II.iii

 

-----‘I would like to ask you where you come from,’ said Mima, immediately I saw you, the question sprang to my mind, and often since. But on each occasion I have stopped myself, sometimes with my breath drawn ready for the question.
-----‘Why did I feel such restraint?’ asked Mima, ‘it is a natural enough question, but I believe I would restrain myself from asking your name of you, or from asking you to confirm the name that I had been given - you were described to me, by name, by provenance, by appearance, by character, all in words which took in every part of you as you now appear, here, in this room, in this most impartial light of day. I would have known you even in remote distance had we never spoken and had we never met, I would have known you had I been blind and you unspeaking and the both of us unable to touch one another: yet I know that I do not know the first thing about you. Gesso of where? Gesso from where? For all the meaning of descriptions, you are taken from your place and I hardly seem to know you.
-----‘Is an origin the root of all description and the fact that stands behind the name? I do not know. But it does not stand upon the reason of the response which might have been; to ask the question <where do you come from?> sets limits on the ways in which it may be answered. Its purpose has the direction of a legal question, and it presumes its own system to be mirrored in the antiphon.
-----‘Sometimes I’m in the darkening ashwood at the close of day, and I sense the presence of someone other, who it is I do not know, not to be seen, not to be heard; there’s no disquiet in this familiarity, though I can hear the beating of my heart; my mind’s expectant, and I call ‘who’s there?’. The woods have their own sounds at every season, and there is no other echo. Sometimes I’m alone and there is no reply. Sometimes the boy who works in the yard, though he has not heard me, will run towards me in the woods, to make sure I am safe, my direction somehow known to him.
-----‘Your dialect is strange to me. There is little I can recognize. When you speak to me I think, <his words have a surface sense, but he does not speak the language of his childhood>. From which teacher did you learn it?
-----Mima sat down beside him, beneath the window, her shadow dark against the discoloured plaster, turning her head towards him, looking at his face and then at his hands as though she saw innumerable revelations in them.
-----Gesso moved his weight from one foot to another. ‘It’s my first, learnt, language, and it tells you everything about me,’he said. ‘Why do you hear me as though I were a stranger?’
-----Mima was silent, as though waiting for the echoes of his voice to fade before she spoke. ‘You are translating what you say before you speak. That is why I hear you as a stranger.’
-----‘That’s not so.’
-----‘There’s a translation in everything you say,’said Mima, with great thought, and looking gravely at Gesso, ‘I don’t think that you can even begin to deny the fact without admitting it. It’s not being truthful, not even to yourself.’
-----‘This is my ordinary way of speaking,’ said Gesso.
-----‘Disagree with me if you must, but to my mind you are searching for words which signify the most commonplace of ideas as though they were strange to you. There’s nothing of this place in your summary of the things you see about you, nor in the way you voice your thoughts - no, not even in the way you choose the sequence of your questions as you conduct your enquiry.’
-----‘That’s not so.’
-----‘I am the listener,’said Mima, with a sudden rise in the tone of her voice, ‘and I am listening to you now, to every word you speak: and you make a point of contradicting me on matters which you are not in a position to judge. Even now I find it difficult to be certain of the truth.’ Mima looked at Gesso, and then past him, at the wall; Gesso followed her gaze, but the end of the room was lost in darkness, as though the night still lingered there, and the wall itself was a thing of conjecture, needful if only to support the bare joists above their heads; even the place they stood was difficult to make out. ‘There’s not much in common between your dialect and mine,’ said Mima. ‘Although, at first, I thought the similarities outweighed the differences; but even then, near the beginning, there were considerable gaps in speech where I had to make an effort to understand you, and there were times when I could do nothing but substitute words and phrases of my own, and look at their strangeness with love; but I have said to myself, deep within, this is not important.
-----‘At the beginning I thought you were a stranger, and I searched for an easy way to speak, and talked with care;
-----‘yet if I take a pace beyond myself I see that you are not a foreigner at all, and that in our expression we have much in common; even to the pauses; I am certain of this because it doesn’t come directly to the mind at the tail of an insight’s warning. Why, less than five minutes ago, did I have to make such efforts?’
-----They looked at each other in silence.
-----There was no sound within the room, nothing beyond an awareness of the passing of time; the coldness had intensified. Was this the shortest day? Or must the year grow colder yet?
