A sense of reality and o.., p.1
A Sense of Reality: And Other Stories, p.1Graham Greene
A Sense of Reality
JOHN AND GILLIAN SUTRO
UNDER THE GARDEN
A VISIT TO MORIN
DREAM OF A STRANGE LAND
A DISCOVERY IN THE WOODS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
UNDER THE GARDEN
It was only when the doctor said to him, ‘Of course the fact that you don’t smoke is in your favour,’ Wilditch realized what it was he had been trying to convey with such tact. Dr Cave had lined up along one wall a series of X-ray photographs, the whorls of which reminded the patient of those pictures of the earth’s surface taken from a great height that he had pored over at one period during the war, trying to detect the tiny grey seed of a launching ramp.
Dr Cave had explained, ‘I want you clearly to understand my problem.’ It was very similar to an intelligence briefing of such ‘top secret’ importance that only one officer could be entrusted with the information. Wilditch felt gratified that the choice had fallen on him, and he tried to express his interest and enthusiasm, leaning forward and examining more closely than ever the photographs of his own interior.
‘Beginning at this end,’ Dr Cave said, ‘let me see, April, May, June, three months ago, the scar left by the pneumonia is quite obvious. You can see it here.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Wilditch said absent-mindedly. Dr Cave gave him a puzzled look.
‘Now if we leave out the intervening photographs for the moment and come straight to yesterday’s, you will observe that this latest one is almost entirely clear, you can only just detect …’
‘Good,’ Wilditch said. The doctor’s finger moved over what might have been tumuli or traces of prehistoric agriculture.
‘But not entirely, I’m afraid. If you look now along the whole series you will notice how very slow the progress has been. Really by this stage the photographs should have shown no trace.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Wilditch said. A sense of guilt had taken the place of gratification.
‘If we had looked at the last plate in isolation I would have said there was no cause for alarm.’ The doctor tolled the last three words like a bell. Wilditch thought, is he suggesting tuberculosis?
‘It’s only in relation to the others, the slowness … it suggests the possibility of an obstruction.’
‘The chances are that it’s nothing, nothing at all. Only I wouldn’t be quite happy if I let you go without a deep examination. Not quite happy.’ Dr Cave left the photographs and sat down behind his desk. The long pause seemed to Wilditch like an appeal to his friendship.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘if it would make you happy …’
It was then the doctor used those revealing words, ‘Of course the fact that you don’t smoke is in your favour.’
‘I think we’ll ask Sir Nigel Sampson to make the examination. In case there is something there, we couldn’t have a better surgeon … for the operation.’
Wilditch came down from Wimpole Street into Cavendish Square looking for a taxi. It was one of those summer days which he never remembered in childhood: grey and dripping. Taxis drew up outside the tall liver-coloured buildings partitioned by dentists and were immediately caught by the commissionaires for the victims released. Gusts of wind barely warmed by July drove the rain aslant across the blank eastern gaze of Epstein’s virgin and dripped down the body of her fabulous son. ‘But it hurt,’ the child’s voice said behind him. ‘You make a fuss about nothing,’ a mother—or a governess—replied.
This could not have been said of the examination Wilditch endured a week later, but he made no fuss at all, which perhaps aggravated his case in the eyes of the doctors who took his calm for lack of vitality. For the unprofessional to enter a hospital or to enter the services has very much the same effect; there is a sense of relief and indifference; one is placed quite helplessly on a conveyor-belt with no responsibility any more for anything. Wilditch felt himself protected by an organization, while the English summer dripped outside on the coupés of the parked cars. He had not felt such freedom since the war ended.
The examination was over—a bronchoscopy; and there remained a nightmare memory, which survived through the cloud of the anaesthetic, of a great truncheon forced down his throat into the chest and then slowly withdrawn; he woke next morning bruised and raw so that even the act of excretion was a pain. But that, the nurse told him, would pass in one day or two; now he could dress and go home. He was disappointed at the abruptness with which they were thrusting him off the belt into the world of choice again.
‘Was everything satisfactory?’ he asked, and saw from the nurse’s expression that he had shown indecent curiosity.
‘I couldn’t say, I’m sure,’ the nurse said. ‘Sir Nigel will look in, in his own good time.’
Wilditch was sitting on the end of the bed tying his tie when Sir Nigel Sampson entered. It was the first time Wilditch had been conscious of seeing him: before he had been a voice addressing him politely out of sight as the anaesthetic took over. It was the beginning of the week-end and Sir Nigel was dressed for the country in an old tweed jacket. He had tousled white hair and he looked at Wilditch with a far-away attention as though he were a float bobbing in midstream.
‘Ah, feeling better,’ Sir Nigel said incontrovertibly.
‘Not very agreeable,’ Sir Nigel said, ‘but you know we couldn’t let you go, could we, without taking a look?’
‘Did you see anything?’
Sir Nigel gave the impression of abruptly moving downstream to a quieter reach and casting his line again.
