Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
‘As you’re going back to Australia anyway
I spoke lightly, without sarcasm, but she twisted a glance at me, as if my crassness was monstrous. I made the mistake of beginning to smile, of calling her hand. Suddenly she was on her feet. Crossing the path, she walked out under the trees on to the open grass. After a few steps there she stopped.
If it was plausible as a reaction, it was far less so as a movement, and especially the stopping. Something about the way she stood, the direction she faced … and then in a flash I knew for certain. Beyond her stretched the grass, a quarter-mile of turf to the edge of the park. Beyond that rose the Regency façade, bestatued, many and elegantly windowed, of Cumberland Terrace.
A wall of windows, a row of statues of classical gods. They surveyed the park as if from a dress circle. And Alison’s complicity—she had led me out of the tea pavilion, she had chosen the seat we sat on, now she stood in full view waiting for me to join her. But once too often: I got up and went and stood in front of her, my back to the distant buildings. She lowered her eyes. It was not a difficult part to play: that bruised face, very near tears, but not in tears.
‘Now listen, Alison. I know who is watching us, I know where he’s watching, I know why we are here. So first. I’m nearly broke. I haven’t got a job, and I’m never going to have a job that means anything. Therefore you’re standing with the worst prospect in London. Now second. If Lily walked down that path behind us and beckoned to me … I don’t know. The fact that I don’t know and probably never shall is what I want you to remember. And while you’re about it, remember she isn’t one girl, but a type of encounter.’ I paused a moment. ‘Third. As you kindly told me in Athens, I’m not much good in bed.’
‘I didn’t say that.’
I stared at the top of her head, and knew behind my own the blank upper windows of Cumberland Terrace; those white stone divinities. ‘Fourth. He said something to me one day. About males and females. How we judge things as objects, and you judge them by their relationships. All right. You’ve always been able to see this … whatever it is … between us. Joining us. I haven’t. That’s all I can offer you. The possibility that I’m beginning to see it.’
‘Can I speak?’
‘No. You now have a choice. And you’d better make it very fast. It’s me or them. But either way, for good.’
‘You have no right—’
‘I have as much right as you did in that hotel room in Greece. Which is every right.’ I added, ‘And for exactly the same reason as you had then.’
‘It’s not the same thing.’
‘Oh yes it is. You have my part now.’ I gestured back towards Cumberland Terrace. ‘They have everything to offer. But I’m like you. I have only one. I can’t even blame you if you made my mistake—think their everything is a much better choice than any future we might have. The only thing, is you’ve got to bet. In their sight. And now.’
She glanced up at the houses, and I too turned a moment. The afternoon sun made them gleam with light, that Olympian elixir of serene, remote, benign light one sometimes sees in summer clouds.
She said, as if she rejected both them and me, ‘I’m going back to Australia.’
I had a sense of an abyss between us that was immeasurably deep, yet also absurdly narrow, as narrow as our real distance apart, crossable in one small step. I stared at her psychologically contused face, her obstinacy, her unmanoeuvrability. There was the smell of a bonfire. A hundred yards away a blind man was walking, freely, not like a blind man. Only the white stick showed he had no eyes.
I began to walk towards the path that led to the south gate home. Two steps, four, six. Then ten.
It sounded strangely peremptory, harsh; not in the least conciliatory. I checked momentarily and half looked round, then forced myself to move on. I heard her running, but did not turn until she was almost up to me. She stopped five or six feet away, breathing a little hard. She wasn’t pretending, she was going back to Australia—or at least to some Australia of the mind, of the emotions, to live the rest of her life without me. Yet she wouldn’t let me go like this. Her eyes were wounded, outraged. I was more than ever impossible. I took two steps back towards her, raised an angry finger.
‘You still haven’t learnt. You’re still playing to their script.’
She held my eyes, returning every degree of my bile.
‘I came back because I thought you’d changed.’
I do not know why I did what happened next. It was neither intended nor instinctive, it was neither in cold blood nor in hot; but yet it seemed, once committed, a necessary act; no breaking of the commandment. My arm flicked out and slapped her left cheek as hard as it could. The blow caught her completely by surprise, nearly knocked her off balance, and her eyes blinked with the shock; then very slowly she put her left hand to the cheek. We stared wildly at each other for a long moment, in a kind of terror: the world had disappeared and we were falling through space. The abyss might be narrow, but it was bottomless. Behind Alison I could see people stopped on the path. A man stood up from his seat. The Indian sat and watched. Her hand stayed over the side of her face and her eyes were growing wet, certainly with the pain and perhaps partly also with a sort of incredulity.
The final truth came to me, as we stood there, trembling, searching, between all our past and all our future; at a moment when the difference between fission and fusion lay in a nothing, a tiniest movement, betrayal, further misunderstanding.
There were no watching eyes. The windows were as blank as they looked. The theatre was empty. It was not a theatre. They had perhaps told her it was a theatre, and she had believed them, and I had believed her. Perhaps it had all been to bring me to this, to give me my last lesson and final ordeal … the task, as in
of turning lions and unicorns and magi and other mythical monsters into stone statues. I looked away from Alison and at those distant windows, the facade, the pompous white pedimental figures that crowned it. It was logical, the perfect climax to the godgame. They had absconded, we were alone. I was so sure, and yet… after so much, how could I be perfectly sure? How could they be so cold, so inhuman—so incurious? So load the dice and yet leave the game?
I looked back towards the path. The far more natural watchers there were strolling on, as if this trivial little bit of masculine brutality, the promised scene, had lost their interest also. Alison hadn’t moved, she still held a hand to her cheek, but now her head was bowed. There was a little shuddered outbreath as she tried to stifle the tears; then her voice, broken, hardly audible, in despair, almost self-amazed.
‘I hate you. I
I said nothing, made no move to touch her. After a moment she looked up and everything in her expression was as it had been in her voice and words: hatred, pain, every female resentment since time began. But I clung to something, the something I had never seen, or always feared to see, in those intense grey eyes, the quintessential something behind all the hating, the hurtness, the tears. A small step poised, a shattered crystal waiting to be reborn. She spoke again, as if to kill what I was looking at.
‘Then why wouldn’t you let me walk away?’
She shook her abruptly lowered head, as if the question was unfair.
‘You know why.’
I knew within two seconds of seeing you.’ I went closer. Her other hand went to her face, as if I might hit her again. ‘I understand that word now, Alison. Your word.’ Still she waited, face hidden in her hands, like someone being told of a tragic loss. ‘You can’t hate someone who’s really on his knees. Who’ll never be more than half a human being without you.’
The bowed head, the buried face.
She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.
eras amet qui numquam amavit
quique amavit eras amet