Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (10 page)

“There was a boy who was dying of TB and he wrote a poem for me. I still have it. One minute he was joking with me and the next he was dying in my arms.”

And then, “Did you see that waiter? Linda talked to him one night but he was taken away. He never comes to our table now. They don't want us to talk to them, that's what it is.”

Ralph sat and listened. He felt himself dying of an intolerable boredom. Sometimes they all three would spend a long time studying the pigeons and throwing out fragments of hard roll on to the balcony. There was one particular pigeon, fierce and masterful, which managed to get all the food for itself, driving all the others away. He would flutter his wings in a menacing manner and the other birds would retreat from him. Ralph called him Tito.

And all the time their mother would say, “You young ones should be enjoying yourselves. You shouldn't be staying in with me.”

But in fact there was nothing to do. There was no cinema, no theatre. Only excursions to other parts of Yugoslavia, and to Italy. The Grahams went on one of these every day and in the evening would tell them where they had been. They looked fresh and endlessly inquisitive, and the old mother was alert and spry. In the morning they would set off with cameras and bags: in the evening they would stroll in the crowded streets.

Ralph found that he could no longer invent stories, that he was nailed to the tedium of the day like a cross. Now and again he would see an old native woman dressed completely in black walking along the pavement. What had she not seen, what wars, what horrors, what atrocities? And yet she paced so stolidly by the water, “Just like the women at home used to be,” said his mother-in-law.

She herself looked young and slim, dressed in slacks. What Ralph would have given to talk to these old women, but there was no way in which he could do so. Sometimes the old woman in black had a child by the hand.

At times his mother would say, “I hope the garden will be all right. I hope Mary won't forget to water the plants.”

One day, while they were having their lunch at a table in the open air, they met a couple from England. The man had just recovered from a major operation and was returning to another one when his holiday was over. He was a clerk and on Sundays umpired amateur cricket matches. Linda's mother told them of her nursing days and they listened politely. While they were talking, Ralph had an image of the clerk umpiring a cricket match in Yugoslavia, while the sun beat blindingly down. On one side were Englishmen dressed in cool flannels, on the other were Yugoslavs dressed in brigandish cloaks or military uniforms, and carrying bandoliers of ammunition, grenades. Neither side could communicate with the other and the game degenerated into a brawl. The clerk talked on and on, watched solicitously by his wife. “My boss said, You take as much time off as you want. You have been with us for years, for years.” And the wife said, “It was a major operation. Five hours. And they didn't know what was wrong with him. They still don't. When he goes back he has to have another operation.”

Later, Linda's mother said, “Cancer. Without a doubt. I've seen it before. They go a papery colour.”

Ralph felt sorry for the clerk though he had hardly spoken to him. It was with great difficulty that he could find anything to say, and hardly spoke to Linda and her mother. He blamed this on his isolated days as a writer when he met no one except the creatures of his imagination. But Linda thought that he was aloof and inhuman and selfish. “You're just not interested in people. I don't understand you at all.”

As a matter of fact Ralph felt that he was in a foreign country as far as Linda's mother was concerned. It was as if he couldn't speak her language nor she his. She would read the letters in
Woman's Realm
and believe implicitly in the answers given. Or she might read an article on fitness in which the writer compared the human body to a car and say, “That is true enough. I never thought of that before. You have to look after yourself as you look after a car.” In her youth she had driven a car but was too old to do so now.

“Do you see that man over there?” she would say. “He's from Scotland,” though to Ralph it was quite clear that he was a German.

He couldn't imagine how Yugoslavia appeared to her. She seemed to think of it as a maze which she tried to ignore by talking about the days of her youth. She would only become animated when she was perhaps sitting in a park among flowers.

“We haven't flowers like that at home,” she would say. “No. But then they don't have our flowers either.”

To her these statements of the utmost banality sounded like epigrams. And Ralph would talk to Linda about her.

“Why is it that she tells the same stories over and over again,” he would say.

“Well, she's old. You must understand that.”

“No, it's not that. She was doing that before she became old. She never tires of the same stories. She thinks that the Yugoslavs consider us to be spies and that is why they took our passports the first morning.”

“Maybe they do.”

“Of course they don't.”

The odd thing was that there were hardly any policemen to be seen. Surely there ought to be more of them in a Communist state.

“Perhaps they don't need them,” said Linda. “Perhaps they spy on each other, report on each other. Have you noticed though that people here don't bother locking their cars. Nobody seems to steal anything. I bet we could leave our room open and find everything untouched.”

Instead of growing more relaxed as a result of sleeping most afternoons, Ralph found himself growing more and more tense. These afternoons seemed to take whole years to pass, and when he woke from his sleep he felt unrefreshed and bad-tempered. The air felt heavy and muggy and there didn't seem to be a breeze of wind at any time.

He studied the Yugoslav waiters and waitresses. When they were serving the customers they spoke little but among themselves they laughed and giggled like children. A thickset woman like Krushchev, belly thrust forward like the prow of a ship, strode into the hotel every morning and talked to the waiters and waitresses. Was it her job to superintend the hotel? Was she some kind of commissar? The waitresses themselves in their white blouses and black skirts were sexless, aloof, as if they were fulfilling a duty and not enjoying it.

“Did you hear,” said Linda, “that the night we came one of our group fell on the stairs and broke his leg. He was taken to hospital.”

“No, I didn't hear that.”

“He's all right now. They put his leg in plaster. You sometimes see him hobbling about the hotel.”

“How did they treat him?”

“Quite well, I think.”

“I shouldn't like that,” said Ralph. “It would be awful. To be in hospital in a foreign country.”

“Perhaps I shouldn't have taken mother,” said Linda. “She's not well. Her legs swell every night. She doesn't feel happy here.”

“To tell you the truth,” said Ralph, “I don't feel very happy myself. If only there was something to read. The days are so long. And there's an odd sort of barrier here, I can sense it. It's not simply the language. They don't want to have anything to do with us.”

Tito, competent and aloof, sitting at his desk writing, reminded Ralph of his own cool and aloof and remote stepfather, who would retire behind a book or newspaper shutting Ralph out by a frozen silence, especially if he had committed some misdemeanour.

“Tomorrow we're going on a cruise. Remember?” said Linda.

“I haven't forgotten. Have you got the tickets?”

“In my bag.”

“Perhaps you should check that they're there.”

“That's the fourth time you've asked me to do that. I don't need to.”

Ralph was angry with himself. He was always saying to her, Make sure that the passports are in the case, that our travellers' cheques haven't been stolen. He had never felt so nervous before. What was wrong with him? Had he been overworking? True, there had been that article that he had had to write very quickly before he could set out on his holiday. And then there were these sudden nervous sweats when he poured with perspiration for no apparent reason. And then of course he had come to a stop with his novel.

“I'm coming to depend on you more and more, and I despise myself for it,” he said to Linda.

“Nonsense, you're not dependent on me at all.”

“Ever since we married. It's as if I'd given my life into your own hands for safe keeping while I got on with my writing.”

“Rubbish.”

“But it's true. I was always like that. If there was someone near at hand who would take responsibility I would let them have it. And you have enough to do with your mother.”

“It doesn't bother me. But you should speak more to people. To the Grahams, for example.”

“But I don't know what to say to them.”

“If you were interested in them you would find something to say. The fact is, you're not interested. I think Graham is frightened of you.”

“Of me? Why?”

“Well, he thinks of you as being very cosmopolitan. That's why he has to over-compensate by being very efficient. He is terrified of making a mistake and he can't relax. He thinks you are secretly laughing at him.”

“I'm not laughing at him.”

“You have to remember that he is very young.”

“I'm not laughing at anybody.”

“Speak to him then. Talk to him.”

But though Ralph quite liked Graham he didn't want to speak to him or to anyone else he met. Which was why Linda would say to him, “I can't understand a novelist who doesn't like people. There's something wrong with that.”

And for that matter Ralph agreed with her. There must be something wrong with him if he didn't like people. But still Graham was so naive. He went out every morning with his womenfolk as if he was on safari with his shorts and his camera. He looked so fresh and almost adolescent. And he had everything so organized. And it seemed he was really enjoying Yugoslavia. Sometimes he and his wife would tell Linda and Ralph, “Mother gets her tea in bed every morning when we're at home.” And the old lady would smile and follow her son-in-law wherever he went. She was self-possessed and as far as Ralph could see had no illnesses or diseases.

And Graham would say, “We're thinking of taking one of the local buses today. I've got a local timetable here.” Or, “I found out that the courier is from Sligo. She married a Yugoslavian but she's divorced now.”

He knew everything and Ralph knew nothing, and Linda would sometimes say to him, “Why didn't you find out about the local buses?”

“I'm not interested.”

“And why do you think yourself too good for the Grahams? He works a computer, you know.”

“I know. I don't feel myself too good for him. It's just that he's so damned apple-cheeked and optimistic.”

But in fact all he wanted to do was to avoid Graham and find a book and read it. In spite of that he had to listen to the conversation of the people at the tables. But though he waited in the foyer for more tourists to come off the bus at night they wouldn't give him their magazines or newspapers: they kept them for themselves as if they had known in advance of the sparsity of reading material. They were mean and avaricious. He was reduced to reading the notices on the notice boards which told of the excursions that were planned.

One evening in the coolness when all three of them were strolling along the promenade Ralph had the most frightening sensation. He felt as if the landscape around him was falling apart, that it was spinning on its axis. He put his hand on his head and stood still for a long time, while the sea beyond him surged and swayed, the yachts turned keels over sails in the water. A man wearing a tartan cap was landing from one of the pleasure boats, and dancing on the pier while the rest of the passengers cheered and shouted. But Ralph sensed that the world was racing away from him at tremendous speed, that he was being left behind, that the people who were lying roasting themselves on the rocks were ghosts from another country, that he himself was entirely alone and lost, that pages of books were swirling on a cold breeze which had suddenly sprung up, that he couldn't keep his balance.

“Are you all right?” said Linda.

“Yes, yes, I'm fine.” He didn't want to tell her that he wasn't all right, he wanted to be always self-sufficient and remote. Too much talk leaked his virtue away.

But above all he saw again the old cruel heads of the Romans staring from among the roses as if passing judgement. They would never have bothered about his mother-in-law with her swollen legs and varicose veins. They would never have listened to her banal stories, her death would not have troubled them. They would have been concerned with power, with the spear, with the javelin, with the march of the legions.

The day they went on the fish picnic was one of their better, more enjoyable, days, as it was also their first excursion. The boat called at various small piers on the way, to pick up men and women from the hotels which lay along the waterfront. There were a large number of Germans, Swedes, and a group of Scots wearing tartan tammies, though none wore a kilt. After a while the Scots, led by a tall egotistic man who, Linda later discovered, was from Glasgow, began to sing Scottish songs while a humble Yugoslav musician with an accordion, weaving in and out among the passengers, tried to play the tunes, Loch Lomond among them. The voyage itself was relaxing and once they passed some nudists who were strolling among the rocks: one man in particular caused huge gusts of hilarity and a concerted rush to cameras because he was sitting like a gnome fishing off a cliff wearing nothing but a pair of bright yellow wellingtons.

“I've seen bare bums before,” said Linda's mother, “I don't know what all the fuss is about.”

On board the boat was a Frenchwoman who wore a beret and a short skirt, and who at first sat beside a vacantly smiling peaceful man who, Ralph presumed, was her husband. Suddenly she got to her feet and began to dance furiously by herself on the deck, waving her arms, flicking her fingers, hitching up her skirt, making funny faces and thrusting out her false teeth. Her energy was quite ferocious as, watched by her long-suffering husband and encouraged
by the Scots, she pushed out her bottom in an improvised version of the can-can till she was joined by the leader of the Scots contingent who was determined that she should not outdo the natives of a country which was, after all, famous for its music and song. Always there is one of them, an exhibitionist, thought Ralph, who instantly created the story of the French husband and wife, the former sitting on a bench, a bag on his lap which his wife had left with him and looking around him with a fixed smile on his face as if trying to give the impression that he was proud of his wife, and that she did not at all embarrass him.

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