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Authors: Doris Lessing

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The Memoirs of a Survivor

BOOK: The Memoirs of a Survivor
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Doris Lessing was born in Persia in 1919, and spent her childhood on a farm in Rhodesia. In 1949 she arrived in England with the manuscript of her first novel,
The Grass is Singing
Other novels by Doris Lessing are
The Golden Notebook
the Children of Violence sequence
Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked
The Four-Gated City
Briefing for a Descent into Hell
The Summer Before the Dark
Her collections of short stories include
This Was the Old Chiefs Country
The Sun Between Their Feet
The Habit of Loving
A Man and Two Women
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man

‘An attempt at autobiography’, says Doris Lessing, describing
The Memoirs of a Survivor
which has qualities that make it seem like a fable or a magical tale, but is square in that ancient tradition where the storyteller’s leap into the fantastic has, by the rules, to be made from a ground of the most solid reality. Here, though, reality is the everyday of a few years hence, when barbarism is what is normal, and each of us has to fight for survival - men, women, and even little children who are so brutalized by necessity they are more frightening than the ferocious adults. From her windows the narrator watches things fall apart, sees the migrating hordes seethe past in search of the safety, the shelter, the good life that is always somewhere else - far from the anarchy of this emptying city where people huddle together in tribes for self-defense, where plants and animals are taking over deserted streets and houses. She also watches over the child Emily, brought into her care by a stranger who instructs: ‘Look after her, she is your responsibility,’ before vanishing. Emily - who, by the time the story is told, has become a beautiful world-worn young woman not yet sixteen - is also guarded by Hugo, half cat and half dog, ‘Emily’s animal’, the bizarre and lovable beast whose presence dominates this tale.

Inside the room whose windows look out on savagery is the entrance to ‘the place behind the wall’ where ordinary time can unexpectedly dissolve in the phantasmagoric scenes which may be painful evocations of the helplessness of a very small child, or imaginative reshapings of autobiographical experience, or the strong, sweet, powerful intimations of presences and beings not human who watch over us. This is a world that changes and dissolves as you watch, like clouds or like dreams… but what is it? Where? The author does not say, but while civilization crumbles to its end in the visible world, something very different is being
made, being brought to a conclusion there, in that hidden place, the hinterland to our daylight lives where, some people believe, our other selves also live, breathe, grow…

This darkly visionary metaphor of a book seems at first not what we might have expected from an author whose strength is her painstaking grasp of the commonplace, the acknowledgement of the lessons of the ordinary, but as we read on and recognize the Leasing landscape that lies so solidly under these spinning soap-bubbles reflecting the fragments of a collapsing world we have to say: Yes! Of course! - for
The Memoirs of a Survivor
develops themes already familiar from
The Four-Gated City
Briefing for a Descent into Hell
The Summer Before the Dark
and parts of
The Golden Notebook
This book is being described as the quintessence of Doris Lessing.


First published 1974 by the Octagon Press Ltd

This Picador edition published 1976 by Pan Books Lid,

Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PG

6th printing 1981

© The Octagon Press 1974

isbn 0 330 24623 2

Set, printed and bound in Great Britain by

Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading

This book is sold subject to the condition that it

shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold,

hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior

consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which

it is published and without a similar condition including this

condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

This book is for my son Peter

We all remember that time. It was no different for me than for others. Yet we do tell each other over and over again the particularities of the events we shared, and the repetition, the listening, is as if we are saying: ‘It was like that for you, too? Then that confirms it, yes, it was so, it must have been, I wasn’t imagining things.’ We match or dispute like people who have seen remarkable creatures on a journey: ‘Did you see that big blue fish? Oh, the one you saw was yellow!’ But the sea we travelled over was the same, the protracted period of unease and tension before the end was the same for everybody, everywhere; in the smaller units of our cities - streets, a cluster of tall blocks of flats, a hotel, as in cities, nations, a continent … yes, I agree that this is pretty highflown imagery considering the nature of events in question: bizarre fish, oceans, and so forth. But perhaps it wouldn’t be out of place here to comment on the way we -everyone - will look back over a period in life, over a sequence of events, and find much more there than they did at the time. This is true even of events as dispiriting as the litter left on a common after a public holiday. People will compare notes, as if wishing or hoping for confirmation of something the events themselves had not licensed - far from it, something they had seemed to exclude altogether. Happiness? That’s a word I have taken up from time to time in my life, looked at - but I never did find that it held its shape. A meaning, then; a purpose? At any rate, the past, looked back on in this frame of mind, seems steeped in a substance that had seemed foreign to it, was extraneous to the experiencing of it. Is it possible that this is the stuff of real memory? Nostalgia, no; I’m not talking of that, the craving, the regret - not that poisoned itch. Nor is it a question of the importance each one of us tries to add to our not very significant pasts:

was there, you know.
saw that.’
But it is because of this propensity of ours that perhaps I may be permitted the fancy metaphors. I
see fish in that sea, as if whales and dolphins had chosen to show themselves coloured scarlet and green, but did not understand at the time what it was I was seeing, and certainly did not know how much my own personal experience was common, was shared: this is what, looking back, we acknowledge first - our similarities, not our differences.
One of the things we now know was true for everybody, but which each of us privately thought was evidence of a stubbornly preserved originality of mind, was that we apprehended what was going on in ways that were not official. Not respectable. Newscasts and newspapers and pronouncements were what we were used to, what we by no means despised: without them we would have become despondent, anxious, for of course one must have the stamp of the official, particularly in a time when nothing is going according to expectation. But the truth was that every one of us became aware at some point that it was not from official sources we were getting the facts which were building up into a very different picture from the publicized one. Sequences of words were crystallizing events into a picture, almost a story:
And then this happened, and so-and-so said
.. but more and more often these were words dropped during a casual conversation, and perhaps even by oneself. ‘Yes, of course!’ one would think. That’s it. I’ve known that for some time. It’s just that I haven’t actually heard it put like that, I hadn’t grasped it…’
Attitudes towards authority, towards Them and They, were increasingly contradictory, and we all believed that we were living in a peculiarly anarchistic community. Of course not. Everywhere was the same. But perhaps it would be better to develop this later, stopping only to remark that the use of the word ‘it’ is always a sign of crisis, of public anxiety. There is a gulf between: ‘Why the hell do they have to be so incompetent!’ and ‘God, things are awful!’ just as ‘Things are awful’ is a different matter again from ‘It is starting here too,’ or ‘Have you heard any more about it?’

I shall begin this account at a time before we were talking about ‘it’. We were still in the stage of generalized unease. Things weren’t too good, they were even pretty bad. A great many things were bad, breaking down, giving up, or ‘giving cause for alarm’, as the newscasts might put it. But ‘it’, in the sense of something felt as an immediate threat which could not be averted, no.

I was living in a block of flats, which was one of several such blocks. I was on the ground floor, at earth-level; not as it were in some aerial village with invisible paths beaten from window to window by the inquisitive or the speculative eye among birds following their roads, while traffic and human affairs were far below. No, I was one of those who looked up, imagining how things might be up there in higher regions where windows admitted a finer air, and where front doors led to the public lifts and so down, down, to the sound of traffic, the smells of chemicals and of plant life … the street. These were not flats built by a town council, the walls scribbled with graffiti, the lifts stained with urine, the walls of lobbies smeared with excrement: these were not the vertical streets of the poor, but were built by private money, and were heavy, were settled widely over the valuable soil - the formerly valuable soil. The walls were thick, for families who could afford to pay for privacy. At the entrance was a largish hall, carpeted; and there were even stands of flowers, artificial but handsome enough. There was a caretaker. These blocks were models of what such buildings should be for solidity and decency.

But by that time, with so many people gone from the city, the families who lived in these blocks were not all the class for whom the buildings had been put up. Just as, for years, all through the eroding streets of the poor, empty houses had been taken over by squatters settling in families or groups of families, so that for a long time it had been impossible to say: This is a working class area, this is homogeneous - so, too, in these great buildings once tenanted only by the well-to-do, by the professional and business people, were now families or clans of poor people. What it amounted to was that a flat, a house, belonged to the people who had the enterprise to move into it. So, in the corridors and halls of the building I lived in you could meet, as in a street or a market, every sort of person.

A professor and his wife and his daughter lived in the twin set of rooms to mine down the corridor; immediately above me was a family of Indians with many relatives and dependants. I mention these two sets of people because they were closest to me, and because I want to make the point that it is not as if an awareness of what went on behind walls and ceilings had been lacking before the start of -what? Here I do find difficulty, because there is nothing I can pinpoint, make definite … now I am talking not about the public pressures and events we encapsulate in words like ‘They’, ‘Them’, ‘It’ and so on, but my own private discoveries which became so urgent and which were making such a claim on me at the time. I can’t say: ‘On such and such a day I knew that behind the wall a certain quality of life was being lived.’ Not even: ‘It was in the spring of that year that …’ No, the consciousness of that other life, developing there so close to me, hidden from me, was a slow thing, coming precisely into the category of understanding we describe in the word
with its connotation of a gradual opening into comprehension. Such an opening, a growing, may be an affair of weeks, months, years. And of course one can ‘know’ something and not ‘know’ it. (One can also know something and then forget it!) Looking back I can say definitely that the growth of that other life or form of being behind that wall had been at the back of my mind for a long time before I
what it was I had been listening to, listening for. But I can’t set down a date or a rime. Certainly this inner preoccupation predated the other, public, concern to which I’ve given, I hope it is not thought frivolously, the word ‘it’.

Even at my dimmest and thickest I did know that what I was becoming conscious of, what I was on the edge of
was different in quality from what in fact went on around me: above my head, the lively, busy, warming
family life of the Indians, who came, I believe, from Kenya; and different again from what I heard from the rooms inhabited by Professor White and his family - the wall of whose kitchen was also the wall of mine, through which, although it was a thick wall, we had news of each other.

