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Authors: A.S. Byatt

Tags: #Fiction

Little Black Book of Stories (4 page)

BOOK: Little Black Book of Stories
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PENNY HAD SET OFF in what she supposed to be the opposite direction. She walked very steadily, keeping to hedgerows and field-edge paths, climbing the occasional stile. For the first part of the walk she kept her eyes on the ground, and her ears on her own trudging, as it disturbed stubble and pebbles. She slurred her feet over vetch and stitchwort, looking back over the crushed trail. She remembered the Thing. She remembered it clearly and daily. Why was she in this part of the world at all, if not to settle with it? But she walked away, noticing and not noticing that her path was deflected by fieldforms and the lie of the land into a snaking sickle-shape. As the day wore on, she settled into her stride and lifted her eyes, admiring the new corn in the furrows, a distant skylark. When she saw the wood on the horizon she knew it was the wood, although she was seeing it from an unfamiliar aspect, from where it appeared to be perched on a conical hillock, ridged as though it had been grasped and squeezed by coils of strength. The trees were tufted and tempting. It was almost dusk when she came there. The shadows were thickening, the dark places in the tumbled undergrowth were darkening. She mounted the slope, and went in over a suddenly discovered stile.

ONCE INSIDE, she moved cautiously, as though she was hunted or hunting. She stood stock-still, and snuffed the air for the remembered rottenness: she listened to the sounds of the trees and the creatures, trying to sift out a distant threshing and sliding. She smelled rottenness, but it was normal rottenness, leaves and stems mulching back into earth. She heard sounds. Not birdsong, for it was too late in the day, but the odd raucous warning croak, a crackle of something, a tremulous shiver of something else. She heard her own heartbeat in the thickening brown air.

She had wagered on freedom and walked away, and walking away had brought her here, as she had known it would. It was no use looking for familiar tree-trunks or tussocks. They had had a lifetime, her lifetime, to alter out of recognition.

She began to think she discerned dark tunnels in the undergrowth, where something might have rolled and slid. Mashed seedlings, broken twigs and fronds, none of it very recent. There were things caught in the thorns, flimsy colourless shreds of damp wool or fur. She peered down the tunnels and noted where the scrapings hung thickest. She forced herself to go into the dark, stooping, occasionally crawling on hands and knees. The silence was heavy. She found things she remembered, threadworms of knitting wool, unravelled dishcloth cotton, clinging newsprint. She found odd sausage-shaped tubes of membrane, containing fragments of hair and bone and other inanimate stuffs. They were like monstrous owl-pellets, or the gut-shaped hair-balls vomited by cats. Penny went forwards, putting aside lashing briars and tough stems with careful fingers. It had been here, but how long ago? When she stopped, and sniffed the air, and listened, there was nothing but the drowsy wood.

Quite suddenly she came out at a place she remembered. The clearing was larger, the tree-trunks were thicker, but the fallen one behind which they had hidden still lay there. The place was almost the ghost of a camp. The trees round about were hung with threadbare pennants and streamers, like the scorched, hacked, threadbare banners in the chapel of the great house, with their brown stains of earth or blood. It had been here, it had never gone away.

Penny moved slowly and dreamily round, watching herself as you watch yourself in a dream, looking for things. She found a mock tortoiseshell hairslide, and a shoe-button with a metal shank. She found a bird-skeleton, quite fresh, bashed flat, with a few feathers glued to it. She found ambivalent shards and several teeth, of varying sizes and shapes. She found— spread around, half-hidden by roots, stained green but glinting white—a collection of small bones, fingerbones, tiny toes, a rib, and finally what might be a brain-pan and brow. She thought of putting them in her knapsack, and then thought she could not, and heaped them at the foot of a holly. She was not an anatomist. Some at least of the tiny bones might have been badger or fox.

She sat down on the earth, with her back against the fallen trunk. She thought that she should perhaps find something to dig a hole, to bury the little bones, but she didn’t move. She thought, now I am watching myself as you do in a safe dream, but then, when I saw it, it was one of those appalling dreams, where you are inside, where you cannot get out. Except that it wasn’t a dream.

