Chapter Two: Wiltshire and the Interview
Sitting on the railroad platform in the wilds of Wiltshire, the air still but not stuffy, the sun scintillating if you squinted, dazzling if you didn’t, I dipped into my worn paperback copy of The Canterbury Tales. In a few minutes a well-preserved Rolls surfaced on the hill a quarter of a mile away, in a heat haze of its own fumes. A porter carrying a basket of suntanned eggs, announced,“Mister Underwood’s car.”
Its liveried chauffeur about my age, chewing a cigar, asked, “Wanna sit up front?”
“I’m the shuttle surface and you’re number fifteen.”
“Has he turned down the other fourteen?”
He seemed not to have heard.
“What’s he looking for?”
“Ah, if I let you on you’d get the job.”
“Is that bad?”
“Wouldn’t be cricket.” He laughed energetically, as if he’d scored a point
Blackberry bushes scratched the Rolls as we drove through narrow, winding lanes. A bee flew through the car—-all windows were open—-in a zigzag panic back to freedom. Honeysuckle made the afternoon air smell like the bakery near my old school. He drove as if he expected the lanes to be empty, and they were. We skirted a village of thatch-roofed cottages with stone walls and colored shutters, and approached a stone bridge spanning a small
railroad track. The chauffeur nodded at it, “One of his majesty’s toys.”
“This is royal land?”
“In a manner of speaking. Don’t quote me, but on very good authority, Lockwood’s the bastard son of Edward the fornicator, Victoria’s wayward son.”
He slowed the car so I could see a small locomotive come into view, its carriages, judging by the waving arms and hats, loaded with kids.
“Orphans,” he explained. “There’s a fresh group almost every weekend and I have to feed the little buggers when they arrive at the final station.” He glanced at his watch. ”I’d better get a move on.”
After two hills and two valleys he picked up a phone. “Coming in,” he said, and a hundred yards ahead two black iron gates jerked open. We raced through at sixty. It was suddenly cool and almost dark as we followed a serpentine path bordered by rhododendrons that arched into a roof over us. I shivered.
“Nervous, eh?” He chuckled. “He’s often a royal pain, but he doesn’t bite.”
As we emerged into shimmering sunshine we were still on high ground, and below was a Renaissance painting--open fields, a beech wood springing from a sea of bluebells and, about a mile ahead, the mansion. The color of afternoon tea biscuits, it was set in a sea of flower and vegetable gardens big enough to feed a village.
“Quite a sight.”
“You get used to it.” He adjusted his peaked cap and appraised himself in the rearview mirror, saying, “Underwood owns everything you can see in every direction, The villages, a river, the railroad track circling his land. He pointed to deer grouped like people at a garden party waiting to be entertained, all heads turned towards us, then at a frantic hare that sprinted under the car, to emerge, miraculously, untouched.
The flower gardens could have modeled for a big-budget movie of Alice in Wonderland, with a hint of maze. I’d met the March Hare. What next? The Mad Hatter? Something moved among the irises, partly shielded by a man-high screen of hollyhocks. “The man himself,” the chauffeur announced, and braked. “The gardeners are working elsewhere, so he’s going it alone here. Out you get.” He drove off with my weekend bag and my copy of Chaucer.
“Underwood,” he said, in a slightly over-cultivated voice.
He had taken off a scruffy gardening glove and offered me his hand. A firm grip. Fair hair, blue eyes. He wore a torn khaki shirt and kneed corduroys, and the sun was highlighting bald patched on his scalp. He reeked of geraniums and manure. Shorter than me, five nine at most, lean and leathery. Thin, widish mouth. Sensitive, mother would say. I’d reserve judgment. In fact he looked a bit lie one of her brothers, killed in the first World War.
A woman waved energetically from the mansion doorway. “My secretary,” he said, as though identifying a high-flying aircraft. Shortsighted, perhaps. “She’ll take care of you. See you later.”
I stepped over a colorful obstacle course of pinks, poppies and peonies, dahlias and delphiniums, early for the time of year, towards the massive, masculine house, sidestepping a steaming mound of horse manure. I focused on the house, searching for a simile to fix it in my memory—this might be my last sight of it—and had almost reached the front door before I got it: wisteria and rambler roses clung to its walls like possessive females.
“Stephen Elliot, I believe.”
I recognized her seductive voice from our brief phone conversation. She had a slight, almost subliminal lisp, greeting me so exuberantly, I should have been a close friend, or at least the plumber. Her eyes moved eagerly as she spoke, like a spaniel’s sensing it is about to go for a walk. She gave me her first name, but I was too nervous to catch it.
She touched my arm lightly. “I’ll lead the way, Stephen.”
Bouncy walk, too high heels, showing off her ankles. Can’t blame her. Yellow dress. Mustard? Buttercup. Pixie hair style. Blue-black hair. I’d cast her as Madame Bovary at Bromley Rep, or, if she straightened her shoulders and lost two pounds, to double for Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina. Mother would have called her, “Fetching.” David would already have had his arm around her waist—=in friendly fashion but with amorous intent. I still had Sylvia on my mind.
She led me through a hall with a tapestry on one wall-Rape of the Sabine Women? The Inquisition?--up a wide, curving stone staircase, “What do you think of this place?”
“Fabulous. A little bigger than I’m used to.”
