This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
Every Short Story by Alasdair Gray 1951-2012
UNLIKELY STORIES MOSTLY, EDINBURGH 1983
They passed through the galleries, surveyed the vaults of marble, and examined the chest in which the body of the founder is supposed to have been deposited. They sat down in one of the most spacious chambers to rest for a whille, before they attempted to return.
“We have now,” said Imlac, “gratified our minds with an exact view of the greatest work of man, except the wall of China.
“Of the wall it is very easy to assign the motive. It secured a wealthy and timorous nation from the incursions of barbarians. But for the pyramids no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must always be appeased by some employment. He who has built for use till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish.
“I consider this mighty structure as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A government whose power is unlimited, and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace the satiety of dominion by seeing thousands labouring without end, and one stone, for no purpose, laid upon another.”From RASSELAS by Samuel Johnson
A star had fallen beyond the horizon, in Canada perhaps. (He had an aunt in Canada.) The second was nearer, just beyond the iron works, so he was not surprised when the third fell into the backyard. A flash of gold light lit the walls of the enclosing tenements and he heard a low musical chord. The light turned deep red and went out, and he knew that somewhere below a star was cooling in the night air. Turning from the window he saw that no-one else had noticed. At the table his father, thoughtfully frowning, filled in a football coupon, his mother continued ironing under the pulley with its row of underwear. He said in a small voice, “A’m gawn out.”
His mother said, “See you’re no’ long then.”
He slipped through the lobby and onto the stairhead, banging the door after him.
The stairs were cold and coldly lit at each landing by a weak electric bulb. He hurried down three flights to the black silent yard and began hunting backward and forward, combing with his fingers the lank grass round the base of the clothes-pole. He found it in the midden on a decayed cabbage leaf. It was smooth and round, the size of a glass marble, and it shone with a light which made it seem to rest on a precious bit of green and yellow velvet. He picked it up. It was warm and filled his cupped palm with a ruby glow. He put it in his pocket and went back upstairs.
That night in bed he had a closer look. He slept with his brother who was not easily wakened. Wriggling carefully far down under the sheets, he opened his palm and gazed. The star shone white and blue, making the space around him like a cave in an iceberg. He brought it close to his eye. In its depth was the pattern of a snow-flake, the grandest thing he had ever seen. He looked through the flake’s crystal lattice into an ocean of glittering blue-black waves under a sky full of huge galaxies. He heard a remote lulling sound like the sound in a sea-shell, and fell asleep with the star safely clenched in his hand.
He enjoyed it for nearly two weeks, gazing at it each night below the sheets, sometimes seeing the snow-flake, sometimes a flower, jewel, moon or landscape. At first he kept it hidden during the day but soon took to carrying it about with him; the smooth rounded gentle warmth in his pocket gave comfort when he felt insulted or neglected.
At school one afternoon he decided to take a quick look. He was at the back of the classroom in a desk by himself. The teacher was among the boys at the front row and all heads were bowed over books. Quickly he brought out the star and looked. It contained an aloof eye with a cool green pupil which dimmed and trembled as if seen through water.
“What have you there, Cameron?”
He shuddered and shut his hand.
“Marbles are for the playground, not the classroom. You’d better give it to me.”
“I cannae, sir.”
“I don’t tolerate disobedience, Cameron. Give me that thing.”
The boy saw the teacher’s face above him, the mouth opening and shutting under a clipped moustache. Suddenly he knew what to do and put the star in his mouth and swallowed. As the warmth sank toward his heart he felt relaxed and at ease. The teacher’s face moved into the distance. Teacher, classroom, world receded like a rocket into a warm, easy blackness leaving behind a trail of glorious stars, and he was one of them.
THE SPREAD OF IAN NICOL
One day Ian Nicol, a riveter by trade, started to split in two down the middle. The process began as a bald patch on the back of his head. For a week he kept smearing it with hair restorer, yet it grew bigger, and the surface became curiously puckered and so unpleasant to look upon that at last he went to his doctor. “What is it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said the doctor, “but it looks like a face, ha, ha! How do you feel these days?”
“Fine. Sometimes I get a stabbing pain in my chest and stomach but only in the morning.”
“Enough for two men.”
The doctor thumped him all over with a stethoscope and said, “I’m going to have you X-rayed. And I may need to call in a specialist.”
Over the next three weeks the bald patch grew bigger still and the suggestion of a face more clearly marked on it. Ian visited his doctor and found a specialist in the consulting room, examining X-ray plates against the light. “No doubt about it, Nicol,” said the specialist, “you are splitting in two down the middle.” Ian considered this.
“That’s not usual, is it?” he asked. “Oh, it happens more than you would suppose. Among bacteria and viruses it’s very common, though it’s certainly less frequent among riveters. I suggest you go into hospital where the process can complete itself without annoyance for your wife or embarrassment to yourself. Think it over.”
Ian thought it over and went into hospital where he was put into a small ward and given a nurse to attend him, for the specialist was interested in the case. As the division proceeded more specialists were called in to see what was happening. At first Ian ate and drank with a greed that appalled those who saw it. After consuming three times his normal bulk for three days on end he fell into a coma which lasted till the split was complete. Gradually the lobes of his brain separated and a bone shutter formed between them. The face on the back of his head grew eyelashes and a jaw. What seemed at first a cancer of the heart became another heart. Convulsively the spine doubled itself. In a puzzled way the specialists charted the stages of the process and discussed the cause. A German consultant said that life was freeing itself from the vicissitudes of sexual reproduction. A psychiatrist said it was a form of schizophrenia, a psycho-analyst that it was an ordinary twinning process which had been delayed by a severe case of prenatal sibling rivalry. When the split was complete, two thin Ian Nicols lay together on the bed.
The resentment each felt for the other had not been foreseen or guarded against. In bed the original Ian Nicol could be recognized by his position (he lay on the right of the bed), but as soon as both men were strong enough to walk each claimed ownership of birth certificate, union card, clothes, wife and National Insurance benefit. One day in the hospital grounds they started fighting. They were evenly matched and there are conflicting opinions about who won. On leaving hospital they took legal action against each other for theft of identity. The case was resolved by a medical examination which showed that one of them had no navel.
The second Ian Nicol changed his name by deed poll and is now called Macbeth. Sometimes he and Ian Nicol write to each other. The latest news is that each has a bald patch on the back of his head.
THE CAUSE OF RECENT CHANGES
The painting departments of modern art schools are full of discontented people. One day Mildred said to me, “I’m sick of wasting time. We start work at ten and tire after half an hour and the boys throw paper pellets at each other and the girls stand round the radiators talking. Then we get bored and go to the refectory and drink coffee and we aren’t enjoying ourselves, but what else can we do? I’m tired of it. I want to do something vigorous and constructive.”
I said, “Dig a tunnel.”
“What do you mean?”
“Instead of drinking coffee when you feel bored, go down to the basement and dig an escape tunnel.”
“But if I wanted to escape I could walk through the front door and not come back.”
“You can’t escape that way. The education department would stop your bursary and you would have to work for a living.”
“But where would I be escaping to?”
“That isn’t important. To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”
My suggestion was not meant seriously but was taken seriously. In the seldom-visited sub-basement a flagstone was replace by a disguise trap-door. Under this a room was dug into the school’s foundation and here the tunnel began. In forty minute shifts boxes of waste were winched up and the waste put in small sacks easily smuggled out under students’ clothing. The school was built on a bank of igneous quartz so there was no danger of walls caving in, no need of pit-props. Digging was eased by a chemical solvent applied to rock faces with a hand spray, making them soft as cheese. This was invented by industrial design students who despised the painters digging the tunnel but supported it as a technical challenge.
The tunnel did not fail after a few months like the attempt to start an art school debating society, magazine, choir and outing to Linlithgow. Enthusiasm for it actually increased. The Students Representative Society was packed with members of the tunnel committee who organized dances to pay for the installation of more powerful winches. We all became more tense, jumping at small sounds, laughing loudly at feeble jokes, quarrelling with small provocation. Did some fear the tunnel would open a volcanic vent? Yet the diggers noticed no increase of temperature. Sometimes I wondered how the project remained free from interference. An engineering venture supported by several hundred people can hardly be called a secret. It was natural for those outside the school to regard rumours as fantastic inventions, but why did none of the teachers interfere? Only a minority were active supporters of the project; two were being bribed to remain silent. I am sure the director and deputy director did not know, but what about the rest who knew and said nothing? Perhaps they also regarded the tunnel as a possible means of escape. One day work on the tunnel stopped. The first shift going to work in the morning coffee-break discovered that the basement entrance was locked. There were several tunnel entrances now but all were found to be locked, and since the tunnel committee had vanished it was assumed they were inside. This caused a deal of speculation.
I have always kept clear of mass movements, so on meeting the president of the committee in a lonely upper corridor one evening, I said, “Hullo, Mildred,” and would have passed on, but she gripped my arm and said, “Come with me.”
She led me a few yards to the open door of what I had thought was a disused service lift. She said, “You’d better sit on the floor,” and closed the gates behind us and pulled a lever. The lift fell like a stone with a noise so high-pitched that it was sometimes inaudible. After fifteen minutes it decelerated in violent jerks, then stopped. Mildred opened the gates and we stepped out.
In spite of myself I was impressed by what I saw. We stood in a corridor with an arched ceiling, asphalt floor and walls of white tile. It swept left and right in a curve that prevented seeing more than a mile in each direction. “Very good,” I said, “very good indeed. How did you manage it? The fluorescent lighting alone must have cost a fortune.”
Mildred said gloomily, “We didn’t make this place. We only reached it.”
At that moment an elderly man passed us on a bicycle. He wore a peaked cap, an armband with some kind of badge on it and was otherwise naked, for the air was warm. As he passed he raised a hand in a friendly gesture. I said, “Who was that?”
“Some kind of official. There aren’t many of them on this level.”
“How many levels are there?”
“Three. This one has dormitories and canteens for the staff, and underneath are the offices of the administration, and under that is the engine.”
“The one that drives us round the sun.”
“But gravity drives the world round the sun.”
“Has anyone ever told you what gravity is and how it operates?”
I realized nobody ever had. Mildred said, “Gravity is nothing but a word top-level scientists use to hide their ignorance.”
I asked her how the engine was powered. She said, “Steam.”
“Not nuclear fission?”
“No, the industrial design boys are quite certain it’s a steam engine of the most primitive sort imaginable. They’re down there measuring and sketching with the rest of the committee. We’ll show you a picture in a day or two.”
“Does nobody ask what right you have to go poking about inside this thing?”
“No. It’s like all big organizations. The staff are so numerous that you can go where you like if you look confident enough.”
I had to meet a friend in half an hour so we got into the lift and started back up. I said, “Well, Mildred, it’s interesting of course, but I don’t know why you brought me to see it.” She said, “I’m worried. The others keep laughing at the machinery and discussing how to alter it. They think they can improve the climate by taking us nearer the sun. I’m afraid we’re doing wrong.”
“Of course you’re doing wrong! You’re supposed to be studying art, not planetary motion. I would never have suggested the project if I’d thought you would take it to this length.”
She let me out on the ground floor saying, “We can’t turn back now.”
“Too many of us have invested too much to stop now.”
“That’s a usual, ancient and very bad excuse.”
But she stayed in the lift, shut the door and I never saw her again.
That night I was wakened by an explosion and my bed falling heavily to the ceiling. The sun, which had just set, came up again. The city was inundated by sea. We survivors crouched a long time among ruins threatened by earthquakes, avalanches and whirlwinds. All clocks were working at different speeds and the sun, after reaching the height of noon, stayed there. At length the elements calmed and we examined the new situation. It is clear that the planet has broken into several bits. Our bit is not revolving. To enjoy starlight and darkness, to get a good night’s sleep, we have to walk to the other side of our new world, a journey of several miles, with an equally long back journey when we want daylight.
A UNIQUE CASE
The Reverend Dr Phelim MacLeod is a healthy, boyish-looking bachelor who has outlived all his relations except a distant cousin in Canada. Though unsurpassed in his knowledge of Latin, Hebrew and Greek his main reading since retirement has been detective stories, but he can still beat me at the game of chess we play at least once a fortnight. I tell you this to indicate his apparent normality before the accident last year. A badly driven, badly stacked glazier’s van crashed beside his garden gate as he walked out of it, and a fragment of glass sheered off a section of skull with his right ear on it. I am his closest friend. At the Royal Infirmary I heard that no visitors could be allowed to see him in his present state, but I would be called if it changed.
I was called a week later. The brain surgeon in charge of him said, ‘Dr MacLeod has regained consciousness. We are providing him with peace, privacy and a well-balanced diet. His unique constitution makes it impossible for us to do more.’
“But is he recovering?”
“I think so. Judge for yourself. And please tell him nothing about his appearance that would needlessly disturb him.”
In a small ward of his own I found Dr MacLeod propped up in bed reading one of his detective thrillers. He greeted me with his usual calm, self-satisfied smile. I asked how he felt.
“Very well,” he said. “You are interested in my wound, I see. How does it look? The staff here are less than informative.”
In war films I had seen many buildings with an outer wall missing and the side of my friend’s head resembled one. Through a big opening I saw tiny rooms with doors, light fittings and wall sockets, all empty of furniture but with signs of hasty evacuation. There was also scaffolding and heaps of building material suggesting that repair was in progress. I said hesitantly, “You seem to be mending quite well.”
Dr MacLeod smiled complacently and pointed out that he would be seventy-six on his next birthday. I asked if he had any pain.
“No pain but a deal of inconvenience. I am forbidden to move my head and am sometimes wakened at night by hammering noises inside it. I sleep best during the day.”
After chatting with him about the weather and our acquaintances I returned to the surgeon’s office. I told him that my friend seemed surprisingly fit for a man in his condition and asked who was responsible for the improvement.
“Agents,” said the surgeon slowly, “who seem to inhabit the undamaged parts of his anatomy, only emerging to operate on him when nobody is looking — nobody like us, I mean. I am carefully keeping students and younger doctors away from this case. Mere curiosity might lead them to kill your friend by delving into what they understand as little as I do.”
“There are obviously more things in heaven and earth,” I said, “than are dreamed of in your …”
The surgeon interrupted testily, saying every experienced medical practitioner knew that better than Shakespeare. A year seldom passed without them encountering at least one inexplicable case. A hospital he would not name recently treated a woman, otherwise normal, for panic attacks caused by her certainty that a sudden shock would crack her into a million pieces. When every other therapy had failed a psychiatrist, thinking a practical demonstration might work, suddenly tripped her so that she fell on a padded surface which could not have injured a child, and she had cracked into a million pieces.
“With tact,” said the surgeon, “your friend’s case may have a happier conclusion.”
It did. A month later the wound had been closed. Skin grew over it, a new ear, also a few strands of the white hair which elsewhere surrounds Dr MacLeod’s bald pink dome. He returned home and we meet once more for regular chess games. His character seems in no way changed by the accident. I am sometimes tempted to tell him that he is worked from inside by smaller people and always refrain in case it spoils his play. But maybe it would have no effect at all. Like many Christians he believes that a healthy body is a gift from God, no matter how it works. And like most men he has always thought himself unique.
THE COMEDY OF THE WHITE DOG
On a sunny afternoon two men went by car into the suburbs to the house of a girl called Nan. Neither was much older than twenty years. One of them, Kenneth, was self-confident and well dressed and his friends thought him very witty. He owned and drove the car. The other, Gordon, was more quiet. His clothes were as good as Kenneth’s but he inhabited them less easily. He had never been to this girl’s house before and felt nervous. An expensive bunch of flowers lay on his lap.
