A sense of reality and o.., p.5
A Sense of Reality: And Other Stories, p.5Graham Greene
‘When I was born, time had a different pace to what it has now. Now you walk from one wall to another, and it takes you twenty steps—or twenty miles—who cares?—between the towns. But when I was young we took a leisurely way. Don’t bother me with “I must be gone now” or “I’ve been away so long”. I can’t talk to you in terms of time—your time and my time are different. Javitt isn’t my usual name either even with strangers. It’s one I thought up fresh for you, so that you’ll have no power at all. I’ll change it right away if you escape. I warn you that.
‘You get a sense of what I mean when you make love with a girl. The time isn’t measured by clocks. Time is fast or slow or it stops for a while altogether. One minute is different to every other minute. When you make love it’s a pulse in a man’s part which measures time and when you spill yourself there’s no time at all. That’s how time comes and goes, not by an alarm-clock made by a man with a magnifying glass in his eye. Haven’t you ever heard them say, “It’s—time” up there?’ and he used again the word which I guessed was forbidden like his name, perhaps because it had power too.
‘I daresay you are wondering how Maria and me could make a beautiful girl like that one. That’s an illusion people have about beauty. Beauty doesn’t come from beauty. All that beauty can produce is prettiness. Have you never looked around upstairs and counted the beautiful women with their pretty daughters? Beauty diminishes all the time, it’s the law of diminishing returns, and only when you get back to zero, to the real ugly base of things, there’s a chance to start again free and independent. Painters who paint what they call ugly things know that. I can still see that little head with its cap of blonde hair coming out from between Maria’s thighs and how she leapt out of Maria in a spasm (there wasn’t any doctor down here or midwife to give her a name and rob her of power—and she’s Miss Ramsgate to you and to the whole world upstairs). Ugliness and beauty; you see it in war too; when there’s nothing left of a house but a couple of pillars against the sky, the beauty of it starts all over again like before the builder ruined it. Perhaps when Maria and I go up there next, there’ll only be pillars left, sticking up around the flattened world like it was fucking time.’ (The word had become a familiar to me by this time and no longer had the power to shock.)
‘Do you know, boy, that when they make those maps of the universe you are looking at the map of something that looked like that six thousand million years ago? You can’t be much more out of date than that, I’ll swear. Why, if they’ve got pictures up there of us taken yesterday, they’ll see the world all covered with ice—if their photos are a bit more up to date than ours, that is. Otherwise we won’t be there at all, maybe, and it might just as well be a photo of the future. To catch a star while it’s alive you have to be as nippy as if you were snatching at a racehorse as it goes by.
‘You are a bit scared still of Maria and me because you’ve never seen anyone like us before. And you’d be scared to see our daughter too, there’s no other like her in whatever country she’s in now, and what good would a scared man be to her? Do you know what a rogue-plant is? And do you know that white cats with blue eyes are deaf? People who keep nursery-gardens look around all the time at the seedlings and they throw away any oddities like weeds. They call them rogues. You won’t find many white cats with blue eyes and that’s the reason. But sometimes you find someone who wants things different, who’s tired of all the plus signs and wants to find zero, and he starts breeding away with the differences. Maria and I are both rogues and we are born of generations of rogues. Do you think I lost this leg in an accident? I was born that way just like Maria with her squawk. Generations of us uglier and uglier, and suddenly out of Maria comes our daughter, who’s Miss Ramsgate to you. I don’t speak her name even when I’m asleep. We’re unique like the Red Grouse. You ask anybody if they can tell you where the Red Grouse came from.
‘You are still wondering why we are unique. It’s because for generations we haven’t been thrown away. Man kills or throws away what he doesn’t want. Somebody once in Greece kept the wrong child and exposed the right one, and then one rogue at least was safe and it only needed another. Why, in Tierra del Fuego in starvation years they kill and eat their old women because the dogs are of more value. It’s the hardest thing in the world for a rogue to survive. For hundreds of years now we’ve been living underground and we’ll have the laugh of you yet, coming up above for keeps in a dead world. Except I’ll bet you your golden po that Miss Ramsgate will be there somewhere—her beauty’s rogue too. We have long lives, we—Javitts to you. We’ve kept our ugliness all those years and why shouldn’t she keep her beauty? Like a cat does. A cat is as beautiful the last day as the first. And it keeps its spittle. Not like a dog.
‘I can see your eye light up whenever I say Miss Ramsgate, and you still wonder how it comes Maria and I have a child like that in spite of all I’m telling you. Elephants go on breeding till they are ninety years old, don’t they, and do you suppose a rogue like Javitt (which isn’t my real name) can’t go on longer than a beast so stupid it lets itself be harnessed and draw logs? There’s another thing we have in common with elephants. No one sees us dead.
