The Summer Before the Dark

BOOK: The Summer Before the Dark
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Doris Lessing is the author of numerous award-winning books of fiction and nonfiction, including
The Golden Notebook
The Grass Is Singing
. In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She lives in London.


The Grass Is Singing
The Golden Notebook
Briefing for a Descent into Hell
Memoirs of a Survivor
The Diary of a Good Neighbour
If the Old Could …
Playing the Game: A Graphic Novel
(Illustrated by Charlie Adlard)
Love, Again
Mara and Dann
The Fifth Child
Ben, in the World
The Sweetest Dream
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot, and the Snow Dog
The Cleft
The Good Terrorist

Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta
The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five
The Sirian Experiments
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8
The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire

Martha Quest
A Proper Marriage
A Ripple from the Storm
The Four-Gated City

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five
(music by Philip Glass)
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8
(music by Philip Glass)

The Habit of Loving
A Man and Two Women
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories
Winter in July
The Black Madonna
This Was the Old Chief’s Country (Collected African Studies
, Volume 1)
The Sun Beneath Their Feet (Collected African Studies
, Volume 2)
To Room Nineteen (Collected Stories
, Volume 1)
The Temptation of Jack Orkney (Collected Stories
, Volume 2)
London Observed
The Old Age of El Magnifico
Particularly Cats
Rufus the Survivor
On Cats
The Grandmothers

Fourteen Poems

Each His Own Wilderness
Play With a Tiger
The Singing Door

In Pursuit of the English
Going Home
A Personal Voice
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside
The Wind Blows Away Our Words
African Laughter
Time Bites

Under My Skin, Volume 1
Walking in the Shade, Volume 2


Copyright © 1973 by Doris Lessing

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Limited, London, and subsequently published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1973.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Lessing, Doris.
The summer before the dark.
I. Title.
823′.9′14  72-11044

eISBN: 978-0-307-77767-6


At Home

A woman stood on her back step, arms folded, waiting.

Thinking? She would not have said so. She was trying to catch hold of something, or to lay it bare so that she could look and define; for some time now she had been “trying on” ideas like so many dresses off a rack. She was letting words and phrases as worn as nursery rhymes slide around her tongue: for towards the crucial experiences custom allots certain attitudes, and they are pretty stereotyped.
Ah yes, first love! … Growing up is bound to be painful! … My first child, you know … But I was in love! … Marriage is a compromise.… I am not as young as I once was
. Of course, the choice of one rather than another of these time-honoured phrases has seldom to do with a personal feeling, but more likely your social setting, or the people you are with on an occasion. You have to deduce a person’s real feelings about a thing by a smile she does not know is on her face, by the way bitterness tightens muscles at a mouth’s corner, or the way air is allowed to flow from the lungs after:
wouldn’t like to be a child again!
Such power do these phrases have, all issued for use as it might be by a particularly efficient advertising campaign, that it is probable many people go on repeating
Youth is the best time of your life
Love is a woman’s whole existence
until they actually catch sight of themselves in a mirror while they
are saying something of the kind, or are quick enough to catch the reaction on a friend’s face.

A woman stood on her back doorstep, arms folded, waiting for a kettle to boil.

There had been power cuts most of the day, because of a strike. Tim, her youngest, and Eileen, her daughter, had driven out into the country early, had gathered fallen wood in Epping Forest and—enjoying every minute of it—had built a fire on the gravel of the path, and fixed over it a tripod made of scrap iron found at the back of the garage. This fire, the cooking on it, the watching of it, the joking about it, had been the family’s point of enjoyment all day. The woman, however, had found it all rather irritating. The kettle had taken twenty minutes to reach even the stage of singing: she could not remember having heard a singing kettle for years. Electricity brought water from stillness to turmoil in a moment, and singing was bypassed altogether.…

Perhaps she had been insensitive? Perhaps both Tim and Eileen—who were after all grown up, were nineteen and twenty-two—had not enjoyed the day’s small contrivings as much as it had seemed; they had been pretending out of social feeling? Their behaviour had been, in fact, the equivalent of one of the old phrases, a convention which people did not know how to lose in favour of the truth—whatever that was?

Just like herself.

The truth was, she was becoming more and more uncomfortably conscious not only that the things she said, and a good many of the things she thought, had been taken down off a rack and put on, but that what she really felt was something else again.

The woman unfolded her arms, took a couple of steps
towards the absurd contraption in the middle of her gravel path, pushed some more twigs under the kettle where it dangled from a bit of bent wire from the tripod, and listened: was the note of the kettle’s singing changing at all? She thought it was. If there was going to be a power cut tomorrow, as was threatened, then it would be sensible to get a camper’s stove, or something of the sort: this boy-scouting was all very well, but if it rained … the strike was likely to go on for some time, they said. This series of power cuts did seem to have come very fast after the last? It did rather look as if crises over power—heat, light, fuel—were bound to become more frequent, and it would be wise to make provision? Perhaps Tim and Eileen were right; a load of wood might be a good idea.

The woman returned to her back step, leaned against the wall, and folded her arms again.

There were the public, or communal, events—wars, strikes, floods, earthquakes; what are felt as Acts of God. There was the feeling abroad, irrational or not, that these events, once high and rare (or had they ever been, was that just false memory?), were moving into the first place of everyone’s experience, as if an air that had once been the climate of a distant and cataclysmic star had chosen to engulf our poor planet. The crucial experiences, when you came to think about it, were for more and more people: invasion, war, civil war, epidemic, famine, flood, quake, poisoning of soil, food, and air. For these, the allotted attitudes were even more stereotyped. None go much beyond:
We ought to be doing something about it
. or
Oh woe, alas!
There aren’t so many nuances possible for:
My whole family died in the concentration camp
, or
Four of my children have died of famine
, or
My sister and her child were killed by the soldiers
. But it did rather look as if the stereotypes
for the public events were more honest than the private ones?
Oh woe, alas!
was about it?

She noted that the kettle was quieter, and reached her arm inside the room behind her, the kitchen, to fetch out a very large china coffee pot that already had the coffee in it. She stood with this in her hand, close to the fire, watching for the steam to start rattling the kettle lid.

It was all nonsense to see things in terms of peaks and crises: the personal events, like the public ones, were long-term affairs, after all. They built up.… It is after—at least months, but it is usually years—that a person will say,
My God, my whole life has changed
, talking about a passion of love or hate, a marriage, a testing job of work.
My life has changed because I have changed

Steam was now energetically at work on the kettle lid, and pouring out of the spout.

She grasped the handle of the kettle with her oven pad and doused the coffee with hissing and dangerous water. She set the kettle on one side of the fire, but not on the lawn, which would otherwise have a circular yellow patch on it, and pushed some of the half-burned sticks away from the centre of the fire; if it rained, she must remember to get them and the unburned wood under cover. She was no boy scout to know how to start a fire with wet wood.

BOOK: The Summer Before the Dark
11.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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