IT WAS THE ENCOUNTER with the Thing that had led her to deal professionally in dreams. Something which resembled unreality had walked—had rolled, had wound itself, had
lumbered
into reality, and she had seen it. She had been the reading child, but after the sight of the Thing, she had not been able to inhabit the customary and charming unreality of books. She had become good at studying what could not be seen. She took an interest in the dead, who inhabited real history. She was drawn to the invisible forces which moved in molecules and caused them to coagulate or dissipate. She had become a psychotherapist “to be useful.” That was not quite accurate or sufficient as an explanation. The corner of the blanket that covered the unthinkable had been turned back enough for her to catch sight of it. She was in its world. It was not by accident that she had come to specialise in severely autistic children, children who twittered, or banged, or stared, who sat damp and absent on Penny’s official lap and told her no dreams, discussed no projects. The world they knew was a real world. Often Penny thought it was
the
real world, from which even their desperate parents were at least partly shielded. Somebody had to occupy themselves with the hopeless. Penny felt she could. Most people couldn’t. She could.

All the leaves of the forest began slowly to quaver and then to clatter. Far away there was the sound of something heavy, and sluggish, stirring. Penny sat very still and expectant. She heard the old blind rumble, she sniffed the old stink. It came from no direction; it was on both sides; it was all around; as though the Thing encompassed the wood, or as though it travelled in multiple fragments, as it was described in the old text. It was dark now. What was visible had no distinct colour, only shades of ink and elephant.

Now,
thought Penny, and just as suddenly as it had begun, the turmoil ceased. It was as though the Thing had turned away; she could feel the tremble of the wood recede and become still. Quite suddenly, over the tree-tops, a huge disc of white-gold mounted and hung, deepening shadows, silvering edges. Penny remembered her father, standing in the cold light of the full moon, and saying wryly that the bombers would likely come tonight, there was a brilliant, cloudless full moon. He had vanished in an oven of red-yellow roaring, Penny had guessed, or been told, or imagined. Her mother had sent her away before allowing the fireman to speak, who had come with the news. She had been a creep-mouse on stairs and in cubbyholes, trying to overhear what was being imparted, to be given a fragment of reality with which to attach herself to the truth of her mother’s pain. Her mother didn’t, or couldn’t, want her company. She caught odd phrases of talk—“nothing really to identify,” “absolutely no doubt.” He had been a tired gentle man with ash in his trouser turn-ups. There had been a funeral. Penny remembered thinking there was nothing, or next to nothing, in the coffin his fellow-firemen shouldered, it went up so lightly, it was so easy to set down on the crematorium slab.

They had been living behind the black-out anyway, but her mother went on living behind drawn curtains long after the war was over.

She remembered someone inviting her to tea, to cheer her up. There had been indoor fireworks, saved from before the war. Chinese, set off in saucers. There had been a small conical Vesuvius, with a blue touch-paper and a pink and grey dragon painted on. It had done nothing but sputter until they had almost stopped looking, and then it spewed a coil of fantastically light ash, that rose and rose, becoming five or six times as large as the original, and then abruptly was still. Like a grey bun, or a very old turd. She began to cry. It was ungrateful of her. An effort had been made, to which she had not responded.

The moon had released the wood, it seemed. Penny stood up and brushed leaf mould off her clothes. She had been ready for it and it had not come. She did not know if she had wanted to defy it, or to see that it was as she had darkly remembered it; she felt obscurely disappointed to be released from the wood. But she accepted her release and found her way back to the fields and her village along liquid trails of moonlight.

