“This morning I was out doing some errands in the town. There was a window open in a house near the cathedral and someone was playing the piano.”
Madame Azaire’s voice was cool and low […].
Monsieur and Madame Bérard looked startled. It was evidently not the kind of thing they had expected. Azaire spoke with the soothing voice of one use to such fancies. “And what was the tune, my dear?”
“I don’t know. I had never heard it before. It was just a tune like Beethoven or Chopin.”
“I doubt it was Beethoven if you failed to recognize it, Madame,” said Bérard
gallantly. “It was one of those folksongs, I’ll bet you anything.”
“Madame,” said Azaire, “I assure you that Isabelle has no fever. She is a woman of a nervous temperament. She suffers from headaches and various minor maladies. It signifies nothing. Believe me, I know her very well and I have learned how to live with her little ways.” He gave a glace of complicity toward Bérard who chuckled. “You yourself are fortunate in having a robust constitution.”
Yet despite her formality toward him and her punctilious ease of manner, Stephen sensed some other element in what he had termed the pulse of her. It was impossible to say through which sense he had the impression, but somehow, perhaps only in the tiny white hairs on the skin of her bare arm or the blood he had seen rise beneath the light freckles of her cheekbones, he felt certain there was some keener physical life than she was actually living in the calm, restrictive rooms of her husband’s house with its oval door handles of polished china and its neatly inlaid parquet floors.
Azaire’s gaze had filled with something like amusement. “I don’t’ like to think of you having some kind of fit. I could easily—.”
“For goodness’ sake, René,” said Madame Azaire. “He’s told you there’s nothing to worry about. Why don’t you just leave him alone?”
Azaire’s fork made a loud clatter as he laid it down on his plate. For a moment his face had an expression of panic, like that of the schoolboy who suffers a sudden reverse and can’t understand the rules of behaviour by which his rival has won approval. Then he began to smile sardonically, as though to indicate that really he knew best and that his decision not to argue further was temporary indulgence he was granting his juniors. He turned to his wife with a teasing lightness of manner.
“And have you heard your minstrel again in your wanderings in the town, my dear?”
She looked down at her plate. “I was not wandering, René. I was doing errands.”
“Of course, my dear. My wife is a mysterious creature, Monsieur,” he said to Stephen. “No one knows—like the little stream in the song—whither she flows or where her end will be.”
She was the only one who did not respond to Bérard’s promptings. She barely contributed when he invited her to do so, but would speak, unbidden, on a subject of her own choice. This appeared to leave Bérard no choice but to cut her off. He would apologize with a small bow of his head, though not for some minutes, and not until he had taken the conversation safely down the path he wanted. Madame Azaire would shrug lightly or smile at his belated apology as though to suggest that what she had been about to say was unimportant.
Sometimes from the safety of the sitting room he would fix his eyes on the group and the vital, unspeaking figure of Madame Azaire. He didn’t ask himself if she was beautiful, because the physical effect of her presence made the question insignificant. Perhaps in the harshest judgement of the term she was not. While everything was feminine about her face, her nose was slightly larger than fashion prescribed; her hair had more different shades of brown and gold and red than most women would have wanted. For all the lightness of her face, its obvious strength of character overpowered conventional prettiness. But Stephen made no judgements; he was motivated by compulsion.
[René] saw the production of further children as important proof of his standing in society and a confirmation that this was a balanced match in which his age and the difference in tastes were not important. He approached his wife in a businesslike and predatory manner; she reacted with the submissive indifference which was the only response he left open to her. He made love to her each night, though, once embarked on it, he seemed to want it to be over quickly. Afterward he never referred to what they had done together. Madame Azaire, who was initially frightened and ashamed, slowly became frustrated by her husband’s attitude; she could not understand why this aspect of their lives, which seemed to mean so much to him, was something he would not talk about, nor why the startling intimacy of the act opened no doors in her mind, made no connections with the deeper feelings and aspirations that had grown in her since childhood.
René Azaire had no suspicions of what was happening in his house. He had allowed his feelings toward Isabelle to become dominated by anger and frustration at his physical impotence and by what he subsequently experienced as a kind of emotional powerlessness toward her. He did not love her, but he wanted her to more responsive toward him. He sensed that she felt sorry for him and this infuriated him further; if she could not love him then at least she should be frightened of him.
[René] remembered the pleasure he had taken in being the first man to invade that body, much younger than him, and the thrill he could not deny himself when she had cried out in pain. He remembered the puzzled look in her eyes when she gazed up at him. He could feel that she, more than his first wife, had the capacity to respond to the physical act, but when he saw the bewildered expression in her face he was determined to subdue it rather than to win her by patience. At that time Isabelle, though too willful for the father’s taste, was still docile and innocent enough to have been won over by a man who showed consideration and love, but with Azaire these things were not forthcoming. Her emotional and physical appetites were awakened but then left suspended as her husband turned his energy toward a long, unnecessary battle with his own shortcomings.
“I don’t want this.” Isabelle shook her head. The words came from her mouth without thought or calculation in their purity of feeling. “I don’t know what to do or how to behave now. I could be happy in the simplest way, like any other woman with a family of her own, without this terrible pain I’ve caused. I won’t listen to ether of you. Why should I? How do I know that you love me, Stephen? How can I tell?” Her voice fell to the low, soft note Stephen had heard when she spoke on his first evening in the house. It was a beautiful sound to his ears: pleading and vulnerable, but with a sense of strength in its own rightness. “And you, René, why should I trust you when you have given me so little reason even to like you?”
