The Novella

Stranger Than/Beneath the tide

Years later, on a visit to my native country, I sat on the wall of a river embankment with my father beside me, older now and more frail than I had ever imagined he could become. He had written to tell me that he was dying and I had made the long and arduous journey to see him. It was a warm spring afternoon and the broad mass of water before us was flowing fast: the snows on the hills were melting.image-marker-A The tide was low and a broad strip of untidy shoreline showed at the base of the walls. There were few boats on the river and no other people on the quayside. We had just watched a young man drown. He had made no fuss, had not struggled to reach the shore or attract attention. We had glanced around of course but had seen no lifebuoys to hurl, no rope. Tears stood in our eyes as we saw the current sweep the man around a curve and out of sight. Then the sky seemed stiller and the air quite silent. I remember that I noticed the absence of birdsong. My father’s maroon silk handkerchief passed between us. As we dabbed at our eyes, we talked of how my father wished to be remembered and how his funeral should be arranged. His possessions – the few to which he had clung – where should they go? Who could possibly want them? We looked before us and he talked softly about his long and lucky life, about the drowned young man, about my own uncertain future, and then again, as always, for one last time, about himself.

1.

The early morning tram lurched through the town centre, rattling its cargo of speechless passengers. Jan closed his eyes softly, waiting for his stop. He imagined the tram leaving its rails and making its way by ricocheting off the fronts of the buildings it passed. He stood near the doors, stiffening his thigh against the vertical bar that he gripped in his right hand.image-marker-B Each jolt vibrated the length of his bones. His left arm pressed a soiled folder against his side. Around him coats and bags rustled and rubbed, passengers coughed. As the tram slowed, Jan tightened his upper lip and caught it between his teeth, letting it escape gradually, vessel by vessel, unhurt and tingling.

The doors folded open and Jan stepped down, reaching his legs over a puddle and planting a foot carefully on the slippery pavement. He walked along several streets, dodging umbrellas and making himself small beneath the slanting rain. Stray spikes of his hair pricked his cheeks and nose.

A naked male mannequin stood in a menswear shop window.image-marker-C Jan shivered and surveyed his own reflection, standing alongside, dwarfed. He compared unfavourably. The mannequin’s nose was long and straight and handsome, its cheeks were ruddy and clean-shaven, disfigured by neither scars nor spots, its green-grey eyes looked with self-confidence into the darkening firmament. Its body was enviably proportioned and motionless.

Two doors further, Jan halted, feeling abruptly conspicuous. It had been a mistake to shave, to show so much face. But he straightened up and finger-combed his hair. He leaned into the solid wooden door, grasping and turning the doorknob, his knuckles draining to white.

Inside the room, Jan’s back itched, his shoulder-blades tensed and rose. People were gazing at the body of his folder.image-marker-D He feared they might gain some magical access to its vitals. He had to get rid of it: it was an embarrassment slithering now in his hands, its cardboard cover growing slimy beneath the sudden effusion of his sweat.

In the centre of the room, boxed round by glass, an elderly woman sat on a swivel high-chair and dozed. The fluorescent ceiling light struck silver spangles from her cropped hair. The walls were lined with seated men and women. A set of perfect caricatures, Jan thought, each face as authentic as a police artist’s impression.

There were no windows and the walls were yellowed by smoke and ringed with an oily brown gleam at head height. The ceiling, by contrast, had recently been afforded a new coat of cream gloss. The floor was an irregular parquet, with wisps of dust hooked to the edges of protruding pine bricks. The room smelt both sweet and sour. Like a grandmother’s ancient lavender, it puckered Jan’s nose.

Jan advanced toward the glass booth and cleared his throat. The napping woman swallowed, inserted a knuckle between eye and half-moon spectacles, and rubbed. She revolved slightly to face him and directed a smile through the filmy glass.

‘What can I do?’ she asked, looking at the proffered folder.

‘I’ve a typescript,’ said Jan.

‘Place it in the tray and take a seat,’ she enjoined, peering insistently upward.

Jan noticed the metal tray balanced on a top corner of the booth. A fragment of memory jerked to life.

Seven years old, Jan had been called to the front of the class and ordered to hand over an exercise book. He looked down at the grazed knees protruding from his scratchy woollen stockings. The paper went soggy in his grip. Someone had surely blabbed. Could he run? image-marker-E Teacher’s blood-red lipstick and the shine on her shoes told the pit of his stomach he could not. His scrotum contracted, drawing his balls close to his body, while his anal sphincter clutched.

The woman in the booth saved him from memories of Teacher.

‘Your typescript will be considered in due course,’ she said, ‘provided that it conforms to entry regulations, and your name is printed on the top sheet.’

Jan did as he was told. His folder fitted snugly in the tray.

He spotted a free patch of bench. He sat down, uttering an apology. His neighbours shuffled to make room. He could hear them breathe and whisper and occasionally cough, like a concert audience while the orchestra tunes up. He told himself he would examine the people surrounding him later. For now he would sit back and contemplate the parquet floor, between and beyond his knees. One could begin tracing patterns from any point, start at any brick or wisp.

The first morning passed quickly. Jan was happy with himself. He had checked the typescript the previous day and had found it perfect in every detail. He sensed that it was purring in its basket, and glanced up. He suppressed a chuckle, rerouting it through his nose. It exited as an inoffensive little snort. What earthly chance did his adversaries imagine they stood? They’d be looking at him now, taking his measure.

Jan had to consider that afternoon’s work. It might be legitimate for him to rest. Not ‘on his laurels’: that would be presumptuous. He might still not be selected. It would be a matter of regathering steam. A head of steam was what he would need to undertake something fresh.

Several ideas had occurred to him. A historical novel set in a mediaeval dungeon. He’d often wondered how heretics spent their time when not on the rack. Was there any conviviality among them? Were they constantly subject to visions? In their serener moments, did they laugh? Then, what at? Did they address prayers to God? If so, did those who believed that God inhabited every person, address their prayers to themselves? A theological issue, no doubt. Jan’s next hero would be that rare soul: a humorous heretic. For the next few months, he would have to spend his afternoons on background research. He relished the thought. A holiday among the history books. No more writing for a week or two. Just notes.

Since the room was square and the glass booth was positioned exactly at its centre, Jan’s gaze, each time he relaxed, returned to drift over the woman sitting on her swivel high-chair, rather as an angler’s float bobs back to the surface, after each distracting but merely glancing bite. The panes of glass that surrounded her were in need of a polish. The woman was blurred, unresolved.

With the air of a sympathetic invigilator, her chair slowly rotating, she sometimes opened her eyes to peer over her specs. All whispering and breathing would then cease and Jan would permit his eyes to glaze, thereby avoiding collision with hers. Wherever the swivel chair came to rest, there she would stay awhile, resuming every appearance of slumber. Jan soon knew her from every angle. He’d seen her back, her front, and her side — her face, her ears, and – because she wore her grey hair gathered in a plaited crescent on her head – her nape, which was lightly freckled and criss-crossed by shallow lines.

The more Jan studied the woman, the more he saw. She grew beneath the magnifying glass of his scrutiny by a process of simple accretion. She gained first a name, then a rough curriculum vitae, likes and dislikes, favourite flowers and sweets, at last even a family.

Jan pieced together her biography, then flicked through it, to refresh his memory and to fill in any gaps. He saw her as a little girl in a field, kneeling to collect insects. She looked up and strained to hear the thwack and thud of distant bombs. At another time she was a disenchanted school-mistress, instilling discipline and handing out detention. Then, a mother, Jan watched her beneath a teenager’s accusations, falling to her knees, setting her glasses upside-down on the carpet and declaring with trembling determination: ‘I shall never do this again. I can no longer fight you’.

Jan flushed scarlet. Someone was staring at him, he knew it, staring like an owl through pitch darkness. He had been caught peeping into people’s privacy again, and was the object of another’s scrutiny. His teeth clenched. Could he ride it out? A fine comeuppance that would be! Could he really be as transparent to others as that woman was to him? After all the trouble he had taken to unpick his past, and to rebuild himself from found objects: one man’s accent, another’s smile, another’s walk. Had he not discarded all distinguishing features? Had not his skin become as thick as a rhino’s, yet as light to shed as an adder’s?

He breathed again. The neighbouring owl had shifted its focus, sighting perhaps some more enticing quarry.

