Landlocked, p.1Doris Lessing
Book Four of the ‘Children of Violence’ series
The afternoon sun was hot on Martha’s back, but not…
It was almost seven. Martha had been waiting since five.
On the morning peace was celebrated (or, as Mrs Quest saw…
‘Public opinion changes.’
Six inches of marred glass in a warped frame reflected…
Martha had given up her job with Mr Robinson. Otherwise she…
The African group—or rather, an African group—now met weekly at…
Jack Dobie and Martha sat opposite each other in Dirty…
A year had gone round and it was winter again.
It was a couple of days later. Again Martha sat…
A large tree stood in the middle of the avenue,…
The rains had come and would soon be over. Thomas…
So many jokes had been made about the ‘little bit…
Martha sat in her mother’s living-room, her attention being demanded…
One evening the radio remarked in the unemphatic, almost affable…
For some months everything dawdled and delayed. The divorce had…
About the Author
Other Books by Doris Lessing
About the Publisher
The Mulla walked into a shop one day. The owner came forward to serve him.
‘First things first,’ said Nasrudin; ‘did you see me walk into your shop?’
‘Have you ever seen me before?’
‘Never in my life.’
‘Then how do you know it is me?’
THE SUFIS; Idries Shah
The afternoon sun was hot on Martha’s back, but not steadily so: she had become conscious of a pattern varying in impact some minutes ago, at the start of a telephone conversation that seemed as if it might very well go on for hours yet. Mrs Buss, the departing senior secretary, had telephoned for the fourth time that day to remind Martha, her probable successor, of things that must be done by any secretary of Mr Robinson, for the comfort and greater efficiency of Mr Robinson. Or rather, that is what she said, and possibly even thought, the telephone calls were for. In fact they expressed her doubt (quite justified, Martha thought) that Martha was equipped to be anybody’s secretary, and particularly Mr Robinson’s—who had been spoiled (as Martha saw it), looked after properly (as Mrs Buss saw it), for five years of Mrs Buss’s life.
Mrs Buss said: ‘And don’t forget the invoice on Fridays,’ and so on; while Martha, fully prepared to be conscientious within the limits she had set for herself, made notes of her duties on one, two, three, four sheets of foolscap. Meanwhile she studied the burning or warm or glowing sensation on her back. The window was two yards behind her, and it had a greenish ‘folkweave’ curtain whose edge, or rather, the shadow of whose edge, chanced to strike Martha’s shoulder and her hip. At first had chanced—Martha was now carefully maintaining an exact position. Areas of flesh glowed with chill, or tingled with it: behind heat, behind cold, was an interior glow, as if they were the same. Heat burned through the glass on to blade and buttock; the cool of the shadow burned too. But there was not only contrast between hot heat and hot chill (cold cold and cold heat?); there were subsidiary minor lines, felt as strokes of tepid sensation, where the shadow of the window frame cut diagonally. And, since the patches and angles of sunlight fell into the office for half of its depth, and had been so falling for three hours, everything was warmed—floors, desks, filing cabinets flung off heat; and Martha stood, not only directly branded by sunlight and by shadow, her flesh stinging precisely in patterns, but warmed through by a general irradiation. Which, however, was getting too much of a good thing. ‘Actually,’ she said to Mrs Buss, ‘I ought to be thinking of locking up.’ This was a mistake; it sounded like over-eagerness to be done with work, and earned an immediate extension of the lecture she was getting. She ought to have said: ‘I think Mr Robinson wants to make a call.’
At this moment Mr Robinson did in fact put his head out of his office and frown at Martha who was still on the telephone. He instantly vanished, leaving a sense of reproach. Martha just had time to offer him the beginnings of a placatory smile of which she was ashamed. She was not going to be Mr Robinson’s secretary, and she ought to have told him so before this.
She should have made up her mind finally weeks ago, and, having made up her mind, told him. She had not, because of her tendency—getting worse—to let things slide, to let things happen. It had needed only this: that she should walk into Mr Robinson’s office and say, pleasantly, absentmindedly almost, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Robinson, I’ve decided it would be better if I weren’t your secretary.’ At which he would nod, say: ‘Of course, Mrs Hesse, think no more about it.’
This unreal conversation was why Martha had not in fact gone in before now to make her stand on a refusal; and why she had spent so much of her time in the last week or so marvelling at the complexities behind such a simple act.
Mrs Buss’s husband had decided to take a job on the Copper Belt. Mrs Buss did not want to leave this job which fitted her soul like a glove, but being nothing if not an expert on what was right, knew it was right to follow her husband wheresoever he would go. Although she was not married to her husband but to her work, or rather, to her boss—for the past five years, Mr Robinson. This did not mean, far from it, that her relation with Mr Robinson was anything it should not be; her duty was to the idea of what was right from a secretary. In the Copper Belt, she would, after an agitated fortnight or so of writing letters to Martha telling her how to look after Mr Robinson, transfer herself to her new boss, whoever he was, and around him henceforward her life, her time, her being, would revolve.
As for Mr Robinson, he understood not the first thing about this phenomenon over which Martha pondered still, after years of working beside it.
What would he say, for instance, if Martha told him: Mr Robinson, did you know that Mrs Buss tells Mr Buss, on the nights when her shorthand book is full: ‘You know I can’t tonight, I’ve got two memorandums and a company agreement to type tomorrow morning.’ And Mr Buss understood his position in her life so well, that he knew (as Mrs Buss said, with a nod of satisfaction) where he got off. What would Mr Robinson say if told that Mrs Buss went to bed early refusing sundowners, the pictures, a dance, anything at all, on the nights before—an audit, a big court case where Mr Robinson would have to appear, or even a particularly heavy mail?
Well, Martha could not conceive of telling him, he simply would not believe it. He would go crimson, she knew that; the lean ‘likeable’ lawyer’s face would grow sulky while the blood darkened it. Because, of course, he would not understand how impersonal this passion was, and that, from two weeks’ time, in Lusaka, Mr Buss would be ‘told where he got off’ just as strongly but in relation to another job, another boss.
The door flung open again, and again Mr Robinson appeared, this time showing annoyance. Martha covered the mouthpiece, saying, ‘It’s Mrs Buss,’ relieved that Mrs Buss was definitely ‘office work’.
‘Does she w
‘Do you want to speak to Mr Robinson?’
‘Oh no, I wouldn’t disturb him in his work,’ came the prompt, admonishing reply. ‘I’ll ring you tomorrow, Matty, in case we’ve forgotten anything.’
The door to Mr Robinson’s office was a plane of orange-coloured wood, unmarked by mouldings, grooves, panels, patterns, marked by nothing but the tree’s grain. It was teak, showing the—how many?—years of its growth in irregular concentric lines. With half-shut eyes, the orangey-brown became sand over which water had ebbed, leaving lines of foam, or debris. Stared at, unblinking, with concentration, the door seemed to come closer, became cliffs of weathered sandstone, weathered rock, eroded in patterns where water had run—or like the irregular concentric lines of growth in wood…
But all this was no use, for she had to go in and tell Mr Robinson she would not be his secretary. He was at this moment sitting behind his desk waiting for her to come in, and confirm it. Reasonably enough: it was a post much better (she agreed) than she deserved.
Martha, now released from the tether of the telephone wire, was standing behind her desk, not looking at the door. The sun was on her back, but the patterns of heat had shifted. A few minutes ago she was confirming: edge of window-curtain, window frame, glass, lines horizontal and diagonal, areas small and large. But now her flesh was confused. It had charted, most accurately, for some unvarying minutes, degrees of heat, of cold and now it was sulking. It was being asked to register too much too quickly—her whole back—and the backs of her thighs and arms, flamed at random with heat and with cold. As if she were in a fever. It occurred to Martha that perhaps she was—she might have burned herself. After all, glass could act like a burning-glass; perhaps a knot or a whorl had focused heat on to—she bent back her head, held forward her shoulder. It emerged smooth from a sleeveless pink cotton dress, but it was reddened. She was standing in a dislocated position, trying to see her own back down through the gap in pink cotton where it fell away from her shoulders, when Mr Robinson came in and caught her. He went red and so did she. With a muttered, ‘Like to see you, Mrs Hesse,’ he returned to his office. But now the door was open. A sweet grass-smelling air came wafting through from his office, his open windows—a smell of cool watered grass. This fresh smell mingled with the smell of hot glass, of heated metal, of hot paint, of warmed varnish—Martha put her palm on her own desk where the sun had been falling, and withdrew it quickly, as if away from a hot-plate. Following the smell of newly cut grass, more than her will, she went into Mr Robinson’s office. Beneath his windows, Rhodes Street, pouring with traffic, a jungle of warmed metal in movement. But beyond two roofs and an Indian store was a parking lot fringed with grass, where a black man scythed the loose fronds of jade-green grass, that was frothy with white grass-flowers, and the scent of it showered over all the lower town.
Martha put her left hand up, backwards, under her left armpit, and said, to explain her tortured position: ‘I think I’ve burned myself—from the window you know,’ she added. Then added again, still smiling, afraid now that this might sound like a complaint, because the main office was so exposed to the sun: ‘I’m an idiot.’
Mr Robinson let out a laugh, most false, except in his desire to show willingness to laugh, and said: ‘Do sit down, Mrs Hesse.’
Mrs Hesse sat, knowing that sitting in the clients’ chair was going to make it more difficult to refuse.
Now Mr Robinson offered her a cigarette, shooting out a brown athletic hand (he played golf or tennis and swam every Sunday) with the silver case at the end of it, in a level, piston-like movement. There he sat, smooth, well-tailored, healthy, intelligent, his lean, good-looking face waiting in a smile for Martha to make a formal acceptance of his offer that she would be his secretary.
These two human beings had shared all their working days for years, off and on, and they knew nothing about each other, had never had any real contact, and in fact, as Martha knew, did not like each other. He was asking her to remain as secretary because of an indolence that matched her own: better the devil one knows. At least she had been with him (as the phrase is) for all that time and presumably she would be irradiated with the reflected efficiency from Mrs Buss?