She gave a silent chuckle or was it a suppressed cough? We clattered along mellow red-tiled floors passing door after antique door, each with one-of-a-kind handles. I said: “It’s not unlike Brighton’s Majestic Hotel.” But she didn’t respond.
There were nine rooms before we reached mine, and still more corridor lay ahead. My door was oak, its handle a lion’s head, or ugly old fogy in a wig, or a monkey. The room, though sparse as a monk’s cell, or Van Gough’s bedroom, was several times the size. My bed suggested a Russian sleigh.
She joined me at the open lattice windows, her lily-of-the-valley scent mingling with the aroma of just cut grass, Two horses, one black, one white, sheltered from the late afternoon sun under a giant sycamore almost within our reach, and in the distance, tree-covered twin hills stood like sentinels.
“The view seems familiar,” I said.
“Have you been to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum?”
“Then look again.”
I didn’t get it, so she told me. “It’s a close copy of a French landscape by Pissarro that’s in the museum,” she explained. “Mister Underwood’s idea. He wanted to buy the painting but it wasn’t for sale. So he decided to restore this view to the land Pissarro chose as his subject so many years ago. A living painting, so to speak. If he couldn’t get the painting, he’d always have the view, always be able to see what had inspired the painter. Those specks in the distance are gardeners pruning the trees to stay the shape they were in Pissarro’s time. Mister Underwood even had an entire wood moved from one spot to another to get a perfect match.”
I could hear Sylvia’s, ”And half the world’s starving!”
Underwood’s secretary came across as part pleased, part preoccupied, and maybe a bit too gung-ho about everything.
It was almost as if she was trying to sell me the job.
Her stockings shushed as we moved to the bathroom.
“Is there time for a bath?” I asked. “They left the heat on in the train by mistake, and I’m slightly parboiled.”
“Plenty of time. We’ll phone you when tea’s ready. Though, I must warn you, Mister Underwood’s s stickler for punctuality.”
A gray, bent figure shuffled in with my weekend bag and Chaucer, then left without catching my eye.
“Any questions?” the secretary asked.
“If it’s not too personal, why are you giving up this job?”
“I’m not. You’re not my replacement. Wasn’t it explained? He also needs someone with him in California on the William Blake project. I take care of things here while he’s abroad.” First I’d heard of foreign travel. “Is that a problem?”
“On the contrary.”
“I tried to look up Mister Underwood in Who’s Who and reference books on poets and never found his name.”
“If you agree to join us I’ll explain why.”
I suspected that was her stock reply to all inquisitive applicant but wondered why it was such a mystery.
I listened to her high heels do a fandango, slow along the corridor, fast one quarter time down the curving stairs.
The bathroom alone was almost worth the trip. Rose, violet, yellow, and green bath salts in glass containers like those in old-world sweet shops; homemade oddly-shaped. exotically-scented soaps. I resisted and used my own lifebuoy. The sunken bathtub was flush with the floor, the taps a hybrid of reindeer and buffalo heads. And when I turned them on they howled like an animal in distress or anxious for company. I used one of three thick bath towels --Egyptian cotton, no doubt—-to mop the floor I’d inadvertently swamped.
Mother had triumphed again. She had sneaked in two extra shirts and my old school tie. I wore it for luck, and waited for the phone to call me to tea, as I watched the white horse in the field. It cantered and stopped, then started up again as if programmed. The other horse shared my curiosity at this performance.
Funny if mother was right: that I’d also been programmed—-to visit her “dear old dad’s” stomping ground. And this was my date with destiny.
I felt lighthearted and lightheaded as if I’d just drunk three beers non-stop. Maybe because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, not enough blood was going to my brain.
My phone rang and a sepulchral voice announced, “Tea is served.” In my nervous hurry not to be late I turned in the wrong direction, only realizing my mistake when the wall on my left disappeared to make way for a minstrels’ gallery and a pigeon’s eye view of Underwood’s scalp. He was sitting at the head of an enormously long banqueting table, his dark-haired secretary, facing in my direction, at the halfway mark, and they were talking too quietly for me to overhear.
“I’ve ordered fresh tea,” Underwood said evenly.
“I got lost.” I took the only vacant seat, at the foot of the table. “Not unlike William Randolph Hearst’s spread,” I said.
“You were at San Simeon?” Underwood asked doubtfully.
“I saw the movie, Citizen Kane.”
“You mean the travesty,” he replied. “Well, Hearst pirated this table, by the way. Must have smuggled one of his minions in here to copy it, then had a replica made. But his was a fake and this is the genuine article.”
Despite the distance between us the acoustics were so good there was no need to raise our voices.
A maid brought a silver teapot dripping its contents onto the tiles, put it near me and sniffed.
”Tell us something of yourself,” the secretary said. “After Oxford, what?”
“I tried to teach history and English to 10-year-old Londoners.”
“Why did you quit?” Underwood asked.
I thought of repeating my, “It was like teaching cats to bark” quip. Instead I said, “I wasn’t getting anywhere. Their response to history was to call the Boer War boring. And in English, for example, they persisted in saying ”I don’t know nothing.’ Of course they’d say ‘muffin.’”
I felt like a bloody snob, that my answer had been a fatal mistake, especially as Underwood himself seemed so unpretentious. I anticipated his answer being something like: “Isn’t it up to you, with your superior education to make learning interesting for these poor, under-privileged
To my relief he was otherwise engaged: apparently hadn’t
been listening to me. He turned t his secretary: “I’ll give
that woman a one-way ticket out of here if she doesn’t stop sniffing.”
