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Mr. Porter and the Brother Jones
By Margaret Reinhold
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2001 Margaret Reinhold
All rights reserved.
From the chair in his psychiatrist's consulting room, Mr Alex Porter could, if he turned his head to the right, look through a window and see the trees of Hyde Park.
Whenever he was in disagreement with the views and interpretations of Dr Katzenheimer, he would look to the right and stare at the trees and the sky behind them. Since he had been visiting Dr Katzenheimer three mornings a week for three years, he'd become very familiar with the trees, watching the effects of the seasons and the weather. The trees became woven into the rich texture of his discussions with Dr Katzenheimer. Bare winter branches drenched with rain, thick summer leaves lifted in the wind, were joined to memories of his childhood, his dreams, the present-day torment of emotions, his frustrated love for his sister Vera, his irritations, the petty but hurtful arguments with his cousin Cyril at the office, and his involvement with the family Jones.
This April morning, in direct opposition to Dr Katzenheimer's warnings and advice, he looked to the trees where new leaves shimmered against the spring blue of a delicate sky and he remained silent.
"Drive?" cried Dr Katzenheimer. "How can you possibly drive? You haven't driven a car for years."
It was true. He hadn't felt safe enough to drive a car since his neurotic problems began to cause serious disabilities. All his life he'd been anxious to protect and to preserve, worried about causing hurt or damage. With the development of his illness, his fears became excessive. He dared not take the wheel of a car in case he might carelessly or unknowingly run over a child, another person, an animal, an insect ...
Now he said defensively (his head still turned adamantly away), "It's not something one forgets. I used to be a very good driver."
Dr Katzenheimer gave him an anxious glance. Over the years she'd grown fond of Mr Porter. He was certainly a difficult patient. Immensely resistant to change, he looked on his sessions with Dr Katzenheimer as a kind of contest. Often gloomy, often silent, there was nevertheless something touching about him, an endearing quality hard to define. Was it a naïf innocence or his earnest obsessionalism, his genuine kindness, or his old-fashioned primness, or was it the extraordinary seriousness with which he dealt with his problems, which did, after all, have a slightly comic side? If only he had had just a shred of a sense of humor!
She said sternly, "It'd be as well to make sure you can drive if you really intend to go."
Mr Porter did not reply.
She looked at him with compassion — a middle-aged, lonely, suffering man. His suffering, she knew, was intense, endured with dignity — and, surely, she demanded of Oscar, her husband, there was something admirable about a man whose neurosis was founded on his most vehement, most passionate wish to avoid doing harm to others, to contain and eliminate his aggression — and everyone else's aggression if possible.
"That is to say," she rather incoherently added, "a man who was desperately trying, against all the odds, to make good triumph over evil!"
And before Oscar could tell her she was going too far, she quickly said "Yes, yes, I know, his solution is to accept his aggression."
Something Mr Porter could not do. He rejected Dr Katzenheimer's suggestions on the unconscious significance of his neurosis, her explanations of the rituals he performed in order to establish control, the symbols he'd unconsciously chosen to express the conflict between "good" and "bad."
Yet perhaps some progress was made, for here he was this April morning, planning a wild adventure she would never have believed possible, given the restrictions he imposed on himself.
But then she never would have believed he could have become involved as he did with the family Jones, and in particular with Lilac.
After some minutes, since Mr. Porter remained silent, Dr Katzenheimer decided to speak again.
"A very very long journey," she observed — and added "to drive alone!" Mr Porter now turned to her and responded with irritation.
"Of course, I can manage it. I'll take the best car in the showroom. Vera, or someone in the office, can do the paperwork — green cards — petrol coupons ... whatever one needs these days."
"Fly to Naples and hire a car at the airport," suggested Dr Katzenheimer.
"No! I'll feel better in my own car."
"Motorail, if that's what it's called ..."
Mr Porter was becoming very impatient. "I've considered all that. I shall drive all the way — just as they did."
"So — it's a kind of pilgrimage?"
"I suppose you could call it that."
Dr Katzenheimer hesitated.
"And once you have arrived — assuming you find the place — what then?"
Mr Porter's dark eyes burned more darkly.
"I don't know what then. I'll decide when I get there — if ever I do find the place."
"What if you can't find it?"
He shrugged. "I'll come back, I suppose, but I believe I shall find it."
"Well — I should like to hear how you get on."
He brooded angrily. "You're expecting I shall come to some harm. It must be your aggression towards me that makes you feel like that."
Touchée, she thought. Perhaps he's right. He's basically strong and capable. His weakness is of course assumed to camouflage his aggression.
"Perhaps you're right," she agreed amiably. "There's no reason you shouldn't manage very well, but I should like to hear — a postcard, perhaps, if you're going to stay away for some time."
