Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 17

Ng-Gunko and Lo

IT will be remembered that we booked passages for three persons by Orient to Toulon and England. The third member of the party turned up three hours before the ship sailed.

John explained that in discovering this amazing child, who went by the name of Ng–Gunko, he had been helped by Adlan. The old man in the past had been in touch with this contemporary of John’s, and had helped the two to make contact with one another.

Ng–Gunko was a native of some remote patch of forest-clad mountain in or near Abyssinia; and though only a child he had at John’s request found his way from his native country to Port Saïd by a series of adventures which I will not attempt to describe.

As time advanced and he failed to appear, I became more and more sceptical and impatient, but John was confident that he would arrive. He turned up at our hotel as I was trying to shut my cabin trunk. He was a grotesque and filthy little blackamoor, and I resented the prospect of sharing accommodation with him. He appeared to be about eight years old, but was in fact over twelve. He wore a long, blue and very grubby caftan and a battered fez. These clothes, we subsequently learned, he had acquired on his journey, in order to attract less attention. But he could not help attracting attention. My own first reaction to his appearance was frank incredulity. “There ain’t no such beast,” I said to myself. Then I remembered, that, when a species mutates, it often produces a large crop of characters so fantastic that many of the new types are not even viable. Ng–Gunko was decidedly viable, but he was a freak. Though his face was a dark blend of the negroid and the semitic with an unmistakable reminiscence of the Mongolian, his negroid wool was not black but sombre red. And though his right eye was a huge black orb not inappropriate to his dark complexion, his left eye was considerably smaller, and the iris was deep blue. These discrepancies gave his whole face a sinister comicality which was borne out by his expression. His full lips were frequently stretched in a grin which revealed three small white teeth above and one below. The rest had apparently not yet sprouted.

Ng–Gunko spoke English fluently but incorrectly, and with an uncouth pronunciation. He had picked up this foreign tongue on his six-weeks’ journey down the Nile valley. By the time we reached London his English was as good as our own.

The task of making Ng–Gunko fit for a trip on an Orient liner was arduous. We scrubbed him all over and applied insecticide. On his legs there were several festering sores. John sterilized the sharpest blade of his penknife and cut away all the bad flesh, while Ng–Gunko lay perfectly still, but sweating, and pulling the most hideous grimaces, which expressed at once torture and amusement. We purchased European clothes, which, of course, he detested. We had him photographed for his passport, which John had already arranged with the Egyptian authorities. In triumph we took him off to the ship in his new white shorts and shirt.

Throughout the voyage we were busy helping him to acquire European ways. He must not pick his nose in public, still less blow it in the natural manner. He must not take hold of his meat and vegetables with his hands. He had to acquire the technique of the bathroom and the water closet. He must not relieve himself in inappropriate places. He must not, though a mere child, saunter into the crowded dining-saloon without his clothes. He must not give evidence that he was excessively intelligent. He must not stare at his fellow-passengers. Above all, he must, we said, restrain his apparently irresistible impulse to play practical jokes on them.

Though frivolous, Ng–Gunko was certainly of superior intelligence. It was, for instance, remarkable that a child who had lived his fourteen years in the forest should easily grasp the principle of the steam turbine, and should be able to ask the chief engineer (who showed us round the engine room) questions which made that experienced old Scot scratch his head. It was on this expedition that John had to whisper fiercely to the little monster, “If you don’t take the trouble to bottle up your blasted curiosity I’ll pitch you over-board.”

When we reached our northern suburb Ng–Gunko was installed in the Wainwright household. As we did not want him to cause more of a sensation than need be, we dyed his hair black and made him wear spectacles with a dark glass for one eye. Only in the house might he be without them. Unfortunately he was too young to be able to resist the temptation of startling the natives. Walking along the street with John or me, muffled to the eyes against the alien climate, duly spectacled and demure, he would sometimes drop a pace behind as we were approaching some old lady or child. Then, projecting his chin above his scarf, he would whip off his glasses and assume a maniacal grin of hate. How often he did this without being caught I do not know; but on one occasion he was so successful that the victim let out a scream. John turned upon his protégé and seized him by the throat. “Do that again,” he said, “and I’ll have that eye of yours right out, and step on it.” Never again did Ng–Gunko play the trick when John was present. But with me he did, knowing I was too amiable to report him.

