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The Tiger in the Tiger Pit
By Janette Turner Hospital
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2015 Janette Turner Hospital
All rights reserved.
Anger's my meat, I'll sup upon myself ...
Lately lines from Coriolanus and Tim on of Athens and Macbeth, the angry plays, had begun to surface in his mind like breath-starved divers rocketing up for air. And all his life he had been such a courteous and correct gentleman, right up until his seventieth birthday a little over three years ago when nothing remarkable had happened to make him so suddenly cantankerous — unless he counted a few discordant shrieks of mortality from his heart and the news about Adam who was, no doubt, a very ordinary boy. And perhaps he should count the occasional random reappearances in dreams of a woman who was not at all ordinary, whose face launched in him a thousand illicit memories and regrets.
O! full of scorpions is my mind ...
These were his inspirational thoughts, soothing as whiskey Ah yes, there had been a time when he used to indulge in classroom declamations of the more extravagant lines — Mark Antonys oration, Romeo s lament over Juliet in the crypt, Hamlet's anguish, that sort of thing — with the inevitable snickers from one or two in the class but with most of the children hooked, their eyes alight with theatre magic. A long time ago, all that.
He wondered if Emily would bring Adam to see him on Sunday. How old would the child be now? Eight. He had an eight-year-old grandson whom he had never seen, of whose existence he had been unaware until three years ago. He could feel the rage of a lifetime rising in him like a thrombosis swelling and flowering and unfolding its clotted petals.
Hence, rotten thing, or I shall shake thy bones out of thy garments!
He recited that inwardly as his brooding eyes looked out on yet another morning arrogant with early summer. And as though on cue, Bessie moaned a little with the abrasiveness of waking, rolled her old bones out of bed, and shuffled slowly downstairs to make coffee. He was elated, his blood unknotted itself, he felt gifted with arcane potency.
He kicked back the bedding, snarling at his legs so obscenely shrunken and gnarled. There were veins branching like deformed walnut trees. Iago! he hissed. He had begun to hold insulting conversations with his body since it had chosen to go its own defiant way. Just as his children had done. He was a well-mocked man.
With the help of his canes, he heaved himself across to his chair by the window. The pacemaker went berserk and he thumped the tin box in his chest with contempt. There was something pleasurable about the way it — Iago, his body — winced.
Bessie kept the row of little bottles on the windowsill and he shook from them, one by one, his daily dose. A red tablet, a yellow tablet, a capsule full of multicoloured dots. For his heart, for his liver, for God knew what. Iago-fodder.
With his good eye he took a careful sighting and flicked them one by one through the rip in the screen. His flicking finger was as keen as it had been sixty years ago when he could win every marble in the ring. And then of course he used to give them all back, every last little coloured glass ball, to the kids who looked crestfallen or pathetic. Or who looked as if they might tell. Oh he was a real Robin Hood, scared to death of not being good. His troubles had started early. By the tender age of ten he had already been hopelessly — and fearfully — committed to a life of moral rectitude.
If he missed the jagged tear in the screen and hit the mesh, the tablets would bounce back like concussed athletes off a tram-poline. He punished himself by eating them. Though sometimes he cheated by enlarging the hole and trying again. He aimed for the forsythia or the lilacs that stretched in a shaggy undisciplined curve all the way to the old gazebo. He had to concede that the tablets were beneficial. His morale was certainly up at medication time, his energy level was up. He had some hope of poisoning the bushes by the end of the growing season. The lilacs in particular enraged him, all that exhibitionistic flamboyance. They reminded him of his son, Jason, and of his younger daughter, Emily.
He watched a translucent cluster of pale mauve blossoms shudder from the impact of a crimson pellet. In a matter of days, he consoled himself, the lilacs would be nothing but foliage and unsightly brown cones. But he, Edward Carpenter, retired school principal of Ashville, Massachusetts, would still be there. Endurance was everything.
His wife came into the room with the breakfast tray. It seemed to him monstrous that Bessie, who had been sweet and stupid all her life, should be able to negotiate stairs alone.
Caged! he thought with a fury that was no good at all for his heart. Caged. With a senile smiling keeper. At times he had to restrain himself from punching out the screen with his bare fists and catapulting his body over the sill for the sheer pleasure of unimpeded movement. It was a seductive ending: to lie broken-backed in the smashed lilacs, mouth full of warm June mud, taking a host of living things with him, vengeful as Samson.
How delightfully embarrassing and humiliating it would be for Jason.
Dr Jason Carpenter's father passed away floridly and florally in the the town of Ashville where he had been school principal for far too many years, having overreached himself like an aging Icarus and fallen to earth at last. He requested that there be no flowers ...
"Have you taken your tablets, Edward?"
He saw her lips moving. He hated the way she had begun to mumble to herself.
"What? Speak up, Bessie! Damn it, woman, if you can climb stairs you can speak clearly."
"You're not wearing your hearing aid," she said mildly, pointing to it.
So. He had forgotten again. Not that he would need it if she didn't muffle up her words so wilfully.
"If you would stop mumbling!" Shouting to give authority to a voice that reached his own ears on a fading note. He plugged himself in to the fractious world.
She smiled. And why the ironic tug at the corners of her mouth? Arrogant woman, nursing a fantasy of superiority all these years. To think he had wasted a lifetime being faithful to her. What had it profited him, this careful shepherding of his soul? What had he gained? A whole world, a life irretrievably lost.
What I want, he thought passionately, is a last Faustian toss with the Devil. My exemplary life in exchange for the freedom to sin. Seventy-three years of keeping the rules bartered for one fresh temptation and the strength to yield to it.
Three children were rolling a rubber ball back and forth along his stretch of sidewalk while two mothers, their hands resting on occupied strollers, stood talking. The ball rolled on to his lawn and a little girl ran after it. Her laughter surrounded her like a cloud of bells. How beautiful children were, with their thistledown hair and their translucent skin. How he hated them. Perhaps he would even hate Adam whom he had vowed never to see. Surely Emily would bring the boy with her on Sunday. If Emily came at all. She must certainly realise that he had not meant ... well, he had meant it at the time, the night he had raged in New York, but given half a chance he would not mean it. If she had any perception at all, she would realise that.
If Emily did not bring Adam he thought that the pacemaker would not help much. He would be too proud to reproach or beg. His systems would simply shut down.
Below him, the little girl had retrieved her ball but her attention had been caught by the gazebo, a domed octagon veiled in a tangle of honeysuckle. She climbed its rickety steps and stood on the bench that ran around the inside, her face peering out between swaying green tendrils.
Edward leaned forward, his forehead pushing against the screen so that it bellied out like a spinnaker before the wind. He did not know if he was more shocked by this intrusion into his past (he saw Marta's face, he saw Victoria's face, staring at him from the same gazebo, the same honeysuckle), or more afraid that the child would fall through the rotting benchwood and injure herself.
He thought of shouting harshly: Little girl! If you set foot in my gazebo again, I'll cut off your legs!
The words eddied up from childhood nightmares. From old Mrs Weston, neighbourhood Medusa. Off my grass, she would scream, or I'll chop off your feet! You want to see my icebox full of legs?
She had had a leading role in bad dreams through which he heaved himself on bloody stumps, yelling for help. There was his drunken father, floozy on arm, trying to shush him, an unsteady finger to lips.
Hush, now, Edward. Don't want to bring mother rushing out. Don't want to upset her.
But mother, a fluster of hardships, would fill the air with beating wings, shielding her eyes from the blood and from father's woman. And always Mrs Weston, old witch, was there — leaning casually on her gory cleaver with a manic smile on her lips.
He was terrified even to walk on her side of the block.
To his relief the little girl emerged from the gazebo. He let her run, unharmed, back to her playmates.
But his memory was full of Mrs Weston. Such potency she had. The most powerful person in the world, the most dangerously alive. A lifetime later he could still remember her name. It was a kind of immortality.
The little girl was back in his garden, stepping on his lilies of the valley, foraging under forsythia boughs. He stared moodily at the mothers on the sidewalk. Listless figures, like colour photographs that have faded.
Motherhood, he thought, is a hibernation from which most women never emerge. At least in his time that had been true. (In his time, indeed! Verbal litter. He did not easily forgive himself for succumbing to the clichés of the young, for this past tense view of himself.) Motherhood. He had lost Bessie in that steamy cave. Her bearings had been lost, she had never wakened again. It was supposed to be different now. So he heard. And so he read in the Sunday supplements. Women full of waking anger all over the place. Not that they were any easier to live with apparently. His daughters, for instance. One burned out and the other raging every which way like a forest fire.
But the two mothers on the sidewalk, he could see, were classic throwbacks to the old dormant order, slow and heavy-hipped, the movements of their heads and eyes languid, their voices bored.
And yet he had the power to energise them. He imagined how they would snap taut in outrage if he should hurl bolts of terror down upon the child.
"Little girl!" he roared.
The child looked up, momentarily startled. The slack bodies of the mothers tightened as though an inner spring were being wound. Squinting, the child located the face above and waved.
"Hi, mister!" A smile of delighted complicity.
Even children have changed, thought the old man with baffled anger. It is scarcely possible to frighten them any more. It was not even possible to maintain the desire. Their amiable trust was so subversive.
"Can you find your ball?" he called gruffly.
The mothers relaxed and turned away. Indifferent to sacrilege, the little girl frolicked in the gazebo again. Edward wished he had been vicious. He would never star in anyone's dreams. He would never rampage, hugely alive with the threat of death, through the imaginations of the neighbourhood children. He was not made of indelible stuff.
No one would mourn his passing extravagantly. Certainly not his own children. Not even Bessie for whom it would probably be conveniently restful. But he wanted to be mourned extravagantly. Things should have been otherwise. He should have been approaching death in grander style. There should have been a beautiful woman, desolate with impending loss, bending over him.
There should have been Marta. He whispered it like an incantation: Marta, Marta.
After turning seventy, one craved unremittingly for the roads not taken.
He had been restrained, at the moment of choice, by the laws of moral propriety, by what is expected of a school principal, by Bessie's need, by the claims of his eldest child, Victoria, by the approaching birth of his son, Jason. At thirty-three, he had done the right thing: he had chosen renunciation and responsibility. At seventy-three he wanted to retract. He did not forgive his family for keeping him righteous.
For several years now he had been devouring everything he could find on the final years of Sartre and Picasso. Napoleon on Elba obsessed him. Also Boethius. And the antic aging of Salvador Dali. He was an expert on geriatric fame.
In what objective sense, he asked himself, was this the dawning of his eighth decade different from their declining years? They had all dwindled and doddered into decrepitude, living in isolation, their past passions and achievements a wan glow in the debris of years. Or consider Dante, hallucinating in exile. Were they not alike, he and Dante, frantic dreamers of alternative autobiography?
Suppose he simply equated himself with the significant livers by an act of will? It seemed to him expedient now to edit and revise his life, to compose a variant past, to approach death from a different and more bearable direction.
He wanted to go back to that last night with Marta, to do things over. It was imperative that he find out, before he died, what had become of her. Forty years ago. That was before Jason and Emily Let them go, let them go, unmake them. Yet Emily, wanton woman, had produced Adam whom he had not seen, his blood sullied but intact, his thin sad bid for dynasty
It was not easy to extinguish a son and a daughter, not even those two. They would not go quietly, they had always been importunate. It enraged him that they could sin with such impunity, without fear of the unspecified but awful retributions that had always haunted their father. He drew comfort from the fact that Jason at least seemed perpetually unhappy.
He could not forgive them. Victoria was a cross that he bore with fortitude, but he deserved better than Jason and Emily. Had he not pledged himself to them, sight unseen, turning aside from temptation? He should have had a better return on his virtue.
Bessie came into the room, shuffle shuffle in her tireless slippers, blundering intruder in life aud memories.
"So much to do," she sighed as mildly and maddeningly as she had done on that long-gone unforgotten evening, that other infringement. "Getting the rooms ready for everyone. And Jason might come a day early with Victoria"
Damned celebration. He wished he had put his foot down. He wished he had forbidden her to issue invitations. He was terrified of finding out who would not come.
"I don't want any of you badgering me. Get your hands off me, you interfering old woman."
"Do be calm, Edward." She tied a towel around his neck and put his shaving kit and a bowl of water on the table beside his chair. Insults, insults. The indignity of age! He gestured angrily with his arm and the bowl went spinning into the air, the hot water leaving it and rising intact, a crystal bird. Sounds: of shattering, of splashing, of a cry of pain.
"I didn't want to shave." Exonerating himself "I don't intend to shave again."
"Does that include Sunday?" For a second, phosphorescence leaped from her eyes like marsh fire. Perhaps he imagined it. She was wrapping a towel around her hand, picking up pieces of the bowl, her eyes lowered. "You wish to be seen with stubble?"
It was not natural, her calm. It was perverse. It suggested a dimming of intelligence.
"Sunday," he mumbled, ambiguously.
"Fifty years," she said, enticing him. "It's a milestone nobody ignores. The whole family coming home. It's a ritual event. Like marriages and christenings and funerals."
Privately he thought: funerals indeed. I should be struck dead for choosing fifty years of this.
But he did at least deserve an award for staying power.
"At the very least, Edward, we should celebrate our endurance."
He looked at her in surprise. What cause had she to complain? Had he not stayed to honour and protect when he might have been blown away on a hurricane of passion? But of course she had never known that.
"Remember when the Pritchards had theirs? Three generations, all those grandchildren ...?" She faltered.
"Hah!" he said savagely. "Something peculiar about our golden years, isn't there? Not a marriage in sight. Not a single grandchild — unless you count Emily's bastard."
He did not know why he was doomed to say these things lately, he who had never let an improper word pass his lips in all his years of public office, he who would consent to walk peaceably into the valley of the shadow if only his grandson came. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen ...
Bessie said quietly: "Marriage is neither here nor there these days, Edward."
Excerpted from The Tiger in the Tiger Pit by Janette Turner Hospital. Copyright © 2015 Janette Turner Hospital. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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