She didn’t care what people thought...
RONALD R. SMITH
...she just liked to be natural. Mordish had never looked at it that way, but he found it surprisingly easy to learn
BELLINGER, wearing a filthy duffel coat, was standing beside one of the Landseer lions in Trafalgar Square when Mordish spotted him. A few pigeons pecked desultorily around him. A light drizzle fell on him. He stood head bowed like a penitent sinner. Mordish who had been at school and university with him recognized from the posture that Bellinger was indulging in his hobby of thinking.
Mordish was delighted. He had not seen Bellinger for some months. He was precisely the man he wanted to see. Momentarily Bellinger seemed incapable of relinquishing his train of thought (Socrates had the same defect but much worse), but finally he looked up and inspected Mordish critically through his thick lenses.
“Mordish." Mordish said. hurt.
“Well, Mordish then, Mordish. Hello, Mordish.”
They exchanged a few observations— slightly acid on Bellinger's part—on life. Then Mordish dragged a slender volume out of an inner pocket, held it out for Bellinger to see the title:
“I'm excited, Bellinger. I've discovered a new poet. The penetration of his vision makes you feel dizzy, positively sick.”
He opened the book.
"Read this, Bellinger. 'Requiem for an absence.’ Cleghorn looks clean through the spatiotemporal world of appearances at ultimate reality just as you or I would look through a window.”
Mordish gave him one.
“Listen, Bellinger, what I'm telling you is exciting. Cleghorn is an authentic seer.” Bellinger scraped the sodden hair away from his forehead.
“Care to meet Cleghorn, Mordish?”
"What! You know him?"
Bellinger's hair had wet his fingers. His fingers had made his cigarette sodden. He threw it to the pigeons.
“I was able to bring a little influence to bear in getting Divagations published for him."
"What's he like. Bellinger?"
Bellinger took a tweed cap out of his pocket, rubbed his hair vigorously with it and put it back in his pocket. He looked about him leisurely.
“Peculiar people. Mordish. our ancestors. Strewing the place with etligies of lions. Extremely odd." He shrugged his shoulders. "Cleghorn is quite a striking man. He has much the same cranial formation as myself. If you like I'll give you a letter of introduction to him."
“Why can't we go and see him?”
“Because he's not here. The invincible provincialism of London disgusted him, naturally enough. I've developed a technique for ignoring it myself. He lives in a cottage at Plodding, a little village sixty-three and a half miles from here. Can you read a map? But no. of course not. Come.”
"I say, listen. Bellinger—”
Bellinger was already clumping briskly across the square. He remained in a Socratic trance until he led Mordish into a little coffee shop. It was brand new. Mordish did not like it at all. It made him feel nervous, alien. Metalwork glittered: the color scheme was subtly menacing; it smelled indiscreetly of coffee.
"1 say. Bellinger," he whispered.
"Is chatter indispensable, Mordish? You're worse than my father."
Bellinger began to write rapidly with a stub of pencil on one of the double pages of a notebook bound in shiny black American cloth. When the waitress came he told her without looking up: "We’re waiting for friends." Mordish blushed and plucked at his tie.
Bellinger covered the two pages, ripped the sheet out and folded it. He sealed it with cellophane continued on next page
tape, a roll of which he always carried for emergencies. On the outside of the letter he wrote:
geoffrey cleghorn 14 pic lane plodding
“I suggest you stay a week with Cleghorn,” he said.
“Stay with him, Bellinger!”
“Certainly. You'll be a paying guest naturally. To the world at large, Mordish, poetic genius is a sort of deformity, like having two heads; unless one’s morbid one politely ignores it. C'leghorn’s probably starving bul he pays no attention to pinpricks like that. He’s the son of humble parents but an aristocrat to his fingertips.”
“Do you think he’d want me to slay with him, Bellinger?”
Bellinger laughed briefly. “If he’s in one of his creative periods he probably won’t even notice you're there. But you’ll have the privilege of observing him. possibly even of handing him things.”
He waved to the waitress and said, “Our friends have doubtless met with a fatal accident.” He turned: “Order some coffee, Mordish.”
Mordish ordered the coffee and was just about to speak when he felt a sinister pain in the neighborhood of his stomach. Bellinger was again writing in his notebook, compiling some sort of list.
"Bellinger. Bellinger. 1 couldn’t stay a week. I’m going to Canada for three months on Saturday.”
