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Secret Ballet: Part 6

Version: June 03, 2004

Go to Part 5 of Secret Ballet

Version: June 03, 2004

A sneak preview

Things will never ever be the same again. Much later, after the divorce and the vitriol, I agreed to see him again.

He was a complex man. Several times I had tried unsuccessfully to talk to him. For a few months there was a civil exchange of letters. He phoned after talking to Charlotte and was full of apologies. ‘She suggested that I telephoned you. When I got your letter it revived my guilty conscience.’

‘Do you still feel the same way?’

‘I wanted to leave you to make life easier for you.’

‘Oh yes, we're all for having it as easy as possible.’

‘Sarcasm doesn't become you. I had hardly begun telling you the barest details when you flew into a rage. Look, give me a chance. That's all I want. It isn't just anything; it's a very special occasion for me, and I want you to be there.’

I felt a brief intense ache of happiness. He had disentangled himself from amorous affairs before...

I went to see him one snowy day in London. The art market is boiling with an activity never known before. He made a modest living by painting. I had little hope of my wish coming true.

I decided it was time to pack my bags. I felt that I wanted to see him at least once more.

I was up bright and early, eager to be off. For better or for worse I boarded the train for London. Please God, don't let there be a train crash. The train pulled away and gradually picked up steam. A fan gently circulated air through the compartment. Some unknown man coughed lightly. The man left his seat by the window and crossed the carriage to where I was sitting. ‘Never, under any circumstances, block up ventilators.’ I could hear the ticket collector in the next compartment.

Passengers in the dining car were clustered round a radio. The best one can do at such a time is to be a good listener. I'm only interested in productions which test the limits of my capabilities.

It was cold and the sun never came out once. I checked in at the Gordon Hotel. London is an amazing city. The streets of this town are broad. Tunnels have been blasted through bedrock beneath the city. The little specialist shops of Prince's Arcade.. It is all too easy to fritter away the best hours of the day shopping. There is something about places like this that raises your spirits.

Nobody met me at the station when I alighted. Snippets of railway car conversation still buzzed around in my head. There was a long line of taxis waiting under the pillared arcade. The station served as a hangout for the town derelicts and delinquents; females begging for food around the station. The people hurried home, Japanese men dressed in business suits, ties, and clean white shirts.

The taxi driver was chatty and merry. The taxi moved in zigzags and circuitous routes.

John showed me his latest masterpiece in a sneak preview. The preview was a social rather than an artistic occasion. I ascended in a creaky lift to the top floor. Being in lifts gives me claustrophobia. I arrived on his doorstep one minute after the appointed hour. His name plate was screwed into the door frame immediately below the bell.

He had wavy, oiled hair. From his belt there dangled a large ring of keys. His handshake was firm and solid; he had shaved off his beard. In some way I seemed to alarm him. I saw him looking at my name painted on the canvas of my kit bag.

My smiling face set him at ease. ‘Please come in,’ he said. ‘You are looking absolutely marvellous, darling. Ageless. You haven't changed a bit.’ The smell of cooking competed with turpentine and tobacco. ‘Do you fancy a cup of tea?’

‘Sure. How far have you got with your work?‘

‘Come and look. Do you have milk in your tea?’

‘Just a drop thank you.’

The cup had ‘Paris’ written in blue on the base. John hopes to show his canvas at the academy. He beckoned me to follow him. The painting consisted of two red and green splodges in a blue circle—a vast and amorphous composition entitled “Australian Diary”. The colours were still wet.

John stood back and appraised his work. ‘It certainly looks wonderful, doesn't it?’

I had seldom seen him looking so pleased with himself as he was now. The picture was far from good. ‘I congratulate you, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Are you having your picture professionally framed?’

He held one hand over his head in a gesture of pain. ‘Oh, that's a difficult one to answer, isn't it?’ While the colours were still wet, he drew a crude pair of eyes. Then he stepped back, his head cocked to one side, to admire his work.

I simply did not know which subjects I could acceptably bring up. ‘A good colour combination. Sometimes the instinctual impulses break through in your work..’

‘Have you ever tried painting, Jane?’

‘I've never been any good at art, I didn't really have the artistic and creative bias that you needed. When I was young, I liked the Impressionists; I first became interested in art through reproductions of Impressionist paintings.’

He was always pontificating. ‘Art is a surrogate for the individual imaginations of its audience. They like concreteness, not abstraction; they put Warhol on a par with Titian.’

‘I don't understand modern pictures. Let me ask you about one particular artist. I don't understand the meaning of Pollock's paintings.’

‘Pollock's earliest works are nostalgic evocations of rural America. A person of average intelligence—look at the way Pollock composes his pictures. It's a huge subject and a complicated technical one. Pollock’s muddle and confusion are readily apparent. There was a certain quality which was imperishable.’

‘There must be a deeper meaning than that.’

‘He was externally very unprepossessing, he was feeling unloved and unwanted. All you needed was a keen sense of humour—you can then find your own niche in public life. Pollock was an extreme instance, but his failure epitomizes that of many. He's been very unfortunate. Pollock's car crashed into a clump of trees and overturned; he was under the influence of a whisky too many. He was killed instantly.’

John felt his lips twitch. He was eaten up with envy. The slant of his eyes and the line of his lips reveal his contempt for the critics. ‘An artist wants an audience. If I say that someone is just being nice about my work, I probably suspect that they don't really like it. The public is not quite attuned to this kind of art. “Is it an accurate reflection of reality?”’

I thought he was giving bad imitation of Olivier, but it was hardly my place to say so. ‘I didn't mean to upset you; I hate injustice as much as you do. Does this affect your attitude to your work, in any way?’

‘Absolutely not. My work has never been a reaction against Abstract Expressionism.’ He put on that look of not caring. ‘We need to look at the cultural matrix that makes a work of art sensible, the symbolic content of Abstract Expressionism. Picasso painted a red circle as a symbol of the Revolution. I think that as a doctrine formalism has done damage. The social pressures exerted by a small community are enormous. They’re not giving the public what they want. My quarrel with the formalists is about the nature of sculpture itself. Sculpture is a sensuous art. In terms of sculpture, Moore was a father figure. You can see his influence in the paintings of his pupils. The interesting thing is how do people perceive it? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Late modernism and its apologists deny this.’ He felt his enigmas were becoming too recondite.

He still did not reveal what he felt about me: he alternated between being gloomy and being comical according to caprice. We acted as if we had never set eyes on each other. I wanted to throw my arms about him. Our conversation did make me feel better, more positive. I looked at the pen and ink drawings. The smudged pictures showed a terrified little girl. It was not ‘Art’ (with a capital ‘A’). I bent down to examine the exquisite craftsmanship. His etchings and drawings never went out of fashion.

‘It isn't a very good drawing, is it? I am a draughtsman first and a painter second. That's just one aspect of my work. Most of my pictures are etchings, engravings, or screen prints.’ He began to sketch on a piece of paper: a picture of a square with another square above. ‘Sorry, I’m not very good at drawing, but that’s meant to be a cube.’

The picture attracted me. ‘Actually, that's quite nice, I like that. This drawing could be read as an exemplar of classical expression.’

‘It warms the cockles of my heart to hear you talk like that. You can borrow that pen if you want to.’ He signed his name on the lower right-hand corner of the drawing. We began chattering and laughing together. ‘You've got food on the brain. I could throw something together, or we could go out to eat—a lively evening with wining, dining and dancing till the small hours. I think we ought to take the car. ’

I'll just smarten up a little bit then we can go.’

The meal

I put on my fur coat and boots—a pair of thick fur-lined boots. These shoes were an excellent buy. It was mink. But what a glorious colour!

‘I think it's a terrible bind to have to cook your own meals. I can't be bothered to cook for myself.’

The fat, jazzy steering wheel was padded with real leather. He drove slowly along, looking for a parking space. I felt calmer and more composed than I had in a long time. The centre of the city was ablaze with lights.

