Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (2 page)

And then as he was gazing at the signal he heard a car arriving at the station again. He looked and it was Linda. She got out of the car and ran lightly across the line carrying a case, and then she was standing beside him.

“If you don't want to come in the car I'll go with you on the train,” she said.

The man on the bench made no sign that he had heard and yet Ralph could have sworn that he had glanced at his wife in a meaningful way, and that she had answered his glance. There is more to this than meets the eye, he thought, why has she decided to come with me? Maybe she has telephoned someone, I wouldn't put it past her, her cunning is past belief. He had the definite feeling that the two of them, this man and Linda, knew each other. And he didn't care whether she came to Glasgow with him or not. If that was what she wanted to do let her do it. How calm and peaceful this station was with its flowers glowing in the sunlight and the blue paint shining in the light. It was as if he was leaving a heaven that he would never see again.

He didn't answer his wife. If she wanted to come that was up to her. At least she intended staying with him, perhaps in the same hotel or the same boarding house, for she had hastily packed a case. He was determined not to speak to anyone: actually it was an effort for him to talk. It was as if he had to heave language from the bottom of a languid mysterious sea entangled with seaweed. He was too tired to use words. Words were what deceived people, not united them. She had deceived him: even now she was deceiving him, he couldn't trust her. And all the time the big man with the boxer's nose sat in silence and stared down at the gravel, his hands resting on his knees. Linda too remained silent. Perhaps she was astonished that he had not made a scene. Indeed, this was what this was, a scene, he felt, a piece of theatre. And he was sweating again. He hated when he sweated, he felt so unclean. And, again, to sweat was a weakness, it showed his vulnerability.

He wouldn't speak to her all the way down to Glasgow, he would show himself was the strong silent man. What was happening to him had gone beyond language, he no longer had anything to say to Linda. Women were a source of evil in the world, they were less straightforward, more complicated than men. Compared with women men were little
boys playing in the illusive sun. He had had enough of that, more than enough. From now on he would be on his own, dependent on no one, there would be no trickery in his life, he would start afresh, he would have a new gaunt trembling origin.

When the train came and slowed down at the platform he carried his case into a compartment near the engine. He heaved it up to the rack and sat down in a corner seat. The big hefty man followed him into the same compartment and sat opposite him, and he was followed by Linda. There was also another man in the compartment, a thin man with a scar on his brow. The thin man smiled at the hefty man and then at Linda and suddenly took the case from her and placed it on the rack beside his own.

Ralph felt trapped, especially when the hefty man shut the door of the compartment. He could see quite clearly that there was some understanding between Linda and the other two men who, he was certain, also knew each other. They all sat in silence, the hefty man staring across at Ralph and smiling now and again. The thin man had started talking to Linda and was telling her about going to visit his sick wife in Glasgow where apparently she was in hospital. Also they had had a baby quite recently. But Ralph knew that all this was a pose. The thin man didn't have a baby or a wife in hospital, he was quite sure of that. The thin man with the scar on his brow—relic probably of a knife fight—was in fact a thug like the hefty man.

He saw the thin man looking at him oddly and then heard Linda whispering to him rapidly. What was she telling him? That he was mad? That he had tried to kill her? Or was she giving him instructions? The thin man listened intently, his head bent down towards Linda; his attention was almost painful to watch. Ralph made as if to open the door to the corridor but the hefty man smiled and shook his head. So that was it then. There definitely was a plot against him.

And then Ralph noticed a detail that he hadn't seen before. The window to the corridor was covered with a black blind which had been drawn downwards, so that it looked like a black shroud. The four of them were in fact locked in this compartment and no one walking along the corridor could see in, no matter what happened.

There was a deep odd silence in the compartment. The hefty man was sitting quietly and relaxedly with his hands folded in his lap, quite at ease, quite assured and confident. The thin man was staring straight ahead of him. It was as if they were all waiting for something to happen, Ralph was quite convinced of this. He had never seen a black curtain on the window of a train before now except at night. And then again it seemed to him that there was a connection between the curtain, and the black tie that the hefty man was wearing. It snaked down his shirt. Was he wearing it in honour of Ralph's death? Why should anyone wear a black tie with a tweedy suit and, furthermore, if he had been at a funeral and was returning to Glasgow after it, one would have expected him to have a case.

No, what had happened was quite clear to him. Linda had employed these two thugs in order to get rid of him. She had had plenty of time to phone, at least for the thin man, and presumably she had already given him his instructions. First, she had tried to drive him mad and failing to do that she was now trying to get rid of him. How had he not seen that so clearly before? It was because murder for him belonged to another world, not to his own world, perhaps to a city like Glasgow. And yet the newspapers were full of women who hired thugs to kill their husbands. It was true that they had often quarrelled in the past — Linda in fact despised him — but it had never occurred to him before that she would want to kill him. He looked sideways at her and studied her profile. Of course she was very strong-minded, for instance she had refused to have children, and nothing he could have said would have persuaded her otherwise. Not that he himself cared all that much for children as such, but it would have been a new experience. What was a writer without children? He was missing the common world with all its troubles and its complications. Oh, he had learned a lot from watching other people's children, but that wasn't the same, of course not.

It was quite clear to him that she was tired of him, she had perhaps been attracted at first by the unusual nature of his work but had then discovered that he was essentially a boring ordinary person after all. He could never understand why she had married him: but now she was intent on cancelling that error much as she would cancel an error in her typing, like the secretary which she had once been. How had he never understood before how implacably cold her mind was?

