Direktlänk till inlägg 9 maj 2011

He watched exultant

Av lucyshanxu lucyshanxu - 9 maj 2011 07:31

Miles rose after two hours in bed. The hostel was alive with all the normal activity of morning. The wireless was playing; the sub-officials were coughing over their wash basins; the reek of State sausages frying in State grease filled the asbestos cubicle. He was slightly stiff after his long walk and slightly footsore, but his mind was as calm and empty as the sleep from which he had awoken. The scorched-earth policy had succeeded. He had made a desert in his imagination which he might call peace. Once before he had burned his childhood. Now his brief adult life lay in ashes; the enchantments that surrounded Clara were one with the splendours of Mountjoy; her great golden beard, one with the tongues of flame that had leaped and expired among the stars; her fans and pictures and scraps of old embroidery, one with the gilded cornices and silk hangings, black, cold and sodden. He ate his sausage with keen appetite and went to work. All was quiet too at the Department of Euthanasia. The first announcement of the Mountjoy disaster had been on the early news. Its proximity to Satellite City gave it a special poignancy there. “It is a significant phenomenon,” said Dr. Beamish, “that any bad news has an immediate effect on our service. You see it whenever there is an international crisis. Sometimes I think people only come to us when they have nothing to talk about. Have you looked at our queue today?” Miles turned to the periscope. Only one man waited outside, old Parsnip, a poet of the ’30s who came daily but was usually jostled to the back of the crowd. He was a comic character in the department, this veteran poet. Twice in Miles’s short term he had succeeded in gaining admission but on both occasions had suddenly taken fright and bolted. “It’s a lucky day for Parsnip,” said Miles. “Yes. He deserves some luck. I knew him well once, him and his friend Pimpernell. New Writing, the Left Book Club, they were all the rage. Pimpernell was one of my first patients. Hand Parsnip in and we’ll finish him off.” So old Parsnip was summoned and that day his nerve stood firm. He passed fairly calmly through the gas chamber on his way to rejoin Pimpernell. “We might as well knock off for the day,” said Dr. Beamish. “We shall be busy again soon when the excitement dies down.” But the politicians seemed determined to keep the excitement up. All the normal features of television were interrupted and curtailed to give place to Mountjoy. Survivors appeared on the screen, among them Soapy, who described how long practice as a cat burglar had enabled him to escape. Mr. Sweat, he remarked with respect, had got clear away. The ruins were surveyed by the apparatus. A sexual maniac with broken legs gave audience from his hospital bed. The Minister of Welfare, it was announced, would make a special appearance that evening to comment on the disaster. Miles dozed intermittently beside the hostel set and at dusk rose, still calm and free; so purged of emotion that he made his way once more to the hospital and called on Clara. She had spent the afternoon with looking glass and makeup box. The new substance of her face fulfilled all the surgeon’s promises. It took paint to perfection. Clara had given herself a full mask as though for the lights of the stage; an even creamy white with sudden high spots of crimson on the cheekbones, huge hard crimson lips, eyebrows extended and turned up catwise, the eyes shaded all round with ultramarine and dotted at the corners with crimson. “You’re the first to see me,” she said. “I was half-afraid you wouldn’t come. You seemed cross yesterday.” “I wanted to see the television,” said Miles. “It’s so crowded at the hostel.” “So dull today. Nothing except this prison that has been burned down.” “I was there myself. Don’t you remember? I often talked of it.” “Did you, Miles? Perhaps so. I’ve such a bad memory for things that don’t concern me. Do you really want to hear the Minister? It would be much cosier to talk.” “It’s him I’ve come for.” And presently the Minister appeared, open-necked as always but without his usual smile; grave to the verge of tears. He spoke for twenty minutes. “... The great experiment must go on ... the martyrs of maladjustment shall not have died in vain ... A greater, new Mountjoy shall rise from the ashes of the old ...” Eventually tears came—real tears for he held an invisible onion—and trickled down his cheeks. So the speech ended. “That’s all I came for,” said Miles, and left Clara to her cocoa-butter and face towel. Next day all the organs of public information were still piping the theme of Mountjoy. Two or three patients, already bored with the entertainment, presented themselves for extermination and were happily despatched. Then a message came from the Regional Director, official-in-chief of Satellite City. He required the immediate presence of Miles in his office. “I have a move order for you, Mr. Plastic. You are to report to the Ministers of Welfare and Rest and Culture. You will be issued with a Grade A hat, umbrella and briefcase for the journey. My congratulations.” Equipped with these insignia of sudden, dizzy promotion, Miles travelled to the capital leaving behind a domeful of sub-officials chattering with envy. At the terminus an official met him. Together in an official car they drove to Whitehall. “Let me carry your briefcase, Mr. Plastic.” “There’s nothing in it.” Miles’s escort laughed obsequiously at this risqué joke. At the Ministry the lifts were in working order. It was a new and alarming experience to enter the little cage and rise to the top of the great building.