‘This restaurant won a star in the 1981 Michelin guide- a restaurant with a predominantly upper-class clientele. The gatekeepers won't let you in unless you grease their palms.’ He leaped out of the car with surprising agility. ‘Good evening, Sir,’ said the Indian, smiling brilliantly.

I had this tremendous sense of affinity with the place. It had a gentleness, an ambience, a wistful elegance. On its menus was embossed a pair of capital ‘R's’. He buried himself deep in the wine list. On the tables there were candles alight. There were three glasses in front of each place, and a lot of cutlery. The orchestra was playing a selection of tunes from The Merry Widow, waitresses in muslim aprons hurrying with loaded trays.

He beckoned and the girl came over. ‘Hey lady,’ he said to the waitress. ‘Where do you come from?’

‘India. A glass of sherry? Or would you prefer a cocktail of some kind?’

‘A bottle of bubbly.’ The waitress put a paper coaster down.

The champagne went straight to my head. It was flat, stale, strangely lacking in bouquet.

‘Do you like the champagne?’

‘It's all right. What's on the menu?’

There was a small lamp on the table close by.

‘What do you want? I'll order now. He is the greatest authority on African fish.’

The waiter came to take the order. ‘A salmon and mushroom quiche?’

‘I'm afraid I've no stomach for seafood.’

‘Food poisoning! Not from this kitchen, I can assure you. Never had a case in my life. They use only the finest ingredients. He could pick out a good cook in a crowd.’

This didn't seem to require even an affirmative, so I kept silent.

An accomplished cook, the old man took up the doughty mass and put it upon the hot stone. He began to shape the dough into rolls. He turned his back and started rattling his pots. Each son has certain culinary specialities which he enjoys making. Their preparation can provide hours of amusement. The waitress, having put the tray down, rose and backed away. A bottle of wine poked out of a silver ice bucket. Soon we were feasting on dried gram, nuts hot with chilli powder and puffed rice, the colour of the vegetables blending with the wine and the table cloth. Rice, correctly cooked and prepared, is delicious.

The women were very eager to wait at his table. ‘Is everything all right, Sir?’

He cut off a piece of the meat and impaled it on his fork. ‘I hope there's no unwritten law on the type of wine you should drink with this.’ He tried to sound cheerful and nonchalant.

As the evening advanced, we got more and more friendly. ‘I had a strange dream about you and me last night. We entered a fishing contest. I took a slice of white bread for bait. I jerked the fishing rod back and lost the fish. It went “splat” in the water. These fish are not found close inshore. We stayed there all day but we didn't catch any fish. The trout figured it was better to stay where they were.’

He laughed nervously and asked me what I meant.

‘You are beginning to lose confidence in your sense of direction. You are getting more and more depressed as time goes on.’

He seemed to emerge from his reverie and poured me a glass of wine. ‘I never use a single worm on the hook, preferring a cocktail of worm and maggot.’

As the evening drew on, John and I got agreeably drunk. He could not take his eyes off me throughout the meal. ‘I could eat at least as much again.’ We greedily ate up a whole plate of food that we didn't really want. You should aim to feel satisfied but not bloated after a meal.

John mentioned having seen me on television the previous evening. ‘You have an accountant mentality.’ He shouted for the waitress and ordered three treble brandies.

I found myself trying to reassure John, trying to build up his morale. ‘Now's the time for positive thinking. Who needs great pictures? Its very hard to make the arts self-supporting. Anybody can become a qualified teacher. There need be no real barrier between arts and science. There is a special art in teaching handicapped children. I don't see what you've got to lose, you may pass as a remarkably witty man. You could apply for an award if you want to learn a new skill. I've actually got a list here of the qualities they look for in a teacher. You can become qualified teacher and then do a probationary year. A teacher training course takes three years to complete.’

Such remarks always pained him. He blew a cloud of smoke across the table. ‘That's easy for you to say, you have so much energy. We tend to overvalue money and undervalue art. I don't know, but I think I would be a good teacher. I never expected to earn my living as an artist. Stay out of this; it's my problem, not yours.’ He tried to sound cheerful and nonchalant. In truth he remained intensely selfish. Do I sense the first light suppression of a yawn? I tried hard not to think about it. He seldom laughed at himself and had a chronic fear of being slighted.

He waved to a waiter and got the check. ‘My compliments to the chef.’

‘Would you like a sweet, sir, or the cheeseboard?’

‘Bring me a glass of Dubonnet.’ It will bring on his cough again. ‘Can we have something to wipe our hands on, please?’

‘How much do I owe you?’ I queried fishing in the pocket of my jeans.

‘Let that be my worry. I have been waiting to see you, you know.’

‘Don't be mean with the tip, he's such a nice young man.’

The bill for dinner was over twelve dollars. He finished off the wine with a couple of swallows. ‘A lot of people seem to panic when deciding how much to tip.’

Sometimes one gets tired of canned music. Indian music had been blaring out all evening. The songs are irresistibly catchy. By night, the huge electric signs light up the whole street. I already knew how to outwit him. ‘I suppose outwardly the evening must have seemed pleasant enough.’

‘Jane, come over here.’

‘Did I say you could kiss me?’

‘Sorry. I was carried away.’

A pigeon’s egg

The streets were full of people, for it was closing time in the pubs. We couldn't get a room at the first hotel; they were fully booked. For an overnight stay the Hotel Claravallis is perfect. Lots of celebrities have stayed here, the hotel was bristling with policemen at every entrance. He parked the car about a hundred yards from the gates. The hotel had everything; there was even a swimming pool. There are good profits to be made in the hotel business.

The service in this hotel is very hit and miss. As I walked through the lobby, I had to skirt a group of Ladies. The room facing the lake presented blind and shuttered windows to the evening guests. Room 64 was half way along on the right. The hotel was so noisy that there was no question of getting a full night's sleep. ‘Blow! I've left my bag behind.’

‘You've been a bit heavy on the mascara, haven't you?’

‘That's a filthy thing to say.’ Many men are aroused by the odours of women. ‘I'm going to have a bath.’

‘Andy's in the bath.’

‘Andy who?’

‘Andy is a very old friend of mine.’

‘Andy, are you using my bath water?’ I asked, enraged.

He laughed a deep, manly laugh. ‘Don't worry, I was only joking.’

‘You're having me on!’

He was running boiling hot water into the tub. I bathed thoroughly to get rid of the last traces of make-up; it has a most soothing effect on the nerves. The soap was smooth and slippery. I could hear the distant babbling of women's voices. He begins expertly opening bottles one after another. ‘Get comfortable so that you can relax and rest your muscles. I sing for you,’ he said, his voice slurring so that he could barely be understood.

My mind was on other things. ‘When you sober up you may be ashamed of what you have done. It's about time you came off the booze.’

‘Well you may not believe this, but I actually don't drink very much.’ He threw himself on his bed, pressed the mattress with splayed fingers, and gestured to me to lie down.

‘Why the sudden invitation?’

‘Do you remember how you and I planned to live in Venice?’

I got him up all right, but overbalanced in the process. ‘You must be confusing me with someone else. I remember strolling arm in arm with you along the boulevards of Paris, the network of back streets in the Latin Quarter...’

He looked through the clothing on the bed and produced a packet of violet-blue capsules. ‘...strolling arm in arm along the boulevards of Paris...lets forget our differences and be friends.’

‘Things won't ever again be the way they used to be...what do you want me to do?’

A lusty yelling noise was coming from the bedroom above. He had a wicked grin. ‘Let's do it, I may never have the chance again.’

There was a longish pause. A door was closed softly. Footsteps passed along the corridor above. He undid the clasp of his belt.

‘I'm not sure. Again, on second thoughts...I'm just wondering why you feel this way.’

He bent down and undid the laces. ‘Anything I say now is bound to sound pompous. I'd hoped that the roses would have been some assurance that I was thinking of you. I want you so badly. I shall always love you.’

I did what I had never done in his presence, much less in his arms. I cried. Arcane and unwanted emotions...I thought my heart was going to burst.

