Authors: Jeanette Winterson
Pew and I were sitting in The Razorbill, that is to say, The Rock and Pit.
There was nobody else there. Pew had a key to The Rock and Pit, and he liked to go drinking on Saturday night, because, he said, that’s what Pews had always done. Until I came to live with him, he had let himself in, and drunk alone from a barrel of rum behind the bar so thick with dust that if you stood a glass on the top of it, the glass sank like a ghost ship in the fog.
I was given a packet of crisps on Saturday nights, even though Miss Pinch had warned that it might lead to trouble, though she did not say what kind of trouble. The trouble seemed to be me.
I had met her earlier in the day, as I was pushing our
sack truck along the pot-holed road to the town. Her hand hung over me like one of those mechanical grabbers in scrapyards. She said she was Disappointed that I hadn’t been to school, and that this would Hinder my Progress. Immediately I thought of a bright blue boat beaten back by the waves. How could I be both the boat and the waves? This was very deep.
‘You are not listening to me,’ she said.
‘I am. It was the storm. We couldn’t leave the lighthouse.’
‘Captain Scott was not discouraged by the weather,’ said Miss Pinch. ‘He reached the South Pole in spite of the snow.’
‘But he died in his tent!’
‘Death, where is thy sting?’
I had no idea.
‘Take this,’ she said. ‘I have borrowed it from the Mobile Library.’
It was a copy of Captain Scott’s diaries.
I began to read it while I was waiting for Pew.
I do not regret this journey…We took risks…These rough notes must tell the tale.
I looked at the pictures of them, lost in their white-coloured nowhere.
‘Why did they die, Pew?’
‘They lost heart, child. Amundsen had beaten them to it, and when it came to the return, they had no fight
left in them. You must never lose heart.’
The moon was rising, full and clear and polar-white. The Introduction to the diaries told me that Scott had wanted to go to the Pole because there were so few adventures left. The world was nearly mapped in 1913. No one ever thought that in 1968 someone would go to the moon.
‘Do you see her?’ said Pew. ‘I can feel her the way the sea feels her. She pulls at me like the sea. That’s how I know when there will be a storm.’
I was thinking of Captain Scott, lying in his snowy ocean waste, the white moon on his face, and if he dreamed of being there – a place as cold as this, as remote, as beautiful, as unlikely.
Not earth-bound any more, he could wing the dogs in a wind-ruff of fur, husky-haloed through two miles or so of gravity, then out, free, barking at the moon, half-wolf, half-tame, going home to the white planet he had seen shining in their orange eyes, paws hock-deep in snow.
No one knows what happens at the end of the journey. No one knows where the dead go.
Pew and I had gone inside, and we were sitting side by side as we always did, staring straight ahead, as we always did. The electricity had long since been disconnected. You might think it a grave of a place, but not Pew.
‘Every table was full,’ said Pew, ‘and the men were three-deep at the bar.
‘Some nights, Dark himself would come in, and the men made room for him to sit alone, where we sit now, and then the talk would dry up like a harbour at low tide, although Dark looked at no man and spoke to no man.
‘He brought his Bible with him, and it was always his own story he read – not that you would know it, being so poorly brought up – but the story he read was of the first Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis.
‘That tower was built as high as the moon, so that the people who built it could climb up and be like God. When it came shattering down, the people were scattered to the ends of the earth, and they no more understood each other’s language than they understood the language of fishes and birds.
‘I said to him one day, “Why do you read that story, Minister?” He said to me, “Pew, I have become a stranger in my own life.”’
‘Did he say that, Pew?’
‘He did, child, certain as you and I sit here tonight.’
‘You weren’t born then.’
‘Was I not?’
‘And you couldn’t see his Bible because you are blind.’
Logic never had any effect on Pew.
‘A stranger in his own life, he said, and the fire blazing up, and the men with their backs to him like a sea wall, and a mist outside the place, a mist thick as doubt, and the moon hidden, for all that she was full. He loved the moon, did Babel Dark. My barren rock, he called her, and said sometimes that he would be happy there, pale tenant of the sun.’
‘Did he say that?’
‘Pale tenant of the sun. I never forgot.’
‘How old are you, Pew?’