‘Don’t let me stop you dressing, my dear fellow.’ He looked vaguely around the room before choosing a strictly upright chair, then lowered himself on to it as though it were a tuffet which might ‘give’. He began feeling in one of his large pockets—for a sandwich?
‘Any news for me?’
‘I expect Dr Cave will be along in a few minutes. He was caught by a rather garrulous patient.’ He drew a large silver watch out of his pocket—for some reason it was tangled up in a piece of string. ‘Have to meet my wife at Liverpool Street. Are you married?’
‘Oh well, one care the less. Children can be a great responsibility.’
‘I have a child—but she lives a long way off.’
‘A long way off? I see.’
‘We haven’t seen much of each other.’
‘Doesn’t care for England?’
‘The colour-bar makes it difficult for her.’ He realized how childish he sounded directly he had spoken, as though he had been trying to draw attention to himself by a bizarre confession, without even the satisfaction of success.
‘Ah yes,’ Sir Nigel said. ‘Any brothers or sisters? You, I mean.’
‘An elder brother. Why?’
‘Oh well, I suppose it’s all on the record,’ Sir Nigel said, rolling in his line. He got up and made for the door. Wilditch sat on the bed with the tie over his knee. The door opened and Sir Nigel said, ‘Ah, here’s Dr Cave. Must run along now. I was just telling Mr Wilditch that I’ll be seeing him again. You’ll fix it, won’t you?’ and he was gone.
‘Why should I see him again?’ Wilditch asked and then, from Dr Cave’s embarrassment, he saw the stupidity of the question. ‘Oh yes, of course, you did find something?’
‘It’s really very lucky. If caught in time …’
‘There’s sometimes hope?’
‘Oh, there’s always hope.’
Dr Cave took an engagement-book out of his pocket and said briskly, ‘Sir Nigel has given me a few dates. The tenth is difficult for the clinic, but the fifteenth—Sir Nigel doesn’t think we should delay longer than the fifteenth.’
‘Is he a great fisherman?’
‘Fisherman? Sir Nigel? I have no idea.’ Dr Cave looked aggrieved, as though he were being shown an incorrect chart. ‘Shall we say the fifteenth?’
‘Perhaps I could tell you after the week-end. You see, I have not made up my mind to stay as long as that in England.’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t properly conveyed to you that this is serious, really serious. Your only chance—I repeat your only chance,’ he spoke like a telegram, ‘is to have the obstruction removed in time.’
‘And then, I suppose, life can go on for a few more years.’
‘It’s impossible to guarantee … but there have been complete cures.’
‘I don’t want to appear dialectical,’ Wilditch said, ‘but I do have to decide, don’t I, whether I want my particular kind of life prolonged.’
‘It’s the only one we have,’ Dr Cave said.
‘I see you are not a religious man—oh, please don’t misunderstand me, nor am I. I have no curiosity at all about the future.’
The past was another matter. Wilditch remembered a leader in the Civil War who rode from an undecided battle mortally wounded. He revisited the house where he was born, the house in which he was married, greeted a few retainers who did not recognize his condition, seeing him only as a tired man upon a horse, and finally—but Wilditch could not recollect how the biography had ended: he saw only a figure of exhaustion slumped over the saddle, as he also took, like Sir Nigel Sampson, a train from Liverpool Street. At Colchester he changed onto the branch line to Winton, and suddenly summer began, the kind of summer he always remembered as one of the conditions of life at Winton. Days had become so much shorter since then. They no longer began at six in the morning before the world was awake.
Winton Hall had belonged, when Wilditch was a child, to his uncle, who had never married, and every summer he lent the house to Wilditch’s mother. Winton Hall had been virtually Wilditch’s, until school cut the period short, from late June to early September. In memory his mother and brother were shadowy background figures. They were less established even than the machine upon the platform of ‘the halt’ from which he bought Fry’s chocolates for a penny a bar: than the oak tree spreading over the green in front of the red-brick wall—under its shade as a child he had distributed apples to soldiers halted there in the hot August of 1914: the group of silver birches on the Winton lawn and the broken fountain, green with slime. In his memory he did not share the house with others: he owned it.
Nevertheless the house had been left to his brother not to him; he was far away when his uncle died and he had never returned since. His brother married, had children (for them the fountain had been mended), the paddock behind the vegetable garden and the orchard, where he used to ride the donkey, had been sold (so his brother had written to him) for building council-houses, but the hall and the garden which he had so scrupulously remembered nothing could change.
Why then go back now and see it in other hands? Was it that at the approach of death one must get rid of everything? If he had accumulated money he would now have been in the mood to distribute it. Perhaps the man who had ridden the horse around the countryside had not been saying goodbye, as his biographer imagined, to what he valued most: he had been ridding himself of illusions by seeing them again with clear and moribund eyes, so that he might be quite bankrupt when death came. He had the will to possess at that absolute moment nothing but his wound.
