It is an error to say the eyes have expression. Eyebrows and eyelids, lips, the planes of the face, all these are indicators of emotion. The eyes are merely colored liquid in a glass.
-- A MESSENGER OF THE GODS
"Not a word to my girls," he had said on the way home from the hospital. My girls, as if they weren't also hers. She was used to it, he always said that, and in a way they were more his. "I'm not hearing this," she said.
"You're going to have major surgery and your grown-up children aren't to be told."
"'Major surgery,'" he said. "You sound like Staff Nurse Samantha in a hospital sitcom. I won't have Sarah and Hope worried. I won't give them a day of hell while they await the result."
You flatter yourself, she thought, but that was just spite. He didn't. They would have a day of hell; they would have anguish, while she had a little mild trepidation.
He made her promise. It wasn't difficult. She wouldn't have cared for the task of telling them.
The girls came down as usual. In the summer they came down every weekend, and in the winter, too, unless the roads were impassable. They had forgotten the Romneys were coming to lunch, and Hope made a face, what her father called "a square mouth," a snarl, pushing her head forward and curling back her lips.
"Be thankful it's only lunch," said Gerald. "When I first met the guy, I asked him for the weekend."
"He refused?" Sarah said it as if she were talking of someone turning down a free round-the-world cruise.
"No, he didn't refuse. I wrote to him, asked him for lunch, and said he could stay at the hotel."
Everyone laughed except Ursula.
"He's got a wife he's bringing."
"Oh God, Daddy, is there more? He hasn't got kids, has he?"
"If he has, they're not invited." Gerald smiled sweetly at his daughters. He said thoughtfully, "We might play the Game."
"With them? Oh, do let's," said Hope. "We haven't played the Game for ages."
Titus and Julia Romney were much honored by an invitation from Gerald Candless, and if they had expected to be put up in the house and not have to pay for a room at the Dunes, they hadn't said so, not even to each other. Julia had anticipated eccentricity from someone so distinguished, even rudeness, and she was pleasantly surprised to encounter a genial host, a gracious, if rather silent, hostess, and two good-looking young women who turned out to be the daughters.
Titus, who had his naive side, as she well knew, was hoping for a look at the room where the work was done. And perhaps a present. Not a first edition, that would be expecting too much, but any book signed by the author. Conversation on literary matters, how he wrote, when he wrote, and even, now the daughters had appeared, what it was like to be his child.
It was a hot, sunny day in July, a few days before the start of the high season at the hotel, or they wouldn't have gotten a room. Lunch was in a darkish, cool dining room with no view of the sea. Far from discussing books, the Candlesses talked about the weather, summer visitors, the beach, and Miss Batty, who was coming to clear the table and wash up. Gerald said Miss Batty wasn't much of a cleaner but that they kept her because her name made him laugh. There was another Miss Batty and a Mrs. Batty, and they all lived together in a cottage in Croyde. "Sounds like a new card game, Unhappy Families," he said, and then he laughed and the daughters laughed.
In the drawing room -- so he called it -- the French windows were open onto the garden, the pink and blue hydrangea, the cliff edge, the long bow-shaped beach and the sea. Julia asked what the island was and Sarah said Lundy, but she said it in such a way as to imply only a total ignoramus would ask. Coffee was brought by someone who must have been Miss Batty and drinks were poured by Hope. Gerald and Titus drank port, Julia had a refill of the Meursault, and Sarah and Hope both had brandy. Sarah's brandy was neat, but Hope's had ice in it.
Then Gerald made the sort of announcement Julia hated, really hated. She didn't think people actually did this anymore, not in this day and age, not grown-ups. Not intellectuals.
"And now we'll play the Game," Gerald had said. "Let's see how clever you are."
"Would it be wonderful to find someone who caught on at once, Daddy?" said Hope. "Or would we hate it?"
"We'd hate it," said Sarah, and she planted on Gerald's cheek one of those kisses that the Romneys found mildly embarrassing to witness.
