Read The Bell Online

Authors: Iris Murdoch

The Bell (28 page)

BOOK: The Bell
It was then that she began to want to go to London. Since her arrival at Imber she had not for one second seriously contemplated leaving. But now, driven by this fit of solipsistic melancholy one degree more desperate, she felt the need of an act: and it seemed that there was only one act which she could perform, to take the train to London. The idea sent the blood rushing to Dora's head. She felt her cheeks hot, her heart beating: at once more real. She put on her coat and examined her handbag. She had plenty of money. Nothing stopped her from going, she was free. She sat down on the bed.
Ought she to go? Paul would be very upset. But in fact her relations with Paul had been so wretched lately, they could hardly be worse, and she reflected vaguely that the shock might do him good. More deeply, she felt a wish to punish him. He had been, during the last two days, consistently unpleasant to her. Dora felt the need to show him that she could still act independently. She was not his slave. Yes, she would go: and the idea, now it existed more fully for her, was delightful. She would not stay long of course - perhaps not even overnight. She would make no drama of it. She would come back, jauntily, casually, almost at once. She needn't plan that now. But what a tonic it would be for her - and what a slap in the face for Imber! She packed a small bag and set off unobtrusively on foot for the station, leaving a note saying ‘Gone to London'.
Dora had of course not troubled to inform herself about trains. It turned out, however, that she was lucky and no sooner had she arrived, rather breathless, at the station than a fast London train came in. She was amazed to find, when she stepped out onto the platform at Paddington, that it was not yet midday. She stood for a while and let the crowds course round her, delighting in the rush and jostling, the din of voices and trains, the smells of oil and steam and dirt, the grimy hurly-burly and kind, healing anonymity of London. Already she felt more herself. Then she went to a telephone box and rang Sally's number. Sally, who was now teaching at a primary school, was at home at irregular times and might just be caught. But there was no answer. Dora felt both glad and sorry since she could now with a clearer conscience telephone Noel.
Noel was in. His voice over the wire sounded delighted, ecstatic. She must come to lunch, she must come round at once, the place was full of delicious things, he had no work that afternoon, nothing could be nicer. Overjoyed, Dora jumped into a taxi. She soon arrived at the house where Noel lived, a great cream-coloured early Victorian mansion with an immense portico in a tree-shaded cul-de-sac near the Brompton Road. Noel lived in the top flat.
The meeting was enthusiastic. Dora could hardly get through the door fast enough. She hurled herself into Noel's arms. He swung her round, lifted her off her feet, threw her onto the sofa, and bounded about her like a large dog. They were laughing and talking at once at the tops of their voices. Dora was quite astounded at how pleased she was: ‘Gosh!' she cried, ‘All that noise does me good.'
‘No wonder,' said Noel, ‘after that ghastly convent. Let me look at you. Yes, paler, thinner. Dear darling, I
so glad to see you!' He pulled her to her feet and kissed her boisterously.
Dora looked up at him. She touched his plain, irregular features, pulled his floppy colourless hair, and squeezed his enormous friendly hands. How very large he was. And my God, he was easy on the nerves. ‘Give me a drink,' she commanded.
Noel's flat was modern. A grey fitted carpet covered all the floors. White painted book-cases contained books on economics and foreign travel. Three walls were yellow and the fourth covered with a black and white paper that looked like a grove of bamboos. Everything was shining and very clean. A hi-fi gramophone in light walnut, piled high with a glossy litter of long-playing records, occupied one corner. The enormous divan was covered with a Welsh bedspread of geometrical design and garnished with innumerable cushions of different greens. The chairs were made of curly sagging steel and exquisitely comfortable. As she heard the chink of ice cubes and smelt the aroma of the lemons which Noel was slicing with a sharp knife Dora spread out her arms. Noel made her feel that it was no scandal to go on being young. She announced, ‘I'm going to have a bath.'
‘Darling, you do that small thing!' said Noel. ‘I'll bring you your drink in the bathroom. I suppose the sybaritic practice of bathing was forbidden at the convent.'
