Authors: Doris Lessing
He went on like this for about twenty minutes. Alice listened to every word, with a sweet, trustful, even beautiful smile; this was the Jasper she loved best, and it was wonderful for her to see how other people responded to him. Even people whom she knew to be critical of him, at such moments admired him. Or, at any rate, recognised that here was something extraordinary and much more than that after all not exactly rare phenomenon, the natural speaker, the orator. No, here was a leader. The real thing.
Alice stood by the door, ready to nip out quickly when it was time to get the tea making started. She was listening, and she was
watching the faces: how they responded, how the levels of their attention were being raised by him, by Jasper. This thing that often happened when Jasper began to speak—a nervousness, even a tendency to titter, or perhaps to interject the odd deflating sardonic remark—was because his style was not the common-or-garden British style, a bit homespun, humorous by preference, down to earth. And, of course, Alice in the usual way would be the first to admire this Britishness. It was ours! National characteristics were precious. But Jasper was a special case. He had to impose his own exaltation on them from the start; and today there were no titterers instantly suppressed by others who were on a worthier, higher level. The strained expressions she saw were not because of criticism, far from it; rather, they did not trust themselves to believe some beautiful message or gift that was being offered to them by Jasper, did not feel themselves to be worthy. She had learned long ago that when Jasper spoke people did not clap or shout approval. They remained absolutely silent—after the tricky first few moments, that is; and when he had finished speaking, there would be a silence lasting perhaps as long as fifteen seconds, more. Then there would be applause, sudden, fervent, even violent; people would stand up and shout and cheer. The applause would go on like this, and then suddenly stop.
And this is what happened today. The final applause was as though something had been liberated in them. Some of the women were in tears. Everyone seemed deeply moved. (Not everyone; Alice noted that the goose-girl sat as if part of another audience, not this one, and she didn’t applaud at all. Her eyes encountered Alice’s but moved on, as if she had not seen Alice, did not want to be called to account for this lapse in real feeling, let alone ordinary good manners.) Then everyone stood up, those not already on their feet, in the need to applaud more passionately, so inspired and fired by Jasper had they been, this emissary from what he had been apostrophising as “the future, our glorious future.” They could not, in fact, bear to sit down again, and although the tea break had not been envisaged for another hour, tea was set in motion then and there.
The tea break took a long time, because so many people were busy with conversations. These were not, in fact, about the CCU, or, indeed, about anything Jasper had said; his opening speech was hardly mentioned. When the tea break was ending—Comrades Alice, Roberta, and Bert having to shout above the din with all kinds of dire threats and warnings, all humorous, of course, to get people back to the sitting room—Pat appeared. Quite frankly, she looked terrible. Just like Bert, in fact. She was pale and thin and had lost her glossy-cherry look. Bert and she embraced quickly, in a convulsive and even guilty way; but she would not look at him, and from this Alice saw that Pat would not stay long.
Scheduling Pat, not Jasper, to make the opening speech had been a sensible decision. Her style was very different from Jasper’s, being low-key, humorous, informative. She did not know about Jasper’s inspirational speech, of course. She told how the CCU had come into being—not in a way that appealed to emotion, but saying it was because of dissatisfactions with the existing socialist parties, which she then analysed. In fact, she was giving a short but rather competent analysis of the existing economic situation in Britain. People were listening attentively, though not at all as they had to Jasper. They were chipping in with facts and figures, they laughed sarcastically at particularly telling points, and there were little ripples of applause. It was a tragedy, Alice knew, that Pat had not arrived in time to make the opening speech, so that Jasper could have made his, as had been planned, at the end of the day. As things were, it was almost as though Jasper’s speech had not been made at all; it was all wasted; nothing seemed to have flowed from it.
When Congress broke up early for soup and sandwiches and whatever food the London comrades had brought with them, the talk during the long break, when it was about politics, was prompted by Pat’s remarks. But in fact most of the discussion was not about politics at all. People were meeting who had not been together for some time, years perhaps. Like-minded people were encountering one another for the first time in the beginning of friendships or love affairs. News was being demanded of the comrades still in Birmingham, Liverpool, Halifax who had not been able to come.
