Peter Hammill - The Spider's Web

''No, David,'' she said, ''you must promise....''

He had been thinking about something and someone else at the time, far away from there; it was only with effort that he brought his attention back to her, his focus back to her sun-bleached head resting on his chest. It was evening; outside, the insects were tuning up for their tone-poem of the night. A cool grey mist had settled over the village. Fragments of juke-box music drifted through the open window and reverberated faintly in the room; the sound echoed with melancholy, as though all life, all people were very far away. Ghost voices carried through the dusk. The flagstones of his bedroom caught the last of the light by the window and scattered it among their ridges. Already the rest of the room was draping such folds of shadow about itself as it could, later, be fashioned into heart-nudging spectres. White walls and alcoves merging into homogeneous planes with the black wood of the high, carved wardrobe. The paintings, dark, brooding in their frames, offering themselves as windows, shafts, or projections. The dark, angular night drew on, and the room welcomed it. Only in one corner of the room was there light. Yellow, from an oil lamp, it flickered over a plain table on which rested a chaos of books, magazines, newspapers, files and manuscript. Clothes had been hastily flung over the accompanying chair: jeans, a sweatshirt, a light silk dress....

''David?''

''What?''

''You must promise....''

''I'm sorry,'' he shrugged, ''I must have been miles away...what must I promise?''

''That you won't...oh, you're not really listening.'' She rolled away and lay on her back. Suddenly she was engrossed in fiddling with a string of beads which hung around her neck. There was more than a little reproach in this interest.

He sighed wearily. The music from the cafe' juke-box wafted into the room, joined by the percussion of her clicking beads. He leaned over to the table, located his packet of cigarettes, flicked one out and lit it. One long draw, one long exhalation; once more off into the smoke-filled past.

He thought of Susan. Two weeks ago, they had been lying next to each other by the sea, in his favorite cove; it was the last day of her stay with him. His invitation to her had been characteristically off-hand, and he had hardly expected her to take it up; but she had come. She had flown from England, her captivating smile, her disarming frankness thrown in an overnight case with her summer clothes, and been with him in his villa for a week. He had been surprised at how easy it was to share, being out of the habit of doing so, but he had shared with her: his board, his bed, his secret thoughts and places...his secrets.

Perhaps, he thought, he had been unwise to welcome her with his arms spread fully open; she carried the seeds of the city within her. Cities in themselves held no special dread for him, but he knew that he had attuned himself to, made his own, the Mediterranean life and all its tempo, moderation and excess. Here, fast things happened slowly, and slow things could last but a moment in time, or forever. He and Susan were from different cultures, different worlds, now.

Once, their minds and lives had run in parallel; he wondered where and when they had lost the lines, whether it could have been helped. The last time they had really known each other was too many years ago to contemplate: the last time he had lived in London, observing, assembling, and finally writing 'The Lost Keepsake'. So long ago? Susan--observed, desired, elusive--had been a central character in that book; but she had been one of his imagination rather than experience. In creating his fiction, he had made himself an observer, a side-player, never totally involved in the real lives of those friends who, camouflaged and maneouvred, peopled his writing. Thus he had known Susan, he had devoured her, in the process of writing his novel, but the character he had given her was skeletal, not fleshed, more an extrapolation of his on ideas than a true representation of her. Now, he needed to know. They had met again by chance, at a party, when he made on of his increasingly rare forays to his erstwhile home city; he had offered her his hospitality, and she had accepted. Probably, she had been looking merely for the sun; he was looking for completion, for affirmation. So much time had passed: he wanted to pull together the strings, resolve the suspended chord, find what had changed and what was the same. He wanted to find out what he had never known. Too much time: they had not seen each other since the book was published. The intervening years could have changed, alienated them otally; yet here they were, lazing in the sun, tipsy on red wine, their feet dangling in the water, alone.

They had never been alone, it seemed, in the London days. Then they had been adrift in an ocean of humanity, ferociously tangling the lines of their lives about themselves--those became, in time, the very lines which threaded themselves through 'The Lost Keepsake'. If they had not already done so, their paths would certainly have diverged with the success of the book, with his lionisation and resultant security. There had been four more novels since then, of course, in further capitalisation: one more set in London, one in New York and another of jet-set itinerance. The latest, 'The Limbs of Purgatory', had been set here, in the tempestuously easy pace of the lotus-eaters' society. He had always used the places and people he had known to the fullest, and here he had found a rich vein to mine; energy crackled around the Mediterranean days and nights, poised itself, flared, dissipated. Every month, it seemed, an acquaintance would find his efforts coined into success i whatever field he avowedly chose; every month, another would drown in the bottom of a bottle of brandy. There was a simple, bleached-out design here, a slowness of time and distance, and he liked it. So his home was here now, and it was here that he sifted through the pan, looking for remembered nuggets of human behaviour with which to fill his future work.

It was several worlds away from London. A young man, full to the brim with abandon and braggadocio, he had felt part of the city once; now, an outsider, he found it cold, dirty, repellent, closed, and he loathed it. Yet Susan was still a part of that city, and every so often a move, a gesture, would show that she carried it in her even here. Perhaps, after all, it had been a mistake to invite her....

Only a passing cloud; only the heat, becoming prickly and stifling in the breeze dropped for a moment; only the effects of the wine, this sense of doubt and melancholy, up from the wells of nostalgia.

