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Authors: Nicholas Mosley

A Garden of Trees

BOOK: A Garden of Trees
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A GARDEN OF TREES

NICHOLAS MOSLEY

ALSO BY NICHOLAS MOSLEY

Accident

Assassins

Impossible Object

Natalie Natalia

Catastrophe Practice

Imago Bird

Serpent

Judith

Hopeful Monsters

Efforts at Truth: An Autobiography

Children of Darkness and Light

The Hesperides Tree

Inventing God

The Uses of Slime Mould: Essays of Four Decades

Look at the Dark

Time at War

Experience and Religion

God's Hazard

Paradoxes of Peace, or The Presence of Infinity

INTRODUCTION

This was my second book, a novel, written in the late nineteen forties and early fifties when I was still trying to settle into peacetime life after fighting in the infantry in the Second World War. My first novel,
Spaces of the Dark
, was a sad story about a young soldier coming home and being unable to settle, being haunted by a particularly traumatic wartime incident. This book was published by Rupert Hart-Davis and was reasonably well received. My second,
A Garden of Trees
, was turned down by Hart-Davis and another publisher. I was told—It is not unusual for a young author to write a good first novel about his personal experiences; but then with his second he is apt to go off into rigmaroles about a crazy world where a reader is not drawn to follow him. I argued—But are not the rigmaroles of a crazy world in everyone's personal experience?

A publisher did eventually agree to publish the book, but by that time I was eagerly finishing my third novel and was reluctant to go back myself to worry about
A Garden of Trees
. So I put it to one side, and the typescript has languished on musty shelves ever since in various houses I have moved between during the last sixty years. Until now, that is, when I am too old to consider starting anything new, but when being on the brink of moving to another new house the old script has unexpectedly popped up as if giving me a nudge. And I have wondered if there might be some interest in a story of that chaotic time so long ago.

When I was writing
A Garden of Trees
I had been out of the army for three or four years: I had married, had gone on a long honeymoon to a small island in the West Indies where I wrote much of
Spaces of the Dark
. My wife and I would listen on a small crackling radio to the world news, the main items of which were all about the likelihood of a third world war: Russia with its vast conventional forces and occupied satellite states was said to be threatening to invade the West. So now there were suggestions that since we and the Americans had atomic bombs and the Russians as yet had not, would it not be wise for us to drop a few of our bombs on Russia first before they got theirs, which soon they surely would. Well, was there not enough evidence here for people to experience the world as mad?

My wife and I might have stayed on our tiny island but we did not want to feel quite cut off from even such a world; but we also did not want to feel part of the functioning of madness. So when we got home we looked around, and bought a small hill-farm in North Wales, in an area where my wife had been happy as an evacuee in the war, and for which I had saved up enough money during the war from the income from a trust made by my mother's family in America. We hoped we might thus find some life of sanity away from the belligerence of a confrontation-obsessed world.

We had a go at running our farm as if it were some Garden of Eden—with cattle and pigs and a small flock of sheep thrown in. I supposed it was unlikely that we would have made much of a success of it anyway; but soon my wife Rosemary became pregnant; and there was no piped water to the farmhouse, and electricity came from a water-wheel in the village that froze up in winter. And there were no pregnancies in Eden.

We took a break in London for the birth of the baby, and then returned with a helper to our idyll of a stone cottage with its wild mountain stream rushing past the back door. But then Rosemary became pregnant again, and this time there were signs of a threatening miscarriage. Rosemary's family now stepped in with resolute sanity and arranged for her and our child to be taken by ambulance to her grandmother's vast house in Hertfordshire, where they could be attended by nurses and doctors. And here eventually the new baby was born, and flourished. But I had to return to our hillside fastness alone, to see the gradual disposal of our animals. And to get on with the writing of
A Garden of Trees
.

The story concerns a sister and a brother slightly younger than myself, and the narrator and a slightly older man. We were all of us—author and his four characters—trying to find a pathway of sanity in what seemed an insane world. And we were all discovering—what? that one cannot create one's own Garden of Eden; one can have such a vision, but then has to work for whatever fragments of it one might be able to make real. What one sees around one as the madness of humanity is simply an aspect of the way in which life works: nature is savage; evolution is ruthless and not within one's control. Love is usually for what one has not got, not for what one has. What one has, one can learn to cherish, but what one plants in one's garden is apt to be knocked down like skittles.

