Read The Song of the Flea Online

Authors: Gerald Kersh

The Song of the Flea (27 page)

BOOK: The Song of the Flea


“It is a very good thing to be with you,” said Pym, after they had made love together.

“Very good,” said Joanna Bowman.

“—But there’s one thing.”

“Oh-oh! I thought as much.”

“It wasn’t because I had a little money that I turned down Proudfoot’s offer. I give you my word of honour. What I have I got——”

“—Please let me go to sleep.”

“I want you to know that I’d decided to turn Proudfoot’s offer down before Sissy Voltaire gave me the advance on that play. I wouldn’t have done it, you know—I’d never have written Dr. Weissensee’s rubbish for her—I’d just as soon have starved. Don’t misunderstand me, please, Jo.”

“—Pym, let me go to sleep now.”

“God bless you, Jo, my sweet.”

“I don’t believe in God; but God bless
Pym. I like you. I’m calm and happy with you. Thank you, Pym. Would you like to kiss me here, on the forehead, before you go?”

Pym kissed Joanna and said: “Good night.”

“You might meet a man called Swan,” she said. “My husband. Don’t be afraid of him. He won’t hurt. Good night, Pym, my dear. I like being with you. Good night.”

“Thank you for being so sweet, Jo.”

“Soon again, Pym….”


Pym closed the street door behind him and felt the cold night breeze on his face. A shower of rain had fallen, and there were patches of wet yellow under the lamp-posts. One
piece of the road, filmed with oil, shimmered like a damascened sabre, in twenty colours. Big Ben struck three o’clock, and a cat howled like a soul in the Pit. On the third floor of a house fifty yards away, a lamp went out and a
oblong disappeared. The cat cried again.

A man crossed the road, stood in front of Pym, and said, in a strange, strained voice: “Were you with Mrs. Swan, by any chance?”

“Swan?” said Pym. “Swan, Donald Duck, or Francis Drake—Dame Clara Cluck or Mickey Mouse—what has it got to do with you?”

you with Mrs. Swan?”

“Who are you, anyway? Why do you ask?”

“My name is Swan.”

“My name is Pym. Glad to have met you. Good night.”

The other man said: “Look here. I’ve been waiting. I’ve been watching the windows. Keep away, or I’ll——”

“Or you’ll what?”

“I’ll break every bone in your body. She’s my wife, d’you hear? Stay away from my wife or——”

“—Or you’ll break every bone in my body? Go ahead,” said Pym.

“—Or she’ll break your heart,” said Swan, and, hiccuping up a sob or two, began to weep.

“That’s better,” said Pym. “Come on, now, old man—bear up. There, now.”

“She …
a heart,” said Swan. His back was turned to a lamp-post; his voice was the shadow of a voice, coming from the darkest part of a shadow. “I’m telling you for your own good. Stay away from my wife. Or I’ll break——”

“—Excuse me: you said that
break …”

“—She’ll break your heart, and
’ll break every bone in your body. Do you hear?”

“I don’t like being spied on,” said Pym. “And I don’t like being threatened. Be a good fellow and go away.”

“Answer me first,” said Swan, taking hold of Pym’s sleeve. “Were you or were you not with my wife?”

“None of your business,” said Pym.

“Better tell me—or do you want me to knock it out of you?”

“In any case, take your hands off me,” said Pym.

“I keep watching and watching,” Swan said. “Oh, Christ, Christ Jesus, oh Jesus Christ—how I hate that woman!”

“Go home, go home,” said Pym, sadly.

Swan went sniffling and sobbing into the dark, and Pym walked towards Busto’s.

or hashish, is not used in medicine because its effect is unpredictable; variable according to the constitution and the temperament of the person to whom it is administered. It plays queer tricks with the nervous system. One man, dosed with
will be filled with peace and a sense of well-being; another has erotic dreams and a glowing sense of invulnerability and mighty strength. But the third man may have frightful nightmares, monstrous visions of amorphous, malevolent things that do not belong to this world. In the imagination of the fourth man, it may subtly twist loose one of the microscopic screws that keep Space and Time in their proper places; so that he will gather himself for a standing high jump to get over a match-stick on the floor, or step calmly off a roof because the house appears to him like the kerb of a
. In some heads, this dangerous stuff makes music—it makes things sing—chairs and tables, books, weighing machines, match-boxes and wastepaper baskets lift up unimagined voices in wild choruses, more or less ecstatic. Some men become sad with a cosmic sadness, and feel cold and lonely. Some men just go raving mad.

Therefore physicians do not use
It is unreliable: a hallucinant to-day, a hypnotic to-morrow, a stimulant on Wednesday, a sedative on Thursday and on Friday the wine of madness. Savage people burn it and suck up the smoke; which does terrible things to their mental balance. Civilised people purify it meticulously and swallow it. In its civilised, purified form it is less directly harmful. But it is always hashish—incalculable in action, unknowable in effect; deadly.

Alcohol, too, is idiosyncratic in its working. It makes you happy, miserable, calm, agitated, tearful, or fighting drunk—according to the way you are made.

