BY GEORGE SAUNDERS MAY 28, 2009
Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc. etc., and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc. etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!
But no. When she, a third time, said, “Wow, guys, check that out,” Abbie said, “O.K., Mom, we get it, it’s corn,” and Josh said, “Not now, Mom, I’m Leavening my Loaves,” which was fine with her; she had no problem with that, Noble Baker being preferable to Bra Stuffer, the game he’d asked for.
Well, who could say? Maybe they didn’t even have any mythical vignettes in their heads. Or maybe the mythical vignettes they had in their heads were totally different from the ones she had in her head. Which was the beauty of it, because, after all, they were their own little people! You were just a caretaker. They didn’t have to feel what you felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what they felt.
Still, wow, that cornfield was such a classic.
“Whenever I see a field like that, guys?” she said. “I somehow think of a haunted house!”
“Slicing Knife! Slicing Knife!” Josh shouted. “You nimrod machine! I chose that!”
Speaking of Halloween, she remembered last year, when their cornstalk column had tipped their shopping cart over. Gosh, how they’d laughed at that! Oh, family laughter was golden; she’d had none of that in her childhood, Dad being so dour and Mom so ashamed. If Mom and Dad’s cart had tipped, Dad would have given the cart a despairing kick and Mom would have stridden purposefully away to reapply her lipstick, distancing herself from Dad, while she, Marie, would have nervously taken that horrid plastic Army man she’d named Brady into her mouth.
Well, in this family laughter was encouraged! Last night, when Josh had goosed her with his GameBoy, she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up, rolling around on the floor with Goochie, and Josh had said, such nostalgia in his voice, “Mom, remember when Goochie was a puppy?” Which was when Abbie had burst into tears, because, being only five, she had no memory of Goochie as a puppy.
Hence this Family Mission. And as far as Robert? Oh, God bless Robert! There was a man. He would have no problem whatsoever with this Family Mission. She loved the way he had of saying “Ho HO!” whenever she brought home something new and unexpected.
“Ho HO!” Robert had said, coming home to find the iguana. “Ho HO!” he had said, coming home to find the ferret trying to get into the iguana cage. “We appear to be the happy operators of a menagerie!”
She loved him for his playfulness—you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card (both the ferret and the iguana had gone on credit cards) and he’d just say “Ho HO!” and ask what the creature ate and what hours it slept and what the heck they were going to name the little bugger.
In the back seat, Josh made the git-git-git sound he always made when his Baker was in Baking Mode, trying to get his Loaves into the oven while fighting off various Hungry Denizens, such as a Fox with a distended stomach; such as a fey Robin that would improbably carry the Loaf away, speared on its beak, whenever it had succeeded in dropping a Clonking Rock on your Baker—all of which Marie had learned over the summer by studying the Noble Baker manual while Josh was asleep.
And it had helped, it really had. Josh was less withdrawn lately, and when she came up behind him now while he was playing and said, like, “Wow, honey, I didn’t know you could do Pumpernickel,” or “Sweetie, try Serrated Blade, it cuts quicker. Try it while doing Latch the Window,” he would reach back with his non-controlling hand and swat at her affectionately, and yesterday they’d shared a good laugh when he’d accidentally knocked off her glasses.
So her mother could go right ahead and claim that she was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, “I hardly consider you college material.” At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.
Oh, God, what a beautiful world! The autumn colors, that glinting river, that lead-colored cloud pointing down like a rounded arrow at that half-remodelled McDonald’s standing above I-90 like a castle.
This time would be different, she was sure of it. The kids would care for this pet themselves, since a puppy wasn’t scaly and didn’t bite. (“Ho HO!” Robert had said the first time the iguana bit him. “I see you have an opinion on the matter!”)
Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around. And in her mind she sang out, as she sometimes did when feeling that the world was good and she had at last found her place in it, “Ho HO, ho HO!”
Callie pulled back the blind.
Yes. Awesome. It was still solved so perfect.
There was plenty for him to do back there. A yard could be a whole world, like her yard when she was a kid had been a whole world. From the three holes in her wood fence she’d been able to see Exxon (Hole One) and Accident Corner (Hole Two), and Hole Three was actually two holes that if you lined them up right your eyes would do this weird crossing thing and you could play Oh My God I Am So High by staggering away with your eyes crossed, going “Peace, man, peace.”
When Bo got older, it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed. Once they found him way over on Testament. And that was across I-90. How had he crossed I-90? She knew how. Darted. That’s how he crossed streets. Once a total stranger called them from Hightown Plaza. Even Dr. Brile had said it: “Callie, this boy is going to end up dead if you don’t get this under control. Is he taking the medication?”
Well, sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t. The meds made him grind his teeth and his fist would suddenly pound down. He’d broken plates that way, and once a glass tabletop and got four stitches in his wrist.
Today he didn’t need the medication because he was safe in the yard, because she’d fixed it so perfect.
He was out there practicing pitching by filling his Yankees helmet with pebbles and winging them at the tree.
He looked up and saw her and did the thing where he blew a kiss.
Sweet little man.
Now all she had to worry about was the pup. She hoped the lady who’d called would actually show up. It was a nice pup. White, with brown around one eye. Cute. If the lady showed up, she’d definitely want it. And if she took it Jimmy was off the hook. He’d hated doing it that time with the kittens. But if no one took the pup he’d do it. He’d have to. Because his feeling was, when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs. Plus, he’d been raised on a farm, or near a farm anyways, and anybody raised on a farm knew that you had to do what you had to do in terms of sick animals or extra animals—the pup being not sick, just extra.
That time with the kittens, Jessi and Mollie had called him a murderer, getting Bo all worked up, and Jimmy had yelled, “Look, you kids, I was raised on a farm and you got to do what you got to do!” Then he’d cried in bed, saying how the kittens had mewed in the bag all the way to the pond, and how he wished he’d never been raised on a farm, and she’d almost said, “You mean near a farm” (his dad had run a car wash outside Cortland), but sometimes when she got too smart-assed he would do this hard pinching thing on her arm while waltzing her around the bedroom, as if the place where he was pinching were like her handle, going, “I’m not sure I totally heard what you just said to me.”
So, that time after the kittens, she’d only said, “Oh, honey, you did what you had to do.”
And he’d said, “I guess I did, but it’s sure not easy raising kids the right way.”
And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash, why not buy the kids “Hooked on Phonics,” why not plant tomatoes, and then they’d got to wrestling around and (she had no idea why she remembered this) he had done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.
Which had made her feel special, him trusting her with that.
So what she would love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.
Why that laugh/snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.
Outside, Bo hopped to his feet, suddenly curious, because (here we go) the lady who’d called had just pulled up?
Yep, and in a nice car, too, which meant too bad she’d put “Cheap” in the ad.
Abbie squealed, “I love it, Mommy, I want it!,” as the puppy looked up dimly from its shoebox and the lady of the house went trudging away and one-two-three-four plucked up four dog turds from the rug.
Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it), and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining-room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in-house pooper, was dragging its rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay-legged, a moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sink had a basketball in it) that what this really was was deeply sad.
Please do not touch anything, please do not touch, she said to Josh and Abbie, but just in her head, wanting to give the children a chance to observe her being democratic and accepting, and afterward they could all wash up at the half-remodelled McDonald’s, as long as they just please please kept their hands out of their mouths, and God forbid they should rub their eyes.
The phone rang, and the lady of the house plodded into the kitchen, placing the daintily held, paper-towel-wrapped turds on the counter.
“Mommy, I want it,” Abbie said.
“I will definitely walk him like twice a day,” Josh said.
“Don’t say ‘like,’ ” Marie said.