Not realizing, or allowing myself to take in, the full implications of the fact that something was going on behind the wall of my living-room was because beyond it was a corridor. To be precise about it, what I was hearing was impossible. The sounds that come from a corridor, even a much-used one, are limited. It is for getting from one place to another: people walk along corridors singly, in pairs, in groups, talking or not talking. This corridor led from the front hall of the building, past the door into my flat, then on to the Whites’ front door, and so around to the flats on the east side of the ground floor of the building. Along that corridor went the Professor and the members of his family and their visitors, myself and my visitors, the two families from the east side and their visitors. So it was used a good deal. Often one had to be aware of feet and voices, distanced by the solidity of that wall, but I would say to myself: ‘That must be the Professor, surely he is early today?’ Or: ‘That sounds like Janet back from school.’
Yet there did come that moment when I had to admit that there was a room behind that wall, perhaps more than one, even a set of rooms, occupying the same space as, or rather overlapping with, the corridor. The realization of what I was hearing, the knowledge that I had been aware of something of the kind for a long time, became strong in me, at the time that I knew I would almost certainly have to leave this city. Of course by now everyone had a sense of this: knowing that we would have to leave was not confined to me. This is an example of something I have already mentioned: an idea coming into everyone’s mind at the same time and without intervention from the authorities. That is to say, it was not announced through the loudspeakers, or on public platforms, in the newspapers, on the radio, the television. God knows that announcements of all kinds were continually being made: yet these were not absorbed by the populace as was this other information. On the whole people tended to disregard what the authorities said - no, that is not quite true. The public information was discussed and argued and complained about, but it had a different impact. Suppose I said it was regarded almost as an entertainment? - no, that is not right either. People did not act on what they heard, that is the point: not unless they were forced to. But this other information, coming from no one knew where, the news that was ‘in the air’, put everyone into action. For instance, weeks before the official announcement that a certain basic foodstuff was to be rationed, I ran into Mr Mehta and his wife in the hall - the old couple, the grandparents. They were dragging between them a sack of potatoes; I, too, had a supply. We nodded and smiled, mutually commending our foresight. Similarly I remember Mrs White and myself exchanging good mornings on the paved area in front of the main entrance. She said, quite casually: ‘We shouldn’t leave things too long.’ And I replied: ‘We’ve got some months yet, but we ought to be making preparations, I agree.’ We were talking about what everyone was, the need to leave this city. There had been no public intimation that people should leave. Nor, for that matter, was there ever any recognition on the part of the authorities that the city was emptying. It might be mentioned in passing, as a symptom of something else, as a temporary phenomenon, but not as the big fact in our lives.
There was no single reason for people leaving. We knew that all public services had stopped to the south and to the east, and that this state of affairs was spreading our way. We knew that everyone had left that part of the country, except for bands of people, mostly youngsters, who lived on what they could find: crops left ungathered in the fields, animals that had escaped slaughter before everything had broken down. These bands, or gangs, had not, to begin with, been particularly violent or harmful to the few people who had refused to leave. They even ‘cooperated with the forces
of law and order’, as the newscasts put it. Then, as food became more scarce, and whatever the danger was that had first set populations on the move away from it came closer, the gangs became dangerous, and when they passed through the suburbs of our city, people ran inside and stayed out of their way.

This had been going on for months. Warnings, first by rumour, then through the news-sources, that gangs were moving through such and such an area where the inhabitants had gone behind their locked doors until the danger had passed; that new gangs were approaching this or that area, where people would be well advised to look after then-lives, and their property; that another district, formerly dangerous, was now safe again - such alarms were part of our lives.

Where I lived, on the north side of the city, the streets were not roadways for the migrating gangs until a long time after the southern suburbs had become accustomed to them. Even when parts of our own town took anarchy for granted, we in the north talked and thought of ourselves as immune. The trouble would vanish, dissolve, take itself off… Such is the strength of what we are used to, the first two or three appearances of gangs in our northern suburbs seemed to us isolated incidents, not likely to be repeated. Slowly, we came to understand that it was our periods of peace, of normality, and not the days of looting and fighting, which were going to be unusual now.

And so - we would have to move. Yes, we would go. Not quite yet. But it would soon be necessary, and we knew it… and all this time my ordinary life was the foreground, the lit area - if I can put it like that - of a mystery that was taking place, had been going on for a long time, ‘somewhere else’. I was feeling more and more that my ordinary daytime life was irrelevant. Unimportant. That wall had become to me - but how can I put it? -I was going to say, an obsession. That word implies that I am ready to betray the wall, what it stood for, am prepared to resign it to the regions of the pathological? Or that I felt uneasy then or now about my interest in it? No, I was feeling as if the centre of gravity of my life had moved, balances had shifted somewhere, and I was beginning to believe - uncomfortably, still - that what went on behind the wall might be every bit as important as my ordinary life in that neat and comfortable, if shabby, flat. I would stand in my living-room -the colours were predominantly cream, yellow, white, or at least enough of these to make it seem that walking into the room was walking into sunlight - I would wait there, and look quietly at the wall. Solid. Ordinary. A wall without a door or a window in it: the door from the lobby of the flat was in the room’s side wall. There was a fireplace, not in the middle of it but rather to one side, so that there was a large expanse of this wall quite empty: I had not put up pictures or hangings. The ‘white’ of the walls had darkened and did not give off much light unless the sunlight lay on it. Once there had been wallpaper. It had been painted over, but under the paint outlines of flowers, leaves, birds were still visible. When in the mornings the sun did fall on part of that wall, the half-obliterated pattern showed so clearly that the mind followed suggestions of trees and a garden into a belief that the wash of light was making colour - greens, yellow, a certain shade of clear shell pink. It was not a high wall: the ceilings of the room were a comfortable height.

As you can see, there is nothing I can think of to say about this wall that could lift it out of the commonplace. Yet, standing there and looking at it, or thinking about it while I did other things about the flat, the sense and feel of it always in my mind, was like holding an egg to one’s ear that is due to hatch. The warm, smooth shape on one’s palm is throbbing. Behind the fragile lime which, although it can be crushed between two fingers, is inviolable because of the necessities of the chick’s time, the precise and accurate time it needs to get itself out of the dark prison, it is as if a weight redistributes itself, as when a child shifts position in the womb. There is the faintest jar. Another. The chick, head under its wing, is pecking its way out, and already the
minutest fragments of lime are collecting on the shell where in a moment the first black starry hole will appear. I even found I was putting my ear to the wall, as one would to a fertile egg, listening, waiting. Not for the sounds of Mrs White’s, or the Professor’s, movements. They might have just gone out or just come in; the ordinary sounds of the corridor might in fact be there. No, what I was hearing was from somewhere else. Yet they were ordinary sounds in themselves: furniture being shifted; voices, but from very far off; a child crying. Nothing clear. But they were familiar, I had been hearing them all my life.

One morning I stood with my after-breakfast cigarette -I allowed myself this one real cigarette a day - and through clouds of blue coiling smoke looked at how the yellowness of the sun stretched in a foreshortened oblong, making the wall itself seem higher in the middle than at its ends. I looked at the glow and the pulse of the yellow, looked as if I were listening, thinking how, as the seasons changed, so did the shape and extent and position of this patch of morning light - and then I was through the wall and I knew what was there. I did not at that first time achieve much more than that there were a set of rooms. The rooms were disused, had been for some time. Years, perhaps. There was no furniture. Paint had flaked off the wall in places and lay in tiny shards on the floorboards with scraps of paper and dead flies and dust. I did not go in, but stood there on the margin between the two worlds, my familiar flat and these rooms which had been quietly waiting there all this time. I stood and looked, feeding with my eyes. I felt the most vivid expectancy, a longing: this place held what I needed, knew was there, had been waiting for - oh yes, all my life, all my life. I knew this place, recognized it, and before I had actually absorbed the information through my eyes that the walls were much higher than mine, there were many windows and doors, and that it was a large, light, airy, delightful flat, or house. In a further room I glimpsed a painter’s ladder; and then, just as the sunlight faded out on my wall when a cloud absorbed the sun. I saw someone in
white painter’s overalls lifting a roller to lay white paint over the faded and stained surface.

I forgot this occurrence. I went on with the little routines of my life, conscious of the life behind the wall, but not remembering my visit there. It was not until a few days later that I again stood, cigarette in hand, in the mid-morning hour, looking through drifting smoke at the sunlight laid there on the wall, and I thought: Hello! I’ve been through there, of course I have. How did I manage to forget? And again the wall dissolved and I was through. There were more rooms than I had suspected the first time. I had a strong sense of that, though I did not see them all. Nor did I, on that occasion, see the man or the woman in overalls. The rooms were empty. To make them habitable, what work needed to be done! Yes, I could see that it would take weeks, months … I stood there marking fallen plaster, the corner of a ceiling stained with damp, dirty or damaged walls. Yet it was on that morning when I was beginning to understand how much work needed to be done that I saw, just for the ghost of a second - well, what? But I can hardly say. Perhaps it was more of a feeling than something seen. There was a sweetness, certainly - a welcome, a reassurance. Perhaps I did see a face, or the shadow of one. The face I saw clearly later was familiar to me, but it is possible that that face, seen as everything ended, appears in my memory in this place, this early second visit: it had reflected itself back, needing no more to use as a host or as a mirror than the emotion of sweet longing, which hunger was its proper air. This was the rightful inhabitant of the rooms behind the wall. I had no doubt of it then or later. The
inhabitant; for surely she could not live, never could have lived, in that chill empty shell full of dirty and stale air?

When I again knew myself to be standing in my living-room, the cigarette half burned down, I was left with the conviction of a promise, which did not leave me no matter how difficult things became later, both in my own life, and

in these hidden rooms.

• • • • •

The child was left with me in this way. I was in the kitchen, and, hearing a sound, went into the living-room, and saw a man and a half-grown girl standing there. I did not know either of them, and advanced with the intention of clearing up a mistake. The thought in my mind was that I must have left my front door open. They turned to face me. I remember how I was even then, and at once, struck by the bright, hard, nervous smile on the girl’s face. The man -middle-aged, ordinarily dressed, quite unremarkable in every way - said: ‘This is the child.’ He was already on the way out. He had laid his hand on her shoulder, had smiled and nodded to her, was turning away.

I said: ‘But surely…’

‘No, there’s no mistake. She’s your responsibility.’

He was at the door.

‘But wait a minute…’

‘She is Emily Cartright. Look after her.’And he had gone.

We stood there, the child and I, looking at each other. I remember the room had a wash of sun: it was still morning. I was wondering how the two had got in, but this already seemed irrelevant, since the man had gone. I now ran to the window: a street with a few trees along the pavement, a bus-stop with its familiar queue of people waiting, waiting; and on the wide pavement opposite, underneath the trees there, some children from the Mehtas’ flat upstairs playing with a ball - dark-skinned boys and girls, all dazzling white shirts, crisp pink and blue dresses, white teeth, gleaming hair. But the man I was looking for - not a sign.

I turned back to the child; but now I took my time over it, and was wondering what to say, how to present myself, how to handle her - all the pathetic little techniques and tricks of our self-definition. She was watching me, carefully, closely: the thought came into my mind that this was the expert assessment of possibilities by a prisoner observing a new jailer. Already my heart was heavy: anxiety! My intelligence was not yet making much of what was happening.

‘Emily?’ I said tentatively, hoping that she would choose to answer the questions in my mind.

