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Look At Me Part 5

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*Well... she's crippled.'

I said, *Only physically', and I must have spoken rather loudly, because there was a brief silence.

After that, it was quite evident that the evening was over. They stirred and put on coats, and although I walked ahead of them to the door it was a matter of pride to behave as if I were still in their company. I did not look back. I simply went out on to the pavement, and, still smiling, and with a brief wave, I walked briskly away from them, down the street.

Eleven.

And then I was alone, in that emptying street, with the night's blackness to hide me.

I maintained my airy walk and my smile was still on my lips. For as long as I thought that Nick and Alix might take it into their heads to worry about me and offer me a lift home in their car, I sauntered along, looking amused and nonchalant, as if having witnessed some particularly rare episode of the human comedy, available only to connoisseurs of the absurd. My hands in my pockets, my head tilted at its usual enquiring angle, I took my time, perusing articles in shop windows, stepping unconcerned from areas of light to areas of darkness, attentive to the hiss of tyres behind me, waiting for a car to stop and a voice to hail me. I would have gone with them. Yes, even then I would have gone with them. For what I felt, beneath the bright fact.i.tious surface of my outward appearance, was an enormous sense of loss. It no longer seemed to me important that I had been duped. I was so tired of not apportioning blame that I could no longer see where it was due. I felt, simply, irradiated by the blast of some great revelation, although I could not yet fully understand the nature of that revelation. I could not, somehow, make contact with any familiar emotion. As I lingered in front of a lighted window, apparently beguiled by a pair of burgundy leather shoes, I could only identify a feeling of exclusion. I felt as if the laws of the universe no longer applied to me, since I was outside the normal frames of reference. A biological nonent.i.ty, to be phased out. And somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting b.l.o.o.d.y revolution, plotting revenge.

As for James, whom I loved all the more for having lost him, and more even than that, for having seen him reveal himself as a true man, with desire in his eyes, a lover at last, well, James, it was simple, James was... like them. No mischief had been practised, for you cannot stand between a man and his inclination, if that inclination is strong enough. I would have thought, before this evening, that I understood what love was about. Given the chance, I would have laid down my life... Being of a sacrificial disposition. But clearly, matters have to be taken in hand, attentions redirected, if unsuitably placed. Clearly, for love, a rampant egotism serves one better than an unsophisticated hope. I remembered the noise and the heat of that restaurant, the intent and flushed faces, the oozing custard, the sucking inhalations of cigarettes, the raucous but sly excitement, the watchers. That, clearly, was the correct atmosphere in which love might flourish. And, come to think of it, why not naked compet.i.tion, black propaganda, ruses, devices, stratagems, insinuations, blackmail, trickery, cruelty, desertion? Why not the triumph of the will? And why be sad about all or any of this? If, as we have it on the highest authority, there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, why not sin, provisionally? Why not break the rules, like that Prodigal Son (so much more amusing than his tedious brother) who must have attended so many parties like this evening's, and who still came home to enjoy the fatted calf? Because they had felt so dull without him. So extremely bored with only the spectacle of virtue and hard work to beguile them.

The noises of the street were becoming fainter, and, to give them a last chance, I lingered outside Harvey Nichols, watching a small electric train racing silently round and round. When I raised my eyes from this, it was to meet my own reflection, small, slight, undeniably chic. Not a hair out of place. Still poised, still terrified, still murderous. A person, you would say, of no overt desires or needs. Well provided for. Decently housed. In extremely good health. A person who had not, in any sense of the word, come down in the world. And who could be relied upon never to cause embarra.s.sment, either of a social or a personal kind. For that very reason, perhaps, rather less than interesting. And quite talented, with two stories already published in a prestigious American magazine. Embarking on a novel, it is said, calculated to be much appreciated in donnish circles. No immediate plans, but then, when one is a writer, one does not have the same plans as other people. One is not expected to. One is, let it be remembered, an observer, an unblinking eye recording what is thought, at the time, to be unremarkable. These scenes, these actions, to be retrieved, at a later date, intact. No blame attaching, of course. Able to see the funny side.

For it is all extremely funny, the misplaced enthusiasm, the expectations. Running like an acolyte to those who did not need me and like a fiancee to one who made his choice elsewhere. And even now, standing in front of Harvey Nichols, watching an electric train race round, my eyes, when I raised them to the darkened gla.s.s, were brilliant with tears and spite. It had to be funny. For if one is serious, one is rarely a welcome guest. Everything must be converted, somehow, into entertainment. And I could do it. I might not want to, but who cared about that? I could do it. And when a secret is known to the whole world, no one will ever suspect that it was ever a secret in the first place.

The street was almost silent now, and empty of cars. The rain, which had been threatening all day, making a dark afternoon and a seductively soft evening, now came blowing on the wind, disruptive of one's appearance, unsettling. I took my leave of the train set, crossed the street, and, almost automatically, entered the park. I was in no hurry to get home, although it occurred to me that what I was doing might be rather dangerous. I thought, childishly, that if it had really been dangerous, they would have stopped me. As they had not, I would put myself at risk, just to see.

I was unprepared for the darkness, and the silence. I had never noticed them before, as I had always been hurrying to Chelsea on a visit, or walking back with James, my face turned towards him. On every occasion, my head had been crammed with words. Now, when I needed them, they had deserted me. Vacant, I was surrounded by vacancy. It was extremely undramatic. Apart from the fact that my feet stumbled when they encountered soft earth and tripped when they got back on to a hard surface, I was not aware of any sensation whatever. Once past the edge of the Serpentine and the darkened caf&, once on to the gravel again, I stopped for a moment at that point where one can take one of three paths in the direction of Marble Arch. A clump of broad, squat., leafless trees, perhaps no more than three or four, but dense and compact in outline in this uncertain light, stood sentinel by the side of the main centre walk, the shortest distance to the other side. But I was not anxious to reach the other side, and so I turned to the right and embarked on the narrower path that would lead me in an oblique angle, to where it was darkest.

