Friday, November 16, 2018

A Dove Descending: Part I of III

November 13, 2012

by Roger Scruton

This is the first of three installments of Roger Scruton’s novella A Dove Descending. Continue reading the story in Part II and Part III.

In loving memory of Ian McFetridge

Like lovely bodies which never grew old
Sealed with tears in a bright mausoleum,
Settled in roses and jasmine I see them –
Desires unfulfilled which now have grown cold:
Forever denied their one joyful night,
Their morning of pleasure, filled with light.
                                            after Cavafy
 
The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air,
but only just above the ground.  It seems intended more to cause
stumbling than to be walked along.
Kafka

 

I

One evening after class Zoë Kostas decided to leave home.  The matter needed thought, and she spent two hours on the Circle line, sometimes hurrying from the carriage at a station, so as to walk on the platform until the next train arrived.   Once she climbed the escalator, breathed the night air by the ticket desk, and quickly descended when a man’s hard eyes caught sight of her.  Changing at King’s Cross, she took the last train north to Seven Sisters.

            Most of the Greeks from the village of Ayios Yiorgos lived in Argyll Street, from whose Victorian bay windows they watched each other through nylon jalousies.  Yannakis Kostas had settled here with his family in 1972, two years before the Turkish army had removed Ayios Yiorgos from the map of Cyprus, and four years before Yannakis had died of a heart attack, while coaxing his favourite pigeon – a short-faced tumbler called Evyenia – into the dovecote at the bottom of the garden.  For three years now the house had remained as he left it, his desk undisturbed, his clothes, books, and records in their former places, and the few ageing birds fed each morning on the mixture he devised.  Even the blank insurance policies – from the sale of which he had made his living – remained stacked in the corner of the living room, like unchiselled tombstones in a sculptor’s yard.

            Neither Zoë nor her mother really believed in Yannakis’s death.  They had buried him, and mourned him.  Priests, cousins, friends and neighbours – all had visited and wailed and wrung their hands.  But Zoë and her mother had already shifted to another sphere, just beyond the reach of sympathy.  Although they never spoke of it, they conspired to deny their loss.  Zoë believed that nothing united them so much as Yannakis, in whose honour she referred to her mother as the Kostaina.  And until recently, when for some reason the Kostaina had begun to waver in their common purpose, his presence in the house had been vigilant and reassuring.

            The Kostaina was asleep in the living room, her head thrown back against a pillow.  The mouth sagged open, and a little rivulet of saliva flowed on to the chin.  Her nose was stern, imperative and hawkish, while Zoë’s was fine and slim like her father’s.  The Kostaina’s eyes were grey, puffy, and set far apart as though they distrusted each other, unlike Zoë’s which were black, close-set and spiritual.  Their skin too was different – Zoë’s smooth, taut and sensitive, her mother’s coarse and worn.  Zoë believed there was something wilful in her mother’s ugliness.  That’s why she slept with open mouth, so that the lyre-shaped lips of Ayios Yiorgos – her one good feature – loosened into worms of flesh.

            She watched the Kostaina for a while, and listened to the enamel alarm clock as it ticked on the mantelpiece. A Cyclops eye opened wide in the sleeping face, and closed again.

            ‘Panayia!’ the Kostaina said.

            His pipe had been pushed to one side on the bookcase, and the box of Beethoven symphonies lay open by the record player.  For some weeks now the Kostaina had been departing from the rules.  She had removed his jacket from the bentwood chair in the kitchen; she had hidden the rusty woodworking tools and the black iron chytra which he used for his famous rabbit stew.  She had done this unobtrusively, by way of adjustment to an order which she otherwise grudgingly maintained. Zoë did not reproach her, since reproaches would be an admission that the rules could be discussed. Instead she had acquired a habit of irony, as though some outsider had stepped in with these weird instructions, which must be obeyed in silence and with winks of complicity.

            Thinking of their life, a great weariness came over her and she saw this weariness pictured in the Kostaina’s face, as a snore rumbled past her mother’s epiglottis and broke in the mouth with a popping sound.  Zoë stepped forward and turned off the light. The figure shifted in the rocking-chair, and then spoke slowly and distinctly into the darkness.

            ‘Another adventure.’