‘Look,’ she began awkwardly, ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr Robinson, but I can’t be your secretary.’ Already he had turned on her an affronted stare which caused her to stammer as she went on: ‘For one thing, there’s my father, he’s terribly ill, and it wouldn’t be fair, because I couldn’t give my whole attention to the job.’
He was red with annoyance, and also with heat—his office, sheltered from the evening sun by the outer office and a wall, nevertheless glittered and gleamed from every surface because the windows of the tall building opposite flashed red and gold rays into it. The heat in this room had a cooked composted smell of tobacco, of stale pipe ashes, of heated wood and metal and hot flesh.
‘Well, I don’t see that as an obstacle,’ he said. He was annoyed because Mr Quest’s illness had been incorporated, so to speak, into this office system already. Several times in the past few weeks Martha had had to leave precipitously, summoned to the sick-bed by Mrs Quest, who had taken to ringing up Martha with the announcement that she would not answer for it if Martha did not come at once.
And besides, what about that long period (past, but it had certainly existed) when half the telephone calls were for Martha, in her capacity as secretary of half a dozen ‘Red’ organizations? Mr Robinson had swallowed all that too, out of sheer decency, for in his capacity as future Member of Parliament, he denounced ‘communism’ with vigour. ‘I’m not going to have all you people upsetting our blacks’—as he put it to Martha, from time to time.
Martha thought: I’ve made a hash of it already. Why can’t he see that we could never get on? Besides, I simply will not be a secretary—the essence of a good one being (and he most particularly will demand this from now on) that she should deliver herself to the work heart and soul. I’ll stay on as a typist or something, but that’s all.
Mr Robinson was still waiting for her to produce a more sensible excuse. By now he had understood she would not be his secretary, but was going to show his annoyance by insisting on ‘explanations’.
‘Damn that sun,’ he muttered, half-glancing at Martha to suggest she should draw the curtains. She had already risen, when he remembered that her sitting there before him, in the clients’ chair, meant she was temporarily in a different role. He jumped up and tugged oatmeal-coloured curtains across the whole wall; so now the sun showed in a thousand tiny lines of sharp yellow light criss-cross over darkish linen.
He sat down again, smiling a small quizzical smile. Martha noted it with dismay, noted she was softening: the smile said: Are you being difficult perhaps? Do you want to be persuaded into it? Do tell me…
She felt absurd, theatrical, ridiculous. She knew if she said ‘yes’ to this job it would be one of the bad, serious decisions of her life. She did not know why: it simply was so. Her life could be changed by it—in the wrong way. She knew this. And it was also pompous and melodramatic to refuse, and she felt silly.
‘Listen, Mrs Hesse: the war’s on its last legs, that’s obvious. The senior partners will be coming home any minute now. In a year from now this firm will have taken all this floor and the floor above—it will be the biggest legal firm in the city. There’ll be five working partners and that’ll mean five personal secretaries and I reckon about ten typists and a couple of accountants.’ His voice was full of pride. A long way was Mr Robinson from the shabby old building in Founders’ Street (still only four or five hundred yards away in space, however) the shabby old rooms, the half-dozen typists. And a long way was he in imagination from the present arrangement of two smart rooms filled by Mr Robinson, Mrs Buss, Mrs Hesse. No, he was already the conqueror of two large modern glass-spread floors filled to the brim with lawyers, accountants and secretaries: ‘the biggest legal firm in the city’.
And he wanted Marth
‘I’m awfully sorry, Mr Robinson,’ she said, awkwardly, but firm enough. He looked at her, hurt. To hide the red that flamed over his face, he jumped up from his chair and began rooting in a filing cabinet. ‘I can’t find,’ he muttered, ‘the Condamine Mining Company file.’
Martha sat on a moment, looking at the Condamine file which was immediately in front of her on his desk. Then she stood up. ‘Look, Mr Robinson,’ she was beginning, when he bent down to pick up a paper lying on the floor. As he straightened again, he banged his head hard on the sharp corner of a projecting drawer.
The bang went through Martha in a wave of sickness. As for him, he stood gripping the drawer with both hands, swaying with faintness, his face white, his closed eyelids squeezing out tears of pain. Martha’s teeth clenched with the need to comfort, her arms were held in to her waist to stop them going around him—and she said nothing, not a word, nothing. She stood like a pillar of cold observation. At least, she thought, I must avert my eyes from…She turned herself, went to the window, twitched back a corner of the oatmeal linen, and looked out over the stream of cars and lorries, over roofs, over to the black man who steadily bent and straightened, bent and straightened, the sun glinting red on his black polished chest and back, and sliding red streaks along his scythe. The grass fell in jade-green swathes, frothy with white flowers, on either side of him, and the smell of cut grass wafted in over the thick sweet smells of tobacco, sweat, ash, heated wood—Martha heard Mr Robinson’s breathing steady and settle. She felt sick with his sickness, but could not think of anything to do. If he hated her for her detachment from his pain, he was right. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked at last, and he said, with difficulty, ‘Yes, thanks.’ Off he went, out of the office, striding with his long spring-like stride, and she thought: Of course, he’s gone to get himself some water, I should have thought of it.
Landlocked by Doris Lessing / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes