself held Rosemary while she fell asleep and turned away from him. He was awake, listening to the tides of blood moving in his body.
He crept downstairs again. He read the newspapers — making himself do so, like a penance for callousness. He listened to the radio, avoiding news bulletins. He did not go to bed again until it was fully light, and was woken an hour later by Cedric: practical reasons had set the funeral for tomorrow, Saturday, at eleven.
Friday he spent in the activities that the journalist was so good at. Saturday was not a good day for train and air services: to reach S— in time for the funeral, and to be back by two, would need luck and ingenuity. He checked the weather forecast: rain and mist were expected. Having made the arrangements, he rang Mona, since Walter was still in Glasgow. Mona was not only the wife of an 'Old Guard', but one in her own right. It had been agreed that he, Jack, would be on the steps of the church at ten, to welcome the fasters as they arrived, and to see that the posters proclaiming the event were in place. He now asked Mona to do all this, explaining why.
'Oh dear,' she said, 'I am so sorry about your father. Yes, luckily I can do it. Who is coming? — wait, I'll get a pencil.'
He gave her the names over the telephone, while she wrote them down.
They were the names of people with whom he had been associated in a dozen different ways, ever since the war ended: it seemed now as if the war had been an instrument to shake out patterns of people who would work and act together — or against each other, for the rest of their lives. They had not known about this process while it was happening, but that was when 'the Old Guard' had been formed. The phrase was a joke of course, and for family use: he certainly would never use it to Walter, Bill, Mona and the rest — they would be hurt by it. Carrie had said one day, reporting a telephone call: 'I didn't get his name, but it sounded like on of the Old Guard.'
These names appeared continually together on dozens, hundreds, of letterheads, appeals, protests, petitions: if you saw one name, you could assume the others. Yet their backgrounds had been very different, of all classes, countries, even races. Some had been communists, some had fought communism. They were Labour and Liberal, vegetarian and pacifist, feeders of orphaned children, builders of villages in Africa and India, rescuers of refugees and survivors of natural and man-made calamities. They were journalists and editors, actors and writers, film-makers and trade unionists. They wrote books on subjects like Unemployment in the Highlands and The Future of Technology. They sat on councils and committees and the boards of semi-charitable organizations, they were Town Councillors, Members of Parliament, creators of documentary film programmes. They had taken the same stands on Korea and Kenya, on Cyprus and Suez, on Hungary and the Congo, on Nigeria, the Deep South and Brazil, on South Africa and Rhodesia and Ireland and Vietnam and... and now they were sharing opinions and emotions on the nine million refugees from Bangladesh.
Once, when they had come together to express a view, it had been a minority view, and to get what they believed publicized had sometimes been difficult or impossible. Now something had happened which not all of them had understood: when they expressed themselves about this or that, it was happening more and more often that their views were identical with conventional views put forward freely by majorities everywhere. Once they had been armed with aggressive optimistic views about society, about how to change it; now they forecast calamity, failed to prevent calamity, and then worked to minimize calamity.
This view of the Old Guard had been presented to Jack by his son, the chip off the old block.
When Jack had finished the list of names, Mona said: 'Surely we can do better than that?' and he said, apologetically (why, when it was not his fault?): 'I think a lot of people are feeling that the media are doing it for us.'
Then he decided to ring his son, who had not yet heard about his grandfather. To reach Joseph was not easy, since he worked for a variety of 'underground' organizations, slept in many places, might even be out of the country.
At last Jack rang Elizabeth, who was already at her place of work, heard where Joseph was likely to be, and finally reached his son. On hearing that his grandfather was dead, Joseph said: 'Oh that's bad, I am sorry.' On being asked if he and his friends 'with nothing better to do' would like to join the Twenty-Four-Hour Fast, he said: 'But haven't you been reading the newspapers?' Jack did not want to say that he had not read them enough to know what his son's programme was likely to be, but it turned out that 'all of us' were organizing a Protest March for that Sunday.
In his son's briskness, modified because of the death, Jack heard his own youth speaking, and a sense of justice made him sound apologetic towards his son. He felt, too, the start of exhaustion. This was because his effort to be fair made it necessary to resurrect his own youth as he talked to Joseph, and it took the energy that in fantasy he would be using to bring Joseph around to see his point of view: he had recently been indulging fantasies of confronting Joseph with: 'Look, I have something of great importance to say, can you let me have an hour or two?' He was on the point of saying this now, but Joseph said: 'I have to rush off, I'm sorry, see you, give my love to everyone.'
He knew exactly what he wanted to say, not only to his son — to his own youthful self — but to the entire generation, or, rather, to that part of it which was political, the political youth. What he felt was, he knew, paradoxical: it was because his son was so much like him that he felt he had no son, no heir. What he wanted was for his son to carry on from himself, from where, he Jack, stood now: to be his continuation.
It was not that his youthful self had been, was conceited, crude, inexperienced, intolerant: he knew very well that his own middle-aged capacities of tact, and the rest were not much more than the oil these same qualities — not much changed — used to get their own way; he wasn't one to admire middle-aged blandness, expertise.
What he could not endure was that his son, all of them, would have to make the identical journey he and his contemporaries had made, to learn lessons exactly as if they had never been learned before.
Here, at precisely this point, was the famous 'generation gap' here it had always been. It was not that the young were unlike their parents, that they blazed new trails, thought new thoughts, displayed new forms of courage: on the contrary, they behaved exactly like their parents, thought as they had — and, exactly like their parents, could not listen to this simple message: that it had all been done before.
It was this that was so depressing, and which caused the dryness of only just achieved tolerance on the part of the middle-aged towards 'the youth' — who, as they had to 'experiment' were the only good they had, or could expect, in their lives.
But this time the 'gap' was much worse because a new kind of despair had entered into the consciousness of mankind: things were too desperate, the future of humanity depended on, humanity being able to achieve new forms of intelligence, of being able to learn from experience. That humanity was unable to learn form experience was written there for everyone to see, since the new generation of the intelligent and consciously active youth behaved identically with every generation before them.
This endless cycle, of young people able to come to maturity only in making themselves into a caste which had to despise and dismiss their parents, insisting pointlessly on making their own discoveries — it was, quite simply, uneconomic. The world could not afford it.
Every middle-aged person (exactly as his or her parents had done) swallowed the disappointment of looking at all the intelligence and bravery of their Children being absorbed in — repetition, which would end, inevitably, in them turning into the Old Guard. Would, that is, if Calamity did not strike first. Which everybody knew now it was going to.
Watching his son and his friends was like watching laboratory animals unable to behave in any way other than that to which they had been trained — as he had done, as the Old Guard had done... At this point in the fantasy, his son having accepted or at least listened to all this, Jack went on to what was really his main point. What was worst of all was that 'the youth' had not learned, were repeating, the old story of socialist recrimination and division. Looking back over his time — and, after all, recently he had had plenty of time to do just this, and was not that important, that a man had reached quiet water after such a buffeting and a racing an could think and reflect? — he could see one main message. This was that the reason for the failure of socialism to achieve what it could was obvious: that some process, some mechanism, was at work which made it inevitable that every political movement had to splinter and divide, then divide again and again, into smaller groups, sects, parties, each one dominated, at least temporarily, by some strong figure, some hero, or father, or guru figure, each abusing and insulting the other. If there had been a united socialist movement, not only in his time — which he saw as that since the Second World War — but in the time before that, and the epoch before that, and before that, there would have been a socialist Britain long ago.
But as night followed day, the same automatic process went on...But if it was automatic, he imagined his son saying, then why talk to me like this? — Ah, Jack would reply, but you have to be better, don't you see? You have to, otherwise it's all at an end, it's finished, can't you see that? Can't you see that this process where one generation springs, virginal and guiltless — or so it sees itself — out of its debased predecessors, with everything new to learn, makes it inevitable that there must soon be division, and self-righteousness, and vituperation? Can't you see that that has happened to your lot? There are a dozen small newspapers, a dozen because of their differences. But suppose there had been one or two? There are a dozen little groups, each jealously defending their differences of dogma on policy, sec, history. Suppose there had been just one?
But of course there could not be only one, history showed there could not — history showed this, clearly, to those who were prepared to study history. But the young did not study history, because history began with them. Exactly as history had begun with Jack and his friends.
But the world could no longer afford this... The fantasy did not culminate in satisfactory emotion, in an embrace, for instance, between father and son; it ended in a muddle of dull thoughts. Because the fantasy had become increasingly painful, Jack had recently developed it in a way which was less personal — less challenging, less real? He had been thinking that he could discuss all these thoughts with the Old Guard and afterwards there could perhaps be a conference? Yes, there might be a confrontation, or something of that kind, between the Old Guard and the New Young. Things could be said publicly which never seemed to get themselves said privately? It could all be thrashed out and then... meanwhile there was the funeral to get through.
That night, Friday, the one before the funeral, no sooner had he gone to sleep than he dreamed. It was not the same dream, that of the night in the hotel room, but it came as it were out of the same area. A corridor, long, dark, narrow, led to the place of the first dream, but at its entrance stood a female figure which at first he believed was his mother as a young woman. He believed this because of what he felt, which was an angry shame and inadequacy: these emotions were associated for him with some childhood experience which he supposed he must have suppressed; sometimes he thought he was on the point of remembering it. The figure wore a straight white dress with loose lacy sleeves. It had been his mothers dress, but both Elizabeth and Carrie had worn it 'for fun'. This monitor was at the same time his mother and his daughters, and she was directing him forward into the darkness of the tunnel.
His wife was switching on lights and looking at him with concern. He soothed her back to sleep, and for the second night running left his bed soon after he had got into it to read the night away and listen to radio stations from all over the world.
Next morning he travelled to the airport in light fog, to find the flight delayed. He had left himself half an hours free play, and in half an hour the flight was called and he was airborne, floating west inside grey cloud that was his inner state. He who had flown unmoved through the skies of most countries of the would, and in every kind of weather, was feeling claustrophobic, and had to suppress wanting to batter his way out of the plane to run away across the mists and fogs of this upper country. He made himself think of something else: returned to the fantasy about the Conference. He imagined the scene, the hall packed to the doors, the platform manned by the well-known among the various generations of socialists. He saw himself there, with Walter on one side and his son on the other. He imagined how he, or Walter, would speak, explaining to the young that the survival of the world depended on them, that they had the chance to break this cycle of having to repeat and repeat experience: they could be the first generation consciously to take a decision to look at history, to absorb it, and in one bound to transcend it. It would be like a willed mutation.
He imagined the enthusiasm of the Conference — a sober and intelligent enthusiasm of course. He imagined the ending of the Conference when... and here his experience took hold of him, and told him what would happen. In the first place, only some of the various socialist groups would be at the Conference. Rare people, indeed, would be prepared to give up the hegemony of their little groups to something designed to end little groups. The Conference would throw up some strong personalities who would energize and lead: but very soon these would disagree and become enemies and form rival movements. In no time at all, this movement to end schism would have added to it. As always happened. So, if this was what Jack knew was bound to happen, why did he... They were descending through heavy cloud. There was heavy rain in S_. The taxi crawled through slow traffic. By now he knew he would not be in time to reach the cemetery. If he had really wanted to make sure of being at the funeral he would have come down last night. Why hadn't he? He might as well go back now for all the good he was doing; but he went on. At the cemetery the funeral was over. Two young men were shovelling earth into the hole at the bottom of which lay his father: like the men in the street who continually dig up and rebury drains and pipes and wires. He took the same taxi back to the house in the church precincts, where he found Mrs Markham tidying the rooms ready to hold the last years of another man or woman, and his brother Cedric sorting out the old man's papers. Cedric was crisp: he quite understood the delay; he too would have been late for the funeral if he had not taken the precaution of booking rooms in the Royal Arms. But both he and Ellen had been there, with his wife and Ellen's husband. Also Ann. It would have been nice if Jack had been there, but it didn't matter.
It was now a warm day, all fog forgotten. Jack found a suitable flight back to London. High in sunlight he wondered if his father had felt as if he had not heir? He had been a lawyer: Cedric had succeeded him. In his youth he had defended labour agitators, conscientious objectors, taken on that kind of case: from religious conviction, not from social feeling. Well, did it make any difference why a thing was done, if it was done? This thought, seditious of everything Jack believed, lodged in his head — and did not show signs of leaving. It occurred to Jack that perhaps the old man had seen himself as his heir, and not Cedric, who had always been so cautious and respectable? Well, he would not know what his father had thought: he had missed his chance to find out.
Perhaps he could talk to Ann and find out what the old man had been thinking? The feebleness of this deepened the inadequacy which was undermining him — an inadequacy which seemed to come from the dream of the female in a white dress. Why had that dream fitted his two lovely daughters into that stern unforgiving figure? He dozed, but kept waking himself for fear of dreaming. That he was now in brilliant sunshine over a floor of shining white cloud so soon after the flight through fog, dislocated his sense of time, of continuity even more: it was four days ago that he had had that telegram from Mrs Markham?
They ran into fog again above Heathrow, and had to crawl around in the air fog half an hour before they could land. It was now four, and the Twenty-Four-Hour Fast had begun at two. He decided he would not join them, but he would drop in and explain why not.
He took the Underground to Trafalgar Square.
Twenty people, all well known to him and to the public were grouped on the steps and porch of St Martins. Some sat on cushions, some on stools. A large professionally made banner said: THIS IS A TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR FAST FOR THE STARVING MILLIONS OF BANGLADESH. Each faster had flasks of water, blankets and coats for the night ahead. Meanwhile it was a warm misty afternoon. Walter had a thick black sweater tied around his neck by the sleeves. Walter was the centre of the thing: the others related to him. Jack stood on the other side of the road thinking that his idea of talking with these his old friends about a joint conference with 'the youth' was absurd, impractical: now that he was again in the atmosphere of ordinary partisan politics he could see that it was.
He was longing to join them, but this was because he wanted to be enclosed in a group of like-minded people, to be supported by them, to be safe and shielded from doubts and fears. And dreams.
By Walter was his wife Norah, a small pretty woman whom he had always thought of as Walter's doormat. He had done, that is, until he had understood how afraid Rosemary had been of himself. Norah had once said to him after a meeting: 'If Walter had been an ordinary man I might have resented giving up my career, but when you are married to some one like Walter, then of course you are glad to submerge yourself. I feel as if this has been my contribution to the Movement.' Norah had been a journalist.
Walter's face usually a fist of intention and power, was beaming, expansive: they all looked as if they were at a picnic, Jack thought. Smug, too. That he should think this astounded him, for he knew that he loved and admired them. Yet now, looking at Walter's handsome face, so well known to everyone from newspaper and television, it had over it a mask of vanity. This was so extraordinary a metamorphosis of Jack's view of his friend that he felt as if an alien was inhabiting him: a film had come over his eyes, distorting the faces of everyone he looked at. He was looking at masks of vanity, complacency, stupidity or, in the case of Walter's Norah, a foolish admiration. Then Jack's sense of what was happening changed: it was not that he was looking through distorting film, but that a film had been stripped off what he looked at. He was staring at faces that horrified him because of their naked self-centeredness; he searched faces that must be like his own, for something he could admire, or need. And hastily he wiped his hand down over his own face, for he knew that on it was fastened a mask of vanity; he could feel it there. Under it, under an integument that was growing inwards into his flesh, he could feel something small, formless, blind — something pitiful and unborn.
Now, disgusted with his treachery, but still unable to take his hand down from his face, unable to prevent himself from trying to tug off that mask fastened there, he walked over to his friends who, seeing him come, smiled and looked about them for a place where he could sit. He said: 'I can't join you I am afraid. Transport trouble,' he added ridiculously, as first surprise, then incomprehension, showed on their faces. Now he saw that Walter had already registered: His father! — and saw that this born commander was framing the words he would use as soon as Jack turned his back: 'His father has died, he has just come from the funeral.' But this was no reason why he shouldn't be with them: he agreed, absolutely. Now he moved away, but glanced back with a wave and a smile: they were all gazing after the small drama embodied in: His father has just died. They looked as if they were hungry for the sensation of it — he was disliking himself for criticizing people whom he knew to be decent and courageous, who, ever since he had known them, had taken risks, given up opportunities, devoted themselves to what they believed to be right. To what he believed was right... He was also a bit frightened. Thoughts that he would never have believed he was capable of accommodating were taking root in him: he felt as if armies of others waited to invade.
He decided to walk down to the river, perhaps even to take a trip to Greenwich, if he could get on to a boat at all on a warm Saturday afternoon. He saw coming towards him a little procession under banners of: JESUS IS YOUR SAVIOUR AND JESUS LIVES! All the faces under the banners were young; these people were in no way distinguished by their clothes from the young ones he had watched marching, with whom he had marched, for the last fifteen years or more. Their clothes were gay and imaginative, their hair long, their faces all promise. He was smiling at Ann, who carried a square of cardboard that said: JESUS CARES ABOUT BANGLADESH. A voice said, 'Hello, Dad!' and he saw his Elizabeth, her golden hair in heavy pigtails over either shoulder. Hands, Ann's and Elizabeth's, pulled him in beside them. In this way one of the most prominent members of the Old Guard found himself marching under a poster which said: CHRIST CAME TO FEED THE HUNGRY, REMEMBER BANGLADESH! Ann's little face beamed with happiness and the results of the exercise. 'It was a nice funeral,' she said. 'I was telling Liz about it. It had a good feeling. Grandad liked it, I am sure.'
To this Jack found himself unable to reply, but he smiled and, with a couple of hundred Jesus-lovers, negotiated the Square, aided by some indulgent policemen. In a few moments he would pass his friends on the steps of the church.
'I shouldn't be here,' he said. 'False pretences.'
'Oh why?' inquired his daughter, really disappointed in him. 'I don't see that at all!'
Ann's look was affectionate and forgiving.
Around him they were singing 'Onward Christian soldiers.' They sang and marched, or, rather, shuffled and ambled, and he modified his pace to theirs, and allowed his depression to think for him that whether the banners were secular and atheist on principle, or under the aegis of Jesus, twenty-four million people would die in the world this year of starvation, and that he would not give a penny for the chances of anybody in this Square living another ten years without encountering disaster.
He was now aware that Mona was starting at him: in her decisive face, in her unequivocal blue eyes, was not a trace of what he usually saw there — the reminder of their brief but pleasurable affair. She turned to tug at Walter's sleeve, in a way that betrayed panic — more than ordinary shock, anyway. Now they all turned to look at him: they were all blank, they could not take it in. He had a need to wave his arms and shout: Nonsense, can't you see that I am with my daughter and my niece? He felt he should apologize. He could not stand being condemned by them, his side, his family, but even as he nodded and smiled embarrassed greeting, he saw that Walter, whose mouth at first had really dropped open, had seen Elizabeth, whom of course he had known all her life. All was explainable! For the second time in half an hour Jack watched Walter framing words with which to exculpate him: Jack was with his daughter, that was it! After all, Jack was not the only one among them whose offspring had caught God in various extraordinary forms!
Jack entered the Square with the children, was informed that they would come to visit him later, and he left them singing energetic hymns by a fountain.
He took buses home. He was looking forward to letting the false positions of the day dissolve themselves into unimportance while he laughed over them with his wife; but now he remembered that she would not be there, not expect him to be.
There was a note, not to him but to Carrie, saying: 'Please feed the cat, shall be very late, might stay at Judy Millers please lock all doors much love.'
It was seven: it seemed like mid-afternoon. He drew the curtains to make a night, and sat in it with a glass of whisky. Later Ann came in to tell him about the funeral, about Jesus. He moved his position in his chair so that he could look at her shining eyelids. Carrie came in, and he looked at her, but her eyes were a woman's. He knew about her love-life, because she talked freely to her parents about it, but if she had never said a word he would have known from her knowledgeable breasts, from the way the flesh was moulded to her eyeballs by kisses. She breathed tenderness and care for him, he was happy she was there, but it was Ann he wanted to look at.
They discussed their respective faiths. Ann did not need to join a Church because she had a direct relationship with Jesus, who loved her as she loved Him. Carrie defined her religion as 'sort of Eastern, she supposed'. No, she didn't think it was Buddhist so much as Hindu. She believed in reincarnation but could not see the point of cow-worship, though anything that made people be nice to animals was worth it, she thought. Had Ann read the Upanishads? That was what she believed in. She was taking it for granted that her father had not, and would not. She would like to be a vegetarian, but after all she shared a kitchen with Elizabeth, who would object... Here Elizabeth came in, having bathed and put on an ancient peacock-blue lace dinner dress that had holes in the sleeves: Jack remembered Rosemary in it, twenty years before. Elizabeth was indignant, and said she would not at all mind Carrie turning vegetarian, she was ready to be one herself. But what would they feed the cat on? Were human beings goings to kill all the cats and dogs in the world because they weren't vegetarian? Carrie got angry at this, and said, There you are: I told you, I knew you didn't want to be vegetarian! Ann restored good feeling by laughing at them both.
They went on discussing the exact nuances of their beliefs, I believe that, no I don't agree with that, no I think it is more that... Surely not, oh no, how can believe that? An hour or so went by. Jack lifted the drawn curtains: there was a heavy golden light everywhere, thunder in the evening sky, the trees had damp yellow aureoles. He dropped the curtain and they were in a small low lamplight, and the three girls were discussing Women's Liberation. Jack hated women talking about this, not because he disagreed with any of it, but because he had never been able to cope with it, it was all too much for him. He felt increasingly that he had reason to feel guilty about practically every relationship he had ever had with woman except for two or three special love affairs, which were outside ordinary categorization, but did not know how to change himself — if, indeed, he wanted to. These three young women had different, but precisely defined, opinions about the roles of women, with Carrie representing an extreme of femininity, and Ann, Surprisingly, militant. Elizabeth talked about the lot of working women and had not time for what she called 'futile psychologizing'. This phrase made them quarrel, and for the first time Jack saw Ann strident. The quarrel went on, and then they saw that Jack was silent, and they remembered that his father was just dead, and they cooked for him, handing him many dishes, each as if it were a poultice for some wound he had suffered. Then with an effort towards being reasonable, they went on discussing their ideological positions about Women's Liberation. Jack was again in the condition he had been in in the Square, when he had looked across traffic at his old friends. All he had been able to see there was a variety of discreditable emotions; all he could see in these charming faces was self-importance. What mattered to them was the moment when they said: I think so and so, no I don't think that. He knew that what they believed was not as important to them as that they had come to an opinion and the reasons why they had reached that opinion. They possessed their beliefs or opinions; they owned them.
Now they were back to religion again: the other two attacked Ann for being Christian when Christianity's history in relation to women was so retrogressive. To which Ann said to Carrie: 'You can talk, how about women in India?.
'Yes,' said Carrie, 'but then I don't believe in women being the same as men.'
This started the quarrel again, and their voices rose.
He had to stop himself saying that they sounded like a Conference of World Churches debating doctrinal differences, because he knew that if it came to dogmas, and disagreements about historical personalities, then his faith, socialism, beat them all. He looked at, listened to, his daughters, his brothers daughter, and knew that in two, three, ten years (if they were all allowed to live so long) they would be laying claim, with exactly the same possessiveness, to other creeds, faiths, attitudes.
Again he felt like a threatened building, the demolition teams at work on its base. He was seeing, like a nightmare, the world like a little ball covered over with minuscule creatures all vociferously and viciously arguing and killing each other beliefs which they had come to hold by accident of environment, of geography.
He told the girls he had not been sleeping well, must go to bed: he could no longer stand listening while they staked precise claims in fields of doctrine. They went off, kissing him fondly: he knew from the warmth of the kisses that they had talked about his reactions to Grandad's death; everything was bound to be much worse for him, of course, because he was an atheist and did not believe in survival after death.
They each had a different version of their futures. Ann, for instance, believed that she would sit up after her death, exactly as she was now, but better, and would recognize her friends and family, and Jesus would be there too.
Jack was thinking that his own attitude to life after death had been collected quite casually: when he was young and forming (or acquiring) his opinions, the people and writers he admired wore atheism like a robe of honour. Not to believe in an after-life was like a certificate of bravery and above all, clarity of thinking. If he had been young now, he might have collected according to the chances of his experience, and just as lightly, any one of a variety of opinions. Reincarnation? Why not? After all, as Carrie said, it was an optimistic and forward-looking creed. But when he was young he couldn't have taken to a belief in reincarnation, if for no other reason than that he never met anyone who had it. He had known that a few cranks believed in it, and people in India, but that was about it.
Now he made a ritual of going to bed. They sky was still full of light, so he made the room black. He drank hot milk. He wooed sleep, which he had never done in his life, and soon lay awake, hands behind his head. But he could not spend a third night reading and listening to the radio. Then lights crashed on and his wife was in the room. She was apologetic, and quite understood that he hadn't felt like joining the Fast. Her mind, he could see, was on her lecture and the friends she had met afterwards. He watched her dimming her vitality, damping her good mood, because she was afraid of it disturbing him. She lay in bed smiling, bright-eyed. She asked about the funeral, was sorry she had not gone, sorry he had not reached it. Poor Jack! Smiling, she offered her arms, and grateful, he went into them. He would have gone on making love all night, but she went to sleep. In the close protective dark he lay beside his wife and in imagination saw the sky fill with drawn.
He fell asleep, he fell into a dream. In the dream he was thinking of what he had kept out of his consciousness all day, for to think of it was morbid. His father lay in a tight box under feet of wet soil. He, Jack, lay with him. He stifled and panicked, and the weight on him was as if he had been buried alive, in wet cement. He woke, and finding that although a cool damp light lay everywhere, and birds were at work on the lawn, it was only half past four. He turned on the radio, and made pictures in his head of the towns the stations were in, and lists of the people he had known in these towns and then divided these into friends and enemies, and then, by a different classification, into the dead and the living, and so he returned in memory to the wars he had fought in or had reported, and relived in memory to the wars he had fought in or had reported, and relived, in a half-sleep, crisis-points, moments of danger, when he might have been killed, that now made him sweat and tremble but which then he had simply lived through. When it seemed to him as if hours of a new day had already passed, he went back upstairs and got into bed beside his wife.
But at breakfast she betrayed that she had known he had not been beside her: she started to talk about the job in Nigeria. He knew that she did not want to go away for two years, leaving all her new interests, new friends, new freedom. There, she would be back inside duties she had escaped from. There would be entertaining of a formal kind, there would be much social life. Yet it sounded as if she was trying to bring herself to believe she wanted to go if he did: she was worried about him.
He said, instead of replying about Nigeria, that he would like to go to church, just to see what it was like these days. She took in a puzzled but patient breath, let it sigh out of her, and looked at him with loving and respectful eyes — just like, he thought the way Norah looked at Walter. She said: 'Oh, I can understand why. You mean, you missed the funeral service?'
Perhaps it was because he had missed the funeral service. He put on a suit and she a dress, and they went to church together, for the first time, except for weddings. Carrie and Elizabeth went with them, Carrie because God was everywhere, Elizabeth because he was particularly in churches. Ann would not come; she had Jesus by the hand as she sat on the floor reading the Sunday newspapers.
He sat through the service in a rage; perhaps it was a retrospective rage; certainly this was what he had felt throughout years of compulsory attendance at Evensong and Matins, and Services Early and Late, at his public school. He did not mind that it was mumbo-jumbo: it was bound to be! What he minded was that people voluntarily submitted themselves to the ministry of men palpably no better than themselves, men whose characters were written on their faces. This was perhaps what had first directed him towards socialism? He had not been able to stand that people submitted to being lied to, cheated, dominated, by their equals? He was again afflicted by yesterday's disability: a film rolled away from what he looked at. That man, wearing black and white lace and embroidery, and dangling strips of this and that colour — the sort of attractive nonsense that Carrie and Liz might wear — that man intoning and dancing and posturing through the service, had a face like Walter's. They were both public men, performers. Their features were permanently twisted by vanity and self-importance. Jack kept passing his hand across his own face, feeling the ugliness of the love of power on it. And Rosemary put her arm in his asking if he felt well, if he had toothache? He replied with violence that he must have been mad to want to come: he apologized for inflicting it on her.
'Oh, it doesn't matter for once,' she said, with mildness, but glanced over her shoulder to see if Carrie and Elizabeth had heard: it was extraordinary how they all kowtowed to their children, as if they feared to offend them.
After the midday meal he felt as if he could sleep at last, and did so.
The dream pulled him down into itself as he rolled on to his bed in the sultry yellow afternoon light — and passed out. This time, as he sank down beside his father, who was very cold — he could feel the cold coming out and claiming him — the weight pressed them both down, right through the earth that was below the tight box. His father disappeared, and he, Jack, quite alone, was rocking on a light-blue sea. This too dissolved into air, but not before he had been pierced through and through with an extraordinary pain that was also a sweetness. He had not known anything like this before; in the dream he was saying to himself: That's a new thing, this sweetness. It was quickly gone, but astonishing, so that he woke up, pleased to wake up, as if out of a nightmare, yet what he had been happy to wake from was that high, piercing sweetness. Unhealthy, he judged it. It was not yet tea-time; he had slept an hour and not been refreshed. He went down to be told as a joke by his wife that a journalist had rung that morning to find out his views on the Twenty-Four-Hour Fast: did his not having been there mean that he was against it? Ann had answered, and had said that Mr Orkney was at church. The journalist seemed surprised, Ann said. She had had to repeat it more than once. Had she meant that Jack Orkney was at a wedding? At a christening? No, no, at church, at Sunday morning service.
