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Go on reading. In your opinion, is there anything that makes Needle a peculiar ghost ? What is it ?
“I don’t see anyone faintly resembling poor Needle,” said Kathleen looking at him. She was worried.
George pointed straight at me. “Look there. I tell you that ‘s Needle.”
“You’re ill, George. Heavens, you must be seeing things. Come on home. Needle isn’t there. You know as well as I do, Needle is dead.”
I must explain that I departed this life nearly five years ago. But I did not altogether depart this world. There were those odd things still to be done which one’s executors can never do properly. Papers to be looked over, even after the executors have torn them up. Lots of business except, of course, on Sundays and Holidays of Obligation, plenty to take an interest in for the time being. I take my recreation on Saturday mornings. If it is a wet Saturday I wander up and down the substantial lanes of Woolworth’s as I did when I was young and visible. There is a pleasurable spread of objects on the counters which I now perceive and exploit with a certain detachment, since it suits with my condition of life. Creams, toothpastes, combs, and hankies, cotton gloves, flimsy flowering scarves, writing-paper, and crayons, ice-cream cones and orangeade, screwdrivers, boxes of tacks, tins of paint, of glue, of marmalade ; I always liked them but far more now that I have no need of any. When Saturdays are fine I go instead to the Portobello Road where formerly I would jaunt with Kathleen in our grown-up days. The barrow-loads do not change much, of apples and rayon vests in common blues and low-taste mauve, of silver plate, trays, and teapots long since changed hands from the bygone citizens to dealers, from shops to the new flats and breakable homes, and then over to the barrow-stalls and the dealers again: Georgian spoons, rings, ear-rings of turquoise and opal set in the butterfly pattern of true-lovers’ knot, patch-boxes with miniature paintings of ladies on ivory, snuff-boxes of silver with Scotch pebbles inset.
Sometimes as occasion arises on a Saturday morning, my friend Kathleen, who is a Catholic, has a Mass said for my soul, and then I am in attendance as it were at the church. But most Saturdays I take my delight among the solemn crowds with their aimless purposes, their eternal life not far away, who push past the counters and stalls, who handle, buy, steal, touch, desire, and ogle the merchandise. I hear the tinkling tills, I hear the jangle of loose change and tongues and children wanting to hold and have.
That is how I came to be in the Portobello Road that Saturday morning when I saw George and Kathleen. I would not have spoken had I not been inspired to it. Indeed it’s one of the things I can’t do now — to speak out, unless inspired. And most extraordinary, on that morning as
We were bound for the south. When our education, what we could get of it from the north, was thought to be finished, one by one we were sent or sent for to London. John Skinner whom we called Skinny went to study more archaeology, George to join his uncle’s tobacco farm, Kathleen to stay with her rich connections and to potter intermittently in the Mayfair hat-shop which one of them owned. A little later I also went to London to see life, for it was my ambition to write about life, which first I had to see.
1“We four must stick together,” George said very often in that yearning way of his. He was always desperately afraid of neglect. We four looked likely to shift off in different directions and George did not trust the other three of us not to forget all about him. More and more as the time came for him to depart for his uncle’s tobacco farm in Africa he said, “We four must keep in touch.”
And before he left he told each of us anxiously,
“I’ll write regularly, once a month. We must keep together for the sake of the old times.” He had three prints taken from the negative of that photo on the haystack, wrote on the back of them, “George took this the day that Needle found the needle” and gave us a copy each. I think we all wished he could become a bit more callous.
During my lifetime I was a drifter, nothing organized. It was difficult for my friends to follow the logic of my life. By the normal reckonings I should have come to starvation and ruin, which I never did. Of course, I did no live to write about life as I wanted to do. Possibly that is why I am inspired to do so now in these peculiar circumstances.
