Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (6 page)

“I sent for a doctor for you,” she said. “I couldn't get to sleep. I was worried.”

“What, what?” he said dazedly.

“This is a doctor here,” said Linda, indicating the black man.

A doctor, the final doctor, the devil himself.

“You,” he said, “you're not a doctor. What are you doing here? What's your name?”

And amazingly the man said, “Dr Emmanuel.”

Ralph burst out laughing and could hardly stop.

“Who's to believe that?” he said. Dr Emmanuel, and he laughed again hysterically. Linda was trying to drive him to the very limits of his sanity.

The devil looked meaningfully at Linda: his skin appeared almost purple in the light.

“Psychiatric treatment,” he muttered. His tie was red and he was wearing a black shirt.

Oh, how well the devil had been coached. He even knew the word ‘psychiatric'. He was trying to smile at Ralph but his smile was like a grimace, a wound.

Linda was saying, “Can't you take him to hospital then?”

So that was it then. She would place him in an asylum in the middle of slummy Glasgow and leave him there and go back home. He would never be heard of again. She would have him signed into some huge draughty ward where old men gibbered and spat and he would scream into a void.

“No, no,” said the black man. “Can't take him to hospital here.”

And Ralph was sure that he wasn't a doctor at all. This was a disguised man. The two terms — Emmanuel and negro — trembled together in his mind. He couldn't imagine that this was other than a bizarre joke, a scene in a play.

Linda was insistent. “Are you sure you can't put him in hospital?” she said.

“Am sure,” said the doctor in broken English staring at Ralph as if he were a slide or a germ. “Psychiatric,” he repeated, “not medical.”

Linda went over to the phone. “Can you get me an outside line,” she said.

She asked for Ralph's own doctor and eventually he heard her speaking to him, but of course it might not be his own doctor at all, it might be someone pretending to be him.

“Very ill. Yes, another doctor here.” She put the black doctor on the line and Ralph heard as if from a great distance his own doctor speaking to the black doctor but then of course it might all be a charade. Then the black doctor ceased speaking and he heard Linda saying, “Are you sure? I'd better get back then.”

“He wants to speak to you,” said Linda.

Ralph picked up the phone and heard as if from a great hollow distance a voice saying to him,

“What's happening to you? It must be the Muse again.” The voice was jovial and it seemed to him false. The man at the other end of the phone laughed. Ralph considered that the voice might be coming from some part of the cavernous hotel itself: some ingenious arrangement had been set up, he didn't really believe it was his own doctor who sounded so flippant yet remote at the same time. He put the phone down impatiently and looked at the black man and Linda who were whispering together but immediately ceased when he put the phone down.

“Give him a sedative,” said the black man to Linda. “To make him sleep.” Linda nodded approvingly.

But Ralph didn't care. If they wanted to take him secretly from the hotel in the middle of the night while he was asleep, and confine him in an asylum, that was all right with him. Perhaps this hotel itself was an asylum. Maybe Linda had changed her plans. Throwing him out of the window was too risky, there would be questions asked. But if she made him totally disappear. … After all, that was what he had intended doing in the first place and she could simply say when she arrived home that he had run away from her in Glasgow. The doctor handed him two white pills and a glass of water. He swallowed the pills and drank the water and then saw the doctor taking his case which was lying on a chair.

“I didn't know,” said Linda, “that you couldn't deal with him here.”

“Own doctor,” said the black man. And then, “Not possible.”

Then he was gone as if he had been a genie from a bottle who had returned to it again in a smoky darkness. There was silence in the room and then Linda said, “He says you have to go back to your own doctor, that he can't treat you here.”

“What did he say about me?” said Ralph, not believing that he was being told the truth. At first Linda didn't seem to hear him and then he repeated the question and she said, “Paranoid. He said you were paranoid. He said you needed psychiatric treatment.”