Emptiness flowed away from me on either side. The rain was now steady but silent, falling in such thin threads that one was aware of it merely as a coldness descending. There was no evidence of life around me, no rustle in the undergrowth, no rea.s.suring country twitterings. The park, at night, was empty of comfort, a place for outlaws, for those who desired concealment. I was entirely alone, and might have gone on like this indefinitely, had I not, too soon, reached the darker avenue of trees which ran parallel to Park Lane. Now I could hear a sizzling sound, as the occasional car seethed along on the wet road. Lights, in the big hotels, merely served to accentuate the opacity in which I moved. There was a moon, revealed and again concealed by drifts of black vapour, but it did not reach down into my darkness and was in any case on the wane.

I found, in a curious way, that I was walking from memory, for I could see nothing ahead of me. I could hear ordinary city sounds, muted by the late hour, to my right, but they seemed to have nothing to do with the cessation of life in the narrow enclave in which I moved. I was at no point afraid, even when I heard footsteps behind me, a soft steady pounding of deadly purposefulness. Indeed, I could barely be bothered to turn my head as the silent runner, in shorts and sweatshirt, eventually overtook me, and then I could hear his laboured breathing and smell his sweat. Once he had disappeared, the silence was even more intense. My thin shoes made no sound and my black coat made me at one with the unmoving columns of the trees.

In fact it was so restful, so appropriate, that at one point I sat down on one of the seats' congratulating myself on the extremely controlled way in which I was handling what might, to others, seem an unpromising situation. Still in this mood of tight control, I made plans. Changes would have to come about, I thought practically. I could no longer go on living in that flat, with its two-fold layer of memories. I would pension Nancy off and send her home to her sister in Cork. I would tell her after Christmas, and once she was settled, put the flat on the market. It would bring me in a tidy sum, and with this I would buy an attic, a top floor somewhere, in a different area. I liked the small shopping streets near Victoria Station. I might even give up my job, for I no longer needed the money or the occupation. I would be a writer, my material spread out before me, the whole world my oyster, free to invent my life. I doubted if I should marry David, for something inside me had become fissured by alarm, as if exposed to some violent and deathly ray, resulting in a kind of sterility. I loved his family too much to wish on him a wife unable to understand or to trust affection given naively, worthy of good faith. Since leaving the silent train set, emblem of so much Christmas expectation, I had felt myself growing smaller, harder, more brittle, less worthy of love than before. I felt dangerous and endangered. The sooner I cut adrift, the better. I felt I should go where no one could watch me, check on how I was bearing up. I would deal with matters in my own way, far from scrutiny. My own views, so far unsought, might eventually find their way to the light of day.

I had no idea of the time, although it must have been very late. When I felt cold, I got up and resigned myself to walking on. There was still no sign of life. I strolled, in an almost leisurely manner, in the direction of Marble Arch. Far ahead of me, a tiny light, at waist level, wavered, was gone, then reappeared. My coat was damp, my face cold; I could feel minute drops of water on my eyelashes, which made the outlines of the trees hazy. The light came nearer. At no point did I feel either fear or curiosity, and when a policeman, on his bicycle, asked me whether I was all right, I answered, as briskly as I could, that, yes, I was perfectly all right and was on my way home. I often walked this way, I told him, feeling him to be unconvinced. And indeed I quickened my pace, for he had got off his bicycle and stood, watching me, and I could feel his eyes on my back as I went down the steps to the underpa.s.s.

In the thin glare of the mauvish lights the endless tunnel stretched before me, a far more frightening sight than the dark and empty park. There was a stink of urine, and someone had recently been active with an aerosol, for several fresh slogans in blue Arabic writing decorated the tiled walls. *Victory to the Revolutionary Council in Iran, proclaimed a grease pencil, applied to an otherwise innocent poster advertising men's dress suits for hire. There was no one in sight, but now I felt a touch of unease, and my footsteps drummed out rather more loudly, their echo coming back to me. At one point I stumbled and must have kicked an empty lager can, whose mournful clatter, a doleful sound, made my teeth clench and sent me hurrying on. Then, just as I felt the first faint stiffings of alarm, a figure staggered round the corner ahead of me and came to a groaning halt, propping itself against the wall, and bending over as if in an extremity of pain.

Heels drumming, and eyes staring steadily ahead, I walked towards him. I could smell the whisky and hear him mumbling and groaning. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him bending over, as if to vomit, and then righting himself; then I could see him spreadeagled against the wall, one hand, with thick black nails, splayed on the tiles behind him. As I came level with him, the other hand reached out and made as if to grab my sleeve, but his aim was too unsteady and he missed it. This angered him, and his voice came to me, a threatening animal sound. I stamped on, electric with terror, a.s.suming an expression of worldly indifference, as if I had not noticed anything amiss. Only when I had reached the other end of the tunnel and was about to turn towards the steps did I dare to look back. I saw him, propped against the wall, his hand still stretched out, feeling for me. His face was a darkish purple.

By now I was shaken, and I felt my confidence or my madness or whatever it was leave me. I felt the blood drain from my face and the heat from my body; I felt my shoulders contract, and my hands start to tremble. I would have run the rest of the way if I had had the energy, but this seemed to have deserted me. Oxford Street looked like a dull chasm, with ghostly Christmas trees in shop windows illuminated only by those terrible acid overhead lights. I looked at my watch; it was halfpast twelve. For some reason the thought of taking a cab never crossed my mind; in any event, nothing pa.s.sed me. I felt as if I had to accomplish this ritual on foot, and that only if I did so could I face the haven of warmth and m.u.f.fled air that awaited me. Only in this way could I exhaust myself sufficiently to put thought to sleep, and if I did not so exhaust myself I would feel that I was entering a tomb, rather than a perfectly ordinary bed. As I turned up the Edgware Road, the home stretch, I even thought with longing of the hot drink that Nancy would have left for me, and of the safety of her presence, her protection.