“It’s her nerves,” she said. “You intimidate her,”
“Rubbish.” He looked at me. “Do I intimidate you?”
“You might if I were a maid,” I said.
“She lost her husband recently,” the secretary explained. ”She may be sobbing rather than sniffing.”
“I sent a wreath, didn’t I?”
After a few desultory exchanges—-my life and interests-- in which his response to my replies seemed to indicate that I, not the maid, was destined to get a one-way ticket out of there. The secretary, Gwen—-I now remembered her name--came to my rescue, with “Let me show Stephen around the place.”
The sunlight had softened as we walked through a cobbled courtyard at the back of the mansion which my bedroom overlooked, where twenty or so horses were stabled.
“I liked the way you responded to his questions,” she said. “He likes spontaneity.”
We were walking in a closely cropped field when I thought I was hallucinating. “Did you hear that?” I asked. “Like a wounded buffalo.”
She laughed. ”It’s his train. “He missed the haunting cry of locomotives he heard as a boy in America. So he had two models built one-half scale, and laid down miles of track all around his property. At night he has it run on automatic”
A skylark rose from the grass and climbed as if being pulled vertically into space.
“Do you know this part of the world?” she asked.
“My mother’s father came from Trowbridge, about ten miles from here. But this is my first visit. I saw some fabulous buildings and the odd castle or two from the train, all haunted no doubt.”
“We don’t believe in leprechauns, but some of the locals expect Kind Arthur to reappear any moment now.”
“As a matter of fact I have an aunt and uncle who own a small grocery not far from here. I believe they deliver to some of the villages nearby. Maybe even to you.”
She walked slightly ahead of me so that she might have been mocking what I said with facial expressions I couldn’t catch. No, she was too straightforward for that. In contrast to her ingenuous manner, Underwood was aloof and guarded, although there was a hint in his light blue eyes of a boy confronting a challenging new toy. Was she in love with him?
We crossed a rickety bridge over a stream, the water moving so fast and smoothly it gave the illusion of standing still As we made our way in the muted evening light towards a copse of sycamores she stopped and turned to face me. “You haven’t got any entanglements, have you>”
“To prevent you from going abroad?”
“No. I’m completely free.”
“Good. When I first spoke with you on the phone I sensed that you’d be right for this work. I’d hate to be wrong.”
“The chauffeur hinted there was tough competition.”
“Don’t worry. You’ve a good chance.”
What I took for a demented sparrow turned out to be a bat on the hunt for its supper. She laughed when she put me right about it, saying, “You’re obviously not a country boy.”
As we walked back the house lights came on in orderly sequence bringing the windows to cheerful life, as if the servants had been standing on duty at every light switch waiting their master’s orchestrated command.
Before we went in, she said, “Almost every contemporary you’re likely to discuss tonight is likely to be known by Mister Underwood, many of them good friends, not all fellow poets or writers. But people like Einstein, Jung, and Churchill. So tread softly.”
I wondered how Churchill would have taken his exclusion from the writing fraternity.
“Oh, you know what I mean.” She gave a playful slap on my arm.
“Any more advice?”
“Just be yourself.”
After a surprisingly plain dinner, not much different from a meal at home, Underwood led me to his study.
He and I sat not quite facing each other in worn leather armchairs, Colombian coffee and Napoleon brandy at our elbows. Everything in his study had the mellow look of antiques except for the clean lines of his desk top, a huge slab of light gray marble.
“I take it you haven’t a criminal record.”
I gave an innocent smile, thought better of it and said.
“Yes, you have?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to admit to it. But I’ve trusted a few unsavory characters in my time,” he added.
After a nervous sip of coffee, best I’d ever tasted, I held his gaze, trying to follow up with a light or lively riposte.
“Just a few speeding and parking tickets. No shoplifting or murder charges.” I was following Gwen’s advice and it seemed to be working out.
Was he testing me by seating me in a chair that hissed every time I moved? Had he noticed that the muscle under my right eye started to twitch like an insect in distress?
“Do you think of William Blake as a lunatic?” he asked. Talk about a quick change of gear|
“If he was I wish there were more of them.”
“Don’t be evasive,” he said.
The room seemed suddenly hot. Was this the big test?
Would he want to spend years of work on the life of a lunatic? I felt the job depended on how I answered his question.
“In a sense, yes, he was a lunatic, if you call a child crazy who sees fairies or talks with people who aren’t there. I’d say he had a compelling imagination. Like a supersensitive person from another world, able to see what we can’t. As well as see through them.”
“Hold on!” he interrupted. “I’m not after a Ph.D. dissertation. Though if you tackle it I suggest the title should be Mystic or Maniac? But I’m glad we think something alike. I anticipate some savage criticism of my take on Blake, especially from those who consider Blake the greatest English poet and artist of all time, not to mention his reputation as a visionary. Ranking him only next to God himself”
He made a few notes on a pad on his knee, then asked, “How accurate should we be? How much poetic license do we dare to use? You know of course about the infamous battle of the Oxford historians.”