Pew said nothing. Drank up his rum and said nothing. Then we carefully washed that one remaining glass under the one remaining cold tap, put the glass back on the one remaining woodworm-eaten shelf, and left it there, gleaming in the moonlight that shone through the window, before we walked slowly down the cinder-track to the lighthouse.
Dark woke out of his sleeping nightmare and into his waking nightmare.
He had dreamed of a door closing and closing.
He woke, his hand on his stomach, his fingers aware of the tip of his erection. He moved his hand outside of the sheets.
It was early. He could hear someone downstairs cleaning out a fire-grate.
He let his mind drift out to sea, imagining Molly lying next to him. In Bristol, he had always woken first; he had trained himself to wake first, so that he could have the first moment of the day looking at her as she slept. He liked to draw his hand out from under the warm sheet, and into the cold air of the bedroom. Then he would hover his hand over the outline of her face, never touching her, but sensing with wonder, always with wonder, how his hand in the cold air could feel
the warmth coming off her face.
Sometimes she opened her mouth to breathe, and he felt the breath of her on him, the way Adam must have felt God breathing first life into his sleeping body.
But she was the one who slept. In the little death, he bent to kiss her and wake her, waking her with a kiss, so that her eyes opened sleepily, and she smiled at him.
She always smiled at him. He loved that.
And then he would take her in his arms, burying his face in her neck, and trying to identify all the different smells of her. She was clean but she smelled of herself, something like new hay with the flowers still in it, and something greener, sharper; nettles in the cut hay.
And apples, he thought, the white flesh and its faint pinkness.
When they had first met, he had taken her apple picking in his father’s garden. They had propped the ladder, spread the cloth on the ground, and he had been in shirt-sleeves, showing off by climbing higher and higher to get the ones she pointed at, the ones most out of reach.
They had picked nearly the whole tree, and in the afternoon, under the branches of the tree, they sat side by side sorting the best eaters, the best keepers, the apples for jelly, and those apples to be stewed right
away, their brown parts cut out with a sharp knife.
He was so aware of her next to him that his hands shook slightly as he pared and slit. She noticed this, because she liked his hands – the long fingers and squared nails.
Then the knife slipped, and he cut his ring finger, and straight away she had taken the knife from him, and chopped a ribbon from her dress to staunch the bleeding.
They had gone inside to find cold water. The kitchen was empty. She knew what to do, and soon she had him clean and bandaged.
‘Kiss it better,’ she said, bending her head like a bird drinking.
They looked at each other and didn’t move at all. Dark was conscious of the sunlight in stencilled squares on the stone floor, and the brightness of the sun through the thick glass, and the sun in her eyes, flecking the pupils, and shining on her as though the sun were showing him a secret door.
He put out his hand and touched her face.
Two days later they made love.
She had asked that it should be dark.
‘Like a bed trick,’ she had said, though this made him feel uneasy.
Measure for measure, he made his way to her house, showing no light at any window. He used his fingertips and the moon to find the door latch, and as he went in, he saw a lighted candle, in a holder, waiting for him on the bottom step of the wide wooden staircase. He took the candle and went slowly upstairs. He had no idea where he was going. He had never been to this house before.
His footsteps creaked on the landing. He startled a mouse on wainscot business. There were two oil paintings of a man and a woman in blue clothes, and a chest at the end of the corridor. By the chest, he thought he saw an open door. He went towards it.
His heart was beating. He was sweating. His groin was tight.
‘Put the candle on the chest.’
He did as he was told, and stepped into the dark room, lit only by a few low-burnt coals in the grate. The room was warm. The fire must have been lit for a long time and allowed to burn down.
He could see the bed.
‘Shall I take off my clothes?’
His top coat and waistcoat were easy enough. He pulled at his stock and tore it on the pin. His fingers had grown thick and clumsy, and he couldn’t undo the flap on his breeches. He didn’t curse or speak. He fought in silence with his reluctant outer skin, until he was in his stockings and shirt. Then he went to the bed.
He stood, hesitating, smiling, terrified. Molly sat up, her hair round her shoulders, and falling onto her breasts. Suddenly he was glad it was dark.
She took his shirt and helped him pull it over his head, and then she stared, frankly, at where he stood, raised, ready, unable to hide himself now.
