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Authors: Neil M. Gunn

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BOOK: The Shadow
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That was the early position and Aunt Phemie was clever. Anyway she was good at her lessons, got a bursary to the secondary school, and won another from there to the university.

She has something—were it only her smile—and must with her red-gold locks have been attractive above the ordinary.

Which meant swains. She enjoyed it all. She would; and must have been devastating because she is kind. You can be either haughty or kind. Being haughty is possibly the more devastating because it upsets man's unconscious superiority! But kindness lingers. And Aunt Phemie can be kindly firm; which is not so far from being haughty, I suppose. She never actually became engaged. Don't ask me why. It goes too deep. After my parents had spent all that money on my education it would have been a nice thing for me to have gone and got married, wouldn't it? she said. I agreed. We also agreed that hard-working parents expect their daughter in such circumstances to do some repaying; otherwise the education would have been wasted. We saluted such wisdom with gratitude; we shook with mirth.

Actually farm people did very well out of the first Great War. Dan, her schoolboy admirer, was the same age as Phemie and old enough to have spent the two years from over seventeen to nineteen in actual fighting. He could have been exempted from fighting, for he was now indispensable on the farm, but instead he gave his age as eighteen. By this time he must definitely have concluded he had lost Phemie.

Does all this bore you? But what an amount of good it's doing me! I can almost think of the policeman now. And I'm waiting for him. With Aunt Phemie and Dan behind me, I gather strength where it's needed. Dan wrote her some letters. How I should love to see them! I suspect there was very little in them and certainly, I should say, no declaration. I know she has them tied away somewhere. Not that she definitely said so. A sparseness, an economy, in all this that toughens the last fibre of the heart. Bless them for evermore.

She became a schoolmistress in a southern town. She liked her work with the children and began to take an interest in the child mind and “advanced” systems of teaching. She went abroad during the summer vacation. Our Aunt Phemie was really becoming a very civilised creature. As a little girl, I was absolutely fascinated by her. Finally, it was to her that I owe the Art School and my “freedom”.

The years roll on. Aunt Phemie became thirty-three. She is at home and it is summer. It is, in fact, the night before she is due to leave. It's as casual as that. She had seen Dan off and on, in the years. He ran his farm now and ran it successfully; interested in all the latest improvements and going ahead. She went out for a walk by herself,just to have a last look around the old place, for the following year she was going abroad to an educational conference. By chance, she ran into Dan. He was scything some bracken by a little wood in order to prove to himself how many cuttings of the young shoot were needed to kill that ravenous weed. He explained the idea to her; it made conversation easy. (I wish you could have seen the smile in Aunt Phemie's eyes as she explained it to me.) At last she is taking leave of him. He looks at her and does not put out his hand. His fists are gripping the handles of the scythe again anyway. When a person like that looks right into your eyes it takes the strength out
of you; your wits fly away like startled pigeons. At least I must assume as much, for when he said,
You're not going back, are you?
she didn't know what on earth to answer. Then he said,
Are you Phemie?
And she heard her voice answer,
I asked her what happened to the scythe. She looked startled for a moment, then she smiled saying she had no idea.

I can't go on, Ranald. However lightly I try to write about it, the tragedy of Dan's awful death comes looming upon me. And then when Aunt Phemie came out of the hospital, alone now as she had never been and within the scene of the appalling accident, how she could decide to stay on is something I can only grope towards.

She was a great comfort to me when I came home after saying
to the policeman. I was terribly shaken. She gave me some brandy. I felt sick inside as if my vitals were melting down. I know the trick of holding on, but oh, sometimes the stitches, the threads, keeping you together grow so thin and rotten. But when I cried,
Why did I say No to the policeman?
Aunt Phemie answered that that was perfectly natural and that she would have said the same herself. At once that awful question, which had kept crying in me down the fields, was eased of urgency—as if it had been properly answered. Of course I knew it had not been answered, but that now made no difference. Don't ask me to explain this.

