Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface. He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds, and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and re-discovered his childhood; theorems, angles, triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.
He had suggested to The Midget that she might turn his bed round a little so that he could have a new patch of ceiling to explore. But it seemed that that would spoil the symmetry of the room, and in hospitals symmetry ranked just a short head behind cleanliness and a whole length in front of Godliness. Anything out of the parallel was hospital profanity. Why didn’t he read? she asked. Why didn’t he go on reading some of those expensive brand-new novels that his friends kept on bringing him.
‘There are far too many people born into the world, and far too many words written. Millions and millions of them pouring from the presses every minute. It’s a horrible thought.’
‘You sound constipated,’ said The Midget.
The Midget was Nurse Ingham, and she was in sober fact a very nice five-feet two, with everything in just proportion. Grant called her The Midget to compensate himself for being bossed around by a piece of Dresden china which he could pick up in one hand. When he was on his feet, that is to say. It was not only that she told him what he might or might not do, but she dealt with his six-feet-odd with an off-hand ease that Grant found humiliating. Weights meant nothing, apparently, to The Midget. She tossed mattresses around with the absent-minded grace of a plate spinner. When she was off-duty he was attended to by The Amazon, a goddess with arms like the limb of a beech tree. The Amazon was Nurse Darroll, who came from Gloucestershire and was homesick each daffodil season. (The Midget came from Lytham St Anne’s, and there was no daffodil nonsense about her.) She had large soft hands and large soft cow’s eyes and she always looked very sorry for you, but the slightest physical exertion set her breathing like a suction-pump. On the whole Grant found it even more humiliating to be treated as a dead weight than to be treated as if he was no weight at all.
Grant was bed-borne, and a charge on The Midget and The Amazon, because he had fallen through a trap-door. This, of course, was the absolute in humiliation; compared with which the heavings of The Amazon and the light slingings of The Midget were a mere corollary. To fall through a trap-door was the ultimate in absurdity; pantomimic, bathetic, grotesque. At the moment of his disappearance from the normal level of perambulation he had been in hot pursuit of Benny Skoll, and the fact that Benny had careered round the next corner slap into the arms of Sergeant Williams provided the one small crumb of comfort in an intolerable situation.
Benny was now ‘away’ for three years, which was very satisfactory for the lieges, but Benny would get time off for good behaviour. In hospitals there was no time off for good behaviour.
Grant stopped staring at the ceiling, and slid his eyes sideways at the pile of books on his bedside table; the gay expensive pile that The Midget had been urging on his attention. The top one, with the pretty picture of Valetta in unlikely pink, was Lavinia Fitch’s annual account of a blameless heroine’s tribulations. In view of the representation of the Grand Harbour on the cover, the present Valerie or Angela or Cecile or Denise must be a naval wife. He had opened the book only to read the kind message that Lavinia had written inside.
The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid-out after his ninth downstairs, eldest son lying to the Government in the cow-shed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downwards, Silas would have introduced it.
Under the harsh shadows and highlights of Silas’s jacket was an elegant affair of Edwardian curlicues and Baroque nonsense, entitled Bells on Her Toes. Which was Rupert Rouge being arch about vice. Rupert Rouge always seduced you into laughter for the first three pages. About Page Three you noticed that Rupert had learned from that very arch (but of course not vicious) creature George Bernard Shaw that the easiest way to sound witty was to use that cheap and convenient method, the paradox. After that you could see the jokes coming three sentences away.
The thing with a red gun-flash across a night-green cover was Oscar Oakley’s latest. Toughs talking out of the corners of their mouths in synthetic American that had neither the wit nor the pungency of the real thing. Blondes, chromium bars, breakneck chases. Very remarkable bunk.
The Case of the Missing Tin-opener, by John James Mark, had three errors of procedure in the first two pages, and had at least provided Grant with a pleasant five minutes while he composed an imaginary letter to its author.
He could not remember what the thin blue book at the bottom of the pile was. Something earnest and statistical, he thought. Tsetse flies, or calories, or sex behaviour, or something.
Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thrilled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about ‘a new Silas Weekley’ or ‘a new Lavinia Fitch’ exactly as they talked about ‘a new brick’ or ‘a new hairbrush’. They never said ‘a new book by’ whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.
It might be a good thing, Grant thought as he turned his nauseated gaze away from the motley pile, if all the presses of the world were stopped for a generation. There ought to be a literary moratorium. Some Superman ought to invent a ray that would stop them all simultaneously. Then people wouldn’t send you a lot of fool nonsense when you were flat on your back, and bossy bits of Meissen wouldn’t expect you to read them.
He heard the door open, but did not stir himself to look. He had turned his face to the wall, literally and metaphorically.
He heard someone come across to his bed, and closed his eyes against possible conversation. He wanted neither Gloucestershire sympathy nor Lancashire briskness just now. In the succeeding pause a faint enticement, a nostalgic breath of all the fields of Grasse, teased his nostrils and swam about his brain. He savoured it and considered. The Midget smelt of lavender dusting powder, and The Amazon of soap and iodoform. What was floating expensively about his nostrils was L’Enclos Numéro Cinq. Only one person of his acquaintance used L’Enclos Number Five. Marta Hallard.
He opened an eye and squinted up at her. She had evidently bent over to see if he was asleep, and was now standing in an irresolute way — if anything Marta did could be said to be irresolute — with her attention on the heap of all too obviously virgin publications on the table. In one arm she was carrying two new books, and in the other a great sheaf of white lilac. He wondered whether she had chosen white lilac because it was her idea of the proper floral offering for winter (it adorned her dressing-room at the theatre from December to March), or whether she had taken it because it would not detract from her black-and-white chic. She was wearing a new hat and her usual pearls; the pearls which he had once been the means of recovering for her. She looked very handsome, very Parisian, and blessedly unhospital-like.
‘Did I waken you, Alan?’
‘No. I wasn’t asleep.’
‘I seem to be bringing the proverbial coals,’ she said, dropping the two books alongside their despised brethren. ‘I hope you will find these more interesting than you seem to have found that lot. Didn’t you even try a little teensy taste of our Lavinia?’
‘I can’t read anything.’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘Agony. But it’s neither my leg nor my back.’
‘It’s what my cousin Laura calls “the prickles of boredom”.’
‘Poor Alan. And how right your Laura is.’ She picked a bunch of narcissi out of a glass that was much too large for them, dropped them with one of her best gestures into the washbasin, and proceeded to substitute the lilac. ‘One would expect boredom to be a great yawning emotion, but it isn’t, of course. It’s a small niggling thing.’
‘Small nothing. Niggling nothing. It’s like being beaten with nettles.’
‘Why don’t you take up something?’
‘Improve the shining hour?’
‘Improve your mind. To say nothing of your soul and your temper. You might study one of the philosophies. Yoga, or something like that. But I suppose an analytical mind is not the best kind to bring to the consideration of the abstract.’
‘I did think of going back to algebra. I have an idea that I never did algebra justice, at school. But I’ve done so much geometry on that damned ceiling that I’m a little off mathematics.’
‘Well, I suppose it is no use suggesting jigsaws to someone in your position. How about cross-words? I could get you a book of them, if you like.’
‘You could invent them, of course. I have heard that that is more fun than solving them.’
‘Perhaps. But a dictionary weighs several pounds. Besides, I always did hate looking up something in a reference book.’
‘Do you play chess? I don’t remember. How about chess problems? White to play and mate in three moves, or something like that.’
‘My only interest in chess is pictorial.’
‘Very decorative things, knights and pawns and what-not. Very elegant.’
‘Charming. I could bring you along a set to play with. All right, no chess. You could do some academic investigating. That’s a sort of mathematics. Finding a solution to an unsolved problem.’
‘Crime, you mean? I know all the case-histories by heart. And there is nothing more that can be done about any of them. Certainly not by someone who is flat on his back.’
