Authors: Iris Murdoch
To Scott Dunbar
RUNO WAS WAKING
up. The room seemed to be dark. He held his breath, testing the quality of the darkness, wondering if it was night or day, morning or afternoon. If it was night that was bad and might be terrible. Afternoon could be terrible too if he woke up too early. The drama of sleeping and waking had become preoccupying and fearful now that consciousness itself could be so heavy a burden. One had to be cunning. He never let himself doze in the mornings for fear of not being able to fall asleep after lunch. The television had been banished with its false sadnesses and its images of war. Perhaps he had nodded off over his book. He had had that dream again, about Janie and Maureen and the hatpin. He felt about him and began to push himself up a little on his pillows, his stockinged feet scrabbling inside the metal cage which lifted the weight of the blankets off them. Tight bed clothes are a major cause of bad feet. Not that Bruno’s feet minded much at this stage.
It was not night, thank God. The cowering mind and body fidgeted, discovering themselves in time. He remembered, or somehow knew, that it was the afternoon. The curtains were tightly pulled, but there was a cold reddish glow about the edges. The sun must be shining out there, the chilly spring sun, casting a graceless light upon sinful London and the flooding Thames and the grimy ringed towers of Lots Road power station which would be visible from the window when Adelaide came at five o’clock to pull the curtains. He reached for his glasses and held his watch up towards the dim curtain-edge and made out that it was four fifteen. He wondered if he should call out to Adelaide but decided not to. He could manage three quarters of an hour without the horrors. And Adelaide was a rather irritable servant who disliked a premature summons. Or perhaps she had become irritable only in the last year. Did she smash the best plates on purpose? There were always crumbs on the tray. He was so old now and he had been ill so tediously long.
No letters today. There would be none by the afternoon post. But when five o’clock came it was a cosy time of day, the best time really, with tea and muffins and anchovy toast and a new kind of jam and the
and then Danby coming home from the printing works. It was nicer in winter when there was a coal fire in his room and it was dark outside. That lucid spring sun was his enemy and the interminable summer evenings were a torture to the mind. He would have liked a coal fire now, only it made so much work and even Nigel who thought of most things had not thought of that. Bruno would have tea, making it last as long as possible, then read the
starting with the strip cartoons, then six o’clock news on the wireless, then talk for half an hour to Danby, not about business of course but about the funny things that happened in Danby’s day. Danby always had funny things in his day. Then play telephone perhaps or look at the stamps and then it would be seven and he could start drinking champagne, then read some spider books or a detective novel, then it would be supper brought by Nigel, and then talk with Nigel and then settle down for the night by Nigel. Soft padding Nigel with the angel fingers. Danby said Nigel was unreliable and threatened to sack him once. Danby must not know that Nigel broke the Simla cup. Bruno must remember to say that he broke it himself.
But of course Danby would not send Nigel away if Bruno did not want. Nigel was not really a trained nurse, he had just been an orderly or something, but he was so good with pillows and helping out of bed, he was so gentle. Danby was a kind son-in-law to Bruno. He would never send the old man to a home, Bruno knew that. It was years now since Danby had absolutely insisted that Bruno should come to stay with him and be looked after. Danby was kind, though no doubt it was all a matter of temperament and good health and being always hungry and ready for a drink. Danby was the sort of man who, if civilisation were visibly collapsing in front of him, would cheer up if someone offered him a gin and French. God knows what Bruno’s daughter had seen in Danby, Gwen such a strong serious girl and Danby a shambler through pubs. Women were unaccountable. Yet they had seemed to love each other. He could remember that much, though poor Gwen had died so long ago.
He could see now in the twilight of the room the hump of the foot-cage, the big wooden box on the table which held the stamp collection, the bottle of champagne on the marble-topped bookcase, and near it upon the wall the square framed photograph of his wife Janie. Janie had died twenty years before Gwen, but they seemed equally far away now. Gwen’s photo was still downstairs on the piano. He could not bring himself to ask for it to be brought. Three weeks ago he had overheard Adelaide saying to Nigel, ‘He won’t be coming downstairs any more.’ He had felt a sense of injustice and a thrill of fright. How could he concede that ‘any more’? He had not been downstairs for more than a month. But that was ‘not any more’. He could still get to the lavatory quite easily. Yet why was Nigel always talking about bedpans now and saying how easy they were and suggesting that today he was surely too tired to go? Was Nigel preparing him for that time? Well, it was not yet. He was sure of that, although he no longer wanted to know what it was that Danby and the fool doctor were whispering about on the landing. The fool doctor had said he might live for years. ‘You’ll outlive us all!’ he had said, laughing healthy laughter and looking at his watch. Years might mean anything. He must live three years anyway, he had to do that so as to cheat the Income Tax, to live three years was a statutory requirement.