“Canada can restrain its impatience for a day or two, I dare say.”
"I couldn’t put it off, Bellinger. My father wouldn’t let me. Everything’s arranged with my Uncle Alistair.”
Bellinger gnawed his pencil and then recommenced writing.
EVERY time Mordish thought of his forthcoming visit to his Uncle Alistair’s he experienced this odd feeling of congestion at the lower end of his esophagus. His uncle had visited the Mordishes twelve months or so previously. He was a tall burly man who liked three wines (Sauterne, Burgundy, port, usually) with his dinner and who had a passion for killing things, furred, finned or feathered, which he insisted was his way of showing his profound respect for the creatures. He enjoyed using Latin tags facetiously and went about as though he thought that everybody probably liked him—which struck Mordish as an astonishing attitude.
Mordish was convinced that when he got to Canada—it would be his first visit —he would be surrounded by enormous rich men who would start laughing at the mere sight of him and would absolutely roar until tears came into their eyes when he opened his mouth. He also imagined some entirely different but equally enormous men wearing woollen caps. Were they his uncle’s employees? His imagination was uninformative. But they were there, glowering, with enormous hands with thick hair on the backs of the fingers. And they would be so offended by his appearance and manner that they would attack him physically.
He also imagined tall, handsome girls wearing very fine nylon stockings, terribly uninhibited, who would expect him to drive them at fabulous speeds on the wrong side of stark concrete highways in enormous cars full of mysterious buttons, cars that had the air of straining dangerously at the leash even when they were standing still.
Was he perhaps a trifle neurotic? Mordish asked himself.
“I’ve assumed you'll go by road and
that you don’t know how to read a map, Mordish,” said Bellinger. “Here’s a list of places you'll pass through.”
“I go to Uncle Alistair’s on Saturday. You don’t know my father if you think he’ll listen to anything I have to say.” “My father, Mordish. doesn’t merely not listen to what I have to say; he is frequently flippant. But one doesn’t whimper. Look, if you push off right away you’ll be able to stay five days.”
“I'd simply have to be back for Thursday, Bellinger.”
“Well, four days, four days.” Bellinger snapped his fingers impatiently. “You’ll naturally pay for a week just the same. I mention that, Mordish, because I sometimes detect a rather sordid attitude towards money in you.”
Mordish thought it wasn’t true but he felt guilty just the same.
“Pay for the coffee, Mordish; you ordered it.”
Outside in the drizzle again Bellinger said, "You’d better let me have five shillings to send a telegram to Cleghorn.” Mordish gave him a ten-shilling note. Walking alone along the Haymarket toward the underground station in Piccadilly Circus, Mordish felt himself sustained by a certain hopefulness. What could be a better preparation for his ordeal at his Uncle Alistair’s than a retreat into the country in the company of this austere contemplative man who had liberated himself from ail the superficialities of life in order to see it steadily and whole, to see it—as his Uncle Alistair would say laughing heartily—sub specie aeternitatis? Mordish felt his confidence growing. Suppose as a result of this visit he were able to effect a revolutionary change in his way of living.
He trod on the heel of a tall Indian wearing a pink turban. He apologized rapidly. People didn’t usually take kindly to his ineptitudes. The Indian flashed his teeth in a friendly smile. An encouraging omen!
PIE Lane was a rutted track between unkempt hedgerows which at first Mordish suspected led nowhere. But he bumped onwards in his little beetle-shaped car which was plastered with mud— his mother, a frivolous woman, had been using it. The lane might possibly lead to a farm. Then he saw two attached cottages. The gable and roof of one had fallen in. The number 14 was painted prominently on the door of the other. (Cleghorn had chosen the number 14 quite arbitrarily because it had a “spare angularity” which pleased him.)
The door was slightly ajar. Through the opening Mordish could see an oldfashioned cooking range. Crouching in front of it a child—no, a girl—toasted a small sausage on a long toasting fork. She wore a black skirt and a long-sleeved black—yes, a girl—sweater. She had short blond hair and was saying to someone Mordish could not see, “This sausage is sweating in a very strange manner.” Mordish coughed. The girl turned her head. She was alarmingly pretty in the contemporary, faintly eccentric style; peaky and pointed with a suggestion that she did not get enough sleep, a mouth that was elastic and ambiguous. She smiled.
