Read A Single Man Online

Authors: Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man (18 page)

BOOK: A Single Man
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‘But I’m getting off the point. The point is, you came to ask me about something that really
is
important. So why be ashamed and deny it? You see, I know you through and through. I know
exactly
what you want. You want me to tell you
what I know

‘Oh, Kenneth, Kenneth, believe me – there’s nothing I’d rather do! I want
like hell
to tell you. But I can’t. I quite literally can’t. Because, don’t you see,
what I know is what I am
? And I can’t tell you that. You have to find it out for yourself. I’m like a book you have to read. A book can’t read itself to you. It doesn’t even know what it’s about. I don’t know what I’m about —

‘You could know what I’m about. You could. But you can’t be bothered to. Look – you’re the only boy I ever met on that campus I really believe could. That’s what makes it so tragically futile. Instead of trying to know, you commit the inexcusable triviality of saying
he’s a dirty old man
, and turning this evening, which might be the most precious and unforgettable of your young life, into a
flirtation
! You don’t like that word, do you? But it’s the word. It’s the enormous tragedy of everything nowadays. Flirtation. Flirtation instead of fucking, if you’ll pardon my coarseness. All any of you ever do is flirt, and wear your blankets off one shoulder, and complain about motels. And miss the one thing that might really – and, Kenneth, I do not say this casually –
transform your entire life
—’

For a moment, Kenny’s face is quite distinct. It grins, dazzlingly. Then his grin breaks up, is refracted, or whatever you call it, into rainbows of light. The rainbows
blaze. George is blinded by them. He shuts his eyes. And now the buzzing in his ears is the roar of Niagara.

Half an hour – an hour, later – not long, anyway – George blinks and is awake.

Night, still. Dark. Warm. Bed.
Am in bed!
He jerks up, propped on his elbow. Clicks on the bedside lamp. His hand does this; arm in sleeve; pyjama sleeve.
Am in pyjamas!
Why? How?

Where is he?

George staggers out of bed, dizzy, a bit sickish, startled wide awake. Ready to lurch into the front room. No – wait. Here’s paper propped against lamp:

Thought maybe I’d better split, after all. I like to wander around at night. If those cops pick me up, I won’t tell them where I’ve been – I promise! Not even if they twist my arm!

That was great, this evening. Let’s do it again, shall we? Or don’t you believe in repeating things?

Couldn’t find pyjamas you already used, so took these clean ones from the drawer. Maybe you sleep raw? Didn’t want to take a chance, though. Can’t have you getting pneumonia, can we?

Thanks for everything,

Kenneth.

 

George sits on the bed, reading this. Then, with slight impatience, like a general who has just glanced through an unimportant dispatch, he lets the paper slide to the floor, stands up, goes into the bathroom, empties his bladder, doesn’t glance in the mirror, doesn’t even turn
on the light, returns to bed, gets in, switches off bed-lamp.

Little teaser, his mind says, but without the least resentment. Just as well he didn’t stay.

But, as he lies on his back in the dark, there is something that keeps him from sleep; a tickle in the blood and the nerves of the groin. The alcohol itches in him, down there.

Lying in the dark, he conjures up Kenny and Lois in their car, makes them drive into Camphor Tree Lane, park further down the street, in case a neighbour should be watching – hurry discreetly across the bridge, get the door open – it sticks, she giggles – bump against the living-room furniture – a tiny Japanese cry of alarm – tiptoe upstairs without turning on the lights —

No – it won’t work. George tries several times, but he just cannot make Lois go up those stairs. Each time he starts her up them, she dematerialises, as it were. (And now he knows, with absolute certainty, that Kenny will never be able to persuade her even to enter this house.)

But the play has begun, now, and George isn’t about to stop it. Kenny must be provided with a partner. So George turns Lois into the sexy little gold cat, the Mexican tennis player. No trouble about getting
him
upstairs! He and Kenny are together in the front room, now. George hears a belt drop to the floor. They are stripping themselves naked.

The blood throbs deep down in George’s groin. The flesh stirs and swells up, suddenly hard hot. The pyjamas are pulled off, tossed out of bed.

George hears Kenny whisper to the Mexican,
Come on, kid!
Making himself invisible, he enters the front room. He
finds the two of them just about to lie down together —

No. That won’t work, either. George doesn’t like Kenny’s attitude. He isn’t taking his lust seriously; in fact, he seems to be on the verge of giggles. Quick – we need a substitute! George hastily turns Kenny into the big blond boy from the tennis court. Oh, much better! Perfect! Now they can embrace. Now the fierce hot animal play can begin. George hovers above them, watching; then he begins passing in and out of their writhing, panting bodies. He is either. He is both at once. Ah – it is so good! Ah – ah —!

You old idiot, George’s mind says. But he is not ashamed of himself. He speaks to the now slack and sweating body with tolerant good humour, as if to an old greedy dog which has just gobbled down a chunk of meat far bigger than it really wanted. Well, maybe you’ll let us sleep, now? His hand feels for a handkerchief from under the pillow, wipes his belly dry.

As sleep begins to wash lightly over him, he asks himself: Shall I mind meeting Kenny’s eye in class on Monday?

No. Not a bit. Even if he has told Lois (which I doubt): I undressed him, I put him to bed, he was drunk as a skunk. For then he will have told her about the swimming, too. You should have seen him in that water – as crazy as a kid! They ought not to let you out on your own, I said to him.

George smiles to himself, with entire self-satisfaction. Yes, I
am
crazy, he thinks. That is my secret; my strength.