Kenneth stopped the car before a broad-fronted bungalow with a badly kept lawn. The two men had walked halfway up the path to the door when Kenneth stopped and pointed to a dog which lay basking in the grass. It was a small white sturdy dog with a blunt pinkish muzzle and a stumpy tail. It la y with legs stuck out at right angles to its body, its eyes were shut tight and mouth open in a grin through which the tongue lolled. Kenneth and Gordon laughed and Gordon said, “What’s so funny about him?” Kenneth said, “He looks like a toy dog knocked over on its side.”
“Is he asleep?”
“Don’t fool yourself. He hears every word we say.”
The dog opened its eyes, sneezed and got up. It came over to Gordon and grinned up at him but evaded his hand when he bent down to pat it and trotted up the path and touched the front door with its nose. The door opened and the dog disappeared into a dark hall. Kenneth and Gordon stood on the front step stamping their feet on the mat and clearing their throats. Sounds of female voices and clattering plates came from nearby and the noise of a wireless from elsewhere. Kenneth shouted, “Ahoi!” and Nan came out of a side door. She was a pleasant-faced blonde who would have seemed plump if her waist, wrists and ankles had not been slender. She wore an apron over a blue frock and held a moist plate in one hand. Kenneth said jocularly, “The dog opened the door to us.”
“Did he? That was wicked of him. Hullo, Gordon, why, what nice flowers. You’re always kind to me. Leave them on the hallstand and I’ll put them in water.”
“What sort of dog is he?” said Gordon.
“I’m not sure, but when we were on holiday up at Ardnamurchan the local inhabitants mistook him for a pig.”
A woman’s voice shouted, “Nan! The cake!”
“Oh, I’ll have to rush now, I’ve a cake to ice. Take Gordon into the living room, Kenneth; the others haven’t arrived yet so you’ll have to entertain each other. Pour yourselves a drink if you like.”
The living room was at the back of the house. The curtains, wallpaper and carpets had bright patterns that didn’t harmonize. There was an assortment of chairs and the white dog lay on the most comfortable. There was a big very solid oval table, and a grand piano with two bottles of cider and several tumblers on it. “I see we’re not going to have an orgy anyway,” said Gordon, pouring cider into a tumbler.
“No, no. It’s going to be a nice little family party,” said Kenneth, seating himself at the piano and starting to play. He played badly but with confidence, attempting the best known bits of works by Beethoven and Schumann. If he particularly enjoyed a phrase he repeated it until it bored him; if he made a passage illegible with too many discords he repeated it until it improved. Gordon stood with the tumbler in his hand, looking out the window. It opened on a long narrow lawn which sloped down between hedges to a shrubbery.
“Are you in love with Nan?” said Kenneth, still playing.
“Yes. Mind you, I don’t know her well,” said Gordon.
“Hm. She’s too matronly for me.”
“I don’t think she’s matronly.”
“What do you like about her?”
“Most things. I like her calmness. She’s got a very calm sort of beauty.”
Kenneth stopped playing and sat looking thoughtful. Voices and clattering dishes could be heard from the kitchen, a telephone was ringing and the noise of a wireless still came loudly from somewhere. Kenneth said, “She’s not calm when she’s at home. They’re all very nice folk, pleasant and sincere I mean, but you’ll find all the women of this family — Nan, her mother and grandmother and aunt — all talk too loudly at the same time. It’s never quiet in this house. Either the wireless is on loudly, or the gramophone, or both. I’ve been to one or two parties here. There are never many guests but I’ve always felt there are other parties going on in rooms of the house I don’t know about. Do you want to marry Nan?”
“Of course. I told you I loved her.”
Kenneth laughed and swung from side to side on the piano stool, making it squeak. He said, “Don’t mistake me — there’s nothing disorderly about the house. Nobody drinks anything stronger than cider. Nan’s father and brothers are so quiet as to be socially non-existent. You only see them at mealtimes and not always then. In fact I’m not sure how many brothers she has, or how large this family is. What are you grinning at?”
“I wish I could talk like you,” said Gordon. “You’ve told me nothing surprising about Nan’s family, yet you’ve made it seem downright sinister.”
Kenneth began to fumble out the tune of ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’.
“Anyway,” he said, “you won’t get a chance to be alone with her, which is what you most want, I suppose.”
Nan came in and said, “Gibson and Clare will be here in half an hour … er … would you like to have tea in the garden? It’s a good day for it. Mum doesn’t like the idea much.”
“I think it’s a fine idea,” said Kenneth.
“Oh, good. Perhaps you’ll help us with the table?” Gordon and Kenneth took the legs off the table, carried the pieces on to the back lawn and reassembled it, then put chairs round it and helped to set it. While they did so Nan’s mother, a small gay woman, kept running out and shouting useless directions: “Put that cake in the middle, Gordon! No, nearer the top! Did ye need to plant the table so far from the house? You’ve given yourself a lot of useless work. Well, well, it’s a nice day. Where’s my dog? Where’s my dog? Aha, there he is below the table! Come out, ye bizum! No, don’t tease him, Kenneth! You’ll only drive him mad.”
Gibson and Clare arrived. Gibson was a short thickly built man whose chin always looked swarthy. At first sight he gave a wrong impression of strength and silence, for he was asthmatic and this made his movements slow and deliberate. Though not older than Gordon or Kenneth his hair was getting thin. As soon as he felt at ease in a company he would talk expertly about books, art, politics and anything that was not direct experience. Clare, his girl-friend, was nearly six feet tall and beautiful in a consciously chaste way. Her voice was high-pitched, pure and clear, and she listened to conversation with large wide-open eyes and lustrous lips slightly parted. Her favourite joke was to suspect an indecency in an ordinary remark and to publicize it with a little exclamation and giggle. Kenneth had nicknamed the two Intellect and Spirit. He said there seemed nothing animal between them.
The tea was a pleasant one. Only Nan, her four guests and the dog were present, though. Nan’s mother often ran out with a fresh pot of tea or plate of food. The sun was bright, a slight breeze kept the air from being too warm, and Kenneth amused the company by talking about the dog.
“There’s something heraldic about him,” he said.
“It’s easy to imagine him with another head where his tail is. Look, he’s getting excitable! He wants to sit on a chair! Oh, I hope he doesn’t choose mine.”
The dog had been trotting round the table in a wide circle, now it came toward Kenneth, wagging its tail and grinning. Kenneth grabbed a plate of meringues and got down under the table with them. “These at least he shall not have!” he cried in a muffled trembling voice. The others laughed, left their chairs and finished the meal sitting on the grass. All but Gordon felt that pleasant drunkenness which comes from being happy in company. Kenneth crawled about the lawn on his knees with a sugar bowl in his hand and when he came to a daisy peered at it benevolently and dropped a small heap of sugar into the flower. Gibson crawled after him, adding drops from the milk jug. Clare sat with the dog on her lap and pretended to cut it up with a knife and fork. Actually she stroked and tickled its stomach gently with the edge of the knife and murmured baby-talk: “Will I be cruel and eat oo up doggie? No, no, no, doggie, oo is too sweet a doggie to eat up.”
Nan had taken needles and wool from her apron pocket and was quietly knitting and smiling to herself. Gordon lay nearby pretending to sunbathe. He was worried. He really did not know Nan well. He had only seen her at the homes of friends, and had not even spoken to her much. His invitation to the party had been a surprise. Nan did not know him as well as several other people she might have invited. He had assumed she knew what he felt for her and was giving him a chance to know her better, yet since he arrived she had not paid him any special attention. Now she sat placidly knitting, sometimes glancing sideways at Clare with a slight ironic smile; yet he believed he saw in her manner a secretive awareness of him, lying apart and wanting her.
“Ach, the bitch,” he thought, “she’s sure of me. She thinks she can hurt me all she likes. Well, she’s wrong.” He got up, went to the table and started piling the plates together.
“I’ll take these indoors,” he said.
“Oh, don’t bother,” said Nan, smiling at him lazily.
“Someone will have to shift them,” said Gordon sternly.
He took several journeys to carry the table things into the kitchen. It was cool and dim indoors. Nan’s father and three of her silent brothers were eating a meal at the kitchen table. They nodded to him. The mother was nowhere to be seen but he heard her voice among several shrill female voices in some other room. Gordon brought in the last table things and put them on the drying board of the sink, then stood awkwardly watching the four eaters. They were large men with stolid, clumsily moulded faces. Some lines on the father’s face were deeply cut, otherwise he looked very like his sons. He said to Gordon, “A warm evening.”
“Yes, I prefer it indoors.”
“Would you like a look at the library?”
“Er, yes, thanks, yes I would.”
The father got up and led Gordon across the hall and down a short passage, opened a door and stood by to let Gordon through. The library had old glass-fronted bookcases on each wall. Between the bookcases hung framed autographed photographs of D. H. Lawrence, Havelock Ellis, H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. There was a leather-covered arm-chair, and a round tin labelled ‘Edinburgh Rock’ on a low table beside it.
“You’ve a lot of books,” said Gordon.
“The wife’s people were great readers,” said Nan’s father. “Can I leave you now?”
“Oh yes. Oh yes.”
The father left. Gordon took a book at random from a shelf, sat down and turned the pages casually. It was a history of marine engineering. The library was on the opposite side of the hall from the living room, but its window also looked on to the back garden and sometimes Gordon heard an occasional shout or laugh or bark from those on the lawn. He told himself grimly, “I’m giving her a chance. If she wants me she can come to me here. In fact if she has ordinary politeness and decency she’ll be bound to look for me soon.” He imagined the things she might say and the things he would say back. Sometimes he consoled himself with a piece of rock from the tin.
Suddenly the door sprang open with a click and he saw coming through it towards him, not Nan, but the dog. It stopped in front of him and grinned up into his face. “What do you want?” said Gordon irritably. The dog wagged its tail. Gordon threw a bit of rock which it caught neatly in its jaws, then trotted out through the door. Gordon got up, slammed the door and sat down. A little later the door opened and the dog entered again. “Ye brute!” said Gordon. “Right, here’s your sweet; the last you’ll get from me.”
He escorted the dog to the door, closed it carefully, turned a key in the lock, then went back to the chair and book. After a while it struck him that with the door locked Nan wouldn’t get in if she came to him. He glanced uneasily up. The door was open and the dog stood before him, grinning with what seemed, to his stupified eyes, triumphant amusement. For a moment Gordon was too surprised to move. He noticed that the animal was grinning with its mouth shut, a thing he had never seen a dog do before. He raised the book as if to throw it.
“Grrr, get out!” he yelled. The dog turned jauntily and trotted away. After thinking carefully Gordon decided some joker must have unlocked the door from outside: it was the sort of pointless joke Kenneth liked. He listened carefully and heard from the lawn the voice of Kenneth and the barking of the dog. He decided to leave the door open.
Later he found it too dark to see the page of the book clearly and put it down. The noises from the lawn had subtly altered. The laughter and shouting were now not continuous. There were periods of silence disturbed by the occasional shuffle of running feet and the hard breathing of somebody pursued, then he would hear a half-cry or scream that did not sound altogether in fun. Gordon went to the window. Something strange was happening on the darkened lawn. Nan was nowhere to be seen. Kenneth, Gibson and Clare were huddled together on the bare table-top, Clare kneeling, Kenneth and Gibson crouching half-erect. The white dog danced in a circle round the table among over-turned chairs. Its activity and size seemed to have increased with the darkness. It glimmered like a sheet in the dusk, its white needle-teeth glittered in the silently laughing jaws, it was about the size of a small lion. Gibson was occupied in a strange way, searching his pockets for objects and hurling them at the shrubbery at the far end of the garden. The white dog would run, leap, catch these in its mouth while they were in the air, then return and deposit them under the table. It looked like a game and had possibly begun as one, but obviously Gibson was continuing in an effort to get the dog as far away as possible. Gordon suddenly discovered Nan was beside him, watching, her hands clenched against her mouth.
Gibson seemed to run out of things to throw. Gordon saw him expostulate precariously for a moment with Kenneth, demanding (it appeared) his fountain pen. Kenneth kept shaking his head. He was plainly not as frightened as Gibson or Clare, but a faint embarrassed smile on his face suggested that he was abashed by some monstrous possibility. Gibson put a hand to his mouth, withdrew something, then seemed to reason with Kenneth, who at last shrugged and took it with a distaste which suggested it was a plate of false teeth. Kenneth stood upright and, balancing himself with difficulty, hurled the object at the shrubbery. It was a good throw. The white dog catapulted after it and at once the three jumped from the table and ran to the house, Kenneth going to the right, Gibson and Clare to the left. The dog swerved in an abrupt are and hurled toward the left. He overtook Clare and snapped the hem of her dress. She stumbled and fell. Gibson and Kenneth disappeared from sight and two doors were slammed in different parts of the house. Clare lay on the lawn, her knees drawn up almost to her chin, her clasped hands pressed between her thighs and her eyes shut. The dog stood over her, grinning happily, then gathered some of the clothing round her waist into its mouth and trotted with her into the bushes of the shrubbery.
Gordon looked at Nan. She had bowed her face into her hands. He put an arm round her waist, she laid her face against his chest and said in a muffled voice, “Take me away with you.”
“Are you sure of what you’re saying?”
“Take me away, Gordon.”
“What about Clare?”
Nan laughed vindictively. “Clare isn’t the one to pity.”
“Yes, but that dog!”
Nan cried out, “Do you want me or not?”
As they went through the dark hall, the kitchen door opened, Nan’s mother looked out, then shut it quickly. In the front garden they met Kenneth and Gibson, both shamefaced and subdued. Kenneth said, “Hullo. We were just coming to look for you.”
Gordon said, “Nan’s coming home with me.”
Kenneth said, “Oh, good.”
They stood for a moment in silence, none of the men looking at each other, then Gibson said, “I suppose I’d better wait for Clare.” The absence of teeth made him sound senile. Nan cried out, “She won’t want you now! She won’t want you now!” and started weeping again. “I’ll wait all the same,” Gibson muttered. He turned his back on them. “How long do you think she’ll be?” he asked. Nobody answered.
The drive back into the city was quiet. Gordon sat with Nan in the back seat, his arm around her waist, her mourning face against his shoulder. He felt strangely careless and happy. Once Kenneth said, “An odd sort of evening.” He seemed half willing to discuss it but nobody encouraged him. He put off Gordon and Nan at the close-mouth of the tenement where Gordon lived. They went upstairs to the top landing, Gordon unlocked a door and they crossed a small lobby into a very untidy room. Gordon said, “I’ll sleep on the sofa here. The bedroom’s through that door.”
Nan sat on the sofa, smiled sadly and said, “So I’m not to sleep with you.”
“Not yet. I want you too much to take advantage of a passing mood.”
“You think this is a passing mood.”
“It might be. If it’s not I’ll see about getting a marriage licence. Are you over eighteen?”
“That’s good. Er … do you mind me wanting to marry you, Nan?”
Nan got up, embraced him and put her tear-dirty cheek against his. She laughed and said, “You’re very conventional.”
“There’s no substitute for legality,” said Gordon, rubbing his brow against hers.
“There’s no substitute for impulse,” Nan whispered.
“We’ll try and combine the two,” said Gordon. The pressure of her body started to excite him, so he stood apart from her and started making a bed on the sofa.