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Santa-Claus-tide was near. Shops were full of shoddy little dolls. Children in the schools sang old ditties about peace and goodwill. Strikers went back to work in order to qualify for their seasonal bonus. Electric bulbs were hung in the conifers and the furnaces in the Dome of Security roared again. Miles had been promoted. He now sat beside the assistant registrar and helped stamp and file the documents of the dead. It was harder work than he was used to and Miles was hungry for Clara’s company. The lights were going out in the Dome and on the Goodwill Tree in the car park. He walked the half-mile of hutments to Clara’s quarters. Other girls were waiting for their consorts or setting out to find them in the Recreatorium, but Clara’s door was locked. A note, pinned to it, read: Miles, Going away for a bit. C. Angry and puzzled he returned to his hostel. Clara, unlike himself, had uncles and cousins scattered about the country. Since her operation she had been shy of visiting them. Now, Miles supposed, she was taking cover among them. It was the manner of her flight, so unlike her gentle ways, that tortured him. For a busy week he thought of nothing else. His reproaches sang in his head as the undertone to all the activities of the day and at night he lay sleepless, repeating in his mind every word spoken between them and every act of intimacy. After a week the thought of her became spasmodic and regular. The subject bored him unendurably. He strove to keep it out of his mind as a man might strive to control an attack of hiccups, and as impotently. Spasmodically, mechanically, the thought of Clara returned. He timed it and found that it came every seven and one-half minutes. He went to sleep thinking of her, he woke up thinking of her. But between times he slept. He consulted the departmental psychiatrist who told him that he was burdened by the responsibility of parentage. But it was not Clara the mother who haunted him, but Clara the betrayer. Next week he thought of her every twenty minutes. The week after that he thought of her irregularly, though often; only when something outside himself reminded him of her. He began to look at other girls and considered himself cured. He looked hard at other girls as he passed them in the dim corridors of the Dome and they looked boldly back at him. Then one of them stopped him and said: “I’ve seen you before with Clara” and at the mention of her name all interest in the other girl ceased in pain. “I went to visit her yesterday.” “Where?” “In hospital, of course. Didn’t you know?” “What’s the matter with her?” “She won’t say. Nor will anyone else at the hospital. She’s top secret. If you ask me she’s been in an accident and there’s some politician involved. I can’t think of any other reason for all the fuss. She’s covered in bandages and gay as a lark.” Next day, December 25th, was Santa Claus Day; no holiday in the department of Euthanasia, which was an essential service. At dusk Miles walked to the hospital, one of the unfinished edifices, all concrete and steel and glass in front and a jumble of huts behind. The hall porter was engrossed in the television, which was performing an old obscure folk play which past generations had performed on Santa Claus Day, and was now revived and revised as a matter of historical interest. It was of professional interest to the porter for it dealt with maternity services before the days of Welfare. He gave the number of Clara’s room without glancing up from the strange spectacle of an ox and an ass, an old man with a lantern, and a young mother. “People here are always complaining,” he said. “They ought to realize what things were like before Progress.” The corridors were loud with relayed music. Miles found the hut he sought. It was marked “Experimental Surgery. Health Officers Only.” He found the cubicle. He found Clara sleeping, the sheet pulled up to her eyes, her hair loose on the pillow. She had brought some of her property with her. An old shawl lay across the bed table. A painted fan stood against the television set. She awoke, her eyes full of frank welcome, and pulled the sheet higher, speaking through it. “Darling, you shouldn’t have come. I was keeping it for