Authors: Iain Crichton Smith
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WOOD
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
This eBook edition published in 2015 by
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Copyright Â© Iain Crichton Smith, 1969
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any
form without the express written permission of the publisher.
eBook ISBN: 9780857907288
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray,
Gone from the path direct â¦
For Muriel and
Alick John Macleod,
true & trusted friends.
ICIOUSLY HE THRUST
his manuscripts and clothes into his case and before his wife, Linda, knew what he was doing he was making his way down to the station. He knew now that the house was evil and that he must get away from it, lest it should destroy him. She had already torn in half the telephone book which lay on his desk in the study and had also shuffled with demonic hatred for him the pages of his new novel over which he had been stalled for a considerable time. No, there was nothing for him here: if he stayed he would lose his sanity. He felt that there was witchcraft in the house, that a spell had been cast on him, that the world was falling apart and that the centre wouldn't hold. He slammed the door shut behind him. Linda was hanging up clothes on the clothes line: they looked like a gallery of paintings.
He walked from the house and crossed the railway line with its rusty tracks, alongside which red weeds were brilliantly flowering, and in the grass to his right he saw rabbits playing in the fields. He looked around him as if he were seeing the place for the last time and must memorize it. The house, his and Linda's, shone white against the red and the green: the brown tiles of its roof slanted over the ghostly walls. Now more than ever it seemed to him to be a witch house. As he walked he felt hot and sweaty: when he got on to the train he would have to remove his jacket. More and more now he broke out into these sweats: not so long ago in a bookshop in Glasgow he had felt the perspiration pouring from him so that he had to leave and remove his jacket and find a toilet where he could plunge his head into a basin of cold water. He put his left hand into his pocket and took out three of the red pills, which he thrust into his mouth. He devoured pills like sweets these days.
He crossed the railway-line and made his way to the bench which was on the opposite side of the tracks, the platform from which the Glasgow train would leave. He sat down on it. He knew that he had two hours to wait but he didn't care: he would rather wait here than in the house. He stared across at the newspaper kiosk and saw Maggie standing behind the counter. As he watched he saw Rhona Macintyre, dressed in slacks and a cream blouse, walking along to the kiosk. She stopped there and she and Maggie began to talk to each other. It seemed that they were talking about him, so clear and supernaturally alert his hearing had become. Now and again Rhona would turn round and look over directly to where he was sitting. The two of them would obviously be wondering why he should be waiting on a platform for a train that wouldn't arrive for two hours. But in fact he didn't care whether they talked about him or not. He had his manuscripts and his clothes and that was all he needed. When he arrived in Glasgow he would find lodgings, perhaps in a house or in a hotel. A hotel might be better for then he could go straight to his bed and sleep: he wanted to sleep for days, weeks, forever.
And then as he thought about that he remembered that he hadn't taken his typewriter with him. He should really have remembered to do that: he might now have to buy one and that was extravagant when he had one already. How had he not realized that he didn't have his typewriter: how had he not missed it? Of course he had been in such a hurry cramming his case with manuscripts and clothes that he couldn't think of everything. And the decision had been a sudden one. One moment he was sitting at his desk staring out of the window, the telephone at his right hand, and the next he was frenziedly packing his case. It was almost as if a voice had spoken to him and told him, You must get out of this house at once, without a second's delay. And that was precisely what he had done: and now on this warm day he was sitting on a bench waiting for a train to arrive.
Rhona was still there talking animatedly to Maggie. He knew that they were talking about him. For one thing he didn't usually travel by train. He was always sitting at his desk writing, day after day, while people passing on the road could see him through the window. It was important to him that he should not appear idle to them, that he should be seen as either typing or reading. In a village like this people would think you lazy when they didn't see you working. And in any case it was hard enough for them to understand someone who wrote for a living. He was a mysterious being to them. They themselves either had jobs in the neighbouring town or they worked on the land. But they didn't have anyone else in the village who earned his living in such an obscure way. And he felt that if they once saw him idle they would assume that he was like that all the time, such was the obvious simplicity of their minds.