"I shan't promise," he said brusquely.
He gathered his scarf, gloves, umbrella, and hat from the hall as he left and said more gently, "I may send a card, if my mood allows it."
She accompanied him to the door. He turned just before he went out, his face set in a grimace of pain. "I can not forget Lilac's scream as she fell ..."
Dr Katzenheimer would have put out a hand to him but, knowing he couldn't tolerate that, she said, "I hear it too, as if I'd been there. I'm so very sorry," and with compassion watched his hunched back as he went out into the street.
The journey was certainly long. Mr Porter had chosen, from among all the gleaming metalwork his firm's showroom had to offer, a white Jaguar, a large comfortable car with automatic gear change and a powerful engine. He had the mechanic from the workshop go over it meticulously. It was pronounced to be "in very good shape."
"That doesn't mean that something couldn't suddenly go wrong," Arthur, the mechanic, cheerfully told him, wiping his hands on a bit of dirty rag.
"I know, I know!" snapped Mr Porter, peering uneasily at the massive engine under the open bonnet.
He took the Hovercraft for the Channel crossing. The sea was mercifully smooth. Once through Immigration he set off in the direction of Paris. He intended to circumnavigate the city and make for the motorway to the south. He was driving rather gingerly, but, as he grew more accustomed to the car, his confidence increased. He planned to spend the first night in a leafy little northern town, seeing, in his mind's eye, its grey, rainwashed cathedral and gentle streets. He found his hotel in the middle of the afternoon. They showed him to a large shuttered room with its own vast, old-fashioned bath, the place still smelling of winter dust. He flung the shutters wide, deposited his belongings in his usual neat way, and took a long walk.
An anxious excitement simmered in him yet, now that he had actually started on this journey, he felt that he could contain himself. The anguish of loss, which he experienced intermittently, diminished a little. He walked briskly.
Toward sunset, the clouds blew away, leaving radiant purity in a green sky, which Mr Porter surveyed from the ramparts of the old town. Stars came out as he returned to his hotel.
He ate a frugal supper, waving aside the suggestions of a disbelieving waiter ("Monsieur est malade?") and went to bed.
In the morning, after a bad night, he found, to his astonishment, that the compulsion to follow the old rituals had less of a hold on him. He had brought with him his bran, lemons and tisane, but needed none of them. He drank a bowl of delicious coffee and greedily swallowed a fresh croissant. He was eager to be off. Soon, the white Jaguar could be seen edging through the narrow streets, making for the main road. Now his old driving skill seemed to have returned. Hurrying southward, he joined the motorway. He drove for several hours, stopping only for gasoline and another cup of coffee.
He felt elated as he reached the great vineyards of France, greenly glowing in afternoon sunshine. Once again, finding a hotel in a small town (chosen from the guide for its soundproof rooms), he stopped. Again he walked, again he ate (this time less frugally), and drank a little of a famous wine.
This night he slept well, although for some time beforehand, he lay churning with the familiar tormenting thoughts about Lilac.
By morning he was becoming accustomed to travelling. Feeling confident, he set off briskly. Things were under control, he told himself. He slogged determinedly down the autoroute in the Rhône Valley and arrived in the early afternoon within sight of the sea.
He marvelled at his resilience, at the way his obsessions with food and cleansing had retreated into the manageable background.
The sight of the sea excited him. Since it was so early in the year he could choose where he wanted to stay overnight, without fear that the hotels would be full.
The Mediterranean lay blue and crisply sparkling in a faint breeze. The road was pleasantly free of traffic. The car was running well. His body was behaving like the car — running well and rhythmically, which gave him peace of mind.
He spent the night luxuriously pampered in a great hotel. In the morning, he took a promenade along the sea before setting off again. By now he had moved so far out of his familiar environment, away from the normal restrictions of his habits, that a dreamy languor took the place of his usual anxieties. He strolled under the palms, he breathed the balmy air and sighed with relief. But he must press on.
He crossed the border into Italy and swept along the autostrada towards Genoa, then south, past Lucca, past Pisa, past Rome, on and on. He disciplined himself to rest from time to time and to find a hotel in the early afternoon. He walked, he ate, he slept as he moved steadily nearer and nearer his goal.
Having circumnavigated Naples, he decided that the moment had arrived to leave the motorway and make for the sea. Now came a testing time. He had a last stop at a motorway café, drank an expresso, stretched his legs with a few strides in the sunshine beside his parked car, inspected the silent hills, and thought for the thousandth time that he ought to have rescued Lilac. He ought to have taken her away from Joshua and married her. Would she have married him? He believed it was possible. It would have been one of those father — daughter marriages which would have suited Lilac. Could he have married her? Yes, he thought, if it hadn't been for his disability, his obsession with food and purification now miraculously disappeared or, at least, in abeyance.
