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BrianAldiss Walcot

BrianAldiss Walcot


Published in 2009 by Goldmark Uppingham, Rutland Telephone 01572 821 424 Copyright Š Brian Aldiss 2009 isbn 978-1-870507-27-1 Book design by Douglas Martin Set in Monotype Spectrum Printed and bound in Great Britain

To Ro nnie and Ruth w ith love and g ratitud e amid all the wo rld’s oo mska God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world. Fr ancis Baco n: Novum Organum

Contents PART ONE i

Barefoot 1


An Adult Breath 9


Almost Drowned 17


An Absolute Slave 21


‘Bloody Cripples!’ 26


Earth Sciences 43

vii The New Widow 59 viii Kendal, of All Places 73 ix

A Good Old Row 92


A Slight Change of Plan 98


Carnage on the Road 108

xii ‘War or No War . . .’ 117 xiii ‘We’re Okay Here . . .’ 120 xiv Over the Boundary 127 xv

Le Forgel 130

xvi A Lesson in Aristotle 136 xvii The Wehrmacht Pays a Visit 146


Part One

part one

[i] Barefoot At high tide, the sea lapped close to the dunes, leaving little sand to be seen. The remaining sand above the high tide mark was as fine as sifted salt. Spikes of marram grass grew from it like quills from a porcupine. No stones were visible. The small waves, white and grey, seethed against their limits. How lonely it was, this wild coastline. When the tides began their retreat, they revealed first a line of pebbles, grey and black. The pebbles gleamed like jewels until the sun dried them, when they became as grey and inert as if they had grown rapidly old and died. Occasionally among the stones lay a small, dead crab, its up-turned belly the respectable white of death. The pulse of the sea appeared to quicken; its faltering waves had left the slopes of the beach and were now retreating over level territory. Venturing down to follow this august daily event, you found your feet sinking into the wet sand, and so you kept moving. The sand squelched with every step you took, turned pale, went dark. Went slurp. Stretches newly revealed were bare, immaculate, except perhaps for that baby crab, soft to the touch as you bent down to it. What caused it to die? Did crabs become ill? Everything about you shone with a joyous newness.


The small ripples of waves as they rolled back towards their mother sea were transparent, and consequently looked as golden as the sand beneath them. They were so beautiful it was essential to pat them with bare feet, to jump up and down in them, splashing. So you followed this grand revanche, as if you, too, were determined to get back into the real sea. You were hopping about in a world of ceaseless movement; these waves, or very similar waves, would never stop, would still be rolling back and forth in their interplay with the beach for eternity, or until you grew up, whichever time was the nearer. You felt very close to eternity because everything here was marvellous, and in this year before the nineteen-thirties had dawned, you had the entire beach all to yourself. Look to left, look to right. Along the great expanses of beach, not a single person was to be seen. All through that slumbrous summer you were there, playing on the sands. And in those bygone summers the sun shone always overhead, undeterred by cloud. The sun was there when you arrived on the dunes in the morning, pausing and taking in the whole wonderful spectacle, and when you departed in the late afternoon; at that time, the red ball of it was only just beginning to slope down towards those dunes. The retreating waves swirled about a fishing boat. It was Mr North’s boat, anchored on the sand. Mr North, rowing strongly, went out in it at night, when you were in bed asleep, with your arms about your golliwog. The sea eroded a bowl in the sand round the stern of the boat before retreating further, to leave the craft high and dry, a perch for the odd seagull. At last the wavelets left the dunes as far away as possible. Their strength exhausted, they sank back into the embrace of 2

the sea. The sea made little fuss as it swallowed them. This was the enchanted, the bronze, the salty and sublime, the interminable and august month of August, when everything is in compliance. The blue morning sky overhead was occasionally flecked with ribs of thin cloud, into which the sun was as yet still climbing. Every day was calm and hot, in both reality and memory. Very distant were the dunes, shallow as the breasts of an adolescent girl. They were perhaps half a mile from the lip of the sea. The sea was perceived as friendly, luxurious, playful, puppyish. You wore only a bathing costume and a round, grey, felt hat. You were completely solitary. You were able to exercise your imagination, free from interference. One year, you had a small wooden boat, which went exploring and survived many hazards. On that stretch of fresh sand, firmer now, baked to the brown of the crust of one of your mother’s pies, what adventures could be had! This was a newly discovered land, yours alone. It was the beginning of the world on which as yet no plant could grow, no animal would tread. And there were rivers on this new-found land, miniature Amazons which wound towards the sea, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, delta-like. They carved cliffs an inch high in the damp sand as they went. A spade, a wooden spade, could deflect some of their tributaries. The sea, in its munificence, had also left behind, to punctuate this generous plain of sand, pools of various shapes and sizes. The sun glinted on them, spilling diamonds and daggers. You could lie in these pools; they were warm baths, more luxurious than any man-made bath. Little fishes were trapped here. Shrimps would come and tickle your toes. Sometimes you 3

splashed, but never made much noise. You were in a secret, far-away land, where it was polite to be silent. You were encompassed, though, by a great shell of sound, sung by the sea in its conversation with itself; this was the resonant music of your happiness – though you were frequently unaware of it, or even of the fact that you were happy. To either side of you the beaches stretched hazily into the distance, to Happisburgh in one direction, to Bacton in the other. No one was to be seen, even as far as all the way to where the view dissolved into vibrations of heat, nor was any ship to be spotted out to sea. Nothing lay between you and this unveiled nature, which would last for only a few hours, until the tide came rushing back to reclaim its territories, spilling over itself in rude haste.

You arrived barefoot on the beach. You had with you a rubber pail and a little paper Union Jack on a stick, a wooden spade and a bun wrapped in greaseproof paper in case you became hungry during the hours you are alone here. Your mother baked the bun. You meant to repay her generosity by taking her back swarms of shrimps in your pail. She would throw the shrimps into boiling water and you would eat them together, on brown bread and butter, for tea. You were always distressed to see the shrimps go into the boiling water, although your mother told you that they died instantly. The idea of dying instantly held no appeal to a small boy only four years old. You did not know what it meant. You spent days alone on the sands last summer, when you were only three. Your mother remained in the bungalow and read romantic novels by Norah Lofts, borrowed from the li4

brary. Norah Lofts and Ethel Mannin; of the two, she preferred Norah Lofts. You stayed with her in a bungalow named ‘Omega’, which belonged to the family. You believed Omega to be the name of a flower, even when you were told it meant ‘The End of Things’. The bungalow was built, in a way, at the end of things. The country seemed to you utterly remote. It was rare for anything but a farm cart to pass along the road at the foot of Omega’s garden. The bungalow stood at one side of a pathway dignified by the name of Archibald Lane. When you walked up Archibald Lane towards the sea, you had a cornfield on your right. In those distant days, cornfields were gay, with red poppies and blue cornflowers, the seeds of which went into the bread to make it tastier. At the top of the lane, just before the dunes, stood two old railway carriages, joined together to make one long carriage. Here lived the North family: a mother, a father and two quite big boys with sandy-coloured hair. They all had freckles. Your mother mistrusted people who lived in old railway carriages, but you were fascinated by them. You enjoyed being in the carriages, sometimes running from end to end in your excitement. Mrs North and her boys were kind to you. She sometimes sat you down and gave you a cold sausage to eat. Mrs North was freckled and pretty. Her eyes were blue. She wore an old blue apron. The North family were remarkably cheerful. You laughed a lot when you were together. Mr North was a fisherman; his was the boat high and dry on the sands. He slept in the day, when tides were low. Sometimes when you were alone on the beaches for all the hours of the day, especially when the tide came racing in, you might turn and see Mrs North standing on the dunes, 5

watching for you, shielding her blue eyes with a brown hand. You would wave. She would wave back. You were busy. You were building a splendid castle on the edge of one of the warm pools. You were kneeling, determined to get the towers just right, when the water started to lap about your knees. You ignored it. You knew what it implied, but you are concentrating on getting the castle to look its best before the invading tide washed it all away. The castle was completed. You stood up. Waves were racing across the acres of sand, covering them. You watched them, fascinated by the speed of the race. Soon the waters were dashing against the walls of your castle. It began to crumble. A tower fell into the flood. You removed the paper flag from the still surviving tower and put it in your pail with the shrimps. You collected up your spade. It was time to move to safety; but you wanted to watch the destruction of the splendid castle. It was a pity your mother was not there to see and admire it, but the beaches did not interest her. The castle succumbed slowly. You knew you had better go; it was not so easy. You floundered through a pool now flooded by the new waters, then there was a deep gully to negotiate before you could reach the safe, dry slope of the higher beach. The gully looked deep and menacing now. You waded in. The current was fierce; it carried you sideways. You held pail and spade high. There was an unexpected pool underfoot. You staggered and went under. In your unwanted ducking, the shrimps were reprieved from the pot and the paper flag was washed away. You could see it go, but you were too frightened to do more than struggle for the safety of the shore. The rank water you swallowed in your ducking made you cough and splutter. 6

