A sense of reality and o.., p.11
A Sense of Reality: And Other Stories, p.11Graham Greene
‘Who’s got a bit of string?’ Pete said.
They tied the string to Liz’s hair-ribbon and jerked Number One to his feet. Number Two pulled the string and Number Three pushed from behind. Pete led the way, upwards and into the wood, while Liz trailed alone behind; she couldn’t move quickly because she had very bandy legs. Now that he realized there was nothing to be done about it, Number One made little trouble; he contented himself with an occasional sneer and lagged enough to keep the cord stretched tight, so that their march was delayed, and nearly two hours passed before they came to the edge of the known territory, emerging from the woods of Bottom on to the rim of a shallow ravine. On the other side the rocks rose again in exactly the same way, with the birch-trees lodged in every crevice up to the sky-line, to which no one from the village of Bottom had ever climbed; in all the interstices of roots and rocks the blackberries grew. From where they stood they could imagine they saw a blue haze like autumn smoke from the great luscious untouched fruit dangling in the shade.
All the same they hesitated a while before they started going down; it was as though Number One retained a certain malevolent influence and they had bound themselves to it by the cord. He squatted on the ground and sneered up at them. ‘You see you don’t dare …’
‘Dare what?’ Pete asked, trying to brush his words away before any doubts could settle on Two or Three or Liz and sap the uncertain power he still possessed.
‘Those blackberries don’t belong to us,’ One said.
‘Then who do they belong to?’ Pete asked him, noting how Number Two looked at Number One as though he expected an answer.
Three said with scorn, ‘Finding’s keeping,’ and kicked a stone down into the ravine.
‘They belong to the next village. You know that as well as I do.’
‘And where’s the next village?’ Pete asked.
‘For all you know there isn’t another village.
‘There must be. It’s common sense. We can’t be the only ones—we and Two Rivers.’ That was what they called the village which lay beyond the headland.
‘But how do you know?’ Pete said. His thoughts took wing. ‘Perhaps we are the only ones. Perhaps we could climb up there and go on for ever and ever. Perhaps the world’s empty.’ He could feel that Number Two and Liz were half-way with him—as for Number Three he was a hopeless case; he cared for nothing. But all the same, if he had to choose his successor he would prefer Number Three’s care-for-nothing character than the elderly inherited rules of Number One or the unadventurous reliability of Number Two.
Number One said, ‘You are just crazy,’ and spat down into the ravine. ‘We couldn’t be the only ones alive. It’s common sense.’
‘Why not?’ Pete said. ‘Who knows?’
‘Perhaps the blackberries are poisoned,’ Liz said. ‘Perhaps we’ll get the gripes. Perhaps there’s savages there. Perhaps there’s giants.’
‘I’ll believe in giants when I see them,’ Pete said. He knew how shallow her fear was; she only wanted to be reassured by someone stronger.
‘You talk a lot,’ Number One said, ‘but you can’t even organize. Why didn’t you tell us to bring baskets if we were going to pick things?’
‘We don’t need baskets. We’ve got Liz’s skirt.’
‘And it’s Liz who’ll be thrashed when her skirt’s all stained.’
‘Not if it’s full of blackberries she won’t. Tie up your skirt, Liz.’
Liz tied it up, making it into a pannier in front, with a knot behind just above the opening of her small plump buttocks. The boys watched her with interest to see how she fixed it. ‘They’ll all fall out,’ Number One said. ‘You ought to have taken the whole thing off an’ made a sack.’
‘How could I climb holding a sack? You don’t know a thing, Number One. I can fix this easy.’ She squatted on the ground with a bare buttock on each heel and tied and retied the knot till she was quite satisfied that it was firm.
‘So now we go down,’ Number Three said.
‘Not till I give the order. Number One, I’ll release you if you promise to give no trouble.’
‘I’ll give plenty of trouble.’
‘Number Two and Three, you take charge of Number One. You’re the rear-guard, see. If we have to retreat in a hurry, you just leave the prisoner behind. Liz and I go ahead to reconnoitre.’
‘Why Liz?’ Number Three said. ‘What good’s a girl?’
‘In case we have to use a spy. Girl spies are always best. Anyway they wouldn’t bash a girl.’
‘Pa does,’ Liz said, twitching her buttocks.
‘But I want to be in the van,’ Three said.
‘We don’t know which is the van yet. They may be watching us now while we talk. They may be luring us on, and then they’ll attack in the rear.’
‘You’re afraid,’ Number One said. ‘Fainty goose! Fainty goose!’
‘I’m not afraid, but I’m boss, I’m responsible for the gang. Listen all of you, in case of danger we give one short whistle. Stay where you are. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Two short whistles mean abandon the prisoner and retreat double-quick. One long whistle means treasure discovered, all well, come as quick as you can. Everybody got that clear?’
‘Yah,’ said Number Two. ‘But suppose we’re just lost?’
‘Stay where you are and wait for a whistle.’
‘Suppose he whistles—to confuse?’ Number Two asked, digging at Number One with his toe.