He relaxed in the sunshine and closed his eyes wearily, after drawing his case towards him and holding it between his legs. If he lost his manuscripts he would have lost everything. As he did so he noticed his wife in their red car pulling up at the station. He turned his eyes away and stared obstinately in the other direction. He heard the car door slam and then her footsteps crossing the rails towards him. Then she was standing beside him, dressed in her velvet jacket and skirt.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
He didn't answer.
“Look,” she said. “You must come home. The train doesn't leave for another two hours anyway. What's wrong with you?”
Still he didn't answer. He felt that if he answered he would be submitting to her. She was a cunning witch, she was making sure that the two women at the book-stall knew that she had tried her best, but that he was having none of it. No, he wouldn't speak to her, that was certain. On no account. Suddenly he thrust his left hand ahead of him and looked at it. He wished to know whether his fingers were still trembling. They were, three of them, trembling like compass needles.
“All right then,” said Linda. “All right then. If that is the way you want it.” Then she walked away. Rhona and Maggie were turned from the two of them, pretending to be deep in a mysterious conversation of their own, but he knew that they were listening, that they were following everything with rapt attention. There was not a word that they would not be able to reproduce.
He had made so many mistakes since he had come to that village. For instance, he hadn't understood how much gossip was necessary to the lives of the people nor had he spoken to the villagers as much as he should have done. A village was not like a town or a city. In the city random roads crossed continually, there were creative collisions on streets which one might not see again. But in the village the roads were fixed from time immemorial, there were few surprises. Ruts were bitten deep into time, there was a continual re-creation of the past in the present. And then again he had felt so self-conscious, so sure that people were watching him all the time, and he had made unusually many errors, especially at the post office.
He watched Linda climb into her car, and then she started it and was gone. For a moment he felt a pang of regret as if he would never see her again, but then the regret was replaced by anger. She should have known what would happen. Why had she torn his telephone book in two, why had she shuffled his papers? She was jealous of him, that was what it was. She was just an ordinary person, he on the other hand was an extraordinary person, and the ordinary must hate the extraordinary. He couldn't live in the ordinary, its gaunt plumageless sky. He couldn't understand how ordinary people lived. It seemed to him that their lives were so bare and dull, that they had no excitement, no hope, no future. Nothing but a vacuum filled only by conversation. And then Linda was always asking him to talk to her, it was as if she could not exist unless she was conversing. And most of the time he felt no inclination to talk. In fact he hated talking. He preferred books to people, that was quite clear to him. Why should he spend time chattering about trivial matters to trivial people when there was a book by Plato or Tolstoy to be read? Ordinary conversation was so untidy, it had not been turned into art, it had not been revised. And he was not interested in births, deaths and marriages, in babies, engagements, divorces.
Now he could see Ina coming. And he knew that she and Maggie were talking about him though Ina was careful not to turn round and look at him. There was still a considerable time before the train was due and the villagers were all wondering what he was doing sitting on the bench so early. The news would be round the whole village by now. Oh, certainly it would be, quite obviously.
He felt cooler now and glad of it. He hated it when he sweated just as he had done in his childhood when he had suffered from bronchitis. He stretched his legs out comfortably in front of him and closed his eyes. As he did so it seemed to him that he could hear Ina talking about him, that she was saying that he was an odd sort of person, not suited to the village. That was the unfair part: they didn't know that Linda had torn his telephone book and shuffled up the pages of his novel, and of course he wouldn't tell them. No, he might tell them now, though in the past he had been very taciturn, believing that it was a kind of treachery to talk about family affairs. But he would tell them now, he would tell them exactly what Linda was like, that she had torn his telephone book in half (what angry superhuman strength she must have had), that she had even shifted some of the vases in order to confuse him. She was undoubtedly trying to draw him into the morass of her own ordinariness, he was the pheasant with the coloured wings while she was the hen clucking about a great empty yard.