In a few weeks, however, Ng–Gunko began to enter more seriously into the spirit of the great adventure. The conspiratorial atmosphere appealed to him. And the task of preparing himself to play his part gradually absorbed his attention. But he remained at heart a little savage. Even his extraordinary passion for machinery suggested the uncritical delight of the primitive mind in its first encounter with the marvels of our civilization. He had a mechanical gift which in some ways eclipsed even John’s. Within a few days of his arrival he was riding the motor-bicycle and making it perform incredible “stunts.” Very soon he took it to pieces and put it together again. He mastered the principles of John’s psycho-physical power unit, and found, to his intense delight, that he could perform the essential miracle of it himself. It began to be taken for granted that he would be the responsible engineer of the yacht, and of the future colony, leaving John free for more exalted matters. Yet in all Ng–Gunko’s actions, and in his whole attitude to life, there was an intensity and even a passion which was very different from John’s invariable calm. Indeed I sometimes wondered whether he was emotionally a true supernormal, whether he had anything unusual in his nature beyond brilliant intelligence. But when I suggested this to John he laughed. “Ng–Gunko’s a kid,” he said, “but Ng–Gunko’s all right. Amongst other things he has a natural gift for telepathy, and when I have trained him a bit he may beat me in that direction. But we are both beginners.”

Not long after our return from Egypt another supernormal arrived. This was the girl whom John had found in Moscow. Like others of her kind, she looked much younger than she was. She seemed a child, not yet on the threshold of womanhood, but was actually seventeen. She had run away from home, taken a job as stewardess on a Soviet steamer, and slipped ashore at an English port. Thence, equipped with a sufficiency of English money, which she had secured in Russia, she had found her way to the Wainwrights.

Lo was at first glance a much more normal creature than either Ng–Gunko or John. She might have been Jacqueline’s youngest sister. No doubt her head was strikingly large, and her eyes occupied more of her face than was normal, but her features were regular, and her sleek black hair was long enough to pass for a “shingle.” She was clearly of Asiatic origin, for her cheek bones were high, and her eyes, though great, were deeply sunk within their half-closed and slanting lids. Her nose was broad and flat, like an ape’s, her complexion definitely “yellow.” She suggested to me a piece of sculpture come to life, something in which the artist had stylized the human in terms of the feline. Her body, too, was feline, “so lean and loose,” said John. “It feels breakable, and yet it’s all steel springs covered with loose velvet.”

During the few weeks which passed before the sailing of the yacht, Lo occupied the room which had once belonged to Anne, John’s sister. Relations between her and Pax were never easy, yet always amicable. Lo was exceptionally silent. This, I am sure, would not trouble Pax, for she was generally drawn to silent persons. Yet with Lo she seemed to feel constantly an obligation to talk, and an inability to talk naturally. To all her remarks Lo would reply appropriately, even amiably, yet whatever she said seemed to make matters worse. Whenever Lo was present, Pax would seem ill at ease. She would make silly little mistakes in her work, putting things into wrong drawers, sewing buttons on in the wrong place, breaking her needle, and so on. And everything took longer than it should.

I never discovered why Pax was so uncomfortable with Lo. The girl was, indeed, a disconcerting person, but I should have expected Pax to be more, not less, able to cope with her than others were. It was not only Lo’s silence that was so disturbing, but also her almost complete lack of facial expression, or rather of changes of expression for her very absence of expression was itself expressive of a profound detachment from the world around her. In all ordinary social situations, when others would show amusement or pleasure or exasperation, and Ng–Gunko would register intense emotion, Lo’s features remained unmoved.

At first I imagined that she was simply insensitive, perhaps dull-witted; but one curious fact about her soon proved that I was wrong. She discovered a passion for the novel, and most of all for Jane Austen. She read all the works of that incomparable authoress over and over again, indeed so often that John, whose interest ran in very different channels, began to chaff her. This roused her to deliver her one long speech. “Where I come from,” she said, “there is nothing like Jane Austen. But in me there is something like that, and these old books are helping me to know myself. Of course, they are only ‘sapient’’ I know; but that is half the fun. It’s so interesting to transpose it all to suit us. For instance, if Jane could understand me, which she couldn’t, what, I ask myself, would she say about me? I find the answer extraordinarily enlightening. Of course, our minds are quite outside her range, but her attitude can be applied to us. Her attitude to her little world is so intelligent and sprightly that it gives it a significance that it could never have discovered in itself. Well, I want to regard even us, even our virtuous Colony, in a Jane-like manner. I want to give it a kind of significance that would have remained hidden even from its earnest and noble leader. You know, John, I fancy Homo sapiens has still quite a lot to teach you about personality. Or if you are too busy to learn, then I must, or the colony will be intolerable.”

To my surprise John replied by giving her a hearty kiss, and she remarked, demurely, “Odd John, you have indeed a lot to learn.”