“If you’re willing, tomorrow I’ll get a licence.” He had just settled comfortably on the sofa when Nan came to the bedroom door and said, “Gordon, promise you won’t ask me about him.”
“You can’t have forgotten him.”
“The dog? Yes, I had forgotten the dog. All right, I won’t ask … You’re sure nothing serious has happened to Clare?”
“Ask her when you see her next!” Nan cried, and slammed the bedroom door.
Next day Gordon bought a marriage licence and an engagement ring and arranged the wedding for a fortnight later. The next two weeks were among the happiest in his life. During the day he worked as an engineering draughtsman. When he came home from work Nan had a good meal ready for him and the apartment clean and tidy. After the meal they would go walking or visit a film show or friends, and later on they would make rather clumsy love, for Gordon was inexperienced and got his most genuine pleasure by keeping the love-making inside definite limits. He wasn’t worried much by memories of the white dog. He prided himself on being thoroughly rational, and thought it irrational to feel curious about mysteries. He always refused to discuss things like dreams, ghosts, flying-saucers and religion. “It doesn’t matter if these things are true or not,” he said. “They are irrelevant to the rules that we have to live by. Mysteries only happen when people try to understand something irrelevant.” Somebody once pointed out to him that the creation of life was a mystery. “I know,” he said, “and it’s irrelevant. Why should I worry about how life occurred? If I know how it is just now I know enough.” This attitude allowed him to dismiss his memories of the white dog as irrelevant, especially when he learned that Clare seemed to have come to no harm. She had broken with Gibson and now went about a lot with Kenneth.
One day Nan said, “Isn’t tomorrow the day before the wedding?”
“Yes. What about it?”
“A man and woman aren’t supposed to see each other the night before their wedding.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“And I thought you were conventional.”
“I know what’s legal. I don’t much care about conventions.”
“Well, women care more about conventions than they do about laws.”
“Does that mean you want me to spend tomorrow night in a hotel?”
“It’s the proper thing, Gordon.”
“You weren’t so proper on the night I brought you here.” Nan said quietly, “It’s not fair to remind me of that night.”
“I’m sorry,” said Gordon. “No, it’s not fair. I’ll go to a hotel.”
Next evening he booked a room in a hotel and then, since it was only ten o’clock, went to a coffee bar where he might see some friends. Inside Clare and Kenneth sat at a table with a lean young man Gordon did not know. Clare smiled and beckoned. She had lost her former self-conscious grace and looked adult and attractive. As Gordon approached Kenneth stood, gripped Gordon’s hand and shook it with unnecessary enthusiasm saying, “Gordon! Gordon! You must meet Mr. McIver. (Clare and I are just leaving.) Mr. McIver, this is the man I told you about, the only man in Scotland who can help you. Goodnight! Goodnight! Clare and I mustn’t intrude on your conversation. You have a lot to discuss.” He rushed out, pulling Clare after him and chuckling.
Gordon and the stranger looked at each other with embarrassment.
“Won’t you sit down?” said Mr. McIver in a polite North American voice. Gordon sat down and said, “Are you from the States, Mr. McIver?”
“No, from Canada. I’m visiting Europe on a scholarship. I’m collecting material for my thesis upon the white dog. Your friend tells me you are an authority on the subject.” Gordon said abruptly, “What has Kenneth told you about the dog?”
“Nothing. But he said you could tell me a great deal.”
“He was joking.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Gordon stood up to go, sat down again, hesitated and said, “What is this white dog?”
McIver answered in the tone of someone starting a lecture: “Well known references to the white dog occur in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, in Chaucer’s unfinished ‘Cook’s Tale’, in the picaresque novels of the Basque poet Jose Mompou, and in your Scottish Border Ballads. Nonetheless, the white dog is the most neglected of European archetypes, and for that reason perhaps, one of the most significant. I can only account for this neglect by assuming a subconscious resistance in the minds of previous students of folk-lore, a resistance springing from the fact that the white dog is the west-European equivalent of the Oedipus myth.”
“That’s all just words,” said Gordon. “What does the dog do?”
“Well, he’s usually associated with sexually frigid women. Sometimes it is suggested they are frigid because they have been dedicated to the love of the dog from birth …”
“Dedicated by who?”
“In certain romance legends by the priest at the baptismal font, with or without the consent of the girl’s parents. More often the frigidity is the result of the girl’s choice. A girl meets an old woman in a lonely place who gives her various gifts, withholding one on which the girl’s heart is set. The price of the gift is that she consents to marry the old woman’s son. If she accepts the gift (it is usually an object of no value) she becomes frigid until the white dog claims her. The old woman is the dog’s mother. In these versions of the legend the dog is regarded as a malignant spirit.”
“How can he be other than malignant?”
“In Sicily the dog is thought of as a benefactor of frigid or sterile women. If the dog can be induced to sleep with such a woman and she submits to him she will become capable of normal fruitful intercourse with a man. There is always a condition attached to this. The dog must always be, to a certain extent, the husband of the woman. Even if she marries a human man, the dog can claim her whenever he wants.”
“Oh God,” said Gordon.
“There’s nothing horrible about it,” said McIver. “In one of Jose Mompou’s novels the hero encounters a brigand chieftain whose wife is also married to the dog. The dog and the chieftain are friends, the dog accepts the status of pet in the household, sleeping by the fire, licking the plates clean et cetera, even though he is the ghostly husband of several girls in the district. By his patronage of the house in this ostensibly servile capacity, he brings the brigand luck. His presence is not at all resented, even though he sometimes sleeps with the brigand’s daughters. To have been loved by the dog makes a woman more attractive to normal men, you see, and the dog is never jealous. When one of his women marries he only sleeps with her often enough to assert his claim on her.”
“How often is that?”
“Once a year. He sleeps with her on the night before the wedding and on each anniversary of that night. Say, how are you feeling? You look terrible.”
Gorden went into the street too full of horror and doubt to think clearly.
“To be compared with a dog! To be measured against a dog! Oh no, God, Nan wouldn’t do that! Nan isn’t so wicked!”
He found he was gibbering these words and running as fast as possible home. He stopped, looked at his watch, forced himself to walk slowly. He arrived home about midnight, went through the close to the back court and looked up at the bedroom window. The light was out. He tiptoed upstaris and paused at the front door. The door looked so much as usual that he felt nothing wrong could be behind it; he could still return to the hotel, but while he considered this his hand was stealthily putting the key in the lock. He went softly into the living room, hesitated outside the bedroom door, then opened it quickly. He heard a gasp and Nan shriek, “Gordon!”
“Yes,” said Gordon.
“Don’t put the light on!”
He switched the light on. Nan sat up in bed blinking at him fearfully, her hands pressed protectively on a mound between her legs under the tumbled bedclothes. Gordon stepped forward, gripped the edge of the bedclothes and tugged. “Let go!” he said. She stared at him, her face white with terror, and whispered, “Go away!” He struck her face and she fell back on the pillows; he snatched away the bedclothes and the white dog sprang from between the sheets and danced on them, grinning. Gordon grabbed at the beast’s throat. With an easy squirming movement it evaded his hand, then bit it. Gordon felt the small needle-teeth sink between his fingerbones and suddenly became icy cold. He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the numb bitten hand still gripped between the dog’s grinning jaws: its pink little eyes seemed to wink at him. With a great yell, he seized the beast’s hind leg with his free hand, sprang up and swung its whole body against the wall. Nan screamed. He felt its head crush with the impact, swung and battered it twice more on the wall, leaving a jammy red stain each time, then he flung the body into a corner and sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at his bitten hand. The sharp little teeth seemed to have gone in without piercing any veins or arteries, for the only mark on the skin was a V-shaped line of grey punctures. He stared across at the smash-headed carcase. He found it hard to believe he had killed it. Could such a creature be killed? He got to his feet with difficulty, for he felt unwell, and went to the thing. It was certainly dead. He opened the window, picked the dog up by the tail and flung it down into the back court, then went over to the bed where Nan lay, gazing at him with horror. He began to undress as well as he could without the use of the numbed right hand. “So, my dear,” he muttered, “you prefer convention.”
She cried out, “You shouldn’t have come back tonight! We would all have been happy if you hadn’t come back tonight!”
“Just so,” said Gordon, getting in bed with her.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Oh yes, I’ll touch you.”
Toward morning Gordon woke, feeling wonderfully happy. Nan’s arms clasped him, yet he felt more free than ever before. With a little gleeful yelp he sprang from the nest of warmth made by her body and skipped upon the quilt. Nan opened her eyes lazily to him, then sat up and kissed his muzzle. He looked at her with jovial contempt, then jumped on to the floor and trotted out of the house, the shut doors springing open at the touch of his nose. He ran downstairs into the sunlit street, his mouth hanging open in a grin of sheer gaiety. He would never again be bound by dull laws.
Late at night a young man entered a phonebox in the suburb of an industrial city. He put coins in the slot, lifted the receiver, dialled and waited a moment. Later he heard a girl’s voice say, “Hello?”
There was no answer. He said, “This is Donald.”
“How are you, Joan?”
Silence. He frowned in a puzzled way and said, “I’m just back from Loch Lomond — I’ve been boating with the McEwans. They asked me to give you their love.”
“Listen Joan, is anything wrong? …
Are you all right Joan? …
Joan, is this a joke? …
If you don’t want to talk to me you’d better put the receiver down.”
After a while he heard faint movements, then more silence.
He put the receiver down. He stood with heart beating loudly and a heavy weight in his chest, wondering what to do. He was too disturbed to go home to bed and it would be hard to live through the next days without knowing exactly what was wrong. At last he left the phonebox and walked through several streets to a place where two roads crossed. A taxi stood at a corner. He got into it and gave the driver an address on the other side of the city. He sat on the edge of the seat feeling excited and depressed. Sometimes the feelings in his chest got so big that he had to breathe deeply to quieten them. At other times he stared out of the window. The taxi passed through tenements, then the larger office buildings of the city centre, and after twenty minutes came to a district of bungalows, fields and petrol stations. It stopped before a bungalow with a garden sloping up from the road. Donald told the driver to wait and got out. The path to the door was made of granite chips and to make no noise he walked on the grass verge. The only light in the bungalow was at a side window, the kitchen window. Joan often stayed up late, reading in the kitchen. He stepped to the lit yellow oblong, struck the glass with a knuckle and called, “Joan! Donald here! Joan!” A moment later the light went out.
He walked heavy-footed on the crunching granite to the front door and rang the bell, waited ten seconds, rang again and kept on ringing. A light went on behind the door’s thick rippled glass and it was opened by a girl who looked at him with a welcoming smile. She wore dressing gown and slippers, copious brown hair hung down loosely behind her shoulders, her eyebrows were strong and black, her nose long, her mouth large and humorous, her chin receded. She held the gown together at her throat with a big finely shaped hand and said in a pleased voice,
“I’ve just been washing my hair.”
He looked keenly into her face. She smiled back less broadly. He said, “Look, Joan, I phoned you about eleven. You answered the phone but wouldn’t speak to me. I’ve come to find why.”
Joan looked worried and said, “Come into the hall.”
He followed her into a narrow hall, shutting the door behind him. She said, “You phoned at eleven?”
“Yes, and you answered.”
“But Donald I came home at quarter-past eleven. I’ve been to the farm all day. You must have spoken to someone else.”
“I didn’t. You said ‘Hello’.”
“Then you must have got the wrong number.”
“No, I didn’t. You said ‘Hello’ and I went on talking and you didn’t answer. I listened a long time. You must have put the telephone receiver down and gone away …”
He glanced down at a telephone on the hall table beside him. The receiver lay off its cradle on top of a telephone directory. She said quickly, “As soon as I came in I took the receiver off in case any of my mother’s boring friends rang up.”
Donald said heavily, “I don’t believe you.”
He put his arms round her shoulders and smiled sadly down at her face. She smiled and laid her hands flat on his chest in a gesture that stopped him pulling her towards him. He said, “Why haven’t I seen you lately?”
“I’m sorry Donald, but it’s been such lovely weather — I’ve been working for these friends on the farm and I’ve been so happy there that I haven’t seemed to have time for other things.”
Donald let his hands fall by his side and stared at her. After a moment she said uncomfortably, “Come into the kitchen for a little while.”
The kitchen was small and cosy with a white tiled grate, an electric fire burning in the grate and a hearthrug before the fire. An open book lay on the rug, as if someone had sprawled there reading. Donald sat on the armchair by the hearth, his clasped hands between his knees, leaning forward slightly and looking at a piece of hearthrug. Joan sat at a distance on a chair by a dining table. Donald said, “You see I’ve come to feel … rather emotional about you.”
Joan said gently, “Oh, I’m sorry. I hoped that hadn’t happened.”
After a while she said, “You see we enjoy different things. You like books and jazz and ideas and … clever things like that. When I was with you I thought I liked these things but I don’t really. I like exercising horses and cleaning out hen-coops and living like a tinker. I realized that quite suddenly last week. Physical things are very important to me. I’m sorry, Donald.”
“But I don’t see why that should separate us! Most people who … like each other a lot keep bits of life private from each other.”
“I’m sorry, Donald. It’s very neurotic of me but that’s how I see it.”
“You’re not neurotic.”
“Oh but I am!” said Joan anxiously. “I really am very neurotic! I often do the most silly things …”
“Like not speaking to me on the telephone?”
She looked down obliquely and murmured, “Well, yes.” Donald stood up and said, “I’d better go.”
“It was very kind of you to come all that distance.”
“It was not. I had to find out what was wrong.”
At the front door he said, “Goodbye, Joan.”
She said kindly, “Goodbye, Donald.”
He got into the taxi and gave an address in the city. He sat on the back seat in the posture he had taken in the armchair, and bits of thought passed through his head.
“Why did I say “rather emotional” when I meant “love”? Why was I so meek and reasonable? I should have struck her. As I left I should have struck her face.
The last time we met we seemed to get on very well.”
The taxi stopped in a street of tenements with a theatre at one end. Donald paid the driver, entered a close and walked up flights of steps to a landing with a bright red door on it. He pressed the letterbox open with a finger and whistled through. After a while the door was opened by a young cadaverous man with a straggly red beard and wearing a coat over pyjamas. He stared at Donald, raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, well.”
“Can I come in? I know it’s selfish of me but I need to talk to someone …”
“Come in then.”
They crossed a lobby into a small room containing a bed, a chair, a dressing-table and a television set. The floor, dressing-table and television set were covered with untidy piles of books. The bearded man threw off his coat, lay on the bed, pulled blankets over him and stared at the ceiling, hands clasped under head. Donald said, “A bad thing has happened to me. If I don’t tell someone I’ll have to walk about all night brooding on it.”
“All right, tell me.”
Donald walked carefully about the room, talking in a slow, almost hesitant voice. Sometimes he said, “I may be mistaken about this bit …” and sometimes, “She didn’t say exactly that, she put it more subtly.”
When he had finished the bearded man yawned and said, “That’s very interesting, Donald. Were you very keen on her?”
“Oh yes. I thought we were going to marry. She’s the one girl I know who didn’t make me feel embarrassed when I wanted to be … sexual with her. We were always comfortable together, she was so frank and pleasant and … beautiful.”
“No, Donald, not beautiful. Remember, I’ve seen her.”
“Yes, beautiful! I know her face is so individual it’s almost ugly, but her body is beautiful by any standard — slender, with wee steep breasts, and a very big backside (she said it made clothes difficult to put on) and fine long legs. And she could undress without looking self-conscious or coy.” “She slept with you?” said the bearded man, looking surprised.