“If you’ve come to fetch the linoleum back, I’m afraid you’re too late. It’s laid.” "Didn’t you get the telegram? This is the house of—” What was the poet's name?
"Cleghorn,” a savage bass voice shouted from inside.
“Mordish. Richard Mordish.” He held out Bellinger’s letter. “Bellinger must have forgotten the telegram. Perhaps this will explain.” He blushed and thought
what an agonizing thing it was simply to live.
The girl got up, slipping a piece of bread she was holding into the pocket of her skirt. As she took the letter she said, "What a charming talent you have for blushing. I try and try. No good. Is that delicious little car really yours? Do come in.”
The room was furnished chiefly with a Welsh dresser full of books, and army blankets. Army blankets as rugs, as cushions. as table covers and one was draped over an old sofa. Over the fireplace hung a large framed photograph of a handsome baroque tomb in shiny marble dominated by a winged skeleton in bronze which stood in a casually elegant posture like a welcoming motor salesman.
Mordish glanced over his right shoulder and started. At a table under the window a very powerfully built young man wearing a fawn sweater as thick as an overcoat sat glaring at a tall oldfashioned typewriter that held a sheet of paper with six lines typed on it. His elbows rested on the table and he supported his face between two big fists. His chin had been shaved so closely that though still bluish it shone as though lightly varnished. Without raising his eyes from the paper he said. "Who is it? What does he want?”
"Bellinger sent him.” the girl said still reading the letter.
"Bellinger’s the one I begged the picture of the tomb from.”
"Bellinger’s sent Mordish down to stay with us. Mordish is a great admirer of your work but is totally ignorant of its significance. He’s a dilettante, an amateur, but perfectly sincere.” She looked up from the letter and smiled at Mordish. "He’s staying a week.”
"Oh.” Cleghorn said in a bored bass voice.
"As a paying guest.”
"He wants to pay? How much?”
"How much are you prepared to pay, Mordish?” the girl said.
"I’ll pay whatever you think just of course.”
"What’s the matter with him?”
"Would you consider four guineas a day just?” the girl said.
Mordish was horrified. "Yes,” he said.
“You would!” She laughed. "You really would!"
"Has he walked here? He looks exhausted.”
“No. He has a sweet little car. And we’re going into the village in it, aren’t we, Mordish, to buy some pork sausages? Several pounds. And a frying pan.” She caught Mordish’s arm and urged him to the door.
“Don’t you drive,” Cleghorn shouted after her ferociously.
She slipped into the car behind the wheel. "You don’t mind, do you? 1 haven’t a licence but I drive exquisitely.” In second gear they squealed up the track, swung in a circle in a farmyard, and squealed bumping and swaying down the track again, the hedge rattling against the coachwork.
"Yesterday they had some beautiful peaches at Bunter’s,” the girl said. “We must have some of those too. And a bottle of gin from the Stag at Bay."
In the village she yielded to the temptation to buy. in addition, a bottle of white port, some cigarettes, a large bunch of daffodils, another of chrysanthemums and a coconut.
CLEGHORN was missing when they got back to number 14. He had left a sheet of typing paper on the table bearing the message in the right-hand corner, minutely written and heavily framed in black lines:
gone to norahs for lunch, dont touch my typewriter.
The girl threw the message into the fire.
"Norah is a sheep in lamb’s clothing but she cooks scandalously well.” She unwrapped the new frying pan. "It seems monstrous to defile it with pork sausages it’s so chastely beautiful.”
The sausages stuck rather badly in the new pan. They had forgotten the bread. But there were some old crusts left and they had a charming little lunch of sausages, port and peaches, with flowers strewn on the table. After his fourth plastic eggcupful of port the thought came to Mordish that life was a precious fragile thing, full of insoluble mysteries but rich in a strange melancholy beauty. He said with a boldness that astonished him, "May 1 wash the dishes?”
“Naturally I must say, ‘no.’ But you know what a woman’s ‘no’ is worth,” she said and went and sat down in front of Cleghorn’s tall typewriter.
She ripped out Cleghorn’s sheet and inserted a new one. Resting her elbows on the table and supporting her face between her fists she sat staring at the blank paper. After a long silence she said, “Can you suggest something for me to tell the girls they ought not to do?”
"I beg your pardon.”
