Today's Reading

ONE

I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage. When I opened a window to speak to the attendant, the air outside was so cold that I turned up my collar. While he was filling the tank he commented on the weather. "Never known such cold in this month. Forecast says we're in for a real bad freeze-up." Most of my life was spent abroad, soldiering, or exploring remote areas: but although I had just come
from the tropics and freeze-ups meant little to me, I was struck by the ominous sound of his words. Anxious to get on, I asked the way to the village I was making for. "You'll never find it in the dark, it's right off the beaten track. And those hill roads are dangerous when they're iced up." He seemed to imply that only a fool would drive on under present conditions, which rather annoyed me. So, cutting short his involved directions, I paid him and drove away, ignoring his last warning shout: "Look out for that ice!"

It had got quite dark by now, and I was soon more hopelessly lost than ever. I knew I should have listened to the fellow, but at the same time wished I had not spoken to him at all. For some unknown reason, his remarks had made me uneasy; they seemed a bad omen for the whole expedition, and I began to regret having embarked on it.

I had been doubtful about the trip all along. I had arrived only the previous day, and should have been attending to things in town instead of visiting friends in the country. I myself did not understand my compulsion to see this girl, who had been in my thoughts all the time I was away, although she was not the reason for my return. I had come back to investigate rumors of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world. But as soon as I got here she became an obsession, I could think only of her, felt I must see her immediately, nothing else mattered. Of course I knew it was utterly irrational. And so was my present uneasiness: no harm was likely to come to me in my own country; and yet I was becoming more and more anxious as I drove on.

Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing. Now, for instance, I had visited the girl and her husband before, and kept a vivid recollection of the peaceful, prosperous-looking countryside round their home. But this memory was rapidly fading, losing its reality, becoming increasingly unconvincing and indistinct, as I passed no one on the road, never came to a village, saw no lights anywhere. The sky was black, blacker untended hedges towering against it; and when the headlights occasionally showed roadside buildings, these too were always black, apparently uninhabited and more or less in ruins. It was just as if the entire district had been laid waste during my absence.

I began to wonder if I would ever find her in the general disorder. It did not look as if any organized life could have been going on here since whatever disaster had obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms. As far as I could see, no attempt had been made to restore normality. No rebuilding or work on the land had been done, no animals were in the fields. The road badly needed repairs, the ditches were choked with weeds under the neglected hedges, the whole region appeared to have been left derelict and deserted.

A handful of small white stones hit the windscreen, making me jump. It was so long since I had experienced winter in the north that I failed to recognize the phenomenon. The hail soon turned to snow, diminishing visibility and making driving more difficult. It was bitterly cold, and I became aware of a connection between this fact and my increasing uneasiness. The garage man had said he had never known it so cold at this time, and my own impression was that it was far too early in the season for ice and snow. Suddenly my anxiety was so acute that I wanted to turn and drive back to town; but the road was too narrow, I was forced to follow its interminable windings up and down hill in the lifeless dark. The surface got worse, it got steeper and more slippery all the time. The unaccustomed cold made my head ache as I stared out, straining my eyes in the effort of trying to avoid icy patches, where the car skidded out of control. When the headlights fled over roadside ruins from time to time, the brief glimpse always surprised me, and vanished before I was sure I had really seen it.

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl's naked body, slight as a child's, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly toward her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the center. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as
concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was. Various factors had combined to produce it, although they were not extenuating circumstances.

I had been infatuated with her at one time, had intended to marry her. Ironically, my aim then had been to shield her from the callousness of the world, which her timidity and fragility seemed to invite. She was over- sensitive, highly strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection. The first thing I had to do was to win her trust, so I was always gentle with her, careful to restrain my feelings. She was so thin that, when we danced, I was afraid of hurting her if I held her tightly. Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino's, sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real. By degrees she lost her fear of me, showed a childish affection, but remained shy and elusive. I thought I had proved to her that I could be trusted, and was content to wait. She seemed on the point of accepting me, although immaturity made it hard to assess the sincerity of her feelings. Her affection perhaps was not
altogether pretense, although she deserted me suddenly for the man to whom she was now married.

This was past history. But the consequences of the traumatic experience were still evident in the insomnia and headaches from which I suffered. The drugs prescribed for me produced horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised. These dreams were not confined to sleep only, and a deplorable side effect was the way I had come to enjoy them.

Visibility had improved, the night was no less dark, but the snow had stopped. I could see the remains of a fort on the top of a steep hill. Nothing much was left of it but the tower, it had been gutted, empty window-holes showed like black open mouths. The place seemed vaguely familiar, a distortion of something I half remembered. I seemed to recognize it, thought I had seen it before, but could not be certain, as I had only been here in the summer, when  everything looked quite different.

At that time, when I accepted the man's invitation, I suspected him of an ulterior motive in asking me. He was a painter, not serious, a dilettante; one of those people who always have plenty of money without appearing to do any work. Possibly he had a private income: but I suspected him of being something other than what he seemed. The warmth of my reception surprised me, he could not have been more friendly. All the same, I was on my guard.

The girl hardly spoke, stood beside him, glancing sideways at me with big eyes through her long lashes. Her presence affected me strongly, although I scarcely knew in what way. I found it difficult to talk to the two of them. The house was in the middle of a beech wood, so closely surrounded by many tall trees that we seemed to be actually in the treetops, waves of dense green foliage breaking outside every window. I thought of an almost extinct race of large
singing lemurs known as the Indris, living in the forest trees of a remote tropical island. The gentle affectionate ways and strange melodious voices of these near-legendary creatures had made a great impression on me, and I began speaking about them, forgetting myself in the fascination of the subject. He appeared interested. She said nothing, and presently left us to see about lunch. The conversation at once became easier when she had gone.

It was midsummer, the weather was very hot, the rustling leaves just outside made a pleasant cool sound. The man's friendliness continued. I seemed to have misjudged him, and began to be embarrassed by my suspicions. He told me he was glad I had come, and went on to speak of the girl. "She's terribly shy and nervous, it does her good to see someone from the outside world. She's too much alone here." I couldn't help wondering how much he knew about me, what she had told him. To remain on the defensive seemed rather absurd; still, there was some reservation in my response to his
amiable talk.

I stayed with them for a few days. She kept out of my way. I never saw her unless he was there too. The fine hot weather went on. She wore short, thin, very simple dresses that left her shoulders and arms bare, no stockings, a child's sandals. In the sunshine her hair dazzled. I knew I would not be able to forget how she looked. I noted a marked change in her, a much increased confidence. She smiled more often, and once in the garden I heard her singing. When
the man called her name she came running. It was the first time I had seen her happy. Only when she spoke to me she still showed some constraint. Toward the end of my visit he asked whether I had talked to her alone. I told him I had not. He said: "Do have a word with her before you go. She worries about the past; she's afraid she made you unhappy." So he knew. She must have told him all there was to tell. It was not much, certainly. But I would not discuss what had
happened with him and said something evasive. Tactfully, he changed the subject: but returned to it later on. "I wish you would set her mind at rest. I shall make an opportunity for you to speak to her privately." I did not see how he was going to do this, as the next day was the last I would spend with them. I was leaving in the late afternoon.

That morning was the hottest there had been. Thunder was in the air. Even at breakfast time the heat was oppressive. To my surprise, they proposed an outing. I was not to leave without having seen one of the local beauty spots. A hill was mentioned, from which there was a celebrated view: I had heard the name. When I referred to my departure I was told it was only a short drive, and that we should be back in plenty of time for me to pack my bag. I saw that they were determined on the arrangement, and agreed.

We took a picnic lunch to eat near the ruins of an old fort, dating from a remote period when there had been fear of invasion. The road ended deep in the woods. We left the car and continued on foot. In the steadily increasing heat, I refused to hurry, dropped behind, and when I saw the end of the trees, sat down in the shade. He came back, pulled me to my feet. "Come along! You'll see that it's worth the climb." His enthusiasm urged me up a steep sunny slope to the
summit, where I duly admired the view. Still unsatisfied, he insisted that I must see it from the top of the ruin. He seemed in a queer state, excitable, almost feverish. In the dusty dark, I followed him up steps cut inside the tower wall, his massive figure blocking out the light so that I could see nothing and might have broken my neck where a step was missing. There was no parapet at the top, we stood among heaps of rubble, nothing between us and the drop to the ground, while he swung his arm, pointing out different items in the extensive view. "This tower has been a landmark for centuries. You can see the whole range of hills from here. The sea's over there. That's the cathedral spire. The blue line beyond is the estuary."

I was more interested in closer details: piles of stones, coils of wire, concrete blocks and other materials for dealing with the coming emergency. Hoping to see something that would provide a clue to the nature of the expected crisis, I went nearer the edge, looked down at the unprotected drop at my feet.

"Take care!" he warned, laughing. "You could easily slip here, or lose your balance. The perfect spot for a murder, I always think." His laugh sounded so peculiar that I turned to look at him. He came up to me, saying: "Suppose I give you a little push . . . like this—" I stepped back just in time, but missed my footing and stumbled, staggering on to a crumbling, precarious ledge lower down. His laughing face hung over me, black against the hot sky. "The fall would have been an accident, wouldn't it? No witnesses. Only my word for what happened. Look how unsteady you are on your feet. Heights seem to affect you." When we got down to the bottom again I was sweating, my clothes were covered in dust.

The girl had set out the food on the grass in the shade of an old walnut tree growing there. As usual, she spoke little. I was not sorry my visit was ending; there was too much tension in the atmosphere, her proximity was too disturbing. While we were eating I kept glancing at her, at the silvery blaze of hair, the pale, almost transparent skin, the prominent, brittle wrist-bones. Her husband had lost his earlier exhilaration and become somewhat morose. He took a sketchbook and wandered off. I did not understand his moods. Heavy clouds appeared in the distance; I felt the humidity in the air and knew there would be a storm before long. My jacket lay on the grass beside me; now I folded it into a cushion, propped it against the tree trunk and rested my head on it. The girl was stretched out full length on the grassy bank just below me, her hands clasped over her forehead, shielding her face from the glare. She kept quite still, without speaking, her raised arms displaying the slight roughness and darkness of the shaved armpits, where tiny drops of sweat sparkled like frost. The thin dress she was wearing showed the slight curves of her childish body: I could see that she wore nothing underneath it.

She was crouching in front of me, a little lower down the slope, her flesh less white than the snow. Great ice-cliffs were closing in on all sides. The light was fluorescent, a cold flat shadowless icelight. No sun, no shadows, no life, a dead cold. We were in the center of the advancing circle. I had to try to save her. I called: "Come up here—quick!" She turned her head, but without moving, her hair glinting like tarnished silver in the flat light. I went down to her, said: "Don't be so frightened. I promise I'll save you. We must get to the top of the tower." She seemed not to understand, perhaps did not hear because of the rumbling roar of the approaching ice. I got hold of her, pulled her up the slope: it was easy, she was almost weightless. Outside the ruin I stopped, holding her with one arm, looked round and saw at once that it was useless to go any higher. The tower was bound to fall; it would collapse, and be pulverized instantly under millions of tons of ice. The cold scorched my lungs, the ice was so near. She was shivering violently, her shoulders were ice already; I held her closer to me, wrapped both arms round her tight.

Little time was left, but at least we would share the same end. Ice had already engulfed the forest, the last ranks of trees were splintering. Her silver hair touched my mouth, she was leaning against me. Then I lost her; my hands could not find her again. A snapped-off tree trunk was dancing high in the sky, hurled up hundreds of feet by the impact of the ice. There was a flash, everything was shaken. My suitcase was lying open, half-packed, on the bed. The windows of my room were still wide open, the curtains streamed into the room. Outside the treetops were streaming, the sky had gone dark. I saw no rain, but thunder still rolled and echoed, and as I looked out lightning flashed again. The temperature had fallen several degrees since morning. I hurried to put on my jacket and shut the window.
 
I had been following the right road, after all. After running like a tunnel between unpruned hedges that met overhead, it wound through the dark beech wood to end in front of the house. No light was visible. The place looked derelict, uninhabited, like the others I had passed. I sounded the horn several times and waited. It was late, they might be in bed. If she was there I had to see her, and that was all there was to it. After some delay, the man came and let me in. He did not seem pleased to see me this time, which was understandable if I had woken him up. He appeared to be in his dressing-gown.

The house was without electricity. He went first, flashing a torch. I kept my coat on, although the living-room fire gave out some warmth. In the lamplight I was surprised to see how much he had altered while I had been abroad. He looked heavier, harder, tougher; the amiable expression had gone. It was not a dressing-gown he was wearing, but the long overcoat of some uniform, which made him seem unfamiliar. My old suspicions revived; here was someone who was
cashing in on the emergency before it had even arrived. His face did not appear friendly. I apologized for coming so late, explaining that I had lost my way. He was in the process of getting drunk. Bottles and glasses stood on a small table. "Well, here's to your arrival." There was no cordiality in his manner or in his voice, which had a sardonic tone that was new. He poured me a drink and sat down, the long overcoat draping his knees. I looked for the bulging pocket, the protruding butt, but nothing of the sort was visible under the coat. We sat drinking together. I made conversation about my travels, waiting for the girl to appear. There was no sign of her; not a sound from the rest of the house. He did not mention her, and I could tell that he refrained deliberately by his look of malicious amusement. The room I remembered as charming was now neglected, dirty. Plaster had fallen from the ceiling, there were deep cracks in the walls as from the effect of blast, black patches where rain had seeped in, and with it, the devastation outside. When
my impatience became uncontrollable I asked how she was. "She's dying." He grinned spitefully at my exclamation. "As we all are." It was his idea of a joke at my expense. I saw that he meant to prevent our meeting.

I needed to see her; it was vital. I said: "I'll go now and leave you in peace. But could you give me something to eat first? I've had nothing since midday." He went out and in a rough overbearing voice shouted to her to bring food. The destruction outside was contagious and had infected everything, including their relationship, and the appearance of the room. She brought a tray with bread and butter, a plate of ham, and I looked closely to see if her appearance had
changed too. She only looked thinner than ever, and more nearly transparent. She was completely silent, and seemed frightened, withdrawn, as she had been when I knew her first. I longed to ask questions, to talk to her alone, but was not given the chance. The man watched us all the time as he went on drinking. Alcohol made him quarrelsome; he got angry when I refused to drink any more, determined to pick a quarrel with me. I knew I ought to go, but my head ached abominably and made me reluctant to move. I kept pressing my hand over my eyes and forehead. Evidently the girl noticed this, for she left the room for a minute, came back with something in the palm of her hand, murmured: "An aspirin for your head." Like a bully, he shouted: "What are you whispering to him?" Touched by her thought for me, I would have liked to do more than thank her; but his scowl was so vicious that I got up to leave.

He did not come to see me off. I felt my way through the darkness by walls and furniture, faced a pale shimmer of snow when I opened the outer door. It was so cold that I hurriedly shut myself in the car and put on the heater. Looking up from the dashboard, I heard her call softly something of which I caught only the words "promise" and "don't forget." I switched on the headlights, saw her in the doorway, thin arms clasped round her chest. Her face wore its
victim's look, which was of course psychological, the result of injuries she had received in childhood; I saw it as the faintest possible hint of bruising on the extremely delicate, fine, white skin in the region of eyes and mouth. It was madly attractive to me in a certain way. I had barely caught sight of it now before the car began moving; I was automatically pressing the starter, not expecting it to work in the freezing cold. At the same moment, in what I took for an optical delusion, the black interior of the house prolonged itself into a black arm and hand, which shot out and grasped her so violently that her shocked white face cracked to pieces and she tumbled into the dark.

I could not get over the deterioration in their relationship. While she was happy I had dissociated myself, been outside the situation. Now I felt implicated, involved with her again.


TWO

I heard that the girl had left home suddenly. No one knew where she was. The husband thought she might have gone abroad. It was only a guess. He had no information. I was agitated and asked endless questions, but no concrete facts emerged. "I know no more than you. She simply vanished, I suppose she's entitled to go if she wants to—she's free, white and twenty-one." He adopted a facetious tone, I could not tell if he was speaking the truth. The police did not
suspect foul play. There was no reason to think harm had come to her, or that she had not gone away voluntarily. She was old enough to know her own mind. People were constantly disappearing; hundreds left home and were not seen again, many of them women unhappily married. Her marriage was known to have been breaking up. Almost certainly she was better off now, and only wanted to be left in peace. Further investigation would be resented and lead to more
trouble.

This was a convenient view for them, it excused them from taking action. But I did not accept it. She had been conditioned into obedience since early childhood, her independence destroyed by systematic suppression. I did not believe her capable of taking such a drastic step on her own initiative: I suspected pressure from outside. I wished I could talk to someone who knew her well, but she seemed to have had no close friends.

The husband came to town on some mysterious business, and I asked him to lunch at my club. We talked for two hours, but in the end I was none the wiser. He persistently treated the whole affair lightly, said he was glad she had gone. "Her neurotic behavior nearly drove 'me' demented. I'd had all I could take. She refused to see a psychiatrist. Finally she walked out on me without a word. No explanation. No warning." He spoke as if he was the injured party.
"She went her own way without considering me, so I'm not worrying about her. She won't come back, that's one thing certain." While he was away from home, I took the opportunity of driving down to the house and going through the things in her room, but found nothing in the way of a clue. There was just the usual collection of pathetic rubbish: a china bird; a broken string of fake pearls; snapshots in an old chocolate box. One of these, in which a lake reflected
perfectly her face and her shining hair, I put into my wallet.

Somehow or other I had to find her; the fact remained. I felt the same compulsive urge that had driven me straight to the country when I first arrived. There was no rational explanation, I could not account for it. It was a sort of craving that had to be satisfied.

I abandoned all my own affairs. From now on my business was to search for her. Nothing else mattered. Certain sources of possible information were still available. Hairdressers. Clerks who kept records of transport bookings. Those fringe characters. I went to the places such people frequented, stood about playing the fruit machines until I saw a chance of speaking. Money helped. So did intuition. No clue was too slender to follow up. The approaching emergency made it all the more urgent to find her quickly. I could not get her out of my head. I had not seen all the things I remembered about her. During my first visit I was in their living-room, talking about the Indris, my favorite subject. The man listened. She went to and fro arranging flowers. On an impulse I said the pair of them resembled the lemurs, both so friendly and charming, and living together so happily here in the trees. He laughed. She looked horrified and ran out through the French window, silvery hair floating behind her, her bare legs flashing pale. The secret, shady garden, hidden away in seclusion and silence, was a pleasant cool retreat from the heat of summer. Then suddenly it was unnaturally, fearfully cold. The masses of dense foliage all around became prison walls, impassable circular green ice-walls, surging toward her; just before they closed in, I caught the terrified glint of her eyes.

On a winter day she was in the studio, posing for him in the nude, her arms raised in a graceful position. To hold it for any length of time must have been a strain, I wondered how she managed to keep so still; until I saw the cords attached to her wrists and ankles. The room was cold. There was thick frost on the window panes and snow piled up on the sill outside. He wore the long uniform coat. She was shivering. When she asked, "May I have a rest?" her voice had a
pathetic tremor. He frowned, looked at his watch before he put down his palette. "All right. That'll do for now. You can dress." He untied her. The cords had left deep red angry rings on the white flesh. Her movements were slow and clumsy from cold, she fumbled awkwardly with buttons, suspenders. This seemed to annoy him, He turned away from her sharply, his face irritable. She kept glancing nervously at him, her mouth was unsteady, her hands would not stop
shaking.

Another time the two were together in a cold room. As usual, he wore the long coat. It was night, freezing hard. He had a book in his hand, she was doing nothing. She looked cold and miserable, huddled up in a thick gray loden coat with a red and blue check lining. The room was silent and full of tension. It could be felt that neither of them had spoken for a long time. Outside the window, a twig snapped in the iron frost with a sound like a handclap. He dropped the book and got up to put on a record. Instantly she began to protest. "Oh, no! Not that awful singing, for heaven's sake!" He ignored her, went on with what he was doing. The turntable started revolving. It was a record I had given them from my tape recording of the lemurs' song. To me, the extraordinary jungle music was lovely, mysterious, magical. To her it was a sort of torture, apparently. She covered her ears with her hands, winced at the high notes, looked more and more distraught. When the record ended and he restarted it without a moment's pause, she cried out as if he had struck her, "No! I won't listen to it all over again!" threw herself at the mechanism, stopped it so abruptly that the voices expired in uncanny wailing. He faced her angrily. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Have you gone off your head?" "You know I can't stand that horrible record." She seemed almost beside herself. "You only play it because I hate it so much . . ." Tears sprang unchecked from her eyes, she brushed them away carelessly with her hand.

He glared at her, said: "Why should I sit in silence for hours just because you don't choose to open your mouth?" His angry voice was full of indignant resentment. "What's wrong with you, anyhow, these days? Why can't you behave like a normal being?" She did not answer, dropped her face in her hands. Tears dripped between her fingers. He gazed at her with a disgusted expression. "I might as well be in solitary confinement as alone with you here. But I warn you I'm not going to put up with it much longer. I've had enough. I'm sick and tired of the way you're carrying on. Pull yourself together, or else—" With a threatening scowl, he went out, banging the door behind him. A silence followed, while she stood like a lost child, tears wet on her cheeks. Next she started wandering aimlessly round the room, stopped by the window, pulled the curtain aside, then cried out in amazement.

Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all around. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and color, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armor.
 
Despairingly she looked all around. She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an overhanging ring of frigid, fiery, colossal waves about to collapse upon her. Frozen by the deathly cold emanating from the ice, dazzled by the blaze of crystalline ice-light, she felt herself becoming part of the polar vision, her structure becoming one with the structure of ice and snow. As her fate, she accepted the world of ice, shining, shimmering, dead; she resigned herself to the triumph of glaciers and the death of her world.

This excerpt from Ice is from the Penguin Classics paperback edition.
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