How cunning she was. He hadn't heard the so-called doctor saying that at all. Now she wanted to get him home to that house where he had thought he was dying. His eyes felt heavy again and he tried to keep them open. They might come back in the middle of the night and take him to an asylum when he was asleep. But he didn't care. He felt so tired that he was willing to accept whatever destiny had prepared for him on the road on which he was travelling. The black doctor had been the ultimate brilliance of their plot, it was he who had finally made him realize that resistance was impossible, that his case was hopeless. And how clever they really were he hadn't known until now. How had he not appreciated the venom and cunning of the ordinary before: he had been cruising in the sky of his own high concerns without studying that world properly. Well, yes, in Yugoslavia he had seen it but he hadn't been fully aware of the folds and intricacies of it. How smart he had thought himself, how distant and intellectual, and yet he had been so easily deceived, as if he were a child. He had been the clumsy albatross who couldn't unfurl its wings from the bitter mediocrity of the ordinary. His eyes closed and he slept.

When he woke again it was broad daylight, which was pouring through the window, in which all objects were defined. He did not feel at all tired. On the contrary he felt that he could run out of the hotel and walk for miles in the sparkling air. His eyes lighted on a case which was lying on the floor and he thought that it must be some addition to the furniture of the hotel: he couldn't remember seeing it the night before. His eyes focussed on it and then he realized it was the case with his manuscripts which had been left in the Left Luggage. Linda was standing at the door as if expecting someone. She looked quite fresh and was dressed in her red velvet suit with the blue brooch at the breast. It was the amethyst brooch he had bought her at her last birthday.

“I took a taxi and collected the case in the middle of the night,” she said.

“Did you open it?” he asked.

“No, it will be all right,” she said.

“Where's the receipt?” he said looking for his wallet.

“I took it when you were asleep,” she said. “I'll open it if you like.”

She opened the case and it seemed to him that his manuscripts were undisturbed. On the other hand, could he remember exactly which manuscripts had been in it?

He found it very hard to concentrate.

“I think they will be all right,” said Linda, closing the case again. “I sent for some breakfast.” She glanced at the slender gold watch on her wrist. “It should be coming any moment now. And I've ordered a taxi to take us home.”

“A taxi?” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “There's no train on a Sunday. You remember that, don't you?”

“Yes,” he said. “But a taxi!” It must be a hundred miles to go home.

On the other hand it might be that she wasn't taking him home at all, it might be that she was taking him to a different part of Glasgow. He would have to keep a close watch. He felt sweaty again and rose and splashed water from the basin all over his chest. As soon as he had done so Linda packed his pyjama jacket, which he had removed, in his case. She looked quite cool and competent though she could hardly have had any sleep.

“Do you remember the black doctor who was here?” she said.

“I remember a black man,” he answered.

At that moment a waiter came in with a trolley on which there was some breakfast.

“I asked for porridge for you,” said Linda. “And scrambled eggs.” She placed the tray on the bed and he poured cream on to the porridge and then thought of something. “You take some of this first,” he said.

“All right,” said Linda. “Did you think I was poisoning you?” She ate some of the porridge and only then did he eat it though he was hungry.

It appeared to him now that he was safe from the windows, one of which was open. The curtain fluttered in the early fresh breeze of the morning. How lovely and airy and vernal everything suddenly seemed, washed clear of plot and counterplot. Why, even Linda seemed new and uncorrupted in her red velvet costume as if there was nothing at all on her mind. He ate his porridge and his scrambled egg and Linda said, “You should get dressed now. The taxi won't be long. I've been down at the desk and paid the bill for the hotel.” What a busy little bee she must have been, flitting now here now there in the middle of the night as he himself lay asleep. Why, he hadn't even heard her removing the wallet from below his pillow. How unprotected and vulnerable he must have been! But how did all this fit into the plot? She must have abandoned the first one and devised a new one. Oh, he could hardly keep up with her, her manoeuvrings and subtleties. All this he thought while he was dressing and at the same time feeling so fresh that he could see through any plot or plan or conspiracy that anyone could devise.

“Is this the same room we were in during the night?” he asked.

“Of course. What made you think it was different?”

“I don't know. Was that chest there last night?” And he pointed.

“Of course it was.”

“Oh.”

He went into the bathroom and shaved. His face looked pale, intent, and thin, and his eyes heavy. He leaned forward towards the mirror, sensing that his face had somehow changed. It looked like that of a monkey again, small and withered and clenched. Why, I'm changing, he said to himself, and he felt intense panic again. When he had shaved he sat on the bed and waited. Linda was still standing at the door but he was not afraid now. She couldn't do anything to him in the sunlight which poured in a healthy and almost holy radiance around him. Daylight was the time of innocence, night the time of guilt. And the night had passed, the worst night of his life, infernal and terrible, had passed. He hoped that no night like that would ever descend on him again.

“Did you know,” he said to Linda. “I tried to get out of the hotel last night but I couldn't. There were no doors leading from the stairs.”

“That's not true,” she said. “There are doors leading from the stairs. You saw them yourself when we came up in the lift.”

“Lift?” he said.

“Yes, we came up in the lift. Don't you remember?”

No, he couldn't remember.

“And there was a TV set. In the lounge,” he said.

“I never noticed it,” said Linda carelessly.

“And I saw my face in it,” said Ralph. “It looked Japanese.”

“I'm sorry I didn't notice.”

He shook and perspired again and the floor and walls were leaving him, going off to another country. Sometimes he could see Linda, quite normal and harmless as he had always seen her up to now, and at other times he saw her as evil, sinuous, snakelike. He couldn't understand how she looked so rested. She wasn't trembling as he was. But, no, she didn't look at all frightened. And yet she should be. What if he turned on her, what if he himself tried to throw her out of the window, so great was his hate for her. It surprised him that she wasn't more scared of him if she considered him mad. But no, he was not mad, it was simply that the world had become more clear to him, that appearances which he had accepted quite simply, had now become enormously complicated. He had become the visionary which all ordinary people already were. He had made the ascent to the ordinary and found it more snakelike than the extraordinary. But that was how ordinary people had to live, wasn't it? They fought each other for air; like flowers in the darkness of the earth they had to maintain constant control over each other, they could not ignore any attempt on their freedom. But how else could ordinary people live, without art, without an obsession?

He considered this for a long time. It seemed to him that door after door was opening and that they revealed avenues and corridors of light, blazing and contemptuous. Of course they must all live like that since there was no alternative. They must not allow each other more than the permitted space since otherwise they would be at a disadvantage. The world of the ordinary was strange to him, like another country whose language he could not understand but which ordinary people could articulate at once because of the gift that they had. They were determined to pull him down from the height of his talent to the slummy maze of their lives. Every word people spoke was coded and loaded with significance since each might be a disguised attack. Far more to them than to him was language significant: that was what he hadn't understood. Slights, insults, they were the experts on that form of language, it was the undergrowth of their shrunken venomous minds.

There was a knock on the door and a man entered. It was another waiter, this time dressed in a black suit.

“The taxi, madam,” he said.

“Come on,” said Linda. He picked up the case with his manuscripts while she carried her own small red case. He cast a last look around the room. Never again would he see it, never again would he sleep in it. And it was like leaving a safe haven, for the end of the plot was not yet in sight. They walked down the stairs together and he could see now the entrances to the corridors and to the foyer. It was as if the hotel had been changed physically during the night like a stage-set that revolved in a void. Linda walked briskly ahead of him and they were in the foyer while, outside, the taxi was waiting.

The tartan-carpeted floor stretched in front of him and around him in all directions. There were other guests at the desk paying for their rooms before leaving. How had he not seen them the night before? From what hidden chambers had they been disgorged into the ordinary daylight? And the girl at the desk too looked ordinary, as if she were a real receptionist in a real hotel.

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