a surprise.” Miles sat by the bed and thought of nothing to say except: “How are you?” “Wonderful. They’ve taken the bandages off today. They won’t let me have a looking glass yet but they say everything has been a tremendous success. I’m something very special, Miles—a new chapter in surgical progress.” “But what has happened to you? Is it something to do with the baby?” “Oh no. At least, it was. That was the first operation. But that’s all over now.” “You mean our child?” “Yes, that had to go. I should never have been able to dance afterwards. I told you all about it. That was why I had the Klugmann operation, don’t you remember?” “But you gave up dancing.” “That’s where they’ve been so clever. Didn’t I tell you about the sweet, clever new medical director? He’s cured all that.” “Your dear beard.” “Quite gone. An operation the new director invented himself. It’s going to be named after him or even perhaps after me. He’s so unselfish he wants to call it the Clara operation. He’s taken off all the skin and put on a wonderful new substance, a sort of synthetic rubber that takes grease-paint perfectly. He says the colour isn’t perfect but that it will never show on the stage. Look, feel it.” She sat up in bed, joyful and proud. Her eyes and brow were all that was left of the loved face. Below it something quite inhuman, a tight, slippery mask, salmon pink. Miles stared. In the television screen by the bed further characters had appeared—Food Production Workers. They seemed to declare a sudden strike, left their sheep and ran off at the bidding of some kind of shop-steward in fantastic dress. The machine by the bedside broke into song, an old, forgotten ditty: “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.” Miles retched unobtrusively. The ghastly face regarded him with fondness and pride. At length the right words came to him; the trite, the traditional sentence uttered by countless lips of generations of baffled and impassioned Englishmen: “I think I shall go for a short walk.” But first he walked only as far as his hostel. There he lay down until the moon moved to his window and fell across his sleepless face. Then he set out, walking far into the fields, out of sight of the Dome of Security, for two hours until the moon was near setting. He had travelled at random but now the white rays fell on a signpost and he read: “Mountjoy 3/4.” He strode on with only the stars to light his way till he came to the Castle gates. They stood open as always, gracious symbol of the new penology. He followed the drive. The whole lightless face of the old house stared at him silently, without rebuke. He knew now what was needed. He carried in his pocket a cigarette lighter which often worked. It worked for him now. No need for oil here. The dry old silk of the drawing-room curtains lit like paper. Paint and panelling, plaster and tapestry and gilding bowed to the embrace of the leaping flames. He stepped outside. Soon it was too hot on the terrace and he retreated further, to the marble temple at the end of the long walk. The murderers were leaping from the first-storey windows but the sexual offenders, trapped above, set up a wail of terror. He heard the chandeliers fall and saw the boiling lead cascading from the roof. This was something altogether finer than the strangulation of a few peacocks. He watched exultant as minute by minute the scene disclosed fresh wonders. Great timbers crashed within; outside, the lily pond hissed with falling brands; a vast ceiling of smoke shut out the stars and under it tongues of flame floated away into the treetops. Two hours later when the first engine arrived, the force of the fiery storm was already spent. Miles rose from his marble throne and began the long walk home. But he was no longer at all fatigued. He strode out cheerfully with his shadow, cast by the dying blaze, stretching before him along the lane. On the main road a motorist stopped him and asked: “What’s that over there? A house on fire?” “It was,” said Miles. “It’s almost out now.” “Looks like a big place. Only Government property, I suppose?” “That’s all,” said Miles. “Well hop in if you want a lift.” “Thanks,” said Miles, “I’m walking for pleasure.”


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