“A screaming comes across the sky. . .” A few months after the Germans’ secret V-2 rocket bombs begin falling on London, British Intelligence discovers that a map of the city pinpointing the sexual conquests of one Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, U.S. Army, corresponds identically to a map showing the V-2 impact sites. The implications of this discovery will launch Slothrop on an amazing journey across war-torn Europe, fleeing an international cabal of military-industrial superpowers, in search of the mysterious Rocket 00000, through a wildly comic extravaganza that has been hailed in The New Republic as “the most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II.”
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 8, 1937
Place of Birth:Glen Cove, Long Island, New York
Education:B. A., Cornell University, 1958
Read an Excerpt
A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.
Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city. . . .
They have begun to move. They pass in line, out of the main station, out of downtown, and begin pushing into older and more desolate parts of the city. Is this the way out? Faces turn to the windows, but no one dares ask, not out loud. Rain comes down. No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into—they go in under archways, secret entrances of rotted concrete that only looked like loops of an underpass . . . certain trestles of blackened wood have moved slowly by overhead, and the smells begun of coal from days far to the past, smells of naphtha winters, of Sundays when no traffic came through, of the coral-like and mysteriously vital growth, around the blind curves and out the lonely spurs, a sour smell of rolling-stock absence, of maturing rust, developing through those emptying days brilliant and deep, especially at dawn, with blue shadows to seal its passage, to try to bring events to Absolute Zero . . . and it is poorer the deeper they go . . . ruinous secret cities of poor, places whose names he has never heard . . . the walls break down, the roofs get fewer and so do the chances for light. The road, which ought to be opening out into a broader highway, instead has been getting narrower, more broken, cornering tighter and tighter until all at once, much too soon, they are under the final arch: brakes grab and spring terribly. It is a judgment from which there is no appeal.
The caravan has halted. It is the end of the line. All the evacuees are ordered out. They move slowly, but without resistance. Those marshaling them wear cockades the color of lead, and do not speak. It is some vast, very old and dark hotel, an iron extension of the track and switchery by which they have come here. . . . Globular lights, painted a dark green, hang from under the fancy iron eaves, unlit for centuries . . . the crowd moves without murmurs or coughing down corridors straight and functional as warehouse aisles . . . velvet black surfaces contain the movement: the smell is of old wood, of remote wings empty all this time just reopened to accommodate the rush of souls, of cold plaster where all the rats have died, only their ghosts, still as cave-painting, fixed stubborn and luminous in the walls . . . the evacuees are taken in lots, by elevator—a moving wood scaffold open on all sides, hoisted by old tarry ropes and cast-iron pulleys whose spokes are shaped like Ss. At each brown floor, passengers move on and off . . . thousands of these hushed rooms without light. . . .
Some wait alone, some share their invisible rooms with others. Invisible, yes, what do the furnishings matter, at this stage of things? Underfoot crunches the oldest of city dirt, last crystallizations of all the city had denied, threatened, lied to its children. Each has been hearing a voice, one he thought was talking only to him, say, “You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
There is no way out. Lie and wait, lie still and be quiet. Screaming holds across the sky. When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? Will the light come before or after?
But it is already light. How long has it been light? All this while, light has come percolating in, along with the cold morning air flowing now across his nipples: it has begun to reveal an assortment of drunken wastrels, some in uniform and some not, clutching empty or near-empty bottles, here draped over a chair, there huddled into a cold fireplace, or sprawled on various divans, un-Hoovered rugs and chaise longues down the different levels of the enormous room, snoring and wheezing at many rhythms, in self-renewing chorus, as London light, winter and elastic light, grows between the faces of the mullioned windows, grows among the strata of last night’s smoke still hung, fading, from the waxed beams of the ceiling. All these horizontal here, these comrades in arms, look just as rosy as a bunch of Dutch peasants dreaming of their certain resurrection in the next few minutes.
His name is Capt. Geoffrey (“Pirate”) Prentice. He is wrapped in a thick blanket, a tartan of orange, rust, and scarlet. His skull feels made of metal.
Just above him, twelve feet overhead, Teddy Bloat is about to fall out of the minstrels’ gallery, having chosen to collapse just at the spot where somebody in a grandiose fit, weeks before, had kicked out two of the ebony balusters. Now, in his stupor, Bloat has been inching through the opening, head, arms, and torso, until all that’s keeping him up there is an empty champagne split in his hip pocket, that’s got hooked somehow—
By now Pirate has managed to sit up on his narrow bachelor bed, and blink about. How awful. How bloody awful . . . above him, he hears cloth rip. The Special Operations Executive has trained him to fast responses. He leaps off of the cot and kicks it rolling on its casters in Bloat’s direction. Bloat, plummeting, hits square amidships with a great strum of bedsprings. One of the legs collapses. “Good morning,” notes Pirate. Bloat smiles briefly and goes back to sleep, snuggling well into Pirate’s blanket.
Bloat is one of the co-tenants of the place, a maisonette erected last century, not far from the Chelsea Embankment, by Corydon Throsp, an acquaintance of the Rossettis’ who wore hair smocks and liked to cultivate pharmaceutical plants up on the roof (a tradition young Osbie Feel has lately revived), a few of them hardy enough to survive fogs and frosts, but most returning, as fragments of peculiar alkaloids, to rooftop earth, along with manure from a trio of prize Wessex Saddleback sows quartered there by Throsp’s successor, and dead leaves off many decorative trees transplanted to the roof by later tenants, and the odd unstomachable meal thrown or vomited there by this or that sensitive epicurean—all got scumbled together, eventually, by the knives of the seasons, to an impasto, feet thick, of unbelievable black topsoil in which anything could grow, not the least being bananas. Pirate, driven to despair by the wartime banana shortage, decided to build a glass hothouse on the roof, and persuade a friend who flew the Rio-to-Ascension-to-Fort-Lamy run to pinch him a sapling banana tree or two, in exchange for a German camera, should Pirate happen across one on his next mission by parachute.
Pirate has become famous for his Banana Breakfasts. Messmates throng here from all over England, even some who are allergic or outright hostile to bananas, just to watch—for the politics of bacteria, the soil’s stringing of rings and chains in nets only God can tell the meshes of, have seen the fruit thrive often to lengths of a foot and a half, yes amazing but true.
Pirate in the lavatory stands pissing, without a thought in his head. Then he threads himself into a wool robe he wears inside out so as to keep his cigarette pocket hidden, not that this works too well, and circling the warm bodies of friends makes his way to French windows, slides outside into the cold, groans as it hits the fillings in his teeth, climbs a spiral ladder ringing to the roof garden and stands for a bit, watching the river. The sun is still below the horizon. The day feels like rain, but for now the air is uncommonly clear. The great power station, and the gasworks beyond, stand precisely: crystals grown in morning’s beaker, stacks, vents, towers, plumbing, gnarled emissions of steam and smoke. . . .
“Hhahh,” Pirate in a voiceless roar watching his breath slip away over the parapets, “hhaahhh!” Rooftops dance in the morning. His giant bananas cluster, radiant yellow, humid green. His companions below dream drooling of a Banana Breakfast. This well-scrubbed day ought to be no worse than any—
Will it? Far to the east, down in the pink sky, something has just sparked, very brightly. A new star, nothing less noticeable. He leans on the parapet to watch. The brilliant point has already become a short vertical white line. It must be somewhere out over the North Sea . . . at least that far . . . icefields below and a cold smear of sun. . . .
What is it? Nothing like this ever happens. But Pirate knows it, after all. He has seen it in a film, just in the last fortnight . . . it’s a vapor trail. Already a finger’s width higher now. But not from an airplane. Airplanes are not launched vertically. This is the new, and still Most Secret, German rocket bomb.
“Incoming mail.” Did he whisper that, or only think it? He tightens the ragged belt of his robe. Well, the range of these things is supposed to be over 200 miles. You can’t see a vapor trail 200 miles, now, can you.
Oh. Oh, yes: around the curve of the Earth, farther east, the sun over there, just risen over in Holland, is striking the rocket’s exhaust, drops and crystals, making them blaze clear across the sea. . . .
The white line, abruptly, has stopped its climb. That would be fuel cutoff, end of burning, what’s their word . . . Brennschluss. We don’t have one. Or else it’s classified. The bottom of the line, the original star, has already begun to vanish in red daybreak. But the rocket will be here before Pirate sees the sun rise.
The trail, smudged, slightly torn in two or three directions, hangs in the sky. Already the rocket, gone pure ballistic, has risen higher. But invisible now.
Oughtn’t he to be doing something . . . get on to the operations room at Stanmore, they must have it on the Channel radars—no: no time, really. Less than five minutes Hague to here (the time it takes to walk down to the teashop on the corner . . . for light from the sun to reach the planet of love . . . no time at all). Run out in the street? Warn the others?
Pick bananas. He trudges through black compost in to the hothouse. He feels he’s about to shit. The missile, sixty miles high, must be coming up on the peak of its trajectory by now . . . beginning its fall . . . now. . . .
Trusswork is pierced by daylight, milky panes beam beneficently down. How could there be a winter—even this one—gray enough to age this iron that can sing in the wind, or cloud these windows that open into another season, however falsely preserved?
Pirate looks at his watch. Nothing registers. The pores of his face are prickling. Emptying his mind—a Commando trick—he steps into the wet heat of his bananery, sets about picking the ripest and the best, holding up the skirt of his robe to drop them in. Allowing himself to count only bananas, moving barelegged among the pendulous bunches, among these yellow chandeliers, this tropical twilight. . . .
Out into the winter again. The contrail is gone entirely from the sky. Pirate’s sweat lies on his skin almost as cold as ice.
He takes some time lighting a cigarette. He won’t hear the thing come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you’re still around, you hear the sound of it coming in.
What if it should hit exactly—ahh, no—for a split second you’d have to feel the very point, with the terrible mass above, strike the top of the skull. . . .
Pirate hunches his shoulders, bearing his bananas down the corkscrew ladder.
• • • • • • •
Across a blue tile patio, in through a door to the kitchen. Routine: plug in American blending machine won from Yank last summer, some poker game, table stakes, B.O.Q. somewhere in the north, never remember now. . . . Chop several bananas into pieces. Make coffee in urn. Get can of milk from cooler. Puree ’nanas in milk. Lovely. I would coat all the booze-corroded stomachs of England. . . . Bit of marge, still smells all right, melt in skillet. Peel more bananas, slice lengthwise. Marge sizzling, in go long slices. Light oven whoomp blow us all up someday oh, ha, ha, yes. Peeled whole bananas to go on broiler grill soon as it heats. Find marshmallows. . . .
In staggers Teddy Bloat with Pirate’s blanket over his head, slips on a banana peel and falls on his ass. “Kill myself,” he mumbles.
“The Germans will do it for you. Guess what I saw from the roof.”
“That V-2 on the way?”
“I watched it out the window. About ten minutes ago. Looked queer, didn’t it. Haven’t heard a thing since, have you. It must have fallen short. Out to sea or something.”
“Ten minutes?” Trying to read the time on his watch.
“At least.” Bloat is sitting on the floor, working the banana peel into a pajama lapel for a boutonniere.
Pirate goes to the phone and rings up Stanmore after all. Has to go through the usual long, long routine, but knows he’s already stopped believing in the rocket he saw. God has plucked it for him, out of its airless sky, like a steel banana. “Prentice here, did you have anything like a pip from Holland a moment ago. Aha. Aha. Yes, we saw it.” This could ruin a man’s taste for sunrises. He rings off. “They lost it over the coast. They’re calling it premature Brennschluss.”
“Cheer up,” Teddy crawling back toward the busted cot. “There’ll be more.”
Good old Bloat, always the positive word. Pirate for a few seconds there, waiting to talk to Stanmore, was thinking, Danger’s over, Banana Breakfast is saved. But it’s only a reprieve. Isn’t it. There will indeed be others, each just as likely to land on top of him. No one either side of the front knows exactly how many more. Will we have to stop watching the sky?
Osbie Feel stands in the minstrels’ gallery, holding one of the biggest of Pirate’s bananas so that it protrudes out the fly of his striped pajama bottoms—stroking with his other hand the great jaundiced curve in triplets against 4/4 toward the ceiling, he acknowledges dawn with the following:
Time to gather your arse up off the floor,
(have a bana-na)
Brush your teeth and go toddling off to war.
Wave your hand to sleepy land,
Kiss those dreams away,
Tell Miss Grable you’re not able,
Not till V-E Day, oh,
Ev’rything’ll be grand in Civvie Street
(have a bana-na)
Bubbly wine and girls wiv lips so sweet—
But there’s still the German or two to fight,
So show us a smile that’s shiny bright,
And then, as we may have suggested once before—
Gather yer blooming arse up off the floor!
There’s a second verse, but before he can get quite into it, prancing Osbie is leaped upon and thoroughly pummeled, in part with his own stout banana, by Bartley Gobbitch, DeCoverley Pox, and Maurice (“Saxophone”) Reed, among others. In the kitchen, black-market marshmallows slide languid into syrup atop Pirate’s double boiler, and soon begin thickly to bubble. Coffee brews. On a wooden pub sign daringly taken, one daylight raid, by a drunken Bartley Gobbitch, across which still survives in intaglio the legend SNIPE AND SHAFT, Teddy Bloat is mincing bananas with a great isosceles knife, from beneath whose nervous blade Pirate with one hand shovels the blonde mash into waffle batter resilient with fresh hens’ eggs, for which Osbie Feel has exchanged an equal number of golf balls, these being even rarer this winter than real eggs, other hand blending the fruit in, not overvigorously, with a wire whisk, whilst surly Osbie himself, sucking frequently at a half-pint milk bottle filled with Vat 69 and water, tends to the bananas in the skillet and broiler. Near the exit to the blue patio, DeCoverley Pox and Joaquin Stick stand by a concrete scale model of the Jungfrau, which some enthusiast back during the twenties spent a painstaking year modeling and casting before finding out it was too large to get out of any door, socking the slopes of the famous mountain with red rubber hot-water bags full of ice cubes, the idea being to pulverize the ice for Pirate’s banana frappés. With their nights’ growths of beard, matted hair, bloodshot eyes, miasmata of foul breath, DeCoverley and Joaquin are wasted gods urging on a tardy glacier.
Elsewhere in the maisonette, other drinking companions disentangle from blankets (one spilling wind from his, dreaming of a parachute), piss into bathroom sinks, look at themselves with dismay in concave shaving mirrors, slap water with no clear plan in mind onto heads of thinning hair, struggle into Sam Brownes, dub shoes against rain later in the day with hand muscles already weary of it, sing snatches of popular songs whose tunes they don’t always know, lie, believing themselves warmed, in what patches of the new sunlight come between the mullions, begin tentatively to talk shop as a way of easing into whatever it is they’ll have to be doing in less than an hour, lather necks and faces, yawn, pick their noses, search cabinets or bookcases for the hair of the dog that not without provocation and much prior conditioning bit them last night.
Now there grows among all the rooms, replacing the night’s old smoke, alcohol and sweat, the fragile, musaceous odor of Breakfast: flowery, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight, taking over not so much through any brute pungency or volume as by the high intricacy to the weaving of its molecules, sharing the conjuror’s secret by which—though it is not often Death is told so clearly to fuck off—the living genetic chains prove even labyrinthine enough to preserve some human face down ten or twenty generations . . . so the same assertion-through-structure allows this war morning’s banana fragrance to meander, repossess, prevail. Is there any reason not to open every window, and let the kind scent blanket all Chelsea? As a spell, against falling objects. . . .
With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, a southern island well across a tropic or two from chill Corydon Throsp’s mediaeval fantasies, crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded in the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead . . . banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter . . .
The phone call, when it comes, rips easily across the room, the hangovers, the grabassing, the clatter of dishes, the shoptalk, the bitter chuckles, like a rude metal double-fart, and Pirate knows it’s got to be for him. Bloat, who’s nearest, takes it, forkful of bananes glacées poised fashionably in the air. Pirate takes up a last dipper of mead, feels it go valving down his throat as if it’s time, time in its summer tranquillity, he swallows.
“It’s not fair,” Pirate moans, “I haven’t even done me morning pushups yet.”
The voice, which he’s heard only once before—last year at a briefing, hands and face blackened, anonymous among a dozen other listeners—tells Pirate now there’s a message addressed to him, waiting at Greenwich.
“It came over in a rather delightful way,” the voice high-pitched and sullen, “none of my friends are that clever. All my mail arrives by post. Do come collect it, won’t you, Prentice.” Receiver hits cradle a violent whack, connection breaks, and now Pirate knows where this morning’s rocket landed, and why there was no explosion. Incoming mail, indeed. He gazes through sunlight’s buttresses, back down the refectory at the others, wallowing in their plenitude of bananas, thick palatals of their hunger lost somewhere in the stretch of morning between them and himself. A hundred miles of it, so suddenly. Solitude, even among the meshes of this war, can when it wishes so take him by the blind gut and touch, as now, possessively. Pirate’s again some other side of a window, watching strangers eat breakfast.
He’s driven out, away, east over Vauxhall Bridge in a dented green Lagonda by his batman, a Corporal Wayne. The morning seems to grow colder the higher the sun rises. Clouds begin to gather after all. A crew of American sappers spills into the road, on route to clear some ruin nearby, singing:
It’s . . .
Colder than the nipple on a witch’s tit!
Colder than a bucket of penguin shit!
Colder than the hairs of a polar bear’s ass!
Colder than the frost on a champagne glass!
No, they are making believe to be narodnik, but I know, they are of Iasi, of Codreanu, his men, men of the League, they . . . they kill for him—they have oath! They try to kill me . . . Transylvanian Magyars, they know spells . . . at night they whisper. . . . Well, hrrump, heh, heh, here comes Pirate’s Condition creeping over him again, when he’s least expecting it as usual—might as well mention here that much of what the dossiers call Pirate Prentice is a strange talent for—well, for getting inside the fantasies of others: being able, actually, to take over the burden of managing them, in this case those of an exiled Rumanian royalist who may prove needed in the very near future. It is a gift the Firm has found uncommonly useful: at this time mentally healthy leaders and other historical figures are indispensable. What better way to cup and bleed them of excess anxiety than to get someone to take over the running of their exhausting little daydreams for them . . . to live in the tame green lights of their tropical refuges, in the breezes through their cabañas, to drink their tall drinks, changing your seat to face the entrances of their public places, not letting their innocence suffer any more than it already has . . . to get their erections for them, at the oncome of thoughts the doctors feel are inappropriate . . . fear all, all that they cannot afford to fear . . . remembering the words of P. M. S. Blackett, “You can’t run a war on gusts of emotion.” Just hum the nitwit little tune they taught you, and try not to fuck up:
Fellow that’s hav-ing other peop-le’s fan-tasies,
Suffering what they ought to be themselves—
No matter if Girly’s on my knee—
If Kruppingham-Jones is late to tea,
I don’t even get to ask for whom the bell’s . . .
[Now over a lotta tubas and close-harmony trombones]
It never does seem to mat-ter if there’s daaaanger,
For Danger’s a roof I fell from long ago—
I’ll be out-one-day and never come back,
Forget the bitter you owe me, Jack,
Just piss on m’ grave and car-ry on the show!
