Authors: Iain Crichton Smith
AN END TO AUTUMN
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
This eBook edition published in 2015 by
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Copyright © Iain Crichton Smith, 1978
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
eBook ISBN: 9780857907325
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
down the copy of
The Waste Land
which he had been glancing through before his lesson with the Sixth Year the following morning and said: “It worries me a bit.”
His wife who was sitting opposite him on the sofa rereading
as she did once every year asked, without looking up, “What worries you?”
It bothered him that from year to year his knowledge of
The Waste Land
seemed to be diminishing, the allusions more fragmentary and esoteric, the ideas more and more remote, the poetry, in fact, fading down roads which he would never travel again. Yet it was supposed to be a great poem: and for that matter he thought he knew it.
“It will be all right,” Vera assured him, still intent on her book. “If we are all reasonable, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be.”
It was reasonable that they shouldn’t have any children: they had worked that out between the two of them, and indeed if they had been the sort of people who liked children they probably wouldn’t have married each other. There was a certain justice in the world which took care of most decisions, and they had had few enough to make. In any case they saw enough of children every day, teaching as they both did in the one school. Children, they knew, were unreasonable: they had no illusions about children though on the whole they liked them when they were outwith the house; they could be implacably selfish, but were able to be handled, preferably in large groups.
“If,” echoed Tom, thinking that one of these days he would have to get hold of a Tarot pack: it surprised him that he hadn’t done so yet though he was always meaning to. He thought he must have a second class mind though sometimes he considered that he had a first rate one.
Vera put down her book and said, “I don’t see why we shouldn’t be reasonable. She shall have her own room, her own friends if she makes any. She shall have her heating, her books, her food. I don’t see why she and we shouldn’t be reasonable. When we are in school she can stay in the house or go out. She will have freedom. I don’t see that there is any real problem.”
In her own fierce silent way she loved Tom and wouldn’t have done what she was about to do for anyone else but him.
“No,” said Tom doubtfully. After all it was his own mother they were talking about and he knew her better than Vera though she probably had changed a great deal since the seven years that he had lived consistently in her house. He assumed that since she was alone and not very well her attitudes might have changed, since the prospect and experience of loneliness is supposed to concentrate the mind wonderfully, or so he had heard.
“In any case,” said Vera, “nothing much is being lost. She is letting her house for six months, and if it doesn’t work out she can always go back.”
Though his wife read
she had a much clearer mind for the small things of life, he thought, than he had. Charlotte Brontë would probably have beaten Eliot in that field, though she wasn’t as great a writer. Her mind at least wasn’t as good, that was certain.
“That is true,” he repeated. She could return to her house if things didn’t work out. And that meant, he realised, that their own commitment might not be so great, since there was a clear way out of any difficulties. He wondered if his wife had considered that, and the fact that she probably had slightly worried him.
He went back to his
after lifting it first from the highly polished table in front of him, in which he could see the dark reflection of his own narrow composed face. He was very lucky really, and now because of the reasonableness of his wife he was being given the opportunity of bringing his mother into their home when she needed him. He felt warm and happy and grateful to Vera, whose reasonableness sometimes astonished him. For instance, unlike a great many women, she was not obsessed with property and furniture and though she liked a large house which they had, and whose mortgage they were paying together, she did not idolise the objects inside it, or at least hadn’t done so up till now.
Also, their minds didn’t clash or scrape, as happened, he had heard, with other married couples. They had settled from the beginning into a comfortable harmony, not the harmony of the spheres but a more equable terrestrial harmony where objects had their place, did not vibrate with excessive emotion or eeriness; and in which they sat down as if on chairs in front of the fire on a winter’s night when outside the storm was howling.
Though really there had been few storms in his life, or for that matter in hers.
“We were quite poor,” he said aloud to his wife. “We were in fact very poor.” And he thought how poor after his father’s death they had been. His father, a railwayman, had died quite young of cancer and he remembered that the house had been very dark and dull and gloomy for many months afterwards and that his mother had wept, suddenly and unexpectedly, for a long time, sometimes when she heard the sound of a train in the night. It occurred to him that his mother might have felt guilty for his father’s death though there was no reason why she should: his father and mother hadn’t quarrelled much as far as he could recall.
One night he had found his mother weeping in a darkened room by herself after he had come from playing football, and it seemed to him that her eyes showed white in the dark. He had been very frightened.
“It was God’s will,” she said later, “that your father died.” And her mind slammed shut like a carriage door.
“Yes,” he had replied, though by that time he didn’t believe in God, having heard of Darwin.
His mother was a large woman with a large head and he sometimes thought she was rather stupid, for he regarded intelligence highly, perhaps because he was a teacher and met so much silliness and careless ineptitude. On the other hand she could be very passionate and emotional and had been liable to gather him suddenly in her arms when he was young.
“You’ve told me that before,” said Vera, back at her book again.
The room was very quiet. On the wall were reproductions of some paintings by Hockney which had come from an Art Club. He had bought these with one of his sudden enthusiasms though he would never have bought books from a Book Club.
“I think,” he said aloud, “that my mother was much stronger than my father. He struck me as not being very happy as a railwayman, though he used to take me down to see the trains. The funny thing is, I never wanted to be an engine driver.”
He sometimes wondered whether he was not ashamed of his parents, or at least might not have been if for instance they had appeared with him in society, for a
in conversation disturbed him very much. He was, he thought, conventional, and even in University had never been rebellious, believing that the best periods in human history had been those when there had either been a tyrant or an oligarchy. He believed strongly in moral principles such as intellectual honesty, charitableness, where it was possible, and courage.
“Don’t worry,” said Vera, “it will be all right.” And she raised her eyes from
and stared at him with her usual cool gaze. He often wondered why she read
when she was such a reasonable person. And why she believed in horoscopes.
“I’m sure,” he said. He had left his mother finally after University. From that time he had only been fitfully in her house and for only short periods.
“I was just thinking,” he said to Vera, “about King Lear.”
“What about King Lear?” she said.
“I was thinking that perhaps King Lear deserved something of what he got.”
“I would say that was true.” Her words were cool and measured, exactly chosen.
His wife Vera was very clever, he thought. She was a good cook, a good gardener (though they hadn’t managed to do much with the garden as yet) and she had a good mind when she applied it; but she was, unlike him, suspicious of the abstract. Thus she had none of his interest in mathematics and science, whose ideas attracted him. He also believed, which he didn’t think was the case with her, that lessons could be drawn from literature and that these in turn could be applied to life. But she was certainly a much better judge of human nature than he was and a more conscientious though, he surmised, less surprising teacher. He had a certain excessive enthusiasm in his nature which she didn’t have and which he only revealed to his classes.
“The old are our responsibility,” he said. “I feel that. I think that’s what
is trying to teach us, that no matter what the old are like we must look after them. No matter what.”
“I’m not wholly sure about that,” said Vera. “Though you may be right.”
“I am,” said Tom, “I think wholly sure,” thinking of the storm which had blown the old king out to the moors, for it always reminded him of the storm through which his own father had driven one night, in his train, while his mother pulsed blindly at the windows like a moth, saying over and over again that something would happen to him. In fact nothing had and he had arrived safely home wondering what the fuss had been about while his mother was white-faced and in tears.
And now she was coming to stay with them in this small town and leaving Edinburgh.
“I don’t think she can be all that well,” he mused. “Or she wouldn’t have come. Did you not think she was looking rather ill?”
“Perhaps a little,” said Vera. “I thought her memory wasn’t quite as good. She told us the same story twice in the one evening, if you remember.”
“What story was that?”
“The one about how she met your father.”
“At the dance, you mean. But still one expects that at her age. She is seventy, you know, and was rather older than my father.”
Vera’s own father was a solicitor who had spoken very little to her during her childhood so that she had found herself in a world of books into which she escaped and from which her mother, a lover of the theatre, had not bothered to extricate her. The marriage hadn’t been a very suitable one for her mother had never shown the slightest interest in the law nor her father any interest in the theatre. Which was probably why he hadn’t become a barrister.
Vera had therefore grown up with much suspicion about the emotions and had placed little reliance, eventually, on her mother’s random protestations of love for her. She had acquired an almost nun-like air which was both remote and slightly haughty. It surprised her that she loved Tom so much, but from the beginning he had treated her as an equal which her father had never done, and was willing to talk to her at great length about anything that interested him or her. She had met him in a library where she had been studying for her Honours Examination, as he also had been. They had both gone in search of the same book—a copy of Donne’s poems—and had come after a while to an amicable agreement as to who would use it first.
Later they had gone to cafés together, to theatres and concerts: sometimes at weekends they had gone for long walks. She remembered especially the autumn leaves. They had discussed moral questions though she was more likely to draw on personal experience while Tom used logical arguments. One day she realised that she loved him. They were walking down a street and she saw his shadow beside hers on the stone, and the shadows walking together seemed to her symbolic of some deep relationship, some consonance, cool and inevitable. For the first time she had taken his arm and he had looked at her with surprise.
Tom was the only person with whom she had ever been out: in fact in her school which was an exclusively girls’ one, in which she had to wear a lilac uniform, she had hardly ever met a male except the Music master who didn’t like teaching in violent boys’ schools. Her dreams had not been of boys at all but rather of some spiritual world occupied by few people and these neither girls nor boys but kind presences who showed her much affability. She liked a number of teachers in the school, especially the remote competent Miss Hales, whose aseptic perfume seemed to combine with it a nostalgic autumnal smell as of leaves. She played no games, not even hockey, and had no team spirit at all.