Friday, October 24, 2014

A Dove Descending: Part III of III

January 8, 2013

by Roger Scruton

This is the third and final installment of Roger Scruton’s novella A Dove Descending. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to read Part I and Part II.

XIV

 

The house was modern, spruced with pebble-dash, a porch of tiles shielding the door. The bell sounded on two tones, trance-like and far away. Shadows began to move in the mottled glass panels, like shoals of fish beneath a ruffled sea. Zoë was running now, her last resources gathered. With the map, she had bought a copy of the Evening Standard, but a roof was not enough. She must put down her burden in some pace of gentleness before strength gave out. She had briefly thought of Bill, who coddled her and called her ‘love’; but Bill’s love would be a bath of vinegar. Michael was her fate, and all other paths led downwards.

            The door opened slowly; it was held on a chain, and when human flesh appeared, it was no more than a slice of face – an eye in middle age, a wisp of greying hair, a woman’s mouth enlarged by crimson lipstick and split like a rotting fruit.

            ‘Yes,’ it said.

            ‘Does Michael live here?’

            ‘No Michael here.’

            ‘Michael Ashley – tall, with dark hair, an artist.’

            Zoë felt a surge of panic.

            ‘One of those?’ said the woman in disgust. ‘Try the shed at the back: there’s one works there. Only he’s not called Michael. Something fancy like Jeremy. Doesn’t like to be disturbed.’

            Having cancelled all she could of Zoë’s interest, the woman closed the door.

            ‘Thank you,’ Zoë said.

            The slice of face quickly reappeared.

            ‘For what?’

            ‘For letting him work in your shed.’

            ‘I didn’t. It belongs to the council. Ought to have been demolished.’

            The woman was right. The shed, standing in the middle of a concrete yard, was a disgrace to its surroundings. Its roof of felt was patched with corrugated iron, and the boards had fallen away in shards, being nailed back criss-cross over the cavities, and covered by plastic sacking. A bank of windows was let into one side, its symmetry spoiled by the dirty white cloth which served as a curtain. Zoë had inherited from Yannakis his love of snug, right-angled things, and when she found her nest it would be boarded and skirted and book-cased into a temple of order. This shed was not her home, and she studied it with the profound disappointment of one who allows herself only now and then to hope. The yard by contrast was well cared-for, fringed by a herbaceous border, with cornflowers, Michaelmas daisies, and other finer things. At the far end was a wooden fence, frilled by the tops of buddleias, growing in the escarpment of a railway line. The shed stood in these neat surroundings sour and sad and somehow vagrant, like a tramp stinking in a polished doorway.

            The door was fastened by a latch, and she heard a gentle tapping behind it, like an animal preparing its winter nest. She hesitated, and then played a five-finger exercise on the slats. The tapping abruptly stopped, and a long listening silence ensued, before it began again with a faster and more urgent rhythm, as though some work must be completed before discovery. She knocked more loudly, and once again the tapping ceased.

            ‘Jeremy,’ she said.

            ‘Who?’

            She stood back in alarm, for it seemed like Michael’s voice, defensive and accusing. How could he possibly understand her motive in coming here? How could she appear before him, except as an aggressor, an intruder, a canceller of privacy? Now it was her turn to remain silent. There was a sudden scuffle, and the door flew open; she jumped back from the iron latch.

            Michael stood on the threshold, his brown eyes looking to either side of her, as though something far larger and more threatening lurked in her shadow.

            ‘Oh. I thought you were that woman.’

            Zoë blushed.

            ‘No. I am this woman.’

            Michael uttered a get-me-out-of-this giggle, which he instantly repressed.

            ‘Yes. That’s obvious.’

            He made no move to invite her in, but simply stood in the doorway, staring beyond her, holding a box-handled chisel in the pale fingers of his left hand. He swallowed, and a kind of tremor in his cheeks suggested some repeated fear which her presence had awoken.

            ‘I’m sorry,’ Zoë said at last. ‘Maybe I’m intruding.’

            ‘It’s just that nobody’s allowed in here except me.’

            He spoke as if reporting some regulation which he was powerless to alter. Michael’s personality, she supposed, was entirely circumscribed by interdictions.

            ‘And Jeremy,’ she said.

            ‘I am Jeremy.’

            ‘Then I’ve made a mistake.’

            ‘No. Not that one, at least. Jeremy’s my nom de guerre.’

            ‘Maybe you feel like a walk?’

            ‘How did you find my address?’ he asked, ignoring her question.

            ‘The Peacock gave it to me.’

            ‘Who? Oh, you mean Dr Leacock. How did he have it?’

            His haunted look intensified, and he frowned, as though endeavouring to solve some enigma on which his life depended. Suddenly, however, a change came over him, and he looked more directly at Zoë, attempting a wan, forgiving smile.

            ‘It’s not your fault,’ he said.

            ‘What’s not my fault?’

            ‘The address. He shouldn’t have given it. I mean, I shouldn’t have given it.’

            Zoë sighed, and looked pityingly at Michael. Something in his puzzled eyes detained her, and for all his rudeness she felt she would injure him more by going, than by waiting patiently for the wound she had jarred to close. Suddenly he stepped back.

            ‘You’re to come in,’ he barked, as though revised instructions had just reached him by secret telegraph.

            ‘Are you sure? I won’t stay long. I only wanted…’

            With an impatient gesture he stood back to let her pass. She did not look at him, was indeed incapable of looking for a moment at anything, since the room, the pale window, the peculiar pale forms which hovered everywhere just out of reach, the white mass of plaster in the centre, his white face and hands, the white sheet which was draped across the back of the shed, all coalesced into a twisted knot of whiteness, a thing of dreams and danger, which hovered before her eyes and blinded her. Then she noticed a chair, and walked quickly towards it, sitting heavily and with half-shut eyes.

            Michael closed the door and remained beside it, so that she felt his eyes turned down to her.

            ‘You can sit down if you like,’ he shouted.