At Imber the immersion heater was turned on twice a week and a bath list, pinned to the notice board by Mrs Mark, made known the order of priority. Dora, who was only interested in baths as a luxury and not as a necessity had missed hers. Now in Noel's pink and white bathroom she was running the steamy water, pouring in the odoriferous bath salts, and seeking in the airing cupboard for a warm and downy towel. She was already in when Noel arrived with the cocktail.
‘Now tell me all about it,' said Noel, sitting on the edge of the bath. ‘Was it hell?'
‘It's not too bad actually,' said Dora. ‘I'm only up here for the day, you know. I felt I needed a change. All the people are nice. I haven't seen any nuns yet, except one that lives outside. But there's a horrible feeling of being watched and organized.'
‘How's dear old Paul?'
‘He's fine. Well, he's been beastly to me for two days, but I expect that's my fault.'
‘There you go!' said Noel. ‘Why should everything be your fault? Some things are perhaps, but not every damn thing. The trouble with Paul is he's jealous of your creative powers. As he can't create anything himself he's determined you shan't.'
‘Don't be silly,' said Dora. ‘I haven't any creative powers. And Paul's terribly creative. Could you hold my glass and pass me the soap?'
‘Well, don't let's start on Paul,' said Noel. ‘But about those religious folk. Don't let them give you a bad conscience. People like that adore having a sense of sin and living in an atmosphere of emotion and self-abasement. You must be a great catch. The penitent wife and so forth. But don't give in to them. Never forget, my darling, that what they believe just isn't true.'
‘You're drinking my drink!' said Dora. ‘No, I suppose it isn't true. But there's something decent about them all the same.'
‘They may be nice,' said Noel, ‘but they're thoroughly misguided. No good comes in the end of untrue beliefs. There is no God and there is no judgement, except the judgement that each one of us makes for himself; and what that is is a private matter. Sometimes of course one has to interfere with people to stop them doing things one dislikes. But for Christ's sake let their minds alone. I can't stand complacent swine who go around judging other people and making them feel cheap. If
want to wallow in a sense of unworthiness, let them; but when they interfere with their neighbours one ought positively to
‘You sound quite passionate!' said Dora. ‘Pass me the towel.'
‘Yes, I am a bit worked up,' said Noel. ‘Don't get cold, sweetie. I'll make you another drink and put on my new long-player. It's just that I hate to think of those people making you feel a miserable sinner when in fact it's not all that much your fault at all. And the idea of old Paul playing the aggrieved and virtuous spouse makes me want to vomit. I wonder has that place got any news value. Potty communities are good for a feature. Shall I come and give it the once over?'
‘Oh dear no!' said Dora, shocked. ‘You certainly mustn't! They're getting a new bell soon, the Abbey, that is, a big bell to hang in the tower, and I think there'll be a statement to the press about that. But otherwise nothing happens at all and they'd be awfully upset if anyone came to write them up. They really
nice, Noel.'
‘Well, if you say so,' said Noel. ‘Listen to this, angel.'
As Dora slipped into her clothes she heard the steady expectant beat of a drum. Then into the deep rhythmic sound were woven the unpremeditated and protesting cries of a clarinet and a trumpet. The beat, more insistent than ever, was hidden in the increasingly complex golden nostalgic din. The music flowered, rampageous, irresistible. Dora issued eagerly from the bathroom and joined Noel who was already pacing panther-like about the room. They began to dance, very slowly at first, solemn, holding each others' eyes. Slight movements of head and hand and hip expressed their communion with the rhythm. Then their feet began to move faster, weaving a complicated pattern upon the carpet as Noel, moving to the beat, expelled the chairs and tables from the middle of the room. Then he reached out his hand to Dora, swung her towards him, tossed her away again, turned her and twirled her until she was a kaleidoscope of rippling skirts and flashing thighs and golden brown hair tumbled across the face.
When the record ended they fell exhausted to the floor, laughing with triumph after the ritual solemnity of the dance. Then when their laughter ended they regarded each other, sitting entwined upon the floor, still hand in hand. ‘Fight!' said Noel. ‘Don't forget, fight! And now, dearest creature, I must leave you to go and get the only thing which is missing, which is a bottle of wine. I won't be a moment. You know, the off-licence is just round the corner. Let me fill your glass again. You can amuse yourself meanwhile getting the things out of the fridge.'