And I’m about to get much crazier, he announces. Just watch me, all of you! Do you know what – I’m flying to
Mexico for Christmas! You dare me to? I’ll make reservations first thing in the morning!

He falls asleep, still smiling.

Partial surfacings, after this. Partial emergings, just barely breaking the sheeted calm of the water. Most of George remaining submerged in sleep.

Just barely awash, the brain inside its skull on the pillow cognises darkly; not in its daytime manner. It is incapable of decision, now. But, perhaps for this very reason, it can become aware, in this state, of certain decisions apparently not yet made. Decisions that are like codicils which have been secretly signed and witnessed and put away in a most private place, to await the hour of their execution.

Daytime George may even question the maker of these decisions; but he will not be allowed to remember its answers in the morning.

What if Kenny has been scared off? What if he doesn’t come back?

Let him stay away. George doesn’t need him, or any of these kids. He isn’t looking for a son.

What if Charlotte goes back to England?

He can do without her, if he must. He doesn’t need a sister.

Will George go back to England?

No. He will stay here.

Because of Jim?

No. Jim is in the Past, now. He is of no use to George, any more.

But George remembers him so faithfully
.

George makes himself remember. He is afraid of forgetting. Jim is my life, he says. But he will have to forget, if he wants to go on living. Jim is Death.

Then why will George stay here?

This is where he found Jim. He believes he will find another Jim here. He doesn’t know it, but he has started looking already.

Why does George believe he will find him?

He only knows that he must find him. He believes he will because he must.

But George is getting old. Won’t it very soon be too late?

Never use those words to George. He won’t listen. He daren’t listen. Damn the Future. Let Kenny and the kids have it. Let Charley keep the Past. George clings only to Now. It is Now that he must find another Jim. Now that he must love. Now that he must live —

Meanwhile, here we have this body known as George’s body, asleep on this bed and snoring quite loud. The dampness of the ocean air affects its sinuses; and anyhow it snores extra loud after drinking. Jim used to kick it awake, turn it over on its side, sometimes get out of bed in a fury and go to sleep in the front room.

But
is
all of George altogether present here?

Up the coast a few miles north, in a lava reef under the cliffs, there are a lot of rock pools. You can visit them when the tide is out. Each pool is separate and different, and you can, if you are fanciful, give them names – such as George, Charlotte, Kenny, Mrs Strunk. Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an
entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness – so to speak – are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures coexist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And, throughout the day of the ebb tide, they know no other.

But that long day ends at last; yields to the night-time of the flood. And, just as the waters of the ocean come flooding, darkening over the pools, so over George and the others in sleep come the waters of that other ocean; that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars. We may surely suppose that, in the darkness of the full flood, some of these creatures are lifted from their pools to drift far out over the deep waters. But do they ever bring back, when the daytime of the ebb returns, any kind of catch with them? Can they tell us, in any manner, about their journey? Is there, indeed, anything for them to tell – except that the waters of the ocean are not really other than the waters of the pool?

Within this body on the bed, the great pump works on and on, needing no rest. All over this quietly pulsating vehicle, the skeleton crew make their tiny adjustments. As for what goes on topside, they know nothing of this but danger-signals, false alarms mostly; red lights flashed from the panicky brain-stem, curtly contradicted by
green all-clears from the level-headed cortex. But now the controls are on automatic. The cortex is drowsing; the brain-stem registers only an occasional nightmare. Everything seems set for a routine run, from here to morning. The odds are enormously against any kind of accident. The safety-record of this vehicle is outstanding.

Just let us suppose, however —

Let us take the particular instant, years ago, when George walked into The Starboard Side and set eyes for the first time on Jim, not yet demobilised and looking stunning beyond words in his Navy uniform. Let us then suppose that, at that same instant, deep down in one of the major branches of George’s coronary artery, an unimaginably gradual process began. Somehow – no doctor can tell us exactly why – the inner lining begins to become roughened. And, one by one, on the roughened surface of the smooth endothelium, ions of calcium, carried by the bloodstream, begin to be deposited. . . . Thus, slowly, invisibly, with the utmost discretion and without the slightest hint to those old fussers in the brain, an almost indecently melodramatic situation is contrived: the formation of the atheromatous plaque.

Let us suppose this, merely. (The body on the bed is still snoring.) This thing is wildly improbable. You could bet thousands of dollars against its happening, tonight or any night. And yet it
could
, quite possibly, be about to happen – within the next five minutes.

Very well – let us suppose that this is the night, and the hour, and the appointed minute.

Now

The body on the bed stirs slightly, perhaps; but it does not cry out, does not wake. It shows no outward sign of
the instant, annihilating shock. Cortex and brain-stem are murdered in the blackout with the speed of an Indian strangler. Throttled out of its oxygen, the heart clenches and stops. The lungs go dead, their power-line cut. All over the body, the arterials contract. Had this blockage not been absolute, had the occlusion occurred in one of the smaller branches of the artery, the skeleton crew could have dealt with it; they are capable of engineering miracles. Given time, they could have rigged up bypasses, channelled out new collateral communications, sealed off the damaged area with a scar. But there is no time at all. They die without warning at their posts.

For a few minutes, maybe, life lingers in the tissues of some outlying regions of the body. Then, one by one, the lights go out and there is total blackness. And if some part of the non-entity we called George has indeed been absent at this moment of terminal shock, away out there on the deep waters, then it will return to find itself homeless. For it can associate no longer with what lies here, unsnoring, on the bed. This is now cousin to the garbage in the container on the back porch. Both will have to be carted away and disposed of, before too long.

BOOK: A Single Man
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