I was not very fast now, and my feet stumbled from time to time. I went past the s.e.x shop, and the television rental company, past the ethnic hairdresser, whose fluorescent tube in the window blinked weakly, lessening my feeling of total desertion. I greeted the wax nurse in her spectral uniform like an old friend. I pa.s.sed the banks and the supermarkets and mysterious shops which seemed to have an air of dereliction about them and whose normal purposes I could now no longer remember. The rain had stopped but my coat was damp and it impeded me. I felt intimations of nightmare; I seemed to be making no headway. It was as if I were trying to wade through some viscous substance wearing an old-fashioned diving suit. There was no one in sight. There was no sound, apart from a distant rumble, which I could not identify. I was breathing harshly now and I could feel a pain in my chest; my hair stuck to my damp face in wisps, and I was very thirsty. The dull rumble came nearer, and I was aware of a dark shape looming in front of me, high above. Then I realised that this was the flyover, and that I should have to negotiate another underpa.s.s in order to get to the other side, and home.

For some time I could not do it. I clung to the railings and waited to feel better, and still did nothing. I think I even decided that I might stay there until someone came along and then I might summon up the courage to follow them down those steps. I was prepared to wait until the morning, but I was so tired, and it was so dark, that this immediately became unimaginable. Several times I started down the steps, only to retreat to the surface, my mouth dry. I could not go down there. I knew that people sometimes slept rough in subways, that they were the favourite haunt of drunks and derelicts. I thought of the man at Marble Arch and I smelt the smell again. I think at one point that I must have sat down on the steps and buried my face in my hands. I had never had to do this before, on my own. James, who knew I was frightened, had always put his arm round me, and that way it was even enjoyable. And thus I felt his loss again, and the loss of all protection, and I tried to summon the compensating anger. But at some point on that homeward journey, even the anger had retreated from my grasp.

And then, after about half an hour, I managed to go down the steps. But I was shaking so much that I had to cling to the railing, feeling for every step with my foot, and then, when I had reached the tunnel, keeping close to the wall, the dirty tiles, ready at the slightest sound to retreat, or, when I had pa.s.sed the halfway mark, to fling myself forward. It took a long time, that I know; I also know that when I reached the steps at the other end I could hardly lift my feet to climb them. At one point I was overcome with a sort of vertigo and had to stand still until I found the will to go on. I emerged upwards into the blackest night I had ever seen.

This must be the most terrible hour, the hour when people die in hospitals. No sound, no light, the vital forces ebbing away, even the memory indistinct. I had no reliable information on where I had pa.s.sed the earlier part of that evening, nor could I really understand what had happened, or how I came to be here. I only knew, as I pa.s.sed dreamlike along the endless empty street, that I must get home; I even put my hand in my bag to get my key, and I held it before me like a talisman as, light-headed, and vague in my movements, I reached the corner where the Westminster Bank stood foursquare, as it always had done, and when I lifted my eyes I could see a very dim glow behind the curtains of the drawing room, as if a lamp had been left on for me.

It took me a long time to climb the red-carpeted stairs. I felt like a pilgrim who at last reaches the place of his pilgrimage, after days and nights of search and exhaustion. I noticed, as if it were some item of sacred furniture, the gleaming bra.s.s of the stair-rods; my hand crept out and touched the wooden banisters. Slowly I looked around me. I had reached the end of my journey. I raised my hand and with it the key.

The door was locked. Nancy had locked the door. After a time, or rather a complete absence of time, I rang the bell. Then I rang it again, aware that I was doing something so untoward that it had never happened in this house before. This place of regularity, and sound, if valetudinarian, habits, this serious place, always so quiet and so measured, was now violated, at two in the morning, by the harsh sound of a peremptory bell. I imagined people stirring with alarm, with outrage, as their night was shattered. I expected to see the ranks of the elderly, in substantial dressing gowns, in solid slippers, ma.s.sing at their front doors, ready with admonishment, shaking their heads. I awaited complaints. I stared around me, as if on trial. Then, after a long silence, I heard the soft shuffle of Nancy's steps, and the chain sliding, and the latch going up, and at last the door was opened and I was staring down into Nancy's severe and trusting blue eyes.

I must have looked very odd for she said nothing, merely put out her hand and laid it on my sleeve. As I went forward, but so slowly now, she took my arm in both her hands, and then I felt her arm around me, and, quite wordlessly, we walked along the pa.s.sage. She guided me into the kitchen, and put on the light, and as I sank down into her own padded basket chair, she shuffled over to the cooker and got busy with the kettle. I was still wearing my wet coat and my feet were swollen; my eyes seemed to me to be shuttered by my drooping lids, although Nancy tells me that they were wide and staring. As she made the tea, my ears adjusted to this new form of silence: I heard a singing in the pipes, the occasional jerk of the hands of the kitchen clock, the bubbling of the boiling water poured into the teapot. Then I felt the cup guided towards my mouth and I drank steadily as Nancy held the cup to my mouth, lowering it when she thought I ought to take a breath, as she had when I was a child. Without asking me, she poured some more, and this time she let me drink it myself. Then she took out the old square biscuit tin, and put it in front of me. After a moment my hand stole out and took a biscuit. *That's my girlie,' she said.

She asked me no questions. She simply sat down, with her hands folded, and waited. It was peaceful in the kitchen, and safe, and I had no desire to move. I looked at the pale yellow walls, and the dresser with the cups hanging from hooks, and the piles of the Cork Examiner, and her knitting bag on the back of the chair. I looked at the television, which my mother had bought her one Christmas, and the old-fashioned wireless, which she refused to replace. The scullery, which contained all the machinery of our lives, the agencies by which we were fed and kept clean, was a place I hardly ever visited, although I sometimes sat with Nancy in her kitchen. On those occasions, as now, we rarely spoke, but I think she liked to have me there.