“I will definitely walk him twice a day,” Josh said.
O.K., then, all right, they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Cain’t hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent:My family of origin was, um, rather not, shall we say, of the most respectable . . .
Ha ha, wow, the mind was amazing, always cranking out these—
Marie stepped to the window and, anthropologically pulling the blind aside, was shocked, so shocked that she dropped the blind and shook her head, as if trying to wake herself, shocked to see a young boy, just a few years younger than Josh, harnessed and chained to a tree, via some sort of doohickey by which—she pulled the blind back again, sure she could not have seen what she thought she had—
When the boy ran, the chain spooled out. He was running now, looking back at her, showing off. When he reached the end of the chain, it jerked and he dropped as if shot.
He rose to a sitting position, railed against the chain, whipped it back and forth, crawled to a bowl of water, and, lifting it to his lips, took a drink: a drink from a dog’s bowl.
Josh joined her at the window. She let him look. He should know that the world was not all lessons and iguanas and Nintendo. It was also this muddy simple boy tethered like an animal.
She remembered coming out of the closet to find her mother’s scattered lingerie and the ditchdigger’s metal hanger full of orange flags. She remembered waiting outside the junior high in the bitter cold, the snow falling harder, as she counted over and over to two hundred, promising herself each time that when she reached two hundred she would begin the long walk back—
God, she would have killed for just one righteous adult to confront her mother, shake her, and say, “You idiot, this is your child, your child you’re—”
“So what were you guys thinking of naming him?” the woman said, coming out of the kitchen.
The cruelty and ignorance just radiated from her fat face, with its little smear of lipstick.
“I’m afraid we won’t be taking him after all,” Marie said coldly.
Such an uproar from Abbie! But Josh—she would have to praise him later, maybe buy him the Italian Loaves Expansion Pak—hissed something to Abbie, and then they were moving out through the trashed kitchen (past some kind of crankshafton a cookie sheet, past a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint) while the lady of the house scuttled after them, saying, wait, wait, they could have it for free, please take it—she really wanted them to have it.
No, Marie said, it would not be possible for them to take it at this time, her feeling being that one really shouldn’t possess something if one wasn’t up to properly caring for it.
“Oh,” the woman said, slumping in the doorway, the scrambling pup on one shoulder.
Out in the Lexus, Abbie began to cry softly, saying, “Really, that was the perfect pup for me.”
And it was a nice pup, but Marie was not going to contribute to a situation like this in even the smallest way.
Simply was not going to do it.
The boy came to the fence. If only she could have said to him, with a single look,Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.
But secret looks, looks that conveyed a world of meaning with their subtle blah blah blah—that was all bullshit. What was not bullshit was a call to Child Welfare, where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin.
Callie shouted, “Bo, back in a sec!,” and, swiping the corn out of the way with her non-pup arm, walked until there was nothing but corn and sky.
It was so small it didn’t move when she set it down, just sniffed and tumped over.
Well, what did it matter, drowned in a bag or starved in the corn? This way Jimmy wouldn’t have to do it. He had enough to worry about. The boy she’d first met with hair to his waist was now this old man shrunk with worry. As far as the money, she had sixty hidden away. She’d give him twenty of that and go, “The people who bought the pup were super-nice.”
Don’t look back, don’t look back, she said in her head as she raced away through the corn.
Then she was walking along Teallback Road like a sportwalker, like some lady who walked every night to get slim, except that she was nowhere near slim, she knew that, and she also knew that when sportwalking you did not wear jeans and unlaced hiking boots. Ha ha! She wasn’t stupid. She just made bad choices. She remembered Sister Carol saying, “Callie, you are bright enough but you incline toward that which does not benefit you.” Yep, well, Sister, you got that right, she said to the nun in her mind. But what the hell. What the heck. When things got easier moneywise, she’d get some decent tennis shoes and start walking and get slim. And start night school. Slimmer. Maybe medical technology. She was never going to be really slim. But Jimmy liked her the way she was, and she liked him the way he was, which maybe that’s what love was, liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get even better.
Like right now she was helping Jimmy by making his life easier by killing something so he—no. All she was doing was walking, walking away from—
Pushing the words killing puppy out of her head, she put in her head the wordsbeautiful sunny day wow I’m loving this beautiful sunny day so much—
What had she just said? That had been good. Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get better.
Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?
She did. ♦
The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe.
I WAS sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence — the dread sentence of death — was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution — perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill wheel. This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more.
Yet, for a while, I saw; but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white — whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words — and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness — of immoveable resolution — of stern contempt of human torture. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate, were still issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white and slender angels who would save me; but then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help.
And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness supervened; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, night were the universe.
Coq au Vin
3bottles Burgundy (twoinexpensive,onenot)
2 Tbsp white arsenic (fromthehardwarestore)
Salt and pepper
¼ lb lardons (or thick bacon, cut into small strips)
½ pound mushrooms
With a sharp knife, dice onions and slice carrot and celery into small discs. Avoid cutting yourself. Combine onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns and garlic into a large bowl. Tie parsley, bay leaf and thyme into a small cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni; add to mixture. Douse with one bottle of wine, reserving approximately one swallow. Stir gently.
Look at the mixture. Slug the rest of the wine from the bottle.
Add the next ingredient.
Then add the next, to ease the bitterness.
Reflect on that word bitterness.
With a sharp knife, gut the chicken, trim away the neckbone and wing tips, and carve it into manageable pieces: breasts, legs, thighs, etc. Admire the sharpness of the knife, how easily it slides through the meat. See how it gleams. Feel your grip tighten. Listen to the sound of the television in the next room. Consider for a moment the alternatives. You’ve considered them before.
Submerge the chicken in the bowl of vegetables and seasonings. Hold it down tight.
The preceding stage of the recipe may be completed a day in advance. In fact, such a delay is preferred for superior taste and enriched texture. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Overnight and throughout the next day, reflect on the art of French cooking, a mix of sophistication and heartiness, style and romance. Consider how Julia Child brought these qualities into the early ’60s suburban home – a sense of wonder at the wider world, a hint of possibility, as if anybody could do it.
Question why French Women Don’t Get Fat.
Browse the internet for photos of Emmanuelle Béart, Isabelle Adjani, Marion Cottilard, Sophie Marceau, Audrey Tautou. While on the computer, scan your husband’s email once or twice more, searching for the name Monique. Look at the picture she sent him, the high cheekbones, the creamy complexion, the glimpses of skin.
Reflect once more on that word bitterness.
Browse through several of the other words in this recipe: ripe, bouquet, leg, thigh, breast, stalk. Know that coq simply means chicken, but laugh inwardly at what it sounds like. Think about it:coq in wine. Understand where drunkenness can lead.
Open the second bottle of wine and have a couple of glasses, since you’ll only use a cup of it later.
Ponder the word lardons. Regret your love of bacon. Glance down at your own thighs.
Two hours in advance of dinner, remove the chicken from the vegetable marinade and put aside. Strain the marinade, separating liquids and solids, and reserve each. Set aside the bouquet garni.
Heat oil and half the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the chicken. Sear quickly and evenly until brown. Look at how the skin sizzles. Consider for a moment the alternatives. Remove from heat and set aside.
Add the reserved vegetables to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned. Sprinkle with flour, mix gently, then add reserved marinade. Return chicken to the pot. Dice and add the tomatoes. Toss in the bouquet garni. Remember tossing the bouquet at your own wedding. Remember an earlier wedding when you caught it yourself and gave a sly glance at the man you’d ultimately marry. Recall how happy you were. Resist sampling this mixture, no matter how appetizing it seems.