He wondered if Dr Katzenheimer would agree with this. She'd probably say he was using his disability as an excuse. He was open to the possibility that he was incapable of the commitment of marriage. But he had loved Lilac so deeply — and he was convinced that she had been fond of him. There was always the question, of course, of Lilac's child. The thought of little Emily gave Mr Porter a moment of bright pain. Joshua almost certainly would have refused to part with Emily. That was understandable, as he'd played such a large part in caring for her from the start. Even so, in marrying Mr Porter, Lilac would have found a solution for her life.
"I could have been more tolerant," he thought, "than Joshua could ever have been — with Katzenheimer's help of course ... Lilac could have been free."
He sighed. Then, climbing into the car and strapping himself carefully into his seat, he set off again. He was not quite sure where he was going. He knew the general direction and he guessed roughly where he might find the place.
He was looking for a small fishing village with a stretch of sand and rocks along the edge of a bay — and a little hotel on the beach. He would know it the moment he set eyes on it. He held a vivid picture of it in his mind, so clearly described by Jerome and, he thought, seen by him in his dream. He experienced the most profound compulsion, an almost uncontrollable need, to find the place. What, as Dr Katzenheimer had asked, would he do when he had arrived — assuming he was able to discover the little hotel? He would decide later.
The afternoon shimmered with the soft light of spring. On impulse, Mr Porter took a sharp right turn towards the coast. He arrived on a road that ran between blue sea and lonely mountains. In the distance, he could see a little village on the shore, blurred and muted by the haze.
A sudden enormous agitation possessed Mr Porter. He was forced to drive more slowly. The scenery exactly fitted Jerome's description and his own dream memory. With heart pounding, he entered the outskirts of the little town, turned a corner and found himself at the harbour of a small port drowsing in afternoon siesta.
Thrilling with premonition, he switched off the engine. This must be it. Taking a deep breath, he alighted. The warm balmy air of the south, a soft breeze from the sea, and the smell of rotting fish enveloped him. He looked around — at the shabby fishing boats drawn up at the jetty, at the little labyrinth of narrow streets beyond the harbour, at the debris of flotsam and plastic rubbish washing against the harbour wall. He had a moment of doubt, heart suddenly sinking. There were probably dozens of similar places. Yet — if he could only find the café or bar ...
He went slowly along the waterfront. A sad cat slept on a high wall and children played noisily in a courtyard. Then he saw it — the open door, the huddle of rough wooden chairs and tables, the row of ancient, half-empty bottles behind the bar.
Two men were sitting here, somnolent, surly, silent. Mr Porter approached. He was shaking with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. He had prepared himself for this moment with the help of an Italian phrase book, but his wits were leaving him.
"Scusi — Signore — per favore ..." he stumblingly began.
The men stared at him sullenly.
"Per favore," Mr Porter began again, now more loudly, "Dove il albergo? Albergo sul mare? Albergo Lido?"
His carefully prepared sentences had vanished. But one of them had understood. He lumbered to his feet.
"Albergo?" He moved menacingly towards Mr Porter at the door. He leaned his head back and narrowed his eyes, pointing with a fistful of hand along the shore.
"Ecco. Due kilometri," he said loudly. "Sempre diritto. Due kilometri." He stared at Mr Porter to see if he had comprehended.
"Prego," the man nodded with a solemn face.
This was the place, then, it had to be.
Mr Porter climbed awkwardly back into the car — then changed his mind. He was too disturbed to drive at this moment. He got out again and set off, walking slowly along the harbour wall.
Now the sun was low in the sky. Soon it would sink beneath the rim of the sea. The misty mountains were tinged with violet, their outlines sharpening. The unwholesome little town became shadowy, the details of poverty and rough living blunted and blurred. The surface of the sea appeared to widen and extend so that the town was dwarfed between the tall mountains behind it and the great sea ahead. Slow waves slapped the harbour wall. The boats rocked gently. Lights came on in the town.
Mr Porter suddenly felt very alone, utterly alienated, totally abandoned. From the corner of the harbour, he stared along the coast. He could see, a short distance away, a small building standing on the shore, a narrow three-story building, windows still stained with the colours of sunset. He must go there. He must get there before dark.
He returned to his car and drove slowly along the narrow road. He drew up at last to the door of a small hotel, from whose welcoming hallway issued light, the sound of voices, and the smell of food.
"Desidero una camera, per favore, con bagno — e sul mare." His voice trembled as he spoke to the man at the reception desk.
Excerpted from Mr. Porter and the Brother Jones by Margaret Reinhold. Copyright © 2001 Margaret Reinhold. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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