-----‘Have I changed? I do not know. I have been copying you - and yet I do not feel that I have changed - but, if this is true, then where do I stand? Do we understand each other more thoroughly, to know how we would be, were we in different times and different places? Do we gain some insight into one another, or - do I copy you, and, in trusting you too much, are you leading both of us astray?’
-----‘Am I leading you astray?’ Gesso stood, lifting the chair and carrying it to the side of the room, where its shadow was heavy against the wall. He walked through the space which had been cleared by his action, but the profusion of furniture in the room prevented his following any steady course, and he stood amongst the tables looking down at the worn carpet. ‘You said that you wished to know the place I come from,’ he said, ‘and I’m willing to be open about myself, as open as I can be, for there’s no reason why I should wish to keep secrets from you, to ask is at the end to seek a yes or a no, nothing more, one shakes another person’s hand, or kisses their brow, and thinks there is more than the affirmation of a concluding-point. I come from Elea.’
-----‘I have heard of Elea,’ said Mima, ‘and I can guess what you have in mind in saying that. Do you come from Elea? Or does one choose one’s origin to make a point?’
-----‘There’s no point that I want to make,’ said Gesso. ‘The name of the town is in the native’s mind when the walls are so distant they are lost to him; a name’s a thing of absence, and says nothing of itself in the dialect of origins. There is, as far as I can see, no argument and no question in the mind’s eye. I have been through many towns; I have looked towards them, looked down at them, from the high-road’s brow; my father was itinerant: I can’t remember the first town that I saw - there are many pieces of several towns which take the mind, many parts of villages, each with the cast of its own ground which seems the manifest to its inhabitants, all beyond seen as though askance; I can’t remember any early name beyond the names’ and precepts’ change, and this a change we took for granted; for certainty you’d have to ask me the first sight of my infant eye, which truly I seem to repossess, beyond the word, and that unsure, for it’s a thing resorted to in the wandering hours of the colder and the unsurer nights, sleep being at the edge of the imagination, while walking, eyes half shut, sometimes at the crown, if you can call it that, more often in the rut, at the edge, but what truth there is in that I do not know, the mind dislikes it, how it would turn doubt into a principle, and, whichever way one wills, it turns from the sense of void which lies beyond disquiet - there is nothing that it will not make to repossess its poise.
-----‘Elea was the name which came to mind, but any name will stand. No point was made.
-----‘Where is the town which would not be the example? Any would be the place to be established in the mind’s eye, but, no, early in my journey, in the early day, I thought I knew my origin and looked back towards it with the hindward gaze, while walking on, but now I am unsure and there is little more to say, it is in the past and yet it seems dispersed, and the more I search my memory the less I grow to have a trust in it, and the more I have attributed to it from fragments of the places seen in later days and with a more fixed and ambitious mind. Memory is the entrance of the delphic cave. How the inscriptions on the stone are worn away! The straight stone courses of the highway dispersed upon the roadless valleys’ rocks: and I might mock your style, Mima, and say, with truth, since for the moment I’ll believe there is more truth in mimicry than questioning, and so to make the point I’ll make your voice my own:
-----Well! I would ask you where you come from, it’s an easy question to ask, I am an easy woman, I will ask it, this easy question, I will accept an answer, at any time of day, but, as for the question, I will not ask it, because I only ask the expected question, by which I mean that it is the expected question which receives the answer, heard as the answer, by the ear, felt as the answer, by the hand; to many the question ‘where do you come from?’ would be the expected question, from me, and might be answered with a single word, where, there is no doubt about it, but to you the question is not appropriate, not to be kept ready to the hand, so to speak, within the forefront of the mind, to you it is the unexpected question, the unexpected question receives no answer, not that I can summon up an unexpected question, as an example, without it being expected, the asking voice within the disguise, am I called Mima for nothing? Well! In truth, Gesso, every question is opaque and stands without an answer, once the expectedness is lost, that’s a certainty, and was the reason why I never asked your name of you, a question unexpected, I should have been reluctant to have put the thing in words, but there would have been no effort to it, your name was told me before you came, I had only to find in you an affirmation, of a name standing for the generality of name, there is no mystery to that: none: I will, as I say, ask only the expected question, that is to say, the question whose own answer has gone before it, preventing words, made by its answer, followed by its answer, pushed forward by its answer, surrounded in all its aspects, as though entire and comprehensible, by its answer: so we make the theme our thrust, the dark weight hidden in the middle of the mind, invisible, but by whose gravity the whole thing moves, cycles of days and lunar months and years, one day no doubt it will flicker into light, one day no doubt its sight will penetrate the dust, but now, now, unless the question is expected and the thread is followed then there is no point in breaking into speech to follow as much a ravelled skein as a line of recollection, for you might