“Once or twice. Twice, to be exact.”
“I always thought her a quiet sort of girl.”
“She is a quiet sort of girl.”
“And … what was she like?”
“Like in bed?”
“Oh, I never fornicated with her — we just slept. I wasn’t in the mood for anything more urgent, and I didn’t think she was either. She kept her underwear on. But I’ve never slept so sweetly as I did with her arms round me. I’m usually a poor sleeper.”
After a pause the bearded man said, “Don’t you think she might have felt cheated?”
Donald sat down, turned the pages of a book without looking at them and said, “It had occurred to me. It’s one reason why I can’t blame her for her behaviour tonight.” “Still, she could have broken with you more kindly.”
“But you can’t break kindly with someone who loves you! The right way is to break honestly. By a very honest little act she showed me she was done with me. She put my voice carefully down on the hall table so as not to disturb it, and went quietly away and washed her hair. Her meaning was pretty clear, but like a fool I went to her house and discussed it.”
The bearded man said sleepily, “A pity you didn’t play on her love of animals. If you’d galloped up to her door at the head of a troop of cavalry she would have found you irresistible.”
There was quiet in the room for several minutes. Then Donald said thoughtfully, “Why don’t I protest more? The last time I was in love and the girl broke with me (that was five years ago) I protested all the time. I did stupid things, like insulting her in public and praying God to kill her. I thought my condition was unbearable. Now I feel quite calm. I have this ache in my chest, but talking to you has made it less, and it will disappear altogether when I get to sleep. Tomorrow it will come back for a few hours in the evening, but it will be perfectly bearable. And during the coming weeks it will come for a shorter time each day, and in three or four months I won’t have it at all. And that —” said Donald standing up, “is the sad thing. Joan will be nothing but an ache to me, then not even that, and in a few years it will be hard to remember her. I wish this ache would last as long as I lived, so I could always remember her. But even my memory of her will come to nothing and everything we did and felt together will be senseless and useless.”
He looked at the bearded man as if hoping to be refuted, but the bearded man was asleep.
The Greeks were wrong about the sun; she is definitely a woman. I know her well. She often visits me, but not often enough. She prefers spending her time on Mediterranean beaches with richer people, foreigners mostly. I never complain. She comes here often enough to keep me hopeful. Until today. Today, perhaps because it is Spring, she arrived unexpectedly in all her glory and made me perfectly happy.
I was astonished, grateful, and properly appreciative, of course. I lay basking in her golden warmth, a bit dopey and dozey but murmuring the sort of compliments which are appropriate at such times. I realized she was talking to me in a more insistent tone, so I occasionally said, “Yes” and “Mhm”. At last she said, “You aren’t listening.”
“Yes I am —” (I made an effort of memory) “— You were talking about your spots.”
“What can I do about them?”
“Honestly, Sun, I don’t think they’re important.”
“Not important? Not important? Oh, it’s easy for you to talk like that. You don’t have to live with them.”
I almost groaned aloud. Whenever someone makes me perfectly happy they go on to turn themselves into a problem. I gathered my energies to tackle the problem.
I said, “Your spots were first noted by Galileo in the sixteenth century, through his new improved telescope. Before that time you were regarded as the most perfect of all heavenly bodies —”
She gave a little wail: I said hastily, “But they aren’t permanent! They come and go! They’re associated with several good things, like growth. When you have a very spotty year the plants grow extra fast and thick.”
She hid her face and said, “Why can’t I have a perfect heavenly body like when I was younger? I haven’t changed. I’m still the same as I was then.”
I tried to console her. I said, “Nobody is perfect.” She said nothing.
I said, “Apart from a few top-level physicists and astronomers, nobody gives a damn for your spots.”
She said nothing.
I said, “The moon has spots all over her and nobody finds those unattractive.”
The sun arose and prepared to leave. I gazed at her in horror, too feeble to move, almost too feeble to speak. I whispered, “What’s wrong?”
“You’ve just admitted seeing other planets when my back is turned.”
“Of course, but not deliberately. Everybody who goes out at night is bound to see the moon from time to time, but I don’t see her regularly, like I see you.”
She said, “Perhaps if I played hard to get you would find my spots interesting too. What a fool I’ve been to think that give give giving myself seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, a hundred years a century was the way to get myself liked and appreciated when all the time people prefer a flighty young bitch who borrows all her light from me! Her own mother! Well, I’ve learned my lesson. From now on I’ll only come right out once a fortnight, then perhaps men will find my spots attractive too.”
And she would have left without another word if I had not jumped up and begged and pleaded and told her a lot of lies. I said a great deal had been discovered about sunspots since Galileo’s day, they were an electromagnetic phenomenon and probably curable. I said that next time we met I would have studied the matter and be able to recommend something. So she left me more in sorrow than anger and I will see her tomorrow.
But I can never hope to be perfectly happy with her again. The sun is more interested in her spots than in her beams and is ready to blame me for them.
THE CRANK THAT MADE THE REVOLUTION
Nowadays Cessnock is a heavily built-upon part of industrial Glasgow, but two hundred and seventy-three years ago you would have seen something very different. You would have seen a swamp with a duckpond in the middle and a few wretched hovels round the edge. The inmates of these hovesl earned a living by knitting caps and mufflers for the inhabitants of Glasgow who, even then, wore almost nothing else. The money got from this back-breaking industry was pitifully inadequate. Old Cessnock was neither beautiful nor healthy. The only folk living there were too old or twisted by rheumatism to move out. Yet this dismal and uninteresting hamlet saw the beginning of that movement which historians call The Industrial Revolution; for here, in seventeen hundred and seven, was born Vague McMenamy, inventor of the crankshaft which made the Revolution possible.
Modern Cessnock shortly after implementation of the smoke abatement act.
Old Cessnock from General Roy’s ordnance survey of 1739. Fig. A represents the swamp, B the duckpond, C the McMenamy hovel.
There are no records to suggest that Vague McMenamy had parents. From his earliest days he seems to have lived with his Granny upon a diet of duck-eggs and the proceeds of the old lady’s knitting. A German biographer has suggested that McMenamy’s first name (Vague) was a nickname. The idea, of course, is laughable. No harderheaded, clearer-sighted individual than McMenamy ever existed, as his crankshaft proves. The learned Herr Professor is plainly ignorant of the fact that Vague is the Gaelic for Alexander. Yet it must be confessed that Vague was an introvert. While other boys were chasing the lassies or stoning each other he would stand for long hours on the edge of the duckpond wondering how to improve his Granny’s ducks.
Now, considered mechanically, a duck is not an efficient machine, for it has been designed to perform three wholly different and contradictory tasks, and consequently it does none of them outstandingly well. It flies, but not as expertly as the swallow, vulture or aeroplane. It swims, but not like a porpoise. It walks about, but not like you or me, for its legs are too short. Imagine a household appliance devised to shampoo carpets, mash pottoes and darn holes in socks whenever it feels like it. A duck is in a similar situation, and this made ducks offensive to McMenamy’s dourly practical mind. He thought that since ducks spend most of their days in water they should be made to do it efficiently. With the aid of a friendly carpenter he made a boat-shaped container into which a duck was inserted. There was a hole at one end through which the head stuck out, allowing the animal to breathe, see and even eat; nonetheless it protested against the confinement by struggling to get out and in doing so its wings and legs drove the cranks which conveyed motion to a paddlewheel on each side. On its maiden voyage the duck zig-zagged around the pond at a speed of thirty knots, which was three times faster than the maximum speed which the boats and ducks of the day had yet attained. McMenamy had converted a havering all-rounder into an efficient specialist. He was not yet thirteen years of age.
Unimproved duck, after the watercolour by Peter Scott.
McMenamy’s Improved Duck.
He did not stop there. If this crankshaft allowed one duck to drive a vessel three times faster than normal, how much faster would two, three or ten ducks drive it? McMenamy decided to carry the experiment as far as he could take it. He constructed a craft to be driven by every one of his Granny’s seventeen ducks. It differed from the first vessel in other ways. The first had been a conventional boat shape propelled by paddles and constructed from wood. The second was cigar-shaped with a screw propeller at the rear, and McMenamy did not order it from the carpenter, but from the blacksmith. It was made of sheet iron. Without the seventeen heads and necks sticking up through holes in the hull one would have mistaken it for a modern submarine. This is a fact worth pondering. A hundred years elapsed before The Charlotte Dundas, the world’s first paddle steamer, clanked along the Forth and Clyde canal from Bowling. Fifty years after that the first ironclad screw-driven warship fired its first shot in the American Civil War. In two years the imagination of a humble cottage lad had covered ground which the world’s foremost engineers took two generations to traverse in the following century. Vague was fifteen years old when he launched his second vessel. Quacking hysterically, it crossed the pond with such velocity that it struck the opposite bank at the moment of departure from the near one. Had it struck soil it would have embedded itself. Unluckily, it hit the root of a tree, rebounded to the centre of the pond, overturned and sank. Every single duck was drowned.
In terms of human achievement, McMenamy’s duckboat ranks with Leonardo Da Vinci’s helicopter which was designed four hundred years before the engine which could have made it fly. Economically it was disastrous. Deprived of her ducks, McMenamy’s Granny was compelled to knit faster than ever. She sat in her rocking-chair, knitting and rocking and rocking and knitting and McMenamy sat opposite, brooding upon what he could do to help. He noticed that the muscular energy his Granny used to handle the needles was no greater than the energy she used to rock the chair. His Granny, in fact, was two sources of energy, one above the waist and one below, and only the upper source brought in money. If the power of her legs and feet could be channelled into the knitting she would work twice as fast, and his crankshaft made this possible. And so McMenamy built the world’s first knitting frame, later nicknamed “McMenamy’s Knitting Granny”. Two needles, each a yard long, were slung from the kitchen ceiling so that the tips crossed at the correct angle. The motion was conveyed through crankshafts hinged to the rockers of a cast-iron rocking-chair mounted on rails below. McMenamy’s Granny, furiously rocking it, had nothing to do with her hands but steer the woollen coils through the intricacies of purl and plain. When the McMenamys came to display their stock of caps and mufflers on a barrow in Glasgow’s Barrowland that year, the strongest knitters in the West of Scotland, brawny big-muscled men of thirty and thirty-five, were astonished to see that old Mrs. McMenamy had manufactured twice as much as they had.
McMenamy’s Improved Duck Tandem.0005 seconds after launching.
McMenamy’s Improved Duck Tandem.05 seconds after launching. (The ducks, though not yet drowned, have been killed by the shock.)
Engraving by Shanks in Glasgow People’s Palace Local History Museum showing decadence of that art before Bewick’s advent. Nobody knows if it portrays Provost Coats or McMenamy’s Granny.
Vague, however, was modest enough to know that his appliance was improvable. The power generated by a rocking-chair is limited, for it swings through a very flattened arc. His second knitting frame was powered by a see-saw. His Granny was installed on one end with the needles mounted in front of her. Hitherto, Vague had avoided operating his inventions himself, but now he courageously vaulted onto the other end and set the mighty beam swinging up and down, up and down, with a velocity enabling his Granny to turn out no less than eight hundred and ninety caps and mufflers a week. At the next Glasgow Fair she brought to market as much produce as the other knitters put together, and was able to sell at half the normal price and still make a handsome profit. The other inhabitants of Cessnock were unable to sell their goods at all. With the desperation of starving men, they set fire to the McMenamy cottage and the machinery inside it. Vague and his Granny were forced to flee across the swamp, leaving their hard earned gold to melt among the flames. They fled to the Burgh of Paisley, and placed themselves under the protection of the Provost, and from that moment their troubles were at an end.
In 1727 Paisley was fortunate in having, as Provost, an unusually enlightened philanthropist, Sir Hector Coats. (No relation to the famous thread manufacturers of the following century.) He was moved by McMenamy’s story and impressed by his dedication. He arranged for Vague to superintend the construction of a large knitting mill containing no less than twenty beam-balance knitting frames. Not only that, he employed Vague and his Granny to work one of them. For the next ten years Vague spent fourteen hours a day, six days a week, swinging up and down on the opposite end of the beam from the woman who had nourished and inspired him. It is unfortunate that he had no time to devote to scientific invention, but his only holidays were on a Sunday and Sir Hector was a good Christian who took stern measures against workmen who broke the Sabbath. At the age of thirty Vague McMenamy, overcome by vertigo, fell off the seesaw never to rise again. Strangely enough his Granny survived him by twenty-two years, toiling to the last at the machine which had been named after her. Her early days in the rocking-chair had no doubt prepared her for just such an end, but she must have been a remarkable old lady.
Thirty is not an advanced age and Vague’s achievement was crowded into seven years between the ages of twelve and nineteen. In that time he invented the paddle boat and the ironclad, dealt a deathblow to the cottage knitting industry, and laid the foundations of the Scottish Textile Trade. When Arkwright, Cartwright, Wainright and Watt completed their own machines, McMenamy’s crankshaft was in every one of them. Truly, he was the crank that made the Revolution possible.
McMenamy’s tombstone, Paisley High Kirk, engraved for the 1861 edition of Samuel Smiles’s “Self Help”. (This corner of the graveyard was flattened to make way for a new road in 1911.)
THE GREAT BEAR CULT
In 1975 there came straight to Glasgow from a Berlin gig Pete Brown the poet, Pete Brown the friend of Horowitz, Pete Brown the songwriter and sometimes pop-song singer. And I dined with him at the home of Barbara and Lindley Nelson. As usual Pete was with a new girlfriend who received most of his conversation, but first he showed the Nelsons and myself a souvenir of Berlin, and that was what we discussed. It was a street photograph of Pete arm in arm with a bear. Berlin takes its name from a bear, so commercial cameramen prowl the streets with a suitably dressed partner. But though the bear in the picture was a disguised man he appeared so naturally calm, so benignly strong, that beside him Pete (who in isolation is as calm, benign and shaggy as a sapient man can be) looked comparatively shifty and agley. We were also intrigued to find the image in the photograph oddly familiar though Barbara, Lindley and myself had never seen another like it. Did it recall dim memories of our infancy in the thirties when the British bear cult was still a political force? As we discussed what we knew of the cult I realized that the time had come for a television programme on it, one which mingled public archive material (photographs, films and sound recordings) with dramatic re-enactments of what took place in private. In 1975 the British Broadcasting Corporation was celebrating the fiftieth year of its charter, archive material was being daily broadcast and displayed, surely the BBC would be interested? It was not. I discovered that although Lord Reith’s restrictions upon clothing, drink and sexual conduct had for years been matter for jest in the corridors of Broadcasting House and the Television Centre, his tabu upon all reference to the cult after Ramsay McDonald’s famous broadcast to the nation was still in force. The BBC rejected my documentary drama. I offer it here, hoping readers will not be afraid to view it upon the television screen of their minds.
1 STUDIO INTRODUCTION
To a recording of The Teddy Bears’ Picnic the camera advances upon a commentator leaning casually against a table on which is displayed: a fancy-dress bear costume, a toy teddy bear, a Buckingham Palace sentry’s bearskin helmet, a Daily Express Rupert Bear cartoon annual, and a copy of The House at Pooh Corner.
If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise!
If you go down to the woods today you’d better go in disguise!
For every bear that ever there was
Has gathered there for certain because
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic!
COMMENTATOR: If you go down to the woods today, you’d better go in disguise. Yes. And if you were clearing out an old cupboard recently it’s very likely that you found one of these at the back of it.