This incident may suggest to the reader that Lo was lacking in humour. She was not. Indeed she had a gift of not unkindly wit. Though she seemed incapable of smiling, she often roused others to laughter. And yet, as I say, she was mysteriously disconcerting to most of us. Even John was sometimes uncomfortable in her presence. Once when he was giving me some instructions about finance he broke off to say, “That girl’s laughing at me, in spite of her solemn face. She never laughs at all, and yet she’s always laughing. Now tell me, Lo, what’s amusing you.” Lo replied, “Dear and important John, it is you who are laughing, at your own reflection in me.”

Lo’s chief occupation during her few weeks in England was to master the science and art of medicine, and to make herself acquainted with all the most advanced work on the subject of embryology. The reason for this I did not learn till much later. Her vocational training she pursued partly by means of an intensive study under an embryologist of some distinction at the local university, partly by prolonged discussion with John.

As the time approached when the yacht was to be ready and the adventure to begin, Lo’s studies became more and more exacting. She began to show signs of strain. We urged her to take a holiday for a few days. “No,” she said, “I must get to the end of this business before we sail. Then I will rest.” We asked if she was sleeping all right. She was evasive. John became suspicious. “Do you sleep, ever?” he asked. She hesitated, then replied, “Not ever, if I can help it. In fact it is some years since I last slept. And then I slept for ages. But I will never sleep again if I can help it.” Her first answer to John’s incredulous “Why?” was a shudder; then she added as an afterthought, “It is a waste of time. I do go to bed, but I read all night; or just think.”

I forget whether I mentioned that all the other supernormals were brief sleepers. John, for instance, was satisfied with four hours a night, and could comfortably do entirely without sleep for three nights at a stretch.

A few days after this incident I learned that Lo had not come down to breakfast, and that Pax had found her still in bed, and asleep. “But it’s all wrong,” said Pax, “It’s more like a fit. She’s lying there with her eyes tight shut and awful expressions of horror and rage passing over her face; and she keeps muttering Russian or something, and her hands keep clawing at her chest.”

We tried to wake her, but could not. We sat her upright. We put cold water on her. We shouted at her. We shook her and pricked her, but it was no good. That evening she began to scream. She kept it up, off and on, all that night. I stayed with the Wainwrights, though I could do nothing. But somehow I couldn’t go. The whole street was kept awake. It was sometimes just an inarticulate screech like an animal beside itself with pain and fury, sometimes a torrent of Russian, shouted at the top of her voice, but so blurred that John could make nothing of it.

Next morning she quietened down, and for more than a week she slept without stirring. One morning she came down to breakfast as though nothing had happened, but looking, so John said, “like a corpse animated by a soul out of Hell.” As she sat down she said to John, “Now do you understand why I like Jane Austen, better for instance than Dostoievski?”

It took her some time to regain her strength and her normal equanimity. One day, when she had settled down to work again, she told Pax a bit about herself. Away back in her infancy, before the Revolution, when her people lived in a small town beyond the Urals, she used to sleep every night; but she often had bad dreams, which she said were extremely terrifying, and completely indescribable in terms of any normal experience. All she could say of them was that she felt herself turn into a mad beast or a devil, yet that inwardly she always remained her sane little self, an impotent spectator of her own madness. As she grew older, these infantile terrors left her. During the Revolution and the years immediately following it her family experienced terrible sufferings from civil war and famine. She was still in appearance an infant but mentally well able to appreciate the significance of events going on around her. She had, for instance, already reached a conviction that, though both sides in the civil war were equally capable of brutality and generosity, the spirit of the one was on the whole right, the other wrong. Even at that early age she felt, vaguely but with conviction, that the horror of her life, the bombardments, the fires, the mass executions, the cold, the hunger, must somehow be embraced, not shunned. Triumphantly she did embrace them. But there came a time when her town was sacked by the Whites. Her father was killed. Her mother fled with her in a refugee train crowded with wounded men and women. The journey was, of course, desperately fatiguing. Lo fell asleep, and was plunged once more into her nightmare, with the difference that it was now peopled with all the horrors of the civil war, and she herself was forced to watch impotently while her other self perpetrated the most hideous atrocities.

Ever since those days any great strain was liable to bring sleep upon her, with all its horrors. She reported, however, that the attacks were now much less frequent; but that on the other hand the content of her dreams was more terrible, because — she couldn’t properly explain — because it was more universal, more metaphysical, more cosmically significant, and at the same time more definitely an expression of something Satanic (her own word) within her very self.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30