Authors: Iris Murdoch
The Time of the Angels
To Eduard Fraenkel
The quotation at the beginning of Chapter
Fifteen is from Heidegger’s
Sein und Zeit
“Have you lit a fire in Miss Elizabeth’s room?”
“It’s so cold.”
“What did you say?”
“It’s so cold.”
Pattie stretches out her plump arms, rich brown in colour, just a little darker in hue than a cappuccino, and with cramped chilled fingers claws at cinders in the bottom of the narrow gate. The whitish cotton smock, bulkily tucked up to the elbows, which she wears over her jumper and skirt is patterned with red strawberries. A flowery rayon scarf, not very clean now, contains her inky black hair.
“What’s that funny noise that keeps coming?”
“It’s the underground railway. It runs right underneath the house.”
“The underground railway. I wonder if we shall get used to it.”
Pattie crumples up crisp clean pages of The Times and lays sticks cross-cross above. She puts old rusty misshapen cinders on top of the sticks.
“Mind that spider, Pattie, rescue him, would you. That’s right. May I light the fire?”
The match flares, revealing on the crumpled back page a picture of some black men torturing some other black men. The paper blazes up mercifully. As Pattie sighs and sinks back on her heels, a ladder darts up her stocking like a little lizard.
“Don’t forget those mousetraps, will you, Pattie. I’m sure I saw a mouse in my bedroom.”
The sticks subside crackling into the inferno of blazing paper. Pattie picks small shiny lumps of coal out of a dusty coal-scuttle and drops them into the grate. The papery blaze warms her face.
“And, oh Pattie.”
“If my brother Marcus rings up tell him I’m not available. If anybody rings up tell them I’m not available.”
The rescued spider stops shamming dead and rushes underneath the coal-scuttle.
“How terribly dark it is inside. The fog seems to have got into the house.”
“Yes, it is dark inside.”
“Could I have some milk, Pattikins?”
“There isn’t any milk. I’ll borrow some from the porter.”
“Well, never mind. Don’t exhaust yourself, will you, sugar plum Pattie?”
“Someone’s got to do the things.”
The black cassock brushes the stretched stocking of her bent knee and a cold finger caresses the prominent vertebra of her inclining neck. Footsteps move away and the frou-frou of the cassock ascends the stairs. Without turning round, Pattie rises.
A huge glass-fronted bookcase which has not yet found its place in the new house stretches diagonally across the hall where Pattie has been lighting the fire. The floor in front of it is covered with books upon which she stumbles now as she steps back. Falling over Sein und Zeit, she loses a slipper and kicks Sein und Zeit petulantly with a cold stockinged foot. Pattie’s shoes all become mysteriously too large for her very soon after she has bought them. A faint sound of music comes from above. Swan Lake. And for a second Pattie’s body feels all feathery and light. Pattie has seen ballet, watching from far above the white figures moving like animated flowers. But I am fat now, she thinks at the next instant, I am a fat girl now.
The front door bell rings with a threatening unfamiliar sound and Pattie opens the door a little way. She does not open it properly because although it is very cold in the house it is even colder outside. Fog comes rushing in, making Pattie cough. In the yellowish haze of what is supposed to be early afternoon she can just discern a middle-aged lady with bright wide-apart eyes standing upon the pavement. Wisps of damp hair emerge from under her smart fur hat and cling streakily to her cheeks. Pattie scrutinizes, prices, and covets her coat of Persian lamb. Her suede boots leave clear imprints in the frost upon the paving stones as she tramples to and fro a little with the cold. Her la-di-dah voice comes as no surprise to Pattie. An enemy.
“So terribly sorry to bother you. My name is Mrs Barlow. I’m from the pastorate. I wonder if I could see the new Rector?”
“I’m afraid the Rector is not seeing anybody at present.”
“I’d only keep him for a moment. You see, actually—”
“I’m sorry, we’ve only just moved in and there’s such a lot to do. Perhaps you could call later.”