‘Emily Mary Cartright,’ she said, in a manner that matched her bright impervious voice and smile. Pert? At any rate a hard, an enamelled presence. I was trying to get past, or around it; I was conscious that I was desperately making signals - my smile, gestures - that might perhaps reach something softer and warmer which must be there behind that cold defence of hers.
‘Well, will you sit down? Or can I make you something to eat? Some tea? I do have some real tea, but of course…’
‘I’d like to see my room, please,’ she said. And now her eyes were, quite without her knowing it, an appeal. She needed, she needed very much, to know what walls, what shelter, she was going to be able to pull around her, like a blanket, for comfort.
“Well I said, ‘I haven’t thought yet, I don’t quite … I must…’ Her face seemed to shrivel. But she preserved her bright desperation. ‘You see,’ I went on, ‘I wasn’t expecting … let’s see now.’ She waited. Stubbornly, she waited. She knew that she was to live with me. She knew that her shelter, her four walls, her den, the little space that was hers and which she could creep into was here somewhere. There’s the spare room,’ I said. ‘I call it that. But it isn’t very…’ But I went, and I remember how helplessly and unhappily I did, into the little front lobby, and through it to the spare room.
The flat was on the front of the building, the south side. The living-room took up most of the space: its size was why I had taken the flat. At the end away from the entrance lobby, so that you had to walk through the living-room to get to it, was the kitchen, on the corner of the building. This was quite large, with cupboards and storage space, and was used for eating as well. From the entrance lobby went two doors, one to the living-room, one to the room I called a spare room. This room was connected with the bathroom. My bedroom was in the front of the building, reached from the living-room. The bathroom, lobby, spare room, took up the same space as my bedroom, which was not large. It will be seen that the spare room was very small. It had a small high window. It was stuffy. There was no way of making it
attractive. I never used it except for keeping things in or, with apologies, for a friend staying the night.
‘I’m- sorry that it is so small and dark … perhaps we should …’
‘No, no, I don’t mind,’ she said, in the cool, jaunty way which was so much hers; but she was looking at the bed with longing, and I knew she had found her refuge, hers, here it was at last. ‘It’s lovely,’ she said. ‘Oh yes, you don’t believe me, you don’t know what…’ But she left the possibility of an explanation of what she had been experiencing, and waited, her whole body expressing how she wanted me to leave.
‘And we’ll have to share the bathroom,’ I said.
‘Oh, I’ll be ever so tidy,’ she assured me. Tm really very good, you know, I won’t make a mess, I never do.’
I knew that if I were not in this flat, if she did not feel she must behave well, she would be between the blankets, she would already be far away from the world.
‘I won’t be a tick,’ she assured me. ‘I must get tidy. I’ll be as quick as I can.’
I left her and waited for her in the living-room, first standing by the window looking out, wondering perhaps if fresh surprises were on the way. Then I sat down, rather, I imagine, in the attitude of The Thinker, or some such concentrated pose.
Yes, it was extraordinary. Yes, it was all impossible. But after all, I had accepted the ‘impossible’. I lived with it. I had abandoned all expectations of the ordinary for my inner world, my real life in that place. And as for the public, the outer world, it had been a long time since that offered the normal. Could one perhaps describe that period as ‘the ordinariness of the extraordinary? Well, the reader should have no difficulty here: these words are a description of the times we have lived through. (A description of all life? -probably, but it is not much help to think so.)
But these words convey perfectly the atmosphere of what was happening when Emily was brought to me. While everything, all forms of social organization, broke up, we 
lived on, adjusting our lives, as if nothing fundamental was happening. It was amazing how determined, how stubborn, how self-renewing, were the attempts to lead an ordinary life. When nothing, or very little, was left of what we had been used to, had taken for granted even ten years before, we went on talking and behaving as if those old forms were still ours. And indeed, order of the old kind - food, amenities, even luxuries,
exist at higher levels, we all knew that; though of course those who enjoyed these things did not draw attention to themselves. Order could also exist in pockets, of space, of time - through periods of weeks and months or in a particular district. Inside them, people would live and talk and even think as if nothing had changed. When something really bad happened, as when an area got devastated, people might move out for days, or weeks, to stay with relatives or friends, and then move back, perhaps to a looted house, to take up their job, their housekeeping - their order. We can get used to anything at all; this is a commonplace, of course, but perhaps you have to live through such a time to see how horribly true it is. There is nothing that people won’t try to accommodate into ‘ordinary life’. It was precisely this which gave that time its peculiar flavour; the combination of the bizarre, the hectic, the frightening, the threatening, an atmosphere of siege or war - with what was customary, ordinary, even decent.
For instance, on the newscasts and in the papers they would pursue for days the story of a single kidnapped child, taken from its pram perhaps by some poor unhappy woman. The police would be combing suburbs and the countryside in hundreds, looking for the child, and for the woman, to punish her. But the next news flash would be about the mass death of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. We still believed, wanted to believe, that the first, the concern about the single child, the need to punish the individual criminal, even if it took days and weeks and hundreds of our hard-worked police force to do it, was what really represented us; the second, the catastrophe, was, as such items of news had always been forpeople not actually in the threatened area, an unfortunate and minor - or at least not crucial - accident, which interrupted the even flow, the development, of civilization.
This is the sort of thing we accepted as normal. Yet for all of us there were moments when
the game we were all agreeing to play
simply could not stand up to events: we would be gripped by feelings of unreality, like nausea. Perhaps this feeling, that the ground was dissolving under our feet, was the real enemy … or we believed it to be so. Perhaps our tacit agreement that nothing
or at least, nothing irrecoverable, was happening, was because for us the enemy was Reality, was to allow ourselves to know what was happening. Perhaps our pretences, everyone’s pretences, which in the moments when we felt naked, defenceless, seemed like play-acting and absurd, should be regarded as admirable? Or perhaps they were necessary, like the games of children who can make play-acting a way of keeping reality a long way from their weaknesses? But increasingly, all the time, one had to defeat the need, simply, to laugh: oh, not a good laughter, far from it. Rather bellows and yells of derision.
For instance again: in the same week as a horde of two hundred or so hooligans had surged through our neighbourhood, leaving a corpse on the pavement across the street from my windows, leaving smashed windows, looted shops, the remains of bonfires, a group of middle-aged women, self-appointed vigilantes, were making formal protests to the police about an amateur theatricals group some youngsters had set up. This group had written and put on a play describing the tensions inside an ordinary family living in a block of flats like ours, a family which had taken in half a dozen refugees from the eastern counties. (As long as travellers were with the migrating gangs they were ‘hooligans’, but when they hived off to find shelter with some family or household they were ‘refugees’.) A household that had held five people suddenly held twelve, and the resulting frictions led to adultery and an incident where ‘a young girl seduced a man old enough to be her grandfather’ as the good
women indignantly described it. They managed to organize a not-very-well-attended meeting about the ‘decay of family life’, about ‘immorality’, about ‘sexual indulgence’. This was comic, of course. Unless it was sad. Unless - as I’ve suggested - it was admirable; a sign of the vitality of the said ‘ordinary life’ which would in the end defeat chaos, disorder, the malevolence of events.

Or what can one say about the innumerable citizens’ groups that came into existence right up to the end, for any ethical or social purpose you could think of: to improve old-age pensions, at a time when money was giving way to barter; to supply vitamin tablets to school children; to provide a visiting service for housebound invalids; to arrange formal legal adoption for abandoned children; to forbid the news of any violent or ‘unpleasant’ event, so as not to ‘put ideas into young people’s heads’; to reason with the gangs of hooligans as they came through the streets, or alternatively, to birch them; to go around and about the streets, exhorting people ‘to restore a sense of decency to their sexual practices’; to agree not to eat the meat of cats and dogs; and so on, and on, and on - there was really no end to it. Farce. Spitting into a hurricane; standing in front of a mirror to touch up one’s face or straighten a tie as the house crashes around one; extending the relaxed, accommodating hand of the Royal handshake to a barbarian who will certainly bend and take a good bite out of it… these similes come to mind. Analogies were being made then, of course, in the conversations that were our meat and drink, and by the professional comedians.

In such an atmosphere, in a time of such happenings, that an unknown man should arrive in my home with a child, saying she was my responsibility, and then leave without further remark, was not as strange as all that.

When Emily at last came out of her bedroom, having changed her dress and washed from her face what looked like an assault of miserable tears, she said: The room will be a bit small for Hugo and me, but it doesn’t matter a bit.’

I saw that she had beside her a dog, no a cat. What was it?

