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Colin Freestone had not planned to live in northern England. The people here are so passionate and raw that he does not expect to ever understand them or feel at ease. But when his wife, Yvonne, fell sick, she would only accept psychiatric care if she could be near her mother, so Colin had no choice but to move north. As Yvonne wastes away in the hospital, sinking deeper and deeper into a terrifying and incomprehensible madness, Colin tries to make sense of his strange surroundings. He may live here now, but he will never call it home.
To pass the time, he takes a job teaching art at a second-rate college that is headed by a nutrition-crazed dean. Colin makes friends, meets women, and plays tennis, but nothing can distract him from the fact that his wife is slowly dying and he is helpless to stop it.
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A Temporary Life
By David Storey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 David Storey
All rights reserved.
'On the same latitude as what?'
'Omsk,' I tell him.
'Anywhere else?' he says.
'A place I can't pronounce,' I add, 'in Khabarovsk.'
'In North America, of course,' I tell him, 'Queen Charlotte's Island ... Goose Bay.'
'And longitude?' he says.
'Saragossa. Cartagena. Oran in North Africa. Timbuctoo.'
Tall, fair-haired, with a fair moustache, attired in white shorts and a white sweater, in white plimsolls and short white ankle socks – folded neatly over at the top, immediately above the uniformly fastened laces – Hendricks leans back in his canvas chair. He's drinking from a glass of lemonade which I've just brought him from the cafeteria further along the path of the municipal park. Behind us, the man who's responsible for letting out the courts, for supervising the putting as well as the bowling greens, for raising and lowering the tennis nets, is locking up his shop.
The park now is almost deserted. The sun has begun to set, sinking down behind the trees to where the ducks still quack, the geese still honk, the pigeons in the municipal aviary still coo. The cafeteria too, it seems, is closing up. No doubt it's already night in Omsk, and in that unpronounceable city in Khabarovsk. Ships in their respective oceans will be waiting for the sun to set, to rise, to grow stronger, to grow more faint. Together, Hendricks and I have watched it for an hour.
'And all the while,' he says, 'we're sitting here.'
'Fifty-three degrees and thirty minutes north, one degree and thirty minutes west.'
I catch a glimpse of myself in the window of the hut behind, the dark hair cut short, the scarred, thick-boned brows projecting above dark and rather melancholic eyes, the broken nose. I have a rather listless look; my arms hang down, limply, over the edges of the chair. Rust, from the wire-netting fronting the courts, has stained my shirt; damp patches show beneath my arms and round my chest. I ease one leg, cautiously, across the other. The chair is altogether too small for my ample frame. It creaks.
The man emerging from the hut looks up.
'Will you be finished here?' he says.
'Just about,' I tell him. 'Almost done.'
I get up quickly.
The chair, relieved of its burden, has suddenly collapsed.
'What was the score?' he says.
'Two sets to one.'
'I should think, for one thing, Freestone, you need more exercise,' he says, and adds, 'And as for another, a little more skill wouldn't go astray.'
'More skill. More exercise.' I begin to fold the chair.
'Walk back? Or do you want a lift?' he says.
'Walk, I think.'
I lean the chair up against the hut.
Hendricks stoops down: he fastens the string bag containing the tennis balls to the handle of his racket. He tightens up the screws on his metal press.
He seems altogether unmoved, in fact, by the scene before us, the darkening trees, the lengthening shadows, the faint mist which has crept up from the direction of the river. He folds up his chair, hands it to the waiting attendant, then, his racket in one hand and the now empty glass in the other, steps down to the path.
'Sure about the lift?' he says.
'Sure,' I say. I fasten my jacket. 'Cooler now,' I add. 'And stiff.'
'If you did it every day you'd feel much better.'
'Sure,' I tell him. 'I think I would.'
He leaves the glass on one of the metal tables at the front of the cafeteria and walks on towards the gates. One or two other figures can be seen moving off beneath the trees. The nets in the court have already been lowered; the wooden gate leading to the bowling-green is locked. The jaw bones of a whale stand up in a pointed arch above the path.
Our faces, for a moment, fall in its shadow.
'Cape Cod. Antarctica. Greenland's icy shore.'
Hendricks is gazing off towards the gates where, in the shadow of the trees, his car is parked.
'I suppose we ought to play again,' he says.
'Anytime,' I tell him.
'I'll fix it up,' he says.
He swings off the path, feeling in his pocket.
'See you tomorrow, then,' he says.
'All being well,' I tell him.
Moments later a dark blue shape slips out from beneath the trees; a white clad arm is raised then lowered.
The path I've taken leads directly to a hill standing in the centre of the park. Its lower slopes are wooded; a belt of trees is drawn out in a thin arc around its summit. When I reach the intervening area of grass I can see the tennis courts and the bowling-green stretched out immediately below like panes of glass, smooth, their regular shapes half-buried now by shadow. Beyond stands the outer wall of the park itself, the retaining wall to the grounds of an old brick mansion whose tall black chimneys and blackened balustrade are visible, starkly silhouetted, over the furthest slope of an adjoining hill.