The effects of the drug are intense and brief. The cathedral bells were chiming through the night. ‘Go on, close your eyes. That's right. That's better. Good girl.’ He forced himself to lie absolutely still. I'm not going to race him, I'm going to put him to stud. All our family are very keen on riding. It brings it all back. His eyes shut blissfully and he smiled. He had a smell I'd never smelt before. The dryness in my mouth vanished and I could feel the adrenalin flooding my body. He can come at any time, the sooner the better. His tongue was exquisitely sensitive; he was not very clever with his fingers. We spent the whole afternoon playing around with bits of string. The slender spear whose shaft was polished from so much use... when there is any allusion to his size he becomes embarrassed. His entire body poured with sweat. Our breath began to take the form of staccato gasps. ‘Are you coming?’

‘Not just yet.’

It sounded like something between a fox-bark and a pig’s grunt. The sound must have ascended to the room above. My wish had become true. It felt as if it would never end.

We lay spent, breathless, giggling. ‘I'd like a word with you before the break-up of this happy occasion. I have a surprise for you..’—a ring containing a diamond the size of a pigeon's egg. ‘It's just a little something to show my appreciation. I got it on seven days approval so if you don't like it we can change it. These diamonds should appreciate in value.’

‘What a lovely surprise! That was probably the most arrant piece of folly you have committed in your life.’

‘I don't know what came over me. They're expensive, but they're worth it. You can tell it's 9 carat gold from the hallmark.’

I took it, thanked him, and told him I would never part with it.

‘You and I could make a fresh start.’

‘Put on your dressing gown. You'll catch cold.’

I was happy, there is simply no other word for it. All through the night, he would wake up to check on me. We were awakened by a deafening roar from outside. There was a chugging sound like a bronchial road drill. He got back into bed and pulled the blankets up around him. The hotel cleaner entered carrying a bucket and a mop.

The day was about to break when I finally left the hotel. Matron stood in the doorway, her starched cap on her head. The receptionist bobbed back into the rear office. ‘You're paying in cash, are you?’ We filed out of the hotel sadly, for there was still so much left to say. It was really bucketing outside.

‘Would you mind running me to the station? A taxi is anonymous. Nobody knows who's inside.’

He stops the van in front of the arm and takes a ticket from the automatic machine. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of two men in guard's uniforms.

Full circle

Our prayer for his return has been answered. I fell in love. It came slowly. My own friends were considerate enough to leave us alone.

‘I'm so glad you came. You don't know how glad I am to see you.’ I hugged him, fussed over him, and all the while I felt sick and tired and beaten. I knew my love was as hopeless as ever. ‘You don't know what I have been going through for four years. It's quite extraordinary.’

‘I know.’ His only clean digit, a pink thumb, slid into his mouth. I longed for the comforts of home; I cherish a hope that one day the family will be reunited.

John and I had very little money left. He boarded with an Italian family. We saw each other on alternate Sunday nights. He opened the door of the apartment, a little breathless from climbing the stairs. Our room was a bit of a mess.

He ushered me to a chair. ‘Your hair's looking a bit brassy—what have you been doing with it?’

‘Let me alone,’ I snarled.

There he sat, pleased as Punch. There was a note of urgency in his voice. ‘I've had a busy day. You have to go between 9 and 10 tomorrow morning. Why don't you buy yourself a new dress?’

He wanted to have me as a plaything for some time longer. You can't change human nature. He aggravated an already difficult situation by his tactlessness. He wanted to be left alone to go about his business. My hopes collapsed: I felt I had come full circle. ‘Is there any chance of you having a holiday this year? Little Celia, in case you've forgotten, hasn't forgiven you. The girl is nine or ten, but perhaps older, I don't know...’

He was biting his finger nails, as was his habit when he was being cagey. He got up from the table, lit his pipe again, and settled himself in his rocking chair. ‘I'm sorry. I'd rather not say.’

Why ever not? I was a fool ever to marry you.’

He was engaged in a private quest of his own: He had been bitten by the bug of photography. He didn't quite grasp why photos were a no-no. ‘Oh brill—you remembered to bring the camera.’

A cardboard carton full of photographic equipment—It seemed absurd to try to carry a twenty-five pound camera about. He had 150 photographs of people and places taken during his travels abroad. Lots of the pictures are old friends to me. Photographs of local brides in full wedding apparel... The bridegroom was dressed in a grey suit. The man was identified in the caption as Kenneth H. Dahlberg—a certain Englishman masquerading as a non-existent Frenchman called André Martin.

‘They wanted her to pose naked.’ He was sitting quietly in his armchair, smoking a pipe and reading the morning paper. ‘As far as photographers are concerned, the close-up lens has changed the face of their profession. There is a gap to be bridged between the lax amateur world the cool professional world.’

‘I've seen the photographs.’

‘Touching, weren't they? Did you like it?’

‘Sure thing.’ Probably he thinks I am bullshitting him.

‘Don't talk rubbish. People will ask you why on earth you believe that after your experiences?’

The emphasis on the mechanics of picture-making has been carried for enough. John had authored a pamphlet on the subject. I've just got as far as the educational bumf at the beginning. For an academic work it is commendably brief. He liked precision. ‘I thought I would get a better picture using a larger aperture.’ He decided to improve himself by attendance of evening classes.

‘Are you ever coming back home?’

His hand was poised halfway to his mouth with an empty pipe. ‘I'm coming down to London next week. There's little chance that the situation will improve. I will see you at the same time next week.’

‘What shall I say when we next meet?’

‘I'm rather puzzled by this question. Be quiet and listen. Are you ready now? I'll drive you back to your flat.’

Felicity is back. She has come back on her own free will; she did not think she could manage by herself. ‘You will let me stay here, won't you?’

In all conscience, I couldn't make things even more difficult for her. ‘Don't bother your pretty little head about a thing. Come tomorrow you'll feel better about things.’ I am trying to urge her on to ‘try things out for yourself’.

For the first time since leaving home she is without a boyfriend. Losing a lover can bring back memories of childhood loss. She sat in her room and wept bitterly; her cheeks were bereft of colour, tears were pouring down her face. ‘Why can't I choose John?’

I grabbed the bull by the horns. ‘Because he's horrible, that's why, a ruthless and unprincipled man. Do you remember that time when John phoned up from Tunbridge Wells?’

She nodded her head. She had bought some wool to knit a sweater, using 4mm needles cast on 53 stitches.

‘You'll be all right if you lead a good clean life.’

Her knitting was starting to unravel. She put her knitting in one of the capacious pockets of her apron.

John was the sad and stoic clown. ‘I told you she was having it off with him.’ He wanted to ensure that Felicity did not become a public charge. In this village you all get to know each other and it's a very close-knit community.

She bought a paperback copy of his book for him to autograph. The photos made him look quite attractive.

John reduced his eyes to two narrow slits. ‘I have told you not to read that trash,’ he said.

‘I can't imagine why I bought it. I must have had a brainstorm.’ Her voice sounded prissy and false. Trafalgar Square. It was busy and crowded and yet at the same time peaceful. This was a paradox she discovered over and over again. She sat on the edge of the basin of one of the two big fountains. The air was warm and there were little white clouds high in the blue sky. A man sitting close by looked up at her.

Over the summer she worked as a waitress. Young people can no longer look forward with any certainty to a career or even a job.

Tonight is his night off. ‘We're off to the boozer. Coming? Come on, chaps, we're late!’ The most calculating and selfish men in the community, McKinley and Sherman were cajoled into coming with us. He'd tell them lurid stories about the war.

As usual at the weekend, the club was almost empty. They charged fifty cents admission. She was at the door brandishing tickets. She seemed oblivious of the attention she was drawing to herself. Let them look, she felt; she didn't care. It was a wonder that she could sit there so calmly. McKinley lit a cigarette. ‘What are you doing in a joint like that?’ he said, ‘to coin a phrase.’ They cooled their burning throats. He quaffed half the contents of his glass in one gulp.

Cigar smoke hung in the room. Felicity herself serves behind the bar. The job was a real bummer from start to finish. The men ogled her lasciviously. She refused to take off the thick sweater she wore despite the closeness of the room.