An animal, at any rate. It was the size of a bulldog, and shaped more like a dog than a cat, but its face was that of a cat.
It was yellow. Its hide was harsh and rough. It had cat’s eyes and whiskers. It had a long, whip-like tail. An ugly beast. Hugo. She sat herself down carefully in my deep old sofa opposite the fireplace, and the beast got up beside her, and sat there, as close as he could get, and she put her arm about him. She looked at me, from beside the animal’s cat face. They both looked at me, Hugo with his green eyes and Emily with her defensive, shrewd hazel eyes.
She was a large child, of about twelve. Not a child, really; but in that half-way place where soon she would be a girl. She would be pretty, at least good looking. Well-made: she had small hands and feet, and good limbs that were brown with health and sun. Her hair was dark and straight, parted on one side, held with a clip.
We talked. Or rather, we offered each other little remarks, both waiting for that switch to be turned somewhere which would make our being together easier. While she sat there silent, her brooding dark gaze, her mouth with its definite possibilities of humour, her air of patient, thoughtful attention made her seem someone I could like very much. But then, just as I was sure she was about to respond in kind to my attempts, my feeling of pleasure in her potentialities, there would come to life in her the vivacious, self-presenting little
- the old-fashioned word was right for her: there was something old-fashioned in her image of herself. Or perhaps it was someone else’s idea of her?
She chattered: I’m awfully hungry, and so is Hugo. Poor Hugo. He hasn’t eaten today. And neither have I, if the truth must be told.’
I made my apologies and hastened out to the shops to buy whatever cat or dog foods I could find for Hugo. It took some time to find a shop which still stocked such things. I was an object of interest to the shop assistant, an animal-lover, who applauded my intention to stand up for my right
to keep ‘pets’ in these days. I also interested one or two of the other customers, and I was careful not to say where I lived, when one asked me, and went home by a misleading route, and made sure I was not being followed. On the way I visited several shops looking for things I usually did not bother with, they were so hard to track down, so expensive. But at last I did find some biscuits and sweets of a quite decent quality - whatever I thought might appeal to a child. I had plenty of dried apples and pears, and stocks of basic foodstuffs. When at last I got back home she was asleep on the sofa, and Hugo was asleep beside her. His yellow face was on her shoulder, her arm was around his neck. On the floor beside her was her little suitcase, as flimsy as a small child’s weekend case. It had in it some neatly folded dresses and a jersey and a pair of jeans. These seemed to be all she owned in the way of clothes. I would not have been surprised to see a teddy or a doll. Instead there was a Bible, a book of photographs of animals, some science-fiction paperbacks.
I made as welcoming a meal as I could for both her and Hugo. I woke them with difficulty: they were in the exhausted state that follows relief after long tension. When they had eaten they wanted to go off to bed, though it was still mid-afternoon.
And that was how Emily was left with me.
In those first few days she slept and she slept. Because of this, and because of her invincible obedience, I was unconsciously thinking of her as younger than she was. I sat waiting quietly in my living-room, knowing that she was asleep, exactly as one does with a small child. I did a little mending for her, washed and ironed her clothes. But mostly, I sat and looked at that wall and waited. I could not help thinking that to have a child with me, just as the wall was beginning to open itself up, would be a nuisance, and in fact she and her animal were very much in the way. This made me feel guilty. All kinds of emotions I had not felt for a long time came to life in me again, and I longed simply to walk through the wall and never come back. But this would
be irresponsible; it would mean turning my back on my responsibilities.
It was a day or two after Emily came: I was beyond the wall, and I kept opening doors, or turning the corners of long passages to find another room or suite of rooms. Empty. That is, I did not see anyone, although the feeling of someone’s presence was so strong I even kept turning my head quickly, as if this person could be expected to step out from behind a wall in the few seconds my back had been turned. Empty but inhabited. Empty but furnished… wandering there, between tall white walls, from room to room, I saw that the place was filled with furniture. I knew these sofas, these chairs. But why? From what time in my life did they date? They were not my taste. Yet it seemed that they had been mine, or an intimate friend’s.
The drawing-room had pale pink silk curtains, a grey carpet with delicate pink and green flowers laid on it, many small tables and cabinets. The sofas and chairs were covered in tapestry, had pastel cushions placed exactly here and there. It was a room too formal and too self-sufficient ever to have been mine. Yet I knew everything in it. I walked there, slowly filling with irritated despair. Everything I looked at would have to be replaced or mended or cleaned, for nothing was whole, or fresh. Each chair would have to be re-covered, for the material was frayed. The sofas were grimy. The curtains had little rents and the roughened patches moths leave, each with its minuscule holes. The carpet showed its threads. And so with all the many rooms of this place, which was giving a feeling of things slipping away from me through clumsy and stiff fingers. The whole place should be cleared out, I kept saying to myself. It should be emptied, and what was in it now should be burned or thrown away. Bare rooms would be better than this infinitely genteel shabbiness, the gimcrackery. Room after room after room - there was no end to them, or to the work I had to do. Now I kept looking for the empty room that had in it a painter’s ladder and a half-glimpsed figure in overalls: if I could see this, it would mean a start
had been made. But there were no empty rooms, every one was crammed with objects, all needing attention.
It must not be thought that all my energy was going into this hidden place. For days at a time I did not think of it. The knowledge of it, being there, in whatever shape it was using for the moment, came tome in flashes during my ordinary life, more and more often. But I would forget it, too, for days. When I was actually through that wall, nothing else seemed real; and even the new and serious preoccupations of my life - Emily and her attendant animal -slid away, were far off, were part of another distant life which did not much concern me. And this is my difficulty in describing that time: looking back now it is as if two ways of life, two lives, two worlds, lay side by side and closely connected. But then, one life excluded the other, and I did not expect the two worlds ever to link up. I had not thought at all of their being able to do so, and I would have said this was not possible. Particularly now, when Emily was there; particularly when I had so many problems that centered on her being with me.
The main problem was, and remained for some time, that she was so infinitely obliging and obedient. When I got up in the morning she was already up, dressed in one of her neat little dresses, the clothes of a good child whose mother needs her children to be well dressed, even remarkably so. Her hair was brushed. Her teeth were cleaned. She was waiting for me in the living-room, with her Hugo, and instantly she began chattering, offering this or that to me, how she had slept marvellously, or how she had dreamed, or how she had had this amusing or foolish or valuable thought - and all in a rushing almost frantic way of forestalling some demand or criticism from me. And then she began about breakfast, how she would ‘adore’ to cook it -‘oh, she would simply love to, please’, for really she was ever so handy and capable. And so she and I would go into the kitchen, the beast padding behind us, and I and Hugo sat watching her preparations. And she was, indeed, competent and nifty. And then we ate whatever it was, Hugo’s head at
her waist-level, his eyes calmly watching her, me, our hands, our faces, and when he was offered a bit of food he took it delicately, like a cat. Then she would offer to wash up. ‘No, no, I love washing up, incredible as it might seem, but I really do I’ And she washed up and made the kitchen neat. Her bedroom had been tidied already, but not her bed, which was always a nest or womb of coiled blankets and pillows. I never reproved her for this; on the contrary, I was delighted that there was one place she felt was her own, that she could make her refuge, where she could hide away from this really awful need always to be so bright and good. Sometimes, unpredictably, during the day, she went to her room - abruptly, as if
had been too much. She shut the door and, I knew, crawled into the heap of disorder and there she lay and recovered … but from what? In the living-room she sat on my old sofa, her legs curled up, in a pose which was as much an offering to what might be expected of her as was her manner, her obedience. She watched me, as if anticipating commands or needs, or she might read. Her taste in reading was adult: seeing her there, with what she had chosen, made her bright child’s manner even more impossible, almost as if she were deliberately insulting me. Or she would sit with her arm round the yellow beast, and he licked her hand, and put his cat’s face on her arm and purred, a sound which rumbled through the rooms of my flat.

Had she been some kind of a prisoner?

I did not ask. I never, not once, asked her a question. And she did not volunteer information. Meanwhile my heart ached for her, recognizing her manner for what it was; and, at the same time, while I was really quite soft and ridiculous with pity for her, I was in a frenzy of irritation, because of my inability ever, even for a moment, to get behind the guard she had set up. There she was, the solemn, serious little girl, in her good little girl’s dress, showing every mark of the solitary child, all self-consciousness and observation, and then off she’d go, chattering and rattling, being ‘amusing’, offering me little skills and capacities as a return for - but what? I did not feel myself to be so formidable. I almost felt myself not to exist, in my own right. I was a continuation, for her, of parents, or a parent, a guardian, foster-parents. And when we left here, presumably I would hand her over to someone else? The man who had given her into my care would come to take her back? Her parents would arrive? Otherwise, what was I going to do with her? When I started my travels north or west, joining the general movement of the population away from the southern and eastern parts of the country, what would I be moving into? What sort of life? I did not know. But I had not envisaged a child, never a responsibility of such a total sort … and besides, even in the few days she had been here she had changed. Her breasts were shaping, pushing out the child’s bodice. Her round face with its attractive dark eyes needed very little to shape it into a young girl’s face. A ‘little’ girl was one thing, and bad enough - ‘child with her pet’… but the ‘young girl’ would be quite another, and particularly in these times.

It will sound contradictory when I say that another thing that bothered me was her indolence. Of course there wasn’t very much to do in my flat. She sat for hours at my window and watched, absorbed, everything that went on. She entertained me with comment: this was a deliberate and measured offering; she had been known, it was clear, for her ‘amusing’ comments. Here again I did not know quite what it was I had to reckon with, for these were certainly not a little girl’s perceptions. Or perhaps I was out of date, and this was what one had to expect in this time, for what strains and stresses did children now not have to accept and make part of themselves?

Professor White would come out of the lobby and down the steps, and then stop, looking up and down the street, almost in a military way:
Who goes there!
Then, reassured, he stood for a moment: almost he could be imagined pulling on a pair of gloves, adjusting a hat. He was a slight man, young for a professor, still in his thirties; a precise, an ashy, man with everything in his life in its proper place. On to Emily’s face would come a smile as she watched him, a sour little smile, as if she was thinking: I’ve got
you can’t escape me! And over her attendant animal’s pricked yellow ears she would say: ‘He looks as if he was pulling on a pair of gloves!’ (Yes, this was her observation.) And then: ‘He must have a terrible temper!’ ‘But why? Why do you think so?’ ‘Why? Well, of course, all that control, everything so neat and clean, he must burst out somewhere.’ And, once, ‘If he has a mistress …’ - the use of the old-fashioned word was deliberate, part of the act - ‘then she would have to be someone with a bad reputation, someone rather awful, or
would have to think she was, or other people would have to think so even if he didn’t. Because he would have to feel wicked, don’t you see?’ Well, of course she was right.

I found myself making excuses to sit there, to hear what she would come out with. But I was reluctant too, watching the knife being slipped in so neatly, so precisely, and again and again.

Of Janet White, a girl of about her age: ‘She’ll spend her life looking for someone like Daddy, but where will she find him. I mean
he won’t exist.’ She meant, of course, the general break-up of things, times which were not conducive to the production of professors with very clean white shirts and a secret passion for the unrespectable - since respectability itself was sentenced to death, and with it the distinctions his secret needs must feed on. The professor she called The White Rabbit. His daughter she called Daddy’s Girl, making the point that in doing so she was of course describing herself: ‘What else, after all?’ When I suggested that she might enjoy making a friend of Janet, she said: ‘What, me and her?’

There she sat, most of the day, lolling in a large chair that she pulled up for the purpose: a child, presenting herself as one. One could almost see the white socks on her plump, well-turned legs, the bow in her hair. But what one really did see was different. She wore jeans and a shirt she had ironed that morning whose top two buttons were undone. Her hair was now parted in the middle, and at a stroke she
was turned into a young beauty: yes, already, there she was.

And, as if in acknowledgement of this step forward into vulnerability, now her worst, or best, comments were for the boys who went past: this one’s way of walking which she knew represented an uncertainty about himself; that one’s flashy way of dressing; the other one’s bad skin, or unkempt hair. These unattractive grubs represented a force, an imperative which there was no way of evading, and like a girl on a too-high swing she was shrieking in thrilled terror.
She was dreadful in.her accuracy. She depressed me - oh, for many reasons; my own past being one of them. Yet she did not suspect this, she really did believe - so the bright manner, her confident glances at me said - that she was, as usual, ‘paying her way’; and this time by her perspicacity. She simply could not let anyone pass without swallowing them, and regurgitating them covered in her slime: the clever child, the one who could not be deceived, who could not have anything put over on her: who had been applauded for being like this, had been taught it.
And yet I came into the room once and saw her talking through the window with Janet White: she was earnest, warm, apparently sincere. If she did not like Janet White, she intended Janet White to like her. Infinite promises were made by both girls on the lines of joint forays into the markets, visits, a walk. And when Janet went off, smiling because of the warmth she had absorbed from Emily, Emily said: ‘She’s heard her parents talking about me, and now she’ll report back.’ True enough, of course.
The point was that there wasn’t anybody who came near her, into her line of sight, who was not experienced by her as a threat. This
how her experience, whatever that had been, had ‘set’ her. I found I was trying to put myself in her place, tried to be her, to understand how it was that people must pass and re-pass sharply outlined by her need to criticize - to defend; and found I was thinking that this was only what everyone did, what I did, but there was something in her which enlarged the tendency, had set it forth,
exaggerated. For of course, when someone approaches us, we are all caution; we take that person’s measure; a thousand incredibly rapid measurements and assessments go on, putting him, her, in an exact place, to end in the silent judgement: yes, this one’s for me; no, we have nothing in common; no, he, she, is a threat … watch out! Danger! And so on. But it was not until Emily heightened it all for me that I realized what a prison we were all in, how impossible it was for any one of us to let a man or a woman or a child come near without the defensive inspection, the rapid, sharp, cold analysis. But the reaction was so fast, such a habit - probably the first ever taught us by our parents - that we did not realize how much we were in its grip.
‘Look how she walks,’ Emily would say, ‘look at that fat old woman.’ (The woman, of course, was about forty-five or fifty; she might even be thirty!) ‘When she was young, people said she had a sexy walk - “Oh what a sexy little wriggle you have there, ooh you sexy thing you!” ‘ And her parody was horrible because of its accuracy: the woman, the wife of a former stockbroker who had become a junk-dealer, and who lived on the floor above, was given to a hundred little winsome tricks of mouth and eyes and hips. This is what Emily saw of her: it was what everybody must see first of her; and on these tricks she was likely to be judged, by most people. It was impossible not to hear Emily without feeling one’s whole being, one’s sense of oneself, lowered, drained. It was an assault on one’s vitality: listening to her was to acknowledge the limits we all five inside.
I suggested she might like to go to school - ‘for something to do’, I added hastily, as I saw her quizzical look. This look was not measured: it was her genuine reaction. So I was catching a glimpse of what I had needed for some time: to know what she thought of me, made of me - it was tolerance.
She said, ‘But what’s the point?’
What was the point? Most schools had given up the attempt of teaching; they had become, for the poorer people
at least, extensions of the army, of the apparatus for keeping the population under control. There were still schools for the children of the privileged class, the administrators and overseers. Janet White went to one of them. But I thought too much of Emily to offer to send her to one, even if I was able to get a place for her. It was not that the education there was bad. It was irrelevant. It merited - a quizzical look.