Pattie shuts the door. In the foggy interior a youth of singular beauty and perhaps twenty summers walks or rather glides. His closely cropped hair is the colour which Pattie has learnt from her magazines to call strawberry blond. He looks about him with curiosity, starts to examine the books on the floor, and then seeing Pattie slinks back under the stairs in the direction of the kitchen. Pattie, who thinks that all young persons are sneering at her, notes with disapproval his pointed footwear. Another enemy appears.
“Yes, Miss Muriel.”
“Who is that frightfully good-looking boy I saw just now?”
“He’s the porter’s son.”
“Oh, have we got a porter? What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. Some foreign name. Would you like a fire lit in your room?”
“No, don’t bother, I’ll go in with Elizabeth. There’s the telephone, would you answer it, Pattie? If anyone wants me say I’m out.”
A man’s voice speaks, very hesitant and apologetic.
“Oh, hello. This is Marcus Fisher speaking. I wonder if I could speak to my brother, please?”
“I’m afraid the Rector is not available.”
“Oh. Could I speak to Elizabeth, then?”
“Miss Elizabeth never comes to the telephone.”
“Oh. Perhaps I could speak to Muriel?”
“Miss Muriel is not here.”
“Oh. When could I get hold of the Rector?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure.”
“Who is that speaking, please?”
“Oh, er, Pattie. I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize your voice. Well, I suppose I’d better ring again, hadn’t I.”
“Goodbye, Mr Fisher.”
A dark figure at the top of the stairs murmurs approval and a paper dart takes the air and sweeps down to tap on Pattie’s smock a little above the heart and fall to the ground at her feet. Without looking up, Pattie smooths out the paper to put it on the fire, and as she does so reads the new address which is printed on it. The Rector’s Lodgings, St Eustace Watergate, London, E.C. She still cannot quite believe that she is in London.
A soft voice above her sings “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, dormez-vous?” and an opening and a closing door releases a momentary whisper of Swan Lake. A train passes beneath and jolts everything in the house a millimetre or two and jolts Pattie’s heart with a little reminder of death. She murmurs the poetry which takes the place of the prayer which took the place of the poor defeated magic of her childhood. Turn away no more. Why wilt thou turn away? The starry floor, the watery shore, is given thee till the break of day.
She goes into the kitchen where the strawberry blond is waiting to take her to see his father.
Pattie in the porter’s room soon begins to feel a different person. The blond youngster, whose name is Leo, has mouched away and the porter, whose name is something odd which Pattie still cannot catch, is handing her a miraculous cup of tea. The porter, who is clearly a foreigner, has a gentle mournful face like an animal and thick drooping rusty-brown moustaches. Pattie likes men who look like animals and she takes to the porter for this reason and also because she is quite certain he is not sneering at her.
The porter has been explaining the heating system of the Rectory, after which he looks. The system is complicated and it occurs to Pattie that it seems to heat the boiler room and the porter’s room and very little else. Pattie inspects the porter’s room. It is a concrete box which looks like an air-raid shelter. There is an odd smell which Pattie imagines to be incense although she has never smelt incense before. A curious steel cage turns out to be two bunks, one above the other, only the lower one being made up as a bed. The upper one, covered by a board, supports the most extraordinary picture which Pattie has ever seen. It is painted on wood and partly with golden paint, real gold Pattie thinks it must be since it glows as if it were on fire. It shows three angels confabulating around a table. The angels have rather small heads and very large pale haloes and anxious thoughtful expressions.
“What’s that?” says Pattie.
“What’s an icon?”
“Just a religious picture.”
“Who are these people?”
“The Blessed Trinity.”
Because the porter says “The Blessed Trinity” and not just “The Trinity” Pattie assumes that he believes in God. This reassures and pleases her. God is vague but important in Pattie’s life and she is comforted when other people believe in Him.
“What is your name, please, I still can’t get it.”
“That’s foreign, isn’t it. What are you?”
He says with pride, “I am Russian,” and then, “what are you?”
She understands his question but how can she answer it?
“I am Pattie O’Driscoll.”
“WHAT ARE YOU going to do about your brother?”
“I don’t know. Has something got to be done about my brother?”
Marcus Fisher stood with his back to the warm cheerfully lighted room, looking out through a gap in the curtains. The fog had thickened the darkness and gauzed it a little with its own rusty yellow as if the fog itself were a source of light. The nearby sound of a ship’s siren was stifled in the dense air. With satisfaction Marcus pulled the curtains together and turned back to the blazing coal-fire.
Norah Shadox-Brown, sturdy in tweed, loomed over the tea-table. Like so many of those whose only troubles are the troubles of others, she had carried her girlish looks well on into middle age, though her neat straight hair was now a sleek silver. Lamplight shone about her upon the stiff cloth of Irish linen in whose whiteness a tracery of shamrocks gleamed a very faint and pallid gold. Huge as a cheese, a segmented cherry cake revealed its creamy interior, studded with juicy cherries, Marcus noted approvingly, all the way up to the top. Toasted scones fainted limply under their load of melting butter. Greengage jam, called by its maker “greengage chutney” in order to indicate that it was very special and to excuse its being very expensive, formed an oleaginous mountain in a dish of Waterford glass. The tea-pot had just been filled and a sharp clear smell of hot water and Indian tea welcomed Marcus to the table. He sat down.
“I’m just afraid that there’ll be some kind of scandal. So bad for the girls.”
“I can’t think what you’ve got in mind,” said Marcus. “Of course Carel’s terribly eccentric, but he got on all right at the other place, and I don’t see why he shouldn’t get past here. It looks as if it’s a bit of a sinecure anyway.”
“Precisely! I suspect the hierarchy have got your brother’s measure and they’ve put him in a place where he can’t do any harm!”
“What is his job, anyway, as rector of this non-existent church? There isn’t anything of the church left, is there, except the tower.”
“That’s all. A bomb destroyed the rest. Such a loss. Wren, you know. And he never made anything prettier.”
“The whole place looks as if it’s been bombed now. I went down just before Carel arrived. They’ve knocked everything down all round the Rectory.”
“Yes, it’s that building site there was such a fuss about and letters to The Times.”
“That skyscraper idea?”
“Yes. Planning permission was withdrawn at the last moment.”
“Solitudinem fecerunt all right. But is there nothing but the Rectory and the tower? No church somewhere else?”
“No. I believe there’s a church hall, but it’s not consecrated. I gather the Rector can do as much or as little as he pleases. You remember, well perhaps you don’t, the chap who was there before, an odd-looking crippled man. He never seemed to do anything at all. It’s obviously a niche for problem children. I met a rather maddening woman called Mrs Barlow at the Oxfam office and she told me about it. I suspect she fancies herself as the power behind that particular throne. She seemed quite possessive about the place. You know what those city churches are like nowadays. Lectures and concerts and shut on Sundays. It should suit Carel down to the ground! He can leave it all to Mrs Barlow.”
“Well, then, why worry?” said Marcus, helping himself to greengage chutney.
“Because he’ll never let well alone. He likes to scandalize people. You know how terribly unbalanced he is.”
“Oh come!” Sensible straightforward Norah would never understand a complex inward character like Carel. Norah regarded all subtleties as falsehoods.
“And look at the way he refuses to see you and won’t even let you see Elizabeth. After all, you and he were appointed her joint guardians when her father died. And he’s never let you have any say at all.”
Carel was Marcus’s elder brother. Julian, Elizabeth’s father and Marcus’s younger brother, had died many years ago of a mysterious illness during Marcus’s sojourn in the United States. It was true that Carel had behaved as if he were the child’s sole guardian.
“I wouldn’t put it like that,” said Marcus. “It’s partly my fault. I ought to have taken a strong line from the start.”
“You’re afraid of Carel, that’s what’s the trouble with you.”
Was he? Marcus’s parents had died when he was still at school and Carel, head of the family at sixteen, had come to seem to him strangely like a father. Julian, youngest and always slightly ailing, had been for both his elders the object of love. But Carel had been the source of power.
“We were all very happy together when we were boys,” Marcus mumbled, his mouth full of warm buttery scone and greengage.
“Well, it looks as if something came unstuck.”
“I suppose it was just growing up. And then there was a girl. And, oh, various things.”
“What did the girl do?”
“Oh, just made trouble. She was an ecstatic type, sort of in love with all three of us, and we were sort of in love with her. I escaped by rushing off to the U.S.A. Carel and Julian were already married then.”
“Sounds messy to me.”
“It was. She was rather an absurd girl, but awfully sweet. I thought her a bit of a joke. Funny, I can’t even remember what she looked like now. She was a member of the Communist Party. That was all inconceivably long ago.”
Marcus was more deeply disturbed than he had yet admitted to Norah by his brother’s unexpected return to London. The parish in the Midlands had been sufficiently far off to seem inaccessible. There had been rumours of eccentricities. Marcus had made two brief and obviously unwelcome visits and it was now several years since he had seen either his brother or Elizabeth.
“How old is Muriel now?” said Norah, pouring out more tea. “Let me see, she must be twenty-four.”
“I suppose so.” Muriel was Carel’s daughter and only child.
“And how old is Elizabeth?”
“Nineteen.” Nineteen! He knew that. He had thought a lot about Elizabeth’s growing up. He recalled her very clearly as a magical child of twelve or so, with her long, pale, wistful face and blonde hair, almost white, streaming on her shoulders. She had the self-contained maturity of a conscious only child, a conscious orphan. Of course she was a bit wild and tomboyish. Neither she nor Muriel had long enjoyed a mother’s care. The two Mrs Fishers, Sheila and Clara, had borne each a girl child and died thereafter. Their fading images, now confused together, hovered in the background, wistful and faintly accusing presences, still endowed for the bachelor Marcus with the numinous and mysterious quality of a brother’s wife.
“Elizabeth must be very beautiful now,” said Marcus, helping himself to a piece of cherry cake. Although he had cravenly never asserted his rights over his ward, he still felt about her the curious excitement which had come to him when, after Julian’s death, he had apprehended himself as the quasi-father of a very pretty and clever child. Carel had soon stolen the little waif away. But she had had her place in Marcus’s most private dreams. While she was still a child he had corresponded with her regularly, and he had got used to connecting her with a certain vague warm sense of the future. Elizabeth was somehow in reserve, something still to come. He felt now in his bones the thrill of that old innocent possessiveness, mingled with an even more ancient fear of his elder brother.
“All that illness may have wrecked her looks,” said Norah. “Some inherited defect there. Shouldn’t be surprised if she died young like her father.” Norah, whose good sense sometimes issued in judgements of a surprising callousness, had never liked Elizabeth: a sly, little fairy thing, she called her. “Quite apart from anything else, you ought to know more about Elizabeth’s state of health.”
Some four years ago Elizabeth had developed a weakness in the back, the sort of thing which is usually called a “slipped disc” at first. Her ailment had resisted diagnoses and treatment. She now wore a surgical corset and was under permanent orders to “take things very easily”.
“You’re quite right,” said Marcus. He was beginning to feel a special pain which was the urgency of his desire to see Elizabeth again and to see her soon. She had been sleeping in him. Now she was waked. He felt guilt and puzzlement about his long defection.
“And then there’s her education,” Norah went on. “What do we know about that?”
“Well, Carel was teaching her Latin and Greek at one point, I know.”
“I’ve never approved of teaching inside the family. It’s far too emotional. Teaching should be done by professionals. Besides, a bit of ordinary school life would have done the girl good. I’m told she hardly ever goes out at all. So bad for her. With that sort of condition people simply must make an effort and help themselves. Giving in and lying back is the worst thing of all.”
Norah, a retired headmistress, believed in the universal efficacy of self-help.
“Yes, it must be very lonely for her,” said Marcus. “It’s just as well she’s always had Muriel for company.”
“I don’t like that either. Those girls are too much together. Cousinage, dangereux voisinage.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Oh, just that I think it’s an unhealthy friendship. They ought to see more young men.”
“It’s a change to hear you prescribing young men, my dear Norah! Actually, I’ve always had the impression those two girls didn’t get on too well together.”
“Well, Elizabeth is difficult and spoilt. And I’m afraid Muriel has changed a good deal for the worse. If only she’d gone to the university and got herself a worthwhile job.”
“Well, that wasn’t Carel’s fault,” said Marcus. He did not altogether like his elder niece. There was something a little sardonic about her which he mistrusted. He suspected her of mocking him. Muriel was however Norah’s favourite, and had even been for a while, as a result of Marcus’s good offices, a pupil in Norah’s school. Though an exceptionally able girl, she had nevertheless refused the university place which she could easily have had, and had become, of all things which Norah abhorred, a shorthand typist. Marcus thought that Norah had been a little too urgently ambitious for Muriel. Perhaps she had been a little too fond of Muriel.
Marcus, who was himself the headmaster of a small independent school in Hertfordshire, had made Norah’s acquaintance in the course of his professional duties. He liked and admired her. Only lately he had begun, imperceptibly and uneasily, to apprehend her as a problem. A woman of immense energies, Norah had been forced by ill health into an early retirement, and had installed herself in a decrepit eighteenth-century house in East London. Of course, she at once found herself other employments, far too many of them, according to her doctor. She did voluntary work for the local council, she was on library committees, housing committees, education committees, she busied herself with benefiting prisoners and old-age pensioners and juvenile delinquents. But she still gave the impression of someone restless and insufficiently absorbed. Emotions which had previously supplied the energy for her work now stalked and idled. Marcus noticed in her a new sentimentality which, ill-matched with her old persona of a brisk sensible pedagogue, produced an effect of awkwardness, of something almost pathetic or touching. She displayed a more patent affection for former pupils, a more patent affection, he nervously noticed, for himself. And just lately she had made the alarming and embarrassing suggestion that he should move into the vacant flat at the top of her house. Marcus had returned an evasive reply.
“I’m afraid Muriel is rather typical of the modern young,” Norah was going on. “At least she’s typical of the brighter ones. She’s naturally a strong-willed high-principled person. She ought to make a decent citizen. But somehow it’s all gone wrong. She has no social place. It’s as if her sheer energy had taken her straight over the edge of morality. That’s the sort of thing you ought to discuss in your book.”
Marcus had taken two terms’ leave from his school in order to write a book about which he had been reflecting for a long time, a philosophical treatise upon morality in a secular age. It would, he hoped, create a certain impression. It was to be a fairly brief but very lucid and dogmatic work, designed to resemble Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy in its streamlined rhetoric and epigrammatic energy.
“I know what you mean about Muriel,” he said. “I’ve seen it in other clever young people. As soon as they start to reflect about morals at all they develop a sort of sophisticated immoralism.”
“Of course that doesn’t necessarily make them delinquent. Deliquency has other causes, usually in the home. That Peshkov boy, for instance, seems to me a natural delinquent, if you don’t mind my being rude about one of your former pupils! In his case—”
Marcus groaned to himself while Norah went on explaining her views of the causes of delinquency. It was not that Marcus was bored by this, but he did not like being reminded of Leo Peshkov. Leo was one of Marcus’s failures. Norah in the course of her work on local housing problems had discovered the Peshkovs, father and son, in an unhygienic den from which she had moved them, first to a church hostel, and later, with the connivance of the Bishop, to their present quarters at the Rectory, just before the arrival of the odd-looking crippled priest beforementioned. Leo, then a schoolboy, had been attending a rather unsatisfactory local institution, and Norah had asked Marcus to make a vacancy for him at his own school. In fact, Marcus and Norah had paid for Leo’s education, but this was not known to the Peshkovs.