Cook over low heat for an hour and a half. Have more of that second bottle of wine, careful to reserve at least a cup for later. Watch the clock.
Lardons! You almost forgot! Conveniently, yes? As if. (Look at your thighs again.)
Cook the lardons in a small skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove them to a plate lined with paper towels, reserving bacon fat. Add mushrooms and cook until browned. Gauge the weight of the skillet. Gauge the heat of the grease. Consider for a moment more alternatives. Add the reserved cup of wine to the bacon fat and deglaze the pan. Set the skillet aside.
When the chicken is tender and cooked through, add the bacon, mushrooms, and red wine glaze to the Dutch oven. Swirl in the remaining butter. Season with more salt and pepper – but notto taste, no matter how tempting a taste might be and for so many reasons. Resist dramatic exits, overt melodrama, sentimentalizing. A single tear? Well, if you insist. There’s loss here, after all, for everyone. Just stir it in quickly, so no one sees.
Hear your husband say, “Something smells good” as he comes through the door. Watch him smile guilelessly. Ask how his day was. Don’t believe anything he tells you.
Serve coq au vin warm over noodles or rice along with crusty French bread and the third bottle of Burgundy, the one your husband picked up for “some special occasion.” When he sees it and asks if this is indeed a special occasion, try to muster something witty, such as, “Isn’t every day a special occasion with me?” or “If one’s going to enjoy a French meal, one simply must go all the way,” or perhaps even a jaunty “Vive la France!” Try not to lace your words with sarcasm.
Consider that word lace. Picture the frilly underthings you assembled as a surprise for your honeymoon. Hear your mother calling it a trousseau and remember savoring the word. Imagine Monique in a push-up bra and a g-string. Consider the purpose of a corset. Consider the phrasemerry widow.
At the last moment, beg off eating yourself. He knows how you’ve been lately about saturated fats. Or maybe a sudden headache and you’ve lost your appetite. It’s more important that he enjoy it. Really any excuse will do. But yes, you’ll sit with him and have some wine.
Then discover why you went to all this trouble. Hear him tell you how delicious it is. Hear him say, “What a long way from chicken and dumplings, isn’t it, hon?” Hide your surprise that he remembers the first meal you made for him. Hide your surprise when he shakes his head and laughs and admits, “Good as this is, it just can’t compete with those dumplings.” See him recognize what he’s saying.
Remember how he carried you across the threshold. Picture dancing in the living room, just the two of you, alone on a Saturday night, head on shoulder, hand on hip. Examine the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.
In the middle of all that, change your mind. Serve yourself a plate too.
Because marriage is about being in it together, isn’t it? For better or worse?
And perhaps this isn’t a melodramatic exit, but a stylish one – sophisticated even, romantic in its own way.
Toast him graciously.
Smile warmly, sincerely.
Pick up your fork and knife.
Take that first bite.
BY STEPHEN KING JUNE 30, 2003
Janet turns from the sink and, boom, all at once her husband of nearly thirty years is sitting at the kitchen table in a white T-shirt and a pair of Big Dog boxers, watching her.
More and more often she has found this weekday commodore of Wall Street in just this place and dressed in just this fashion come Saturday morning: slumped at the shoulder and blank in the eye, a white scruff showing on his cheeks, man-tits sagging out the front of his T, hair standing up in back like Alfalfa of the Little Rascals grown old and stupid. Janet and her friend Hannah have frightened each other lately (like little girls telling ghost stories during a sleepover) by swapping Alzheimer’s tales: who can no longer recognize his wife, who can no longer remember the names of her children.
But she doesn’t really believe these silent Saturday-morning appearances have anything to do with early-onset Alzheimer’s; on any given weekday morning Harvey Stevens is ready and raring to go by six-forty-five, a man of sixty who looks fifty (well, fifty-four) in either of his best suits, and who can still cut a trade, buy on margin, or sell short with the best of them.
No, she thinks, this is merely practicing to be old, and she hates it. She’s afraid that when he retires it will be this way every morning, at least until she gives him a glass of orange juice and asks him (with an increasing impatience she won’t be able to help) if he wants cereal or just toast. She’s afraid she’ll turn from whatever she’s doing and see him sitting there in a bar of far too brilliant morning sun, Harvey in the morning, Harvey in his T-shirt and his boxer shorts, legs spread apart so she can view the meagre bulge of his basket (should she care to) and see the yellow calluses on his great toes, which always make her think of Wallace Stevens having on about the Emperor of Ice Cream. Sitting there silent and dopily contemplative instead of ready and raring, psyching himself up for the day. God, she hopes she’s wrong. It makes life seem so thin, so stupid somehow. She can’t help wondering if this is what they fought through for, raised and married off their three girls for, got past his inevitable middle-aged affair for, worked for and sometimes (let’s face it) grabbed for. If this is where you come out of the deep dark woods, Janet thinks, this . . . this parking lot . . . then why does anyone do it?
But the answer is easy. Because you didn’t know. You discarded most of the lies along the way but held on to the one that said life mattered. You kept a scrapbook devoted to the girls, and in it they were still young and still interesting in their possibilities: Trisha, the eldest, wearing a top hat and waving a tinfoil wand over Tim, the cocker spaniel; Jenna, frozen in mid-jump halfway through the lawn sprinkler, her taste for dope, credit cards, and older men still far over the horizon; Stephanie, the youngest, at the county spelling bee, where “cantaloupe” turned out to be her Waterloo. Somewhere in most of these pictures (usually in the background) were Janet and the man she had married, always smiling, as if it were against the law to do anything else.
Then one day you made the mistake of looking over your shoulder and discovered that the girls were grown and that the man you had struggled to stay married to was sitting with his legs apart, his fish-white legs, staring into a bar of sun, and by God maybe he looked fifty-four in either of his best suits, but sitting there at the kitchen table like that he looked seventy. Hell, seventy-five. He looked like what the goons on “The Sopranos” called a mope.
She turns back to the sink and sneezes delicately, once, twice, a third time.
“How are they this morning?” he asks, meaning her sinuses, meaning her allergies. The answer is not very good, but, like a surprising number of bad things, her summer allergies have their sunny side. She no longer has to sleep with him and fight for her share of the covers in the middle of the night; no longer has to listen to the occasional muffled fart as Harvey soldiers ever deeper into sleep. Most nights during the summer she gets six, even seven hours, and that’s more than enough. When fall comes and he moves back in from the guest room, it will drop to four, and much of that will be troubled.
One year, she knows, he won’t move back in. And although she doesn’t tell him so—it would hurt his feelings, and she still doesn’t like to hurt his feelings; this is what now passes for love between them, at least going from her direction to his—she will be glad.
She sighs and reaches into the pot of water in the sink. Gropes around in it. “Not so bad,” she says.
And then, just when she is thinking (and not for the first time) about how this life holds no more surprises, no unplumbed marital depths, he says in a strangely casual voice, “It’s a good thing you weren’t sleeping with me last night, Jax. I had a bad dream. I actually screamed myself awake.”
She’s startled. How long has it been since he called her Jax instead of Janet or Jan? The last is a nickname she secretly hates. It makes her think of that syrupy-sweet actress on “Lassie” when she was a kid, the little boy (Timmy, his name was Timmy) always fell down a well or got bitten by a snake or trapped under a rock, and what kind of parents put a kid’s life in the hands of a fucking collie?
She turns to him again, forgetting the pot with the last egg still in it, the water now long enough off the boil to be lukewarm. He had a bad dream? Harvey? She tries to remember when Harvey has mentioned having had any kind of dream and has no luck. All that comes is a vague memory of their courtship days, Harvey saying something like “I dream of you,” she herself young enough to think it sweet instead of lame.