I had not been there for a long time. Tentatively, I reached out and felt the soft clean surface of her deal table. In the centre stood a blue china fruit bowl, and among the apples and the tangerines there was a packet of the harsh mints that she loved so well. There was always a faint smell of peppermint surrounding her. Then I noticed an enormous and elaborate box of chocolates, and I smiled involuntarily. *Sydney?' I asked. She nodded. *Came the minute you left,' she said. *He was so sorry to miss you. Always comes at Christmas, Mr Goldsmith. I made him a nice little tea, although he didn't want to eat it. Said he was going out to dinner. But I know him. He was going back on the train, back to an empty house, I expect. I gave him a nice boiled egg, and some toast, and some of my fruit cake, and I made him a few sandwiches to take back with him. He sent you his love, Miss Fan. He was sorry to miss you."

Sydney Goldsmith, in his gangster's overcoat. His unfailing, his discreet fidelity. I had almost forgotten him, yet now I saw him clearly, head c.o.c.ked., soft brown hat in one hand. I saw him lean over to kiss my mother's forehead, and I heard him say, *Any time, Beatrice. Call on me any time. My time is yours.' How long ago it seemed that I had stood with Nancy at the door to wave him goodbye. And I never got in touch with him, although he would have been glad of it. He was always fond of me.

Nancy got up and left the room, and after a time I heard bath water running. My coat had steamed and then turned stiff in its creases, and I shrugged out of it. My shoes were muddy and so were my legs; my grey dress, which I should never wear again, seemed to hang on my insignificant body. So great was my fatigue that if I had a conscious wish, it was to remain where I was. I felt old, unwieldy. Slowly, and with great care, I sat up and leaned forward. I doubted whether I was up to the exertion of taking a bath. In the heat which now enveloped me, I could smell the scent which I had put on earlier that evening. It was only my desire to remove it that made me get up and follow Nancy into the bathroom.

She had put out a clean towel for me and a clean nightgown. She had unwrapped a new cake of green soap and put the bathmat on the floor. She waited while I took off my discredited and dirty clothes, and then went away with them. What she did with them I do not know. I never saw them again after that night.

I lay in the water, the kindest of all the elements, the one that welcomes and soothes and cradles you and from which it is difficult to break free. I floated, without thought or memory, only aware that something had happened. That was what my mind kept saying: something has happened. The details escaped me, although I knew that they were all stored somewhere, and could, at some future date, be retrieved, intact. It would be my wearisome task to retrieve them with gusto, to make my readers smile wryly at the accuracy of my detail. No mercy given, none received. And the purpose of it all distinctly questionable. Perhaps to lighten the burden of things left unsaid. For those who put pen to paper do so because they rarely trust their own voices, and, indeed, in society, have very little to say. They are, as I now knew, the least entertaining of guests.

I looked at myself in the long gla.s.s, wiping the steam away with the corner of the towel. I saw a slight and almost childish person, with fixed and fearful eyes. Briefly, I even smiled. I congratulated myself on never looking like this when anyone was near; normally, I know, I look rather disdainful. When I was younger, MY Aunt Julia had once taken me on one side and told me that I would make myself unpopular unless I took that expression off my face. I had done so then, but lately, very lately, I had found it useful again.

I put on the nightgown, a white nightgown with long sleeves that I did not immediately recognize. This puzzled me, for I am rather particular about my clothes. This, as far as I could judge, had never been worn, for it had long vertical creases in it and smelt of new cotton. It was a pretty garment, with a round neck, and fullness falling from a yoke. I looked rather well in it. But its strangeness puzzled me, and I found myself standing in the middle of the bathroom, wondering where Nancy had found it. Then it came to me. It was one of the nightgowns I had bought for my mother. She had said, *Far too pretty for me, my darling. You wear it.' And she had smiled, and folded it up again. But I was rather hurt, although I had not shown it, and I had taken it into her room and put it into the drawer of the dressing table with the gla.s.s top and all the photographs stuck underneath it. Nancy, of course, had kept it, as she had kept everything else.

Suddenly I wanted to sleep, and I stumbled to the door and out into the pa.s.sage. Nancy emerged from the kitchen, and said, *No dressing gown, Miss Fan? What can you be thinking of?' But I must have looked exhausted, for she took my arm again and guided me. When we reached my door, I made as if to kiss her goodnight, but she said, *No, dear, no', and went on walking, urging me forward with her. I said, *What is it? What's the matter?' She went ahead of me, her step more purposeful now. *Nancy,' I called after her, *what is it?' Then she turned, her expression guileless. *You said you wanted a change,' she said, *so I've put you in Madam's room. Such a nice room. I've made up the bed.'

So I got into that bed, which seemed very strange after my own. And I looked at the ivory satin curtains, and the white rug in front of the pale tiled fireplace, all rather faded now, but made of such superior materials that they would last for ever. And the idiosyncratic centre light, of wrought iron, sprouting many tiny satin shades, that I begged my mother to allow me to change, but she never would. She always wanted everything to stay the same. And although I had not been in this room for a long time, I had no doubt that her clothes were still hanging in the wardrobe, and her narrow shoes marshalled in their usual impeccable rows.

I did not now want to sleep, but I could feel Nancy's hand stroking my own, smoothing it out as it lay on the sheet. Then I felt her hand on my forehead, testing it. And then I felt it across my eyes, as I had so often felt it as a child: the signal to close them. I heard her moving round the room, pulling curtains closer together, touching things on the dressing table. Then I heard her close the door, very quietly, as if I were already asleep.

Twelve.