(HE LIFTS THE BEAR COSTUME AND STANDS UP)
Perhaps curiosity prompted you to try it on. You can slip into them quite easily …
(HE PUTS IT ON)
Once the zip is pulled up it’s surprising how warm and comfortable you feel. And then, if you adjust the mask over your head, like this … (HOLLOWLY) you are not only completely weather-proof, your voice has acquired a hollow, resounding note.
(HE REMOVES THE MASK)
The costume you found was almost certainly a relic of the great bear cult which swept Britain in the early thirties. Nobody who remembers those years likes talking about them, but most of you watching tonight were born rather later, so perhaps the time has come to give the origins of the cult, its wildfire spread and wholly unexpected collapse, some sort of dispassionate examination. So let me take you back to 1931, a year of world-wide trade-depression and economic crisis. There are nearly three million unemployed in Britain alone. A former socialist is prime minister of a National Coalition government with the conservative leader as his deputy. In Trafalgar Square the photographic business is in a bad way.
2 TELECINE: TRAFALGAR SQUARE, STUDIO, STREETS, LAWCOURT
Henry Busby, a licensed street photographer, squabbles with two others for the custom of a foreign visitor (“I saw him first!”) who manages to escape all of them. Henry returns glumly to his studio and to George, his brother and partner. Ruin faces them. Must they also join the armies of the unemployed? Henry has a sudden idea — he has heard that in Berlin the street photographers have partners dressed like bears because there is a bear on the city coat of arms. Why not try that here? George objects that London has no bear on its coat of arms and people come to Trafalgar Square to be photographed with pigeons. Henry shows a newspaper photograph of people queuing in hundreds to see a new bear acquired by London Zoo. Bears are popular — Rupert Bear in the Express, Winnie the Pooh etc. He rents a skin and persuades George to put it on. George finds it surprisingly comfortable. They go out into the streets arm-in-arm and reach the Square followed by a small crowd of laughing onlookers.
HENRY: Come on now, who’ll be first to be photographed with this fine chap?
They do a brisk trade, drawing clients from their competitors, who complain bitterly that the bears are frightening the pigeons. But next day when they return to the Square they find the other photographers also accompanied by bears, a black bear, a polar, and a child dressed as a koala. They protest. A brawl develops. The bears are arrested, fined and bound over to keep the peace. However, the press and BBC are glad of some comic relief from a grim world situation, and the matter is widely publicized. The queues to see the new bear at London Zoo grow longer. The Teddy Bears’ Picnic becomes a popular hit. Furriers start marketing teddy bear suits for children.
3 ARCHIVE MATERIAL: RECORDING OF BBC NEWS PROGRAMME IN TOWN TONIGHT Dr. Karl Adler, discoverer of the inferiority complex, is visiting London for an international psychiatric conference. A BBC interviewer asks his opinion of the growing enthusiasm for bears. He replies that though the bear cult is (he believes) of German origin he feels it is destined to make great headway in Britain. He is asked the causes of the cult — why not an elephant or a tiger cult?
ADLER: In the first place a bear is one of the few creatures that do not look ridiculous when walking about upon their hind legs. But there are more significant reasons for their popularity. They are not normally flesh-eaters — their favourite food is honey and buns — so women and children feel safe with them. But they have claws and teeth which they can use if threatened, so men can identify with them without losing their self-respect. In my opinion a civilization such as ours has much to gain from this cult. The greatest part of a psychiatrist’s work is with people who feel inadequate as human beings, and considered objectively most of them are physically and mentally inadequate; but dressed in a properly padded skin they make surprisingly adequate bears …
4 TELECINE: STUDIO, STREET AND LAWCOURT
The words of the interview emanate from a wireless-set in George and Henry’s photographic studio. George, wearing the bearskin without the mask, sits reading a newspaper. Henry switches off the wireless, saying irritably:
HENRY: What blasted rot! … Take that thing off, George.
GEORGE: No. I’d feel cold.
HENRY: I feel cold, but do I complain?
GEORGE: Yes, all the time.
HENRY: Then you might have the common decency to give me a shot!
GEORGE (STANDING): I’m going for a walk.
HENRY: Like that?
GEORGE: Yes, why not? This is a free country. And I’m comfortable in it.
(HE FITS THE MASK OVER HIS HEAD)
HENRY: But you look utterly ridiculous … what’s the use in talking? When you’ve your mask on you might as well be deaf.
George walks slouch-shouldered through Soho followed by a small jeering crowd, most of it children. He meets another bear followed by a similar crowd. Coming abreast they glance at each other’s muzzles, suddenly stand erect, put their backs to the wall, roar and menace their persecutors with their paws. The children stop laughing and run away. The remaining adults calls the bears “cowardly brutes” and one or two of the most belligerent accuse them of being “afraid to fight like men”. The other bear hangs back but George flings himself on the critics and is badly beaten up in an affray which knocks over a costermonger’s barrow. He is rescued by the police and accused of provoking a riot. He is brought before Lord Goddard, a highly punitive judge of the period. There is a man dressed like a bear in the public gallery and the judge begins by having him removed by the ushers. George’s lawyer makes a dignified and convincing defence, pointing out that the accused has been the only person to physically suffer, that he was outnumbered and unjustly provoked etc. Nonetheless, the judge sees George as “one of these misguided individuals who seem determined to lead Britain backward to an age of primitive savagery” and condemns him to an unusually savage term of imprisonment, while regretting that the laws of the land make it impossible to have him publicly flogged into the bargain. George, asked if he has anything to say to this, responds with dignity and courage.
GEORGE: I do not blame the children who mocked me — I do blame the parents who failed to restrain them. I can’t blame the roughs who attacked me — I do blame the society which deprives them of honest employment and leaves them with nothing to do but roam the streets jeering at innocent animals. For I am innocent! Bears are strong, but bears are gentle! Lastly, I blame neither the police or the laws of Britain for bringing me here, but I will say this! I would rather wear a bearskin, and stand in the dock, than wear a wig, and sit on the bench, and pass such an inhumanly cruel sentence as you, my Lord, have passed upon me!
(A STORM OF APPLAUSE SWEEPS THE COURT. THE JUDGE ORDERS IT CLEARED.) 5 ARCHIVE MATERIAL: NEWSPAPER STILLS AND PATHE NEWSREEL CLIP
We see headlines denouncing unkindness to bears in popular and progressive newspapers, then photographs of bears at Hyde Park Corner demanding justice for their martyred brother, bears with collecting cans gathering money for an appeal fund; processions of bears with banners urging George’s release; then the banner headlines annoucing that the appeal has been upheld. A newsreel clip shows George emerging from the wicket-gate of Wandsworth prison to be confronted by a cheering crowd, a third of it wearing bearskins. Two supporters assist him into one. He makes a speech before donning the mask.
GEORGE: Fair play has triumphed! For myself I am happy, but for my fellow Bruins I am jubilant. The British people have always admired us for our gentleness; they are now learning to like us for our strength, and believe me, we live in an age when strength was never more necessary. Sinister forces are abroad in the world, forces eager to tear the fur from our backs and the buns from the muzzles of our cubs. We must organize!
(HE PUTS ON THE MASK AND EMITS A HOLLOW ROAR)
A rapid montage of stills shows the growth of the cult, starting with trademarks for Bear-brand stockings, Polarmints and the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer panda growling through its celluloid arch. We see photographs of a bear-garden-party at Cliveden House which the German ambassador attends in the costume of a prehistoric grizzly. In Oxford Street shop windows expensively furred bears posture among the wax dummies. In poorer districts you can buy costumes made of rabbit-skin. In Piccadilly Circus furry prostitutes attract pin-striped businessmen by throatily roaring.
6 TELECINE: A SUBURBAN BUNGALOW
An insurance clerk, Mr. Osborne, returns excitedly from his work in the city carrying a big wrapped box.
MR. OSBORNE: I’ve bought you something, my dear.
MRS. OSBORNE: Ooh let me see, what is it?
(MR. OSBORNE TEARS OFF WRAPPING AND LID. HIS WIFE STARES INTO IT) MRS. OSBORNE: Not one of those!
MR. OSBORNE: Why not? They’re all the go you know.
MRS. OSBORNE: But I don’t want to be a bear. I want to be a squirrel, a super squirrel with a great big bushy tail.
MR. OSBORNE (FIRMLY): No! You’ve got to be a bear.
(HE TAKES A PEAKED CAP FROM THE BOX AND CLAPS IT ON HIS HEAD)
I’m going to be the keeper.
6 ARCHIVE MATERIAL: NEWSPAPER STILLS AND PATHE NEWSREEL CLIPS.
We see photographs of main streets in Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow with a high proportion of bears among the passers-by. At Brighton and Blackpool they are being photographed in family groups. Then, in newsreel, we see a guard in a sentry box outside Buckingham Palace. His conical steel helmet has a Prussian spike projecting from the top, a Norman nosepiece and Viking horns sticking out each side.
NEWSREEL COMMENTARY: For more than eleven hundred years — ever since the days of Ethelred the Unready — the Guards of the British Royal Family have worn the traditional horned helmet, popularly known as the Wanky.
(WE SEE THE HORNED HELMET BEING PLACED IN A GLASS CASE)
NEWSREEL COMMENTARY: Today the Wanky is consigned to a niche in the Imperial War Museum and the guards are on parade wearing a new kind of headgear! Bearskin helmets!
(WE SEE THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD) NEWSREEL COMMENTARY: Traditionalists may sneer, but throughout the Empire many will find reassurance in the thought that the British monarchy is able and willing to move with the times.
To the tune of The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, photographs and headlines show George Busby becoming eminent through the British Bear Cult. We see him attending rallies in public parks where bears hug each other and share buns and honey in perfect freedom.
Every teddy bear who’s been good is sure of a treat today!
There’s lots of wonderful things to eat and marvellous games to play!
Beneath the trees where nobody sees
They hide and seek as much as they please,
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their pic-nic!
(CUT TO NEWSREEL OF TORCHLIGHT RALLY WHERE GEORGE, IN WHITE POLAR SKIN, IS EXCHANGING CHANTS WITH A MASSED BEAR-HORDE) GEORGE: Bears are gentle!
HORDE: Bears are strong!
GEORGE: Our fur is soft!
HORDE: Our claws are long!
NEWSREEL COMMENTARY: Many find this fervent emotionalism tasteless and unBritish, but one thing cannot be denied: bears know how to encourage one another, and in grim times like the present, who can blame them? Headlines announce that George Busby will stand for parliament in an East Croydon by-election. Photographs show a junior branch of the Bear Cult, the Cubs, canvassing for him in the streets. Headlines announce his victory over the communist candidate by a narrow majority.
8 TELECINE: A CITY STREET, SUNDAY MORNING
To the sound of church bells a well-dressed spinster, approaching the corner of an avenue leading to a church, is passed by a furtive little brown bear going the opposite way. Turning the corner she stumbles on something, looks down and screams.
9 ARCHIVE MATERIAL: CUTTING
News headlines announce: CHOIRMASTER CLAWED TO DEATH IN COVENTRY PAVEMENT CARNAGE!
10 TELECINE: SUBURBAN BUNGALOW
We see a wooden 1930s wireless set on a sideboard and hear six pips from a quartz clock followed by:
BBC ANNOUNCER: Here is the six o’clock news. Just two hours ago the body of Kevin Streedle, former welterweight champion of the world, was discovered clawed to death in a shrubbery near Greenwich Observatory. This is the eighth murder of the type to take place in the past five days. George Busby, leader of the British Bear Cult and member of Parliament for Croydon East, has expressed grief at the incident and hopes the police will soon …
(A FURRY PAW SWITCHES THE SET OFF. IT BELONGS TO A BROWN BEAR IN A FLOWERY APRON. SHE CONTINUES SETTING TABLE FOR THE EVENING MEAL. THE DOOR OPENS AND A LARGER BROWN BEAR ENTERS CARRYING A BRIEFCASE AND A COPY OF THE TIMES)
LARGER BEAR (HOLLOWLY): Thank God I’m home again!
(HE FLINGS DOWN HIS LUGGAGE, WRENCHES OFF HIS MASK AND EMERGES AS MR. OSBORNE. HE STARES AT THE SMALLER BEAR) MR. OSBORNE: I do wish you’d take that thing off.
MRS. OSBORNE (HOLLOWLY): It was you who bought it for me.
(SHE REMOVES THE MASK)
MR. OSBORNE (UNZIPPING): That was just for a lark — but it’s serious now. Haven’t you read the papers? The hidden claw has struck again. And there are more bears on the streets than ever. Even little old ladies are dressing like this.
MRS. OSBORNE (UNZIPPING): Well, the killers aren’t likely to attack their own kind, are they now?
MR. OSBORNE: Fur isn’t sexy any more, it’s become a uniform. More than half the tube tonight was filled with bowlerhatted grizzlies. (HE STEPS OUT OF HIS COSTUME) Promise me something, dear!
MRS. OSBORNE (STEPPING OUT OF HER COSTUME): What?
MR. OSBORNE: Wear that thing in the street, but not at home with me. I’d rather you were a squirrel again. Or even a woman.
(THEY EMBRACE SHYLY IN THEIR UNDERWEAR)
MRS. OSBORNE: Can’t the police do something?
MR. OSBORNE: Apparently not.
MRS. OSBORNE: Can’t the government do something?
MR. OSBORNE: The Times says they’ve scheduled a debate.
11 TELECINE: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
James Maxton, Leader of the Independent Labour Party, arises to ask what the government intends to do about the wave of killings which everyone in Britain associates with a certain political movement, a movement backed by the international fur trade, a movement whose leader occupies a bench in this very chamber.
David Lloyd George, leader of the Liberals, declares that he does not find it in his heart possible to blame these misguided people who have taken to wearing bearskins. Bearskins are ridiculous! They are ridiculous! But they are also warm, and comfortable, and cosy, and we live in chilling times. He does blame the government which in spite of all its promises has failed to give people the coal to keep them warm enough to dispense with bearskins. Ramsay McDonald the prime minister rises to reply. He says that in a democracy like ours every section of the community must be represented. The Bear Cult is still a minority party but anyone who walks the streets of Britain can see that it already musters more support than (say) the Independent Labour Party. Moreover he is sure that the bear who did the killing is a minority of the minority, and no responsible government will condemn a broadly based popular movement for the action of a fanatical extremist whose activities have been mainly confined to the south London district. The killer must certainly be found and punished, but this is a matter for the police. And now George Busby stands up to speak for the British Bear Cult. He does not remove his mask.
GEORGE (HOLLOWLY): Mr. Speaker, a new and terrible slur has been cast upon those I represent. Yes, in South London — the centre of the Great Bear Movement — yet another innocent victim has been clawed to death. The hearts of every true British Bruin must bleed for the relations of the bereaved, but that is not enough, not enough by a long chalk. We must not rest until the criminals are captured and who are the criminals? Not bears, at any rate!
(CRIES OF OH! OH! HE RAISES HIS VOICE) Bears are strong but bears are gentle! Bears do not kill choirmasters, welterweight boxers or innocent ratepayers! We too are innocent ratepayers! Bears have claws and know how to use them, but our claws are only used in self-defence! I have no hesitation in declaring that when the culprit is finally tracked down he will prove to be an enemy of our movement, a fanatical socialist or liberal, hell bent on bringing our party into disrepute! I declare the author of these crimes to be a bare-faced human being and I personally promise that the police will have the help of every true British Bruin in their sacred task of bringing these obnoxious beasts to book!
