A sense of reality and o.., p.3
A Sense of Reality: And Other Stories, p.3Graham Greene
Again I find myself checking my memories as though they were facts. A dream does not take account of size. A puddle can contain a continent, and a clump of trees stretch in sleep to the world’s edge. I dreamed, I dreamed that I was lost and that night began to fall. I was not frightened. It was as though even at seven I was accustomed to travel. All the rough journeys of the future were already in me then, like a muscle which had only to develop. I curled up among the roots of the trees and slept. When I woke I could still hear the pit-pat of the rain in the upper branches and the steady zing of an insect near by. All these noises come as clearly back to me now as the sound of the rain on the parked cars outside the clinic in Wimpole Street, the music of yesterday.
The moon had risen and I could see more easily around me. I was determined to explore further before the morning came, for then an expedition would certainly be sent in search of me. I knew, from the many books of exploration George had read to me, of the danger to a person lost of walking in circles until eventually he dies of thirst or hunger, so I cut a cross in the bark of the tree (I had brought a knife with me that contained several blades, a small saw and an instrument for removing pebbles from horses’ hooves). For the sake of future reference I named the place where I had slept Camp Hope. I had no fear of hunger, for I had apples in both pockets, and as for thirst I had only to continue in a straight line and I would come eventually to the lake again where the water was sweet, or at worst a little brackish. I go into all these details, which W.W. unaccountably omitted, to test my memory. I had forgotten until now how far or how deeply it extended. Had W.W. forgotten or was he afraid to remember?
I had gone a little more than three hundred yards—I paced the distances and marked every hundred paces or so on a tree—it was the best I could do, without proper surveying instruments, for the map I already planned to draw—when I reached a great oak of apparently enormous age with roots that coiled away above the surface of the ground. (I was reminded of those roots once in Africa where they formed a kind of shrine for a fetish—a seated human figure made out of a gourd and palm fronds and unidentifiable vegetable matter gone rotten in the rains and a great penis of bamboo. Coming on it suddenly, I was frightened, or was it the memory that it brought back which scared me?) Under one of these roots the earth had been disturbed; somebody had shaken a mound of charred tobacco from a pipe and a sequin glistened like a snail in the moist moonlight. I struck a match to examine the ground closer and saw the imprint of a foot in a patch of loose earth—it was pointing at the tree from a few inches away and it was as solitary as the print Crusoe found on the sands of another island. It was as though a one-legged man had taken a leap out of the bushes straight at the tree.
Pirate ancestor! What nonsense W.W. had written, or had he converted the memory of that stark frightening footprint into some comforting thought of the kindly scoundrel, Long John Silver, and his wooden leg?
I stood astride the imprint and stared up the tree, half expecting to see a one-legged man perched like a vulture among the branches. I listened and there was no sound except last night’s rain dripping from leaf to leaf. Then—I don’t know why—I went down on my knees and peered among the roots. There was no iron ring, but one of the roots formed an arch more than two feet high like the entrance to a cave. I put my head inside and lit another match—I couldn’t see the back of the cave.
It’s difficult to remember that I was only seven years old. To the self we remain always the same age. I was afraid at first to venture further, but so would any grown man have been, any one of the explorers I thought of as my peers. My brother had been reading aloud to me a month before from a book called The Romance of Australian Exploration—my own powers of reading had not advanced quite as far as that, but my memory was green and retentive and I carried in my head all kinds of new images and evocative words—aboriginal, sextant, Murumbidgee, Stony Desert, and the points of the compass with their big capital letters E.S.E. and N.N.W. had an excitement they have never quite lost. They were like the figure on a watch which at last comes round to pointing the important hour. I was comforted by the thought that Sturt had been sometimes daunted and that Burke’s bluster often hid his fear. Now, kneeling by the cave, I remembered a cavern which George Grey, another hero of mine, had entered and how suddenly he had come on the figure of a man ten feet high painted on the wall, clothed from the chin down to the ankles in a red garment. I don’t know why, but I was more afraid of that painting than I was of the aborigines who killed Burke, and the fact that the feet and hands which protruded from the garment were said to be badly executed added to the terror. A foot which looked like a foot was only human, but my imagination could play endlessly with the faults of the painter—a club-foot, a claw-foot, the worm-like toes of a bird. Now I associated this strange footprint with the ill-executed painting, and I hesitated a long time before I got the courage to crawl into the cave under the root. Before doing so, in reference to the footprint, I gave the spot the name of Friday’s Cave.
For some yards I could not even get upon my knees, the roof grated my hair, and it was impossible for me in that position to strike another match. I could only inch along like a worm, making an ideograph in the dust. I didn’t notice for a while in the darkness that I was crawling down a long slope, but I could feel on either side of me roots rubbing my shoulders like the banisters of a staircase. I was creeping through the branches of an underground tree in a mole’s world. Then the impediments were passed—I was out the other side; I banged my head again on the earth-wall and found that I could rise to my knees. But I nearly toppled down again, for I had not realized how steeply the ground sloped. I was more than a man’s height below ground and, when I struck a match, I could see no finish to the long gradient going down. I cannot help feeling a little proud that I continued on my way, on my knees this time, though I suppose it is arguable whether one can really show courage in a dream.