            The voice was grave but sarcastic.  Censorious Greeks said that Zoë slept with men and read poetry.  The Kostaina denied both stories, though there was some truth, she knew, in the second. Now she had begun to wonder about the first.  Every late homecoming had therefore become an adventure – a peripeteia – and the word was aimed at Zoë’s heart. It made her feel unclean, a disgrace to Yannakis and his family. Zoë went into the kitchen, took his brown Oxford shoes from the cupboard beneath the sink, and began to polish them furiously. After a while she felt better, and, hearing the Kostaina creaking on the stairs, she tidied the kitchen, swept it with a final glance, and went to bed.

            She dreamed her habitual dream. They were flying along the paths above Kyrenia, his brown shoes kicking the dust into puffs of cloud before them, his strong arms cradling her. Their laughter echoed from the cliffs, danced over snake-filled crevices, and filled the olive grove. It was a godly laughter, beyond reproach; the white shrine of the Virgin stood undisturbed in its panoply of prayer.  He had given her a caper plant, torn from the rock of St Hilarion, and she squeezed it against her palm, enjoying the prickles.

            They reached the crest of a steep incline. Before them was the crescent plain of Kyrenia, bordered by a white-edged sea. Far above the north horizon stood the white ramparts of cloud, crowding each on each like the sails of a vast armada, frozen in their momentariness, remote and picture-still. Below was the town, with the new hotel where the British soldiers came, the outworks piled against the fortress and trailing their yellow fingers in the sea. Nothing moved in the streets or on the white road to Bellapais, and the olive trees stood captive, their grey-green clusters of leaf stuck on the air like cut-outs from a book.  For a little moment she was safe.

            Then it happened. He shuddered, pushing with huge movements of the abdomen against her. The landscape too began to move, heaving like the canvas of a stage. The fields swayed and buckled, while the sea hurried up to the land’s edge and loomed there, brimful of menace. The sky was on the march, black squads of raincloud roaring past them in an armed parade. Everything writhed with his movement, and gasped with his breath.

            They had set up his bed in a banana field, and the leaves slashed the air like swords. He turned his white eyes to her, but they were sightless and through them grinned the empty mask of death.

            ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy!’

            He was adrift now and alone; death, which was to have tied them for ever, death the saviour and the promised end of time, was pulling them apart.  Clouds, trees, fields and buildings; people, birds and animals – all were fleeing before this death. She reached out to him, but her hand was full of pain, which filled him as her fingers touched his chest.

            ‘No!’ he cried. ‘No!’

            He seemed to see her, not where she was standing, but somewhere far behind, isolated in some evil light on the higher terraces.

            ‘Zoë! Zoë! Help me! – Voithise me!’

            Fending the real Zoë away, he reached to the distant phantom, his wide eyes staring, poised on the last thin line of hope before the end.

            Again she touched him; again the pain rushed from her hand into his tortured body; again he waved her away, rejecting her for a ghostly version of herself, which sped swiftly down the hillside with its white hands outstretched.  Zoë sensed its approach, and knew that its touch would kill him finally.  In an effort of will she turned to face her antagonist, to stare into its evil eyes and cancel the false promise which they offered him.  But it was not her face at all, this white gleaming thing: only a ball of rags, a featureless twist of cloth.  The winding sheet rushed of its own accord towards them, swaying like a human form.  She put out her hands to protect him, and then, as the cloth rose up to cancel the air, she started awake.  Bright sunlight danced in the bedroom, and she could hear the Kostaina crashing about the kitchen in habitual dismay.

            Zoë was accustomed to the dream, to its strange light and movement, and to the sight of herself destroying him; and though it distressed her – this strengthless appeal for a mercy that she could not give – she had grown a carapace around the feeling, and harboured it undamaged.  She pushed away the blankets and the pain returned.  That was a novel detail – the caper plant.

            She thought of her distant relatives, on whom the sun poured down its unresisted stream of light, dissolving every I in loyalty.  From this pool of life Yannakis rose, miraculous as a hero’s sword, affirming, refusing, and pulling from his head, she knew not how, a daughter – rational, thinking, free as he was.  No doubt the caper dramatised the sleeping Zoë, incorporating some fact of her, together with all the other rumours and murmurings that hummed along the channels of her body, into the nightly tableau of his ruin.  Before she discovered the little point of blood in her palm, she had deduced that a drawing pin had fallen from the board over her bed.  This small triumph of reasoning set her on the path of resurrection.  Just as the caper plant could be traced to the punctured hand, so did the other dream-pictures start up from her body – from rapid movements of the eye, from the popping and sizzling of synapses, deprived of current but alert none the less and eager to interpret, even where there was nothing to interpret and no meaning to be found.