The new dance hall was christened with a fancy dress ball. John stomped off home. He ran into the street, the tails of his crumpled shirt flying. He would never come here, unless it was to cadge free drinks. Over in the corner a couple sat canoodling. Other people at the bar begin some routine banter about wives. All these lads do is loll about and booze. I got up from my seat and barged through the ladies to the door.

I found her buying bottles of vitamin tablets at the chemist's. She used to go for long walks collecting birds' eggs. Around Christmas she caught a bad chill.

For once in her life, Felicity couldn't look me square in the eye. Instead of blooming into further beauty, she became pale and sad. She sat at the dressing table wiping off the last of her make-up. Her mind was floating somewhere apart from her body. She was screwing the top back on to her scent bottle. Her eyes assumed a strange, weary, indifferent look. She began chipping off the white paint from a small area on the top of the table.

‘I thought you'd come slinking back. Wait until six weeks after your last period and get a pregnancy test.’

Then she dropped her bombshell. ‘I'm pregnant.’

‘There you go. What did I tell you?’

She was three months pregnant. The sincerity and artlessness with which she discussed the problem was disarming. I had guessed the identity of her lover; it was all depressingly clear. She began to weep in gasping, choking sobs, she cried buckets. He had tried her patience to breaking point.

‘Keep away from David and his disreputable friends. I don't think he's the sort of young man who'd be thinking of marriage. You know how things get misconstrued in a small community.’

She was crying, blowing her nose and looking simply ghastly.

Felicity took an overdose after a row with her mother. Deep depression is typical of so many young women who attempt suicide.

‘What happened?’

‘Oh, a lot of things,’ she said vaguely.

‘What was all that about?’

‘I'm sorry, I'd rather not say.’

‘Take a few common-sense steps to help the situation. I don't have much time for girls who overdose and clutter up the wards.’

She sat in the house day after say, pining for her lover. At nineteen you're still classed as a teenager. I have noticed a big change in Felicity. Her eyes were cast downward; she was ashamed of her tears. She had a vague idea of finding David and explaining it all to him. Normally, she never cried. We went downtown to buy a new pair of shoes.

Romance contains a large portion of sublimated sex. To my complete bewilderment, she rang David the next day. He says he is never going to see her again, and in the same breath he asks when he can phone her. It had stirred up in her an excitement the like of which she had never felt in all her life before. No one had understood what she saw in David. What can she see in him?

They sat there together in blissful silence. Their friendship was as close as it had ever been. He would tenderly coax the poor girl out of her depression. Then he left a note which declared his love in capital letters.

There are nine months between conception and birth. She had tried two doctors with the idea of having an abortion. The pregnancy was complicated. They had rushed her to a hospital for tests. I want her to have the very best. Private room. Special nurses. Everything. Specialists in particular branches of medicine. They did tests to ascertain the sex of the baby before it was born. She stood looking out through the window, holding aside the curtains.

‘Think of the unborn child’—an appeal to her maternal feelings. Who am I to start pointing the finger? She still retains, however dimly, a recollection of better times. ‘He would never be faithful to you if you married him.’

He lived to repent his early love. He was constantly fretting about their financial situation. She was starting to feel unwanted; she relapsed into depression. Her pregnancy was beginning to show. She had never yet managed to broach the subject with him: she sat close to him and did not speak. Young people facing the new responsibility of parenthood. Her face was smudgy with tears. She was perturbed about a rash which had come out on her face. He drifted about from job to job.

The birth of her first child was a difficult time. She had a difficult delivery: she was in labour for seven hours. Doctors said the baby could die at any time. The doctor tried desperately to save her and the unborn child. He has a method of hypnotizing women and delivering babies under hypnosis. Everything went pretty smoothly. The baby arrived at six in the morning.

It certainly is very normal for a mother to want to take care of her own baby. Children are put into care as a last resort when family life breaks down. She had wanted to name the baby Colleen. She was christened Victoria Mary, but was known as Rosie. Whole families came from neighbouring villages to look at her.

Little Rosie had been babbling away all morning—a restless, fretful baby. She fed the baby some milk and changed its nappies. In some strange way the birth of the baby seemed to distance us. A good percentage of mothers are eager to breast-feed. The baby feeds when it is hungry. Milk left in the breast is nature's method of signalling to the glands, ‘make less’. A big advantage of breast-feeding is that the milk is always pure. There is less thumb-sucking among breast-fed babies.

‘Such a pretty babe,’ said Mrs Morrison, ‘that screaming bundle of waving arms and legs. Don't delay too long. More frequent feeding will usually help to satisfy a baby.’ She thinks you shouldn't pick up a baby all the time because you might spoil him. The average baby's weight is a little over seven pounds at birth. Some parents worry unnecessarily about the initial weight loss. Babies who are small at birth are apt to grow faster.

Her feeding time was still an hour away. The baby drank her milk and belched. With the baby clutched tightly in her arms, she's as kind a mother as I could ask for. ‘Give me a kiss. Let's give Mrs Morrison something to talk about.’

Mrs Morrison spoke in a thick Galway brogue. ‘Leave the door open, because I get very claustrophobic. I think you were brave to defy convention. Whoops. You nearly dropped it again. Blot the skin dry with a soft towel. Baby powder helps to avoid chafing.’ All she ever does is make jam. She had signed up for a series of philosophy lectures to carry her through the autumn evenings.

‘And how's the latest arrival, then?’ Mrs Moffatt is a registered childminder. She was thankful she wasn't claustrophobic, like poor Mrs Morrison. The baby was lying fast asleep on the sofa. She had a lot of puppy fat then. ‘She's marvellous,’ said Mrs Moffatt with fervour. She had been conditioned to sublimate her own desires in nurturing others. Mrs Moffatt bubbled over with suggestions. ‘Give the infant as much hugging and petting as you can.’

‘Oh yeah,’ said Felicity with broad sarcasm. ‘Don't give my baby another drop of that horrid jelly, you understand?’ There was still a catch of a dying sob in her voice. She burped into the sleeve of her new dressing gown. She cheered up a little as Miss Moffatt went out; she collected the curtains from the cleaner's. It was going to be a far from peaceful Christmas.

The baby's bottle becomes a precious comforter at bedtime.

I have widened my circle of acquaintances. It's a rather boring set of incestuous people. Mrs Aydie has bridge parties every Thursday. They lived at 7 Winchester Close. For some it is a way to broaden the circle of social contacts. They're busy people, with active social lives.

Mrs Aydie, unlike Felicity, was a careful shopper. The Aydies face a bill of close to £8,000 for a new roof; they had to be very careful about money. The Gas company wrote to Mrs Aydie saying she was to be disconnected in two days. She decided she needed to cut her costs by half. We have heard from them by phone a couple of times. All those boring evenings with people I never wanted to see, narrow-minded country bumpkins... They wanted to get their boys into nice comfortable jobs.

The pig was butchered at Christmas. The family doesn't see it as a chore but a sensible necessity. The past few Christmases had been very quiet. On Christmas Day, we had goose for dinner.

Felicity took evening classes in French. Her baby is crawling about and upsetting things. They can't help resenting the baby unconsciously.

Felicity had remained separate from us, asking for a room by herself. She took a B.A. in French. She's improved colossally over the period of the course.

Her cheeks were pinker and her eyelids darker than they had been earlier in the day. She knew how to change gear in order to achieve the right results.

John's beginning to sprout a beard. He looked at her with unashamed curiosity. He recalled how peculiarly she had acted towards him upon his return. ‘What do you plan to do after college?’ He took a bottle of white wine out of the refrigerator and uncorked it.

She didn't have the faintest idea what to do. ‘I'd like to get involved in something creative.’

He ran his hand over her hair. ‘I like your hair,’ he said, twisting a wisp of it back from her forehead. He remembered the touch of her hand; his fingers sensuously stroked her neck. A sharp tingling sensation ran through her. She smiled gently at him.

‘You must have some idea...can't you find a baby-sitter and come over for dinner?’

She became aware of the arm around her and made a half-hearted attempt to break away.