12 ARCHIVE MATERIAL: BBC NEWS ANNOUNCEMENTS, PRESS AND NEWSREEL EXTRACTS
In response to widespread criticism of their failure to arrest the Hidden Claw murderer, the London Metropolitan police make a special announcement. The bobby on the beat feels he commands too little respect among the population as a whole, so as an experiment it has been decided to try a new kind of uniform in certain districts. This is a black bearskin with extra large claws, and the mask, instead of covering the head, rests on top of it, the constable looking out of eyeholes in the chest. South London patrolled by eight-foot high Rocky Mountain grizzlies. With the help of Scotland Yard these manage to arrest a little man who admits to being the Hidden Claw murderer. His aunt is secretary of East Croydon Labour Party. At a rally in Trafalgar Square George cries out to the assembled Bearhorde:“The miserable Faustus responsible for these crimes is in the hands of the police, but where, I ask you, is the Mephistopheles?” Bearhordes attack local Labour Party headquarters throughout South London. The police remain aloof until the riots are nearly over and most of the people they arrest are left-wing and furless.
13 ARCHIVE MATERIAL
Collapse of the National Coalition Government. Ramsay McDonald announces an election in three weeks time. George Busby announces that bears will be contesting at least 260 seats.
14 TELECINE: THE TRIAL OF THE HIDDEN CLAW
While the small man insists he is the criminal, and the police are sure he is, the only evidence against him is the word of the respectable spinster who saw a bear leave the scene of the first killing. She stands in the witness box and the prosecuting counsel ends his examination with the time-honoured words, “Look carefully around this courtroom. Do you recognize anywhere the individual in question?”
We see the Old Bailey with the eyes of the witness: the pathetic brown bear in the dock, the jury-box half full of bears, the public gallery crowded with them, a bear’s muzzle sticking out of the judge’s wig and coal-black eight-foot grizzlies towering behind everyone else. She screams and faints. The case has to be dismissed for lack of evidence. And before the prisoner is discharged word comes through that the Hidden Claw has struck again — in Hampstead. North London is no longer safe.
15 TELECINE: A ROOM IN SCOTLAND YARD
The detective responsible for the case is visited by a Scottish forensic expert with an international reputation.
EXPERT: No doubt about it, yon poor devils were killed by bears.
DETECTIVE: Of course they were killed by bears. But what kind? Brown bears? Polar? or Grizzly?
EXPERT: A grizzly, most likely. But it could be a bigger than average brown bear or a smaller than average polar. Koalas and pandas are out.
DETECTIVE: That’s not much help! There are hundreds of thousands of these species in South London alone.
EXPERT: Havers. There can’t be more than a couple of bears at large in the entire United Kingdom.
DETECTIVE: Do you mean a real bear is responsible?
EXPERT: That’s what I’m telling you! The digits of the human hand are incapable of carving someone to death like that — even if they did have artificial claws on the ends.
The detective starts investigating circuses and zoos and learns that a few weeks earlier a couple of bears escaped from the private zoo of the eccentric and senile Lord Pabham.
16 TELECINE: A SUBURBAN BUNGALOW
Mr. and Mrs. Osborne sit on either side of their fireplace listening to Sandy McPherson on the BBC cinema organ. She is patching his skin — a piece of fur was nipped off by a door in the underground. They are waiting for a special announcement to the nation by the prime minister. The music stops. Big Ben chimes. Reith, the governor of the BBC, personally introduces the Right Honourable Ramsay McDonald.
McDONALD: Good evening. Isn’t modern science a wonderful thing? Here am I sitting comfortably in my Downing Street study talking to all of you seated beside your hearths throughout the length and breadth and depth of Britain. But I have something more important to tell you than just that, because, of course, you know that already. What I have to say is this. At a special emergency cabinet meeting this afternoon the government decided to make it illegal to dress up like bears in public places for the foreseeable future. I know this will come as a shock to many decent honest folk throughout the length and breadth and depth of Britain, but …
He explains the the police have no hope of catching the real bears while so many of the artificial kind roam the streets. The police themselves are abandoning that sort of uniform. He is sure the public will co-operate. Perhaps, after all, the cult of the bear has been based on a misunderstanding. Bears, though strong, are not always gentle, it now appears. The broadcast ends with a recording of Blake’s Jerusalem while Mr. Osborne jumps up, snatches the skin from his wife’s knees and, despite her protests, stuffs it dramatically into the fireplace causing a great deal of smoke.
17 TELECINE: VARIOUS PLACES
Throughout the country people thrust bearskins into dustbins and cupboards shouting, “I told you it was silly!” We see George at a desk, frantically telephoning in an effort to hold together his crumbling organization.
GEORGE: These murderers are not real bears — bears are strong but bears are gentle — these bears are only criminals because they have been soured by captivity! In next week’s General Election bears will be fighting two hundred and sixty seats! Every furrier in Britain is behind us! We don’t need skins, we’ll wear badges instead!
The real bears are detected, netted and sent back to the zoo. Under exploding rockets we see a crowd in an East End street dancing the Hokey-Cokey round a bonfire with several stuffed bearskins burning on top.
18 ARCHIVE MATERIAL
Headlines announce the 1931 general election result: the National Coalition government is returned to power with a substantial majority. George Busby, Britain’s only Bear Cult M.P., forfeits his deposit. All the other bears withdrew at the last moment.
19 THE TELEVISION STUDIO
The commentator, wearing his costume without the mask, sits before the table of cult objects with an expert beside him.
COMMENTATOR: And that, politically speaking, was the end of the bear cult. I have with me the renowned social anthropologist Professor Grotman. Professor, we are all aware that the beast in man lies only a little way under the surface so I will not ask you to refer to the psychological basis of the cult, I will ask how it came to disappear so utterly.
GROTMAN: In my opinion the psychological basis of the cult has been much exaggerated. It is now clear that the main cause of the movement lay in the coal shortages of the winter of 1931. It was actually warmer to dress as a bear in those days. What killed the movement politically was not disillusion with bears as a species. By 1932 it had become abundantly clear to the intelligent part of the population that a second World War, with its promise of full employment for everyone, lay just round the corner. What killed the movement, in fact, was hope for the future.
COMMENTATOR: But is the movement really dead? Remember, at its peak it had a following which numbered well over three million. Perhaps the person most qualified to answer that question is the Great Bear himself, the founder of the cult, George Busby: still remarkably fit and active for a man of 68 and living at present in a bed-sitting room on the Old Kent Road.
20 VIDEOTAPE RECORDING
George Busby, white-haired, spectacled, with the air of a vaguely dissolute grand old man, sits in a small room crowded with trophies of his former grandeur: stuffed bearskins of the three main species, framed photographs of such moments of glory as the programme has revealed. He wears a yellow pullover, check trousers, a badge with a Rupert Bear head on, and is flanked by a shelf of every sort of beardoll from Winnie the Pooh to Paddington. Answering the questions of an invisible interviewer he speaks sadly of the collapse of his cult, of his present situation (he still receives cheques from the children of furriers who made their fortunes in the 1931 fur boom) and his hopes for the future.
GEORGE: My movement was ahead of its time. So the adults decided to forget it. But the children remember. Children know without being taught, you see. So the bears will return one day soon, to save England in her hour of need. Though I may not be there to see it.
(HE TURNS AND CONTEMPLATES A FOUR FOOT HIGH PADDINGTON DOLL. THE CAMERA SLOWLY RECEDES FROM THIS FINAL IMAGE OF GEORGE AS AN OLD MAN ALONE WITH HIS DREAMS AND MEMORIES)
21 THE TELEVISION CENTRE
Freeze frame, then the camera zooms further back to show the image of George multiplied on the monitor screens of a television gallery. The control surface of a console occupies the foreground. A hairy paw appears and turns a switch. We see the whole gallery is staffed by bears: a large polar director stretching himself, a panda secretary scribbling on a clip-board, a grizzly technician with headphones. The director stands, stretches, yawns hollowly, then walks through into the studio where the commentator is in the act of fitting on his mask. Professor Grotman is zipping himself into a costume of his own.
DIRECTOR: That didn’t go too badly.
COMMENTATOR: No hitches then?
DIRECTOR: None to speak of. Coming to the staff club for a drink, Professor?
GROTMAN: Certainly, certainly. Just wait till I adjust my dress. (HE PLACES THE MASK ON HIS HEAD. TOGETHER THE THREE BEARS, CHATTING AMIABLY, STROLL OFF DOWN CORRIDORS FULL OF VARIOUS BEARS GOING ABOUT THEIR VARIOUS BUSINESSES.)
THE START OF THE AXLETREE
I write for those who know my language. If you possess that divine knowledge do not die without teaching it to someone else. Make copies of this history, give one to anybody who can read it and read it aloud to whoever will listen. Do not be discouraged if they laugh and call you a liar. Perhaps they are dull herdsmen who think milk and wool more important than history. Their own history is a tangle of superstition and confused rumours. Those who lived inside the great wheel used to call them the perimeter tribes. “Were you born outside the rim?” we would ask someone who was acting stupidly or strangely and this question was a grave insult. The perimeter tribes lived so far from the hub that they only saw the axletree for a few months before it was completed and then only on unusually clear days. Even at sunrise its shadow never quite touched them, so now they say it was the last impiety of a mad civilization, an attack upon heavenly god which provoked instant punishment and defeat. But the axletree was a necessary inevitable work, soberly designed and carefully erected by statesmen, bankers, priests and wise men whose professional names make no sense nowadays. And they completed the axletree as intended. For a moment the wheel of the civilized world was joined to the wheel of heaven. The disaster which fell a moment later was an accident nobody could have foreseen or prevented. I am the only living witness to this fact. I have been higher than anybody in the world. The hand which writes these words has stroked the ice-smooth, slightly-rippled, blue lucid ceiling which held up the moon.
I was born and educated at the hub of the last and greatest world empire. We had once been a republic of small farmers in a land between two lakes. Our only town in those days was a walled market with a temple in the middle where we stored the spare corn. Our land was fertile so we developed the military virtues, first to protect our crops from neighbours, then to protect our merchants when they traded with the grain surplus. We were also the first people to shoe horses with iron, so we soon conquered the lands round about.
Conquest is not a difficult thing — most countries have a spell of it — but an empire is only kept by careful organization and we were good at that. We taxed the defeated people with the help of their traditional rulers, who wielded more power with our support than they could without, but the empire was mainly held by our talent for large-scale building. Captains in the army were all practical architects, and private soldiers dug ditches and built walls as steadily as they attacked the enemy under a good commander. The garrisons on foreign soil were built with stores and markets where local merchants and craftsmen could ply their trade in safety, so they became centres of prosperous new cities. But our most important buildings were roads. All garrison towns and forts were connected by well-founded roads going straight across marsh and river by dyke and viaduct to the capital city. In two centuries these roads, radiating like spokes from a hub, were on the way to embracing the known world.
It was then we started calling our empire the great wheel. Surveyors noted that the roads tended to rise the further from the capital they got, which showed that our city was in the centre of a continent shaped like a dish. It became common for our politicians to start a speech by saying This bowl of empire under this dome of heaven … and end by saying We have fought uphill all the way. We shall fight on till we reach the rim. This rhetorical model of the universe became very popular, though educated people knew that the hollow continent was a large dent in the surface of a globe, a globe hanging in the centre of several hollow globes, mainly transparent, which supported the bodies of the moon, sun, planets and stars.
The republic was controlled by a few rich families who worked in the middle of an elected senate, but one day it became clear that whoever commanded the army did not need the support of anyone else. A successful general proclaimed himself emperor. He was an efficient man with good advisers. He constructed a civil service which worked so well that trade kept flowing and the empire expanding during the reign of his son, who seems to have been a criminal lunatic who did nothing but feed his worst appetites in the most expensive ways possible. It is hard to believe that records tell the truth about this man. He was despised by the puritan aristocracy who filled the civil service, but loved by common citizens. Perhaps his insane spending sprees and colossal sporting events were devised to entertain them. He also obtained remarkable tutors for his son, men of low and foreign birth but international fame. They had made a science out of history, which till then had been a branch of literature. When their pupils became third emperor he knew why his land was heading for disaster.
Many nations before ours had swelled into empires. Nearly all had collapsed while trying to defeat a country, sometimes a small one, beyond the limit of their powers. The rest had enclosed the known world and then, with nothing else to conquer, had gone bad at the centre and cracked up through civil war. The emperor knew his own empire had reached a moment of ripeness. It filled the hollow continent to the rim. His roads touched the northern forests and mountains, the shores of the western sea, the baking southern desert and the wild eastern plains. The perimeter tribes lived in these places but we could not civilize them. They were nomads who could retreat forever before our army and return to their old pasture when it went away. Clearly the empire had reached its limit. The wealth of all civilization was flowing into a city with no more wars to fight. The military virtues began to look foolish. The governing classes were experimenting with unhealthy pleasures. Meanwhile the emperor enlarged the circus games begun by his father in which the unemployed poor of the capital were entertained by unemployable slaves killing each other in large quantities. He also ordered from the merchants huge supplies of stone, timber and iron. The hub of the great wheel (he said) would be completely rebuilt in a grander style than ever before.
But he knew these measures could only hold the state for a short time.
A few years earlier there had appeared in our markets some pottery and cloth of such smooth, delicate, transparent texture that nobody knew how they were made. They had been brought from the eastern plains by nomads who obtained them, at fourth or fifth hand, from other nomads as barbarous as themselves. Enquiries produced nothing but rumour, rumour of an empire beyond so great a tract of desert, forest and mountain that it was on the far side of the globe. If rumours were true this empire was vast, rich, peaceful, and had existed for thousands of years. When the third emperor came to power his first official act was to make ambassadors of his tutors and send them off with a strong expeditionary force to investigate the matter. Seven years passed before the embassy returned. It had shrunk to one old exhausted historian and a strange foreign servant without lids on his eyes — he shut them by making them too narrow to see through. The old man carried a letter to our emperor written in a very strange script, and he translated it.
THE EMPEROR OF THREE-RIVER KINGDOM GREETS THE EMPEROR OF THE GREAT WHEEL. I can talk to you as a friend because we are not neighbours. The distance between our lands is too great for me to fear your army.
Your ambassadors have told me what you wish to know. Yes, my empire is very big, very rich, and also very old. This is mainly because we are a single race who talk the same language. We produce all we need inside our borders and do not trade with foreigners. Foreign trade leads to warefare. Two nations may start trading as equals but inevitably one grows rich at the expense of the other. Then the superior nation depends on its enemy and can only maintain its profits by war or threats of war. My kingdom has survived by rejecting foreign trade. The goods which appeared in your market were smuggled out by foreigners. We will try to stop that happening again.
If your people want stability they must grow small again. Let them abandon empire and go back inside their old frontier. Let them keep an army just big enough for defence and cultivate their own land, especially the food supply. But this is useless advice. You and I are mere emperors. We both know that a strong class of merchants and generals cannot be commanded against their will. Wealthy nations and men will embrace disaster rather than lose riches.
I regret that I cannot show a way out of your difficulty. Perhaps the immortal gods can do that. Have you approached them? They are the last resort, but they work for the peasants, so people of our kind may find them useful.
