Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (3 page)

And then a thought struck him. What was going to happen about his case? His case was still in the compartment where the two men were. It was on the rack opposite the hefty man. And it contained his manuscripts. Of course he couldn't leave the case there, he must not lose his manuscripts. He thought steadily with corrugated brow. Why, he must look like an ape or a monkey in a zoo, almost a man but not quite.

Maybe, then, he considered, I should leave the case on the rack till the two men have left the train when it arrives at its destination. But as soon as he had thought of this solution, he as soon dismissed it from his mind. For example, if he waited behind, the two men might wait behind as well, and they would attack him on a train shorn of all living beings except the three of them. No, that was no solution. After all people in Glasgow didn't pay any attention to you: you could be murdered on the road in broad daylight and the pedestrians would pass you by. He imagined himself being chased up and down the empty train till the two men had cornered him and taken his manuscripts, and killed him. Linda would want the manuscripts destroyed, that would be her revenge.

No, he mustn't do that. What then was the alternative? Well, could he not leave at an intervening station with his case, and then perhaps take a bus or another train to Glasgow? All he would have to do would be to wait till the last minute at the door, and then jump down to the platform as the train was pulling out of a station. How surprised they would be. Of course they might jump off the train at the next station and come back to look for him but by that time he would have thought of another trick. On the other hand, such a ruse would mean that he would have to go and get his case, and he didn't want to return to that compartment, not as long as these men were in it.

He committed his whole mind to the problem, thinking out all the possible angles. Linda always said that he was like a Hamlet —she had acted in the play at school — and that he never made up his mind about anything: she accused him of leaving all the major decisions to her. And that was true too but it was true only because he had a more complicated mind: her own mind on the contrary was always very simple and direct. He was amazed at the directness of it, how solutions were immediately presented to it. He himself had no common sense at all, he only had uncommon sense, or so he explained it to himself. He was not at all a practical person, and now he was being asked to be practical, to save his life by being so.

He knew that his life was at risk, he was quite clear about that. And it astonished him that she should hate him so much as to hire people to kill him. He had never thought that anyone would murder him, he was invulnerable: no one disliked him as much as that. On the other hand he knew that most people liked Linda more than they liked him. Even some of his friends grew to like her more than they liked him. He stared at his face in the window. It was thin and worried and the brows were corrugated as he had thought they might be. He leaned forward and studied his reflection more closely: why, it was like the face of an insane man, with the lips tighter and thinner than usual. He pulled away from the window as the reflections of the cows in the fields leaped into focus. At least, lying in the sun and chewing grass, they didn't have his problems.

He set off in search of Linda. She was standing by a door staring thoughtfully out at the landscape.

“Listen,” he said urgently, “there's something that I want you to do for me and it will prove whether I can trust you or not.” Of course, he said to himself, he didn't trust her whatever he said to her but at the same time he must be as cunning as she was, wear a mask. People wore masks all the time, no one could ever understand another person, no one could ever communicate with another person, that was an axiom inevitable and pure. “Listen,” he said, “what I want you to do is this. When the train stops at the station I want you to go to the compartment where my case is and ask a porter to take the case from the rack and put it on his barrow, then wheel it to the gate where I will be waiting. I'm going to get off the train immediately it stops at Queen St in Glasgow. I shall wait for you at the gate where the ticket collectors are.” That will confuse them, he thought. They are expecting me to go back for the case in person, and they will be waiting for me. But I won't go back for my case. Furthermore by this plan I am putting Linda in a quandary. Of course she is in alliance with these men but the beauty of her scheme is that she doesn't want me to know that she has betrayed me. She will pretend to the very end that she loves me; to do otherwise would be a failure of her scheme.
Wouldn't it be splendid for her if he went to his grave without her having confirmed his suspicions of her treachery in any way? Wouldn't that be her final triumph?

So he watched her and the ripple of surprise that played like water about her face. Of course she was discomfited: he had checkmated her. In any case he played chess and she didn't. He wondered what she would say: it was as if her very brain was naked to his gaze and he could actually see its workings as clearly as the pistons which drove the train through the hills.

“I don't mind,” she said at last. “But isn't that rather odd?”

“Not at all,” he said. “I don't trust these two men. I'll go out first and then you get a porter to take the case to the gate. It's simple enough. And then I can trust you.”

“All right,” she said. “If that's what you want.”

“That's what I want,” he said.

She turned away from him to look out the window and he gazed with satisfaction at her back. Bitch, he had checkmated her that time. She couldn't get out of the trap he had set for her. On the other hand, when she went back to get the case, might she not tell the two men what had happened? It might be better if he stayed where he was so that he would see if she went back before they were about to arrive at the station. He had to think of everything, it was all very exhausting.

He imagined her mind squirming at this moment among the stones of her reality. She was trying to find a way out of her predicament such that he wouldn't be suspicious. But he couldn't become unsuspicious now, there was no way in which that could happen. Once the shadow fell across the peaceful unambiguous landscape you couldn't return it to its cage again. Innocence was a condition that one couldn't recapture once it had been lost.

He thought this out for a long time and knew that it was true. Never again would he be able to trust her. This was the elegy of their marriage. Before, he had trusted her, but everything had now changed. A terrible treachery had been born. He stared at her dumb back and could hardly believe that he and she had changed so much. But it had happened, and perhaps on a lesser scale it happened to everyone after a while. Marriage was to a certain extent an economic contract, wasn't it? Didn't the sociologists say that?

He moved back from the window to stand beside the open door of the compartment in which were sitting the man and woman whom he had talked to earlier. And at that moment he saw the hefty man walking towards him along the corridor, rolling from side to side because of the speed of the train. No, he couldn't do anything to him here, that was certain. Not in this corridor with the sunlight shining on it. So absorbed was he in his thoughts that he didn't at first realize that the hefty man had spoken to him. What had he asked him? Was there a buffet on this train? Of course there was no buffet on the train, there never had been a buffet on this train. Moreover the hefty man knew that there hadn't been. He had merely taken this excuse for speaking to him, while all the time smiling at him in a crooked knowing manner, as if he were implying, I know who you are, I know all your tricks, I know that you know who and what I am. Isn't this a tremendous game? But he himself didn't smile, no, he watched the hefty man returning down the corridor after he had discovered what he knew already. Damn him, damn him: why was he laughing at him so openly? He was the bully of his dreams, the one he had seen in his nightmares when he was still at school. That bully too had smiled in the same superior manner, that bully too had looked confident and self-sufficient and strong: that bully too had been his master. And also just before the hefty man had turned away, he had looked at Linda, smiled and shaken his head. And she had shaken her head as well as if she and he were in a conspiracy together as of course they were.

At that very moment she was making as if to return to the compartment where his case was, but he thrust himself in her way.

“No,” he said, “not yet.” She stared at him despairingly and then asked faintly “Why not?”

“No reason,” he said.

So, he turned back to the window again but not before a tall youth had looked at the two of them, about to say something but then deciding against it. Of course the youth thought he was bullying his wife: if only he knew!

Once he had written a story about Horatio left on his own after Hamlet's death. And Horatio sat in his corner in the new court in Denmark where all the trains now ran on time, where all the parks were a uniform antiseptic green, where crystal and glass glittered everywhere, and Fortinbras set out in his hunting boots and red coat every morning in search of the elusive cindery fox, and Horatio couldn't bring himself to speak, for the story was too complicated to tell. No one would believe him if he told what had happened and furthermore his audience was not the kind that he wanted. So he grew old and became a bore and then one day he left the castle, where there were now no secret curtains, and never came back. And Fortinbras too was glad of it for he was tired of Horatio's silence.

So it was with himself and Linda. He couldn't bring himself to tell people of her trick with the telephone book, for instance, and who would believe him? Certainly not that tall youth in the denim jacket, especially when he could look at her and see that her face was deceptively pale. But Ralph wouldn't let her past him till the last minute. He couldn't afford to allow her to tell the two men of his new plan. And so he stood there like a sentry, as if guarding her from harm, when all the time he was watching her closely.

The train bulleted on and he still stood there. And after a while he grew tired. To hell with it, he said to himself, let her go back. I'll go and sit down but this time I'll sit among a crowd of people in an open carriage. Surely I can't be harmed in such a place. He opened the door of the carriage and sat down heavily, feeling the tiredness in his very bones. He squeezed past two youths and sat at the window even though there were other vacant places he might have taken and which were more accessible. He stared dully out at the landscape which was flying past, aware that the two youths were watching him. But he didn't care. What he had to do was preserve his life, and mockery was a small price to pay.

‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie', the train sang, and it was as if his head were a record spinning, a black disc revolving. The racing train was carrying him to Glasgow, city of green and blue, city of violent action: he didn't even know where he was going to stay. The important thing was to get into a taxi and ask the driver to take him to a hotel somewhere so that he could sleep. He must sleep, he hadn't slept for days, weeks. Linda complained that in the middle of the night he would waken her up and interrogate her. One morning he had wakened up and gone to type in his room, his head totally clear as if filled with moonlight. And then he had collapsed, exhausted on his bed.

He glanced at his watch. Shortly they would be pulling into Queen St station. Another fifteen minutes perhaps. He stared out the window and couldn't see the names of the stations, the train was going so fast. It was as if the driver sensed like a salmon his destination and was heading for it at breakneck speed. Maybe he wanted to get home for his tea. What an extraordinary thing, Ralph considered, no what an ordinary thing, that the driver should be thinking of his tea and he himself of his own death. A nostalgia for the ordinary almost engulfed him: it was so intense that it brought tears to his eyes.

And then another thought occurred to him. He was angry with himself that it had not occurred to him before. Just before one arrived at Queen St station the train passed through a tunnel and the carriages became black as pitch, so that even the pallor of a face could not be distinguished in the darkness. This happened just after they had made the stop near the tenements, one of which had a coloured mural on its ancient gable. On the walls one could see the scrawled slogans of the illiterate, the pitiful Glasgow adolescent gangs, in letters red as blood as if written by Dracula. Imagine how he had passed them in earlier days and hadn't taken them seriously. Why, they were only the pleas of the failed egos for attention, much as his own books were, according to Linda, they weren't to be considered or studied in any depth. Poor illiterate schoolboys, poor sorrowful aggressive lost souls, writing on the blackboards of stone, open to the wind and the rain and the pervasive dirt and dust.

He waited, and sure enough the darkness descended: no, ‘descended' was the wrong word. It thickened around him, palpable, dense. He moved his neck forward in his seat. He was thinking that perhaps the hefty man would lean forward in the darkness having first marked his position, and then proceed to strangle or garotte him in a leisurely manner. The darkness was not a diminution of light but a complete absence of it, and yet a presence of its own too. An absence of light! What would happen if there was no light? There would be no poetry, no prose, no art at all, unless perhaps a totally new kind of literature and painting would emerge. Its kings would be those who walked in darkness, who loved the clouds and the lightless places. Stony statues with rain dripping down their carved skirts. Think of those early artists who had crawled through caves to stab at walls with their phantom weapons, which were really the weapons of art, creating the defenceless imagined animals.

And then like a huge blossom the light leaped around him, and he was there in his seat, safe, untouched. There was no sign of either the scarred man or the hefty man. There was no sign of Linda either. The train was drawing into the station. Very quickly he pushed past the two youths, pushed the window down, and opened the door. Quickly he ran towards the exit. He handed his ticket over to a ticket collector who seemed to have soup stains on his jacket, and then, crouching behind the barrier, watched. So far he could see neither of the two men nor Linda. And then he did. They were standing at the end of the train talking to her and she was shaking her head. Ralph watched closely as he saw the porter putting the case on his trolley. The two men walked slowly towards the exit. Ralph crouched down so that they could not see him, and then they were making their way into the hubbub of Glasgow, but not before he had seen the hefty man smile as if he had seen him.

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