He had a lecherous expression on his face. ‘Leave it to me. I'll fix it. Someone will look after the kids...’

I found his cheeky self-confidence unbearable. ‘I'm sorry to barge in on you like this. With all respect, I think you've said enough.—He's never raised a finger to help you with the baby.’

He found himself giggling quite uncontrollably. ‘Now get moving and keep your trap shut.’

He laughed unashamedly. ‘OK, so I made a mistake. Well, nobody's perfect, are they?’

I knew I had been overacting. It was almost as bad as getting divorced all over again.

A beast of a job

Teaching is said to be a worthwhile calling. Controlling a class calls for all your skill as a teacher. Teachers shouldn't coddle their pupils; our job is to fill their brains with facts. They were clowning around when the teacher came in. Most of them could read a simple sentence in English.

The college is noted for its experimental forms of teaching. My students usually call me by my Christian name. They bring to their studies a sharpness and a shrewdness which you do not expect in an 18 year old.

Ambitions are thwarted by circumstance. The vast majority of these students have never heard of the Marshall plan. Is there any point in teaching 18- and 19-year-olds about the French Revolution? How do you manage to keep your students in touch with the real world?

They can stay on at school until they are sixteen if they have a mind to. Some students coming to Shakespeare nowadays know nothing about English history. I'm constantly having to correct their grammar. They don't need to know all the answers but they need to know how to find out the answers.

Each day John felt a little worse. We got him as a replacement for Elliott. He'd taken the job because he was broke. He was very strict with the children. They were all just sitting there, each of them thinking private thoughts.

During classes he was distracted and strangely troubled. ‘Good morning, Tommy,’ he said, looking up briefly.

Robertson answered briefly and without interest.

Swallow silenced him with a gesture. ‘Are you normally stupid or just being deliberately obtuse? What an illiterate lot of bums you are! I leave you to think about this one yourselves...’

Swallow's questing finger roamed round the class like a search light. He's a good teacher and his classes are very popular. His dictum always was, ‘If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well.’ His style of teaching was designed to shock his students—an unstructured but effective method of education. His pupils always groaned at his appalling jokes.

He had become sentimentally attached to one of the postgraduate students. He's always been the same—always running after something, hoping for something. The brushes and paints had been set out in the art room. He was finding it a strain to hold his students' attention; he was a bit browned off with the job. Students were spraying paint over each other. Cynthia winked mischievously.

‘Please come to the front when I call your name.’

She walked up with some diffidence. On the cover was a drawing of five students.

‘What do you think of it?’ John didn't let go of her arm.

‘It's different, but I don't really like it.’

‘What's the matter, Cynthia? You sound odd...what's the matter with you?’

‘Let go of me,’ she said.

John became aloof and silent, gazing past Cynthia. ‘I've had enough of your cheek—get out of my class!’

Here we are, home at last. He was marking a student's essay. ‘“The caterpillar will feed on lily pads and other aquatic plants. They have thin, attenuated bodies. Eventually the caterpillar will attach itself to a plant and spin a cocoon. The insect jerks itself free and hangs on an empty pupa case.”—I find poetry very difficult to mark...It's a beast of a job. This course is awful!’

Is it coincidence that so many of these complaints are made by teachers? ‘Bear with it—it gets better. Goodwill towards others has always been a necessary tool for survival. What are your plans over the long term?’

He considered the job beneath his dignity. He called in to say he was feeling ill; he could no longer endure the machinations of his colleagues. The department had become a byword for ignorance, obstinacy and brutality. The staff room was full of intrigue, hate and jealousy. Men have a number of ploys which they use to make their inferiors feel awkward. Many of the teachers had been placed on a blacklist. ‘I was an object of embarrassment to the college authorities. I've had enough. I quit. It would do me good to broaden my outlook.’

Being unemployed is a most unattractive prospect. John was away in Bombay, chasing after some film job. I think he got a job as a plumber's mate for a short time. Not long after that, he got a new job, some film job he had been vaguely promised. This production is by Charles Marowitz and collaborators, the colossus of the Bombay film world. He lay awake all night, thinking of his new job. India has always had one of the largest film industries in the world. I never thought he'd have the cheek to ask to borrow my car again after crashing it last time. He was simply being employed on the cheap so they could film a story based on a rotten novel.

We bounce from film to film with very little assessment of our work. We would film in England, so it would be a bit of a cheat because it would appear to be Iceland. The whole production was somewhat hastily put together. Most of the film was shot in Spain. My first job was as Sophia Loren's double in an air-crash scene. She has starred in several small but delightful cameo parts. Her next project was cancelled after eight weeks of shooting.

We rehearse five or six times before the scene is shot. I did not have much confidence in my talent as a film actor. Does refusal to work on rest days constitute a breach of contract? I grew to dislike working for the cinema. That job drove me round the bend.

We bought a van and travelled through Belgium, France, and Germany. He said that his name was Simon—a scavenger living from the dustbins behind restaurants. ‘Let me have those raisins,’ Simon said. I gave him the bag. ‘I could do with £10, I'm skint. I might get my brother to come and pick me up.’

They hit upon another idea to augment their income.

‘Make for the ladies and check that your hair and make-up are all right.’

‘We could get six months in the clink if the catch us.’

‘I don't care a damn about the job. If anything should go wrong, you might have to go on the run.’

We heard a siren screaming behind us. ‘Dump the goods and run off, so if they do catch you, you are clean.’

He took the bag and tossed it into some nearby bushes. I struggled up the side of the gully and broke through the nettles and elder bushes. I arrived a mile outside the town by mid-afternoon.

The car park is a low, cavernous place devoid of people. I had walked for miles and miles.

The road comes up from the north and meets the one from Lairg. They parked the motorcycle behind some bushes. We stood at the side of the road and watched the cars whizz by. There were lines of parked cars by each kerb; cars parked in violation of local by-laws. We climbed over the gate and sat down behind the hedge.

Something brushed against the back of the shelter. I peered through the bushes. ‘Look, John, we're in different worlds now, you and I. It's almost like being an albino or a diabetic.’

‘Things might have been so different. I don't suppose either of us will realize his dream.’

The accident

John and I became good friends. We had dug out our tour books and maps ready for the holiday. ‘The car needs a service.’ He started his car and let out the clutch far too quickly. My heart was full, thumping with happiness.

We were travelling at breathtaking speed down the motorway. Felicity and Madeline sat in the back, the baby between them. The child had a round, cherubic face. She fed the baby some milk; the baby's whole body relaxed. She plans to wean her baby from breast to bottle soon. She felt happy and in command of herself. It was good to see her looking so bright and well and chirpy. She had remained cheerful and energetic throughout the trip.

We were belting along the motorway at 80 miles per hour. John drove fast and well, passing cars only when it was safe. ‘I was booked for speeding yesterday.’

Everything becomes a blur when you travel beyond a certain speed—a landscape of blurred outlines. ‘We're going to have to slow down.’


‘I don't think we should go over fifty.’

We drove through chocolate-box countryside. He opened the glove case and brought out a pair of dark glasses. ‘The road to Oxford branches off here.’

The road is awful, narrow and bumpy. Huge elm trees bordered the road. Everything around me seemed to be bobbing up and down. One village on the map had been circled in red.

‘Do you know the way? On the map is quite a brief strip of road. Where are we going again?’

‘Stick with me and you'll be okay, don't you worry.’ There came a pause, a hiatus.

The journey was not as nice as Madeline had expected. She was still angry with herself for behaving badly in the hospital. She was pressing her nose against the window. ‘You'll have an accident one of these days if you drive like that.’

‘In all my years of motoring I've never had an accident.’ There was a strong note of self-righteousness in his voice.

The dust from the roads in the summertime was enough to blind you. ‘You'll wind up in hospital,’ Chris said. ‘D' you want a bet?’

John twiddled with the knobs of the radio. He was aching for a cigarette.

‘Don't abstain from smoking on my account—pull into the next lay-by.’

Although he was late he stopped to buy a sandwich. He stopped the car at a petrol station and told the attendant to fill it up. A hot dog stand, truck drivers gobbling up hot dogs dripping with mustard, calendars showing naked girls... The filler cap was so hot it burned my fingers.

A truck stalled and belched black smoke. He pulled out to overtake the lorry and narrowly missed a car coming the other way. Madeline was making burbling noises.

Lovely flat fields which rolled away for miles and miles to the sky. The trees along the road were heavy with yellow blossoms. He drove with his accustomed, casual ease. Two people were ahead of us, and travelling fast. He tooted his horn. He had a loud horn to frighten the wits out of people who were being slow. John leant out of the car window and swore at the other driver. This was not the sort of language to be employed in company. There was a big truck parked at the side of the road. The green car came careering back across the highway, only inches ahead of him. He was deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road.

‘Stop the car and let me out.’

He became aware of a yellow light far across the fields. There was a sudden screech of brakes. He crashed his car into the bar—a terrible accident. The resulting dust cloud could have blotted out the sun. All I remember is hitting the ground—the rest is a blank.

I was the first to recover—the blessing of good health which I blithely take for granted. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, no one was even sure how many people had been hurt; the scene was chaotic, a chaotic jumble of motor vehicles of every description. The flames illuminated billows of smoke. I lay there for an eternity, retching and gasping; the smoke and fumes almost suffocated me. It was beginning to hurt like hell. No one was sure exactly what had happened, let alone how. The flames and smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air. I was badly shaken. I had never had a crash before. It was a nightmare, it was terrible. Seven people were affected. Nearly collapsing under the pain, I stumbled forward. I got close enough to see what the trouble was. The top of her head was a mess of bone, brains, hair and blood. The blood will continue to ooze for some time before a clot forms. His arm was on fire and he ran blindly across the clearing, screaming. They needed urgent medical attention.

I have bashed my elbow. All I remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain, the sticky wetness of blood; people standing agape in the light of the flames.

He coughed and rubbed at his throat. ‘That looks like a nasty break.’

I felt my body shivering and heard my teeth chattering with the cold.

‘Cover yourself up with this sheet.’

I sank back into oblivion.

I was out of action with a sprained ankle; it's going to be a huge ugly bruise. The wind was howling through the smashed windowpanes.

‘Felicity, come over here.’

‘I can't get up, I am trapped here.’ She calmly wiped the blood away with her hand. I propped her up to a sitting position.

We watched her scramble up the bank to the road. They had rushed to her aid.

‘Frank.’ she breathed. ‘Help me, please.’ Her face was the colour of chalk. She heard nothing but the chirps and whirrs of insects.

‘Don't pant, breathe in slowly.—She ought to go into hospital for a bit.’

Her hand was covered with blood, the whole eyeball was visible. Her tongue lolled out, her eyes were rolled back. Eye damage can result in temporary or permanent blindness. She cradled a child in her arms. Indeed, she was a terrible sight to behold.

He picked up the child and cocooned her in a large shawl; he tried to calm the woman but could not assuage her terror. She looked up: her mouth was tremulous. She whispered in my ear that she wanted to go to the toilet. ‘I am chilled to the marrow.’ Her breathing became loud and strenuous.

‘I suppose it is too late to catch the doctor now.’

She died soon afterwards, a slow, agonizing death. It was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. I suddenly became fatalistic, resigning myself to the inevitable.

Madeline broke a bone in her back. She was severely bruised. She crawled out and brushed down her skirt. She began to weep in gasping, choking sobs, and Meadows tried to calm her.

I could hear a voice calling my name. John lay moaning, holding his burnt arm. He had fallen head-first into the ditch. He was bleeding heavily. What could I do? Where could I turn? An off-duty policeman—he just stared with a kind of numb fascination at the writhing man. Even a thoughtless person can appreciate beauty. John brought his right hand to his head. He had a cut forehead and a bruised cheek. Blood was flowing from his cut forehead. How much better he looked without his glasses...

‘Come on, John, buck up! It's not the end of the world, is it?’

He sat slumped forward, with dried blood caked in his hair. John was now quite conscious, so I got him to his feet. Keeping him upright was no easy task, for he was practically a dead weight. ‘Buck up, we haven't got all day!’

The fire was still blazing, lighting up the sky. The flames illuminated billows of smoke. The asphalt on the road became soft and sticky in the heat. Chris amused himself by throwing branches into the fire. The onlookers applauded apathetically—a group of people silhouetted against a background of leaping flames. The biting wind brought tears to their eyes.

‘All I know is that a man's dying while we're talking.’

One of the uniformed men gravely raised an arm in acknowledgement. ‘What blood group are you?’ He sent someone to ring for an ambulance.

Many questions were asked in the immediate aftermath of the accident. The policeman wrote down the details carefully; he was determined to carry out his civic responsibilities. ‘I can see your child is hurt. How come?’

It was almost an hour before the ambulance arrived. The casualties were taken to the nearest hospital. Most of the people who died in the fire had been asphyxiated by the fumes.

‘Where is Jane?’

‘Just back there. She's okay. Just shocked.’ His eyes were wild and his voice shook.

‘Is she able to talk coherently now?’

‘I'm okay; just a few cuts and bruises. I bruise easily.’

He rolled up the sleeve of my shirt and cleansed the skin. ‘Will you come with me to the hospital?’ They had alcohol to soften the blow.


Both were dead on arrival at the hospital. I was bursting to tell someone. An enormous piece of sticking plaster obscured one half of his face. ‘Felicity's dead,’ I told him. ‘She was doomed to be killed in a car crash.’

‘I'm sorry,’ he said in a stunned whisper.

‘It was an accident, and that's that.’

‘I won't have it! I have buried enough children! It might very well not have occurred yet.’ He lay with his whole body feeling as if it were on fire.

The young doctor in Casualty had shown an unprofessional lack of control. The doctor was either a charlatan or a shrewd old rogue. ‘Is the pain bad? Dab it with a solution of weak acid. This has very good analgesic properties and will help to reduce pain.’

‘It won't do any good.’

The avuncular doctor smiled kindly at his patient. ‘The bruising will be painful for a week or so. I'll give you something to kill the pain. Dr McDonald will be here later to attend to the dressings. She has a lovely bedside manner. We want to make your stay as enjoyable as possible.’

He was undergoing an operation, and was under the effect of an anaesthetic. The operation was anything but funny. The doctors had worked without a break. It's pretty unpleasant to have a tube forced down your throat. He was experiencing severe pain across his chest. A broad, hefty Irish nurse, Cal could not help his affliction. The nurse had been on call for twenty-four hours. She and another volunteer changed the bedding of the elderly patients. She came out with the same old bromides: she told him anecdotes about the hospital and the patients.

Madeline had slipped into a coma at the weekend. The doctors are working very hard to keep her alive. The brain surgeon asked the nurse to pass her a probe. Patients who are comatose or mentally deranged need careful nursing.

He was wearing a bandage round his head. Cal was unwinding his bandage. She looked at him and her thin eyebrows arched. ‘It looks bad,’ she said. ‘The infection is spreading.’ She dabbed the cuts with disinfectant and taped a gauze square over them. Being a nurse requires infinite patience and bravery.

She averted her eyes from the figure on the bed. ‘I'm not suggesting that the accident was your fault. You have to bear up under the strain.’

‘I'll never see ninety-one,’ he croaked, coughing his most bronchial cough.

‘Try to rest,’ the doctor said, ‘try to get some rest.’ He examined the cut and applied a plaster. ‘Go back to bed and rest.’

He was given a pink cake of soap, which smelled of disinfectant. I washed out the wound with antiseptic. They checked his arteries and lungs and timed his coagulation rate.

The shock of her death kept hitting me afresh. Each change brings with it a need for new learning. By bribing a nurse I was able to see some files—a very revealing experience. ‘We have been trying to resuscitate her for over half an hour.’ I had detected an apologetic note in her voice.