She touched his sides with both hands, running her hands down over his buttocks and thighs, liking his firmness, and kissing his abdomen with her lips. She was confident and certain, while he sweated with desire and fear. Why was she so sure? He wondered, just for a second, if he was the first man who had come to her like this. Then he pushed the thought away and held her close to him.
They made love
Stomach to stomach, mouth on mouth, his feet across her shins and wrapped under her feet. Her hands on his back. His hands stroking her ears, his forearms on either side of her shoulders, like the forepaws of a hound. He could smell her excitement, and he bent his head to kiss the bolts of her collarbone.
He was in her, fused to her spine, so that the tip of him felt every vertebra, it seemed. He counted her to himself, travelling upwards, into her mouth, so that she could speak him. She said his name –
Travelling upwards so that he could lie behind her eyes and peep at the world through her. He looked at himself through her eyes – his neck, his chest, his eyes full of love. Was this him – through her eyes? Gentle, ardent, hesitant a little, his skin unwritten but filling up with this new language?
She turned him over. She sat across him. All of him was still. He let her move on him, and he didn’t understand when she took his hand and began to use his thumb, just above where he entered her. He let his hand be taught, and later, lying back, she taught him again, with his fingers this time. He was excited, happy, and when she fell asleep, he propped himself on one elbow, uncovering her, stroking her, memorising what he had learned.
And then the thought came again, like a bell out at sea getting closer; a warning bell, a ship arriving in the fog. Yes, he could see it clearly now.
He had not been her first lover.
What other lovers did she have? What other beds burned in dark rooms?
He did not sleep.
What story, child?
The story of Babel Dark’s secret.
It was a woman.
You always say that.
There’s always a woman somewhere, child; a princess, a witch, a stepmother, a mermaid, a fairy godmother, or one as wicked as she is beautiful, or as beautiful as she is good.
Is that the complete list?
Then there is the woman you love.
That’s another story.
It was 1851 and they were in Hyde Park.
Dark felt like a man raised from the dead.
He loved the noise, the excitement, the programme sellers, the postcard sellers, the unofficial stalls, the rogues in red neck-cloths, all chicanery and tongue-twisting. There were card sharps, jugglers, arias from the Italian opera, sign writers who would paint your name next to a gaudy impression of the Crystal Palace. There were miniature train sets that pulled wagons of dolls, and there were women dressed up as dolls, selling violets, selling buns, selling themselves. There were hawkers on boxes offering
the best, the finest, the one and only,
and there were girls who walked on their hands.
There were horses in heavy gear drawing beer barrels, and a man with a panther offering the Mystery
of India, and all this before they had queued to enter the Crystal Palace to see the wonders of the Empire.
It was their honeymoon, Dark and his new wife, though their honeymoon had had to be postponed because Dark had fallen ill as soon they had been married.
Now he was well, and wearing his Man of God clothes, he was respectfully motioned through wherever he went.
His wife was tired – she preferred life plain – and so Dark found her a chair and went to fetch each of them pork pies and lemonade. The Queen had been seen eating a pork pie, and suddenly they were fashionable. Rich and poor alike were eating penny pork pies.
Dark had paid his money, and was balancing the pies and the stoppered lemonade bottles, when he heard someone say his name – ‘Babel’.
The voice was soft, but it cut him cleanly, the way dressed stone is cut cleanly, and part of him fell away, and what was underneath was rough and unworked.
‘Molly,’ said Dark, as evenly as he could, but his voice was edged. She was wearing a green dress, her red hair wound in a plait. She was carrying a baby who put her hand out to Dark’s face.
Dark hesitated with his cargo and lemonade and pies. Would she sit down with him for a moment?
They went to a series of tables underneath a spread of palm trees brought from India, and as strange and heady to London as a primeval forest. They sat in rattan chairs, while an Indian waiter in a turban and sash served Coronation Chicken to a family of coal merchants from Newcastle.
‘Is the baby…?
‘She is quite well, Babel, but she is blind.’
And he was back in that terrible day, when she had come to him, soft and helpless, and he had…
She had another lover – he had always known it. He had watched her walking quickly at night to a house on the other side of town. She was cloaked, shrouded, she hadn’t wanted to be seen.
When she had gone in, Dark had stood outside the window. A young man came forward. She held out her arms. The man and Molly embraced. Dark had turned away, the pain in his head sharp in the brain-pan. He had felt his fear drop anchor in the soft parts of him. This was the fear that had been sailing towards him through the fog.
He had set off back to town. He didn’t expect to sleep. Soon he began to walk all night. He couldn’t remember when he had last slept.
He remembered laughing, and thinking that if he never slept he would be dead. Yes, he felt dead. He felt thin and empty like a dredged shell. He looked in the mirror and saw a highly polished abalone, its inhabitant gone, the shell prized for its surface. He always dressed well.
Molly had noticed the change in him. She tried to please him, and sometimes he could forget, but then, making love, at the moment when he was most naked, he heard the bell again, and sensed the ribbed ship with its ragged sails coming nearer.
He had never told her how he shadowed her steps, and when they had met one night at an inn called Ends Meet, and she had told him she was going to have a child, he had pushed her away and run through the town and locked himself in his rooms, wrapped in ragged sails.
On the walls of his rooms were the drawings that Stevenson had made of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. The lighthouse looked like a living creature, standing upright on its base, like a seahorse, fragile, impossible, but triumphant in the waves.
‘My seahorse,’ Molly had called him, when he swam towards her in their bed like an ocean of drowning and longing.
The sea cave and the seahorse. It was their game.
Their watery map of the world. They were at the beginning of the world. A place before the flood.
She had come to him that day, soft, open, as he sat motionless by his dying fire. She had begged him and he had hit her, hit two red coals into her cheeks, and then hit her again and again, and she had put up her arms to shield herself, and…
She broke his thought as she spoke.
‘From where I fell.’
He looked at the child, laughing, gurgling, unseeing, its hands on its mother’s face, its head turning to follow the sounds. Now he knew what he had done, and he would have given his life to put his hand inside time and turn it back.
‘I will do anything you ask. Tell me. Anything.’
‘We have no wants.’
‘Molly – am I her father?’
‘She has no father.’
Molly stood up to leave. Babel jumped after her, spilling the bottles of lemonade. Molly held the baby close, and the baby was quiet, feeling its mother’s alarm.
‘Let me hold her.’
‘So that you can dash her to the ground?’
‘I have thought of you every day since I left. And I have thought of your child. Our child, if you tell me so.’
‘I did tell you so.’
‘I never thought I would see you again.’
‘Nor I you.’
She paused, and he remembered her that night, that first night, with the moon shining white on her white skin. He put out his hand. She stepped back.
‘It is too late, Babel.’
Yes, too late, and he had made it too late. He should go back, he knew his wife would be waiting for him. He should go back now. But as he took a deep breath to go, his will failed him.
‘Spend this day with me. This one day.’
Molly hesitated a long time, while the crowds passed about them, and Dark, looking down, not daring to look up, saw reflections in the polished toe-pieces of his boots.
She spoke like someone far off. Someone who was a country where he was born.
‘This day then.’
He shone. She made him shine. He took the baby and held it by the hissing engines, and close against the
smooth traction of the wheels. He wanted her to hear pistons pumping and coal shovelling and water drumming against the sides of the giant copper boilers. He took her tiny fingers and ran them over brass rivets, steel funnels, cogs, ratchets, a rubber horn that trumpeted when she squeezed it in her tiny hands, Dark’s hands over hers. He wanted to make for her a world of sounds that was as splendid as the world of sight.
Some hours later, he saw Molly smile.
Late now. Crowds were drifting towards the bandstand. Dark bought the baby a clockwork bear made of real bearskin. He rubbed it against her cheek, then he wound it up and the bear brought two cymbals together in its paws.
It was time for him to go, he knew it was, but still they stood together, as everyone else parted to pass them. Then silently, without him asking, Molly opened her bag and gave him a card with her address in Bath.
She kissed his cheek, and turned away.
Dark watched her go, like watching a bird
the horizon, that only you can see, because only you have followed it.
Then she was gone.
Late now. Shadows. The flare of gas lamps. His reflection in every pane of glass. One Dark. A hundred. A thousand. This fractured man.
Dark remembered his wife.
He pushed his way down the galleries and back to where he had left her. She was still there, hands folded in her lap, her face a mask.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘I was delayed.’
‘For six hours.’