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Authors: Muriel Spark

The Only Problem

BOOK: The Only Problem
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THE

ONLY PROBLEM

 

 

Muriel Spark

 

 

 

 

 

Surely I would speak to the Almighty,

and I desire to reason with God.

 

Book of Job,
13,3.

 

 

 

 

 

PART
ONE

 

 

 

 

 

ONE

 

 

 

He was driving along the
road in France from St Dié to Nancy in the district of Meurthe; it was straight
and almost white, through thick woods of fir and birch. He came to the grass
track on the right that he was looking for. It wasn’t what he had expected.
Nothing ever is, he thought. Not that Edward Jansen could now recall exactly
what he had expected; he tried, but the image he had formed faded before the
reality like a dream on waking. He pulled off at the track, forked left and
stopped. He would have found it interesting to remember exactly how he had
imagined the little house before he saw it, but that, too, had gone.

He sat
in the car and looked for a while at an old green garden fence and a closed
gate, leading to a piece of overgrown garden. There was no longer a visible
path to the stone house, which was something like a lodgekeeper’s cottage with
loose tiles and dark, neglected windows. Two shacks of crumbling wood stood
apart from the house. A wider path, on Edward’s side of the gate, presumably
led to the château where he had no present interest. But he noticed that the
car-tracks on the path were overgrown, very infrequently used, and yet the
grass that spread over that path was greener than on the ground before him,
inside the gate. If his wife had been there he would have pointed this out to
her as a feature of Harvey Gotham, the man he had come to see; for he had a
theory, too unsubstantiated to be formulated in public, but which he could
share with Ruth, that people have an effect on the natural greenery around them
regardless of whether they lay hands on it or not; some people, he would
remark, induce fertility in their environment and some the desert, simply by
psychic force. Ruth would agree with him at least in this case, for she didn’t
seem to like Harvey, try as she might. It had already got to the point that
everything Harvey did and said, if it was only good night, to her mind made him
worse and worse. It was true there are ways and ways of saying good night. Yet
Edward wondered if there wasn’t something of demonology in those confidences he
shared with Ruth about Harvey; Ruth didn’t know him as well as Edward did. They
had certainly built up a case against Harvey between themselves which they
wouldn’t have aired openly. It was for this reason that Edward had thought it
fair that he should come alone, although at first he expected Ruth to come with
him. She had said she couldn’t face it. Perhaps, Edward had thought, I might be
more fair to Harvey.

And
yet, here he was, sitting in the car before his house, noting how the grass
everywhere else was greener than that immediately surrounding the cottage.
Edward got out and slammed the door with a bang, hoping to provoke the dark
front door of the house or at least one of the windows into action. He went to
the gate. It was closed with a rusty wire loop which he loosened. He creaked open
the gate and walked up the path to the door and knocked. It was ten past three,
and Harvey was expecting him; it had all been arranged. But he knocked and
there was silence. This, too, was typical. He walked round the back of the
house, looking for a car or a motor-cycle, which he supposed Harvey had. He
found there a wide path, a sort of drive which led away from the back door,
through the woods; this path had been hidden from the main road. There was no
motor-cycle, but a newish small Renault, light brown, under a rush-covered
shelter. Harvey, then, was probably at home. The back door was his front door,
so Edward banged on that. Harvey opened it immediately and stood with that look
of his, to the effect that he had done his utmost.

‘You
haven’t cut your hair,’ he said.

Edward
had the answer ready, heated-up from the pre-cooking, so many times had he told
Harvey much the same thing. ‘It’s my hair, not your hair. It’s my beard, not
your beard.’ Edward stepped into the house as he said this, so that Harvey had
to make way for him.

Harvey
was predictable only up to a point. ‘What are you trying to prove, Edward,’ he
said, ‘wearing that poncho at your age?’ In the living room he pushed some
chairs out of the way. ‘And your hair hanging down your back,’ he said.

Edward’s
hair was in fact shoulder-length. ‘I’m growing it for a part in a film,’ he
said then wished he hadn’t given any excuse at all since anyway it was his
hair, not Harvey’s hair. Red hair.

‘You’ve
got a part?’

‘Yes.’

‘What
are you doing here, then? Why aren’t you rehearsing?’

‘Rehearsals
start on Monday.’

‘Where?’

‘Elstree.’

‘Elstree.’
Harvey said it as if there was a third party listening — as if to draw the
attention of this third party to that definite word, Elstree, and whatever
connotations it might breed.

Edward
wished himself back in time by twenty minutes, driving along the country road
from St Dié to Nancy, feeling the spring weather. The spring weather, the
cherry trees in flower, and all the budding green on the road from St Dié had
supported him, while here inside Harvey’s room there was no outward support. He
almost said, ‘What am I doing here?’ but refrained because that would be mere
rhetoric. He had come about his sister-in-law Effie, Harvey’s wife.

‘Your
wire was too long,’ said Harvey. ‘You could have saved five words.’

‘I can
see you’re busy,’ said Edward.

 

 

Effie was very far from
Edward’s heart of hearts, but Ruth worried about her. Long ago he’d had an
affair with beautiful Effie, but that was a thing of the past. He had come here
for Ruth’s sake. He reminded himself carefully that he would do almost anything
for Ruth.

‘What’s
the act?’ said Harvey. ‘You are somehow not yourself, Edward.’

It
seemed to Edward that Harvey always suspected him of putting on an act.

‘Maybe
I can speak for actors in general; that, I don’t know,’ Edward said. ‘But I
suppose that the nature of my profession is mirrored in my own experience; at
least, for certain, I can speak for myself. That, I can most certainly do. In
fact I know when I’m playing a part and when I’m not. It isn’t every actor who
knows the difference. The majority act better off stage than on.’

Edward
went into the little sitting room that Harvey had put together, the minimum of
stuff to keep him going while he did the job he had set himself. Indeed, the
shabby, green plush chairs with the stuffing coming out of them and the quite
small work-table with the papers and writing materials piled on it (he wrote by
hand) seemed out of all proportion to the project. Harvey was only studying a
subject, preparing an essay, a thesis. Why all this spectacular neglect of
material things? God knows, thought Edward, from where he has collected his
furniture. There was a kitchen visible beyond the room, with a loaf of bread
and a coffee mug on the table. It looked like a nineteenth century narrative
painting. Edward supposed there were habitable rooms upstairs. He sat down when
Harvey told him to. From where he sat he could see through a window a
washing-line with baby clothes on it. There was no sign of a baby in the house,
so Edward presumed this washing had nothing to do with Harvey; maybe it
belonged to a daily help who brought along her child’s clothes to wash.

Harvey
said, ‘I’m awfully busy.’

‘I’ve
come about Effie,’ Edward said.

Harvey
took a long time to respond. This, thought Edward, is a habit of his when he
wants an effect of weightiness.

Then, ‘Oh,
Effie,’
said Harvey, looking suddenly relieved; he actually began to
smile as if to say he had feared to be confronted with some problem that really
counted.

 

 

Harvey had written Effie
off that time on the Italian
autostrada
about a year ago, when they were
driving from Bologna to Florence — Ruth, Edward, Effie, Harvey and Nathan, a
young student-friend of Ruth’s. They stopped for a refill of petrol; Effie and
Ruth went off to the Ladies’, then they came back to the car where it was still
waiting in line. It was a cool, late afternoon in April, rather cloudy, not one
of those hot Italian days where you feel you must have a cold drink or an ice
every time you stop. It was sheer consumerism that made Harvey — or maybe it
was Nathan — suggest that they should go and get something from the snack-bar;
this was a big catering monopoly with huge windows in which were arranged straw
baskets and pottery from Hong Kong and fantastically shaped bottles of Italian
liqueurs. It was, ‘What shall we have from the bar?’ — ‘A sandwich, a coffee?’
—’No, I don’t want any more of those lousy sandwiches.’ Effie went off to see
what there was to buy, and came back with some chocolate. —

‘Yes,
that’s what I’d like.’ — She had two large bars. The tank was now full. Edward
paid the man at the pump. Effie got in the front with him. They were all in the
car and Edward drove off. Effie started dividing the chocolate and handing it
round. Nathan, Ruth and Harvey at the back, all took a piece. Edward took a
piece and Effie started eating her piece.

With
her mouth full of chocolate she turned and said to Harvey at the back, ‘It’s
good, isn’t it? I stole it. Have another piece.’

‘You
what?’ said Harvey. Ruth said something, too, to the same effect. Edward said
he didn’t believe it.

Effie
said, ‘Why shouldn’t we help ourselves? These multinationals and monopolies are
capitalising on us, and two-thirds of the world is suffering.’

She
tore open the second slab, crammed more chocolate angrily into her mouth, and,
with her mouth gluttonously full of stolen chocolate, went on raving about how
two-thirds of the world was starving.

‘You
make it worse for them and worse for all of us if you steal,’ Edward said.

‘That’s
right,’ said Ruth, ‘it really does make it worse for everyone. Besides, it’s
dishonest.’

‘Well,
I don’t know,’ Nathan said.

But
Harvey didn’t wait to hear more. ‘Pull in at the side,’ he said. They were
going at a hundred kilometres an hour, but he had his hand on the back door on
the dangerous side of the road. Edward pulled in. He forgot, now, how it was
that they reasoned Harvey out of leaving the car there on the
autostrada;
however,
he sat in silence while Effie ate her chocolate inveighing, meanwhile, against
the capitalist system. None of the others would accept any more of the
chocolate. Just before the next exit Harvey said, ‘Pull in here, I want to pee.
They waited for him while he went to the men’s lavatory. Edward was suspicious
all along that he wouldn’t come back and when the minutes went by he got out of
the car to have a look, and was just in time to see Harvey get up into a truck
beside the driver; away he went.

They
lost the truck at some point along the road, after they reached Florence.
Harvey’s disappearance ruined Effie’s holiday. She was furious, and went on
against him so much that Ruth made that always infuriating point: ‘If he’s so
bad, why are you angry with him for leaving you?’ The rest of them were upset
and uneasy for a day or two but after that they let it go. After all, they were
on holiday. Edward refused to discuss the subject for the next two weeks; they
were travelling along the Tuscan coast stopping here and there. It would have
been a glorious trip but for Effie’s fury and unhappiness.

Up to
the time Edward went to see Harvey in France on her behalf, she still hadn’t
seen any more of him. They had no children and he had simply left her life,
with all his possessions and the electricity bills and other clutter of married
living on her hands. All over a bit of chocolate. And yet, no.

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