Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years. Democracy was another subject of his—he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world. Phuong on the other hand was wonderfully ignorant; if Hitler had come into the conversation she would have interrupted to ask who he was. The explanation would be all the more difficult because she had never met a German or a Pole and had only the vaguest knowledge of European geography, though about Princess Margaret of course she knew more than I. I heard her put a tray down on the end of the bed.
I walked back with Phuong towards my flat. I was no longer on my dignity. Death takes away vanity—even the vanity of the cuckold who mustn’t show his pain.
That night I woke from one of those short deep opium sleeps, ten minutes long, that seem a whole night’s rest, and found my hand where it had always lain at night, between her legs. She was asleep and I could hardly hear her breathing. Once again after so many months I was not alone, and yet I thought suddenly with anger, remembering Vigot and his eye-shade in the police station and the quiet corridors of the Legation with no one about and the soft hairless skin under my hand, “Am I the only one who really cared for Pyle?”
I liked his loyalty to Harding—whoever Harding was. It was a change from the denigrations of the Pressmen and their immature cynicism. I said, “Have another bottle of beer and I’ll try to give you an idea of things.”
“Do you think I’d really go near their stinking highway? Stephen Crane could describe a war without seeing one. Why shouldn’t I? Its only a damned colonial war anyway. Get me another drink. And then let’s go and find a girl. You’ve got a piece of tail. I want a piece of tail too.”
“Home?” I said and laughed, and Pyle looked at me as though I were another Granger. Suddenly I saw myself as he saw me, a man of middle age, with eyes a little bloodshot, beginning to put on weight, ungraceful in love, less noisy than Granger perhaps but more cynical, less innocent, and I saw Phuong for a moment as I had seen her first, dancing past my table at the Grand Monde in a white ball-dress, eighteen years old, watched by an elder sister who had been determined on a good European marriage. An American had bought a ticket and asked her for a dance: he was a little drunk—not harmfully, and I suppose he was new to the country and thought the hostesses of the Grand Monde were whores. He held her much too close as they went round the floor the first time, and then suddenly there she was, going back to sit with her sister, and he was left, stranded and lost among the dancers, not knowing what had happened or why. And the girl whose name I didn’t know sat quietly there, occasionally sipping her orange juice, owning herself completely.
From childhood I had never believed in permanence, and yet I had longed for it. Always I was afraid of losing happiness. This month, next year, Phuong would leave me. If not next year, in three years. Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again for ever. I envied those who could believe in a God and I distrusted them. I felt they were keeping their courage up with a fable of the changeless and the permanent. Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity.
The canal was full of bodies: I am reminded now of an Irish stew containing too much meat. The bodies overlapped: one head, seal-grey, and anonymous as a convict with a shaven scalp, stuck up out of the water like a buoy. There was no blood: I suppose it had flowed away a long time ago. I have no idea how many there were: they must have been caught in a cross-fire, trying to get back, and I suppose every man of us along the bank was thinking, “Two can play at that game.” I too took my eyes away; we didn’t want to be reminded of how little we counted, how quickly, simply and anonymously death came. Even though my reason wanted the state of death, I was afraid like a virgin of the act. I would have liked death to come with due warning, so that I could prepare myself. For what? I didn’t know, nor how, except by taking a look around at the little I would be leaving.
“Of course,” he said without conviction, “she may choose to stay with you.”
“What would you do then?”
“I’d apply for a transfer.”
“Why don’t you just go away, Pyle, without causing trouble?”
“It wouldn’t be fair to her, Thomas,” he said quite seriously. I never knew a man who had better motives…
We began to throw and it seemed impossible to me that I could ever have a life again, away from the rue Gambetta and the rue Catinat, the flat taste of vermouth cassis, the homely click of dice, and the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon. I said, “I’m going back.” “Home?” Pietri asked, throwing a four-to-one. “No. England.”
Pyle said, “I think I ought to put all my cards on the table. I’m not rich. But when my father dies I’ll have about fifty thousand dollars. I’m in good health—I’ve got a medical certificate only two months old, and I can let her know my blood-group.”
“I don’t know how to translate that. What’s it for ?”
“Well, to make certain we can have children together.” “Is that how you make love in America—figures of income and blood-group?”
She gave me a quick look over the needle and registered her mistake. Then as she kneaded the opium she began to talk at random of what clothes she would wear in London, where we should live, of the tube-trains she had read about in a novel, and the double-decker buses: would we fly or go by sea?
“And the Statue of Liberty…” she said.
“No, Phuong, that’s American too.”
I have read so often of people’s thoughts in the moment of fear: of God, or family, or a woman. I admire their control. I thought of nothing, not even of the trap-door above me: I ceased, for those seconds, to exist: I was fear taken neat. At the top of the ladder I banged my head because fear couldn’t count steps, hear, or see. Then my head came over the earth floor and nobody shot at me and fear seeped away.
“I’ve no reason to believe in a God. Do you?” “Yes. I’m a Unitarian.”
“How many hundred million Gods do people believe in? Why, even a Roman Catholic believes in quite a different God when he’s scared or happy or hungry.”
“Maybe, if there is a God, he’d be so vast he’d look different to everyone.”
“Like the great Buddha in Bangkok,” I said. “You can’t see all of him at once. Anyway he keeps still.”
“That’s just it,” Pyle said. “You shouldn’t be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism.”
“Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his laborer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife. I’ve seen a priest, so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old cup—a wooden platter. I don’t believe in God and yet I’m for that priest. Why don’t you call that colonialism?
“But she loves you, doesn’t she?”
“Not like that. It isn’t in their nature. You’ll find that out. It’s a cliché to call them children— but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them—they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like—just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, Pyle, it’s very secure—she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.” I hadn’t meant to hurt him. I only realized I had done it when he said with muffled anger, “She might prefer greater security or more kindness.”
“You saved my life there,” I said, and Pyle cleared his throat for the conventional response,
“So that I could die here. I prefer dry land.”
“Better not talk,” Pyle said as though to an invalid.
“Who the hell asked you to save my life? I came east to be killed. It’s like your damned impertinence . . .” I staggered in the mud and Pyle hoisted my arm around his shoulder. “Ease it off,” he said.
Mr. Heng turned away. “I only want you to remember what you have seen,” he said, walking back in the shadows of the junk-pile. “Perhaps one day you will have a reason for writing about it. But you must not say you saw the drum here.” “Nor the mould?” I asked. “Particularly not the mould.”
“Yes. I wish you hadn’t written it.”
“Because it was a pack of lies. I trusted you, Thomas.”
“You shouldn’t trust anyone when there’s a woman in the case.”
“Then you needn’t trust me after this. I’ll come sneaking up here when you go out, I’ll write letters in typewritten envelopes. Maybe I’m growing up, Thomas.” But there were tears in his voice, and he looked younger than he had ever done. “Couldn’t you have won without lying?”
“No. This is European duplicity, Pyle. We have to make up for our lack of supplies.”
I went into the passage. There was a door opposite me marked Men. I went in and locked the door and sitting with my head against the cold wall I cried. I hadn’t cried until now. Even their lavatories were air-conditioned, and presently the temperate tempered air dried my tears as it dries the spit in your mouth and the seed in your body.
He watched me as I stretched out for my second pipe. “I envy you your means of escape.”
“You don’t know what I’m escaping from. It’s not from the war. That’s no concern of mine. I’m not involved.”
“You will all be. One day.”
“You are still limping.”
“We are the old colonial peoples, Pyle, but we’ve learnt a bit of reality, we’ve learned not to play with matches. This Third Force—it comes out of a book, that’s all. General Thé’s only a bandit with a few thousand men: he’s not a national democracy.” It was as if he had been staring at me through a letter-box to see who was there and now, letting the flap fall, had shut out the unwelcome intruder. His eyes were out of sight. “I don’t know what you mean, Thomas.” “Those bicycle bombs. They were a good joke, even though one man did lose a foot. But, Pyle, you can’t trust men like Thé. They aren’t going to save the East from Communism. We know their kind.”
“No. I’m not so stupid. One doesn’t take one’s enemy’s book as a souvenir. There it is on your shelf. The Rôle of the West. Who is this York Harding?” “He’s the man you are looking for, Vigot. He killed Pyle—at long range.”
I said to Phuong, “Do you miss him much?”
“Pyle.” Strange how even now, even to her, it was impossible to use his first name. “Can I go, please? My sister will be so excited.”
“You spoke his name once in your sleep.”
“I never remember my dreams.”
“There was so much you could have done together. He was young.”
“You are not old.”
“The skyscrapers. The Empire State Building.”
She said with a small hesitation, “I want to see the Cheddar Gorge.” “It isn’t the Grand Canyon.” I pulled her down on to the bed. “I’m sorry, Phuong.”
I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental, with his eye on the soda-fountain across the way. Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.