The Four-Gated City, p.1Doris Lessing
of the ‘Children of Violence’ series
Once upon a time there was a fool who was sent to buy flour and salt. He took a dish to carry his purchases.
‘Make sure, ’ said the man who sent him, ‘not to mix the two things-I want them separate.’
When the shopkeeper had filled the dish with flour and was measuring out the salt, the fool said: ‘Do not mix it with the flour; here, I will show you where to put it.’
And he inverted the dish, to provide, from its upturned bottom, a surface upon which the salt could be laid.
The flour, of course, fell to the floor.
But the salt was safe.
When the fool got back to the man who had sent him, he said: ‘Here is the salt.’
‘Very well, ’ said the other man, ‘but where is the flour? ’
‘It should be here, ’ said the fool, turning the dish over.
As soon as he did that, the salt fell to the ground, and the flour, of course, was seen to be gone.
A dervish teaching story, from
The Way of the Sufi, by IDRIES SHAH
Tabe of Contents
ALSO BY DORIS LESSING
MORE PRAISE FOR THE FOUR-GATED CITY
About the Publisher
In its being and its meaning, this coast represents not merely an uneasy equilibrium of land and water masses; it is eloquent of a continuing change now actually in progress, a change being brought about by the life processes of living things. Perhaps the sense of this comes most clearly to one standing on a bridge between the Keys, looking out over miles of water, dotted with mangrove-covered islands to the horizon. This may seem a dreamy land, steeped in its past. But under the bridge a green mangrove seedling floats, long and slender, one end already beginning to show the development of roots, beginning to reach down through the water, ready to grasp and to root fírmly in any muddy shoal that may lie across its path. Over the years the mangroves bridge the water gaps between the islands; they extend the mainland; they create new islands. And the currents that stream under the bridge, carrying the mangrove seedling, are one with the currents that carry plankton to the coral animals building the offshore reef, creating a wall of rocklike solidity, a wall that one day may be added to the mainland. So this coast is built.
RACHEL CARSON; The Edge of the Sea
In front of Martha was grimed glass, its lower part covered with grimed muslin. The open door showed an oblong of browny-grey air swimming with globules of wet. The shop fronts opposite were no particular colour. The lettering on the shops, once black, brown, gold, white, was now shades of dull brown. The lettering on the upper part of the glass of this room said Joe’s Fish and Chips in reverse, and was flaking like stale chocolate.
She sat by a rectangle of pinkish oilcloth where sugar had spilled, and on to it, orange tea, making a gritty smear in which someone had doddled part of a name: Daisy Flet … Her cup was thick whitey-grey, cracked. The teaspoon was a whitish plastic, so much used that the elastic brittleness natural to it had gone into an erosion of hair lines, so that it was like a kind of sponge. When she had drunk half the tea, a smear of grease appeared half-way down the inside of the cup: a thumb mark. How hard had some hand - attached to Iris, to Jimmy? - gripped the cup to leave a smear which even after immersion in strong orange tea was a thumbprint good enough for the police?
Across the room, by another pinkish rectangle, sat Joe’s mother Iris, a small, fattish, smeared woman. She was half asleep, catnapping. She wore an overall washed so often it had gone a greyish yellow. A tired soured smell came from her. The small fattish pale man behind the counter where the tea-urn dominated was not Joe, who had gone off to the war and had never returned home, having married a woman and her café in Birmingham. He was Jimmy, Joe’s mother’s partner. Jimmy wished to marry Iris, but she did not want to marry again. Once was enough she said. Meanwhile they lived together and proposed to continue to live together.
Although both were now ‘resting’, this being a slack time in the café, and had announced, as if they were turning a notice on a door to say CLOSED, that they were resting, both observed Martha. Or rather, their interest, what was alert of it, was focused on what she would do next, but they were too good mannered to let this appear. About an hour before she had asked if she might use the telephone. She had not yet done so. From time to time the two exchanged remarks with each other, as thickly indifferent as words coming out of sleep, sleep-mutters; but yet it was open to Martha to join in if she wished, to comment on weather and the state of Jimmy’s health, neither very good. Today he had a pain in his stomach. Really they wanted to be told, or to find out, why the telephone call was so important that Martha could not make it and be done. The air of the small steamy box which was the café vibrated with interest, tact, curiosity, sympathy-friendship, in short; all the pressures which for a blissful few weeks since Martha had been in England, rather, London, she had been freed from.
For a few weeks she had been anonymous, unnoticed, - free. Never before in her life had she known this freedom. Living in a small town anywhere means preserving one’s self behind a mask. Coming to a big city for those who have never known one means first of all, before anything else, and the more surprising if one has not expected it, that freedom: all the pressures are off, no one cares, no need for the mask. For weeks then, without boundaries, without definition, like a balloon drifting and bobbing, nothing had been expected of her.