‘I didn’t mean something out of the files at the Yard. I meant something more — what’s the word? something classic. Something that has puzzled the world for ages.’
‘As what, for instance?’
‘Say, the casket letters.’
‘Oh, not Mary Queen of Scots!’
‘Why not?’ asked Marta, who like all actresses saw Mary Stuart through a haze of white veils. ‘I could be interested in a bad woman but never in a silly one.’
‘Silly?’ said Marta in her best lower-register Electra voice.
‘Oh, Alan, how can you!’
‘If she had worn another kind of headdress no one would ever have bothered about her. It’s that cap that seduces people.’
‘You think she would have loved less greatly in a sun-bonnet?’
‘She never loved greatly at all, in any kind of bonnet.’
Marta looked as scandalised as a lifetime in the theatre and an hour of careful make-up allowed her to.
‘Why do you think that?’
‘Mary Stuart was six feet tall. Nearly all outsize women are cold. Ask any doctor.’
And as he said it he wondered why, in all the years since Marta had first adopted him as a spare escort when she needed one, it had not occurred to him to wonder whether her notorious level-headedness about men had something to do with her inches. But Marta had not drawn any parallels; her mind was still on her favourite Queen.
‘At least she was a martyr. You’ll have to allow her that.’
‘Martyr to what?’
‘The only thing she was a martyr to was rheumatism. She married Darnley without the Pope’s dispensation, and Bothwell by Protestant rites.’
‘In a moment you’ll be telling me she wasn’t a prisoner!’
‘The trouble with you is that you think of her in a little room at the top of a castle, with bars on the window and a faithful old attendant to share her prayers with her. In actual fact she had a personal household of sixty persons. She complained bitterly when it was reduced to a beggarly thirty, and nearly died of chagrin when it was reduced to two male secretaries, several women, an embroiderer, and a cook or two. And Elizabeth had to pay for all that out of her own purse. For twenty years she paid, and for twenty years Mary Stuart hawked the crown of Scotland round Europe to anyone who would start a revolution and put her back on the throne that she had lost; or, alternatively, on the one Elizabeth was sitting on.’
He looked at Marta and found that she was smiling.
‘Are they a little better now?’ she asked. ‘Are what better?’
‘Yes. For a whole minute I had forgotten about them. That is at least one good thing to be put down to Mary Stuart’s account!’
‘How do you know so much about Mary?’
‘I did an essay about her in my last year at school.’
‘And didn’t like her, I take it.’
‘Didn’t like what I found out about her.’
‘You don’t think her tragic, then.’
‘Oh, yes, very. But not tragic in any of the ways that popular belief makes her tragic. Her tragedy was that she was born a Queen with the outlook of a suburban housewife. Scoring off Mrs Tudor in the next street is harmless and amusing; it may lead you into unwarrantable indulgence in hire-purchase, but it affects only yourself. When you use the same technique on kingdoms the result is disastrous. If you are willing to put a country of ten million people in pawn in order to score off a royal rival, then you end by being a friendless failure.’ He lay thinking about it for a little. ‘She would have been a wild success as a mistress at a girls’ school.’
‘I meant it nicely. The staff would have liked her, and all the little girls would have adored her. That is what I meant about her being tragic.’
‘Ah well. No casket letters, it seems. What else is there? The Man In The Iron Mask.’
‘I can’t remember who that was, but I couldn’t be interested in anyone who was being coy behind some tinplate. I couldn’t be interested in anyone at all unless I could see his face.’
‘Ah, yes. I forgot your passion for faces. The Borgias had wonderful faces. I should think they would provide a little mystery or two for you to dabble in if you looked them up. Or there was Perkin Warbeck, of course. Imposture is always fascinating. Was he or wasn’t he. A lovely game. The balance can never come down wholly on one side or the other. You push it over and up it comes again, like one of those weighted toys.’