            ‘I am sitting down.’

            There was silence, during which a train passed with a slight commotion, and a voice singing in a nearby house was faintly audible. Zoë looked up to find herself surrounded by figures in wood, plaster and stone, which peered down on her from lopsided faces distorted by suffering. Their bodies, mounted on meticulous classical pedestals, were wrapped with strange muscles, which seemed to bind their limbs together and prevent every movement. Their legs were twisted like corkscrews, their bandaged chests had collapsed inwards, and they wrung their fast hands, not for comfort’s sake, but in a vain attempted to free the self-trapped fingers. Their faces were masculine, hard, with tight, thin lips and bone-like noses. The eyes sloped sideways to meet the upward-slanting mouths, and seemed to be fleeing from the pressure of peaked Neanderthal skulls, whose shape and size suggested a capacity for one single but all-encompassing thought. Only the ears seemed to break free from the terrible tension, standing like sentinels to either side, guarding this private drama from the world.

            Michael quickly snatched a sheet from the work-bench beneath the shrouded window, covering one of the figures so that she could only see the wood-shavings surrounding it, and the mallet which lay against its pedestal.

            ‘Don’t bother with them,’ he cried, ‘they are only sketches.’

            And indeed each figure did seem to display, as she studied it, an unfinished quality, as though the idea advanced always to a certain point, and then held back in horror from its final crystallisation. But why had he worked so hard on the pedestals, each with its beautiful crisp mouldings, its little frieze of masks and cherubs, its carved date in Roman numerals, and its bold central design of dancing satyrs? Nothing about the work more affected her than the contrast between this selfless Renaissance gaiety, and the tortured selfhood that had been locked on top of it. The figures might have been chiselled out in days, while each pedestal seemed to represent months of arduous finishing.

            ‘Is there something wrong? he asked. His voice was quieter now, with the suggestion of real concern – though the concern was perhaps more for himself, than for her who had caused it.

            ‘No, nothing serious. I lent you a book – you remember? Ritsos.’

            ‘So you did. Ritsos. Socialist drivel.’

            ‘Everything modern is socialist.’

            ‘Then everything modern is drivel.’

            Zoë felt foolish; her lips began to tremble slightly so that she could not answer him. Jerking into movement, Michael began to tidy the tools and papers which lay scattered on the bench.

            ‘Here’s the book,’ he said, coming across to her.

            He bent down slowly and placed it at her feet, as though his space had been reserved for her and hers.

            ‘I’m sorry, Michael.’

            ‘It’s alright. I don’t mind. You could have some coffee,’ he added as though to compensate for what she could not have. She shook her head. English coffee disgusted her.

            ‘You are wondering why I came,’ she said at last.

            ‘You came for Ritsos.’

            ‘Why I really came.’

            Michael looked at her with sudden interest.

            ‘You mean that, up to now, this visit has been entirely imaginary?’

            ‘Yes, if you like. I came in a dream.’

            He sat back on the edge of the bench, his hands gripping the rim, his black denim trousers screwed up around the knees like the springs of a jack-in-the-box.

            ‘I don’t mind you being here,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind it at all. I don’t mind you looking at these things either. Isn’t that strange?’

            Zoë, who did not find it strange, nevertheless nodded and cast her eyes once more over the grim totems which surrounded her – a gaggle of lunatics whose great ears took in from every sound some new despair and suffering. She must not threaten them: that was their meaning.

            The edge of anxiety had gone from Michael’s face, and the yellow sun, diffused by the makeshift curtain, brought colour to his features. There was even a smile of sorts in his pale brown eyes, a hesitant invitation. She felt that, with care, she could advance to the very brink of his loneliness and shine her thoughts across it, like an archaeologist pointing his torch into a musty tomb. What she would discover there she did not know: but it would be beautiful and secret, and accessible only to her.

            ‘I didn’t know you were a sculptor.’

            ‘Oh well, I’m not really. I paint as well. I’d paint you, if you’d let me. I often think of your face. It’s a kind of classic really, an archetype: close-set eyes, long slender nose, olive complexion, a look of continual astonishment. Like a saint. You need a gold lustrous background, from another world. You ought to be peering at us, from outside space and time.’

            It was the Peacock’s view of her; but now, far from recoiling, she eagerly endorsed it, wished even to incarnate its meaning in her self.

            ‘That’s not the way I look; it’s the way I feel. The way I am.’

            ‘Well then; there you are.’

            Michael seemed pleased, as though a disputed point had been settled in his favour.

            ‘But maybe, if you painted me, I’d end up looking like these,’ she said, pointing to the figures nearby.

            ‘You don’t like them?’

            ‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that. No. They are powerful, disturbing. But I don’t know much about art. You should tell me what they mean.’

            ‘They don’t mean. They are.’

            His tone was defensive.

            ‘Well, what are they?’

            ‘Ancestors, fathers, those who went before.’

            ‘I see.’

            She tried to understand them in this light: the tight wedge-shaped skulls suggested ancestors so distant as to be barely human, standing fearful in a primeval night. But the eyes and hands were recent, compromised, steeped in the guilt of modern life. Zoë held the two ideas together in her mind, trying to form some fruitful union. She was not sure that she succeeded. All she knew was that a terrible wrong had been done to those figures – a wrong lasting centuries, millennia even. Now nothing remained in them but fear, guilt and the desire – thwarted in their very limbs – to relapse into primal nothingness. It was a desire which matched nothing in her. Whence had it come, and by what strange alchemy had it formed itself as art? If it were art, though of that too she could not be certain. Michael had put her in mind of the frescos of her childhood, with their cool incurious stares from the world of exaltation and forgiveness – that, to her, was art, the constant cheerful message of the soul’s survival, the overcoming, here and now, of time. From these ancestors all cheer had been expelled, and the line which led from them was twined in time, a never-ending line of death. What little hope there was in Michael’s work was contained in the pedestals, with their ironic finesse, and their quiet hymn to pleasure. She asked him about them.

