Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (7 page)

The taxi driver was a calm affable man: but Ralph of course knew that he was not a taxi driver at all. Nor was his taxi a real taxi, though it had been made up to look like one. Taxis reminded him of hearses anyway, black and closed. However he climbed into it, bumping his head on the top of the door as he did so, and sat in the back seat, Linda clambering in after him. He was determined to remain silent, on whatever journey they were taking him.

And then the thought occurred to him. This so-called taxi driver was really Linda's lover, the one she met when she was away from home. The more he thought about this the more he was sure of its truth. Why else had she asked for a taxi when it would cost a fortune to go back to the village in it? He was the sort of big man that he was certain she secretly admired. He was in fact quite extraordinarily big, big enough to control Ralph, and perhaps hustle him into a secret asylum on this secret route they would take. He would have to watch him very carefully.

Linda and the taxi driver were now talking banalities, she of course pretending that she didn't know him. They were talking about the demolition of Glasgow and the way it had changed.

“I used to be frightened of Glasgow,” said Linda, “but not now. It was full of dirty tenements.”

“That's right,” said the taxi driver. “Do you see how they have been cleaning the faces of the buildings, sandblasting them.” And, sure enough, they did look cleaner than he remembered.

“They say Glasgow is very violent,” said Linda. “Not that I ever saw any myself.”

“I haven't seen much either,” said the taxi driver.

She asked him questions about whether he was frightened at night with some of the customers that he got. But, no, he wasn't, though some were drunk and refused to pay.

It turned out that he was Catholic, and had six children.

“My wife's got three fur coats,” he said. “Not that I'm bragging. She's a nurse.”

All the way along the road, Linda was desperately talking and all the way Ralph was scrutinizing the route to see if the taxi driver was indeed taking him back to the village. Once or twice he thought of opening the door and jumping out: that would be better than remaining for the rest of his life in an asylum among mad violent people, when he himself was perfectly sane. He imagined himself making a faint dying arc from the taxi on to the blurred road, but he didn't have the nerve for the ultimate jump. It was also important to him to see the end of the plot, to watch Linda revealing herself as the villainness she was.

The taxi driver didn't speak to Ralph and Ralph didn't speak to him. It was as if Linda and the driver were trying to cover his silence by their boring conversation which ran like a river around him.

“I once took a lady around the country to the north of Scotland,” said the driver. “She needed a chauffeur. We spent a week touring. She had tons of money. An old lady too, a small woman with grey hair. She was home on a holiday from Canada.”

“Oh,” said Linda.

“She was always stopping to go to the toilet,” said the taxi driver. “There was something wrong with her kidneys.”

“Isn't that odd,” thought Ralph, “that's exactly what Linda's mother was like when we were in …” But he couldn't even say the name of the country to himself, he had hated it so much.

And then because the taxi driver's wife was a nurse, Linda began to talk about hospitals and a nurse she had known. This nurse had told her that the old people in the geriatric hospital had called her by different names so that by the end of the day she didn't know who she was. And then there was an old lady who believed that she was pregnant and who was waiting for her husband to come and visit her with a bouquet of flowers (what she had actually said was a “banquet” of flowers. This old lady was always misusing words). And then another old woman had told her that she had come into the ward one day to find sick men in pyjamas lying all over the place.

“She must have gone into the men's ward by mistake,” said the taxi driver.

“She might have done. Only she thought they were Americans who had mistaken the hospital for a hotel and they were all lying there in their silk pyjamas.”

The taxi driver laughed, and Ralph thought, By talking about incidents like this they are trying to disorientate me. But I will not be disoriented. I have my identity and I will keep it. That story about having six children was obviously untrue. He probably wasn't married at all. Even a child could see through their machinations.

When they arrived in the village, what he would have to do was, ask the taxi driver to take him in to see his own doctor and according to how he reacted to that suggestion he would know whether he was genuine or not. He wanted to see his own doctor anyway and get tablets from him.