‘We know the sex-taste of female birds better than we know the sex-taste of women. Only the most beautiful in the hen’s eyes survives, so when you admire a peacock you know you have the same taste as a pea-hen. But women are more mysterious than birds. You’ve heard of beauty and the beast, haven’t you? They have rogue-tastes. Just look at me and my leg. You won’t find Miss Ramsgate by going round the world preening yourself like a peacock to attract a beautiful woman—she’s our daughter and she had rogue-tastes too. She isn’t for someone who wants a beautiful wife at his dinner-table to satisfy his vanity, and an understanding wife in bed who’ll treat him just the same number of times as he was accustomed to at school—so many times a day or week. She went away, our daughter did, with a want looking for a want—and not a want you can measure in inches either or calculate in numbers by the week. They say that in the northern countries people make love for their health, so it won’t be any good looking for her in the north. You might have to go as far as Africa or China. And talking of China …’
Sometimes I think that I learned more from Javitt—this man who never existed—than from all my schoolmasters. He talked to me while I sat there on the po or lay upon the sacks as no one had ever done before or has ever done since. I could not have expected my mother to take time away from the Fabian pamphlets to say, ‘Men are like monkeys—they don’t have any season in love, and the monkeys aren’t worried by this notion of dying. They tell us from pulpits we’re immortal and then they try to frighten us with death. I’m more a monkey than a man. To the monkeys death’s an accident. The gorillas don’t bury their dead with hearses and crowns of flowers, thinking one day it’s going to happen to them and they better put on a show if they want one for themselves too. If one of them dies, it’s a special case, and so they can leave it in the ditch. I feel like them. But I’m not a special case yet. I keep clear of hackney-carriages and railway-trains, you won’t find horses, wild dogs or machinery down here. I love life and I survive. Up there they talk about natural death, but it’s natural death that’s unnatural. If we lived for a thousand years—and there’s no reason we shouldn’t—there’d always be a smash, a bomb, tripping over your left foot—those are the natural deaths. All we need to live is a bit of effort, but nature sows booby-traps in our way.
‘Do you believe those skulls monks have in their cells are set there for contemplation? Not on your life. They don’t believe in death any more than I do. The skulls are there for the same reason you’ll see a queen’s portrait in an embassy—they’re just part of the official furniture. Do you believe an ambassador ever looks at that face on the wall with a diamond tiara and an empty smile?
‘Be disloyal. It’s your duty to the human race. The human race needs to survive and it’s the loyal man who dies first from anxiet
‘People are afraid of bringing May blossom into the house. They say it’s unlucky. The real reason is it smells strong of sex and they are afraid of sex. Why aren’t they afraid of fish then, you may rightly ask? Because when they smell fish they smell a holiday ahead and they feel safe from breeding for a short while.’
I remember Javitt’s words far more clearly than the passage of time; certainly I must have slept at least twice on the bed of sacks, but I cannot remember Javitt sleeping until the very end—perhaps he slept like a horse or a god, upright. And the broth—that came at regular intervals, so far as I could tell, though there was no sign anywhere of a clock, and once I think they opened for me a tin of sardines from their store (it had a very Victorian label on it of two bearded sailors and a seal, but the sardines tasted good).
I think Javitt was glad to have me there. Surely he could not have been talking quite so amply over the years to Maria who could only quack in response, and several times he made me read to him from one of the newspapers. The nearest to our time I ever found was a local account of the celebrations for the relief of Mafeking. (‘Riots,’ Javitt said, ‘purge like a dose of salts.’)
Once he told me to pick up the oil-lamp and we would go for a walk together, and I was able to see how agile he could be on his one leg. When he stood upright he looked like a rough carving from a tree-trunk where the sculptor had not bothered to separate the legs, or perhaps, as with the image on the cave, they were ‘badly executed’. He put’one hand on each wall and hopped gigantically in front of me, and when he paused to speak (like many old people he seemed unable to speak and move at the same time) he seemed to be propping up the whole passage with his arms as thick as pit-beams. At one point he paused to tell me that we were now directly under the lake. ‘How many tons of water lie up there?’ he asked me—I had never thought of water in tons before that, only in gallons, but he had the exact figure ready, I can’t remember it now. Further on, where the passage sloped upwards, he paused again and said, ‘Listen,’ and I heard a kind of rumbling that passed overhead and after that a rattling as little cakes of mud fell around us. ‘That’s a motor-car,’ he said, as an explorer might have said, ‘That’s an elephant.’
I asked him whether perhaps there was a way out near there since we were so close to the surface, and he made his answer, even to that direct question, ambiguous and general like a proverb. ‘A wise man has only one door to his house,’ he said.
What a boring old man he would have been to an adult mind, but a child has a hunger to learn which makes him sometimes hang on the lips of the dullest schoolmaster. I thought I was learning about the world and the universe from Javitt, and still to this day I wonder how it was that a child could have invented these details, or have they accumulated year by year, like coral, in the sea of the unconscious around the original dream?
There were times when he was in a bad humour for no apparent reason, or at any rate for no adequate reason. An example: for all his freedom of speech and range of thought, I found there were tiny rules which had to be obeyed, else the thunder of his invective broke—the way I had to arrange the spoon in the empty broth-bowl, the method of folding a newspaper after it had been read, even the arrangement of my limbs on the bed of sacks.
