the many-chequered thing
the many-chequered thing
Donald stopped listening to what Monica was saying. His attention drifted and he could only hear Kathy discuss Bartok and Shostakovich. She was confusing one with the other and Donald felt uneasy at the thought that the three men who were near her would notice it and laugh at her. He wished she would stop.
Kathy laughed. "Of course, why should one remember what they did? I think they are both overrated."
From among the groups of people, Sal Godill came to join them. Monica left and Donald could not stop her because Sal was saying "I'm going. What's she all in a huff for?"
"I don't know."
"At times, a man wonders what's wrong with girls. But don't worry, boy; keep your chin up. They're only a bit of fluff, you know?"
"You don't understand." Donald said.
"That's right." Sal said. "I don't understand, but no girl has ever bothered me much."
"Perhaps yours are not like Monica." And it did not matter that Sal often had girls with him.
"All girls are the same, Don. I'm old and I've seen them; all of them are the same. You ought to know; why don't you?"
"You've got too much money, Sal."
"It puts things out of perspective; you're like a spider swallowing things and people as if they were flies."page 49
"I see people as they are ..."
"How are they?"
"They are cheap and nasty, I tell you."
"Let's not talk about it."
"All right. But does it make any difference?"
Donald lifted his glass and said "Cheers" and drank slowly, holding the round goblet with both hands as if it were a soothsayer's crystal ball. Words would only soil this thing between Kathy and himself and Sal could not see how, because that would be beyond him. To Donald Kathy was, deep down, his own inviolable property, his hope and his reason for living: whatever touched her had a resonance within him. Deep down, he knew that - no matter what - she would go back to him.
There had been Andrew and she had married him and that was over; there was Peter Clouston now, but Peter was a failure in his eyes, and that would not last either. At the end of the line, at the bottom of his glass, when she would grow tired of wandering, only Donald would be there, the only man for her. It would be, then, the end of their cycle, which he had started three years before when she was too young to understand or want the finality and seeming drearyness of one man's love.
It was a pity that Sal could not see the quality of a feeling like his.
Sal could not see how, in a sense, he had welcomed Andrew into Kathy's life and that whirl-wind, mad marriage of theirs. Andrew had been no more than a puppy-dog, a whelp, flushed into a ceremonial gesture by some mysterious alchemy in which Kathy's perversely innocent wish to hurt him had acted as a catalyst.
Donald understood it: Andrew was another name for experience, Kathy's experience, and Peter Clouston was another stage in her slow progress towards her own maturity. She had known it herself! Andrew was going to be no more than an intermission and she had told him that before the wedding; she knew it would not last. Even Peter Clouston now did not really matter: it was only a matter of waiting, waiting for him to go.
Belafonte was singing. People chattered as if they were mice scurrying overhead in an inaccessible loft.
Monica was at the other end of the room, listening thoughtfully and bending her head forward in a pensive mood and Donald felt uneasy about her, even if everything had seemed so straightforward and clear from the beginning.
Sal had been whispering to another girl some distance away. He now stopped, turned towards him, waved and went towards the door. Without knowing why, Donald wished he would stay: in spite of the fact that they seemed to be at odds with each other on most topics, Sal seemed to have a solidity of his own, some sort of undeniable integrity. He spoke a language that made some sense to him; money and girls and work and, well, nothing else, but, then, one always knew where one was with him. With those others, instead, with all those in the room, he felt more or less, as if he were still in his restaurant, looking at a cross-section of customers he had to give food to and say Yessir to and bow slightly to, and who, in the end, were nothing more to him than part of a job; and a risk that they should be unable to settle their bills.
Kathy excepted, of course.
And Monica, too.
Donald reached Sal just before he went out of the main door.
"A pity you're going." he said.page 50
"Sorry, I must go - don't worry and don't let bums and little bitches upset you."
When he went back, a man had just finished toasting Peter Clouston and was saying how much regret everybody felt at the thought of losing him.
"... but we accept the inevitable: this country lets all her best sons, all her best brains go away. What is left in those who stay is a feeling of pride for the contribution we make to the progress of the world. Everybody join me as I say ...."
He lifted his glass and sang "For Heee Is A Jolly Good Feeellow."