When I ought to be thinking about death I am thinking about death duties, thought Bruno. That was not really altruism. It was more like a pathetic inability, even now, to divest himself of a sense of property. It was all very confusing.
He felt quite muzzy today, it was those tablets, though they did stop the pain. Or perhaps those bromide sleeping pills were poisoning him slowly. Sometimes he got muddled, a dislocated feeling quite unlike the euphoria of the champagne, and overheard himself talking aloud without knowing what he was talking about. One million brain cells were destroyed every day after the age of twenty-five, Danby had told him once, having read it in the Sunday paper. Could there be any brain cells left at that rate when one was well over eighty, Bruno wondered. Some days were clearer. There was so much less pain now. Wonderful what science can do. He must find out about a deed of gift and make the stamp collection over to somebody and not let the Income Tax have it. The stamp collection should fetch twenty thousand pounds. Twenty thousand pounds tax free was worth anybody’s having. How his father had hated giving it to him at the end. He could still see with clarity, a little coloured picture in the nutshell of his mind, the thin white hand pushing the box towards him along the mahogany table. His dying father saying to him with bitterness, ‘You’ll sell it, Bruno you fool, and you’ll be cheated royally.’ Well, he had not sold it, he had even added to it a little, he had even loved it a little, though he was never a serious philatelist like his father. He had kept it for a rainy day, and now his life was nearly over and there had been no rainy day. He might have had a world tour. Or bought great works of art and enjoyed them. Or had oysters and caviare every day. Or given it to Oxfam. He must find out about the deed of gift, how it worked, only he did not like to ask Danby. Danby was very kind but he was a thoroughly worldly man. Danby must be wondering who would get the stamps. Bruno wondered too. His son-in-law Danby or his son Miles? But it was years since he had seen Miles. Miles had rejected him long ago.
Of course they all caused him pain, all the time, they just could not help it. He could spy their assumptions, their thoughts which no longer ended in him but sped away past him into that unimaginable time when he would no longer be. He had become a monster to them. ‘A fine old man,’ he had overheard someone calling him more years ago than he liked to think of. What was he now? In his own consciousness he was scarcely old at all. He could see that his hands had aged. He noticed that with puzzlement as he promenaded the two twisted dried up heavily spotted things upon the counterpane. He no longer looked into the mirror though he could feel sometimes like a mask the ghost of his much younger face. He glimpsed himself only in the averted eyes of Danby and Adelaide, in the fastidious reluctances which they could not conceal. It was not just the smell, it was the look. He knew that he had become a monster, animal-headed, bull-headed, a captive minotaur. He had a face now like one of his spiders,
that have faces like toads. Below the huge emergent head the narrow body stretched away, the contingent improbable human form, strengthless, emaciated, elongated, smelly. He lived in a tube now, like
, he had become a tube.
His body was indeed a tomb, a grotesque tomb without beauty. How differently death appeared to him now from how it had seemed even three years ago when he still had his white hair. Real death was nothing to do with obelisks and angels. No wonder they all averted their eyes.
The printing works ought to be a kind of monument only he still thought of the works as his father’s creation. Gater and Greensleave. Greensleave and Odell it ought to be now with Danby in charge, only Danby had refused to change the name although old Gater had been dead these forty years. There had been a bad patch after the war when it was so hard to get spare parts for the American presses, but things had picked up somehow. Was that due to Danby? Variety was the secret, and nothing too humble: programmes, catalogues, leaflets, posters, Bingo cards, students’ magazines, writing paper. Bruno had done his best for the place. He had been born to it, for it, practically in it with the clack of monotype machines in his infant ears. But he had never felt at home with printers and their strange private language had always been for him a foreign tongue. He had been always a little afraid of the works, just as he had been afraid of the horses which his father had forced him to ride when he was a child. It was different for Danby who had no natural bent and no creative gifts and was not even an intellectual, and who had taken to printing when he married Gwen as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Bruno, who never got over thinking Danby a fool, had resented that calmness. Yet it was Danby who had turned out to be the business man.
Bruno had wanted to study zoology and not to go into the printing works. His father had made him study classics and go into the printing works. How had he made him? Bruno could not remember. Only through business, only through money, had he ever really communicated with his father. Because of certain punishments he had forgotten almost everything about his father, who remained nevertheless in his life as a source of negative energy, a spring of irritation and resentment, a hole through which things drained away. He could flush with anger even now when thinking of his father, and even now the old hatred came to him fresh and dark, without images. Yet he could see his mother so clearly and see that particular strained smile on her face as she tried to persuade her husband, and the tones of her voice came to him clearly over an interval of eighty years. ‘George, you must be more gentle with the boy.’