Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (8 page)

He heard the taxi drawing up behind him but continued walking. The taxi stopped and the driver leaned out of the window.

“Come back home, sir. Don't be a fool.”

“Come on,” said Linda. “You're making an exhibition of yourself.”

“No,” Ralph snapped and kept on walking.

“What's wrong?” said the driver. “You have a beautiful wife, a beautiful house. What more do you want?”

“You keep them then,” Ralph shouted angrily.

The taxi driver looked angry as if at any moment he would jump out of his taxi and hit him but he wasn't frightened. Not at all. The taxi came to a stop while the two of them consulted with each other as to what they should do next and then it raced onwards and in a short while returned. This time he kept his head down so that he wouldn't
see the two of them. He kept on walking, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. Eleven miles past the bridge, the still waters, in which trees were reflected perfectly, were without motion. If only the world of human beings were like that, serenely painted, but, no, in that world there were all sorts of distortions. There were no true reflections.

A steady stream of cars passed but no one seemed surprised to see him walking. He kept to the grass verge and felt the wind of the cars' headlong humming course. More than ever he was convinced that Linda and the taxi driver were stalking him. Why else should the taxi driver have remained at all? What business was it of his? Why hadn't he gone back to Glasgow? Or was he simply adding mileage so that he could present him with a large bill at the end of his journey? Why indeed had he himself consented to come home at all? He should have stayed where he was, he had allowed himself like a baby to be passive to their will, which was much stronger than his own. Linda had a simplicity and directness of energy which he could never emulate no matter how hard he tried. It was that trait of hers which he admired most but he didn't admire it now, he feared it.

He plodded steadily on. He had settled down into a rhythm now, allowing his feet to take him to his destination, not thinking. That would be best. From the time they had been to Yugoslavia she had thought this plot out carefully: perhaps that was why she had selected Yugoslavia in the first place, had immersed herself in its brochure, nesting with it in her chair. His mind opened frightening vistas. H
OW LONG HAD THIS BEEN GOING ON?
It hadn't started recently.

Mines began to explode in his thoughts, one after the other. When she had come in with cups of coffee for him had she really been deliberately interrupting him, trying to stop the flow of his ideas?

And these endless interrogations about Christianity, had they been intended to unnerve him? Linda, too, was far more superstitious than he was, she believed in planetary influences, ghosts, auras, phantoms. She believed that the Egyptians had encountered space-men in ancient times. She believed that Christ had been a space-man. She believed that planes had disappeared in the Bermuda triangle. She believed that when she died she would go to another planet. Was she not at all frightened of the punishments of hell, then? Did she not feel the flames stroking her hair tenderly? He himself was a rational man, he didn't believe that watches could be bent by minds, he didn't believe that the laws of physics could be set aside by the spiteful winds of magic. He believed that we were all on a perishable road where the grave waited for us, the tombstone with our name inscribed on it like a simple address.

He headed onwards as if into a high wind. And then he heard the car coming up behind him and slowing. It was Linda, but this time Linda on her own without the taxi driver, and in her own car. She drove alongside him as if he were the runner in a race and she was following him with the sustenance of food and water. She leaned out of the window.

“Listen,” she said, “I'll take you to the doctor if you must go.”

“I don't believe you,” he said.

“I swear,” she said. “If that is what you want.” Cars passed them steadily, in a magnified and diminishing roar, and people looked at the two of them as if wondering what was happening. In one car a tall black dog stood upright as a Buddha, with smooth shining black skin.

“No,” Ralph shouted.

“Come on,” said Linda. “I won't say anything. I won't even speak to you if you don't want me to.”

He thought for a while and then he said, “All right then,” and got into the car. He refused to put his safety belt on and Linda didn't say anything. He didn't want to be bound and helpless if she suddenly turned back. But, no, she was indeed driving in the direction of the town. Perhaps she was really telling the truth.

“Where did you meet him,” he asked at last.

“Meet who?”

“That so-called taxi driver.”

“I've never seen him before in my life.”

“That's a laugh. What's he doing helping you then? Why hasn't he gone back to Glasgow?”