The emperor was startled by the last words of this intelligent and powerful man. Several countries in the empire worshipped him as a god but he was not religious. The official religion of the state had been a few simple ceremonies to help it work as smoothly as possible. An old proverb Religion is the wealth of the conquered described our view of more exotic faiths. But the religions of conquered people had recently become fashionable at the hub, even with very wealthy citizens. These religions had wide differences but all believed that man had descended from someone in the sky and were being punished, tested or taught by having to toil in the world below. Some faiths believed that a leader would one day come down from heaven, destroy all who opposed him and build a kingdom on earth for his followers. Others bowed to prophets who said that after death the ghosts of their followers would enter a walled garden or city in the sky. These politically stable goals appealed to the emperor. He consulted priests in the hope that unreason would answer the question which reason could not.
He was disappointed. The priests explained that the eternal kingdom was achieved by sharing certain beliefs and ceremonies, following certain rules, and eating or avoiding certain food. Those who obeyed the priests often enjoyed intense feelings of satisfaction, but even if the whole empire adopted one of these faiths the emperor did not think it would be less liable to decay and civil war. Many priests agreed with him. “Only a few will enter the heavenly kingdom,” they said. The emperor wanted a kingdom for the majority. He sent agents to consult prophets and oracles in more and more outlandish places. At last he heard of a saint who lived among the perimeter tribes in a wild place which no bribe could persuade him to leave. This saint’s reputation was not based on anything he taught, even by example, for he was an unpleasant person. But he had cured impotence, helped someone find a lost legacy and shown a feeble governor how to master a difficult province. Most people who brought him problems were ordered rudely away but his successes were supernaturally startling. The emperor went to see him with a troop of cavalry.
The saint was small, paunchy and bow-legged. He squatted before a crack in a rocky cliff, grinning and blinking mirthlessly, like a toad. The emperor told the soldiers to wait, went forward, knelt before the saint and talked about the problem of empire. After a silence the saint said, “Are you strong?”
The emperor said, “My life has been easy but my health is excellent.”
The saint felt the emperor’s pulse, examined the insides of his eyelids then said gloomily, “You are strong enough, yes, I can help you. But I won’t enjoy it. Give me some gold.”
The emperor handed him a purse. The saint stood up and said, “Fetch wine and oil from your men and come into my house. Tell them they won’t see you till tomorrow evening. Make that perfectly clear. If they interrupt us before then you won’t learn a thing. Let them pass the time making a litter to carry you in, for when you reappear you will be in a sacred condition. The expression of your face will have completely changed.”
Nobody had spoken to the emperor like that since he was a small boy and the words made him feel strangely secure. He did as he was told and then followed the saint into the crack in the rock. It led to a cave they had to stoop to enter. The saint struck a flint, lit a twisted rag in a bowl of fat, then picked up a wooden post. His dwarfish body was unusually powerful for he used the post to lever forward a great boulder till it blocked the entrance and shut out all daylight. Then he squatted with his back to the boulder and stared at the emperor across the foulsmelling lamp on the floor between them.
After a while he said, “Tell me your last dream.”
The emperor said, “I never dream.”
“How many tribes do you rule?”
“I rule nations, not tribes. I rule forty-three nations.”
The saint said sternly, “Among the perimeter people a ruler who does not dream is impossible. And a ruler who dreams badly is stoned to death. Will you go away and dream well?”
The emperor stared and said, “Is that the best you can say to me?”
The emperor pointed to the boulder and said, “Roll that thing aside. Let me out.”
“No. You have not answered my question. Will you go away and dream well?”
“I cannot command my dreams!”
“Then you cannot command yourself. And you dare to command other people?”
The saint took a cudgel from the shadows, sprang up and beat the emperor hard for a long time.
The emperor’s early training had been stoical so he gasped and choked instead of screaming and yelling. Afterwards he lay against the cavern wall and gaped at the saint who had sat down to recover his breath. At last the emperor whispered, “May I leave now?”
“But will you go away and dream well?”
“Yes. Yes, I swear I will.”
The saint groaned and said, “You are lying. You are saying that to avoid being beaten.”
He beat the emperor again then dropped the cudgel and swigged from the wine-flask. The emperor lay with his mouth and goggling eyes wide open. He could hardly move or think but he could see that the saint was in great distress of mind. The saint knelt down, placed a tender arm behind the emperor’s shoulders, gently raised his head and offered wine. After swallowing some the emperor slept and was assaulted by horrible nightmares. He was among slaves killing each other in the circus to the wild cheering of the citizens. He saw his empire up on edge and bowling like a loose chariot-wheel across a stony plain. Millions of tiny people clung to the hub and to the spokes and he was among them. The wheel turned faster and faster and the tiny people fell to the rim and were whirled up again or flung to the plain where the rim rolled over them. He sobbed aloud, for the only truth in the world seemed to be unending movement, unending pain. Through the pain he heard a terrible voice demand:
“Will you go away and dream well?”
He screamed: “I am dreaming! I am dreaming!”
The voice said, “But not well. You are dreaming the disease. Now you must dream the cure.”
And the emperor had a general impression of being beaten again.
Later he saw that the boulder had been rolled aside. Evening sunlight shone through the entrance. The saint, who had cleaned the bruises with oil, now made him drink the last of the wine. The emperor felt calm and empty. When the saint said, “Please, please, answer my question,” the emperor shook with laughter and said, “If you let me go I will pray all the gods to give me a good dream.”
The saint said, “That is not necessary. The dream is now travelling towards you. Only one more thing is needed to make sure it arrives.”
He beat the emperor again and the emperor did not notice, then he picked the emperor up and walked from the cave and laid him on the litter prepared by the soldiers. He said to the commanding officer, “Carry your master carefully, for he is in a very sacred condition. Write down everything he says because now his words are important. And if he recovers tell him not to appologize for what he bribed me to do. Giving men dreams is my only talent. I never have them myself.”
The emperor was carried to the hub in slow stages for he was very ill and often delirious. At the first stoppingplace he dreamed of the axletree. He saw the great wheel of empire lying flat and millions of people flowing down the roads to the hub. From the hub a great smooth shaft ascended to the sky and ended in the centre of the sun. And he saw this shaft was a tower, and that everyone who had lived and died on earth was climbing up by a winding stair to the white light at the top. Then he saw this light was not the sun but a flame or a flame-shaped opening in the sky, and all the people were passing through and dissolving in the dazzling white.
For a month after his return the emperor saw nobody but doctors and the architect of the city’s building programme, then he called the leaders of the empire to his bedside. His appearance shocked them. Although he had reacted against a libertine father by tackling the worries of government he had been a robust, stout, stolid man. His body was now almost starved to a skeleton, the lines of care on his face were like deep cracks in an old wooden statue, his skin, against the bank of pillows supporting him, looked livid yellow; yet he regarded the visitors with an expression of peculiar levity. His voice was so strong and hollow that he had to rest between sentences, and at these moments he sucked in his lips and bit them as if to prevent laughter. He waited until everybody was comfortably seated before speaking.
“My political researches outside the rim have damaged my kidneys and I cannot live much longer. I have decided that for a few years most of the empire’s revenue will be used to build me a tomb. I invite you to form a company responsible for this building. Your time is precious, I don’t expect you to give it for nothing, and, if things go as I plan, work for this company will double your present incomes. If anyone dies before the great work is complete the salary will go to his successor.”
He rested until expressions of regret, loyalty and gratitude died away then indicated some architectural drawings on the wall near the bed. He said, “Here are the plans of the tomb. The basic shape is a steep cone with a ramp winding up. It is designed so that it can be enlarged indefinitely. I have not indicated the size of the completed work. Yourselves or posterity can decide that. My body will lie in a vault cut into the rock below the foundation. It will be a large vault, for I expect my descendants will also lie there.”
He smiled at the heir to the throne then nodded kindly at the others.
“Perhaps, gentlemen, you will make the tomb so big that you will be able to bury yourselves and your families in chambers adjacent to mine. Indeed, I would like even quite humble people who help the great effort to end under it, although their graves would naturally be narrower and less well furnished than ours. But you will decide these things. As to the site of the structure, it will be in the exact centre of the city, the exact centre of the empire. Has the high priest of war and thunder anything to say?”
The head of the state religion shrugged uneasily and said,“Sir, everyone knows that spot is the most sacred in the empire. My temple stands there. It was built by the hero who founded our nation. Will you knock it down?”
The emperor said, “I will rebuild it on a grander scale than ever before. The space above the burial chambers will be a pantheon to all the gods of our heaven and empire, for a great building must serve the living as well as the dead, or nobody will take it seriously for long. And my tomb will have room for more than a mere temple, even though that temple is the biggest in the world. Look again at the plans. The temple is the circular core of the building. Vast stone piers radiate from it, piers joined by arching vaults and pierced by arched doors. The spaces between the piers can be made wide enough to hold markets, factories and assembly rooms. These spaces are linked by curving avenues ascending at a slope gradual enough to race horses up. As you know, when I came to the throne I swore to rebuild our city on a grander scale than ever before. And what is a city but a great house shared by a community? The wealthy will have mansions in it, the poor can rent apartments. Parks and gardens will be planted along the outer terraces. And you, the construction company, will have your offices in the summit. As this rises higher the whole administration of the empire will move in beneath you … But a dying man should not look so far ahead. What do our businessmen say? Can they supply the materials to build on an increasingly large scale for generations to come? Can they provide food for a steadily enlarging labour force? I ask the heads of the corn and stock exchanges to give an opinion. Don’t consider the matter as salaried members of the construction company, but as managers of the empire’s trade.”
Toward the end of the emperor’s speech the faces of the leading businessmen had acquired a dreamy, speculative look, but the head of the stock exchange roused himself and said, “We can tackle that, certainly, if the government pay us to do so.”
Everyone looked at the civil service chief, who was also the imperial accountant.
He said slowly, “Ever since our armies reached the rim our provinces have been complaining about heavy taxation. We could once justify that by attacking enemies outside the borders. We have no enemies now, but if we allow the provinces to grow rich they will break away from us. Yes, we can certainly finance this structure. And there will be no shortage of labour. We are already paying huge doles to the unemployed, merely to stop them revolting against us.” The commander of the armed forces said, “Will expenditure on this building require a reduction in the armed forces?” The imperial accountant said, “Oh no! The army may even have to be enlarged, to keep the taxes coming in.”
“Then I like the idea. The emperor has called the structure a great house. I call it a castle. At present the city has overflowed the old fortifications, our hub is a sprawling, indefensible mess. A high walled city will not only be easier to defend, it could be easier to police. Let the great doors between the different levels of the structure have heavy portcullises in them. Then with very little effort we can imprison and starve any part of the population which gets out of hand.”
“But the outer walls must be faced with shining marble!” cried the head of the arts council. “If it looks beautiful from a distance I am sure foreign provinces will gladly let us continue taking their food, materials and men at the old cheap rate. Everyone wants to admire something wonderful, support something excellent, be part of something splendid which will not fail or die. Are you all right, sir?”
The emperor was shuddering with what seemed silent laughter but his teeth rattled and his brows sweated so it was probably fever. When he recovered he apologized then said, “Now I will tell you a dream I had.”
He told them the dream of the axletree.
“Sir!” said the high priest in an inspired voice, “You have given the empire a new way to grow! You have offered a solution to the political problem of the age, and mentioned the dream which gave the idea as an afterthought. But all dreams are sacred, and the dreams of a ruler are most sacred of all. Perhaps the heavenly gods are growing lonely. Perhaps mankind is becoming fit to join them. Let us tell the world this dream. You may be the prophet who will lead us all to the golden garden in the sky.”
“I like that idea,” said the emperor languidly. “And, certainly, let people know the dream occurred. But don’t explain it, at this stage. You would antagonize religions whose prophet has already arrived. When the temple part of the building is complete dedicate it to god and his true prophet, but don’t name them. Keep the official religion a kind of cavity which other religions can hope to fill if they grow big enough. But you mentioned gold. In spite of his mad spending my father left a fortune which I have been able to increase. I want it all converted into gold and placed beside my body in the vault. Let people know that the construction company can use it in emergencies. But never do so. The fact that it exists and you own it will give the company more power over men than mere spending could give. Lend on the security of this gold, borrow on the security of this gold, if creditors press you hard cheat upon the security of this gold. But never, never touch it.”
The emperor closed his eyes and seemed to doze. The politicians whispered to each other. Suddenly he cried out in a great voice, “Do not call it a tower! Towers are notorious for falling down. Tell the fools you are building a connection between two absolutely dependable things. Call it an axletree.” Then he giggled faintly and said, “I suppose one day the world will be governed by people whose feet never touch the ground. I wonder what will happen if there is a sky, and they reach it … I wonder what the child will look like.”
The emperor died, and his tomb was built in the centre of the capital city, and enlarged to enclose everything he had wanted. For two thousand years this construction gave employment to mankind and a purpose to history. But there was a sky. We reached it. Everyone knows what happened after that.
FIVE LETTERS FROM AN EASTERN EMPIRE
DEAR MOTHER, DEAR FATHER, I like the new palace. It is all squares like a chessboard. The red squares are buildings, the white squares are gardens. In the middle of each building is a courtyard, in the middle of each garden is a pavilion. Soldiers, nurses, postmen, janitors and other of the servant-class live and work in the buildings. Members of the honoured-guest-class have a pavilion. My pavilion is small but beautiful, in the garden of evergreens. I don’t know how many squares make up the palace but certainly more than a chessboard has. You heard the rumour that some villages and a small famous city were demolished to clear space for the foundation. The rumour was authorized by the immortal emperor yet I thought it exaggerated. I now think it too timid. We were ten days sailing upstream from the old capital, where I hope you are still happy. The days were clear and cool, no dust, no mist. Sitting on deck we could see the watchtowers of villages five or six miles away and when we stood up at nightfall we saw, in the sunset, the sparkle of the heliograph above cities, on the far side of the horizon. But after six days there was no sign of any buildings at all, just ricefields with here and there the tent of a waterworks inspector. If all this empty land feeds the new palace then several cities have been cleared from it. Maybe the inhabitants are inside the walls with me, going out a few days each year to plant and harvest, and working between times as gardeners of the servant-class.
You would have admired the company I kept aboard the barge. We were all members of the honoured-guest-class: accountants, poets and headmasters, many many headmasters. We were very jolly together and said many things we would not be able to say in the new palace under the new etiquette. I asked the headmaster of literature, “Why are there so many headmasters and so few poets? Is it easier for you to train your own kind than ours?” He said, “No. The emperor needs all the headmasters he can get. If a quarter of his people were headmasters he would be perfectly happy. But more than two poets would tear his kingdom apart.”
I led the loud laughter which rewarded this deeply witty remark and my poor, glum little enemy and colleague Tohu had to go away and sulk. His sullen glances amuse me all the time. Tohu has been educated to envy and fear everyone, especially me, while I have been educated to feel serenely superior to everyone, especially him. Nobody knows this better than the headmaster of literature who taught us both. This does not mean he wants me to write better than Tohu, it shows he wants me to write with high feelings and Tohu with low ones. Neither of us have written yet but I expect I will be the best. I hope the emperor soon orders me to celebrate something grand and that I provide exactly what is needed. Then you will both be able to love me as much as you would like to do.