He stared at the black curtain on the window and thought to himself, The two of them will knock me out, perhaps strangle me, and then they will leave the train, or shift compartments. No one will see them because of the black curtain. Or they might even open the door and throw me out of the train. Already he felt his body rolling down a slope as it arched out of the train, and could see Linda watching it as if it were the end of a shoddy rainbow. Though she and the scarred man were chatting about the latter's wife and baby, he was quite sure that all that was a pose. It was a subtle con: she was only pretending to be interested in the baby, if baby there was, which he doubted. Why, if she were so interested in babies, did she not have one of her own?

He listened to the noise made by the train. It wasn't the usual rhythm. In fact it seemed to hum to itself the tune ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie', which was one of his favourite songs. He didn't understand why this should be since he wasn't a sentimental person and usually despised such songs and tunes.

‘In days of long long ago… .'

the train beat out in repetitive rhythm.

The words brought back to him the times he and Linda, in the innocence of their courtship, had had dinner in many different hotels at weekends, and then late at night had watched Cannon on television, when they would together drink wine, or he whisky and she gin. The tune bothered him, he couldn't get it out of his head. The noise of the train was becoming louder and louder. He put his hands on his head and squeezed it, like a large soft fruit, between his hands, while the hefty man smiled at him and Linda and the thin man talked endlessly, chattering like water. The black tie of the hefty man reminded him of the black water of the river beside which they had often had a picnic, and that in turn reminded him of a phone, black and changing like liquid. The water itself was like an unintelligible conversation on a phone.

He mustn't stay where he was, that was certain. He must get out, or he would go mad. It seemed to him that one or other of the men had a small cassette in his pocket and was playing the tune that so much obsessed him. But how had they known that he liked it so much? It must have been Linda who had told them.

Suddenly, before he could think, he had slid open the door and in one rapid movement was out in the corridor and walking hastily along it. He thought of locking himself in the lavatory but didn't do so. No, they might have some method of getting into the lavatory with skeleton keys perhaps. Perhaps he would be better showing himself to other people so that they would remember him. As he stood in the corridor he heard the door of the compartment opening and turned to see that it was Linda. He stared at her in a hostile manner without speaking and walked further down the train. He took out a cigarette and lit it and looked out at the landscape in which cows grazed peacefully, while rivers tumbled headlong from the hills. He carefully shut the window of the door and kept well away from it, all the time looking about him in case the hefty man had crept up behind him without his noticing.

Where was Linda? Had she gone back to her compartment? Was she at this very moment gnashing her teeth with rage because she hadn't succeeded in her purpose, because he had seen through her plot? And then he saw her. She was standing beside one of the doors of the train. It might all be a trick. She might be enticing him towards the door so that the two men could come up behind him and throw him out. He gestured to her to come towards him, but she didn't move, and didn't seem to have noticed him. How cunning she was! She was obviously trying to show the other passengers that all this was his fault, that he was mad, that he was torturing her. But she wouldn't get away with that, he would be as cunning as she was. He put his hand hypocritically on her shoulder, smiling at her at the same time, but she drew away from him, staring at him as if she had never seen him before. He had better be careful or she might pretend that he had attacked her. Her trickery was inventive and infinite.

“What are you trying to do?” she whispered to him fiercely.

“What are
you
trying to do to me?” he whispered back to her. “Who are these two men?”

“What two men?”

“The two men in the compartment. Don't tell me that you don't know them.”

“I have never seen them before in my life.”

“You can tell that to a child. I am not a child. What do you think I am? Stupid?”

“I never thought you were stupid.”

“What else do you think I am? What were you doing before you came to the train? Phoning?”

“I wasn't phoning. Strangely enough, I was packing. That was what I was doing.”

“And before that?”

“I phoned your doctor. But he was away.”

“And?”

“Nothing else.”

He gazed at her with hatred. She had an answer for everything. God damn you, he muttered under his breath. How did I not notice before that you loathed me?

“You think being a writer is the most important thing on earth,” she used to say to him. “What about doctors, nurses? Many of them never have their names quoted in magazines. All you want is letters. If you don't get letters you feel that the world has forgotten about you. Who do you think you are? You tell me that.”

“No one in particular.”

“That's not true. You think you are more important than Christ himself. You think you are better than Christ. Who do you think you really are?”

At that moment he saw the hefty man walking down the corridor towards him and he ducked into the nearest compartment. There was a man and a woman sitting there, the man reading a newspaper and the woman a book. They seemed respectable, remote, middle-class.

“My name is Ralph Simmons,” he said. “What is your name?” The man stared at him in astonishment through his glasses. But Ralph wanted both of them to remember his name in case something happened to him. If the following day there was a little piece in the paper, that he had thrown himself out of the train, he wanted them to know that he had been perfectly sane, not at all suicidal.

“I'm going to Glasgow,” he said. “I'm a writer. It's a glorious day, isn't it? Don't you feel that the summer has come at last?” He wished to impress on them that he was perfectly happy, perfectly normal, so that when the inspector of police examined them they would be able to say, “He seemed perfectly well-adjusted to us. He talked about the weather and did not seem worried in any way.”

He took his bank book out of his pocket. “That is my name, there,” he said to the man who was still staring at him in amazement. “I hope you'll remember me.” Linda came in from the corridor and sat down opposite him. He pretended that he didn't know her. What had she come into this compartment for? Was she in fact trying to undermine his new tactic of convincing these two that he wasn't suicidal? He wouldn't put it past her.

He felt restless again and left the compartment. These two would remember him clearly enough if they read any story in the newspaper about him. He had fixed himself in their minds. Standing in the corridor he was aware of Linda behind him but he did not turn and look at her. He was trembling with rage. Why was she following him about? He opened the door of a long open compartment and stood there looking in, watching and being watched. As long as he stood there in full view, nothing would happen to him. He would stand there till the train had entered Glasgow.

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