search your mind for the answer and never find it, but, with place as with man, you have taken it for granted once but now no longer, no longer accept without a thought the divisions, and live or die by them, there’s mortality within a name and within a place, and every line of questioning comes sooner than one would ever have believed to the stop before the unexpected question’s weight, there is an end in the name, is there not, Gesso, name and way and line the same, not from nicety do we avoid the grossest undertaking which makes of the sun a light by which we see our way to evil and of the all-providing earth which underlies us the advantage of the moment, and by this course move to find the arid place and the empty city waterless. Well! Well! Now our persons are most vague and without substance, let me say this, Gesso, now, or I shall forget it, or change it, or make of it what it is not, Gesso, I have only just begun, the unexpected question is a long way off, as yet, the hour being what it is, events as measured by the clock, one day alone, look at the movement of the heavens, look at the shadows on the wall, see how they have moved, your own amongst the rest, we have the rest of the day’s convention to travel through, let me tell you of.
-----‘Do I speak like that?’ said Mima, laughing aloud, and watching Gesso with shining eyes, clear and intense, those of a child, and following the articulation of his words by her expression. ‘Am I like that?
-----‘They are like stones in the garden path, those phrases, but where does it go?
-----‘How far have I taken your line of thinking?
-----‘If I copy you, it’s out of love for you.’ Mima spoke these lines singly, with long pauses between them, her voice low. ‘I would not have sat listening to you at dawn this morning, silence was the property of that time, and the stranger of it,’ said Mima. ‘You do it very well. Not far beneath you are an actor.’
-----‘O no I am not acting.’
-----His face was covered in sweat despite the coldness of the room. His voice was shivering. ‘I do not know when I act. It eases something, to take for the moment the part, to ask another’s oblique question in the certainty that it shall remain unanswered, the sideways self thinnest target, or - to act as best I can once more - to turn intensity aside, to break words with a clear diction, to set the block in the teeth of the open question. Words, words, words; in which side of the balance am I? The equation is one of query and its prey, and, simple as it is, it invites its own abridgment:
-----‘I am bruised in being here.’
-----Gesso ran a hand over his brow and stared at the sweat on his fingers; he lowered his hand; his sweat marked darkly the slate of the mantel; beyond the window, the day was more shadowy than he had thought, the sun recalled, the slant of that beam unchanged, but behind it the moving finger of light crossing the boards on which they stood, the pause in thought answered by the change within the angle of the light. Mima put her hands round Gesso’s waist, saying, ‘Do not look out of the window with such a cast of mind, to examine is to destroy.’
-----‘I dout it, as the monkey said, when he fled and overturned the lamp; an animal of reason.’
-----‘Listen to me, Gesso. I was talking to my father this morning. This morning? It was night.
-----‘A man and a woman, hardly more than children, bride and groom, married yesterday, alone together, in love, were leaving this house at that unusual hour. It was halfway through the night.
-----‘My father had grown to know and love them as though they were his children, and, with the intention of being at the door to say farewell to them at the moment of their leaving, the hour itself being indistinguishable from any other in the pitch-black night, he set his clock to be up with Martha and myself (the boy in the yard being out of bed and at work already) so that he might call them himself, and bring up hot water to them with his own hand, and take their meal to their breakfast table - he was intent on this, and talked of little else all evening, in the public room, to those few friends to whom he opens his mind, though not entirely, and, as a consequence of his preparations it was very late before he went to bed, so late that there was little possibility of any sleep, and, in the same clothes which he had been wearing the previous night, his head still full of fumes, the tray in his hands with the silver-plated teapot and the water-jug, which he sets a lot of store by, though they are quite ordinary vessels, you could buy them for next to nothing in any auction-room, though he treasures them because he and his wife had come by them in the early days of their marriage, when they had little to call their own, I have seen his photograph, from that time, a brisk and thin young man with dark and thoughtful eyes; one night, during a period of exceptional stress, he resigned himself after a long discussion with his wife, well into the small hours, to selling these jugs and pots, preparing to rise as early as possible the next morning to walk the miles into town, to the pawnbroker, this was when they were living in a rented basement, his books were gnawed by mice, but in the morning, rising early by the clock, at first light, these pots in a paper package, on going to the door he found beneath the letter-box a cheque for a small sum owed to him but long dismissed. A small sum? To him it was the answer to a petition never put in words. The teapot and the hot-water jug were taken upstairs again, and unwrapped, and washed out with boiling water, even though they had never stood upon the pawnbroker’s shelf, and, so he tells me, in the solemnity of the occasion, as though the day were the extent of time, they made tea, in these vessels, and drank it as though in celebration. He has often told me this story in times of emotional excess, or tiredness, when he has been stressed. So he holds these little items very dear.