“I write cautionary little pieces for a girls’ paper. Never mind. I know what I shall tell them. I’ve only told them once before and 1 shall put it differently this time. They must never laugh at questionable jokes or innuendo but look
the speaker coolly in the eye, say without a trace of anger in their voices, 'You cannot be aware whom you are addressing,’ and then walk away with quiet dignity . . . Don't look at me while I'm typing. My face goes wooden.”
She began to type ferociously.
She stopped, ripped out the sheet and threw it into the fire.
''I'm not in the mood. I’ll do it later. I'm in the mood to be far too strict with them. 1 haven't shown you your room \et. I'm giving you the one with the new linoleum. Leave the frying pan until Liter."
He followed her up the steep flight of stairs, wiping his hands on his handkerchief. She flung open a door: "There.” In addition to the new linoleum, which simulated marble paving, the room was furnished with a mahogany chest of drawers more or less painted white, two chairs with burst cane bottoms, a bucket and a long narrow galvanized bath which hung on the wall.
"If you put your sleeping bag over there it will be splendid. Because when you awake in the morning, if you raise yourself very high on your elbows, you'll be able to look out of the window and see the tip of Grey Nose, if it isn't misty which unfortunately it usually is.” Mordish blushed and made one or two restricted movements with his right hand. ‘Actually, Bellinger never told me—” "You didn’t bring a sleeping bag! How very extraordinary of you. Never mind. We'll go into Beddington and buy one. They have some delectable ones at Fullalove’s.”
Downstairs again she said, “I always wash myself before going into Beddington because I might run into my uncle who lives there. He's rich and he might leave me some money. But not if he sees me going about dirty. He detests that. I'm not an edifying spectacle when I wash so you may prefer to go into the garden.”
MORDISH walked up and down the path of the derelict garden, past the dry dead stems of Michaelmas daisies, the cabbage stumps, the thicket of raspberry canes and gooseberry bushes on which the flamelike green of new leaves was pricking. The drizzle had followed him from London but in FJlodding it took the form rather of a heavy mist which swept in ghostly waves across the meadows and ploughland and obscured the hills and the distant horizon.
Mordish tried to sum up the situation in which he found himself. He had come with the idea of sharing a hermit's cell and there charging himself up like a battery with tranquility and fortitude. He had miscalculated obviously. He must try to adapt himself to the new situation, to draw benefits from it. So far he had been anguished, enchanted, finally bewildered. How was it that in comparison with the girl he seemed to be perpetually tied up in a sort of spiritual strait jacket? How was it that in some way she seemed to live life while he was, so to speak, lived by it? What was the secret? He kicked a gooseberry bush. Anybody, he thought bitterly, but a half-wit would have had at least a clue by this time.
He could hear the girl singing as she washed herself. She sang in a pure, schoolgirl treble some old, half-familiar tune. He moved towards the cottage to hear her better.
Back and side go bare, go bare,
Both foot and hand go cold . . .
It was the famous sixteenth-century Cambridge drinking song, and because he knew that the next line ran, ‘‘But belly, God send thee good ale enough,” he felt somehow that it would be indeli-
cate to continue listening. He hurried back up the garden path. A voice, the schoolgirl treble still carrying over from the song, called, "Ready. Mordish,” and he hurried back down again.
As Mordish pushed open the back door—there was only one room on the ground floor—Cleghorn entered at the front door. He thumped a basin tied up in a table napkin onto the table.
"I’ve brought you some steak-and-kidney pie from Norah’s.”
The girl was combing her hair in front of a looking glass hanging in the back window. Without turning she said. "She can keep her steak-and-kidney pie.”
He frowned heavily at the girl’s back. “You didn't say that last Monday.”
"I may not say it next Monday, but I say it today.”
Cleghorn sat down at the tall typewriter.
"You’ve been messing about here again.”
"I have my own career, you know.” "Then it might be a good idea if you had your own typewriter.”
Mordish could see the girl smiling happily to herself in the looking glass. Cleghorn found his own sheet and slipped it into the machine. Typing slowly and rhythmically he added three and a half lines. Then he slipped an oilcloth cover over the machine.
"Don’t touch it again." He stood up. "I’m going to Keeble’s to borrow his Greek dictionary. Mine’s no good.”
He walked across the room to the girl, who had turned and was watching him. He stood scowling down at her. She peered up at his face as though it were an interesting inanimate object.
