1

 


     The routine of Alexander's day was planned but the arrival of the letter altered all that he had in mind. The letter filled him with an unease which was disproportionate to its apparent importance. The day, the square on the calendar, had assumed a significance far beyond the ordered routine.
     The letter lay at his place on the table of the lodging-house dining-room: the envelope was of grey manilla, a deep grey contrasting with the soiled whiteness of the tablecloth. How could he have failed to see the letter at the moment he had entered the room? He picked it up, feeling its peculiar weight. It was not of standard government size but its colour suggested an official origin.
     He looked round the stuffy and over-furnished room. He was alone. He held the envelope in his hands and looked down at it. His name was spelt correctly and the address was correct. The initials of his degree were correct also, a strange fact: he was a graduate of a distant and minor university and his degree was an unusual one.
     He opened the letter with a table knife. The thick envelope contained only a single page. He saw, with a certain amount of relief, that the message was brief. He read it rapidly.
     The letter informed him that it would be advisable for him to attend a course of instruction. The address was given. A date and a time were suggested. The letter was obviously official, though the writer's position was not stated. The signature was illegible. The nature of the envisaged course was not even implied: there was an assumption that Alexander would possess prior knowledge of it.
     Alexander turned the letter over in his hands. The nature of the stationery surely implied a high authority; this implication was difficult to reconcile with the uncertain meaning of the thing. The message itself appeared to be one of suggestion and not of overt command.
     He was re-reading the letter when the landlady entered the room. She did not speak; she rarely spoke to her lodgers except on matters of business but she acknowledged the young man's greeting by nodding her head.
     'When did this letter arrive?'
     'It came by this morning's post,' she said, curious as to the reason for the question. She stared at Alexander. 'Is there anything wrong?'
     'No.'
     She left the room but she paused in the hall; she saw that he was still standing and reading the letter. She was unable to deduce whether the news was good or bad; she could see only her lodger's uncertainty.

 