Once you were on the dry sand, you were cross with yourself for being frightened. Some way out to sea now, you could see a safe stretch of sand. But it was inaccessible, separated from the shore by a waste of water which heaved and tumbled in a hostile manner. Would you say that this was the period of your life when you felt yourself to be closest to Nature? Those sun-drenched, soul-drenched days alone? You believe I was in touch with all that was grand yet transitory. But who can speak for a lad only three years, four years old, when one’s psyche is not yet developed? What did you think about, there on the sands all day? Did you feel you were being encompassed by a great soul? I doubt I was even aware of time – only of time as local, affecting the comings and goings of the sea at Walcot, and the possible arrival of teatime. So you were sent to play on the beach? I believe that was the case. Yes. The sea and the time bound to destroy the finest castle you might build? Of course. It was in the nature of things. You sat and watched as the tide raced in. Well, you would be back again tomorrow, when that new world, ever fresh, would be revealed once more. Tomorrow, the little pools, the arcane rippling and ribbing of the sand, would be there anew; only you would be there to appreciate them. And there was still a whole week before the holiday had to end. You looked up at the mackerel sky and it was then that there was a disturbance in the thin cloud, and a golden bird came speeding down. When it stood before you you could see that it was in fact vaguely human in form, seeming youthful, despite its long beard. You observed that it had no genitals. 7

It spoke. ‘Have you been good today?’ You did not know what exactly to answer. It was obvious to you that opportunities for being ‘bad’ were strictly limited when you were alone on the beaches. ‘Are you a Christian?’ it asked. You were forced to go to Church every Sunday. You had been given a little book into which you could stick a pretty stamp to mark each attendance. You recited the rhyme printed in the blank spaces. Every stamp cries Duty done! Every blank cries Shame! Finish what you have begun In the Saviour’s Name. The golden thing seems satisfied with this response. ‘Do you say your prayers?’ You would have preferred it to have asked if you had enjoyed the day, but it had only tedious questions, such as those the local vicar might ask. ‘Yes,’ you said. ‘Do you wish to get to Heaven?’ it asked. Again it was difficult to know what to answer. The day had been like heaven, with nobody to order you about, or be miserable at you. ‘Not yet,’ you said. ‘Not while we’re enjoying Walcot.’ The golden thing stood there. It finally said, ‘Your time will come.’ And then it zoomed back into the sky. You watched it until it vanished. You decided to run home. You told your mother, ‘Mummy, I just saw God.’ Your mummy said you must not tell lies. 8

‘Perhaps it was just an angel. It was all gold.’ Your mummy frowned and asked if you had caught any shrimps. ‘Does God have a weewee, mummy?’ you asked. Your mummy threw a Norah Lofts at you. ‘Don’t be so rude, you little so-and-so!’ The Norah Lofts missed you. You silently thanked God that Mummy never had a good aim.

part on e

[ii] AnAdult Breath Your mother liked being in Omega. She decorated it according to her own tastes. The living room was fairly dark; it had only one small window which looked towards the cornfields. It had hip-high wooden panelling painted a deep brown, thus adding to the darkness of the room. To offset this, your mother had scattered orange cushions about on the chairs and settee. She also had, stationed at strategic points, a number of gleaming copper jugs which she polished regularly. And there was a fine brass lamp with a frosted white shade and a clear glass chimney which she lit at dusk. The lamp shed its cosy light over part of the room. There was no electricity available within several miles of Omega. The walls above the wooden panelling were painted white, and here your mother had hung a number of reproductions of paintings of flowers in bowls and vases. The paintings were glazed and bound in passe-partout. They most typically showed 9


Extract from the new novel by Brian Aldiss


Extract from the new novel by Brian Aldiss