One of the blessings or banes that is likely to crop up in such a setting is religion. This is experienced by the characters in
A Garden of Trees
: it was experienced by myself, that lonely autumn at the farm with hopes and expectations falling like leaves around my head. I had a letter from my oldest friend from childhood and the army saying that he was planning to become a monk. I replied that I thought he was insane. Correspondence swirled and eddied to and fro. My sanity, and that of the scenes I was writing in my book, bobbed up and down like a small boat in a rough sea. It takes a while for such a voyage to discover—perhaps never stability, but some buoyancy.

It used to be a tenet of the fashionable literary world—and for all I know still is—that the experiences of a writer's life have no bearing on a consideration of his work. This has always seemed to me a source as well as a symptom of insanity. With the cropping-up of this old script, there should at least be no such danger from my own clumps of trees.

NICHOLAS MOSLEY
, 2012

I
THE BEGINNING

1

It was at a political meeting that I first saw Marius. Sixty policemen went past me in a bus—an extraordinary sight. A double-decker bus, the policemen piled on top of each other in rows, like vegetables, prize-winners surely. They all had their helmets on and seemed identical. Or like pelicans, perhaps, with their hard domed heads; but within the little glass cases of the windows more lifeless and remote. The bus was momentarily held up in the traffic and the crowd turned to stare at it. Nobody laughed. Then the traffic moved and the bus swam on—a queer intent-looking fish with its belly-load of sixty dispassionate Jonahs. I wondered if it would ever spew them out.

Marius was on the edge of the crowd, on a corner. He watched the bus go by with an expression of grim and happy amazement. He was a huge man, hearty, standing in an old stained raincoat with his hands in his pockets and his tallness leaning forwards to where his head, thrust downwards, seemed to collect the shadows. It was this that I remember in him. The projections of his face—his cheek-bones, jawbones, eyebrows—appeared to gather the darkness round them as in a too emphatic photograph. It was as if the light came only from the other side of him, although the street was pale and clear with the impersonal glaze of February. His hair too—curly or straight, I couldn't tell which—seemed to dull the light, absorb it, lying thick upon his head with a quite incidental neatness. He was like some figure in an early silent film. I could not imagine him speaking.

The bus had stopped again a little beyond him, and he went up to it, peering, like a child examining the fish in an aquarium. He walked up the line of windows and then back again; the policemen never moved. Backwards and forwards like the judge at the show. Then he stepped back onto the pavement and smiled.

There was the sudden blast of a loudspeaker. I had come to the meeting idly, as a spectator, because I wanted to see how such affairs were conducted. I was not interested in politics; but I had wanted to see what life there was here, in the streets, among the people who had to make a business of it. I had not found much in the life that I knew. This was the end of the nineteen forties, not long after the war. The loudspeaker was booming, insistent, like a bell rung close to the ear. It surged and eddied on the air in waves, the rolling swing of a bell hitting the ear physically, to pierce it. It knocked the mind off its balance as the rollers of the sea knock the body off its feet. I had no idea where the noise was coming from. The words were unintelligible.

Marius and I were on the edge of the crowd, in the wrong street perhaps, but to have approached the noise any closer would have been like walking into a cave where the waves break over the opening. So we stood still, resisting it, while the crowd wandered past us blankly, edging nearer and nearer to the center of the noise. Like stirred-up mud sinking back to the bottom of a pool they drifted; and we were like stones becoming visible out of the murk.

I stayed by Marius because even from that first sight of him I wanted to know him. In the sepulchral dirtiness of the streets he became defined as something living; in the graveyard of East London he was an intruder, like a tree. He seemed to spread his roots around him like an aura upon which the weeds of the graveyard would not grow. The crowd, as they went past him, circled him deferentially and left a space between their bodies and his. He had a power either of the plague or the angels. I wanted to know which. Or if it were both.

The crowd were scurrying now. They were all small beside him. Tiny, wiry men like bantams; men in caps, men with their trousers hitched so far up that they had to step jerkily, like ducks, walking from the waist. Then fatter, smoother men hustling along busily like balloons when the air is expelled from them; rotund dominant men blowing along by the pressure of their own innate distention; with prominent hips, tight hips, their legs working from their knees and no waist at all. And then the youths, all oily, hair like seaweed, all hair, nothing but dangling greasy heads on matchstick bodies and heads nodding, clamorous, their mouths blindly and ferociously demanding attention like wounds. And then Marius.