Jack knew the journalist; they had been in several foreign fields together. Jack was now seriously worried, as a man is when faced with the loss of reputation. He said to himself: I was not worried what people thought of me when I was young. He was answered: You mean, you were not worried by what people said who were not your side. He said: Well, but now it is not a personal thing, criticism of me is a criticism of my side, surely it is right to worry about letting my own side down?
There was no answer to this, except a knowledge he was dishonest.
Rosemary suggested a long walk. He could see she had been thinking how to make him whole again — how to protect her own happiness, he could not prevent himself thinking. He was more than ready to walk as many miles away as they could before dark; when they had first met, before they married, one of their things had been to walk miles, sometimes for days on end. Now they walked until it was dark, at eleven o'clock: they worked out it was over fifteen miles, and were pleased that this was still so easy for them, at their age and in the middle of their undemanding life. But the night now confronted Jack, a narrow tunnel at the end of which waited a white-robed figure, pointing him into annihilation.
That night he did not sleep. The windows were open, the curtains drawn back, the room full of light from the sky. He pretended to sleep, so as to protect his wife from anxiety, but she lay alert beside him, also pretending sleep.
Next morning it was a week since Mrs Markham's wire, and he became concerned for his health. He knew that not to sleep for night after night, as he was doing, was simply not possible. During the following days he went further into this heightened, over-sensitized state, like a country of which he had heard rumours but had not believed in. On its edges his wife and daughters smiled and were worried about him. He slept little, and when he did he was monitored by the female figure in white, now a composite of his mother, his wife and his daughters, but quite impersonal: she used their features but was an impostor. This figure had become like an angel on a wedding cake, or on a tomb, full of false sentiment; its appearance was accompanied, like a strain of particularly nauseating and banal music, by the sweetly piercing emotion, only it was much worse now; it was the essence of banality, of mawkishness, like being rolled in powdered sugar and swallowed into an insipid smile. The horror of this clinging sickliness was worse even than the nightmare — he could no longer remember the quality of that, only that it had occurred — of the night in the hotel. His bed, the bedroom, soon the entire house, were tainted by this emotion, which was more a sensation, even like nausea, as if he could never rid himself of the taste of a concentration of saccharine which he had accidentally swallowed. He was all day in a state of astonishment, and self-distrust: he made excuses not to go to bed.
Walter came to see him. Unannounced. As soon as Jack saw him getting out of his car, he remembered something which told him why Walter had come. About four years before, Mona had reviewed a religious book, the memoirs of some sort of mystic, in a way which surprised them all. They would have expected a certain tone — light, carefully non-solemn, for it did not do to give importance to something which did not deserve it — not mocking of course, which would have had the same result, but the tone you use to indicate to children that while you may be talking about, let's say, ghosts, or telling a story about a witch, the subject is not one to be taken seriously. But Mona had not used this subtly denigrating tone. Various of the old Guard had commented on this. Then she had reviewed a book of religious poetry, which of course could not be dismissed in the light disinfecting tone, since poetry was obviously in a different category — but the point was that none of them would have reviewed it at all. For one thing no editor would think of asking them to. It was all very upsetting. There had been a party at Bill's house and Mona was not there, she had been discussed: she was at the age when women 'get' religion. Jack, fond of Mona, offered to go and see her. His visit was to find out, as he put it to himself, if she was 'still with us'. He found her amiable, and her usual self, helping to organize a conference for the coming week. He had probed — oh, tactfully, of course. He mentioned an article in one of the Sundays about a certain well-known religious figure, and said he found the man a nauseating self-seeker. Mona had said that she was inclined to agree. He had said casually, 'Of course I am only too ready to forgive somebody who can't face old age and all that without being cushioned by God.' Mona had remarked that for her part she could not believe in personal survival after death. Well, of course not, but for years that she could not would have been taken for granted. He remembered feeling protective affection for her: as if he were helping to save her from a danger. Seeing Walter at a meeting to do with the Crisis in Our Communications a week later, he had said that he had made a point of visiting Mona and that she had seemed quite sound to him.
He knew now what to expect from Walter.
Walter was looking furtive. Of course Jack knew that his furtiveness was not anything he would have noticed normally: this state he was in exaggerated every emotion on other people's faces into caricatures. But Walter was playing a double part, almost that of a spy (as he had with Mona of course, now he came to think of it), and Furtiveness was written large on him.
Walter mentioned the Fast — a success — and then made a clumsy sort of transition which Jack missed, and was talking about Lourdes. Jack wondered why Lourdes? And then he laughed: it was a short laugh, of astonishment, and Walter did not notice it. Or, rather, had not expected a laugh in this place, found it discordant, and therefore discounted it, as if it had not happened. Walter was trying to find out if Jack's religious conversion — the rumour had spread that he went to church on Sundays — included a belief in miracles, such as took place, they said, at Lourdes. Jack said he had been to Lourdes once for the Daily — over some so-called miracles some years ago. Walter nodded, as if to say: That's right. He was already feeling relieved, because Jack had used the right tone. But he was still showing the anxiety of a priest who knew his beliefs to be the correct ones and was afraid of a lamb straying from the flock. He mentioned that Mona was suspected of having become a Roman Catholic. 'Good God, no,' said Jack, 'she can't have.' He sounded shocked. This was because his reaction was that she had been deceiving him, had lied. He sat silent trying to remember the exact tones of her voice, how she had looked. If she was a Catholic, could she have said she did not believe in a personal survival? But he knew nothing at all of what Catholics thought, except that they did not believe in birth control, but did believe in the Pope.
Remembering that Walter was still there, and silent, he looked up to see him smiling with relief, the smile seemed to him extraordinary in its vulgarity, yet he knew that what he was seeing was the pleasure of a good comrade: Walter was happy that nothing was going to spoil their long friendship. The spontaneity of his reply over Mona had reassured him; now, mission accomplished, Walter was already thinking about the various obligations he had to get back to. But he stayed a little, to discuss some committee on pollution he was helping to set up.
He talked: Jack listened, wondering if this was the right time to raise the question of 'the young'. Walter's two sons were both classic revolutionaries and they despised their father for his success, his position in the socialist world, for 'his compromise with the ruling class'. Jack was thinking that of all the people in the world it was Walter, so like himself in experience, position and — he was afraid — character, with whom he should be able to talk about his preoccupation. But he was beginning to realize that there was a difference, and it was obviously an important one, between them. Jack was more on the outskirts of politics. He was more of a freelance, but Walter was always in the thick of every political struggle, always involved with the actual details of organization. He never did anything else. And this was why he was so far from Jack's present vision of things, which saw them all — the people like them — continually planning and arranging and organizing towards great goals, but fated to see these plains fail, or become so diluted by pressures of necessity that the results resembled nothing of what had been envisaged at the start. Sitting there, looking at his old friend's forceful and energetic face, it was in a double vision. On the one hand he thought that this was the one man he knew whom he would trust to see them all through any public or private tight spot; but at the same time he wanted to howl out, in a protest of agonized laughter, that if the skies fell (as they might very well do), if the seas rolled in, if all the water became undrinkable and the air poisoned and the food so short everyone was scratching for it in the dust like animals, Walter, Bill, Mona, himself, and all those like them, would be organizing Committees, Conferences, Sit-downs, Fasts, Marches, Protests and Petitions, and writing to the authorities about the undemocratic behaviour of the police.