“Well it was before your time there, and mine, too, for that matter. The battle of Froude and Freeman. Apart from lecturing the students, James Anthony Froude wrote biographies of Julius Caesar, Thomas Carlyle and Cicero. The critic panned him for being wildly inaccurate, accused him of being incapable of understanding or correctly interpreting his source material. But he was so entertaining that his books were bestsellers. His rival, Edward Freeman, professor of modern history at Oxford, wrote biographies of William the Conqueror and Frederick the Second. He insisted on accuracy. But he was such a dull writer that his books failed. Froude’s success and his own failure drove Freeman to call him “the vilest beast that ever wrote a book,” and to express his wish to disembowel his rival. The final irony was that on Freeman’s death, Froude succeeded him as Oxford’s professor of modern history. Where do your sympathies lie?”
“With neither. Froude was a fraud and Freeman a rotten teacher. But it does expose the standard of teaching at Oxford, at least in the history department in those days. Froude’s students were listening to tall tales instead of history—entertaining as they might have been-—and Freeman’s students were falling asleep.”
“But, in the case of Blake, do you incline to use Poetic license to achieve success, or absolute accuracy and face possible failure?”
“It hardly applies to Blake. In his case, the unembellished facts about his life and work are so intriguing it would take an almost deliberate effort to make it dull.”
“It’s still a formidable undertaking—-to bring a dead man back to life. Almost like emulating Jesus Christ.”
“if you believe the New Testament is an accurate account of events.”
“Good point. I knew a psychoanalyst who wrote a book about Hitler. And he compared him to Christ in this respect: both were driven by unconscious motives through all kinds of life-threatening experiences to attain an unconscious goal which cost them their lives. So I may have to hire a psychoanalyst to delve into Blake’s unconscious. A difficult but, I hope, not impossible task.”
I wasn’t not enjoying our exchanges, although there seemed to be an edge to almost everything he said.
He lit the cigar I’d declined and was ready for round two. “How do you rate James Joyce?”
“Marvelous, when I understand him.”
“Dull in person. Almost tongue-tied. Makes me speculate that Shakespeare, too, may have been a bore.”
“The Einstein or Freud of writers,” I suggested.
“And not a little off his rocker.”
Did he mean Freud, Einstein, Joyce, of Shakespeare?
“Never met Freud and only met Einstein briefly,” he continued. “Knew Jung fairly well. Great listener. Extremely suggestible, too, Probably an hysteric. Joyce, of course, suffered from verbal diarrhea, after his early luminous works, and tried to inflict it on others. Ulysses is good in spots, but even the most sophisticated reader needs a codebook to read Finnegan’s Wake.”
He was on a roll.
“Jung told me that he had treated Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, unsuccessfully for schizophrenia in the thirties and implied that Joyce himself also needed help, saying something to the effect that they were both headed for the bottom of the river—the daughter by falling in and Joyce by diving in.”
He was not as monosyllabic as I first thought. Obviously had no gift for or interest in small talk. But get him on his pet subjects and he’d let rip.
“Evelyn Waugh called Joyce crazy,” he went on, “and said that in Finnegan’s Wake he was getting crazier by the page. Another critic called it the greatest novel of the twentieth century most likely to be abandoned by the reader after the first few pages. Others call it a joke. So, where d’you stand?”
Where did I stand? I began an inane, stuttering response, when Nobby, thank God, came to my rescue. As if my mind had gone into a photographic-memory mode, I recalled one of our “soirees,” when Nobby had mentioned a Canadian critic’s comments on the BBC’s Third Program. Now I quoted him quoting the Canadian with no intention of letting Underwood know it wasn’t my bright idea.
“Joyce proved he could write in his first books,“ I said. “No one disputes that. Finnegan’s Wake, however, was an experiment by a man with a sense of humor, infatuated with music, punning, and foreign languages, and he made use of them all in Finnegan. And spent seventeen years on it. Going blind in the process. I’m inclined to agree with the Finnegan fan who said it should be read aloud and with an Irish accent, and perhaps a glass of Irish whisky. Go with the flow, as they call it”
“But what the hell is it about?”
Again I cribbed form Nobby quoting the critic: “A dream of the history of the world.”
He sighed. “I’ll go to Freud for dreams, and historians for world history. Literature isn’t meant to be absorbed with a code-breaker in hand.”
“You wouldn’t say that he stretches the mind?”
He wouldn’t say anything.
“Or covers new territory?” I grasped at a straw and came up, still breathing, with what I’d once read in a science magazine I rescued from the toilet of the school where I had masqueraded as a teacher. “In a sense it’s the literary equivalent of string theory or even more, quantum physics. It intrigues many scientists as being of great value, but none of them understand it well enough to explain it. I once heard a physicist say if anyone tells you they understand quantum physics they’re lying.”
“Good try,” he said, almost to himself. ”I spoke to his former secretary, Samuel Beckett, once, and he confirmed the story that while Joyce was writing his book someone tapped on the door and Joyce wrote, ‘A knock on the door.’ Into the manuscript.”
”Perhaps that shows his sense of humor.”
“Or exposes his book as nonsense.”
We were bathed in separate circles of light as if under observation by a third party overhead. I thought of Sylvia.
During the moment I’d glanced at the wide floorboards he vanished. His voice came from below and behind his desk. “Ah, here it is.” He surfaced with a single sheet of paper: “Enough of Joyce. Read this.” He floated it across the desk top and by luck I caught it. I started to read the perfectly typed poem to myself.
“Aloud,” he commanded.
