Ben, in the World: The Sequel to the Fifth Child, p.1Doris Lessing
Ben, In the World
The Sequel to The Fifth Child
About the Author
Other Books by Doris Lessing
About the Publisher
‘The Cages’ were described to me in miserable detail ten years ago by someone who had seen them in a research institute in London. Here they are set in Brazil, because of the exigencies of the plot, but I am sure no such unpleasant phenomenon exists in Brazil.
The authorities have cleared the gangs of criminal children from the streets of the centre of Rio. They are no longer permitted to annoy tourists.
‘How old are you?’
This reply did not come at once because Ben was afraid of what he knew was going to happen now, which was that the young man behind the glass protecting him from the public set down his biro on the form he was filling in, and then, with a look on his face that Ben knew only too well, inspected his client. He was allowing himself amusement that was impatient, but it was not quite derision. He was seeing a short, stout, or at least heavily built man—he was wearing a jacket too big for him—who must be at least forty. And that face! It was a broad face, with strongly delineated features, a mouth stretched in a grin—what did he think was so bloody funny?—a broad nose with flaring nostrils, eyes that were greenish, with sandy lashes, under bristly sandy brows. He had a short neat pointed beard that didn’t fit with the face. His hair was yellow and seemed—like his grin—to shock and annoy, long, and falling forward in a slope, and in stifflocks on either side, as if trying to caricature a fashionable cut. To cap it all, he was using a posh voice; was he taking the mickey? The clerk was going in for this minute inspection because he was discommoded by Ben to the point of feeling angry. He sounded peevish when he said, ‘You can’t be eighteen. Come on, what’s your real age?’
Ben was silent. He was on the alert, every little bit of him, knowing there was danger. He wished he had not come to this place, which could close its walls around him. He was listening to the noises from outside, for reassurance from his normality. Some pigeons were conversing in a plane tree on the pavement, and he was with them, thinking how they sat gripping twigs with pink claws that he could feel tightening around his own finger; they were contented, with the sun on their backs. Inside here, were sounds that he could not understand until he had isolated each one. Meanwhile the young man in front of him was waiting, his hand holding the biro and fiddling it between his fingers. A telephone rang just beside him. On either side of him were several young men and women with that glass in front of them. Some used instruments that clicked and chattered, some stared at screens where words appeared and went. Each of these noisy machines Ben knew was probably hostile to him. Now he moved slightly to one side, to get rid of the reflections on the glass that were bothering him, and preventing him from properly seeing this person who was angry with him.
‘Yes. I am eighteen,’ he said.
He knew he was. When he had gone to find his mother, three winters ago—he did not stay because his hated brother Paul had come in—she had written in large words on a piece of card:
Your name is Ben Lovatt.
Your mother’s name is Harriet Lovatt.
Your father’s name is David Lovatt.
You have four brothers and sisters, Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul. They are older than you.
You are fifteen years old.
On the other side of the card had been:
You were born……
Your home address is……
This card had afflicted Ben with such a despair of rage that he took it from his mother, and ran out of the house. He scribbled over the name Paul, first. Then, the other siblings. Then, the card falling to the floor and picked up showing the reverse side, he scribbled with his black biro over all the words there, leaving only a wild mess of lines.
That number, fifteen, kept coming up in questions that were always—so he felt—being put to him. ‘How old are you?’ Knowing it was so important, he remembered it, and when the year turned around at Christmas, which no one could miss, he added a year. Now I am sixteen. Now I am seventeen. Now, because a third winter has gone, I am eighteen.
‘OK, then, when were you born?’
With every day since he had scribbled with that angry black pen all over the back of the card he had understood better what a mistake he had made. And he had destroyed the whole card, in a culminating fit of rage, because now it was useless. He knew his name. He knew ‘Harriet’ and ‘David’ and did not care about his brothers and sisters who wished he was dead.
He did not remember when he was born.
Listening, as he did, to every sound, he heard how the noises in that office were suddenly louder, because in a line of people waiting outside one of the glass panels, a woman had begun shouting at the clerk who was interviewing her, and because of this anger released into the air, all the lines began moving and shuffling, and other people were muttering, and then said aloud, like a barking, short angry words like Bastards, Shits—and these were words that Ben knew very well, and he was afraid of them. He felt the cold of fear moving down from the back of his neck to his spine.
The man behind him was impatient, and said, ‘I haven’t got all day if you have.’
‘When were you born? What date?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Ben.
And now the clerk put an end to it, postponing the problem, with, ‘Go and find your birth certificate. Go to the Records Office. That’ll settle it. You don’t know your last employer. You don’t have an address. You don’t know your date of birth.’