Marius was like a monster in the land of the damned. But there did not seem to be life except with him.

The crowd took us at last. There was a rush from behind, and we were carried, unresisting, up a side street. There we could see the loudspeaker. Six great trumpets stood on top of a van like some immemorial gramophone; cones which might at any moment, surely, be turned into blunderbusses to scatter us with grapeshot. And the sound bellowing out of them in waves; more steady than a gramophone, more persistent; a giant's loudspeaker and a giant's voice and a man in a grey suit on top of the van, his hands on his hips, speaking quietly.

At first that was all I could see. The light was failing; in half an hour it would be dark. I was jostled into the front garden of a house; and then, by raising myself on the railings, I could see further. I saw the small circle of men placed round the van; hard, serious men, standing at ease, in raincoats. Marius had been wearing a raincoat. I wondered if he might be one of them. But Marius had disappeared. And outside the small circle of henchmen were the police, scores and scores of them, just standing motionless between the guardians and the crowd.

I looked for Marius. He must have pushed past me when I had stepped into the garden. The crowd was beginning to surge. Some women complained.

I liked the women better than the men. They were more individual; the older ones solid, controlled, exercising judgment. They were on their own mostly, despising the herd-nervous flotsam of the men. The tide rolled about them and left them calm. Short women, rather square, with handkerchiefs round their heads and carrying shopping-bags although it was a Sunday. And every here and there was a young girl, on tip-toe, with the savagely pretty face of a fox or squirrel—one of those childishly confident East End girls whom one expects to be a gangster's moll or a rich man's mistress but who never are because they are so respectable. Girls with wide cheek-bones and slanting eyes and reddish hair piled up on their heads in tiers, brown coated and skirted (long coats, short skirts, so that only a small and surprising band of skirt was visible), and stockinged in the best, the very best, silk. From a distance they were beautiful.

And then someone began to sing. At first it was only a group of youths opening and shutting their mouths, silently, because nothing could be heard above the unending boom of the loudspeaker. But gradually, as the group solidified itself around a suddenly upraised banner like one of those legendary squares amid the chaos of Waterloo—the banner bounding slightly above their grease-plumed heads to give assurance to their movements and indeed some conformity to the otherwise haphazard opening and shutting of their mouths—the singing became audible; tentative at first, like the preliminary murmurs of chickens in a thunderstorm; then taking strength; and during a momentary pause of the loudspeaker it suddenly rang out clear and strong, shockingly almost, a solemn tuneless song grated out with the unholy desperation of hymns that are sung in lifeboats or in earthquakes, a frail yet determined demonstration of will that threatened to defy even the eternity of the loudspeaker. And then there was the clatter of horses, and a line of mounted police came trotting into the crowd.

Until that moment the scene had presented at least the semblance of order, even if it did not possess the purpose I had been looking for. But with the arrival of the mounted police all action and order failed. At Waterloo the squares were supposed to have held, I believe, against even the most extravagant charges; but these did not, and this was hardly a charge—more like a jogging up the Mall to an opening of Parliament or some equally redundant traditional procedure. But in the Mall the crowds were guarded by two lines of soldiers; they were safe from the lovely, the terrifying horses; and here, where the horses were on top of them, they were not.

And they were lovely horses. Big bays and chestnuts; big snorting geldings edging into the crowd sideways, stamping, crouching rather; beautiful horses beautifully kept with fine, shiny coats and the skin jerking up and down around their withers; big mares clattering, slipping slightly, their eyes wide, haunches trembling, prancing in tiny controlled steps into the crowd who wobbled and fell back as if elephants were upon them. It was not a panic, not a rush—just a queer boiling hubbub of wrestling compliant; a nervous instinctive fear such as people have for mice or toads, not the fear of tigers, of the jungle. But the horses went on edging in, remorseless, beautiful; and then a child went down, and a woman after it, and then the quick balloon-blown hustling of the men went over them, and the shouting rose, crescendoing. Then a whole row of women seemed to trip over at once, like ninepins; and the men backed eddying round them, pausing, bending to help them up. But the horses came on, shuddering, insistent, and knocked the bending men on top of the women, and then it was near to panic, suddenly there was fear. From under the delicate bone-brittle hocks of the horses people picked themselves up, picked the children up, turning kneeling with their hands up in front of their faces and then hurrying, feverishly, out of the way of the monsters. And it was then that I saw Marius again—he was standing as if wedged between the tail of one horse and the head of another, standing quite unmoved and serious and staring into the horse's eye as if he had already appraised its physical points and was now more concerned with its character, its temperament; staring at the horse and then looking down to see a fat demented child on the ground at his feet and picking it up and with one swift and exaggerated movement lifting it clean over the horse's head into the arms of a pedestrian and bewildered policeman; then turning to find the mother screaming for it from behind the barrier of flashing hooves and bridles and going over to her to offer her his hand, politely, to lead her through the burning ring of flesh and leather, Brunnhilde-like, and introducing her to the policeman who was indeed showing signs of impatience with the howling child who had bitten him on the finger. The mother seized the child and ran; and then the horses were past us. In a few moments the street was almost deserted.