The brandy helped the sense of conspiracy which grew on us and was warming. Aunt Phemie became thoughtful. I challenged her. But she said she was only trying to think who the fellow could be whom I met in the gorge. Obviously he was a visitor to the town who had followed the stream from the town into the hills. His description suggested to her that he was not the usual kind of visitor or tripper. He sounded more like an artist or musician, she thought. There was a nephew of the provost who had been studying in Rome before the war, but he couldn't be anything like thirty-five. However, it would be someone like that, and in my overwrought condition I had naturally—and so on. I could see she honestly thought this and was not now merely comforting me. To her it was absurd that the man could be the murderer.

It was then that a section of my past came back on me with a strange fatality, and I shook my head and said it wasn't absurd. I said that murderers were like that now. I said that murderers were no longer the “criminal type”. Murderers were normal now. They just murdered. When you believe in nothing, why should you believe in not murdering … ?

I was saying a lot more like this, when I saw her eyes. There was in them not horror so much as a sort of horror of concern for me. I did not mind it. I felt suddenly alien and cool, with the trembling gone. I was not talking rationally so much as seeing in pictures. I was not arguing from what the radio called “the wave of crime” sweeping the country. The aftermath of war. The gas chambers. The mass butcheries. Jewish families are taking off their clothes, folding them, placing them in little heaps where they are told. They do this tidily. You can hear the whining sounds in their nostrils. Love sounds and love words and farewell. The naked family, one family and another and another, in the trenches they have dug. A young man is sitting on the edge of the trench with, a tommy gun on his knees. He is smoking a cigarette. You hear it on the radio. You get used to it. But what I see in pictures—I can't go on. Ran, Ran, do you hear me crying to you? It's not for myself I'm crying. Shall I ever be able to tell you——


You have no idea what the coming of the postman means once a day. It's the bright spot, the extra, and you never fear him. I was up here at my window trying to pretend I was not waiting for him. And actually, looking over some of this dreadful stuff I have written, I had forgotten him. I was vowing to myself that henceforth I should send you nothing but sunshine when the iron gate clicked. There's a short curving drive of trees. Behold him in his dark blue—admirable colour—and round hard hat with attractive peak. Up goes my temperature, suspended goes my breath. By flattening nose against glass and forehead hard against angle of window frame, I can just see him. Out goes his arm. I hear the wire in the wall before the bell in the kitchen. Nose over postal bag, he rummages among the oats. Elderly and grizzled, he snorts, for Aunt Phemie has appeared though I can't see her. Have disciplined myself now never to rush for postman. From him Aunt Phemie gets news, if any. Her daily moment. Out comes the little bundle tied with string. Deft unwinding of string and putting of same in mouth. Mumble mumble, but the hands deal the cards. My heart faints for I fancy I see something known. It vanishes towards Aunt Phemie. That's all to-day. String is winding round reduced bundle. Short news bulletin begins. It goes on. And on, Cheery farewell, and off the elderly but deft legs go. I wait in breathless suspense.
In a moment I am there.

I hope I thank Aunt Phemie. Innocent of shame I turn to stairs. You'll burst your heart, lassie! calls Aunt Phemie. It feels like bursting. I subside on bed. The envelope has its own face, charged with character. I am positively shy of it. Totem and not taboo. Magic. I burst it open. At first it's not quite you. It's hurry and swiftness and what I find. Then it's you.

I agree I should have more sense. I wish to goodness I hadn't sent you that rigmarole about the thistledown. Yet I don't care—for you do say some nice things about it. I mean I read, between the lines, your concern, and though I love your concern, I'm sorry too. Please don't be concerned, Ranald. Believe me, that's not what I need at all! I see now how selfish and emotional I must appear. Dreadful. In view of the way I did my job and carried on, it must now seem to you that I really am going to bits. When you write “Don't give in, Nan,” you wring my heart. Listen, Ranald. I must have someone whom I can tell. Yet that seems selfish, too, for why should I? Without discipline, life is impossible. I know. Who should know better? I could write you nice encouraging letters. But that—put it down to my breakdown—would seem a blight. Do smile, Ranald. For, you see, what was I wanting? I was wanting news of you and of everything you're doing. And instead of that you write about me as if I were an extra burden on your back. It makes me feel pretty hollow.