And former lovers were meeting, too: Pat and Bert’s interrupted relationship was not the only one. It was nearly three when they reassembled; and, again, Bert, Roberta, and this time Pat had to go shouting up and down the house to break up the many conversations in progress, so that the Congress could go on.
The goose-girl did not come in for the afternoon session—in fact, had disappeared before lunch. It was clear that she had approved of Pat’s speech as much as she had disapproved of Jasper’s, and Alice mourned secretly over this. Muriel would have felt quite different, Alice was sure, if she could only have heard Jasper speak in his proper place at the end, when he could have exemplified, have summed up, everybody’s emotions.
After lunch (though it was nearly teatime), point one of the agenda was discussed: what trends in the current British scene showed the way to the future? The chosen trends were: one, dissatisfaction over unemployment, “which has to be exploited”; two, “the mass disgust of the British people for the government’s policy over nuclear armaments”; and, three, “the budding and still-unexpressed rejection of the British people for the Tory policy in Northern Ireland.”
After tea, which did not take place until five, ways were discussed in which these three trends could be emphasised and exploited. But they had hardly settled before more people came from various parts of London, who had heard of the Congress and were interested—and had heard, too, of the party afterwards. Comrades arrived from Liverpool and Birmingham who for one reason or another could not come earlier. And a group arrived from number 45 (not, however, Comrade Andrew). There were suddenly sixty people in the room, and it was uncomfortable. Some retreated to the hall, where they sat talking, with much laughter and noise. The Congress was ended early, before seven, and with point two on the agenda not reached. Point two was: “The future of Britain: full socialism.”
The evening’s party started. Like an explosion. The din was amazing, even before daylight had gone. Gate crashers arrived, making
serious political talk impossible. Alice and Jasper and Pat and Bert kept running out to get more supplies of food and drink. Reggie and Mary contributed a gallon of Devon cider. The police arrived at eleven o’clock, found no evidence of wrongdoing, and were dealt with efficiently and calmly by Alice; among them was the policewoman who by now seemed almost like an old friend. Some neighbours banged on the door at one in the morning and complained they could not sleep. Alice said that they were sorry, but there were seventy people in the house, and with so many there had to be a noise. Perhaps they would like to come in and join the party?
Not until four in the morning did the exhausted comrades crawl into sleeping bags all over the two houses, and no one got up until midday, when it was time for some, at least, to leave for towns in the North. No one got up, that is, except Alice, who was clearing up.
Alice was busy serving soup and sandwiches and tea and coffee all afternoon and evening. A few revellers stayed over Sunday night and left early on Monday.
Pat left then, too. She was weeping. So was Bert.
Alice said irritably, “Oh, for shit’s sake, why don’t you just give in to it,” and then felt she had to apologise. But she did not kiss Pat when she left; said, “Oh, God, I’m so fed up with everything!” and burst into tears. She left the washing up for others to do and went to bed, not caring whether Jasper was near or not.
But he was there when she woke, squatting lightly beside her, a cup of coffee in his hand. He was beaming, like a boy conscious of behaving well.
“Oh, what is it, Jasper?”
“Clever Alice,” he said gently. “It was wonderful, what you did.”
But she lay straight in her sleeping bag, arms by her side, feet stretched out. She was not thinking of Jasper, or of the Congress, or of the weekend’s fun and games. There was an empty place in her, a pit, a grave; she had been dreaming, she knew, of the house, now boarded up, with the “For Sale” notice outside. And she knew that she must be glistening all over with pale, unshed tears.
“Alice,” said Jasper, “I want to tell you something.”
“I’m listening,” she said, severe and remote, and saw him hesitate, wince. He felt snubbed. She should have cared, but could not.
“Bert and I—we are going to the Soviet Union.”
Having taken this in, she said, “The Irish comrades won’t have you, but the Soviet comrades will?” This was not derisive in the least—only a statement of the position—but she earned a look of hatred. He was on his feet, hovering above her, a furious angel, ready to throw revengeful bolts.
“Look, I don’t want any negative and destructive attitudes from you, Alice.”
Pause. She neither moved nor spoke.
Indecisive, he squatted down again, ready to win her.
“How are you going so quickly? You can’t go just like that to the Soviet Union.”
“On Saturday night one of the comrades from Manchester said that he knew of a tourist group going to Moscow, this week. There are some empty places, because some people fell out, with flu. But we can get visas through the tour organiser. We have sent in our passports, and we’ll get them by the time we leave.”
“Alice,” he began tentatively, and stopped. He had been going to ask her for money, but now felt its uselessness.
She said, “You have taken every fucking penny off me already. I’ve spent last week’s dole money on the party. It’s no good trying to get any out of me.” Seeing his face beginning to gather into an avid, cruel look, she said, indifferently, “And it is impossible for me to get money out of Dorothy, or out of my father.”
He remained there, lightly squatting, one hand on the floorboards, studying her face. Then, as lightly, he got up and went to the door. As he left she said, “If Pat comes back before you two leave, Bert won’t go with you.” He slammed the door; she did not turn her head to watch him go, but remained still, like a stone or a corpse, no life in her, looking at the window, now framed by the
beautiful brocade curtains, green and gold, that had hung in the sitting room of her mother’s house.
She slept. In the late afternoon she woke in an empty house, bathed, put on a skirt that had been her mother’s, of soft wool that had great pink roses on a soft brown background, and a pink sweater Pat had given her.
She walked straight out of the house and over to 45, where she went in without knocking: the weekend had made the two houses one. Out of the kitchen—a dreary hole, not nice and bright and decorated with flowers, like 43’s—came goose-Muriel, who offered strictly rationed postparty smiles.
“If Andrew is here, I want to see him.”
To prevent any more coy scratchings at the door, Alice went to it with Muriel, and knocked.
“Come in,” she heard, and Alice went in, shutting the door on Muriel.
Comrade Andrew lay, stretched out like a soldier, as Alice had just been doing, on his low bed, but with his arms crossed on his chest.
He swung his legs over and down, sat, made a place for Alice to sit by him.
She did so, at a proper distance. “I have to know some things,” she announced.
But she sat on there, in a droop, listless, and did not continue.
He studied her for a while, openly, not hiding it, then lay down again, but farther over on the narrow bed, near the wall. He pulled her by her arm; and, without resisting, she lay down next to him, stretched out. There were a good six inches between them. He did not touch her.
“Did you know Bert and Jasper are going to Moscow?”
A pause. She was thinking. As she always did: a slow, careful working out of the possibilities latent in everything.
“But you didn’t suggest it.”
“No, I certainly did not.”
The silence prolonged itself. He even wondered whether she had dropped off to sleep—she had seemed so pale and exhausted. He studied her, turning his head a little, then took her right wrist gently with his left hand. She tensed up, then relaxed: this was very different from the killing grip Jasper used.
“Alice, you should really get free of this riffraff.”
“Riffraff!” she expostulated, with as much energy as she had left. “These are
He said deliberately, “Riffraff.”
She drew in her breath; but let it out quietly.
“What did Muriel tell you, then?”
“What do you suppose she told me? You aren’t stupid, Alice.”
She could feel herself swelling and oozing. Tears ran down her cheeks, she supposed.
“And what about the party,” she almost sobbed. “You weren’t there.”
He remained silent.
Then, gently, he put his arm under her neck, and his left hand on her left upper arm, on the side away from him. He seemed, at the same time, to be lightly supporting her and holding her so as to make sure she would not slide away from him.
“Alice, you must separate yourself from them.”
“From Jasper, you mean.”
“From Jasper, Bert, and the rest. They are just playing little games.”
“They don’t think so.”
“No, but you do, I believe.”