I was halted again by a turn in the path, and this time I found I could rise to my feet after I had struck another match. The track had flattened out and ran horizontally. The air was stuffy with an odd disagreeable smell like cabbage cooking, and I wanted to go back. I remembered how miners carried canaries with them in cages to test the freshness of the air, and I wished I had thought of bringing our own canary with me which had accompanied us to Winton Hall—it would have been company too in that dark tunnel with its tiny song. There was something, I remembered, called coal-damp which caused explosions, and this passage was certainly damp enough. I must be nearly under the lake by this time, and I thought to myself that, if there was an explosion, the waters of the lake would pour in and drown me.
I blew out my match at the idea, but all the same I continued on my way in the hope that I might come on an exit a little easier than the long crawl back through the roots of the trees.
Suddenly ahead of me something whistled, only it was less like a whistle than a hiss: it was like the noise a kettle makes when it is on the boil. I thought of snakes and wondered whether some giant serpent had made its nest in the tunnel. There was something fatal to man called a Black Mamba … I stood stock-still and held my breath, while the whistling went on and on for a long while, before it whined out into nothing. I would have given anything then to have been safe back in bed in the room next to my mother’s, with the electric-light switch close to my hand and the firm bed-end at my feet. There was a strange clanking sound and a duck-like quack. I couldn’t bear the darkness any more and I lit another match, reckless of coal-damp. It shone on a pile of old newspapers and nothing else—it was strange to find I had not been the first person here. I called out ‘Hullo!’ and my voice went on in diminishing echoes down the long passage. Nobody answered, and when I picked up one of the papers I saw it was no proof of a human presence. It was the East Anglian Observer for April 5th 1885—‘with which is incorporated the Colchester Guardian’. It’s funny how even the date remains in my mind and the Victorian Gothic type of the titling.
Then I had an idea. I made a torch of the paper in my hand, tucked the others under my arm to serve me later, and with the stronger light advanced more boldly down the passage. After all wild beasts—so George had read to me—and serpents too in all likelihood—were afraid of fire, and my fear of an explosion had been driven out by the greater terror of what I might find in the dark. But it was not a snake or a leopard or a tiger or any other cavern-haunting animal that I saw when I turned the second corner. Scrawled with the simplicity of ancient man upon the left-hand wall of the passage—done with a sharp tool like a chisel—was the outline of a gigantic fish. I held up my paper-torch higher and saw the remains of lettering either half-obliterated or in a language I didn’t know.
I was trying to make sense of the symbols when a hoarse voice out of sight called, ‘Maria, Maria’.
I stood very still and the newspaper burned down in my hand. ‘Is that you, Maria?’ the voice said. It sounded to me very angry. ‘What kind of a trick are you playing? What’s the clock say? Surely it’s time for my broth.’ And then I heard again that strange quacking sound which I had heard before. There was a long whispering and after that silence.
I suppose I was relieved that there were human beings and not wild beasts down the passage, but what kind of human beings could they be except criminals hiding from justice or gypsies who are notorious for stealing children? I was afraid to think what they might do to anyone who discovered their secret. It was also possible, of course, that I had come on the home of some aboriginal tribe … I stood there unable to make up my mind whether to go on or to turn back. It was not a problem which my Australian peers could help me to solve, for they had sometimes found the aboriginals friendly folk who gave them fish (I thought of the fish on the wall) and sometimes enemies who attacked with spears. In any case—whether these were criminals or gypsies or aboriginals—I had only a pocket-knife for my defence. I think it showed the true spirit of an explorer that in spite of my fears I thought of the map I must one day draw if I survived and so named this spot Camp Indecision.
My indecision was solved for me. An old woman appeared suddenly and noiselessly around the corner of the passage. She wore an old blue dress which came down to her ankles covered with sequins, and her hair was grey and straggly and she was going bald on top. She was every bit as surprised as I was. She stood there gaping at me and then she opened her mouth and squawked. I learned later that she had no roof to her mouth and was probably saying, ‘Who are you?’ but then I thought it was some foreign tongue she spoke—perhaps aboriginee—and I replied with an attempt at assurance, ‘I’m English.’
The hoarse voice out of sight said, ‘Bring him along here, Maria.’
The old woman took a step towards me, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being touched by her hands, which were old and curved like a bird’s and covered with the brown patches that Ernest, the gardener, had told me were ‘grave-marks’; her nails were very long and filled with dirt. Her dress was dirty too and I thought of the sequin I’d seen outside and imagined her scrabbling home through the roots of the tree. I backed up against the side of the passage and somehow squeezed around her. She quacked after me, but I went on. Round a second—or perhaps a third—corner I found myself in a great cave some eight feet high. On what I thought was a throne, but I later realized was an old lavatory-seat, sat a big old man with a white beard yellowing round the mouth from what I suppose now to have been nicotine. He had one good leg, but the right trouser was sewn up and looked stuffed like a bolster. I could see him quite well because an oil-lamp stood on a kitchen-table, beside a carving-knife and two cabbages, and his face came vividly back to me the other day when I was reading Darwin’s description of a carrier-pigeon: ‘Greatly elongated eyelids, very large external orifices to the nostrils, and a wide gape of mouth.’
