The Viaduct

 

David Wheldon

 


XI

 

‘Why are we waiting in this queue of visitors?’ asked Ariel, looking through the falling snow. He hardly recognized the narrow street between the high buildings though the city was his own; even now he was unsure whether he had been in this street before, so narrow that it was little more than an alley, but with men and women constantly walking up and down; he looked at their faces, and, as he saw each, he asked, do I know that man? Do I know that woman? A clock nearly overhead tolled out the hour. This then is the centre of it, and the oldest part, he said, for the bell’s sound was so familiar to him that it took him straight back to the years of his childhood, the dusty summers, it is unchanged, he said to himself, between the strokes of the tolling bell, in thought he travelled down the years, as swiftly as an arrow, always I remember this queue of people waiting here, he said, as the bell tolled overhead, the echoes and the reverberations gave the impression that it sounded from no real tower but from the snow-filled sky above his head: we have come at last to a place I know but by a circuitous and wayward path.


‘Is that what you think this is, a queue of visitors?’ said the first man, banging his hands together for warmth, a stream of vapour coming from his mouth as he spoke the words. The pavement was narrow and uneven; they could only stand on it in single file, and the man behind Ariel held onto Ariel’s coat, as much for his own support as to prevent Ariel from following any action of his own.


‘This is where we usually stand; the entrance is ahead, and that’s the way we usually go in,’ said the second, who was behind the first, and speaking over his shoulder, his voice louder and more distinct, his manner simple and direct. ‘We know of no other. If there is a quicker way, you might tell us; we would be grateful to you.’


Ariel thought to himself, this line of people in which we stand, it is, surely, the visitors’ queue. That’s my assumption, but they are certainly surprised by it; so perhaps I’m mistaken, these people who wait are not visitors; but, then, who else might they be? I can’t begin to think. This must be a queue of would-be visitors; maybe he has never wondered what they were waiting for, so any suggestion from anyone would be novel to him.


‘There are other lines of people in other streets, as you probably remember,’ said the first, ‘but we’ll keep to this, as it is known to us; it’s snowing but that’s not unpleasant, and, when you reflect upon these days in time to come, you may well be grateful to us for these last few moments, he said, and, thank you for taking your time with us.’


‘Everything I do works to a malign advantage,’ said Ariel.


‘And why not?’ said the first, ‘that is what progress is all about; in a sense you spend your whole life waiting in a queue.’


‘I could do with some food,’ said the second, in his direct manner.


‘He shall share ours,’ said the third.


The first man was aware of Ariel’s apprehension. ‘Think of this as another episode, another day’s journey.’


‘We live in linear ways,’ said the second man (his voice slow and deep; he examined the prints in the snow as he spoke; you would have put him down as simple), ‘as thought partakes of light. There is never a place but where you can to some extent see your way on and back. There is never a place but where you are aware, no mind how dimly, of the tether to the past and the tether to the place which is to come. Stretched or slack, they sound out like a muted string. Believe me if you wish, or not, so much depends on what you yourself have seen. Oh, in the end, none of it’s of much importance, it’s all hyperbole. But, yes, at the end of it all we’ll share our food with you, if you have an appetite.’


‘And then what will happen?’ asked Ariel, over his shoulder, aloud, as if they disgusted him, which as it happened was true; he looked at them as if he would have to spend the rest of his life with them.


They moved forward a place, the little door at the side of the great gateway was opened, a visitor was questioned and was allowed to enter, then the door was closed again. This unending repetition made Ariel nervous – what are we all waiting for? – and he looked at the little door with foreboding: he thought to himself, allowing the words to come to his mind, from the day of my birth I was a target for bribery by an hour of liberty. Now they want to buy me with the promise of freedom; they want to buy me with the promise of eternal life; in the end they just want to buy me as they would any other commodity. He looked at the narrow door as it opened ahead of him, nothing would be great enough, none of that would buy me. Wait til you are hungry, they used to say, pausing to stare, standing beneath the downfalling light, wait til you are hungry: if you are empty enough without a word you’ll seize whatever’s reached down to you, whatever is the offer, lest the hand be withdrawn upon your least hesitation, blink, and it is gone. I didn’t even identify that which was being offered. Even in the intensity of hunger I felt disgust at all they reached down, I did not even hesitate before I turned my back.


‘How many more to go?’ asked the first, gently tapping Ariel’s arm; Ariel was taller than any of them and could see what was going on at the gate, about five more, he said.


‘Don’t be angry with us,’ said the second, ‘it is not our fault, if you were in our position, you’d be doing just the same.’


‘It soon goes, this little time, patient one has been and patient one must be,’ said the first, ‘even now we don’t know what you’re waiting for, even now that’s not been formed. Maybe that’s the case. It has been said, in so many words. This little time soon goes; count the minutes, if you wish, that’s what children do, sometimes, the first time a watch comes into their hands, staring at the dial they count the minutes, open-mouthed, or you needn’t count; instead you could leave your mind blank, if that is how you like it, make out that it doesn’t fall into the realm of time. Possibly that’s true. You don’t have to put your apprehensions into words, as you yourself have said. Think of all the freedoms you possess.’