His brother, Wilditch knew, would be faintly surprised by this visit. He had become accustomed to the fact that Wilditch never came to Winton; they would meet at long intervals at his brother’s club in London, for George was a widower by this time, living alone. He always talked to others of Wilditch as a man unhappy in the country, who needed a longer range and stranger people. It was lucky, he would indicate, that the house had been left to him, for Wilditch would probably have sold it in order to travel further. A restless man, never long in one place, no wife, no children, unless the rumours were true that in Africa … or it might have been in the East … Wilditch was well aware of how his brother spoke of him. His brother was the proud owner of the lawn, the goldfish-pond, the mended fountain, the laurel-path which they had known when they were children as the Dark Walk, the lake, the island … Wilditch looked out at the flat hard East Anglian countryside, the meagre hedges and the stubbly grass, which had always seemed to him barren from the salt of Danish blood. All these years his brother had been in occupation, and yet he had no idea of what might lie underneath the garden.
The chocolate-machine had gone from Winton Halt, and the halt had been promoted—during the years of nationalization—to a station; the chimneys of a cement-factory smoked along the horizon and council-houses now stood three deep along the line.
Wilditch’s brother waited in a Humber at the exit. Some familiar smell of coal-dust and varnish had gone from the waiting-room and it was a mere boy who took his ticket instead of a stooped and greying porter. In childhood nearly all the world is older than oneself.
‘Hullo, George,’ he said in remote greeting to the stranger at the wheel.
‘How are things, William?’ George asked as they ground on their way—it was part of his character as a countryman that he had never learnt how to drive a car well.
The long chalky slope of a small hill—the highest point before the Ural mountains he had once been told—led down to the village between the bristly hedges. On the left was an abandoned chalk-pit—it had been just as abandoned forty years ago, when he had climbed all over it looking for treasure, in the form of brown nuggets of iron pyrites which when broken showed an interior of starred silver.
‘Do you remember hunting for treasure?’
‘Treasure?’ George said. ‘Oh, you mean that iron stuff.’
Was it the long summer afternoons in the chalk-pit which had made him dream—or so vividly imagine—the discovery of a real treasure? If it was a dream it was the only dream he remembered from those years, or, if it was a story which he had elaborated at night in bed, it must have been the final effort of a poetic imagination that afterwards had been rigidly controlled. In the various services which had over the years taken him from one part of the world to another, imagination was usually a quality to be suppressed. One’s job was to provide facts, to a company (import and export), a newspaper, a government department. Speculation was discouraged. Now the dreaming child was dying of the same disease as the man. He was so different from the child that it was odd to think the child would not outlive him and go on to quite a different destiny.
George said, ‘You’ll notice some changes, William. When I had the bathroom added, I found I had to disconnect the pipes from the fountain. Something to do with pressure. After all there are no children now to enjoy it.’
‘It never played in my time either.’
‘I had the tennis-lawn dug up during the war, and it hardly seemed worth while to put it back.’
‘I’d forgotten that there was a tennis-lawn.’
‘Don’t you remember it, between the pond and the goldfish-tank?’
‘The pond? Oh, you mean the lake and the island.’
‘Not much of a lake. You could jump on to the island with a short run.’
‘I had thought of it as much bigger.’
But all measurements had changed. Only for a dwarf does the world remain the same size. Even the red-brick wall which separated the garden from the village was lower than he remembered—a mere five feet, but in order to look over it in those days he had always to scramble to the top of some old stumps covered deep with ivy and dusty spiders’ webs. There was no sign of the
‘You keep the place up very well,’ he said.
‘I couldn’t manage it without the market-garden. That enables me to put the gardener’s wages down as a professional expense. I have a very good accountant.’
He was put into his mother’s room with a view of the lawn and the silver birches; George slept in what had been his uncle’s. The little bedroom next door which had once been his was now converted into a tiled bathroom—only the prospect was unchanged. He could see the laurel bushes where the Dark Walk began, but they were smaller too. Had the dying horseman found as many changes?
Sitting that night over coffee and brandy, during the long family pauses, Wilditch wondered whether as a child he could possibly have been so secretive as never to have spoken of his dream, his game, whatever it was. In his memory the adventure had lasted for several days. At the end of it he had found his way home in the early morning when everyone was asleep: there had been a dog called Joe who bounded towards him and sent him sprawling in the heavy dew of the lawn. Surely there must have been some basis of fact on which the legend had been built. Perhaps he had run away, perhaps he had been out all night—on the island in the lake or hidden in the Dark Walk—and during those hours he had invented the whole story.
Wilditch took a second glass of brandy and asked tentatively, ‘Do you remember much of those summers when we were children here?’ He was aware of something unconvincing in the question: the apparently harmless opening gambit of a wartime interrogation.
‘I never cared for the place much in those days,’ George said surprisingly. ‘You were a secretive little bastard.’
‘And uncooperative. I had a great sense of duty towards you, but you never realized that. In a year or two you were going to follow me to school. I tried to teach you the rudiments of cricket. You weren’t interested. God knows what you were interested in.’
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