''Penny for them?'' she asked; he smiled quietly.

''I thought so, you had that look on your face.''

''What look?''

''That one you always had: 'I am thinking very serious and important thoughts which are of relevance to the whole human race, so will everyone please leave me alone.' I've always found it a bit comical, actually. Anyway, I've noticed this week that it seems to come on you when you're brooding about the past.''

''That's not quite fair,'' he said, his dignity lightly bruised.

''No, no, don't worry, I was just kidding you; got to keep a sense of perspective, haven't we? All the same, I had a feeling you were thinking about all that.''

''London?''

''Yes, London, those days, that book...I suppose it's inevitable that you should start rooting around in that again, with me being here.''

''Ah, you've read the books, then?'' he asked. There were studied overtones of surprise in his voice, a root note of pleasure.

''Only that one, and long ago...''

She seemed non-committal; he poured two more glasses of wine and looked out to sea. A ferry passed low on the horizon. Brief silence. He felt the need to probe. For his ego, he wanted to know what she thought of his novel. For himself, still wanting to 'find' her, he looked for her feelings about the circumstances, the experiences, the lifestyle, which had engendered it, and which they had shred. He ventured a lead; his hesitancy was amplified by the obviousness of its nature.

''They were...pretty strange times, weren't they?''

''Do you mean as in the book or as in the times?''

''Whole thing.''

Under her breath, she muttered something which sounded--he didn't quite catch it--like ''Same thing''. Pressed, she would say nothing; but he had found one of 'his' subjects, and warmed to it. Already the signs of the aged semi-alcoholic bore were incipient. There was, after all, much of personal revelation that he could say to Susan; be he rambled into areas of common and mutual knowledge, reminisced with a nostalgia of which the warmth was not that of events remembered, but of stories many times told. He recounted, amid gales of his own laughter, many of the 'strange' and 'crazy' things they and their friends had done in the past. Some of these stories--those she had forgotten, those he embellished best--she greeted with similar mirth, and acknowledged others with a wry smile of recognition. To the bulk of them, she offered no reaction at all.

He realised that he had allowed himself to be carried away by his past, and that, for some minutes, there had been no response from Susan. She seemed pensive, a light furrowing on her brow, as though some idea had come to her which she was now debating with herself, tossing it from side to side to gauge its weight.

''What is it?'' he asked.

''I was just wondering...'' Evidently, she had to bring herself back to the present, to conversation. ''Hearing you talk like that about the old days--do you find any difficulty sorting out who's who in your own mind?''

''Well, sometimes I have difficulty remembering the names of the people on the periphery, but...''

''No, I don't mean that...not who people are, their names, at least not in that sense. I mean, do you know who the real people are or were, and who are those from the books? You muddle them sometimes, you know--their lives, their names...'' She gave him a coy smile. ''...on the periphery of course.''

''Do I really? I'm sorry, it's so long ago...''

''It's a deeper thing than just mistaken identity, you know; I mean it more fully than that. it doesn't matter so much. But can you tell? Do you tell?''

''Of course I do, it's obvious. Look, I don't know quite where you're leading, if anywhere, but on a level below remembering people's names, there's clear differentiation. Naturally, the characters in the books are fictitious...''

Her eyebrows lifted in an expression halfway between amusement and admonition, but a restrained coolness had come over her eyes. It occurred to him that she was trying hard to put him at his ease. If this were an attack, and he had an uneasy feeling that it was, it was one which she undertook begrudgingly, as though under higher orders than those of her own whims. Her expression, its quizzical/inquisitorial set, had brought him up in mid-sentence; her voice once more took up where his had dropped.

''Maybe I'm being a bit obscure, it's difficult...Look, I read the book; to tell the truth, a couple of the others, too, I just didn't want to inflate your ego, make you think I'd been following your star. But I did follow it--your success--in a detached sort of way. I'm very pleased for you, but...But I know how it all works: I think you may have trapped yourself. I know where it comes from and I'm worried that you may have ceased to see it. I mean, your characters, they're so...transparent.''

''Thin?'' he asked, a note of hurt in his voice. It was not entirely feigned; he had, perhaps, the presentiment that this was only the start, that he would hurt, and hurt more. For the moment, though, the pain touched only his epidermis, that skin into which he so comfortably fitted: successful novelist, man of the world; debating, socialising, conversing, always untouched. Really, he was hurt only in his self-regard as the Writer.

''I can see what you're thinking,'' she said, ''but I don't mean it that way; not literary criticism, I wouldn't dream, I can't offer you that. Not style, characterisation, flesh, I don't mean transparent in any of those terms. But the people...Look, you take any person in the book--the moment you examine him, straight away, you know who he was in reality; or I do at least. Your 'fictitious' people--they're only too clearly tied to the real people they're taken from.''

''Ah. Well, I don't make any secret of the fact that I'm inspired by my environment, by the people in it. Actually, I've always thought that this was one of my strong points, veiling people over--making them opaque, in your terminology. You don't think so?''

''I suppose most people wouldn't know who you were writing about; after all, none of us were famous. But that's still not really the point. I've just been wondering about the difficulty in drawing the line between fact and fiction. I know that writers in general have this problem--they're living in their fictional lives for a great deal of their real ones, aren't they? But with you... you treat people so differently, the true and imagined must blur more than ever. I don't know...it just seems, seemed, more important than usual with you, somehow.''