            It was one of her teachers who had urged her to read The Interpretation of Dreams. Dr Peter Leacock – whom she knew as Little Peacock, Pagonaki, endowing his swagger with an iridescent tail – was constantly pointing the way to sexual freedom.  But she had found in Freud no authority, either for sexual freedom, or for the vision of an unconscious mind.  No part of Zoë lay beyond the reach of thought. And if she dreamed from time to time, what of it?

            You can interpret dreams as you can interpret anything. All religion is an interpretation of the meaningless: especially the Kostaina’s religion, in which she had once imprisoned Zoë’s soul. What other significance did they have – those unending services, the monotonous chanting, the Opening, the Little Entrance, the Reading, the Great Entrance, and all the men-only fidgeting at the iconostasis, that core of gilded glamour where the bearded priest sat solemn and shrouded like a waxwork dummy? What was it, the prokimenon, the epistle and alleluia, the anamnesis, epiclesis and Great Commemoration – this endless mind-numbing repetition of things which had been fastened in her infant soul unbidden – but the embellishment of nothing, so that ‘now the celestial powers are present with us and worship invisibly’? Gilded nothing, the thought of which filled her heart with longing, and her mind with scorn.

            Zoë dressed carefully, for it was a special day, the day of her departure. White shirt, tan pullover, and brown buttoned corduroys, belted at the waist – English clothes, which Argyll Street abhorred. She tied her thick black hair in a cotton scarf, and round her neck she hung the good-luck charm – a tiny silver revolver – with which a sad English boy had purchased her only kiss.

 

II

 

The birds came to her. Need, not love, compelled them. But her own love comprehended them, for always in her mind she saw his hands made gentle in the art of holding them, buried in white feathers like a child’s sweet head in sleep. She approved of the birds for their monogamous habits, which meant that ten varieties could breed without crossing in a single dovecote. Zoë had joined Yannakis in his hobby, raising ring doves, barbs and spots; turbots, pouters and carriers; trumpeters and laughers, and the wonderful short-faced tumbler, which fell head over heels through the sky above the dovecote, down to its roost. To the Kostaina all these birds were peristeria: but to Zoë and Yannakis, who knew their English names, they were symbols of the outer world and its variety, messengers sent across the roofs and fields of England, preparing the day when they too would take wing.

            Evyenia had died, but her mate, Patrick, survived. Zoë lifted the old bird gently and peered into his startled button eye, which caught the sun and shone with a pinkish glow. A white fan-tail shuffled over her feet, strutting on its self-made stage. She placed Patrick among his companions and opened the hopper for their feed: maize and barley, with a dash of bran – enough for a week. She scattered the seed into the sea of flapping supplicants and, taking a pad from her pocket, added ‘bird corn’ to her list.

            ‘Goodbye,’ she said, ‘adio.’

 

III

 

Her mother’s face was jammed like a wedge of pudding against the kitchen window. Zoë smiled facetiously, and came inside.

            ‘I was waiting for you.’

            There was self-pity in all the Kostaina’s words, and only now and then would a gleam of satisfaction light her face, when her tragedy was recognised. Zoë looked past the mournful head to the flasks of yellow wine on the sideboard – to be opened on his sixtieth birthday – and thought ‘Why is my mother so old? Ten years his junior, yet so old and weary and neglectful?’

            ‘Well, here I am.’

            The sunbeams overran the sycamore, and laid a brocade of shadow on the kitchen table. The Kostaina’s charcoal jumper and long skirt of black tulle created a nub of darkness wherever she stood. Zoë began to lay his place at table.

            ‘First,’ the Kostaina said, ‘you are to take off those trousers.’

            ‘There’s no law against trousers.’

            Law counted for nothing among her countrymen; but law, Yannakis told her, is the secret of England, and the source of its power. He had hoped for Zoë to be a barrister; but fate had willed otherwise. Little Peacock taught Social Theory and Philosophy; law was a subject of which he would not approve.

            Yannakis always sang in the morning, and Zoë sang too, English hymn tunes she had learned in school. Singing was useful in several ways. It imposed order, musical logic, saying this, now this. It joined the kitchen to the outer world, where others sang for the fun of it. It imbued her actions with an air of necessity, so that it ceased to be strange that she should place the dead man’s plate and cup upon the table, with a bowl of olives and a tray of fetta cheese. Her singing was also conclusive proof that they lived in England, where trousers could be worn.

