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By Geoffrey Household
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Geoffrey Household
All rights reserved.
I AM BEING FOLLOWED. I do not know by whom or what.
It cannot be nothing. I cannot convince myself that it is imagination. I look back. Never in my life have I suffered from paranoia or a persecution complex or whatever name a psychiatrist would give to this delusion. Meg registers that I am not ill, and she is not afraid. That means nothing. She is by nature fearless. She would stand on her hind legs and chatter at a lion, and the lion, I think, would find business elsewhere.
It is not a delusion. Could a delusion make me run, run with a few necessaries from a house I love and trust, leaving behind a feebly lying note? Behind every door it was waiting for me. What was waiting for me? Nothing! But no house is safe. Houses have walls; one cannot see what is in the next room. That is why I have taken to the open. I can see around me.
Then why am I not more afraid at night? I am not. Day and night I am steadily afraid. I do not know any malaise in my life with which I can compare this incubus. Indigestion perhaps, with its continual weight of which one is conscious. But that is merely discomfort. The weight of fear is different.
Fear of what? Not of death. The fear of death is healthy, natural, easily to be overcome by faith or courage or loyalty. An animal, I presume, has no conception of death. When threatened it runs. The genes, passionate for survival, make it run. That is what I am like: a doomed animal running. Being a man, I want to know why. Yet all I can tell is that the threat is to my mind, my very conscious self, not—or not directly—to my body. But obviously if this goes on much longer the destruction of the personality must lead to destruction of the body in the end.
That is why I am writing: to save what can be saved. The analysis forced by written words should be as effective as answering the questions of a psychiatrist. One is compelled to make sense of the unintelligible, if only to oneself. Already I see that I cannot be other than sane. Only a sane man would stop at a village shop and buy a notebook in which to record his insanity.
I am thirty miles from home, on the Purbeck Hills. I am one with my land. Under my body is short grass and thyme, and beneath me is an ancestor—for I am resting on a tumulus of the dead—who loved as I do. I am alone with the wind and yet within sight, as in a dreamed landscape, are all the activities of man. To the northeast is Poole Harbour, a setting of deep browns and greens for the uncut diamond of the water flecked with white sails of yachts. To the west is mile after mile of farmland and village; and beyond, cut off from sight by the waves of downland, are the valleys of grey and emerald, fine timber and churches and water meadows which I cannot see but know are there, like the smile behind the eyes of a beloved woman. To the south is the sea, the emptiness of the sea from the Needles to Portland Bill, the blue, happy surface where there is no mystery and beneath it only peace.
I don't like this place. I have been followed here.
All right, all right! So you were followed. What by? The singing of the larks? Now are you more satisfied, tucked away in the cover of this hanger beneath the northern slopes after running again for your life, this time emptying bowels and bladder and quite unaware of it till you crouched down? It's going to take time to find you, isn't it? You bloody fool, do you think you are a rabbit? And didn't you write, when you were up there in the open, that the fear was not of death?
Agoraphobia. Only at ease in a closed place or with a companion. Well, I refuse any companion except Meg. The unknown would not go away. I know that. The last time I called on Rita—hope of comfort?—I was continually looking over my shoulder and I thanked heaven that she was a woman and went first through doors. No, no companion for me in my present state! I am unfit for a companion, so it is not agoraphobia but some other form of mild insanity.
To be attacked through the receptors of one's brain is for self-conscious man worse than any bodily attack. For an animal it is no more than the wordless recognition that it had better run or freeze. Or fight? But that is rare in nature, unless against man or for a mate. Yet it is what I should do—fight! Perhaps I am fighting already. Perhaps the mere buying of this notebook is the declaration of war.
But fight what? Well, I am safe in cover, watched but not closely. I will go back over my recent life. Paddy's death three weeks ago—could it be Paddy's death which is affecting me? It was my car that killed him, but as I was not in it at the time I could hardly feel guilt even subconsciously.
No, it's not that. Remembering Paddy calms me. Whatever is stalking me, whether inside me or outside, does not like thoughts of Paddy, so I will write about him. Go away! I am not here. I am in the past.
He was a saddler and a devoted craftsman, known throughout the county. Considered as a plain tradesman he was exasperating, for you could never be sure of finding him in his shop. When you did find him you wouldn't get out under half an hour. Meanwhile he would work on whatever you had brought in to be mended or help you to define what you needed by making a rough drawing of it. It was often best to be last in the queue for his services. The latest job was done immediately while less urgent leatherwork might hang about in the shop for months.
That was because he was so often away. Over the forty years of his working life he had built up a reputation among horsemen for more than bridles and saddles. I imagine it could have started while he measured some temperamental two-year-old and the horse was calm and interested as any man at a fashionable tailor. However that may be, the word went round among a small, knowledgeable circle—had even gone across the Channel—that Paddy was a genius with problem horses of superb breeding but little value. Whether the difficulties were minor but exhausting patience, such as ungovernable refusal to be clipped, rasped or shoed, or whether they were fundamental failures in breaking or training, Paddy might be asked to try his hand or give his advice. Close at home he would spend hours on a child's pony and charge nothing. For more distant or more celebrated customers he had, I believe, no fixed fee; they could make out the cheque for whatever they liked. And they must have liked. He was very comfortably off for a saddler in a small country town.
He was the most Christian character I have ever met, if one can call him so when he never went to church and had no apparent interest in religion. He assumed everyone to be as full of benevolence as himself without asking what laws, beliefs or upbringing made them so, and took altruism as the natural state of any animal, including man. In his presence that seemed to be true, and the aura was pervasive. He was known to be careless with money and his shop was easy to break into from the quiet lane behind, but nobody ever tried it. We had a fair quota of juvenile delinquents always on the lookout for anything that could be nicked without much risk, yet they left Paddy alone. Perhaps they thought there must be a catch in it somewhere or perhaps they were afraid of Meg.
Meg is a wild polecat, about a foot long not counting the tail, her colour blending with dark woodland earth when out for blood, handsomely black when at ease. Paddy told me that he had picked her up in Wales, only survivor of a litter which had been disgracefully but justifiably exterminated by an angry pony-breeder who was also a turkey farmer. Thereafter the pair were inseparable. He took Meg for walks occasionally to keep her fit and give her the satisfaction of killing a rabbit, but the polecat's usual place was in the workshop or in a large inner pocket of Paddy's coat. She must have been the runt of the litter for she is still small for her breed. She never attempted to escape. Acquired characteristics had largely overcome instinct. Paddy was the only parent she knew and a Divine Polecat; what it did must be right.
I never heard of her attacking anyone, but it could be disconcerting suddenly to see movement as an apparent parcel of black saddle stuffing uncoiled and humped itself across the floor of the workshop like a giant, furry caterpillar. Paddy always encouraged me to handle and play with her. When he was away on one of his journeys he would give me the key of the workshop and ask me to drop in with Meg's breakfast and supper. Chopped heart or kidney it was. No nonsense of the bread-and-milk of ferret feeding. Paddy wanted the full sensitivity of an out-and-out carnivore. So Meg came to accept me as the chosen priest of her god. I got a gentle nip from her once in a way if she was out of temper or indeed if I was. She has always been uncannily responsive to mood.
Paddy's will left everything to some niece of his with the exception of small bequests to friends. I found that he had left me Meg. Or not quite that. He was too courteous to put anyone under an obligation which might be unwelcome. He had merely requested me to look after Meg if I wasn't disinclined. Like all the Mustelidae she is highly intelligent and outrageously playful. A favourite sport is hide-and-seek. She chatters with pretended fury when caught, striking like a snake at the hand held out to her without ever drawing blood. She will then climb ecstatically on to my head, prospecting for more amusement in middle earth. I know I cannot communicate with her as Paddy did, but she is gradually teaching me much more than her games.
Paddy himself had the profound, inborn understanding of animals which primitive man has never lost. He never forgot that he too was an animal, so that his remarks were always revealing. To explain motives and behaviour he looked inside himself rather than to detailed study followed by conjecture. He resembled my blood brother of the forest who taught me years ago to attempt unity with any living creature—to think as it might, to feel as it does, to mimic its movement.
Yes, it helps to remember Paddy and the past and further back into the past, so it may be good for me to form a picture of myself—or what was myself—from the outside. Seldom ill, thank God, and as fit as ever I was. Retired from the Indian Army. That description makes me, I know, a creature of inscrutable past and causes puzzled stares since it implies that I must be in my seventies while I am only in the early forties. It was not, of course, the imperial Indian Army but the present army. National Service as a sapper led me into cartography. Volunteered for Malaya because mountains were more fun to map than Salisbury Plain. Indian Government was seeking qualified surveyors and cartographers, and I was accepted. Liked the country. Was invited to stay on. Finished up as an official cartographer at GHQ, which inevitably gave me the rank of colonel. The young jemadars I trained appear to have been fond of me; what is certain is that I was fond of them. Perhaps they took the place of the sons I might have had if my wife had not died so young and in my arms.