It seemed she wanted to terminate the discussion. It was as though she had entered its waters up to her depth and now, rather than swim, committed to the current, wanted to return to solid sand. If she did not want to make that commitment then still less did he: the past, beneath its placid surface, was clogged with sandbank and riptide, inexorable ebb and flow. He began to fashion a sentence to finish with the topic. It was not hard; he had run down this line many times in interviews--the pat answer to an always nagging question, all the more trite for repetition.

''I don't really have any problem with this, you know, '' he said, affecting charming reassurance, ''it's quite simple. People are distinguishable in that they all have their individuality, their separate lives. I've got too much respect for them to try to absorb or change that. The people in real life and those in the books, they all have their different courses. I can't change things in real life; in the writing, I just chronicle, extrapolate, watch the interaction of the lives. As I say, it's my respect for the individual--there isn't any confusion, I know which world is fact and which fiction, because of that. My respect for people...''

''Oh, come on, David, don't give me all that!'' He had intended only a closing shot, a last dictum to round off the subject; in fact, it had re-energised it. Her face was now serious and determined; he felt his own indignation rising, his defensive instincts stirred. They had crossed the thin line dividing debate and argument.

''Just think about it a minute,'' she continued. ''I've seen it from both sides, remember? No, it's not so important that the people we knew--and doubtless the characters in your other books, too, who I don't know--are recognisable in the fiction, there's nothing wrong with that. But you seem blind to people, to the uses you make of them; maybe even blind to yourself. you kid yourself that you've given the characters life, that you 'respect their individuality', and I think you actually believe it. But there isn't any real individuality there except for what you've taken from the people you know. Sure, you've got to have source material, but from what I know, you don't really build from it, expand it. You just drain the life from those around you, tart it up a bit and give it the odd twist--so where do your famous fictional individuals come from? As for respect...!''

''What, exactly, are you saying? That I'm a voyeur?''

''Oh, if it's definitions you want, then I'd have to say a parasite: you do feed on others. But even parasites have a positive function for their host, usually....with you, it's only you who stands to gain. Your protagonists certainly don't--well, apart from those egotist cretins who think you've made them immortal. Oh, Christ, that's not it, either: parasite's a nasty word, and I suppose all of have a bit of that in us...It's you, you delude yourself so.''

''Well, I suppose I've immortalised you. Is that what's bothering you? Do you mind that much?'' His defensive tone and posture were well tried. Brazen it out, make of the self a mirror from which all attacks are reflected; absorb, remain aloof...observe. It was a defence badly chosen and executed.

''I don't give a fuck. I'm not concerned with myself; sure, I've got my own problems, but they're nothing to do with all this. I wasn't burning, it wouldn't really have affected me if I'd never met you again; I never tried to get in touch with you after the book came out. I didn't have any axe to grind. But we did meet again, didn't we, and I couldn't help noticing what had happened to you; you can't seem to see what you've made of yourself, what you do with other people. you say you've got it straight, but there's really no borderline for you between fantasy and reality. You look at real people in the same way as characters in a novel. Respect? Everyone's a puppet to you, fuel for your own glory and gratification.''

''Do you feel''--the more personal, emotional, defence--''as though I look on you as a puppet? How can you? You know...''

''I've already told you, I don't care.'' Her response was timed perfectly to destroy this, his latest and last, line of self-protection. If it had been over-hasty, it would have exposed a sense of affrontment, of caring very much indeed; over-delayed, it would have shown analysis at work. Evidently, she was speaking from a true self, from heart and head together.

''I care about you, though,'' she added, her tone mellowed, but still with an edge of irritation. ''I've been talking about, concerned about you. Me, I'm just a specific,--present--illustration in all this. But...the you that was, the you that could have been, the you that is...I mean, once....''

Her voice trailed off. A cloud edged across the sun. She squinted up and shivered slightly, crossing her arms about her. An apologetic smile, and stretched out a hand to his cheek in a gesture of reconciliation.

''Talking about all this...it's heavier than I'd imagined; let's not any more. It's getting a bit cold--can we go back to the villa?''

He nodded assent, and they packed up the picnic things: the hamper, the bottles, the towels and their excess clothes. Side by side, they started the climb up to the road through the olive grove; close, but very distant. Occasionally they would stumble into each other as the incline became more steep and the footholds more crumbling; they grunted apologies as though they were strangers in the press of a train. They did not speak again until they were halfway up the hill, and had paused for a moment's rest.

''Once what?'' he asked, in as casual a tone as he could muster. He stared at the lengthening horizon, the greying sea. She did not reply until he turned and met her eyes directly; when it came, her answer was phrased slowly, deliberately.

''Once, David, you used to see people in more than just two dimensions. I think you were the better for that. Now, come one, let's get back.''

She set off; momentarily taken aback, he followed her in silence, a pace or two to the rear. For some reason, the image of a knight errant came to him: he recognised the numbness of a wound, the knowledge that his armour had been punctured, and that he was inwardly bleeding. To fight on meant luckless odds against survival; to withdraw, an end to all honour and self-respect.

''I just don't know what you feel so bloody bad about,'' he called out to her. She paused, and he came abreast of her. ''You said yourself that you don't know that much about me and my life now; you can only recognise what you project of me from the past. you keep saying you're talking about me, but I just don't see it: you're only going on about my treatment of others, really. What's that all about? I mean, damn it, you didn't come out in such a bad light in the book.''

