The Magus, Page 2John Fowles
I acquired expensive habits and affected manners. I got a third-class degree and a first-class illusion: that I was a poet. But nothing could have been less poetic than my seeing-through-all boredom with life in general and with making a living in particular. I was too green to know that all cynicism masks a failure to cope – an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort of all. But I did absorb a small dose of one permanently useful thing, Oxford’s greatest gift to civilized life: Socratic honesty. It showed me, very intermittently, that it is not enough to revolt against one’s past. One day I was outrageously bitter among some friends about the Army; back in my own rooms later it suddenly struck me that just because I said with impunity things that would have apoplexed my dead father, I was still no less under his influence. The truth was I was not a cynic by nature; only by revolt. I had got away from what I hated, but I hadn’t found where I loved, and so I pretended that there was nowhere to love.
Handsomely equipped to fail, I went out into the world. My father hadn’t kept Financial Prudence among his armoury of essential words; he ran a ridiculously large account at Ladbroke’s and his mess bills always reached staggering proportions, because he liked to be popular and in place of charm had to dispense alcohol. What remained of his money when the lawyers and the tax men had had their share yielded not nearly enough for me to live on. But every kind of job I looked at – the Foreign Service, the Civil, the Colonial, the banks, commerce, advertising – was transpierceable at a glance. I went to several interviews. Since I didn’t feel obliged to show the eager enthusiasm our world expects from the young executive, I was successful at none.
In the end, like countless Oxford men before me, I answered an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement. I went to the place, a minor public school in East Anglia; was cursorily scrutinized, then offered the post. I learnt later that there were only two other applicants, both Redbrick, and term was beginning in three weeks.
The mass-produced middle-class boys I had to teach were bad enough; the claustrophobic little town was a nightmare; but the really intolerable thing was the common-room. It became almost a relief to go into class. Boredom, the numbing annual predictability of life, hung over the staff like a cloud. And it was real boredom, not my modish ennui. From it flowed cant, hypocrisy, and the impotent rage of the old who know they have failed and the young who suspect they will fail. The senior masters stood like gallows sermons; with some of them one had a sort of vertigo, a glimpse of the bottomless pit of human futility … or so I began to feel during my second term.
I could not spend my life crossing such a Sahara; and the more I felt it the more I felt also that the smug, petrified school was a toy model of the entire country and that to quit the one and not the other would be ridiculous. There was also a girl I was tired of.
My resignation, I would see the school year out, was accepted with resignation. The headmaster briskly supposed from my vague references to a personal restlessness that I wanted to go to America or the Dominions.
‘I haven’t decided yet, headmaster.’
‘I think we might have made a good teacher of you, Urfe. And you might have made something of us, you know. But it’s too late now.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘I don’t know if I approve of all this wandering off abroad. My advise is, don’t go. However … vous l’avez voulu, Georges Danton. Vous l’ avez voulu.’
The misquotation was typical.
It poured with rain the day I left. But I was filled with excitement, a strange exuberant sense of taking wing. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew what I needed. I needed a new land, a new race, a new language; and, although I couldn’t have put it into words then, I needed a new mystery.
I heard that the British Council were recruiting staff, so in early August I went along to Davies Street and was interviewed by an eager lady with a culture-stricken mind and a Roedean voice and vocabulary. It was frightfully important, she told me, as if in confidence, that ‘we’ were represented abroad by the right type; but it was an awful bore, all the posts had to be advertised and the candidates chosen by interview, and anyway they were having to cut down on overseas personnel – actually. She came to the point: the only jobs available meant teaching English in foreign schools – or did that sound too ghastly?
I said it did.
In the last week of August, half as a joke, I advertised: the traditional insertion. I had a number of replies to my curt offer to go anywhere and do anything. Apart from the pamphlets reminding me that I was God’s, there were three charming letters from fundless and alert swindlers. And there was one that mentioned unusual and remunerative work in Tangiers – could I speak Italian? – but my answer went unanswered.
September loomed: I began to feel desperate. I saw myself cornered, driven back in despair to the dreaded Educational Supplement and those endless pale-grey lists of endless pale-grey jobs. So one morning I returned to Davies Street.
I asked if they had any teaching jobs in the Mediterranean area, and the woman with the frightful intensifiers went off to fetch a file. I sat under a puce and tomato Matthew Smith in the waiting-room and began to see myself in Madrid, in Rome, or Marseilles, or Barcelona … even Lisbon. It would be different abroad; there would be no common-room, and I should write poetry. She returned. All the good things had gone, she was terribly afraid. But there were these.
She handed me a sheet about a school in Milan. I shook my head. She approved.
‘Well actually then there’s only this. We’ve just advertised it.’ She handed me a clipping.