I remember that I slept and woke all through the rest of that short night and that it somehow seemed extremely long. When Nancy had left the room I got up and pulled the curtains back and saw that the sky was a dull plum colour, as it is always supposed to be above an unsleeping city. This was strange, because when I had been out in it I had been aware only of blackness. Several times I awoke to see that same uneasy and menacing light, which seemed to darken and harden as the hours wore on, falling back into a neutral pallor only before dawn.

Each time I awoke I felt a child's innocence and antic.i.p.ation, and I would stretch my legs and arms with pleasure until I remembered where I was and how I came there. My unconsciousness must have been of a very strange kind. From black and undisturbed sleep I would surface every so often - perhaps after only fifteen minutes or so - into this state of total regression, as if I were on holiday, being cared for, with a day full of surprises and treats ahead of me. I think this is one of the cruellest tricks we play on ourselves, this inability to banish early expectation. This childlike layer of my being had apparently been preserved intact, under layers of experience which had settled on it like volcanic ash, and which were dispersed by the action of waking, that immense upward thrust into the light, only to settle again once the superhuman effort had been made. And each time, for a second, I felt the same size, small and spindly, and I could swear there was a smile on my face, the smile of the child who knows that its nurse will soon come to prepare it for the day ahead.

The smile faded rapidly, and with it all hope, but I was not ready to disentangle my situation, and I simply turned over on my side and willed myself to sleep again. The quality of this sleep was dense, thick, engulfing, and I found myself hungry for it, as for some gross food. At one point I could even see my face, eyes tightly shut, mouth full, questing, in my pig-like search for unknowingness. Oddly enough, both the periods of sleep and the mistaken innocence of the awakening were not unpleasant. And the fact that they were so regularly interspersed, and with such frequency, gave me the impression that I was not only being rested but also programmed for the task that lay ahead of me.

I awoke finally and regretfully at about eight o'clock. It was a dull, dark morning, and owing to the position of my mother's bedroom I could hear none of the familiar noises of the street. Instead I heard Nancy shuffling along the pa.s.sage and I heard the front door open and close behind her. I sat up in the bed and felt those arms and legs, which had been weightless during the night, resume their fatigue and their stifness. The joints of my feet hurt, and my wrists, when I stretched them out in front of me, seemed thinner. I had thought, during some brief practical moments, that I might spend the morning in bed, for there was no work to do, nothing to get up for. The presents were all wrapped. I had helped Nancy with the shopping at the weekend. I had nothing to do. But in fact I was anxious to get up. I felt a curious distaste for my unclothed self, as if my naked state were an offence. For this reason, when I drew off the nightgown the sight of my body filled me with shame, so lacking did I perceive it to be in adult qualities, so flat, so unremarkable, so humiliated. I wondered if this feeling would ever leave me or whether I was condemned to see myself in this manner for the rest of my life.

I bathed again, and dressed very carefully. I put on cheerful clothes, my blue woollen shirt and my blue pullover. I paid great attention to my appearance and even to my well-being. I made no objections when Nancy insisted on my eating two boiled eggs for breakfast, and I sat unprotesting at the kitchen table while she fussed around me. I ate some toast and drank two cups of tea, chewing very carefully, as if I must now get into some sort of training, husbanding my physical energy for the task ahead. Nancy was very pleased with my appet.i.te and scolded me for having got so thin. I had not noticed it until this morning, but now that she mentioned it I could feel the angular bones of my shoulders and my skirt was slightly loose around my waist. I did not mind. It seemed to me appropriate that I should dwindle, that I should shed my biological characteristics. In future I would become subsumed into my head, and into my hand, my writing hand.

The problem was how to fill the rest of the day, for when I had made my bed and tidied the room it was still only half-past nine. I thought I might begin writing straight away, but I found myself sitting in my mother's chair, my hands quite idle, while the day, lightless and dreary, unfolded without me. Far from being the poised satirist of my fantasy and my intention, I found myself returned to my childhood, to those empty winter afternoons when I had to sit quietly because my mother was resting. I missed the Library and saw what life would be like if I had no work to go to. But then I reminded myself that I carried my work about with me, and with a great effort I got up and found a notebook and a pen and sat down again to make notes for my novel, the characters of which were so very real to me and so near. Yet when Nancy called me for lunch I was still sitting there, in the same chair, and I had written nothing of consequence.

Nancy had cooked fish and the smell hung about in the pa.s.sage, thick and dull and penetrating. I felt it in the curtains, I felt it in my hair, and the inside of my mouth felt dry with it. She must have noticed my peculiar state - which was in fact a suspension of all normal states - and she asked me if I was all right. *Oh, of course,' I said. *Not going to work always takes a bit of getting used to. I think it's almost more tiring staying at home', and as I said this I stifled a yawn. But she was quick to see this, and also the fact that I could not finish my food. *You'd best have a rest,' she remarked. *You'd best get into bed for an hour. You can take a book in with you,' she added. As if I were very young.

And so, with a feeling of inevitability, I took off my clothes again, and got into bed, not expecting to sleep or even desiring to, but rather taking up the requisite position for reflection or for self-communion. I sat up in the bed, as if marooned on a great raft, and I must have stayed there, quite unmoving, for over an hour. Despite my excellent intentions I could not escape a mood of lethargy that was almost one of mourning. What disturbed me most was my absence of anger, for without anger where is the satire? I felt instead a weariness, and an understanding that extended even to my companions of the night before. I felt in my bones, and this may merely have been extreme fatigue (but I doubt it), that those people were innocent of everything except greed, that, like children or animals, they simply took what they wanted. That this was the law. In the light of my sad day, I saw their faces again, sly, flushed, their eyes sliding sideways, as if to see if anyone were catching them out... Eating too much, filling their smeared mouths with sweetness. Having a party, a celebration. Laughing too loudly, dressing up. I saw that they were children, much as I had been in my sleep, or in my waking moments, and that they would inevitably, at some point, feel that momentary desolation that afflicts the grown child, the child without parents, elders. That they would start, and look puzzled, look annoyed, and their annoyance would fade into bewilderment. And then all their haughty ways would be of as little use to them as my sharp tongue was to me. The only difference was that they would comfort each other, for they were good at crying out objections and complaints. Whereas I would simply be here, not knowing how to recover, but working at it, with my pen and my notebook.