2

 
     Alexander caught an unexpectedly early bus and so reached his place of work earlier than usual. The university laboratory, a building from the last century, was prominent because of its impressive brick facade which comprised a heavy portico and twenty symmetrical first-floor windows that commanded a view of a cobbled alley and an empty canal. The university was built around such structures as this; buildings complete in themselves but without any composite harmony and which were crowded one upon another so that any fineness of perspective was lost. The facade of the building was pretentious—instead of giving onto a ground-floor entrance the mahogany doors were set on the first floor at the summit of a broad-based flight of steep steps. There were no windows in the ground floor, an architect's vagary which gave the place the air of a fortification.
     Alexander stood in the hall. The simple act of coming to work had been easy enough; now he found he had no work to do: that is to say, he had no work of importance with which he might occupy his mind; indeed, he wished to leave his mind empty. Something important will come along to fill it, of that I'm certain, he said. What a strange shift of attitude, he said, to himself, though he did not put this into words: rather, the insight came to him in the form of an emotion, which he had never known or felt before, and, now that it held him, one which he was certain he would never feel again: such force upon such innocence: all that might be imagined on hearing the news of his father's death: as strong as that. As strong as that. In the future this emotion will never again catch me unawares: my stomach will tighten in the apprehension of its approach, he said, to himself.
     He stood, uncertainly, in the hall which he had hurried through almost every day for a year, a long time when you are young, yet at which he had never looked. He looked at it now, attempting to place his thoughts. I shall go, he said. I shall go. He said to himself again, I shall go.
     The director's secretary looked at him. It was easy to wonder what she had been doing until the knock sounded on the door of her room; there was no work on her desk, only the director's desk diary. Her long hands were spread out, palms downwards, on the bare surface of the wood.
     'He isn't in.' She pulled the diary towards her and needlessly ran a finger down the dates, though she was not looking at the page but at Alexander's face: she seemed to be about to ask him a question, for she drew a breath and began to speak but she paused before the first word. Then she looked away, her face colouring as though she had been thinking something indecent and out of character. She held her hands across her bosom, touching her neck with her fingers. 'The director— ' she said, her voice nervously without expression, '—he's examining at the Brownian this morning; the second-year vivas. He should be here this afternoon; a discussion with the external examiner,' she said, lowering her gaze, unwilling to meet Alexander's eyes; she seemed to be able to read his thoughts. Better than I do myself, said Alexander, to himself, they are very cloudy and unclear, like this very day's beginning. She now held her hands in her lap and was looking down at her own long fingers.
     'I'll come back this afternoon,' said Alexander, seeing that she for some reason found his very presence intrusive, something which she had never done before, or, he said to himself, perhaps I have never noticed her embarrassment in the past. No: that is something I would have noticed. I notice embarrassment easily, as she does, herself. The door was open behind him. A homely looking woman was wheeling a trolley of clean glassware along the corridor. Somehow the sound will remain in my memory forever, and these first few minutes in this room, he said, and the bang of that far door, closing so abruptly, coming as it does upon the heels of an emotion I have never known before. I can't take these things for granted, he said; no longer can I do that.
     The director's secretary stood and walked to the filing cabinet; she opened the top drawer. 'What am I looking for?' she asked herself, aloud, in a low voice, almost a whisper, repeating the words, as though they formed a confidence, her back to Alexander, who looked at the back of her long, slender neck and her elegant shoulders, she is about to turn, and say, “don't go,” I am sure of it; that is what she would say had she the words: she doesn't want me to go until I have told her why she feels my own unease so strongly: I never knew we had so much in common. He had a sudden temptation to take the letter from his pocket in order to read it again, as she might read it. Her view of it would be more honest than the director's, he said, to himself. He wondered, for the first time, whether the letter might hold some slant against him, transparent to others but which he, being the recipient, was unable to see: perhaps he was too close to the meaning for any kind of resolution to be possible; perhaps the secretary might see, at a glance, how the letter might be resolved: but, again, her own perception might place her too close to Alexander to make out the letter's meaning. Alexander waited, standing in the centre of the room, but she did not turn round. She would not want to look lest her eyes elucidate, said Alexander to himself. He touched the letter as it lay in his pocket. It would be easy for me to say to her 'how would you read this?' but that I can't do. I couldn't put the thought into such straightforward words, without imparting the first elements of coercion to them.
     'Thank you,' said Alexander, standing in front of her desk for a little longer; then he crossed the room and held the handle of the door as if to close it after he had gone.
     As though her action had become conditional upon his going, she slowly turned and began to look towards him, across the threshold of the room, over her shoulder, her neck graceful and her eyes full of thought.  

 

3

 