‘If he does gag him. Gag him hard, so his teeth squeak.’
Pete went to the edge of the plateau and gazed down, to choose his path through the scrub; the rocks descended some thirty feet. Liz stood close behind him and held the edge of his shirt. ‘Who are They?’ she whispered.
‘You don’t believe in giants?’
‘When I think of giants, I shiver—here,’ and she laid her hand on the little bare mount of Venus below her panniered skirt.
Pete said, ‘We’ll start down there between those clumps of gorse. Be careful. The stones are loose and we don’t want to make any noise at all.’ He turned back to the others, who watched him with admiration, envy and hate (that was Number One). ‘Wait till you see us start climbing up the other side and then you come on down.’ He looked at the sky. ‘The invasion began at noon,’ he announced with the precision of an historian recording an event in the past which had altered the shape of the world.
‘We could whistle now,’ Liz suggested. They were half-way up the slope of the ravine by this time, out of breath from the scramble. She put a blackberry in her mouth and added, ‘They’re sweet. Sweeter than ours. Shall I start picking?’ Her thighs and bottom were scratched with briars and smeared with blood the colour of blackberry juice.
Pete said, ‘Why, I’ve seen better than these in our territory. Liz, don’t you notice, not one of them’s been picked. No one’s ever come here. These ones are nothing to what we’ll find later. They’ve been growing for years and years and years—why, I wouldn’t be surprised if we came on a whole forest of them with bushes as high as trees and berries as big as apples. We’ll leave the little ones for the others if they want to pick them. You and I will climb up higher and find real treasure.’ As he spoke he could hear the scrape of the others’ shoes and the roll of a loose stone, but they could see nothing because the bushes grew so thick around the trees. ‘Come on. If we find treasure first, it’s ours.’
‘I wish it was real treasure, not just blackberries.’
‘It might be real treasure. No one’s ever explored here before us.’
‘Giants?’ Liz asked him with a shiver.
‘Those are stories they tell children. Like Old Noh and his ship. There never were giants.’
‘What a baby you are.’
They climbed up and up among the birches and bushes, and the sound of th
‘It’s a house,’ Liz said. ‘It’s a huge house.’
‘It can’t be. You’ve never seen a house that size—or that shape,’ but he knew that Liz was right. This had been made by men and not by nature. It was something in which people had once lived.
‘A house for giants,’ Liz said fearfully.
Pete lay on his stomach and peered over the edge of the ravine. A hundred feet down among the red rocks lay a long structure glinting here and there among the bushes and moss which overgrew it—it stretched beyond their sight, trees climbed along its sides, trees had seeded on the roof, and up the length of two enormous chimneys ivy twined and flowering plants with trumpet-mouths. There was no smoke, no sign of any occupant; only the birds, perhaps disturbed by their voices, called warnings among the trees, and a colony of starlings rose from one of the chimneys and dispersed.
‘Let’s go back,’ Liz whispered.
‘We can’t now,’ Pete said. ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s only another ruin. What’s wrong with ruins? We’ve always played in them.’
‘It’s scary. It’s not like the ruins at Bottom.’
‘Bottom’s not the world,’ Pete said. It was the expression of a profound belief he shared with no one else.
The huge structure was tilted at an angle, so that they could almost see down one of the enormous chimneys, which gaped like a hole in the world. ‘I’m going down to look,’ Pete said, ‘but I’ll spy out the land first.’
‘Shall I whistle?’
‘Not yet. Stay where you are in case the others come.’
He moved with caution along the ridge. Behind him the strange thing—not built of stone or wood—extended a hundred yards or more, sometimes hidden, sometimes obscured by trees, but in the direction he now took the cliff was bare of vegetation, and he was able to peer down at the great wall of the house, not straight but oddly curved, like the belly of a fish or … He stood still for a moment, looking hard at it: the curve was the enormous magnification of something that was familiar to him. He went thoughtfully on, pondering on the old legend which had been the subject of their games. Nearly a hundred yards further he stopped again. It was as though at this point some enormous hand had taken the house and split it in two. He could look down between the two portions and see the house exposed floor by floor—there must be five, six, seven of them, with nothing stirring inside, except where the bushes had found a lodging and a wing flickered. He could imagine the great halls receding into the dark, and he thought how all the inhabitants of Bottom could have lived in a single room on a single floor and still have found space for their animals and their gear. How many thousand people, he wondered, had once lived in this enormous house? He hadn’t realized the world contained so many.
When the house was broken—how?—one portion had been flung upwards at an angle, and only fifty yards from where he stood he could see where the end of it penetrated in the ridge, so that if he wished to explore further he had only to drop a few yards to find himself upon the roof. There trees grew again and made an easy descent. He had no excuse to stay, and suddenly aware of loneliness and ignorance and the mystery of the great house he put his fingers to his mouth and gave one long whistle to summon all the others.