THE TWO WOMEN took the same train back to the city, but did not encounter each other until they got out. The passengers scurried and shuffled towards the exit, mostly heads down. Both women remembered how they had set out in the wartime dark, with their twig-legs and gas-masks. Both raised their heads as they neared the barrier, not in hope of being met, for they would not be, but automatically, to calculate where to go, and what to do. They saw each other’s face in the cavernous gloom, two pale, recognisable rounds, far enough apart for speech, and even greetings, to be awkward. In the dimness they were reduced to similarity—dark eyeholes, set mouth. For a moment or two, they stood and simply stared. On that first occasion the station vault had been full of curling steam, and the air gritty with ash. Now, the blunt-nosed sleek diesel they had left was blue and gold under a layer of grime. They saw each other through that black imagined veil which grief, or pain, or despair hang over the visible world. They saw each other’s face and thought of the unforgettable misery of the face they had seen in the forest. Each thought that the other was the witness, who made the thing certainly real, who prevented her from slipping into the comfort of believing she had imagined it, or made it up. So they stared at each other, blankly and desperately, without acknowledgement, then picked up their baggage, and turned away into the crowd.

PENNY FOUND that the black veil had somehow become part of her vision. She thought constantly about faces, her father’s, her mother’s—neither of which would hold their form in her mind’s eye. Primrose’s face, the hopeful little girl, the woman staring up at her from the glass case, staring at her conspiratorially over the clotted cream. The blonde infant Alys, an ingratiating sweet smile. The half-human face of the Thing. She tried, as though everything depended on it, to remember that face completely, and suffered over the detail of the dreadful droop of its mouth, the exact inanity of its blind squinneying. Present faces were blank discs, shadowed moons. Her patients came and went, children lost, or busy, or trapped behind their masks of vagueness or anxiety or over-excitement. She was increasingly unable to distinguish one from another. The face of the Thing hung in her brain, jealously soliciting her attention, distracting her from dailiness. She had gone back to its place, and had not seen it. She needed to see it. Why she needed it, was because it was more real than she was. It would have been better not even to have glimpsed it, but their paths had crossed. It had trampled on her life, had sucked out her marrow, without noticing who or what she was. She would go and face it. What else was there, she asked herself, and answered herself, nothing.

So she made her way back, sitting alone in the train as the fields streaked past, drowsing through a century-long night under the cabbage-rose quilt in the B&B. This time she went in the old way, from the house, through the garden-gate; she found the old trail quickly, her sharp eye picked up the trace of its detritus, and soon enough she was back in the clearing, where her cairn of tiny bones by the tree-trunk was undisturbed. She gave a little sigh, dropped to her knees, and then sat with her back to the rotting wood and silently called the Thing. Almost immediately she sensed its perturbation, saw the trouble in the branches, heard the lumbering, smelled its ancient smell. It was a greyish, unremarkable day. She closed her eyes briefly as the noise and movement grew stronger. When it came, she would look it in the face, she would see what it was. She clasped her hands loosely in her lap. Her nerves relaxed. Her blood slowed. She was ready.

PRIMROSE WAS in the shopping mall, putting out her circle of rainbow-coloured plastic chairs. She creaked as she bent over them. It was pouring with rain outside, but the mall was enclosed like a crystal palace in a casing of glass. The floor under the rainbow chairs was gleaming dappled marble. They were in front of a dimpling fountain, with lights shining up through the greenish water, making golden rings round the polished pebbles and wishing-coins that lay there. The little children collected round her: their mothers kissed them good-bye, told them to be good and quiet and listen to the nice lady. They had little transparent plastic cups of shining orange juice, and each had a biscuit in silver foil. They were all colours—black skin, brown skin, pink skin, freckled skin, pink jacket, yellow jacket, purple hood, scarlet hood. Some grinned and some whimpered, some wriggled, some were still. Primrose sat on the edge of the fountain. She had decided what to do. She smiled her best, most comfortable smile, and adjusted her golden locks. Listen to me, she told them, and I’ll tell you something amazing, a story that’s never been told before.

There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest . . .

Body Art

THERE WAS CUSTOMARY BANTER in the Gynae Ward at St. Pantaleon’s, about the race to bear the Christmas Day baby. Damian Becket, making his round after a sleepless night of blood and danger, didn’t join in. His newest patient was at the furthest end of the cavernous ward, in the curtained-off section reserved for those who had lost, or might lose, their babies, and those whose babies were damaged or threatened. Dr. Becket frowned a little as he strode between the beds, not quite hearing the mewing and gulping of the infants or the greetings of the women. He was frowning, partly because his patient’s new baby, a scrap of skin and bone in an incubator in Intensive Care, was not doing well. He was also frowning because he was so tired that he couldn’t remember his patient’s name. He did not like to admit a fault. The baby should be doing better. His brain should respond to his need to identify people.

He did not notice the stepladder until he had almost crashed into it. It was very tall, made of very shiny aluminium, and was directly under a circular fluorescent light fitting. He stopped suddenly, didn’t swear, felt sick because his reactions were slow, and stared upwards into the light, which blinded him. At the top of the ladder, perched precariously on tiptoe, was a figure in what seemed to be a haze of pale filmy garments. Its head was a ball of shiny white spikes. Dr. Becket said that the ladder was dangerous, and should be got out of the way. From the hands of the creature on top of it fluttered scarlet streamers, which glittered wetly in the too-much light. It emitted a ghostly tinkling.
What is going on?
asked Dr. Becket, staring grimly upwards.

The Staff Nurse said it was his idea, Dr. Becket’s idea. It was one of the art students, said Nurse McKitterick. Who had given up time and materials to cheer the place up in an original way. Dr. Becket had suggested it to the Art-College liaison committee, such a clever idea. . . . Yes, yes, yes, said Dr. Becket, I see. It looks a little dangerous. His tired senses took in the fact that the ward beyond the ladder was criss-crossed with a rainbow of coloured strips of plastic, and strips of Indian-looking cloth spangled with mirror-glass. There were also brass bells and clusters of those eye-shaped beads that ward off the Evil Eye. They did lighten the darkness of the upper vaulting. They also emphasised it.

His patient, whose name, Yasmin Muller, was of course written on the end of her bed, was sobbing quietly. She looked guilty when she opened her swollen eyelids and saw Dr. Becket’s severe young face staring down at her. She said she was sorry, and he said he didn’t see what she had to be sorry about. His fingers were gentle. He said she was rather a mess but it couldn’t be helped and would improve. She asked after her son. Dr. Becket said he was hanging in. He was strong, in so far as anyone born so much too soon could be strong. It is early days, said Dr. Becket, who had concluded that exact truthfulness was almost always the best path to take, though the quantity of truth might vary. We can’t tell yet what will happen, he said gravely, reasonably, sensibly. She saw him in a blur, for the first time really. A wiry man in his early forties, with a close-cut cap of soft dark hair, slightly bloodshot eyes and a white coat. She said, out of her own drugged drowsiness, “You look as though you should get some rest.” And he frowned again, for he did not like personal remarks, and he particularly did not like to appear to be in need of anything.

On his way back he remembered the ladder, and was about to side-step, when the whole rickety structure began to sway and then toppled. Damian Becket put out a steady hand, directed the thing itself away from the bed it threatened, and staggered back under the full weight of the falling artist, whose head hit his chest, whose skinny ankles were briefly flung over his shoulder. He clutched; his arms were full of light, light female flesh and bone, wound up in the rayon and muslin harem trousers and tunic, embroidered in gold and silver. His nose was in baby-soft, silver-dyed, spun-glass spikes of hair. Lumpy things began to bounce on the floor. Bitten apples, a banana, a bent box of chocolates. The woman in the nearest bed laid claim, loudly, to these last. “
That’s
where my chocolates went, I was looking all over, there was only a few left, I was blaming the cleaners.” The person in Dr. Becket’s arms had quite definitely lost consciousness. Her skin was cold and clammy; her breathing was irregular. There was not, of course, a spare bed to put her on, so he carried her along the ward, and out into the nurses’ area, followed by his entourage. There he laid her carefully across the desk, felt her pulse, flicked up her eyelids. She seemed bloodless and anaemic. Skinny.

“Just a simple faint,” he said, as she opened her eyes and took him in. “In need of a good meal, I’d say, whatever else.”