The door opened and Mrs Tinker’s homely face appeared in the aperture surmounted by her still more homely and historic hat. Mrs Tinker had worn the same hat since first she began to ‘do’ for Grant, and he could not imagine her in any other. That she did possess another one he knew, because it went with something that she referred to as ‘me blue’. Her ‘blue’ was an occasional affair, in both senses, and never appeared at 19 Tenby Court. It was worn with a ritualistic awareness, and having been worn it was used in the event as a yardstick by which to judge the proceedings. (‘Did you enjoy it, Tink? What was it like?’ ‘Not worth putting on me blue for.’) She had worn it to Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, and to various other royal functions, and had indeed figured in it for two flashing seconds in a newsreel shot of the Duchess of Kent cutting a ribbon, but to Grant it was a mere report; a criterion of the social worth of an occasion. A thing was or was not worth putting on ‘me blue’ for.
‘I ‘eard you ‘ad a visitor,’ said Mrs Tinker, ‘and I was all set to go away again when I thought the voice sounded familiar like, and I says to meself: “It’s only Miss Hallard,” I says, so I come in.’
She was carrying various paper bags and a small tight bunch of anemones. She greeted Marta as woman to woman, having been in her time a dresser and having therefore no exaggerated reverence for the goddesses of the theatre world, and looked askance at the beautiful arrangement of lilac sprays that had blossomed under Marta’s ministrations. Marta did not see the glance but she saw the little bunch of anemones and took over the situation as if it were something already rehearsed.
‘I squander my vagabond’s hire on white lilac for you, and then Mrs Tinker puts my nose out of joint by bringing you the Lilies Of The Field.’
‘Lilies?’ said Mrs Tinker, doubtfully.
‘Those are the Solomon in all his glory things. The ones that toiled not neither did they spin.’
Mrs Tinker went to church only for weddings and christenings, but she belonged to a generation that had been sent to Sunday school. She looked with a new interest at the little handful of glory incased by her woollen glove.
‘Well, now. I never knew that. Makes more sense that way, don’t it. I always pictured them arums. Fields and fields of arums. Awful expensive, you know, but a bit depressing. So they was coloured? Well, why can’t they say so? What do they have to call them lilies for!’
And they went on to talk about translation, and how misleading Holy Writ could be (‘I always wondered what bread on the waters was’, Mrs Tinker said) and the awkward moment was over.
While they were still busy with the Bible, The Midget came in with extra flower vases. Grant noticed that the vases were designed to hold white lilac and not anemones. They were tribute to Marta; a passport to further communing. But Marta never bothered about women unless she had an immediate use for them; her tact with Mrs Tinker had been mere savoir faire; a conditioned reflex. So The Midget was reduced to being functional instead of social. She collected the discarded narcissi from the washbasin and meekly put them back into a vase. The Midget being meek was the most beautiful sight that had gladdened Grant’s eyes for a long time.
‘Well,’ Marta said, having finished her arrangement of the lilac and placed the result where he could see it, ‘I shall leave Mrs Tinker to feed you all the titbits out of those paper bags. It couldn’t be, could it, Mrs Tinker darling, that one of those bags contains any of your wonderful bachelor’s buttons?’
Mrs Tinker glowed.
‘You’d like one or two maybe? Fresh outa me oven?’
‘Well, of course I shall have to do penance for it afterwards those little rich cakes are death on the waist but just give me a couple to put in my bag for my tea at the theatre.’
She chose two with a flattering deliberation (‘I like them a little brown at the edges’), dropped them into her handbag, and said: ‘Well, au revoir, Alan. I shall look in, in a day or two, and start you on a sock. There is nothing so soothing, I understand, as knitting. Isn’t that so, nurse?’
‘Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. A lot of my gentlemen patients take to knitting. They find it whiles away the time very nicely.’
Marta blew him a kiss from the door and was gone, followed by the respectful Midget.
‘I’d be surprised if that hussy is any better than she ought to be,’ Mrs Tinker said, beginning to open the paper bags. She was not referring to Marta.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01