Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (9 page)

“Aren't you comfortable?” said Linda to her.

“Not really,” said her mother. “I've brought the wrong shoes.”

“Maybe we should go and buy you some sandals,” said Linda.

“If you like. I don't like this place. I should never have come. You young people should have come on your own.”

“Not at all,” said Linda, glancing at Ralph. “Once we get you proper shoes you'll be all right.”

They left the promenade and laid their jackets down under the trees. All along the rocks half-naked people were roasting themselves in the sun. Some of them were big-bellied like beached whales, some slim and elegant. They all lay with their eyes shut, hands folded across their chests, like effigies. The sun was the single overwhelming god they all worshipped.

“Did you notice,” said Linda, “that all the big cars are German. The Yugoslavs have small cars. The Germans have big limousines.”

“I hadn't noticed,” said Ralph.

He had an image in his mind of a world totally devoted to tourism. In that world everyone would be a tourist and no one knew anyone else. There were no indigenous peoples or if there were they were like the Anglo-Saxons under the Normans, hidden in the woods, peering out now and again at the strangers who had taken over their land. Wherever one walked in this world one met only tourists and these tourists were intent on tanning themselves as much as they could
and then in the evening sitting out at tables, drinking peacefully and meditatively. Many people could not communicate at all for the languages would all be different and certain places such as famous towers, waterfalls, castles, would become the temples of a new religion. He closed his eyes against the blinding vision and listened to Linda as she said to her mother, “I'll take you along to a shop and find you more comfortable shoes. Ralph, you don't need to come.”

Ralph lay in the sun while they were away. Once he watched a party of youths supervised, he thought, by a German, and Germans themselves, horse-playing on the pier, wearing only bathing trunks. As he watched he saw a group of four dragging a protesting youth towards the edge of the pier, then with one huge heave throwing him into the glittering water. He still watched as the youth rose from the water, shaking his head like a dog, and the four who had thrown him in returned to their leader having forgotten already what they had done. They and the leader laughingly pored over a map. After a while the youth came out of the water and padded damply towards the rest of the party, forlorn and loitering, hangdog and ashamed. He joined in with the others and was soon laughing as well, but Ralph as novelist knew that he had not forgotten the incident. In fact he would always remember it: such insults were his destiny. He was the perpetual outsider, wheedling his way back into the group, but never wholly accepted; rather like himself in his own youth.

From such loneliness had he been delivered by Linda into the real world, its terror and its banality. They were together till death did them part, the major death which followed all the minor sharp-toothed deaths. Often her commonsense moved him with its divine accuracy, and her country was a country that he wished that he could inhabit.

He watched as the two of them came towards him along the promenade, Linda holding her mother by the arm. The latter had changed into sandals and was carrying a small parcel which contained, probably, the shoes she had removed.

When they sat down beside him, Linda said, “It was a big shop but their stuff isn't all that good, and quite expensive. Mother doesn't like her sandals either.”

“They're not right,” said her mother. “I wish I hadn't come here. You young people should be enjoying yourselves.”

Here in Yugoslavia she looked old and shrunken, not at all the dominant figure which she was in her own house. She seemed threatened by the nakedness of youth, the sun, the alien languages. There was nothing more threatening than people bent exclusively on pleasure, Ralph thought.

“She thought this German we saw was speaking English,” said Linda laughing, “and talked to him about her life as a nurse. But he shook his head at her, waved his hands, and finally she had to give up.”

“Well, it did sound like English,” said her mother protestingly.

“And anyway,” said Linda, “why should he be interested in your nursing career?”

“What's that?” said Ralph suddenly seeing a quick flicker along the wall of the pier, and the disappearance of it among the hot stones.

“Probably a lizard,” said Linda. “I've seen a few of them.”