“Screamed myself awake,” he says. “Did you not hear me?”
“No.” Still looking at him. Wondering if he’s kidding her. If it’s some kind of bizarre morning joke. But Harvey is not a joking man. His idea of humor is telling anecdotes at dinner about his Army days. She has heard all of them at least a hundred times.
“I was screaming words, but I wasn’t really able to say them. It was like . . . I don’t know . . . I couldn’t close my mouth around them. I sounded like I’d had a stroke. And my voice was lower. Not like my own voice at all.” He pauses. “I heard myself, and made myself stop. But I was shaking all over, and I had to turn on the light for a little while. I tried to pee, and I couldn’t. These days it seems like I can always pee—a little, anyway—but not this morning at two-forty-seven.” He pauses, sitting there in his bar of sun. She can see dust motes dancing in it. They seem to give him a halo.
“What was your dream?” she asks, and here is an odd thing: for the first time in maybe five years, since they stayed up until midnight discussing whether to hold the Motorola stock or sell it (they wound up selling), she’s interested in something he has to say.
“I don’t know if I want to tell you,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically shy. He turns, picks up the pepper mill, and begins to toss it from hand to hand.
“They say if you tell your dreams they won’t come true,” she says to him, and here is Odd Thing No. 2: all at once Harvey looks there, in a way he hasn’t looked to her in years. Even his shadow on the wall above the toaster oven looks somehow more there. She thinks, He looks as though he matters, and why should that be? Why, when I was just thinking that life is thin, should it seem thick? This is a summer morning in late June. We are in Connecticut. When June comes we are always in Connecticut. Soon one of us will get the newspaper, which will be divided into three parts, like Gaul.
“Do they say so?” He considers the idea, eyebrows raised (she needs to pluck them again, they are getting that wild look, and he never knows), tossing the pepper mill from hand to hand. She would like to tell him to stop doing that, it’s making her nervous (like the exclamatory blackness of his shadow on the wall, like her very beating heart, which has suddenly begun to accelerate its rhythm for no reason at all), but she doesn’t want to distract him from whatever is going on in his Saturday-morning head. And then he puts the pepper mill down anyway, which should be all right but somehow isn’t, because it has its own shadow—it runs out long on the table like the shadow of an oversized chess piece, even the toast crumbs lying there have shadows, and she has no idea why that should frighten her but it does. She thinks of the Cheshire Cat telling Alice, “We’re all mad here,” and suddenly she doesn’t want to hear Harvey’s stupid dream, the one from which he awakened himself screaming and sounding like a man who has had a stroke. Suddenly she doesn’t want life to be anything but thin. Thin is O.K., thin is good, just look at the actresses in the movies if you doubt it.
Nothing must announce itself, she thinks feverishly. Yes, feverishly; it’s as if she’s having a hot flash, although she could have sworn all that nonsense ended two or three years ago. Nothing must announce itself, it’s Saturday morning and nothing must announce itself.
She opens her mouth to tell him she got it backward, what they really say is that if you tell your dreams they will come true, but it’s too late, he’s already talking, and it occurs to her that this is her punishment for dismissing life as thin. Life is actually like a Jethro Tull song, thick as a brick, how could she have ever thought otherwise?
“I dreamed it was morning and I came down to the kitchen,” he says. “Saturday morning, just like this, only you weren’t up yet.”
“I’m always up before you on Saturday morning,” she says.
“I know, but this was a dream,” he says patiently, and she can see the white hairs on the insides of his thighs, where the muscles are wasted and starved. Once he played tennis, but those days are done. She thinks, with a viciousness that is entirely unlike her, You will have a heart attack, white man, that’s what will finish you, and maybe they’ll discuss giving you an obit in the Times, but if a B-movie actress from the fifties died that day, or a semi-famous ballerina from the forties, you won’t even get that.
“But it was like this,” he says. “I mean, the sun was shining in.” He raises a hand and stirs the dust motes into lively life around his head and she wants to scream at him not to do that, not to disturb the universe like that.
“I could see my shadow on the floor and it never looked so bright or so thick.” He pauses, then smiles, and she sees how cracked his lips are. “ ‘Bright’ ’s a funny word to use for a shadow, isn’t it? ‘Thick,’ too.”
“I crossed to the window,” he says, “and I looked out, and I saw there was a dent in the side of the Friedmans’ Volvo, and I knew—somehow—that Frank had been out drinking and that the dent happened coming home.”
She suddenly feels that she will faint. She saw the dent in the side of Frank Friedman’s Volvo herself, when she went to the door to see if the newspaper had come (it hadn’t), and she thought the same thing, that Frank had been out at the Gourd and scraped something in the parking lot. How does the other guy look? had been her exact thought.
The idea that Harvey has also seen this comes to her, that he is goofing with her for some strange reason of his own. Certainly it’s possible; the guest room where he sleeps on summer nights has an angle on the street. Only Harvey isn’t that sort of man. “Goofing” is not Harvey Stevens’s “thing.”
There is sweat on her cheeks and brow and neck, she can feel it, and her heart is beating faster than ever. There really is a sense of something looming, and why should this be happening now? Now, when the world is quiet, when prospects are tranquil? If I asked for this, I’m sorry, she thinks . . . or maybe she’s actually praying. Take it back, please take it back.
“I went to the refrigerator,” Harvey is saying, “and I looked inside, and I saw a plate of devilled eggs with a piece of Saran wrap over them. I was delighted—I wanted lunch at seven in the morning!”
He laughs. Janet—Jax that was—looks down into the pot sitting in the sink. At the one hard-boiled egg left in it. The others have been shelled and neatly sliced in two, the yolks scooped out. They are in a bowl beside the drying rack. Beside the bowl is the jar of mayonnaise. She has been planning to serve the devilled eggs for lunch, along with a green salad.
“I don’t want to hear the rest,” she says, but in a voice so low she can barely hear it herself. Once she was in the Dramatics Club and now she can’t even project across the kitchen. The muscles in her chest feel all loose, the way Harvey’s legs would if he tried to play tennis.
“I thought I would have just one,” Harvey says, “and then I thought, No, if I do that she’ll yell at me. And then the phone rang. I dashed for it because I didn’t want it to wake you up, and here comes the scary part. Do you want to hear the scary part?”
No, she thinks from her place by the sink. I don’t want to hear the scary part. But at the same time she does want to hear the scary part, everyone wants to hear the scary part, we’re all mad here, and her mother really did say that if you told your dreams they wouldn’t come true, which meant you were supposed to tell the nightmares and save the good ones for yourself, hide them like a tooth under the pillow. They have three girls. One of them lives just down the road, Jenna the gay divorcée, same name as one of the Bush twins, and doesn’t Jenna hate that; these days she insists that people call her Jen. Three girls, which meant a lot of teeth under a lot of pillows, a lot of worries about strangers in cars offering rides and candy, which had meant a lot of precautions, and oh how she hopes her mother was right, that telling a bad dream is like putting a stake in a vampire’s heart.
“I picked up the phone,” Harvey says, “and it was Trisha.” Trisha is their oldest daughter, who idolized Houdini and Blackstone before discovering boys. “She only said one word at first, just ‘Dad,’ but I knew it was Trisha. You know how you always know?”
Yes. She knows how you always know. How you always know your own, from the very first word, at least until they grow up and become someone else’s.
“I said, ‘Hi, Trish, why you calling so early, hon? Your mom’s still in the sack.’ And at first there was no answer. I thought we’d been cut off, and then I heard these whispering whimpering sounds. Not words but half-words. Like she was trying to talk but hardly anything could come out because she wasn’t able to muster any strength or get her breath. And that was when I started being afraid.”