Walter was talking about some negotiation with the Conservatives. Normally Jack would be listening to an admirably concise and intelligent account of human beings in conflict. Now Jack could see only that on his friend's face was a look which said: I am Power. Jack suddenly got up with a gesture of repulsion. Walter rose automatically, still talking, not noticing Jack's condition. Jack reminded himself that in criticizing Walter he had forgotten that he must be careful about himself: he had again, and suddenly, became conscious of the expressions that were fitting themselves down over his face, reflecting from Walter's, horrifying him in their complacency or their cruelty. And his limbs, his body, kept falling into postures of self-esteem and self-approval.
Walter was moving to the door, still talking. Jack, trying to keep his face blank, to prevent his limbs from expressing emotions which seemed to him appropriate for a monster, moved cautiously after him. Walter stood in the door — talking. Jack wanted him to go. It tired him, this self-observation he could not stop: there was his image at the door oblivious to anything in the world but his own analysis of events. Yet at last, as Walter said goodbye and he saw Jack again — which he had not done for some minutes, being too self-absorbed — a worried look came into his face, and because of this look Jack knew that what Walter saw was a man standing in a rigid, unnatural position who had his hands at his lower cheeks, fretfully fingering the jaw-bone, as if it were out of place.
Walter said, in a simple and awkward voice: 'It's a bit of a shock when your old man goes. I know when mine died it took me quite a time to get back to normal.'
He left, like a health visitor, and Jack thought that Walter had had to get back to normal when his father died. He was thinking, too, that the cure for his condition was activity. Walter was more sensible than himself: he filled every moment of his time.
He decided to go to the family doctor for sleeping pills. This was a house that self-consciously did not go in for pills of any kind. Or did not know: Rosemary, during what she now called 'my silly time' — which after all had gone on for some years — had taken sleeping pills a lot. But that, even while she did it, had seemed to her a betrayal of her real nature. The girls went in for health in various ways — diets, yoga, home-made bread. His son was too strong — of course! — to need medicine. He smoked pot, Jack believed, and on principle — well, so would Jack have done at his age, the law on marihuana was absurd.
He told the doctor he was not sleeping well. The doctor asked for how long. He had to think. Well, for about a month, perhaps six weeks.
The doctor said: 'That's not going to kill you, Jack!'
‘All right, but before I get into the habit of not sleeping I'd like something — and not a placebo, please.' The glance the doctor gave him at this told him that he had in fact been deciding to prescribe a placebo, but there had been something in Jack's voice to make him change his mind.
'Is there anything else worrying you?'
'Nothing. Or everything.'
'I see,' said the doctor, and prescribed sleeping pills and antidepressants.
Jack had the prescriptions made up, then changed his mind: if he started taking these pills, it would be some sort of capitulation. To what, he did not know. Besides, he was thinking: Perhaps they might make it worse? 'It' was not only the sweet mawkishness which threatened him at every turn, in a jingle of a tune for an advertisement on television, a shaft of light from behind a cloud at sunrise, a kitten playing in the next garden, but the feeling, getting worse, that he was transparent, an automation of unlikeable and predictable reactions. He was like a spy in his own home, noticing the slightest reactions of thought or emotion in his wife and daughters, seeing them as robots. If they knew how he was seeing them, how loathsome they were in their predictability, their banality, they would turn and kill him. And quite rightly. For he was not human. He was outside humanity. He even found himself walking abruptly out of rooms where he was sitting with Rosemary, or one or other of the girls; he could not stand his own horror and pity because of them, himself, everybody.
Yet they were treating him with perfect kindness. He knew that this was what it really was: even if he had to see it all as falsity, mere habits of kindness, sympathy, consideration, tact, which none of them really felt, wanting him to get back to normal, so that life could go on without stress.
His wife particularly longed for this. While he took care that he did not betray the horror he was immersed in, she knew well enough their time was over — the gaiety and charm of it, the irresponsibility. Probably for good. Being what she was, thoughtful, considerate (taught by society to show thoughtfulness and sympathy when she wasn't really feeling it, he could not stop himself thinking), she was trying to decide what to do for the best. Sometimes she asked if he didn't think he should write another book—even if he would like to make a trip abroad without her; she talked about Nigeria. Each time Nigeria was mentioned, his response to it was strong: it was the idea of forgetting himself entirely in an active and tightly planned life.
But he did not want to commit himself. He felt he would be losing an opportunity — but of what? And besides, how could he? He believed he was seriously ill, in some inconceivable, unprecedented way; how could be take a job when his energies had to go into presenting a bland and harmless surface to those around him, into preventing his hand rising furtively up to his face, to see if the masks of greed or power were fastened there, into watching the postures his body assumed, which must betray his vices to anyone looking his way — or would betray them, if everybody wasn't blind and deaf, absorbed in their 'kindness', their awful, automatic, meaningless 'sympathy'.
One night his son arrived upstairs. Joseph used sometimes to come, unannounced, and go up through the girls' rooms to the attic to sleep. He took food from his sisters' kitchen. Sometimes he brought friends.
About a year ago there had been a row over the friends. Feeling one evening as if the top part of his house had been invaded by a stealthy army, Jack had gone up and found a dozen or so young men, and a couple of girls, all lying about on sleeping bags and blankets under the rafters. They had moved in. A girl was cooking sausages in a frying-pan that was a camping stove; about a foot away was a drum that had written on it: PARAFFIN. INFLAMMABLE. The flames from the stove were turned too high, and showed around the edges of the frying-pan. Jack jumped forward, turned it down, removed the pan, and stood up, facing them, the pan in his hand. His usual responses to his son — apology, or the exhaustion due to the effort to be fair — had been cut, and he asked: 'What's the matter with you lot? What's wrong? You aren't stupid!'
Coming up the stairs he had been preparing a 'humorous' remark — which he was afraid would sound pompous, to the effect: How about introducing me to my guests? Now he stared at them, and the young faces stared back. There was a half-scared smile in the face of the girl who had been cooking, but no one said anything. 'I think you had better get out,' said Jack at last and went downstairs. Soon after he had watched the whole lot cross the garden like a tribe on the move, with their stove, their cartons, their paper-carriers, their guitars, their sleeping bags.
Now he came to think of it, this incident had been the beginning of his inadmissible depression. He had spent days, weeks, months, thinking about it. He felt there was a contempt there, in the carelessness, that went beyond anything he knew how to cope with: he did not understand it, them — his son. Who, meanwhile, had resumed his habits, and continued to drop in for a night or two when he had nowhere better to sleep. So it was not, Jack reasoned, that Joseph despised a roof over his head, as such? They had all been so stoned they had not known what they were doing? No, it hadn't seemed like it. They had not bothered to look at the drum, had not known it was full? But that was scarcely and excuse — no, it was all too much, not understandable... He had not talked to his son since, only seen him go past.
The telephone rang from upstairs: Carrie said that Joseph would be down to see him in a few moments, if Jack 'had nothing better to do'.
Instantly Jack was on the defensive: he knew that Joseph criticized him for having been away so much when the three children were growing up. This message was reference to that — again? If it was simply careless, what had come into his head, then that made it even worse, in a way... Joseph came running lightly down the stairs and into the living-room. A muscular young man, he wore skin-tight blue jeans, a tight blue sweatshirt, and a small red scarf at his throat tied like a pirate's. The clothes were old but as much care had gone into their choosing, preparation and presentation as a model getting ready for a photograph... While Jack knew he had already begun the process of comparison that always left him exhausted, he could not stop, and he was wondering: Was it that we were as obsessed with what we wore but I've forgotten it? No, it's not that: our convention was that it was bourgeois to spend time and money on clothes, that was it, but their convention it different, that's all it is and it is not important.
Joseph had a strong blue gaze, and a strong straight mouth. The mouth was hidden under a wiry golden beard. A mane of wiry yellow hair fell to his shoulders. Jack thought that the beard and the long hair were there because they were fashionable, and would be dropped the moment they were not... well, Why not? He wished very much he could have swaggered about in beard and mane — that was the truth.
This aggressively vivid young man sat on a chair opposite Jack, put his palms down on his thighs with his fingers pointing towards each other, and the elbows, our. In this considering, alert position he looked at his father.
Jack, a faded, larger, softer version of what he was seeing, waited.
Joseph said: 'I hear you have got religion.'
'The opium,' said Jack, in a formal considering way, 'of the people. Yes. If that's what it is, I have got it.'
Jack felt particularly transparent, because of his son's forceful presence. He knew that his posture, the smile on his face, were expressing apology. He already knew the meeting was doomed to end unpleasantly. Yet he was looking for the words to appeal to his son, to begin the 'real' talk that they should be having.
Joseph said: 'Well, that's your business.' He sounded impatient: having raised the subject, or at least used it as an opener, now he was saying that his father's processes were of no interest or importance. 'You've been following the Robinson affair?'
Jack could not remember for a moment which affair that was but did not like to say so.
‘We have to pay the defence lawyer. And there's the bail. We need at least three thousand pounds.'
Jack did not say anything. It was not from policy, but inadequacy, yet he saw his son beginning to make the irritable movements of power, of confidence, checked and thwarted. It crossed his mind that of course his son saw him as powerful and confident, and this it was that accounted for the aggression, the hostility, the callousness. Into Jack's mind now came sets of words framed rhetorically; since this was not how he was feeling, he was surprised. "Why does it have to be like this, that more hate is used on people of the same side, thus preventing us ever from uniting in a common front, preventing us from bringing down the enemy?' These were words from the imaginary conversation with Joseph that he so often indulged in: only now it did strike him that he never had fantasies of a personal relationship — of their going for a holiday together for instance, or just spending an evening, or walking for and hour or so. 'Can't you see,' the inner rhetoric-maker was continuing, 'that the vigour of your criticism, your iconoclasm, your need to condemn the past without learning from it, will take you relentlessly to stand exactly where your despised elders stand now?'
It suddenly occurred to Jack, and for the first time, that he had repudiated his past. This so frightened him, leaving him, as it must, by himself out in the air somewhere, without comrades and allies — without a family — that he almost forgot Joseph's presence. He was thinking: For weeks now, ever since the old man's death — before even? — I've been thinking as if I have abandoned socialism.
Joseph was saying: 'I don't have to tell you what the conditions are like in that prison, how they are being treated.'
Jack saw that the 'I don't have to tell you' was in fact an admission that in spite of everything he said, Joseph saw him as an ally. 'You've come to me for money?' he asked, as if there could be another reason.
'Yeah. Yeah. That's about it, I suppose.'
'Why do you have to be American?' Jack asked in sudden real irritation. 'You're not American. Why do you all have to?'
Joseph said, with a conscious smile: It's a mannerism, that's all.'
Then he looked stern again, in command.
Jack said: 'I'm one of the old rich lefties you were publicly despising not long ago. You didn't want to have anything to do with us, you said.'
Joseph frowned and made irritable movements which said that he felt that the sort of polemic which abused people not standing exactly where he stood was rather like breathing, a tradition, and he genuinely felt his father was being unreasonable in taking such remarks personally. Then he said, as if nothing better could be expected: 'Then I take it it is no?'
'No,' said Jack. 'I am sorry'
Joseph got up; but he looked hesitant, and even now could sit down — if Jack said the right things. If he could push aside the rhetorical sentences that kept coming to his tongue: how should they not? — he had spent many hours of fantasy ensuring that they would!
Jack suddenly heard himself saving, in a low, shaking, emotional voice: 'I am so sick of it all. It all just goes on and on. Over and over again.'
'Well,' said Joseph, 'they say it is what always happens, so I suppose that ought to make us feel better.' His smile was his own, not forced or arranged.
Jack saw that Joseph had taken what he had said as an appeal for understanding between them personally: he had believed that his father was saying he was sick of their bad relations.
Had that been what he was saving? He had imagined he was talking about the political cycle. Jack now understood that if in fact he made enough effort, Joseph would respond and then... He heard himself saying:
'Like bloody automatons. Over and over again. Can't you see that it is going to take something like twenty years for you lot to become old rich lefties?'
'Or would if we aren't all dead first,' said Joseph, ending the thing as Jack would, and with a calm, almost jolly smile. He left, saying: 'The Robinson brothers are likely to get fifteen years if we don't do something.'
Jack, as if a button had been pushed, was filled with guilt about the Robinson brothers and almost got up to write a cheque there and then. But he did not: it had been an entirely automatic reaction.
He spent a few days apparently in the state he had been in for weeks; but he knew himself to have reached the end of some long inner process that had proved too much for him. This interview with his son had been its end, as, very likely, the scene in the attic had been its beginning? Who knew? Who could know! Not Jack. He was worn out, as at the end of a long vigil. He found himself one morning standing in the middle of his living-room saying over and over again: 'I can't stand any more of this. I can't. I won't
He found the pills and took them with the same miserable determination that he would have had to use to kill something that had to be killed. Almost at once he began to sleep and the tension eased. He no longer felt as if he was carrying around, embodied in himself, a question as urgent as a wound that needed dressing, but that he had no idea what the language was in which he might find an answer. He ceased to experience the cloying sweetness that caused a mental nausea, a hundred times worse than the physical. In a few days he had already stopped seeing his wife and daughters as great dolls who supplied warmth, charm, sympathy, when the buttons of duty or habit were pressed. Above all, he did not have to be on guard against his own abhorrence: his fingers did not explore masks on his face, nor was he always conscious of the statements made by his body and limbs.
He was thinking that he was probably already known throughout the Left as a renegade; yet, examining the furniture in his mind, he found it not much changed.
It occurred to him, and he went on to consider it in a brisk judicious way, that it was an extraordinary thing that whereas he could have sat for an examination at a moment’s notice on the history, the ideas and the contemporary situation of socialism, communism and associated movements, with confidence that he would know the answers even to questions on the details of some unimportant sect in some remote country, he was so ignorant of religious history and thought that he could not have answered any questions at all. His condition, in relation to religious questions, was like that of a person hearing of socialism for the first time and saying: 'Oh yes, I've often thought it wasn't fair that some people should have more than others. You agree, do you?'
He decided to go to the British Museum Reading Room. He had written many of his books there. His wife was delighted, knowing that this meant he was over the crisis.
He sent in his card for books on the history of the religions, on comparative religion, and on the relation of religion to anthropology.
For the first few days it seemed that he was still under the spell of his recent experience: he could not keep his attention from wandering from the page, and the men and women all around him bending over books seemed to him insane: this habit of solving all questions by imbibing information through the eyes off the printed page was a form of self-hypnotism. He was seeing them and himself as a species that could not function unless he took in information in this way.
But this soon passed and he was able to apply himself.