"If you go out again in that messy little car don’t drive,” he said. “Driving is not one of your accomplishments.” "You know I’m quite sure your hair’s receding.”
"No it isn't.”
He turned and went out of the door.
The girl removed the cover from the typewriter, read what he had just added, and replaced the cover. Mordish leaned against the sink, trying to appear absorbed in his own thoughts.
"The trouble is,” the girl said, “The Poet is trying his hand at a new art form. He's trying to write a play. He’s trying to write a modern version of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King—you know, with bus drivers, chorus girls, deck stewards, stockbrokers and passé film actresses in it. And he’s out of his clement. He’s frustrated. And by some peculiar mental act of transference he convinces himself that I can’t drive. Oh look, the sun’s coming out.”
As they approached the muddy little car she said. "Of course, it's quite possible that it would depress him if I were smashed up. On the whole 1 think I shan’t drive.”
She added earnestly as Mordish pressed the starter, “I was lying when 1 said his hair was receding. It isn’t.”
It occurred bleakly to Mordish that there wasn't a soul who cared if his own hair receded. Not even his mother. She would simply be indignant. The hard truth was, he fitted in nowhere.
The girl was silent for most of the drive to Beddington. Once she laughed and said, "Out of pure politeness, I told The Poet that I knew Greek. Then when he took up with this Sophocles thing he discovered that I didn’t know alpha from omega and he was furious. He nearly threw me out. He doesn’t know the meaning of politeness.” She laughed again.
For some reason the incident, the laughter, made Mordish feel as dull as ditch water. His personality, he reflected, was stale, flat, soggy beyond belief. If his Uncle Alistair’s pals laughed at him they would be absolutely right. And if the others, the ones in the woollen caps, didn't throw him into a lake they would be shirking their duty.
IN BEDDINGTON, which was a sophisticated little quasi-country town, they began by buying a few necessities: bread, some Turkish delight, a dressed crab, a carton of stuff for making porridge and a pretty little flagon of apricot brandy. They went on to Fullalove’s. The sleeping bag, chosen by the girl, had a bellows-infiated mattress attached to it: it was stuffed with "genuine eiderdown.” covered with a "special fabric” woven with a "cotton warp and a nylon weft.” Mordish foresaw the need to get a grip on himself for the moment the price was revealed. He paid almost without blenching. They drove on to a filling station from which Mordish sadly telephoned a telegram to himself to return immediately; reckoning the rate at three and sixpence an hour he had only enough money left to stay until 2.30 a.m. the following day.
They had tea in a cinema lounge. The elderly waitress took a great fancy to the girl and refused to charge for the two cakes she had eaten, on the grounds that the icing had been cracked.
They went in to see the film which was concerned with the unrequited love oí a millionaire for a lovely chicken farmer. But the millionaire had such a puzzled look on his face that the lovely chicken farmer, who admitted taking a healthy pleasure in the suffering of millionaires, seriously doubted his ability to suffer acutely and consequently could extract no pleasure from the spectacle.
The girl laid her head on Mordish’s shoulder and went to sleep. Her hair, Mordish noted, smelled of freshly husked chestnuts. She slept through the film and into the intermission. Mordish’s neighbors looked at her in the amused compassionate way usually reserved for children, and smiled in the friendliest manner at Mordish. She charmed everybody, Mordish thought. Was it because she obviously made no ellort at all to charm people?
She awoke in the middle of an educational film about bananas, watched it through with interest, and they left. In the car she went back to sleep again. Mordish continued to feel sad and, in addition, frustrated. Another twenty-four hours at number 14 would have put him in possession of information, of some psychological secret, of vital importance. He was convinced of it. He could feel something stirring in his mind, but without fertilization it would surely die.
The jaundiced street lights of Padsey Bridge awoke the girl.
"You mustn't imagine I'm jealous of Norah,” she said the moment her eyes opened. "You didn’t, did you?”
“She’s a youngish widow, not bad looking, and she has a house with a beautiful orchard and she has money of her own—whereas I've only an absurdly tiny allowance from my father who's in Negri Sembilan—and she can cook marvelously. But she's one of those silly women who behave as they think other people think they should behave. She ends up by being scarcely there at all. Do you see?”
"Yes.” He did not see. But the cryptic utterance made whatever was stirring in the back of his mind stir convulsively for the moment. Then it fell back into a state of lethargy again. The girl went back to sleep again.
She did not awake again until they reached number 14.
(^LEGHORN was out again. Immedi^4ately she had switched on the light the girl raised the cover of C'leghorn’s typewriter.
“He’s been back. My goodness, he's
prolific today. Five more lines. I expect he’s gone to help Ballard decoke his van. He borrows it sometimes to go up to London to see Grossemeister about some music that Grossemeister’s composing.”
While Mordish w’orried because his telegram hadn't arrived the girl began to stir up'the dying fire and throw on some coal.
“Go and get the sleeping bag, Mordish. Aren't you interested in it at all?”
Mordish detested the sleeping bag. "I like it very much,” he said.
She unrolled the bag in front of the fire, pumped it up and stretched herself out on top of it.
"It's like lying on the Mediterranean Sea, or it would be if I hadn't put too much air into it." She stiffened suddenly, pointed across the room and said, "What's that?"
Startled, Mordish said. “What?” The girl said, "It's a telegram. 1 hate telegrams. Read it." She lay back, frowning.
Mordish picked up the telegram, which had evidently fallen off the typewriter
table. It’s for me,” he said, blushing. He read it and handed it to the girl.
“My goodness, he's imperious, isn't he? You're not going, are you?”
The telegram read: RETURN HOME IMMEDIATELY REPEAT IMMEDIATELY FATHER.
"I'll have to," he said, blushing. “It won’t be anything though."
The girl lay silently looking up at the ceiling. Cleghorn came in. blinking in the light.
He took the cover off his typewriter and inspected his work. Without adding
“If you think he’s an easy man to marry, you’re mistaken.” She smiled. “I have several plans—”
anything he replaced the cover and said, “I’m starving. Unless I’m mistaken I’ve had nothing to cat since lunch.”
He went to the table and started to cut himself some bread.
“We're losing poor Mordish already,” the girl said.
Cleghorn smeared a little crab on his bread. “Oh.”
"Well, is that all you’re going to say?”
"No.” Cleghorn switched the bread to his left hand. “Hope you haven't been too bored.” He shook Mordish’s hand warmly. "When you come again we’ll have some good long talks about Oedipus.”
Mordish thanked him. He wandered away towards the door. The girl raised herself on her elbows. “You’re not going out again?”
“Got to go up to the farm to help old Swaffham write a pained letter to the income-tax people.” He went out, eating his bread.
"My life’s like a railway station—full of horribly depressing departures. Ah, well.” The weight of her body made the air whistle through the valve of the mattress as the girl opened it.
Mordish declined an offer of supper and another to take the bottle of gin with him. The girl followed him to the car and got in.
“Can I take you somewhere?” he said, surprised.
"Home, if you don’t mind. It’s on your way.”
“Well, naturally. I’m only The Poet’s housekeeper, you know. And even that without his consent. If you think he’s an easy man to marry you’re ridiculously mistaken. He’s eaten up with all sorts of scruples. But he’s very fond of me in his own labyrinthine—that’s one of his words but he’s never used it in this context—in his own labyrinthine way. And I have several plans.” She smiled thoughtfully.
Mordish was severely depressed. He dropped the girl at the wrought-iron gates of “Surinam Lodge” where she lived with her aunt who was, it seemed, a BSc, perfectly amiable, and kept bees.
"When you visit us on your return from Canada you will be a guest tout court. If we're not rich enough to feed you in the manner to which you are accustomed, I shall take you to Norah’s occasionally so you won’t starve altogether.” She shook hands and ran up the drive, disappearing almost immediately in the darkness in her black clothes.
NORAH. The name again set up a violent stirring in the back of Mordish’s mind. He drove away in a state of painful suspense, like a man waiting for a sneeze that keeps announcing itself and then withdrawing at the last second. A mile down the road he pulled up. What had the girl originally said about Norah? “She behaves as she thinks other people think she should behave.”
He got out of his car and looked up at the constellation that, because it is shaped like a saucepan, is called the Great Bear. But surely we all—or almost all—do the same as Norah. Wasn't it because the girl did not that she stood out so prominently from the rest? Certainly he behaved as he thought other people thought he should behave. Always had. Even as a schoolboy he could remember behaving in a sort of roistering
manner—which actually bored him—because he supposed other people expected schoolboys to behave like that.