‘Not much point, I agree. And I suppose we won’t be here long, anyway.’

“Where do you think you’ll go, then?’

This broke my heart: her forlorn isolation had never shown itself so sharply; she had spoken tentatively, even delicately, as if she had no right to ask, as if she had no right to my care, my protection - no share in my future.

Because of my emotion, I was more definite about my plans than I felt. I had, in fact, often wondered if a certain family I had known in North Wales would shelter me. They were good farming folk - yes, that is exactly the measure of my fantasies about them. ‘Good fanning folk’ was how safety, refuge, peace - Utopia - shaped itself in very many people’s minds in those days. But I did know Mary and George Dolgelly, had been familiar with their farm, had visited their guest house, open through the summers. If I made my way there, I might perhaps live there for a while? I was handy, liked to live simply, was as much at home out of cities as in them … of course, these qualifications belonged these days to large numbers of people, particularly the young, who could increasingly turn their hands to any job that needed doing. I did not imagine the Dolgellys would find me a prize. But at least they would not, I believed, find me a burden. And a child? Or rather a young girl? An attractive, challenging girl? Well, they had children of their own … you can see that my thoughts had been pretty conventional, not very inventive. I talked to Emily, on these lines, while she listened, her sour little smile slowly giving way to amusement. But amusement concealed from politeness: I could not yet bring myself to believe that it was affection. She knew this fantasy for what it was; yet she enjoyed it, as I did. She asked me to describe the farm: I had once spent a week there, camping on a moor, with silvery water in little channels on a purple hillside. I took a can to Mary and George every morning for new milk, buying at the same time a loaf of their homemade bread. An idyll. I developed it, let it gather detail. We would take rooms in the guest house, and Emily would ‘help with the chickens’ - a storybook touch, that. We would eat at the guest-house table, a long wooden table. There was an old-fashioned stove in a recess. Stews and soups would simmer there, real food, and we would eat as much as we liked … no, that was not realistic, but as much as we needed, of real bread, real cheese, fresh vegetables, perhaps even, sometimes, a little good meat. There would be the smell of herbs from the bunches hanging to dry. The girl listened to all this, and I could not keep my eyes off her face, where the knowing, sharp little smile alternated with her need to shield
from my inexperience, my sheltered condition! Stronger than anything else was something she was quite unconscious of, would certainly destroy all evidence of if she knew she was betraying weakness. Stronger than the tricks, the need to please and to buy, the painful obedience, was this: a hunger, a need, a pure thing, which made her face lose its hard brightness, her eyes their defensiveness. She was a passion of longing. For what? Well, that is not so easy, it never is! But I recognized it, knew it, and talk of the farm in the Welsh hills did as well as anything to bring it out, to make it shine there: good bread, uncontaminated water from a deep well, fresh vegetables; love, kindness, the deep shelter of a family. And so we talked about the farm, our future, hers and mine, like a fable where we would walk hand in hand, together. And then ‘life’ would begin, life as it ought to be, as it had been promised - by whom? when? where? - to everybody on this earth.

• • • • •

This idyllic time - of not more than a few days, in fact -came abruptly to an end. One warm afternoon I looked out and saw under the plane trees of the opposite pavement about sixty young people, and recognized them as a pack of travellers on their way through the city. This recognition was not always easy, unless there were as many as this, for if you saw two or three or four of such a troop separated from the others, you might think they were students who still -though there weren’t many of them - were to be seen in our city. Or they could be the sons and daughters of ordinary people. Seen together, they were instantly unmistakable. Why? No, not only that a mass of young people in these days could mean nothing else. They had relinquished individuality, that was the point, individual judgement and responsibility, and this showed in a hundred ways, not least by one’s instinctive reaction in an encounter with them, which was always a sharp apprehension, for one knew that in a confrontation - if it came to that - there would be a pack judgement. They could not stand being alone for long; the mass was their home, their place of self-recognition. They were like dogs coming together in a park or a waste place. The sweet doggie belonging to the matron (her smart voluminous coiffure a defence against the fear visible in her pet, whose coat is an old lady’s thin curls showing the aged pink scalp but sheltered by a home-knitted scarlet wool coat); the great Afghan, made to range forty miles a day without feeling it, shut it into his little house, his little garden; the mongrel, bred from survivors; the spaniel, by nature a hunting dog - all these dear family companions, Togo and Bonzo and Fluff and Wolf, having sniffed each other’s bums and established precedence, off they go, a pack, a unit … this description is true of course of any group of people of any age anywhere, if their roles are not already defined for them in an institution. The gangs of ‘kids’ were only showing the way to their elders, who soon copied them; a ‘pack of youngsters’ nearly always, and increasingly, included older people, even families, but the label remained. That is how people spoke of the moving hordes - this last word at least was accurate before the end, when it seemed as if a whole population was on the move.

On this afternoon, with the trees above them heavy and full, the sun making a festival - it was September, and still warm - the pack settled down on the pavement, building a big fire and arranging their possessions in a heap with a guard stationed by it: two young boys armed with heavy sticks. The whole area had emptied as always happened. The police were not to be seen; the authorities could not cope with this problem and did not want to: they were happy to be rid of these gangs who were in the process of taking elsewhere the problems they raised. Every ground-floor window for miles around was closed and the curtains drawn, but faces could be seen packing all the higher windows of the blocks around us. The young people stood around the fire in groups, and some couples had their arms around each other. A girl played a guitar. The smell of roasting meat was strong, and no one liked to think too much about it. I wondered if Hugo was safe. I had not become fond of this animal, but I was worried for Emily’s sake. Then I realized she was not in the living-room or the kitchen. I knocked on her bedroom door, and opened it: the piled stuffy nest of bedclothes she crept into for shelter against the world was there, but she was not, and Hugo was not. I remembered that in the mass of young people was a young girl in tight jeans and a pink shirt who was like Emily. But it had been Emily, and now, from the window, I watched her. She stood near the fire, a bottle in her hand, laughing, one of the gang, the crowd, the team, the pack. Standing close against her legs, fearful for himself, was the yellow animal: he had been hidden by the press of the crowd. I saw she was shouting, arguing. She retreated, her hand on Hugo’s head. Slowly she backed away, and then turned and ran, the animal bounding beside her: to see him thus even momentarily was a painful reminder of his power, his capacity, his range, now feebled by the little rooms that held his life and his movements. A great shout of raucous laughter went up from the young people; and from this it was evident they had been teasing her about Hugo. They had not really intended to kill him; they had been pretending that they would; she had believed them. All this meant they had not considered her as one of themselves, even potentially. Yet there were children as young as she among them. She had not challenged them as a child, no; but as a young girl, an equal - that must have been it, and they had not accepted her. All this came into my mind, had been reasoned out by me, by the time she came into the living-room, white, trembling, terrified. She sat down on the floor and put her arms around her Hugo, and hugged him close, swaying a little, back and forth, saying, or singing, or sobbing: ‘Oh no, no, no, dear Hugo, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t let them, don’t be so frightened.’ For he trembled as much as she did. He had his head on her shoulder, in their usual way of mutual comfort at such times.
But, in a moment, seeing I was there and that I had understood her rejection by the adult group she had challenged, she went red, she became angry. She pushed Hugo away and stood up, her face struggling for control. She became smiling and hard, and she laughed and said: ‘They are quite fun really, I don’t see why people say such nasty things about them.’ She went to the window to watch them out there lifting the bottles to their mouths, passing around hunks of food as they shared their meal. Emily was subdued: perhaps she was even afraid, wondering how she could have gone out to them at all. Yet every one of us, the hundreds of people at our windows, knew that, watching them, we were examining our own possibilities, our future.
Soon, without looking at me, Emily pushed Hugo into her bedroom and shut the door, and she was off out of the flat and across the road again. Now the light of the fire made a tight bright space under the singeing trees. All the lower windows were dark but reflected the blaze or a cold gleam of fight from a half-moon that stood between two towers of flats. The upper windows were full of heads outlined against varying kinds and degrees of light. But some of the ordinary citizens had already joined the young people, curious to find out where they had come from, where they were going; Emily was not the only one. I must confess that I had more than once visited an encampment for an evening. Not in this part of the town: no, I was fearful of my neighbours, of their condemnation, but I had seen faces I knew from my own neighbourhood: we were all doing the same, from the same calculation.
I was not fearful for what might happen to Emily if she behaved sensibly. If she did not then I planned to cross the street and rescue her. I watched all night. Sometimes I was able to see her, sometimes not. Most of the time she was with a group of boys younger than the rest. She was the only girl, and she did behave foolishly, challenging them, asserting herself. But they were all drunk, and she was only one of the many ingredients of their intoxication.
There were people lying asleep on the pavement, their heads on a bundled sweater or on their forearms. They slept uncaring while the others milled about. This careless sleep, confident that the others would not tread on them, that they would be protected, said more than anything could about the kind of toughness these youngsters had acquired, the trust they had for each other. But general sleep was not what had been planned. The fire had died down. It would soon be morning. I saw that they were all gathering to move on. I had a bad half-hour, wondering if Emily would leave with them. But after some embraces, loud and ribald, like the embraces and the jesting of tarts and soldiers when a regiment is moving off, and after she had run along beside them on the pavement for a few yards, she came slowly back - no, not to me, I knew better than to think that, but to Hugo. As she came in her face was visible for a moment in the light from the corridor, a lonely, sorrowful face, and not at all the face of a child. But by the time she had reached the living-room the mask was on. ‘That was a nice evening, say what you like,’ she remarked. I had not said anything, and I said nothing now. ‘Apart from eating people, they are very nice, I think,’ she said, with an exaggerated yawn. ‘And do they eat people?’ ‘Well, I didn’t ask, but I’d expect so, wouldn’t you?’ She opened the door to her little room, and Hugo came out, his green eyes watchful on her face,
and she said to him: ‘It’s all right, I haven’t done anything you wouldn’t have done, I promise you.’ And with this unhappy remark, and a hard little laugh, she went off, saying over her shoulder: ‘I could do worse than go off with them one of these days, that’s what I think. They enjoy themselves, at least.’

‘Well, I preferred that goodnight to many others we had exchanged when at ten o’clock she would cry, ‘Oh, it’s my bedtime, off I go’ - and a dutiful goodnight kiss hung between us, a ghost, like the invisible white gloves of Professor White.