I could not even side against them. I was not of their number, that was all. The moment at which I recognized this difference was the ultimate sadness, and I felt all my a.s.sumed certainties dropping away from me as if they had been fashionable clothes which I had perhaps tried on in a shop and then regretfully laid aside, as being... not suitable. I thought with longing and even with affection of the times we had spent together, the laughter, which had been genuine, the enormous fascination of their selfish hedonism, the curious attention I had brought to the business of watching them. I thought, first, and instinctively, of Nick and Alix, and I remembered how they had delivered me from various prospective prisons - old age, silence, solitude - and how I had risen at their command as if I had been waiting for it all my life. I remembered how they had introduced me to the true, the'saving selfishness, and how, under their tuition, I had distanced myself from sad people to whom I could bring no joy, nothing but my presence and my helpless company. I thought of the evenings, and how I had swung across the park, confident of the entertainment I should find at the end of my journey. I thought of the day we had motored out to Bray, and I remembered the photograph: I remembered the sound of the last leaves falling silently on the lawn as we sat in the mellow sun, in almost unexpected warmth, and how only the slight coldness stealing up from the river let us know that this was winter and not spring.

I remembered, as one does, how the weather was always better then, colours more vivid, appet.i.te sharper, energy unending. I looked back, as if from a great distance, at that autumn and the notable benefits it had brought me, and I saw myself, in my rather nice cream suit, walking down Sloane Street: I thought, as I saw myself, how eager and elegant I looked. And this brought me back to my present situation, lying in bed at two o'clock in the afternoon, thin, watchful, neither very young nor very old, but in fact a mind destined to grow older in a body destined to appear ever more childish. The bonhomie of those autumn days had freeze-dried into endless wariness.

And yet even then I hoped that I might see them again. I missed them too much, and the lessons that they taught, to forego them altogether. I needed their company, their enjoyment, even if I was not of their number. I needed to study them, I needed them for material. And if I ever found the courage for a last throw of the dice, I needed to take them on again. I needed to watch them at Christmas; I needed to see their grasping hands, their infallible appet.i.tes; I needed their profligacy, on which I could always depend. I needed their gusto, so appropriate to the Christmas season, when eyes glisten with covetousness and excess, when appet.i.tes expand and are never sated, when affection is extended to the watchers at the feast. I wanted, quite simply, to spend Christmas with those lords of misrule, in heat and noise, amid platefuls of sucked bones and the collapsing ruins of puddings, at a table awash with glossy leaves and discarded wrappings, the air blue with the smoke from monster cigars, and idle hands searching lazily for nuts, sweetmeats, marzipan. No sacramental Christmas, this. But how much more desirable than my blameless household, with its smell of dead fish, its m.u.f.fled dusty heat, its untouched furniture, and the shuffle of slippered feet outside my door.

If I thought of James, and I tried not to, it was with a feeling of dread, for I now realized that he was accessible to others but not to me. What I had witnessed had made it impossible for me to think that evidence out of the way. For once a thing is known, it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And in the unlikely event of my forgetting, he would not forget, or rather, he would be aware of a small danger signal somewhere in his consciousness which would remind him of my watching eye and my writing hand, and he would stay away from me. It seemed to me that I, rather than he, had brought this about, and my despair was extreme. For now that I knew that I loved him, it was his whole life that I loved. And I would never know that life. Changes would no doubt take place, and I would not even know what they were. *How is he?' I would long to ask. But there would be no one to ask. If I were to pa.s.s him in the corridor, or in the Library, I would have to smile like the stranger he wanted me to be. And if I wished to please him, I must simply stay away. And his life, his life... would go on without me. And I would have no knowledge of it. And since I had apparently understood so little, I could not even blame him. I get things wrong, you see.

This conclusion moved me to restlessness, and again I wondered if the position could not be retrieved.

I thought with terror of the days and nights ahead of me, of the months and the years in which nothing might change and I might become as old and discreet as Nancy. And I think I then resolved to find the courage to fight this fate, and to ring up and let them know that I was fine, that I was looking forward to seeing them. On their terms, let it be understood. There would be no need to spell this out; the message would be quite clear. And if I were very careful, and husbanded my looks and my expressions of doubt or blame, perhaps they would allow me back. Of course, my status would be changed. I would be humbler, more subordinate. That was the price to be paid. And I would pay it. But if, at the same time, I were to make notes for a satirical novel...? If they were to meet their fate at my hands, and all unknowing, would this not be a very logical development?

The idea excited me and put an end to my musings. Already I could feel that chemical sharpness beginning to take command, and I switched off that inward eye, which is called, erroneously, in my opinion, the bliss of solitude, and switched on the outer one, focusing once again on the white wardrobes with sliding doors, the edges of which were picked out in gold, the oyster satin curtains, the fluffy white bedside rugs, the pink quartz elephant bookends, the pink opaline bowl of pot pourri on the dressing table, the silver-backed brushes, and the small cut-gla.s.s tray with its pink velvet pin cushion and ivory-handled manicure set. I believe this stuff is worth quite a bit these days; I must get an estimate some time. I swung my legs out of the bed and rushed into my clothes, the cheerful blue shirt and pullover, the blue wool skirt. I sat down at the dressing table and brushed my hair, and as I looked into the gla.s.s I congratulated myself on my steadiness. I saw no ghosts. And beyond my reflection in the gla.s.s I caught sight of a framed, tinted engraving hanging on the opposite wall. This showed an eighteenth-century scene of skaters, doll-like figures with m.u.f.fs and wide skirts or tricorne hats and tight-fitting satin breeches. I had always loved it as a child, but I could not then read what was written underneath. The words now seemed to me singularly apposite. They read, *Glissez, mortels; Wappuyez pas.' Alluding to the thinness of the ice, of course. This seemed to me a good omen, and I resolved to behave in a suitably light and elegant manner.