            ‘Do you like them?’

            She got up, and ran her finger along a moulded lip of stone.

            ‘Yes,’ she said, and then started. It was not stone at all, but some kind of plastic; the delicate lines were not carved but embossed.

            ‘Isn’t it fun? I get it by the yard from the timber merchant, and then make it up at the corners with polyfilla.’

            Zoë felt a pang of disappointment.

            ‘I think I preferred the way they looked before.’

            ‘Before what?’

            ‘Before you told me you didn’t make them.’

            ‘But I did make them. With prefab and polyfilla.’

            He had raised his voice again, and she turned to find him standing behind her, swift of movement as a cat. He began to explain the figures, in short exclamatory phrases which he relayed from the high command.

            ‘These are first attempts, you understand. The real thing is there, behind its sheet. You can’t see it yet. Nobody has ever seen even the sketches before.’

            Zoë sat, a warm glow of relief spreading through her, cancelling the grief over Anna, washing away the Peacock’s contamination. She looked up at Michael, and studied his face, as it grew in animation. His eyes were now fixed on her, the black points in the centre of the pupils like targets offered to her gaze. His brow had widened, his temples trembled slightly, and little by little his voice quietened, liberated itself from the weight of orders, and ran free and confiding, with an almost child-like eagerness. The figures, he explained, march through our dreams. They are prisoners of our anger, the whipping boys through whom we appease our fear. And each generation adds another wound to them, as child turns on father, and blames him for the tragedy of life.

            ‘It’s scary,’ said Zoë, though she wasn’t scared.

            Michael described some figures by Rodin, Moore and Giacometti which had inspired him, and she listened in silence, impressed by his erudition, and wondering how to match it. So here I am, she thought, part of England; and mentally she shook her fist in triumph at the Kostaina.

            ‘Maybe I am boring you?’ he asked, and as he did so he gently touched her elbow. She could find nothing wrong in Michael’s gesture: it was neither painful, nor frightening, nor outrageous, but simply a recognition of her life.

            ‘No,’ she said. She talked about the art of her own country, the art of icons, which were not ideas but people, who stepped into the day-to-day of Cyprus with the same concerns as the worshippers who prayed to them. She told him of the Panayia Galatoussa, who increases the flow of milk, even the milk of goats and cows; of St George of the Black Hill, whose talent is broody hens, and of St John the Baptist of Silikou, who cures malarial children when they are rolled before him in the ruined aisle. Nor are these mediators helpful only; the icons are as temperamental as the people who believe in them, and will not accept mistreatment. The Virgin of Yiolou will often refuse to be taken into the fields to perform her rain-making function; the Eleousa of Salamiou once raised an army of avenging snakes; the Virgin of Lagoudera killed an impious Turk with hail-stones, while that of Lophos, being touched by an impertinent restorer, struck the man dead in indignation.

            The stories were the best she could offer him, and all she really knew of art. Recounting them, she felt warm and cheerful. She observed the community from which she was forever locked out with amused and patient affection. Michael nodded and she rather liked his expression of gentle cupidity. As she rose he laid a hand on her shoulder. She glanced at him, and gave a barely perceptible shake of the head – a brief rigidity of the neck which could mean, ‘no’, ‘some other time’ or ‘not just yet’. It was a gesture she had never made before, and which came to her instinctively from that abundant repertoire provided to Mediterranean women by the gods. In her too the pulse of ancestry commanded. But it was a pulse of life, and for a moment she felt it cut across her plans and calculations, disclosing a path down from the high paved road of reason, to a tree-shrouded altar, bathed in an enchanted light.

            ‘Why did you come, Zoë?’

            ‘Perhaps we should go for a walk.’

            ‘Don’t you like it here?’

            She sat down again, and stared at the white sheet which concealed the final martyrdom of Michael’s race. It did not surprise her when Michael suddenly knelt beside her, on a worn Turkish kelim which lay amid woodshavings and plaster-dust. It did not surprise her that he too should rehearse, in half-swallowed phrases, the familiar tale of her beauty and her otherness. It did not surprise her that she liked what she heard, that the episode – far from being the usual fruitless cul-de-sac of revulsion – was natural, healing, a stage on the way to something vast and warm and consoling. She was not a spectator, but a participant. Michael’s life and hers had intersected, but with infinite gentleness, like two rivers flowing together and becoming one.

            Michael was telling her the strangest story, and this story, he implied, was the real meaning of the chalk-white figures that surrounded them. It began and ended in grief – the grief of a son, alone with an obsessive father, and subjected to the harrowing inquisition of a mind in torment. Michael described the occasions of humiliation: the moments when, with a mad glint of triumph in its eyes, the little gnome would jump from its perch among the shelves and wardrobes and cling to him with bony claws, crowing its accusations in a voice which scraped and grated like a hinge. He told the story with compassion, not neglecting the gnome’s own humiliations, as it attempted in vain to find a place in the world, losing first the wife who had promised security, and then the job as insurance agent behind which stood its only avenue to promotion.

            Zoë started, but said nothing, since it was fore-ordained.

            Condemned to meniality, as assistant clerk to the local bus company, the gnome had only two resources: the elaborate pantomime of the garden, in which it sowed and reaped unceasingly, and Michael’s moral education, which required a concentration, an intelligence and a moral stature – the gnome assured him – so rare as to be found only here and there, glowing like a nugget in the silt and slime of society, sinking to the bottom, but only so as to shine with a light all the more wonderful for the surrounding darkness. It was this virtue which justified the gnome, as it dug its claws into Michael’s shoulders, and pulled from his eyes and mouth the long confessional scrolls of moral failure. It accepted only one penance – the penance of the garden, in which digging, hoeing, clipping, shifting and watering would occur to the accompaniment of the gnome’s squeaky singing. Here too, however, the outcome was uncertain, Michael being frequently kept in suspense as the gnome deliberated whether to pronounce a sermon, and, if so, whether to conclude it on a note of accusation or forgiveness. Much depended on the condition of nature. Was the gnome able to read, in the signs provided – in the seeds and tubers, in the roots and loam, in the worms, centipedes, woodlice and dung-beetles – the confirming signature of pardon? Or had the order of things been thrown into too great a disarray by the son’s transgression, so that the gnome, disturbing its surface with his trowel, saw only grief and anarchy below? Then would vengeance be at hand. The son must be unpacked like a broken watch, his cogs and springs spread out for divine inspection, and every fault laid bare.