At one o’clock, the woman slid from her chair and, opening one of the hinged panels, left the booth. Everyone rose and followed her to the door. She held it open while they filed out, mouthing goodbyes. On the pavement many were met by spouses, parents or friends. One gentle upturned face was heard to enquire: ‘still no news, my love?’

Five mornings a week they arrived punctually, demonstrating their devotion to the competitive spirit. If anyone was absent, the others would present excuses. Games were enacted that involved daily changes of bench position, and manner of sitting. As far as Jan could discern, however, the group had no leader.

Jan resolved to study his neighbours meticulously, but as a batch, never singly. It would not do to see too far into individuals, he thought. He regretted having let himself be carried away on his first day. He had discovered too much about the old woman and, in his turn, had been infiltrated. He would take greater care in future. Personalities should not ensnare him. Bundles of features, as dry as sticks, was all he wanted.

He started to compile a taxonomy, setting out to confine his observations to what he self-mockingly conceived to be ‘the census of verifiable anatomical, sartorial or behavioural characteristics’. image-marker-F He noted that the group consisted of fourteen women and nine men, himself of course excluded. One of the men and two of the women were black, and one woman was brown. One of the women had a shaved head, and two of the men were almost completely bald. Four of the men had beards. There were five fleshy or snub noses, four romans, five ‘finely-chiselled’, three hooks, two crooked, and seven unclassifiable. Two of the men and four of the women wore canvas shoes. Four of the women — including two of the four who wore canvas shoes — wore skirts.

Over the weeks that followed Jan became expert at the analysis of people into higgledy-piggledy odds and ends. Heights, girths, scars, hair colours, shirt fabrics, tie patterns: his mind became a repository for ever tinier specks of information. Exhausted, one day, the phrase ‘this is character-building work’ sprang into his mind and made him laugh. The bounds he had set himself began to appear unnecessarily restrictive. He was confident that he could push his method further, delve beneath the slurry of appearances, while evading the risk of ever being brought up short against a fully reconstituted individual.

With the circumspection of a pious man indulging in routine sin, Jan began to classify facial expressions, to chart personality traits, to particularize family circumstances, occupations, eating habits, hobbies, sentimental attachments. He pursued his subjects from birth until death, squirreling away whatever details he could carry off. This wailing babe held aloft by the midwife was born by Caesarean section. That headstrong teenage girl had taken the leading role in her school play. And that old man would die in hospital, surrounded by loved-ones. And that one… ugh!… would not, poor thing.

One morning Jan was overtaken by fear. What if, instead of disconnected features, an entire face should suddenly loom before him? What if all the bits and pieces of character and biography, which he had taken such pains to precipitate out and label, should re-gel into the twenty-three individuals from which he had derived them? Even worse, what if the group itself then became one single breathing towering individual? An individual with twenty-three alternating heads, twenty-three successive voices, twenty-three distinct pasts? Where would that leave him? What defence might he find?

His rivals’ suspicion had again been aroused. Jan petrified his features, commanding them to display inscrutability. Yet the resulting expression displeased him, he could feel haughtiness in the creases at each side of his nose and provocation in his nether lip. Struggling to relax his cheek muscles, he felt a sneer rise to shroud his eyes. Like a painter failing to complete his canvas, each alteration pushed something else out of place. They could see how distinct and apart he felt from them and they would hate him for it and their hatred would be everlasting, and it would follow him all the days of his life.

Jan’s mind ceased to register what his eyes could see. His gaze turned inward, seeking sanctuary.

Within his body he witnessed a line of people, pressing outward one by one against his skin, filling him with their demands. Among them he discerned former friends, teachers, relatives, and lovers. They filed through him unhurriedly. His parents arrived last of all, locked together in struggle and cursing, caught in the snares of an immaculate marriage.

As his mother first gained predominance, Jan experienced the weight of her belly inside his, and the pressure of her breasts beneath the distending skin of his own chest. His tongue assumed her country lilt, his mood her melancholy. image-marker-G Then, as his mother shrank and withered and his father swelled, an irresistible paralysis ravished Jan’s body, freezing his limbs, numbing the tips of his fingers, causing his sphincter to contract, as on that very first day.

From her booth, the old woman repeated his name loudly through the glass. She called him out. Once from a nightmare he had been awoken thus. Why did he just sit there?

The woman nodded at him, as if to say, ‘Yes you, dullard! We haven’t got for ever’.

Jan wanted to deny it all, deny anything, everything. The hairs on his thighs rose in anticipation of pain. The fingers of his left hand curled inward and massaged the heel of its palm.

Twenty-three pairs of eyes turned on him, minute engines winching him to his feet, forcing him to a stand. He set his jaw, feeling inspiration flow back. His father moved within him as he rose, tensing again inside his gut. Had he come at last to help him, to stand by the side of his heretic, ancestor, son?

Jan went to the booth and faltered out a ‘Yes?’

In a single breath, the woman reeled off a doggerel patter quite new to Jan. The room echoed to the sound of her voice. The forty-six eyes in Jan’s back hardened to gunshot.

‘Your story’s been precisely weighed,’

And you’ve been summoned to contend.

Three things you must prepare: a nicely

Scripted summary with eighty pauses,

A costume, and a style of utterance that causes

Thought. The winner will be publicly unmasked and paid’.

Jan thanked the woman, and made for the door. He hesitated to turn round. Forty-six bullets in the front, he thought. Was it worth it just to look at them all once? Of course.

He wheeled and faced them. The brave men and women whom he had steeled himself to meet all turned away in sham indifference, unfamiliar to him after months of mornings in their society. Each had donned his or her unique expression of cowardice. One looked at the ceiling as if searching for spiders; another stared at the woman in the booth who was already dozing again; a third examined his fingernails, as if his life might depend on the dirt beneath them.

Jan heaved the door open and slipped into the street. Both his parents had left him now. He had cause for celebration. He had been selected.

2.

The town was bathed in thick fog, its streets a hive of busy seeking arms and legs, umbrella ends, briefcases, baskets laden with mud-caked potatoes and soup packets. image-marker-H Pedestrians spilled from the pavements, battling to get on; vehicles sounded last-minute alarms and ultimatums.

Jan walked along well-chosen back streets. The fog had reduced the greens and ochres of the buildings – like cats – to every shade of grey. He smiled and his eyes relaxed as people passed by him, their faces distinguishable at the last moment and then blotted out, presumably for ever.

Alone, he marched through the billowing outskirts. His arms swung in time with the tunes he whistled. He left the houses behind, broke into a skipping run, knowing, not seeing, where he was going. He scuttled over a stile, a gate, a ditch, a stream, slipped once, then halted at the bank of a river. He found a moist tree stump and carefully sat himself down, tucking his coat-tail beneath him, pressing his shoes squarely into the rank grass.

Jan’s breathing slowed while his attention fastened on the river before him. There were animal and bird sounds as well as the gurgling noise the water made. The air smelt of old leaves, mud and mould. He squinted through the fog at the gliding face of the water. He stood up and walked a few paces along the bank. Then he stopped and squatted on a low stone at the water’s edge. He extended his arms between his knees, balancing comfortably on his haunches, like an ancient peasant. He cupped his hands and plunged them into the river. Then he brought them back up to his face. Having sniffed experimentally, he rubbed the water into his skin, into the lines around his eyes and nose, into the corners of his mouth, into his chapped lips. He trapped and squashed some drops that ran down his neck. His hands went down again to draw more water. Cleansed and alert, he leaned forward and stared at the water’s surface, searching. A third time his hands went down, but now instead of piercing its surface, he suspended them palms down, fingers splayed, thumbs almost touching the water, a nail’s breadth from the river. His eyes opened wider, their balls and lids bathing in the fog, his mouth narrowed to a pout. A coaxing smile flickered on Jan’s lips, and his hands commenced a slow regular stroking action over the water’s surface.

Minutes passed before Jan at last trembled and stood up. He turned away from the river and retraced his steps to the town, watching the colours return to the buildings as the fog lifted and the sun broke through.

It was mid afternoon when Jan let himself into his lodging. He cut himself a hank of bread and sat down at his table. Munching absent-mindedly, he regarded the scraps of paper before him.

He tore a clean sheet of paper from a pad and scribbled three headings: eighty-pause summary, costume, delivery. He looked at what he had written and yawned. He looked again. The words pulsed larger then smaller, larger then smaller. He pictured his brain as a brittle-dry yellowish sponge, contracting and expanding within its shell, emitting small squelching sounds.