As he read, he conscientiously examined what he thought: was this changing at all? No, his distaste for the whole business could be summed up by an old idea of his, which was that if he had been bred, let us say, in Pakistan, that would have been enough for him to kill other people in the name of Mohammed, and if he had been born in India, to kill Moslems without a qualm. That had he been born in Italy, he would have been one brand of Christian, and if he had stuck with his family's faith, he would be bound to suspect Roman Catholicism. But above all what he felt was that this was an outdated situation. What was he doing sitting here surrounded by histories and concordances and expositions and exegetics? He would be better occupied doing almost anything else — a hundred years ago, yes, well, that had been different. The struggle for a Victorian inside the Church had meant something; for a man or a woman then to say, 'If I had been born an Arab I would be praying five times a day looking at Mecca, but had I been a Tibetan I would have believed in the Dalai lama' — that kind of statement had needed courage then, and the effort to make it had been worth while.
There were, of course, the mystics. But the word was associated for him with the tainted sweetness that had so recently afflicted him, with self-indulgence, and posturing and exaggerated behaviour. He read, however, Simone Weil and Teilhard de Chardin; these were the names he knew.
He sat, carefully checking his responses: he was more in sympathy with Simone Weil, because of her relations with the poor, less with Teilhard de Chardin who seemed to him not very different from any sort of intellectual: he could have been a useful sort of politician for instance? It occurred to him that he was in the process of choosing a degree or class of belief, like a pipe from a display of pipes, or a jacket in a shop, that would be on easy terms with the ideas he was already committed to, and above all, would not disturb his associates. He could imagine himself saying to Walter: Well, yes, it is true that I am religious in a way — I can see the point of Simone Weil, she took poverty into account. She was a socialist of a kind, really.'
He bought more books by both Simone Weil and Teilhard, and took them home, but did not read them: he had lost interest, and besides an old mechanism had come into force. He realized that sitting in the Reading Room he had been thinking of writing a book describing, but entirely as a tourist, the varieties of religious behaviour he had actually witnessed: a festival in Ceylon involving sacred elephants for instance. The shape of this book was easy to find: he would describe what he had seen. The tone of it, the style — well, there might be a difficulty. There should not of course be the slightest tone of contempt; a light affectionate amusement would be appropriate, he found himself thinking that when the Old Guard read it they would be relieved as to the health of his state of mind.
Abandoning the Reading Room, he found that Carrie was becoming seriously interested in a young man met through her brother; he was one of the best known of the new young revolutionaries, brave, forthright, everything a young revolutionary should be. Carrie was in the process of marrying her father? A difficulty was that this young man and Joseph had recently quarrelled. They had disagreed so violently over some policy that Joseph had left this particular group, and had formed another. Rosemary thought the real reason for the quarrel was that Joseph resented his sister loving his friend but did not realize it. Jack took his wife to task over this, saying that to discredit socialist action because it had, or might have, psychological spring, was one of the oldest of Reaction's tricks. But, said Rosemary, every action had a psychological base, didn't it, so why shouldn't one describe what it was? Jack surprised himself by his vehemence in this discussion — it was, in fact, a quarrel. For he believed, with Rosemary, that probably Joseph was reacting emotionally; he had always been jealous of his sisters. Whatever the truth of it was, Carrie was certainly forgetting her 'Eastern thing'. She was already talking about it as of a youthful and outgrown phase. Rosemary, in telling Jack this, kept glancing apologetically at him: the last thing she wanted to do, she said, was to disparage any experience which he might be going through himself. Or had gone through.
Had gone through
There was a conference on the theme of Saving Earth from Man, and he had been afraid he wasn't going to be asked. He was, and Mona rang up to say she would like to go with him. She made some remarks that could be openings to his joining her in a position that combined belief in God with progressive action: he could see that she was willing to lay before him this position, which she had verbalized in detail. He closed that door, hoping it did not sound like a snub. He was again thinking of something called 'religion' as an area coloured pink or green on a map, and of a belief in an after-life, like a sweetened dummy for adults. In addition to this, he had two sets of ideas, or feelings, in his mind: one, these he had always held, or held since his early maturity; the other, not so much a set of ideas as a feeling of unease, disquiet, guilt, which amounted to a recognition that he had missed an opportunity of some sort, but that the failure had taken place long before his recent experience. Which he now summarized to himself in Walter's words as: It's a shock when your old man dies. His life had been set in one current, long ago; a fresh current, or at least a different one, had run into it from another source; but, unlike the springs and rivers of myth and fairy tale, it had been muddied and unclear.
He could see that his old friends were particularly delighted to see him at the Conference, ready to take an active part. He was on the platform, and he spoke several times, rather well. By the time the Conference was over, there was no doubt he was again confirmed as one of the Old Guard, trusted and reliable.
Because of the attention the Conference got he was offered a rather good job on television, and he nearly took it. But what he needed was to get out of England for a bit. Again Rosemary mentioned Nigeria. Her case was a good one. He would enjoy it, it was work he would do well, he would be contributing valuably. She would enjoy it too, she added loyally. As of course she would, in many ways. After all, it was only for two years, and when she came back it would be easy for her to pick up what she had dropped. And Family Counsellors would still be needed, after all! Something that had seemed difficult, now seemed easy, not much more that a long trip to Europe. They were making it easy of course because of that refusal to look at the consequences of a thing that comes from wanting to leave options open. Spending two years in Africa would change them both, and they did not want to admit that they had become reluctant to change.
On the night after he had formally agreed to go to Nigeria he had the dream again — the worst. If worst was the word? — in this region of himself different laws applied. He was dropping into nothingness, the void: he was fighting his way to a window and there he battered in panes to let in air, and as he hit with his fists and shouted for help the air around him thinned and became exhausted — and he ceased to exist.
He had forgotten how terrible — or how powerful — that dream had been.
He paced his house, wearing the night away. It was too late: he was going to Nigeria because he had not known what else it was he could do.
During the night he could feel his face falling into the lines and folds of his father's face — at the time, that is, when his father had been and elderly, rather than an old, man. His father's old man's face had been open and sweet, but before achieving that goodness — like the inn at the end of road which you have no alternative but to use? — he had had the face of a Roman, heavy-lidded, sceptical, obdurate, facing into the dark: the man whose pride and strength had to come from a conscious ability to suffer, in silence, the journey into negation.
During the days that followed, when the household was all plans and packing and arranging and people running in and out, Jack was thinking that there was only one difference between himself now and himself as he had been before 'the bit of a shock'. He had once been a man whose sleep had been — nothing, nonexistent, he had slept like a small child. Now, in spite of everything, although he knew that fear could lie in wait there, his sleep had become another country, lying just behind his daytime one. Into that country he went nightly, with an alert, even if ironical, interest: the irony was due to his habits of obedience to his past — for a gift had been made to him. Behind the face of the sceptical world was another, which no conscious decision of his could stop him exploring.
'The Temptation of Jack Orkney' is—like 'The Habit of Loving', and 'To Room Nineteen', and 'The Eye of God in Paradise' (the last three are from Volume One)—a story with hidden depths. Often this happens without a writer knowing how she or he has tapped a deeper vein. The new way of education, which is often to omit any teaching of history, may mean that some young thing may enquire about the title, and then you have to spell out the irony, that Jack Orkney sees God (and the other hidden dimensions of life) as a temptation to compromise with the integrities of his stem atheism, whereas for many centuries, not to say millennia, temptations were to do with the flesh, and the lack of belief in God. A nice little version of the whirligig of time, this one. You may try saying to such a youngster, Go to a picture gallery and see how the saints were tormented by visions of food and sex and happy disbelief But they look at you, these infinitely indulged ones, with amazement, for it has never occurred to them to do without anything in the way of fleshly delights, unless it is for fear of AIDS, or because they are slimming.