He will then actually skip to and fro, with his knees high and twirling a walking stick with W. C. Fields’ head, nose, top hat, and all, for its knob, and surely capable of magic, while the band plays a second chorus. Accompanying will be a phantasmagoria, a real one, rushing toward the screen, in over the heads of the audiences, on little tracks of an elegant Victorian cross section resembling the profile of a chess knight conceived fancifully but not vulgarly so—then rushing back out again, in and out, the images often changing scale so quickly, so unpredictably that you’re apt now and then to get a bit of lime-green in with your rose, as they say. The scenes are highlights from Pirate’s career as a fantasist-surrogate, and go back to when he was carrying, everywhere he went, the mark of Youthful Folly growing in an unmistakable Mongoloid point, right out of the middle of his head. He had known for a while that certain episodes he dreamed could not be his own. This wasn’t through any rigorous daytime analysis of content, but just because he knew. But then came the day when he met, for the first time, the real owner of a dream he, Pirate, had had: it was by a drinking fountain in a park, a very long, neat row of benches, a feeling of sea just over a landscaped rim of small cypresses, gray crushed stone on the walks looking soft to sleep on as the brim of a fedora, and here comes this buttonless and drooling derelict, the one you are afraid of ever meeting, to pause and watch two Girl Guides trying to adjust the water pressure of the fountain. They bent over, unaware, the saucy darlings, of the fatal strips of white cotton knickers thus displayed, the undercurves of baby-fat little buttocks a blow to the Genital Brain, however pixilated. The tramp laughed and pointed, he looked back at Pirate then and said something extraordinary: “Eh? Girl Guides start pumping water . . . your sound will be the sizzling night . . . eh?” staring directly at no one but Pirate now, no more pretense. . . . Well, Pirate had dreamed these very words, morning before last, just before waking, they’d been part of the usual list of prizes in a Competition grown crowded and perilous, out of some indoor intervention of charcoal streets . . . he couldn’t remember that well . . . scared out of his wits by now, he replied, “Go away, or I will call a policeman.”
It took care of the immediate problem for him. But sooner or later the time would come when someone else would find out his gift, someone to whom it mattered—he had a long-running fantasy of his own, rather a Eugène Sue melodrama, in which he would be abducted by an organization of dacoits or Sicilians, and used for unspeakable purposes.
In 1935 he had his first episode outside any condition of known sleep—it was during his Kipling Period, beastly Fuzzy-Wuzzies far as eye could see, dracunculiasis and Oriental sore rampant among the troops, no beer for a month, wireless being jammed by other Powers who would be masters of these horrid blacks, God knows why, and all folklore broken down, no Cary Grant larking in and out slipping elephant medicine in the punchbowls out here . . . not even an Arab With A Big Greasy Nose to perform on, as in that wistful classic every tommy’s heard . . . small wonder that one fly-blown four in the afternoon, open-eyed, in the smell of rotting melon rinds, to the seventy-seven-millionth repetition of the outpost’s only Gramophone record, Sandy MacPherson playing on his organ “The Changing of the Guard,” what should develop for Pirate here but a sumptuous Oriental episode: vaulting lazily and well over the fence and sneaking in to town, to the Forbidden Quarter. There to stumble into an orgy held by a Messiah no one has quite recognized yet, and to know, as your eyes meet, that you are his John the Baptist, his Nathan of Gaza, that it is you who must convince him of his Godhead, proclaim him to others, love him both profanely and in the Name of what he is . . . it could be no one’s fantasy but H. A. Loaf’s. There is at least one Loaf in every outfit, it is Loaf who keeps forgetting that those of the Moslem faith are not keen on having snaps taken of them in the street . . . it is Loaf who borrows one’s shirt runs out of cigarettes finds the illicit one in your pocket and lights up in the canteen at high noon, where presently he is reeling about with a loose smile, addressing the sergeant commanding the red-cap section by his Christian name. So of course when Pirate makes the mistake of verifying the fantasy with Loaf, it’s not very long at all before higher echelons know about it too. Into the dossier it goes, and eventually the Firm, in Their tireless search for negotiable skills, will summon him under Whitehall, to observe him in his trances across the blue baize fields and the terrible paper gaming, his eyes rolled back into his head reading old, glyptic old graffiti on his own sockets. . . .
The first few times nothing clicked. The fantasies were O.K. but belonged to nobody important. But the Firm is patient, committed to the Long Run as They are. At last, one proper Sherlock Holmes London evening, the unmistakable smell of gas came to Pirate from a dark street lamp, and out of the fog ahead materialized a giant, organlike form. Carefully, black-shod step by step, Pirate approached the thing. It began to slide forward to meet him, over the cobblestones slow as a snail, leaving behind some slime brightness of street-wake that could not have been from fog. In the space between them was a crossover point, which Pirate, being a bit faster, reached first. He reeled back, in horror, back past the point—but such recognitions are not reversible. It was a giant Adenoid. At least as big as St. Paul’s, and growing hour by hour. London, perhaps all England, was in mortal peril!
This lymphatic monster had once blocked the distinguished pharynx of Lord Blatherard Osmo, who at the time occupied the Novi Pazar desk at the Foreign Office, an obscure penance for the previous century of British policy on the Eastern Question, for on this obscure sanjak had once hinged the entire fate of Europe:
Nobody knows-where, it is-on-the-map,
Who’d ever think-it, could start-such-a-flap?
Each Montenegran, and Serbian too,
Waitin’ for some-thing, right outa the blue—oh honey
Pack up my Glad-stone, ’n’ brush off my suit,
And then light me up my bigfat, cigar—
If ya want my address, it’s
That O-ri-ent Express,
To the san-jak of No-vi Pa-zar!
Chorus line of quite nubile young women naughtily attired in Busbies and jackboots dance around for a bit here while in another quarter Lord Blatherard Osmo proceeds to get assimilated by his own growing Adenoid, some horrible transformation of cell plasma it is quite beyond Edwardian medicine to explain . . . before long, tophats are littering the squares of Mayfair, cheap perfume hanging ownerless in the pub lights of the East End as the Adenoid continues on its rampage, not swallowing up its victims at random, no, the fiendish Adenoid has a master plan, it’s choosing only certain personalities useful to it—there is a new election, a new preterition abroad in England here that throws the Home Office into hysterical and painful episodes of indecision . . . no one knows what to do . . . a halfhearted attempt is made to evacuate London, black phaetons clatter in massive ant-cortege over the trusswork bridges, observer balloons are stationed in the sky, “Got it in Hampstead Heath, just sitting breathing, like . . . going in, and out . . .” “Any sort of sound down there?” “Yes, it’s horrible . . . like a stupendous nose sucking in snot. . . wait, now it’s . . . beginning to . . . oh, no . . . oh, God, I can’t describe it, it’s so beast—” the wire is snapped, the transmission ends, the balloon rises into the teal-blue daybreak. Teams come down from the Cavendish Laboratory, to string the Heath with huge magnets, electric-arc terminals, black iron control panels full of gauges and cranks, the Army shows up in full battle gear with bombs full of the latest deadly gas—the Adenoid is blasted, electric-shocked, poisoned, changes color and shape here and there, yellow fat-nodes appear high over the trees . . . before the flash-powder cameras of the Press, a hideous green pseudopod crawls toward the cordon of troops and suddenly sshhlop! wipes out an entire observation post with a deluge of some disgusting orange mucus in which the unfortunate men are digested—not screaming but actually laughing, enjoying themselves. . . .
Pirate/Osmo’s mission is to establish liaison with the Adenoid. The situation is now stable, the Adenoid occupies all of St. James’s, the historic buildings are no more, Government offices have been relocated, but so dispersed that communication among them is highly uncertain—postmen are being snatched off of their rounds by stiff-pimpled Adenoid tentacles of fluorescent beige, telegraph wires are apt to go down at any whim of the Adenoid. Each morning Lord Blatherard Osmo must put on his bowler, and take his briefcase out to the Adenoid to make his daily démarche. It is taking up so much of his time he’s begun to neglect Novi Pazar, and F.O. is worried. In the thirties balance-of-power thinking was still quite strong, the diplomats were all down with Balkanosis, spies with foreign hybrid names lurked in all the stations of the Ottoman rump, code messages in a dozen Slavic tongues were being tattooed on bare upper lips over which the operatives then grew mustaches, to be shaved off only by authorized crypto officers and skin then grafted over the messages by the Firm’s plastic surgeons . . . their lips were palimpsests of secret flesh, scarred and unnaturally white, by which they all knew each other.
Novi Pazar, anyhow, was still a croix mystique on the palm of Europe, and F.O. finally decided to go to the Firm for help. The Firm knew just the man.
Every day, for 2½ years, Pirate went out to visit the St. James Adenoid. It nearly drove him crazy. Though he was able to develop a pidgin by which he and the Adenoid could communicate, unfortunately he wasn’t nasally equipped to make the sounds too well, and it got to be an awful chore. As the two of them snuffled back and forth, alienists in black seven-button suits, admirers of Dr. Freud the Adenoid clearly had no use for, stood on stepladders up against its loathsome grayish flank shoveling the new wonderdrug cocaine—bringing hods full of the white substance, in relays, up the ladders to smear on the throbbing gland-creature, and into the germ toxins bubbling nastily inside its crypts, with no visible effects at all (though who knows how that Adenoid felt, eh?).
But Lord Blatherard Osmo was able at last to devote all of his time to Novi Pazar. Early in 1939, he was discovered mysteriously suffocated in a bathtub full of tapioca pudding, at the home of a Certain Viscountess. Some have seen in this the hand of the Firm. Months passed, World War II started, years passed, nothing was heard from Novi Pazar. Pirate Prentice had saved Europe from the Balkan Armageddon the old men dreamed of, giddy in their beds with its grandeur—though not from World War II, of course. But by then, the Firm was allowing Pirate only tiny homeopathic doses of peace, just enough to keep his defenses up, but not enough for it to poison him.
• • • • • • •
Teddy Bloat’s on his lunch hour, but lunch today’ll be, ack, a soggy banana sandwich in wax paper, which he’s packing inside his stylish kangaroohide musette bag and threaded around the odd necessities—midget spy-camera, jar of mustache wax, tin of licorice, menthol and capsicum Meloids for a Mellow Voice, goldrim prescription sunglasses General MacArthur style, twin silver hairbrushes each in the shape of the flaming SHAEF sword, which Mother had Garrard’s make up for him and which he considers exquisite.
His objective this dripping winter noon is a gray stone town house, neither large nor historic enough to figure in any guidebook, set back just out of sight of Grosvenor Square, somewhat off the official war-routes and corridors about the capital. When the typewriters happen to pause (8:20 and other mythical hours), and there are no flights of American bombers in the sky, and the motor traffic’s not too heavy in Oxford Street, you can hear winter birds cheeping outside, busy at the feeders the girls have put up.
Flagstones are slippery with mist. It is the dark, hard, tobacco-starved, headachy, sour-stomach middle of the day, a million bureaucrats are diligently plotting death and some of them even know it, many about now are already into the second or third pint or highball glass, which produces a certain desperate aura here. But Bloat, going in the sandbagged entrance (provisional pyramids erected to gratify curious gods’ offspring indeed), can’t feel a bit of it: he’s too busy running through plausible excuses should he happen to get caught, not that he will, you know. . . .
Girl at the main desk, gumpopping, good-natured bespectacled ATS, waves him on upstairs. Damp woolen aides on the way to staff meetings, W.C.s, an hour or two of earnest drinking, nod, not really seeing him, he’s a well-known face, what’s’isname’s mate, Oxford chums aren’t they, that lieutenant works down the hall at ACHTUNG. . . .
The old house has been subdivided by the slummakers of war. ACHTUNG is Allied Clearing House, Technical Units, Northern Germany. It’s a stale-smoke paper warren, at the moment nearly deserted, its black typewriters tall as grave markers. The floor is filthy lino, there are no windows: the electric light is yellow, cheap, merciless. Bloat looks into the office assigned to his old Jesus College friend, Lt. Oliver (“Tantivy”) Mucker-Maffick. No one’s about. Tantivy and the Yank are both at lunch. Good. Out wiv the old camera then, on with the gooseneck lamp, now aim the reflector just so . . .
There must be cubicles like this all over the ETO: only the three dingy scuffed-cream fiberboard walls and no ceiling of its own. Tantivy shares it with an American colleague, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop. Their desks are at right angles, so there’s no eye contact but by squeaking around some 90°. Tantivy’s desk is neat, Slothrop’s is a godawful mess. It hasn’t been cleaned down to the original wood surface since 1942. Things have fallen roughly into layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, made up of millions of tiny red and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and Household Milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung from typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to powder. Then comes a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colors including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop’s mother, Nalline, all the way from Massachusetts, bits of tape, string, chalk . . . above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including “Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland” (“He does have some rather snappy arrangements,” Tantivy reports, “he’s a sort of American George Formby, if you can imagine such a thing,” but Bloat’s decided he’d rather not), an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl . . . a few old Weekly Intelligence Summaries from G-2, a busted corkscrewing ukulele string, boxes of gummed paper stars in many colors, pieces of a flashlight, top to a Nugget shoe polish can in which Slothrop now and then studies his blurry brass reflection, any number of reference books out of the ACHTUNG library back down the hall—a dictionary of technical German, an F.O. Special Handbook or Town Plan—and usually, unless it’s been pinched or thrown away, a News of the World somewhere too—Slothrop’s a faithful reader.
Tacked to the wall next to Slothrop’s desk is a map of London, which Bloat is now busy photographing with his tiny camera. The musette bag is open, and the cubicle begins to fill with the smell of ripe bananas. Should he light a fag to cover this? air doesn’t exactly stir in here, they’ll know someone’s been in. It takes him four exposures, click zippety click, my how very efficient at this he’s become—anyone nips in one simply drops camera into bag where banana-sandwich cushions fall, telltale sound and harmful G-loads alike.
Too bad whoever’s funding this little caper won’t spring for color film. Bloat wonders if it mightn’t make a difference, though he knows of no one he can ask. The stars pasted up on Slothrop’s map cover the available spectrum, beginning with silver (labeled “Darlene”) sharing a constellation with Gladys, green, and Katharine, gold, and as the eye strays Alice, Delores, Shirley, a couple of Sallys—mostly red and blue through here—a cluster near Tower Hill, a violet density about Covent Garden, a nebular streaming on into Mayfair, Soho, and out to Wembley and up to Hampstead Heath—in every direction goes this glossy, multicolored, here and there peeling firmament, Carolines, Marias, Annes, Susans, Elizabeths.
But perhaps the colors are only random, uncoded. Perhaps the girls are not even real. From Tantivy, over weeks of casual questions (we know he’s your schoolmate but it’s too risky bringing him in), Bloat’s only able to report that Slothrop began work on this map last autumn, about the time he started going out to look at rocket-bomb disasters for ACHTUNG—having evidently the time, in his travels among places of death, to devote to girl-chasing. If there’s a reason for putting up the paper stars every few days the man hasn’t explained it—it doesn’t seem to be for publicity, Tantivy’s the only one who even glances at the map and that’s more in the spirit of an amiable anthropologist—“Some sort of harmless Yank hobby,” he tells his friend Bloat. “Perhaps it’s to keep track of them all. He does lead rather a complicated social life,” thereupon going into the story of Lorraine and Judy, Charles the homosexual constable and the piano in the pantechnicon, or the bizarre masquerade involving Gloria and her nubile mother, a quid wager on the Blackpool-Preston North End game, a naughty version of “Silent Night,” and a providential fog. But none of these yarns, for the purposes of those Bloat reports to, are really very illuminating. . . .
Well. He’s done now. Bag zipped, lamp off and moved back in place. Perhaps there’s time to catch Tantivy over at the Snipe and Shaft, time for a comradely pint. He moves back down the beaverboard maze, in the weak yellow light, against a tide of incoming girls in galoshes, aloof Bloat unsmiling, no time for slap-and-tickle here you see, he still has his day’s delivery to make. . . .
• • • • • • •
Wind has shifted around to the southwest, and the barometer’s falling. The early afternoon is already dark as evening, under the massing rainclouds. Tyrone Slothrop is gonna be caught out in it, too. Today it’s been a long, idiot chase out to zero longitude, with the usual nothing to show. This one was supposed to be another premature airburst, the lumps of burning rocket showering down for miles around, most of it into the river, only one piece in any kind of shape and that well surrounded, by the time Slothrop arrived, with the tightest security he’s seen yet, and the least friendly. Soft, faded berets against the slate clouds, Mark III Stens set on automatic, mustaches mouthwide covering enormous upper lips, humorless—no chance for any American lieutenant to get a look, not today.
ACHTUNG, anyhow, is the poor relative of Allied intelligence. At least this time Slothrop’s not alone, he’s had the cold comfort of seeing his opposite number from T.I., and shortly after that even the man’s section chief, come fussing onto the scene in a ’37 Wolseley Wasp, both turned back too. Ha! Neither of them returning Slothrop’s amiable nod. Tough shit, fellas. But shrewd Tyrone hangs around, distributing Lucky Strikes, long enough to find at least what’s up with this Unlucky Strike, here.
What it is is a graphite cylinder, about six inches long and two in diameter, all but a few flakes of its Army-green paint charred away. Only piece that survived the burst. Evidently it was meant to. There seem to be papers stashed inside. Sergeant-major burned his hand picking it up and was heard to holler Oh fuck, causing laughter among the lower paygrades. Everybody was waiting around for a Captain Prentice from S.O.E. (those prickly bastards take their time about everything), who does presently show up. Slothrop gets a glimpse—windburned face, big mean mother. Prentice takes the cylinder, drives away, and that’s that.
In which case, Slothrop reckons, ACHTUNG can, a bit wearily, submit its fifty-millionth interbranch request to that S.O.E., asking for some report on the cylinder’s contents, and, as usual, be ignored. It’s O.K., he’s not bitter. S.O.E. ignores everybody, and everybody ignores ACHTUNG. A-and what does it matter, anyhow? It’s his last rocket for a while. Hopefully for good.
This morning in his IN basket were orders sending him TDY some hospital out in the East End. No explanation beyond an attached carbon copy of a note to ACHTUNG requesting his reassignment “as part of the P.W.E. Testing Programme.” Testing? P.W.E. is Political Warfare Executive, he looked that up. Some more of that Minnesota Multiphasic shit, no doubt. But it will be a change from this rocket-hunting routine, which is beginning to get a little old.
Once upon a time Slothrop cared. No kidding. He thinks he did, anyway. A lot of stuff prior to 1944 is getting blurry now. He can remember the first Blitz only as a long spell of good luck. Nothing that Luftwaffe dropped came near him. But this last summer they started in with those buzzbombs. You’d be walking on the street, in bed just dozing off suddenly here comes this farting sound over the rooftops—if it just keeps on, rising to a peak and passing over why that’s fine, then it’s somebody else’s worry . . . but if the engine cuts off, look out Jackson—it’s begun its dive, sloshing the fuel aft, away from the engine burner, and you’ve got 10 seconds to get under something. Well, it wasn’t really too bad. After a while you adjusted—found yourself making small bets, a shilling or two, with Tantivy Mucker-Maffick at the next desk, about where the next doodle would hit. . . .
But then last September the rockets came. Them fucking rockets. You couldn’t adjust to the bastards. No way. For the first time, he was surprised to find that he was really scared. Began drinking heavier, sleeping less, chain-smoking, feeling in some way he’d been taken for a sucker. Christ, it wasn’t supposed to keep on like this. . . .
“I say Slothrop, you’ve already got one in your mouth—”
“Nervous,” Slothrop lighting up anyway.
“Well not mine,” Tantivy pleads.
“Two at a time, see?” making them point down like comicbook fangs. The lieutenants stare at each other through the beery shadows, with the day deepening outside the high cold windows of the Snipe and Shaft, and Tantivy about to laugh or snort oh God across the wood Atlantic of their table.
Atlantics aplenty there’ve been these three years, often rougher than the one William, the first transatlantic Slothrop, crossed many ancestors ago. Barbarities of dress and speech, lapses in behavior—one horrible evening drunken Slothrop, Tantivy’s guest at the Junior Athenaeum, got them both 86’d feinting with the beak of a stuffed owl after the jugular of DeCoverley Pox whilst Pox, at bay on a billiard table, attempted to ram a cue ball down Slothrop’s throat. This sort of thing goes on dismayingly often: yet kindness is a sturdy enough ship for these oceans, Tantivy always there blushing or smiling and Slothrop surprised at how, when it’s really counted, Tantivy hasn’t ever let him down.
He knows he can spill what’s on his mind. It hasn’t much to do with today’s amorous report on Norma (dimply Cedar Rapids subdeb legs), Marjorie (tall, elegant, a build out of the chorus line at the Windmill) and the strange events Saturday night at the Frick Frack Club in Soho, a haunt of low reputation with moving spotlights of many pastel hues, OFF LIMITS and NO JITTERBUG DANCING signs laid on to satisfy the many sorts of police, military and civilian, whatever “civilian” means nowadays, who look in from time to time, and where against all chance, through some horrible secret plot, Slothrop, who was to meet one, walks in sees who but both, lined up in a row, the angle deliberately just for him, over the blue wool shoulder of an engineman 3rd class, under the bare lovely armpit of a lindyhopping girl swung and posed, skin stained lavender by the shifting light just there, and then, paranoia flooding up, the two faces beginning to turn his way. . . .
Both young ladies happen to be silver stars on Slothrop’s map. He must’ve been feeling silvery both times—shiny, jingling. The stars he pastes up are colored only to go with how he feels that day, blue on up to golden. Never to rank a single one—how can he? Nobody sees the map but Tantivy, and Christ they’re all beautiful . . . in leaf or flower around his wintering city, in teashops, in the queues babushkaed and coatwrapped, sighing, sneezing, all lisle legs on the curbstones, hitchhiking, typing or filing with pompadours sprouting yellow pencils, he finds them—dames, tomatoes, sweater girls—yes it is a little obsessive maybe but . . . “I know there is wilde love and joy enough in the world,” preached Thomas Hooker, “as there are wilde Thyme, and other herbes; but we would have garden love, and garden joy, of Gods owne planting.” How Slothrop’s garden grows. Teems with virgin’s-bower, with forget-me-nots, with rue—and all over the place, purple and yellow as hickeys, a prevalence of love-in-idleness.
He likes to tell them about fireflies. English girls don’t know about fireflies, which is about all Slothrop knows for sure about English girls.
The map does puzzle Tantivy. It cannot be put down to the usual loud-mouthed American ass-banditry, except as a fraternity-boy reflex in a vacuum, a reflex Slothrop can’t help, barking on into an empty lab, into a wormholing of echoing hallways, long after the need has vanished and the brothers gone to WW II and their chances for death. Slothrop really doesn’t like to talk about his girls: Tantivy has to steer him diplomatically, even now. At first Slothrop, quaintly gentlemanly, didn’t talk at all, till he found out how shy Tantivy was. It dawned on him then that Tantivy was looking to be fixed up. At about the same time, Tantivy began to see the extent of Slothrop’s isolation. He seemed to have no one else in London, beyond a multitude of girls he seldom saw again, to talk to about anything.
Still Slothrop keeps his map up daily, boobishly conscientious. At its best, it does celebrate a flow, a passing from which—among the sudden demolitions from the sky, mysterious orders arriving out of the dark laborings of nights that for himself are only idle—he can save a moment here or there, the days again growing colder, frost in the morning, the feeling of Jennifer’s breasts inside cold sweater’s wool held to warm a bit in a coal-smoke hallway he’ll never know the daytime despondency of . . . cup of Bovril a fraction down from boiling searing his bare knee as Irene, naked as he is in a block of glass sunlight, holds up precious nylons one by one to find a pair that hasn’t laddered, each struck flashing by the light through the winter trellis outside . . . nasal hep American-girl voices singing out of the grooves of some disc up through the thorn needle of Allison’s mother’s radiogram . . . snuggling for warmth, blackout curtains over all the windows, no light but the coal of their last cigarette, an English firefly, bobbing at her whim in cursive writing that trails a bit behind, words he can’t read. . . .
“What happened?” Silence from Slothrop. “Your two Wrens . . . when they saw you . . .” then he notices that Slothrop, instead of going on with his story, has given himself up to shivering. Has been shivering, in fact, for some time. It’s cold in here, but not that cold. “Slothrop—”
“I don’t know. Jesus.” It’s interesting, though. It’s the weirdest feeling. He can’t stop. He turns his Ike jacket collar up, tucks hands inside sleeves, and sits that way for a while.
Presently, after a pause, cigarette in motion, “You can’t hear them when they come in.”
Tantivy knows which “they.” His eyes shift away. There is silence for a bit.
“Of course you can’t, they go faster than sound.”
“Yes but—that’s not it,” words are bursting out between the pulses of shivering—“the other kind, those V-ls, you can hear them. Right? Maybe you have a chance to get out of the way. But these things explode first, a-and then you hear them coming in. Except that, if you’re dead, you don’t hear them.”
“Same in the infantry. You know that. You never hear the one that gets you.”
“Think of it as a very large bullet, Slothrop. With fins.”
“Jesus,” teeth chattering, “you’re such a comfort.”
Tantivy, leaning anxiously through the smell of hops and the brown gloom, more worried now about Slothrop’s shaking than any specter of his own, has nothing but established channels he happens to know of to try and conjure it away. “Why not see if we can get you out to where some of them have hit. . . .”
“What for? Come on, Tantivy, they’re completely destroyed. Aren’t they?”
“I don’t know. I doubt even the Germans know. But it’s the best chance we’ll have to one-up that lot over in T.I. Isn’t it.”
Which is how Slothrop got into investigating V-bomb “incidents.” Aftermaths. Each morning—at first—someone in Civil Defence routed ACHTUNG a list of yesterday’s hits. It would come round to Slothrop last, he’d detach its pencil-smeared buck slip, go draw the same aging Humber from the motor pool, and make his rounds, a Saint George after the fact, going out to poke about for droppings of the Beast, fragments of German hardware that wouldn’t exist, writing empty summaries into his notebooks—work-therapy. As inputs to ACHTUNG got faster, often he’d show up in time to help the search crews—following restless-muscled RAF dogs into the plaster smell, the gas leaking, the leaning long splinters and sagging mesh, the prone and noseless caryatids, rust already at nails and naked threadsurfaces, the powdery wipe of Nothing’s hand across wallpaper awhisper with peacocks spreading their fans down deep lawns to Georgian houses long ago, to safe groves of holm oak . . . among the calls for silence following to where some exposed hand or brightness of skin waited them, survivor or casualty. When he couldn’t help he stayed clear, praying, at first, conventionally to God, first time since the other Blitz, for life to win out. But too many were dying, and presently, seeing no point, he stopped.
Yesterday happened to be a good day. They found a child, alive, a little girl, half-suffocated under a Morrison shelter. Waiting for the stretcher, Slothrop held her small hand, gone purple with the cold. Dogs barked in the street. When she opened her eyes and saw him her first words were, “Any gum, chum?” Trapped there for two days, gum-less—all he had for her was a Thayer’s Slippery Elm. He felt like an idiot. Before they took her off she brought his hand over to kiss anyway, her mouth and cheek in the flare lamps cold as frost, the city around them at once a big desolate icebox, stale-smelling and no surprises inside ever again. At which point she smiled, very faintly, and he knew that’s what he’d been waiting for, wow, a Shirley Temple smile, as if this exactly canceled all they’d found her down in the middle of. What a damn fool thing. He hangs at the bottom of his blood’s avalanche, 300 years of western swamp-Yankees, and can’t manage but some nervous truce with their Providence. A détente. Ruins he goes daily to look in are each a sermon on vanity. That he finds, as weeks wear on, no least fragment of any rocket, preaches how indivisible is the act of death . . . Slothrop’s Progress: London the secular city instructs him: turn any corner and he can find himself inside a parable.
He has become obsessed with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it—if they’re really set on getting him (“They” embracing possibilities far far beyond Nazi Germany) that’s the surest way, doesn’t cost them a thing to paint his name on every one, right?
“Yes, well, that can be useful,” Tantivy watching him funny, “can’t it, especially in combat to, you know, pretend something like that. Jolly useful. Call it ‘operational paranoia’ or something. But—”
“Who’s pretending?” lighting a cigarette, shaking his forelock through the smoke, “jeepers, Tantivy, listen, I don’t want to upset you but . . . I mean I’m four years overdue’s what it is, it could happen any time, the next second, right, just suddenly . . . shit . . . just zero, just nothing . . . and . . .”
It’s nothing he can see or lay hands on—sudden gases, a violence upon the air and no trace afterward . . . a Word, spoken with no warning into your ear, and then silence forever. Beyond its invisibility, beyond hammerfall and doomcrack, here is its real horror, mocking, promising him death with German and precise confidence, laughing down all of Tantivy’s quiet decencies . . . no, no bullet with fins, Ace . . . not the Word, the one Word that rips apart the day. . . .
It was Friday evening, last September, just off work, heading for the Bond Street Underground station, his mind on the weekend ahead and his two Wrens, that Norma and that Marjorie, whom he must each keep from learning about the other, just as he was reaching to pick his nose, suddenly in the sky, miles behind his back and up the river mementomori a sharp crack and a heavy explosion, rolling right behind, almost like a clap of thunder. But not quite. Seconds later, this time from in front of him, it happened again: loud and clear, all over the city. Bracketed. Not a buzzbomb, not that Luftwaffe. “Not thunder either,” he puzzled, out loud.
“Some bloody gas main,” a lady with a lunchbox, puffy-eyed from the day, elbowing him in the back as she passed.
“No it’s the Germans,” her friend with rolled blonde fringes under a checked kerchief doing some monster routine here, raising her hands at Slothrop, “coming to get him, they especially love fat, plump Americans—” in a minute she’ll be reaching out to pinch his cheek and wobble it back and forth.
“Hi, glamorpuss,” Slothrop said. Her name was Cynthia. He managed to get a telephone number before she was waving ta-ta, borne again into the rush-hour crowds.
It was one of those great iron afternoons in London: the yellow sun being teased apart by a thousand chimneys breathing, fawning upward without shame. This smoke is more than the day’s breath, more than dark strength—it is an imperial presence that lives and moves. People were crossing the streets and squares, going everywhere. Busses were grinding off, hundreds of them, down the long concrete viaducts smeared with years’ pitiless use and no pleasure, into hazegray, grease-black, red lead and pale aluminum, between scrap heaps that towered high as blocks of flats, down side-shoving curves into roads clogged with Army convoys, other tall busses and canvas lorries, bicycles and cars, everyone here with different destinations and beginnings, all flowing, hitching now and then, over it all the enormous gas ruin of the sun among the smokestacks, the barrage balloons, power lines and chimneys brown as aging indoor wood, brown growing deeper, approaching black through an instant—perhaps the true turn of the sunset—that is wine to you, wine and comfort.
The Moment was 6:43:16 British Double Summer Time: the sky, beaten like Death’s drum, still humming, and Slothrop’s cock—say what? yes lookit inside his GI undershorts here’s a sneaky hardon stirring, ready to jump—well great God where’d that come from?
There is in his history, and likely, God help him, in his dossier, a peculiar sensitivity to what is revealed in the sky. (But a hardon?)
On the old schist of a tombstone in the Congregational churchyard back home in Mingeborough, Massachusetts, the hand of God emerges from a cloud, the edges of the figure here and there eroded by 200 years of seasons’ fire and ice chisels at work, and the inscription reading:
In Memory of Constant
Slothrop, who died March
year of his age.
Death is a debt to nature due,
Which I have paid, and so must you.
Constant saw, and not only with his heart, that stone hand pointing out of the secular clouds, pointing directly at him, its edges traced in unbearable light, above the whispering of his river and slopes of his long blue Berkshires, as would his son Variable Slothrop, indeed all of the Slothrop blood one way or another, the nine or ten generations tumbling back, branching inward: every one, except for William the very first, lying under fallen leaves, mint and purple loosestrife, chilly elm and willow shadows over the swamp-edge graveyard in a long gradient of rot, leaching, assimilation with the earth, the stones showing round-faced angels with the long noses of dogs, toothy and deep-socketed death’s heads, Masonic emblems, flowery urns, feathery willows upright and broken, exhausted hourglasses, sunfaces about to rise or set with eyes peeking Kilroy-style over their horizon, and memorial verse running from straight-on and foursquare, as for Constant Slothrop, through bouncy Star Spangled Banner meter for Mrs. Elizabeth, wife of Lt. Isaiah Slothrop (d. 1812):
Adieu my dear friends, I have come to this grave
Where Insatiate Death in his reaping hath brought me.
Till Christ rise again all His children to save,
I must lie, as His Word in the Scriptures hath taught me.
Mark, Reader, my cry! Bend thy thoughts on the Sky,
And in midst of prosperity, know thou may’st die.
While the great Loom of God works in darkness above,
And our trials here below are but threads of His Love.
To the current Slothrop’s grandfather Frederick (d. 1933), who in typical sarcasm and guile bagged his epitaph from Emily Dickinson, without a credit line:
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
Each one in turn paying his debt to nature due and leaving the excess to the next link in the name’s chain. They began as fur traders, cordwainers, salters and smokers of bacon, went on into glassmaking, became selectmen, builders of tanneries, quarriers of marble. Country for miles around gone to necropolis, gray with marble dust, dust that was the breaths, the ghosts, of all those fake-Athenian monuments going up elsewhere across the Republic. Always elsewhere. The money seeping its way out through stock portfolios more intricate than any genealogy: what stayed at home in Berkshire went into timberland whose diminishing green reaches were converted acres at a clip into paper—toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word. They were not aristocrats, no Slothrop ever made it into the Social Register or the Somerset Club—they carried on their enterprise in silence, assimilated in life to the dynamic that surrounded them thoroughly as in death they would be to churchyard earth. Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate.
But they did not prosper . . . about all they did was persist—though it all began to go sour for them around the time Emily Dickinson, never far away, was writing
Ruin is formal, devil’s work,
Consecutive and slow—
Fail in an instant no man did,
Slipping is crash’s law,
still they would keep on. The tradition, for others, was clear, everyone knew—mine it out, work it, take all you can till it’s gone then move on west, there’s plenty more. But out of some reasoned inertia the Slothrops stayed east in Berkshire, perverse—close to the flooded quarries and logged-off hillsides they’d left like signed confessions across all that thatchy-brown, moldering witch-country. The profits slackening, the family ever multiplying. Interest from various numbered trusts was still turned, by family banks down in Boston every second or third generation, back into yet another trust, in long rallentando, in infinite series just perceptibly, term by term, dying . . . but never quite to the zero. . . .
The Depression, by the time it came, ratified what’d been under way. Slothrop grew up in a hilltop desolation of businesses going under, hedges around the estates of the vastly rich, half-mythical cottagers from New York lapsing back now to green wilderness or straw death, all the crystal windows every single one smashed, Harrimans and Whitneys gone, lawns growing to hay, and the autumns no longer a time for foxtrots in the distances, limousines and lamps, but only the accustomed crickets again, apples again, early frosts to send the hummingbirds away, east wind, October rain: only winter certainties.
In 1931, the year of the Great Aspinwall Hotel Fire, young Tyrone was visiting his aunt and uncle in Lenox. It was in April, but for a second or two as he was coming awake in the strange room and the racket of big and little cousins’ feet down the stairs, he thought of winter, because so often he’d been wakened like this, at this hour of sleep, by Pop, or Hogan, bundled outside still blinking through an overlay of dream into the cold to watch the Northern Lights.
They scared the shit out of him. Were the radiant curtains just about to swing open? What would the ghosts of the North, in their finery, have to show him?
But this was a spring night, and the sky was gusting red, warm-orange, the sirens howling in the valleys from Pittsfield, Lenox, and Lee—neighbors stood out on their porches to stare up at the shower of sparks falling down on the mountainside . . . “Like a meteor shower,” they said, “Like cinders from the Fourth of July . . .” it was 1931, and those were the comparisons. The embers fell on and on for five hours while kids dozed and grownups got to drink coffee and tell fire stories from other years.
But what Lights were these? What ghosts in command? And suppose, in the next moment, all of it, the complete night, were to go out of control and curtains part to show us a winter no one has guessed at. . . .
6:43:16 BDST—in the sky right now here is the same unfolding, just about to break through, his face deepening with its light, everything about to rush away and he to lose himself, just as his countryside has ever proclaimed . . . slender church steeples poised up and down all these autumn hillsides, white rockets about to fire, only seconds of countdown away, rose windows taking in Sunday light, elevating and washing the faces above the pulpits defining grace, swearing this is how it does happen—yes the great bright hand reaching out of the cloud. . . .
• • • • • • •
On the wall, in an ornate fixture of darkening bronze, a gas jet burns, laminar and gently singing—adjusted to what scientists of the last century called a “sensitive flame”: invisible at the base, as it issues from its orifice, fading upward into smooth blue light that hovers several inches above, a glimmering small cone that can respond to the most delicate changes in the room’s air pressure. It registers visitors as they enter and leave, each curious and civil as if the round table held some game of chance. The circle of sitters is not at all distracted or hindered. None of your white hands or luminous trumpets here.
Camerons officers in parade trews, blue puttees, dress kilts drift in conversing with enlisted Americans . . . there are clergymen, Home Guard or Fire Service just off duty, folds of wool clothing heavy with smoke smell, everyone grudging an hour’s sleep and looking it . . . ancient Edwardian ladies in crepe de Chine, West Indians softly plaiting vowels round less flexible chains of Russian-Jewish consonants. . . . Most skate tangent to the holy circle, some stay, some are off again to other rooms, all without breaking in on the slender medium who sits nearest the sensitive flame with his back to the wall, reddish-brown curls tightening close as a skullcap, high forehead unwrinkled, dark lips moving now effortless, now in pain:
“Once transected into the realm of Dominus Blicero, Roland found that all the signs had turned against him. . . . Lights he had studied so well as one of you, position and movement, now gathered there at the opposite end, all in dance . . . irrelevant dance. None of Blicero’s traditional progress, no something new . . . alien. . . . Roland too became conscious of the wind, as his mortality had never allowed him. Discovered it so . . . so joyful, that the arrow must veer into it. The wind had been blowing all year long, year after year, but Roland had felt only the secular wind . . . he means, only his personal wind. Yet . . . Selena, the wind, the wind’s everywhere. . . .”
Here the medium breaks off, is silent awhile . . . one groan . . . a quiet, desperate moment. “Selena. Selena. Have you gone, then?”
“No, my dear,” her cheeks mottled with previous tears, “I’m listening.”
“It’s control. All these things arise from one difficulty: control. For the first time it was inside, do you see. The control is put inside. No more need to suffer passively under ‘outside forces’—to veer into any wind. As if . . .
“A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself—its own logic, momentum, style, from inside. Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had happened—that you had dispensed with God. But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that ought to be inseparable. . . .”
“More Ouspenskian nonsense,” whispers a lady brushing by on the arm of a dock worker. Odors of Diesel fuel and Sous le Vent mingle as they pass. Jessica Swanlake, a young rosy girl in the uniform of an ATS private, noticing the prewar perfume, looks up, hmm, the frock she imagines is about 15 guineas and who knows how many coupons, probably from Harrods and would do more for me, she’s also sure. The lady, suddenly looking back over her shoulder, smiles oh, yes? My gosh, did she hear? Around this place almost certainly.
Jessica’s been standing near the séance table with a handful of darts idly plucked from the board on the wall, her head bent, pale nape and top vertebra visible above the brown wool collar and through some of her lighter brown hair, fallen either side along her cheeks. Brass throats and breasts warm to her blood, quake in the hollow of her hand. She seems herself, gentling their feathered crosses, brushing with fingertips, to have slid into a shallow trance. . . .
Outside, rolling from the east, comes the muffled rip of another rocket bomb. The windows rattle, the floor shakes. The sensitive flame dives for shelter, shadows across the table sent adance, darkening toward the other room—then it leaps high, the shadows drawing inward again, fully two feet, and disappears completely. Gas hisses on in the dim room. Milton Gloaming, who achieved perfect tripos at Cambridge ten years ago, abandons his shorthand to rise and go shut the gas off.
It seems the right moment now for Jessica to throw a dart: one dart. Hair swinging, breasts bobbing marvelously beneath each heavy wool lapel. A hiss of air, whack: into the sticky fibers, into the dead center. Milton Gloaming cocks an eyebrow. His mind, always gathering correspondences, thinks it has found a new one.
The medium, irritable now, has begun to drift back out of his trance. Anybody’s guess what’s happening over on the other side. This sitting, like any, needs not only its congenial circle here and secular, but also a basic, four-way entente which oughtn’t, any link of it, be broken: Roland Feldspath (the spirit), Peter Sachsa (the control), Carroll Eventyr (the medium), Selena (the wife and survivor). Somewhere, through exhaustion, redirection, gusts of white noise out in the aether, this arrangement has begun now to dissolve. Relaxation, chairs squeaking, sighs and throatclearings . . . Milton Gloaming fusses with his notebook, shuts it abruptly.
Presently Jessica comes wandering over. No sign of Roger and she’s not sure he wants her to come looking for him, and Gloaming, though shy, isn’t as horrid as some of Roger’s other friends. . . .
“Roger says that now you’ll count up all those words you copied and graph them or something,” brightly to head off any comment on the dart incident, which she’d rather avoid. “Do you do it only for séances?”
“Automatic texts,” girl-nervous Gloaming frowns, nods, “one or two Ouija-board episodes, yes yes . . . we-we’re trying to develop a vocabulary of curves—certain pathologies, certain characteristic shapes you see—”
“I’m not sure that I—”
“Well. Recall Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort: if we plot the frequency of a word P sub n against its rank-order n on logarithmic axes,” babbling into her silence, even her bewilderment graceful, “we should of course get something like a straight line . . . however we’ve data that suggest the curves for certain—conditions, well they’re actually quite different—schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper—a sort of bow shape . . . I think with this chap, this Roland, that we’re on to a classical paranoiac—”
“Ha.” That’s a word she knows. “Thought I saw you brighten up there when he said ‘turned against.’”
“‘Against,’ ‘opposite,’ yes you’d be amazed at the frequency with this one.”
“What’s the most frequent word?” asks Jessica. “Your number one.”
“The same as it’s always been at these affairs,” replies the statistician, as if everyone knew: “death.”
An elderly air-raid warden, starchy and frail as organdy, stands on tiptoe to relight the sensitive flame.
“Incidentally, ah, where’s your mad young gentleman gone off to?”
“Roger’s with Captain Prentice.” Waving vaguely. “The usual Mysterious Microfilm Drill.” Being transacted in some distant room, across a crown-and-anchor game with which chance has very little to do, billows of smoke and chatter, Falkman and His Apache Band subdued over the BBC, chunky pints and slender sherry glasses, winter rain at the windows. Time for closeting, gas logs, shawls against the cold night, snug with your young lady or old dutch or, as here at Snoxall’s, in good company. Here’s a shelter—perhaps a real node of tranquillity among several scattered throughout this long wartime, where they’re gathering for purposes not entirely in the martial interest.
Pirate Prentice feels something of this, obliquely, by way of class nervousness really: he bears his grin among these people here like a phalanx. He learned it at the films—it is the exact mischievous Irish grin your Dennis Morgan chap goes about cocking down at the black smoke vomiting from each and every little bucktooth yellow rat he shoots down.
It’s as useful to him as he is to the Firm—who, it is well known, will use anyone, traitors, murderers, perverts, Negroes, even women, to get what They want. They may not’ve been that sure of Pirate’s usefulness at first, but later, as it developed, They were to grow very sure, indeed.
“Major-General, you can’t actually give your support to this.”
“We’re watching him around the clock. He certainly isn’t leaving the premises physically.”
“Then he has a confederate. Somehow—hypnosis, drugs, I don’t know—they’re getting to his man and tranquilizing him. For God’s sake, next you’ll be consulting horoscopes.”
“Hitler is an inspired man. But you and I are employees, remember. . . .”
After that first surge of interest, the number of clients assigned to Pirate tapered off some. At the moment he carries what he feels is a comfortable case load. But it’s not what he really wants. They will not understand, the gently bred maniacs of S.O.E. ah very good, Captain rattling sitreps, shuffling boots, echoes off of Government eyeglasses jolly good and why not do it actually for us sometime at the Club. . . .
Pirate wants Their trust, the good-whisky-and-cured-Latakia scent of Their rough love. He wants understanding from his own lot, not these bookish sods and rationalized freaks here at Snoxall’s so dedicated to Science, so awfully tolerant that this (he regrets it with all his heart) may be the only place in the reach of war’s empire that he does feel less than a stranger. . . .
“It’s not at all clear,” Roger Mexico’s been saying, “what they have in mind, not at all, the Witchcraft Act’s more than 200 years old, it’s a relic of an entirely different age, another way of thinking. Suddenly here we are 1944 being hit with convictions right and left. Our Mr. Eventyr,” motioning at the medium who’s across the room chatting with young Gavin Trefoil, “could be fallen upon at any moment—pouring in the windows, hauling dangerous tough Eventyr away to the Scrubs on pretending-to-exercise-or-use-a-kind-of-conjuration-to-cause-the-spirits-of-deceased-persons-to-be-present-in-fact-at-the-place-where-he-then-was-and-that-those-spirits-were-communicating-with-living-persons-then-and-there-present my God what imbecile Fascist rot . . .”
“Careful, Mexico, you’re losing the old objectivity again—a man of science shouldn’t want to do that, should he. Hardly scientific, is it.”
“Ass. You’re on their side. Couldn’t you feel it tonight, coming in the door? It’s a great swamp of paranoia.”
“That’s my talent, all right,” Pirate as he speaks knowing it’s too abrupt, tries to file off the flash with: “I don’t know that I’m really up to the multiple sort of thing. . . .”
“Ah. Prentice.” Not an eyebrow or lip out of place. Tolerance. Ah.
“You ought to come down this time and have our Dr. Groast check it out on his EEG.”
“Oh, if I’m in town,” vaguely. There’s a security problem here. Loose talk sinks ships and he can’t be sure, even about Mexico. There are too many circles to the current operation, inner and outer. Distribution lists growing narrower as we move ring by ring toward the bull’s eye, Instructions To Destroy gradually encompassing every scrap, idle memo, typewriter ribbon.
His best guess is that Mexico only now and then supports the Firm’s latest mania, known as Operation Black Wing, in a statistical way—analyzing what foreign-morale data may come in, for instance—but someplace out at the fringes of the enterprise, as indeed Pirate finds himself here tonight, acting as go-between for Mexico and his own roommate Teddy Bloat.
He knows that Bloat goes somewhere and microfilms something, then transfers it, via Pirate, to young Mexico. And thence, he gathers, down to “The White Visitation,” which houses a catchall agency known as PISCES—Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender. Whose surrender is not made clear.
Pirate wonders if Mexico isn’t into yet another of the thousand dodgy intra-Allied surveillance schemes that have sprung up about London since the Americans, and a dozen governments in exile, moved in. In which the German curiously fades into irrelevance. Everyone watching over his shoulder, Free French plotting revenge on Vichy traitors, Lublin Communists drawing beads on Varsovian shadow-ministers, ELAS Greeks stalking royalists, unrepatriable dreamers of all languages hoping through will, fists, prayer to bring back kings, republics, pretenders, summer anarchisms that perished before the first crops were in . . . some dying wretchedly, nameless, under ice-and-snow surfaces of bomb craters out in the East End not to be found till spring, some chronically drunk or opiated for getting through the day’s reverses, most somehow losing, losing what souls they had, less and less able to trust, seized in the game’s unending chatter, its daily self-criticism, its demands for total attention . . . and what foreigner is it, exactly, that Pirate has in mind if it isn’t that stateless lascar across his own mirror-glass, that poorest of exiles. . . .
Well: he guesses They have euchred Mexico into some such Byzantine exercise, probably to do with the Americans. Perhaps the Russians. “The White Visitation,” being devoted to psychological warfare, harbors a few of each, a Behaviorist here, a Pavlovian there. It’s none of Pirate’s business. But he notes that with each film delivery, Roger’s enthusiasm grows. Unhealthy, unhealthy: he has the sense of witnessing an addiction. He feels that his friend, his provisional wartime friend, is being used for something not quite decent.
What can he do? If Mexico wanted to talk about it he could find a way, security or not. His reluctance is not Pirate’s own over the machinery of Operation Black Wing. It looks more like shame. Wasn’t Mexico’s face tonight, as he took the envelope, averted? eyes boxing the corners of the room at top speed, a pornography customer’s reflex . . . hmm. Knowing Bloat, perhaps that’s what it is, young lady gamming well-set-up young man, several poses—more wholesome than anything this war’s ever photographed . . . life, at least. . . .
There’s Mexico’s girl, just entering the room. He spots her immediately, the clarity around her, the absence of smoke and noise . . . is he seeing auras now? She catches sight of Roger and smiles, her eyes enormous . . . dark-lashed, no make-up or none Pirate can see, her hair worn in a roll down to the shoulders—what the hell’s she doing in a mixed AA battery? She ought to be in a NAAFI canteen, filling coffee cups. He is suddenly, dodderer and ass, taken by an ache in his skin, a simple love for them both that asks nothing but their safety, and that he’ll always manage to describe as something else—“concern,” you know, “fondness. . . .”
In 1936, Pirate (“a T. S. Eliot April” she called it, though it was a colder time of year) was in love with an executive’s wife. She was a thin, speedy stalk of a girl named Scorpia Mossmoon. Her husband Clive was an expert in plastics, working out of Cambridge for Imperial Chemicals. Pirate, the career soldier, was having a year or two’s relapse or fling outside in civilian life.
He’d got the feeling, stationed east of Suez, places like Bahrein, drinking beer watered with his own falling sweat in the perpetual stink of crude oil across from Muharraq, restricted to quarters after sundown—98% venereal rate anyway—one sunburned, scroungy unit of force preserving the Sheik and the oil money against any threat from east of the English Channel, horny, mad with the itching of lice and heat rash (masturbating under these conditions is exquisite torture), bitter-drunk all the time—even so there had leaked through to Pirate a dim suspicion that life was passing him by.
Incredible black-and-white Scorpia confirmed not a few Piratical fantasies about the glamorous silken-calved English realworld he’d felt so shut away from. They got together while Clive was away on a trouble-shooting mission for ICI in, of all places, Bahrein. The symmetry of this helped Pirate relax about it some. They would attend parties as strangers, though she never learned to arm herself against unexpected sight of him across a room (trying to belong, as if he were not someone’s employee). She found him touching in his ignorance of everything—partying, love, money—felt worldly and desperately caring for this moment of boyhood among his ways imperialized and set (he was 33), his pre-Austerity, in which Scorpia figured as his Last Fling—though herself too young to know that, to know, like Pirate, what the lyrics to “Dancing in the Dark” are really about. . . .
He will be scrupulous about never telling her. But there are times when it’s agony not to go to her feet, knowing she won’t leave Clive, crying you’re my last chance . . . if it can’t be you then there’s no more time. . . . Doesn’t he wish, against all hope, that he could let the poor, Western-man’s timetable go . . . but how does a man . . . where does he even begin, at age 33. . . . “But that’s just it,” she’d have laughed, not so much annoyed (she would have laughed) as tickled by the unreality of the problem—herself too lost at the manic edge of him, always at engage, so taking, cleaving her (for more than when jerking off into an Army flannel in the Persian Gulf was some collar of love’s nettles now at him, at his cock), too unappeasable for her not to give in to the insanity of, but too insane really even to think of as any betrayal of Clive. . . .
Convenient as hell for her, anyway. Roger Mexico is now going through much the same thing with Jessica, the Other Chap in this case being known as Beaver. Pirate has looked on but never talked about it to Mexico. Yes he is waiting, to see if it will end for Roger the same way, part of him, never so cheery as at the spectacle of another’s misfortune, rooting for Beaver and all that he, like Clive, stands for, to win out. But another part—an alternate self?—one that he mustn’t be quick to call “decent”—does seem to want for Roger what Pirate himself lost. . . .
“You are a pirate,” she’d whispered the last day—neither of them knew it was the last day—“you’ve come and taken me off on your pirate ship. A girl of good family and the usual repressions. You’ve raped me. And I’m the Red Bitch of the High Seas. . . .” A lovely game. Pirate wished she’d thought it up sooner. Fucking the last (already the last) day’s light away down afternoon to dusk, hours of fucking, too in love with it to uncouple, they noticed how the borrowed room rocked gently, the ceiling obligingly came down a foot, lamps swayed from their fittings, some fraction of the Thameside traffic provided salty cries over the water, and nautical bells. . . .
But back over their lowering sky-sea behind, Government hounds were on the track—drawing closer, the cutters are coming, the cutters and the sleek hermaphrodites of the law, agents who, being old hands, will settle for her safe return, won’t insist on his execution or capture. Their logic is sound: give him a bad enough wound and he’ll come round, round to the ways of this hard-boiled old egg of world and timetables, cycling night to compromise night. . . .
He left her at Waterloo Station. A gala crowd was there, to see Fred Roper’s Company of Wonder Midgets off to an imperial fair in Johannesburg, South Africa. Midgets in their dark winter clothes, exquisite little frocks and nip-waisted overcoats, were running all over the station, gobbling their bonvoyage chocolates and lining up for news photos. Scorpia’s talc-white face, through the last window, across the last gate, was a blow to his heart. A flurry of giggles and best wishes arose from the Wonder Midgets and their admirers. Well, thought Pirate, guess I’ll go back in the Army. . . .
• • • • • • •
They’re bound eastward now, Roger peering over the wheel, hunched Dracula-style inside his Burberry, Jessica with bright millions of droplets still clinging in soft net to her shoulders and sleeves of drab wool. They want to be together, in bed, at rest, in love, and instead it’s eastward tonight and south of the Thames to rendezvous with a certain high-class vivisectionist before the clock of St. Felix chimes one. And when the mice run down, who knows tonight but what they’ve run for good?
Her face against the breath-fogged window has become another dimness, another light-trick of the winter. Beyond her, the white fracture of the rain passes. “Why does he go out and pinch all his dogs in person? He’s an administrator, isn’t he? Wouldn’t he hire a boy or something?”
“We call them ‘staff,’” Roger replies, “and I don’t know why Pointsman does anything he does, he’s a Pavlovian, love. He’s a Royal Fellow. What am I supposed to know about any of those people? They’re as difficult as the lot back in Snoxall’s.”
They’re both of them peevish tonight, whippy as sheets of glass improperly annealed, ready to go smash at any indefinite touch in a whining matrix of stresses—
“Poor Roger, poor lamb, he’s having an awful war.”
“All right,” his head shaking, a fuming b or p that refuses to explode, “ahh, you’re so clever aren’t you,” raving Roger, hands off the wheel to help the words out, windscreen wipers clicking right along, “you’ve been able to shoot back now and then at the odd flying buzz bomb, you and the boy friend dear old Nutria—”
“Quite right, and all that magnificent esprit you lot are so justly famous for, but you haven’t brought down many rockets lately have you, haha!” gurning his most spiteful pursed smile up against wrinkled nose and eyes, “any more than I, any more than Pointsman, well who’s that make purer than whom these days, eh mylove?” bouncing up and down in the leather seat.
By now her hand’s reaching out, about to touch his shoulder. She rests her cheek on her own arm, hair spilling, drowsy, watching him. Can’t get a decent argument going with her. How he’s tried. She uses her silences like stroking hands to divert him and hush their corners of rooms, bedcovers, tabletops—accidental spaces. . . . Even at the cinema watching that awful Going My Way, the day they met, he saw every white straying of her ungauntleted hands, could feel in his skin each saccade of her olive, her amber, her coffee-colored eyes. He’s wasted gallons of paint thinner striking his faithful Zippo, its charred wick, virility giving way to thrift, rationed down to a little stub, the blue flame sparking about the edges in the dark, the many kinds of dark, just to see what’s happening with her face. Each new flame, a new face.
And there’ve been the moments, more of them lately too—times when face-to-face there has been no way to tell which of them is which. Both at the same time feeling the same eerie confusion . . . something like looking in a mirror by surprise but . . . more than that, the feeling of actually being joined . . . when after—who knows? two minutes, a week? they realize, separate again, what’s been going on, that Roger and Jessica were merged into a joint creature unaware of itself. . . . In a life he has cursed, again and again, for its need to believe so much in the trans-observable, here is the first, the very first real magic: data he can’t argue away.
It was what Hollywood likes to call a “cute meet,” out in the neat 18th-century heart of downtown Tunbridge Wells, Roger motoring in the vintage Jaguar up to London, Jessica at the roadside struggling prettily with a busted bicycle, murky wool ATS skirt hiked up on a handle bar, most nonregulation black slip and clear pearl thighs above the khaki stockings, well—
“Here love,” brakes on in a high squeak, “it’s not backstage at the old Windmill or something, you know.”
She knew. “Hmm,” a curl dropping down to tickle her nose and put a bit more than the usual acid in her reply, “are they letting little boys into places like that, I didn’t know.”
“Well nobody’s,” having learned by now to live with remarks about his appearance, “called up the Girl Guides yet either, have they.”
“Hurrah, that qualifies you for a ride, in this Jaguar here you see, all the way to London.”
“But I’m going the other way. Nearly to Battle.”
“Oh, round trip of course.”
Shaking hair back out of her face, “Does your mother know you’re out like this.”
“My mother is the war,” declares Roger Mexico, leaning over to open the door.
“That’s a queer thing to say,” one muddy little shoe pondering on the running board.
“Come along, love, you’re holding up the mission, leave the machine where it is, mind your skirt getting in, I wouldn’t want to commit an unspeakable act out here in the streets of Tunbridge Wells—”
At which moment the rocket falls. Cute, cute. A thud, a hollow drumroll. Far enough toward the city to be safe, but close and loud enough to send her the hundred miles between herself and the stranger: long-swooping, balletic, her marvelous round bottom turning to settle in the other seat, hair in a moment’s fan, hand sweeping Army-colored skirt under graceful as a wing, all with the blast still reverberating.
He thinks he can see a solemn gnarled something, deeper or changing faster than clouds, rising to the north. Will she snuggle now cutely against him, ask him to protect her? He didn’t even believe she’d get in the car, rocket or no rocket, accordingly now puts Pointsman’s Jaguar somehow into reverse instead of low, yes, backs over the bicycle, rendering it in a great crunch useless for anything but scrap.
“I’m in your power,” she cries. “Utterly.”
“Hmm,” Roger at length finding his gear, dancing among the pedals rrrn, snarl, off to London. But Jessica’s not in his power.
And the war, well, she is Roger’s mother, she’s leached at all the soft, the vulnerable inclusions of hope and praise scattered, beneath the mica-dazzle, through Roger’s mineral, grave-marker self, washed it all moaning away on her gray tide. Six years now, always just in sight, just where he can see her. He’s forgotten his first corpse, or when he first saw someone living die. That’s how long it’s been going on. Most of his life, it seems. The city he visits nowadays is Death’s antechamber: where all the paperwork’s done, the contracts signed, the days numbered. Nothing of the grand, garden, adventurous capital his childhood knew. He’s become the Dour Young Man of “The White Visitation,” the spider hitching together his web of numbers. It’s an open secret that he doesn’t get on with the rest of his section. How can he? They’re all wild talents—clairvoyants and mad magicians, telekinetics, astral travelers, gatherers of light. Roger’s only a statistician. Never had a prophetic dream, never sent or got a telepathic message, never touched the Other World directly. If anything’s there it will show in the experimental data won’t it, in the numbers . . . but that’s as close or clear as he’ll ever get. Any wonder he’s a bit short with Psi Section, all the definitely 3-sigma lot up and down his basement corridor? Jesus Christ, wouldn’t you be?
That one clear need of theirs, so patent, exasperates him. . . . His need too, all right. But how are you ever going to put anything “psychical” on a scientific basis with your mortality always goading, just outside the chi-square calculations, in between the flips of the Zener cards and the silences among the medium’s thick, straining utterances? In his mellower moments he thinks that continuing to try makes him brave. But most of the time he’s cursing himself for not working in fire control, or graphing Standardized Kill Rates Per Ton for the bomber groups . . . anything but this thankless meddling into the affairs of invulnerable Death. . . .
They have drawn near a glow over the rooftops. Fire Service vehicles come roaring by them, heading the same direction. It is an oppressive region of brick streets and silent walls.
Roger brakes for a crowd of sappers, firefighters, neighbors in dark coats over white nightclothes, old ladies who have a special place in their night-thoughts for the Fire Service no please you’re not going to use that great Hose on me . . . oh no . . . aren’t you even going to take off those horrid rubber boots . . . yesyes that’s—
Soldiers stand every few yards, a loose cordon, unmoving, a bit supernatural. The Battle of Britain was hardly so formal. But these new robot bombs bring with them chances for public terror no one has sounded. Jessica notes a coal-black Packard up a side street, filled with dark-suited civilians. Their white collars rigid in the shadows.
He shrugs: “they” is good enough. “Not a friendly lot.”
“Look who’s talking.” But their smile is old, habitual. There was a time when his job had her a bit mental: lovely little scrapbooks on the flying bombs, how sweet. . . . And his irritated sigh: Jess don’t make me out some cold fanatical man of science. . . .
Heat beats at their faces, eye-searing yellow when the streams shoot into the fire. A ladder hooked to the edge of the roof sways in the violent drafts. Up top, against the sky, figures in slickers brace, wave arms, move together to pass orders. Half a block down, flare lamps illuminate the rescue work in the charry wet wreckage. From trailer pumps and heavy units, canvas hoses run fat with pressure, hastily threaded unions sending out stars of cold spray, bitter cold, that flash yellow when the fire leaps. Somewhere over a radio comes a woman’s voice, a quiet Yorkshire girl, dispatching other units to other parts of the city.
Once Roger and Jessica might have stopped. But they’re both alumni of the Battle of Britain, both have been drafted into the early black mornings and the crying for mercy, the dumb inertia of cobbles and beams, the profound shortage of mercy in those days. . . . By the time one has pulled one’s nth victim or part of a victim free of one’s nth pile of rubble, he told her once, angry, weary, it has ceased to be that personal . . . the value of n may be different for each of us, but I’m sorry: sooner or later . . .
And past the exhaustion with it there is also this. If they have not quite seceded from war’s state, at least they’ve found the beginnings of gentle withdrawal . . . there’s never been the space or time to talk about it, and perhaps no need—but both know, clearly, it’s better together, snuggled in, than back out in the paper, fires, khaki, steel of the Home Front. That, indeed, the Home Front is something of a fiction and lie, designed, not too subtly, to draw them apart, to subvert love in favor of work, abstraction, required pain, bitter death.
They have found a house in the stay-away zone, under the barrage balloons south of London. The town, evacuated in ’40, is still “regulated”—still on the Ministry’s list. Roger and Jessica occupy the place illegally, in a defiance they can never measure unless they’re caught. Jessica has brought an old doll, seashells, her aunt’s grip filled with lace knickers and silk stockings. Roger’s managed to scare up a few chickens to nest in the empty garage. Whenever they meet here, one always remembers to bring a fresh flower or two. The nights are filled with explosion and motor transport, and wind that brings them up over the downs a last smack of the sea. Day begins with a hot cup and a cigarette over a little table with a weak leg that Roger has repaired, provisionally, with brown twine. There’s never much talk but touches and looks, smiles together, curses for parting. It is marginal, hungry, chilly—most times they’re too paranoid to risk a fire—but it’s something they want to keep, so much that to keep it they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war.
• • • • • • •
Tonight’s quarry, whose name will be Vladimir (or Ilya, Sergei, Nikolai, depending on the doctor’s whim), slinks carefully toward the cellar entrance. This jagged opening ought to lead to something deep and safe. He has the memory, or reflex, of escaping into similar darkness from an Irish setter who smells of coal smoke and will attack on sight . . . once from a pack of children, recently from a sudden blast of noiselight, a fall of masonry that caught him on the left hindquarter (still raw, still needs licking). But tonight’s threat is something new: not so violent, instead a systematic stealth he isn’t used to. Life out here is more direct.
It’s raining. The wind hardly flickers. It brings a scent he finds strange, never having been near a laboratory in his life.
The smell is ether, it emanates from Mr. Edward W. A. Pointsman, F.R.C.S. As the dog vanishes around the broken remnant of a wall, just as the tip of his tail flicks away, the doctor steps into the white waiting throat of a toilet bowl he has not, so intent on his prey, seen. He bends over, awkwardly, tugging loose the bowl from its surrounding debris, muttering oaths against all the careless, meaning not himself, particularly, but the owners of this ruined flat (if they weren’t killed in the blast) or whoever failed to salvage this bowl, which seems, actually, to be wedged on rather tight. . . .
Mr. Pointsman drags his leg over to a shattered staircase, swings it quietly, so as not to alarm the dog, against the lower half of a fumed-oak newel post. The bowl only clanks back, the wood shudders. Mocking him—all right. He sits on stairsteps ascending to open sky and attempts to pull the damned thing loose of his foot. It will not come. He hears the invisible dog, toenails softly clicking, gain the sanctuary of the cellar. He can’t reach inside the toilet bowl even to untie his fucking boot. . . .
Settling the window of his Balaclava helmet snug and tickling just under his nose, resolved not to give way to panic, Mr. Pointsman stands up, has to wait for blood to drain, resurge, bounce up and down its million branches in the drizzly night, percolate to balance—then limping, clanking, he heads back toward the car to get a hand from young Mexico, who did remember, he hopes, to bring the electric lantern. . . .
Roger and Jessica found him a bit earlier, lurking at the end of a street of row houses. The V-bomb whose mutilation he was prowling took down four dwellings the other day, four exactly, neat as surgery. There is the soft smell of house-wood down before its time, of ashes matted down by the rain. Ropes are strung, a sentry lounges silent against the doorway of an intact house next to where the rubble begins. If he and the doctor have chatted at all, neither gives a sign now. Jessica sees two eyes of no particular color glaring out the window of a Balaclava helmet, and is reminded of a mediaeval knight wearing a casque. What creature is he possibly here tonight to fight for his king? The rubble waits him, sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an openwork of laths pointlessly chevroning—flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman’s long-gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness. Back in the wreckage a brass bedpost winks; and twined there someone’s brassiere, a white, prewar confection of lace and satin, simply left tangled. . . . For an instant, in a vertigo she can’t control, all the pity laid up in her heart flies to it, as it would to a small animal stranded and forgotten. Roger has the boot of the car open. The two men are rummaging, coming up with large canvas sack, flask of ether, net, dog whistle. She knows she must not cry: that the vague eyes in the knitted window won’t seek their Beast any more earnestly for her tears. But the poor lost flimsy thing . . . waiting in the night and rain for its owner, for its room to reassemble round it . . .
The night, full of fine rain, smells like a wet dog. Pointsman seems to’ve been away for a bit. “I’ve lost my mind. I ought to be cuddling someplace with Beaver this very minute, watching him light up his Pipe, and here instead I’m with this gillie or something, this spiritualist, statistician, what are you anyway—”
“Cuddling?” Roger has a tendency to scream. “Cuddling?”
“Mexico.” It’s the doctor, sighing, toilet bowl on his foot and knitted helmet askew.
“Hello, doesn’t that make it difficult for you to walk? should think it would . . . up here, first get it in the door, this way, and, ah, good,” then closing the door again around Pointsman’s ankle, the bowl now occupying Roger’s seat, Roger half-resting on Jessica’s lap, “tug now, hard as ever you can.”
Thinking young prig and mocking ass the doctor rocks back on his free leg, grunting, the bowl wallowing to and fro. Roger holds the door and peers attentively into where the foot vanished. “If we had a bit of Vaseline, we could—something slippery. Wait! Stay there, Pointsman, don’t move, we’ll have this resolved. . . .” Under the car, impulsive lad, in search of the crankcase plug by the time Pointsman can say, “There isn’t time Mexico, he’ll escape, he’ll escape.”
“Quite right.” Up again fumbling a flashlight from his jacket pocket. “I’ll flush him out, you wait with the net. Sure you can get about all right? Nasty if you fell or something just as he made his break for the open.”
“For pity’s sake,” Pointsman thumping after him back into the wreckage. “Don’t frighten him Mexico, this isn’t Kenya or something, we need him as close to normative, you know, as possible.”
“Roger,” calls Roger, giving him short-long-short with the flash.
“Jessica,” murmurs Jessica, tiptoeing behind them.
“Here, fellow,” coaxes Roger. “Nice bottle of ether here for you,” opening the flask, waving it in the cellar entrance, then switching on his beam. Dog looks up out of an old rusted pram, bobbing black shadows, tongue hanging, utter skepticism on his face. “Why it’s Mrs. Nussbaum!” Roger cries, the same way he’s heard Fred Allen do, Wednesday nights over the BBC.
“You vere ekshpecting maybe Lessie?” replies the dog.
Roger can smell ether fumes quite strongly as he starts his cautious descent. “Come on mate, it’ll be over before you know it. Pointsman just wants to count the old drops of saliva, that’s all. Wants to make a wee incision in your cheek, nice glass tube, nothing to bother about, right? Ring a bell now and then. Exciting world of the laboratory, you’ll love it.” Ether seems to be getting to him. He tries to stopper the flask: takes a step, foot plunges into a hole. Lurching sideways, he gropes for something to steady himself. The stopper falls back out of the flask and in forever among the debris at the bottom of the smashed house. Overhead Pointsman cries, “The sponge, Mexico, you forgot the sponge!” down comes a round pale collection of holes, bouncing in and out of the light of the flash. “Frisky chap,” Roger making a two-handed grab for it, splashing ether liberally about. He locates the sponge at last in his flashlight beam, the dog looking on from the pram in some confusion. “Hah!” pouring ether to drench the sponge and go wisping cold off his hands till the flask’s empty. Taking the wet sponge between two fingers he staggers toward the dog, shining the light up from under his chin to highlight the vampire face he thinks he’s making. “Moment—of truth!” He lunges. The dog leaps off at an angle, streaking past Roger toward the entrance while Roger keeps going with his sponge, headfirst into the pram, which collapses under his weight. Dimly he hears the doctor above whimper, “He’s getting away. Mexico, do hurry.”
“Hurry.” Roger, clutching the sponge, extricates himself from the infant’s vehicle, taking it off as if it were a shirt, with what seems to him not unathletic skill.
“Right,” Roger blundering up the cellar’s rubble to the outside again, where he beholds the doctor closing in on the dog, net held aloft and outspread. Rain falls persistently over this tableau. Roger circles so as to make with Pointsman a pincer upon the animal, who now stands with paws planted and teeth showing near one of the pieces of rear wall still standing. Jessica waits halfway into it, hands in her pockets, smoking, watching.
“Here,” hollers the sentry, “you. You idiots. Keep away from that bit of wall, there’s nothing to hold it up.”
“Do you have any cigarettes?” asks Jessica.
“He’s going to bolt,” Roger screams.
“For God’s sake, Mexico, slowly now.” Testing each footstep, they move upslope over the ruin’s delicate balance. It’s a system of lever arms that can plunge them into deadly collapse at any moment. They draw near their quarry, who scrutinizes now the doctor, now Roger, with quick shifts of his head. He growls tentatively, tail keeping up a steady slap against the two sides of the corner they’ve backed him into.
As Roger, who carries the light, moves rearward, the dog, some circuit of him, recalls the other light that came from behind in recent days—the light that followed the great blast so seethed through afterward by pain and cold. Light from the rear signals death / men with nets about to leap can be avoided—
“Sponge,” screams the doctor. Roger flings himself at the dog, who has taken off in Pointsman’s direction and away toward the street whilst Pointsman, groaning, swings his toiletbowl foot desperately, misses, momentum carrying him around a full turn, net up like a radar antenna. Roger, snoot full of ether, can’t check his lunge—as the doctor comes spinning round again Roger careens on into him, toilet bowl hitting Roger a painful thump in the leg. The two men fall over, tangled in the net now covering them. Broken beams creak, chunks of rain-wet plaster tumble. Above them the unsupported wall begins to sway.
“Get out of there,” hollers the sentry. But the efforts of the pair under the net to move away only rock the wall more violently.
“We’re for it,” the doctor shivers. Roger seeks his eyes to see if he means it, but the window of the Balaclava helmet now contains only a white ear and fringe of hair.
“Roll,” Roger suggests. They contrive to roll a few yards down toward the street, by which time part of the wall has collapsed, in the other direction. They manage to get back to Jessica without causing any more damage.
“He’s run down the street,” she mentions, helping them out of the net.
“It’s all right,” the doctor sighs. “It doesn’t make any difference.”
“Ah but the evening’s young,” from Roger.
“No, no. Forget it.”
“What will you do for a dog, then.”
They are under way again, Roger at the wheel, Jessica between them, toilet bowl out a half-open door, before the answer. “Perhaps it’s a sign. Perhaps I should be branching out.”
Roger gives him a quick look. Silence, Mexico. Try not to think about what that means. He’s not one’s superior after all, both report to the old Brigadier at “The White Visitation” on, so far as he knows, equal footing. But sometimes—Roger glances again across Jessica’s dark wool bosom at the knitted head, the naked nose and eyes—he thinks the doctor wants more than his good will, his collaboration. But wants him. As one wants a fine specimen of dog. . . .
Why’s he here, then, assisting at yet another dognapping? What stranger does he shelter in him so mad—
“Will you be going back down tonight, doctor? The young lady needs a ride.”
“I shan’t, I’ll be staying in. But you might take the car back. I must talk with Dr. Spectro.”
They are approaching now a lengthy brick improvisation, a Victorian paraphrase of what once, long ago, resulted in Gothic cathedrals—but which, in its own time, arose not from any need to climb through the fashioning of suitable confusions toward any apical God, but more in a derangement of aim, a doubt as to the God’s actual locus (or, in some, as to its very existence), out of a cruel network of sensuous moments that could not be transcended and so bent the intentions of the builders not on any zenith, but back to fright, to simple escape, in whatever direction, from what the industrial smoke, street excrement, windowless warrens, shrugging leather forests of drive belts, flowing and patient shadow states of the rats and flies, were saying about the chances for mercy that year. The grimed brick sprawl is known as the Hospital of St. Veronica of the True Image for Colonic and Respiratory Diseases, and one of its residents is a Dr. Kevin Spectro, neurologist and casual Pavlovian.
Spectro is one of the original seven owners of The Book, and if you ask Mr. Pointsman what Book, you’ll only get smirked at. It rotates, the mysterious Book, among its co-owners on a weekly basis, and this, Roger gathers, is Spectro’s week to get dropped in on at all hours. Others, in Pointsman’s weeks, have come the same way to “The White Visitation” in the night, Roger has heard their earnest, conspirators’ whispering in the corridors, the smart rattle of all their shoes, like dancing pumps on marble, destroying one’s repose, refusing ever to die with distance, Pointsman’s voice and stride always distinct from the rest. How’s it going to sound now with a toilet bowl?
Roger and Jessica leave the doctor at a side entrance, into which he melts, leaving nothing but rain dripping from slopes and serifs of an unreadable legend on the lintel.
They turn southward. Lights on the dash glow warmly. Searchlights rake the raining sky. The slender machine shivers over the roads. Jessica drifts toward sleep, the leather seat creaking as she curls about. Windscreen wipers brush the rain in a rhythmic bright warp. It is past two, and time for home.
• • • • • • •
Inside St. Veronica’s hospital they sit together, just off the war-neurosis ward, these habitual evenings. The autoclave simmers its fine clutter of steel bones. Steam drifts into the glare of the gooseneck lamp, now and then becoming very bright, and the shadows of the men’s gestures may pass through it, knife-edged, swooping very fast. But both faces are usually reserved, kept well back, in the annulus of night.
Out of the blackness of the ward, a half-open file drawer of pain each bed a folder, come cries, struck cries, as from cold metal. Kevin Spectro will take his syringe and spike away a dozen times tonight, into the dark, to sedate Fox (his generic term for any patient—run three times around the building without thinking of a fox and you can cure anything). Pointsman will sit each time waiting for their talking to resume, glad to rest these moments in the half-darkness, the worn gold-leaf letters shining from the spines of books, the fragrant coffee mess besieged by roaches, the winter rain in the downspout just outside the window. . . .
“You’re not looking any better.”
“Ah, it’s the old bastard again, he’s got me down. This fighting, Spectro, every day, I don’t . . .” pouting downward at his eyeglasses that he’s wiping on his shirt, “there’s more to damned Pudding than I can see, he’s always springing his . . . senile little surprises. . . .”
“It’s his age. Really.”
“Oh, that I can deal with. But he’s so damned—such a bastard, he never sleeps, he plots—”
“Not senility, no, I meant the position he’s working from. Pointsman? You don’t have the priorities he does quite yet, do you? You can’t take the chances he can. You’ve treated them that age, surely you know that strange . . . smugness. . . .”
Pointsman’s own Fox waits, out in the city, a prize of war. In here the tiny office space is the cave of an oracle: steam drifting, sybilline cries arriving out of the darkness . . . Abreactions of the Lord of the Night. . . .
“I don’t like it, Pointsman. Since you did ask.”
“Why not.” Silence. “Unethical?”
“For pity’s sake, is this ethical?” raising an arm then toward the exit into the ward, almost a Fascist salute. “No, I’m only trying to think of ways to justify it, experimentally. I can’t. It’s only one man.”
“It’s Slothrop. You know what he is. Even Mexico thinks . . . oh, the usual. Precognition. Psychokinesis. They have their own problems, that lot. . . . But suppose you had the chance to study a truly classical case of . . . some pathology, a perfect mechanism. . . .”
One night Spectro asked: “If he hadn’t been one of Laszlo Jamf’s subjects, would you be all this keen on him?”
“Of course I would.”
Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after it explodes. The reversal! A piece of time neatly snipped out . . . a few feet of film run backwards . . . the blast of the rocket, fallen faster than sound—then growing out of it the roar of its own fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning . . . a ghost in the sky. . . .
Pavlov was fascinated with “ideas of the opposite.” Call it a cluster of cells, somewhere on the cortex of the brain. Helping to distinguish pleasure from pain, light from dark, dominance from submission. . . . But when, somehow—starve them, traumatize, shock, castrate them, send them over into one of the transmarginal phases, past borders of their waking selves, past “equivalent” and “paradoxical” phases—you weaken this idea of the opposite, and here all at once is the paranoid patient who would be master, yet now feels himself a slave . . . who would be loved, but suffers his world’s indifference, and, “I think,” Pavlov writing to Janet, “it is precisely the ultraparadoxical phase which is the base of the weakening of the idea of the opposite in our patients.” Our madmen, our paranoid, maniac, schizoid, morally imbecile—
Spectro shakes his head. “You’re putting response before stimulus.”
“Not at all. Think of it. He’s out there, and he can feel them coming, days in advance. But it’s a reflex. A reflex to something that’s in the air right now. Something we’re too coarsely put together to sense—but Slothrop can.”
“But that makes it extrasensory.”
“Why not say ‘a sensory cue we just aren’t paying attention to.’ Something that’s been there all along, something we could be looking at but no one is. Often, in our experiments . . . I believe M. K. Petrova was first to observe it . . . one of the women, quite early in the game really . . . the act merely of bringing the dog into the laboratory—especially in our experimental neurosis work . . . the first sight of the test stand, of the technician, a stray shadow, the touch of a draft of air, some cue we might never pin down would be enough to send him over, send him transmarginal.
“So, Slothrop. Conceivably. Out in the city, the ambience alone—suppose we considered the war itself as a laboratory? when the V-2 hits, you see, first the blast, then the sound of its falling . . . the normal order of the stimuli reversed that way . . . so he might turn a particular corner, enter a certain street, and for no clear reason feel suddenly . . .”
Silence comes in, sculptured by spoken dreams, by pain-voices of the rocketbombed next door, Lord of the Night’s children, voices hung upon the ward’s stagnant medicinal air. Praying to their Master: sooner or later an abreaction, each one, all over this frost and harrowed city . . .
. . . as once again the floor is a giant lift propelling you with no warning toward your ceiling—replaying now as the walls are blown outward, bricks and mortar showering down, your sudden paralysis as death comes to wrap and stun I don’t know guv I must’ve blacked out when I come to she was gone it was burning all around me head was full of smoke . . . and the sight of your blood spurting from the flaccid stub of artery, the snowy roofslates fallen across half your bed, the cinema kiss never completed, you were pinned and stared at a crumpled cigarette pack for two hours in pain, you could hear them crying from the rows either side but couldn’t move . . . the sudden light filling up the room, the awful silence, brighter than any morning through blankets turned to gauze no shadows at all, only unutterable two-o’clock dawn . . . and . . .
. . . this transmarginal leap, this surrender. Where ideas of the opposite have come together, and lost their oppositeness. (And is it really the rocket explosion that Slothrop’s keying on, or is it exactly this depolarizing, this neurotic “confusion” that fills the wards tonight?) How many times before it’s washed away, these iterations that pour out, reliving the blast, afraid to let go because the letting go is so final how do I know Doctor that I’ll ever come back? and the answer trust us, after the rocket, is so hollow, only mummery—trust you?—and both know it. . . . Spectro feels so like a fraud but carries on . . . only because the pain continues to be real. . . .
And those who do let go at last: out of each catharsis rise new children, painless, egoless for one pulse of the Between . . . tablet erased, new writing about to begin, hand and chalk poised in winter gloom over these poor human palimpsests shivering under their government blankets, drugged, drowning in tears and snot of grief so real, torn from so deep that it surprises, seems more than their own. . . .
How Pointsman lusts after them, pretty children. Those drab undershorts of his are full to bursting with need humorlessly, worldly to use their innocence, to write on them new words of himself, his own brown Realpolitik dreams, some psychic prostate ever in aching love promised, ah hinted but till now . . . how seductively they lie ranked in their iron bedsteads, their virginal sheets, the darlings so artlessly erotic. . . .
St. Veronica’s Downtown Bus Station, their crossroads (newly arrived on this fake parquetry, chewing-gum scuffed charcoal black, slicks of nighttime vomit, pale yellow, clear as the fluids of gods, waste newspapers or propaganda leaflets no one has read in torn scythe-shaped pieces, old nose-pickings, black grime that blows weakly in when the doors open . . .).
You have waited in these places into the early mornings, synced in to the on-whitening of the interior, you know the Arrivals schedule by heart, by hollow heart. And where these children have run away from, and that, in this city, there is no one to meet them. You impress them with your gentleness. You’ve never quite decided if they can see through to your vacuum. They won’t yet look in your eyes, their slender legs are never still, knitted stockings droop (all elastic has gone to war), but charmingly: little heels kick restless against the canvas bags, the fraying valises under the wood bench. Speakers in the ceiling report departures and arrivals in English, then in the other, exile languages. Tonight’s child has had a long trip here, hasn’t slept. Her eyes are red, her frock wrinkled. Her coat has been a pillow. You feel her exhaustion, feel the impossible vastness of all the sleeping countryside at her back, and for the moment you really are selfless, sexless . . . considering only how to shelter her, you are the Traveler’s Aid.
Behind you, long, night-long queues of men in uniform move away slowly, kicking AWOL bags along, mostly silent, toward exit doors painted beige, but with edges smudged browner in bell-curves of farewell by the generation of hands. Doors that only now and then open let in the cold air, take out a certain draft of men, and close again. A driver, or a clerk, stands by the door checking tickets, passes, furlough chits. One by one men step out into this perfectly black rectangle of night and disappear. Gone, the war taking them, the man behind already presenting his ticket. Outside motors are roaring: but less like transport than like some kind of stationary machine, very low earthquake frequencies coming in mixed with the cold—somehow intimating that out there your blindness, after this bright indoors, will be like a sudden blow. . . . Soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen. One by one, gone. Those who happen to be smoking might last an instant longer, weak little coal swinging in orange arc once, twice—no more. You sit, half-turned to watch them, your soiled sleepy darling beginning to complain, and it’s no use—how can your lusts fit inside this same white frame with so much, such endless, departure? A thousand children are shuffling out these doors tonight, but only rare nights will even one come in, home to your sprung, spermy bed, the wind over the gasworks, closer smells of mold on wet coffee grounds, cat shit, pale sweaters with the pits heaped in a corner, in some accidental gesture, slink or embrace. This wordless ratcheting queue . . . thousands going away . . . only the stray freak particle, by accident, drifting against the major flow. . . .
Yet for all his agonizing all Pointsman will score, presently, is an octopus—yes a gigantic, horror-movie devilfish name of Grigori: gray, slimy, never still, shivering slow-motion in his makeshift pen down by the Ick Regis jetty . . . a terrible wind that day off the Channel, Pointsman in his Balaclava helmet, eyes freezing, Dr. Porkyevitch with greatcoat collar up and fur hat down around his ears, their breaths foul with hours-old fish, and what the hell can Pointsman do with this animal?
Already, by itself, the answer is growing, one moment a featureless blastulablob, the next folding, beginning to differentiate. . . .
One of the things Spectro said that night—surely it was that night—was, “I only wonder if you’d feel the same way without all those dogs about. If your subjects all along had been human.”
“You ought to be offering me one or two, then, instead of—are you serious?—giant octopi.” The doctors are watching each other closely.
“I wonder what you’ll do.”
“So do I.”
“Take the octopus.” Does he mean “forget Slothrop”? A charged moment.
But then Pointsman laughs the well-known laugh that’s done him yeoman service in a profession where too often it’s hedge or hang. “I’m always being told to take animals.” He means that years ago a colleague—gone now—told him he’d be more human, warmer, if he kept a dog of his own, outside the lab. Pointsman tried—God knows he did—it was a springer spaniel named Gloucester, pleasant enough animal, he supposed, but the try lasted less than a month. What finally irritated him out of all tolerance was that the dog didn’t know how to reverse its behavior. It could open doors to the rain and the spring insects, but not close them . . . knock over garbage, vomit on the floor, but not clean it up—how could anyone live with such a creature?
“Octopi,” Spectro wheedles, “are docile under surgery. They can survive massive removals of brain tissue. Their unconditioned response to prey is very reliable—show them a crab, WHAM! out wiv the old tentacle, home to poisoning and supper. And, Pointsman, they don’t bark.”
“Oh, but. No . . . tanks, pumps, filtering, special food . . . that may be fine up in Cambridge, that lot, but everyone here’s so damned tightfisted, it’s the damned Rundstedt offensive, has to be. . . . P.W.E. won’t fund anything now unless it pays off tactically, immediately—last week you know, if not sooner. No an octopus is much too elaborate, not even Pudding would buy it, no not even old delusions-of-grandeur himself.”
“No limit to the things you can teach them.”
“Spectro, you’re not the devil.” Looking closer, “Are you? You know we’re set for sound stimuli, the whole thrust of this Slothrop scheme has to be auditory, the reversal is auditory. . . . I’ve seen an octopus brain or two in my time, mate, and don’t think I haven’t noticed those great blooming optic lobes. Eh? You’re trying to palm off a visual creature on me. What’s there to see when the damned things come down?”
“A fiery red ball. Falling like a meteor.”
“Gwenhidwy saw one the other night, over Deptford.”
“What I want,” Pointsman leaning now into the central radiance of the lamp, his white face more vulnerable than his voice, whispering across the burning spire of a hypodermic set upright on the desk, “what I really need, is not a dog, not an octopus, but one of your fine Foxes. Damn it. One, little, Fox!”
• • • • • • •
Something’s stalking through the city of Smoke—gathering up slender girls, fair and smooth as dolls, by the handful. Their piteous cries . . . their dollful and piteous cries . . . the face of one is suddenly very close, and down! over the staring eyes come cream lids with stiff lashes, slamming loudly shut, the long reverberating of lead counterweights tumble inside her head as Jessica’s own lids now come flying open. She surfaces in time to hear the last echoes blowing away on the heels of the blast, austere and keen, a winter sound. . . . Roger wakes up briefly too, mutters something like “Fucking madness,” and nods back to sleep.
She reaches out, blind little hand grazing the ticking clock, the worn-plush stomach of her panda Michael, an empty milk bottle holding scarlet blossoms from a spurge in a garden a mile down the road: reaches to where her cigarettes ought to be but aren’t. Halfway out now from under the covers, she hangs, between the two worlds, a white, athletic tension in this cold room. Oh, well . . . she leaves him in their warm burrow, moves shivering vuhvuhvuh in grainy darkness over winter-tight floorboards, slick as ice to her bare soles.
Her cigarettes are on the parlor floor, left among pillows in front of the fire. Roger’s clothing is scattered all about. Puffing on a cigarette, squinting with one eye for the smoke, she tidies up, folding his trousers, hanging up his shirt. Then wanders to the window, lifts the blackout curtain, tries to see out through frost gathering on the panes, out into the snow tracked over by foxes, rabbits, long-lost dogs, and winter birds but no humans. Empty canals of snow thread away into trees and town whose name they still don’t know. She cups the cigarettes in her palm, leery of showing a light though blackout was lifted weeks and weeks ago, already part of another time and world. Late lorry motors rush north and south in the night, and airplanes fill the sky then drain away east to some kind of quiet.
Could they have settled for hotels, AR-E forms, being frisked for cameras and binoculars? This house, town, crossed arcs of Roger and Jessica are so vulnerable, to German weapons and to British bylaws . . . it doesn’t feel like danger here, but she does wish there were others about, and that it could really be a village, her village. The searchlights could stay, to light the night, and barrage balloons to populate fat and friendly the daybreak—everything, even the explosions in the distances might stay as long as they were to no purpose . . . as long as no one had to die . . . couldn’t it be that way? only excitement, sound and light, a storm approaching in the summer (to live in a world where that would be the day’s excitement . . .), only kind thunder?
Jessica has floated out of herself, up to watch herself watching the night, to hover in widelegged, shoulderpadded white, satin-polished on her nightward surfaces. Until something falls here, close enough to matter, they do have their safety: their thickets of silverblue stalks reaching after dark to touch or sweep clouds, the green-brown masses in uniform, at the ends of afternoons, stone, eyes on the distances, bound in convoy for fronts, for high destinies that have, strangely, so little to do with the two of them here . . . don’t you know there’s a war on, moron? yes but—here’s Jessica in her sister’s hand-me-down pajamas, and Roger asleep in nothing at all, but where is the war?
Until it touch them. Until something falls. A doodle will give time to get to safety, a rocket will hit before they can hear it coming. Biblical, maybe, spooky as an old northern fairy tale, but not The War, not the great struggle of good and evil the wireless reports everyday. And no reason not just to, well, to keep on. . . .
Roger has tried to explain to her the V-bomb statistics: the difference between distribution, in angel’s-eye view, over the map of England, and their own chances, as seen from down here. She’s almost got it: nearly understands his Poisson equation, yet can’t quite put the two together—put her own enforced calm day-to-day alongside the pure numbers, and keep them both in sight. Pieces keep slipping in and out.
“Why is your equation only for angels, Roger? Why can’t we do something, down here? Couldn’t there be an equation for us too, something to help us find a safer place?”
“Why am I surrounded,” his usual understanding self today, “by statistical illiterates? There’s no way, love, not as long as the mean density of strikes is constant. Pointsman doesn’t even understand that.”
The rockets are distributing about London just as Poisson’s equation in the textbooks predicts. As the data keep coming in, Roger looks more and more like a prophet. Psi Section people stare after him in the hallways. It’s not precognition, he wants to make an announcement in the cafeteria or something . . . have I ever pretended to be anything I’m not? all I’m doing is plugging numbers into a well-known equation, you can look it up in the book and do it yourself. . . .
His little bureau is dominated now by a glimmering map, a window into another landscape than winter Sussex, written names and spidering streets, an ink ghost of London, ruled off into 576 squares, a quarter square kilometer each. Rocket strikes are represented by red circles. The Poisson equation will tell, for a number of total hits arbitrarily chosen, how many squares will get none, how many one, two, three, and so on.
An Erlenmeyer flask bubbles on the ring. Blue light goes rattling, reknotting through the seedflow inside the glass. Ancient tatty textbooks and mathematical papers lie scattered about on desk and floor. Somewhere a snapshot of Jessica peeks from beneath Roger’s old Whittaker and Watson. The graying Pavlovian, on route with his tautened gait, thin as a needle, in the mornings to his lab, where dogs wait with cheeks laid open, winter-silver drops welling from each neat raw fistula to fill the wax cup or graduated tube, pauses by Mexico’s open door. The air beyond is blue from cigarettes smoked and as fag-ends later in the freezing black morning shifts resmoked, a stale and loathsome atmosphere. But he must go in, must face the habitual morning cup.
Both know how strange their liaison must look. If ever the Anti-pointsman existed, Roger Mexico is the man. Not so much, the doctor admits, for the psychical research. The young statistician is devoted to number and to method, not table-rapping or wishful thinking. But in the domain of zero to one, not-something to something, Pointsman can only possess the zero and the one. He cannot, like Mexico, survive anyplace in between. Like his master I. P. Pavlov before him, he imagines the cortex of the brain as a mosaic of tiny on/off elements. Some are always in bright excitation, others darkly inhibited. The contours, bright and dark, keep changing. But each point is allowed only the two states: waking or sleep. One or zero. “Summation,” “transition,” “irradiation,” “concentration,” “reciprocal induction”—all Pavlovian brain-mechanics—assumes the presence of these bi-stable points. But to Mexico belongs the domain between zero and one—the middle Pointsman has excluded from his persuasion—the probabilities. A chance of 0.37 that, by the time he stops his count, a given square on his map will have suffered only one hit, 0.17 that it will suffer two. . . .
“Can’t you . . . tell,” Pointsman offering Mexico one of his Kyprinos Orients, which he guards in secret fag fobs sewn inside all his lab coats, “from your map here, which places would be safest to go into, safest from attack?”
“Every square is just as likely to get hit again. The hits aren’t clustering. Mean density is constant.”
Nothing on the map to the contrary. Only a classical Poisson distribution, quietly neatly sifting among the squares exactly as it should . . . growing to its predicted shape. . . .
“But squares that have already had several hits, I mean—”
“I’m sorry. That’s the Monte Carlo Fallacy. No matter how many have fallen inside a particular square, the odds remain the same as they always were. Each hit is independent of all the others. Bombs are not dogs. No link. No memory. No conditioning.”
Nice thing to tell a Pavlovian. Is it Mexico’s usual priggish insensitivity, or does he know what he’s saying? If there is nothing to link the rocket strikes—no reflex arc, no Law of Negative Induction . . . then . . . He goes in to Mexico each morning as to painful surgery. Spooked more and more by the choirboy look, the college pleasantries. But it’s a visit he must make. How can Mexico play, so at his ease, with these symbols of randomness and fright? Innocent as a child, perhaps unaware—perhaps—that in his play he wrecks the elegant rooms of history, threatens the idea of cause and effect itself. What if Mexico’s whole generation have turned out like this? Will Postwar be nothing but “events,” newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?
“The Romans,” Roger and the Reverend Dr. Paul de la Nuit were drunk together one night, or the vicar was, “the ancient Roman priests laid a sieve in the road, and then waited to see which stalks of grass would come up through the holes.”
Roger saw the connection immediately. “I wonder,” reaching for pocket after pocket, why are there never any damned—ah here, “if it would follow a Poisson . . . let’s see . . .”
“Mexico.” Leaning forward, definitely hostile. “They used the stalks that grew through the holes to cure the sick. The sieve was a very sacred item to them. What will you do with the sieve you’ve laid over London? How will you use the things that grow in your network of death?”
“I don’t follow you.” It’s just an equation. . . .
Roger really wants other people to know what he’s talking about. Jessica understands that. When they don’t, his face often grows chalky and clouded, as behind the smudged glass of a railway carriage window as vaguely silvered barriers come down, spaces slide in to separate him that much more, thinning further his loneliness. She knew their very first day, he leaning across to open the Jaguar door and so sure she’d never get in. She saw his loneliness: in his face, between his red nail-bitten hands. . . .
“Well, it isn’t fair.”
“It’s eminently fair,” Roger now cynical, looking very young, she thinks. “Everyone’s equal. Same chances of getting hit. Equal in the eyes of the rocket.”
To which she gives him her Fay Wray look, eyes round as can be, red mouth about to open in a scream, till he has to laugh. “Oh, stop.”
“Sometimes . . .” but what does she want to say? That he must always be lovable, in need of her and never, as now, the hovering statistical cherub who’s never quite been to hell but speaks as if he’s one of the most fallen. . . .
“Cheap nihilism” is Captain Prentice’s name for that. It was one day by the frozen pond near “The White Visitation,” Roger off sucking icicles, lying flat and waving his arms to make angels in the snow, larking.
“Do you mean that he hasn’t paid . . . ,” looking up, up, Pirate’s wind-burned face seeming to end in the sky, her own hair finally in the way of his gray, reserved eyes. He was Roger’s friend, he wasn’t playing or undermining, didn’t know the first thing, she guessed, about such dancing-shoe wars—and anyway didn’t have to, because she was already, terrible flirt . . . well, nothing serious, but those eyes she could never quite see into were so swoony, so utterly terrif, really. . . .
“The more V-2s over there waiting to be fired over here,” Captain Prentice said, “obviously, the better his chances of catching one. Of course you can’t say he’s not paying a minimum dues. But aren’t we all.”
“Well,” Roger nodding when she told him later, eyes out of focus, considering this, “it’s the damned Calvinist insanity again. Payment. Why must they always put it in terms of exchange? What’s Prentice want, another kind of Beveridge Proposal or something? Assign everyone a Bitterness Quotient! lovely—up before the Evaluation Board, so many points earned for being Jewish, in a concentration camp, missing limbs or vital organs, losing a wife, a lover, a close friend—”
“I knew you’d be angry,” she murmured.
“I’m not angry. No. He’s right. It is cheap. All right, but what does he want then—” stalking now this stuffed, dim little parlor, hung about with rigid portraits of favorite gun dogs at point in fields that never existed save in certain fantasies about death, leas more golden as their linseed oil ages, even more autumnal, necropolitical, than prewar hopes—for an end to all change, for a long static afternoon and the grouse forever in blurred takeoff, the sights taking their lead aslant purple hills to pallid sky, the good dog alerted by the eternal scent, the explosion over his head always just about to come—these hopes so patently, defenselessly there that Roger even at his most cheaply nihilistic couldn’t quite bring himself to take the pictures down, turn them to the wallpaper—“what do you all expect from me, working day in day out among raving lunatics,” Jessica sighing oh gosh, curling her pretty legs up into the chair, “they believe in survival after death, communication mind-to-mind, prophesying, clairvoyance, teleportation—they believe, Jess! and—and—” something is blocking his speech. She forgets her annoyance, comes up out of the fat paisley chair to hold him, and how does she know, warm-skirted thighs and mons pushing close to heat and rouse his cock, losing the last of her lipstick across his shirt, muscles, touches, skins confused, high, blooded—know so exactly what Roger meant to say?
Mind-to-mind, tonight up late at the window while he sleeps, lighting another precious cigarette from the coal of the last, filling with a need to cry because she can see so plainly her limits, knows she can never protect him as much as she must—from what may come out of the sky, from what he couldn’t confess that day (creaking snow lanes, arcades of the ice-bearded and bowing trees . . . the wind shook down crystals of snow: purple and orange creatures blooming on her long lashes), and from Mr. Pointsman, and from Pointsman’s . . . his . . . a bleakness whenever she meets him. Scientist-neutrality. Hands that—she shivers. There are chances now for enemy shapes out of the snow and stillness. She drops the blackout curtain. Hands that could as well torture people as dogs and never feel their pain . . .
A skulk of foxes, a cowardice of curs are tonight’s traffic whispering in the yards and lanes. A motorcycle out on the trunk road, snarling cocky as a fighter plane, bypasses the village, heading up to London. The great balloons drift in the sky, pearl-grown, and the air is so still that this morning’s brief snow still clings to the steel cables, white goes twisting peppermint-stick down thousands of feet of night. And the people who might have been asleep in the empty houses here, people blown away, some already forever . . . are they dreaming of cities that shine all over with lamps at night, of Christmases seen again from the vantage of children and not of sheep huddled so vulnerable on their bare hillside, so bleached by the Star’s awful radiance? or of songs so funny, so lovely or true, that they can’t be remembered on waking . . . dreams of peacetime. . . .
“What was it like? Before the war?” She knows she was alive then, a child, but it’s not what she means. Wireless, staticky Frank Bridge Variations a hairbrush for the tangled brain over the BBC Home Service, bottle of Montrachet, a gift from Pirate, cooling at the kitchen window.
“Well, now,” in his cracked old curmudgeon’s voice, palsied hand reaching out to squeeze her breast in the nastiest way he knows, “girly, it depends which war you mean,” and here it comes, ugh, ugh, drool welling at the corner of his lower lip and over and down in a silver string, he’s so clever, he’s practiced all these disgusting little—
“Don’t be ridic, I’m serious, Roger. I don’t remember.” Watches dimples come up either side of his mouth as he considers this, smiling at her in an odd way. It’ll be like this when I’m thirty . . . flash of several children, a garden, a window, voices Mummy, what’s . . . cucumbers and brown onions on a chopping board, wild carrot blossoms sprinkling with brilliant yellow a reach of deep, very green lawn and his voice—
“All I remember is that it was silly. Just overwhelmingly silly. Nothing happened. Oh, Edward VIII abdicated. He fell in love with—”
“I know that, I can read magazines. But what was it like?”
“Just . . . just damned silly, that’s all. Worrying about things that don’t—Jess, can’t you really remember?”
Games, pinafores, girl friends, a black alley kitten with white little feet, holidays all the family by the sea, brine, frying fish, donkey rides, peach taffeta, a boy named Robin . . .
“Nothing that’s really gone, that I can’t ever find again.”
“Oh. Whereas my memories—”
“Yes?” They both smile.
“One took lots of aspirin. One was drinking or drunk much of the time. One was concerned about getting one’s lounge suits to fit properly. One despised the upper classes but tried desperately to behave like them. . . .”
“And one cried wee, wee, wee, all the way—” Jessica breaking down in a giggle as he reaches for the spot along her sweatered flank he knows she can’t bear to be tickled in. She hunches, squirming, out of the way as he rolls past, bouncing off the back of the sofa but making a nice recovery, and by now she’s ticklish all over, he can grab an ankle, elbow—
But a rocket has suddenly struck. A terrific blast quite close beyond the village: the entire fabric of the air, the time, is changed—the casement window blown inward, rebounding with a wood squeak to slam again as all the house still shudders.
Their hearts pound. Eardrums brushed taut by the overpressure ring in pain. The invisible train rushes away close over the rooftop. . . .
They sit still as the painted dogs now, silent, oddly unable to touch. Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.
• • • • • • •
TDY Abreaction Ward
St. Veronica’s Hospital
Bonechapel Gate, E1
The Kenosha Kid
Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Did I ever bother you, ever, for anything, in your life?
Lt. Tyrone Slothrop
Kenosha, Wisc., U.S.A.
few days later
Tyrone Slothrop, Esq.
TDY Abreaction Ward
St. Veronica’s Hospital
Bonechapel Gate, E1
Dear Mr. Slothrop:
You never did.
The Kenosha Kid
(2) Smartass youth: Aw, I did all them old-fashioned dances, I did the “Charleston,” a-and the “Big Apple,” too!
Old veteran hoofer: Bet you never did the “Kenosha,” kid!
(2.1) S.Y.: Shucks, I did all them dances, I did the “Castle Walk,” and I did the “Lindy,” too!
O.V.H.: Bet you never did the “Kenosha Kid.”
(3) Minor employee: Well, he has been avoiding me, and I thought it might be because of the Slothrop Affair. If he somehow held me responsible—
Superior (haughtily): You! never did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you . . .
(3.1) Superior (incredulously): You? Never! Did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you . . .?
(4) And at the end of the mighty day in which he gave us in fiery letters across the sky all the words we’d ever need, words we today enjoy, and fill our dictionaries with, the meek voice of little Tyrone Slothrop, celebrated ever after in tradition and song, ventured to filter upward to the Kid’s attention: “You never did ‘the,’ Kenosha Kid!”
These changes on the text “You never did the Kenosha Kid” are occupying Slothrop’s awareness as the doctor leans in out of the white overhead to wake him and begin the session. The needle slips without pain into the vein just outboard of the hollow in the crook of his elbow: 10% Sodium Amytal, one cc at a time, as needed.
(5) Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.
(6) (The day of the Ascent and sacrifice. A nation-wide observance. Fats searing, blood dripping and burning to a salty brown . . .) You did the Charlottesville shoat, check, the Forest Hills foal, check. (Fading now . . .) The Laredo lamb. Check. Oh-oh. Wait. What’s this, Slothrop? You never did the Kenosha kid. Snap to, Slothrop.
Got a hardon in my fist,
Don’t be pissed,
Jackson, I don’t give a fuck,
Just give me my “ruptured duck!”
No one here can love or comprehend me,
They just look for someplace else to send . . . me . . .
Tap my head and mike my brain,
Stick that needle in my vein,
Slothrop, snap to!
PISCES: We want to talk some more about Boston today, Slothrop. You recall that we were talking last time about the Negroes, in Roxbury. Now we know it’s not all that comfortable for you, but do try, won’t you. Now—where are you, Slothrop? Can you see anything?
Slothrop: Well no, not see exactly . . .
Roaring in by elevated subway, only in Boston, steel and a carbon shroud over the ancient bricks—
Rhy-thm’s got me,
Oh baby dat swing, swing, swing!
Yeah de rhythm got me
Just a-thinkin’ that whole-wide-world-can-sing,
Well I never ever heard-it, sound-so-sweet,
Even down around the corner-on, Ba-sin Street,
As now dat de rhythm’s got me, chillun let’s
Swing, swing, swing,
Come on . . . chillun, let’s . . . swing!
Black faces, white tablecloth, gleaming very sharp knives lined up by the saucers . . . tobacco and “gage” smoke richly blended, eye-reddening and tart as wine, yowzah gwine smoke a little ob dis hyah sheeit gib de wrinkles in mah brain a process! straighten ’em all raht out, sho nuf!
PISCES: That was “sho nuf,” Slothrop?
Slothrop: Come on you guys . . . don’t make it too . . .
White college boys, hollering requests to the “combo” up on the stand. Eastern prep-school voices, pronouncing asshole with a certain sphinctering of the lips so it comes out ehisshehwle . . . they reel, they roister. Aspidistras, giant philodendrons, green broad leaves and jungle palms go hanging into the dimness . . . two bartenders, a very fair West Indian, slight, with a mustache, and his running-mate black as a hand in an evening glove, are moving endlessly in front of the deep, the oceanic mirror that swallows most of the room into metal shadows . . . the hundred bottles hold their light only briefly before it flows away into the mirror . . . even when someone bends to light a cigarette, the flame reflects back in there only as dark, sunset orange. Slothrop can’t even see his own white face. A woman turns to look at him from a table. Her eyes tell him, in the instant, what he is. The mouth harp in his pocket reverts to brass inertia. A weight. A jive accessory. But he packs it everywhere he goes.
Upstairs in the men’s room at the Roseland Ballroom he swoons kneeling over a toilet bowl, vomiting beer, hamburgers, homefries, chef’s salad with French dressing, half a bottle of Moxie, after-dinner mints, a Clark bar, a pound of salted peanuts, and the cherry from some Radcliffe girl’s old-fashioned. With no warning, as tears stream out his eyes, PLOP goes the harp into the, aagghh, the loathsome toilet! Immediate little bubbles slide up its bright flanks, up brown wood surfaces, some varnished some lip-worn, these fine silver seeds stripping loose along the harp’s descent toward stone-white cervix and into lower night. . . . Someday the U.S. Army will provide him with shirts whose pockets he can button. But in these prewar days he can rely only on the starch in his snow-white Arrow to hold the pocket stuck together enough to keep objects from . . . But no, no, fool, the harp has fallen, remember? the low reeds singing an instant on striking porcelain (it’s raining against a window somewhere, and outside on top of a sheet-metal vent on the roof: cold Boston rain) then quenched in the water streaked with the last bile-brown coils of his vomit. There’s no calling it back. Either he lets the harp go, his silver chances of song, or he has to follow.
Follow? Red, the Negro shoeshine boy, waits by his dusty leather seat. The Negroes all over wasted Roxbury wait. Follow? “Cherokee” comes wailing up from the dance floor below, over the hi-hat, the string bass, the thousand sets of feet where moving rose lights suggest not pale Harvard boys and their dates, but a lotta dolled-up redskins. The song playing is one more lie about white crimes. But more musicians have floundered in the channel to “Cherokee” than have got through from end to end. All those long, long notes . . . what’re they up to, all that time to do something inside of? is it an Indian spirit plot? Down in New York, drive fast maybe get there for the last set—on 7th Ave., between 139th and 140th, tonight, “Yardbird” Parker is finding out how he can use the notes at the higher ends of these very chords to break up the melody into have mercy what is it a fucking machine gun or something man he must be out of his mind 32nd notes demisemiquavers say it very (demisemiquaver) fast in a Munchkin voice if you can dig that coming out of Dan Wall’s Chili House and down the street—shit, out in all kinds of streets (his trip, by ’39, well begun: down inside his most affirmative solos honks already the idle, amused dum-de-dumming of old Mister fucking Death he self) out over the airwaves, into the society gigs, someday as far as what seeps out hidden speakers in the city elevators and in all the markets, his bird’s singing, to gainsay the Man’s lullabies, to subvert the groggy wash of the endlessly, gutlessly overdubbed strings. . . . So that prophecy, even up here on rainy Massachusetts Avenue, is beginning these days to work itself out in “Cherokee,” the saxes downstairs getting now into some, oh really weird shit. . . .
If Slothrop follows that harp down the toilet it’ll have to be headfirst, which is not so good, cause it leaves his ass up in the air helpless, and with Negroes around that’s just what a fella doesn’t want, his face down in some fetid unknown darkness and brown fingers, strong and sure, all at once undoing his belt, unbuttoning his fly, strong hands holding his legs apart—and he feels the cold Lysol air on his thighs as down come the boxer shorts too, now, with the colorful bass lures and trout flies on them. He struggles to work himself farther into the toilet hole as dimly, up through the smelly water, comes the sound of a whole dark gang of awful Negroes come yelling happily into the white men’s room, converging on poor wriggling Slothrop, jiving around the way they do singing, “Slip the talcum to me, Malcolm!” And the voice that replies is who but that Red, the shoeshine boy who’s slicked up Slothrop’s black patents a dozen times down on his knees jes poppin’ dat rag to beat the band . . . now Red the very tall, skinny, extravagantly conked redhead Negro shoeshine boy who’s just been “Red” to all the Harvard fellas—“Say Red, any of those Sheiks in the drawer?” “How ’bout another luck-changin’ phone number there, Red?”—this Negro whose true name now halfway down the toilet comes at last to Slothrop’s hearing—as a thick finger with a gob of very slippery jelly or cream comes sliding down the crack now toward his asshole, chevroning the hairs along like topo lines up a river valley—the true name is Malcolm, and all the black cocks know him, Malcolm, have known him all along—Red Malcolm the Unthinkable Nihilist sez, “Good golly he sure is all asshole ain’t he?” Jeepers Slothrop, what a position for you to be in! Even though he has succeeded in getting far enough down now so that only his legs protrude and his buttocks heave and wallow just under the level of the water like pallid domes of ice. Water splashes, cold as the rain outside, up the walls of the white bowl. “Grab him ’fo’ he gits away!” “Yowzah!” Distant hands clutch after his calves and ankles, snap his garters and tug at the argyle sox Mom knitted for him to go to Harvard in, but these insulate so well, or he has progressed so far down the toilet by now, that he can hardly feel the hands at all. . . .
Then he has shaken them off, left the last Negro touch back up there and is free, slick as a fish, with his virgin asshole preserved. Now some folks might say whew, thank God for that, and others moaning a little, aw shucks, but Slothrop doesn’t say much of anything cause he didn’t feel much of anything. A-and there’s still no sign of his lost harp. The light down here is dark gray and rather faint. For some time he has been aware of shit, elaborately crusted along the sides of this ceramic (or by now, iron) tunnel he’s in: shit nothing can flush away, mixed with hard-water minerals into a deliberate brown barnacling of his route, patterns thick with meaning, Burma-Shave signs of the toilet world, icky and sticky, cryptic and glyptic, these shapes loom and pass smoothly as he continues on down the long cloudy waste line, the sounds of “Cherokee” still pulsing very dimly above, playing him to the sea. He finds he can identify certain traces of shit as belonging definitely to this or that Harvard fellow of his acquaintances. Some of it too of course must be Negro shit, but that all looks alike. Hey, here’s that “Gobbler” Biddle, must’ve been the night we all ate chop suey at Fu’s Folly in Cambridge cause there’s bean sprouts around here someplace and even a hint of that wild plum sauce . . . say, certain senses then do seem to grow sharper . . . wow . . . Fu’s Folly, weepers, that was months ago. A-and here’s Dumpster Villard, he was constipated that night, wasn’t he—it’s black shit mean as resin that will someday clarify forever to dark amber. In its blunt, reluctant touches along the wall (which speak the reverse of its own cohesion) he can, uncannily shit-sensitized now, read old agonies inside poor Dumpster, who’d tried suicide last semester: the differential equations that would not weave for him into any elegance, the mother with the low-slung hat and silk knees leaning across Slothrop’s table in Sidney’s Great Yellow Grille to finish for him his bottle of Canadian ale, the Radcliffe girls who evaded him, the black professionals Malcolm touted him on to who dealt him erotic cruelty by the dollar, up to as much as he could take. Or if Mother’s check was late, only afford. Gone away upstream, bas-relief Dumpster lost in the gray light as now Slothrop is going past the sign of Will Stonybloke, of J. Peter Pitt, of Jack Kennedy, the ambassador’s son—say, where the heck is that Jack tonight, anyway? If anybody could’ve saved that harp, betcha Jack could. Slothrop admires him from a distance—he’s athletic, and kind, and one of the most well-liked fellows in Slothrop’s class. Sure is daffy about that history, though. Jack . . . might Jack have kept it from falling, violated gravity somehow? Here, in this passage to the Atlantic, odors of salt, weed, decay washing to him faintly like the sound of breakers, yes it seems Jack might have. For the sake of tunes to be played, millions of possible blues lines, notes to be bent from the official frequencies, bends Slothrop hasn’t really the breath to do . . . not yet but someday . . . well at least if (when . . .) he finds the instrument it’ll be well soaked in, a lot easier to play. A hopeful thought to carry with you down the toilet.
Down the toilet, lookit me,
What a silly thing ta do!
Hope nobody takes a pee,
Yippy dippy dippy doo . . .
At which precise point there comes this godawful surge from up the line, noise growing like a tidal wave, a jam-packed wavefront of shit, vomit, toilet paper and dingleberries in mind-boggling mosaic, rushing down on panicky Slothrop like an MTA subway train on its own hapless victim. Nowhere to run. Paralyzed, he stares back over his shoulder. A looming wall stringing long tendrils of shitpaper behind, the shockwave is on him—GAAHHH! he tries a feeble frog kick at the very last moment but already the cylinder of waste has wiped him out, dark as cold beef gelatin along his upper backbone, the paper snapping up, wrapping across his lips, his nostrils, everything gone and shit-stinking now as he has to keep batting micro-turds out of his eyelashes, it’s worse than being torpedoed by Japs! the brown liquid tearing along, carrying him helpless . . . seems he’s been tumbling ass over teakettle—though there’s no way to tell in this murky shitstorm, no visual references . . . from time to time he will brush against shrubbery, or perhaps small feathery trees. It occurs to him he hasn’t felt the touch of a hard wall since he started to tumble, if that indeed is what he’s doing.
At some point the brown dusk around him has begun to lighten. Like the dawn. Bit by bit his vertigo leaves him. The last wisps of shit-paper, halfway back to slurry, go . . . sad, dissolving, away. An eerie light grows on him, a watery and marbled light he hopes won’t last for long because of what it seems to promise to show. But “contacts” are living in these waste regions. People he knows. Inside shells of old, what seem to be fine-packed masonry ruins—weathered cell after cell, many of them roofless. Wood fires burn in black fireplaces, water simmers in rusty institutional-size lima-bean cans, and the steam goes up the leaky chimneys. And they sit about the worn flagstones, transacting some . . . he can’t place it exactly . . . something vaguely religious. . . . Bedrooms are fully furnished, with lights that turn and glow, velvet hung from walls and ceiling. Down to the last ignored blue bead clogged with dust under the Capehart, the last dried spider and complex ruffling of the carpet’s nap, the intricacy of these dwellings amazes him. It is a place of sheltering from disaster. Not necessarily the flushings of the Toilet—these occur here only as a sort of inferred disturbance, behind this ancient sky, in its corroded evenness of tone—but something else has been terribly at this country, something poor soggy Slothrop cannot see or hear . . . as if there is a Pearl Harbor every morning, smashing invisibly from the sky. . . . He has toilet paper in his hair and a fuzzy thick dingleberry lodged up inside his right nostril. Ugh, ugh. Decline and fall works silently on this landscape. No sun, no moon, only a long smooth sinewaving of the light. It is a Negro dingleberry, he can tell—stubborn as a wintertime booger as he probes for it. His fingernails draw blood. He stands outside all the communal rooms and spaces, outside in his own high-desert morning, a reddish-brown hawk, two, hanging up on an air current to watch the horizon. It’s cold. The wind blows. He can feel only his isolation. They want him inside there but he can’t join them. Something prevents him: once inside, it would be like taking some kind of blood oath. They would never release him. There are no guarantees he might not be asked to do something . . . something so . . .
Now every loose stone, every piece of tinfoil, billet of wood, scrap of kindling or cloth is moving up and down: rising ten feet then dropping again to hit the pavement with a sharp clap. The light is thick and water-green. All down the streets, debris rises and falls in unison, as if at the mercy of some deep, regular wave. It’s difficult to see any distance through the vertical dance. The drumming on the pavement goes for eleven beats, skips a twelfth, begins the cycle over . . . it is the rhythm of some traditional American tune. . . . The streets are all empty of people. It’s either dawn or twilight. Parts of the debris that are metal shine with a hard, nearly blue persistence.
Now don’t you remember Red Malcolm up there,
That kid with the Red Devil Lye in his hair . . .
Here now is Crutchfield or Crouchfield, the westwardman. Not “archetypical” westwardman, but the only. Understand, there was only one. There was only one Indian who ever fought him. Only one fight, one victory, one loss. And only one president, and one assassin, and one election. True. One of each of everything. You had thought of solipsism, and imagined the structure to be populated—on your level—by only, terribly, one. No count on any other levels. But it proves to be not quite that lonely. Sparse, yes, but a good deal better than solitary. One of each of everything’s not so bad. Half an Ark’s better than none. This Crutchfield here is browned by sun, wind and dirt—against the deep brown slats of the barn or stable wall he is wood of a different grain and finish. He is good-humored, solid-set against the purple mountainslope, and looking half into the sun. His shadow is carried strained coarsely back through the network of wood inside the stable—beams, lodgepoles, stall uprights, trough-trestlework, rafters, wood ceiling-slats the sun comes through: blinding empyrean even at this failing hour of the day. There is somebody playing a mouth harp behind an outbuilding—some musical glutton, mouth-sucking giant five-note chords behind the tune of
RED RIVER VALLEY
Down this toilet they say you are flushin’—
Won’tchew light up and set fer a spell?
Cause the toilet it ain’t going nowhar,
And the shit hereabouts shore is swell.
Oh, it’s the Red River all right, if you don’t believe it just ask that “Red,” wherever he may be (tell you what Red means, FDR’s little asshole buddies, they want to take it all away, women all have hair on their legs, give it all to them or they’ll blow it up round black iron in the middle of the night bleeding over Polacks in gray caps okies niggers yeh niggers especially . . .)
Well, back here, Crutchfield’s little pard has just come out of the barn. His little pard of the moment, anyway. Crutchfield has left a string of broken-hearted little pards across this vast alkali plain. One little feeb in South Dakota,
One little hustler in San Berdoo,
One little chink run away from the railroad
With his ass just as yellow as Fu Manchu!
One with the clap and one with a goiter,
One with the terminal lepro-see,
Cripple on the right foot, cripple on the left foot,
Crippled up both feet ’n’ that makes three!
Well one little fairy, even one bull dyke,
One little nigger, one little kike,
One Red Indian with one buffalo,
And a buffalo hunter from New Mexico . . .
And on, and on, one of each of everything, he’s the White Cocksman of the terre mauvais, this Crouchfield, doing it with both sexes and all animals except for rattlesnakes (properly speaking, “rattlesnake,” since there’s only one), but lately seems he’s been havin’ these fantasies about that rattlesnake, too! Fangs just tickling the foreskin . . . the pale mouth open wide, and the horrible joy in the crescent eyes. . . . His little pard of the moment is Whappo, a Norwegian mulatto lad, who has a fetish for horsy paraphernalia, likes to be quirt-whipped inside the sweat-and-leather tackrooms of their wandering, which is three weeks old today, pretty long time for a little pard to’ve lasted. Whappo is wearing chaps of imported gazelle hide that Crutchfield bought for him in Eagle Pass from a faro dealer with a laudanum habit who was crossing the great Rio forever, into the blank furnace of the wild Mexico. Whappo also sports a bandanna of the regulation magenta and green (Crutchfield is supposed to have a closetful of these silken scarves back home at “Rancho Peligroso” and never rides out into the rock-country and riverbed trails without a dozen or two stashed in his saddlebags. This must mean that the one-of-each rule applies only to forms of life, such as little pards, and not to objects, such as bandannas). And Whappo tops off with a high shiny opera hat of Japanese silk. Whappo is quite the dandy this afternoon in fact, as he comes sauntering out from the barn.
“Ah, Crutchfield,” flipping a hand, “how nice of you to show up.”
“You knew I’d show up, you little rascal,” shit that Whappo is such a caution. Always baiting his master in hopes of getting a leather-keen stripe or two across those dusky Afro-Scandinavian buttocks, which combine the callipygian rondure observed among the races of the Dark Continent with the taut and noble musculature of sturdy Olaf, our blond Northern cousin. But this time Crutchfield only turns back to watching the distant mountains. Whappo sulks. His top hat reflects the coming holocaust. What the white man does not have to utter, however casually, is anything like “Toro Rojo’s gonna be riding in tonight.” Both pardners know about that. The wind, bringing them down that raw Injun smell, ought to be enough for anybody. Oh God it’s gonna be a shootout and bloody as hell. The wind will be blowing so hard blood will glaze on the north sides of the trees. The redskin’ll have a dog with him, the only Indian dog in these whole ashen plains—the cur will mix it up with little Whappo and end hung on the meathook of an open meat stall in the dirt plaza back in Los Madres, eyes wide open, mangy coat still intact, black fleas hopping against the sunlit mortar and stone of the church wall across the square, blood darkened and crusting at the lesion in his neck where Whappo’s teeth severed his jugular (and maybe some tendons, for the head dangles to one side). The hook enters in the back, between two vertebrae. Mexican ladies poke at the dead dog, and it sways reluctantly in the forenoon market-smell of platanos for frying, sweet baby carrots from the Red River Valley, trampled raw greens of many kinds, cilantro smelling like animal musk, strong white onions, pineapples fermenting in the sun, about to blow up, great mottled shelves of mountain mushroom. Slothrop moves among the bins and hung cloths, invisible, among horses and dogs, pigs, brown-uniformed militia, Indian women with babies slung in shawls, servants from the pastel houses farther up the hillside—the plaza is seething with life, and Slothrop is puzzled. Isn’t there supposed to be only one of each?
Q. Then one Indian girl . . .
A. One pure Indian. One mestiza. One criolla. Then: one Yaqui. One Navaho. One Apache—
Q. Wait a minute, there was only one Indian to begin with. The one that Crutchfield killed.
Look on it as an optimization problem. The country can best support only one of each.
Q. Then what about all the others? Boston. London. The ones who live in cities. Are those people real, or what?
A. Some are real, and some aren’t.
Q. Well are the real ones necessary? or unnecessary?
A. It depends what you have in mind.
Q. Shit, I don’t have anything in mind.
A. We do.
For a moment, ten thousand stiffs humped under the snow in the Ardennes take on the sunny Disneyfied look of numbered babies under white wool blankets, waiting to be sent to blessed parents in places like Newton Upper Falls. It only lasts a moment. Then for another moment it seems that all the Christmas bells in the creation are about to join in chorus—that all their random pealing will be, this one time, coordinated, in harmony, present with tidings of explicit comfort, feasible joy.
But segway into the Roxbury hillside. Snow packs into the arches, the crosshatchings of his black rubber soles. His Ar’tics clink when he moves his feet. The snow in this slum darkness has the appearance of soot in a negative . . . it flows in and out of the night. . . . The brick surfaces by daylight (he only sees them in very early dawn, aching inside his overshoes, looking for cabs up and down the Hill) are flaming corrosion, dense, deep, fallen upon by frosts again and again: historied in a way he hasn’t noticed in Beacon Street. . . .
In the shadows, black and white holding in a panda-pattern across his face, each of the regions a growth or mass of scar tissue, waits the connection he’s traveled all this way to see. The face is as weak as a house-dog’s, and its owner shrugs a lot.
Slothrop: Where is he? Why didn’t he show? Who are you?
Voice: The Kid got busted. And you know me, Slothrop. Remember? I’m Never.
Slothrop (peering): You, Never? (A pause.) Did the Kenosha Kid?
• • • • • • •
“Kryptosam” is a proprietary form of stabilized tyrosine, developed by IG Farben as part of a research contract with OKW. An activating agent is included which, in the presence of some component of the seminal fluid to date  unidentified, promotes conversion of the tyrosine into melanin, or skin pigment. In the absence of seminal fluid, the “Kryptosam” remains invisible. No other known reagent, among those available to operatives in the field, will alter “Kryptosam” to visible melanin. It is suggested, in cryptographic applications, that a proper stimulus be included with the message which will reliably produce tumescence and ejaculation. A thorough knowledge of the addressee’s psychosexual profile would seem of invaluable aid.
—PROF. DR. LASZLO JAMF, “Kryptosam” (advertising brochure), Agfa, Berlin, 1934
The drawing, on heavy cream paper under the black-letter inscription GEHEIME KOMMANDOSACHE, is in pen and ink, very finely textured, somewhat after the style of von Bayros or Beardsley. The woman is a dead ringer for Scorpia Mossmoon. The room is one they talked about but never saw, a room they would have liked to live in one day, with a sunken pool, a silken tent draped from the ceiling—a De Mille set really, slender and oiled girls in attendance, a suggestion of midday light coming through from overhead, Scorpia sprawled among fat pillows wearing exactly the corselette of Belgian lace, the dark stockings and shoes he daydreamed about often enough but never—
No, of course he never told her. He never told anyone. Like every young man growing up in England, he was conditioned to get a hardon in the presence of certain fetishes, and then conditioned to feel shame about his new reflexes. Could there be, somewhere, a dossier, could They (They?) somehow have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty . . . how else would They know?
“Hush,” she whispers. Her fingers stroke lightly her long olive thighs, bare breasts swell from the top of her garment. Her face is toward the ceiling, but her eyes are looking into Pirate’s own, long, narrow with lust, two points of light glittering through the thick lashes . . . “I’ll leave him. We’ll come here and live. We’ll never stop making love. I belong to you, I’ve known that for a long time. . . .” Her tongue licks out over her little sharpened teeth. Her furry quim is at the center of all the light, and there is a taste in his mouth he would feel again. . . .
Well, Pirate nearly doesn’t make it, barely gets his cock out of his trousers before he’s spurting all over the place. Enough sperm saved, though, to rub over the blank scrap enclosed with the picture. Slowly then, a revelation through the nacreous film of his seed, in Negro-brown, comes his message: put in a simple Nihilist transposition whose keywords he can almost guess. Most of it he does in his head. There is a time given, a place, a request for help. He burns the message, fallen on him from higher than Earth’s atmosphere, salvaged from Earth’s prime meridian, keeps the picture, hmm, and washes his hands. His prostate is aching. There is more to this than he can see. He has no recourse, no appeal: he has to go over there and bring the operative out again. The message is tantamount to an order from the highest levels.
Far away, through the rain, comes the crack-blast of another German rocket. The third today. They hunt the sky like Wuotan and his mad army.
Pirate’s own robot hands begin to search drawers and folders for necessary vouchers and forms. No sleep tonight. Probably no chance even to catch a cup or cigarette on route. Why?
• • • • • • •
In Germany, as the end draws upon us, the incessant walls read WAS TUST DU FÜR DIE FRONT, FÜR DEN SIEG? WAS HAST DU HEUTE FÜR DEUTSCHLAND GETAN? At “The White Visitation” the walls read ice. Graffiti of ice the sunless day, glazing the darkening blood brick and terra cotta as if the house is to be preserved weatherless in some skin of clear museum plastic, an architectural document, an old-fashioned apparatus whose use is forgotten. Ice of varying thickness, wavy, blurred, a legend to be deciphered by lords of the winter, Glacists of the region, and argued over in their journals. Uphill, toward the sea, snow gathers like light at all windward edges of the ancient Abbey, its roof long ago taken at the manic whim of Henry VIII, its walls left to stand and mitigate with saintless window-hollows the salt wind, blowing as the seasons replay the grass floor in great cowlicks, green to blonde, to snow. From the Palladian house down in its resentful and twilit hollow this is the only view: the Abbey or else gentle, broadly mottled swoops of upland. View of the sea denied, though certain days and tides you can smell it, all your vile ancestry. In 1925 Reg Le Froyd, an inmate at “The White Visitation,” escaped—rushed through the upper town to stand teetering at the edge of the cliff, hair and hospital garment flickering in the wind, the swaying miles of south coast, pallid chalk, jetties and promenades fading right and left into brine haze. After him came a Constable Stuggles, at the head of a curious crowd. “Don’t jump!” cries the constable.
“I never thought of that,” Le Froyd continuing to stare out to sea.
“Then what are you doing here. Eh?”
“Wanted to look at the sea,” Le Froyd explains. “I’ve never seen it. I am, you know, related, by blood, to the sea.”
“Oh aye,” sly Stuggles edging up on him all the while, “visiting your relatives are you, how nice.”
“I can hear the Lord of the Sea,” cries Le Froyd, in wonder.
“Dear me, and what’s his name?” Both of them wetfaced, shouting for the wind.
“Oh, I don’t know,” yells Le Froyd, “what would be a good name?”
“Bert,” suggests the constable, trying to remember if it’s right hand grasps left arm above elbow or left hand grasps . . .
Le Froyd turns, and for the first time sees the man, and the crowd. His eyes grow round and mild. “Bert is fine,” he says, and steps back into the void.
That’s all the townsfolk of Ick Regis had from “The White Visitation” in the way of relief—from summers of staring at the pink or sun-freckled overflow from Brighton, Flotsam and Jetsam casting each day of wireless history into song, sunsets on the promenade, lens openings forever changing for the sea light, blown now brisk, now sedate about the sky, aspirins for sleep—only Le Froyd’s leap, that single entertainment, up till the outbreak of this war.
At the defeat of Poland, ministerial motorcades were suddenly observed at all hours of the night, putting in at “The White Visitation,” silent as sloops, exhausts well muffled—chromeless black machinery that shone if there were starlight, and otherwise enjoyed the camouflage of a face about to be remembered, but through the act of memory fading too far. . . . Then at the fall of Paris, a radio transmitting station was set up on the cliff, antennas aimed at the Continent, themselves heavily guarded and their landlines back mysteriously over the downs to the house patrolled night and day by dogs specially betrayed, belted, starved into reflex leaps to kill, at any human approach. Had one of the Very High gone higher—that is, dotty? Was Our Side seeking to demoralize the German Beast by broadcasting to him random thoughts of the mad, naming for him, also in the tradition of Constable Stuggles that famous day, the deep, the scarcely seen? The answer is yes, all of the above, and more.
Ask them at “The White Visitation” about the master plan of the BBC’s eloquent Myron Grunton, whose melted-toffee voice has been finding its way for years out the fraying rust bouclé of the wireless speakers and into English dreams, foggy old heads, children at the edges of attention. . . . He’s had to keep putting his plan off, at first only a voice alone, lacking the data he really needed, no support, trying to get at the German soul from whatever came to hand, P/W interrogations, Foreign Office Handbooks, the brothers Grimm, tourist memories of his own (young sleepless Dawes-era flashes, vineyards sunlit very green bearding the south valley-slopes of the Rhine, at night in the smoke and worsted cabarets of the capital long frilled suspenders like rows of carnations, silk stockings highlighted each in one long fine crosshatching of light . . .). But at last the Americans came in, and the arrangement known as SHAEF, and an amazing amount of money.
The scheme is called Operation Black Wing. My what a careful construction, five years in the making. No one could claim it all as his own, not even Grunton. It was General Eisenhower who laid down the controlling guideline, the “strategy of truth” idea. Something “real,” Ike insisted on: a hook on the war’s pocked execution-wall to hang the story from. Pirate Prentice of the S.O.E. came back with the first hard intelligence that there were indeed in Germany real Africans, Hereros, ex-colonials from South-West Africa, somehow active in the secret-weapons program. Myron Grunton, inspired, produced on the air one night completely ad lib the passage that found its way into the first Black Wing directive: “Germany once treated its Africans like a stern but loving stepfather, chastising them when necessary, often with death. Remember? But that was far away in Südwest, and since then a generation has gone by. Now the Herero lives in his stepfather’s house. Perhaps you, listening, have seen him. Now he stays up past the curfews, and watches his stepfather while he sleeps, invisible, protected by the night which is his own colour. What are they all thinking? Where are the Hereros tonight? What are they doing, this instant, your dark, secret children?” And Black Wing has even found an American, a Lieutenant Slothrop, willing to go under light narcosis to help illuminate racial problems in his own country. An invaluable extra dimension. Toward the end, as more foreign morale data began to come back—Yank pollsters with clipboards and squeaky new shoe-pacs or galoshes visiting snow-softened liberated ruins to root out the truffles of truth created, as ancients surmised, during storm, in the instant of lightning blast—a contact in American PWD was able to bootleg copies and make them available to “The White Visitation.” No one is sure who suggested the name “Schwarzkommando.” Myron Grunton had favored “Wütende Heer,” that company of spirits who ride the heaths of the sky in furious hunt, with great Wuotan at their head—but Myron agreed that was more a northern myth. Effectiveness in Bavaria might be less than optimum.
They all talk effectiveness, an American heresy, perhaps overmuch at “The White Visitation.” Loudest of all, usually, is Mr. Pointsman, often using for ammo statistics provided him by Roger Mexico. By the time of the Normandy landing, Pointsman’s season of despair was well upon him. He came to understand that the great continental pincers was to be, after all, a success. That this war, this State he’d come to feel himself a citizen of, was to be adjourned and reconstituted as a peace—and that, professionally speaking, he’d hardly got a thing out of it. With funding available for all manner of radars, magic torpedoes, aircraft and missiles, where was Pointsman in the scheme of things? He’d had a moment’s stewardship, that was all: his Abreaction Research Facility (ARF), early on snaring himself a dozen underlings, dog trainer from the variety stage, veterinary student or two, even a major prize, the refugee Dr. Porkyevitch, who worked with Pavlov himself at the Koltushy institute, back before the purge trials. Together the ARF team receive, number, weigh, classify by Hippocratic temperament, cage, and presently experiment on as many as a dozen fresh dogs a week. And there are one’s colleagues, co-owners of The Book, all now—all those left of the original seven—working in hospitals handling the battle-fatigued and shell-shocked back from across the Channel, and the bomb- or rocket-happy this side. They get to watch more abreactions, during these days of heavy V-bombardment, than doctors of an earlier day were apt to see in several lifetimes, and they are able to suggest ever new lines of inquiry. P.W.E. allows a stingy dribble of money, desperate paper whispering down the corporate lattice, enough to get by on, enough that ARF remains a colony to the metropolitan war, but not enough for nationhood. . . . Mexico’s statisticians chart for it drops of saliva, body weights, voltages, sound levels, metronome frequencies, bromide dosages, number of afferent nerves cut, percentages of brain tissue removed, dates and hours of numbing, deafening, blinding, castration. Support even comes from Psi Section, a colony dégagé and docile, with no secular aspirations at all.
Old Brigadier Pudding can live with this spiritualist gang well enough, he’s tendencies himself in that direction. But Ned Pointsman, with his constant scheming after more money—Pudding can only stare back at the man, try to be civil. Not as tall as his father, certainly not as wholesome looking. Father was M.O. in Thunder Prodd’s regiment, caught a bit of shrapnel in the thigh at Polygon Wood, lay silent for seven hours before they, without a word before, in that mud, that terrible smell, in, yes Polygon Wood . . . or was that—who was the ginger-haired chap who slept with his hat on? ahhh, come back. Now Polygon Wood . . . but it’s fluttering away. Fallen trees, dead, smooth gray, swirlinggrainoftreelikefrozensmoke . . . ginger . . . thunder . . . no use, no bleeding use, it’s gone, another gone, another, oh dear . . .
The old Brigadier’s age is uncertain, though he must be pushing 80—reactivated in 1940, set down in a new space not only of battlefield—where the front each day or hour changes like a noose, like the gold-lit borders of consciousness (perhaps, though it oughtn’t to get too sinister here, exactly like them . . . better, then, “like a noose”)—but also of the War-state itself, its very structure. Pudding finds himself wondering, at times aloud and in the presence of subordinates, what enemy disliked him enough to assign him to Political Warfare. One is supposed to be operating in concert—yet too often in amazing dissonance—with other named areas of the War, colonies of that Mother City mapped wherever the enterprise is systematic death: P.W.E. laps over onto the Ministry of Information, the BBC European Service, the Special Operations Executive, the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and the F.O. Political Intelligence Department at Fitzmaurice House. Among others. When the Americans came in, their OSS, OWI, and Army Psychological Warfare Department had also to be coordinated with. Presently there arose the joint, SHAEF Psychological Warfare Division (PWD), reporting direct to Eisenhower, and to hold it all together a London Propaganda Coordinating Council, which has no real power at all.
Who can find his way about this lush maze of initials, arrows solid and dotted, boxes big and small, names printed and memorized? Not Ernest Pudding—that’s for the New Chaps with their little green antennas out for the usable emanations of power, versed in American politics (knowing the difference between the New Dealers of OWI and the eastern and moneyed Republicans behind OSS), keeping brain-dossiers on latencies, weaknesses, tea-taking habits, erogenous zones of all, all who might someday be useful.
Ernest Pudding was brought up to believe in a literal Chain of Command, as clergymen of earlier centuries believed in the Chain of Being. The newer geometries confuse him. His greatest triumph on the battlefield came in 1917, in the gassy, Armageddonite filth of the Ypres salient, where he conquered a bight of no man’s land some 40 yards at its deepest, with a wastage of only 70% of his unit. He was pensioned off around the beginning of the Great Depression—went to sit in the study of an empty house in Devon, surrounded by photos of old comrades, none of whose gazes quite met one’s own, there to go at a spot of combinatorial analysis, that favorite pastime of retired Army officers, with a rattling intense devotion.