|Oct/Nov 2011 Fiction|
Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins
Born in a Godalming, the only child of a paint chemist and an indulgent mother, Thomas Curtal was not made to fail. His prep school days in a manse passed without trauma, and at his pubic school, Talbot's, expensively progressive, he fitted in well, sporty and popular, president of the camera club, known for amusing japes. During long holidays, under his father's guidance, he made his own oil-paints to take back to school. At the age of twelve he got religion, read and re-read the gospel stories. By nineteen he'd switched to Buddhism and sat under trees intoning. National service as a second lieutenant in the Malayan Emergency passed eerily devoid of danger. He wrote letters home about the flora he photographed, often noting his luck to have a book on the properties of his plants. Demobbed, he took a good Second in Chemistry at Cambridge, where he made friends who could be called upon for life. He married Edna, a woman quite like his mother, a home counties girl with pots of money. They were too adult for the '60s and accordingly passed through that decade oblivious of it. To be different from his father, he did further degrees in Civil Engineering and went into highway design. With adequate attention he and Edna raised two boys in a smart house in Islington. His work took him to foreign parts, but after the M1 in '59, there was a burst of activity in highways at home, and he became a respected consultant. Studying whilst on assignments left him no time for hobbies, though his grounding in chemistry got him thinking a lot about the rocks and soils he disrupted. He kept up with old friends, giving and going to parties, sustaining the status he deserved. Edna brought to the marriage a small fortune, and his own earnings became considerable, so they lived well. Both assumed they were in love, though they were sensible about it and inexpressive. Apart from their wider circle, they each had one close friend. Tom would dine with Freddie Farquharson, a wine buff; Edna would shop with her sister Margot.
Freddie conducted his wine business from home in Hampstead and also worked freelance as a wine correspondent. The articles he wrote enlarged his customer base. He knew the obscure but good restaurants praised by the quills of the better food critics, and to one of these he would take Tom each month. His favorite in '73 was Le Chasseur, off Bond Street. Their meeting in August was typical. There were seldom new furrows to plough, though they usually managed to deepen old ones.
"Equus? Haven't seen it yet." Freddie called for a half-bottle of claret toute suite, while they considered their order. They'd change to another wine later. He was wide in the girth and favored pinstripes and a red brocaded "weskit." In general he knew more about the theatre than Tom and would often advise him, but Tom had got there first this time. "I quite liked his Five Finger Whatsit," Freddie mumbled. Then, peering over his half-lenses, he asked gamely, not expecting yes for an answer, "Did Edna like it?"
"She hated it."
Freddie chuckled. "Didn't think she would, from what I've heard of it. Why did you take her?" He guessed Tom hadn't known what he was getting into. He was right.
"We rather liked his first play."
"Did you like this one?"
"Bit cruel and crude, that lad blinding the horses, and the naked stuff. But that's the modern stage. One must keep up."
Approaching forty, Tom was still athletic in appearance, smooth in movement. Whereas Freddie was tubby, rosy and truculent, Tom was weather-tanned and good-looking, with fair floppy hair and a small blond moustache. He never deferred overmuch to his aesthetic friend, but he would sometimes butter him up by asking what book to read, what show to see, where next to dine. The requests were often needless; Tom did read the papers and they both knew he wasn't stupid.
When well into their meal, saddle of rabbit for Freddie, the subject of dreams came up. The wine had released his tongue and Tom was on form, his face flushed.
"Who doesn't have nightmares about army days? It's like exams, you've turned up for them but you're desperately trying to get back to the revision you haven't started. As you know, I had a cushy number in Malaya, unlike some poor sods who copped it. This dream was about something that happened. Quite close to the mark, actually. It wasn't distorted, well not much. It was memories being repeated like a cracked record. I don't think I've told you before. Perhaps I've been too ashamed to.
"Our base was a mixture of training camp and supply depot. I wasn't usually on the supply side, but one day I was sent over to it. We were deep in the jungle, you understand. To get to supplies you had to weave through the tall trees and cross a river. Didn't feel like the same camp at all, over on supplies. We had no actual perimeter, so you had to look out for CTs—commie terrorists, Chinese workers, the enemy. There was no quartermaster around that day to take in a lorry-load of new stuff and see it stored. I didn't know what the hell to do. I mean, how could I? But if you've got a pip on your shoulder you're supposed to work things out. The stores were a row of grass huts—ammo and armory in one, bedding in another, kit in the next and so on.