''That's not the point.''

Her answer was emphatic, but he was set on his course, following an argument which might divert hers from whatever target it was seeking. He was not to be stopped.

''Not just you, everyone...Look, you'd gone, but I was still in London after the book came out, and I saw everyone a lot. They all read it, and I don't remember anyone complaining to me about misrepresentation, or parasitism, or whatever you're going on about. Is it such a new thing that you've got to bring up now? What's the big objection--I'm using my life and my vision to create new and different lives?''

''That's not the point, but you won't see it. You won't take my vision into account; you...''

''Nonetheless,'' he rode on, oblivious, carried away by his line of argument, ''I really put down some of the people we knew, I wrote about, and some of them I didn't even try to disguise at all. That in itself should disprove what you're saying. But if your theory is right, and my portrayals of people are so transparent, then surely they'd have known who they were, and surely I'd have had bad scenes with the people I'd had a go at?''

''Of course they knew.''

''Why no confrontations then? You know me, I've never gone in for punch-ups, but surely somebody would have taken it up with me face to face if they knew I used them in the way you say? But it's my work, writing--you can't deny me that, you can't say I diminish myself or others by that!''

She stopped, and he was a yard in front of her, looking down the angle of the hillside, as she once more locked on him, eye to eye.

''Don't you see, David?'' she said. ''Don't you really see that it's all the same thing, all part of you? You can't tell which characters are real and which fictional because you live in a half-world between the two. Respect for the separate individualities of characters and people? You just don't know! you just don't seem to know that you've done a deal with the devil, nor even what your side of the bargain is. yes, you can do it, you can write, and 'well'; but you've never had a true relationship with anyone in all the time I've known you--how could you, knowing so little of the depths of others, breathe separate identities into your characters? And you're surprised when I, knowing the people who they are, think they're transparent? God, I hadn't realised it would go this far...but you evidently don't see. I've got to finish it now.''

One sword. The thread. Not her, he had it, waiting only for her to nudge.

''Those people we knew...naturally, they never let on that they recognised themselves: part deference, part pride. And why should someone you offended give you the gracious gift of losing their rag at you, all to be written up in a following book? Much better just to forget it.''

She moved towards him, her hand took his elbow.

''There was a time, David,'' she said, ''when you were just the same as everyone else. But pretty soon, long before anything was published, everyone knew what sort of writer you were and would be. From that moment people have acted with you, to an extent knowing that nothing, but nothing, would go unregistered. They knew that you were going to write it: on guard time. This acting...don't you see what it does to you?''

''What,'' he croaked, ''does it do to me?'' Stinging eyelids. The sword. The thread. The truth.

''It puts you outside. It dehumanises you. You, you know that you use people, and that's part of it. Has it never occurred to you that they might be using you? They--and your whole attitude shows that it goes on more than ever now--make of you the recording machine, the diarist, the personal historian, safely over there in the corner. That's all you are to people. They don't want close relationships with you because of the danger: you might learn, and write, too much. But around, in the thick of it, observing but uninvolved, the scribe, seeing their profiles outlined...yes, that's fine. For shots at immortality, it's pretty safe: always enough disguise in the work for them to take the pleasure without the responsibility. Sometimes I bet people even beg you not to write about them, huh? They must want it pretty badly, those people, don't you thin, to have it so much in the top of their minds? So what have you got, apart from a gold-plated ego? People aren't real to you, and you aren't real to them. Fair deal. But people can go off, relax, be normal and real for each other any time they like. you can only go to that little room in your head where the typewriter lies. You've done it, David. You're not in the real world at all. You're not really alive.''

Not her words, not her. Him, he had it, yes it was in him.

Down the sword through the thread.


Oh well, life goes on, doesn't it? Susan goes back to London, the days go round, the sun goes down and comes up again. The blood goes pounding in the temples, the temples go echoing into the terror of thought, and the mind goes racing from it into the go-go-going of the everyday. The world fails to come to an end as the threads of a rational attitude, a pose towards it are cut. More immobile than ever, in the midst of it, he held off the motion. He was unable to face work. Everything he looked at or touched seemed to him bleary, pointless, facile. The rooms of his villa fed him only ache and absence, any book he picked up aggravated, rather than assuaged, his doubts; the primitive television service annoyed, rather than anaesthetised, him.

It was a week since Susan had left, enough time to know that no scab would form over the wound, that no amount of knotting would rebind the thread. He had taken to the bar, and begun to sink himself in argument with his old friend, the brandy. It was there, sitting at one of the tables out on the cobbled street, that he encountered Hector.

He watched him walk up from the village square, sweating in the afternoon sun; he was mopping the perspiration from his face and forehead with a handkerchief pulled from the breast pocket of his lightweight suit. He was a big man, and filled that suit to the seams. There was something of the car or card dealer about him, sharp and dull. His shirt was of a violent floral pattern. It was open at the neck, to expose a gold 'H' on a gold chain; at his left wrist, more gold--a solid, extravagant watch to match his solid, extravagant person.

No-one knew the original source of his wealth, but it was generally held to be excessive. Six months ago he had bought one of the large villas at the top of the hill and immediately converted it from its plain grace to his own fountain-filled, air-conditioned, marbled taste. Now it was rumoured that he was going into property in a similar spirit, buying and gutting fine old houses to 'modernise' them. For this, he was not looked on with love by the expatriates, who feared that the arrival of other residents who would appreciate his style of things would destroy the unspoilt village which they had discovered and settled in--conveniently forgetting that thus it had thus already been spoiled by themselves.

David had heard the talk about Hector, but had never really been interested in such incestuous speculation; occasionally, they had passed each other on the street, but had never exchanged more than a quiet nod of quasi-recognition. Until today, he found what he saw of the man, his activities, his possible sins and sanctities, merely boring; but now, himself sunk in a pit of boredom, a bog of inertia, he welcomed him through the beginnings of an alcoholic haze with a brotherly smile and outstretched hand. Hector, perhaps improbably, responded in kind; maybe he had had a particularly good or bad day, stimulating him towards the comradely pseudo-affability of the bottle. In any event, he took the proffered hand with a heat-beaten, gold-toothed smile, and sat at David's table. Thus began an unlikely drinking alliance and drunken conversation.

Time and brandy slipped by; warmed by the latter, they moved through the traditional and predictable topics: the village, the weather, the tourists. For much of the time, they kept their silences, and their surfaces, in place.

Suddenly, it was evening. They had forsaken individual measures, and now a bottle of brandy sat on the table between them; already they had paid it a fair deal of attention. With the passing of the light their mood had changed and now, perceptibly clumsy, looking dolefully up and down the street, they were gripped by the abstract melancholia which comes with advanced drinking. The alcohol dribbling words out of them, they moved towards self-revelation, albeit only of strangers' minimalism: each sought sympathy rather than understanding. They remained distanced, neither wishing to bring himself too far forward into the light. Like absent-minded actors in a repertory company overworked with parts and productions they cued each other, delivered their monologues to each other--but spoke lines from different plays. Only as the alcohol further numbed tongues and minds did they differ from their normal selves enough even to agree on their topics. Question time, direct, crude, irresolvable, had--as it always does--arrived.

''Ever been married?'' asked Hector. His manner had become brusque and clipped as the drink came on him; not the most gentle or unabrasive of men at the best of times, there was now almost something of the retired army officer about him, in spite of the gold trinkets, the faint cockney edge on the voice. A man to mince hands, perhaps, but not words. When it came, David's reply was accented, as close to a wink as vocal expression comes.

''No, no...I, er, cohabited a couple of--short--times; but I never actually got to the vows.''

''Interfere with your writing, would it?'' There was a note of spite, or contempt, in that, and David was about to rise to the imagined bait; but the other man evidently meant it only as an aside. Pouring himself another brandy, he returned to his original topic: ''I'm a great believer in marriage myself; been through it three times, as a matter of fact.''

''Three times? That doesn't seem to say much for the institution!''

''Well, I've seen it all ways now, y'know: been a divorced man, a widower...'' Hector's voice tailed off, plainly into the past, and David felt a prick of discomfort.

''I'm sorry, I didn't mean....''

''No, not at all, it's no shit to me,'' said the big man, cutting David, and his embarrassment, short. ''They were both cows, my first two wives. OK, tough luck, Isabel died...that happens. Didn't change the fact that she was a cow when she was alive. Anyway, that's not the point: it wasn't the institution that was wrong, it was the women...one was a bitch and the other was a slut and they were both cows; my mistake...this time, though...Well, I'm still a believer, staunch believer.''

Hector's head was wobbling and his eyes giddy. It was as much of a speech as he'd made throughout their conversation, perhaps as much of himself as he was able to reveal. David, however, still niggled by the implied or implicit jibe at his 'writing', could not resist probing for a quicker touch.

''I'm surprised, then''--gathering his words--''...if you've had a couple of failures, that you're still a believer, that you've gone through it again. Maybe.... Well, I mean, marriage is about people, really, yeh, even if it's strict and legal? You don't seem to...Look, I don't know, but you call them 'cows' so easily--it's not a very human memory of them, uh? Perhaps you didn't really think about them as people when you were married and that's...''

''They were my bloody wives when we were married!'' Hector's fist began to beat on the table, accentuating his points. ''For Chrissake, all that stuff, that equality and sharing and making do and reverence, that's allright before, everybody does it, you got to do it. But when those vows are taken, you just forget it, that woman is your wife, she belongs...''

''But that's a preposterous way to look at people!''

''What's wrong with it? Bloody only way to look at marriage if you ask me, and you'd better ask me, 'cos you've no bloody clue at all!''

''But it's such a totally obsolete...''

''If you mean old-fashioned, that's allright by me, that's the way it should be. Everyone--bloody faggots and liberals-- wants to tear it down these days, but it's simple and obvious: man is the natural dominator, and any woman who challenges that belongs with the rest of the dykes and not in the kitchen.''

''Which, presumably, is where you think a wife should stay?''

Hector did not even need to move his head in order to nod his assent. Their voices had been raised, but they had been arguing with themselves, rather than each other; now they dropped hurriedly into silence, anxious not to throw away such--drunk--understanding as they had earlier achieved. Happy men don't argue like that, and only truly desperate ones do beyond such a standstill. Plainly, if the evening was to continue, they would have to steer the conversation away from the volatility of their opposed convictions. It was up to David, evidently, to restart the conversation; it was in his nature to do so on the same topic, albeit on less acrimonious lines. Hector's attitude, after all, was so diametrically opposed to his own that he was intrigued by it both personally and (oh, yes, in spite of Susan, in spite of his current ennui, he still regarded himself as a professional) professionally.

Swirling the brandy in its glass and the words in his mouth: ''Sorry, I, er, overstepped the mark a bit--it's your life...anyway, you say all that's in the past...Things seem allright now? How long have you been married to your present wife?''

''Jane? Oh, just on eighteen months...and you're right, this time it's how a marriage should be. Mind, I've known her for years.''

''Really?''

''Yes, since she was six, actually.''

''Huh?'' David's attention stirred, like a snake, shaking off the skin of drunkenness. ''How old is she now?''

''Twenty. I'd know her father, you see; he was a close business associate of mine, and I used to be round at his place a great deal. She was always a lovely little girl...used to call me Uncle Hector, I don't know that she remembers. I used to be almost as much of a father to her as Harry was. Never mind, never mind, that's all long ago. Well Harry died, y'know, and I didn't see her for many years after that; she grew up, of course, University and so on. Meanwhile, there's been Isabel and Carol...met her again at her mother's funeral, actually...''

''How extraordinary,'' David said, but there was no real need for him to draw out the story: Hector, well into his cups, was all for telling it by himself, as if to make up for the previous tension between them.

''Yes...Anyway, she was in a hell of a state; she'd always found it a bit hard to fit in with people, and she'd had some kind of nervous breakdown...she was just a jumble. I had a bit of spare time--as I say, it was just after Carol--so I took her on a cruise, get her mind off things. It just sort of happened: she was grown up, of course, but all alone, and...well, I knew she respected me--and there you are. Mind, I'm glad to say that marriage has made a real woman out of her, not nervous at all now, enjoys parties, wonderful housekeeper....''

''So this is the one, is it? This is the way marriage is supposed to be?''

''Seems so.''

There was something touching, almost child-like, about the man's affirmation. But...?

''There must be a big age difference, though?'' asked David. ''What are you, thirty-eight, thirty-nine? Is that a problem?''

''Not so far, anyway--I certainly hope not in the future.''

''But ideas--about marriage, for instance--have certainly changed over the years. Aren't her ideas different than yours by the difference of your ages?''

''I suppose you mean not so old-fashioned?'' They both allowed themselves a smile at this as Hector continued. ''Well, she wouldn't have stayed a wife of mine, after my experiences, for very long if she hadn't changed an idea or two. She did; it works; she did promise to obey...''

''What about sex?'' asked David, although to himself he was conjecturing whether or not the man beat his wife to obtain that obedience; this tack seemed, perhaps, a by-way to that. It was met with repression itself, though.

''Quite frankly, that's something between my wife and myself.'' David suppressed a chuckle at the unintended word-play. ''It's none of your business.''

''I'm sorry if I appeared to intrude.'' He had managed to pull the mask over his laugh, at least to the eyes of the other drunken man. ''It wasn't really sex itself I was asking about. Look, we might as well admit that our attitudes to marriage are poles apart...and you're the only one of us with practical experience of the state. Now, I'll accept that there is some fundamental change in a relationship at the moment of marriage....I'm just interested in seeing where exactly your attitude finally leads you--to get to the core of that attitude, in a way, I suppose.''

''That still doesn't make my sexual life any of your business, does it, though?''

''No, of course not. Let me put it another way, a bit more sideways. Perhaps if I propose a situation to you--hopefully one you've never experienced, and won't in the future; perhaps your reactions will tell me more about how you see marriage than any straight questions and answers?''

''OK, shoot.''

''What would you do...''--a pause to emphasise the 'would'--''What would you do if you caught your wife in bed with another man? Obviously it would be a betrayal for anyone, but since you feel she's so much your chattel...?''

Hector, staring into the bottom of his glass of brandy, seemed oblivious to his words, and the question on David's lips tailed off into the potentially dangerous future of their own propositions. In himself uncertain whether to change tack, start afresh, or probe further, the drink propelled him on into the last option.

''Surely it's not so extreme a...?''

But Hector looked up, and cut his words to the ground as they emerged with a head-on gaze, with eyes which, for a moment, cleared, hardened, brightened. A presence which had not been there earlier dropped over his shoulders, and ruthlessness of whatever his original business had been sat in his stance, a physical, fighting dog strength. Suddenly, his arms seemed to be all iron-muscled, his hands all fist. It was a tense, eloquent moment of silence, a cold voice in the writer's head ran 'Of course, of course...'' When the other man spoke, his voice came from far inside from some twitching brain synapse which, in turn, triggered the flicker of muscles at jawline, temple and wrist.

''That would be obvious,'' he said, grating out the words like old, hardened Cheddar. ''I have my guns, you know; and if not them, I have my hands....''

The tension drained from his frame; the electricity dissipated to earth. Once again, the complex mask of drunkenness fell across his features. David sat open-mouthed, a man who had climbed into a ring expecting boxing, only to find that the bout was karate. Ruffled, a shiver of primeval recognition running along his spine, he attempted some monosyllabic response, but the other man--now his turn to draw the conversation to normality, to dispel the moment of power--waved it aside and continued.

''Adultery...Isabel...'' The distance, the disconnections of drunken talk were with him again; once more, they were talking about some theoretical situation, and the presence of the previous moment was sucked back into that. His mind's mind, not his body's, was once more in control, or such approximation to that as the brandy would allow. He poured himself another glass as David watched and waited.