When that was over, Peter Clouston stood up: a man of forty-five, small and unkempt, wearing shabby trousers and a sports coat. He cleared his throat and started with a slight nasal drag "Well, thank you all." he said "On occasions like this words seem to desert me." (Somebody said "Hear, Hear") "Yes, words should be my business," Peter went on, "but the thought that one can't possibly express in a new way the ready-made sentimentality that dribbles out at hundreds of meetings like this, makes me shy. I feel like a typist leaving her job to go and get married. You say you're sorry and I'll have to believe you. Must I say I'm sorry, too? If I must ... But shouldn't I say that the future is as young a maid as any, drawing me forth and mesmerizing me? I am a moth drawn towards the light." He stopped and two or three people clapped politely and everybody joined in. Donald found the short speech unbearable. Kathy had been listening as if Peter had been an oracle, her own personal fortune-teller. It made him angry, because, in his opinion, what Kathy was doing was not becoming her, was not "fitting in" with his idea of her personality: she was making a fool of herself, for a man who was married and who was more than twice her age. She was going too far.
When Peter Clouston sat down, John Burton-Trulldale, J.B. to everybody, another man who, like Peter, wrote spare-time poems for Landfall and the Poetry Year-Book, but younger than Peter and looking more like an advertisement picture of an up-and-coming Young American Intellectual - spoke from an armchair. He was close to Peter and he could talk without having to raise his voice for Peter to hear him. But he spoke loudly all the same, trying to attract as many people's attention as possible.
"It is the meaning of your gesture, Peter, that makes me admire you: I see it as a renunciation of society's values, a long, painful, calculated swim away from the muddy quagmire we live in. I admire it; it shows courage ... at your age, at your stage in life. It reminds me of what another boy I know, a young friend of mine did within his own capacities and environment." J.B. paused and seemed to ponder overthis young boy's episode, made sure that all were listening and went on "This friend of mine used to work in a restaurant: I don't mean Donald's or any restaurant in particular. Just a restaurant. Well, he waited on nice people and carried dainty dishes around and earned good wages and seemed reasonably normal and happy. But one day, after he had been handing Wiener Schnitzels and fruit juices to these nioe people for nearly a year, he decided he couldn't take it any longer and do you know what he did?"
"He went to England." Monica said.
"He wrote a book and became a best-selling writer."
"No. He ... don't forget his environment ... he bared his private parts, put them on a tray and served them with the Schnitzels ... Well, it's all a matter of determination ... It's the same kind of impulse that can make a hero out of any bastard."
There was an uneasy silence, then three orfbur of those who had heard J.B. decided that, of course, J.B. must have meant something very deep and amusing. A girl giggled and said "It's the Puritanical background, isn't it?" and a man said "How did he manage to carry them on the tray? Did he cut them off?"page 51
Donald took Monica's arm and, ignoring her coldness, said "Come on. Let's get ourselves something to drink."
Peter Clouston had not made any comment and sat withdrawn and silent. Who had had the idea of a farewell party? And why had he accepted it?
"You look tired." Kathy said to him "Won't you rest? Shall we go?"
"If I were a painter, one of those old Italian ones I mean, I would paint your face; if I were Raphael, you would be my Fornarina, perhaps, - there is an idea of slimness in it, isn't there? - and posterity would say: Look, the Virgin of Virgins, the embodiment of purity, Brigitte Bardot of the Renaissance."
"Italian women are fat, though."
"It is their diet, their hot climate, their men misusing them."
He wondered at how many of these generalisations applied in reality. Then he thought of Kathy and her slimness and tried to imagine her at thirty, hardened by time and men who would not leave her to herself for a long time to come.
From the armchair, J.B.'s crisp, pleasant voice was distributing choice pieces of wisdom to an attentive audience of young people in jeans. It had a compelling quality, it made itself heard even if one did not want to hear. It was not what J.B. was saying that mattered, Peter thought, but the way he said it: he had put his "gesture of rebellion" on the same level - on the same tray he felt like saying - with the young boy's exposure of his private parts and seemed to have made a point, with an interpretation of motives and reactions of which he himself, the hero of the story, was not aware. "There is certainly a future for public speakers." he mumbled and Kathy said "Beg yours ...?" and he said "J.B. speaks beautifully. He must get into politics or most of his talents will be wasted."
"But he says dreadful things at times, don't you think?"
"He'll have to grow up, like everybody."
Look at the way Peter Clouston had grown up ... Of course, he had missed something along the way, or something had missed him, but he had grown up; and, who knows, if he had cared more about public speaking, there would perhaps have been a Peter Clouston, political leader added to the Peter Clouston, poet, and the Peter Clouston, Public Servant, he had managed to become.
Really, though, there was another Peter Clouston, the Peter of more than twenty years ago; the dreamy, the foolish one who was better forgotten.
Kathy said "I wish you were not going. Why should you go? No, I am silly; I am glad you're going. We'll have time to think things out and, when I come to England, we'll know, we'll be sure, won't we?"
It was said slowly, nearly inaudibly, to keep it between herself and Peter, within what she thought she could call their magic circle, their secret world. Peter marvelled at her way of taking things for granted between herself and him, when, in fact, his interest had not been anything more than a cursory sort of aesthetical admiration.
Kathy seemed to have decided what was to happen to both of them and she went on interpreting his actions according to what agreed with her own preconceived plans. He was not extremely concerned about undeceiving her, because, from what he knew of her, Kathy enjoyed behaving dramatically, using theatrical gestures and theatrical words that were not quite her thoughts or feelings, but the thoughts and feelings she decided ought to have belonged to the character, not the person, she herself was from time to time interpreting. Apart from any other consideration, he realised that whatever Kathy said to him was said to the leading man of the imaginary play in which she was currently starring. Her feelings could not be very different from those of a leading lady who "suffers" her part, out of a professional sense of duty, wants her audience to "accept" and "believe" her rendition of a particular heroine, but does not "really" and "personally" care about the fate of her character.page 52
"Yes." Peter said. Their future in England was such a distant possibility that it was unnecessary for him to waste any words on it just now.
"Are you sure you still want to hitch-hike to Auckland?"
"Yes; it will be like being young again. And I've never liked trains anyway."
It was not what people would normally do, but Kathy was not surprised: to her, Poets were romantic beings expected to behave in an out-of-the ordinary way. And, to her, Peter was primarily a poet.
"Soon. As soon as I have drunk enough to make a phone call and feel warm inside."
That was also something that had to be done; a much more difficult problem than Kathy would ever be. And he needed the warmth inside because he felt it is always hard to speak to somebody who is not prepared to see the meaning of what they are told. On the other hand, one cannot write leave-taking poems to one's own wife, can one? In a way, it was the same as with Kathy: only, Jenny was not Kathy and he felt some kind of obligation. Was he cheating? His wife thought he would be going to Australia for a few weeks, sent there by his Department and he had preferred not to risk explanations or recriminations. He had thought of preparing a long letter, setting everything down very neatly, with paragraphs carefully worded and numbered, but that, too, was not satisfactory. He realized he could not write letters. The other solution - or non-solution - would be to disappear, trying not to leave too many traces behind and letting it dawn upon her that he had deserted her, after a perfunctory phone call.
Kathy said "Will you go home first?"
"What for?" and he shrugged his shoulders. It made her feel maternal and like wanting to be the woman of a second, what was his name?, oh yes, Milton.
"Won't you have to get your luggage?"
"No. I sent it ten days ago."
"I wish I were going with you." she said with a sigh.
It was like a child offering to swap all his marbles just to be allowed to sit in, at a game, with a gang of other children. Actually, he thought, she is a child offering marbles. Only tning, it isn't fun any longer.
"I am sorry I can't just now," she went on "but things will work themselves out, won't they?" She could not think of anything more definite than this "self-working-out" of things, and Peter had an indistinct feeling of annoyance at her unwarranted hopefulness.
"I'll rent a flat in London, I think, and I'll try to do some work."
"I'll see what my husband thinks about a quick divorce. There is no point in letting things drag on, is there?"
"I'll keep my fingers crossed."
"You do that." And he wondered whether she had not kept her fingers crossed before she married that young pup of hers and whether his own wife had not kept her fingers crossed before she married him and whether all those people in the room had not kept their fingers crossed all their lives without knowing for what.
He himself had crossed his fingers so many times that they had become misshapen and crooked.page 53
From his brief moment of passion, the brief moment of the youthful, foolish Peter Clouston, when - at the end of the thirties - sons ago, names that sounded like flowers and had been lost battles had branded themselves in his memory, to a comparatively recent time, when robust words still evoked definite concepts in his mind, he had dutifully performed his wishful gesture. Guadalajara and Saragossa and Paris from the South, in the wake of the defeat of the Spanish Republicans; London and Normandy; honour and justice; love and family; the bright new world and peace forever; the dawn parades of an April day.
And they lived happy forever after ...
Donald and Monica came back and Donald said to Peter "So you are going. Do you think you'll come back some day?"
"I can't say."
"I can't understand people who leave. There must be something wrong with them."
"Don't be rude." Honica said.
"What do you mean?" Kathy said. "This is a pond for dead ducks. I think there must be something wrong with people who come here: I would never have left England."
"The trouble with you is that you've never been there." Donald said "I don't know why people make such a fuss about it. Of course, one might have special reasons for wanting to go. What do you think?"
"Whatever we do has its special reasons." Peter said "You know why you came here; I know why I am going." But when he tried to think of some reasons that he could mention it was not easy to pinpoint any.