"Lorry comes in, lurching all over the bloody place. Mud for roads, naturally. Mud, ruts, jungle all round. And leeches, another story! I got a few chaps to unload and it's fairly obvious where most of it goes. Except for some drums, about so big, heavy, with a few letters on them which meant nothing to me. Some liquid or other, you could hear it sloshing. I told the chaps to put the drums by the end hut and I'd sort them out later. Silly buggers didn't tell me there was no room by the end hut, so they put the drums behind it, out of sight. I signed for the delivery, but apparently I was suppose to get one of our clerk chappies on site to write it all up in the stores' inventory. There was no one there to tell me that, so I wandered back to my usual sector. Job done, over. But the point is, and here's what my dream seemed so damned keen to remind me of, the point is that two days later a field division came in and requested, among other things—although I wasn't told this at the time—they wanted refills of the defoliant they used to burn away foliage at the roadsides."
"What they do that for?"
"So they couldn't be ambushed. There were stories about our chaps burning crops, too. Anyway, that detail had to return to action without defoliant, and I got a royal ballocking later for not having inventoried the stuff. The quartermaster, when he showed up, didn't know it was there. It wasn't in his huts, it wasn't on his books. Daresay I wasn't the only one to get a rocket, but believe me, when stories filtered back about ambushes in our area, I felt pretty awful."
"A guilt trip, matey. Anxiety, lust, what else do we dream of? My sister says she has nice dreams. Buggered if I know how it's possible. Wish she'd pass them to me. Are women like that? Does Edna have nice dreams?"
"I've never asked her."
"Why not tell her your latest?"
Tom dabbed his lips.
"I don't think she'd pay much attention."
He and Edna for two years running had held two Christmas parties, one in early December for friends and neighbors, one on Christmas Day for family.
Edna wandered over to a woman she'd not yet greeted. She turned out to be the new wife of a Cambridge friend called Alan Turnbull; she said Alan often talked about Tom, "the road man." The woman unzipped her many teeth, as if smiling were a prelude to biting, and the brooch on her starboard bosom was much too showy, thought Edna. She and Tom were well inured to the "road man" snipe. New acquaintances thought it witty, but it ill-concealed the hangover of the status politics of '50s one-upmanship, as Tom once put it. He could give as good as he got at that game.
He was warmer than his wife and didn't mind these things. When the woman swung her brooch his way and released the same quip, he grinned and said that it called for a refill. She could hardly refuse the bottle he was swinging to keep glasses topped up. It looked like a white, and many swigged the Noilly Prat unaware they were downing glasses of Vermouth. It was Tom's way of being mischievous and yet honestly bent on making the party work. It was the second time he had done this and from the constant braying the trick looked successful.
To the brooch-and-teeth woman, who was new to him, he added, "I lay out the cones. It's great fun upsetting the rush-hour."
"You're good at laying, are you?" she twinkled.
God, he thought, how much Vermouth have you had? But replied, wondering what old Turnbull had let himself in for with this one: "When you've been married longer, I'll send you my cone photographs. But I don't ruin newly-weds. You don't know Freddie Farquharson! Here!" He yanked his old chum round, indicating with the bottle that he had to mingle. "I've told her I fill potholes."
To red-faced Freddie she burbled, "Do you fill holes too?" Freddie looked in desperation after the retreating wine.
It didn't matter that few people knew one another. If someone knew anyone at all it was, apart from the few neighbors, through Tom and Edna. That is to say, the rooms on two floors of the Edwardian house were full of strangers being noisy to strangers. Regulars in an average pub would have known each other better. To Tom the fact was irrelevant. What mattered was that he had this many friends. Not to have friends must be death. In this fruity Christmas pudding of folk there were minds buzzing on two or three levels, and on one tier were thoughts like "Where does he fit in? She's not our sort, is she? He definitely isn't! But that one's a good sort." And here or there, ever so rarely: "Too top-drawer for me!"
Hubert was telling Sylvia about his summer in Tuscany, and she held Amalfi to be more exciting. Janet told Rufus that he really should take horoscopes seriously, and he thought she had a point but wasn't mesmerism better? Emily and Vashti discussed court shoes, while Jason and Robert were bullshitting about their golf handicaps. Hannah stood with a fruit juice in pained silence, as if she'd been stuck in cement for an hour, as William lectured her on the semantics of visual discourse. Tom and Wolf swapped advice on the financial scene, concluding that experts were wrong but indispensable. Gregg explained to a poet called Ervine what actuaries did. The painter Cedric was nice to Edna, and somebody's daughter called Cathy described to the glazily attentive Freddie what a student's life was like. Not one conversation would be recalled on the morrow, and in less than a month the faces too would have dropped into oblivion. After the food a little light flirting flared up, people gradually discovering whose husband or wife they fancied most, or were bored by least, jesting and sticking to them until it was time to go home and forget them.