It happened that during that early autumn, day after day, fresh gangs came through. And, day after day, Emily was with them. She did not ask if she could. And I wasn’t going to forbid her, for I knew she would not obey me. I had no authority. She was not my child. We avoided a confrontation. She was there whenever the pavements opposite were crowded and the fire blazing. On two occasions she was very drunk, and once she had a torn shirt and bite marks on her neck. She said: ‘I suppose you think I’ve lost my virginity? Well, I haven’t, though it was a close, thing, I grant you.’ And then the cold little addition, her signature, ‘If it matters, which I doubt.’

‘I think it matters,’ I said.

‘Oh, do you? Well, you are an optimist, I suppose. Something of that kind. What do you think, Hugo?’

That sequence of travelling gangs came to an end. The pavements up and down the street were blackened and cracked with the fires that had been blazing there for so many nights, the leaves of the plane trees hung limp and blasted, bones and bits of fur and broken glass lay everywhere, the waste lot behind was trampled and filthy. Now the police materialized, were busy taking notes and interviewing people. The cleaners came around. The pavements went back to normal. Everything went back to normal for a time, and the ground-floor windows had lights in them at night.

It was about then I understood that the events on the pavements and what went on between me and Emily might have a connection with what I saw on my visits behind the wall.

Moving through the tall, quiet white walls, as impermanent as theatre sets, knowing that the real inhabitant was there, always there just behind the next wall, to be glimpsed on the opening of the next door or the one beyond that, I came on a room, long, deep-ceilinged, once a beautiful room, which I recognized, which I knew (from where, though?) and it was in such disorder I felt sick and I was afraid. The place looked as if savages had been in it; as if soldiers had bivouacked there. The chairs and sofas had been deliberately slashed and jabbed with bayonets or knives, stuffing was spewing out everywhere, brocade curtains had been ripped off the brass rods and left in heaps. The room might have been used as a butcher’s shop: there were feathers, blood, bits of offal. I began cleaning it. I laboured, used many buckets of hot water, scrubbed, mended. I opened tall windows to an eighteenth-century garden where plants grew in patterns of squares among low hedges. Sun and wind were invited into that room and cleaned it. I was by myself all the time; yet did not feel myself to be. Then it was done. The old sofas and chairs stood there repaired and clean. The curtains were stacked for the cleaners. I walked around in it for a long rime, for it was a room large enough for pacing; and I stood at the windows, seeing hollyhocks and damask roses, smelling lavender, roses, rosemary, verbena, conscious of memories assaulting me, claiming, insinuating. One was from my ‘real’ life, for it was nagging and tugging at me that the pavements where the fires had burned and the trees had scorched were part of the stuff and the substance of this room. But there was the tug of nostalgia for the room itself, the life that had been lived there, would continue the moment I had left. And for the garden, whose every little turn or corner I knew in my bones. Above all, for the inhabitant who was somewhere near, probably watching me; who, when I had left, would walk in and nod approval at
the work of cleaning I had done and then perhaps go out to walk in the garden.

What I found next was in a very different setting: above all, in a different atmosphere. It was the first of the ‘personal’ experiences. This was the word I used for them from the start. And the atmosphere was unmistakable always, as soon as I entered whatever scene it was. That is, between the feeling or texture or mood of the scenes which were not ‘personal’, like, for instance, the long quiet room that had been so devastated, or any of the events, no matter how wearying or difficult or discouraging, that I saw in this or that setting - between these and the ‘personal’ scenes a world lay; the two kinds, ‘personal’ (though not necessarily to me) and the other, existed in spheres quite different and separated. One, the ‘personal’ was instantly to be recognized by the air that was its prison, by the emotions that were its creatures. The impersonal scenes might bring discouragement or problems that had to be solved, like the rehabilitation of walls or furniture cleaning, putting order into chaos - but in that realm there was a lightness, a freedom, a feeling of possibility. Yes, that was it, the space and the knowledge of the possibility of alternative action. One could refuse to clean that room, clear that patch of earth; one could walk into another room altogether, choose another scene. But to enter the ‘personal’ was to enter a prison, where nothing could happen but what one saw happening, where the air was tight and limited, and above all where time was a strict, unalterable law and long, oh my God, it went on, and on and on, minute by decreed minute, with no escape but the slow wearing away of one after another.

It was again a tall room, but this time square and without grace, and there were tall but heavy windows, with dark-red velvet curtains. A fire burned, and in front of it was a strong fire-guard, like a wire meat-cover. On this were airing a great many thick or flimsy napkins, baby’s napkins of the old-fashioned sort, and many white vests and binders, long and short dresses, robes, jackets, little socks. An Edwardian
layette, emitting that odour which is not quite scorch, but
near to it: heated airless materials. There was a rocking-horse. Alphabet books. A cradle with muslin flounces, minute blue and green flowers on white… I realized what a relief the colour was, for everything was white, white clothing, white cot and cradle and covers and blankets and sheets and baskets. A white-painted room. A little white clock that would have been described in a catalogue as a Nursery Clock. White. The clock’s tick was soft and little and incessant.

A small girl of about four sat on a hearthrug, with the clothing that was set to air between her and the flames. She wore a dark-blue velvet dress. She had dark hair parted an one side and held by a large white ribbon. She had intensely serious, already defensive, hazel eyes.
On the bed was a baby, being bundled for the night. The
baby was chuckling. A nurse or attendant hung over the baby, but only a broad white back was visible. The little girl’s look as she watched the loving nurse bending over the brother was enough, it said everything. But there was more: another figure, immensely tall, large and powerful, came into the room; it was a personage all ruthless energy, and she, too, bent over the baby, and the two females joined in a ceremony of loving while the baby wriggled and responded and cooed. And the little girl watched. Everything around her was enormous: the room so large, warm and high, the two women so tall and strong and disliking, the furniture daunting and difficult, the clock, with its soft hurrying which told everyone what to do, was obeyed by everyone, consulted, constantly watched.
Being invited into this scene was to be absorbed into child-space; I saw it as a small child might - that is, enormous and implacable; but at the same time I kept with me my knowledge that it was tiny and implacable - because petty, unimportant. This was a tyranny of the unimportant, of the mindless. Claustrophobia, airlessness, a suffocation of the mind, of aspiration. And all endless, for this was child-time, where one day’s end could hardly be glimpsed from
its beginning, ordered by the hard white clock. Each day was like something to be climbed, like the great obdurate chairs, a bed higher than one’s head, obstacles and challenges overcome by the aid of large hands that gripped and pulled and pushed - hands which, seen at work on that baby, seemed to be tender and considerate. The baby was high in the air, held up in the nurse’s arms. The baby was laughing. The mother wanted to take the baby from the nurse, but the nurse held tight and said: ‘Oh, no, this one, this is
baby, he’s my baby.’ ‘Oh no, Nurse,’ said the strong tower of a mother, taller than anything in the room, taller than the big nurse, almost as high as the ceiling: ‘Oh no,’ she said, smiling but with her lips tight, ‘he’s
baby.’ “No, this is my baby,’ said the nurse, now rocking and crooning the infant, ‘he’s my darling baby, but the other one, she’s your baby, Emily is yours, madam.’ And she turned her back on the mother in a show of emotional independence, while she loved and rocked the baby. At which the mother smiled, a smile different from the other, and not understood by the little girl, except that it led to her being pulled up roughly on the mother’s hand, and told: ‘Why aren’t you undressed? I told you to get undressed.’ And there began a rapid, uncomfortable scrambling and pushing; she was trying to remain steady on her feet while layers of clothes were pulled off her. First the blue velvet dress of which she was proud, because it suited her - she had been told so by voices of all kinds insisting against each other high over her head, but it had many little buttons up the inside of her arm and down her back, each one taking so long to undo while the big fingers hurt and bruised. Then, off came the petticoat, quite fast but scratching at her chin, then long white tights too big for her which released a warm, likeable smell into the air: the mother noticed it and made a grimace. ‘And now into bed with you,’ she said as she hastily pulled down a white nightdress over the child’s head.

Emily crept into her bed near the window, hauling herself up by the head-rail, for her it was a big bed; and she lifted a corner of the heavy red velvet to look out at the stars. At the same time she watched the two large people, the mother and the nurse, tending the baby. Her face was old and weary. She seemed to understand it all, to have foreseen it, to be living through it because she had to, feeling it as a thick heaviness all around her - time, through which she must push herself, till she could be free of it. For none of them could help themselves, not the mother, that feared and powerful woman, not the nurse, bad-tempered because of her life, not the baby, for whom she, the little girl, already felt a passion of love that melted her, made her helpless. And she, the child, could not help herself either, not at all; and when the mother said in her impatient, rough way, which came out as a sort of gaiety, a courage that even then the child recognized as a demand on her compassion: ‘Emily, you should lie down. Off to sleep with you,’ she lay down; and watched the two women taking the baby into another room from where could be heard a man’s voice, the father’s. A ceremony of goodnight, and she was excluded: they had forgotten she had not been taken to say goodnight to her father. She turned herself over, back to the hot white room, where the red flames pulsed out heat, filled the heavy white clothes on the bars with hot smells, made red shadows in the caves behind the edges of the red curtains, made a prickling heat start up all over her under the heavy bedclothes. She took hold of the dangling red tassels on the curtains, brought them close to her, and lay pulling them, pulling them …

This small child was of course the Emily who had been given into my care, but I did not understand for some days that I had been watching a scene from her childhood (but that was impossible, of course, since no such childhood existed these days, it was obsolete), a scene, then, from her memory, or her history, which had formed her … I was sitting with her one morning, and some movement she made told me what should have been obvious. Then I kept glancing at that young face, such a troubling mixture of the child and the young girl, and could see in it her solitary four-year-old self. Emily. I wondered if she remembered anything of her memories, or experiences, that were being ‘run’ like a film behind my living-room wall, which at the moment- the sun lighting a slant of air and the white paint where the flowery pattern of the paper maintained its frail but stubborn being - was a transparent screen: this was one of the moments when the two worlds were close together, when it was easy to remember that it was possible simply to walk through. I sat and looked at the wall, and fancied I heard sounds that certainly were not part of ‘my’ world at all: a poker being energetically used in a grate, small feet running, a child’s voice.

I wondered if I should say something to Emily, ask her questions? But I did not dare, that was the truth. I was afraid of her. It was my helplessness with her I feared.

She was wearing her old jeans that were much too tight for her, a bulging little pink shirt.

‘You ought to have some new clothes,’ I said.

‘Why? Don’t you think I look nice, then?’ The awful “brightness’ of it; but there was dismay as well. .. she had gathered herself together, ready to withstand criticism.

‘You look very nice. But you’ve grown out of those clothes.’

‘Oh dear, I didn’t realize it was as bad as that.’

And she took herself away from me and lay on the long brown sofa with Hugo beside her. She was not actually sucking her thumb, but she might just as well have been.