     He took off his coat and hung it on the back of the laboratory door. He looked down the long narrow room. He glanced at his watch and then at the clock on the wall. All this was done with an abstractedness which was far from mechanical. He put on his white coat.
     His colleague had already arrived. He was almost twenty years older than Alexander. He sat on the wooden laboratory stool, his elbows resting on the bench in front of him; his posture was comfortable. He was a small man, slightly built, and very much a man of habit. 'It' s good to see you,' he said. This was his invariable greeting. His speech, always reserved and economical, was occasionally drily humorous. He was an unchanging man, ungoverned by moods. His manner was equable.
     Alexander stood behind him. Although he had long since worked amicably with his colleague he found that today he was envious of his powers of concentration. No, it is not envy I feel, he said, to himself, it's just that I could no longer do it, it would mean nothing to me. Envy is the last thing I feel. The last thing I want to do is to concentrate on one small thing while, not understood, the sea surges beneath me—
     The older man turned round and adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. He looked at Alexander. 'Is there anything the matter?'
     Alexander found the question completely unexpected; he began to turn away. 'No,' he said. 'There is nothing the matter.'
     'Nothing?'
     Alexander was aware that he was being watched very closely. Does this set me at my ease? Why does this set me at my ease? It does not. Then, he thought, do I take my being from being watched? He paused in his thought.
     'I've nothing on my mind,' said Alexander, 'Even less than usual—'
     'Is that all?' The older man sounded relieved. 'You were behaving strangely; in fact, if I am to be totally honest, when I first saw you this morning I wondered if I knew who you were—
     'and, if you wish to know the truth— ' continued the older man, after a pause, as though he were wondering how to put his thoughts into words.
     'Yes, I wish to know the truth more than anything else,' said Alexander, looking at his colleague, and yet at the same time past him, to the half-open door, and down the passage. No, I don't want to hear the truth, he said to himself, I'll find it out for myself sooner or later, of that I'm certain. I don't want to hear anything—
     'The woman in the glass-ware store said, “Is that the bright boy or a stranger who just happens to resemble him?” We looked at each other uncomfortably. She was quite shaken. I tried to calm her. You think you know someone, and then some slight thing happens; and you see how slender your knowledge is. How very slender.'
     They stood in silence for a moment.
     'A letter came to my lodgings this morning,' said Alexander, still looking out through the door, as though he were himself no longer mentally in the room. 'That's all. A letter.'
     'Your family is well?'
     Alexander brushed this aside. 'It has nothing to do with my family. Nothing like that. Neither good nor bad—
     'I can't put any value or measure on it.' He walked to the door and took the letter from his coat pocket. 'I might find a way into its meaning were you to read it.' He passed the letter to his colleague. How easily it is passed around, said Alexander, dispassionately.
     With his usual care the older man examined the letterhead. 'You gave this to me to read?' he asked, as though this had suddenly become a private matter in which he had no desire to be implicated.
     Alexander watched him closely. He began to think to himself, in words, which was for him unusual. He acknowledges that if he reads it he will become involved. He's weighing up the risks. He's looking for the clause that allows his disengagement. He's found it. Not everyone would see it. He's a close reader. He paused. Have I changed? I feel no different. Then he said aloud, 'I gave it you to read.'
     Now he has my formal permission, he said, to himself. He paused. Against what am I defending myself by such formality of thought? In speaking to myself, am I presuming to speak to another? Should I not so speak?
     His colleague read and re-read the letter in silence. He turned the sheet over, looked at the blankness of the reverse, held it up to the light to see the watermark, and put the paper down on the clean surface of the bench. 'It's vague, as you say, for such an important document.'
     This surprised Alexander though there was no reason why it should have done. 'Then you think it important.'
     'At first glance. I don't know why. The letter lacks any kind of specificity as far as I can see. It is either a piece of administrative stupidity or else it's very aptly written, and with you alone in mind. And, because it is written for you alone it seems to give you the freedom of interpreting it in any way you choose. Are you expected to attend this course? Or is that only a suggestion? Perhaps the answer depends on the position and integrity of the sender. As that is not at all clear it seems that you are free, given that you must interpret it one way or the other. Or is there no freedom in any choice that may be put before you and which you have to take? Let us say that you are given freedom: if you go, what will you be attending? If you do not go, what decisions will be made on your behalf and about your future in your absence? What is this course of instruction? How long does it last? What is its structure? Why was it set in motion?'
     Alexander looked at the bench where the letter rested amongst the laboratory glassware. Now it could be any piece of paper, said Alexander, to himself. Then aloud: 'You have put a new light on it,' he said, 'and you think it important.' He could hear the woman in the glassware store arranging the flasks and bottles on the slatted shelves. What pleasure there is in order for its own sake, said Alexander, to himself, perhaps that is order's only meaning, the giving of pleasure. He placed his hand on his shirt, over the taut plane of his own stomach, bracing his musculature against his own touch. How thin I am. And how hungry, he said to himself, I should have eaten. But I couldn't stand the thought of the act of swallowing. Nor of lifting something to my lips. What strange gestures I am making—
     The older man looked at the letter and then at Alexander. 'Is it important? You could snap your fingers at it if you wished.' He touched the letter. 'Against that—      It's fine paper. It'll never go yellow.' He held it to the light again. 'And look at the watermark. I've never seen its like. Jove hurling a thunderbolt! It's fine paper, if that means anything. Against that, though, the signature is barely legible. Four or five downward strokes, as a man might make who had any number of such letters to sign. Perhaps he was looking away. What else can I say?'
     'What do they want of me?'
     They were silent for a moment. Then the older man said 'I know no more than you.'
     'The course starts tomorrow morning. They make at least that clear.'
     'That's a certainty.' He paused. 'You'll need the director's permission.' He put a certain irony into the words director and permission.
     'Why did they ask me?' said Alexander, talking over his colleague's sentence. 'How am I known to them? I moved into my present lodgings only a week ago: how did they know where I lived?
     'Only you and they know that.'
     'I can think of no reason for such a letter.'
     When his colleague spoke again it was with more animation than was usual with him. 'I can tell you this, Alexander: you are concerned with what is to me the vaguest of letters as though it had the most direct bearing on your life. I've never seen you like this before; you have always been to one to see the irrational. Everyone in the department likes you to read their papers before they send them to the journals, even though you are the youngest here — you have a clear eye for mistakes in thinking, and your thought is fresh. I've often thought “that boy's mind is incorruptible—”
     'Of course the letter is official, but in the past you've laughed off all the corporate vagaries with the rest of us. So why does this have you worried? It's not your nature to be unreasonable. A piece of paper, stating nothing clearly, no beginning and no end, nothing of a summons, its nature hard to see, no reason for its being set in train—
     'If it's the vagueness which concerns you, there are a dozen explanations. Perhaps the official who dictated the letter did so after a hard stint of lunchtime drinking—you know how some of them drink in the middle of the day—or perhaps the typist had tried to cover some misunderstanding in the dictation.' He suddenly stopped talking.
     'The vagueness is a part of the whole,' said Alexander.
     'Let me finish speaking! Can't I even be allowed to finish what I start to say? But why do you say that?'
     'In the suggestion of integrity.' Alexander smiled to himself, and said, silently, now I'm talking about integrity, looking out of the window at the moving sky, as though there were freedom in just looking, and all the while I know that the notion of integrity comes to mind only when it is threatened: the invisible medium suddenly becomes opaque. While it allowed the transit we never guessed its existence. How like a sea this sky is: the bginning of a journey. 'I'll make up my mind this morning, but I think that I will go,' he said aloud, I shall go. The words formed in his mind and then his thought was silent.
     'The director will give you permission; I know that.'
     The older man paused, waiting for Alexander's reply, but Alexander was still looking out of the window: the light from the overcast fell on his upturned face: the palms of his hands were pressed together.
     The older man began to speak again, turning his sight away from Alexander; suddenly the authority of his years seemed to fall away, and he began to speak in a low voice, as though to fill up the silence, but this was the very thing that his words did not do, no more than the buzzing of the fly at the glass of the window. 'He will have no more idea than I of this letter's origins; you'll see his thumb going over the paper, judging it, you'll see him holding to the light to find the watermark, he'll make out that he's familiar with it to its end, and he'll give you his permission. He appraises people by the steps between them, and he's where he is because of that.' He paused and looked back towards Alexander, who was still standing quietly, looking out of the window.
     'I must do some work,' said the older man, looking down at the slide-rule which lay on the bench. 'That equation must be gone over again.'
     Alexander held the letter between his hands. He stood in silence before the window. The day was a day unlike any other. The sky was in motion, like a flood. I've never seen a sky like it, he said, to himself, grey as a sea. The skyline of roofs was no longer familiar. He looked down to his bench and saw the open work-books with his own writing, in confident black ink, crossing the pages. It seemed less than the truth; a narrow partiality of thought. Move just one pace, he said, to himself, and all the world of its order has gone. One pace. And that one pace cannot be undone. Nor meaning regained. He found the room's air vitiated and its narrowness oppressive. He looked across at his silent colleague who was now engrossed in compiling a table of figures; I cannot concentrate like that, he said, I do not wish to have that focus.

 

 from The Course of Instruction by David Wheldon
 

Index

updated 16th October 2004

 

 

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