This morning as we breakfasted in the hold of the barge Tohu came down into it with so white a face that we all stared. He screamed, “The emperor has tricked us! We have gone downstream instead of up! We are coming to the great wall round the edge of the kingdom, not to a palace in the middle! We are being sent into exile among the barbarians!” We went on deck. He was wrong of course. The great wall has towers with loopholes every half mile, and it bends in places. The wall which lay along the horizon before us was perfectly flat and windowless and on neither side could we see an end of it. Nor could we see anything behind it but the high tapering tops of two post-office towers, one to the east, one to the west, with the white flecks of messenger pigeons whirling toward them and away from them at every point of the compass. The sight made us all very silent. I raised a finger, summoned my entourage and went downstairs to dress for disembarking. They took a long time lacing me into the ceremonial cape and clogs and afterwards they found it hard lifting me back up to the deck again. Since I was now the tallest man aboard I had to disembark first. I advanced to the prow and stood there, arms rigid by my sides, hands gripping the topknot of the doctor, who supported my left thigh, and the thick hair of Adoda, my masseuse, who warmly clasped my right. Behind me the secretary and chef each held back a corner of the cape so that everyone could see, higher than a common man’s head, the dark green kneebands of the emperor’s tragic poet. Without turning I knew that behind my entourage the headmasters were ranged, the first of them a whole head shorter than me, then the accountants, then, last and least, the emperor’s comic poet, poor Tohu. The soles of his ceremonial clogs are only ten inches thick and he has nearly no entourage at all. His doctor, masseuse, secretary and chef are all the same little nurse.
I had often pictured myself like this, tall upon the prow, the sublime tragedian arriving at the new palace. But I had imagined a huge wide-open gate or door, with policemen holding back crowds on each side, and maybe a balcony above with the emperor on it surrounded by the college of headmasters. But though the smooth wall was twice as high as most cliffs I could see no opening in it. Along the foot was a landing stage crowded with shipping. The river spread left and right along this in a wide moat, but the current of the stream seemed to come from under the stage. Among yelling dockers and heaped bales and barrels I saw a calm group of men with official gongs on their wrists, and the black clothes and scarlet kneebands of the janitors. They waited near an empty notch. The prow of our barge slid into this notch. Dockers bolted it there. I led the company ashore.
I recognized my janitor by the green shoes these people wear when guiding poets. He reminded us that the new etiquette was enforced within the palace walls and led us to a gate. The other passengers were led to other gates. I could now see hundreds of gates, all waist high and wide enough to roll a barrel through. My entourage helped me to my knees and I crawled in after the janitor. This was the worst part of the journey. We had to crawl a great distance, mostly uphill. Adoda and the doctor tried to help by alternately butting their heads against the soles of my clogs. The floor was carpeted with bristly stuff which pierced my kneebands and scratched the palms of my hands. After twenty minutes it was hard not to sob with pain and exhaustion, and when at last they helped me to my feet I sympathized with Tohu who swore aloud that he would never go through that wall again.
The new etiquette stops honoured guests from filling their heads with useless knowledge. We go nowhere without a janitor to lead us and look at nothing above the level of his kneebands. As I was ten feet tall I could only glimpse these slips of scarlet by leaning forward and pressing my chin into my chest. Sometimes in sunlight, sometimes in lamp-light, we crossed wooden floors, brick pavements, patterned rugs and hard-packed gravel. But I mainly noticed the pain in my neck and claves, and the continual whine of Tohu complaining to his nurse. At last I fell asleep. My legs moved onward because Adoda and the doctor lifted them. The chef and secretary stopped me bending forward in the middle by pulling backward on the cape. I was wakened by the janitor striking his gong and saying, “Sir. This is your home.” I lifted my eyes and saw I was inside the sunlit, afternoon, evergreen garden. It was noisy with birdsongs.
We stood near the thick hedge of cypress, holly and yew trees which hide all but some tiled roofs of the surrounding buildings. Traingular pools, square lawns and the grassy paths of a zig-zag maze are symmetrically placed round the pavilion in the middle. In each corner is a small pinewood with cages of linnets, larks and nightingales in the branches. From one stout branch hangs a trapeze where a servant dressed like a cuckoo sits imitating the call of that bird, which does not sing well in captivity. Many gardeners were discreetly trimming things or mounting ladders to feed the birds. They wore black clothes without kneebands, so they were socially invisible, and this gave the garden a wonderful air of privacy. The janitor struck his gong softly and whispered, “The leaves which grow here never fade or die.” I rewarded this delicate compliment with a slight smile then gestured to a patch of moss. They laid me flat there and I was tenderly undressed. The doctor cleaned me. Adoda caressed my aching body till it breathed all over in the sun-warmed air. Meanwhile Tohu had flopped down in his nurse’s arms and was snoring horribly. I had the couple removed and placed behind a hollybush out of earshot. Then I asked for the birds to be silenced, starting with the linnets and ending with the cuckoo. As the gardeners covered the cages the silence grew louder, and when the notes of the cuckoo faded there was nothing at all to hear and I slept once more.
Adoda caressed me awake before sunset and dressed me in something comfortable. The chef prepared a snack with the stove and the food from his stachel. The janitor fidgeted impatiently. We ate and drank and the doctor put something in the tea which made me quick and happy. “Come!” I said, jumping up, “Let us go straight to the pavilion!” and instead of following the path through the maze I stepped over the privet hedge bordering it which was newly planted and a few inches high. “Sir!” called the janitor, much upset, “Please do not offend the gardeners! It is not their fault that the hedge is still too small.”
I said, “The gardeners are socially invisible to me.” He said, “But you are officially visible to them, and honoured guests do not offend the emperor’s servants. That is not the etiquette!”
I said, “It is not a rule of the etiquette, it is convention of the etiquette, and the etiquette allows poets to be unconventional in their own home. Follow me Tohu.”
But because he is trained to write popular comedy Tohu dreads offending members of the servant class, so I walked straight to the pavilion all by myself.
It stands on a low platform with steps all round and is five sided, with a blue wooden pillar supporting the broad eaves at each corner. An observatory rises from the centre of the sloping green porcelain roof and each wall has a door in the middle with a circular window above. The doors were locked but I did not mind that. The air was still warm. A gardener spread cushions on the platform edge and I lay and thought about the poem I would be ordered to write. This was against all rules of education and etiquette. A poet cannot know his theme until the emperor orders it. Until then he should think of nothing but the sublime classics of the past. But I knew I would be commanded to celebrate a great act and the greatest act of our age is the building of the new palace. How many millions lost their homes to clear the ground? How many orphans were prostituted to keep the surveyors cheerful? How many captives died miserably quarrying its stone? How many small sons and daughters were trampled to death in the act of wiping sweat from the eyes of desperate, bricklaying parents who had fallen behind schedule? Yet this building which barbarians think a long act of intricately planned cruelty has given the empire this calm and solemn heart where honoured guests and servants can command peace and prosperity till the end of time. There can be no greater theme for a work of tragic art. It is rumoured that the palace encloses the place where the rivers watering the empire divide. If a province looks like rebelling, the headmasters of waterworks can divert the flow elsewhere and reduce it to drought, quickly or slowly, just as he pleases. This rumour is authorized by the emperor and I believe it absolutely.
While I was pondering the janitor led the little party through the maze, which seemed designed to tantalize them. Sometimes they were a few yards from me, then they would disappear behind the pavilion and after a long time reappear far away in the distance. The stars came out. The cuckoo climbed down from his trapeze and was replaced by a nightwatchman dressed like an owl. A gardener went round hanging frail paper boxes of glow-worms under the eaves. When the party reached the platform by the conventional entrance all but Adoda were tired, cross and extremely envious of my unconventional character. I welcomed them with a good-humoured chuckle.
The janitor unlocked the rooms. Someone had lit lamps in them. We saw the kitchen where the chef sleeps, the stationery office where the secretary sleeps, the lavatory where the doctor sleeps, and Adoda’s room, where I sleep. Tohu and his nurse also have a room. Each room has a door into the garden and another into the big central hall where I and Tohu will make poetry when the order-to-write comes. The walls here are very white and bare. There is a thick blue carpet and a couple of punt-shaped thrones lined with cushions and divided from each other by a screen. The only other furniture is the ladder to the observatory above. The janitor assembled us here, struck the gong and made this speech in the squeaky voice the emperor uses in public.
“The emperor is glad to see you safe inside his walls. The servants will now cover their ears.
“The emperor greets Bohu, his tragic poet, like a long-lost brother. Be patient, Bohu. Stay at home. Recite the classics. Use the observatory. It was built to satisfy your craving for grand scenery. Fill your eyes and mind with the slow, sublime, eternally returning architecture of the stars. Ignore trivial flashes which stupid peasants call falling stars. It has been proved that these are not heavenly bodies but white-hot cinders fired out of volcanoes. When you cannot stay serene without talking to someone, dictate a letter to your parents in the old capital. Say anything you like. Do not be afraid to utter unconventional thoughts, however peculiar. Your secretary will not be punished for writing these down, your parents not punished for reading them. Be serene at all times. Keep a calm empty mind and you will see me soon.
“And now, a word for Tohu. Don’t grovel so much. Be less glum. You lack Bohu’s courage and dignity and don’t understand people well enough to love them, as he does, but you might still be my best poet. My new palace contains many markets. Visit them with your chef when she goes shopping. Mix with the crowds of low, bustling people you must one day amuse. Learn their quips and catch-phrases. Try not to notice they stink. Take a bath when you get home and you too will see me soon.”
The janitor struck his gong then asked in his own voice if we had any polite requests. I looked round the hall. I stood alone, for at the sound of the emperor’s voice all but the janitor and I had lain face down on the carpet and even the janitor had sunk to his knees. Tohu and the entourage sat up now and watched me expectantly. Adoda arose with her little spoon and bottle and carefully collected from my cheeks the sacred tears of joy which spring in the eyes of everyone the emperor addresses. Tohu’s nurse was licking his tears off the carpet. I envied him, for he would see more of the palace than I would, and be more ready to write a poem about it when the order came. I did not want to visit the market but I ached to see the treasuries and reservoirs and grain-silos, the pantechnicons and pantheons and gardens of justice. I wondered how to learn about these and still stay at home. The new dictionary of etiquette says All requests for knowledge will be expressed as requests for things. So I said, “May the bare walls of this splendid hall be decorated with a map of the new palace? It will help my colleague’s chef to lead him about.”
Tohu shouted, “Do not speak for me, Bohu! The emperor will send janitors to lead the chef who leads me. I need nothing more and nothing less than the emperor has already decided to give.”
The janitor ignored him and told me, “I hear and respect your request.”
According to the new dictionary of etiquette this answer means No or Maybe or Yes, after a very long time.
The janitor left. I felt restless. The chef’s best tea, the doctor’s drugs, Adoda’s caresses had no effect so I climbed into the observatory and tried to quieten myself by watching the stars as the emperor had commanded. But that did not work, as he foresaw, so I summoned my secretary and dictated this letter, as he advised. Don’t be afraid to read it. You know what the emperor said. And the postman who rewrites letters before fixing them to the pigeons always leaves out dangerous bits. Perhaps he will improve my prose-style, for most of these sentences are too short and jerky. This is the first piece of prose I ever composed, and as you know, I am a poet.
Goodbye. I will write to you again,
From the evergreen garden,
DICTATED ON THE 27th LAST DAY OF THE OLD CALENDAR.
DEAR MOTHER, DEAR FATHER, I discover that I still love you more than anything in the world. I like my entourage, but they are servants and cannot speak to me. I like the headmaster of literature, but he only speaks about poetry. I like poetry, but have written none. I like the emperor, but have never seen him. I dictated the last letter because he said talking to you would cure my loneliness. It did, for a while, but it also brought back memories of the time we lived together before I was five, wild days full of happiness and dread, horrid fights and ecstatic picnics. Each of you loved and hated a different bit of me.
You loved talking to me, mother, we were full of playful conversation while you embroidered shirts for the police and I toyed with the coloured silks and buttons. You were small and pretty yet told such daring stories that you sister, the courtesan, screamed and covered her ears, while we laughed till the tears came. Yet you hated me going outside and locked me for an hour in the sewing box because I wore my good clogs in the lane. These were the clogs father had carved with toads on the tips. You had given them many coats of yellow lacquer, polishing each one till a member of the honoured-guest-class thought my clogs were made of amber and denounced us to the police for extravagance. But the magistrate was just and all came right in the end.
Mother always wanted me to look pretty. You, father, didn’t care how I looked and you hated talking, especially to me, but you taught me to swim before I was two and took me in the punt to the sewage ditch. I helped you sift out many dead dogs and cats to sell to the gardeners for dung. You wanted me to find a dead man, because corpse-handlers (you said) don’t often die of infectious diseases. The corpse I found was not a man but a boy of my own age, and instead of selling him to the gardeners we buried him where nobody would notice. I wondered why, at the time, for we needed money for rent. One day we found the corpse of a woman with a belt and bracelet of coins. The old capital must have been a slightly mad place that year. Several corpses of the honoured-guest-class bobbed along the canals and the emperor set fire to the south-eastern slums. I had never seen you act so strangely. You dragged me to the nearest market (the smell of burning was everywhere) and rented the biggest possible kite and harness. You who hate talking carried that kite down the long avenue to the eastern gate, shouting all the time to the priest, your brother, who was helping us. You said all children should be allowed to fly before they were too heavy, not just children of the honoured-guest-class. On top of the hill I grew afraid and struggled as you tightened the straps, then uncle perched me on his shoulders under that huge sail, and you took the end of the rope, and you both ran downhill into the wind. I remember a tremendous jerk, but nothing else.
I woke on the sleeping-rug on the hearth of the firelit room. My body was sore all over but you knelt beside me caressing it, mother, and when you saw my eyes were open you sprang up, screamed and attacked father with your needles. He did not fight back. Then you loved each other in the firelight beside me. It comforted me to see that. And I liked watching the babies come, especially my favourite sister with the pale hair. But during the bad winter two years later she had to be sold to the merchants for money to buy firewood.
Perhaps you did not know you had given me exactly the education a poet needs, for when you led me to the civil service academy on my fifth birthday I carried the abacus and squared slate of an accountant under my arm and I thought I would be allowed to sleep at home. But the examiner knew his job and after answering his questions I was sent to the classics dormitory of the closed literature wing and you never saw me again. I saw you again, a week or perhaps a year later. The undergraduates were crossing the garden between the halls of the drummaster who taught us rhythms and the chess-master who taught us consequential logic. I lagged behind them then slipped into the space between the laurel bushes and the outside fence and looked through. On the far side of the freshwater canal I saw a tiny distant man and woman standing staring. Even at that distance I recognized the pink roses on the scarlet sleeves of mother’s best petticoat. You could not see me, yet for a minute or perhaps a whole hour you stood staring at the tall academy fence as steadily as I stared at you. Then the monitors found me. But I knew I was not forgotten, and my face never acquired the haunted, accusing look which stamped the face of the other scholars and most of the teachers too. My face displays the pained but perfectly real smile of the eternally hopeful. That glimpse through the fence enabled me to believe in love while living without it, so the imagination lessons, which made some of my schoolmates go mad or kill themselves, did not frighten me.
The imagination lessons started on my eleventh birthday after I had memorized all the classical literature and could recite it perfectly. Before that day only my smile showed how remarkable I was. The teachers put me in a windowless room with a ceiling a few inches above my head when I sat on the floor. The furniture was a couple of big shallow earthenware pans, one empty and one full of water. I was told to stay there until I had passed the water through my body and filled the empty pan with it. I was told that when the door was shut I would be a long time in darkness and silence, but before the water was drunk I would hear voices and imagine the bodies of strange companions, some of them friendly and others not. I was told that if I welcomed everyone politely even the horrible visitors would teach me useful things. The door was shut and the darkness which drowned me was surprisingly warm and familiar. It was exactly the darkness inside my mother’s sewing-box. For the first time since entering the academy I felt at home. ...
All rights belong to the author: Alasdair Gray.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.