            Finally Michael had shot the gnome. The episode was primeval, and, like a religious ceremony, existed in many versions. Sometimes the gun held only paper bullets; at other times darts tipped with silver; there was even a version in full battle dress, in which the offending crown was pierced by dum-dum bullets and the fragments of the gnome’s horny skull embedded in the ceiling.

            Zoë shuddered, and studied the bent form beside her. Michael held his hands, the fingers long, white, meticulously separated like a pianist’s, on the trousers over his knees. His long soft hair fell on his face, concealing it, and his words came painfully, breathlessly, as though he had been saving them for a long time. He was indeed a penitent, and something cramped and self-accusing in his posture recalled the figures of the damned, chased into the pendentives of the church at Ayios Yiorgos by the huge avenging archangel which threw its white robes across the dome. Perhaps he was asking her to save him, to lift him above the region of his crime, to hold him to the breast he had never known, and whose milk would re-create him out of ashes. Zoë reached out a hand to him, and with a sudden hunger he seized it and covered it with kisses. She shuddered again, and then stood up, tugging him so that he stood beside her. His eyes were red with unlicensed tears, his lips pale and taut. How strange and monstrous he was, and how strange and monstrous that she should like him so.

            ‘I wonder why I told you that,’ he said at last.

            ‘Maybe because you needed to tell someone.’

            ‘Not anyone.’

            ‘Why me?’

            ‘I suppose because you came here to find me; and because – because I let you in. It’s never happened before; not properly.’

            ‘What strange credentials I have,’ said Zoë.

            ‘Not so strange. But why did you come, Zoë?’

            She went to the bench, lifted the dusty curtain, and stared out over the concrete yard, with its herbaceous border. Someone cared about the yard, for there were difficult plants – lavender, cat’s-paw and tuberoses – planted neatly in the sunnier places, and a cut-back rose, flowerless now, and studded with golden hips, which climbed onto the wooden fence and nodded at the next-door garden. Two tubs of blue anemones stood symmetrically, with candid imperturbable faces, on the centre-line, and the concrete had a brushed, dry, dead appearance, like a canvas awaiting paint.

            ‘Whose is the garden?’

            ‘It comes with the shed.’

            ‘But you don’t look after it,’ said Zoë, who saw a woman’s handiwork before her.

            ‘No, not me. A friend.’

            ‘Ah,’ said Zoë, ‘that woman.’

            ‘No. Not that woman. Another one. Nobody important.’

            Michael’s manner was confused.

            ‘And this other woman – she’s not allowed in the shed?’

            Zoë dropped the curtain and looked at the bench. A row of boxwood chisels, their blades crisply ground at the tips and glistening, lay in a rack beneath the window. Beside them was a leather-covered tape-measure, a stick of charcoal, and an iron pot of fish glue, whose rim and sides were stuck with frozen lava. The sun lay across the objects in perforated shafts of orange light, creating a unity among them, like a still life. She was on the verge of understanding something – a secret lay revealed beneath her, if only she could see its pattern.

            Michael did not answer.

            ‘Why did you come, Zoë?’

            ‘Because … ’

            She glanced again at Michael’s bench, and all at once she saw its meaning. These objects had souls. Yannakis believed that disorder comes because people barge into the world, heedless that its moral space is already occupied. Zoë admired the theory, not for its truth, but for the way her father’s gentleness was preserved in it and authorised. She had applied it to Yannakis’s possessions, and now to the things on Michael’s bench. An enormous transition was accomplished; for the first time, she had moved on from her father. The effect of this was grief – grief so strong she could hardly contain it.

            ‘Because you are the only one.’

            ‘The only one?’

            ‘The only one I can tell.’

            Large tears had begun to make their way down her cheeks, and she made no attempt to hide them. They welled into her eyes like spring water – another of those gestures which came silent and unbidden from the ancient dead.

            ‘Tell me, then.’

            Michael stepped forward, hesitated, and then took her in his arms.

            ‘My father died,’ she said simply.

            ‘I’m sorry.’

            ‘He died three years ago.’

            ‘Then it’s not so bad.’

            ‘Not so bad?’

            ‘Not so bad as if it had been today.’

            ‘But it was today.’

            Michael held Zoë away and looked curiously at her. There was alarm in his features, but he did not speak.

            ‘I mean it was today, just now, just this moment, that I knew it really happened. I have wandered in a half-light, neither believing nor disbelieving, looking for the person who … the person who … oh, I don’t know.’

            This speech surprised Zoë very much. Not even when Michael opened his heart to her – if ‘heart’ were the right name for the organ which prompted his confessions – did Zoë imagine she might offer a reciprocal confidence. She was equally surprised to find that she did not regret her words. It did not matter even that Michael found them alarming, though she would rather he did not. She detached herself and sat down, her hands folded in her lap, watching him through her tears. How frozen everything had been until now, and how perfect he seemed in his awkwardness, like a mountain creature, startled in its lair.