“Because he has some human feeling, that's why. He has a wife and six children. He says he's seen this kind of thing before. He's sorry for me, that's why he stayed. And I'm very lucky, that he should have done.”

“And where is he now?”

“What do you mean, where is he now? He's probably gone back to Glasgow.”

“Probably?”

“I'm sure he's had enough of this. I would if I were him.”

“Would what?”

“Have gone back to Glasgow.”

“Huh.”

He relapsed into his seat beside her. She was like an eel, she had an answer for everything. The terrible thing was that he could prove nothing against her. And she probably had a tape recorder hidden in the car taking down everything he said so that she could use it as proof against him.

“Can't you go faster than this?” he asked.

“If you want,” she said, sensing the challenge in his voice. He glanced at her fixed profile as if it were stamped on a false coin.

And then the voice said to him, You must kill yourself and her. Put the car off the road. That is what you must do.

He listened. Why hadn't he thought of it before? That would solve all his problems at once. He didn't care about his own life anyway and as for her, he wanted his revenge. The car was going quite fast now, Linda staring ahead of her, and suddenly in a savage motion he grasped the wheel and began to tug. At first Linda didn't realize what was happening and panicked, not knowing what to do. The car swerved from side to side of the road and then she applied the brakes and he tried to kick her leg away. Another car passed, a man's mouth opening in surprise. Ralph fought like a madman and Linda fought against him for her life. And then the car came to a stop. She ran out of it to another car which had come to a stop as well. He ran after her and then when he saw the other car he slowed down and began to walk away as if he didn't have a care in the world. If those people hadn't been there! But, no, they were looking at him and Linda was standing between them, panting, her face dead white.

He began to run blindly along a path into the wood which lay on the far side of the road. He passed a farmhouse and heard some hens clucking in the yard. A cockerel crew: that was bad luck, for a cockerel to crow in the middle of the day. There were a lot of leaves, roots, trunks of trees dappled with sun. He must get clear of all pursuit. He didn't want to see anyone again. He crossed a park where sheep were grazing and plunged into the wood again. The ground was mossy and soft and his shoes sank into it. Finally he came to a clearing and sat down in it. After a while he lay on his back and stared up at the sky where the clouds passed slowly as if made of marble.

In the middle of the wood. … He heard the whisperings of little animals but saw nothing. He sat up, took the bottle of pills from his pocket and began to count them. He poured them into his palm and gazed at them, the little red globes. Before he swallowed them there was something else he felt he ought to do, but he couldn't think what it was. What did people do before they killed themselves? Of course. They left a suicide note. He took out a letter which he had received from South Africa asking if they could use for an anthology a short story of his. Then he scribbled in large letters on the back, the words,
MEET YOU IN HELL
, and he addressed it to Linda. That would really frighten her. Even if he didn't believe in hell she did and she would wake up in the middle of the night wondering if he was haunting the house. It might take years for them to have that infernal rendezvous but for the rest of her life she would remember his last words.

He arranged some twigs below him. He might as well be comfortable. He might as well look calm and resolute in death. After all, this death might be reported. He might as well die like a classical hero as if he didn't have a care in the world.

He looked down at the pills in his hand. They reminded him of the eggs of a very tiny exotic bird, which sang deep in the middle of the wood. Like the thrush's nest he and Linda had found recently, in the garden, one fairly large green egg in it, but quite cold, for the bird had deserted it. And in any case when they had smelt it, it was rotten. It had been hidden deeply among foliage and twigs. The bird was now somewhere else, regretting its cold green egg, as if it were earth itself.

No one would ever find him here, that was sure. He put all the pills in his mouth and swallowed them quickly lest they should burn his throat, which was dry. Having done that he lay down on his back again and watched the sky. Castles, heads, stones, ruffs, they were all there against a background of transparent blue like the shell of an egg. He smiled bitterly and ironically. So this was what his life had led to, this mess. And yet what a perfection too! Was it not better to take one's own life than submit to the order of nature? He snuggled closer into the green foliage as if it were a blanket or a coverlet. Directly ahead of him he saw a sheep's eye, green as a splintered jewel. It stared directly into his own. A blade of grass hung from the mouth absentmindedly. Shortly his own eyes would close and he would be dead. And he wasn't at all frightened. Not at all. On the contrary he was happy. It was the happiest moment of his life. He had at last taken a decision.