I returned permanently to England after my father's death. The decision was not easy. But I am the last of a very long line and the call of the country and county and home of my ancestors was too strong. To be afraid of that house, how insane!
I must try to avoid that word. Words have authority.
Have I any guilt at selling off the land? I see no reason why I should have. I am not a farmer. Perhaps I could have been, starting early enough, since I am not content unless I am creating something; but creation to me is a thing of the mind, not hard, physical labour which is fine as relaxation but deadens sensitivity. It's odd how a snatch of conversation can suddenly reveal or exemplify a truth. One of my neighbours, coming upon me when I was terracing and manuring a bank for vines said: 'Always working, I see.' I replied without a thought: 'No, I am idling.'
I wanted, have always wanted to paint. As a boy I was well taught and had a hobby for life. And so when I came home I took to it as a profession, keeping the house of my ancestors, the parkland and the wood across the valley, but letting the grazing and selling all the outlying parts of the estate. Today I am near to living by my art, but the decision to give myself freedom to develop without bothering whether I sold my work or not was, I am sure, right.
As a painter I belong to no school and shall never be among the great. I am a translator. It is my business to make other eyes see what my own eyes see—in fact to translate my joy and the mystery of it. Often, I know, I fall into mere prettiness; but sometimes on a great day when light and nature combine into a unity appreciable by every living thing within the landscape, then the result, I am told, is curiously haunting and unforgettable.
Can it be that which haunts me—a personification of my own occasional power? I do not think so. I should surrender to it. I should not be deadly afraid.
And I have tried to be of use. It is perfectly possible to accept the two clear disciplines: one of the craft and one of the society accepted by my ancestors. I have the simplicity of a dutiful and happy dog. I cannot detect in that self anything out of the ordinary, anything abnormal. 'Men like Alfgif Hollaston are the backbone of the English countryside,' said some pompous chairman introducing me. Is he? Well, he's got a slipped disc in these days.
That's better, old son! I don't think it likes humour.
Giving it personality, are you? Crazier than ever! But that may be the right way of looking at it. A person can be fought. I can still keep an open mind. That's one of my few virtues I am sure of. I am full of curiosity, as full as Meg. I rule out nothing and judge a theory—religion, for example—on its merits. Does it give results or doesn't it?
Paddy's death. I return to that. The police have never found out the cause of it, and I am no nearer a solution than at the time. In these days my curiosity is more occupied by his Meg, who suggests so many answers to questions but, like a computer, is limited to yes or no.
Paddy was killed on the night of May 12 while walking along the Pidge: a narrow, winding lane forming a long loop off the main road and returning to it. It serves only two farms, one at each end, so that the middle is pretty well deserted except by pedestrians out for a quiet country walk and riders on the wide grass verges. I cannot begin to guess what Paddy was doing on the Pidge after dark and on foot. A night spent in communion with animal life is likely. Badgers? Bats? Moths? Or had he been out there earlier in the day and was searching for something he had lost from his pocket?
He was found next morning in the middle of the lane. He had been struck by a car, run over and killed instantly. The driver might have had his lights out, but even so in the utter silence Paddy must have heard the car and could easily have moved on to the grass verge out of the way.
It was an obvious case of manslaughter and a possible case of murder. A tenable theory was that Paddy had set out to a secret meeting on the Pidge—a perfect spot for it—and had been deliberately assassinated. Loved though he was by everyone in Penminster, he could well have made some enemies elsewhere in the jealous, horsy world; but police, after enquiries among his friends and customers, were strongly against anything of the sort. However inexplicable the accident, a local man familiar with the Pidge and using it for some illegal purpose was probably involved.
And then the wildest bit of good luck or bad luck, according to how one looks at it! For a couple of days before Paddy's death I had been running with a spare on the left front wheel. It happened to be an old but hardly used radial tyre with a distinctive tread unlike the other three. When I drove into the Penminster garage where they had been mending the puncture on my regular wheel the proprietor said to me with some embarrassment that he was sorry but he had been asked to report to police immediately if any car came in with three well-used tyres and one new radial. Of course I had no objection and went off to lunch at the Royal George. When I returned a police van was in the garage courtyard with three experts round my car. They told me at once that my car had killed Mr Gadsden, cautioned me and asked if I would care to make a statement. Behind the bumper they had found a trace of blood and a shred of cloth which matched Paddy's trousers. In the tread of a tyre was imbedded one of Paddy's teeth. There was no doubt that it was my car which had struck Paddy and that the off back wheel had crushed his jaw and neck.
Excerpted from The Sending by Geoffrey Household. Copyright © 1980 Geoffrey Household. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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