Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (5 page)

“No, thanks. I'm fine, I tell you.”

“Do you remember,” she said, “that tune you used to like so much. ‘When You and I Were Young Maggie'. It came into my head just now.”

“What?” he said.

“It just came into my head. Out of nowhere.”

So that was it. She was determined to drive him mad. How else could she have known that he heard that tune on the train? She must have some method of getting inside his mind, she must be directing his mind like a conductor of an orchestra. She had probably directed him to this hotel as well.

“I never understood why you liked that tune so much,” she said sleepily. And she began to hum it.

“Stop it,” he said, suddenly and angrily. “Please stop it. I don't want to hear that tune. I've turned against it.”

“What about ‘Irene Good Night' then. That was another of your favourites. You've nothing against that one, have you?”

He gazed at her helplessly. Oh, she was so subtle, there was nothing that she wasn't able to do. Women were much more subtle than men. In comparison with women men were simply overgrown boys.

“I'd prefer it if you didn't hum at all,” he said. “I really would. Why don't you go back to sleep?”

“I don't feel sleepy now,” she replied. “Not at all.”

“Neither do I.”

“Well, then,” she said, “why don't we go down for dinner. I'm sure it must be near dinner-time now. Do you want me to phone and ask them?”

“No,” he said. “We'll go down.”

“I had better go to the bathroom and freshen up then,” she said.

“All right, I'll come with you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I'll come with you. What's wrong with that?”

“Well, it's not exactly …” She shrugged her shoulders. “Still, if you feel you must.”

As she was just going into the bathroom she turned to him and said, “I try not to let it bother me, but I must say that all this is beginning to bug me.”

Eventually they walked down the tartan-carpeted stair together. The dining-room was huge and cavernous with only two people in it, sitting at a table near the wall. They sat in silence for a while till a young boy wearing a white jacket came over to serve them. When he had gone the silence descended again.

“When are you going back?” said Ralph at last.

“I don't know. Do you want me to go back?”

“You can go back if you like.”

In the old days Linda might have run crying out of the room, but now she sat there white and glacial.

“It hasn't worked out,” said Ralph.

“No.”

“It wasn't my fault. You shouldn't have torn the telephone book.”

“For the last time I didn't touch it. Do you really think I would have torn your telephone book? What an extraordinary thing to do.”

“Well, who else tore it? I didn't, that's for sure. And who mixed up the pages of my novel?”

“I don't know,” said Linda.

He pecked at his food uninterestedly and so did Linda. They weren't really hungry though they had ordered dinner. He put his hand in his pocket and popped a pill in his mouth.

“Are you sure you should be taking these pills like sweets?” she said.

“I need them,” he answered shortly.

The waiter was standing at the far end of the room staring at them. Maybe he was thinking of interfering, protecting Linda from him. He thought he had seen him before somewhere but that surely was not possible.

He passed his hand across his eyes. The people at the next table were laughing and shouting as before: it occurred to him that they too were in the plot, that they had been placed there in order to watch him.

And then quite suddenly they were gone as if they had never been. And he and Linda were alone again.

“What happened there?” he asked Linda.

“Where?”

“These people. They were there a minute ago and now they're gone.”

“Maybe they didn't want to wait. Or perhaps they didn't like the menu.”

“Hm.”

Such strange things were happening around him. It was as if they had come to observe him and had left when they had done so.

“It's all very odd,” he muttered.

“Are you sure you're all right?” said Linda looking at him keenly.

“Of course I'm all right. Why shouldn't I be all right?”

“It's just that …”

He felt so tired as if his mind couldn't absorb anything else.

“We'll have a bottle of wine,” he said decisively.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I'm sure.”

He signalled the waiter over and ordered a bottle of Burgundy.

“Not Yugoslav wine?” she said.

“No,” he said, knowing what she meant. He leaned towards her and caressed her cheek.

“What was that for?”

“The Last Supper,” he said. “The betrayal. I know that you're carrying a bug and that everything I'm saying is being recorded.”

“Your health,” he said, ironically raising his glass to his lips.

“Cheers,” she said.

The last time they had been at a party together she had had a long argument with a scholar and with her quick-wittedness had made him appear clumsy and ponderous. And then quite suddenly she had danced with the life that was in her, far more life than he had. Of course he was a Capricorn, remote, ambitious, cold. She on the contrary loved hospitality, wine and food.

But tonight she had left most of her prawn cocktail, and he was sure that she would leave most of her fish when it came, which it was doing now. The waiter bent towards them, servile, white-coated. This place was a trap, a draughty cave, empty and huge. Perhaps it was not a hotel at all, perhaps it was some other kind of building which had been selected for him. In the middle of the night she might take her red case and leave him there. He would have to be vigilant, stay awake, though he didn't feel like doing so.

He drank another glass of the wine defiantly. It looked like blood. Never before had he seen it so clearly and blatantly as blood. He was like a vampire sucking his own blood. He put the glass of wine down on the table quickly spilling some of it, his hands shaking. The waiter looked at him briefly as he spooned the last of the fish on to the plate, and then turned away. One thing, he thought, there had been no Service Charge or Vat on the Last Supper. He smiled to himself: there was no point in telling Linda his joke for she would consider it blasphemy. Odd how religious she was in her own way, far more religious than him.

“Look,” he said, “let's have peace between us. If you leave me alone I'll not write anything about you. I swear I won't.”

“What do you mean, leave you alone?”

“What I said.”

Linda sighed heavily and put her fish on one side. “I don't understand what you're talking about.”