It was a good hospital with a cheerful atmosphere. Hospital staff are fighting to keep the heart unit. Units were mostly organised broadly on US models. This wing of the hospital was financed entirely by charitable donations. The psychiatric wards are bursting at the seams.

Comedy is about the fact that life goes on. I recovered very gradually from the shock of her death. He was on his back for about three months after the accident. The wound was healing, the doctor said. His liver was in a shocking state. He collected himself enough to tell his friends about the accident.

I had a lot of callers when I came home from hospital. John was obsessed with hitting back at those who had wronged him. He bragged to two nurses that he had killed a man. The gash in his leg eventually closed. He received an award of £10.000 in compensation for his injuries.

He came in on crutches that morning, his foot still in a cast. When a couple comes through a crisis like this together, their relationship should be stronger than ever.

John was unwinding his bandage. ‘Her voice will live with me until I die.’ He could not fight off the self-pity that welled up inside him.

‘Well, we've certainly had our share of disasters.’

He was sitting in his wheelchair with closed eyes; he lost himself in a maze of thoughts. ‘Felicity had a very distinctive voice, extremely clear and ringing.’

‘Don't worry, everything will be OK, it just needs a little time, that's all.’

The day of reckoning

I have a strong instinct for self-preservation. I feel a little bruised by recent events; wherever you look, you see selfishness and dishonesty. The day of reckoning had not yet come for him. There's a risk that I'll be caught, but I'm going to chance it. I went out and bought a .38 revolver and a lot of ammunition. The weapon felt clumsy in my hand. I'm not really a good shot but I enjoy shooting; poisons are notoriously unpredictable.

The gun was kept well oiled. Some dark, sinful passion you're nursing in your bosom...The children have been well prepared for their father's death. As I drove to East London I had moments of doubt that I was doing the right thing. I had to apply the brakes rather abruptly.

It was common knowledge that he lived alone in the mansion. It had everything but everything, even an indoor waterfall. The gate slid open at the push of a button; he stared at us in disbelief. His appearance was even more slovenly than usual: a threadbare cotton dhoti... On his head he wore a brown cloth cap. You could smell the whiskey on his breath. I had the sudden impulse to turn around and walk out.

He opened the door and ushered his guest inside. The furniture looked as though it had come out of somebody's attic, the windows could do with a clean. The floor was littered with ashtrays, plates, cups, glasses and magazines. My aunt's photograph still stood on the piano downstairs. Pots and bowls sat everywhere catching water-drops that fell from the ceiling, glazed clay pots...

He was wearing a pyjama bottoms and a vest, breathing whiskey fumes all over my face. ‘I'm very choosy about my whisky. I never thought I would ever have anything in common with George..’ He spoke in the same colourless, plodding voice. ‘Pour me another whisky, would you, Chris, there's a good chap...’ Chris poured two brandies with an unsteady hand.

‘Bottoms up,’ I said and poured the whisky down my throat. There was a large bed with a silk canopy over it. ‘Why don't you stop behaving like a bum and get this place cleaned up?’

John stopped sweeping and rested on his broom. ‘You look awful. You've let yourself go since Castle died.’ It didn't take him long to come up with a very convincing example. He brought forward some very cogent arguments.

That was when the trouble started. It is impossible to fix the exact moment in time when it happened. I don't know what he did. Perhaps he did nothing. In any case, there was a brief scuffle.

‘I'll just give him a smack to teach him a lesson.’

Chris was an extraordinarily bright lad. ‘Let's run,’ he said.

‘Let's stay and fight,’ I said. ‘We'll look very foolish if we turn and run now.’

John stared at me, his eyes widening behind his rimless glasses. The accident had left him almost totally blind. He held my arm in a fierce lock. I hit him with all the force I could muster, a blow that set blood spurting from his mouth. He let out a choked scream. Holding on to the rail with one hand, he pulled himself up. He turned on the lamp so he could find his way without bumping into anything. He ran, and then slowed down to a walk. He had little breath left for running, his legs began trembling and buckling under him. The impulse to attack involves the immediate arousal of acute fear. A bop on the nose... ‘Ugh!’ he exclaimed with an involuntary shudder. I went on bashing and thumping at him; I had to pause halfway to catch my breath. He was driven by the most primitive of instincts: he fought like a wild-cat, biting and clawing. My arm began to spurt blood. Then I biffed him on the chin. The blow made him scream in agony. There were more violent, rapid blows and desperate screams.

John was coming for me with a knife. It was a purely reflexive move on his part. The knife glinted wickedly. There was no time for delay or hesitation. I took careful aim at his head and fired. I shut my eyes involuntarily when I pulled the trigger. The bullet pierced John's breast. The blood spouted over his hands. John's knees buckled, and he sank to the ground. He cried ‘Oh Death, Death, Death!’ in an inimitable tone that struck me with horror. The ninth shot went clean through the forehead, a moment preserved for ever on film. The film was shot by cameraman Chris Menges. With his camera, he tried to capture changes as they took place before his eyes, scenes containing painstaking cinematic detail. He regarded film-making as the most glamorous job on earth. ‘If you've got a great idea for a film, you should wade into it. We're using slow-motion to record these subtle changes.’ Is it acceptable to make such a film, to point the camera so relentlessly at a dying man? He sometimes gets a little carried away. The film marks a turning point in Chris' career.

Death came as a merciful release—a hissing sigh, rather like the sound of air escaping from a tire. It will remain permanently etched on my memory. He was aware of a glorious carefree feeling of joy. He could hear the burr of a car in the distance.

A few coats hung in the closet, one of leopard skin. One of the beds had obviously been slept in. John's possessions were scattered on the desk. We found a large number of unpaid bills and IOUs. Menges eyed the clutter of pots and packages. He was holding a bottle brimful of milk. ‘Whew! It's nice to have that over with. Has John made a will?’

A radio was blaring out pop music. John lay face down on the floor. I had never seen a dead man before. Actually, I felt kind of sorry for him; I was struck by the glaring incongruity of the scene. Chris smudged blood over his forehead. ‘Hey John,’ he called. There was no reply. I bathed my face and washed off the blood. Its no good worrying any more tonight...

The dustmen came for the rubbish every Wednesday. The carpet would be full of worms... It may be mentioned in passing that worms are very good for your garden. I believe in reincarnation. I changed the bulb and checked the fuse.

Don't be afraid of what the neighbours will think. They complained to me about the noise. The sheet on the body next to me blew back, uncovering the face. Mrs Bixby put a hand up to her mouth and started backing away.

‘Have you got a Kleenex?’ Mr Menges turned his eyes heavenward. He rifled the dead man's wallet. His shirttails were hanging out at the back, bloodstained clothing. He told Mrs Blixby all about it. ‘Soak the material for several hours in cold water.’

‘Do stop ferreting about and come and sit down!’ I felt unreal, in a bad dream, still not properly awake. I left the cloth in the sun to bleach. She started putting the rocks in his shirt pocket. He put the milk back in the fridge.

We started off through the pitch-black woods: the big wood where the pheasants lived. We walked along the river bank. The boat was tied up alongside a crumbling limestone jetty. We rowed slowly out towards the centre of the river. ‘One heave,’ cried Chris. ‘That's all it needs.’ It sank to the bottom of the lake. I had ended a man's life for no compelling reason—a matter which has been on my conscience for a long time.

All the rooms were painted different colours, the floor has been cemented over.

Virtually nothing has been said about the incident. Two people knew the truth; I didn't feel like giving away more information than I had to. ‘He was shot dead in a gunfight. You needn't worry, nothing need be said about it. For goodness sake don't open your mouth. We must try and understand...’

Celia was by then in shock. Her features twisted into a stare of disgusted incredulity. The silence was broken eventually by Madeline. ‘You're joking,’ she said, in a horrified voice. I sensed that this was the overture to an argument.

On Easter Sunday, Madeline vanished without trace. We are, most of us, doomed to unhappiness. But let those who are inclined to condemn me look at their own behaviour before they speak out.

