A Slice of Rye
A Slice of Rye
When Mr Kramer opened the letter he was more surprised at his own reactions than the contents. On previous occasions he had idly wondered precisely what these reactions would be and how they would affect him emotionally and physically; and now that the occasion had arisen, instead of recoiling before the impact of what it contained, he experienced a sudden surge of satisfaction, almost encroaching on the borders of pleasure, that seemed to detach his mind completely from the barriers of reason and to whirl it far above his innermost thoughts. His sense of privilege at having been dealt this wound by fate's sword exceeded momentarily any anxieties, though in his immediate self-analysis, a habit which often was of far more harm than practical use, he isolated yet again his masochistical strain that was revelling in the situation, in direct conflict to his sense of duty.
Mr Kramer gazed out of his study window at the processions of overcoated citizens moving slowly beyond his house until, at the end of the street, they merged into one black body just as the distant lamp-posts became a solitary stake. He did not pity their anonymity; rather, he knew that this was the last line of defence for an army that had been socially routed, and was necessarily a factor which must be respected at all times. He was slightly amused that at a time like this the outside world should interest him, for his normal relationship was that of acquaintance rather than friend. This was not a fault, for whereas a friend can readily perceive weaknesses in one's armour, an acquaintance is aware only of the strengths.
Though he could not hear her, for Mr Kramer was slightly deaf in one ear, he knew that at this moment his wife was preparing the afternoon snack. There would be a pot of tea shrouded in that page 4woollen arrangement called a cosy—a ridiculous word, thought Mr Kramer. And there would be a slice of rye bread with no butter, but two slivers of specially matured cheese, for he was just as meticulous with his nutrition as he was with his private life. Food, as with women, must be selected with caution and skill, both requiring a full prior knowledge of all characteristics and the possible long-term effects. The brief flame of anticipated enjoyment flickered across Mr Kramer's face. However, he knew that he was fully justified in keeping to the routine of his way of life in spite of the many hurdles that had to be crossed. The man who ignores his problems is unwise, but the man who lets them play too large a part in his life and becomes subservient to them is a fool. Mr Kramer knew this, being a man of some standing in the community, with the integrity that most business men of his age and position possess.
He picked up the letter and reread it, then studied the paper it was written on. He fingered it thoughtfully and replaced it on the desk. Standing up again, he walked determinedly to the opposite end of his study where he was confronted with a heavily-framed photograph of himself at a Public Relations Office presentation. Each time he looked at the photograph, the tingle of pride that moment had brought him was reproduced. He could remember every detail of the occasion and now, as many times before, he mentally tallied these features. The suit he was wearing had only recently been tailored from the finest Italian cloth a business acquaintance in the clothing trade had acquired for him; the neatly pressed seams, the striped silk tie, and the carefully trimmed moustache all contributed to the impression he had intended to give and which had indubitably succeeded—that of a man with distinction. Mr Kramer liked that word, distinction. He rolled it on his tongue. It was one of those words that sounded exactly what they meant, a word in the category of success and achievement. He recalled the clammy sweat of the Mayor's hand as the latter grasped his beneath a flood of press cameras, and the cocktail party afterward where he met other dignitaries and their wives. Mr Kramer gave a contented sigh. That was the measure of a man's greatness; the people one knows and the ability to be able to mix with and be accepted by them at such functions as these. And to be the guest of honour was indeed no mean feat. Still, there was no need for him to be modest; he knew that he was fully deserving of the honours accorded him. He had been a loyal servant to his firm for several years, and so it was quite natural for a man with so many page 5attributes as he had to reach a position at the top. Even more thrilling for him was the knowledge that he was not a snob in any sense of the word, for had not he, on behalf of the firm, presented several gifts to charities in the way of cheques and miscellaneous items such as a new organ for the recently constructed church and that roadiogram for the local orphanage? Why, anybody at all could see for himself the inscribed plaques on the front of these articles bearing the firm's name and the date.
Mr Kramer now felt a trifle annoyed at the letter before him, as though it had no right to have been sent. Not only did it violate his own individual right to be free from such worries, it had assaulted the dignity of all men such as he. There are certain snares throughout life that all men can fall victim to, but it was certainly not justice that every man must be penalized for succumbing to the lures that conceal these traps. For the average man, reflected Mr Kramer, for example, any one of those overcoats filing past the study window, the price to be paid is not unduly harsh, and the fact that the event has occurred will do little harm and mean nothing to the parties concerned. But for a man of his status to be involved was most unfair. He was a man of responsibility, not only to himself but to an important industry, for there were few men, if any, who were capable of carrying out his duties. Although he owned a reasonable amount of shares in the business, Mr Kramer knew that his own personal financial interests were not the cause of his concern—it was the other people who would be involved. He had a fond, almost fatherly, love for each employee, disregarding what department they were in and what grading they had attained. There were times, he admitted, when it was necessary for him to exercise his authority, but he could tell by the polite greetings he received from the clerks and typists every morning that the office workers admired and respected him.
He leaned backwards in his double-cushioned chair. Realizing he could not afford to let these people down, he decided that something had to be done. Reaching into the top drawer, he withdrew his private cheque book and a fountain pen. When he had filled out the form, an action in which Mr Kramer was extremely well skilled, having taken great care since his youth to present his cheques as neatly written as possible, he relaxed once again into the security of the chair. Not that he was feeling excessively unsettled—on the contrary, after lighting one of his favourite cigars, the tenseness of his body subsided, leaving the similar peace of page 6mind that a well-clinched business deal gives, which rather surprised Mr Kramer.
From the kitchen, the kettle whistled urgently and in a few minutes his wife would enter the study. She would tiptoe in so as not to disturb him, for she knew how important the calm of the study was to her husband's career; she was fully aware of the difficult decisions he had to make. It was more than a sanctuary from the children, it was an office away from work. She would place the tray gently on his desk and then retreat as quietly as she had arrived, only speaking if she were spoken to.
Mr Kramer patiently awaited her entrance . His thoughts drifted back to the early years of their married life and of how happy she had been. He recollected that he had probably been happy, too, but, just as he had not been certain regarding that matter then, so also now, he was uncertain that he was in love. It was love of a sort, he supposed, for he couldn't really do without her. She had still retained much of the youthful appearance that made her such an attractive child-bride, and this had been a tremendous advantage for him on social occasions. Perhaps she would never realize how important she was to him, wondered Mr Kramer as the associated affection welled up inside his chest. And she had fulfilled her functions as a woman, providing him with two intelligent sons who were now of school age. But, although she had performed her household and maternal duties with great care and success, Mr Kramer had known that in some way he didn't really deserve her. The fault lay not in him as a person, but in the type of life his vocation moulded for him. The continual travel, the nights away from home, and the endless round of cocktail parties with the clients, all joined together in a conspiracy aimed at destroying the home life which he valued so highly. In order that he might ward off the ensuing blows if he allowed this plot to develop into an all-out attack, Mr Kramer pulled off a neat counter-offensive. There was not the slightest suggestion of guilt involved, however, for he was fully aware, as were his colleagues who found themselves in similar positions, that, unless he introduced some form of stabilizing influence into his business life, all that he had laboriously constructed for his wife and himself over the years could crumble into the darkest ashes of failure and despair in a matter of hours.
Mr Kramer knew all this, which is why he took a mistress. Drawing thoughtfully on his Club Royal, he visualized her flat as he remembered it from the last visit. In doing so, the differences page 7between home and the apartment became so very apparent. This was rather puzzling to him. Though he could not restrain his desires in her presence, it was quite strange that these desires and their object were not foremost in his mind when they had parted, he to the firm's car and she, occasionally, to a department store. For instance, they had sipped coffee served in china bowls as compared with the endless brews of his wife's tea, and the simulated exotic atmosphere excited him in much the same way as his first visit to a dancehall had done. There were the unusual paintings on the walls, completely the opposite of Mr Kramer's conventional collection of landscapes. Without realizing it, he had absorbed the peculiar world of modern art and the avant-garde artists, so that the hanging of an impressionist print above his drawing-room fireplace some months earlier now appeared, in perspective, to have lost half of its original daring. He was aware that his cultural appreciation was, of course, possibly restricted by the nature of his work and his upbringing, but nevertheless a broader outlook encompases a wider circle of friends and, perchance, connections.
Mr Kramer folded the cheque in half; he was convinced he had done the right thing. He was a gentleman and therefore it would be wrong for him to abandon the girl completely in her time of misfortune. Also, he could not ignore the disturbing thought that clung in the back of his mind as an apple pip in the crevice of a canine tooth—the chance that word of this rather unfortunate happening should find its way, due to some irresponsible individual, to the ears of his superiors. And irresponsibility was something Mr Kramer could not tolerate. There were always the select few who, because of some lack in their own lives, had to compensate for this by interfering in others or attempting to play a part in a life for which they had neither the talent nor the knowledge. The cheque before him was ample proof that he was tackling the problem in the most satisfactory manner he was capable of; and he secretly knew that the fears of his decision being motivated by selfishness were certainly unjustified; indeed, it was to his credit that he had been able to face up to them so honestly—a lesser man would have tried to repress them.
For Mr Kramer was no novice to the thrusts of reality. He understood only too well that the instinctive are no substitute for the instructed parries. Here, experience is the master and the correct counter is to master experience. She, the girl, was ill equipped for the task and so it was a sense of protectiveness now that governed his attitude toward her. (He did not like using the page 8term "mistress" because of the distasteful meaning when taken seriously and the resultant implied furtiveness; and "paramour" was a word he would have to have heard her use first before he would have the courage to do so. "Paramour" was to his vocabulary as the girl's surrealist prints were to his landscapes.)
He smiled wryly as he analysed the subtle reversal of dominance throughout the affair. From the moment he met her at one of those informal executives' parties where it was customary for the secretaries to attend, he had tried to impress her with his forth-rightness and confidence. He had managed to carry this off fairly well during their first awkward tête à têtes at city coffee bars, but inexorably the initiative changed stools, as it were. He found himself planning his moves ahead as in an involved chess game, but when his moment of decision arrived, he would inevitably fail through either poor strategy or simple forgetfulness. The girl had been very understanding. She would correct the staggered course of his conversation and at the same time make him feel the credit was his. After a few weeks he accepted his subordinate role completely, and from then on an aura of unreality surrounded the two, and the evenings flitted past before he realized they had begun. At times, it was as though he were the leading character in a one-act play; his lines had been written beforehand and the interpretation of them was part of the entertainment. He would leave the flat with his mind semi-slumbering as it does when a person is awakening by degrees in the early morning, and what had taken place resembled a fantastic dream sequence, a series of beautiful but unconnected incidents.
Mr Kramer was about to slip farther back into the bottomless pit of pleasant memories when he of a sudden cursed inwardly and brushed his knee sharply with a flick of his left hand. The scorched hole in his trouser-leg exposed white flesh the size of a threepenny piece, but he was more annoyed at the interruption of his train of thought than the damage done.
To neutralize his anger, he stubbed out the remaining inch and a half of his cigar and poured a tumbler of iced water from the glass jug on his desk.
The telephone rang; the bell was harsh and demanding. Mr Kramer, in his state of nervous excitement, twitched involuntarily, upsetting the tumbler of iced water. He ignored the accusing grey stain which spread across the desk blotter.
Only urgent messages were permitted to be relayed through his private line on his day off, and so Mr Kramer lifted the receiver page 9warily, although his well-rehearsed tone of voice was an attempt to disguise his apprehension.
"Kramer." He scraped off a strip of the sodden blotting-paper until a hard ball had lodged beneath his thumbnail. The person at the other end of the line was in no hurry to reply. He frowned as he pondered on the possibility of it being the girl; although the cheque would cover any of her difficulties, he would still prefer that the transaction remained from now on completely impersonal. In any case, she knew better than to ring him at his home.
"Mr Kramer? It's Fournier speaking . . ."
An accountant must have a fairly substantial reason for disturbing an executive on his day of rest if he values his position with the firm, which explained the marked hesitance in the voice.
"Yes, yes, Fournier, what is it?" He could not restrain the impatience that gripped him whenever he was dealing with Fournier, yet he admired the man's thoroughness. It is relatively easy to adopt a condescending attitude toward an inferior, but when the inferior has a deeper understanding of the particular problem, superiority is maintained at the risk of sudden loss of face.
"It's about your shares in the Bachman merger, sir. A bit of bad news, I'm afraid . . ."
Mr Kramer heard what Fournier had to say, then he replaced the receiver without speaking again. He poured himself another small glass of water and sipped at it mechanically. He was not unduly upset by the phone call, for he realized that a business man, as a gambler, must summarize the odds beforehand and prepare for a change in luck; while the gambler courts fortune, the business man instigates a mariage de convenance, and in the event of a reversal, the former is more concerned at his lack of skill in the courtship than in his losses, whereas the latter loses nothing emotionally and whether or not he wins or loses materially is of little importance, the wedding of wealth and one-up manship will take place regardless. The gambler can blame his cards, but the business man only himself.
Mr Kramer adjusted his tie and, for want of anything better to do, opened a cupboard door behind his desk where he kept a set of shoe-blacking and brushes. He selected the polishing brush and lightly stroked the dust off the toes of his shoes, an unnecessary action but a ritual to which he rigidly adhered whenever his mental processes were temporarily rendered impotent.
Mr Kramer was worried. He replaced the brush and took a set of files from a steel cabinet. As he did so, he experienced that not page 10uncommon feeling of some time in the past having gone through exactly the same procedure. Perhaps it was because he knew in advance what he was looking for, in the same way that the newsboy on the street corner knows the number of coins of each denomination there are in his pockets without having to empty them. He ran his eyes up and down the columns of figures; they were not just oddly-shaped holes punched in oblong cards, or numerals hurriedly scrawled by some obscure clerk. To Mr Kramer they represented the fulfilment of a life's ambition, and at the moment they were being endangered. Due to his expert manipulation of figures such as these, he had rightly made of himself what people would term a success, at the same time preserving his innate humility. For a success is not the man with the most power in his field, but the man with the greatest awareness of it limitations. And that is where creativity is involved, thought Mr Kramer. People like that confounded girl will not admit that industrial creativity can be placed on a par with artistic creativity. There has to be a compromise, for one cannot exist without the other, and the answer is not Socialism (for Mr Kramer was well read in such matters), but a tolerance and respect for the other's capabilities.
A thousand men can admire a work of art, yet what artist can create jobs for a thousand men, reasoned Mr Kramer?
Standing up, as he always did when a decision had to be taken, Mr Kramer held his balance of accounts in one hand and his bank statement in the other. The cheque lay undisturbed on his desk. After two minutes of earnest concentration, he shook his head determinedly and replaced the accounts in a bottom drawer; a little later the bank statement followed them. At first the drawer would not shut correctly, but after some gentle manoeuvring he eased it into position, taking care that the assorted papers inside were not jammed. Mr Kramer mopped his brow. The afternoons were certainly more humid than they used to be.
Slowly, almost reverently, he tore the cheque into eight pieces; he watched them flutter down one after the other to come to rest on the wall-to-wall carpet.
Mr Kramer blinked his eyes in astonishment, scarcely believing that he had actually taken this drastic line of action. His sense of bewilderment was further increased by the realization that the carrying out of this decision had pleased him. Gradually, however, his elation gave way to a slight guilt. The clandestine evenings spent at the flat were still retained in the corridors of his mind; he could never lock them away. She had helped him in his search for his page 11own identity and without her he would never have found it. And yet, because of the accompanying feeling of righteousness, he was persuaded beyond nearly all doubt that the destruction of the cheque was necessary.
And at that moment Mr Kramer was overwhelmed by the force that only sudden insight can wield; he stood as if in a trance though his hands were visibly shaking.
The girl was a bitch. That was it, she must be a bitch.
He laughed disbelievingly at his own prolonged blindness to her cheapness, and he wondered how on earth he had managed to become involved with such an undesirable type of woman. Those furtive nights spent in her flat were only to satisfy her own selfish demands; he had been used wantonly by a woman who was utterly worthless. The pity was that there were so many women in the world of her type, cunningly contributing to the degeneracy of otherwise respectable citizens. He knew that if he delayed any longer, his home life and all it meant to him could quite conceivably have been completely disrupted by this wayward creature. Love for one's family, he philosophized, should be a man's primary concern, and he was thankful then that he had acted judiciously. He heaved a sigh of relief, for, although he had known all along that the motivation for his decision had been hidden in the recesses of his subconscious, it must be made known that with any man, these motivations are sometimes extremely hard to bring to the surface.
Mr Kramer was a much happier man. The blotter was now completely saturated in water, but he no longer cared. Putting on his overcoat and hat, he stepped lightly to the study door. He paused for a moment, for he knew he had forgotten something. A cigar, that was it. He lit a fresh Club Royal and opened the door, adjusting his silk tie before the mirror first.
"Where are you going, dear?" Mrs Kramer looked round in surprise from the stove, where she was busily salting a saucepan of potatoes.
"Oh," he said, "I thought I might take a short stroll before dinner."
"Perhaps," asked Mrs Kramer, "you'd like to take the two boys with you? They've been pestering me in the kitchen all day and, anyway, I don't think it's too wet outside."
He shook his head. "I'm a busy man, Norah. You know that."
"But I've got your afternoon tea all ready for you, see?" She pointed at the neatly laden table. "It's just how you like it."page 12
Mr Kramer hesitated and then smiled gratefully at her. He reached across and carefully took a slice of rye bread with no butter but two slivers of specially matured cheese. He gulped it down hungrily.
"My pet," he said between mouthfuls, "you never forget my favourite snack."
When he had finished, he kissed her forehead affectionately, replaced his cigar in the corner of his mouth, and opened the door which led to the busy street outside. Stepping into the chill of the late afternoon, he shivered a little as he turned to wave to his wife who was standing at the top of the short flight of concrete steps. She watched as he walked briskly along the footpath, slowly mingling with the hurrying crowd until, finally, he disappeared into the anonymous throng of grey overcoats.