            She found herself recounting her father’s life, which, she now saw, was only a wrinkle of transience on the skin of things. She remembered a thousand details: how she would wait for his homecoming in the garden, her mind awash with the sea-cry of cicadas; how they wandered together in the Troodos mountains, visiting the hesychasts in their crumbling cells, eating in dusty olive groves by the wayside, overlooking white abysses and deep blue lozenges of sea. She described the monks at Bellapais, and Yannakis dancing with them to the sound of a laoutaris. Beneath his immovable trilby the face was always firm, bold and prominent, with an expression of humorous regret. She described sybaritic pilgrimages to Ayios Neophytus, and how he loved and kissed the icons in church after church. He was not a Christian, but a pagan; if a single God existed, he thought, Islam would be true – from which he drew the logical conclusion that the God of religion does not exist. Yet always the icons would spring awake, as their dreaming lips touched his. Everything he touched acquired a soul. She spoke of the dark events, which she hardly understood, except as the work of some vast conspiracy. They had saved themselves, washed up like castaways on a cold Northern shore. But Yannakis never recovered – every effort of life, even the pigeons, had been hesitant and crowned with failure. He too had been an insurance broker, and he too had played a losing hand. There followed the unreal stillness of heart disease, the vivid body motionless with terror, sensing the ferment of decay. She described his death, falling to earth with the fluttering Evyenia in his hands, and then the nights drenched in loneliness, and full of dreams. Through her disbelief she had kept her countenance; it helped too that the Kostaina had shared her illusion, and fought from this common premise with the ferocity of one who defends a lie. And now those years of preparation were rewarded; she had left home for ever, she was no longer trapped in his tomb, no longer bound to him, no longer the Kostaina’s daughter, no longer a Greek. She had come through a dismal antechamber of the world, where the dead and the unborn lie marble-still and silent. And now she would touch the living, and their eyes would blaze with purpose.

            ‘What are you then?’ Michael barked.

            ‘I don’t know. Something free; something transcendental.’

            He faced her with alarm, as though terrified of some huge responsibility.

            ‘You needn’t worry, Michael. I’m only telling you this. I’m not asking for anything.’ And into her voice came all the gentleness she knew.

            ‘Oh it’s interesting. I mean, I collect dead cultures. Some people collect eggs, when the life has been blown out of them.’

            ‘The shell I left behind would crumble in your hands.’

            ‘Possibly.’

            He looked at her, and seemed to recover his equilibrium.

            ‘Can I kiss you?’

            ‘You can.’

            His awkwardness vanished. Placing his mouth on her lips, he expertly drew the life into them, until her body was in deepest need. When she withdrew, it was with a jump.

            ‘You don’t know me, Michael.’

            ‘I am beginning to know you. You came here to be known. I discovered you,’ he went on, his voice rising again. ‘Don’t deny it. I let you into my shed, my life.’

            ‘And now?’

            An enigmatic expression crossed his face.

            ‘Maybe we’ll live together. Maybe that’s it.’

            He spoke as though rehearsing plans which did not concern her. And he rubbed his hands together anxiously, trying to free himself from unseen chains.

            Zoë looked at him, and her eyes said ‘I love you. You are the only being I can love absolutely, with my complete self, with body, mind and heart. You are my mate, my husband, my guardian. I am yours and you are mine as two fires that meet and penetrate. The bond that joins us is free and also necessary; we exist in it for the first time fully, the first time in reality. This is eros, holy and happy as the gods themselves.’ All this and more her eyes were saying, as the blazed at him. But he did not notice.

            ‘No, no,’ he went on. ‘We can’t live together.’

            His face looked pinched and calculating. He reminded Zoë of a hunted animal, skilled in the practice of survival. She watched him as he muttered to himself, performing some feat of mental arithmetic.

            ‘No, not yet, we can’t. Only – only I can find you a room. I know a room.’

            ‘A room?’

            A moment earlier she had wanted nothing else.

            ‘Where I live there’s a room. How much can you afford?’

            She shrugged her shoulders.

            ‘I don’t know. How much is needed?’

            ‘Will you let me into this room?’

            ‘Maybe.’

            ‘I’ve offended you.’

            He shouted the words, as though in triumph.

            ‘Not at all.’

            Not being offended had for years been Zoë’s speciality: not being offended by the Kostaina, who abused her as a whore; by Mr Tzouliadis, who offered her charity; by the Peacock who paraded his sex. She dutifully added Michael to the list. In this new world, she thought, love is almost certainly an error.

            Michael had lapsed into his old posture, with downturned eyelids and solemn lips, hugging his armpits.

            ‘It’ll be OK,’ he said.

            ‘What will be OK?’

            ‘Me and you.’

            ‘You and me.’

            ‘You and me,’ he repeated.

            ‘That’s good to know.’

            ‘You must let me kiss you again.’

            ‘Must?’

            He took a step towards her.

            ‘No,’ she said, ‘stay there.’

            He nodded thoughtfully, as though he had expected this, as though all hope, all risk, all adventure, were deepest error.

            ‘Dr Leacock said I could live with him.’

            She pronounced the words slowly, with a shudder.

            ‘Live with him? You can’t.’

            ‘I know.’

            ‘Well then. I said I’d find you a room.’

            ‘It’s not a room I want.’

            Michael looked up in surprise.

            ‘What do you want Zoë?’

            ‘What does a woman want?’

            ‘The unobtainable.’

            Zoë sighed.

            ‘Listen Michael. I’ve never had this kind of conversation before. Never with anyone ever. It’s scary. I don’t know the rules. Why don’t you help me?’

            His eyes widened in astonishment.

            ‘Help you? How?’

            ‘If I knew I wouldn’t be asking. God, you are so exasperating!’

            ‘Yes, yes,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘That’s exactly it!’

            ‘I thought you wanted me.’

            ‘I do. Yes, I do. I’ve always wanted you, I think.’

            ‘You don’t sound very convinced.’

            ‘I’m convinced alright; just not convincing. It’s my way. Can’t you see?’

            He appealed to her with beseeching eyes, solemn and theatrical.

            ‘If you really want me, it’s simple,’ she said.

            ‘Nothing is simple.’