She had a nice little pointed face, rendered grotesque, in his view, by gold studs and rings in pierced lips and nostrils. She was white like milled flour. She sat up and pulled her shapeless garments around her. “I’m so sorry,” she said in a breathy voice. “I’m OK now. I hope nothing got broken.”

“Mr. Becket saved the situation,” said the Staff Nurse. “Did you slip?”

“I felt dizzy. I don’t like heights.”

“What were you doing up there in those impractical clothes, in that case?” asked Damian.

“It was a nice idea. To decorate the ward. I offered.”

She sat, slightly hunched, on the edge of the desk, swinging white-stockinged feet in streamlined modern nubuck clogs, with high wedged soles, open at the back. They were a dull crimson, stained with splashes of paint, or glue. Damian Becket bit back a remark about the idiocy of climbing ladders in such footwear, and asked instead, “When did you last eat?”

“I don’t really remember. I was late for here, so I just ran out.”

“I was going to take myself to the canteen for brunch. Would you like to join me?”

The nurses had piled the pocketed fruit on the desk beside her. She did not look at it.

“OK,” she said. “If you like.”

THEY WENT DOWN to the basement canteen in a service lift, accompanied by two green-gowned theatre porters and a trolley. The artist shivered, possibly because she was cold, which she should have been, in those clothes. He said:

“I’m Damian Becket. And you?”

“I’m Daisy. Daisy Whimple.”

They went into the canteen, which had moulded imitation wood plastic chairs,
circa
1960, and some unexpected prints, bright abstracts full of movement, on pale green walls. There was the usual smell of cooking fat, and a clatter of steel teapots. She hesitated in the doorway, and her white face grew whiter. He told her she didn’t look too good, found her a seat, and asked what he could bring her.

“Whatever. Well, preferably vegetables. I try to be a vegan.”

He came back with an English breakfast for himself and a vegetarian pasta dish for her, with a tomato side-salad. The pasta was pinkish and grey-green cork-screws, covered with some kind of cheese sauce. She ate the tomato, and turned the fusilli over and over with her fork, in the aimless way of children trying to heap leftovers to make them look smaller. Damian Becket, having eaten two sausages, two rashers of bacon, a fried egg, a heap of fried potatoes and a spoonful of baked beans, felt more human and studied Daisy Whimple more carefully. Anaemic almost certainly, anorexic possibly. An odd limpness in the wrists. He couldn’t really see her body in the furls of her clothing but he had held it in his arms, and it was young and tautly constructed. She had blue eyes and sky-blue painted lashes. Her veins in her thin arms were also very blue, as was a kind of traced tattoo like lacy flowers, that infested her lower arms like the evening mittens of Edwardian ladies. Her nails had been very neatly bitten.

“You should eat
something.
If you don’t eat meat and things, you know, you in fact need to eat
more,
to keep up the protein.”

“I’m sorry. It’s nice of you. I feel sick, that’s really the problem, with the ladder and all that.”

He asked her about herself. He was not good at this. He was a good doctor, but he had no skill at talking, no ease of manner, he didn’t in fact
want
to know the details of other human lives, except in so far as he needed to know facts and histories in order to save those lives. He was unaware that his conventional good looks were to a certain extent a substitute for amiability. Even now, he was thinking, if she talked a bit, she might lose her nervous tension and be able to be hungry. He imagined her from inside her body. Her cramped little stomach.

She said she was a student at the Spice Merchants’ College of Art. She had wanted to be a designer— well, it was all she had ever been any good at at school, her education had been—with a fleeting look up at his face—much interrupted, rather haphazard. But really she wanted to be an artist. She had taken part in one or two joint studio shows, with the people she worked with. Some people quite liked her stuff. Her voice trailed away. She said she’d seen the notice in the art college asking for volunteers to make things for the wards, and she thought it was a really nice idea. So she’d come. She was surprised there weren’t more. More students there, that was.

“Please try to eat something. Would you prefer anything else—fruit, a roll and butter, some cake—”

“Everything seems to turn my stomach. I’ll eat when I get back.”