He kissed Dora and went away down the stairs singing. When he had gone she sat for a while on the floor, sipping her replenished drink and enjoying the sense of sheer present physical being which the dance had given her. Then she got up and went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. A delicious meal seemed to be pending. She took out several kinds of salami, stuffed olives, pâté, tomatoes, pickled cucumber, various cheeses, a hand of bananas, and a large thin piece of red steak. Dora, who liked her meals to tail away in a series of small treats, looked at the scene with satisfaction. She put the things on the table, and assembled round them the garlic, pepper, oil, vinegar, French mustard, sea salt, and all the apparatus she knew Noel liked to cook with. At his simple and appetizing repasts he was always the chef and Dora his admiring assistant. She felt extremely gay.
The telephone began ringing in the living-room. Absently Dora went back and lifted the receiver. Her mouth full of a handful of cocktail biscuits, she was not able to enunciate at once, and the caller at the other end had the first word. Paul's voice said: ‘Hello, is that Brompton 8379?'
Dora froze. She swallowed the biscuits and held the phone away from her, staring at it as if it were a small savage animal. A silence followed.
Then Paul said, ‘Hello, could I speak to Mr Spens?' Dora could just hear him speaking. Cautiously she brought the phone back to her ear. ‘This is Paul Greenfield. Is my wife there?'
Dora knew that voice of Paul's, stiff, trembling with nervous anger. She hardly dared to breath in case it should be audible. It seemed that Paul must know that she was there at the other end of the line. She couldn't bring herself to put the phone down. If she kept quiet perhaps Paul would think the number was unobtainable.
Then Paul said ‘Dora.'
As Dora heard her name her eyes closed, and her face wrinkled up in pain. But she kept icily still, scarcely breathing.
‘Dora,' said Paul again, ‘Dora, is that you?'
Suddenly in the silence that followed another sound could be heard along the wire. For a moment Dora could not think what it was. Then she recognized it as a blackbird singing. The bird uttered a few notes and then was quiet. The telephone box at Imber was downstairs in the hallway by the refectory. The blackbird must be just outside on the terrace. It sang again, its song sounding clear and intolerably remote and strange in the silence after Paul's voice. Dora put the phone down noisily on the table. She went into the kitchen. She looked with a sort of amazement at the collection of food, at the half-open door of the fridge, at her own half-finished drink. She went back and replaced the receiver.
She returned to the kitchen. The piece of steak, uncurling from its frozen state, lay raw and oozing, its wrapping paper, stained red, adhering to it. The garlic, the olives, the oil, suddenly looked to Dora like part of some dreary apparatus of seduction. Here too, she felt, she was being organized. The sense of unreality returned; after all, there were no meetings and no actions. She stood for a while miserable and irresolute. She no longer wanted to stay and have lunch with Noel. She wanted to get away from the telephone. She picked up her coat and her bag, scribbled a note to Noel, and began to trail down the stairs. She knew Noel wouldn't mind. That was a wonderful thing about Noel, and made him so unlike Paul; he never bothered about little things such as one's coming to lunch with him and then suddenly deciding to go away.
Dora reached the corner of the road and hailed a taxi. As the taxi was turning round to join her at the kerb she saw Noel running towards her with the bottle in his hand. He reached her just as the taxi drew up.
‘What's got you now?' said Noel.
‘Paul rang up,' said Dora.
‘My God!' said Noel. ‘What did you say to him?'
‘I said nothing,' said Dora. ‘I put down the receiver.'
‘Is he on his way here?'
‘No, he rang from the country. I heard a bird singing. And I didn't reply so he can't know.'
‘Well, what about our lunch?' said Noel.
‘I don't feel like it any more,' said Dora. ‘Please forgive me.'
‘I thought you were a fighter,' said Noel.
‘I can't fight,' said Dora. ‘I never could tell the difference between right and wrong anyway. But it doesn't matter. Sorry to rush away. I enjoyed our dance.'
‘Me too,' said Noel. ‘All right, off you go. But don't forget, what these people believe isn't true.'
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