Ralph kept his eye on the fissure but the lizard, if lizard it had been, didn't appear again. Confused by the sun and by the variety of things, he wished to be back in his study, remote and cool. The tourist seemed to him to be like the ordinary person, living on what the world supplied from moment to moment, having no central obsession, drifting, seeing now and again a castle or a harbour, which illuminated his day, like a bird which fed on the crumbs scattered for him, not wondering where they came from. How could people live like that? How could people live with no pattern, coming across by chance a new experience, a new incident, accident about which they might talk. His own ghostly figure in his study was more substantial.

Yes, the whole world was a tourist centre, people seeking the final view, the final picturesque castle, the final experience. But as soon as one was seen, tasted, there was another waiting to be investigated, each in its lumpy dumbness, a question-mark waiting to be illuminated. So too was history. The light of brisk consciousness lit Rome, Greece, for a moment then passed on elsewhere.

His mother was removing fragments of stone, sand, from her sandals, and had already loosened them. And Linda was gazing with serene profile towards the water where some youths were swimming.

After a while they ate some food which Linda had bought when looking for the shoe shop. There was an unusual kind of jam which neither Ralph nor his mother-in-law liked. The food tasted different, foreign, unappetizing.

The two of them decided to take their mother back to the hotel and then they themselves would walk among the shops. They left her lying on the bed, the
Woman's Realm
beside her, the pigeons chasing each other on the balcony. They felt guilty leaving her but she insisted that that was what she wanted, she would be all right. Her legs were swelling again. “You young ones must see the place. Don't mind me.”

And they went out into the blinding sunlight which was as direct and powerful as a drawn sword, bouncing back from the water and the stone. A primitive place this, old houses with flaking balconies, women sitting on them, perhaps a rose flowering here and there, in a bright flash of red. The walls of the houses were cracked as if the sun had been chewing them for years. Washing hung from some of the balconies. Poor country, how much poorer it was than Britain.

“I wish I had something to read,” Ralph said to Linda. “I shouldn't have given away all my papers and magazines last night.”

At the back of the town they found what seemed to be the main street, if street it could be called, for it was more like a sunbaked winding path. There were a large number of gift shops, each with its obligatory portrait of Tito, the great man dressed in military uniform, sometimes staring sternly ahead of him, sometimes writing at a desk, his head bowed. In the shops there were many leather goods, and animals made of wood, elephants, horses, dogs. In others there was cheap jewellery. In a chemist's shop they saw an old Yugoslavian woman arguing with a shop assistant who listened smilingly. Ralph would have loved to understand what they were talking about but could only listen and try to interpret the gestures and expressions. He felt uncomfortable and frustrated behind the alien wall of words.

They found a small shop which sold paintings, many of them of the women of the country, others of landscapes brightly and garishly coloured. He was interested to find that the country seemed to be both Catholic and Communist at the same time.

An Italian shouted from an ice-cream shop, in English, “Best ice cream. Best ice cream.” He leaned through the window of his shop towards a girl who had stopped to listen. Suddenly he began to throw lumps of ice cream high into the air, catching them again in the scoop with the greatest of ease. His skill was amazingly deft as all the time he was shouting, “Best ice cream, best ice cream.” They bought some of the ice cream but didn't like it. It had a greyish appearance and melted rapidly in the intense sunshine, which was now hammering at them with blinding force.

“Don't you think we should go back to the hotel,” said Ralph who was sweating profusely. But Linda didn't want to. She could stand the heat much better than he could. They wandered into a museum and strolled from floor to floor. There were ancient Yugoslav artefacts, stone coffins, inscriptions in Latin, some of the words of which had been eroded. There were paintings of Yugoslavs in national costumes. There were seats and chairs covered in velvet, and a room devoted to the Second World War, with maps and charts, an arrow pointing to where the Headquarters had been, and others to where the major battles had been fought.

When they left the museum they went round to the back — Linda in search of a toilet — and found themselves in a garden of roses, fragrant and opulent, while set in the wall were stone heads of Romans, with empty staring eyes.