But since she had taken the room upstairs over the café, had been accepted into the extraordinary kindness and delicacy of this couple, she had made a discovery: ‘Matty’ was reborn. And after how many years of disuse? ‘Matty’ now was rather amusing, outspoken, competently incompetent, free from convention, free to say what other people did not say: yet always conscious of, and making a burnt offering of, these qualities. ‘Matty’ gained freedom from whatever other people must conform to, not so much by ignoring it, but when the point was reached when conformity might be expected, gaining exemption in an act of deliberate clumsiness-like a parody, paying homage as a parody does to its parent-action. An obsequiousness in fact, an obeisance. Exactly, so she understood, had the jester gained exemption with his bladder and his bells; just so, the slave humiliated himself to flatter his master: as she had seen a frightened African labourer clown before her father. And so, it seems, certain occupants of recent concentration camps, valuing life above dignity, had made themselves mock those points of honour, self-respect, which had previously been the focus-points of their beings, to buy exemption from the camp commanders.
Between ‘Matty’ and such sad buffoons, the difference was one of degree. Somewhere early in her childhood, on that farm on the highveld, ‘Matty’ had been created by her as an act of survival. But why? In order to prevent herself from being-what? She could not remember. But during the last few years before leaving ‘home’ (now not where she was, England, previously ‘home
For the weeks of her being in London the sun had shone. Strange enough that she could now see it like this. In a country where the sun is always so evident, forceful, present; clouds, storms, rain, briefly disguise the dominating, controlling presence of the sun; one does not say: ‘Today the sun shone, ’ for it always does. But after a few weeks in England, she could say ‘The sun shone today’ and only by putting herself back on that other soil felt the truth that the sun never stopped shining. Even in the middle of the night, the sun blazed out, held in its blaze all planets and the earth and the moon, the earth having merely turned away its face, on its journey around away from light and back.
All the warnings of the seasoned about the hideousness of the English climate, had for those weeks, while the sun shone, seemed like the croakings of the envious, or like those exaggerated tales created to terrify greenhorns, by the experienced. The sun had shone, day in and day out, not with the splendid golden explosiveness of Africa, but had shone, regularly, from a blue high sky; not as deeply, as solemnly, as brazenly blue as the skies she had been bred under-but blue, and hot and almost cloudless. Martha had worn the brief bright dresses of that other wardrobe, which she had almost left behind altogether. She had worn brown bare arms, brown legs, and hair still burnt a rough gold from the other sun. Just as if she had not left home and its free-and-easiness for ever, she had been carried by that current of people, that tide, which always flows in and out of London through the home-owners, the rate-payers, the settled: people visiting, holidaying, people wondering if they should settle, people looking for their ancestors and their roots, the students, the travellers, the drifters, the tasters, the derelicts and the nonconformists who must have a big city to hide themselves in because no small one can tolerate them.
From room to room, cheap hotel to hotel, a bed in the flat of a man whose name she could not remember though she remembered him with warmth, nights spent walking with men and women as enjoyably vagrant and as footloose as she, nights with Jack-so she had lived, for hot blue sunny weeks, and then, suddenly-two days ago, the skies had descended in a greyish brown ooze of wet, and Martha wore a thick skirt, a sweater, stockings, and a black coat given to her before she left by Mrs. Van der Bylt out of (so Martha accepted it) concern because of Martha’s refusal to believe just how terrible the English climate was. But really the old woman was giving Martha much more than a coat when she had handed the young woman about to leave, the thick black matronly garment which now hung over the back of a wood chair painted greasy daffodil colour in Joe’s café.
She had put it there an hour ago. She ought to get up and say to Jimmy and to Joe’s mother, Iris. ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes. I want to go for a walk.’ Ought. She ought to make this statement, put on the coat, go out, walk for the sake of clearing her head into decisions, come back, telephone and then act on what she had decided. Ah yes, but to do what one ought-and then there was the enemy ‘Matty’ so very much stronger than she would have been prepared to believe.
Martha stood up, and at once two pairs of eyes, both pale blue, surfaced with non-committing goodwill, but inwardly hungry for sensation, fastened themselves on her. Martha said, putting on the heavy black coat which had encased Mrs. Van through several Zambesian winters: ‘I am going for a short walk.’ At once the two bodies subtly froze: disappointment. Then, suspicion. Of course, and quite rightly: had not ‘Matty’ been here for weeks now, the freakishly ‘charming’ visitor from such different worlds, had not she even worked behind the counter to earn the rent for her room upstairs, and always half the buffoon, at least the willing-to-be-teased, self-confessedly inefficient if full of goodwill, always offering honesty about what she was doing, to these so gently avid hosts? They were now in the right to feel that she shut them out, rejected them, by saying, coldly-so they must feel it-‘I am going for a walk.’ That would not do, now, after letting them have ‘Matty’ for so long. ‘It’s nice to tell other people your troubles, ’ Iris had said, waiting to hear Martha’s-invented, or at least exaggerated, to please her.
Martha now said, with a small rueful laugh: ‘It’s all too much for me, I need a good think, ’ and as she pushed back her chair she banged her leg and said, in a half groan ‘Oh damn it!’
‘Oh mind your nylons, dear, ’ said Joe’s mother, softening at once, and even exchanging palliated glances with Jimmy as he leaned forward, smiling, to watch Martha rub her leg.
