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Authors: William Golding

The Double Tongue

BOOK: The Double Tongue
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At the time of his sudden death at his home in Cornwall in June 1993 William Golding had completed two drafts of this novel, and he was about to begin a third. From his working notes, and references in his Journal right up to the day before he died, it appears that the draft which we publish here had more or less the form of the novel he planned to send to his publishers in the autumn of the year. It would almost certainly have been longer, as the other, more unfinished, draft was, but from the notes and his own comments written on the typescript the characterization of the Pythia herself seems to have been largely settled. He rewrote the beginning of the story a number of times, and we print what we take to be one of the latest versions of the opening pages found among his papers. Apart from Lady Golding, to whom he read the passages about the meeting of the Pythias and the bookroom, he showed the working texts to no one. He typed both the drafts himself.
has been chosen as a title by the editors from among several others in his handwriting at the head of the drafts. He used these titles variously in his Journal during the six months he was writing the book.



The author’s family
wish to dedicate his last work
to all those at Faber
who helped, encouraged and cared for
him and his writing
over the past forty years.
Above all, this book is for




Blazing light and warmth, undifferentiated and experiencing themselves. There! I’ve done it! The best I can, that is. Memory. A memory before memory? But there was no time, not even implied. So how could it be before or after, seeing that it was unlike anything else, separate, distinct, a one-off. No words, no time, not even I, ego, since as I tried to say, the warmth and blazing light was experiencing itself, if you see what I mean. Of course you do! It was a quality of, a kind of naked being without time or sight (despite the blazing light) and nothing preceded it and nothing came after. It is detached from succession, which means, I suppose, it may have happened at any point in my time – or out of it!

Where, then? I remember incontinence. My nurse and my mother – how young she must have been! – cried out with laughter which was also a reprimand. Could I speak before I could speak? How did I know there was the word ‘reprimand’? Well, there is a whole bundle of knowledge we bring with us instantly; knowledge of what anger is, pain is, pleasure is, love. Either before or very closely after that incontinence there is a view of my legs and tummy in the warm sun. I am examining the modest slit between my legs experimentally with no knowledge of what it leads to, what it is for, nor that it defines me for the rest of my life. It is one of the reasons why I am here rather than in some other place. But I was unaware of Aetolia and Achaia and all the rest. There was more laughter, perhaps slightly furtive, and a reprimand. I am picked up and spanked very gently, no pain, only a sense of having done wrong.

Almost as far back is the time when I didn’t have many words for myself and couldn’t explain myself. Leptides, our neighbour’s son, was kneeling by the great wall of our house and playing a game. He had a smouldering reed in one hand and a hollow reed in the other. He blew through the hollow reed and made a flame start off the end of the other. He looked just like one of our older house slaves who worked with copper and tin or silver and sometimes, but not often, with gold. I thought he might be making a tin ornament for me, which tells me that I started life as a hopeful child on the whole until I got to know about things. I squatted down to look. But he was burning up ants and doing it very neatly. He hit each one as a huntsman might and the ants were seldom scorched but completely burned up in an instant. I would have liked to have a go but knew that handling the two reeds at once would be beyond me. Besides, I had been taught not to play with fire! What interests me now is that I did not think of the ants as living things. My mind could go down as far as fish but no farther. Which is why the fish must come next.

We had a huge stone fish tank, so huge it had three grown-up steps to climb before you could see the fish in it. The time I’m thinking of must have been summer, for the water was low although the men kept bringing tubs of seawater up from the beach, but in my memory they never quite succeeded and the water stayed low until it got thoroughly rained on. Most of all I liked the time when the men brought fish up from our boats in barrels and sloshed them straight into the tank. How frisky the fish were then! They were frightened, I suppose, but they gave an appearance of joy and excitement. But they would soon calm down and seem contented and if not wanted immediately, stayed there, becoming kind of house fish and tame. They were easy to manage, like house slaves. I wonder was that the first time I compared one thing with another? This particular time Zoileus came to fetch them. He was a house slave, too, naturally. I am getting into a muddle. They were born slaves in our house, not caught in battle or raiding or punished for a crime or that sort of thing – say, being very poor for example. You know how it is. I was going to make another comparison and say it’s like being born a girl, a woman, but that isn’t so. There’s a time in childhood when girls don’t know how happy they are because they don’t know they’re girls if you see what I mean, though they find out later and most of them or some of them at any rate panic the way fish do in the pan. At least the lucky ones do. Anyway Zoileus simply dumped these fish in the oil which was smoking. One of the fish got its head over the edge of the pan and gaped its mouth at me.

I screamed. I went on screaming because it hurt so. I must have screamed things, not just screamed, for the next I remember is Zoileus shouting.

‘All right! All right! I’ll take them back –’

He stopped speaking then, for our house dame came quickly into the kitchen, the keys clanking at her waist.

‘What on earth is the matter?’

But Zoileus had gone and the fish with him. My nurse explained that I had been frightened of the fish and maybe something should be offered up for luck, a root of garlic perhaps. Our house dame spoke kindly to me. Fish were made to be eaten and didn’t feel things the way we free people did. She commanded Zoileus to bring back the pan and the fish. He explained that they were back in the tank.

‘What do you mean, Zoileus, back in the tank?’

‘They jumped out of the pan, lady, and swam off among the others.’

I have never known the truth of that. Fish fried in smoking oil can’t swim away, there’s no doubt of that. But Zoileus was not a liar. Perhaps he was, just this once. Perhaps he threw them away or hid them. Why? Well, supposing they did indeed swim away, it doesn’t follow that I had anything to do with it. Still, people thought that was odd. The house slaves, good souls though ours were, will believe anything and the more unlikely the better. We did all go solemnly to the tank but one fish is very like another and there was a whole shoal of them stacked in the shadow under the thatched half-roof. The house dame called my mother who called my father and by that time, whether his story was true or not, Zoileus had to stick to it. In the end, I think, he came to believe it himself, believed that some power had healed some half-burnt fish for no particular reason at all, which as far as my nurse was concerned was satisfyingly godlike. A bit of – not awe – but respect came my way too. In the end a sacrifice was made to the sea god, though in the case of a miraculous healing, Aesculapius or Hermes would surely have been more entitled. Had I been older at the time I might have thought it odd in view of my gender that they did not propitiate a goddess rather than a god. But which one? Neither Artemis nor Demeter nor Aphrodite would have had much use for me.

But I suppose I had better tell you something about us. We are Aetolians, naturally, since we live on the north side of the gulf. We were a Phocian family. My father is – was – a rich man and my oldest brother has inherited from him. Where our land touches the sea it stretches along for more than a mile. We have thousands of goats and sheep and a large old house with the usual dependencies and slaves and people. We also have a share in the sea ferry which sails across from the edge of our land to Corinth. Often the people who crossed used to think our house was the next village higher up the valley and they would make their way to it after they had landed and expect a bed, or horses, or even a carriage. But a little while before I was born my honoured father had a notice put up where the ferry brought in the people. There was a wooden hand pointing up the valley past our land and letters on a board under the hand which said


So now the travellers don’t bother us so much but go on up to the next village. Beyond that village and further, the oracle and the shrine and the college of priests hangs on the side of Parnassus. The oracle is a woman who is inspired by the god to say what is going to happen and so on. You’ll know all about that whoever you are and wherever you live, all the world knows! A strong man can walk from our ferry up to Delphi in about half a day. I knew about the oracle when I was quite small, because we Phocians were responsible for guarding it. My grandfather Anticrates son of Anticrates took part in the appropriation. My honoured father (also called Anticrates) said that it was absolutely necessary. His father had told him when he was a small boy that it was necessary to take it under our protection. Delphi was inconceivably rich and it was quite obvious at the time that several cities (I name no names even now) were about to get their hands on all the treasure and waste it in impious ways. But, as he said, it was necessary to protect the place for we had a just war on our hands and the god agreed that we needed the gold for that purpose.

Living so near, being of such a degree and having taken part in it all, the family has many stories of what happened at the time. We used to keep some of our knowledge to ourselves but so many things have passed away I can tell you some of them now in my old age since they no longer matter. When we agreed with the Delphians and particularly with the college of priests to take them over we asked the Pythia – she was the oracle, of course you will remember that – we asked her to transmit to us the god’s approval. But all she would do was cry ‘Fire, fire, fire!’ She came up the steps from the holy of holies into the portico and still cried ‘Fire, fire, fire!’ She ran wild and no one could do anything for her, the god had her in his hands, no one could touch her until at last she got among some ignorant soldiers – they were not Phocians but mercenaries – and they killed her!

It is quite true, said my father, that the oracle has never been the same since. He also said that there were a few fires in Delphi started by the mercenaries which was sufficient at the time to make her outcry quite understandable. But you can never really tell with an oracle. There are famous ones from earlier days. Once a man was told he would die by the fall of a house. So he stayed out of doors until one day an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head. The god speaks with a double tongue which he inherited from a huge snake he killed at Delphi. As a matter of fact – I have never told anyone of this – I myself have worked out what was meant by the other fork of the tongue when the Pythia cried out ‘Fire, fire, fire!’ For that year in which we took over Delphi was also the year in which the God Alexander the Great was born. You see, as all the world knows, you can never tell with an oracle. But to say we sacked the place is a monstrous lie. The war was very expensive and lasted a long time and if in the end the god was not wholly on our side it does not need a theologian to explain to us that such is his privilege.

BOOK: The Double Tongue
10.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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