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Authors: Christopher Isherwood

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BOOK: A Single Man
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Jim used to moan and complain and raise hell over a head-cold, a cut finger, a pile. But Jim was lucky at the end; the only time when luck really counts. The truck hit his car just right; he never felt it. And they never got him into a place like this one. His smashed leavings were of no use to them for their rituals.

Doris’s room is on the top floor. The hallway is deserted, for the moment, and the door stands open with a screen hiding the bed. George peeps over the top of the screen before going in. Doris is lying with her face toward the window.

George has gotten quite accustomed by now to the way she looks. It isn’t even horrible to him any more, because he has lost his sense of a transformation. Doris no longer seems changed. She is a different creature altogether; this yellow shrivelled manikin with its sticks of
arms and legs, withered flesh and hollow belly, making angular outlines under the sheet. What has it to do with that big arrogant animal of a girl? With that body which sprawled stark naked, gaping wide in shameless demand, underneath Jim’s naked body? Gross insucking vulva, sly ruthless greedy flesh, in all the bloom and gloss and arrogant resilience of youth, demanding that George shall step aside, bow down and yield to the female prerogative, hide his unnatural head in shame. I am Doris. I am Woman. I am Bitch-Mother Nature. The Church and the Law and the State exist to support me. I claim my biological rights. I demand Jim.

George has sometimes asked himself: Would I ever, even in those days, have wished this on her?

The answer is No. Not because George would be incapable of such fiendishness; but because Doris, then, was infinitely more than Doris, was Woman the Enemy, claiming Jim for herself. No use destroying Doris, or ten thousand Dorises, as long as Woman triumphs. Woman could only be fought by yielding, by letting Jim go away with her on that trip to Mexico. By urging him to satisfy all his curiosity and flattered vanity and lust (vanity, mostly) on the gamble that he would return (as he did) saying
she’s disgusting
, saying
never again
.

And wouldn’t you be twice as disgusted, Jim, if you could see her now? Wouldn’t you feel a crawling horror to think that maybe, even then, her body you fondled and kissed hungrily and entered with your aroused flesh already held seeds of this rottenness? You used to bathe the sores on cats so gently and you never minded the stink of old diseased dogs; yet you had a horror, in spite of yourself, of human sickness and people who were
crippled. I know something, Jim. I feel certain of it. You’d refuse absolutely to visit her here. You wouldn’t be able to force yourself to do it.

George walks around the screen and into the room, making just the necessary amount of noise. Doris turns her head and sees him, seemingly without surprise. Probably, for her, the line between reality and hallucination is getting very thin. Figures keep appearing, disappearing. If one of them sticks you with a needle, then you can be sure it actually
is
a nurse. George may be George or, again, he may not. For convenience she will treat him as George. Why not? What does it matter, either way?

‘Hello,’ she says. Her eyes are a wild brilliant blue in her sick yellow face.

‘Hello, Doris.’

A good while since, George has stopped bringing her flowers or other gifts. There is nothing of any significance he can bring into this room from the outside, now; even himself. Everything that matters to her is now right here in this room, where she is absorbed in the business of dying. Her preoccupation doesn’t seem egotistic, however; it does not exclude George or anyone else who cares to share in it. This preoccupation is with death, and we can all share in that, at any time, at any age, well or ill.

George sits down beside her now and takes her hand. If he had done this even two months ago, it would have been loathsomely false. (One of his most bitterly shameful memories is of a time he kissed her cheek – was it aggression, masochism? oh, damn all such words! – right after he found out she’d been to bed with Jim. Jim was there when it happened. When George moved toward
her to kiss her, Jim’s eyes looked startled and scared, as if he feared George was about to bite her like a snake.) But now taking Doris’s hand isn’t false, isn’t even an act of compassion. It is necessary – he has discovered this on previous visits – in order to establish even partial contact. And, holding her hand, he feels less embarrassed by her sickness; for the gesture means,
we are on the same road, I shall follow you soon
. He is thus excused from having to ask those ghastly sickroom questions, how are you? how’s it going? how do you feel?

Doris smiles faintly. Is it because she’s pleased that he has come?