And take his father. When Beldrade came to dinner his father was a suave man of the world. But with Conningsby he put on a jolly undergraduate air. Which was the real, the essential Mordish senior? Neither obviously. The real Mordish senior no doubt lay in some depths of his being which his father had probably never explored at all. Take his mother. His Aunt Kitty. Take even Bellinger. Take almost anybody.
Mordish got back into his car, started up and pulled in behind a bus. He jogged along at twenty miles an hour.
That virtually everybody should be behaving in this singularly half-baked manner Mordish found hard to swallow. But there it unquestionably was. Everybody—almost—was acting an arbitrary series of roles imposed on them by other people, by friends, relatives, strangers. People who called themselves individuals were in fact loosely bound bundles of fictions. Scarcely anybody existed positively, in his own right. Here and there an odd person—such as the girl—refused to have his behavior imposed from outside and, instead, looked inward, consulted his essential being—which was not the same thing as consulting his memory or asking himself what was the generally acceptable behavior in given circumstances. Mordish glimpsed a future in which Mordish was unadulterated Mordish. He shook his head in wonderment and ran gently but firmly into the back of the bus. Gently enough to hook his car on to the back without much damage; but firmly enough to give his head a sharp clout against the framework of the offside door.
A scintillating golden ball appeared to Mordish. It was made up entirely of Great Bears, and he had the impression somehow that it belonged to his Uncle Alistair. He heard a chatter of machinery—lathes, looms, the whine of electric motors. The sounds slowly diminished: abruptly stopped. He was sitting behind the wheel of his car, which was apparently attached to the bus.
He was surrounded by people. He heard a rabble-rousing woman’s voice saying: “. . driving like a lunatic.
We might all be dead.”
“Too many Great Bears,” he heard
himself say rather foolishly.
“There you are. He’s been at the White Bear in Padsey Bridge and had too many. He says so. He’s proud of it.”
“Great,” Mordish corrected her with an unnatural stubbornness that he could only deplore. “Great.”
“You see! ‘Great,’ he says. He is proud of it. Oh, it’s shameful. People like him would take your life with a silly drunken grin on their faces.” She leaned forward until her head was almost inside the car window. "Oh, you horrible thing,” she said.
Mordish examined the woman through his eyelashes. With the shadow of the nose broadly bisecting the upper lip, the face horribly resembled the Hylike face of Hitler. Abruptly, rather sickeningly, he realized the position he was in: surrounded by hostile bus passengers, with this born leader of women breathing an odor of fish and chips in his face and trying to stir up hatred. If ever a situation called for an expert technique this was it. He shook his head. He really hadn’t developed his new technique yet. Besides his head ached. He needed practice in simple situations. No. tomorrow would be soon enough to try that out. But if he didn’t use it now what was he to do? Again he shook his head.
“Don’t you shake your head at me,” the woman said.
In spite of himself he began to try to get in touch with the inner reaches of his personality, the essential Mordish. It had not occurred to him that it might be difficult to establish an easy relationship with one’s essential being. He waited. No response. Did it not mean: lie low; do nothing; this is a time for mas-
terly inactivity? It must be that.
He sighed noisily, relaxed and closed his eyes in order to carry out the injunction as completely as possible.
The immediate and total success of his new technique struck Mordish as positively uncanny. He heard a man’s voice with something of a military crackle about it say. “Damn it, woman, can’t you see the lad’s dazed? In any case he only gave us a bit of a nudge.” And the crowd of passengers uttered little murmurs of unmistakable sympathy and assent.
Mordish could scarcely believe it. If he could get a result like this when he had a thumping headache and when he was a mere beginner, what might he not expect in future? He opened his eyes cautiously. The head of the Hitler-like woman had disappeared into outer darkness. A young woman was opening the door of the car. She said she was a nurse. She smelled of lilies of the valley —synthetic possibly but no less welcome for that. He inhaled the scent luxuriously. He felt a warm breath touch his eyelids. Cool fingers gently brushed the hair back from the trifling bump above his right eye. It was all extraordinarily agreeable.
There was only one small cloud on his horizon. He could not help wondering if he would have behaved so very differently in the days before his enlightenment. The essential Mordish told him not to be an imbecile, not to ask foolish questions. So he banished the cloud and said with cool imperturbability—the tone and manner of which he borrowed from the air-force pilot in the film he had seen that afternoon—“It's nothing. Nothing at all, 1 assure you.” ★