I had been behind the railings and was apart from the disturbance; but why had it started? The crowd had been orderly, systematic;—at least no more heedless than a Saturday afternoon football crowd. And the singing, so frail, no more than a Salvation Army demonstration. So why the cavalry? What orders had been given to reduce the evening to sterility? This had happened when the singing started, but it was the horses that had caused the disturbance, nothing else. And now the meeting was over. The streets were cleared, the loudspeaker quieted. There was nothing except the policemen and Marius and me.

What was Marius then? Perhaps a plain clothes detective, perhaps some secret agent; or perhaps he had come to study horses for a zoo.

“That was a strange business,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. He spoke quite naturally, hardly bothering to look me up and down.

“I can't see why they wanted to break it up.”

“Oh well,” he said, “I think they always want to break things up, don't they?”

“Do they?” I said.

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“Well,” he said, “it's the fashion. It's what people want. The extraordinary thing about this country is that people always seem to get what they want.”

“But they don't seem to want anything.”

“No,” he said. “That's another extraordinary thing.”

We walked down the darkening street. He did not seem to be sarcastic. He talked in an offhand way, rather distant.

“But they want things for themselves,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“Comfortable things, crazy things.”

“Yes.”

“It all seems rather a mess to me.”

“Yes,” he said.

Such a strange man, with his agreements. I was sure he wasn't being sarcastic. At that time (I was still quite young) I thought that I could always get to know people by talking to them, by saying the things that would please them, and as a rule I had been successful with those I had wanted to know. At least, I thought that I had known them. But I had no idea what to say to Marius. I felt, rather foolishly, that when I spoke to him not only were my words wrong, but my whole tone of voice, my expression too. It was almost as if on my old formula I was incapable of knowing anybody. So I kept quiet.

“So,” he said, “I expect that they even want you to think them a mess!” He peered at me amicably.

We were getting back towards the crowd. I could see the bus parked in a side street, like a whale washed up in a dockyard. The horses were gone. A line of policemen on foot was pushing the crowd back, advancing wearily upon them, causing grumbles. The crowd retreated, keeping clear of the police, not wanting to touch them. Then suddenly a man detached himself from his neighbours, wrapped his raincoat around himself, scraped his feet along the ground once or twice like a boxer in his corner, and charged the policemen. He ran like a man approaching the long jump, leapt, and was bounced back deftly by restraining arms. It seemed a quite dispassionate performance. He tried it once again, a little more wildly this time, burrowing his head slightly, almost diving. The police took little notice of him. He bounced comfortably. Then he rejoined his friends. It was as if he had to make some purely ritualistic effort to assert himself, to ensure his self-respect; as if it were some animal instinct within him to make him hurl himself thus; like a monkey that hurls itself against the bars of its cage, catches itself, and then returns to its corner to scratch. He was a tough, rotund little man—one of the balloons. There was certainly nothing purposeful about him.

“There,” I said to Marius. “That's what I mean.”

“That?” he said. “Yes.”

We went up a side street. We were on the inside of the police cordon, alone. The street at first was empty, with doors closed, giving the impression of enormous events elsewhere. Then, at the far end, some men appeared, running, looking over their shoulders like fugitives. When they were clear into the street they stopped, hopping sideways, and tried to appear at ease. A number collected, forming a column. They were demonstrators who, having evaded the police, were about to demonstrate. They huddled into their column and came marching down the street in a thin line, wispily, all bedraggled and out of step. They trilled some chant about killing. A schoolboy crocodile on the trail of its schoolboy prey.

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