He pushed back the chair and stood up. Feeling faint, he cast off his coat and boots and crawled beneath the blankets on his bed. He unbuttoned his trousers and curled up, cupping his genitals in his right hand. A muscle twitched in one of his legs. He reflected that he was no longer accustomed to running.

Night was falling when Jan awoke. He adjusted his clothes and left the lodging. He crossed the busy street picking dust from his eyes, and walked to a grocer’s shop. He opened the door and went in.

The shopkeeper stood at the counter, scratching his head and prodding some papers with a pencil stub. His niece, Irina, was bent over a crate on the floor, selecting some over-ripe pieces of fruit for home. They both looked up as the door opened.

‘Hello Jan,’ the shopkeeper said. ‘Where have you been?’

‘I’ve been busy,’ Jan murmured.

Irina, her eyes glinting with laughter, interjected, ‘Jan’s on a strict diet, trying to get even thinner. That’s why he’s abandoned us. Next time he mislays his door-key, he’ll be able slip in through the keyhole.’ She showed a row of large white teeth.

Jan looked away. He could have kissed her there and then in front of her uncle, a lush kiss on a flushing cheek. He would love to run his tongue over her teeth.

Winking at his niece, the shopkeeper said, ‘It’ll be his fault if we go broke, you know. He ought to realize how we depend on his custom. There’s no one else who buys so many lentils and chick peas.’

Piqued by the teasing, Jan blurted, ‘I’ve been at the agency each morning, and researching each afternoon.’ Before they could poke fun, he announced, ‘And I’ve been selected.’

Irina and her uncle stopped what they were doing to congratulate him. The shopkeeper grabbed his hand and wouldn’t let go and Irina kissed him on the cheek. It was their first touch.

‘If it’s Tomec you’re looking for, I saw him go up a while ago.’

Jan thanked Irina, and loped to the door. He prepared a foolish parting smile for her, but she’d bent down again over the fruit.

He went to the back of the shop and climbed an iron staircase that clung precariously to the rear of the building. On the second tiny landing he stopped and knocked on the door facing him. He looked up at a darkening sky, and waited for a response.

Tomec and Sarah were in bed together, naked and enlaced. Tomec looked up at Sarah to gauge her opinion. She shrugged and gripped him tighter and shook her head and whispered, ‘They’ll come back. Stay – don’t you dare move.’

Jan knocked again.

‘Who in hell is it?’ Tomec yelled, his brows corrugating. Sarah sighed loudly, but moved against him, still pursuing her pleasure. He could have kept silent, damn it.

‘It’s Jan!’

There was a long pause. Tomec swore and cleared his throat. Sarah rolled off Tomec and onto her side. Tomec saw her slim arms pull a pillow down over her tousled head. He leant over her and caressed her back and buttocks. Her hand on the pillow formed a fist.

‘Let me in!’ Jan implored. ‘I’ve got to talk to you.’

A glass clinked. There was no reply.

‘I need your professional help,’ Jan said, imparting a theatrical emphasis to the word ‘professional’.

‘You’ve chosen a fine moment to surface,’ Tomec called out.

With his ear pressed to the door, Jan heard a whispered exchange, a hiss of dissension inside the flat. Jan leant back against the railing. How could he know what time of day they fucked?

‘I’ll come round at nine tomorrow morning,’ Tomec said.

Jan walked away.

Under the quilt, Tomec and Sarah turned to kiss and fondle. The fading light through the curtains freckled the scowling, pouting portraits that were pinned to the walls, making them seem less stern. The floor was strewn with unfinished sketches. Discarded clothes draped the bedside chairs. Clamped to an easel was an unfinished portrait of Sarah in charcoal. The eyes were too large, the nose too fine. The room smelt of tar and turpentine, with a hint of liquorice.

Jan returned to his lodgings, satisfied. He tidied his room, and cleaned and dusted. When everything was back in its allotted place, he stood and surveyed his surroundings. Sober but adequate, he told himself. Nothing superfluous. Three photos on the wall, one poster.

He sat at his desk and, from a side drawer, withdrew a copy of his typescript.

For two hours he reread it, skipping back and forth, taking the occasional note on a piece of paper, circling a word or leaving a cross in a margin. He jotted a list of the principal events, in order of occurrence.

Sometimes he got up and paced between the window and the door, talking quietly to himself. Then he would sit down again and scribble for several minutes before returning to peruse his typescript. By the time he turned in for the night, he had covered several sheets of notepaper under each of his three headings: summary, costume, delivery.

The next morning. Tomec awoke him, shouting from the landing, ‘Are you in? It’s past nine. You’ve overslept.’

Jan called out, ‘the door’s open’, and swung into a sitting position on the edge of his bed.

Tomec strode straight to the bed and held out a large rough hand.

Jan shook it perfunctorily and thanked him for coming, then pulled on his clothes, motioning Tomec to the table.

Tomec was five years older than Jan, taller than him, broader and straighter-backed. His hair was darker than Jan’s, and thicker. He had large twinkling eyes framed by crow’s feet. He wore a broad untrimmed moustache, and carried a wooden case. The old clothes he wore expressed an air of easy flamboyance.

In a matter of seconds, Tomec’s gaze had penetrated every corner and crevice of Jan’s lodgings. He wore the confidence of the acknowledged artist and the masculine vigour of a man who was loved. It was as if Sarah were always beside him – transfusing him with her wit, beauty and unpredictability.

While Jan busied himself with his laces, he followed several invidious, unworthy, yet powerfully restorative phrases through his mind. ‘It is me they have selected. Tomec may be happy and successful, but some say his work is shallow, even derivative. It may not last. Not that I can judge. Success is in any case contemptible.’

Deferring any closer examination of the matter, Jan turned to face Tomec. He had steeled himself to smile and seem friendly. Sitting opposite Tomec, he could now radiate magnanimity. Tomec was observing him closely.

‘So, it’s happened,’ Tomec said.

‘It was only a matter of time.’

Tomec nodded.

‘I’ll need your help with the costume and make-up,’ Jan resumed. ‘The contest is tomorrow.’

‘That soon! Have you any ideas?’

‘Of course.’

Tomec pulled up a chair. Jan leant forward and spoke conspiratorially.

‘I want you to make a sketch.’

Tomec took a pad of paper and a box of crayons from his case.

‘The person – or creature – I wish to resemble has long brown hair swept back straight from a broad forehead. His eyes are blue, like mine, but smaller and darker. The blue must stand out clearly against the white of the eye. The nose is long and pointed, the lips mere pencil lines, the mouth a tiny hole, almost circular.’

‘Not so fast,’ warned Tomec, sketching with bold short strokes.

‘What is the skin like… on its face?’

Jan half-closed his eyes, impeded by a recalcitrant memory. Tomec shifted on his chair.

‘It must be clean-shaven with a perfect complexion: my spots must disappear for the evening. If any colour at all, his skin is green, like a river moss. But it mustn’t seem in any way fragile or sickly.’

Tomec picked a light green and a dark cream crayon from his case. ‘And its cheeks… could you describe them to me?’

‘Empty, toothless,’ Jan replied.

Tomec sucked in his cheeks experimentally. ‘That’s fine, but unless you’d like your teeth extracted – you’ll have to learn to suck in your cheeks while dropping your lower jaw.’

‘You don’t seem to approve,’ Jan said.

‘Certainly I do. But there are limits to what I can do.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Jan snapped, rising from his chair, beginning to pace.

Tomec continued sketching, offering no reply. Jan needed his help, after all. Tomec was doing him a favour. Jan sat down again, with one leg tucked beneath him.

Tomec worked in silence for several minutes, occasionally looking up at Jan. At one point he said, ‘Don’t take offence, Jan, but it’s not going to be easy to give you a finely chiselled nose and tiny mouth.’

‘I said long and pointed,’ Jan said.

More minutes passed before Tomec showed Jan the sketch. The two men looked at it together for a few seconds, each holding one side. Then Jan got up and took it to the window with him. His eyes filled with tears. He swallowed hard, trying to make them vanish again. It was an almost perfect likeness. He shook his head in admiration of his friend’s skill.

‘Not bad at all,’ Jan said, returning to his chair, embarrassed. ‘But the face needs to be longer and thinner. It needs to start higher up. And the look should be more penetrating, steelier. Don’t forget how big that hall is. I must be seen and sensed in the farthest seat.’