I was hungry now, and thirsty, the motor of my appet.i.te running again. I stood up and reviewed myself, and saw the mask of amus.e.m.e.nt back in place, my physical being neat and collected, and poised for action. I made the bed, and opened the window, and went over to the engraving, and gave it an approving tap. The doll-like faces, preserved in an eternal youthfulness, totally devoid of expression or emotion, stared back at me, reminding me that I too was young, and not without resource. I shut the door behind me and made for the kitchen, in search of tea.

I found Nancy fussing over a multiplicity of tins round tins, square tins, polygonal tins - and removing from them various cakes and biscuits. She makes these all the time but I have no idea who eats them. I think she likes sweet things, and, as most old people will, she prefers to nibble at something light rather than to eat a proper meal. The room was very warm, and I noticed that she had also made about two dozen mince pies. The beautiful smell hung in the air, and as they cooled on a wire tray I could see the enticing gleam where the mincemeat had oozed through the pastry. I have to say that she is not a very good cook, and her cakes are normally rather heavy; in addition, they are stuffed so full of fruit that they last for ever. I cannot imagine what becomes of them in the end. One of the attractions of James (yes, I managed to think of him quite calmly) was that he always ate up the buns and biscuits she left out on the tray for us. This, of course, merely incited her to bake more.

She seemed to be arranging some sort of party, and when I asked her if she was expecting someone, she said, *I dare say Mr Reardon will look in.' Of course, I am never at home in the afternoon and it did not occur to me that Nancy was off-loading all her baking on to Mr Reardon, who apparently still came up with the evening paper, before going round to the betting shop to collect his winnings. I had thought of having a quick cup of tea and going back to write a bit, but this was quite opportune, for the Christmas civilities had to be exchanged at some point, and I might as well get them over as soon as possible.

Mr Reardon was obviously a keen cake man, for I counted four varieties on the table, all rather hefty. The bell rang just as Nancy was pouring the tea, and as I went to answer the door I found myself hoping that this could be got over fairly quickly. Mr Reardon is a charming man and has been in this building for as long as I can remember. He is very small and quiet and corpulent, and I think he suffers from high blood pressure. He wears a sort of blue uniform, which obviously dates from earlier days, for it is now much too tight for him; it seems to compress his short body and drive the blood to his head, for he moves his neck round with caution, and his small gooseberry-coloured eyes seem quite suffused with the effort to stay open. He is long past retiring age, and he stays on because he likes the work and takes a pride in the building and its tenants; the management, of course, are delighted.

Mr Reardon, perhaps because of his age and his blood pressure, cannot tackle all the heavy jobs, such as the heaving about of dustbins, and for this he has an a.s.sistant, an aberrant youth whom my father used to refer to as the boy, although he is now much older and is to be addressed as Mr Fentiman. There is something wrong with him too, but I think that Mr Reardon has him under control. Mr Fentiman talks to himself in a menacing manner and sometimes makes threatening gestures with his arm. His appearance does not inspire much confidence, for he wears a cap planted rather low on his forehead and a donkey jacket with the collar perpetually turned up, so that his face appears to be watching from behind a gun emplacement. He shaves once a week and has a cigarette planted in his mouth; he never removes the cigarette, and should you speak to him while he is coughing, you will receive the full brunt of the ash.

I saw, with sinking heart, that Mr Reardon had brought Mr Fentiman with him, cigarette and all, and I prepared myself to weather a tea party. Nancy was delighted, and once we were all seated it was clear to me that this went on every afternoon, and that in fact it was I who was intruding. But they were extremely nice to me, and urged me to eat, and as I sat, playing with a few crumbs, I watched in fascination as Mr Reardon filled and emptied his plate and drank cup after cup of tea, to Nancy's beaming approval. Mr Fentiman, his cap firmly in place, attempted at one point to relate a fairly incoherent story about an intruder he had discovered lurking in one of the garages, but, *That'll do, Arthur,' said Mr Reardon, accepting his third cup of tea, and running a finger round his collar, *no need to upset the ladies.' He then asked our permission to smoke, and when I went to get an ash-tray (the green malachite one with the c.o.c.katoo on the rim) I took the opportunity to pick up their two envelopes from the desk, and I put these beside their plates when I went back. Mr Fentiman's plate, of course, was already full of ash.

*Very kind of you, miss,' said Mr Reardon, and made a sign to Mr Fentiman who bounded off and within a minute bounded back again, with a wrapped bottle in his hand. *I took the liberty, Mr Reardon went on, *of bringing a small token for Miss Mulvaney, who has been so very kind with her hospitality. I have been very happy here,' he said, simply, and handed Nancy the bottle. *You shouldn't have,' said Nancy, who is always confused when people give her things and who always protests, but I made her unwrap it, and, since it was clear that this must be accorded its due solemnity, I fetched four gla.s.ses. *I'll give you a toast,' said Mr Reardon, raising his gla.s.s of cherry brandy. *On your feet, Arthur. Good will to all men,' and he emptied his gla.s.s. *Hear, hear,' I said, since something was called for, and managed to swallow a mouthful of the cherry brandy, which was disconcertingly thick and icy. *I'll have mine later,' said Nancy, who always used to say this when my father poured her a gla.s.s of sherry before lunch on Sunday; she was always torn between the horror of drinking it and the fear of hurting him. I could see that the same conflict was raging now. *You'll like it, Nan,' I urged her. *It's sweet', but, *I'll have it with my supper,' she a.s.sured us, and put it behind her on the dresser.