The first man looked at Ariel; his manner, which had been somewhat diffident and even evasive, now resembled that of the second man, who was further away from Ariel. He spoke more directly, as though time were running out; they had been here for over an hour, the quarters had sounded from the clock-tower overhead, again it seemed that the sound came down from the muffled and snowy sky. He said, ‘but I’d ask you this one small thing: do you wish us to include you in our conversation, or shall we leave you out of it, to think about what you have to think of, and, while disturbing you as little as possible, talk amongst ourselves? You might as well use the little time that remains to you in the way which suits you best.’


The bell stopped tolling, and the first man waited in silence for an answer.
‘Do as you please,’ said Ariel, speaking quickly, as if to be done with speech. His unease was evaporating, and was being replaced by the anger of frustration.


‘That’s thoughtful of you,’ said the first.


They waited in silence.


‘How many more remain?’ said the first.


‘Three more,’ said Ariel. He thought, they don’t speak amongst themselves, which is what he said they would like to do. In fact, he thought, they speak only to me. I’m not sure what this means. Are they dumb when I am not here?


‘How many more remain?’ said the first.


‘One,’ said Ariel.


Then it was finished: they stood before the narrow door; as in passing through the night-door of a church, one would have to stoop to enter. Ariel put a hand to the centre of a wooden panel, feeling the place worn down by the constant knocking of knuckles; he was reminded of the saint’s tomb, stones long since removed, its precinct marked only by the hollows worn by kneeling penitents.


Ariel turned back to the three men. It’s no use asking them what should be done, he said, whatever they say will turn out to my confusion, that’s certain. And anything I say is likely to damage my integrity.


The day grew colder, the sky darker, and the snow began to fall more thickly. Ariel huddled in the doorway, half stooping, the three men behind him settling down to wait. They are as mortal as I, said Ariel, to himself, finding that although the doorway gave some shelter against the rising wind, the need to stoop was more uncomfortable with every minute which passed; first he bent his neck, forward, then to one side, then he straightened his spine and bent his knees, repeating these actions, as his discomfort grew, but even the cycle of postures grew to be uncomfortable; furthermore, even in the deep doorway the wind was beginning to find a way; he could hear it whistling in the large key-hole and round the ill-fitting sides and it had begun to howl in the hollow of the step. They will only grow tired of waiting, and knock on the door themselves, said Ariel, so I might as well knock myself, which is in any case what they are waiting for me to do.


He looked down the alley, past the three men; suddenly it had grown empty throughout its length; the snow was falling freshly on the footprints and the tyre-tracks and was drifting at the corner; a weather-vane creaked above his head: the wind was changing. How lonely he was! The three figures solid though they were, seemed to be losing their sentience. He released himself from the doorway, stretched his limbs, the snow falling on his unbrushed hair; the three men, one after the other, removed their hats and knocked off the snow, brushed their shoulders.


Ah! Hope!


Suddenly Ariel thought that they were about to go, for with his acute sight he saw them passing glances from one to another; not that this in itself required any acuity of sight; there was exaggeration in their glances, which, after a moment caused Ariel to wonder if they had been passed for his benefit.


‘Are you about to go?’ he said.


There was a terrible silence; one of profound embarrassment.


‘We were just about to go,’ said the first, ‘but have decided against it.’


‘Why was that?’ asked Ariel, his voice incredulous.


‘Put it this way. We thought that you were in the end more patient than ourselves, and, further, we thought that you had the nature of this waiting worked out, and that you would never leave. But all that changed when you asked us if we were about to go, because it showed that you were waiting here merely for our departure, and not because you understood the purpose of your being here. Surely that’s one of the first lessons of childhood: doesn’t every mother constrain her child?’


Ariel looked at him as if finding his words difficult to believe, though he might have expected some reasoning of this kind; in their presence he even found himself undergoing strange torsions of reasoning himself.


‘Is what you say true?’ said Ariel.


‘Yes, it is quite true, incontrovertibly,’ said the first man, ‘and now it’s all in the open we shall never leave; we have come down with our decision; until we made it we did not even know there was a decision to be made. Maybe in truth it had no form. But now it’s made material, and now we stay.’


‘So I decide whether you stay or whether you go,’ said Ariel.


‘Exactly. You had perfect freedom,’ said the first man. ‘And you’ve made your decision. And your decision was final.’


Ariel looked past the three men at the empty street, its thin and long perspective, dark stone, white sky and street. He turned back to the door, put his knuckles to the worn panel, knocked. He heard the three men coming up behind him, oh I suppose their nature was up in the air until I knocked, I see how this will all turn out —

 

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[Extract from The Viaduct by David Wheldon]

updated 28th August 2010

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