-----‘This morning he went down to the cold kitchen, and had washed and dried these same vessels, and put them on a tray, and boiled water himself, on the enamel paraffin stove, the range not then being lit; I have hardly ever seen him working in his shirtsleeves in the kitchen, now it seemed as though he had worked in no other place all his life; he emptied the ash from the range and laid the kindling wood within the grate, even now I can see the circle of flickering yellow light as he looked down into the body of the stove, the boy from the yard standing next to him, his bare arms black with coal-dust, it is not an easy fire to light when the air is damp and the flue cold; my father said nothing, but took his instruction silently from the youth, and when the fire was lit and the condensation evaporating from the cast-iron stove-back, soon it would be ready for making the breakfast, my father carried the tray to the bridal room, a generous and airy chamber which overlooks the valley more widely than any other room; it is at the corner of the upper floor. My father climbed the stair, he was in his shirtsleeves, the shirt yesterday’s, the collar unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up, not a sound but for his feeling for each tread with his feet, a matter of faith, I can see the expression on his face at this very moment, tired and sleepless as he then was, it is all as if the event had taken place some long time ago, maybe I might in time to come think that I had not witnessed it for myself, but only been told of it, a long time ago, half lost to memory and now recalled, as an event of great significance, are the accounts of it true: that’s what comes to mind, beyond the temporal, a part of history beyond the events, now bearing some meaning which had not been present at the origin. And I have to remind myself that it took place only this morning. I can still hear the creak of the stairs, each springing board I know so well.
-----‘To see the bride and groom at this table, here, in this room, was something that surpassed all I had envisaged, and, leaving the kitchen to its own stilly coldness, the smoke pouring from the crack in the fire-door and lying in a layer on the floor, and, feeling my way through the passage, my fingers brushing the cracked and hachured boarding of the wall, to open the door, and to see this room, this room even as it now stands, as I had not seen it with these eyes before; I had never looked up into its soaring vault, nor seen the light in its well-proportioned frieze; I had never seen the panorama which lay outspread and given beyond the sloping lintels of its windows: the very air was changed. So permanent and real: on looking back I cannot attempt its recount.
-----‘My father waited on them at this table. What was the nature of this change? What heightening of magnitude had occurred? They had entered this room still exhausted with the recent night - even then not halfway through - to show much fear at the nature of the journey which would upon the present moment’s ending begin for them; they were unwashed; their hair uncombed; they could only look at one another with loving eyes. They sat at these chairs; this one, where I am; that one, where you are. There was the bond of unifying love between them, in their eyes’ depth and in the disposition of their bodies. Their breakfast was a silent meal. But there was an unheard music. Were they still half asleep? There was no more than the beginnings of wakefulness about their limbs and their tired faces. My father was still wearied from the night, he had had an hour’s sleep, and that most likely in the discomfort of a hard-bottomed chair, perhaps in the chamber he calls his office, it was as though everyone had risen early to see some aspect of a greatness come to light; there was an assonance about the air, and that I took to be the music, a great deed about to be brought to fruit, the all-altering moment lying beyond the moment’s edge; once I looked across towards my father; he stood behind the table, his gaze cast downwards, his eyes half shut, half asleep as he stood, there was no sound, only the flying wind, the lines of rain lying diagonally across the glass, the yellow light of the lamp reflected from the streaks, a warm light, it made one feel the presence of the night beyond it, where soon they would have to go, we stood at the threshold, the night beyond us, the house behind us still filled with the drowsiness of sleep, perhaps we never would awake, the lamp had been brought out into the hall, it was still dark, a lamp with a broad yellow wick, the shadows broad and falling quickly beyond, against the night, the rain came down, the yard awash with water, heard flowing down the drains, the squall hissing in the uneven stonework, it had rained all night, and, driven, had come in through the cracks and knotholes of the outer doors, and beneath the leads, to stand in pools upon the floor, one heard the rain falling deeply in the woods, out in distance, and the rising torrent of the stream, one could hear the sound of the wind in the trees, in chance directions, following some course, perhaps no wind at all, I have heard it before, and then the sash rattles in the still air of the sleepless night, the room I sleep in varies, it goes with the work, and so they left, leaving the light and our recognition, my father had fulfilled his last night’s wish, and was asleep; outside, within a few paces, there was nothing beyond the outline of the trees within the wind. Strangely, the wind had dropped. There was nothing but the falling of the heavy drops of water from the leaves. The clouds could be made out in outline overhead, and moving fast, a purpose to them. Yet the ashtrees were in motion, a flurry of water drops. I thought I saw someone beneath the trees. ‘Come in to dry yourself,’ I said. ‘Are you talking to the empty night?’ said Martha, ‘there is no-one there.’ ‘Someone heard me, someone listened to my words.’
-----‘The house was in deep shadow, after the brightness, no, there had been no brightness, something had gone, something was about to happen, both together, both part of the same thing, something moving, a changing time, the house was in deep shadow, a deeper apprehension of mortality, perhaps, all events however else they might pull one from another, by that weak force are summed in all their mass, a deeper apprehension.
-----‘How may I describe the event that separated the things which went before it from those which followed? All leads back to it, and yet I cannot fix it in my mind’s eye. The doorway of the house was truly a threshold, a blackness with the night beyond it, and, inside, darkened rooms and darkened passages where the water lay, both unfamiliar places in the presence of change. All was silent. One goes, another stands at the threshold. That’s how days are. The kitchen stove, although it had been lit, was still hardly yet warm, its flame reluctant, perhaps it had gone out, there might never have been a fire in it for twenty years, the rain had brought some soot down from the chimney, it lay in little heaps and inky lines, on the hob, drops of water were falling from the ceiling, and some plaster had fallen, the iron fender was already specked with orange spots of rust; and I thought to myself: Is this all I have known in my life?’
-----Mima paused in her speaking to look up at Gesso, as if to ask him to give some signal of how much she should say, and how she might choose her words. ‘The boy in the yard was bringing in the logs, sodden though they were he could make a fire from wet bog-wood, he could kindle the peat from the ground, but now he was shivering; it seemed that I had not been out of bed for more than thirty seconds, coldness after exertion, steam was rising from his back, the mousetraps by the side of the fender had been sprung, the bait taken, but nothing caught; and then my father came in, standing in the middle of the room, looking at nothing save the little piece of floor where he was standing, wondering which direction to take, and then pulling over a bent-wood chair and using its back to take his weight, his head nodded in the beginnings of a nightmare, he said, ‘O Mima, I dreamed that it was you that had gone, found some man,’ and then he slept, in that chair, on the rungs of which we keep the cloths to dry, before the fire, and then the stranger came in, who looks so much like you that you do not seem to be a stranger.
-----‘The fire was lit. One thing from another. The earlier presaging the later. The later reverberances to the earlier.
-----‘What else will occur? And, Gesso, you might give yourself to the question, instead of asking questions of me, who knows what drives them, or in playing the clown and imitating me, I don’t take myself seriously enough to be offended, and your manner entertained, one needs the wide eye in such surroundings as these, very beautiful, from time to time, remarkable, only the stale sight makes the ground dull and debatable, my father’s words, last night; no, when you question me, you don’t know what the question means, let alone the answer. What will be the end of this train of ends? And what is there for me as well as you, if they are linked, they are linked, they shall be linked, however one sees links where there are none, and, in the habit-minded eye, ignores what cries out to be seen, is still seen, drawing the ground and seeing in it the event to which one is drawn. Is that the poor thing of seeing what one likes? No, here it is, Gesso; who will sit here this evening, when the sun is about to go, no lamps prepared? Can you tell one day ahead?’


[An extract from Days and Orders by David Wheldon]

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