            ‘There’s no law against…’

            And another thing: singing adds to the nowness of the world. Everything shone with nowness, even the crumpled old mother, as she prepared her next rebuke.

            ‘I know,’ Zoë said, breaking off; ‘there’s no law against prostitution. But we Kostas have principles, and principles are against trousers. And against prostitution.’

            The word porneia prompted the Kostaina’s sermon. Her words peppered with impatience, she explained again the wonder of Orthodox marriage, as displayed by Zoë’s brother Manolis, who five years ago had hooked a loving girl from Limassol; by Mrs Zenofidou’s Leniou, now at university and engaged to a converted Englishman; and by countless other people who had held to their principles and come out dandy in the end. She castigated Zoë for her waywardness, her obsession with books and birds, her bohemian ways, her foul language and her enfant-terrible-ism. She dwelled on the dangers of England in general – of which she had heard the most alarming things – and of London in particular, some parts of which she had even visited herself. And she explored the possibility of a return to Cyprus, not to Ayios Yiorgos of course, but to the South, where she would build herself a bungalow and live in seclusion by the sea.

            At this juncture, however, she would begin to hesitate, stunned by the inaccessibility of her dreams. Her lines became vague, irresolute, abruptly breaking off, as sometimes old monks who have chanted an identical psalm at every hour of a lifetime begin to forget the words, pausing in the middle of a verse with a vacant expression and a drop of saliva on their chin. To believe, and to doubt, thought Zoë, are equally matters of performance. She ate some olives and took the pad from her trouser pocket.

            ‘Here is your list of things to do.’

            ‘Are you deaf? I asked you to take off those trousers. What do you mean, list of things to do?’

            ‘To do when I’m gone.’

            The Kostaina’s eyes froze in her face, like a waxwork’s. Her gaze was fixed above her daughter’s head, where a calendar picture of St Hilarion hung on the wall, showing the jagged fortress of Dieudamour, surrounded by a sea of mist. Slowly her arm unfurled from a blob of darkness, and a white trembling hand came forward like a creature from its lair.

            The list consisted largely of ‘don’ts’: don’t play the records, don’t shift the antiquities; don’t leave the door unlocked; don’t let the weeds grow in the garden; don’t fill the house with wailing women and crumby priests; don’t touch Zoë’s books. Three ‘does’ came as an afterthought: renew the insurance, tie back the medlar, buy corn for the birds. The Kostaina studied the list, and then slowly raised her sainted eyes to the picture of Dieudamour.

            ‘Panayia!’ she said in a whisper, and dropped the paper to the floor.

 

IV

 

Zoë’s room already had an abandoned air, the books compressed too neatly into the shelves, the bed-clothes folded for storage, and the sash window fastened against the rain. She took down the poems and postcards from the board, and rearranged the drawing pins in a cross over her pillow. Then she changed the cross to a star. Another week and the house would fill with widows. She imagined the sound of cups and grief and gossip, remembering the male talk of animals, politics and war, which had hummed like a turbine in her father’s presence. A wave of nausea swept over her.

            ‘Cancel it,’ she said aloud.

            She took a small duffle bag, with a change of clothes and Cavafy’s poems.  Her other things withdrew from her, mute and accusing. She re-tied the scarf about her head, checked the wicked buttons on her trousers, and cast a solemn glance in the mirror.

            ‘Idiot – Anita!’

            Behind her mirrored face the black-shawled widows lingered, patiently killing each other as the church prescribed.

 

V

 

The Kostaina was standing on the stairs, her body shaking and clanging in its black bell of clothes.

            ‘I suppose it’s a man.’

            Zoë wondered what was wrong with her, that the thought had not crossed her mind.

            ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Aren’t you ashamed of me?’

            ‘Ashamed of you? I’ve been ashamed of you for months, ever since…’

            ‘OK little angel.’

