Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (4 page)

But, no, they didn't wholly disappear. He could see them standing in the taxi queue. But that could wait. Linda was walking beside the porter who had the case on his trolley. He pushed it through the exit, she handed over her ticket, and then she was standing beside him. He seized the case and said to her, “We'd better wait for a while.”

“What for?”

“No reason. I just want to wait for a while. Would you like a coffee?”

“No, thanks.”

As a matter of fact he himself didn't want coffee either. He didn't like the buffet. There were too many tramps haunting it, violent unstable aggressive men with beards, and long coats falling to their ankles. Sometimes however a policeman would stroll through it, watching for trouble.

“All right then,” he said, “we can go on.” He carried the case, and Linda followed him obediently. He reached the Left Luggage and on an impulse said, “I think we'll leave the case here.”

“Why?”

“I don't know. I just want to.”

“If you like,” said Linda indifferently. “But hadn't you better take your shaving gear out of it, and your pyjamas.”

He knelt down and transferred the articles she had mentioned to her small red case. Then he handed his own case over and received a ticket in exchange. He put it carefully in his wallet, making sure that Linda didn't see the number on it. Why, she might tell the other two, if she knew the number.

When they had walked past the Gents and the Ladies he saw that the two men were no longer in the queue. On the other hand they might know certain taxi drivers who would watch out for himself and Linda. They might even have told Linda to watch out for one of them. He studied Linda closely to see if she was making a signal but she did nothing suspicious.

A taxi drew up and he and Linda got into it. Ralph leaned back as if he had been running a race: he was panting a little. The chatter of the driver's microphone bothered him: he thought that the driver might be receiving secret instructions. But he was determined that he would remain cool and unflustered.

“Ask him the name of a good hotel,” he said to Linda.

He listened as if in a dream and heard the taxi driver mentioning some hotels on Sauchiehall St.

“Right,” he said, “I'll choose the Stewart.”

“Fine,” said Linda, “do you know anything about it?”

“No, nothing, but it sounds as good as any.”

“That's okay,” said Linda. “I don't mind which you choose.”

Yet it seemed to him that he had been predestined to choose that particular hotel and that Linda had read his mind. But surely that could not be possible. As if by accident he touched her breast briefly, checking that she might not have a transmitter or some other method of sending a message. Maybe she had some means of keeping in touch with these two hoods, for he was sure that she had employed them. Glasgow was more than ever dangerous: in his imagination he saw it as a place of duels with knives and razors. He saw his own face striped with blood like a tiger's. He was trembling. He spread out his fingers in front of him and they were shaking as if with fever. Perhaps he should get rid of Linda now. Perhaps it had been a mistake to bring her with him. Maybe he should leap out of the taxi while it was standing at a red light and lose himself in the maze of the city.

In profile she looked innocent and as if carved from marble. She was often bloodless of course and sometimes took a tonic. The number of tonics he had bought for her, how solicitous he had been, and this was how she repaid him. Damn, damn, damn. No one would believe this story if he wrote it down. It was a thrilling novelettish lightweight sort of thing, it was a jigsaw narrative like Glasgow itself. He felt anger rising in him again after the long silence of his dismembered pages. Even now he could hardly believe that she was doing what she was doing. Of course it was her cleverness that had made her follow him, for otherwise she might have lost sight of him. He might have disappeared in Glasgow and taken his books and money with him. No, she had been quick-witted enough to realize that she must not lose sight of him. First of all, she had tried to persuade him to go back to the house but when that tactic had failed she had pretended to weep, and followed him to Glasgow.

The taxi drew up in front of a large hotel with a tartan frontage and tartan carpet in the foyer. It looked quite expensive, and in the middle of the foyer were exhibition cases with Doulton figures. He stopped at the desk as if marooned in a desert.

“Mr and Mrs Walton,” he said before Linda could speak. That was clever of him, to think of changing his name. Linda was about to say something but only stared at him in a puzzled manner. “From Ayr,” he wrote. No car, nationality British. A young man led them to the lift, and seemed harmless enough. Then they were climbing inside what seemed to him a large steel safe, and had been let out. The room was Number 520. The boy opened the door for them, Ralph handed him a 50p piece, and then he was in the room and shutting the door behind him. When he had done this he lay down on the bed while Linda took off her coat and hung it in the wardrobe. His eyes vaguely wandered around the room, from the telephone which lay on a small table beside the bed, to the ceiling decorated as if with icing, and then to the floor with its tartan carpet. He saw Linda's eyes noting the telephone, and said to himself, So that's it. If I leave you alone in this room you will phone your friends and they will come to the anonymity of a Glasgow hotel and kill me. After all no one knew now where he was, and he had even given a false name. They would probably remove all means of identification from his clothing.

As he watched Linda he was amazed to see how calm and cool she seemed. How could she possibly be so when she had been so deceitful, when she was determined to get rid of him, had in fact hired people to do so. She wanted him not to be able to prove that she was a traitor. But he would know. If these two men came in the middle of the night he would surely know. There would be one moment when he would know and that would be a satisfaction to him. It was like a story by John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen, the solution would be revealed at the end, the villain would be unmasked, and all would at last be plain and radiant. He would at last understand what he had suspected but could not prove.

“I'll go to the bathroom,” said Linda in the same unnaturally calm voice and he listened to her moving about in it. Then very quickly he rose and tiptoed over to the bathroom and looked in. Linda was on her knees beside the toilet bowl.

“What are you doing?” he asked in a loud voice.

She rose quickly to her feet, looking flustered.

“I … I dropped an earring,” she said. “I was searching for it.”