            He began to pace around the shed, rubbing his hands together, and casting strange defiant looks at the sculptures. And then, as if his behaviour up to this point had not been strange enough, Michael, with a queer sideways look from the window – perhaps to verify that his action was being recorded in the book of credits, or at any rate was not being ignored by those from whom his instructions came – suddenly threw himself before her on his knees, which struck the concrete floor through the thin carpet with an unpleasant clicking sound like dice. He pressed his lips to her thigh and wept with such passion that Zoë could feel the hot tears pouring through the rent in her trousers onto her skin. Because there was no other response that seemed remotely appropriate, she gently stirred his soft hair with her fingers. After a while he rose to his feet. His eyes were red but not swollen, as though the tears had merely flown over them, from some other source.

            ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

            ‘Please don’t be.’

            ‘I’ll work it out,’ he went on. ‘It’ll be OK. All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well. I’ll see you this evening. Don’t worry about it.’

            He grasped her by the shoulders. But his expert kisses were in such contrast to the hesitations which led to them, that Zoë could not trust them: they were not the gleaming face of a soul, but something darker and sadder and drearier.

            ‘You are confusing me,’ she said, recoiling.

            ‘No,’ he replied, with a nervous giggle, ‘it is you who are confusing me. I’ll see you this evening. It’ll be OK. It’s sure to be OK. God!’

 

XV

 

She ran beside the canal, her thoughts blanked out as though by a giant hand. People collided with her, and her fear augmented. Danger had once been known and circumscribed; she had weapons then, bright as daggers and broad as shields. But now danger was unbounded, and she confronted it unarmed.

            Her feet clattered on the iron bridge, from which she entered a street of half-demolished houses. In one of the windows an old woman’s face was hung like an extinct lantern, yellow, dusty and crusted with grief. Zoë pitched her way through rubble, across the empty lots where the council planned to build their sterile towers, and so to abolish misery for ever. Debris lay in the street: nesting baths and toilet bowls, obscene headless trunks of plastic dolls, treadless tyres, punctured cans and oil drums, rusty spring beds, death-stained mattresses, and shattered blocks of concrete with their jutting fingers of rust, like snakes that have died in agony.

            ‘She will fall on him, mop him up like a sponge.’

            But Michael was mercury, and could never be absorbed.

            Zoë was drawn to these unfrequented streets, for they were England – not the proud imperium where ghostly heroes wave from abandoned spires, but the camping site of future nomads. And she sniffed with a peculiar abandon the malignant wind that scattered about these places – a wind of darkness, which seemed to blow from every quarter of the compass, without rain or mist or dust, hurrying into those vacant lots like the unshriven spirits of the dead, taking no space, acquiring no rest, and rushing onwards unconsolably.

            The afternoon sun was haunted and blanched by cloud, and the leaves of a few sparse fruit-trees, planted in the demolished street, were shaking fitfully as though conjuring a storm – only without violence, and in an air so dry and thin and exhausted that nothing could really be carried by it. Zoë sped onwards, electric, foreboding, the scarf slipping from her hair, and the strap of the duffle bag gnawing at her shoulders.

            She stood in a phone booth, watching the sun spear itself on St Botolph’s spire. After a few minutes, she rang Bill at the theatre.

            ‘I’ve run away,’ Zoë said. I should be announcing the resurrection, I should be crying for joy.

            ‘That’s grand, darling. Come and see me.’

            There was a commotion outside: birds, flapping around a piece of bread. And somewhere a siren, howling down disorder.

            ‘I’m going to live with a man.’

            There was no time to explain, no time to find other words. There the image was. A man, indefinite article, enas andras – one single man.

            ‘Men are no use my sweet, unless they are old, rich, and well-connected. Besides, they smell. Come and see me all the same. The costumes are delicious – I collected them today. Not tonight petal, I’m busy. Tomorrow. That Anna’s a genius, whatever you say. Lots of love, darling, and for God’s sake don’t get attached to him.’

            ‘Bill … ’

            ‘Yes love?’

            ‘I’ll come to the theatre tomorrow.’

            ‘That’s my girl. Ten thirty, after the show. ’Bye darling.’

            ‘Goodbye,’ she said, ‘adio’.

 

XVI

 

The class had begun. Five blunt heads watched from the graffiti-studded benches as the Peacock strutted on the dais, his head high, his voice triumphantly crowing. The air was thick with smoke, and it was almost impossible to read the ‘No Smoking’ sign which had been pinned to the blackboard.

            Mr Cobb the radical grocer sat motionless behind his pipe, his khaki overalls draped like a cloak over sloping shoulders. Ellen was rolling cigarettes for the evening, running her tongue along the gummed edge of the paper with a lingering suggestive glance, and leaning in the direction of Edgar, the half-drugged pianist who sometimes dropped in on his way to work at the nearby Lamb and Garter. The delicate white-haired Mrs Winthrop smiled quietly as Zoë entered, with the air of one who is about to offer a secret, while Jimmy, the librarian, stared straight ahead, his pale bespectacled face rocking above his Adam’s apple, like a ball in a fountain. The fifth student was George the philosopher, who lived alone in a garret, and whose conversation consisted of long mysterious quotations from Heidegger, booming through a forest of beard, while his small gold-tinged eyes danced ecstatically. She had no idea whether Michael’s absence were a good sign or a bad sign; but it was definitely a sign.

            ‘OK Zoë,’ said the Peacock, beaming at her, ‘are you ready?’

            ‘Ready for what?’

            ‘For your apotheosis.’

            She pushed into the second row, in the place which she used to prefer because someone had scratched ‘Leacock is an arsehole’ in the varnish. Now, however, she took off her pullover and laid it over the offensive sentence. A queer sensation came over her, as she tried to meet the Peacock’s smile: a mixture of grief and resignation. She took out her papers from the duffle bag, with the neat bird-like gestures of a creature seeking to protect itself. There was nothing: only an empty notebook, the Cavafy, and the poems of Yannis Ritsos, which Michael had stained with red circles of wine. She remembered one of the poems, of homecoming to a ruined house, where clay statues stood in a garden, their glass eyes fallen into rotting water. How strange and bleak and comfortless those statues were, perforated, many-eyed and blind – diatrita, polyommata, tyfla. She thought of Yannakis, and of the impassable space that divided him from now.

