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....
''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
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
''Penny for them?'' she asked; he smiled quietly.
''I thought so, you had that look on your face.''
''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
''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.''
''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
''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?''
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
''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
''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,
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
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
''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
''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
''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
''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
''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
''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?''
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?''
''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
''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;
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
''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
''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
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
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
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
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
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.
His suicide note.