I taught in a private school in Kensington, for almost three months, very small children. I didn’t know what to do with them but I was kept fairly busy escorting incontinent little boys to the lavatory and telling the little girls to use their handkerchiefs. After that I lived a winter holiday in London on my small capital, and when that had run out I found a diamond bracelet in the cinema for which I received a reward of fifty pounds. When it was used up I got a job with a publicity man, writing speeches for absorbed industrialists, in which the dictionary of quotations came in very useful. So it went on. I got engaged to Skinny, but shortly after that I was left a small legacy, enough to keep me for six months. This somehow decided me that I didn’t love Skinny so I gave him back the ring.
But it was through Skinny that I went to Africa. He was engaged with a party of researchers to investigate King Solomon’s mines, that series of ancient workings ranging from the ancient port of Ophir, now called Beira, across Portuguese East Africa and Southern Rhodesia to the mighty jungle-city of Zimbabwe whose temple walls still stand by the approach to an ancient and sacred mountain, where the rubble of that civilization scatters itself over the surrounding Rhodesian waste. I accompanied the party as a sort of secretary. Skinny vouched for me, he paid my fare, he sympathized by his action with my inconsequential life although when he spoke of it he disapproved. A life like mine annoys most people ; they go to their jobs every day, attend to things, give orders, pummel typewriters, and get two or three weeks off every year, and it vexes them to see someone else not bothering to do these things and yet getting away with it, not starving, being lucky as they call it. Skinny, when I had broken off our engagement, lectured me about this, but still he took me to Africa knowing I should probably leave his unit within a few months.
We were there a few weeks before we began inquiring for George who was farming about four hundred miles away to the north. We had not told him of our plans.
“If we tell George to expect us in his part of the world he’ll come rushing to pester us the first week. After all, we’re going on business,” Skinny had said.
Before we left Kathleen told us, “Give George my love and tell him not to send frantic cables every time I don’t answer his letters right away. Tell him I’m busy in the hat-shop and being presented. You would think he hadn’t another friend in the world the way he carries on.”
We had settled first at Fort Victoria, our nearest place of access to the Zimbabwe ruins. There we made inquiries about George. It was clear he hadn’t many friends. The older settlers were the most tolerant about the half-caste woman he was living with, as we found, but they were furious about his methods of raising tobacco which we learned were most unprofessional and in some mysterious way disloyal to the whites. We could never discover how it was that George’s style of tobacco farming gave the blacks opinions about themselves, but that’s what the older settlers claimed. The newer immigrants thought he was unsociable and, of course, his living with that nig made visiting impossible.
I must say I was myself a bit off-put by this news about the brown woman. I was brought up in a university town to which came Indian, African, and Asiatic students in a variety of tints and hues. I was brought up to avoid them for reasons connected with local reputation and God’s ordinances. You cannot easily go against what you were brought up to do unless you are a rebel by nature. Anyhow, we visited George eventually, taking advantage of the offer of transport from some people bound north in search of game. He had heard of our arrival in Rhodesia and though he was glad, almost relieved, to see us he pursued a policy of sullenness for the first hour.
“We wanted to give you a surprise, George.”
“How were we to know that you’d get to hear of our arrival, George ? News here must travel faster than light, George.”
“We did hope to give you a surprise, George.”
We flattered and “Georged” him until at last he said, “Well, I must say it’s good to see you. All we need now is Kathleen. We four simply must stick together. You find when you’re in a place like this, there’s nothing like old friends.”
He showed us his drying sheds. He showed us a paddock where he was experimenting with a horse and a zebra mare, attempting to mate them. They were frolicking happily, but not together. They passed each other in their private playtime and again, but without acknowledgement and without resentment.
“It’s been done before,” George said. “It makes a fine strong beast, more intelligent than a mule and sturdier than a horse. But I’m not having any success with this pair, they won’t look at each other.”
After a while, he said, “Come in for a drink and meet Matilda.”