THE LORD BYRON SCHOOL, PHRAXOS
The Lord Byron School, Phraxos, Greece, requires in early October an assistant master to teach English. Candidates must be single and must have a degree in English. A knowledge of Modern Greek is not essential. The salary is worth about £600 per annum, and is fully convertible. Two-year contract, renewable. Fares paid at the beginning and end of contract.
There was an information sheet that long-windedly amplified the advertisement. Phraxos was an island in the Aegean about eighty miles from Athens. The Lord Byron was ‘one of the most famous boarding schools in Greece, run on English public-school lines’ -whence the name. It appeared to have every facility a school should have. One had to give a maximum of five lessons a day.
‘The school’s terribly well-spoken of. And the island’s simply heavenly.’
‘You’ve been there?’
She was about thirty, a born spinster, with a lack of sexuality so total that her smart clothes and too heavy make-up made her pathetic; like an unsuccessful geisha. She hadn’t been there, but everybody said so. I re-read the advertisement.
‘Why’ve they left it so late?’
‘Well, we understand they did appoint another man. Not through us. But there’s been some awful mess-up.’ I looked again at the information sheet. ‘We haven’t actually recruited for them before. We’re only doing it out of courtesy now, as a matter of fact.’ She gave me a patient smile; her front teeth were much too big. I asked, in my best Oxford voice, if I might take her out to lunch.
When I got home, I filled in the form she had brought to the restaurant, and went straight out and posted it. That same evening, by a curious neatness of fate, I met Alison.
I suppose I’d had, by the standards of that pre-permissive time, a good deal of sex for my age. Girls, or a certain kind of girl, liked me; I had a car – not so common among undergraduates in those days -and I had some money. I wasn’t ugly; and even more important, I had my loneliness, which, as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women. My ‘technique’ was to make a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference. Then, like a conjurer with his white rabbit, I produced the solitary heart.
I didn’t collect conquests, but by the time I left Oxford I was a dozen girls away from virginity. I found my sexual success and the apparently ephemeral nature of love equally pl
easing. It was like being good at golf, but despising the game. One was covered all round, both when one played and when one didn’t. I contrived most of my affaires in the vacations, away from Oxford, since the new term meant that I could conveniently leave the scene of the crime. There were sometimes a few tedious weeks of letters, but I soon put the solitary heart away, ‘assumed responsibility with my total being’ and showed the Chesterfieldian mask instead. I became almost as neat at ending liaisons as at starting them.
This sounds, and was, calculating, but it was caused less by a true coldness than by my narcissistic belief in the importance of the lifestyle. I mistook the feeling of relief that dropping a girl always brought for a love of freedom. Perhaps the one thing in my favour was that I lied very little; I was always careful to make sure that the current victim knew, before she took her clothes off, the difference between coupling and marrying.
But then, in East Anglia, things became complicated. I started to take the daughter of one of the older masters out. She was pretty in a stock English way, as province-hating as myself, and she seemed rather passionate, but I belatedly realized she was passionate for a purpose: I was to marry her. I began to be sick of the way a mere bodily need threatened to distort my life. There were even one or two evenings when I felt myself near surrendering to Janet, a fundamentally silly girl I knew I didn’t love and would never love. Our parting scene, an infinitely sour all-night of nagging and weeping in the car beside the July sea, haunted me. Fortunately I knew, and she knew I knew, that she was not pregnant. I came to London with the firm determination to stay away from women for a while.
The Russell Square flat below the one I had rented had been empty through most of August, but then one Sunday I heard movements, doors slammed, and there was music. I passed a couple of uninteresting-looking girls on the stairs on the Monday; heard them talking, all their short a’s flattened into short e’s, as I went on down. They were Australians. Then came the evening of the day I had lunch with Miss Spencer-Haigh; a Friday.
About six, there was a knock on the door, and the stockier of the two girls I had seen was standing there.
‘Oh hi. I’m Margaret. From below.’ I took her outstretched hand. ‘Gled to know you. Look, we’re heving ourselves a bottle pardy. Like to come along?’
‘Oh. Well actually…’
‘It’ll be noisy up here.’
It was the usual thing: an invitation to kill complaint. I hesitated, then shrugged.
‘All right. Thanks.’
‘Well thet’s good. Eight?’ She began to go downstairs, but she called back. ‘You hev a girl-friend you’d like to bring?’
‘Not just now.’
‘We’ll fix you up. Hi.’
And she was gone. I wished then that I hadn’t accepted.
So I went down when I could hear that a lot of people had already arrived. The ugly girls – they always arrive first – would, I hoped, have been disposed of. The door was open. I went in through a little hall and stood in the doorway of the living-room, holding my bottle of Algerian burgundy ready to present. I tried to discover in the crowded room one of the two girls I had seen before. Loud Australian voices; a man in a kilt, and several West Indians. It didn’t look my sort of party, and I was within five seconds of slipping back out. Then someone arrived and stood in the hall behind me.
It was a girl of about my own age, carrying a heavy suitcase, with a small rucksack on her shoulders. She was wearing a whitish mackintosh, creased and travel-weary, and she had the sort of tan that only weeks in hot sun can give. Her long hair was not quite blonde, but bleached almost to that colour. It looked odd, because the urchin cut was the fashion: girls like boys, not girls like girls; and there was something German, Danish, about her – waif-like, yet perversely or immorally so. She kept back from the open doorway, beckoned me. Her smile was very thin, very insincere, and very curt.
‘Could you find Maggie and ask her to come out?’
She nodded. I forced my way through the packed room and eventually caught sight of Margaret in the kitchen.
‘Hi there! You made it.’
‘Someone wants to see you outside. A girl with a suitcase.’
‘Oh no!’ She turned to a woman behind her. I sensed trouble. She hesitated, then put down the quart beer-bottle she was opening. I followed her plump shoulders back through the crowd.
‘Alison! You said next week.’
‘I spent all my money.’ The waif gave the older girl an oddly split look, half guilty and half wary. ‘Is Pete back?’
‘No.’ The voice dropped, half warning. ‘But Charlie and Bill are.’
‘Oh merde! She looked outraged. ‘I must have a bath.’
‘Charlie’s filled it to cool the beer. It’s stecked to the brim.’
The girl with the tan sagged. I broke in.
‘Use mine. Upstairs.’
‘Yes? Alison, this is… ‘
‘Would you mind? I’ve just come from Paris.’ I noticed she had two voices; one almost Australian, one almost English.
‘Of course. I’ll take you up.’
‘I must go and get some gear first.’ As soon as she went into the room there was a shout.
‘Hey Allie! Where you been, girl?’
Two or three of the Australian men gathered round her. She kissed them all briefly. In a minute Margaret, one of those fat girls who mother thin girls, pushed them away. Alison reappeared with the clothes she wanted, and we went up.
‘Oh Jesus,’ she said. ‘Australians.’
‘Where’ve you been?’
‘All over. France. Spain.’
We went into the flat.
‘I’ll just clean the spiders out of the bath. Have a drink. Over there.’
When I came back, she was standing with a glass of Scotch in her hand. She smiled again, but it was an effort; shut off almost at once. I helped her remove her mackintosh. She was wearing a French perfume so dark it was almost carbolic, and her primrose shirt was dirty.
‘You live downstairs?’
She raised her glass in silent toast. She had candid grey eyes, the only innocent things in a corrupt face, as if circumstances, not nature, had forced her to be hard. To fend for herself, yet to seem to need defending. And her voice, only very slightly Australian, yet not English, veered between harshness, faint nasal rancidity, and a strange salty directness. She was bizarre, a kind of human oxymoron.
‘Are you alone? At the party?’
‘Would you keep with me this evening?’
‘Come back in about twenty minutes?’
‘I’d rather you came back.’
We exchanged wary smiles. I went back to the party.
Margaret came up. I think she’d been waiting. ‘I’ve a nice English girl enxious to meet you, Nicholas.’
‘I’m afraid your friend’s jumped the gun.’
She stared at me, then round, then motioned me back into the hall. ‘Listen, this is a liddle difficult to expline, but… Alison, she’s engaged to my brother. Some of his friends are here tonight.’
‘She’s been very mixed up.’
‘I still don’t understand.’
‘Just that I don’t want a rough-house. We hed one once before.’ I looked blank. ‘People grow jealous on other people’s behalf?’
‘I shan’t start anything.’
Someone called her from inside. She tried to feel sure of me, but failed, and apparently decided she couldn’t do anything about it. ‘Fair deal. But you hev the message?’
She gave me a veteran’s look, then a nod, not a very happy one, and went away. I waited for about twenty minutes, near the door, and then I slipped out and went back up to my own flat. I rang the bell. There was a long pause, then there was a voic
e behind the door.
‘Who is it?’
The door opened. She had her hair up, and a towel wrapped round her; very brown shoulders, very brown legs. She went quickly back into the bathroom. Draining water gurgled. I shouted through the door.
‘I’ve been warned off you.’
‘She says she doesn’t want a rough-house.’
‘Fucking cow. She’s my potential sister-in-law.’
‘Studying sociology. London University.’ There was a pause. ‘Isn’t it crazy? You go away and you think people will have changed and they’re just the same.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Wait a minute.’
I “waited several. But then the door opened and she came out into the living-room. She was wearing a very simple white dress, and her hair was down again. She had no make-up, and looked ten times prettier.
She gave me a little bitten-in grin. ‘I pass?’
‘The belle of the ball.’ Her look was so direct I found it disconcerting. ‘We go down?’
‘Just one finger?’
I filled her glass again, and with more than one finger. Watching the whisky fall, she said, ‘I don’t know why I’m frightened. Why am I frightened?’