I read: “The walls that once a throne enclosed
Are cracking now and out of line,
Home for the ant and celandine,
Nest for the swift and porcupine,
Night lights come from the starlit skies,
The dances led by fireflies,
Banquets are catered by the trees,
Quince, apple, plum, and apricot,”
“It ends on a comma,” I said.
“That’s because the damned thing isn’t finished yet. I’ve given you the wrong one. Here, take this. To yourself, if you prefer.”
‘There’s more to this than meets the eye,” I said.
“Could it wait till morning?”
He twirled the last of his brandy. “Why not? All right, Elliot, sleep on it. You’ve got your reprieve. Until breakfast”
I followed him to the door and when he turned back we almost collided. “Wait,” he said, mildly amused. “You’re not through yet.”
I imitated an obedient bird dog until I no longer heard his footsteps, then scoured his bookshelves to place the man. Pushkin, P. G. Wodehouse, Flaubert, Waugh, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Nabokov, Swift by Leslie Stephen-- Virginia Woolf’s father. Eclectic, all right. But the same could be said of mine.
Gwen came in beaming as if she enjoyed clasping the ancient typewriter to her shapely bosom. I stepped aside and she plunked it onto the marble slab.
“Now,” she said, “The real test. Mister Underwood expects his work to be perfectly typed.”
Despite a slight lisp she dictated with exceptional clarity, her enunciation cajoling me to succeed, like a mother with a three-year-old. To catch up I had to type faster than she spoke—above my cruising speed. The keys stuck fast several times and I had the feverish feeling of prolonging a fiasco.
“Times up,” she said cheerfully, and pulled the page in mid-word from the machine. While I prayed for a deux ex machina or even an earthbound miracle.
“Quite impossible!” she said at last, her voice awobble.
Her face had faded from pink to putty and she looked into infinity. “Jesus Christ!” she said. ”If I wasn’t so disappointed, I’d laugh.” She screwed up the page and threw it at me. “You’re so right in every other way. Exactly what we want. You’ll have to practice your typing day and night. Promise me you’ll do that. I’ll give you the name of a typing school near your home. Promise me that you’ll go every day and practice day and night.”
“How long will I have?”
“A few weeks.”
“I can trust you?”
“Yes, you can.”
She exhaled sharply as if she had hair in her eyes. But I think she was nervous at the risk she was taking. “You’re still in the running. But you still have to see Mister Underwood tomorrow. You’ll find a questionnaire in your room for you to complete. Take my advice and write in block letters. I’ve seen your handwriting. You should have been a doctor.”
We separated in the hall where a mellow-ticking grand father clock was pleasant company.
What a delightful woman! I’d made a good impression on her. Perhaps I reminded her of a favorite brother or cousin. Even her retreating heel clicks sounded like applause.
But what had I got that the other applicants lacked? Why was I what he wanted?
As I climbed the wide, curving steps to my room-—tenth door on the right-—the haunting train whistle gave its wounded buffalo cry. On automatic for one last circuit of the estate.
After a struggle my bedroom window shot open and I caught the end of a distant chime and a refreshing whiff of some night flower. Horses moved restlessly in the stables below. A clock struck a surprising twelve. I thought it was at least two. Faintly I heard contending voices and a door close abruptly. An argument. She wants me. He doesn’t.
Might I redeem myself with a perceptive interpretation of his poem? Too critical and he’d banish me back to No-Man’s-Land, too generous and he’d tap me as a toady.
I took it slowly, phrase by phrase, reading:
“A light that winds its patterned trails,
Thin and sinuous as a snail’s,
Dim and broken, like a token
Of Man’s courage in the wilderness,
Then caught my eye.
We climbed to even greater heights
From which the trails were out of sight,
Hour after hour into the night.
Signs other moods and motives,
Palaces, frozen locomotives
Now littered the livid landscape,
Scattered like broken children’s toys,
Lit by lightning jolts,
Gutted by man-made thunderbolts,
Recalled today with mouth agape,
As if on God’s magnetic tape.”
Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot had nothing to fear, but it wasn’t bad. Wordsworth. Interesting that a poet’s name begins with word. And ends with worth. Just a simple transposition and you get Worthwords.
The poet, Underwood perhaps, is in a plane or up a mountain in wartime, watching bombs explode far below. He’s reflecting on war and life. Life is a tape recording with God at the on-off switch. Underwood’s got a thing about locomotives. Wonder why loco also means nuts. Tracks. Going around in circles. So am I. I’ll sleep on it.
Despite the fit-for-a-fakir mattress, I put myself to sleep resurrecting tranquil scenes from age seven to last year’s trip to the Isle of Wight, drifting off as I strolled down a cobblestone street near a shop of flags, wooden spades and plastic buckets. As a threatening steam train came around the bend I shouted a warning and woke myself. I hoped no one else had heard my heart beating at the speed of the train—-but I didn’t worry for long, because I had the answer.
“God’s magnetic tape is Man’s brain,” I wrote on one of the three sheets of notepaper Underwood had provided. “The sights and sounds of life still exist as long as his brain is active, and can be recalled at will. Using God’s tape, his brain, the poet recalls his sight of a convoy of vehicles traveling at night along winding roads, their lights dimmed for fear of enemy bombers. Like daring explorers in the wilderness they press on. Then the poet realizes that their courage has been misused, not for survival or to explore new frontiers, but to destroy as a child in a rage smashes toys.”
Trying to avoid smarm, but to accentuate the positive, feeling not so much con man as convert, I began again:
“This deceptively simple poem. . .”