They are all more or less dangerous, these drugs … these
screwdrivers of fog and pincers of mist with which men secretly make illegal entry into their lock-up imaginations when the policeman is changing his beat—when the will is off duty.

The effects of love, also, are beyond calculation. They may be good or evil.

Love goes up into the attics or down into the cellars and turns up whatever you happen to have buried; your mother’s
, worms, dead moths, gems, forgotten masterpieces, rats, money, or springs of tears. Love also is incalculable. A good man falls in love and becomes bad; a criminal falls in love and becomes honourable. A brave man falls in love and becomes a coward; a coward in love becomes a hero. Love may make a weak man strong, or a strong man weak. It may destroy the healthy, heal the sick, or drive sane men crazy. Love may drive you out of yourself, in which case it makes you great—or it may suck you back into yourself; and then you see yourself through the wrong end of a telescope: you become little. Love has been known to give patience to an impatient man, energy to a lazy man, nobility to a rat, and ferocity to a mouse.

Facing the issue and forcing himself to the conclusion that he was in love with Joanna Bowman, Pym became angry with himself. Then, without falling out of love, he began to dislike Joanna Bowman.

He disliked the unshakeable calm of her face; but he admired it, and despised himself for admiring it. He detested what she said, and loved her for saying it. He wanted to spit on her shadow, but he found himself bowing ceremoniously from the waist to the shadow of an honest woman. He knew that she was wrong and he was right; yet, as soon as he closed his eyes, a little monotonous voice squeaked:
He wanted to kill her and he wanted to cure her. He wanted to humiliate her in order to apologise to her for having humiliated her. He wanted to attract her in order to repulse her, and to be be invited again to her room in order to say: “Go to the devil.”

He wanted to show her how great he was.


Walking along Buckingham Palace Road towards Whitehall, Pym saw bright visions. An old idea that had been hanging in his head like a crystal in a saturated solution took form. He knew exactly what he was going to do. The book was to be called
and it would preach a terrible sermon.

… There is a turbulent midnight, somewhere on a lonesome road, with a great staring moon making bayonets of grass. There is a sort of wriggling maggoty patch of iridescent light ahead. As the front wheels of the car touch this blotch of diseased reflected moonlight, everything slides away.
slides to the left. The driver of the car, jerked out of a delicious dream and twitching spasmodically like a fish on a hook, spins the wheel; just as a great square-cut truck thunders round the bend and then—a blinding white light, and a sickening descent in wild spirals into blackness, and through blackness into nothingness.

… Out of this blackness; out of this nothingness; a Man emerges. He is stunned and shocked. He does not know who is or where he is. Parched with thirst he goes to a pond to drink and sees a face which is strange to him—a blank, plain, stunned face that belongs to a man of forty-five, beautifully dressed, and decorated with elegant jewellery. As he bends to drink something cuts him under the ribs. The blank-faced Man is puzzled: he thrusts a hand up his coat, unbuttons his
, drags up his shirt and uncovers a belt. In this packed canvas belt he finds amass of paper. What is this? He does not know. It is money, to the value of five million pounds. The stunned Man who has walked so far has no idea of the meaning of this paper. He drinks greedily from the pond (from the other side of the pond two anxious cows, also drinking, look at him with great melancholy eyes). The Man looks back at the cows. He is full of a strange uneasiness. Then he goes to the road, instinctively, and walks—he does not know, nor does he care, where he is walking. At last an old gentleman, a man of intrinsic sweetness, travelling up or down this unknown road in a trap, stops and offers him a lift….

… The Man is lost, bewildered. He does not know who he
is or where he is. Where is he going? He is not quite sure … Where has he come from? He is not certain … The old gentleman in the trap is a Doctor, returning from a visit to a patient in an outlying farm. The doctor observes the grazed bruise on the Man’s forehead, and the torn and bloodied
of his clothes. Has the Man had an accident? The Man does not know. Where was the man a few minutes ago?—The man does not know. The old Doctor takes the man to his house, bathes his wounds, feeds him, and gives him something that makes him go to sleep.

After a sleep full of turbulent dreams the Man goes back with the Doctor to where the Doctor picked him up on the road. Going back, landmark by landmark, he remembers what has happened between the Doctor’s bedroom and the passing of the trap.

… Thereupon, of course, the Doctor taking charge of the packed money-belt of the Man whose memory is lost, tries to take him back—back and back up the roads down which he was driving. A pattern becomes visible, as in a length of
let loose. Clue by clue they trace the Man’s career backwards, point by point. He is confronted with evil after evil. Here is the child he ill-treated in This Town … There is the woman he betrayed in That Town….

… In This Hotel he slept with a girl he betrayed … In That Hotel he destroyed the reputation of a married woman, wantonly sliding away before dawn. Always his pockets were full of money. Always, he was never quite undressed because there was a great canvas belt full of Bearer Bonds.

… The Doctor has become great and terrible. At X the Man wants to stop. But no, he may not. He must go on. He, the lost soul, must find himself. He must go on and on down this dreadful road. But the Man is afraid. The road unrolls like a scroll, uncovering horror after horror. “I don’t want to see any more of myself!” the Man cries.

One night, while the Doctor is asleep, he takes his money-belt and runs away. Alone in the dark he is tortured by raging curiosity. No, there is no escape. He returns to the hotel, and the Doctor, with a friendly smile, says: “I was expecting you earlier.”

“I was running away.”

With a kind smile the Doctor says: “Come, friend, let us be on our road.”

Again, at a certain desolate crossroads, remembering the memory of a sin over which he chuckled when he passed that way before, the Man recoils and cries: “No! No! I can’t go on! I won’t go on! Let me go!”

“On, brother, on to the bitter end,” says the Doctor.

Inexorably the great grey Scroll unrolls as the two men go on into the mist which clears in front of them and closes behind them, and the Man, step by step, is forced to look upon things that make his soul sick. Into his clean-scraped mind come memories of things recollected, recollections of emotions; lurid, abominable images of himself. “This was not me—this could not possibly have been me!” he cries, weeping.

“Oh, son,” says the Doctor; and the Man, throwing himself backwards in a blind panic, finds that the light touch of the surgically-scoured hand in the old-fashioned starched cuff stops him like a stone wall.

He must go on. And he knows that as he goes on the Scroll will reveal more loathsome things. He tries to run away again, one bitterly cold evening, when, passing through a sad little town, a fog comes down upon them. He runs blindly … and when the fog drifts away at dawn he is back where he started, and the Doctor is saying: “Just in time, old friend. Let us be on our way.”

And the Scroll unrolls until it is no thicker than a pencil; and the Man is appalled by the monstrousness of himself. He is sick with loathing when he looks at himself. He hates himself so bitterly that he wants to take himself by the throat and murder himself—hang himself as the vilest of men, bury himself deep in a lonely place, shovel dirt upon himself, let the coarse moorland grass grow over himself so that he may be forever forgotten.

“If this was me—my God, how I’d despise myself! I would not have such a man in the same room with me,” he says.

you, brother,” says the Doctor. “Come on, son. We have not all the time in the world, friend. Forward, comrade.”

The Man looks at the clouded radiance that comes before the blaze of pitiless black-and-white light-and-shadow ahead. He looks back at the thick woolly mist and yearns towards it as a man dying of cold yearns towards a blanket. But he bows his head and goes on with the Doctor; the last curl of the Scroll is smoothed out and flattened down and, in clear black and cold white, shocked like a man caught unawares by a photographer’s flash, the Man is revealed to himself.

He is where he started. Now he remembers. He is Oliver Rudge, blackmailer and embezzler.

“Give me back my belt,” he says. The Doctor gives him his belt. They are standing in the blue light of a lamp outside a police station. The Man asks: “What was I, for God’s sake? A devil?”

“Yes, my son, you were a devil, and you were also a soul in torment.”

“But it was like looking at a peep-show of Hell.”

“Of purgatory,” says the Doctor.

The Man smiles. He says good-bye, gripping the Doctor’s hand … And then he finds that he is holding nothing but a handful of mist. But he walks firmly under the lamp, up the three wet stone steps, past the big middle-aged policeman at the door, and goes to the inspector’s desk. He puts down the canvas bag and says: “I am Oliver Rudge.” … And so, at peace with himself, he goes down a cold stairway. The light from the naked bulb catches his dishevelled hair, which, beaded with moisture from the mist, looks for a moment like a halo. Radiant, he goes into his cell and the iron door closes.


A story like that, thought Pym, could involve all mankind. It could—it should—be a stupendous thing, with a background as long as the horizon and as wide as the sky.


Pym remembered certain early experiments in elementary inorganic chemistry. Potassium chlorate, heated in a test-tube, gave out oxygen. You put a little potassium chlorate in the tube and heated it. When it began to melt you thrust a smouldering
splinter into the mouth of the tube. The splinter, somewhat reluctantly, became incandescent and caught fire. But if you mixed a little black oxide of manganese with your potassium chlorate the oxygen was liberated in a great gasp and the glowing splinter popped into blinding flame. Yet analysis demonstrated that the black oxide of manganese was unchanged, although in some mysterious way it hastened and intensified the
sluggish reaction of the other chemical.

Joanna Bowman had provided the black pinch of catalytic anger, and Pym was alight.

He would wring a little grudging admiration from that intolerable woman if he burnt to ashes in the attempt.

It was too late to go to bed: day would break in an hour. Pym sharpened a pencil and began to make notes.

At nine o’clock he went out and called upon an estate agent near Piccadilly, who told him that there was a furnished flat in Battersea—a bed-sitting-room, kitchenette and bathroom—to let at thirty-five shillings a week.

“I can give you an order to view——”

“—It doesn’t matter. You say there’s a bed-sitting-room? A kitchenette and a bath? The place, you tell me, is furnished?”

“Oh, yes. Plate and linen.”

“Thirty-five shillings a week you say? How do I pay it?”


“That would be seven pounds a month.”

“That’s right, sir: payable in advance.”

Pym put down seven pounds and said: “Well, all right, I’ll take it.”

“Don’t you think you’d better look at it first?”

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