Tom did not tell Edna that he had quite fancied Sylvia. She had seen the two of them chatting amiably, but she could detect that Sylvia would have been unmoved by Tom's compliments and eye-rolling innuendos even if they had been more skilful. She felt a twinge of jealousy, since no one at these parties flirted with her. Her lot in life was to be the back-of-shop facilitator. She was on committees and becoming a big noise to promote care of rivers. Tom was happy that she had such interests but did not enquire about them. No one at the party asked either. She was rich but dull, and she knew it.
In the bedroom later, instead of Sylvia he mentioned Sylvia's partner, the painter they had picked up long ago at a gallery when they'd bought a painting of his. Art galleries, rather than art itself, were one of those interests, like the theatre, that Edna and Tom shared, attractions which waxed and waned and had their seasons.
"Is he still selling?" she asked, exhausted.
"I believe they're having a hard time. Doesn't seem to bother him. He's doing landscapes. Says he gets obsessed with a scene—he mentioned a pond—which he does over and over."
"Sounds rather boring." She was in a silk nightgown and a not very good mood, plumping the pillows in the hope of a quick oblivion.
"Not unusual, when you think. Lots of artists have themes. Still lifes, portraits..."
"But they don't paint the same bowl of fruit over and over."
"He got me interested. Said we could see him in his studio."
"You go. I don't have to go, do I?"
He climbed in beside her. They'd been married for only five years but the passion had fled. As he picked up his own book he felt, not for the first time, they could not go on. But what would he do for money?
The answer became irrelevant. He had what you might call a slow epiphany. His visit to Cedric's studio was the beginning. He liked the "work in progress"; the canvases reminded him of Paul Nash, he said, or was it Cézanne?—he couldn't recall either very well. Cedric Arbutus, a big man with a scrub beard and hair brimming from and over his ears. His voice was reedier than one might expect but it didn't inhibit him. He believed you couldn't rationalize paintings, but he didn't mind chatting about where they were done, what the weather was at the time, what the local lodgings were like.
"You stay on site, then?" Tom asked. It was a question with consequences.
"Most times," Cedric said. "I can be away for weeks on my own. No point in dragging Sylvia with me."
Tom fancied himself rather good at small talk, and said he too spent weeks away. Couldn't supervise motorway construction from a distance. He too would never have dreamed of taking Edna with him, to God-awful hotels in small towns, inns on empty moors, and so on. He didn't usually enjoy being billeted away, as Cedric seemed to. To Tom being away from home comfort was a trial. From what he was hearing, however, for Cedric the life away was not a penalty but a pleasure. Tom, when away, just buried himself in work: recceing; parleying with surveyors, geologists, site managers; on the phone to his design team. His spare-time hours off-site made him almost nuts with boredom. Even if he had his plans to pore over, or a bar to visit, or other company men to share the evenings with, nothing was like being in his office or home. It wasn't Edna he missed but familiar friends, colleagues and furniture. Cedric listened and made a few comments which surprised Tom with their acerbic directness. He spoke of suffering and obsession, as if both should be enjoyed in equal measure. Tom didn't really understand.
On leaving, he was tainted with an emotion he thought alien to him. Envy.
He had advised the cutting of a sickle-swathe off the low end of an escarpment above two Chiltern villages. After the harangues and delays from the awkward squads in the valley, who wanted their villages protected and the adjacent countryside untouched as well. All that was over and the bypass was now finished. He could look down from a far hillside at the beautiful sweep of the six lanes and the equally striking arc of the chalk scar, aslant from the plain, which escorted the highway. Whereas many might appreciate the beauty of ship engines and antique automobiles, nobody outside his own profession would think a stretch of motorway aesthetically pleasing. But he himself, he thought, would never lose this elation he felt for the effects of his employment. From the sky the intricacies of modern road systems were amazing, the great crossroads such as the oft-maligned Birmingham junction, or the state interchange in Atlanta. Beautiful. They deserved to be classed as wonders of the world like the Nazca geoglyphs of Peru.
He had come to this spot to photograph his creation, for was he not the chief designer and prime mover in the army which brought it about? As he stood in the wind he was reminded of Cedric Arbutus's words about obsession and suffering, and he recalled the man's paintings, the way they took shapes and distorted them to suggest totally different objects. "I suppose he'd make my roadway bend look like a tusk," he thought, amused yet faintly annoyed. Photography couldn't do that.
He always took a camera with him. It had been second nature to him since his Olympus 35-millimeter when he was fourteen. He took photos to record his life, every moment almost. Thinking this, he grimaced wryly at what he had not photographed. Himself and Edna, for example, in any shape or form. They had images of themselves taken by others, but he'd never handed his camera to a stranger and signaled that he'd like a shot of himself and wife. He had certainly never thought of setting the gadget on a stand to get intimate pictures. The idea made him shudder. These days young people did that. Would any couple in their own set...? He couldn't see it. Would their own children? The two boys were already a problem.
Bizarre but feasible scenarios crossed his mind as he trundled down to his car. Overriding all others was the notion that, although the children would be hurt, he and Edna couldn't possibly be together much longer. What kept them together was her money and his inertia. Other vistas of the future, sliced together in daydreams, included such astounding thoughts as: Did he really want to go on building roadways? And, paintbrush in hand, he could see himself like Arbutus turning landing strips into lakes, hands into trees. As for female company, wouldn't any old trickle of women do? Well no, perhaps not. But someone warmer than Edna would be nice. What about money? That soured the brew but did not spoil his dreams completely.
It would be a year before the next woman, the Edna-replacement, appeared. Another year went before his new hobby had evolved and was on its way, he judged with confidence, towards maturity. Even eminence was a possibility. After all, from his boyhood pigment laboratory, and with his photographer's eye, he could paint as knowledgeably as Arbutus or anyone else. It was a leap of faith into a very different life, but then wasn't that the kind of man he was: he hadn't expected to be a civil engineer but the gamble had worked. He didn't fail. The enemy of life was stagnation.
His relationship with Carmina had passed the point of no return: she had moved in with him. Edna could take care of the divorce. He wouldn't see his children. That was the suffering.
Carmina didn't have Edna's money, and she wasn't a helpmeet adorned with pre-Raphaelite hair and mosaic caftan, but she put tulips on the windowsill. She was large and well-fed, but she had a young face, did Tarot spreads, read books on Jung and shamanism, and even wrote poems. Between them they bought a beach house on stilts in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. They lived frugally but without debt, though as time passed his funds showed a trend that would touch zero not very many years ahead. Sometime he'd have to sell.
He knew from the start he would have to make money, and he knew how hard it would be. But from the pool of friends who didn't think him a fool and an absolute shit, he'd been encouraged by a few he respected. Freddie rallied, of course, though he thought it all a magnificent folly. Surprisingly, perhaps, Cedric Arbutus had seen the point and had even acknowledged that he had talent. What kept the show going was Tom's self-assurance and sense of adventure. And in the end it was Carmina who helped solve the money problem.
She was a good mixer with the day-trippers in the village pubs. After they'd insisted she have another gin and tonic, she confided that a great reminder of their holiday would be an original painting by a local artist. The next day she led two or three punters to the steps of the wooden house on stilts ("Rather quaint, don't you think?"), gave them a hand up, rapped on the door and asked the bearded fellow in the smock if they could see his beach paintings. These sold best, and for the summer trade he began to turn them out automatically, doing about six in a week. Sometimes he sold for £100, sometimes an almost identical view fetched five times as much. He made time for pieces that had nothing to do with the flat coast and the gray sea, but these "real paintings," when shown to B&B trippers, evinced frowns of incomprehension, so he stored them away.
It was harder than highway design, and his social life wasn't what it used to be. When Carmina wasn't doing her pub rounds, they'd go out for a binge together, giving the mysteries of art a rest. They'd then stagger back by torchlight or moonlight to flabby sex and deep snores. Soon he drank as he painted. Whiskey got him going, then wine for the rest of the work, before they eclipsed the day together with a few more whiskeys.
"You look terrible!" Freddy told him. They were in a small place near Lower Thames Street, low in ambience but first class on fish. Freddie was looking at a man he hardly recognized. A bush of a beard, feverishly and intense eyes, long tangled hair, crumpled suit: old Tom had truly thrown himself in at the deep end. After a glass or two the suit filled out and the face across the table began to beam.
"I'm getting there," Tom asserted. "Yes, yes, yes!" He wasn't protesting overmuch; his certainty was rock-hard. "It's like this." He told how going to extremes, the drinking, the ignominy of knocking out pap for tourists, the distance between himself and civilized people, had made him look hard, see the beauty and horror. "What I'm doing is bloody good. I've not gone to the public or the critics yet. What would they say? Gifted latecomer, self-taught, talented. Influenced by this and that. But if a single critic searches past the cliches, if he looks and thinks at the same time, he'll get it, because it's there!"
"I'm sure it is, old mate," Freddie was adept at handling a man in his cups, but he wasn't too sure about a man off his chump. To bring the talk closer to comfort he asked, eyes wide, a seeker after truth, "Do you paint specific things then, or is it all abstract?"