Anxious not to be late for breakfast I got up early, hovering outside the dining room, killing time by examining almost every stitch of the tapestry, telling myself to take it easy, that it was hardly a matter of life or death or even of serious injury. The butler told me that breakfast would be on the patio and indicated the general direction.
It was on the second floor, reached by another stairway, I sat on a low protecting wall there, looking down on a winding stream almost hidden by a field of clover under bee attack. The servants, checking the contents of a side-table ignored me after their first “Good morning,”
Gwen took my review and glanced through it before Underwood arrived, and admired her blue dress, so flimsy it floated in the slight breeze. She stood to curtsy playfully, then went to serve herself from the side-table. He merely acknowledged my “Good morning,” with a nod as if I was a meteorologist giving the weather report.
After eating at the rugby-pitch of a table last night, we now squatted around a small glass-topped contraption white iron chairs, so close together that I almost kissed Gwen’s ear when she unexpectedly turned her head as I was about to answer a question. And once Underwood’s cigar ash landed in the butter. Though, almost before it landed a servant had whisked it away, and replaced it.
Underwood’s almost euphoric mood in contrast to last night’s inquisition put me at ease and after a while I relaxed enough to sample both the kidneys and the kippers. Gwen sent the maid for fresh coffee, then read out my analysis of Underwood’s high-flying poem, her slight lisp subtly changing the nuance of the words, if anything in my favor, occasionally nodding in approval. She had the air of a child reading an eviction notice, taking it seriously but not aware of its significance.
Underwood gave nothing away. He might have been listening to a stranger’s funeral service, or his own muse. He took the page from her before she’d finished. “Enough,” he said, anchoring it under a salt cellar. “I get the picture.”
The maid hovered with the fresh coffee nobody wanted now. A bee took an aggressive interest in three flavors of jam. And I waited in limbo.
”Follow me,” Gwen said, tapping me on the wrist. I followed her. Her rear end had creased her flimsy dress into a badly folded map. Rather pathetic, because she acted jauntily as if it was smooth. She closed the study door behind her. “I’m so pleased. He seems to approve of your effort.”
I was no longer on guard. She had been so supportive as if she was my agent, or an older sister.
“Now,” she said, “he wants to take you for a ride.”
I followed her directions. The daisy-speckled grass at first cleaned my shoes, then gave them a wet gloss. Underwood waited near a gleaming railroad track, shaded by a silver birch. “Two minutes,” he said. He was almost dead on. A wrinkled, walrus-mustached old gaffer in regulation peaked cap, and dungarees was at the controls of a miniature steam engine. He touched the peak of his cap, ”Mister Underwood, sir.”
“George,” Underwood said, “let’s give our visitor the grand tour.”
We sat behind George on a wooden bench, Waw! Waw!
And we were off, a V of geese overhead, as if Underwood had arranged a flying send off.
“I call this Switzerland.” Underwood pointed as we struggled uphill, both of us leaning forward as if that would help, then dipped towards a lake of water lilies and giant goldfish; and on our other side, woods of elms, oaks and sycamores. “The Black Forest,” Underwood said. “No need to go to Europe. It’s all here.” We went from bursts of light to cool shade, and past two miniature fully equipped railroad stations. Forty minutes later we were back near the stables
“Your bag’s in the car,” he said. “Incidentally, if I decide to hire you and things work out, you’ll get a bonus of fifty thousand dollars.”
Was it then or much later that I first wondered: Will that be a bribe or a reward?
“With that you can support yourself for awhile and write the Great American Novel. Isn’t that what young people want these days?”
Implying, I supposed, that the Great English Novel had already been written.
But I was at a loss for a moment to respond to the prospect of a small fortune. With fifty thousand dollars I could buy a house in the country back home on a few acres. and teach kids who didn’t bring sharp knives to school.
“Sounds great,” I said at last.
“Well, thanks for coming.” He shook hands and walked away.
The moment I sat beside him, the chauffeur grunted and took off with a jerk and smell of burning rubber. In case I never saw it again, I looked back at the house a few times until it was hidden by a hill. Soon after we left the grounds we were held up by a convoy of trucks and trailers transporting huge trees with diapered roots and frantically waving branches, a red flag on the tail of each tree,
“Operation Macbeth,” the chauffeur said.
“Underwood is moving another wood. The trees don’t always survive so he had to ship in a fresh batch.”
Once free to move, he picked up speed, and sped past a flash of color in a valley on our left.
“What was that?” I asked. “Like a multicolored handkerchief or a flower nursery planted by a drunk.”
“He screwed up his face in distaste. “You’re too poetic for your own good, mate. He’s after an assistant to do the donkey work not a resident rival bard.”
“I take it you don’t know what it was.”
“The workers reward,” he explained. “Squire Underwood rewards his serfs once a year with a fete, a band, a few sideshows and all the grub you can eat. The colors are the tents.” He drove with abandon now, as though trying to dump me quickly so that he could return quickly to the grub and candy floss. I hit the roof lightly.
“Aren’t you afraid of killing an animal?” I asked.
“Great brakes,” he said. “Hold tight. I’ll show you.” He accelerated, then braked. And I hit the windshield, No blood but I felt nose-less for a while.
“Great brakes,” I agreed.