With these words his eyes left Ben’s face, and he nodded at the man behind to come forward, displacing Ben, who went straight out of that office, feeling as if all the hairs of his body, the hairs on his head, were standing straight up, he was so trapped and afraid. Outside was a pavement, with people, a little street, full of cars, and under the plane tree where the pigeons were moving about, cooing and complacent, a bench. He sat on it at the other end from a young woman who gave him a glance, but then another, frowned, and went off, looking back at him with that look on her face which Ben knew and expected. She was not afraid of him, but thought that she might be soon. Her body was all haste and apprehension, like one escaping. She went into a shop, glancing back.
Ben was hungry. He had no money. There were some broken crusts on the ground, left for the pigeons. He gathered them up hastily, looking about him: he had been scolded for this before. Now an old man came to sit on the bench, and he gave Ben a long stare, but decided not to bother with what his instincts were telling him. He closed his eyes. The sun made a tiny bloom of sweat on the old face. Ben sat on, thinking how he must go back to the old woman, but she would be disappointed in him. She had told him to come to this office and claim unemployment benefit. The thought of her made him smile—a very different grin from the one that had annoyed the clerk. He sat smiling, a small smile that showed a gleam of teeth in his beard, and watched how the old man woke up, to wipe away the sweat that was running down his face, saying to the sweat, ‘What? What’s that?’ as if it had reminded him of something. And then, to cover himself, he said sharply to Ben, ‘What do you think you’re laughing at?’
Ben left the bench and the shade of the tree and the companionship of the pigeons, and walked through streets knowing he was going the right way, for about two miles. Now he was nearing a group of big blocks of flats. He went direct to
This room was where the old woman had her life. On a gas stove was a saucepan of meat stew, and it was this that Ben had smelled on the landing. ‘It’s all right, Ben,’ she said again, and ladled stew into two bowls, put hunks of bread beside one, for Ben, set her own opposite him, and then spooned out a portion into a saucer for the cat, which she put on the floor by the chair. But the cat wasn’t taking any chances: it sat quiet, its eyes fixed on Ben.
Ben sat down, and his hands were already about to dig into the mound of meat, when he saw the old woman shake her head at him. He picked up a spoon and used it, conscious of every movement, being careful, eating tidily, though it was evident he was very hungry. The old woman ate a little, but mostly watched him, and when he had finished, she scraped out from the saucepan everything that was left of the stew, and put it on his plate.
‘I wasn’t expecting you,’ she said, meaning that she would have made more. ‘Fill up on bread.’
Ben finished the stew, and then the bread. There was nothing else to eat except some cake, which she pushed towards him, but he ignored it.
Now his attention was free, and she said, slowly, carefully, as if to a child, ‘Ben, did you go to the office?’ She had told him how to get there.
‘They said, “How old are you?”’
Here the old woman sighed, and put her hand to her face, rubbing it around there, as if wiping away difficult thoughts. She knew Ben was eighteen: he kept saying so. She believed him. It was the one fact he kept repeating. But she knew that was no eighteen-year-old, sitting there in front of her, and she had decided not to go on with the thoughts of what that meant. It’s not my business—what he really is, sums up what she felt. Deep waters! Trouble! Keep out!
He sat there like a dog expecting a rebuke, his teeth revealed in that other grin, which she knew and understood now, a stretched, teeth-showing grin that meant fear.
‘Ben, you must go back to your mother and ask her for your birth certificate. She’ll have it, I’m sure. It’d save you all the complications and the questions. You do remember how to get there?’
‘Yes, I know that.’
‘Well, I think you should go soon. Perhaps tomorrow?’
Ben’s eyes did not leave her face, taking in every little movement of eyes, mouth, her smile, her insistence. It was not the first time she had told him to go home to find his mother. He did not want to. But if she said he must…For him what was difficult was this: here there was friendship for him, warmth, kindness, and here, too, insistence that he must expose himself to pain and confusion, and danger. Ben’s eyes did not leave that face, that smiling face, for him at this moment the bewildering face of the world.
‘You see, Ben, I have to live on my pension. I have only so much money to live on. I want to help you. But if you got some money—that office would give you money—and that would help me. Do you understand, Ben?’ Yes, he did. He knew money. He had learned that hard lesson. Without money you did not eat.
And now, as if it was no great thing she wanted him to do, just a little thing, she said, ‘Good, then that is settled.’
She got up. ‘Look, I’ve got something I think would be just right for you.’
Folded over a chair was a jacket, which she had found in a charity shop, searching until there was one with wide shoulders. The jacket Ben had on was dirty, and torn, too.
He took it off. The jacket she had found fitted his big shoulders and chest but was loose around the waist. ‘Look, you can pull it in.’ There was a belt, which she adjusted. And there were trousers, too. ‘And now I want you to have a bath, Ben.’
He took off the new jacket and his trousers, obedient, watching her all the time.
‘I’m going to put away these trousers, Ben.’ She did so. ‘And I have got new underpants, and vests.’