No. She is smiling with amusement, it seems. Speaking low but very distinctly, she says, ‘I made such a noise, yesterday.’

George smiles too, waiting for the joke.


Was
it yesterday?’ This is in the same tone, but addressed to herself. Her eyes no longer see him; they look bewildered and a bit scared. Time must have become a very odd kind of mirror-maze for her, now; and mazes can change, at any instant, from being funny to being frightening.

But now the eyes are aware of him again; the bewilderment has passed. ‘I was screaming. They heard me clear down the hall. They had to fetch the doctor.’ Doris smiles. This, apparently, is the joke.

‘Was it your back?’ George asks. The effort to keep sympathy out of his voice makes him speak primly, like someone who is trying to suppress an ungentlemanly native accent. But Doris disregards the question – she is off in some new direction of her own, frowning a little. She asks abruptly, ‘What time is it?’

‘Nearly three.’

There is a long silence. George feels a terrible need to say something, anything:

‘I was out on the pier the other day. I hadn’t been there in ages. And, do you know, they’ve torn down the old roller-skating rink? Isn’t that a shame? It seems as if they can’t bear to leave anything the way it used to be. Do you remember that booth where the woman used to read your character from your handwriting. That’s gone too —’

He stops short, dismayed.

Can memory really get away with such a crude trick? Seemingly it can. For he has picked the pier from it as casually as you pick a card at random from a magician’s deck – and behold, the card has been forced! It was while George and Jim were roller-skating that they first met Doris. (She was with a boy named Norman whom she quickly ditched.) And later they all went to have their handwriting read. And the woman told Jim that he had latent musical talent, and Doris that she had a great capacity for bringing out the best in other people —

Does she remember? Of course she must! George glances at her anxiously. She lies staring at the ceiling, frowning harder.

‘What did you say the time was?’

‘Nearly three. Four minutes of.’

‘Look outside in the hall, will you? See if anyone’s there.’

He gets up, goes to the door, looks out. But, before he has even reached it, she has asked with harsh impatience, ‘Well?’

‘There’s no one.’

‘Where’s that fucking nurse?’ It comes out of her so harshly, so nakedly desperate.

‘Shall I go look for her?’

‘She knows I get a shot at three. The doctor told her. She doesn’t give a shit.’

‘I’ll find her.’

‘That bitch won’t come till she’s good and ready.’

‘I’m sure I can find her.’

‘No! Stay here.’

‘Okay.’

‘Sit down again.’

‘Sure.’ He sits down. He knows she wants his hand. He gives it to her. She grips it with astonishing strength.

‘George —’

‘Yes?’

‘You’ll stay here till she comes?’

‘Of course I will.’

Her grip tightens. There is no affection in it, no communication. She isn’t gripping a fellow-creature. His hand is just something to grip. He dare not ask her about the pain. He is afraid of releasing some obscene horror, something visible and tangible and stinking, right here between them, in the room.

Yet he is curious, too. Last time, the nurse told him that Doris has been seeing a priest. (She was raised a Catholic.) And, sure enough, here on the table beside the bed is a little paper book, gaudy and cute as a Christmas card:
The Stations of the Cross
. . . . Ah, but when the road narrows to the width of this bed, when there is nothing in front of you that is known, dare you disdain any guide? Perhaps Doris has learned something already about the journey ahead of her. But, even supposing that she has
and that George could bring himself to ask her, she could never tell him what she knows. For that could only be expressed in the language of the place to which she is going. And that language – though some of us gabble it so glibly – has no real meaning in our world; in our mouths, it is just a lot of words.

Here’s the nurse, smiling in the doorway. ‘I’m punctual today, you see!’ She has a tray with the hypodermic and the ampoules.

‘I’ll be going,’ George says, rising at once.

‘Oh, you don’t have to do that,’ says the nurse. ‘If you’ll just step outside for a moment. This won’t take any time at all.’

‘I have to go anyway,’ George says, feeling guilty as one always does about leaving any sickroom. Not that Doris herself makes him feel guilty. She seems to have lost all interest in him. Her eyes are fixed on the needle in the nurse’s hand.

‘She’s been a bad girl,’ the nurse says. ‘We can’t get her to eat her lunch, can we?’

‘Well, so long, Doris. See you again in a couple of days.’

‘Goodbye, George.’ Doris doesn’t even glance at him, and her tone is utterly indifferent. He is leaving her world and thereby ceasing to exist. He takes her hand and presses it. She doesn’t respond. She watches the bright needle as it moves toward her.

Did she
mean
Goodbye? This could be, soon will be. As George leaves the room he looks at her once again over the top of the screen, trying to catch and fix some memory in his mind, to be aware of the occasion or at least its possibility; the last time I saw her alive.

Nothing. It means nothing. He feels nothing.

As George pressed Doris’s hand just now, he knew something: that the very last traces of the Doris who tried to take Jim from him have vanished from this shrivelled manikin; and, with them, the last of his hate. As long as one tiny precious drop of hate remained, George could still find something left in her of Jim. For he hated Jim too, nearly as much as her, while they were away together in Mexico. That has been the bond between him and Doris. And now it is broken. And one more bit of Jim is lost to him for ever.

As George drives down the boulevard, the big unwieldy Christmas decorations – reindeer and jingle-bells slung across the street on cables secured to metal Christmas trees – are swinging in a chill wind. But they are merely advertisements for Christmas, paid for by the local merchants. Shoppers crowd the stores and the sidewalks, their faces somewhat bewildered, their eyes reflecting, like polished buttons, the cynical sparkle of the Yuletide. Hardly more than a month ago, before Khrushchev agreed to pull his rockets out of Cuba, they were cramming the markets, buying the shelves bare of beans, rice and other foodstuffs, utterly useless, most of them, for air-raid-shelter-cookery because they can’t be prepared without pints of water. Well, the shoppers were spared – this time. Do they rejoice? They are too dull for that, poor dears; they never knew what didn’t hit them. No doubt, because of that panic buying, they have less money now for gifts. But they have enough. It will be quite a good Christmas, the merchants predict. Everyone
can afford to spend at least something – except, maybe, some of the young hustlers (recognisable at once to experienced eyes like George’s) who stand scowling on the street corners or staring into shops with the maximum of peripheral vision.

George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow-creatures. They may be crude and mercenary and dull and low, but he is proud, is glad, is almost indecently gleeful to be able to stand up and be counted in their ranks – the ranks of that marvellous minority, The Living. They don’t know their luck, these people on the sidewalk; but George knows his – for a little while at least – because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority, which Doris is about to join.

I am alive
, he says to himself,
I am alive
! And life-energy surges hotly through him, and delight, and appetite. How good to be in a body – even this old beat-up carcase – that still has warm blood and live semen and rich marrow and wholesome flesh! The scowling youths on the corners see him as a dodderer, no doubt, or at best as a potential score. Yet he still claims a distant kinship with the strength of their young arms and shoulders and loins. For a few bucks, he could get any one of them to climb into the car, ride back with him to his house, strip off butch leather jacket, skin–tight Levis, shirt and cowboy boots and take part, a naked sullen young athlete, in the wrestling–bout of his pleasure. But George doesn’t want the bought unwilling bodies of these boys. He wants to rejoice in his own body; the tough triumphant old body of a survivor. The body that has outlived Jim and is going to outlive Doris.

He decides to stop by the gym – although this isn’t one of his regular days – on his way home.

In the locker-room, George takes off his clothes, gets into his sweat–socks, jockstrap and shorts. Shall he put on a tee shirt? He looks at himself in the long mirror. Not too bad. The bulges of flesh over the belt of the shorts are not so noticeable today. The legs are quite good. The chest-muscles, when properly flexed, don’t sag. And, as long as he doesn’t have his spectacles on, he can’t see the little wrinkles inside the elbows, above the kneecaps and around the hollow of the sucked-in belly. The neck is loose and scraggy under all circumstances, in all lights, and would look gruesome even if he were half-blind. He has abandoned the neck altogether, like an untenable military position.

BOOK: A Single Man
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