Authors: Doris Lessing
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Mothers and daughters, #Time Travel, #Modern fiction, #Fiction - General
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.