He caught at her hand briefly. "It never happens, though, does it?"
Julia met Ursula's eye and must have put inquiry into her glance. Or simple fear.
"Oh, I shan't play," Ursula said. "I shall go out for my walk."
"In this heat?"
"I like it. I always walk along the beach in the afternoons."
Titus, who also disliked parlor games, asked what this one was called. "Not this Unhappy Families you were talking about?"
"It's called I Pass the Scissors," said Sarah.
"What do we have to do?"
"You have to do it right. That's all."
"You mean we all have to do something and there's a right way and a wrong way of doing it?"
"How will we know?"
"We'll tell you."
The scissors were produced by Hope from a drawer in the tallboy. Once kitchen scissors had been used for the Game, or Ursula's sewing scissors or nail scissors, whatever came to hand. But the Game and the ascendancy it gave them afforded so much pleasure that, while his daughters still lived at home, Gerald had bought a pair of Victorian scissors with handles like a silver bird in flight and sharp pointed blades. It was these that Hope now handed to her father for him to begin.
Leaning forward in his armchair, his feet planted far apart, his back to the light, Gerald opened the scissors so that they formed a cross. He smiled. He was a big man, with a head journalists called "leonine," though the lion was old now, with a grizzled, curly mane the color of iron filings. His hands were big and his fingers very long. He handed the scissors to Julia Romney and said, "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
Julia passed the scissors to Hope as she had received them. "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
"No, you don't." Hope closed the scissors, turned them over, and put them into the outstretched fingers of Titus Romney. "I pass the scissors crossed."
Titus did the same and handed them to Sarah, saying with a glance at Gerald that he passed the scissors crossed.
"Wrong." Sarah opened the scissors, held them by one blade, and passed them to her father. "I pass the scissors crossed, Dad."
He closed them, turned them over twice clockwise, and passed them to Julia. "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
Dawning comprehension, or what she thought was dawning comprehension, broke on Julia's face. She sat upright and turned the scissors over twice counterclockwise, handed them to Hope, and said she passed the scissors crossed.
"Well, well," said Hope. "But do you know why?"
Julia didn't. She had guessed. "But they're crossed when they're closed, aren't they?"
"Are they? You have to pass them crossed and know why, and everyone has to see. Look, when you know, it's as clear as glass. I promise you." Hope opened the scissors. "I pass the scissors crossed."
So they continued for half an hour. Titus Romney asked if anyone ever got it, and Gerald said yes, of course, it was just that no one ever got it at once. Jonathan Arthur had gotten it the second time. Impressed by the name of the winner of both the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Somerset Maugham prizes, Titus said he was really going to concentrate from now on. Sarah said she wanted another brandy and what about everyone else.
"Another port, Dad?"
"I don't think so, darling. It gives me a headache. But you can give Titus one."
Sarah replenished the drinks, then sat down again, this time on the arm of her father's chair. "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
"But why?" Julia Romney was beginning to sound irritated. She had gone rather red. Signs of participants beginning to lose their tempers always amused the Candlesses, who now looked gleeful and expectant. "I mean, how can it be? The scissors are just the same as when you passed them crossed just now."
"I told you it was unlikely you'd get it the first time," said Hope, and she yawned. "I pass the scissors crossed."
"You always pass them crossed!"
"Do I? Right, I'll pass them uncrossed next time."
As Titus was receiving the scissors, opening them and turning them clockwise, Ursula came in through the French windows. Her hair, which was fair but graying, and very long and wispy, had begun flopping down out of its pins and she was holding it up with one hand. She smiled, and Titus thought she was going to say, "Still at it?" or "Have you found the secret yet?" but she said nothing, only passing on across the room and through the door that led into the hall.
Gerald looked around and said, "Shall we call it a day?"
The way the girls laughed, Sarah leaning over to look into her father's eyes, told Titus this must be the phrase, rather dramatically delivered, he always used to terminate a session of the Game. Probably the injunction that followed was also requisite at this point.
"Better luck next time."
Gerald rose to his feet. Titus had the impression, founded on nothing that he was truly aware of, that the old man (the "Grand Old Man," he almost was) had been disturbed by the return of his wife, deflected from his pleasure in the Game, and was displeased. His face, though not as gray as his hair, had lost its color and grown dull. The daughter, Sarah, the one who looked like her mother, saw it, too. She glanced at her sister, the one who looked like her father, and said, "Are you all right, Dad?"
"Of course I am." He made a face at his glass but smiled at her. "I don't like port, never have. I should have had brandy."
"I'll get you a brandy," said Hope.
"Better not." He did something Titus had never before seen a grown man do to a grown woman: He put out his hand and stroked her hair. "We stumped them again, my sweethearts. We boggled them."
"We always do."
"And now" -- he turned to Titus -- "before you go" -- a bright gleam in his dark eye -- "you said you wanted to see where I work."
The study. Did he call it that? The room, anyway, where the books had been written, or most of them. It was stuffy in there and warm. You could see the sea from here, too, and more of the long, flat half-mile-wide beach, the water's edge almost invisible in the distance. Sky and sea met in a blurred dazzle. The closed window was large, stark, with black blinds rolled up, and the sun poured in. It flooded the desk and his chair and the books behind him and the book in front. Gerald Candless used a typewriter, not a word processor, quite an old-fashioned one, and had a bunch of pens and pencils in an onyx jar.
Proofs of a new novel lay to the left of the typewriter. A stack of manuscript about an inch deep sat to its right. Several thousand books filled the shelves ceiling to floor, dictionaries and thesauruses and encyclopedias and other reference works, and poetry and biography and novels, hundreds of novels, including Gerald Candless's own works. The sun bathed their leather and cloth and colored-paper spines in brilliant light.
"Do you feel all right?"
Titus had echoed Sarah's words, because the grayness was back in Gerald's face and his big gnarled right hand was gripping the upper part of his left arm. He made no answer to the question. Titus thought he was probably the sort of man who never said anything unless he had something to say, made no small talk, answered no polite questions as to his health.
"Are you really called Titus?"
The abrupt inquiry disconcerted him. "What?"
"I didn't know you were deaf. I said, Are you really called Titus?"
"Of course I am."
"I thought it must be a pseudonym. Don't look so peevish. Not all of us are really called what we're called, you know, not by a long chalk. Now take a look around. Look your fill. Have a book. Help yourself, and I'll sign it. Not a first edition -- I draw the line at that."
One of the things Titus looked for was a copy of his own book. It wasn't there, or if it was, he couldn't see it. He stood in front of the row of Gerald Candlesses, wondering which one to pick, then finally chose Hamadryad.
"Read Finnish, do you?"
Titus saw that he had chosen from the section of translations, so he made a second attempt, but was forestalled by being handed a book club edition of the same novel. Gerald signed it. Just his name, no good wishes or kind regards. Sunlight fell on his hands, which, if they didn't tremble, weren't quite steady.
"And now that you've had your lunch, seen my room, and gotten a book, you can do something for me. One good turn -- or rather, three good turns -- deserves another, wouldn't you agree?"
Assent was expected. Titus nodded. "Anything, of course, if it's in my power."
"Oh, it's in your power. It would be in anybody's who happened to be here. You see that stuff?"
"The page proofs?"
"No, not the page proofs. The manuscript. I want you to take it with you. Just take it away. Will you do that for me?"
"What is it?"
Gerald Candless didn't answer. "I'm going away for a few days. I don't want it left here in the house while I'm away. But I don't want to destroy it, either. I may publish it one day -- I mean, I may finish it and publish it. If I have the nerve."
"What is it, your autobiography?"
The sarcastic reply came: "Of course. I haven't even changed the names." Then he said, "It's a novel, the start of a novel, or the end -- I don't know which. But he is not he and she is not she and they are not they. Right? I don't want it left here. You were coming, I'd met you in wherever it was..."