So she wasn't taking his offer of peace. Well then, let the sequel be on her own head. The room was swaying in front of him, the floor was rising and falling as if it was a high sea. The waiter was still standing at the far end of the cave staring at him. White coat, white coat …

And what had happened to the door? He couldn't see it. He searched around for it but it seemed to him that he was locked in and that Linda was laughing at him. Her face enlarged itself as in a fairground mirror.

“I think we should go upstairs,” she said.

She placed her shawl across her shoulders and he followed her. There was a door after all; it seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. The lounge to his right was vaster than the dining-room and there was a TV set playing. The faces elongated and shortened and for a terrible moment he saw his own face on the screen and his own hand gesturing, pale and ghostly against a background of Renaissance reds.

“Listen,” he said to Linda, but she had already gone ahead of him and was climbing the stairs.

He staggered after her. She seemed to be floating ahead of him and then she was fumbling at the door with her key. He decided not to go into the room, but turned away abruptly. He walked back along the corridor and came to the stair and descended. He passed door after door which he did not recognize and he knew that he was in hell. He spiralled downwards but he wasn't finding an entrance into the foyer at all. At the third turning of the second stair. … There were no windows anywhere and he couldn't see out and the stairs descended forever, perhaps to a boiler room. He knelt down on the stair and wept and then began to climb slowly again. There was no way out of the hotel. He was locked in and perhaps at this moment she was phoning to her two friends. Somehow or another she had manoeuvred him to this vain journey by reading his mind.

He ascended the stair unsteadily and found the corridor again. He walked past a number of doors, though the numbers on them seemed to have changed, and knocked on the door of his own bedroom.

“Let me in,” he shouted urgently.

She opened the door and asked, “Where have you been?”

“Nowhere,” he said. “I went down the stairs.”

“What for?”

“No reason. I wanted to get out.”

She hadn't been phoning after all: or perhaps she had been doing so while he was descending the stair into hell. She always looked so innocent. He locked the door, thinking despairingly that these two men might have skeleton keys.

“I think you should go to sleep,” she said. “You look tired.”

“No,” he replied. “I must stay awake. But I will lie down.”

“And take your clothes off,” she said.

“All right,” he said. “What did you do with the receipt for my case?”

“You've got it. You put it in your wallet.”

He took out his wallet and searched for it. Sure enough there it was. He put his wallet under the pillow for safe keeping. He didn't want her to rise in the middle of the night and take out the case with his manuscripts and perhaps throw it into the Clyde.

The receipt was the most important thing in the universe for him at that moment. He removed his clothes and lay under the quilt. Before he did so he walked over to the window and stared down at the street again, so far below him. Lights were flickering and fluttering everywhere and tiny figures of people walked along the pavements. He was so high above … had she chosen that room for that very reason? The fifth floor, that was very high.

I must not sleep, he told himself over and over again. I must not sleep whatever happens. Linda had removed her clothes as well. She looked so beautiful, her hair so compact and fine. What a pity it was, what a terrible pity!

She snuggled into him and laid her head on his shoulders. He eased it away from him and lay flat on his back gazing at the ceiling. He put his hand under the pillow and withdrew his wallet, checking that his receipt was still there. In the middle of the night if he fell asleep she would take it away, he knew that. And then there would be no evidence that he had been to Glasgow at all.

He sighed. He could try and hide the receipt but there didn't seem to be any place where he could put it. She would watch him and know perfectly well where he had placed it.

He said, “So that's why you chose the fifth floor.”

“What are you saying?”

You would. … He couldn't bring himself to say that she would with her two friends push him out of the window so that his body would splatter like a red star on the pavement below. Everyone of course would think that he had committed suicide. All his actions pointed to that, madness and suicide, he had been inveigled into participating in his own death. But he would have preferred any death to this one, a plunge like a wounded bird on to stone. Pills, a knife, poison, any of these he would have preferred, but she knew that he hated heights. That was why she had brought him to this last rendezvous. And furthermore he would never know that she had betrayed him.

“Why don't you tell me the truth?” he said. “Have pity. Tell me the plot, tell me you hate me.” But she stared at him innocently. How clear and pure and loving her eyes seemed. So she wasn't even going to give him that satisfaction before he died. Damn her, damn her, damn her.

He felt his body plummeting down as he hit the stone. Curiously enough, he didn't care. He waited for events to happen as if they were inevitable, predestined. He was like a rabbit before the stoat's sinuous dance, and it didn't bother him any longer, not in the slightest. He had come to the end of the road, he was tired of thinking, of losing himself in these mazes without solution. Let them kill him if they wanted to, he could no longer control the labyrinth of thoughts that tormented his mind.

“Shall I put the light off?” said Linda.

“If you like,” he said.

She put the light out and he stared into the darkness and at the shadowy chair over which his trousers hung, at the shadowy wardrobe.

Linda tried again to put her head on his shoulder but he pushed her away. He knew that the bug was inside her dress but he didn't care: he was so tired. He felt very sleepy: he tried to keep his eyes open for he knew that he must. After all if those two men came in it would be in the early hours of the morning. He imagined the whole empty hotel with no one in it but himself and Linda: he saw again the huge abandoned foyer with the tartan carpet on the floor. He rubbed his eyes and felt dizzy.

“I think you should go to sleep,” said Linda.

“Yes,” he said, screwing his eyes against the darkness which was as heavy as a fleece.

“Well, let go,” she said softly. “Nothing will happen to you.”

“So you say,” he mumbled.

No, he couldn't keep his eyes open. He must sleep. He couldn't even hear the traffic on the road below.

He slept.

It didn't seem long before he was awake again. Linda was shaking him by the shoulder and the light was on. There was a black man in the room, jingling keys in his pocket. The man's face was polished and bright and ebony. Surely this is hell, thought Ralph, this must be it at last. It was the devil he was looking at and the devil was smiling at him, so kindly. Linda was speaking.

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