Without his knowing it, his eyes closed. The last thought he had was of Pula, that place in Yugoslavia where the colosseum was. The emperor's thumb was turned down and the heat was blazing intensely inside that stony ring.

Two

B
UT THAT OF
course was later. First, there was the landing at Pula with Linda and her mother who, at eighty years old, had swollen legs and was suffering from kidney trouble. They landed in the evening, in the dim light, and saw a soldier with a machine gun strapped over his shoulder at the airport. The place seemed strange and frightening, as if they had landed in a ghostly country. In the bus taking them to their hotel Ralph talked to a man from Dundee who worked as a printer on a newspaper. He told him about computers, and how his newspaper office had recently been computerized. It was his first time abroad and he also had his wife and his mother-in-law with him. He had checked out everything in advance and knew exactly when the bus was due to arrive at the hotel. How efficient and bright he sounds, thought Ralph, and I myself feel so heavy and dull and tired. He only half listened to the lady courier in the front of the bus who was describing their route to them. She had an Irish accent.

When they arrived at the hotel they found all the English-speaking residents waiting for them.

“Any newspapers, magazines?” they asked, clustering round them like starving seagulls. “What's happening in the Falklands?”

Ralph handed over all his newspapers and magazines, distributing them like alms to beggars. As yet the final landing had not been made. The fleet was hovering out at sea, while being attacked by Argentinian planes with French Exocets.

They handed in their passports at the desk and took the ancient lift up to their rooms. The receptionist was a German who spoke broken English.

While Linda took her mother along to her room, which was adjacent to their own, Ralph waited, looking out the window at the water which shone with the lights of boats. In the twilight, tourists walked up and down the promenade and in the distance he could hear the sound of music.

He picked up a brochure which Linda had laid on the bed, and leafed through it. It was a good few years out of date and stated that the Yugoslavs had determined to make tourism their main industry. The
per capita
income was low, the economic system not wholly Communist, not wholly Western. As far as he could make out the hotels were run by the state. He wandered about the room and noticed that the plug for the light seemed dangerously exposed. On the back of the door there was a list of the prices in dinars.

When Linda came back he asked her how her mother was.

“Tired. Her legs are badly swollen.”

“Will she sleep all right?”

“I've given her her sleeping tablets.” While she was answering his questions Linda was taking their clothes from the cases and hanging them in the wardrobe.

“Has she anything to read?”

“She has a
Woman's Realm
. They weren't interested in that. There's nothing about the Falklands in it.”

Ralph passed his hand across his brow. He felt desperately tired. At the airport he had been more confused than usual, worrying about his passport and his documents, transferring them from pocket to pocket, checking continually that he still had them. Maybe he had been working too hard: he had never felt as exhausted as this before. He lit another cigarette and noticed that there was a blue ashtray on the dressing-table. Linda was still folding stuff away. Ralph opened the wooden doors and stepped on to the balcony, looking down on the leisurely tourists who were swimming about in the half light. He was assailed as he so often was by the contingency of things, as if Yugoslavia were not a necessary place. Why, he might just as easily be in Greece or in Italy but for some reason Linda had chosen Yugoslavia and he had let her do the choosing, too tired to interfere. He tried to think of any information he might have randomly gathered about Yugoslavia but could think of little. It was not the sort of place that echoed with significances and harmonies.

Linda had now finished packing and was undressing slowly.

“Will you draw the curtains?” she said. And he did so.

“I wonder,” said Ralph, “why your mother was so keen on seeing the Alps.”

All the way over on the plane her mother had been asking, Have we passed the Alps yet? and when eventually they did so she had gazed down at them as if she had finally made a discovery of the greatest importance.