The road unwound like a lost white ribbon, the taxi driver and Linda talked on. They had now left Glasgow and were heading north. If he was going to be put in an asylum it wouldn't be in Glasgow, that was for sure. The Sunday morning was quiet and cool and there were few cars on the road. He lay back in his corner seat and closed his eyes, trying to keep away from Linda, withdrawing when the lurch of the taxi threw them occasionally together.

As a matter of fact he didn't want to talk anyway. It was as if the power of speech had left him, as if he had sunk into the most profound lassitude and darkness. He focussed his eyes on the broad back of the taxi driver and thought, If only I were like him then Linda would not have considered leaving me. How competent he was, how effortlessly and expertly he drove. This taxi driver had probably learned to drive quite easily, had never had any trouble with practical matters. Why was it that there were some men who had this innate competence while others had to work so hard at everything they did. On the other hand writing was a gift which he himself had, his talent in that was assured and clear without the shadow of a doubt lying on it.

“I would like to go on to the town of … to see my doctor,” he said aloud in a firm voice.

It seemed to him that the taxi driver glanced at Linda in his mirror and winked at her.

“I would like to go on and see my doctor,” he repeated.

“But the surgery won't be open on a Sunday,” said Linda.

“It doesn't matter. We can go to his house. After all, I'm paying for this taxi.”

The taxi driver remained silent, waiting for Linda to speak.

She said again, “I don't think the doctor would be very pleased. He can call tomorrow. What you need is a good rest.”

“I want to see the doctor,” he repeated. “The fact is I don't think this is a real taxi. It would make me happier if I saw my doctor.”

“You don't really want to see your doctor,” said the taxi driver, as if he were talking to a child. “As your wife says, the doctor's surgery will be shut today.”

“It's none of your business,” said Ralph angrily.

“I'm not afraid of you,” thought Ralph to himself angrily. “You may be big and strong and my wife's lover but I'm not frightened of you.”

They were now out in the country: land stretched away on both sides of them with sheep feeding on the grass. There was the sudden glitter of a loch: and a house with a slanted roof like the house of a witch. For a moment Ralph imagined that there was a woman leaning out of the attic window, like Mrs Rochester plotting her fire. He often invented fantasies like this when he was travelling. But then hadn't he come to a dead stop with his novel? For days he had sat and stared at the white empty page unable to continue.

“I will not go mad,” he kept saying to himself. “I will not go mad. I am not mad. This is a plot aimed at me. I am perfectly sane. There was never any madness in my family. There was coldness, remoteness, but there was never any madness.” The sheep grazed contentedly and the fields were intersected with rays of yellow light.

“Sweet day so clear so calm so bright, the bridal of the earth and sky,” he repeated silently to himself. Usually he hated Sundays which seemed to last forever. But now he was frightened.

“Look,” he said coldly and aloud to Linda, “I know you for what you are.” She woke up in a startled manner and stared at him.

“Sir,” said the taxi driver, politely and protectively.

“You keep out of it,” said Ralph fiercely.

“It doesn't matter,” said Linda. “Let him carry on.”

“I know you for what you are,” said Ralph savagely. “I remember the time you danced with that small bald man at the party and you created when I danced with the blonde girl.”

“That was a long time ago,” said Linda. “And anyway I can't remember.”

The large hands of the taxi driver rested on the wheel but he didn't speak, though Ralph could tell that he was listening intently. That bloody pseudo-Catholic from some nameless Glasgow housing scheme.

The landscape outside the window shimmered. He remembered an incident that had happened not so long before he had run away. Linda had been working in the kitchen and he himself had been typing in his room. Suddenly he had seen a girl in a leather coat, carrying a carton of milk, walk across the gravel in the direction of the kitchen door. She hadn't looked in through the window where he himself was typing and after a while he had seen her returning and going out by the gate. Later, when he and Linda were having coffee, he had asked her who the girl was.

“What girl?” Linda had said.