‘I’ll cut you off,’ he cried once and I pictured him lopping off one of my legs to resemble him. ‘I’ll starve you, I’ll set you alight like a candle for a warning. Haven’t I given you a kingdom here of all the treasures of the earth and all the fruits of it, tin by tin, where time can’t get in to destroy you and there’s no day or night, and you go and defy me with a spoon laid down longways in a saucer? You come of an ungrateful generation.’ His arms waved about and cast shadows like wolves on the wall behind the oil-lamp, while Maria sat squatting behind a cylinder of calor-gas in an attitude of terror.
‘I haven’t even seen your wonderful treasure,’ I said with feeble defiance.
‘Nor you won’t,’ he said, ‘nor any lawbreaker like you. You lay last night on your back grunting like a small swine, but did I curse you as you deserved? Javitt’s patient. He forgives and he forgives seventy times seven, but then you go and lay your spoon longways …’ He gave a great sigh like a wave withdrawing. He said, ‘I forgive even that. There’s no fool like an old fool and you will search a long way before you find anything as old as I am—even among the tortoises, the parrots and the elephants. One day I’ll show you the treasure, but not now. I’m not in the right mood now. Let time pass. Let time heal.’
I had found the way, however, on an earlier occasion to set him in a good humour and that was to talk to him about his daughter. It came quite easily to me, for I found myself to be passionately in love, as perhaps one can only be at an age when all one wants is to give and the thought of taking is very far removed. I asked him whether he was sad when she left him to go ‘upstairs’ as he liked to put it.
‘I knew it had to come,’ he said. ‘It was for that she was born. One day she’ll be back and the three of us will be together for keeps.’
‘Perhaps I’ll see her then,’ I said.
‘You won’t live to see that day,’ he said, as though it was I who was the old man, not he.
‘Do you think she’s married?’ I asked anxiously.
‘She isn’t the kind to marry,’ he said. ‘Didn’t I tell you she’s a rogue like Maria and me? She has her roots down here. No one marries who has his roots down here.’
‘I thought Maria and you were married,’ I said anxiously.
He gave a sharp crunching laugh like a nut-cracker closing. ‘There’s no marrying in the ground,’ he said. ‘Where would you find the witnesses? Marriage is public. Maria and me, we just grew into each other, that’s all, and then she sprouted.’
I sat silent for a long while, brooding on that vegetable picture. Then I said with all the firmness I could muster, ‘I’m going to find her when I get out of here.’
‘If you get out of here,’ he said, ‘you’d have to live a very long time and travel a very long way to find her.’
‘I’ll do just that,’ I replied.
He looked at me with a trace of humour. ‘You’ll have to take a look at Africa,’ he said, ‘and Asia—and then there’s America, North and South, and Australia—you might leave out the Arctic and the other Pole—she was always a warm girl.’ And it occurs to me now when I think of the life I have led since, that I have been in most of those regions—except Australia where I have only twice touched down between planes.
‘I will go to them all,’ I said, ‘and I’ll find her.’ It was as though the purpose of life had suddenly come to me as it must have come often enough to some future explorer when he noticed on a map for the first time an empty space in the heart of a continent.
‘You’ll need a lot of money,’ Javitt jeered at me.
‘I’ll work my passage,’ I said, ‘before the mast.’ Perhaps it was a reflection of that intention which made the young author W.W. menace his elder brother with such a fate before preserving him for Oxford of all places. The mast was to be a career sacred to me—it was not for George.
‘It’ll take a long time,’ Javitt warned me.
‘I’m young,’ I said.
I don’t know why it is that when I think of this conversation with Javitt the doctor’s voice comes back to me saying hopelessly, ‘There’s always hope.’ There’s hope perhaps, but there isn’t so much time left now as there was then to fulfil a destiny.
That night, when I lay down on the sacks,
Next morning after my bowl of broth, he suddenly spoke up. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘you are going to see my treasure.’
It was a day heavy with the sense of something fateful coming nearer—I call it a day but for all I could have told down there it might have been a night. And I can only compare it in my later experience with those slow hours I have sometimes experienced before I have gone to meet a woman with whom for the first time the act of love is likely to come about. The fuse has been lit, and who can tell the extent of the explosion? A few cups broken or a house in ruins?
For hours Javitt made no further reference to the subject, but after the second cup of broth (or was it perhaps, on that occasion, the tin of sardines?) Maria disappeared behind the screen and when she reappeared she wore a hat. Once, years ago perhaps, it had been a grand hat, a hat for the races, a great black straw affair; now it was full of holes like a colander decorated with one drooping scarlet flower which had been stitched and re-stitched and stitched again. I wondered when I saw her dressed like that whether we were about to go ‘upstairs’. But we made no move. Instead she put a kettle upon the stove, warmed a pot and dropped in two spoonfuls of tea. Then she and Javitt sat and watched the kettle like a couple of soothsayers bent over the steaming entrails of a kid, waiting for a revelation. The kettle gave a thin preliminary whine and Javitt nodded and the tea was made. He alone took a cup, sipping it slowly, with his eyes on me, as though he were considering and perhaps revising his decision.
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