            Zoë used her father’s epithet, ayioula, recalling his easy ways. She took after him, and no one was to forget it. She had his eyes, his nose, his cheeks and his laughter; she had his cool enquiring mind, his quiet toleration, and his non-negotiable presence. She had loved him severely, as a man loves another man. Therefore she had room in her heart for strangers, for novelty – even for England, with its unexplored remainders, thrown from fortune’s wheel. She knew about many things – Shakespeare, for instance, socialism, sexual fantasy. She went alone to the theatre and pondered those terse modern plays, in which people stood amid the ruin of dismembered sentences and watched the meaning flow unhindered away. She had friends whom her mother did not know, whose virtues and vices she could not guess at, so far were they removed from the paddock where the Kostaina’s imagination trudged wearily around in its trail of dung. The Peacock for instance, vain and creepy and brilliant, and Michael, whose face it would do no harm to touch.

            ‘Well, who is he, and what does he do?’

            ‘What does he do with me, you mean? Nothing.’

            She gave her mother a long theatrical look, denying by implication that she denied those interesting rumours.

            ‘It all went wrong when you began to think of yourself as educated.’

            ‘You mean when I was sixteen?’

            Zoë still looked sixteen, although she was seven years older: for time had stood still in her body, waiting its day.

            ‘I mean when you started those evening classes.’

            ‘Oh those!’

            ‘Yes those. I suppose he is one of your teachers.’

            ‘He is,’ said Zoë, imitating a defiant toss of the head. This sparked off the Kostaina’s second sermon, which concerned the Island, her ancestors and the principles which bound them, generation to generation, like pearls on a never-ending string.

            Zoë much preferred this speech, although its histrionic delivery marred the quieter details. Her mother was no Homer; but she did a competent job on Ayios Yiorgos, evoking the harbour, with the fishing boats bobbing quietly, the god-like breath from the sea shaking their rigging and sending up sparks of sun-filled water along the quay. Zoë recalled the Ottoman houses of stone, with their tripartite windows and outside flights of steps, and the open-fronted workshops where lined old craftsmen, who looked as though they had been chiselled from olivewood according to some immemorial formula, chiselled from olivewood the likeness of themselves. And she loved the still afternoons, under the dense incumbent light of summer, when a lavender haze hung on the bed of sea. Tiny fingers of foam fussed at the water’s edge, pulling it tight and tucking it in. And out at sea the gulls perched on a foundered cargo-boat, clinging motionless to its rim with proprietorial airs, like the souls of drowned sailors.

            But these images of stillness were not on her mother’s agenda. She had hurried onwards to the church, to Father Fillipos who painted so well, to the miraculous icon which watered the fields, to the holy hermitage where even the Turks had prayed before those days of violence: Safiye, Banu and the other girls, who danced with them at weddings and spoke to them in Greek.

            ‘We can start again in the South. They have made an agreement with those heathens. We have a right to property, the equal of what we lost…’

            A menacing smile had set in the Kostaina’s face, as though something in the mechanism had jammed. Zoë, however, was recalling Yannakis, and a visit to the monks of Bellapais, in their narrow-windowed outhouse: the clean damp smell of whitewash, and the great black table on which he laid out papers for the Monastikos to sign. Long tablets of sunlight were spread on the floor like slowly moving carpets, islands of experiment and play. She looked at the laughing beards, at the grooved fingers sliding on the strings of a bouzouki, at the moist brown eyes which spoke of a supreme irresponsibility, as near to renunciation as laughter to tears. And she thought how strange it would be if some other hand than his should touch her. The hands of the monks were the colour of henna, in which the Kostaina washed her hair. A tremor ran through Zoë’s body, and her mother’s face, with its wide mad eyes, broke across her vision like the moon.

            ‘How could I be a good mother in this God-forsaken country? We should go home now: we’ve tried here, God knows we’ve tried; but we failed. We failed because we were far from home.’

            ‘Home!’ Zoë protested. ‘The truth is we’re a nation of lackeys, though we disguise it with faith and family and pious crap. We pretend we are Greeks, but we are miserable mongrels, with the blood of all the world’s randy sailors in our veins. Our religion is a bundle of pagan superstitions, local gods and goblins. Not that I mind so much, in fact I used to be quite fond of them, especially St Mamas the Tax Evader. And all that dainty virgin-worship barely concealing the cult of Aphrodite. Our famous virtues, what do they amount to? Philoxenia, for instance. Of course we love strangers, provided they’re not Turks, or Arabs, or anyone else who is likely to stretch our imagination. Or chastity – the springtime of the body, the divine light of Thabor! Panayia! Just a way of selling yourself at more than the going rate. “Cleanse us from all impurity” indeed: we live on spiritual enemas, and turn ourselves into stinking cripples. . .’