As I move higher up the slope the area beyond the park comes into view: hedged fields broken up by odd clumps of trees and the darker outline of isolated buildings rising, some distance off, to the line of hills that mark off the southern limits of the valley.
The mist has thickened; the shadows of the trees have been moulded into a single shape. A band of shadow rises, like water, across the contour of the hill.
I come out, finally, into an open space immediately below the summit. To my right, the valley broadens to a darkening vista of wooded plain and hill-land; to my left it narrows to a silhouetted gorge. Behind me, to the south, lies the shadowed area of tennis-courts and greens and, beyond those, the hedged fields lining the valley bottom. To the north, immediately ahead, appears the sun-lit, emblazoned outline of the city.
I've been conscious for some time of the strange, inferno-like presence of the hill above my head, of the bursting, sun-lit mass of trees, of the encroaching mass of shadow; then, suddenly, as if it might have sprung from the ground itself, I see immediately before me the flame-like structure of the town, the domes and steeples, the vast, brick-fronted towers, caught now by the last, horizontal rays, a glowing, reddened edifice shot here and there with sudden gleams and flashes and lit, along its crest, by a strip of golden light.
Even as I watch the light begins to fade. The darkness creeps up the separate blocks and towers. I feel the dew against my face, and the sudden chilling of the air as the hill itself falls into shadow.
Birds have settled in the trees. Odd shapes are flung up, briefly, against the silhouetted leaves and branches.
I start off down the hill. It's as if an aperture has opened; odd sighs and groans come up from its furthest depths. Above, the last pinnacles of the town still catch the light, long, orange fissures let into the blueness overhead. As I reach the bottom of the hill they too begin to fade; new lights, with fresh shadows, spring up from the growing darkness. Soon only a faint glow, somewhere to the west, remains.CHAPTER 2
'If you drop a line vertically, from the thorax, it should reach a point somewhere near the centre of her left ankle. Providing that her weight,' I add, 'is entirely on that side.'
The model sways. She draws her weight over, wearily, onto her other foot.
'In practice, of course,' I say, 'you may find it's somewhat different.'
I get up from the wooden stool, gaze down at the drawing for a moment longer, then move over to the second stool and wait for the student there to rise.
'Is it time for a rest?' the model says.
She scarcely speaks above a whisper.
'Do you feel like a rest?' I ask.
Her feet are red; her ankles, it seems, are slightly swollen.
'I'm feeling hot,' she says.
'Have five minutes, then,' I tell her.
I get out a cigarette, light it, remember the rule about smoking in the life room, stub it out and cross over to the window. The model shakes her legs, forces her feet into her slippers and climbs down from the platform. Most of the students stay near their stools; one or two lean down, rub out some offending limb or feature, or begin to shade in the bits they like. Outside I can hear Wilcox complaining about some recent damage to the paintwork. 'The damn thing's not been painted a couple of weeks. Do you behave like this at home?' A faint murmur runs through the room as the students wait.
'That's been done by a bloody chisel.'
A fainter, less uncertain voice replies.
'Accident? That's no accident. A mark like that's not done by chance.'
The answering voice replies again.
A door is slammed. The voices fade.
I smell the smoke from a cigarette and look up in time to see a faint blue cloud rise above the curtain drawn across the front of the model's cubicle. The rule about smoking, strangely, I've never questioned; has it got something to do with etiquette – one never smokes, perhaps, in the presence of a naked woman – or with Wilcox's reverential feelings for the room itself: the last bastion of art, as he once described it?
Mentally, I wander off into the adjoining rooms: the library with its shelves of untouched and virtually untouchable books – 'If you want any books apply in writing and, if I think it's worth your while, I'll let you have the keys,' – beyond that, the room with the lithographic presses, the printing presses, the etching baths and etching presses, a foul, fume-ridden place – acids, inks and washing-fluids – for which I have no feeling of any sort at all. Neither have I much feeling for what goes on in the room beyond: dress-design and needle-craft; groups of thin, emaciated girls and fat, broad-chested women pinning strands of coloured cloth to dummies or sitting, round-shouldered, in front of black, foot-pedalled sewing-machines – 'Damned exercise'll do 'em good. Teach 'em to be economic. Won't put a seam in until they're certain,' – laughter – 'How much does that cotton cost a bobbin?'
Wilcox's presence permeates the entire building, like a cloud of smoke, an atmosphere into which one ascends on arrival – up either wing of the bifurcated stairs – and which seems to seep into one's very pores, until you find yourself on leaving taking on the identity of the man himself, thick-necked, broad-chested, delving into cracks and fissures, hauling out a pencil or the stub of somebody's half-smoked cigarette: 'Is there no end to this bleeding rubbish?'
Beyond the dress-designers and embroiderers comes the largest room of all, its interior divided up by a series of paint-encrusted screens. Behind the screens a variety of activities are carried on: lettering, designing, illustration, pictorial composition, anatomy, the study of antiques, still-lifes and plants. Here a certain amount of smoking is allowed simply because Wilcox can't be behind all the screens at once; neither can he be in the lithographic and etching department when he is in the life room; neither can he be in the life room when he's bawling out some student on the stairs.
I'm brought back to the present, in fact, by the sound of the Principal's voice. 'Someone,' he says, having come into the room unnoticed, 'is damn-well smoking. And that, mind you, when that certain someone knows that smoking in this room is damn-well not allowed.'
The faint blue cloud above the model's cubicle drifts slowly off. Perhaps Wilcox is unaware, has failed to notice, that the model is no longer standing on the throne. He strides directly to the centre of the room. 'Ash. Is that ash I can see on there?'
'No, sir. It's from my rubber.'
'Rubber? Rubber? That looks like cigarettes to me.'
He dabs his fingers at the mess.
He gazes over at the chalk-marks where the model's feet have been, then at the students, then, with increasing dismay, he glances at myself.
'See here,' he says. 'What's happened to the model, Freestone?'
'I'm afraid,' I tell him, 'she isn't feeling well.'
'Well? Not feeling well?' He glances round as if he's never encountered this condition in his life before.
'She said she'd carry on,' I tell him.
'Which is very good of her,' I add.
'Good of her?'
The model reappears. She climbs onto the platform, glances down at her chalk- marks, then, fixing her gaze on a point a few inches above the Principal's head, resumes her pose.
'You'll be fetching her cups of tea in next.'
He glances round him once again.
'Somebody's been smoking in here. I don't suppose you've noticed.'
'That's me, I'm afraid,' I tell him. I indicate the cigarette, stubbed out, which I'm holding in my hand. 'A momentary aberration.'
'Aberration?' Wilcox gazes at my hand for several seconds. 'You know the rule about smoking, then, I take it? If we can't set an example ourselves I don't know who damn well can. I spend half my time going round trying to keep this building tidy.'
'More,' I tell him.
'More. That's right,' he says.
Perhaps it's the association of cigarettes, drifting clouds of smoke and the body of a naked woman that Wilcox instinctively recoils from. Almost absent-mindedly I withdraw my fingers from the cigarette and leave it equidistant between us on the window-ledge. I turn my gaze to the window, see, faintly, the Principal's face reflected in the glass, and concentrate my attention on the view outside.
It comprises, very largely, that area of the town with which as yet I'm least familiar. The college, a prominent, square-shaped building, stands near the centre of the town, looking out over the roofs of the nearest buildings towards the park. Hedged fields, low hillocks, clumps of trees and odd, isolated copses, stretch out in a broad perspective towards a distant line of heath and hills.
'It's not only the smoking,' Wilcox says. 'Somebody's been scratching at the paint outside.'
Clearly, he's come to a decision about the cigarette. I can even feel a certain amount of sympathy for him when I consider the effort required on the Principal's part not to snatch at the offending object – a certain degree of violence invariably accompanies the disposal by Wilcox of a piece of rubbish – crush it, and drop it in his pocket.
'I've a damn good idea it's been done by one of these damn chisels. They come up here at home-time and put them in their lockers. They know damn well they're supposed to stay downstairs.'
He pauses, in illustration, listening for any sounds from the sculpture room below.
My own thoughts move on, first to the pottery room beyond, then to the room beyond that given over to the gas-fired kiln, then to the room and passageway beyond that given over, on certain afternoons and evenings, to sign-writing and interior decorating.
'The damn building'll drop to bits if I don't keep going round,' he says. 'As it is we don't come very high on the priority list of that so-called – though I don't know why – education committee over yonder.' He gestures at the window now himself.
'It needs someone to keep them on their toes,' I say.
'Toes? Bloody backsides I should think's more like it. When it comes down to it there's not one in here, or over there, that does a proper job of work.'
He pauses again. The silence of the room is undisturbed, save, that is, for the scratching of the students' pencils, the odd sighs of frustration, the thudding of a rubber against a board.
'It's the time they take over the work. Not to mention the work itself. Spend two minutes on a bit of hardboard – never mind your canvas – and think they've done a Mona Lisa. Two hours with a bit of wire and plaster and you'd think they'd turned out a John the Baptist.'
'Yes,' I say. I nod my head.
'Too hot, is it,' he says, 'or cold?' He indicates the model's heater: two rectangular metal sheets set one above the other on a metal stand.
'Warm enough, I think,' I tell him.
The model nods.
'Think on about the smoking. I don't mind it in the staff room. I draw a line at it in here.'
He glances over at the model, coughs, lengthily, as if overwhelmed entirely by the atmosphere of the room, and then, still coughing, crosses to the door.
He lets it shut behind him.
A murmur of relief runs through the room.
'Thanks, Mr Freestone, for getting me off the cigarette,' the model says.
'That's all right,' I tell her. I hold up the one I've started smoking. 'My mistake as well.'
'Dying for a smoke,' she says, swaying now, wearily, from one foot to the other.
Excerpted from A Temporary Life by David Storey. Copyright © 1973 David Storey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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