Mr Reardon was now disposed to reminisce, which I dreaded. He always had a few words to say about my father, whom he had greatly admired, and of course he had been very fond of my mother. I remember him wiping a tear from those small gooseberry eyes when he came up to enquire about her, as he always did, and I had to tell him it was too late... His small fat fingers, slightly stained with nicotine, shakily unfolding a handkerchief with a striped border... In order to forestall this, I asked him where he was spending Christmas, and was told that he was going to his married daughter in Harrow. *But I shall be back in the evening,' he a.s.sured us. *I won't leave you ladies alone all day. Most people are away, of course. Mrs Hunt went yesterday. Even Lady Cohen has gone, although with her leg I doubt if it's wise.' We all nodded, ruminative, in the kitchen grown warm and hazy with smoke.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see that the time was creeping on towards five o'clock, and I began to urge them, silently, to leave. Finally I stood up, and said, *You must excuse me. I have some writing to do. But please stay, both of you.' The men stood up, with a sc.r.a.ping of chairs. *Happy Christmas, miss,' said Mr Reardon. *I know you miss your dear ones. Only natural. Door, Arthur,' he rapped out, as I seemed determined to escape. *But their memories are safe in our hearts,' he went on, the cherry brandy evidently having gone to his head, and memories of Armistice Day floating unbidden into his mind. *We shall not forget."Hear, hear,'echoed Mr Fentiman.

At the door I turned and saw them, all standing gravely behind the table, looking at me, their faces deeply shadowed by the harsh centre light. The table was still strewn with sticky gla.s.ses and the crumbs of all the cakes, and these childish attributes seemed ill-suited to their bleak faces. Nancy and Mr Reardon seemed to be posing for a last photograph, their stubby hands placed on the table in front of them. Mr Fentiman, behind his upturned collar and his cigarette, looked, although dangerous, a survivor, not of starvation or political wrongs, but of who knew what deprivations of a more domestic kind. It was clear from their expressions that they were concerned for me. That although I was, from their point of view, one of the advantaged, they nevertheless regarded me as being at risk.

As I closed the door behind me, I felt as if I were shutting myself out of light and comfort. I went into the drawing room and switched on the lamps and the fire, but it seemed inappropriate for me to be there on my own, and I disliked the social distinction it seemed to raise between those people and myself. After wandering round rather restlessly for a few moments, I switched everything off again and went back to my mother's bedroom. It felt quite natural for me to be there, although I postponed the removal of my clothes from my own room to hers: that was a task for which I was not prepared. Perhaps Nancy could do it for me, I thought, with a slight falling away of my earlier confidence. I sat down in the pink velvet chair, and it came to me, for the first time that day, that I might be alone at Christmas. This, in its turn, brought back the worrying thoughts that had pursued me earlier, and, almost as if for protection, I got up and found my notebook and my pen, and sat down again, determined to write something.

And I did. I made notes for my novel, and I found that it was going very well and very fast, that the characters emerged quite naturally, and that, quite naturally, I found the right words with which to describe them. The words, in fact, which had previously deserted me, were fairly pouring out. The fact that I was skating over the surface, jazzing things up, playing for laughs, may have had something to do with it. I laughed myself, at one point. It was quite easy, really. I managed to kill a couple of hours in this manner. I did not even hear Nancy's guests leave.

Then, I don't quite know why, I stopped. It was as if my little fund of amus.e.m.e.nt was exhausted, and even the knowledge that I could manage this if I wanted to, and that I had found a suitable occupation for myself in the days, the months ahead, did not concern me. I got up and walked to the window, and could see nothing but my own self, reflected in the black gla.s.s. I thought of my lost hopes, and how lucky I was to be able to convert them so easily into satire. Now the holiday would pa.s.s almost unnoticed, because I should be absorbed in my task. And how, probably before the New Year (only a week away), I should ring up the Frasers, with my good wishes, and say, *Oh, by the way, I'm writing that novel I was always talking about. It's taking up all my time. But do let's have dinner one evening. It's been such ages. And if you see James, do wish him a Happy New Year for me.' A face-saving operation. And also an investment. For I must go back to them and study them anew; I must know them once again at first hand.

Yet, moving restlessly about the room, I found myself saying, *This will not do.' Something was false, out of alignment, not giving a true note. And, in almost physical distress, I moved my head from side to side, wondering what was wrong. And then I became quiet, for I realized that I was still waiting, hoping that one of them would telephone and invite me to their Christmas celebration.

Of course, this might not happen. For once a thing is known, it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, once it is remembered, it indicates the future. I realize now that although I sit in this room, growing older, alone, and very sadly, I must live by that knowledge. The telephone may ring, tonight or tomorrow: it no longer matters. Someone may spare me a thought, probably Alix, who was always very kind. *Hey, hey,' she will say, *is that Little Orphan f.a.n.n.y?'And, at the very last moment, I shall be invited to their Christmas celebration. I have no idea whether I shall go or not. In a sense, it makes no difference, for the matter is already prejudged, marked off. It has already been lived through. It has existed.

After that last sentence, I moved to the bed and switched on the bedside lamp. With the letting down of this final barrier between myself and the truth I seemed to welcome back those images which used to throng my mind. The window, black with night, shuts me in, and I see in its reflection Dr Constantine, crouched over the telephone, his brown eye vacant and without resource. I see Dr Simek braced against the back of his chair, his amber cigarette holder clenched in his teeth. I see Mrs Halloran, becalmed on her bed in South Kensington, a bottle beside her. I see Miss Morpeth, writing to her niece. I see myself.

Nancy shuffles down the pa.s.sage, and I hear her locking the front door. It is very quiet now. A voice says, *My darling Fan.' I pick up my pen. I start writing.

The End.

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Look At Me Part 5 summary

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