But don't think I am giving in to you. I am not. You say that I have got to watch this emotionalism with its queer images (you mean demented) or I may escape from you altogether and that would be dreadful. It would indeed! And it's lovely of you to put it like that. But I am not deceived. I know what you are hinting at. Let me tell you then that I am not escaping out of sanity: I am trying to escape into sanity. I may go quite mad in the process. But that's the way I'm going. It may be a terrible road, but I'm going. I think it may be terrible because the tears have sprung into my eyes. And lonely. But I'm going. I'll never go back.

All this talk about escapism. The talk is a horrible trick, a horrible trick of the intellect to guard its own deathly deeds. It's the talk of the prison guards. It's the young man with the machine gun on his knees and the cigarette in his mouth. Not to mention the smile, the murderer's sneer, that Nan is going all D. H. Lawrence. For ages of time I seem to have lived among it. And I know the reaction to the way I have mentioned the intellect. I see their faces. Real faces, pale and avid, or laughing like hyenas. I am now quite mad, they think. In bottomless swamps of horrible emotion. Blood and myth and stuff. But I'm not! We have to rescue the intellect from the destroyers. They have turned it into death rays, and it should be the sun, the sun on our earth, bringing the blossom from the earth——

I collapsed there and lay on the bed with your letter. These last words took an awful lot out of me, as if I had been shouting them. The door opened some time and Aunt Phemie was there quietly. I should have pretended to be asleep but I could not think in time. She asked me if there was anything wrong. She had called me for tea and wondered if I was asleep, she said. But I know what she is wondering and am dreadfully aware of my eyes, so I turn from her and put the pillow straight. I had such a lovely letter, I say to her. I hear her breathe for she understands this, quite understands that a letter could be so dear to the heart that the heart breaks in happiness over it. She smiles sensibly and goes out telling me to come when I feel like it. The elderly woman's relief at the sight of no more than a child's joy, and you love her for it.

I feel strangely quietened after my collapse and enjoy my tea. Aunt Phemie reads the newspaper which comes by post every day. She tells me something about what's happening in the world. I don't need to answer, but probably say something in reply. I quite forget to ask her if the postman had any news and presently I am up here again, re-reading your letter.

A silent world it is in which I hear the iron gate click. I stand at the window waiting. The policeman appears. He is coming to the house. I step back so that he may not see me but I keep my eye on him. I am not disturbed or nervous. He must be coming in connection with me but I really think of him as going to Aunt Phemie. It's not my concern. I may have told him a lie about being with a man and there's that handkerchief, but I do not positively think of them. I know that when I am called downstairs I shall be perfectly cool, polite but distant. Something was emptied out of me when I collapsed and I am quite well again. I am grateful for this because it will keep me from making a fool of myself. When I hear him pull the bell I go and watch as he waits for Aunt Phemie. We have no maid at the moment. He lifts a forefinger to his hat. There are some words. He enters. A door closes upon them.

Well, why not? Let them talk if they want to.

They talk a long time. The situation must be involved. But my position is perfectly clear. Until this moment I had not realised how simple and obvious. Had I met a man of a certain description?—and I reply: Well, a man like that did say good day to me in the birch gorge. It simply had never occurred to me that the police might be interested in one so obviously a gentleman, taking a stroll. And this handkerchief? Oh, it is the handkerchief I had lost on my walk and did not miss until I had come home. I am glad it has been found. Where did you find it? Thank you very much. I can answer any question at once. The man was a complete stranger to me. I have no interest in him. Far from being upset by the policeman's eyes, I shall have pleasure in answering him with the utmost lucidity.

When I hear the door open and the policeman taking his leave, I have a distinct feeling of being let down. Somehow I don't want Aunt Phemie up here at the moment, so I open my own door and as I begin to go down she waves a white rag from the hall. Here's your hankie! she calls, laughter in her voice. What on earth's happened? I ask, grateful for the warmth that has come into my own. I hate pretending to Aunt Phemie. And soon we are deep in the policeman's news.

BOOK: The Shadow
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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