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BOOK: David Lodge - Small World
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“You American?” she enquired. “You like to spend some time with me? Forty dollar.”

“There was another girl in here just now,” said Persse.

“She gone. She babysitter. Don’t worry, I give you good time.”

“Babysitter?” Hope, relief, self-reproach surged in Persse’s breast.

“Yeah, I got kid upstairs. Don’t worry, he sleeps, don’t hear a thing.”

“Angelica is your babysitter?”

“You mean Lily? She’s a friend, helps me out sometimes. I told her to draw the curtain, but she don’t bother.”

“Where has she gone? Where can I find her?”

The girl shrugged, sulky. “I dunno. You want to spend some time with me or not? Thirty dollar.”

Persse took a hundred-guilder note out of his wallet and put it down on the table. “Where can I find Lily?”

With the speed and dexterity of a prestidigitator, the girl picked up the note, folded it with the fingers of one hand, and tucked it into her décolletage. “She works at a cabaret, Blue Heaven, on the Achterburg Wal.”

“Where’s that?”

“Turn right at the end of the street, then over the bridge. You will see the sign.”

“Thanks,” said Persse.

He raced along the street like a hurley player, jinking through the crowds and the traffic, juggling the ball of his confused emotions. For one dizzy moment he thought he had discovered Angelica in some totally innocent, totally benevolent occupation, a secular sister of mercy ministering to the prostitutes of Amsterdam. That had been wishful thinking, of course. But if Angelica wasn’t just a babysitter, she wasn’t a whore either—how could he ever have dreamed that she was? His shame at having entertained such an idea, however plausible the circumstantial evidence, made him readier to accept the fact that she performed in nude revues. He couldn’t approve of it, he hoped to persuade her to give it up, but it didn’t fundamentally affect his feelings for her.

He swerved round the corner of the street and raced across the bridge; saw blue neon letters trembling in the black water, and leapt three steps at a time down to the canalside cobbles. Some people queuing for admission to the Blue Heaven turned their heads and stared as Persse came thudding up to the entrance and skidded to a halt, panting, in front of the foyer. It had an illuminated façade, rather like a small cinema, on which the programme was advertised in moveable letters. “LIVE SEX SHOW,” it stated, in English. “SEE SEX ACTS PERFORMED ON STAGE. THE REAL FUCKY FUCKY.” On the pillars supporting the entrance canopy there were photographic stills of the performance. In one of them Angelica, naked, kneeling, was being mounted from behind by a hairy young man, also naked, and grinning. She looked exactly as she had done in what he had thought, till now, was a hallucination in the Rummidge cinema. He turned on his heel and walked slowly away.

What did Persse do next? He got drunk, of course, like any other disillusioned lover. He bought a half-litre of Bols in a stone bottle at a liquor store and went back to his pension and lay on the bed and drank himself into insensibility. He woke next morning under a burning electric light bulb, uncertain which was worse, the pain in his head or the taste in his mouth, though neither was a patch on the ache in his heart. He had an open return ticket to Heathrow. Without bothering to enquire into the availability of flights, he checked out of the pension and took a bus to Schiphol airport, staring vacantly out through the window at the depressing environs of Amsterdam; factories, service stations and greenhouses scattered over the flat and featureless landscape like jetsam on a beach from which the tide had gone out and never returned.

He secured a seat on the next plane to London, and sat for an hour in the lounge next to the departure gate, not reading, not thinking, just sitting; the vacancy and anonymity of the place, with its rows of plastic moulded seats facing a huge tinted window framing blank sky, suited the zero state of his mind and heart. The flight was called, he shuffled aboard, past mechanically nodding and smiling cabin staff, the plane rose into the air like a lift, he stared through a porthole at a cloudscape as flat and featureless as the landscape below. A tray of food wrapped in polyfilm was placed before him and he consumed its contents stolidly, without any sensation of taste or aroma. The plane dumped him on the ground again, and he walked through the endless covered ways of Heathrow, so long their lines seemed to meet at the horizon.

Only Club class seats were available on the next flight to Shannon, but he cashed another traveller’s cheque and paid the extra without demur. What did he need to husband his money for now? His life was laid waste, his occupation gone. The summer stretched before him barren as a desert. He had two hours to wait before his flight was called. He dragged his feet to St George’s chapel. His petition was still pinned to the green baize board, curling slightly at the edges: “Dear God, let me find Angelica.” He ripped the paper from its securing thumbtack, and crumpled it in his fist. He went inside the chapel, and sat for an hour in the back pew, staring blankly at the altar. On his way out he left another petition on the noticeboard: “Dear God, let me forget Angelica. Lead her from the life that degrades her.”

He sat for another half an hour in another anonymous waiting area, and shuffled in line aboard another airplane, past mechanically nodding and smiling cabin crew, and took his seat. The airplane rose like a lift into the air and he stared through the porthole at another featureless prairie of cloud. Another tray of tasteless, odourless food was placed on his lap, with a complimentary half bottle of chilled claret, because he was travelling Club class. But this time there appeared to be some deviation from the monotonous routine of flight. Persse, sitting in the forward section of the plane, observed much coming and going of the cabin crew through the curtain that screened the door to the flight deck. It gradually penetrated his dulled and apathetic sensibility that the three hostesses were alarmed about something.

Sure enough, the captain came on the intercom to inform the passengers that the plane had burst a nosewheel tyre on takeoff, and they would therefore be making an emergency landing at Shannon, where fire and rescue services were standing by. A murmur of apprehension passed through the cabins at this announcement. As if he had heard it, the captain tried to reassure the passengers, explaining that he did not doubt that he would be able to land safely, but emergency procedures were obligatory following a tyre burst—in case, he added, there should be a further burst (which was perhaps explaining too much). Shortly before landing, the passengers would be instructed to take off their shoes and adopt the recommended posture for emergency landing. The cabin crew would demonstrate, and give advice and help where needed.

In fact the cabin crew themselves looked in need of advice and help. Seldom had Persse seen three young women who looked more frightened, and gradually their fear communicated itself to the passengers. The terror of the latter was intensified by some violent turbulence which the aircraft encountered as it began its descent. Though this had absolutely nothing to do with the burst tyre, some unmechanically-minded passengers drew the opposite conclusion and emitted small screams of fear or pious ejaculations as the aircraft bucked and staggered in the air. Some pored over the plastic cards giving safety instructions tucked into the back of every seat, with coloured diagrams of the plane’s emergency exits, and unconvincing pictures of passengers gaily sliding down the inflatable chutes, like children on a playground slide. Others, operating on the belt-and-braces principle, rooted out life-jackets from beneath their seats and practised putting them on. The air hostesses ran distractedly up and down the aisle, dissuading people from inflating their life jackets and fending off urgent orders for strong drink.

Indifferent to life himself, Persse observed the conduct of those around him with detached curiosity. His seat gave him a ringside view of the cabin crew. He saw the chief stewardess take a handmike from its recess near the galley and clear her throat preparatory to making an announcement. Her expression was solemn. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, in a Kerry accent, “we have received a request from a passenger for a public recitation of the Act of Contrition. Is there a priest on board who would be willing to lead us in prayer?” She waited anxiously for a few moments, looking down the length of the plane (the curtain between the Club and economy-class sections had been drawn back) for signs of a volunteer. Another hostess came forward from the economy section, shaking her head. “No luck, Moira,” she murmured to the chief stewardess. “Wouldn’t you know it, just when you need a priest, there isn’t one. Not even a nun.”

“What shall I do?” said Moira distractedly, her hand over the mike.

“You’ll have to say the Act of Contrition yourself.”

Moira looked frantic. “I’ve forgotten it,” she whimpered. “I haven’t been to confession since I went on the pill.”

“Oh, Moira, you never told me you were on the pill.”

“You do it, Brigid.”

“Oh, I couldn’t.”

“Yes, you could. Didn’t you tell me you were a Child of Mary?” The chief stewardess said into the microphone: “Since there doesn’t appear to be a priest on board, stewardess Brigid O’Toole will lead us all in the Act of Contrition.” She thrust the mike into the hands of the dismayed Brigid, who looked at it as if it was a snake that might bite her at any moment. The plane reared and dropped sickeningly. The two girls, thrown off-balance, clung together for support.

“In the name of the Father …” Moira prompted in a whisper.

“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” Brigid croaked into the microphone. She clapped her hand over it and hissed: “My mind’s gone blank. I can’t remember the Act of Contrition.”

“Well, say any prayer you like,” Moira urged. “Whatever comes into your head.”

Brigid shut her eyes tightly and held the microphone to her lips. “For what we are about to receive,” she said, “may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

Persse was still laughing when they landed, quite safely, at Shannon airport, ten minutes later. Brigid gave him a sheepish grin as he left the aircraft. “Sorry about the fuss, sir,” she murmured.

“Not a bit of it,” he said. “You gave me back an appetite for life.”

He went to the Irish Tourist Board desk at the airport and enquired about renting a cottage in Connemara. “I want somewhere very quiet and isolated,” he said. He had decided what to do with the rest of his prize money and the rest of his study leave. He would buy a second-hand car, fill the back seat with books and writing-paper and Guinness and his cassette player and Bob Dylan tapes, and spend the summer in some humble equivalent of Yeats’s lonely tower, writing poetry.

While they were telephoning for him, he picked up a leaflet advertising the American Express card, and for want of anything else to do, filled in the application form.

Philip Swallow settled his hotel bill and sat in the foyer with his packed bags beside him, waiting to be picked up by the British Council car,—or, rather, Landrover, for such was the vehicle prudently favoured by the Council in Ankara. Philip had never seen such roads in a modern city, pitted and potholed like the surface of the moon. Whenever there was rain the roads flooded because the construction workers who laid them had disposed of all debris by throwing them into the drains, which were therefore permanently blocked.

The hotel manager passed Philip, smiled, stopped and bowed. “You go back to England tonight, Professor?”

“No, no. To Istanbul. By the night train.”

“Ah!” The manager’s face lit up with envy and pathos. “Istanbul is very beautiful.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Very old. Very beautiful. Not like Ankara.”

“Oh, I’ve enjoyed my stay in Ankara very much,” said Philip. Such lies become second nature to the cultural traveller. He had not enjoyed his stay in Ankara at all, and would be glad to shake the dust of the place off his feet—and there was plenty of that, whenever it didn’t happen to be raining.

Admittedly, things had improved after his first day: they could hardly have got worse. Akbil Borak had been very kind and attentive, even if his only two topics of conversation did seem to be Hull and Hazlitt. There was no doubt that he really did know an awful lot about Hazlitt—rather more than Philip himself, in fact; though it was a pity that he drew attention to their common familiarity with the Romantic essayist by referring to him as “Bill Hazlitt”. Philip had been trying for days to think of a way of correcting this habit without appearing to be rude.

The other Turks he had met had been equally kind and hospitable. Almost every evening there had been a party or dinner or reception for him, at one of the Universities or in someone’s cramped, overfurnished apartment. At private parties there would be food and drink somehow scrounged or saved in spite of the endemic shortages—at what cost and domestic sacrifice Philip hated to think. Official receptions were discreetly supplied with booze by the British Council, largesse deeply appreciated by the Turks, who looked upon Philip in consequence as a kind of lucky mascot. Not for a long time had the university teachers of English in Ankara had so many parties in such a short time. They turned up night after night, the same faces beaming with pleasure, shaking Philip’s hand enthusiastically as if they had just met him for the first time. There was laughter and chatter and recorded music—sometimes dancing. Philip laughed and chatted and drank, and even on one occasion essayed a clumsy pas de deux with a lady professor of mature years who retained a remarkable aptitude for the belly-dance. This performance was greeted with loud applause, and described by a misty-eyed British Council officer who witnessed it as a breakthrough in Anglo-Turkish cultural relations. But in some deep core of himself, where raki and Embassy scotch could not reach, Philip felt lonely and depressed. He recognized the symptoms of his malaise because he had suffered from it before on his travels, though never so severely. It was a feeling that defined itself as a simple, insistent question: Why am I here? Why was he in Ankara, Turkey, instead of in Rummidge, England? It was a question that posed itself less sharply at parties than when he sat beside a lectern at the front of some dusty classroom facing rows of curious, swarthy young men and dark-eyed young women and listened to some Turkish professor introducing him at laborious length, punctiliously enumerating every academic distinction that could be squeezed from the reference books (Philip confidently expected one day to hear his O-level results being recited, if not his brilliant performance in the eleven-plus) while he himself nervously fingered the hastily rewritten opening pages of his lecture on Hazlitt; or when he lay upon his hotel bed in the slack hours between lecturing and partying and sightseeing (not that there was a great deal to see in Ankara once you had visited the Anitkabir and the Hittite museum, but the tireless Akbil Borak had made sure that he saw it all), picking out previously unread bits of the crumpled
he had brought with him days before, and listening to the strains of foreign music and the sound of foreign tongues coming through the walls and the strident noise of traffic rising from the street. Why am I here? Hundreds, probably thousands of pounds of public money had been expended on bringing him to Turkey. Secretaries had typed letters, telex machines had chattered, telephone wires hummed, files thickened in offices in Ankara, Istanbul, London. Precious fossil fuel had been burned away in the stratosphere to propel him like an arrow from Heathrow to Esenboga. The domestic economies and digestions of the academic community of Ankara had been taxed to their limits in the cause of entertaining him. And for what purpose? So that he could bring the good news about Hazlitt, or Literature and History and Society and Psychology and Philosophy, to the young Turkish bourgeoisie, whose chief motive for studying English (so Akbil Borak had confided in a moment of raki-induced candour) was to secure a job as a civil servant or air hostess and to avoid the murderously factious social science faculties? When he was driven through the streets of Ankara, teeming with a vast anonymous impoverished proletariat, dressed in dusty cotton drab, toiling up and down the concrete hills with the dogged inscrutable persistence of ants, under the unsmiling surveillance of the omnipresent, heavily armed military, he could understand the modest pragmatism of the students’ ambitions. But how would Hazlitt help them?

BOOK: David Lodge - Small World
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