“If you can still breathe it’s not broken.” He gave a snort of a laugh, a sideways glance at me and a flip, “You’ll live.” He was more talkative than on the drive in, which, grasping at straws, I took as a good sign. A part-time film extra, he had fenced with “Larry” Oliver, doubled for James Mason for a rowing scene in “The Flying Dutchman,” fallen from a horse in a “Henry the Fifth,” battle scene, and driven a police car in various films.
“How can you find time for Underwood?”
“I fit it in when he’s abroad. He encourages me to do it rather than hang about here doing nothing. But on his next trip he’s taking me with him.”
He described Gwen as from an upper crust family up north, ”up north,” being said with the good-natured scorn of a southerner.
“She’s extremely attractive,” I said.
“Oh, you noticed did you?”
My train was waiting at the little country station.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And enjoy your fete.”
“And yours,” he said.
Adam and Nobby were opening our garden gate when they saw me homeward bound at the bottom of Crescent and waited for me. As I reached them, the street gas lamp popped on gently, illuminating the silver birch and laburnum around it. The evening’s epiphany we never tired of. Mother already had the door open, the adjoining hall window reflecting the gaslight, “How did it go?” she asked.
“Won’t know for a few days. He has to see others.
But I can’t believe I have a chance. I made such a bloody mess of the typing test.”
We entered the house, dodging climbing roses in need of pruning.
“A woman called,” mother said. ”Wouldn’t leave a message.”
“With a slight lisp?”
“No. It must have been Sylvia.” She went to the kitchen to make coffee. “Don’t talk about your weekend until I get back.”
“Where’s your brother?” Nobby asked.
“In Cardiff selling shoes and living with a prostitute. At least, mother implies that she’s a whore. I think she just overdoes the lipstick and pads her bra.” To tell the truth I missed David’s verbal blitzkriegs. Our danger-free discussions had lost the warlike fervor that put us on our mettle.
When mother emerged I relived the Wiltshire Odyssey, from the Turkish-bath train ride there, to the bashed-nose-on-the-windshield on return.
Mother was puzzled why Gwen seemed so eager to help me, despite my typing fiasco. “It must be your winning personality. You’ve got your father’s charm,” she added.
Then, after a silence, “I wonder what she’s up to?”
“It’s not that Stephen’s unattractive to women,” Nobby explained to mother. “But he’s not that attractive.”
Adam, caught up in the detached manner in which I was being discussed, said, “It is odd. It’s not as if women are breaking down doors to get at him.”
Mother looked offended. “Sylvia is,” she said.
“Isn’t it rather,” Adam suggested, “that she’s trying to get away from her husband?”
We left the subject to explore Underwood’s personality and history. My friends thought that everything he said and did that weekend was to put me to the test. When I mentioned the possibility of a royal connection, Adam scoffed, “Same thing is said about Jack the Ripper.”
As the fish-and-chip shop closed a eleven, we left at twenty to, walking briskly along the now misty, lamp-lit streets. We all agreed that it was surprising, considering my failure at Oxford and at teaching kids, that I was still in the running.
Eight days later I returned home from typing-to-waltz- music lessons to be greeted by mother’s. “I couldn’t resist opening the telegram. You’ve got the job. They’re booking you a berth of the U.S. United States. And it’s signed Gwen.”
Sylvia was having trouble with her kids when I phoned and she gave a quick. “Good luck, I’m too tied up to talk now.”
That night I dreamed that I was standing on the local train station waiting for a train to the coast while an orchestra in the waiting room rehearsed Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the music overwhelming flocks of birds overhead. I could interpret the frantic cacophony
What on earth was mother doing driving the train with such aplomb? She swooshed past in a cloud of steam, calling out, ”I’ll give you your instructions when you get there.”
Sylvia phoned as I was in the garden transplanting phlox to a more congenial spot. “I told her you’d call her back,” mother said when I got in. She speaks so quickly I could hardly understand her. I hope she’s not on that fast thing.”
“You make her nervous. Thinks you’re trying to protect my virginity.”
Pause. Regroup to attack. ”It’s her poor, neglected children I worry about.”
“Don’t. She’s a wonderful mother. And her kids adore her.”
Mother imitated Queen Victoria sucking a lemon.
No, Sylvia couldn’t possibly tell me on the phone She had to see me. As I walked down our Crescent to meet her I sensed mother’s well-wishing eyes on my neck, heels and elbows. To let her know she was a rotten spy, before the sharp turn that would take me out of sight, I jumped and clicked my heels together. Then fell awkwardly. I limped up the hill to the railroad station newsstand where I read the New Statesman’s cover article, until startled by Sylvia’s raspy car horn.
Her face flushed from the Spanish sun, car a month rustier, wireless not quite transmitting Rachmaninoff’s Second, though loud enough to preclude normal conversation—she drove, always above the speed limit, to Caesar’s Well, her favorite corner of Keston Ponds. It was where my brother once fished for minnows and planned world conquest.
We sat back to back on a smooth tree stump, almost submerged in stinging nettles and meadowsweet and a rendezvous for over-familiar ants. We were floating, if you lowered your eyelids and stretched the point, in a green and yellow ocean.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
“Oh!” I responded, staring at the sun, hoping the pain would camouflage my concern.
“May I quote you?”
I longed to be back on my hands and knees shifting the phlox. “I’m glad, if you are,” I lied.
“How did it happen?” I asked inanely.