None of these men would admit that what they saw and what they did were beyond the boundaries of human behaviour. You would not believe, Jack thought, that the fellow with his cap pushed back, joking with his friend at the window of the butcher’s shop, had seen his other mate dying in a shellhole, gas frothing in his lungs. No one told; and Jack too joined the unspoken conspiracy that all was well, that no natural order had been violated. He blamed the NCOs, who blamed the officers; they swore at the staff officers, who blamed the generals.
In good humour, braving the barely understood the jeers of the washerwoman who stood by to take their clothes, the men queued naked for the baths that been set up in a long barn. Jack stood behind Shaw, admiring his huge back, with the muscles slabbed and spread out across his shoulder blades, so that his waist, though in fact substantial enough, looked like a nipped-in funnel by comparison, above the dimple of the coccyx and fatty swell of his hair-covered buttocks.
“No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded. I am deeply curious to see how much further it can be taken; I want to know. I believe that it has barely started. I believe that far worse things than we have seen will be authorized and will be carried out by millions of boys and men like my Tipper and your Firebrace. There is no depth to which they can’t be driven.”
“I know you go out on patrol with [the men] and bind up their wounds and so on. But do you love them? Will you give your life for them?”
Stephen felt himself closely scrutinized. He could have said, “Yes, sir,” and closed the conversation; but Gray’s informal hectoring manner, although unsettling, permitted frankness.
“No,” he said. “I suppose not.”
“I thought so,” said Gray, with a small triumphant laugh. “Is that because you value your own life too much? You think it’s worth more than some simple footsoldier’s?”
“Not at all. I’m a simple footsoldier myself, don’t forget. It was you who promoted me. It’s because I don’t value my life enough. I have no sense of the scale of the sacrifices. I don’t know what anything is worth.”
Jack tried not to imagine the weight of earth on top of them. He did not think of the roots of trees, stretching down through the soil. In any case they were too deep now. He had always survived in London by picturing the tunnel in which he worked as a railway compartment at night: the shutters were closed over a small space, you could not see anything, but outside a wide world of trees and fields beneath an open sky was whistling safely by in the darkness. When the space was no more than three feet wide and he had the earth pressing in his mouth and eyes, the illusion became difficult to sustain.
If night would fall, the earth might resume its natural process, and perhaps, in many years’ time, what had happened during daylight could be viewed as an aberration, could be comprehended within the rhythm of a normal life. At the moment it seemed to Stephen to be the other way about: that this was the new reality, the world in which they were now condemned to live, and that the pattern of the seasons, of night and day, was gone.
In the tunnel of the Underground, stalled in the darkness, Elizabeth Benson sighed in impatience. She wanted to be home to see if there were any letters or in case the telephone should ring. A winter coat was pressed in her face by the crush of passengers along the aisle of the carriage. Elizabeth pulled her small suitcase closer to her feet. She had returned from a two-day business trip to Germany that morning and had gone straight in to work from Heathrow without returning to her flat. With the lights out she could not see to read her paper. She closed her eyes and tried to let her imagination remove her from the still train and its tightfitting hole.
“What do you do?” he said to Elizabeth.
“I run a clothing company.” She disliked being asked this question, thinking people ought to ask new acquaintances who they were rather than what they did, as though their job defined them.
“You say you run it. You’re the boss, are you?”
“That’s right. I started out as a designer about fifteen years ago but I transferred to the business side. We formed a new company and I became managing director.”
Stephen felt, at the better moments, the love for them that Gray had demanded. Their desperate courage, born from necessity, was nevertheless endearing. The grimmer, harder, more sardonic they became, the more he cared for them. Still he could not quite believe them; he could not comprehend the lengths to which they allowed themselves to be driven. He had been curious to see how far they could be taken, but his interest had slackened when he saw the answer: that there were no boundaries they would not cross, no limits to what they would endure.
Stephen felt himself overtaken by a climatic surge of feeling. It frightened him because he thought it would have some physical issue, in spasm or bleeding to death. Then he saw that what he felt was not an assault but a passionate affinity. It was for the rough field running down to the trees and for the path going back into the village, where he could see the tower of the church: these and the forgiving distance of the sky were not separate, but part of one creation, and he too, still by any sane judgement a young man, by the repeated tiny pulsing of his blood, was one with them.
I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months. No child or future generation with ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like hum beings. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.
Gray stood up and came around the desk. “Think of the words on that memorial, Wraysford. Think of those stinking towns and foul bloody villages whose names will be turned into some bogus glory by fat-arsed historians who have sat in London. We were there. As our punishment of God knows what, we were there, and our men did in each of those disgusting places. I hate their names. I hate the sound of them and the thought of them, which is why I will not bring myself to remind you. But listen.” He put his face close to Stephen’s. “There are four words they will chisel beneath them at the bottom. Four words that people will look at one day. When they read the other words they will want to vomit. When they read these, they will bow their heads, just a little. ‘Final advance and pursuit.’ Don’t tell me you don’t want to put your name to those words.”
Levi looked at this wild-eyed figure, half-demented, his brother’s killer. For no reason he could tell, he found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.
He threw the chestnuts up into the air in his great happiness. In the tree above him they disturbed a roosting crow, which erupted from the braches with an explosive bang of its wings, then rose toward the sky, its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long, grating waves toward the earth, to be heard by those still living.