She was dark brown, with a subservient hollow chest and round shoulders, a gawky woman, very snappy with the houseboys. We said pleasant things as we drank on the stoop before dinner, but we found George difficult. For some reason he began to rail at me for breaking off my engagement to Skinny, saying what a dirty trick it was after all those good times in the old days. I diverted attention to Matilda. I supposed, I said, she knew this part of the country well ? “No,” said she, “I not put out to working. Me nothing to go from place to place is allowed like dirty girls does.” In her speech she gave every syllable equal stress.
George explained, “Her father was a white magistrate in Natal. She had a sheltered upbringing, different from the other coloureds, you realize.”
“Man, me no black-eyed Susan,” said Matilda, “no, no.”
On the whole, George treated her as a servant. She was about four months advanced in pregnancy, but he made her get up and fetch for him, many times. Soap: that was one of the things Matilda had to fetch. George made his own bath soap, showed it proudly, gave us the receipt which I did not trouble to remember ; 1 was fond of nice soaps during my lifetime and George’s smelt of brilliantine and looked likely to soil one’s skin.
“D’you brahn ?” Matilda asked me.
George said, “She is asking if you go brown in the sun.”
“No, I go freckled.”
“I got sister-in-law go freckles.”
She never spoke another word to Skinny nor to me, and we never saw her again.
Some months later I said to Skinny,
“I’m fed up with being a camp-follower.”
He was not surprised that I was leaving his unit, but he hated my way of expressing it. He gave me a Presbyterian look.
“Don’t talk like that. Are you going back to England or staying ?”
“Staying, for a while.”
“Well, don’t wander too far off.”
I was able to live on the fee I got for writing a gossip column in a local weekly, which wasn’t my idea of writing about life, of course. I made friends, more than I could cope with, after I left Skinny’s exclusive little band of archaeologists. I had the attractions of being newly out from England and of wanting to see life. Of the countless young men and go-ahead families who purred me along the Rhodesian roads, hundred after hundred miles, I only kept up with one family when I returned to my native land. I think that was because they were the most representative, they stood for all the rest: people in those parts are very typical of each other, as one group of standing stones in that wilderness is like the next.
I met George once more in a hotel in Bulawayo. We drank highballs and spoke of war. Skinny’s party were just then deciding whether to remain in the country or return home. They had reached an exciting part of their research, and whenever 1 got a chance to visit Zimbabwe he would take me for a moonlight walk in the ruined temple and try to make me see phantom Phoenicians flitting ahead of us, or along the walls. I had half a mind to marry Skinny ; perhaps, I thought, when his studies were finished. The impending war was in our bones: so I remarked to George as we sat drinking highballs on the hotel step in the hard bright sunny July winter of that year. George was inquisitive about my relations with Skinny. He tried to pump me for about half an hour and when at last I said, “You are becoming aggressive, George,” he stopped. He became quite pathetic. He said, “War or no war. I’m clearing out of this.”
“It’s the heat does it,” I said.
“I’m clearing out in any case. I’ve lost a fortune in tobacco. My uncle is making a fuss. It’s the other bloody planters ; once you get the wrong side of them you’re finished in this wide land.”
“What about Matilda ?” I asked.
He said, “She’ll be all right. She’s got hundreds of relatives.”
I had already heard about the baby girl. Coal black, by repute, with George’s features. And another on the way, they said. “What about the child ?”
He didn’t say anything to that. He ordered more highballs and when they arrived he swizzled his for a long time with a stick. “Why didn’t you ask me to your twenty-first ?” he said then.
“I didn’t have anything special, no party, George. We had a quiet drink among ourselves, George, just Skinny and the old professors and two of the wives and me, George.”
“You didn’t ask me to your twenty-first,” he said. “Kathleen writes to me regularly.”
This wasn’t true. Kathleen sent me letters fairly often in which she said, “Don’t tell George I wrote to you as he will be expecting word from me and I can’t be bothered actually.”
“But you,” said George, “don’t seem to have any sense of old friendship, you and Skinny.”
“Oh, George !” I said.
“Remember the times we had,” George said. “We used to have times.” His large brown eyes began to water.
“I’ll have to be getting along,” I said.