The Garden

It had been proved—‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ in judicial parlance—that there had been a cover-up. The guard had been identified as Victor Kowalski. A federal jury found Howard guilty of bribery and conspiracy. He had taken part in falsifying some official documents. He denied that he took any part in the cover-up. He was given a heavy jail sentence for a whole catalogue of serious crimes. He published his ghosted memoirs in a Sunday newspaper.

He was unexpectedly granted a reprieve. He is a broken man. Before he could set matters aright, Howard committed suicide. I learned of his death through an announcement in the newspaper. There were suspicious circumstances about his death. They recovered his body from the old mineshaft. He was dead for three weeks before anyone discovered him; the rats had begun to gnaw at his body.

I felt the numbness I last felt when President Kennedy had been assassinated. It is not our business to enquire why he did it. Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. I write this sadly, with the utmost respect for what he has achieved. The modern world sadly misses this kind of breadth of vision. He discharged all his debts before he died. Was there any money left over? He was refused burial in consecrated ground. His ghost would haunt me all my life.

Lawyer Didlington read the old gentleman's will. All the facts came out after Howard's death. His relatives finally agreed to the release of his private papers. The diary begins disconcertingly: Today is my last day on earth. This dossier was unearthed along with many others: a smudged, greasy, and tear-stained epistle which I received the other day. I knew I had forgotten something, some news relayed to him the night before by his wife. She had no business to publish his letters to her. It took a long while to get over it.

The police are anxious to apprehend a middle-aged man believed to be armed with a shot gun. Wouldn't it be better to make a clean breast of it? The idea of having enough money to retire at the age of 50 is very appealing. Pretty rainbows would arc down to the earth. Personally, I'm more self-assured now. I plan to retire to a quiet cul-de-sac where there's not much life. Distance from the event should make the memories less painful. My one prayer is that I don't live to be really old. I have high blood pressure and heart trouble. In short I shall disappear. You will hear nothing of me again.

I returned to the Pacific Northwest, where I had a fellowship. Some of the best natural harbours in the world are there. Spring came late that year to the mountains. It has been so cold here that gardening has been out of the question most of the time. After two arid years, it was good to come home. A world of material comfort. Now that I am old, I can read all the books I've always meant to read. I will not give anyone my whereabouts; it's good to be alone with nobody around to snoop or make a fuss. I never get lonely even if I don't see anyone for weeks on end. I felt calmer and more composed; my sense of hearing gradually deteriorated. I have no deep thoughts, no profound philosophy. My speech is now closer to a Midlands accent than it used to be. The mansion burned down four years ago. The grass was still worn away where the children used to play. I'm my own boss now, thank God. For a brief year I was free of suffering.

Happiness is an elusive quality. The garden is like an impressionist painting, splashed with colour; a long garden full of pear and apple trees. Whenever I recollect her face it is smiling or laughing.

Gardening is really thirsty work. We're trying to build up a collection of herbs and spices. The spring came and the leaves burgeoned; a lovingly designed blend of flowers and shrubs and trees. I have been judging village flower shows and gardens for nearly thirty years. Bees buzzed outside. The land belongs to a big family. A rich landowner who had a house near the temple, a large house; it is built on the site of the old Lion Tower, a massive old building of crumbling red brick, all overgrown with briars and brambles. The roof cladding and kitchen shutters were made from corrugated iron.

Charlotte was reluctant to answer her post. She manages to sustain her optimism against all the odds. She will probably survive me by many years.

I was about to go to bed when I heard cars purr in the distance. My friend knocked on the door. ‘There's a young man below who wants to see you immediately.’

My friends never come to visit me... He didn't even knock as he burst inside.

‘What are you doing here, George?’ I stared at him incredulously; I don't believe in ghosts.

‘I ask your forgiveness for this unannounced intrusion.’

Lithgow had the appearance of a sick man. He had his bundle of personal belongings under his arm. What diabolical nerve he has, coming in here like that! He described how he escaped from prison.

I looked at him with puzzlement. ‘You'll have to turn yourself in some time.’

George knew better than to show his irritation. He was simple and unaffected and obviously sincere.

‘It was stupid of you, but we’ll let it go at that.’

I tried to think how I could relieve my unutterable boredom: I offered to put him up. He could do odd jobs about the place to earn a bit of money. Nearly a year after his release he was still unable to sleep properly.

Oddly enough, it was through him that I met Felt. If it hadn't been for Lithgow, Jackie would never have got here... He came into our lives, or we came into his, whichever way you care to look at it. Jackie Felt, our self-appointed trainer and spiritual guide. The word ‘guide’ is used with various meanings. His monumental self-assurance was based upon his complete faith in his own ability. He immediately put his finger on what was wrong. ‘Fulfilment must be sought through the spirit, not the body or the mind.’ He ran his tongue over his lips. Angels are supposed to be sexless. If we'd been five years younger, we'd just have shacked up together. He had an extraordinarily penetrating gaze. I nicknamed him ‘Fingers’, a name which stuck. He forgot my birthday again this year.

‘Would you like to come and read Proust with me?’ I took a magnificent photo of him—or perhaps I should say a photo of him looking magnificent.

Rooks cawed in the great beeches all around. They are just random dots. There is no discernable shape of any kind. The once elegant temple lay in virtual ruins; the main gate had collapsed. Her dream house has become something much more closely resembling a nightmare. The wood was so rotten that, when they pulled, it broke up into a shower of fragments. I fixed it with cardboard and tacks. The air was heavy with the fragrance of lush wild blooms. Peacocks strutted on the lawn. The cock bird throws his plumes up in a shimmering fountain of colour. The flower beds blazed with colour; a beetle pauses over the hole she has just chewed in a lily leaf. The high canopy of tree crowns shades the ground below; the upper air is shot with sunlight. Leaves turned to shimmering silver as zephyrs played through them. I could hear birds singing in the trees. The damaged wood will probably have to be cut away. I lay back in the grass and looked up at the sun. I was feeling unusually blithe and dauntless.

Rosie strolled blithely into the yard. Now this Rosie, she's a darling, and she reminds me of my grandmother. She knew beyond question that I was a person who could be trusted. She loved to chase the chickens. She stood there with a brilliant smile on her face. Way off in the distance she sees a cloud of smoke. The little girl then capered towards Jackie. She kicked off her shoes and turned three perfect cartwheels across the grass.

We had a bumper crop of apples last year. The hidden forces within the earth have buckled the strata; radiation is actually eroding the planet's surface atom by atom. The one effect tends to cancel the other out. Perhaps the planet was destroyed in some cosmic catastrophe. They say that there are giants living deep in the bowels of the earth: they have vanished from the face of the earth. Their ghosts come back to haunt people... Like all such tales, it is part superstition, part fact. People have forgotten their true meaning but the fact remains that they exist. ‘They lived in the open air, simply under a tree.’

‘Under a tree,’ echoed Rosie in amused distaste. ‘Go on, you are seeing things!’ She crushed the beetle deliberately, which was very typical of her.

‘I am talking about a mystical or quasi-religious experience. Can we explain the universe without resorting to gods or demons?’

I shall never forget the look of wonder on her face the first time it snowed. She drew back the curtain and gazed at the winter wonderland before her. The two children used to send me a card at Christmas time.

The rain began in the late autumn. Everything was wrapped in a veil of perl-grey evening light. We filled the back of the car with wood for the fire.

At last George broke the silence. ‘I don’t like chopping wood.’

I did not say anything.

‘May I continue?’

‘Go on.’

‘I don’t believe Howard died a natural death.’

‘Not now, George, I’m busy.’

He tied the wood into a bundle.

A sudden shot broke the silence. The cry echoed back from the pink granite of the mountain.

‘How do you like it here?’

‘I’m leaving,’ George Lithgow answered, ‘and what’s more,’ he continued, ‘I’m not coming back.’

I forgot all about him for several years. His lack of sympathy was perhaps forgivable. We often call things by the wrong names. He's morose—that's the word. None of the children knew what the word meant. Today the word has virtually dropped out of usage. I believe I once tried looking it up in the dictionary.

This was the last part. You may go back to the index of Secret Ballet

Last update: 16 October 2008 | Impressum—Imprint