"At times, going looks too much like running away." Donald said pointedly, with a sort of finality that would not leave room for any denial.
"Not always, you know." Peter said "Maybe one wants to re-acquire a more precise sense of perspective. I know this place, and it is nothing but a country of peasants employed in peasants' pursuits: we mind our cows, our sheep, our pennies and we grow up and die convinced that nothing better does or can exist anywhere."
"Of course it doesn't."
"It is a matter of. opinions."
"I can't see it."
"Perhaps one needs a more acute sensitivity and a larger spiritual experience."
"I don't know what you mean."
"That's what I mean." Peter said.
"Now," Monica said "let's not get heated about it."
"It's true." Kathy said "We do become like the sheep we grow."
"I am glad we don't become like the poets we grow. At least, a sheep has some use."
"Come on now." Monica said and pulled Donald away. She put the blame of Donald's unusual behaviour on Kathy and the hold she still had on him. She pulled Donald away and left Kathy and Peter alone.
"What does he know?" Kathy said "He is happy with his little shop; he's got a hired cash-register in his head."page 54
"You know?" Peter said "He is sensible. What do you think people like me are good for?"
"To write beautiful things." she said "To write poetry that discloses hidden truths, that opens your soul."
"Try to eat it, or drink it, or build a house with it, if you can. Try ... " How silly little girls can be.
J.B. was still slumped on his armchair, with his legs crossed, and looked as if he were trying hard to hook out of the depths of his soul a concentrated pill of food for the mind.
"Donald has no finer feelings, Peter." J.B. said. "He prefers sheep to poets, because sheep do not ask themselves anything. That's what Donald does, in a way. That's why he is sympathetic to sheep. He does not realize that a poet's function consists in this continual fossicking, this ceaseless hammering at a rock, this torturing search without which a man's soul is nothing but blanched bones. There is fulfillment, if at the end of your fossicking, you can say "This is what I was here for; that's what I was meant to do". Breaking the barriers down; finding a new form of communion. Donald does not even formulate the question."
Kathy gave J.B. an admiring glance and Peter shrugged. He seemed to have lost his sense of love, or even interest, in what people say happens to them. He had lost it along the way, somewhere, and now he felt only like nodding and jeering within himself: a quiet talk with the old man hidden in some forgotten corner of his mind, so old as to believe that he could hold himself in front of the world and say: Heyyou. Look here. Look at yourself in here. I am Christ and the two thieves; I am every single one of you and I know what you are, better than your own good bloody selves."
J.B. was certainly going to have a future, for whatever that meant. He could give him the answer, a very simple one, to that "what for?" famished question of his, but why should he ruin his fun? Why don't you go and look up the newspapers of twenty years ago? One is here to do exactly the same things other people have done before: one is here to write letters to the papers, say how good everything is, die for King and country, vote for the same party that now calls itself something and now something else, pray the Lord and worship money. When a man has a memory that reaches back long enough, what good is he for? He has seen it all before; he can't be swindled again.
"Well," Peter said "I'll make this call and then I'll go." He staggered slightly, but everything was terribly clear: he always saw everything in sharply defined detail when he was drunk. It used to be his way of writing poetry, at one stage: it was like having somebody prompting him from behind an invisible curtain and telling him the difficult words only University lecturers could understand. (Poetry is made of words, after all.)
"All the best, Peter." J.B. said.
"I'll give you a lift to Johnsonville and drop you at the entrance of the motorway." Kathy said.
"Good." he said. "I won't be long; where's the phone?"
She took him to the telephone and went to look for her handbag in another room.
"Hullo, hullo, Jenny?" he said "You weren't asleep, were you?"
"No. But I was in bed. Are you going to be long?"
"There's something, Jenny. Somebody's going to Auckland tonight and has offered me a lift."
There was a pause. She said nothing and he went on "I won't come back ..." then he added "tonight. I'll write as soon as possible, but you know how it is with my letter-writing ..."page 55
"Won't you say good-bye to the children?"
"I don't want to wake them up. Will you do it for me?"
"It wouldn't be the same, really. Can't you come?"
"I'm afraid I won't have time ..."
"As you like" she said.
"Oh, Jenny," he called "thank you very much."
"Just thank you. We've been married such a long time."
"Are you drunk?"
"No." he said "Only a few, you know."
"Oh well, good-bye then." she said.
"Good-bye." and he hung up with a sigh. He also felt as if he had stood aside, just now, and listened to a conversation in which he had had no part. He only felt a slight regret, because he knew that nobody can be a tragic figure if he is not terribly and deeply involved. And, at times, he would have liked to have a tragic stature, to be a victim of fate and circumstances...
Kathy said "You ready?"
"Yes. Shall I go in and say Cheerio, fellas, and thank you Donald?"
"Let Donald get lost."
"We've had the little speeches, anyway, haven't we?"
"What did she say?"
"Your wife." She never called Jenny anything but "your wife", as that helped keeping everything very impersonal. It was not like talking of any specific person, but rather like discussing the transfer of some office staff from one branch of a firm to another.
"Nothing." he said. "Just the usual things."
"Did you tell her?"
"No. It would've been unfair, wouldn't it? I'll write to her as soon as I get a chance."
"And I'll have the lawyer write to my husband." She took his arm "I am speaking about it, because we have so little time left. You don't think I'm trying to make you do what you don't want to, do you? and it isn't wrong, is it?"
"Of course not." he said. But then, he thought, we should ask Jenny, really.
They went out and, when they were in the dark garden, with the bay all lit up at their feet, he noticed the deep-blue clear sky over their heads: suddenly it was Spain again. It was the same sky he remembered from his nights in the field, during the October retreat towards the Ebro. At the end of a long dusty summer, he had started to notice the sky at night and to examine its stars for omens: the war was already lost, but he had kept hoping that in the end they would win, somehow. And those nights, when he had been marching from one position to the other, came page 56back to him in a rush with the muffled sound of occasional gun-fire and the barking of a farmhouse dog. It was the kind of night in which a man seems to move with ease and without care: nights which are too abysmal and ever-lasting to make a man think that sometime he might not be there to see them.
It was a long way down. Donald's house was perched on a hill, two hundred yards up from the sea, and there was a goat-track and a few steps, now and then, to get to the road.
And that, too, was Spain. It was impossible for him to say why, tonight of all nights, he had to remember things that he thought had long bean dead and buried and which he had no conscious wish to resurrect. Unless he ought to think that, tonight, he might be retracing his long-lost footsteps, the fanciful ghosts of his inexperience.
"It's cold." Kathy said. "Hadn't you better go by train?"
"No." he said.
Kathy backed her small car on to the road and drove out of town.
It was only when they were at the beginning of the motorway that she said "Let's smoke a cigarette before you go." and drove up a side-road.
Peter seemed startled out of a dream, said "Yes" and fell back into another. There was a chance to smoke a last cigarette before the firing squad did you in and he had seen the Maquis shoot a young Frenchman, somewhere around Caen, after the ritual offer of a priest, a glass of cognac and a rolled smoke. From across the years, of all the glory that had been built out of the macabre slaughter, it was only this young, beat-up Froggie that stretched himself to reach him. He had seen it all, then, the young frantic Frenchie, and himself on the run from Bilbao six years before, and the similarity had made him grasp the absurd futility of people and things and ideas and everything else. It had been something he would have liked to write about, this young Frenchman's death in the summer of '45, but it would all have been so useless: he was dead, he was a traitor and he had utterly lost his war. And there are some things one does not talk about.
Kathie said "I never told you before why I like you, but, really you are so different. All the time we've been together, you've never put your hands on me, you've never even tried; you haven't even kissed me, do you know? I've been looking and looking for a man I could love and trust."
"Do you think you've found him?"
"I think so."
"What about the man you married? And what about the girl I married?"
"We were wrong. We made a mistake. It can happen to anybody."
"But now it's different, isn't it? And we are not hurrying up or anything, are we?"
He was amused at her tone of wisdom, at what seemed to be her logic.
"Peter," she said, without waiting for him to speak again "you've been very understanding towards me. I'd've died rather than saying this, if you hadn't been leaving, but is there anything you want me to do? Anything in particular?"
There was suc h a desperate eagerness and a humility in her voice, in the darkness broken only by the glimmer of their two cigarettes, that he would have felt moved if he had not thought that she was merely playing a role in a seduction scene.page 57
"Thank you," ho said "I might have wanted something, years ago, but now, just now, you've got to understand one thing: I don't seem to care for anything or anybody, any more."
And he savoured the effect on her of words that she had not expected and thought he would regret it later, to have refused a girl so bluntly.
"Well... Good-bye" he said and opened the door and he heard Kathy say "Good-bye then. It was nice meeting you" which, he thought, was not in any script she knew and must have been the first thing to come into her head which seemed to her would sound witty and stinging and poised and collected. There was not any time to make a scene.
He disappeared quickly and Kathy felt wronged and angry, unable to decide on what to think or do. Then she started the car again and started back with a confused impression that something was out of order.