Well, then, he’s pretty slow, isn’t he? Because Janet—who was Jax at Sarah Lawrence, Jax in the Dramatics Club, Jax the truly excellent French-kisser, Jax who smoked Gitanes and affected enjoyment of tequila shooters—Janet has been scared for quite some time now, was scared even before Harvey mentioned the dent in the side of Frank Friedman’s Volvo. And thinking of that makes her think of the phone conversation she had with her friend Hannah not even a week ago, the one that eventually progressed to Alzheimer’s ghost stories. Hannah in the city, Janet curled up on the window seat in the living room and looking out at their one-acre share of Westport, at all the beautiful growing things that make her sneeze and water at the eyes, and before the conversation turned to Alzheimer’s they had discussed first Lucy Friedman and then Frank, and which one of them had said it? Which one of them had said, “If he doesn’t do something about his drinking and driving, he’s eventually going to kill somebody”?
“And then Trish said what sounded like ‘lees’ or ‘least,’ but in the dream I knew she was . . . eliding? . . . is that the word? Eliding the first syllable, and that what she was really saying was ‘police.’ I asked her what about the police, what was she trying to say about the police, and I sat down. Right there.” He points to the chair in what they call the telephone nook. “There was some more silence, then a few more of those half-words, those whispered half-words. She was making me so mad doing that, I thought, Drama queen, same as it ever was, but then she said, ‘number,’ just as clear as a bell. And I knew—the way I knew she was trying to say ‘police’—that she was trying to tell me the police had called her because they didn’t have our number.”
Janet nods numbly. They decided to unlist their number two years ago because reporters kept calling Harvey about the Enron mess. Usually at dinnertime. Not because he’d had anything to do with Enron per se but because those big energy companies were sort of a specialty of his. He’d even served on a Presidential commission a few years earlier, when Clinton had been the big kahuna and the world had been (in her humble opinion, at least) a slightly better, slightly safer place. And while there were a lot of things about Harvey she no longer liked, one thing she knew perfectly well was that he had more integrity in his little finger than all those Enron sleazebags put together. She might sometimes be bored by integrity, but she knows what it is.
But don’t the police have a way of getting unlisted numbers? Well, maybe not if they’re in a hurry to find something out or tell somebody something. Plus, dreams don’t have to be logical, do they? Dreams are poems from the subconscious.
And now, because she can no longer bear to stand still, she goes to the kitchen door and looks out into the bright June day, looks out at Sewing Lane, which is their little version of what she supposes is the American dream. How quiet this morning lies, with a trillion drops of dew still sparkling on the grass! And still her heart hammers in her chest and the sweat rolls down her face and she wants to tell him he must stop, he must not tell this dream, this terrible dream. She must remind him that Jenna lives right down the road—Jen, that is, Jen who works at the Video Stop in the village and spends all too many weekend nights drinking at the Gourd with the likes of Frank Friedman, who is old enough to be her father. Which is undoubtedly part of the attraction.
“All these whispered little half-words,” Harvey is saying, “and she would not speak up. Then I heard ‘killed,’ and I knew that one of the girls was dead. I just knew it. Not Trisha, because it was Trisha on the phone, but either Jenna or Stephanie. And I was so scared. I actually sat there wondering which one I wanted it to be, like Sophie’s fucking Choice. I started to shout at her. ‘Tell me which one! Tell me which one! For God’s sake, Trish, tell me which one!’ Only then the real world started to bleed through . . . always assuming there is such a thing. . . .”
Harvey utters a little laugh, and in the bright morning light Janet sees there is a red stain in the middle of the dent on the side of Frank Friedman’s Volvo, and in the middle of the stain is a dark smutch that might be dirt or even hair. She can see Frank pulling up crooked to the curb at two in the morning, too drunk even to try the driveway, let alone the garage—strait is the gate, and all that. She can see him stumbling to the house with his head down, breathing hard through his nose. Viva ze bool.
“By then I knew I was in bed, but I could hear this low voice that didn’t sound like mine at all, it sounded like some stranger’s voice, and it couldn’t put corners on any of the words it was saying. ‘Ell-ee itch-un, ell-ee itch-un,’ that’s what it sounded like. ‘Ell-ee itch-un, Ish!’ ”
Tell me which one. Tell me which one, Trish.
Harvey falls silent, thinking. Considering. The dust motes dance around his face. The sun makes his T-shirt almost too dazzling to look at; it is a T-shirt from a laundry-detergent ad.
“I lay there waiting for you to run in and see what was wrong,” he finally says. “I lay there all over goosebumps, and trembling, telling myself it was just a dream, the way you do, of course, but also thinking how real it was. How marvellous, in a horrible way.”
He stops again, thinking how to say what comes next, unaware that his wife is no longer listening to him. Jax-that-was is now employing all her mind, all her considerable powers of thought, to make herself believe that what she is seeing is not blood but just the Volvo’s undercoating where the paint has been scraped away. “Undercoating” is a word her subconscious has been more than eager to cast up.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deep imagination goes?” he says finally. “A dream like that is how a poet—one of the really great ones—must see his poem. Every detail so clear and so bright.”
He falls silent and the kitchen belongs to the sun and the dancing motes; outside, the world is on hold. Janet looks at the Volvo across the street; it seems to pulse in her eyes, thick as a brick. When the phone rings, she would scream if she could draw breath, cover her ears if she could lift her hands. She hears Harvey get up and cross to the nook as it rings again, and then a third time.
It is a wrong number, she thinks. It has to be, because if you tell your dreams they don’t come true.
Harvey says, “Hello?” ♦
by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.
It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.
On the television screen were ballerinas.
A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.
“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.
“Huh” said George.
“That dance-it was nice,” said Hazel.
“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.
Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself, she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.
“Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer,” said George.
“I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds,” said Hazel a little envious. “All the things they think up.”
“Um,” said George.
“Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?” said Hazel. Hazel, as a matter of fact, bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers. “If I was Diana Moon Glampers,” said Hazel, “I’d have chimes on Sunday-just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion.”
“I could think, if it was just chimes,” said George.
“Well-maybe make ’em real loud,” said Hazel. “I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”
“Good as anybody else,” said George.
“Who knows better than I do what normal is?” said Hazel.
“Right,” said George. He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.
“Boy!” said Hazel, “that was a doozy, wasn’t it?”
It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling, and tears stood on the rims of his red eyes. Two of of the eight ballerinas had collapsed to the studio floor, were holding their temples.
“All of a sudden you look so tired,” said Hazel. “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so’s you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, honeybunch.” She was referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck. “Go on and rest the bag for a little while,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.”
George weighed the bag with his hands. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I don’t notice it any more. It’s just a part of me.”
“You been so tired lately-kind of wore out,” said Hazel. “If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take out a few of them lead balls. Just a few.”
“Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George. “I don’t call that a bargain.”
“If you could just take a few out when you came home from work,” said Hazel. “I mean-you don’t compete with anybody around here. You just sit around.”
“If I tried to get away with it,” said George, “then other people’d get away with it-and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”
“I’d hate it,” said Hazel.
“There you are,” said George. The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?”
If Hazel hadn’t been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn’t have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head.
“Reckon it’d fall all apart,” said Hazel.
“What would?” said George blankly.
“Society,” said Hazel uncertainly. “Wasn’t that what you just said?
“Who knows?” said George.
The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn’t clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, “Ladies and Gentlemen.”
He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read.
“That’s all right-” Hazel said of the announcer, “he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men.
And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. “Excuse me-” she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive.