            Zoë could go on in this way for some time, mentioning the calamitous events, in which the God Archbishop was deposed and the Greeks ran wild for enosis. She would remind her mother of what really happened in Ayios Yiorgos, to Safiye and Banu and the other Turkish girls, long before the terrible retribution. She would turn her scorn to the mainland, to the Greek Colonels who began it all, and the enfeebled culture which sustained them. In the past her erudition had given her an advantage over the Kostaina, and enabled her to restore the balance of insult. For she could run circles around her mother’s meagre reasoning, and always reward her with an opposite conclusion. But now, long before she reached the socio-political sections of her discourse, she had ceased to believe in it. A troubled sadness filled her soul, a longing to be reunited with all those dead, and most of all with Yannakis. The strange power of the dead overcame her, that we cannot harm them, and therefore come before them weaponless, our words mere air. Zoë began to weep, and the Kostaina, without relinquishing her moon-like smile, added lamentations of her own, the tears flowing as though her eyes were loose stoppers in a cistern. For a few seconds the women stood motionless. Then Zoë pressed her nose into the ruined face of the Kostaina, and ran to the door.

            ‘Who is it?’ her mother called out. ‘And where will you be?’

            Struck by the question, Zoë awoke from her grief. The Kostaina carried on her war against the world in her own personal way, indifferent to established methods, and not for one second relinquishing the core of settled futility in which she had made her fortress. In this she had a kind of distinction, and to leave her without explanations, without some recognition of her individuality, was to do a great injustice. Zoë, who suffered for all her injustices, was not prepared to commit another.

            ‘His name is Peter Leacock, and he teaches at Bewley.’

 

VI

 

Of the many products of Victorian philanthropy designed to provide the working classes with an opportunity for self-improvement, Bewley College was the most widely respected. Housed in a gothic barn in Kentish Town, it prepared students for external degrees and diplomas offered by a variety of universities and polytechnics; for certificates in art, music and architecture from the academies and institutes of the capital; for the examinations of the legal profession, and for its own ‘Diploma of Study’ which, if without any positive significance in the world of affairs, at least warned any prospective employer that the holder had lived for three years uselessly at the taxpayer’s expense. Two cultures inhabited Bewley – that of the full-time students, who came and went by day, and that of the evening classes, frequented by sprightly autodidacts in corduroys, and childless women on the edge of divorce. Zoë belonged to the evening culture, the unelected president of which was Peter Leacock. But it was not Dr Leacock who attached her to Bewley; it was Michael, whose surname she did not know, but of whom she was thinking even as she described the Peacock to her mother. For the Kostaina’s sake, Zoë endowed the Peacock with every mental and sexual privilege, setting him in the context of an unhappy marriage, ended on account of Zoë, an arty entourage of friends and mistresses, a busy involvement in radical politics of a faintly ironical kind – every attribute, in short, that he claimed for himself. But it was Michael’s face that lodged before her mind: pale, sardonic, slightly Jewish, with wide-set, slow-moving eyes, veiled by translucent eyelashes. Michael made a point of sitting next to her in the Peacock’s classes, his eyes turned downwards to a notebook in which he executed rapid sketches of eery people, his head cocked to one side as though listening to some other noise than their teacher’s triumphant crowing, some secret inner voice that disdained the clumsiness of speech.

            If Michael were there Zoë would go after class to the pub. This was the central fact of the evening culture, and the illustration of its root ideas. Freedom, Zoë had discovered, is collective solitude.  The pub – with its sweet, damp, smoke-tinged air, as though you lived for a moment in the mouth of some living monster – was a place of fragmentation. People came here not so as to overcome their loneliness but so as to experience it to the full. The students sat in a cluser, Ellen pressing rolled cigarettes between lipsticked lips and uttering cryptic sentences about space and time, while the Peacock trumpeted the news of human liberation. Zoë would fasten her eyes on the middle distance, where groups of bearded men in youthful middle age sparred together with brief stabbing gestures. Feeling Michael’s solitude, all wrapped up beside her, she began to enjoy her own. He was carefully composed as she was, parcelled against disaster, and travelling to his final home. She knew this from his way of dressing, in old black denims just a bit too small for him, and from his way of holding his hands close against his body, wrapping them beneath his arms and hugging the sides. She knew it from his down-turned eyes which even in conversation would consult the floor. She knew it from his voice, which rose to a kind of shout of exultation as the words arrived. He would finish his sentence, look up with a brief glow of triumph, and at once fall silent as though perceiving that he had overstepped the mark. With Michael, too, laughter was rare, and occurred in a kind of explosive outrush of air, used, like the ink of the squid, to renew his defences. If the worst came to the worst – and in England, Zoë realised, it generally did – she would live with Michael.