Linda didn't know any Latin but Ralph knew some and he could decipher some fragments of the inscriptions. It seemed to be a fragmented country, historically broken. There were few Yugoslavs to be seen; he felt like an invader of the country, as if he had no right to be there. And furthermore he missed his reading, for though he had inquired at all the kiosks he could find no books or magazines or newspapers in English.

Linda spent a lot of time trying on a ring but decided in the end against buying it.

In this land Ralph felt more dependent on her than ever before. With terror he imagined her disappearing and himself searching in alien police stations, among alleys, in formal offices, and not being able to find her. He was disappointed in the town, all these slums, cracked and broken, the vases with roses on the balconies. So meagre everything was, so dull and poverty stricken. They couldn't find a restaurant with proper English food anywhere. He wandered about as in a dream, a tired hot automation.

He began to invent stories. In one there were two schoolmistresses who had come to Yugoslavia and who hated each other. One was weak, one was strong. The strong one disappeared and the weak one eventually found her hiding among the roses and the heads of Roman emperors. She slapped her face in anguish and dislike. In another a little boy swam out towards a ghostly yacht in the bay, freeing himself from his estranged quarrelling parents. It seemed to him that he must create fables, tales, fantasies, to make the world real, otherwise there would only be the gift shops, the baked clayey roads, the shops in which patient Yugoslavs sat, immured in their foreign language, watching the rich strutting tourists.

Eventually they returned to the hotel as the heat had become fierce and oppressive. They lay down on their bed side by side and after a while fell asleep.

For a day or two this pattern continued, though sometimes the two of them would sit in their mother's room in the afternoon, sheltering from the heat. While the other two talked, Ralph would find himself reading the
Woman's Realm
, as there was no other reading matter available. He read a story about a blind woman who had been involved in a plot against her life in Greece, a plot labyrinthine and almost impenetrable: and another one set in a hospital. He read the letters' page in which girls confided that they had fallen in love with married men, and asked what they should do about it. Others complained of boy friends and husbands having affairs. What was to happen about houses after separation? Some houses were in the husband's name, some in the wife's. There were so many people to whom so many horrible things happened. Some were given no housekeeping money, some wondered about their children who were on drugs or sniffing glue, some wrote in to say that their husbands were now retired and following them about the kitchen. It was a catalogue of minor tragedies. Young girls wrote in to say that they were too shy to talk to anyone; how could they improve their conversational techniques? Others worried about the spots on their faces, the shape of their noses, the size of their breasts. They cried out for the definitive remedy for fatness, thinness, ugliness, they looked for the ultimate oracle. Ralph turned over the pages casually: everywhere there was a cry for help.

He disliked more than anything his lack of reading material. He had never been so long without books. He wanted to know what was happening in the Falklands, he wanted to know about Yugoslavia itself. Who were the people who governed it? What did they think of Britain? What sort of education system did they have? Did they have a Health
Service? What did the people do with themselves, for he never saw any of them in the vicinity of the hotel which was totally devoted to tourists. Could he hear any of their stories, listen to any of their native songs or ballads? He was reduced to the meagre minimal sights of the day, watching the Germans draw out from the kerb in their large gleaming limousines.

Once, on a day which was heavy and cloudy with lightning and thunder and rain, he saw three men dressed in long white gowns dancing about in the teeming puddles, one with a rose in his hand. Were they tourists? Yugoslavs? There was no way of knowing. They seemed to be drunk and hugely enjoying themselves. Then they got into an old car and drove away, regally waving.

And as they sat in their mother's room she would tell them stories of her past while resting her legs, which were wreathed with varicose veins, and swollen.

“When I was a nurse in Edinburgh we had this strict matron. She wouldn't allow us to meet our boy friends. But we went out just the same through the windows. One night when we were coming back to the hospital we heard her talking to this man in the garden. She had a boy friend of her own and never told us. She was dressed in her best, too.

Other books

The Sound of Sleigh Bells by Cindy Woodsmall
Genocidal Organ by Project Itoh
A Song in the Night by Bob Massie
All the Things You Never Knew by Angealica Hewley
Warrior's Wife by Lorraine, Evanne