Tomec muttered ‘face starts higher up,’ took back the sketch, and resumed work. He continued making alterations until Jan declared he was satisfied.

Looking from the sketch to Jan and back again, Tomec said, ‘All right. It can be done. Obviously we don’t have time to create a full mask; besides, the eyes are more or less okay. I’ll add to the tip of your nose a little, and try and straighten it out a bit, and I’ll have to build around that huge mouth of yours – no offence – and paint out the lips. I know where I can get the wig. You must give yourself a very close and even shave to an inch above your natural hairline, not neglecting to remove your eyebrows. I’ll shift your whole forehead up a bit, as it were. What about costume?’

‘Baggy green satin trousers drawn in tight at the waist, a loose-fitting black t-shirt, and a yellow cotton jacket. I shall be wearing padding to enlarge my hips and to round out my chest. I know where to get what I need.’

‘Isn’t it a little dated?’ Tomec queried.

‘Dated and pompous,’ Jan replied testily. ‘That’s the effect I’m seeking.’

Tomec nodded.

‘I hear they’ve asked everyone for a fixed-length summary this time. That’s a new tack, isn’t it? How are you going to deliver it?’

‘More than anything else, I want my performance to inspire.’ Jan pronounced ‘inspire’ slowly, letting it float on the air. ‘How long will it take to get me ready?’

Tomec replaced his sketch in his case and stood up.

‘Come round to my flat tomorrow afternoon and bring everything you need. You can go straight on. Allow three hours.’

After Tomec had left, Jan reached for his typescript and the notes he had scribbled the previous evening. He glanced through them absent-mindedly, then extracted a clean sheet of paper from his desk drawer. He looked toward the window, through which bright sunshine was flooding. His stomach rumbled and his neck ached. He wanted air and exercise.

Jan left his lodging and walked to the market, where he purchased a loaf and a lump of cheese. Taking alternate bites, he made his way to the park. The streets were garish in the spring sun, and in the park the frost was melting from the grass.

He walked slowly round the pond, observing the ducks. He tried to concentrate on one duck at a time, but his attention kept straying to another. He found he was unable to return his gaze to the previous duck with any confidence that he wasn’t making a mistake. He abandoned his efforts when, beyond the ducks, on the opposite side of the pond, he noticed a face he found familiar. He wondered if she too had been playing his ‘one duck at a time’ game. Their looks crossed.

She was sitting on a bench by the water’s edge, a bread wrapper at her feet. Her grey-brown hair had been hacked short, as if by an army barber. At a distance, her facial features were unremarkable, but as Jan came closer he noticed that her skin looked drained and sickly, reminding him of grass left covered for several days in midsummer. She started as Jan took the place beside her on the bench.

He offered the woman the remainder of his loaf. She took the bread and began to tear off and cast fragments of it into the water. The ducks splashed and quacked.

‘Do you manage to track one duck for long?’ Jan asked.

‘Don’t you?’ she replied, indifferent.

‘No,’ said Jan.

‘Do I know you?’ the woman asked.

‘I attended a reading you once gave. I asked you whether your celebrated “plain style” cost you much effort – whether you did a lot of rewriting. You replied that obsessive rewriting was symptomatic of a neurosis more typical of men than of women.’

‘I could be blunt in those days.’

The woman took Jan’s left hand in both of hers and began to stroke it. Unaccustomed to human touch, Jan fought an impulse to recoil. His soft and small hand, like dough left to rise, lay limp beneath her caresses.’

I’ve been summoned to contend tomorrow,’ he declared, looking down at his hand in hers.

The woman smiled.

‘I’ve decided on my costume and delivery. The problem is the summary. Eighty pauses. With such a constraint, how can I possibly avoid obsessive rewriting?’

The woman lifted Jan’s left hand, as if it were a dead bird, and re-placed it on his thigh, patting it softly twice.

‘I don’t see how I can help you,’ she said.

Jan waited, certain that the writers’ pedagogic vocation would overcome the individual’s particular habit of silence. Sure enough, the woman heaved a sigh and said, ‘Tell me about your story. Not the events, just the picture or idea that set you off.’

Could Jan trust the woman not to be unkind? Any unkindness might jinx his mood; he had no time to waste on melancholy: the contest was tomorrow. ‘Take your time,’ the woman said.

What had set him off? Jan asked himself.

‘On the surface, the story is a simple account of a man’s adult life. It is an endurably interesting life, and not a wholly unhappy one. But the abundance and variety of lovers, occupations, friends, and situations that this person experiences, steadily diminishes him instead of enriching him.’

Jan paused, and looked uncertainly at his companion. She seemed interested enough. Each word he pronounced jarred on his ears and revolted him, seeming a half-truth, a travesty, a renunciation. How could he write and yet hate language so? He began again.

‘What I wished to describe… without ever formulating it in these terms… in fact I’m trying to state it now for the first time… was a life in which at a certain point… at a moment when the man appears to be at the height of his powers… in control… the character… his character, instead of developing and solidifying, begins to flake away… almost physically… bits go missing: for example… his ability to concentrate, or his habit of feeling love for a parent or friend. Everything falls apart: relationships, experiences, even emotions lose their roots in the past and their links with each other… Little by little, over a period of years, like complex machines, they break down into their elements, into units of attitude, experience, friendship: for example, unprompted laughter, irrelevant movements, a concatenation of uncoordinated words and names, a shambles of images. And the person’s role in all of this becomes that of an onlooker while remaining also that of subject. So this person is relentlessly divested of all shelter… an involuntary strip-tease of the spirit. It may be a hackneyed lament, but words and comparisons fail me.’

‘They do indeed. So try harder,’ the woman said.

Jan began again at once. ‘While I was writing, I had in my mind the image of swaddling bands working loose as the baby writhes and wriggles. Except that this particular baby is adult and grotesque.’

The woman chewed on nothingness and waited.

‘Eventually even basic physical preferences for certain kinds of weather, music, and food vanish. I chronicle the whole process, from his professional and personal successes in middle life, granted to him precisely as a reward for the process of disintegration that is occurring in his soul, to his eventual ascent into what passes conventionally as madness.’

Jan stopped, wishing he had said enough.

‘How does it end?’ the woman asked, looking at the pond.

‘Eventually, despite his efforts, he loses the precious ability to conform… to observe conventions. So, having already lost all inner landmarks, he now loses his work, his associations, acquaintances, and so on. Then – and this is his real blunder – he returns to the places of his infancy, in a futile quest for understanding, or for something solid and inalienably his own. What he discovers on his arrival is that he can recognize nothing, that everything has gone, or has changed. Then, like a drunkard, he begins to rave, spewing out disjointed odds and ends of memories, exhausting himself to the point of death.’

Jan had finished. He grinned at the woman. She had a reply ready.

‘Well, that’s all fine. But my strictures on overwriting might serve you well. If you’re not careful, you will torture your brain over the position of each word, and count how many adjectives you have in each line, and check a hundred times that you’ve included each vital ingredient, and then you’ll cut and add, and thrust the text this way and that, and twist and withdraw and go at it again, panting to control and manipulate, dominate and hold and nail down your summary. But if you do this, you will subdue the main idea – even in your attempt to give it voice. So fill your mind again as you have just now, but take one point or episode as your centre and then, holding the pause-limit firmly at the very back of your mind, write, no, dictate, no, better still, declaim your summary, in just the way that you intend to do tomorrow, with such attention and sensuousness that your listeners will find your eighty pauses a generous allowance indeed. That, in any case, is how I should write it.’

Jan thanked the woman, but she waved him away as a fly, dismissed him as a distraction from the ducks and the pond life before her.

3.

In the centre of town, the huge wooden hall was sucking in through its flung-open iron doors an audience for the evening’s contest. Society had turned out its pockets to give the hopefuls a hearing. Poets and thieves arrived in taxis; bankers and derelicts carrying umbrellas; hacks and whores in disguises; peasants and workers on foot and by cart; pensioners in wheelchairs and newborns in prams; flower-sellers and critics clutching flora and notepads; family men with one expression each, and new-fangled perverts; eye-loose priests of all persuasions; women of all complexions; delinquents, dentists, lepers, and judges. It was a jocular and boisterous crowd: groups formed and separated as they shoved and elbowed their way up the stone steps outside and, once inside, as they struggled for the better seats; they chattered and sang snatches of good-natured song. People who, when viewed outside, had been identifiable by their looks, clothes, gait, or accents, as politicians or mechanics or children or blind men; who had been classifiable according to age, occupation, gender, looks, or temperament; lost, once inside the hall, all distinguishing features, and thus lost all restraint, everyone mingling, the whores to judge, the judges to thieve, the thieves to preach, the priests to whore: the young hobbled and tottered, the old crawled and puked. While he town waited for the gala to begin, its proud members traded jokes, infections, addresses, possessions, loved-ones, and long-cherished ideals.