He said, ‘And who would you be and what are you doing here and why are you burning my newspaper?’
The old woman came squawking around the corner and then stood still behind me, barring my retreat.
I said, ‘My name’s William Wilditch, and I come from Winton Hall.’
‘And where’s Winton Hall?’ he asked, never stirring from his lavatory-seat.
‘Up there,’ I said and pointed at the roof of the cave.
‘That means precious little,’ he said. ‘Why, everything is up there, China and all America too and the Sandwich Islands.’
‘I suppose so,’ I said. There was a kind of reason in most of what he said, as I came to realize later.
‘But down here there’s only us. We are exclusive,’ he said, ‘Maria and me.’
I was less frightened of him now. He spoke English. He was a fellow-countryman. I said, ‘If you’ll tell me the way out I’ll be going on my way.’
‘What’s that you’ve got under your arm?’ he asked me sharply. ‘More newspapers?’
‘I found them in the passage …’
‘Finding’s not keeping here,’ he said, ‘whatever it may be up there in China. You’ll soon discover that. Why, that’s the last lot of papers Maria brought in. What would we have for reading if we let you go and pinch them?’
‘I didn’t mean …’
‘Can you read?’ he asked, not listening to my excuses.
‘If the words aren’t too long.’
‘Maria can read, but she can’t see very well any more than I can, and she can’t articulate much.’
Maria went kwahk, kwahk behind me, like a bull-frog it seems to me now, and I jumped. If that was how she read I wondered how he could understand a single word. He said, ‘Try a piece.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Can’t you understand plain English? You’ll have to work for your supper down here.’
‘But it’s not supper-time. It’s still early in the morning,’ I said.
‘What o’clock is it, Maria?’
‘Kwahk,’ she said.
‘Six. That’s supper-time.’
‘But it’s six in the morning, not the evening.’
‘How do you know? Where’s the light? There aren’t such things as mornings and evenings here.’
‘Then how do you ever wake up?’ I asked. His beard shook as he laughed. ‘What a shrewd little shaver he is,’ he exclaimed. ‘Did you hear that, Maria? “How do you ever wake up?” he said. All the same you’ll find that life here isn’t all beer and skittles and who’s your Uncle Joe. If you are clever, you’ll learn and if you are not clever …’ He brooded morosely. ‘We are deeper here than any grave was ever dug to bury secrets in. Under the earth or over the earth, it’s there you’ll find all that matters.’ He added angrily, ‘Why aren’t you reading a piece as I told you to? If you are to stay with us, you’ve got to jump to it.’
‘I don’t want to stay.’
‘You think you can just take a peek, is that it? and go away. You are wrong—but take all the peek you want and then get on with it.’
I didn’t like the way he spoke, but all the same I did as he suggested. There was an old chocolate-stained chest of drawers, a tall kitchen-cupboard, a screen covered with scraps and transfers, and a wooden crate which perhaps served Maria for a chair, and another larger one for a table. There was a cooking-stove with a kettle pushed to one side, steaming yet. That would have caused the whistle I had heard in the passage. I could see no sign of any bed, unless a heap of potato-sacks against the wall served that purpose. There were a lot of breadcrumbs on the earth-floor and a few bones had been swept into a corner as though awaiting interment.
‘And now,’ he said, ‘show your young paces. I’ve yet to see whether you are worth your keep.’
‘But I don’t want to be kept,’ I said. ‘I
‘Home’s where a man lies down,’ he said, ‘and this is where you’ll lie from now. Now take the first page that comes and read to me. I want to hear the news.’
‘But the paper’s nearly fifty years old,’ I said. ‘There’s no news in it.’
‘News is news however old it is.’ I began to notice a way he had of talking in general statements like a lecturer or a prophet. He seemed to be less interested in conversation than in the recital of some articles of belief, odd crazy ones, perhaps, yet somehow I could never put my finger convincingly on an error. ‘A cat’s a cat even when it’s a dead cat. We get rid of it when it’s smelly, but news never smells, however long it’s dead. News keeps. And it comes round again when you least expect. Like thunder.’
I opened the paper at random and read: ‘Garden fête at the Grange. The fête at the Grange, Long Wilson, in aid of Distressed Gentlewomen was opened by Lady (Isobel) Montgomery.’ I was a bit put out by the long words coming so quickly, but I acquitted myself with fair credit. He sat on the lavatory-seat with his head sunk a little, listening with attention. ‘The Vicar presided at the White Elephant Stall.’
The old man said with satisfaction, ‘They are royal beasts.’
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