 

VII

 

The cool October sun came running past her on the pavement, moving with the speed of thought over the astonished upturned faces of the flagstones. Argyll Street was awake, the widows alert in every bay, and in Clevedon Avenue the morning crowds were gathering. Although she was small, and moved quickly to avoid the eyes of strangers, Zoë was the cause of considerable obstruction. Grey-suited office workers, preoccupied and hurrying, prevented themselves by last-moment efforts from walking into her. Pullovered arms, leather jackets and tee-shirted torsos all swished against her and staggered momentarily in their mad parade. She did not look at them: not looking at men was her main outdoor occupation. Her eyes were directed sometimes to the dusty sun-paled sky, sometimes to the ebb and flow of shoes surrounding her. She darted among their suppositious pathways like a sensitive insect, scurrying on business of its own. Only when she made it into the bus, and sat upstairs with her duffle bag beside her, could she look around as others did.

            The map which adults draw lies across the landscape of a child like a geometer’s grid, insensitive to real distinctions, and sundering things which are in reality finely joined. The child lives in a world whose titles have yet to be discovered, and things acquire their names less by fiat than by revelation: the dip, the dump, the damsons, Willie’s yard. So it was with Zoë, who felt no obligation to those who had mapped out this world, and styled it after monarchs, battles and heroes from which her race had reaped no benefit. She had presumptuously re-titled all the districts through which she daily passed. Some of her names could be explained in mental footnotes; others remained mysterious even to herself: Macedonia, Mickey Mouse, Happy Grass, Byzantium; Alexandria, where levantine figures gestured from strangely empty shops and offices; the Fly-pond, where a slur of muddy water lingered all summer between grey concrete blocks.

            They were speeding through her favourite district, the Solitudes – i monaxies – where isolated people were framed in rented windows, and Edwardian houses, divided into tiny units, stood alone amid rubbish-filled gardens. The sun had finally won its battle with the clouds, and now looked down with interest on the world, pointing rudely into swaddled bedrooms, and laughing at the old woman in a lemon nightdress, who painted her face beside a window full of green and yellow chinaware. Then Zoë saw a man in a white shirt leaning from the second floor, so fat that he seemed like bed-clothes hung out to air and swollen in the breeze. A tessellated crown of yellow brick was stitched to the wall above him, and in the shadow-haunted morning light the little scene was framed and iconised. ‘O heavenly king, O comforter, the spirit of truth, who are everywhere and fill all things, the treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us.’ The ritual words returned in every plenitude. She needed them far more than she had ever needed God – who in any case did not exist, as she had discovered. The words kept vigil in her soul, setting bounds to the invading chaos.

            The life to which the bus was carrying her would not be easy. Nothing was easy for a Greek. When Yannakis Kostas has begun to ply his trade in London, he discovered that the sophisticated policies handled by London brokers were beyond his competence. He settled down to insuring the cars and houses of his fellow immigrants. From such a trade there was little to be earned, and after a while it was the pigeons that kept him principally occupied and from which, by skilful breeding, he could make a pound or two on the side. His son had been scarcely more successful. For although, like Zoë, Manolis thought and spoke in English, had English manners, English ambitions and an English sense of humour, he had been hampered by his wife’s glutinous attachment, by the need to build, in the midst of freedom, the little island prison where, behind gauze curtains in modernist rooms, amid awkward furniture of slabs and pillows and tubes, love is manufactured, clinging to the legs of chairs and tables, coiling everywhere like a malignant plant, impeding, stifling and at last destroying for the sake of those unborn. Manolis had therefore taken a regular job that would send him home, suit uncrumpled, face set rigid in a smile, at five. This job, the precise nature of which Zoë could never recall, though it had been many times explained to her, was regarded by everyone except Manolis and his sister as a pledge of security – though what security for self in all that sacrifice it was hard to know. The fact is that mortgages, children and yearly trips to Limassol had caused Manolis to become steadily poorer, steadily more devoted to his puddingy wife, steadily more quiet, dependent and depressed.