Jan’s taxi arrived at the hall on time. He got out carefully, holding the eighty-pause summary of his novel folded like a charm small and hard in the palm of his hand. He was beautiful. His face, hair and costume had been arranged to perfection: the eyes flashed attentiveness and reserve, the scaled-down pouting mouth announced self-assurance, the lofty brow testified to thoughtfulness and nobility, the long fine nose intimated delicacy and sensibility, the flowing hair and rippling robes bespoke wealth and sensuality: he had turned into an open book, subject to the perusal of all comers.

Jan went round to the side of the hall and knocked on a door marked Artists Exit. A woman in crimson lipstick opened the door a crack and looked him up and down in the half-light. Her face relaxed into friendliness. ‘You look like you might be the winning contestant,’ she said to him. Jan narrowed his eyes in confusion, then nodded. ‘Then you’re on time,’ the woman said, throwing open the door and adding, with a barely perceptible smirk, ‘The other winners all turned up half an hour early, perspiring like walruses.’

Jan stepped through the door and into the first of many long strip-lit corridors, down which the woman silently led him. At last, after descending a flight of slippery-carpeted stairs, with the roar of the auditorium growing steadily louder, Jan and his guide reached a series of unmarked doors. Opening one of these, she ushered Jan into a bare mean waiting-room and left him there alone, saying, ‘They’ll come for you when they’re ready.’

‘Are there many others before me?’ Jan asked.

‘Four before… and none after,’ the woman said, anticipating Jan’s next question.

The hall had filled up and the doors had had to be secured on the outside to prevent overcrowding. There was a lull in the auditorium as a middle-aged fat man walked onto the stage from the wings bearing a stack of seven chairs. The audience fizzed with whispering as he lined six of them at regular intervals mid-stage, and then positioned the seventh near the edge of the stage, at the far left. As the fat man climbed down into the auditorium, disappearing from most people’s view, the singing, dancing, fighting and revelry broke out as before.

The fat man battled his way up and down the crammed aisles, looking purposefully at everybody he encountered. The first person he stopped at was a tall tanned young man in bathing-trunks who was showing off a large body upholstered with a strikingly over-developed system of muscles. The muscled man, from each of whose biceps there hung a pretty girl, was enjoying being photographed by a small man in a much smaller suit, and became very irate when he learnt that he’d been chosen as judge, and stubbornly refused to go up on stage. The fat man took him to one side, something was seen rapidly to change hands, whereupon the muscled man shook off the girls and climbed to the stage.

The next-chosen was a poorly dressed woman who squatted in her voluminous skirts in the middle of an aisle devouring fresh sprats from a paper bag. Around her, like hounds upon a wounded fox, there scampered a mob of mischievous waifs. Her face contorted with feeble threats and curses as she sought to fend them off with one free fist. On being chosen by the fat man, she hauled herself to her feet, and launched the remaining sprats at the starvelings. She smoothed her skirts and swaggered to the stage, chest aloft and blushing.

The fat man waded through half the hall, stopping at several people of uncommon appearance, until he found his third judge. It was an adolescent who now had caught his eye: a young man of quite ordinary aspect — except for his spots. Of these he had many a score (counting only that small portion of his body available to inspection), running from his brow to his chin, where, having thrown a ring right around his throat, they vanished beneath an open blue nylon shirt. Several of the spots were of large proportions, especially at the edges of the adolescent’s mouth, eyes and nose, with heads quite the size of currants. But there were a multitude of lesser spots as well, squeezed in between the larger ones. He was sitting entertaining a laughing circle of friends but, when sighted and selected, though a little bashful, strode manfully to the stage and took his seat, to joyous applause from his party.

The fourth person selected was a young black-haired girl whose face, in repose, was of peculiar beauty, and whom the fat judge-selector had espied sitting on her own at the top of the gallery, apparently sunk in fathomless meditation. Contrasting with her dark complexion were the bluest of blue eyes, as deep and sorrowful as wells. Her nose was as ‘classical’ as any romantic novelist might wish; her expression was a very paean to innocence and modesty; she possessed a neck like that of a swan, the forehead of a lily, lips like cherries, the breast, no doubt, of any fair young maid: she was, in short, in repose, a beauty bewitching to behold and mysterious to contemplate. When roused, however, by the fat man from her reverie, and notified that she had been chosen to sit in judgement, her ‘Greek’ nose puckered peevishly, her lily-like forehead creased in contempt, her cherry lips contracted in an ugly moue, while she slouched to the stage with an arresting display of ill grace and worse humour. Visibly discountenanced, the fat man shouted out loudly to call her back, but it was too late. Even at two paces, nothing could be heard above the hubbub. The fat man resumed his search.

He now looked further afield, but at fewer people, scrutinizing only the elderly. After several minutes of wandering hopelessly around the hall, he discovered against the wall at the back of the stalls an old couple tenderly embracing. He tapped the individual nearer to him on the back, and the pair unlocked, and blinked up at him. The old man, a bearded hunchback, adjusted the spectacles that passion had unseated from his nose. His bride, by no means devoid of charm, was a spidery being, with few teeth, and an almost bald pate. The man wore off-white piss-stained trousers, and she a maternity frock. The fat man’s belly wobbled as he heaved a sigh of relief. He consulted a watch that he pulled from his trouser pocket, then his features assumed a decision-taking fixture, and he announced his invitation to the couple, which they accepted meekly, as who should say, ‘When the call comes, one must perform one’s civic duties’.

As each judge quitted the auditorium and took his or her chair on the stage, the audience grew calmer, each member thereof disengaging and growing distinct from his or her neighbour: priests rediscovered their vocation, thieves remembered to pick pockets, married men resumed their fixed stares. When the old pair, the fifth and sixth judges, had finished helping each other onto the stage, the process was suddenly complete: the audience was quiet, each spectator sitting frostily alone, like puritans in chapel eyeball to eyeball with Conscience. The panel of judges was ready and attentive. The fat man was ensconced in his adjudicator’s seat near the edge of the stage.

The first contestant, in the costume of a furry dog, issued abruptly from behind a curtain at the back of the stage. Bounding up to the fat man at the far left of the stage, it raised itself onto its hind paws, and recited in a succession of excited but intelligible woofs the summary of a story that recounted the adventures of a pack of organized and obedient hounds. The themes of ‘war’, ‘ambition’, ‘love’, ‘honour’ and ‘self-sacrifice’ were all adumbrated and woven into a plot that contained no hint of allegory or whiff of irony. As the first contestant finished its set-piece and padded toward the exit, the classically beautiful (in repose) girl-judge slid from her chair onto all fours and blocked its path, growling and baring her canines. Taking this as its cue, the dog shot round to the judge’s delectable rump and, wedging its nose between her buttocks, snorted hard. The two chased each other round in a ring, arse to face and face to arse as dogs will, until the contestant saw that its way was clear and so departed, lifting a leg in spurious micturition. The audience thundered its applause, while the judge returned to her seat. She produced a comb from a pocket and adjusted her beauty, while the muscled judge leaned over and whispered something in her ear. The show continued.

The second contestant appeared undisguised, in the casual garb of the ‘déclassé intellectual’ of the period: white silk scarf, black leather jacket, gilt-rimmed glasses, ex-army boots, deep-pile corduroys. He shook hands with each of the judges in turn, before walking over to introduce himself to the fat man. He approached the contestant’s chair and, standing by it, began to explain his summary, ‘in order’, he said, ‘to facilitate the reception of its various levels of encoding and shades of signification.’ His summary, when at length he came to it, proved to be an attempt to recapitulate the principal moments of contemporary history (not to mention philosophy, anthropology, and philology) and to interpret them in the light of a numerological theory that had been revealed to him during attendance at a celebrated university. The instant he had begun his preface, the two oldest judges had placed their chairs exactly opposite one another, in such a way that they now sat side-on to the auditorium, and had put their heads together so that their lips just touched. Throughout the young man’s performance, their lips never stopped moving, hers lightly brushing against his. As the contestant spoke his last word, they separated and smacked their lips. With a knowing smile, the old man nodded to the old lady, who then stood up and declaimed: ‘Seven hundred and seven pauses, introduction included. Six hundred and seven too many. Disqualified on grounds of prolixity.’ And sat down again. The other judges giggled, and rowdy arguments and even fistfights erupted in the auditorium over the justice of their action. Was it fair to count the preface as part of the second contestant’s show? Stewards were obliged to intervene and a retired stock-broker had to be rushed to hospital with a semi-detached earlobe. The second contestant challenged the ruling of the judges, who sneered that he was making matters worse by further adding to his pause-score. He then strode across the stage to where the fat man was comfortably sitting, and endeavoured to reason with him. ‘The more pauses you make the more hopeless your case becomes’, was all the fat man would vouchsafe. The intellectual refused to hear reason, and the fat man decided to take action. Placing a thumb and middle-finger nonchalantly in his mouth, he manufactured a piercing whistle which brought the spiky-haired woman running onto the stage. She seized the contestant by the elbow and led him away manu militari.

The third contestant was masquerading as a naked hermaphrodite. Over skin-tight latex, he-and-she wore spectacularly cumbersome breasts and combined genitalia. With eloquent mime and dance and strategically located words, he-and-she performed the tale of a bored and unfulfilled house-locked hermaphrodite who, following seduction by his-and-her elder sibling, gained artistic freedom and sexual contentment and won recognition for his-and-her being, and, despite the apparently ill stacked odds, succeeded in leading a life of harmless abandon, which nevertheless came to an end one day, whereupon he-and-she settled down as a responsible citizen and parent and decided to turn his-and-her not inconsiderable talents to teaching and part-time sex counselling — for which métier he-and-she was — it can hardly be denied — rather uniquely suited. Considerable restraint had until now been shown, but as soon as the third contestant finished rejigging and fiddling with his-and-her appendages, and the last word had been spoken, the audience demonstrated their brutish intolerance by booing and hissing and slinging rotten eggs and tomatoes onto the stage. The fishwife stood up and walked over to the contestant and said something to him-and-her, upon which he-and-she recoiled and — a tad incautiously? — slapped the judge full in the face, before blurting that he-and-she was sorry. All six judges put their heads together to discuss in proper committee fashion all matters arising from and pursuant upon the third contestant’s performance. Several minutes passed before the spotty judge’s bewildered curiosity could be sated, but at last this too was accomplished. The fourth contestant was summoned.

She arrived with many a flourish and delivered a stirring set of verses about a striving writer, her hardships, self-doubts, poetic inspirations, insights, compassion for suffering humanity, and all the rest of the usual cavalcade of cant; and about how, by dint of hard work and long hours, she had at last become famous. At the culminating word of her summary — publication — this aesthete pirouetted on the tips of her toes, closed her eyes, lifted aloft her outstretched arms, clenched her fists, and shook herself at the audience. The muscled judge, no doubt responding to the fourth contestant’s provocative display of strength, rose from his chair and, with a crafty wink to his fellow-judges (in particular to the classically beautiful (in repose) girl sitting next to him, walked to the contestant’s chair and addressed the aesthete. ‘Do you identify with your character, or do you just report on the human condition as you find it?’ The aesthete nodded enthusiastically but remained quite mute, her mouth gaping. The muscled man tried again. ‘I mean: how much of YOU is there in that story?’ ‘Oh!’ said the aesthete, ‘100 percent! I can assure you. I put my all into that story. My all, my all. That story IS me! Every word is the truth.’ At this, the muscled man swivelled round to face the jury, flashed them a smile fit for the wife of any uxorious dentist, and declared for all to hear: ‘I saw through it at once. This is not fiction at all. I rest my case.’ With many a bow to the cheering audience, the muscled man strutted back to his chair to await the fifth contestant. The aesthete left the stage, scratching her head in puzzlement, knowing a trick had been worked on her, but clearly unable to comprehend how.

Back-stage, the spiky-haired woman opened the waiting-room door and said to Jan: ‘Come on now boy. Your turn.’ Jan stood up and followed her out of the room and along several corridors until they were in the wings, ready to go on. The woman pointed at a hanging curtain and said, ‘It’s through there.’ A shudder ran through him, just as he had known it must, and he paused with one hand on the curtain’s edge. He turned round to ask a question but the woman had vanished. He stepped through the curtain and walked out onto the stage edge, duly and gratefully dazed by the spotlights.

Ever since the fourth contestant’s exit, the audience had begun to show signs of fatigue. They stretched and yawned and shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A snaking queue had formed to the left of the auditorium outside the Ladies. At Jan’s arrival, the crowd rippled with renewed interest, which was swiftly translated into pointing, nudging, murmuring, and craning.

Jan stood silently at the contestant’s chair and the judges filed past him, peering into his face as into a slowly flowing river. Some of them took liberties with his person. The girl-judge kissed him on what she assumed were his lips, but, on contact with cold plaster, started back in revulsion. Her fingers flew to her own lips which she proceeded to squeeze and pinch. The ancient woman took a fold of Jan’s trousers between two bony fingers and felt its quality, signalling her appreciation with an eloquent grunt. This dumbshow terminated, her consort rotated Jan by his shoulders through ninety degrees in order to observe his profile. The spotty judge grabbed hold of Jan’s jacket at the lapels and jerked it open. He ran his fingers over Jan’s chest. As Jan rebuttoned his jacket and the spotty judge returned to his seat, the fishwife walked round him several times and asked him if he had any brothers or sisters. He admitted to one sister. In exchange for this intelligence, the fishwife told him her own name, then withdrew. The muscled judge stood right up against Jan, like a sergeant-major on parade, the tips of their shoes and noses almost touching. He peered into Jan’s suffering eyes for all the world as if he had mislaid a priceless memory there, and then marched nervously back to his seat, striking his forehead with the palm of his left hand, and patting down his trouser-front with his right hand.

Jan had endured these sundry attentions with forbearance. The audience was almost silent now and the judges had all settled back in their seats. The fat man on his chair at the edge of the stage awoke from his snoring. Jan withdrew his typescript from an inside pocket in his jacket, and hauled a huge breath of air deep into his lungs. He timed the instant at which the audience expected him to start speaking, counted to ten beneath his breath, listened to the hall as it began to buzz with expectation, then raised the paper before him, and began. Each mouthful he spoke — sometimes one word, sometimes two or three words compounded — was pronounced evenly and at second intervals, as if quite independent of any predecessors or successors. His voice struck out in the silence with the reverberating regularity of a metronome, a heavy accent falling on the first syllable of every word or word group. He seemed never to pause to catch his breath, never to alter his tone of voice. Each mouthful fell like a charge from his lips, unburdening and relieving him, and entered like a puff of air the ears of all his ravished listeners, bloating their bodies. These are the words and the groups of words that he spoke, in the order in which he spoke them:

towngrown castout cripple burstfrom buildings workshops

townships crawledthrough rubble briars forests draggingbody

fought wildbeasts cutthroats gathered berries leavings

rodents told lifelong timeworn unheard stories sleptin

churchyards ditches abandonedbuildings frightened children

neighbours animals dreamtof childhood firstloves fucking

reaped insults beatings mercy raving hoarsely tirelessly

‘rrivedat cliff-face latespring earlymorning clambered slipping

handhold panting foothold foundnook rocktops stormwaves

rested undeceived rapture seals tonguetied breakers

cormorants chanted songs verses epitaphs swearing

names facts formulas dying enacted curses proverbs

reelingoff dialogues remembered laughing gasping Seagroan

As the final live mouthfuls tore their passage through the ears and into the bodies of the listeners, the accumulated swelling suffered by the judges became unbearable and they prayed that each utterance might be the last. The muscled judge’s upholstery rippled and flexed despite valiant efforts to relax it. The girl-judge’s midriff bulged and palpitated so that, grimacing with pain, she clutched at it and whimpered pitiably. The adolescent’s spots grew and advanced, young ones rapidly maturing and new ones springing into existence on the summons of each expression: the resultant pricking sensation caused the youth to shake his head from side to side in a futile attempt to alleviate the discomfort. The fishwife’s throat throbbed and her veins stood out like hosing, as she hugged her stomach and began to retch. The old man’s orange trousers tented over the evidence of a burgeoning erection. He grasped and squeezed his glans through trousers and underclothing, hoping thus to reverse or at least to stem the hectic flow of blood to his genitals. The ancient woman, by the time Jan had got half way through his delivery, was enjoying regular contractions, attended by a volunteer midwife from the audience.

As Jan uttered the last word of his summary, the crone gave instantaneous birth to a screaming baby; the trousers of her ancient lover, as his chair toppled backwards, darkened from the explosion of his semen; the fishwife vomited her supper of sprats into her billowing skirts; the boy’s spots erupted, spurting their scalding stuffing in all directions, leaving nought but frayed craters behind them; the girl-judge released the liquid contents of her tripes on the floor behind her chair; the muscled man’s upholstery of flesh ripped away from its moorings, broke out from under its diaphanous veil of skin, like the meat of a hastily roasted shoulder of lamb.

The entire audience bubbled and frothed with rapture and invention, creating, in passing, impromptu art in dance, song and poetry, never to be repeated, imitated, published or broadcast; bodies melted and were recast all in an instant; minds assumed fresh shapes, migrated to new craniums, struck new poses, became nomadic; souls disintegrated before the discovery of their native madness; couples-multiples-innumerables made incongruous love in the aisles, stalls and circles; belongings, relations, flesh, and language were confounded, stripped apart, redistributed, refashioned, stripped apart again, in both hellish and heavenly abandon.

Throughout his delivery, Jan had stood motionless and without expression. His mouth alone had moved — while taking care not to demolish Tomec’s handiwork. Yet, by the end of the summary, no one who looked at him could fail to notice the change that had overtaken him. Like ageing, it was a process at once so gradual and so thoroughgoing as to be observed not in its present workings but only in its accumulated effects. In short, whereas Jan had stood boldly upright and massed large at the beginning of his delivery, as it drew to a close he began to sag and buckle: his clothes hung from him as from a clothes horse; the skin over his face and hands wrinkled and fell loose from the bone beneath; the voice that had been resonant at the beginning rang plangent and brittle by the end.

And now, as he raised his eyes from his paper and viewed the judges and the audience and witnessed the upheavals and revolutions that were taking place on all sides, Jan was amazed and took fright. He walked among the judges and tried to ease their pains and hasten their recovery. He asked the midwife if he could be of assistance, offered the ancient man his handkerchief to wipe himself clean. He launched himself into the audience urging calm, and pleading for restraint and order. But on all sides he was met with mockery, and impatience. Who was he, who had caused such distress…? Returning to the stage, Jan surveyed the chaos before him, turned his back, and fled the hall.

The judges and audience now recovered. Muscles and skin returned to their accustomed moorings, lightened and refreshed by their recent removals. An old man’s shrunken penis dropped gracefully between his withered thighs; a bright-faced old woman bounced on her knees a beaming girlchild; a fishwife refreshed herself with water and cleansed her clothing; a pretty girl ran skittish and joyful, bending and bouncing from person to person; a spotless boy left the stage and went to greet his comrades in the now tranquil auditorium, proud of his handsome scars, the marks of a returning hero.

Jan sprang from the hall’s stage door into the cooling night air, rushed down the alley, skipped round the rats that gnawed and tugged at half-gutted bin bags, hurdled over a castle of cardboard boxes, scrambled over a fence, and scaled a wall. On the other side, he lowered himself slowly into a busy high-street. The passers-by moved away as he touched down on the pavement, their friendly-seeming ranks closing back around him like sewer water on a freshly arrived turd. He let himself be dragged along by the current of bodies; once or twice he was caught in a swirl of people turning a corner, and had to elbow, shove and plead, just to hold his straight course. Yet he rejoiced in the jostling and kneading that he received from the indifferent press of strangers encircling him. After twenty minutes in its maw, the crowd cast him up and moved on without him toward the river-front. Jan stood alone, beached in front of a bar, running with shivering sweat and aching with thirst.

For more than a minute, he collected his thoughts, then entered the bar and sat down at the counter. His mind entertained a confusion of images. He looked around for confirmation or denial of his whereabouts. The upturned bottles, the mirrors, the people seated at grubby leopardskin-patterned tables, the cigarette ends on the floor: everything was pleasingly unfamiliar.

When the waitress asked him if he wanted a beer he nodded. When she set the beer before him on the bar he pulled out some coins and paid. Lingering, she surveyed him as he lifted the glass to his lips. He drank with care, aware of her attention and keen to preserve Tomec’s handiwork.

‘Should I know you?’ he asked, embarrassed by her stare.

‘Where did you get that face from?’

‘Seen it before?’ Jan asked.

‘Might have,’ she said.

The outlines of several plausible lies flitted through Jan’s mind, but for once he had no energy for lies.

‘The face is temporary: for one evening only.’

But the waitress wouldn’t let it go at that. She continued to eye him intently. He pictured himself as an interesting exhibit, an ant perhaps that she might view through the lens of her beer glass.

He saw a beauty spot on the side of her nose and said, ‘I saw this face on the surface of the river, and a friend helped me… fish it out.’

She put the glass down. ‘Shame it’s temporary,’ she said. ‘I rather liked it.’

The bar filled and emptied, filled and emptied. At first, couples came, and then groups of children, then a bevy of sailors, then several prostitutes. Jan got bored listening to their conversations, and watching their posturing. A thousand evenings had ended this same way – in his life, alone. A walk along the river, a drink and then home. The waitress returned regularly to refill his glass, but no word passed between them.

The bar fell quiet: the sailors, prostitutes, couples and children all left. A few lone drinkers sat huddled over the racing press. Jan climbed off the stool, walked unsteadily to the door and peered through its panes.

The night was clear and bright and the streets looked deserted. A woman was walking toward him, toward the bar. He was slow to realize that she wished to come in. He stepped back awkwardly and opened the door for her: an unintentional act of courtesy.

As he looked back out onto the street, she asked him, ‘Are you sober?’

‘Near enough,’ he replied.

She was an aged woman of unusual appearance. Her eyes flickered, and her broken-veined cheeks seemed to shine like pale lampshades, translucent. Her right arm was missing from the shoulder, and her left one was bent across her body, immobilized in frayed and grubby plaster from above the elbow. She was conventionally, conservatively, dressed.

‘If you’re sober, I’ll buy you a drink,’ she said, turning her back on him before he could refuse.

As Jan caught up with her, she asked him to steady a stool while she heaved herself onto it. Reluctantly, Jan took up position on the stool next to hers. She ordered a whisky and a beer for each of them.

The waitress brought the drinks. Jan awaited instructions from the newcomer, glancing nervously at her one arm in plaster.

‘The whisky first, in two gulps,’ she said.

He picked up the whisky from the bar top, raised it to her lips and, with two sharp flicks of the wrist, emptied first one half and then the other straight into her mouth. She gulped and smacked her lips. Her eyes watered and tightened. Then she asked for some beer. Jan glimpsed himself, shrouded in nursing whites, administering the communion to a female patient and then, over the sick woman’s head, catching his vile, leering, reflection in the glass.

‘I prefer to drink alone,’ the newcomer said after a while, breaking the silence. ‘But as you can see…’

‘That’s all right,’ Jan interrupted, overcome with puerile gallantry. ‘I’m glad to be of service.’

She looked to him and cackled.

‘I’m not usually the one to start a conversation,’ she said.

Jan remained silent.

Her smile vanished. She spoke like a metronome. The waitress had approached and was listening.

‘You’re different, of course,’ she started, ‘I can see that. The last time I saw anyone with a face like yours, either they had been dead for several hours or they shaved their foreheads more regularly. Do you know that repellent little blue bristles are poking through the surface? You remind me of those shaved cats they have in… where is it…?’

Jan slid from his stool, but stood still facing her.

‘If you don’t like my face, you can find someone else to feed yours. You might even ask for a straw.’

‘Good! Good!’ the cripple-woman said, chuckling. I was beginning to think I was the only one here.’

Grinning broadly, she then coaxed Jan back onto his stool and ordered more drinks.

Refocusing her attention on Jan, the woman, ‘Listen, the bar’s not closing just yet, and you don’t have to tell me you’re not going anywhere special, so why don’t we sit and talk about old times. That’s what people do in bars, right? It’s better than trading insults.’

‘Whose old times?’ Jan asked.

‘Mine first,’ said the woman. ‘It was my idea.’

Jan looked at her but could see no more now than he had seen before. Usually, people yielded up information, willy-nilly. This woman was different. He noted her flickering eyes and broken-veined cheeks. Nothing. Meaningless. Nor could he quite say what her nose was like, or define the colour of hair. How old was she? Was she lonely? Nothing reached him, nothing fell into place.

She introduced herself as Claude, then told him about her schooldays, a younger brother she had buried long ago, miscellaneous husbands and lovers, and the wounds they had left her with, and those — much worse, she boasted — which she, in turn, had inflicted. Jan believed every scabrous word.

Describing the house she had lived in during the war, she grew tearful. Jan made mental notes. To Jan, the woman’s words were as trampolines, bouncing him back into stories, new stories, always stories. He smiled cautiously, testing the state of the plaster work round his mouth and, whenever she seemed about to grow silent, he would ask her strategic questions. A word from him could solicit a hundred from her, a well phrased question could generate an exhaustive answer. He felt brilliant again, a lottery winner, a man with a new story.

Without warning, she turned to him. She commanded, ‘Now tell me something of yourself’.

Jan balked and spluttered. When she grew insistent, he agreed to answer questions. She asked about his family, the jobs he had had, his stories. And he related the events of the previous few months: the agency, the summons to contend, the preparation, and his triumph.

By this time, the waitress was putting chairs on tables. Jan helped his acquaintance down off her stool.

Outside, Jan saw that his breath made clouds in the air. He and his companion swayed and talked on. Jan became loquacious.

The lights went out in the bar behind them, the waitress let herself out and locked the door bottom and top. She wished the pair goodnight. The clicking sound of her heels resounded down the street.

Saying she hadn’t far to walk, Jan’s acquaintance made off toward the town centre. As for Jan, he walked, somewhat unsteadily at first, toward the river embankment.

4.

And as Jan walked, his head cleared and his senses regained their customary precision. His gaze, which at first had been fixed dully on the ground before him, now turned upward and outward and he began to notice and then actively to observe the street that held him, the shops he passed, the advertisements on bus shelters, the tramps huddling in doorways and, towering over all their heads, the buildings rising either side of the street, leaning together at their tops as if for warmth, looking down as if bashful.

Jan reached the river embankment, turned right, and strolled along the deserted quayside, brushing the walled embankment with his left hand, tickling its worn stone with the tips of his fingers. At one point he stopped and leaned on the low wall, looking down on the river. The tide was out. The river was still. He moved on.

Passing a large iron bridge, he came to a stone stairway that led down. Careful not to slip or stumble, he climbed down the many steps onto the narrow belt of sand and debris that at low tide lay between the base of the embankment and the water’s oily edge. He walked on, picking his way round the obstacles that littered the shoreline, carefully avoiding the larger pieces of refuse that threatened to trip him up. Tiring of this laborious progress, he selected a wooden crate that stood in his way, caught it on the tip of his shoe, flicked it wrong-side up, and with a sigh sank down upon it.

He surveyed his position. Behind him on either side rose the grey-green ooze of the embankment wall; before him stretched the broad river; from beneath the arch of some distant bridge the sound of a practising trumpeter, interspersing his swung quavers with sudden triplets, floated upon the water. Far to his left, Jan could make out the stone steps he had climbed down and, a little way beyond them, the iron bridge which, with its wide dark back, blotted the rest of the town and much of the sky from his sight. To his right, he could see cranes and gantries, smoking chimneys, a few moored barges, and a distant mill. His feet apart, his hands clasped, his elbows on his knees, he balanced on his upturned crate, and watched the surface of the water where a lamp on the far bank slung its yellow beam across the river at his feet. A distant bell tolled three.

And as he watched the gentle undulations of the water in the sheen of light, his attention was snagged by a slight irritation at the water’s surface, then grasped by a set of ripples running outward from a central point, then frozen as he saw — simultaneously approaching the bank and rising from the water — long hair, a broad high forehead, a long narrow nose, a small mouth, a complexion of a light green hue: in short, a creature emerging from the river walking irresistibly toward him, to whose face his own appeared in every detail identical.

Jan sprang to his feet. His eyes darted right and left. Where were the nearest steps? Back? Or further on? He searched for an escape, then dashed back along the shore the way he had come a few minutes earlier, tripping in his headlong flight over the obstacles he had previously been at such pains to avoid.

Yet the creature cried out to him, saying:

‘Behold, I mean you no harm! Be not afraid!’

And when Jan, scrambling to his feet after falling, turned shyly to glance at the creature, he encountered just one side of the creature’s face lit up in the half-light, its arms reassuringly stretching out before it in welcome. Jan stood and watched as the creature now waded from the water and toward the crate where he had been sitting. It took hold of the crate, righted it, and sat down to rest, while Jan retraced his steps to meet it.

Sensing that he was not pursued, Jan took courage to approach the creature, whereupon it stood up and stepped forward steadily to meet him. It held out its river-cold hands and Jan took them in his. Their four hands linked, and they stood and scrutinized one another. Then they lowered their still-clasped hands to their sides, drawing together until they met breast to breast, face to face.

As soon as the tips of their identical noses touched, their tongues extended and they began methodically to lick and to suck at the crevices and furrows of their respective faces, to gnaw gently at the eyelids, at the entrances to nostrils, and at lips; to nibble persistently at eyebrows and ears. And as they nibbled and sucked and licked and rubbed their faces together, the greenish make-up came away from Jan’s face leaving it pale, and the plaster-work around his nose came off little by little in his seeming-double’s mouth and was thence delicately expectorated to one side. The padding around Jan’s lips also melted under the teasing pressure of the creature’s probing tongue and dribbled down Jan’s chin and disappeared, disclosing his true and generous mouth.

Feature by feature, Jan’s face was restored. When the process was complete, Jan and the creature drew away from one another, disengaged their hands and sat down side by side on the crate, for all the world like two old friends temporarily bored with one another’s conversation and embarrassed by one another’s company.

After a moment, the creature remarked that the tide was turning, and asked Jan what he would do now.

Jan replied mechanically, ‘I shall continue with my work. But there can be no more stories.’

And the creature rose from the crate and walked into the river, slowly disappearing beneath the tide. And Jan, after a moment’s hesitation, arose and did likewise, following very closely behind. And, had there been anyone standing on the iron bridge at that abandoned hour, Jan might have been glimpsed shortly thereafter, his limbs joyfully plying the glib surface of the water, stretching further and further, his body straining to touch a precisely imagined but yet unknown estuary and sea.

-oOo-

Download novella to read offline: Stranger Than/Beneath the tide

Afterword: As old-worldly and picturesque as this confession may appear, most of the foregoing novella was written in one hot and hectic night in the summer of 1977 between the hours of 1 and 6 am. As for the venue – it was the ‘bloc sanitaire’ of a camping site in southern France, the only place that was well enough lit for the purpose. After that I suppose a lot of editing took place, as always, and I seem to remember a complex russian-doll structure of stories within stories that first cobbled itself onto the novella and was then dismantled and dismissed – though vestiges remain.

In the early 1990s, I sent something very like the current version to Anne Smith, literary editor of The Edinburgh Review, who wrote me a kind and appreciative letter saying that the novella was of a quite impossible length but that I should certainly send her something else. However, at that time – and for long after – the only fiction I was interested in writing had to do with the vast project that has now eventuated in the novel November (Dalkey Archive, 2016) and which still keeps me busy writing November‘s sequels.

About fifteen years ago, I added the short prologue. It seemed to me then and still seems to me now that this novella is somehow unfinished, incomplete – that it cannot truly stand alone. I have tended to think of it as a piece of exuberant, juvenile, gothic, almost an embarrassment: ‘one for the shrink’. So imagine my pleasure when Paul Ebdon, after reading Stranger Than/Beneath the Tide, told me that he that he wanted to do a series of paintings to illustrate some of the scenes and passages!

What we should now do with the resulting paintings and text is of course the subject of ongoing conversations.  Might a gallery exhibit such work? Would a publisher pay us for the privilege of producing a coffee-table-type book with text and illustrations on opposite pages? How high do pigs fly? We await (politely) for (polite) suggestions. For the time being, I am making the entire text of the novella available here and, with Paul’s permission, a certain number of photographic reproductions of his paintings.

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