"Between the two. I've painted sea-wrack and bladderwrack, Carmina in the nude, the inside of my studio, myself in a mirror, and well, it's all—not so much broken up but overlaid. Overlaid, oddly enough, with lines. And somewhere, out of sight usually, the lines meet. You see," and at this point he became so different from the old Tom that his friend went rigid, "I'm convinced there's a another dimension."
"Oh? Occult ones, you mean?" Freddie tried to sound sincere. Tom rushed on:
"There are many dimensions but nobody knows what they are. Three spatial ones, one for time, but what about the others? I believe there's one at least that's not like space or time at all. It's shared by everything everywhere at all times. It's like a point which every speck in the universe, past, present and future, inhabits. I can't say "at the same time," because time and space have nothing to do with it. It's a cranky idea, ridiculous even I suppose, but to me it's helpful." He spoke faster: "Déjà vu, animal instinct, non-locality, past and present, illusion and reality—poof!—they all intersect, like overlapping thoughts in a dream. That's what my wiggly lines are about, my folds and shadows that all meet somewhere. That's the binding idea, the magical idea, which feeds what I'm doing. But what's really good is the paint. I make my own colors. There's some new chemistry in my pigments. Any single one of my best canvases is like a choral ensemble!"
"Blimey, Tom, either you're a genius or you're bonkers!" And as soon as he could, Freddie prised him away from the theme. Silently, despite his alarm, he granted one thing about Tom: he always landed on his feet. This was not a man who'd shoot out his brains. The old Tom, with his party tricks, the modest schemer, good at hiding his cleverness, had apparently gone for good. But an essence remained. To confirm this Tom then calmed down and asked after the old lot. He spoke also of Carmina, all woman, crazy as a coot and quite a size. Helpful, though. He even spoke about his feelings, admitting he was probably not in touch with them the way you're supposed to be. He asked about Freddie himself. It was no surprise to hear that his old pal had found a gay partner. No one had ever thought otherwise of him. It was a spoken assumption that Freddie was a contented bachelor in the good old sense, and an unspoken theory that he was "you know," as Edna would have put it.
Tom was patiently relaxed into the gossip. He genuinely felt, momentarily, back in a once-loved, familiar swim, immersed in the swell old times, yet aware he would soon leave by the door without regret. They had never before discussed their most secret lives, though there had been nothing sacrosanct to them about the private lives of others. When Freddie asked where he was going next, he said to Arbutus's place.
"You know he and Sylvia are married now?"
"Are they? Tell me, about how many people do you see in a week, outside your work, Freddie?"
"How's my social diary?"
"The same as ever?"
"Three to five times a week, I'd say. I don't stay in much. I'm not a hermit." He was unabashed.
"You don't feel you exist unless you're in company?"
The candor, Freddie felt, was a shade too direct.
"Would that be bad?"
"I think so." Tom was not sorry for his tone. Something about this meeting had begun to turn. Having voiced his thoughts to a doubting silence, he'd gone beyond the pale of the old crowd and belittled himself. Those few moments of feeling warm about the old days evaporated. Those times had been smug and shallow, he could see that.
Outside they shook hands for the last time and went their ways.
He had one canvas he wanted to show Arbutus. It stood on a chair in the dining area of Cedric's studio flat. Tom accepted a whiskey despite the Chablis with Freddie. Sylvia was out and their talk was technical. This had happened before. A painting brought for the Cedric's attention was propped up and they'd talked in general for half-an-hour as the expert studied it, asking questions that only indirectly related to the work. He wanted to know how Tom got certain effects, but said he didn't understand the chemistry Tom threw at him.
"You're making great strides. How do you repeat these pigments? You keep notes? Don't you have flops?"
"I keep notes, yes. As to disasters, surprisingly few. Results are often better than I hoped."
"Your father would be proud. As for the canvas this time..."
They'd reached the real point.
"What's the verdict?"
Cedric shook his head. "I'd give my right arm to have painted that."
"Really?" Tom was astounded.
"It's totally original: subject, technique..."
The praise was sincere.
"Am I ready?"
"To exhibit? You are, and I know where."
The fame lasted six years. It then changed, among those who cared at all, into the memory of a strange and fleeting quixotism. Let them think what they would, he knew he had figured out painting, even conquered it in a sense. After the success, he retired from it. Few knew he had also retired from the world. He was fifty-three. To those few who knew him then, among them Arbutus, it was no surprise. He had become a recluse anyway. Paradoxically he moved about more. He could afford a flat in Greenwich as well as the Walberswick "tree house," as Carmina called it. She stayed gamely by his side, although he had changed, during his years with her, from a handsome, athletic figure to a man with jowls and a paunch. In the early days she'd been swept into his orbit in disbelief. Why her, of all people? Her admiration and help were of value to him, she could see that, but he could have got those from a younger, more attractive woman. Gradually she had relaxed. He really seemed to like her humor and the double take, the mock hypocrisy, of her way with the occult, a flippant pastime and yet nigh on a religion to her. She noticed he brought into his paintings motifs from astrology, wicce and warlockry, which could only have come from her. He had briefly tried to instruct her in the chemistry of insects, minerals and herbs, but to her his diagrams were like Masonic hieroglyphs, and she said so.