“There was a teacher she once had,” said Linda, “and he used to go on about the Alps.”

“Is that right?” said Ralph indifferently. But Linda said nothing more.

He wasn't sure whether his mother-in-law liked him very much. There was a coldness in his nature which she had never taken to. She was used to talk, as was Linda. But what was there to say about the Alps? Nothing. Except that she had reminisced about her schooldays, quoting fragments of poems which she could remember clearly.

“We had this teacher,” she had told them. “A lady teacher. And she used to say to us: If you haven't prepared your work go and stand in that corner. We had more people in corners than we had in the class.” And she laughed remembering her early days so clearly. But Ralph was not interested. In fact he had heard many of her stories before, but she repeated them as if they were fresh and pristine, as if they had only happened recently.

He switched on the lamp by the bed while Linda switched off the main light. He began to remove his clothes. He felt no sense of renewal or adventure: even though he was in a strange unknown land, his head was dull and heavy.

When they were lying side by side in bed Linda said reflectively, “She was trying to impress you.”

“How?”

“By quoting these poems. You know, things like ‘The Cuckoo'. She has a good memory.”

“She doesn't know what to make of me,” said Ralph. And indeed she would sometimes stare at him as if he belonged to another species. He had no little stories, no snippets of news, he was remote and calculating. He was quite sure that she would have preferred Linda to have married someone else, a talkative decisive man, large and generous.

“No,” said Linda absently.

And he was suddenly angry with her as if she was implying that the fault lay with him rather than with her mother. Why should he have to listen to these interminable banal stories, that river of reminiscence which flowed so lazily along, without substance. And yet, and yet, wasn't that what was wrong with his own books? They didn't have the warmth and uncalculated diffuseness that they should have. He always had the fear that there was some deep ordinary unpatterned world that he was missing, that he was passing in an arrogance of splendid indifferent light. After all hadn't that critic, whose name he could not now remember, written, “When Mr Simmons discovers the qualities of humanity and warmth he will be a considerable writer.” On the other hand, to be warm and human was to run the risk of sentimentality.

“I was talking to a man from Dundee who works on computers,” he said. “He has his holiday all worked out. He knows exactly where he and his wife and mother-in-law will be going every day of their holidays.” He smiled in a superior manner as if remembering the days of his greenness when he had been an innocent abroad as well. Suddenly he began to create a scenario for his mother-in-law.

“I bet you when she gets home she will say, ‘I looked down and there were the Alps. You've never seen anything like them. I could see Hannibal quite clearly and a few of his elephants. What a time they were having of it.' Elephants are not the sort of animals you should take across mountains. They slip on the ice, they're so big.” Rivers of monotonous greyness streaming across the Alps, that was what it must have been like. Heavy, dull, persistent.

Linda laughed, and for a moment the two of them were conspirators in a plot he had invented in that strange twilit land. The huge ungovernable Alps, their mother pecking at the Yugoslav food on the plane, not liking it: wondering what the paper bags were for.

“They're for sickness, mother,” Linda had told her.

“Your mother was never sick in her life” — stubborn, proud, independent.

And back in her loved garden, surrounded by roses, carnations, azaleas, talking to the other villagers, You've never seen anything like the Alps. Why they reminded me of …

“Oh shut up,” said Linda in a good-humoured voice and switched off the light by the bed. “You'll be old yourself some day and as a matter of fact I've heard you telling the same stories over and over to your literary friends. You do, you know.”

“Perhaps,” said Ralph.

“No perhaps about it.” And she turned on her side with a quick decisive movement. “Now go to sleep.”

Which he did, thinking of the famished residents holding out their claws for his newspapers as if they were stranded on a rock. The fleet trembled in the Atlantic, sitting ducks for Exocets: such bare land to be fought for and taken, such bare meagre land.

The two of them woke up early in the morning, for the sun was shining brightly and it seemed that a day of hope was waiting for them. They sat about in the room for a while and then Linda went to get her mother, who had been up for about two hours sitting on her bed, and now and again watching the pigeons which fluttered about and settled on the balcony.

“I wish I had something to give them,” she said to Linda, for at home she had a bird house in the garden in which she put the leftovers from the food, but which at times a rat or cat might climb into.

She told Linda that early in the morning she had seen a large lorry arriving with a crane to lift the big stone flower containers which stood in front of the hotel. “Where do you think they take them?” she asked.

“Maybe to the other hotels,” said Linda. “Maybe they change them about. How are your feet?”

“No so good. They're swollen again.”

A copy of
Woman's Realm
lay on the bed, open at the horoscope page.

She took her mother along to her own and Ralph's room and then they all three descended in the lift. The fair-haired German at the reception desk said “Good morning” to them and they went into the dining-room.

They sat down at a table next to the man from Dundee whose name they discovered was Graham. He was dressed in shirt sleeves and shorts, and had a camera on a chair beside him.

“Helen and mother have gone to look for a newspaper,” he said, and then added, “Though I don't believe they sell any English newspapers here. Or so I was told by a friend of mine.”

“No English newspapers?” said Ralph.

“That's what I was told,” said Graham.

Ralph didn't feel like talking to him, in fact he didn't feel like talking to anyone and he was glad when Graham left them, looking boyish and optimistic, his camera slung over his shoulder.

He bit into the adamantine roll which the tall dark-haired waiter had left them. All around him he could hear the voices of Germans.

“Are they French?” asked his mother-in-law.

“No, German.”

His mother-in-law ate in silence, chewing desperately, and Linda remarked, “I tried to speak to that waiter. But he didn't answer me: I wonder if they have been told not to be too friendly with the tourists.”

“I don't think so,” said Ralph. “Maybe they don't have much English. I wonder what that's supposed to be,” and he poked moodily at his plate with a spoon.

“You never know,” Linda pursued. “Maybe they don't like us because of the Falklands.”

“As a matter of fact,” said Ralph, “they're supposed to like the English because of the partisans in the last war.”

“The partisans?”

“Yes,” but he didn't have enough energy to explain to her about them.

He still felt the same bone-tiredness, and was slightly disoriented because of the foreign languages around him. He shouldn't have been working so hard, driven on by a ferocious puritanism. Nor did he much like living in the village which he and Linda had shifted to, to be near her mother. He missed the chance encounters of the town, its unpredictable nature, and felt as if the ferns and bracken were swallowing him up. One day he had lost his glasses while cutting bracken — they had fallen out of his top pocket — and hadn't found them again in the tall devouring greenery. As happened so often with him he saw this loss as symbolic, nature eating the academic and the scholarly. Though he had searched for them feverishly they were forever lost, to be eaten by the rain and the wind.

“Well,” he said, “it's time we went out.” And all three rose and went outside into the warm morning.

“There's a place next door here,” said Linda. “Perhaps we should change some money.”

And they went in and waited behind a thickset German in shorts who spoke at great length to the girl behind the counter. What an extraordinarily fine morning it was too! Already the ubiquitous Germans, in their shorts and shirts, were setting off with their expensive cameras, chattering cheerfully and confidently in their alien gutturals.

The sun glittered on the water and on the boats, and far out on the horizon Ralph could see yachts.

They walked slowly along the promenade, stopping at a booth which was run by a woman with a German accent.

“English papers?” said Ralph carefully.

“Nein,” she said or some such word. It seemed to Ralph that she spoke contemptuously as if English papers were the last thing she could be expected to keep. He pointed to a packet of Yugoslav cigarettes which seemed extraordinarily cheap according to the calculations he had made, and she handed them over. He opened the packet and lit one. It was awfully cheap-looking, and not packed as tightly as English ones were.

“No wonder they're cheap,” he said to Linda.

As they walked along the promenade they came across a German who, fishing in the shallow water, had landed what looked like a small slimy octopus. A little boy came along and examined it with wide eyes as it lay in its purple colour on the stone, dying.

“What's that?” said Linda's mother.

“It looks like an octopus,” Ralph said. His mother-in-law was stopping now and again to undo her laces, and then changing her mind and tying them again.

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