He was standing naked there, watching, while she went next door to a little bathroom. His nostrils flared, taking in the smell of water. Waiting, he checked all the smells in the room, the fading aromas of the good stew, a warm friendly smell; the bread, which smelled like a person; then a rank wild smell—the cat, still watching him; the smell of a slept-in bed, where the covers had been pulled up covering the pillows, which had a different smell. And he listened, too. The lift was silent, behind two walls. There was a rumbling in the sky, but he knew aeroplanes, was not afraid of them. The traffic down there he did not hear at all—he had shut it out of his awareness.
The old woman came back, and said, ‘Now, Ben.’ He followed her, clambered into the water, and crouched in it. ‘Do sit down,’ she said. He hated the submission to the dangerous slipperiness, but now he was sitting in hot water to his waist. He shut his eyes, and with his teeth bared, this time in a grin of resignation, he let her wash him. He knew this washing was something he had to do, from time to time. It was expected of him. In fact he was beginning to enjoy water.
Now the old woman, Ben’s eyes no longer fastened on her face, allowed herself to show the curiosity she felt, which could never be assuaged—or indulged in.
Under her hands was a strong broad back, with fringes of brown hair on either side of the backbone, and on the shoulders a mat of wet fur: it felt like that, as if she were washing a dog. On the upper arms there was hair, but not so much, not more than could be on an ordinary man. His chest was hairy, but it wasn’t like fur, it was a man’s chest. She handed him the soap but he let it slide into the water, and dug around furiously for it. She found it, and lathered him vigorously, and then used a little hand-shower to get it all off. He bounded out of the bath, and she made him go back, and she washed his thighs, his backside, and then, his genitals. He had no self-consciousness about these, and so she didn’t either. And then, he could get out, which he did laughing, and shaking himself into the towel she held. She enjoyed hearing him laugh: it was like a bark. Long ago she had a dog who barked like that.
She dried him, all over, and then led him back to the other room, naked, and made him put on his new underpants, his new vest, a charity shop shirt, his trousers. Then she put a towel around his shoulders and as he began to jerk about in protest, she said, ‘Yes, Ben, you have to.’
She trimmed his beard first. It was stiff and bristly, but she was able to make a good job of it. And now his hair, and that was a different matter, for it was coarse and thick. The trouble was his double crown which, if cut short, showed like stubbly whorls on the scalp. It was necessity that had left the hair on the top of his head long, and at the sides. She told him that one of these new clever hairdressers would make him look like a film star, but since he did not take this in, she amended it to, ‘They could make you look so smart, Ben, you’d not know yourself.’
But he didn’t look too bad now, and he smelled clean.
It was early evening and she did what she would have done alone: she brought out cans of beer from her fridge, filled her glass, and then she filled one
First she found a piece of paper and wrote on it:
Mrs Ellen Biggs
11 Mimosa House
Halley Street, London SE6.
She said, ‘Ask your mother for your birth certificate. If she has to send for it, then tell her she can always write to you care of me—and here is the address.’
He did not answer: he was frowning.
‘Do you understand, Ben?’
She did not know whether he did or not, but thought so.
He was looking at the television. She got up, switched it on, and came back by way of the cat. ‘There, there puss, it’s all right.’ But the cat never for one moment took its eyes off Ben.
And now it was an easy pleasant evening. He did not seem to mind what he saw. Sometimes she switched to another channel, thinking he was bored. He did like wildlife programmes, but there wasn’t one tonight. This was a good thing, really, because he sometimes got too excited: she knew wild instincts had been aroused. She had understood from the start that he was controlling instincts she could only guess at. Poor Ben—she knew he was that, but not how, or why.
At bedtime she unrolled on to the floor the futon he slept on, and put blankets beside it in case: he usually did not use coverings. The cat, seeing that this enemy was on the floor, leaped up on to the bed and lay close against the old woman’s side. From there she could not watch Ben, but it was all right, she felt safe. When the lights were off the room was not really dark, because there was a moon that night.
The old woman listened for Ben’s breathing to change into what she called his night breathing. It was, she thought, like listening to a story, events or adventures that possibly the cat would understand. In his sleep Ben ran from enemies, hunted, fought. She knew he was not human: ‘not one of us’ as she put it. Perhaps he was a kind of yeti. When she had seen him first, in a supermarket, he was prowling—there was only that word for it—as he reached out to grab up loaves of bread. She had had a glimpse of him then, the wild man, and she had never forgotten it. He was a controlled explosion of furious needs, hungers and frustrations, and she knew that even as she said to the attendant, ‘It’s all right, he is with me.’ She handed him a pie she had just bought for her lunch, and he was eating it as she led him out of the place. She took him home, and fed him. She washed him, though he had protested that first time. She saw how he reacted to some cold meat—quite alarming it was; but she bought extra meat for him. It was just here where he was most different; meat, he could not get enough. And she was an old woman, eating a little bit of this here, a snack there—an apple, cheese, cake, a sandwich. The stew that day had been just luck: she ate that kind of meal so seldom.
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