In the brief Time of Fame, when he'd had two exhibitions and extraordinary reviews by the best trusted in the business, he drank with her less, but was seldom self-deprecatory.
Although she became more heavy and less loved, not in her element when she was no longer raking in custom from the Walberswick pub clientele, she hung on in hope. It crossed her mind that he might dump her. What real use was she to him? But he reassured her and continued to encourage her pursuit of esoterica. He would say that her daft ideas wrenched him away from his arid agnosticism. He couldn't do without her. Yet he had never lost his mannered but muted arrogance, and that kept her in doubt. She hadn't minded that, from the start, he'd acted as if he came from a superior species, despite his tumble into grubbiness with her.
In the Time of Fame he was described as heir to Max Ernst and Kokoshka; he was praised for new kinds of luminance, for his sandy and milky textures, the curious journeys of his curves. Those linked squiggles and undulations were noticed, of course. They were his hallmark. There were several interpretations, the commonest being that his arcs united and divided at the same time and thus said something about human nature. He never divulged his original ideas, and realized he didn't believe in them anyway.
As the Fame Years wore on he drank less. He shunned company almost completely, turning down invites to openings and parties. They ate in Chinese restaurants in London or in a pub in Walberswick. In the evenings he would read. In the mornings he would meditate for an hour before coffee and then four to six hours of painting. No one would have said he looked happy. Happiness wasn't what mattered. He couldn't remember a time in his life when he wasn't to some extent glad with what he was doing. Wasn't that enough?
But then suddenly he got the point.
Rain lashed in his face and the wind roared like seven devils. The footpath was uneven and muddy. His walking boots squelched and storm water ran off his cagoule as if from roof spouts. Whatever the weather he never failed to take his hour of exercise across the headland. Reaching a rock about the height of a headstone, in fact one of Dorset's little known menhirs, he cupped his hand over the rough rock's point and rubbed for a second. From that spot he could look out to a sea which was scarcely visible through the assailing wet, except that here and there white crests of turbulent billows flicked into view. He didn't think of the sailors out there, nor of naked wretches wherever they were, for that was the point, the conclusion: not to think of anything, not to think at all.
The cottage to which he returned, in the fold of two hills a mile from the sea, was a spartan hovel, every modern feature stripped out. Once it had electricity and a telephone. Now all it had was cold tap water. There were no books, radio or television. There was a wood-burning kitchen range and candles. Supplies were sent up from the village and left in a bunker by a gate a mile away. He was as alone as he could be. His bank paid the grocer, who also left logs and occasionally a note. On the back of the note Tom scribbled an answer in charcoal. He had no paints, pens, pencils, paper or canvas.
Extreme solitude was the point. Not people, not communication, not "self." If he wanted something hard enough, he got it. He hadn't failed yet.
Carmina had gone the way of Edna. He had shaken off everyone. Those attachments had belonged to a person called Thomas Curtal, to a personhood he was deleting. He was progressing beyond, towards the absolute purging of self. The way of the ascetic. The way of the wilderness. He'd known it would be hard. Often it was very hard. The first year had been more hell than heaven. Now he was nearing the end of his second year. It was easier now, being a prisoner of silence.
Why the life of a hermit? He might have said: "I've taken everything I've done as far as it would go. I quitted when there was no more life in it. I've needed people less and less. I like people less and less. Did I think highly of myself? Yes. It was important to excel. Eminence and standing were essential. Even in those years in Walberswick, knocking out souvenirs for nobodies, hating myself for it and drinking too much to drown the ignominy, even then to the locals I was one of their 'characters,' a somebody. It was kudos of a sort. That respect meant something, as it might have to a retired colonel adorning old yarns. Not a state of mind to be proud of. But I won through. At the height of the palaver I began to believe my unexamined life wasn't worth living. It wasn't hard to acknowledge that the heart of injury was that old, old religious thing, the injurious obsession with myself. I was sick to my soul of myself and had to escape. I had to be, just be, without reflection, like the beasts. And I could do that, I could succeed at being. I don't fail."
It was hard living with nothing and nobody but a self which was trying to be obliterated. In the past, on and off, he had meditated and knew he had the knack. That was where he started.
Then came the search for the right place, a shelter remote from the world, in the heart, if possible, of desolation. Instead he had chosen Dorset. An old flint cottage without a lane to it. Altering it, reducing it to basics, wasn't hard; absorbing, but not a part of the real work. That would start when all the aids to solitariness were in place. It was vexing that he wasn't self-sufficient in fuel, and he started to grow vegetables as soon as he could. A van from a village ten miles off delivered real necessities—flour, logs, matches—once a month to a bunker he'd repaired in a disused railway siding a mile off. He shifted the supplies back in a wheelbarrow. The siding was all the time becoming more overgrown. Nothing was too sure about the deal. He paid the shopkeeper well and he was unlikely to gossip about him. Or so he had to hope. He had to hope too that the copse in which siding stood would not be torn down and put to some other use.
It was, however, easy for him not to worry. He was not the sort. When he'd settled into his routine, when there was nothing else to fix and his meager, monotonous meal-making had become a thoughtless exercise, and his hours in his vegetable garden were over each day, and his walk to the obscure menhir and back was done, and his hours of meditation were finished, there was still time in which the silence was invaded by the sound of the brook or the rattle of a windowpane. He tried not to think of these sounds as companions.
Oh, wash me in the water that you washed your dirty daughter in
And I shall be whiter than the whitewash on the wall.
Bad dreams. Weird stuff on his mind. Whatever he looked at, a flake of paint, a chair, a window latch, a blanket, the tree by the back gate, his hands, suggested decay. Voices squealed in the wind when there is no wind. Visions out of Bosch, white gremlins in eggshells, pigs wearing wide-brimmed hats. The naked and the damned. Savage mutilations, ugly sex, torture. What the mind can imagine the hand has done. Creatures eaten alive by predators, parasites, disease. What mind imagined that? This is the world. It is not an illusion.
Felsen waren da, und wesenlose Wälder.
"Wesenlose?" Beingless? Not to be? Beyond this stony rubbish. Art that won't last and voices without song. Why do the mad head-butt the wall? We know. We. I. Facts that are only half the story. Pain also. Was Who's-it so good? Stuck to one job, one family, for life. Good father. That's good? And she lay there. How ugly the flesh! Mon Dieu, let me not think about it. Why do we think? The purpose is plain.
When I am king,
You shall be queen.
The great gloom. "Non Whatever Carborundum." God, I could do with a drink! Illegitimis? Where's my Latin gone? Where's my piggy? Pi R Squared. Wellington. They can tell you what they like. I believe. Credo. Corruption appetite willy-nilly. Noilly circumspection if you seek whatever the beans disorient foment she asked whenever unrest always foment unrest riot ridiculous ridere hilarious hilarity Hillary heighten Atlanta circumspection look squinny quorum aspidistra mother I didn't ask corruption the lot and the greed to be born.
And there was also inexplicable euphoria. Raindrops shone like pearls. The wind in the chimney or from the loft sang like children. There was meaning and magic, meaning magically revealed, he could scarcely contain the lift in the breast, the jubilation.
Magnificent joy. There were angels in the trees, of course. Glory in the highest and hares leaping in the grass and swifts in boomerang parabolas returning. Nature was wonderful, one could not doubt it, and death was kind, and sleep was dreamy, and dreams were excellent and peachy. Everything. Food was distinction itself: the lovable sweet kindness of carrots and crisp spring water. Thankfulness swelled his heart. He would skip. With croaking melody he filled the little house to the loft, to the roof beam. Grinning, unshaven, sunken-eyed and lyrical, mad with happiness. Mad. Quite mad.
It was late evening when the Stranger thrust open the door, a silhouette in long greatcoat and wide-brimmed hat, his face in shadow.
"Is he dead?" he asked.
Tom was in a chair by the fire. He knew he must be dreaming or hallucinating. He fumbled for a response.
"Yes." Who did the shape remind him of? In general, since the face remained darkened, where had he seen him before? The figure wasn't like his own, or his father's, or anyone—except—was it, from all those years back, Major Edwards? Humiliations are never forgettable. It was his voice. Time doesn't change the past.
"No doubts?" One coattail flapped against the edge of the table as the form advanced. Only a few steps put it on the other side of the kitchen range. Still there was a buzz of blackness about the figure. Tom did not question that. Angelic light might have troubled him, not being expected, but there was no reason to be surprised by this halo of darkness.
"No." He knew his answer would not be enough. His breath came in short puffs as he stared at the huge apparition. It was twice normal size and yet the kitchen stayed the same small, pokey place it was. The character took a chair on the other side of the grate. The edged of a few facial contours were illumined by the weak light from the window. They could have belonged to Edwards, or even to Beaky, his maths master at prep school.
"It's been cold, though it's only September. You do well to have a fire. I'd have lit a fire, too. You chop your own wood, I take it?"
"It's sent up from the village, I have an arrangement." It was like talking to himself, as if the voice was inside his own skull. There was no resonance in the room.
"But you do grow your food." The man held a skinny hand before the barred flames, turning his fingers slowly. "You have a plot, a garden, where you grow your things? You are self-sufficient."
"Right." Defensively insolent now. The Stranger took note of his tone and became kinder.
"How do you manage?" Like he cared. But why should he?
"I grow vegetables." He didn't have to justify himself. There was no need to go into detail, but he added, "The soil is good here. I grow carrots, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, some herbs even, basil..."
"You live frugally. I can see that. Not an ounce of surplus flesh on you. You wouldn't want the flesh, the hungers, to interfere. You mortify the flesh. Is that the idea, to crucify, to mortify?"
"That's not my way of looking at it." The man was mocking him. Tom resented the condescension.
"And in winter? What do you do then? This growing, the carrots and potatoes, you won't get enough to last through the winter, I guess." The fire glowed on the edges of his indistinct features, making them ruddy.
"I will have them sent from the village if I run out. I have goods sent to the bunker."
"The bunker, ah yes. An ingenious plan. You've thought this out well. You have matches?"
Tom plucked a box from the hearth and held it up. Sullen.
"Is he dead?" The sternness had returned.
"I believe he is." It was a squeaky, uneasy reply. The light in the room had altered, edges of the sideboard glowed amber and gold, though the firelight didn't reach that far. His palms were damp and his mouth dry. Could he honestly say that the old self was dead? What was this apparition but his own conscience talking? This was like being in the sort of dream where he knew he was dreaming.
"You have money. You have never been able to do without money."
"An account. I have a deal with the grocer in Puddle Martyr. It comes off my account. A means of barter. No man is an island."
"Some survive with a rice bowl."
"And depend on the charity of others to fill it. There are always others. No one outside India thinks mendicants are holy. No one thinks even monks should live off charity. People think, "What good is their withdrawal, their prayers, their hosannas, to the rest of us?"
"A good question, is it not? What good is your withdrawal to anyone but yourself? Or even to yourself. This 'self' is a malignant angel you are wrestling with. Anyway, you have funds which are not likely to fail."
"Yes to all that."
"And you live in a house your did not build yourself, on land which you bought. You have candles and logs, which you buy. There is much else you could surrender."
"Yes, if I wanted to live in a cardboard box and beg. I'd be very aware of me then, wouldn't I?"
The stranger leaned his head back and intoned, "Persuasion was in vain, for the ears of the inhabitants were withered and deafened and cold, and their eyes could not discern their brethren of other cities."
Tom was angry now. "Don't get scriptural on me!"
"It's William Blake."
"Is he dead?"
Suddenly drained, Tom lowered his head, exhausted. The answer was obvious.
"No, he's not dead."
He took to his seventies well. Although he didn't think, feel or call himself old, it was clear to him that others did. Supermarket checkout girls assumed he would like help packing. Old guys in the street gave him nods which, like a covert handshake, signaled brotherhood. He'd bought a flat in Finchley where he lived with his third significant other, Sophia Pitt-Kettering. They had met at one of Freddie Farquharson's dinner parties, before his last drink took him out of their hands.
At the funeral there were surprisingly many people who recognized him from the distant past and came over to greet him. Perhaps funerals were like that; people were at a loose end, most not close enough to the deceased to be true mourners, and thus relieved when there was something to do after the service apart from hover, with no duty left but to stand around long enough. William Wagstaff, still known as "Wolf," enlarged on what he was doing with his time now. Reading detective novels and fly fishing. What about Tom?
Sophia excused herself. She was "ravagingly ugly," as she put it herself, and it was true. She was ugly in the way some folk are when time's wand turns them into frogs. You couldn't doubt she was a high-toned blue stocking, terrifyingly hypercritical, though she quickly found your wave-length and commanded you to relax. She had been an Oxford professor of English Medieval Literature and claimed to know little else. This was in fact the case.
Tom awkwardly explained to Wolf that he was writing monographs on paint.
"Ah," Wolf said loudly, "the old color problem."
Tom looked at his feet and muttered, "nothing so grand as a problem. There's nothing mysterious about color as such."
"Oh? I rather thought there was. Shows my ignorance."
"All I do is catalogue. While I'm waiting for my turn." He nodded towards the chapel.