''I've had my experiences of violence in my time,'' Hector continued, drawing the stream of words into sentences and straight lines once more. ''I don't think I'd have a moment's hesitation. I don't hold with adultery...I've nothing against screwing--they call it 'casual sex' now, don't they?--but I don't hold with theft. If someone screws my wife, then that's theft. I couldn't get back my property, but I'd damn sure get my own back...I'd get my revenge, and right there...both of them. They wouldn't deserve any more. The Sicilians got it right; it's...natural.''

He would do it, thought David, he would actually do it. The words and the reaction would come forth with such ease that, in another man, they might have been mere show, pose, calculated enough in his beliefs to carry them through to their logical conclusion. Such obsessive dogmatism--ah, the theory, the theory: intense insecurity as regards status, security, power, wealth, age. Two broken marriages; any children? Probably not--if so, disowned. And now, the child bride; almost certainly, he would beat her to buy her obedience and submission with fear. Classic. Yes, this powerful, wealthy man, he would do it, out of his fear. He had caged himself in a life of image and doctrine, fashioned a way to live which would not allow of doubt. It would not be the doubt which drove him, but the well-worn paths of posturing words, of certainty, of braggadocio. Not to kill, then, would be the end of all framework; to kill would be the action of final absorption into his own blueprint.

A hollow laugh bouncing between David's ears. Here he was, observing, evaluating, storing and summing up--the factional writer. He probed for, he traced the image of the lost soul; he saw it trapped in its self-made cage. Yet were he not himself lost he would not be sitting here, swilling like a pig in the brandy. Oh yes, he had gone out to meet his fear, to forswear all cages of convention; but he had become even more the prisoner for that. Still he watched, on the edge of mockery. Hector, who had only one course to follow, Hector, lost in the city of souls. He himself was in the desert: all directions were equal, and equally worthless. They were both trapped.

No more, no more. Mutually, they steered away from the reefs, the whirlpool towards which their conversation had taken them, and instead dived into further drinking. They talked gossip, trivia, conjecture, and kept consciously away from further personal revelation. They talked, and drank, alone: though between them they knew most of the people who drifted past their table as the bar filled towards the evening peak, they exchanged no more than a few words of greeting with them. It was all too evident that the weight of the night, and the drink was on them.

Late, as it was prone to be, as he was prone to do. David began to talk about moving away from the village, trying something or somewhere new, cutting himself adrift; he had done so often enough before, and , previously, this had been mere pretence at freedom, by the simple invocation of its name. But recent events gave it more import this time, and as he talked he realised that moving might well provide him with a solution to his crux of purpose. The mere action in itself, of course, would solve nothing, but a change of geographical location might well rid him of the self-accusation which inhabited his recent memory. To find himself, some reason, some true life again....

By this time Hector was incapable of talking anything but property, and his only interest in the topic was the future sale of David's villa. It would be, they agreed, the easy and natural thing for Hector to buy it. If David thought about what that would mean, it meant little to him.: the conversion job (that marble? those fountains?), new bourgeois occupants, the further 'destruction' of the village. He, after all, would be gone, trying once more to exist with purpose; what he left behind might as well not do so at all. They left the matter in abeyance: they would talk about it soon. Hector would come and look the villa over some time.

After this, there was nothing much more to say to each other: they had reached the bottom of the bottle of brandy and of the possibilities of conversation. Hector slumped over the table, his lolling gaze directed at the box of matches with which his fingers toyed. David, leaning precariously far back on his chair, one leg hooked over the arm, stared down the street towards the square, rolled an unlit cigarette around his lips.

''Hello, dear,'' Jane, Hector's wife, came upon them suddenly and unexpectedly, having walked down the street from the top of the hill. She wore an enormous straw hat with a scarf tied round it which made her seem an incongruous creature of the day to David's night-soaked eyes. She put an arm round her husband and planted a kiss on his forehead; his glazed eyes rolled round to her, and he grunted a greeting. She looked across the table at David.

''Hello. You're the writer, aren't you? David Stirling? I've seen you around the village. I'm Jane.''

''Yes, Hector's been telling me all about you. Hello.'' he answered, with as much charm, as much of a courteous nod of the head as he could muster. She was pretty; to his tired eyes, she shone.

''I hope nothing too bad?'' An innocent/serious smile.

Hector stirred from his slouch. Far, far gone, he burbled, ''Time to go home,'' and belched.

''For me, too,'' said David, and rose to unsteady feet. ''Another arduous day's toil completed.'' That same smile from Jane. In one demonstrative sweep it took in him, the empty bottle and the semi-sensate form of her husband. Already David liked her.

The three of them started the climb up the cobbled street to their respective villas. They had not gone far before David was forced to support the other man as his legs mutinied against his sense of direction; soon Jane was propping up her husband from the other side as it became evident that David was in no steady state himself. He was drunk; Hector was destroyed. They carried him thus all the way up to his door. There Jane offered profuse thanks, apologies for her husband, and coffee. David made nothing of the first, insisted that the second was his fault, and gratefully accepted the third.