They were overawed too, and if Number One had not so jeered at them, perhaps they would have decided to go home with the secret of the house locked in their minds with a dream of one day returning. But when Number One said, ‘Softies, Fainties …’ and shot his spittle down towards the house, Number Three broke silence. ‘What are we waiting for?’ Then Pete had to act, if he was to guard his leadership. Scrambling from branch to branch of a tree that grew from a plateau of rock below the ridge, he got within six feet of the roof and dropped. He landed on his knees upon a surface cold and smooth as an egg-shell. The four children looked down at him and waited.
The slope of the roof was such that he had to slide cautiously downwards on his bottom. At the end of the descent there was another house which had been built upon the roof, and he realized from where he sat that the whole structure was not one house but a succession of houses built one over the other, and above the topmost house loomed the tip of the enormous chimney. Remembering how the whole thing had been torn apart, he was careful not to slide too fast for fear that he should plunge into the gap between. None of the others had followed him; he was alone.
Ahead of him was a great arch of some unknown material, and below the arch a red rock rose and split it in two. This was like a victory for the mountains; however hard the material men had used in making the house, the mountains remained the stronger. He came to rest with his feet against a rock and looked down into the wide gap where the rock had come up and split the houses; the gap was many yards across; it was bridged by a fallen tree, and although he could see but a little way down, he had the same sense which he had received above that he was looking into something as deep as the sea. Why was it he half expected to see fishes moving there?
With his hand pressed on the needle of red rock he stood upright and, looking up, was startled to see two unwinking eyes regarding him from a few feet away. Then as he moved again he saw that they belonged to a squirrel, the colour of the rock: it turned without hurry or fear, lifted a plumy tail and neatly evacuated before it leapt into the hall ahead of him.
The hall—it was indeed a hall, he realized, making his way towards it astride the fallen tree, and yet the first impression he had was of a forest, with the trees regularly spaced as in a plantation made by men. It was possible to walk there on a level, though the ground was hummocked with red rock which here and there had burst through the hard paving. The trees were not trees at all but pillars of wood, which still showed in patches a smooth surface, but pitted for most of their length with worm-holes and draped with ivy that climbed to the roof fifty feet up to escape through a great tear in the ceiling. There was a smell of vegetation and damp, and all down the hall were dozens of small green tumuli like woodland-graves.
He kicked one of the mounds with a foot and it disintegrated immediately below the thick damp moss that covered it. Gingerly he thrust his hand into the soggy greenery and pulled out a strut of rotting wood. He moved on and tried again a long curved hump of green which stood more than breast-high—not like a common grave—and this time he stubbed his toes and winced with the pain. The greenery had taken no root here, but had spread from tumulus to hump across the floor, and he was able to pluck away without difficulty the leaves and tendrils. Underneath lay a stone slab in many beautiful colours, green and rose-pink and red the colour of blood. He moved around it, cleaning the surface as he went, and here at last he came on real treasure. For a moment he did not realize what purpose those half-translucent objects could have served; they stood in rows behind a smashed panel, most broken into green rubble, but a few intact, except for the discoloration of age. It was from their shape he realized that they must once have been drinking pots, made of a material quite different from the rough clay to which he was accustomed. Scattered on the floor below were hundreds of hard round objects stamped with the image of a human head like those his grandparents had dug up in the ruins of Bottom—objects useless except that with their help it was possible to draw a perfect circle and they could be used as forfeits, in place of pebbles, in the game of ‘Ware that Cloud’. They were more interesting than pebbles. They had dignity and rareness which belonged to all old things made by man—there was so little to be seen in the world older than an old man. He was tempted momentarily to keep the discovery to hims
While waiting for the others to join him, he sat on the stone slab deep in thought and pondered all he had seen, especially that great wall like a fish’s belly. The whole huge house, it seemed to him, was like a monstrous fish thrown up among the rocks to die, but what a fish and what a wave to carry it so high.
The children came sliding down the roof, Number One still in tow between them; they gave little cries of excitement and delight; they were quite forgetful of their fear, as though it were the season of snow. Then they picked themselves up by the red rock, as he had done, straddled the fallen tree, and hobbled across the vast space of the hall, like insects caught under a cup.
‘There’s treasure for you,’ Pete said with pride and he was glad to see them surprised into silence at the spectacle; even Number One forgot to sneer, and the cord by which they held him trailed neglected on the ground. At last Number Two said,’ Coo! It’s better than blackberries.’
‘Put the forfeits into Liz’s skirt. We’ll divide them later.’
‘Does Number One get any?’ Liz asked.
‘There’s enough for all,’ Pete said. ‘Let him go.’ It seemed the moment for generosity, and in any case they needed all their hands. While they were gathering up the forfeits he went to one of the great gaps in the wall that must once have been windows, covered perhaps like the windows of Bottom with straw mats at night, and leant far out. The hills rose and fell, a brown and choppy sea; there was no sign of a village anywhere, not even of a ruin. Below him the great black wall curved out of sight; the place where it touched the ground was hidden by the tops of trees that grew in the valley below. He remembered the old legend, and the game they played among the ruins of Bottom. ‘Noh built a boat. What kind of a boat? A boat for all the beasts and Brigit too. What kind of beasts? Big beasts like bears and beavers and Brigit too …’
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