-----Yet it had taken Alexander only a few
seconds to reach this height. Soon the corner must be turned;
then the floor below would be hidden from view. How magnificent
this staircase was as it ascended! Light and open, each step
cantilevered out from the wall, flowing on! Vertigo struck him
as he looked across the stairwell; he felt his way onward, avoiding
outward sight, keeping to the wall. Softly, and from an immense
distance, the sound of the bell came up to him.
-----What was there at the top?
-----A high landing, whose edge was protected
by an insubstantial rail. Nothing led from it but a single door
and a window. He turned to the window, round-arched, tall, admitting
as much light as the heart could desire, beyond it the broad
sky and the plain stretching into distance. How much easier to
look outward to the air than inward to the plummet.
-----Someone is standing behind me. The
downward fall personified and sentient, perhaps, I dare not turn.
Perhaps I have not been seen. Being light and airy makes it worse.
To break the silence I have to speak. Who are you?
-----In which context?
-----That of this house. I can look
neither up nor down.
-----What am I to do?
-----Im diffident about giving
-----Would you read this letter?
-----The envelope was already showing signs
of wear and the corners dog-eared.
-----That is your letter?
-----Yes, it is. Would you read it?
-----I had better not. I believe you.
Its a very personal letter and shouldnt be shown
to others without discrimination. One thing you might consider.
-----What is that?
-----An opinion, based on the little
that I know and see of you. Have you considered that your course
of instruction may already have begun?
-----Alexander did not know how he could
speak without his voice trembling. He did not know how he could
say anything without provoking contempt.
-----The man, still waiting for the answer
to his question, showed no sign of impatience.
-----Alexander raised a hand and saw that
it was unsteady. He stood up, awkwardly, as though cramped; he
brushed his clothes briefly with his erratic hands. He was conscious
of his own fast pulse. The servant faced away from Alexander
but was so close to him in this open place that he could feel
the warmth from his spine: he can no more bear the thought of
turning to me than I can bear the thought of turning to him.
You are shaking, said the servant.
-----Alexander, aware of the pressure of
the mans shoulders against his own, said to himself, I
am about to fall. You must hold me in contempt, he
-----The other man looked discreetly away.
No, he said.
-----May I speak with your master?
-----If it could be arranged,
continued Alexander. He turned round as if to face the man, who
was himself slowly turning round, but they could not face each
other, the limit could not be approached, its other side unseen,
never to be known. Let me see your hand, said Alexander,
taking it in his, an ordinary hand, like mine.
-----What name shall I give him?
His voice, for the first time, echoed Alexanders experience.
-----Alexander wished above all things that
he had not asked to see the man. It no longer mattered whether
his voice shook; in his present fear he was not afraid of contempt.
But his power of speech was lost to him. He tried to speak and
he could not.
-----The other waited for a little longer.
A name is nothing much, he said, it is nothing
-----I have a great reluctance to hand the
letter over to someone I dont know, but now hes reading
it, Im anxious, soon Ill begin to stammer, and to
interpolate sentences and clauses, why, I do not know, why can
I never learn to keep my silence, why do I want to control the
way others see things, bring them to mind, it mentions the course,
why do I want to flesh it out and make it big
-----Ive read it, it is the
usual letter, broadly speaking, many receive them, most ignore
them, thats for the best perhaps, speaking with some irony,
you are lucky you have the letter, it is at least concrete evidence,
you always have it to refer to, not everyone carries Joves
fuming thunderbolt ready in his hand. Some are summoned by other
means. If one has the misfortune to be called by telephone one
has no proof of any summons at all. In time one mingles the fact
of any message with the fiction of ones interpretation
of it. Or the reverse. The message and its metamorphosis: how
could it be otherwise, a natural course.
-----Many are called?
-----Oh, who knows? Spoken, heard,
softly spoken, misheard, shouted, deafened, still they do not
understand, no end of them, if they go wrong, a single cry, the
broken thread, the shortened reach, all runs out in placating
something, the mind no longer gasps and draws a breath as dawn
arrives, no one line of guidance helps, the span of sight too
short, a paltry thing, some say, thats stumbled on by accident,
on a dark night, but that might be for the best, under the moon,
take your own example.
-----Well they say they speak plain,
the barricade of plausibility, the fabrications and the embroiderings,
interwoven with the message, youre unusually honest, your
senses clear and acute, no smell or noise escapes you, forewarned,
the moment comes, ordained perhaps, in sleep the hand reached
out, for what, not known, the other hand approaches, close, for
what, not known, in the small hour of the night, the folded page,
the communication passes, from what is not known to what is known,
from what is known to what is not known, what was known unknown,
what was unknown, known, the hand withdrawn, in sleep, what unknown,
no longer taken for granted, the world, as on every other day,
what would have come at night would have been unseen, not knowing
what it was stood by the bed, unless the outline seen, in distance,
a use of metaphor, close to oneself, but distant, the letter
I nearly said terror, nearly wrote it down would
have arrived but would have said nothing to the sense left unacute.
The routine would have carried on, another night the faint approach,
the hand held out, nothing from the sleep, the hand withdrawn,
the faint withdrawal. In the morning, the routine would have
carried on, to the descent into the grave.
[An extract from
The Course of Instruction by David Wheldon]
-----Alexander began to walk up and down
the room, he keeps his silence while I confer, with myself, he
says my senses are acute, the world one would make by the sense
of touch in sleep, who was vertigo the man I could not face?
-----He came here at adolescence
end, no age, not a confidence, summoned to attend a course of
instruction, called by telephone, five in the morning, roused
from sleep, in the dark, the first beginnings of the dawn, hardly
to be seen, full moon at the window, gable room, sloping ceilings,
his room companion still asleep, sleeping gently, breathing gently,
in sleeps kindly circuit, easy placing of the limbs, the
easy rigour of the sleeping mind, but as for him, he was in the
cold, naked, standing before the uncurtained windows in the lightless
room, awake where all else seemed asleep, the nights construction
fast collapsing, outside he could see the wires trailing into
distance along the leaning poles, from one to another, along
the roadside, tether and sag, insulator and air, into distance,
cold, gusty, early morning, then, what a sky that has such motion,
here it begins, in this room, as nowhere else, indeterminate
to the point presentiment, the sudden movement, hand to the handset,
waiting for it to ring, counting down, without words, three,
two, one, I do not mean literally, it rang, yes, to the ear the
handset, perhaps to him it was a voice that spoke, what, meaningless
jabber, but to him it meant something, then perhaps to him it
was an ear that heard, his few words of acquiescence, then in
the silence, to ponder what he had heard and said, what hearing
and speaking are, so close together, nothing can be taken from
it, then, goodbye my friend, it is the end of me, when I first
saw him he was angry and silent, angry with whoever it was who
had summoned him, angry with the people downstairs, ready to
be angry with me. Mostly he was angry with himself. He had not
known what he believed. Time distorts; impliable, breaking words,
no nuance that lasts. Here is your letter. Do not scowl.
-----Well he allows me to confer with myself,
I know what is right, I also have to live here in the world.