“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen,” she said in a grackle squawk, “has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”
A police photograph of Harrison Bergeron was flashed on the screen-upside down, then sideways, upside down again, then right side up. The picture showed the full length of Harrison against a background calibrated in feet and inches. He was exactly seven feet tall.
The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.
Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.
And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.
“If you see this boy,” said the ballerina, “do not – I repeat, do not – try to reason with him.”
There was the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges.
Screams and barking cries of consternation came from the television set. The photograph of Harrison Bergeron on the screen jumped again and again, as though dancing to the tune of an earthquake.
George Bergeron correctly identified the earthquake, and well he might have – for many was the time his own home had danced to the same crashing tune. “My God-” said George, “that must be Harrison!”
The realization was blasted from his mind instantly by the sound of an automobile collision in his head.
When George could open his eyes again, the photograph of Harrison was gone. A living, breathing Harrison filled the screen.
Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood – in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die.
“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.
“Even as I stand here” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”
Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.
Harrison’s scrap-iron handicaps crashed to the floor.
Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall.
He flung away his rubber-ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.
“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”
A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow.
Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all he removed her mask.
She was blindingly beautiful.
“Now-” said Harrison, taking her hand, “shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance? Music!” he commanded.
The musicians scrambled back into their chairs, and Harrison stripped them of their handicaps, too. “Play your best,” he told them, “and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls.”
The music began. It was normal at first-cheap, silly, false. But Harrison snatched two musicians from their chairs, waved them like batons as he sang the music as he wanted it played. He slammed them back into their chairs.
The music began again and was much improved.
Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while-listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it.
They shifted their weights to their toes.
Harrison placed his big hands on the girls tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.
And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!
Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.
They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.
They leaped like deer on the moon.
The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.
It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it.
And then, neutraling gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.
It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.
Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.
It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.
Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George. But George had gone out into the kitchen for a can of beer.
George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. “You been crying” he said to Hazel.
“Yup,” she said.
“What about?” he said.
“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”
“What was it?” he said.
“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.
“Forget sad things,” said George.
“I always do,” said Hazel.
“That’s my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a rivetting gun in his head.
“Gee – I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.
“You can say that again,” said George.
“Gee-” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
|An Index of How Our Family Was Killed
A brother, a father, a mother, a sister.
Y, the shape of an autopsy scar zippering the chest of a loved one.
Y, the sound of the question I cannot answer.
The Toy Girl by Paula Clark
The grass was wet against her face and smeared her as she looked up. Irregular shifting shapes surrounded her in the darkness and laughter grew from one side and shimmered over her head. One of the shapes reached out and touched her shoulder – “Paula?”
The voice, incredibly loud, ricocheted inside her head. She winced and squinted to focus on the blank face, dissolving into helpless, wheezy giggles when the shape became Helen, her eyes wide and amazed.
Arms lifted her (or pulled her down) and half carried her, mumbling and weak, across the damp park. She could hear voices swirling through the vapor in her mind, some familiar, some not, some from outside, some from within. “Drunk? She’s blasted! What was she doing?”
Her kitchen appeared from somewhere and she was sat down, blinking in the hard electric light. She looked absently at her hands. They were bruised with the cold but she felt nothing and the uncomprehending giggling bubbled uncontrollably out of her.
The house seemed full of people. Their voices and movements blurred around her and vaguely she heard the cupboard doors open and hungry hands reach inside and take. The words asking them not to formed in her mind but diffused into confused sobbing and mumbling before they reached her mouth. She could hear pop music from somewhere and a muffled fear turned in her stomach, but then the light began to dim around the edges and the sound to spin away and darkness flowed over the room.
The wrenching inside her own head woke her up. Aware of a throbbing silence and, strangely, the heavy smell of paint in the room, she ached her eyes open and blinked painfully around her. The image which faced her made her recoil in horror, taking a sudden, frightened breath. The walls … oh my God the walls … paint … Random sprayed lines dribbled across them, coating the ripped wallpaper as it hung like jagged leaves around her. The pounding in her head grew and her stomach tumbled as she saw the room completely now, smashed and littered, a red wine stain seeping like blood in the corner of the carpet. She sat up, spinning, trembling, her mouth horribly dry as fear burned in her throat. She walked almost dreamlike through the house as though it were some weird, undiscovered cave. It was totally unfamiliar, a sickening mixture of garish, hateful color and destruction.
What had they done? She stared disbelievingly around her, a cold numbness spreading inside her and beginning to squeeze hot tears down her face. The sweet, gluish smell of vomit grew in the hallway and as she heard the crunch of her parents’ car in the drive she stood, uncertain, caught between the two. As the key scraped in the lock, the discarded Toy Girl wiped her eyes and, reaching down, gently picked up a torn piece of paper from the floor. She curled herself up in the corner by the stairs and pressed her face into her knees, her trembling hands tightly clutching the tiny fragment of a birthday card.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan – extract
It’s 1972 and culture is the new front line of the cold war. Serena Frome, just down from Cambridge and recently recruited by MI5, is sent for her first assignment to meet a promising young writer
It was a pleasant break in routine to travel down to Brighton one unseasonably warm morning in mid-October, to cross the cavernous railway station and smell the salty air and hear the falling cries of herring gulls. I remembered the word from a summer Shakespeare production of Othello on the lawn at King’s. A gull. Was I looking for a gull? Certainly not. I took the dilapidated three-carriage Lewes train and got out at the Falmer stop to walk the quarter mile to the redbrick building site called the University of Sussex, or, as it was known in the press for a while, Balliol-by-the-Sea. I was wearing a red mini-skirt and black jacket with high collar, black high heels and a white patent leather shoulder bag on a short strap. Ignoring the pain in my feet, I swanked along the paved approach to the main entrance through the student crowds, disdainful of the boys – I regarded them as boys – shaggily dressed out of army surplus stores, and even more so of the girls with their long plain centre-parted hair, no make-up and cheesecloth skirts. Some students were barefoot, in sympathy, I assumed, with peasants of the undeveloped world. The very word “campus” seemed to me a frivolous import from the USA. As I self-consciously strode towards Sir Basil Spence’s creation in a fold of the Sussex Downs, I felt dismissive of the idea of a new university. For the first time in my life I was proud of my Cambridge and Newnham connection. How could a serious university be new? And how could anyone resist me in my confection of red, white and black, intolerantly scissoring my way towards the porters’ desk, where I intended to ask directions?
I entered what was probably an architectural reference to a quad. It was flanked by shallow water features, rectangular ponds lined with smooth river-bed stones. But the water had been drained off to make way for beer cans and sandwich wrappers. From the brick, stone and glass structure ahead of me came the throb and wail of rock music. I recognised the rasping, heaving flute of Jethro Tull. Through the plate-glass windows on the first floor I could see figures, players and spectators, hunched over banks of table football. The students’ union, surely. The same everywhere, these places, reserved for the exclusive use of lunk-headed boys, mathematicians and chemists mostly. The girls and the aesthetes went elsewhere. As a portal to a university it made a poor impression. I quickened my pace, resenting the way my stride fell in with the pounding drums. It was like approaching a holiday camp.
The paved way passed under the students’ union and here I turned through glass doors to a reception area. At least the porters in their uniforms behind a long counter were familiar to me – that special breed of men with their air of weary tolerance, and gruff certainty of being wiser than any student had ever been. With the music fading behind me, I followed their directions, crossed a wide open space, went under giant concrete rugby posts to enter Arts Block A and came out the other side to approach Arts Block B. Couldn’t they name their buildings after artists or philosophers? Inside, I turned down a corridor, noting the items posted on the teachers’ doors. A tacked-up card that said, “The world is everything that is the case”, a Black Panthers poster, something in German by Hegel, something in French by Merleau-Ponty. Show-offs. Right at the end of a second corridor was Haley’s room. I hesitated outside it before knocking.
I was at the corridor’s dead-end, standing by a tall, narrow window that gave onto a square of lawn. The light was such that I had a watery reflection of myself, so I took out a comb and quickly tidied my hair and straightened my collar. If I was slightly nervous it was because in the past weeks I had become intimate with my own private version of Haley, I had read his thoughts on sex and deceit, pride and failure. We were on terms already and I knew they were about to be reformed or destroyed. Whatever he was in reality would be a surprise and probably a disappointment. As soon as we shook hands our intimacy would go into reverse. I had re-read all the journalism on the way down to Brighton. Unlike the fiction it was sensible, sceptical, rather schoolmasterish in tone, as if he’d supposed he was writing for ideological fools. The article on the East German uprising of 1953 began “Let no one think the Workers’ State loves its workers. It hates them”, and was scornful of the Brecht poem about the government dissolving the people and electing another. Brecht’s first impulse, in Haley’s account, was to “toady” to the German State by giving public support to the brutal Soviet suppression of the strikes. Russian soldiers had fired directly into the crowds. Without knowing much about him, I’d always assumed that Brecht had sided with the angels. I didn’t know if Haley was right, or how to reconcile his plain-speaking journalism with the crafty intimacy of the fiction, and I assumed that when we met I would know even less.
A feistier piece excoriated West German novelists as weak-minded cowards for ignoring in their fiction the Berlin Wall. Of course they loathed its existence, but they feared that saying so would seem to align them with American foreign policy. And yet it was a brilliant and necessary subject, uniting the geo-political with personal tragedy. Surely, every British writer would have something to say about a London Wall. Would Norman Mailer ignore a wall that divided Washington? Would Philip Roth prefer not to notice if the houses of Newark were cut in two? Would John Updike’s characters not seize the opportunity of a marital affair across a divided New England? This pampered, over-subsidised literary culture, protected from Soviet repression by the pax Americana, preferred to hate the hand that kept it free. West German writers pretended the Wall didn’t exist and thereby lost all moral authority. The title of the essay, published in Index on Censorship, was “La Trahison des Clercs”.
With a pearly pink painted nail I tapped lightly on the door and, at the sound of an indistinct murmur or groan, pushed it open. I was right to have prepared myself for disappointment. It was a slight figure who rose from his desk, slightly stooped, though he made the effort to straighten his back as he stood. He was girlishly slender, with narrow wrists and his hand when I shook it seemed smaller and softer than mine. Skin very pale, eyes dark green, hair dark brown and long, and cut in a style that was almost a bob. In those first few seconds I wondered if I’d missed a trans-sexual element in the stories. He wore a collarless shirt made of flecked white flannel, tight jeans with a broad belt and scuffed leather boots. I was confused by him. The voice from such a delicate frame was deep, without regional accent, classless.
“Let me clear these things away so you can sit.”
He shifted some books from an armless soft chair. I thought, with a touch of annoyance, that he was letting me know that he had made no special preparations for my arrival.
“Was your journey down all right? Would you like some coffee?”
The journey was pleasant, I told him, and I didn’t need coffee.
He sat down at his desk and swivelled his chair to face me, crossed an ankle over a knee and with a little smile opened out his palms in an interrogative manner. “So, Miss Frome …”
“It rhymes with plume. But please call me Serena.”
He cocked his head to one side as he repeated my name. Then his eyes settled softly on mine and he waited. I noted the long eyelashes. I’d rehearsed this moment and it was easy enough to lay it all out for him. Truthfully. The work of Freedom International, its wide remit, its extensive global reach, its open-mindedness and lack of ideology. He listened to me, head still cocked, and with a look of amused scepticism, his lips quivering slightly as though at any moment he was ready to join in or take over and make my words his own, or improve upon them. He wore the expression of a man listening to an extended joke, anticipating an explosive punchline with held-in delight that puffs and puckers his lips. As I named the writers and artists the Foundation had helped, I fantasised that he had already seen right through me and had no intention of letting me know. He was forcing me to make my pitch so he could observe a liar at close hand. Useful for a later fiction. Horrified, I pushed the idea away and forgot about it. I needed to concentrate. I moved on to talk about the source of the Foundation’s wealth. Max thought Haley should be told just how rich Freedom International was. The money came from an endowment by the artistic widow of a Bulgarian immigrant to the USA who had made his money buying and exploiting patents in the twenties and thirties. In the years following his death, his wife bought up Impressionist paintings after the war from a ruined Europe at pre-war prices. In the last year of her life she had fallen for a culturally inclined politician who was setting up the Foundation. She left her and her husband’s fortune to his project.
Everything I had said so far had been the case, easily verified. Now I took my first tentative step into mendacity. “I’ll be quite frank with you,” I said. “I sometimes feel Freedom International doesn’t have enough projects to throw its money at.”
“How flattering then,” Haley said. Perhaps he saw me blush because he added, “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“You misunderstand me, Mr Haley …”
“Tom. Sorry. I put that badly. What I meant was this. There are plenty of artists being imprisoned or oppressed by unsavoury governments. We do everything we can to help these people and get their work known. But, of course, being censored doesn’t necessarily mean a writer or sculptor is any good. For example, we’ve found ourselves supporting a terrible playwright in Poland simply because his work is banned. And we’ll go on supporting him. And we’ve bought up any amount of rubbish by an imprisoned Hungarian abstract impressionist. So the steering committee has decided to add another dimension to the portfolio. We want to encourage excellence wherever we can find it, oppressed or not. We’re especially interested in young people at the beginning of their careers …”
“And how old are you, Serena?” Tom Haley leaned forward solicitously, as if asking about a serious illness.
I told him. He was letting me know he was not to be patronised. And it was true, in my nervousness I had taken on a distant, official tone. I needed to relax, be less pompous, I needed to call him Tom. I realised I wasn’t much good at any of this. He asked me if I’d been at university. I told him, and said the name of my college.
“What was your subject?”
I hesitated, I tripped over my words. I hadn’t expected to be asked, and suddenly mathematics sounded suspect and without knowing what I was doing I said, “English.”
He smiled pleasantly, appearing pleased at finding common ground. “I suppose you got a brilliant first?”
“A two one actually.” I didn’t know what I was saying. A third sounded shameful, a first would have set me on dangerous ground. I had told two unnecessary lies. Bad form. For all I knew, a phone call to Newnham would establish there had been no Serena Frome doing English. I hadn’t expected to be interrogated. Such basic preparatory work, and I’d failed to do it. Why hadn’t Max thought of helping me towards a decent watertight personal story? I felt flustered and sweaty, I imagined myself jumping up without a word, snatching up my bag, fleeing from the room.
Tom was looking at me in that way he had, both kindly and ironic. “My guess is that you were expecting a first. But listen, there’s nothing wrong with a two one.”
“I was disappointed,” I said, recovering a little. “There was this, um, general, um …”
“Weight of expectation?”
Our eyes met for a little more than two or three seconds, and then I looked away. Having read him, knowing too well one corner of his mind, I found it hard to look him in the eye for long. I let my gaze drop below his chin and noticed a fine silver chain around his neck.
“So you were saying, writers at the beginning of their careers.” He was self-consciously playing the part of the friendly don, coaxing a nervous applicant through her entrance interview. I knew I had to get back on top.
I said, “Look, Mr Haley …”
“I don’t want to waste your time. We take advice from very good, very expert people. They’ve given a lot of thought to this. They like your journalism, and they love your stories. Really love them. The hope is …”
“And you. Have you read them?”
“And what did you think?”
“I’m really just the messenger. It’s not relevant what I think.”
“It’s relevant to me. What did you make of them?”
The room appeared to darken. I looked past him, out of the window. There was a grass strip, and the corner of another building. I could see into a room like the one we were in, where a tutorial was in progress. A girl not much younger than me was reading aloud her essay. At her side was a boy in a bomber jacket, bearded chin resting in his hand, nodding sagely. The tutor had her back to me. I turned my gaze back into our room, wondering if I was not overdoing this significant pause. Our eyes met again and I forced myself to hold on. Such a strange dark green, such long child-like lashes, and thick black eyebrows. But there was hesitancy in his gaze, he was about to look away, and this time the power had passed to me.
I said very quietly, “I think they’re utterly brilliant.”
He flinched as though someone had poked him in the chest, in the heart, and he gave a little gasp, not quite a laugh. He went to speak but was stuck for words. He stared at me, waiting, wanting me to go on, tell him more about himself and his talent, but I held back. I thought my words would have more power for being undiluted. And I wasn’t sure I could trust myself to say anything profound. Between us a certain formality had been peeled away to expose an embarrassing secret. I’d revealed his hunger for affirmation, praise, anything I might give. I guessed that nothing mattered more to him. His stories in the various reviews had probably gone unremarked, beyond a routine thanks and pat on the head from an editor. It was likely that no one, no stranger at least, had ever told him that his fiction was brilliant. Now he was hearing it and realising that he had always suspected it was so. I had delivered stupendous news. How could he have known if he was any good until someone confirmed it? And now he knew it was true and he was grateful.
As soon as he spoke, the moment was broken and the room resumed its normal tone. “Did you have a favourite?”
It was such a stupid, sheepish excuse of a question that I warmed to him for his vulnerability. “They’re all remarkable,” I said. “But the one about the twin brothers, “This Is Love”, is the most ambitious. I thought it had the scale of a novel. A novel about belief and emotion. And what a wonderful character Jean is, so insecure and destructive and alluring. It’s a magnificent piece of work. Did you ever think of expanding it into a novel, you know, filling it out a bit?”
He looked at me curiously. “No, I didn’t think of filling it out a bit.” The deadpan reiteration of my words alarmed me.
“I’m sorry, it was a stupid …”
“It’s the length I wanted. About fifteen thousand words. But I’m glad you liked it.”
Sardonic and teasing, he smiled and I was forgiven, but my advantage had dimmed. I had never heard fiction quantified in this technical way. My ignorance felt like a weight on my tongue.
I said, “And ‘Lovers’, the man with the shop-window mannequin, was so strange and completely convincing, it swept everyone away.” It was now liberating to be telling outright lies. “We have two professors and two well-known reviewers on our board. They see a lot of new writing. But you should have heard the excitement at the last meeting. Honestly, Tom, they couldn’t stop talking about your stories. For the first time ever the vote was unanimous.”
The little smile had faded. His eyes had a glazed look, as though I was hypnotising him. This was going deep.
“Well,” he said, shaking his head to bring himself out of the trance. “This is all very pleasing. What else can I say?” Then he added, “Who are the two critics?”
“We have to respect their anonymity, I’m afraid.”
He turned away from me for a moment and seemed lost in some private thought. Then he said, “So, what is it you’re offering, and what do you want from me?”
“Can I answer that by asking you a question? What will you do when you’ve finished your doctorate?”
“I’m applying for various teaching jobs, including one here.”
“We’d like to make it possible for you to stay out of a job. In return you’d concentrate on your writing, including journalism if you want.”
He asked me how much money was on offer and I told him. He asked for how long and I said, “Let’s say two or three years.”
“And if I produce nothing?”
“We’d be disappointed and we’d move on. We won’t be asking for our money back.”
He took this in and then said, “And you’d want the rights in what I do?”
“No. And we don’t ask you to show us your work. You don’t even have to acknowledge us. The Foundation thinks you’re a unique and extraordinary talent. If your fiction and journalism get written, published and read, then we’ll be happy. When your career is launched and you can support yourself we’ll fade out of your life. We’ll have met the terms of our remit.”
He stood up and went round the far side of his desk and stood at the window with his back to me. He ran his hand through his hair and muttered something sibilant under his breath that may have been “Ridiculous”, or perhaps, “Enough of this”. He was looking into the same room across the lawn. Now the bearded boy was reading his essay while his tutorial partner stared ahead of her without expression. Oddly, the tutor was speaking on the phone.
Tom returned to his chair and crossed his arms. His gaze was directed across my shoulder and his lips were pressed shut. I sensed he was about to make a serious objection.
I said, “Think it over for a day or two, talk to a friend … Think it through.”
He said, “The thing is …” and he trailed away. He looked down at his lap and he continued. “It’s this. Every day I think about this problem. I don’t have anything bigger to think about. It keeps me awake at night. Always the same four steps. One, I want to write a novel. Two, I’m broke. Three, I’ve got to get a job. Four, the job will kill the writing. I can’t see a way round it. There isn’t one. Then a nice young woman knocks on my door and offers me a fat pension for nothing. It’s too good to be true. I’m suspicious.”
“Tom, you make it sound simpler than it is. You’re not passive in this affair. The first move was yours. You wrote these brilliant stories. In London people are beginning to talk about you. How else do you think we found you? You’ve made your own luck with talent and hard work.”
The ironic smile, the cocked head – progress.
He said, “I like it when you say brilliant.”
“Good. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.” I reached into my bag on the floor and took out the Foundation’s brochure. “This is the work we do. You can come to the office in Upper Regent Street and talk to the people there. You’ll like them.”
“You’ll be there too?”
“My immediate employer is Word Unpenned. We work closely with Freedom International and are putting money their way. They help us find the artists. I travel a lot or work from home. But messages to the Foundation office will find me.”
He glanced at his watch and stood, so I did too. I was a dutiful young woman, determined to achieve what was expected of me. I wanted Haley to agree now, before lunch, to be kept by us. I would break the news by phone to Max in the afternoon and by tomorrow morning I hoped to have a routine note of congratulation from Peter Nutting, unemphatic, unsigned, typed by someone else, but important to me.
“I’m not asking you to commit to anything now,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound like I was pleading. “You’re not bound to anything at all. Just give me the say-so and I’ll arrange a monthly payment. All I need is your bank details.”
The say-so? I’d never used that word in my life. He blinked in assent, but not to the money so much as to my general drift. We were standing less than six feet apart. His waist was slender and through some disorder in his shirt I caught a glimpse below a button of skin and downy hair above his navel.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll think about it very carefully. I’ve got to be in London on Friday. I could look in at your office.”
“Well then,” I said and put out my hand. He took it, but it wasn’t a handshake. He took my fingers in his palm and stroked them with his thumb, just one slow pass. Exactly that, a pass, and he was looking at me steadily. As I took my hand away, I let my own thumb brush along the length of his forefinger. I think we may have been about to move closer when there was a hearty, ridiculously loud knock on the door. He stepped back from me as he called, “Come in.” The door swung open and there stood two girls, centre-parted blonde hair, fading suntans, sandals and painted toenails, bare arms, sweet expectant smiles, unbearably pretty. The books and papers under their arms didn’t look at all plausible to me.
“Aha,” Tom said. “Our Faerie Queene tutorial.”
I was edging round him towards the door. “I haven’t read that one,” I said.
He laughed, and the two girls joined in, as if I’d made a wonderful joke. They probably didn’t believe me.
Saki: The Open Window
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window – ”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes today, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you menfolk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic, he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention – but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with a dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of goodby or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.