And there she was again at the station in her car, having returned. But this time she didn't get out of it. She sat in it and looked forlornly across to him but he knew that this forlornness was a mask which she had assumed. He stared back at her in a hostile manner. He wanted to have nothing more to do with her. The fact was that she was frightened that he would reveal her tricks in his next book, how she had shifted the vases and the furniture, and shuffled the pages of his book. And by God he would reveal it. Already he had the plot in his mind. She would be the barbarian who hated the disciplines of art, who hid the vases out of chicanery. Oh, he would really fix her this time, no question of that.
And yet he had loved her too. He could think this with infinite regret as he stared back at the car with an unsmiling face. Together they used to go out for dinner every Saturday to a different hotel. Before that they had driven to their favourite glen where they sat watching the dark flow of the water, with flowers here and there on the bank and deer peering down from the hills with their frail questioning heads. Oh, he had loved her, and if they quarrelled he would have a sleepless night and in the morning buy a huge extravagant bouquet of flowers for her. It was she who had taught him to be jealous; before that he had lived in mornings clear of human passions. But then for a long while he wouldn't let men talk to her. He suspected her of the most terrible things, of betraying him continually. She was the frightening Eve of his imagination, the snake in the garden.
And now she had made up her mind and was crossing the railway line again. But he didn't want to go with her in the car. He knew that she would try to entice him back to the house if he entered the car. And above all he didn't want that, he didn't want to go back to that house ever. It had almost destroyed him. That was yet another of her tricks, she was full of cunning subterfuges, oh, there was never anyone like her for trickery.
“Where are you thinking of going?” she asked.
“Glasgow,” he answered.
“All right then,” she said. “I'll take you in the car if that is what you want to do.”
“No,” he said with finality.
She stood and looked at him, and then she said, “You know if I leave you this time I won't come back.”
“Yes,” he said with the same dead finality.
“I see.” And before he could say any more she was striding purposefully away. This time he felt sure that she would not return, and he didn't care.
He heard the car door slamming and almost shouted to her but then gritted his teeth and didn't do so. He stared down at his feet, then at the kiosk, then across to the chugging goods-train on the other line. Well, if that was what she wanted, that was it. He knew that it had to come, he had felt the autumnal scent of their parting some time ago, it had been like gunnery on the horizon. And yet how was it that she looked like a refugee, as she walked away from him through the dust of summer? She was nowhere to be seen and the silence descended again.
About twenty minutes before the train was due to leave, a man came and sat beside him on the bench. It was a big heavy man and he couldn't remember having seen him about the village though that of course was no guarantee that he was a stranger. He looked like a man from the city, not from the village, he looked like â¦ well, he looked like a Glasgow thug. And yet he was well dressed enough, he wore a tweedy suit and a white shirt and tie. But he didn't have a case, that was what Ralph noticed particularly. If he was a visitor to the village why was he not carrying a case? And, furthermore, as he sat there with his big hands resting on his knees he made Ralph uneasy. He looked so calm, so easy, so able to take care of himself in any situation. Again, he had a broken nose or if not a broken nose what looked like a boxer's nose. A big hefty man with a boxer's nose, no case, wearing a black tie with a tweedy suit. There was an oddity, an eccentricity, about him, and yet he appeared fixed exactly in his flesh, in his mind, solid and heavy and relaxed.
He didn't speak to Ralph at all. He simply sat like a statue with his big hands resting heavily on his knees. If he had been a villager he was bound to have spoken, to have said, “It's a fine day”, to have handed over the worn coinage of the weather, but, no, he had no intention of speaking. And yet there was no uneasiness in his silence, though Ralph felt uneasy.
Once he turned his gaze full on Ralph and smiled. The smile bothered Ralph, it was almost a knowing smile, not a full open smile at all. It was as if he was saying to him, “I know you. I know you for what you are. I on the other hand am stronger than you. I could break you in two quite easily, and it wouldn't bother me in the least.” It was as if he were on a mission which he was confident of accomplishing but which he had not yet begun. Ralph shook his head like a dog emerging from water and stared fixedly at the signal, which was down. The train wouldn't be long now.