I ought to describe her attitude to me? But it is difficult. I don’t think she often saw me. When brought to me first by that man, whoever he was, she saw an elderly person, saw me very clearly, sharp, minutely, in detail. But since then I don’t think she had for one moment, not in all the weeks she had been with me, seen more than an elderly person, with the characteristics to be expected of one. She had no idea of course of the terror I felt on her account, the anxiety, the need to protect. She did not know that the care of her had filled my life, water soaking a sponge … but did I have the right to complain? Had I not, like all the other adults, talked of ‘the youth’, ‘the youngsters’, ‘the kids’ and so on. Did I not still, unless I made an effort not to? Besides, there is little excuse for the elderly to push the young away from them into compartments of their minds labelled: ‘This I do not understand’, or ‘This I will not understand’ - for every one of them has been young … should I be ashamed of writing this commonplace when so few middle-aged and elderly people are able to vivify it by practice? When so few are able to acknowledge their memories? The old have been young; the young have never been old … these remarks or some like them have been in a thousand diaries, books of moral precepts, commonplace books, proverbs and so on, and what difference have they made? Well, I would say not very much … Emily saw some dry, controlled, distant old person. I frightened her, representing to her that unimaginable thing, old age. But for my part, she, her condition, was as close to me as my own memories.

When she went to lie on the sofa, her back to me, she was sulking. She was making use of me to check her impulse to step forward away from childhood into being a girl, a young girl with clothes and mannerisms and words regulated precisely to that condition.

Her conflict was great, and so her use of me was inordinate and tiresome, and it all went on for some weeks, while she complained that I criticized her appearance, and it was my fault she was going to have to spend money on clothes, and that she did or did not like how she looked - that she did not want to wear nothing but trousers and shirts and sweaters for the whole of her life, and wanted ‘something decent to wear at last’; but that since my generation had made such a mess of everything, hers had nothing interesting to wear, people her age were left with ancient fashion magazines and dreams of the delicious and dead past… and so it went on, and on.

And now it wasn’t only that she was older and her body showing it: she was putting on weight. She would lie all day on the sofa with her yellow dog-like cat, or cat-like dog, she would lie hugging him and petting him and stroking him, she would suck sweets and eat bread and jam and fondle the animal and daydream. Or she sat at the window making her sharp little comments, eating. Or she would supply herself with stacks of bread and jam, cake, apples, and arrange a scene in the middle of the floor with old books and magazines, lying face down with Hugo sprawled across the back of her thighs: there she would read and dream and eat her way through a whole morning, a whole day, days at a time.

It drove me quite wild with irritation: yet I could remember doing it myself.

Suddenly she would leap up and go to the mirror and cry out: ‘Oh, dear, I’ll be getting so fat you’ll think I’m even more ugly than you do now!’ Or: ‘I won’t be able to get into any clothes even when you do let me buy some new ones, I know you don’t really want me to have new ones, you just say so, you think I’m being frivolous and heartless, when so many people can’t even eat.’

I could only reiterate that I would be delighted if she bought herself some clothes. She could go to the secondhand markets and shops, as most people did. Or, if she liked, she could go to the real shops - just this once. For buying clothes or materials in the shops was by that time a status symbol; the shops were really used only by the administrating class, by - as most people called them - The Talkers. I knew she was attracted by the idea of actually going to a real shop. But she ignored the money I had left in a drawer for her, and went on eating and dreaming.

I was out a good deal, busy on that common occupation, gathering news. For while I had, like everyone else, a radio, while I was a member of a newspaper circle - shortage of newsprint made it necessary for groups of people to buy newspapers and journals in common and circulate them -I, like everyone else, looked for news, real news, where people congregated in the streets, in bars and pubs and tea-houses. All over the city were these groups of people, moving from one place to another, pub to tea-house to bar to outside the shops that still sold television. These groups were like an additional organ burgeoning on the official organs of news all the time new groups, or couples, or individuals added themselves to a scene, stood listening, mingling, offering what they themselves had heard - news having become a sort of currency - giving in exchange for rumour and gossip, gossip and rumour. Then we moved on, and stopped; moved on and stopped again, as if movement itself could allay the permanent unease we all felt. News gathered in this way was often common talk days or even weeks before it was given official life in the newscasts. Of course it was often inaccurate. But then all news is inaccurate. What people were trying to do, in their continual moving about and around, nosing out news, taking in information, was to isolate residues of truth in rumour, for there was nearly always that. We felt we had to have this precious residue: it was our due, our right. Having it made us feel safer and gave us identity. Not getting it, or enough of it, deprived us, made us anxious.

This is how we saw it then. Now I think something different: that what we were doing was talking. We talked. Just like those people above us who spent their lives in their eternal and interminable conferences, talking about what was happening, what should happen, what they fondly hoped they could make happen - but of course never did -we talked. We called them The Talkers … and ourselves spent hours of every day talking and listening to talk.
Mostly, of course, we wanted to know what was happening in the territories to the east and to the south - referred to as ‘out there’ or ‘down there’ - because we knew that what happened there would sooner or later affect us. We had to know what gangs were approaching, or rumoured to be approaching - gangs which, as I’ve said, were not all ‘kids’ and ‘youngsters’ now, were made up of every kind and age of person, were more and more tribes, were the new social unit; we had to know what shortages were expected or might be abating; if another suburb had decided entirely to turn its back on gas, electricity and oil and revert to candle power and ingenuity; if a new rubbish dump had been found, and if so, could ordinary people get access to its
riches; where there were shops that might have hides or old blankets or rose hips for vitamin syrups, or recycled plastic objects, or metal things like sieves and saucepans, or whatever it was, whatever might be cast up from the dead time of plenty.

Of course, such contriving and patching and making do began to parallel our ordinary living, our affluence and waste and overeating, at a very early stage, long before the time of which I am writing now. We were all experts at making a great deal out of very little, even while we all still had a lot, and were still being incited by advertisements to spend and use and discard.

Sometimes I left Emily - fearful, of course, for what might happen in my absence, but thinking the risk worth it - to make trips a good way out from the city, to villages, farms, other towns. These might take two or three days, since the trains and buses were so infrequent and unreliable, and the cars, nearly all of them used by officialdom, so reluctant to offer lifts because of the fear of ordinary people felt by the official class. I walked, having rediscovered the uses of my feet, like most people.

One day I returned to the flat and to Emily with half a dozen sheepskins. Other things as well, which I put away in cupboards and hiding places with supplies of all kinds for future and still only partly imagined contingencies, but it was the skins that were important, since they started her off on a new phase of her development. At first she pretended to ignore them. Then I saw her standing in front of a long mirror I had in the hall, or lobby, and she was pinning them on her. She seemed to be aiming at a savage-princess effect, but as soon as she knew I had noticed and was interested, she returned to her place on the sofa with Hugo, returned to her daydream which excluded the time we were in fact living through. Yet I believe she was intrigued by the business of survival, its resources and tricks and little contrivances. I remember that it was at that time she took pleasure in creating a dish of dumplings and gravy, using nothing but some old onions, withering potatoes and herbs, presenting it with a flourish like a chefs. She liked the markets where she tracked down things I would never have bothered myself with. She enjoyed - what I always found irritating and could not help contrasting with the simplicities and efficiencies of the past - building up the fire to heat water for washing and cooking. She scolded me for being prepared to use stocks of wood I had, and insisted on running out to some deserted building to bring back old skirting boards and such-like, which she proceeded to split, using an axe skillfully then and there on the carpet, shielding this with old rags from even worse wear than it had suffered already. Yes, she was very handy, and this said everything about her experiences before she had come to me. And she knew I was watching and drawing my conclusions; and this sent her back to the sofa, for her need to be secret, her need not to be understood and found out was stronger, even now, than anything. Yet I was comforted, seeing her skills and her resources, and the heavy load of foreboding I carried about with me because of her future was lightened: how could this heavy, dreaming, erratic child, so absorbed in herself, in fantasy, in the past, survive what we would all have to survive? And I began to realize just how dark a foreboding it was, how I had come to watch and grieve over her, how sharp was my anxiety when she was out in empty buildings and waste lots. ‘Why do you think I can’t look after myself?’ she cried, in a rage of irritation, though of course, being Emily and so instructed in the need to please, to placate, she smiled and tried to hide it: the real irritation, her real emotions, she must hide and dim, while her pretend angers and sulks, the adolescent’s necessary play-acting, were on display all the time.

Now I was thankful Hugo was there. He was not a difficult animal (I nearly said person!) to share a home with. He did not seem to sleep much: he kept watch. I believe this was how he saw his function: he was to look after her. He preferred Emily to feed him, but would eat if I put his food down. He wished to be her only friend and love; yet was courteous with me - I am afraid that is the only word for it. He looked forward to his trip out of doors on his heavy chain in the evenings, was disappointed if Emily could not take him, went obligingly with me. He ate the nasty substances that were being sold as dog food, but preferred the remains from our plates and showed that he did.

Not that there was ever much left: Emily ate and ate, and she had taken to wearing her little shirts outside her bursting trousers. She stood glooming at herself in front of the mirror, her jaws moving over sweets or bread. I said nothing; I made a point of saying nothing, even when she challenged me: ‘It suits me to be fat, don’t you think?’ Or: I’ll make better eating when cooked for the feast.’ But whatever she said, however she joked, she ate. She lay on the floor, her hand automatically conveying bread, more bread, cake, potato mixtures, fruit dumplings, to her mouth, while her eyes followed the lines of print in some old book she had picked up but would soon let drop while she stared in front of her, her eyes glazed. Hour after hour. Day after day. Sometimes she would jump up to make herself some beverage or other, and offer me a cup, then she forgot me. Her mouth was always in movement, chewing, tasting, absorbed in itself, so that she seemed all mouth, and everything else in her was subordinated to that; it seemed as if even the intake of words through her eyes was another form of eating, and her daydreaming a consumption of material, which was bloating her as much as her food.

And then, suddenly, it all went into reverse. Of course it did not seem sudden at the time. It is now, looking back, that it is all so obvious: even, I am afraid, banal and mechanical, as the inevitable does seem - in retrospect.

Some youths from our blocks of flats took to hanging about on the opposite pavement and the waste lot, under the scorched trees. These youths were sharing in lost glory and adventure: memories of the time when migrating tribes had lit fires and feasted there. They pointed out to each other the blackened parts of the pavement, told and retold episodes from the epic. At first there were two or three, then half a dozen, then … Emily had forsaken her dreaming to watch them. Not that you could make out from her face anything but scorn of them. I remember I felt pity for the raucous adolescent boys, so desperately wanting to be noticed and looked at, who were so forlorn and unappetizing in their lumpish bodies; pity for her, the fat girl looking out of her window, the princess in disguise. I marvelled that such a short time, a few years, would transform these grubs into beauties. But I was wrong: time had so speeded up that years were not needed any longer … one evening Emily sauntered out and stood in front of the building with a look like a jeer, while her body pleaded and demanded. The boys ignored her. Then they made some comments about her figure. She came indoors, sat thoughtfully in her sofa corner for some hours - and stopped eating.