"Right. You were coming, and it came to me that you'd do. Who else is there down here?"
"I wonder you didn't put it in a safe-deposit box somewhere."
"Oh, you wonder that, do you? If you don't want to take it and look after it for me, just say. I'll give it to Miss Batty, or I'll burn it. Come to think of it, burning might be best."
"For God's sake, don't burn it," said Titus. "I'll take it. How do I get it back to you? And when do I?"
Gerald picked up the pages and held them in his hands. Underneath them, on the desk, was a padded bag already addressed to Gerald Candless, Lundy View House, Gaunton, North Devon, and stamped with £1.50 postage.
"Do you...Do you want me to...Do you mind if I read it?"
A gale of laughter greeted that, a strong, vigorous bellow, incompatible with those tremulous hands. "You'll have a job. I'm the world's lousiest typist. Here, you can put it in this."
"This" was a cheap-looking plastic briefcase, the kind of thing that, containing the requisite brochures and agenda, is given to delegates at a conference. Titus Romney wouldn't have been seen dead with it normally. But he had only a short distance to carry it to the hotel. They found Julia in the drawing room, carrying on a stilted conversation with Gerald's wife. Titus had already forgotten her name, but he didn't have to remember it, because they were going. It was 3:30 and they were leaving. The daughters had disappeared.
"I'll walk with you to the hotel," Gerald said. "I'm supposed to walk a bit every day. A few yards."
Julia gushed, the way she did when she had had a horrid time. "Goodbye. Thank you so much. It's been lovely. A lovely lunch."
"Enjoy the rest of your stay," Gerald's wife said.
They set off across the garden, Titus carrying the briefcase, at which Julia cast curious glances. The garden extended to about ten yards from the cliff edge, where there was a gate to the cliff path. From this path, all the beach could be seen, and the car park, full of cars and trailers. The beach was crowded and there were a lot of people in the sea. Somewhere Julia had read this described as the finest beach on the English coast, the longest, seven miles of it, with the best sand. The safest beach, for the tide went out half a mile and flowed in gently over the flat, scarcely sloping sand, a shallow, limpid sea. It was blue as a jewel, calm, waveless.
"You must love living here," Julia said politely.
He didn't answer. Titus asked him if he didn't like walking. The way he talked about it implied he didn't like it.
"I don't like any physical exercise. Only cranks like walking. That's why a sensible man invented the car."
A gate in the path bore a sign: THE DUNES HOTEL. STRICTLY PRIVATE. HOTEL GUESTS ONLY. Gerald opened it, then stood aside to let Julia pass through. The hotel, Edwardian red brick with white facings, multigabled, stood up above them, its striped awnings unfurled across the terrace. People sat at tables having tea. Children splashed about in a swimming pool that was barely concealed by privet hedges.
"Your children enjoying themselves?"
"We haven't any children," said Julia.
"Really? Why not?"
"I don't know." She was very taken aback. That should be a question people didn't ask. "I...I don't necessarily want any."
Another gate to pass through and they were on the turf of the big lawn.
"You don't want any children?" Gerald said. "How unnatural. You must change your mind. Not afraid to have a baby, are you? Some women are. Children are the crown of existence. Children are the source of all happiness. The great reward. Believe me. I know. Here we are, then, back among the throng."
Julia was so angry, she was nearly rude to him. She looked at her husband, but he refused to meet her eyes. She turned to Gerald Candless, resolved on silently shaking hands with him, turning her back on him, and marching quickly up to her room. Her hand went out reluctantly. He failed to take it, though this omission wasn't rudeness. He was staring up at the hotel, at the terrace, with an expression of astonishment and, more than that, amazement. His eyes were fixed and so unblinking that she followed his gaze.
Nothing to see, no one to look at, nothing to cause this rigid, fixed stare. It was the elderly people who congregated there on the terrace, she had noticed from the previous afternoon, those who didn't swim or walk far or venture down the cliff, knowing they would have to climb up again. The old ones sat there under the umbrellas and the blue-and-white-striped awning, golden-wedding couples, grandparents, the sedate, the inactive.
"Have you seen someone you know?" Titus asked.
It was as if he were in a dream, as if he were a sleepwalker arrested in his blind progress and lost, his orientation gone. Titus's question broke the spell or the dream and he passed a hand across his high wrinkled forehead, pushing the fingers through that bush of hair.
"I was mistaken," he said; then the hand came down, and farewells were made. He was smiling the way he did, with his red wolfish mouth and not his eyes. His eyes not at all.
They didn't watch him go back. They didn't look back or wave. As she crossed the terrace to enter the hotel by way of the open glass doors into the lounge and bar, Julia paused briefly to take in the people who sat at the terrace tables, those grandparents. Old people smoked so much. They all sat with cigarettes, overflowing ashtrays, pots of tea and cups of tea, pastries on cake stands, packs of cards, but no sun lotion or sunglasses. They never went into the sun. A woman was making up her face in the mirror of a powder compact, drawing crimson lips onto an old pursed mouth.
There was no one to interest him, no one who could so have caught his rapt gaze. More affectation, she thought, more games to impress us, and she followed Titus into the cool shadowy interior.
Sarah and Hope were going out. Hope had already made her plans, a barbecue on some beach farther up the coast. Almost before the guests were out of earshot, Sarah was on the phone, arranging to meet the usual crowd in a Barnstaple pub. Not even the prospect of their father's company would keep them in on a Saturday night. To go out with those old companions, school friends and friends' friends, was an obligation, almost a duty.
"'Make my bed and light the light,'" said Miss Batty in the kitchen. "'I'll arrive late tonight, blackbird, bye-bye.' There's a lot of truth in those old songs."
She picked up Titus Romney's glass off the tray and drank the port he had left. It was something she usually did when they entertained. Once she had gotten into such a state drinking the dregs from fifteen champagne glasses that Ursula had had to drive her home. But what on earth had they had champagne for? Ursula couldn't remember. Miss Batty -- whom Ursula long ago had begun calling Daphne, just as Miss Batty called her Ursula -- drained a drop of brandy and began emptying the dishwasher of its first load.
"'Bye-bye, blackbird,'" she said.
Ursula never ceased to be amazed by the scope of Daphne Batty's knowledge of sixty years of popular music. If Gerald liked her for her name, Ursula's appreciation derived from this unceasing flow of esoterica. She went back into the living room. Gerald was standing by the open windows but facing the inside of the room. Since he had come back from the hotel, he had spoken not a word, and that look he sometimes had of being far away had taken control of his face. Only this time, he was even more distant, almost as if he had stepped across some dividing stream into different territory. He looked at her blankly. She could have sworn that for a moment he didn't know who she was.
Saturday nights when the girls were out, he worried himself sick. He thought she wasn't aware of his anxiety, but of course she was. While his daughters were in London, as they mostly were, they were no doubt out night after night till all hours, and it never occurred to him to worry. Ursula was sure he scarcely thought about it, still less woke up in the small hours to wonder if Hope was back safe in her bed in Crouch End or Sarah in hers in Kentish Town. But here, when they were out, he no longer even bothered to go to bed. He sat up in the dark in the study, waiting for the sound of a car, then one key in the door, then the second car, the other key.
She hadn't shared a bedroom with him for nearly thirty years, never in this house, but she knew. She was still fascinated by him. As one could be, she sometimes thought, by a deformity or a mutilation. He compelled her horrified gaze, her continual speculation. There was no actual way she could know if he was in his bedroom or not, no indication by gleam of light or hint of sound. The floorboards were all carpeted and the doors fitted trimly into their architraves. His bedroom was at the other end of the house from hers. But she knew when he wasn't in bed during the night, just as she knew when the girls weren't. One of the cars coming usually woke her. She was a light sleeper. And she, too, would be relieved that first Sarah was home, then Hope. Or the other way around, as the case might be. It wouldn't be before midnight, and probably long after.
His daughters mustn't know he sat up for them. He sat in his study in the dark so that they couldn't find out. They mustn't know he worried about them; they mustn't know he had a bad heart or that on Wednesday that bad heart was to undergo repairs. He wanted them as carefree as they had been when children, believing their father immortal. She thought for a moment of how it might be for them if he were to die on the operating table, of the abyss that would open before them, and then she put the light out and went to sleep.
She didn't hear the first car come in, but she heard the faint squeak Hope's door made when it was opened more than forty-five degrees. Sarah's car came in noisily and too fast, which probably meant she had drunk too much. Ursula wondered if the newspapers would know whose daughter she was and make something of it when the police caught her one of these nights for driving over the speed limit. The car door banged and the front door shut with almost a slam. Sarah made up for it by creeping up the stairs.
Gerald was almost as quiet. But he was big and heavy and he lumbered when he walked. If the girls heard him, they would think he had gotten up to go to the bathroom. She lay there listening but heard nothing more, and perhaps she slept. Afterward, she wasn't sure, certain only of the silence and peace and that when she put the light on, it had been just after 1:30. The tide was high at 1:50, she had noticed. Not that it made much difference these summer nights when the sea was calm and there was no wind. People said how lovely it must be to hear the sound of the sea at night, but she never heard it. The house might be on the clifftop, but it was still too far away from that creeping shallow sea.
He had had a shock in the afternoon. Realizing this woke her out of a doze. Or something woke her. Perhaps she had dreamed of him, as she sometimes did. She remembered his stillness, his stare. He had walked back to the hotel with those people and something had happened. He had seen something or someone, or something upsetting had been said to him. Shocks shouldn't happen to him, she thought vaguely, and she sat up and put on the lamp. Four. She must have slept. Dawn was coming, a thin gray light making a shimmer around the curtains.
It was then that she heard him. Or he had made that sound before and that was what had awakened her. Her nightdress was a thin thing with narrow shoulder straps. She put on a dressing gown, screwed her long hair up into a knot, and stabbed it with two hairpins.
She had never been in his bedroom. Not in this house. She didn't even know what it was like inside. Daphne Batty cleaned it and changed his sheets, humming pop or rock or country while she did so. Ursula said, "Gerald?"
A gasp for breath. That was what it sounded like. She opened the door. The curtains were drawn back and she could see a pale moon in a pale sky. It was quite light. He was sitting up in the single bed, crimson-faced, his skin sprinkled with sweat.
She spoke his name again. "Gerald?"
He struggled to speak. At once, she knew he was having a seizure, and she looked around for the remedy he had, the nitroglycerin. It might be anywhere. There was nothing on the bedside table. As she went toward the bed, he suddenly threw back his head and bellowed out a roar. It was an animal noise a goaded bull might make, and it seemed to come up through his chest and throat from the very center of his stricken heart. The echoes of it died away and he punched at his chest with his fists, then threw out his arms as his face swelled and grew deep purple.
She went to take his hands, to forget everything and hold him. As she had done once before, as she had done the night he dreamed his trapped-in-a-tunnel dream. But he fought against her. He punched again, this time at her, his eyes bulging as if his eyeballs would burst from their sockets, punching like a maddened child.
Aghast, she stepped back. He drew a long breath, a sound like water gurgling down a drain, liquid and rich and bubbling. The color seeped out of his face, red wine drained out of a smoky glass. She saw it grow pale and slacken, the muscles slip. As the death rattle burst out of him, a clattering salvo of final sound, he fell back into the bed and out of life.
She knew it was death. Nothing else was possible. It amazed her afterward that Sarah and Hope had slept through it all. Just as, when children, they had slept through his screaming when he dreamed of the tunnel. She phoned for an ambulance, although she knew he was dead, and then, unwillingly, fearfully, afraid of her own children, she went to wake them.
Copyright © 1998 by Kingsmarkham Enterprises, Ltd.