“Please don’t go. Don’t leave me just yet. I’ve something to tell you.”
“Something nice ?” I laid on an eager smile. All responses to George had to be overdone.
“You don’t know how lucky you are,” George said.
“How ?” I said. Sometimes I got tired of being called lucky by everybody. There were times when, privately practising my writings about life, I knew the bitter side of my fortune. When I failed again and again to reproduce life in some satisfactory and perfect form, I was the more imprisoned, for all my carefree living, within my craving for this satisfaction. Sometimes, in my impotence and need I secreted a venom which infected all my life for days on end and which spurted out indiscriminately on Skinny or on anyone who crossed my path.
“You aren’t bound by anyone,” George said. “You come and go as you please. Something always turns up for you. You’re free, and you don’t know your luck." "You’re a damn sight more free than I am,”
“You’ve got your rich uncle.”
“He’s losing interest in me,” George said. “He’s had enough.”
“Oh well, you’re young yet. What was it you wanted to tell me ?”
“A secret,” George said. “Remember we used to have those secrets.”
“Oh, yes we did.”
“Did you ever tell any of mine ?”
“Oh no, George.” In reality, I couldn’t remember any particular secret out of the dozens we must have exchanged from our schooldays onwards.
“Well, this is a secret, mind. Promise not to tell.”
“Married, George ! Oh who to ?”
“How dreadful !” I spoke before I could think, but he agreed with me.
“Yes, it’s awful, but what could I do ?”
“You might have asked my advice,” I said pompously.
“I’m two years older than you are. I don’t ask advice from you, Needle, little beast.”
“Don’t ask for sympathy then.”
“A nice friend you are,” he said, “I must say after all these years.” “Poor George !” I said.
“There are three white men to one white woman in this country,” said George. “An isolated planter doesn’t see a white woman and if he sees one she doesn’t see him. What could I do ? I needed the woman.”
I was nearly sick. One, because of my Scottish upbringing. Two, because of my horror of corny phrases like “I needed the woman,” which George repeated twice again.
“And Matilda got tough,” said George, “after you and Skinny came to visit us. She had some friends at the Mission, and she packed up and went to them.”
“You should have let her go,” I said.
“I went after her.” George said. “She insisted on being married, so I married her.”
“That’s not a proper secret, then,” I said. “The news of a mixed marriage soon gets about.”
“I took care of that,” George said. “Crazy as I was, I took her to the Congo and married her there. She promised to keep quiet about it.”
“Well, you can’t clear off and leave her now, surely,” I said.
“I’m going to get out of this place. I can’t stand the woman and I can’t stand the country. I didn’t realize what it would be like. Two years of the country and three months of my wife has been enough.”
“Will you get a divorce ?”
“No, Matilda’s Catholic. She won’t divorce.”
George was fairly getting through the highballs, and I wasn’t far behind him. His brown eyes floated shiny and liquid as he told me how he had written to tell his uncle of his plight, “Except, of course, I didn’t say we were married, that would have been too much for him. He’s a prejudiced hardened old Colonial. I only said I’d had a child by a coloured woman and was expecting another, and he perfectly understood. He came at once by plane a few weeks ago. He’s made a settlement on her, providing she keeps her mouth shut about her association with me.”
“Will she do that ?”
“Oh, yes, or she won’t get the money.”
“But as your wife she has a claim on you, in any case.”
“If she claimed as my wife she’d get far less. Matilda knows what she’s doing, greedy bitch she is. She’ll keep her mouth shut.”
“Only, you won’t be able to marry again, will you ?” “Not unless she dies,” he said. “And she’s as strong as a trek ox.”
“Well, I’m sorry, George,” I said.
“Good of you to say so,” he said. “But I can see by your chin that you disapprove of me. Even my old uncle understood.”
“Oh, George, I quite understand. You were lonely, I suppose.”
“You didn’t even ask me to your twenty-first. If you and Skinny had been nicer to me, I would never have lost my head and married the woman, never.”
“You didn’t ask me to your wedding,” I said.
“You’re a catty bissom, Needle, not like what you were in the old times when you used to tell us your wee stories.”
“I’ll have to be getting along,” I said.
“Mind you keep the secret,” George said.
“Can’t I tell Skinny ? He would be very sorry for you, George.”
“You mustn’t tell anyone. Keep it a secret. Promise.”
“Promise," I said. I understood that he wished to enforce some sort of bond between us with this secret, and I thought, “Oh well, I suppose he’s lonely. Keeping his secret won’t do any harm.”
I returned to England with Skinny’s party just before the war.
I did not see George again till just before my death, five years ago.
After the war Skinny returned to his studies. He had two more exams, over a period of eighteen months, and I thought I might marry him when the exams were over.
“You might do worse than Skinny,” Kathleen used to say to me on our Saturday morning excursions to the antique shops and the junk stalls.
She too was getting on in years. The remainder of our families in Scotland were hinting that it was time we settled down with husbands. Kathleen was a little younger than me, but looked much older. She knew her chances were diminishing but at that time I did not think she cared very much. As for myself, the main attraction of marrying Skinny was his prospective expeditions to Mesopotamia. My desire to marry him had to be stimulated by the continual reading of books about Babylon and Assyria ; perhaps Skinny felt this, because he supplied the books and even started instructing me in the art of deciphering cuneiform tables.
Kathleen was more interested in marriage than I thought. Like me, she had racketed around a good deal during the war ; she had actually been engaged to an officer in the U. S. navy, who was killed. Now she kept an antique shop near Lambeth, was doing very nicely, lived in
“The poet Swinburne used to do that,” I told her once.
“Really ? Did he want children of his own ?”
“I shouldn’t think so. He simply liked babies.”
Before Skinny’s final exam he fell ill and was sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland.
“You’re fortunate after all not to be married to him,” Kathleen said. “You might have caught T. B.”
I was fortunate, I was lucky... So everyone kept telling me on different occasions. Although it annoyed me to hear, I knew they were right, but in a way that was different from what they meant. It took me very small effort to make a living ; book reviews, odd jobs for Kathleen,
I visited Skinny twice in the two years that he was in the sanatorium. He was almost cured, and expected to be home within a few months.
“Maybe I’ll marry Skinny when he’s well again.”
“Make it definite, Needle, and not so much of the maybe. You don’t know when you’re well off,” she said.
This was five years ago, in the last year of my life, Kathleen and
One day in the June of that year I met Kathleen specially for lunch because she had phoned me to say she had news.
“Guess who came into the shop this afternoon,” she said.
We had half imagined George was dead. We had received no letters in the past ten years. Early in the war we had heard rumours of his keeping a nightclub in Durban, but nothing after that. We could have made inquiries if we had felt moved to do so.
At one time, when we discussed him, Kathleen had said,
“I ought to get in touch with poor George. But then I think he would write back. He would demand a regular correspondence again.”
“We four must stick together,” I mimicked.
“I can visualize his reproachful limpid orbs,” Kathleen said.
Skinny said, “He’s probably gone native. With his coffee concubine and a dozen mahogany kids.” “Perhaps he’s dead,” Kathleen said.
I did not speak of George’s marriage, nor of any of his confidences in the hotel at Bulawayo. As the years passed we ceased to mention him except in passing, as someone more or less dead so far as we were concerned.
Kathleen was excited about George’s turning up. She had forgotten her impatience with him in former days ; she said,
“It was so wonderful to see old George. He seems to need a friend, feels neglected, out of touch with things.”
“He needs mothering, I suppose.”
Kathleen didn’t notice the malice. She declared, “That’s exactly the case with George. It always has been, I can see it now.”
She seemed ready to come to any rapid and happy conclusion about George. In the course of the morning he had told her of his wartime nightclub in Durban, his game-shooting expeditions since. It was clear he had not mentioned Matilda. He had put on weight, Kathleen told me, but he could carry it.
I was curious to see this version of George, but I was leaving for Scotland next day and did not see him till September of that year just before my death.
While I was in Scotland I gathered from Kathleen’s letters that she was seeing George very frequently, finding enjoyable company in him, looking after him. “You’ll be surprised to see how he has developed.” Apparently he would hand round Kathleen in her shop most days, "it makes him feel useful" as she maternally expressed it. He had an old relative in Kent whom he visited at week-ends ; this old lady lived a few miles from Kathleen’s aunt, which made it easy for them to travel down together on Saturdays, and go for long country walks.
“You’ll see such a difference in George,” Kathleen said on my return to London in September. I was to meet him that night, a Saturday. Kathleen’s aunt was abroad, the maid on holiday, and I was to keep Kathleen company in the empty house.
George had left London for Kent a few days earlier. “He’s actually helping with the harvest down there !” Kathleen told me lovingly.
Kathleen and I planned to travel down together, but on that Saturday she was unexpectedly delayed in London on some business. It was arranged that I should go ahead of her in the early afternoon to see to the provisions for our party ; Kathleen had invited George to dinner at her aunt’s house that night.
“I should be with you by seven,” she said. “Sure you won’t mind the empty house ? I hate arriving at empty houses, myself.”
I said no, I liked an empty house.
So I did, when I got there. I had never found the house more likeable. A large Georgian vicarage in about eight acres, most of the rooms shut and sheeted, there being only one servant. I discovered that I wouldn’t need to go shopping, Kathleen’s aunt had left many and delicate supplies with notes attached to them: “Eat this up please do, see also fridge” and “A treat for three hungry people see also 2 bottles beaune for yr party on black kn table.” It was like a treasure hunt as I followed clue after clue through the cool silent domestic quarters. A house in which there are no people — but with all the signs of tenancy — can be a most tranquil good place. People take up space in a house out of proportion to their size. On my previous visits I had seen the rooms overflowing, as it seemed, with Kathleen, her aunt, and the little fat maidservant ; they were always on the move. As I wandered through that part of the house which was in use, opening windows to let in the pale yellow air of September, I was not conscious that I, Needle, was taking up any space at all, I might have been a ghost.
The only thing to be fetched was the milk. I waited till after four when the milking should be done, then set off for the farm which lay across two fields at the back of the orchard. There, when the byre man was handing me the bottle, I saw George.
“Hallo, George,” I said.
“Needle ! What are you doing here ?” he said.
“Fetching milk,” I said.
“So am I. Well, it’s good to see you, I must say.”
As we paid the farm-hand, George said, “I’ll walk back with you part of the way. But I mustn’t stop, my old cousin’s without any milk for her tea. How’s Kathleen ?”
“She was kept in London. She’s coming on later, about seven, she expects.”
We had reached the end of the first field. George’s way led to the left and on to the main road.
“Well see you tonight, then ?” I said.
“Yes, and talk about old times.”
“Grand,” I said.
But George got over the stile with me.
“Look here,” he said. “I’d like to talk to you, Needle.”
“We’ll talk tonight, George. Better not keep your cousin waiting for the milk.” I found myself speaking to him almost as if he were a child.
“No, I want to talk to you alone. This is a good opportunity.”
We began to cross the second field. I had been hoping to have the house to myself for a couple more hours and I was rather petulant.
“See,” he said suddenly, “that haystack.”
“Yes,” I said absently.
“Let’s sit there and talk. I’d like to see you up on a haystack again. I still keep that photo. Remember that time when…”
“I found the needle,” I said very quickly, to get it over.
Âñå ìàòåðèàëû ïðåäñòàâëåííûå íà ñàéòå èñêëþ÷èòåëüíî ñ öåëüþ îçíàêîìëåíèÿ ÷èòàòåëÿìè è íå ïðåñëåäóþò êîììåð÷åñêèõ öåëåé èëè íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ. Ñòóäàëë.Îðã (0.051 ñåê.)