She lost weight fast. She was living on herb teas and yeast extracts. And now I watched the reverse process, a shape emerging whole and clear while increments of lard melted away around it.
I began to remonstrate: you must eat something, you should set yourself a proper diet. But she did not hear me. I was distant from her need to make herself worthy of the heroes of the pavement… quite a few of them now that the days were lengthening and spring healed the scarred trees.
We were watching, though I still did not recognize this, the birth of a gang, a pack, a tribe. It would be pleasant to be able to say now that I was aware of the processes going on in front of me. Now I judge myself to have been blind. How else do things work always unless by imitation bred of the passion to be like? All the processes of society are based on it, all individual development. For some reason it was something that we seemed to have a conspiracy to ignore or not to mention, even while most singlemindedly engaged in it. There was some sort of conspiracy of belief that people -children, adults, everyone - grew by an acquisition of unconnected habits, of isolated bits of knowledge, like choosing things off a counter: 
‘Yes, I’ll have that one,’ or ‘No, I don’t want that one!’ But in fact people develop for good or for bad by swallowing whole other people, atmospheres,
events, places - develop by admiration. Often enough unconsciously, of course. We are the company we keep.

In front of my eyes, on that pavement, for weeks, for months, I could have watched as in a text book or a laboratory the genesis, growth and flowering of society’s new unit. But I did no such thing, for I was absorbed in Emily, my concern for her. Those processes went on, and I observed them; details did stand out for me; I watched for the effects of this or that event on Emily. It is only now, looking back, I see what an opportunity I missed.

Emily was not the only young girl preparing herself to take her place as a woman among other women. Janet White, for instance: before her parents stopped her, Janet passed a dozen times a day outside our windows in front of the jeering boys. There was a period when boys and girls, on opposite sides of the road, stood in hostile battalions exchanging taunts and abuse.

Then it was noticeable that they jeered less, stood more often in silence, or quietly talked among themselves, though always watching the other groups while pretending not to.

Inside the flat Emily remembered the sheepskins. Again she arranged them around her, belted them tight, swaggered about in them with her hair loose.

She came to me: ‘I found that sewing machine. Can I use it?’

‘Of course. But don’t you want to buy clothes? That thing is so old. It must be thirty-five years old.’

‘It works.’

The money I had given her was still in the drawer. This she now took out and quickly, almost secretively, walked the five or six miles to the centre of the city where the big shops were with the goods for the official class, or for anyone who could afford them. Nearly always the same thing. She came back with some good cloth from the pre-crisis time. She came back with sewing cottons and a tape measure and scissors. She also visited the secondhand shops and the market stalls, and the floor of her room was heaped with loot, with booty. She invited Janet White in from the pavement, having of course first politely asked my permission, and the two nymphs squeezed themselves into the tiny room, and chattered and competed, and arranged their images this way and that before the long mirror -a ritual which was repeated when Janet White in her turn went off on her foray to capture materials and old clothes … repeated in Janet’s room along the corridor. And this led to her being forbidden the street and the pleasures of the tribe and warned not to take Emily for a friend. For Janet was destined differently. To tell the truth I did not realize how high the Whites were placed in the administrative circles; but then, they were not the only official family to half hide themselves in this way, living quietly, in an ordinary flat, apparently like everyone else but with access to sources of food, goods, clothes, transport, denied to most.

Emily did not seem to mind Janet discarding her. There followed a period of weeks when she was every bit as self-absorbed as when she had been eating, dreaming, indolent, but now she was full of energy and self-denial, at least for food, and I watched. I watched endlessly, for I had never seen anything like this for concentration.

For if she, Emily, had gone inwards, as much now in this new activity as she had when lazy and dreaming, at least now what she felt herself to be was all visible, presented to me in the shape of her fantastic costumes.

Her first self-portraits … she had found an old dress, white with sprigs of pink flowers. Parts were stained and worn. These she cut away. Bits of lace and tulle, beads, scarves were added and removed to a kaleidoscope garment that changed with her needs. Most often it was a bride’s dress. Then it was a young girl’s dress - that ambiguous declaration of naivet
more usually made by a maturer vision than that of the wearer, an eye that sees the fragility of certain types of young girls’ clothes as the expression of the evanescence of that flesh. It was nightdress when she wore its transparency over her naked body. It was evening dress, and sometimes when she did not intend this, for a
hardness in her, the watchfulness of her defences, took away innocence from anything she wore, so that she might have flowers in her hands and in her hair, in an attempt at her version of Primavera, yet she had about her the look of a woman who has calculated the exact amount of flesh she will show at a dinner party. This dress was for me an emotional experience. I was frightened by it. Again, this was a question of my helplessness with her. I believed her capable of going out on the pavement wearing it. Now I judge myself to have been stupid: the elderly tend not to see - they have forgotten! - that hidden person in the young creature, the strongest and most powerful member among the cast of characters inhabiting an adolescent body, the self which instructs, chooses experience - and protects.

And then, to see this creation now, at such a time of savagery and anarchy, this archetype of a girl’s dress - or rather, this composite of archetypes; the way this child, this little girl, had found the materials for her dreams in the rubbish heaps of our old civilization, had found them, worked on them, and in spite of everything had made her images of herself come to life … but such old images, so indestructible, and so
- all this was too much for me, and I retired from the scene, determined to say nothing, show nothing, betray nothing. And it was lucky I did. She wore the thing about the flat, a naked girl only just veiled; she wore it flauntingly, bashfully, daringly, fearfully; she was ‘trying on’ not a dress, but self-portraits, and I might as well not have been there, she took no notice of me. Well, of course, the pressures on everyone’s privacy had taught us how to absent ourselves into inner solitudes, we were all adept at being with others and not being with them.
But I really did not know whether to laugh or to cry; I did a little of both, of course when she could not see me. For she was so ludicrous, as well as so brave and resourceful, with her straight, honest, hazel eyes - her English good-comrade’s eyes, unsubtle, judging, wary; with her attempts at make-up on a fresh little face, languishing away there
behind harem veils, her body stiff in ‘seductive’ poses. This dress possessed her for weeks. Then one day she took scissors and cut off the bottom in a gesture of derisive impatience: something had not worked, or had worked for her and it was all over, not needed. She threw the jaded bundle into a drawer and began on a new invention of herself.
There was a late, and prolonged, cold spell. There was even a little snow. In my flat warmth was a much-coaxed visitor, and like everyone else we were wearing almost as many clothes indoors as we did out. Emily took the sheepskins and made a long dramatic tunic. This she belted with some scarlet chiffon and she wore it over an old shirt she had taken from my cupboard. Without asking. I cannot say how delighted I was when she did this. It showed she felt she had some rights with me, at last. The child’s right to be naughty, for one; but it was more than that: an elderly or a mature person finds some young one simply taking something, a personal thing, particularly if it is a strong expression or statement of a phase of life (as a pink-sprigged white dress is for a young girl) and what a release it is, a shock, cold water on shrinking flesh if you like, but a liberation.
This is more mine than yours
says the act of the theft;
more mine because I need it more, it fits my stage of life better than it does yours, you have outgrown it

and perhaps the exhilaration it releases is even a hint of an event still in the future, that moment when the person sees in the eyes of people the statement - still unconscious, perhaps: You can hand over your life now, you don’t need it any longer, we will live it for you, please go.
The shirt had been among my clothes for thirty years, had once been a sophisticated thing, was of fine green silk. Now it went under Emily’s sheepskin swagger, and just as I was wrestling with the need to say: For heaven’s sake, you can’t wear that brigand’s outfit out of doors, it is an invitation to assault I - she allowed the contraption to fall apart, for it was only tacked and pinned together, no more permanent than a daydream.
And so we went on. She did not go out of the flat, not in any of her fantasies; and I observed that these were becoming more utilitarian.

Chrysalis after chrysalis was outgrown, and then, because of her shame at having wasted so much, she asked abruptly and gracelessly but in her over-polite and
way for some more money, and went off by herself to the markets. She came back with some secondhand clothes that in one giant’s step took her from being a child with fantastic visions of herself into a girl - a woman, rather. She was thirteen then, not yet fourteen; but she might as well have been seventeen or eighteen, and it had happened in an explosion of days. Now I thought that probably the heroes of the pavement would be beneath her; that she, a young woman, would demand what nature would in fact have chosen for her, a young man of seventeen, eighteen, even more.

But the crowd, the pack, the gang - not yet a tribe, but on its way to being one - had suffered forced growth, as she had. A few weeks had done it. While snow had bleached the pavements and heightened the black of tree branches frilled and dangling with new green - had shrunk away and returned again, while Emily had mated herself in imagination with romantic heroes and chief executives and harem tyrants, a dozen or so young men had emerged from their disguises as louts and yokels, and at evening stood around under the trees swaggering in colourful clothes, and the girls of the neighbourhood had come out to join them. Now sometimes as many as thirty or more young people were being watched in the lengthening afternoons of early spring from hundreds of windows. By now it had dawned on the neighbourhood that a phenomenon we had believed could belong only to the regions ‘out there’ was being born before our eyes, in our own streets, where until now it had seemed that at worst nothing could happen but the passage of some alien migrations.

We heard that the same thing was to be observed in other parts of our city. It was not only on our pavements that the young people were gathering in admiration and then emu
lation of the migrating tribes; and, while emulating, became. We all knew, we understood, and it was spoken of in the tea-shops and pubs and at all the usual gathering places: it was discussed, making news, making things happen. We knew that soon our young people would leave; we made the ritual noises of wonder and alarm; but now it was happening everyone knew it had been bound to happen, and we marvelled at our lack of foresight… and at the shortsightedness of others, whose neighbourhoods were still without this phenomenon and who believed they were immune.

Emily began showing herself off. First from our window, making sure she had been seen, and then on the pavement outside, strolling there as if unaware of the young people across the road. This period took longer than I expected, or than she needed to be accepted. I think, now it came to the point, she was afraid of taking this big step away from shelter, from childhood, from the freedom of fantasy: for now she looked like the other girls and must behave and think like them. And how did they look? Well, the key to the clothes of the migrating ones was of course practicality; it had to be: utility stylized. Trousers, jackets, sweaters and scarves, everything thick and strong and warm. But from the markets, the rubbish dumps, the old warehouses, came what seemed an endless supply of old ‘fashionable’ clothes that could be adapted or at any rate transformed into bits and pieces of all kinds. So what they looked like was gipsies, of the old sort, and for the same reason. They had to be warm and free to move; their feet would have to carry them long distances. But an exuberancy of fancy kept them colourful, and warm weather brought them out like butterflies.
There came a day when Emily walked across the street and added herself to the crowd there, as if it were quite easy for her to do this. Almost at once she accepted a cigarette from the boy who seemed to be the strongest personality there, allowed it to be lit for her, and smoked with ease. I had never seen her smoke. She was there while the light

faded out of the sky around the tall buildings with their little glimmering windows. She was there long afterwards. The young people were a half-visible mass under the branches. They stood talking softly, smoking, drinking from bottles they kept lodged in their jacket pockets; or they sat on the little parapet that surrounded the paving of the nearest blocks of flats. That space of pavements and waste lot, with the trees and the weeds, bounded on one side by the little parapet, on the other by an old wall, had become defined, like an arena or a theatre. The crowds there had claimed it, shaped it: we would not again be able to see that space as anything but where the tribe was forming.

But Hugo was not there. She had hugged him, kissed him, talked to him, whispered into his ugly yellow ears. But she had left him.

He sat on a chair at the window and watched her, making sure that the curtains concealed him.

BOOK: The Memoirs of a Survivor
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