“No, you weren't,” he said. “You were putting a bug in here. I know that's what you were doing.” And he himself went down on his knees and tried to find the bug but he couldn't locate it though he knew it was there. He didn't know much about bugs but had an idea that it could be disguised as perhaps the head of a nail: but there were so many of these that there was no point in even beginning to look. She might even have put the bug behind the large blank mirror that took up most of one side of the bathroom. He was more than ever convinced that she was deceiving him and that she recorded everything he said, to bring it up later as evidence of his unreasonableness and his manic tendencies. “He was always looking for bugs,” she would say, “isn't that in itself evidence of his madness?” The clarity of his own mind was intense. It was as if he could see and hear right across counties, countries, even Europe. He had never before had such piercing clarity and ease of understanding. But he had to be quick and intelligent, for he was fighting for his life.

“Please,” he said to Linda. “Why don't you stop it? You know that I loved you in the past. I never meant you any harm.”

“What are you talking about,” she said.

“What I said. Why do you hate me so much?”

“It's you who hate me,” she said. “I don't hate you. You should go to sleep. Why don't you take a pill?”

“No,” he said, “I won't.”

He was determined that he wouldn't take a sleeping tablet for he was sure that in his stupor of sleep she would phone her two friends and let them in and then they would kill him. He tried to remember whether they had been given a choice of rooms and couldn't. Had she for some reason of her own chosen this room?

He went over to the window. Far below he could see cars like toys and people like dolls walking along the pavements. There was a huge glass building opposite the hotel but he didn't know what it was. He shuddered and shut the window.

“I still think you should sleep for a while,” said Linda, “and maybe later we can go down for dinner.”

“You sleep if you want,” he said, “but I'm staying awake.”

“All right then,” she said. “I'll lie down for a while.” She removed her shoes and lay on the bed. It occurred to him that if she thought he was mad she should be more afraid of him. Damn you, he said, you threw a glass of whisky in my face once at a publisher's party. And then he was analysing memories of past quarrels. Sometimes she would read the Bible to him, as if it was a sword she was placing between herself and him, a shield, naked and virginal. At times she had been frightened of him as if he were driving her crazy.

“No,” he would shout. “It was you who twisted my mind. You take everything I say so seriously and you are always looking for slights. I've never seen anyone as sensitive as you.”

“But that's because of you and your friends,” she would say. “You are all so cold and calculating and egotistic. I never see slights that aren't there.”

As he saw her lying on the bed, his own mind preternaturally active, he tried to work out where she had her bug. It might be in her handbag which was always cluttered with stuff: on the other hand she might have it somewhere on her body. Maybe that night as they lay in bed together the microphone would pick up his very breathing. He would have to be very careful what he said to her for she was infinitely cunning. And then tapes could be cut and spliced and their sense and content changed completely, and what was most incriminating preserved.

His head nodded on his chest and he thought that he would soon fall asleep, and yet he mustn't do that. He rose and went to the bathroom and splashed cold water over his face, and then very quickly returned again. By this time Linda seemed to him to be lying nearer the telephone, as if she had wakened up, and then sensing him coming back had pretended to go to sleep again. He must watch her, he must not sleep.

Oh God, how closely we are tied together, he thought. We are inseparable. On the other hand, if she hadn't insisted on coming with him he would now have been sleeping peacefully. Or he might be sitting up in bed reading a book, perfectly relaxed, perhaps even smoking a cigarette. But he couldn't sleep as long as she was there. Her eyes were closed, her breast rose and fell gently, he could see the watch and bracelet on her hand which was thrown limply across the bed. How vulnerable she looked, how cunning.

Suddenly he remembered that she had brought with her the machine which she used for slimming. She usually tied a belt around her waist and the machine vibrated gently. He sought in her handbag and found it. That was it, the slimming machine was where the bug was, he was sure of that now. Why else had she taken it with her? He took it over to the window, she still asleep and breathing serenely, and violently tugged and tugged at it till he broke it. Then he threw the mangled fragments into the waste-paper basket and sat down in his chair again.

Maybe he should write a message on a piece of paper and throw it down to the street so that people would know what was happening to him. On the other hand there was so much litter in Glasgow that people might not notice it. He had liked Glasgow in the past — after all he had lived there fifty years ago — but now he was afraid of it. He felt it as an alien frightening presence. Sometimes he would see tramps on the street, in the buffet at the railway station, with their long greasy coats, and they disturbed him. Maybe he himself would become like them some day. The number of people in the city depressed him, there was no privacy. Clocks were always stopped. Men and women at newspaper stands clapped their hands in the cold like cockerels clapping their chilly wings. Youths with orange or green or red hair, spikily arranged like thorns, patrolled the streets.

He could no longer hear the traffic since he had shut the window. Linda's breath was calm and rhythmical. Her face was pale and there were blue shadows under her eyes like faint bruises. Her pure white blouse was spotless and she was wearing her amethyst brooch, the one he had given her for her birthday. How much did he really know about her? Oh, he knew a lot about her superficially, she had earned her living as a secretary, but what else did he know about her? Nothing really. What went on inside her head? Though they were nearly the same age, she seemed somehow to be younger than him: she thought of him as an old fogey. She might want to marry someone else, someone less absorbed in his work. How had they driven down different roads, how had their minds diverged from each other and gone down separate paths? Perhaps all marriages were like that. And yet he was convinced that he had made more compromises than she had. Why, he had learned even to talk to her when what he most wanted at the time was to read or write. Couldn't she see the sacrifice he had made there? But, no. All that he had done for her, but what had she done for him? Well, yes, she had allowed him his days of silence at the desk, had even bought the desk for him and the filing cabinet. He had to admit that.

She was now lying awake on her bed and gazing at him with direct eyes.

“Look,” she said, “are you feeling all right? You look awfully flushed.”

“I'm fine,” he said.

“I'm not so sure about that. You had better watch your heart. Why don't you lie down?”

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