After carrying Hector into the house and up to his bedroom, David went to the toilet and threw up, splashing his face with cold water and rinsing out his mouth afterwards. He felt infinitely better then, and the coffee revived him still further. Now, he was once again in a state to listen; and Jane talked. Her story: university, freedom, dissolution, drugs; arrest, her mother's horror and shame; the cover-up, the mental hospital, the corrective treatment which sapped her of will and vitality; her mother's death; the marriage to Hector, clutching at the proffered straw, while still oblivious to the future, deadened, only technically alive. And now, of beginning to feel alive again.

She talked too much, David knew; came with too much, too soon...it could be the gushing of her youth--or the irresistible swell of words until now held down and back. Probably, he thought, her life had been more sheltered than she made out; probably she had come closer tp the brink than she would admit. Still, she was talking now; she seemed to want reality.

He did not stay long. He made his thanks and his exit; still not sobered, he stumbled down the hill to his own villa. He felt old, old...but was crying like a child by the time he reached his door. And so to this. The beads around her neck clicked under her fidgeting fingers. The drunken night had been a week ago. Today, knowing Hector to be in town on business, and not due to return before early evening, he had gone to his villa and invited Jane to join him at his place for an afternoon drink and (the echo of his words: ''There are so few with whom it is possible to...'') talk. There had not really been a seduction on either part: the move towards bed had been mutual and explicit. And now those pale grey eyes looked into his own and begged him to promise. She was waiting.

She was worried by something--or motivated? It was not Hector, no the chances of being found out...often, she had explained, she went out walking in the olive groves come the evening, so her husband would think nothing strange in her absence from the villa. But there was some tension...it niggled at David as he watched her. Was her request-- perhaps even her presence in his bed at all--an act, just that order of act which he now, thanks or curses to Susan, knew to be intended solely for his benefit, as observer and recorder? He guessed not--surely she had not known him long enough to be aware of the vampiric element in his art? Still she had understood that there was a possibility that he might write about her...even so, why this insistence that he promise not to do so? Was she, in fact, hoping for glorification, to make him find his way towards writing about her, inevitably, because he had said he would not? She would know, then, something of his perversity...and she was not dull, this one.....

''David, please...I don't want you to say you love me, or anything like that! Just don't write about me?''

''What if I said that I did, but wouldn't promise?'' he tried. This--the mention of love--was, after all, another angle.

''I don't need that....David?''

So: there was to be no illumination of her motive. Ah, well, it hardly mattered anyway: one more promise, one more masque, one more tryst...in any case, soon he would be gone from here. If--there was, he supposed, the remotest of chances--he were to write about her at some time in the future, the breaking of one more promise among the thousands of others he had made and broken to himself and others would not make much difference. There were other, more important things than this. Ultimately, it was of no great consequence to him any more.

''All right: I promise.''

''You mean it?''

''Of course I do.''

''You don't mind?''

''Of course not.'' If she had pushed him with just one more question, he might have taken it back; but none came, and he smiled at her with genuine reassurance, openness and honesty.

''Than you, then,'' she murmured, laid her head down on his chest and traced circles around his navel with her fingers. Juke box music, drifting.

This, he thought, this is the true taste. The lines stretch out from this moment and this room., signaling like those in the spider's web once the prey is caught. Here he was not observer, recorder, diarist, but a man; and here his life was real, not sham, not trickery, not acting. His freedom loomed before his imagination. Outside, a clock struck the hour: seven. Sleepy, sleepy he was, but his mind was racing.

He thought about Susan again, that day on the beach: of the awful, diminishing truths about himself and his life to which, almost regretfully but not without venom, she had pointed him. The despair attendant upon them: that he had become undead, a pariah among successive sets of friends and acquaintances, never even allowed the true station of exile. Instead, he had been buffoon, jester, the butt of endless charades, the bolster for eager egos. The clown, with make-up of desolation; the fool, brimful with belief in his own genius; the emperor, in all his pomp and circumstance of manner, in all his nakedness. He had been left with no clothes, old or new, and time had all but closed the doors of possibility and humanity to him.

Yet he had found time, had clothed himself, had stuck his foot in the jamb of the closing door, had asserted his life as well as his existence...he felt it now, pulsing through his body. He had found that he could face his fear and despair; in the facing of these, the surrounding desert was as nothing. He felt himself once more alive, free from that undeath in which all unknowingly--though not in ignorance or for want of knowledge--he had been burying himself for years; and he luxuriated in the sight.

He thought of the street, the bar, the lights, the insects, the glowering hillside towering over the village in crag, rock, scree and scruffy vegetation, of cracks and gullies where one could so easily break a leg and, even in this idyllic setting, die of exposure. He thought of Susan's eyes in the olive grove, of Jane's but a moment ago, pleading but inscrutable. He thought of Hector's size and strength, of his fist clenched on the table, of the mad righteousness in his eyes.

The sweet, fever touch of golden skin on his own; the smell of, the youth of her! Life, now!

Juke-box music; distant, discernible voices; footsteps on the cobbles outside. A spider spins its web by the open window, buffeted by the breeze, but persevering, determined to cast his net.

He thought of the note he had dropped inside Hector's front door as they left that afternoon:

VERY IMPORTANT I SPEAK TO YOU ABOUT MY VILLA:
COME ROUND AND SEE ME AS SOON AS YOU GET BACK.

DAVID STIRLING

His suicide note.




Russian Peter Hammill / Van der Graaf Generator Page
Sergey Petrushanko hammillru@mail.ru, 1998-2017