He asked where she lived.

“Oh well, like, I sleep on my boyfriend’s studio floor. Lots of us do that. There’s lots of studio space in the old warehouses. Once they get done up of course they go for astronomic prices, the floor-space, but people like students and such get like temporary bases in the ones that aren’t done up—or not done up yet— you can get nasty surprises, your feet go through the floors and that kind of thing. But it’s OK, it’s a roof, and a workspace.”

She said, doubtfully, she’d better be going then. She was still forking over the fusilli. He remarked that they were nasty colours, unappetising really, fleshy and mouldy. This interested her. She reconsidered the pasta. You’re right, she told him, it’s meant to look appetising, tomato juice, spinach. It looks a bit disgusting. Dead, maybe. Lots of colours are sort of deathly. You have to be careful. He said he liked the brightness of her decorations. They were in keeping with the hospital’s modern art collection. Had she seen that? She said she had seen some of it, and meant to get a look at the rest while she was on this project. She stood up to go. She looked as pale as ever, no hint of any kind of pink, either deathly or flushed with energy. He said he would walk her to the door. She said he didn’t have to, she was fine. He said he was going home anyway.

They stopped in the new entrance lobby round the central stairwell. Stainless steel and glass doors and cubicles had been fitted incongruously into the late Victorian red brick. The brick was that very hot, peppery red of the Victorian Gothic. The brick walls were decorated with panels of encaustic tiles, depicting chillies and peppercorns, vanilla pods and tea-leaves, nutmegs and cloves. St. Pantaleon’s stood in Pettifer Street, just where it joined Whittington Passage. It was in Wapping, not so far from Wapping Old Stairs. It had once been a workhouse, which had become the Spice Merchants’ Lying-in Hospital to which was attached the Molly Pettifer Clinic for the Treatment of the Diseases of Women. It had become St. Pantaleon’s when the new National Health Service refurbished it in 1948, adding prefabricated temporary buildings which still stood. Sir Eli Pettifer had been a surgeon who had worked with the East India Company and with the British Army in India and in other places. He had written a treatise on the medical uses of culinary spices, and had made a fortune, through judicious speculation in spice cargoes. His daughter, Molly, had been one of the first generation of qualified women doctors, many of whom were allowed to train because a need was perceived for their ministrations in the Empire. Like many of them, Molly had been carried away by typhoid, whilst practising obstetrics and general surgery in Calcutta. Pettifer had endowed the hospital for her, and persuaded the spice merchants to endow it more richly still. He had left it his huge Collection, mostly of medical instruments and curiosities, with the injunction that it be made available for the instruction and amazement of the general public. It occupied several locked strong-rooms in the basement, whilst much of it was still crated, and much more heaped haphazardly in dusty display cabinets. One of the paintings from the Collection—a Dutch painting of an anatomy lesson being performed on a stillborn infant—had hung in the entrance hall. It had been Damian Becket’s idea to take it down and put it in the Hospital Committee Room, replacing it with a large abstract print by Albert Irvine, which he himself donated. Carried away by the brilliance of Irvine’s powerful brush-strokes, pink and gold, scarlet and royal blue, woven with emerald and flicks of white, he had talked the hospital into collecting other modern works, inviting sponsors, talking the artists into loans and concessions. Painted banners by Noel Forster floated down from the inside of the Gothic tower. Huge abstract visions of almost-vases and possibleseashores by Alan Gouk, in bristly slicks of paint, purple, sulphur, puce, lime, ran along the walls. In the corridors were Herons and Terry Frosts, Hodgkins and Hoylands. A Paolozzi machine-man glittered, larger than life, next to the reception pigeon-hole. There was an Art Committee, who usually followed Damian’s suggestions. They had also put him in charge of the Pettifer Collection, which he knew he should look at, go into, catalogue, arrange, only he was so tired, and there was so little money, and so many sick women, and he preferred his abstract modernist brightness. Indeed, “preferred” was too weak a word.

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