            ‘You know, Zoë,’ the Peacock continued. ‘Your presentation. Descartes. You remember? “I think”.’

            Michael’s absence was like a frame bordering everything. Each sight and sound was pictured in this frame and somehow discredited, passing through it like a procession of ghosts.

            ‘I think,’ she said. ‘It thinks.’

            She sat down. The red evening sky through the metal-framed window; the jagged crenellations of Spicetown; the seagulls circling and crying in the dusty air: all archetypes of absence, which she contemplated through the window with a sphinx-like stare.

            ‘Good,’ said the Peacock, ‘if a trifle cryptic. Any comments?’

            There was a murmuring and shifting of cloth, a popping of lips as pipes and cigarettes were pulled from them. George said that the thing which thinks posits itself as Dasein for whom (or which) being is essentially problematised. Edgar said he liked Zoë’s speech and had nothing to add to it. Mrs Winthrop said thought is a web, Ellen said ‘yeah’ and Mr Cobb took his pipe from his mouth, made as if to speak, pursed his lips, shook his head and fell meaningfully silent. As they struck their attitudes the door opened and Zoë looked up with a start. It was Enid, who shot ferret-eyed looks to left and right, and scampered to the back of the class.

            The Peacock strutted on the dais, illustrating his thoughts with slow magniloquent gestures. He seemed to mock the world and her, moving in a sphere untouched by love or suffering. And as he levered reality to one side with his strong-armed paradoxes – showing that nothing is certain, and that in every utterance sounds the hollow voice of power – he became a great force of destruction, superb and irresistible. Beliefs came before him like Cypriot wedding cakes, spindly and trembling on their sugar columns. And with a look from his smiling eyes he shattered them to dust.

            The door opened. She did not dare to look at him, whom she had touched. To meet in this place was madness. He must see that: he must recognise at once, as he comes through the door, the impossibility of the thing. And if it is not Michael – which it isn’t, she sees – that is to the good. He is too fine to enter here; he is waiting outside, his hands pressed to his sides, his eyes turned inwards to another world. The man who has entered is tall, with a shaven head, heavy jowls, horn-rimmed glasses, and the grim expression of the existentialist. The Peacock is introducing him – not Bonini, who has been summoned to an international conference, but Bonini’s confidant and disciple Caravisco, who has come on his master’s behalf. He wears a theatrical outfit of carefully tailored oddments, something that Bill might have commissioned: burgundy-coloured velvet jacket, speckled red bow-tie, green-striped shirt, and flared trousers of creamy chamois. He raises his hands in the air before him, and his crimsoned fingers, stretched and spatulate, flutter for a moment before settling on his cheeks, forming a box from which his clown eyes stare like headlights. On his index finger grows a large emerald, like a shining wart, and in one ear a silver fly is perching, drinking from the poison which boils in his brain. Suddenly he lowers his hands, and takes from his pocket a bundle of cards, which he shuffles with studied inattention while his eyes settle on Zoë, gradually freezing to a look of desire. He rotates the turret of his head, raises it, lowers it, and aims again at Zoë. Without lifting his eyes from her he signals the technician who has entered at the rear of the lecture room. The lights are dimmed, a white screen descends over the blackboard and suddenly an array of figures and diagrams is projected behind them. Caravisco speaks with an American accent, constantly adjusting the position of his head, turning it with strong prehensile fingers, the tips of which seem to sink into his brain as a sponge, and then releasing it, so that it swings back fixedly to Zoë.

            ‘Here you see the sequence A1, A2, A3 by which Bonini designates the passions, A1 being a passion, A2 another passion, A3 another and so on; below you see another letter which is the letter Q. Beneath A1 there is a Q, beneath A2 also, and beneath A3, and so on. In other words Q does not change, does not vary; it is a constant. It is also a quantity, hence “Q” for quantity; but sometimes a quality also, hence “Q” for quality. This constant Q is there behind every passion, in every passion. And here we have another sequence L1, L2, L3 and at the end a question mark, which I have written a little to one side, since the question must be raised only later, only by a delayed response, an aphasia. Each A relates by Q to its own L, and therefore L1, L2, L3 must also occur in sequence, the same sequence as the original passions, A1, A2, A3, and so on. We call L the legality, or law, of A, each passion having its own legality, its own transformation into law. Hence we can arrange the laws of the passions in a sequence which, however, I have also suggested we must question, the question too being a “Q” which stands between each A and its L, which interrupts, so to speak, intercepts, the passage from A to L. And so now, using this scheme, what did Freud wish to tell us about the work of mourning?’

            Mr Cobb let out three puffs of smoke, a serene expression on his face, as though at last encountering the benefits of education. Ellen held an unfinished cigarette poised before her mouth, which had fallen open as she stared at Caravisco’s head. Jimmy’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, while Mrs Winthrop, who had laid aside her needlework, was trying to catch Zoë’s eye. But Zoë could not move. In this harlequin costume, this spongy, hairless head, this alphabet soup of words, she saw the great soulless one, the doorman of the future, who stared into her with the cathode light of pure desire. And somewhere outside the classroom, not wishing to enter because this charade displeased him, and because he was too fine to hang out his soul in tatters, was Michael, waiting for her, his nervous hands stirring the air, his eyes haunted with absence, regretting his final words, recalling the chrism of a kiss.

            O heavenly king, O comforter, the spirit of truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things, the treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us, cleanse us from all impurity, and of thy goodness save our souls.

            Caravisco paused and glanced at his cards.

            ‘Here I must end,’ he said, and stepped from the dais in Zoë’s direction.

            She must go to him now, while the gift could be made. ‘O heavenly king, O comforter…’ Words, mere words; and Caravisco’s outlined eyes owl-like and targeted.

            She was on her feet and running. The brass handle of the door slipped in her hand. And the sweet sticky scent of the pursuer surrounded her. Her hair filled with his breath. Then she fell, limp and relinquished, travelling onwards into the dark.

 

XVII

 

She was in the Peacock’s office, lying on the couch and covered with a woven durry. A camel-hair cushion, dry and itchy, was propped beneath her neck.

            ‘OK now, girl?’

            The Peacock was pouring whisky into bottle-green glasses and looking down on her with a vagrant concern.

            ‘You’re in trouble, Zoë.’

            She waved the drink away; he held it out of reach then offered it again. She took the glass and placed it on the floor.

            ‘It was that dreadful zombie, Caravaggio.’

            ‘Caravisco. Well, you certainly sussed him out. The problem is, Zoë,’ – he adopted a benign expression – ‘that all intellectual paths have been trampled from time immemorial. That is why they seem so hard and lifeless, and why people like Caravisco have to run out into the pastures of absurdity. Sometimes it makes sense, not to make sense.’

            ‘That didn’t worry me.’

            ‘What worried you?’

            ‘Oh, his eyes. His head. His fingers.’

            The Peacock studied her for a moment with interest. Then, with a brilliant smile, he said, ‘Here’s a letter for you. It was left this afternoon.’

            ‘A letter?’

            The envelope was typed: ‘To Zoë, pupil of Dr Leacock, by hand.’ So this is how it ends. Strange that Michael should know how to use a typewriter.

            ‘You know, Zoë, I’m serious about that room. You won’t be in my way, and you can sort things out tomorrow – find the place which suits you. Meanwhile, liberty hall, every vice permitted, even virtue. See you in a minute.’

            He rose to his full height, swallowed his whisky, shot her a compassionate look, and went to the door.

            ‘My bag,’ she said. ‘It’s in the lecture room. I’ll need it.’

            ‘It’s there by the window. In case you want to run away.’

            Zoë gave him a grateful look.

            ‘Thanks Peter,’ she said.

            ‘Don’t mention it; or rather do mention it, if it helps my case.’

            The air in the street was cool. The last violet flower of daylight dwindled over the city, moulting its lustrous petals on to the iridescent rooftops. Light from the lecture room shone across the pavement, and she stood in its arc, the letter shaking in her hands.

            ‘Dear Zoë,’ she read. ‘It wasn’t possible. She turned up. Not that woman, but the other one. I’ve put you back in the icon, and your eyes shine on me from untouchable gold. M.’

            Zoë stood for half an hour, until Peter Leacock took her home.

 

XVIII

 

Three years later, on a dull November day, Zoë entered the Three Crowns, on the edge of that web of Edwardian streets which she used to call the Solitudes. It was not her habit to enter pubs unescorted; though for the first time in several weeks she could afford to, having just collected from Mr Tzouliadis the fifteen pounds which had been owing to her for three years. She had stepped off the street in order to avoid running into Peter Leacock, Little Peacock as she used to call him, who was swaggering towards her, his latest girlfriend – a cropped-haired eighteen-year-old, with painted circus eyes and a ring through her nose – skipping at his heels.

            In the warm interior of the pub, men were playing snooker, chaffing blue chalk against the tips, and dropping down to sight. Their eyes slid back along the cues like shining curtain rings. They elbowed space away, making room for their purpose, and cornering the world. She remembered the pub next to Bewley College, where only Peter would claim more than his own body-space. Here self-assertion was the norm, and the sound of the men as they raised their voices in affable disagreement was like the noise of water pouring life into life.

            Michael Ashley was seated at one of the tables, eating, as was his habit, a three-course lunch. His dark suit and bombay shirt, his stiff collar and dashing scarlet tie, his neatly brushed hair and preoccupied look as he read the Times law reports, marking a passage with an expensive-looking biro, seemed like a disguise. But his character too had changed. Catching sight of Zoë, he greeted her boisterously, affecting innocence. His eyes were still handsome, but no trace remained of their poetry; while his hands, on one of which a crop of gold had grown, were relaxed, competent, gripping even in stillness the ladder to success.

            He beckoned her forward, and she sat down opposite him at the table.

            ‘How extraordinary! What are you doing with yourself?’

            There was no trace of his former bark.

            ‘What are you doing?’

            She pointed to the suit and tie.

            ‘I always dress like this. It’s my uniform. I’m respectable now; pure as you.’

            She said nothing.

            ‘I work in the solicitor’s office next door. Baines and Burbage Ltd. You must have seen it. You haven’t changed though.’

            He pinched her woollen sleeve, and she quickly withdrew her arm.

            ‘Same old jumper; same old trousers; same little chain round your neck, same little revolver.’

            After a pause she asked,

            ‘What about the sculpture?’

            ‘Rubbish!’

            A small flicker of regret seemed to pass across his features, and he stared down at the table. ‘Pretentious rubbish.’

            ‘The shed?’

            ‘They demolished it. Quite right too.’

            ‘That woman?’

            He raised his eyes and scanned her face. Zoë had acquired the ability to meet such looks, even though she blushed a little.

            ‘Rubbish too,’ he said. ‘And the other one. I’ve come out of that. It was all provisional, like those ghastly lectures at Bewley College. What’s the matter?’

            ‘Nothing.’

            ‘I shouldn’t have said that. Shows you still mean something to me.’

            She made an impatient gesture.

            ‘I heard you were living with Peter Leacock.’

            ‘Really?’

            Michael’s face was strange to her, sealed, impersonal.

            ‘I mustn’t stay,’ she said, rising to her feet.

            ‘I’m always here at this time.’ His face was suddenly overcast and sad. ‘Maybe we could have lunch?’

            ‘Maybe.’

 

XIX

 

It had begun to rain, a grey English drizzle, which smeared the streets like tears. Zoë thought of her mother, who lay dying in Argyll Street. Anna and the child had gone to live with an Englishman, and the Kostaina was alone.

            ‘Time to go home,’ she thought.

            And she walked up the hill, through the place she used to call the Solitudes, grieving for Yannakis.

 

THE END

 

Part I

Part II

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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