Martha continued to rub it, gasping with pain-infused laughter, until she was able to make her escape to the door, the fee having been paid, passing the telephone on the counter which, if she were to do as she ought, she had used before this.
Defeated, she went out. The dirty sky pressed down over the long street which one way led to South London, and the other to the river and the City. Terraces of two-and three-storey houses, all unpainted since before the war, all brownish, yellowish, greyish, despondent. Damp. Martha stood outside the café where Joe’s Fish and Chips was outlined by the hearse-dark of blackout material: Iris and Jimmy had not got round to taking it down. The shops which were the ground level of the long street mostly had dull black visible; and some windows of the upper rooms showed black above or beside the faded cretonnes and chintzes. The war had been over five years. The street itself was empty. Traffic had been diverted because of a great crater from which protruded the top halves of men attending to gas, or telephone, or electric cables; a great gaping jagged hole. Not war damage; but, according to Iris, ever since the bomb had dropped a couple of hundred yards down the road, the gas mains had been leaking into the earth, and the road was always being dug up. as now. The crater was roped off. and had red-eyed lanterns resting about its lip. Martha stood at its edge and watched a dozen or so men at work. One of them was a black man. He wore a whitish cotton singlet. The bottoms of his trousers were torn. He was a tall spindly fellow and his face was set into the no-expression of a man doing an unliked job of work-as were the faces of his white fellows. Muscles moved in rhythm under grey skin, under black skin. The muscles were great fruity lumps moving between the dull grimed skin and the bones. There was no body among them that might have been chosen to represent the human form in its aspect of beauty, since all were in some way deformed; and there was no face that did not carry marks of strain, weariness, or illness. All life, all health, the immediately recognizable spontaneity of energy was in the muscles. Spades and picks tore into a dull heavy damp soil. It was a yellowish soil. In it was embedded a system of clay pipes, iron pipes, knotted cables. No roots. No trees in this street, not one tree: therefore, no roots. Martha had never before seen soil that was dead, that had no roots. How long had this street been built? Iris thought about two hundred years, but she didn’t know. For two hundred years this soil had held no life at all? How long did roots live under a crust of air-excluding tarmac? There was a smell of gas from the crater, like the smell of decay, yet it had a mineral tang, not far off the stale smell of a mine-shaft a couple of hours after blasting.
Martha went on towards the river, passing shop fronts, each one the face of a low oblong room like Joe’s café: haberdasher, grocer, chemist, greengrocer, hardware, fishmonger, then all over again, chemist, grocer, hardware, grocer, laundry, a pub. All over London: millions of little shops, each one the ground floor of an old house. On either side of her the terraces: dam
The surface of water, moving, rippling, rearing, crashing is what we see when we say ‘Sea’ or ‘River’ or ‘Lake’. Standing in the water at waist or thigh level a skin of light separates wet from air. If one were to wade through earth in Africa, around one’s legs roots: tree roots, thick, buried branches; then sharper thinner vines from bushes, shrubs, then a thick clutch of grass roots-a mat of working life. Walking to one’s waist in an English lane, roots, such a thick mass of roots-tree and shrub and bush and grass. But walking here, it would be through unaired rootless soil, where electricity and telephone and gas tubes ran and knotted and twined.
Now the place where the bomb had fallen. That was how they spoke of it: ‘The Bomb’. Their bomb, out of the thousands that had fallen on London. About three acres lay flat, bared of building. Almost-it was a half-job; the place had neither been cleared, nor left. It was as if some great thumb had come down and rubbed out buildings, carelessly: and then the owner of the thumb had blown away bits of débris and rubble, but carelessly. All the loose rubble had gone, or been piled up against walls, or the fence; but pits of water marked old basements, and sharp bits of wall jutted, and a heap of girders rusted. The ground floor of a house stood, shacked over with iron, in the middle, and a single wall reared high up from it, intact, with fireplaces one above another. The place had a fence and a sign which said under crossbones and skull: Danger. No Children. Behind the ruin of the house a group of children squatted, spinning marbles off their thumbs across yellow earth. Seeing a woman in black outside the fence, they froze, betrayed like animals by their moving alerted eyes. Then they melted out of sight into walls, rubble. The door to this bomb site was a tall metal grille and it was held shut by a bolt or baulk of timber. This was about ten feet long and so thick that if her arms had been twice as long they could not have met around it. This object had been a tree. For some days now Martha had been pausing by it, trying to make it out. Because it was hard to imagine it as a tree. Its surface was not smooth: if it had ever been planed, that smooth skin had been worn away long ago. It was splintered, eaten, beaten, battered. Touching it was not touching wood, but nearer to water-eaten stone. It was almost spongy. Damp had swollen and filled every fibre. Wood had meant a hand on a trunk under which sap ran; wood had meant the smell of bark; wood had been the smell of oiled surfaces where grain showed patterns. Wood had never meant a great baulk of greyish-brown substance that smelled of wet, of damp, of rot, and of the gas which must have soaked everything in this street since everything smelled of it.
The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes