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Chapter Eight

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« on: July 29, 2023, 01:23:04 am »

THE last day had come. Orvil woke up and realized this with a terrible cold deadness. The things in the room had changed; the wardrobe, the chest of drawers, the chairs had souls. Deep down in their evil souls they waited, knowing that he had to go back to school. They were quite still and watching, not caring at all, only waiting frigidly to have the room to themselves again. Even the eiderdown stored evil knowledge.

Orvil got out his black school clothes. There was horror in their colour as there is in a black comb which conceals grease from some tainted scalp.

He started to fasten the white collar round his neck. It was tight, and he pinched the delicate flesh at the base of his throat between the stiff little wings of linen. He winced, then did it again and again, until he had raised a deep purple blister.

‘Vampire bats fasten on your throat and suck till they’ve made a place like that,’ he thought. ‘If I knew a vampire bat, I’d give it my throat and let it suck all my blood away.’

He squared his mouth and made despairing faces in the glass. He let out a shuddering sigh and continued to do so long after the first impulse had died.

Ben was still lying in bed, seemingly quite unperturbed.

Orvil looked once more in all the corners of the cupboards and drawers, then went down to breakfast alone.

He felt sick but he made himself eat porridge and cream. The curious hotel castor sugar grated on his tongue, and the richness of the cream was disgustingly animal. He left the porridge half finished and went out into the gardens.

Down by the lake the swans were lifting up their wings and beating them about angrily. Some of the pink andwhite geraniums in the urns on the terrace were beginning to turn brown. Orvil picked the tenderest, smallest leaves until his fingers were soaked in their lemon smell.

As he walked through the pets’ cemetery and the dingle he said aloud, “Good-bye cottage, grotto, tombstones, everything.” He began to recite gibberish verses, improvised on the spot.

   “At the holy sacramental college
    No one bothers about knowledge.
    They make smells in ink wells,
    And feed baby goats
    From enamel sauce-boats.”

At first, he gave each line a certain amount of thought before declaiming it, but soon the poem became an unintelligible stream of made-up words. There was no longer any attempt at facetiousness.

   “Magatena mediatu,
    Faesa intello con sura do
    Ren le tenango supramer

The rhythm lulled him. He began to run, craving for the soothing effect of that motion too.

He came out of the bushes on to the drive in front of the hotel. People stared at him, not having seen him in his dark clothes before.

He went into the court and found his father standing by the luggage. Ben had gone up to say good-bye to Charles, who was still in bed; but Orvil swore that he would not go near him. He thought of Charles lying frowsty in the bed, his eyes bloated with sleep. If Charles got up and suddenly came into the court, he felt that he would spit.

Ben came down and they got into the car. As they drove up to London, Orvil stared dully out of the window, while Mr. Pym and Ben talked about slipped cartilages.

“Where would you like to have lunch?” Mr. Pym asked suddenly. “It’s your last day, so choose anywhere you like.”

“I should like to go to the Ritz Hotel; I’ve never been there,” said Orvil sharply. He tried to concentrate his whole mind on having lunch at the Ritz. He thought that he might bear the day a little better if he shut his mind to everything else.

Ben, who had been to the Ritz, would like to have gone somewhere a little more adventurous and experimental, but he saw how determined Orvil was and gave in to him willingly. He never minded falling in with other people’s plans.

They stopped outside the Piccadilly entrance, and after Mr. Pym had taken them up to the cloakroom to wash, he ordered them both dry martini cocktails, instead of plain orange or tomato juice. Orvil ate three black olives and put salted almonds one after another into his mouth.

In spite of all his efforts, he could not stop thinking of school: the iron beds like black enamelled skeletons, the meat-red horse blankets in the Sanatorium, the masters with a snow of scurf on the shoulders of their ancient gowns, the rather grotesque beauty of the mid-Victorian stained glass in the great hall.

Everything had a demonish quality of unreality, a sort of pasteboard attempt at horror.

He tried to think of sober things: the mealy boiled potatoes at lunch, the one surviving arch of the ruined priory gatehouse, the empty swimming-bath in winter where the dead leaves chased each othej.

But the bizarre things won; they trampled the others under foot and seemed to grow in extravagance.

Across the valley, Orvil heard the trains shunting. It was midnight; he was lying in his bed at school. The whistles blew faintly. He heard the clash of the couplings.

Then suddenly he had a vision of the river flowing swiftly beneath the old toll-bridge. It was swollen with the filth of ten thousand cities. The filth curled into marbled patterns, streaked into horrible arabesques . . .

“Shall we go in and have lunch?” asked Mr. Pym, thinking that one cocktail each was quite enough for his sons, although he would have liked another himself. He stood up and led them into the dining-room.

They were able to sit at a table looking on to the Green Park. It was very early and there was only one other diner in the room. He was eating a gluttonous dish of minced chicken on which sat a poached egg trimmed with perfect rings of onion. It was not the sort of dish that Orvil had expected to see at the Ritz, and he stared at it. Then, with some curious reversion to childhood, he pointed his finger at the man’s plate and said to his father in a loud voice, “I want that.”

At the bald words, the lonely diner instinctively held the edge of his plate. It was as if he imagined that it would be taken from him. Ben frowned repressively at Orvil, then, with a supercilious expansion of the nostrils, he turned away.

Orvil likened the grey colour of the silent room to a plate piled high with cooked brains. It was woolly, a little disgusting, an outrage.

Orvil’s smile cracked. He found that he had to reconstruct it every few seconds now. His father teased him, tried to brighten him, pressed him to eat.

The chocolate gateau, soaking with richness, was wheeled up to him on a trolley. There was a churning inside Orvil. He had the fear of sickness before him. He saw the foreign waiters falling into baroque excessive poses, their faces twisted into exaggerated expressions of horror and disgust.

“I will have preserved ginger,” he said, remembering that he had once been told that Confucius advised everyone to eat ginger after meals.

Orvil watched his father paying the bill. He wanted to snatch the notes off the plate and run with them until he came to a ’bus. He would climb on top of the ’bus and ride in front till he came to the sea-coast. A barge would be waiting there for him. It would be like Cleopatra’s barge, all golden, with feather fans and music. And he would swim out to this barge and they would draw up the anchor at once and sail with him thousands of miles, until at last they came to an extraordinary island of ruined temples. There they would put him on shore, and he would build a hermitage in a corner of one of the ruined temples. It would be made of bricks set between the marble drums of the colonnade. He felt the rough mealy bricks and the chipped marble, stained gold as if iron water had been pouring over it. He saw the feathery bones of his last sardine meal, and the jug of goat’s milk, brought to him by a peasant. He would be a hermit for ever . . .

Now they were walking out of the door of the Rift and getting back into the car. They swept along to the railway station. Orvil could no longer mask his face. His mouth sagged, his eyes glittered. His face felt as if it had been bathed in the hot air above a radiator; his eyes, his throat, his nostrils, all felt harsh and dusty.

“Well, Microbe, you don’t seem very keen to go back,” Mr. Pym said lightly, trying to ease the tension.

Orvil shook his head violently and gave a skeleton smile.

On the platform many boys had already collected. Mr. Pym stood by the window and said good-bye to his sons. He managed to be both quizzical and hearty together. Ben talked like a sporting business man. Orvil darted his head from side to side as if he were expecting some last-minute rescue by supernatural beings, either angels or demons.

The train began to move. Mr. Pym smiled secretively, waved his hand once, then turned his back.

The whole coach seemed humming with boys. They stood in the corridor smoking Egyptian, Turkish, Mexican, American, French, Spanish, Gold Flake cigarettes. They kept offering their cases to one another, both to show off the sumptuousness of the cases and to get rid of as many cigarettes as possible before reaching school.

Orvil sat in a corner seat and turned his face away from everything. He was wondering how he was able to sit there and bear it. He thought of himself as twenty-five instead of fifteen. From the distance of ten years, he was looking back at himself, miserable in the railway carriage. He would be able to laugh then, to shake his head and treat it all lightly as nothing. He tried to soar higher and higher, until he was perching on the pinnacle of a church steeple and looking down at the whole panorama of his life and seeing it lightly, as nothing. There was no pain or pleasure, only nothing.

Whenever anyone spoke to him or touched him, he smiled automatically and found his anxiety frothing out of him in the form of a rather grisly fun. Then the spasm would die and his colour drain away. He would suddenly feel holy, sanctified, consecrated to God, a noble martyr about to face some terrible ordeal calmly.

The door of the compartment opened and Woods came in. Woods had been head of his dormitory last term. When he saw Orvil, he put on his stage villain’s face, twirled an imaginary moustache and exclaimed “Ha, ha!” Sitting down beside him and pretending that Orvil was a ravishing milkmaid, he leered in his seducer’s voice, “Well, and how are you, my dear?” This burlesquing of old-fashioned melodrama was one of his special tricks. He loved to play with Orvil in this way.

Masterfully he sat Orvil on his knee, and everyone laughed. He bounced him up and down, chanting ‘Ride a cock-horse.’ Orvil looked round wildly and saw that Ben was not in the compartment. He supposed that he had gone to the Pullman car or the lavatory. A nervous tremor passed through Orvil and he sneezed. Woods rocked him to and fro and recited, “Speak roughly to your little boy!” At the end of each line he gave Orvil a frolicsome smack, pinch, tweak or punch. Orvil flinched but said nothing. Woods had not really hurt him. He was only playing.

Woods took out his blunt-nosed nail scissors, bent Orvil back and said, “Shut your eyes and keep still; I’m going to trim your eyelashes so that they’ll grow much longer and you’ll be able to get a job on the films. You ought to be very grateful to me for taking so much trouble. I’m like a mother to my boys!”

As Orvil lay back in Woods’s arms, he jerked his head from side to side, panic growing in him.

“Keep still!” shouted Woods; “or the point will go right into your eye.”

Somebody called Woods a dirty old sod, another called him a great turd; but it made no difference. Everyone knew that he was only playing with Orvil.

Suddenly Orvil went still as death, for he knew that Woods meant to trim his eyelashes.

He felt the crisp cut, then darted his hand up and touched the hairs, once soft and long, now turned into a wiry little tooth-brush. The change fascinated him; he kept running his finger along the tips of the cut lashes.

Woods bent him back again to do the other eye, but Orvil leapt in his arms like a fish and landed on the floor.

Woods picked him up and said, “All right, we’ll leave the other eye, but I must look at your finger-nails; they’ll probably need a lot of attention.” He uncurled one of Orvil’s hands and held up each finger in turn. “Yes, they must be trimmed---clipped, not cut,” he said industriously.

He got out his pocket-knife, which had a clipper at one end, also a spiked instrument for getting stones out of horses’ hooves.

For some reason, the sight of the clipper terrified Orvil. The stumpy thickness of it was sickening.

Woods held up a finger and poised the clippers above it. The soft pink pad at the end of the finger flushed as he pinched the flesh below.

Orvil waited in a trance of horror. He saw the Great Big-Scissor Man, the Drops of Blood, The Severed Thumbs.

Slowly Woods brought the clippers nearer and nearer until they were touching the nail.

Orvil knew that in a moment the jaws would open and snip off the pink tip of his finger, as a knife cleanly decapitates a boiled egg.

The strain was so great that a string seemed to snap in him. Suddenly he began to scream. The sound was piercing, like steam escaping. He kept utterly still on Woods’s knee and let out this scream. He was a clockwork doll wound to its fullest extent.

The people in the carriage looked at him with blank faces.

And as Orvil screamed he knew that he could not stop, that he had been working up to this scream all his life. Through his madness spoke these very clear thoughts, ‘Now they’ll never touch you again. You can be mad for the rest of your life, and they’ll leave you alone.’

Ben, hearing the screams, came back into the compartment. He saw Orvil on Woods’s knee and pulled him off at once; then he calmly hit Woods in the face, and when his head jerked back, gave him an unscrupulous kick between the legs, as if to punish his behaviour poetically.

Woods doubled up and groaned in real agony. His face turned yellow-green and became shiny with sweat.

Other people in the compartment felt that Ben had gone too far. They reprimanded him primly and severely for his criminal kick. He took no notice of them at all, but went over to Orvil, looking rather superb and arrogant. He stood over him, saying nothing, not even looking down, waiting for Orvil to calm himself. He was so furiously angry that his jaw shook, although he was clenching his teeth together.

Orvil clutched his arm and began to mouth and gibber like a monkey. He kept up this half-simulated madness for several minutes; until the impulse and his determination died in him. He saw with bitterness that he would have to control himself if only for Ben’s sake. Ben’s prestige suddenly appeared of an enormous and swollen importance to him. He must not endanger it any more. He must try to obliterate what had happened. With a gruesome clearness he saw that nothing changed. It was still necessary to behave in the ordinary way.

And so Orvil smiled on everyone, kept the comfortable well-fed smile on his face, fixed it there and let it broaden, while the train skimmed and trembled over the lines back to school.

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