“A girl in a leather coat. She was carrying a carton of milk.”

“That's odd,” Linda had said. “I never saw such a girl.” And then she had tried to pass the incident off lightly by saying, “You must have been thinking of one of your girl friends.” And indeed she had looked like Irma. He had dismissed the incident from his mind but now and again it would return to him and he would shake his head in a puzzled manner. Was it true that he had imagined the girl or had Linda simply denied her existence for some deep reason of her own? Had she asked the girl to call and then deliberately insisted that she didn't exist? How much, he thought, we rely for our sanity on witnesses without prejudice. Without them we would be gnashing our teeth in the outer darkness.

Another twenty miles or so and then he would be home. The house would appear out of its familiar space with its garden and its cherry tree. The taxi would stop and he and Linda would get out and then the taxi driver would drive away, still pretending that he was a real taxi driver. And then he might phone Linda and they would both have a good laugh about an affair which had been so elegantly executed.

He should never have allowed himself to become so solitary, he should not have withdrawn into the world of words, so that now he had to rely on corrupt witnesses for his sanity. That was the mistake he had made. What reason would his enemies have to tell the truth? None at all. He had despised the ordinary and it had turned round and bitten him. It had turned its aloof mocking face on him, it had played esoteric games with him: he who had thought he was the élitist of the study. Like the far side of the moon with its mysterious hollows and shadows it was blindly turning its cruel face towards him.

The ordinary witnesses whom he had despised were taking their revenge on him, and what a subtle revenge it was, far more subtle than any of his plots. Who would have foreseen it, that ordinary people would be so clever, that after all they recognized that he depended on them for the true colour of an orange, an apple. On them depended his reality. From their dull ponderous hands hung the real world as on a golden chain. An exile, he returned, blinded now and again to that ordinary world from his own world, and it had seemed to be waiting for him harmlessly. But like the corrupt evil fairies they had stolen it away from him. They were more evil than he had ever imagined. He had looked down on them from above as if they were a tribe of busy ants engaged in a bizarre unfathomable business of their own. But all the time they had been glancing at him sideways out of their small ant's eyes and saying to themselves with remorseless bitterness, We will get you yet: Oh we will and no mistake.

Their spiteful little eyes were now all around him like evil stars, mocking and besieging him.

In a short while they would be reaching the house again. He thought of it as a trap, set in a beautiful garden, with the lovely cherry tree in the centre. Linda's eyes were closed and the taxi driver was whistling under his breath ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters'. The road stretched before him, a tape on a tape recorder, the track he must take unless he exerted his will power. They had now passed the hotel and he would soon be at the house and God knew what bizarre scenario was waiting for him there.

The taxi drew up at the house and they all got out of it. But then before Linda or the taxi driver knew what was happening he had run away from them and was walking purposefully towards the town. They couldn't do anything now for there were plenty of cars passing on the road, tourists probably: and in the fields he could see people strolling. He gritted his teeth and ran on. The other two stared after him, panic-stricken, not knowing what to do. They had thought that he would enter the house quite tamely and submit to them but he knew better than that. They would now have a consultation and decide what they could do next. In this complicated chess game he had made an unorthodox move: he had taken himself off the board completely. He headed steadily for the town which was twelve miles away. But though he felt tired that didn't bother him. He wanted to get to his own doctor who would convince him of his sanity. On the right-hand side of the road huge rhododendrons grew freely, in clouds of gaping red. There was also a shimmer of bluebells, hyacinths. This road was very familiar to him. Once he and Linda had seen a fawn, long legged and fastidious and delicate, stepping across it. And one night she had stopped to take care of an owl which had slammed into the windscreen of the car. Oh, she was kind to animals all right. She couldn't bear to leave a dead cat or dead rabbit lying on the road for cars to squash it flat endlessly. No, she had to get out of the car to remove the carcass to the side. There were such paradoxes in her nature: how could one understand human beings at all?

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