            Only Zoë had succeeded, not by becoming rich or even comfortable, but by finding a job, when the time came and her mother’s pathos compelled her, which left her mistress of herself, poised on the edge of a life into which she might leap at any moment – or not, as she chose. Zoë was a representative, paid by commission and working her own hours. She was retained by a sweatshop, where Cypriot girls sewed and clipped and stitched and twined, making dresses and costumes for the fringes of the market. The owner and manager was Mr Tzouliadis, a Greek from the mainland, whose grey sagging face swayed on his neck like a pumpkin on a pole, and whose generally sepulchral appearance so disturbed the assorted couturiers and fetishists who patronised the factory, that he employed Zoë to deal with them, if possible on territory into which he had no cause to venture.

            On the whole Zoë enjoyed her dealings with the customers, and especially with her main theatrical client, a tense hollow-eyed lesbian called Bill, who had prehensile fingers and short boyish hair. Bill called her ‘darling’, ‘delicious’, ‘petal’ and ‘love’; she praised Zoë’s way of dressing, saying it made her look simultaneously provocative and untouchable. What had been instinct then became conscious choice and Zoë, when not impeded by the Kostaina, dressed in no other way.

            It was not only Bill whom Zoë liked. For Anna, the principal seamstress, she felt a kind of protective love. Anna was from Famagusta, and, alone among the girls in the sweatshop, she was not planning marriage, being three months pregnant by a man who was married already. She mutely awaited the day of discovery, when her parents would disown her and Mr Tzouliadis, anxious for his reputation, would send her away.

            Anna was tall for a girl, with blue-black hair, high cheekbones, and a long, marble-white face like a statue. Her brown almond eyes seemed mute and suffering; but if you met them, a defiant glow quickly kindled in their depths, breaking the stillness of her antique features. Some would have called Anna forbidding; but to Zoë she was beautiful, and when she moved about the shop, high-breasted, long-limbed, in full-length dresses which she made from off-cuts in a faintly pre-Raphaelite taste, she reminded Zoë of a spirit drifting through the trees in summer.

            Zoë had never spoken to Anna of the things that preoccupied her – of philosophy and poetry, of England and its strange inhabitants, of the cold light of irreligion that bathes the objects of this Northern world, cancelling their inner luminosity, and laying a mask of solitude over every human face. But she was sure that Anna instinctively comprehended such matters, and that she lived, like Zoë, outside the society which had given birth to her. Anna, she believed, was pure and original. What she retained of Cyprus were only those faint echoes of pageantry and dance, that breeze-fed longing for departure which stings the eyes and braces the heart for solitude. Zoë was even a bit in love with Anna – not, of course, as Bill would be, but with a kind of aching tenderness all the same, which often, in the quiet cupboard where Anna worked alone and where Zoë came to visit her, spilled over into fingertip touches and (to their joint surprise) a brush one morning from her lips on Anna’s brow.

            If Zoë loved Anna it was because she would journey forever through this alien country utterly alone, utterly contained, utterly without comfort save for the words which Zoë offered her. And from Anna Zoë learned of that other love: how it comes in its fullness only once, like a flash of light showing the vastness of invisible things, which were thereafter always present, always huge and alarming and unforgettable, though shrouded in darkness. Living in that darkness, Anna could never belong elsewhere – her desires were not of this world, and her slow quiet face stared at the world’s accidental glories across a vast distance of solitude. Such, at least, was Zoë’s view of her.

            Zoë thought of Anna as the bus sped down the hill towards the industrial area which she knew as the Jaws and which formed the last stretch of the journey before her stop. They would live together at the Solitudes, and the more Zoë thought of this plan, the more obvious and right did it seem to her. Already she had made an inventory of kitchen equipment, with unbreakable cups and a plastic chair for the baby. And a precise image had settled in her mind of their bay-windowed sitting room, large, irregular, and English, with heavy Edwardian armchairs, Toulouse-Lautrec posters, an old-fashioned fireplace burning illegally on Sundays, and a view over ragged gardens towards the mist-shrouded city.

            She peered from the window into each successive dwelling, adding details to her inner picture, while hopes settled in her mind. Then, looking round to make sure that no one was listening, she sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s version, giving up at the line ‘See, His banners go!’

To continue reading, see Part II  and Part III of A Dove Descending.

Roger Scruton is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow of Blackfriars Hall. The collection of stories in which this novella first appeared, also entitled A Dove Descending, can be ordered here. For a list of Prof. Scruton’s other works, please see his website.

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