“The usual way.” She turned and put her hand on my shoulder, where she had once bitten me so fiercely with less provocation. “No need to look morose or paternal,” she said. “You’re not the father.”
My heart did dangerous aerobatics.
“Jim and I overdid the Spanish wine one night,” she explained. “And threw caution to the winds. And don’t ask me if caution is another word for contraceptives,” she said, anticipating the response I might have made in different circumstances. ”I’ve yet to spring it on him,” she went on. “But for the sake of this new baby, I’m giving our marriage another chance.”
A swarm of bees enhanced the feeling of fecundity. The sun gave nettles golden linings. Or can relief bring near-mystical, transcendental visions?
“So I’m leaving you,” she said, “before you can pull the rug from under me.”
I kissed her chastely on the cheek. “Congratulations.”
“I’m sure you’re in a hurry to get away to your Brave New World,” she said, without sounding resentful.
When the wasps made dummy runs at us, she flinched and yelled, “Let’s get out of here!”
As we drove back we’d rarely been in such harmony. I’d learned not to criticize her driving any more, as a survival technique. Because she had always responded angrily, while taking her eyes off the road.
She slowed near the railroad station and patted me on the cheekbone. “If we don’t meet again, it’s been fun. I’ll hear of your progress from those weird pals of yours.” No tears. Not even a lip quiver.
When we squealed to a shuddering stop, I kissed her quickly behind her ear. “I’ll miss your driving. My pulse is already slowing to normal.” This time she took it with a weak smile, pretended to punch me as I got out, and drove off without clashing gears. She didn’t wave or look back as far as I could tell. Maybe she was looking at me in the rear-view mirror.
A blast of air from a steam train hotfooting it to the coast replaced Sylvia’s lingering scent with an acrid stench,
My last evening at home coincided with our weekly “literary soiree,” as Adam still called it, with progressively less mockery in his voice. Mother fortified us with coffee and Welsh rarebit and fumigated our conversation with bursts on the piano of Liszt and Chopin.
While Nobby and Adam saw my departure as a shrewd career move, mother saw me as going on a mission, not as consequential as the Crusades or the D-Fay invasion perhaps, but pretty close. Wasn’t my future at stake?
That night I didn’t expect to sleep without a struggle. Several trains rattled by, two stopped and a motorcycle with a broken muffler woke a baby two houses down. The night sky was lighting up when I dropped off, but I woke soon after and went down to make toast and coffee, surprised that I could get away with it without waking mother. I couldn’t, of course.. She joined me in the kitchen, wide awake, though in her dressing gown.
“Did you hear the Whelan’s baby?” she asked.
“Almost as loud as the motorcycle.”
“I couldn’t sleep, either.” She took the bread from me and popped it in the toaster. ”I was thinking of you as a baby.”
“Did I ruin your sleep then?”
“Oh, no. You were nothing like the Whelan’s baby. I was remembering your first funny, stumbling steps and how your father was so proud of you. You’d often fall down, of course, but get up again and again. And when you fell heavily, you’d look up at us to see if you should cry. And all we had to do was smile and you’d go on your way like an eager little robot. You were a lovely little thing.”
“I never heard anyone call me lovely.”
She seemed about to answer, but didn’t. That was how she usually won these verbal jousts. Quite a neat trick. You remain silent and look as if you’ve triumphed.
‘Your silence is deafening.”
“Mrs. Willet thinks you’re very good looking.”
“But she’d got no taste. Look at her wallpaper.”
“It was there when she bought the house.”
“Okay, forget the wallpaper. Have you seen the photo of her late lamented husband?”
We talked such nonsense I suppose to avoid becoming maudlin.
I took the toast and coffee into the living room and she supplied the musical entertainment-—mostly Liszt played pianissimo so as not to re-arouse the Whelan kid.
She went back upstairs to sleep for a couple o hours, and I dozed on the sofa.
I woke about six.
She was waiting in the hall when I carried my cases downstairs. When I reached her she tried to jerk my tie center.
“For Christ’s sake, mother?”
“You’ll only have to put up with me for a few more seconds. Your taxi’s here.”
“If you strangle me Ill need a coffin, not a cab.’
She seemed smaller, as though she’d shrunk in the night.
Outside the front door I dropped the cases and to keep mother preoccupied as well as to fix them in my memory, briefly commented on the flourishing lilac bush, and roses and wisteria still in need of pruning. “Look at that, mother!” I imitated her ecstatic intonation at the sign of new life. “There’s a bud on your peony!”
Should have got a laugh, but didn’t.
“Thanks for all your work in the garden,” she said. “Worth it, wasn’t it?”
“Sure. Any last advice?”
“Just do your best. Make your father and me proud of you. And have a good time.”
“Maybe I’ll try two out of three.”
I gave her a twig of lilac to replace the wilting asters in a vase next to dad’s photo on her dressing table.
As I kissed her goodbye, a next-door window opened so hard it hit the wall. Mrs. Willet called out, “Good luck, Stephen! And don’t forget us! We all expect great things of you!”
I whispered to mother, “First sign of mawkish tears and I’ll let rip in Anglo-Saxon that will horrify Mrs. Willet.”
Mrs. Willet waved a duster from her bedroom window shaking down a cloud of dust that made my eyes tear.
The cab driver took my cases. “Let’s make a quick getaway,” I said.
As we were about to turn the corner on the way to the railroad station, mother was waving the lilac twig and Mrs. Willet was still polluting the neighborhood.