“Kindly light these candles,” said Mr Winthrop, gently touching the two of them, one then the other in their holders on the round table, before reaching beside him to produce a box of matches. Diane squinted down at her hands. Mr Winthrop got up and went to an upright something covered by a heavy black velveteen mantle, which Diane hadn’t noticed before. In the new light of the candles it seemed very sinister to her, and she felt very quickly a nascent kind of dread wash over her and an accompanying clarity that made her very aware of the exit behind her.
“Are you ready for something truly incredible, Miss Crawford?” he asked.
Diane had blushed and said some non-committal thing like, “I like to be ready…” or something, and Mr Winthrop hadn’t moved or shifted focus.
“Miss Crawford, I don’t show this to just anyone, only to those whom I’m guided to show it to; you are one of those people, and whether it’s because you have a particularly strong mental presence or a particularly useful one I can’t know, but I must impress on you that this is only for those who are ready for the signally unusual.”
Diane was puzzled by all of this but impressed deeply, and embarrassed. Apparently this was enough for Mr Winthrop, who turned and lifted the black mantle to reveal a chalkboard, which he rubbed down with a rag.
“Please note that this chalkboard is entirely free of markings,” he said.
“It is,” said Diane, squinting.
At this the chalkboard was covered again and he went to a small bookshelf set up against the tent wall.
“Here,” he said, “Is the world’s great poets and playwrights. In these books are contained innumerable, inimitable combinations of words to express things only the human mind can both conjure and comprehend. Correct?”
“Wrong,” said Mr Winthrop, again not moving nor shifting focus the slightest degree. “We forget, Miss Crawford, that we are always in the presence of those original minds, who neither ask for nor want the accolades of man, but who nonetheless are the inventors, the blueprint keepers for these concept which we can only hope to approximate. We are the ones groping for answers—they are the riddlers themselves, and the first poets, inscribing their verse in motion, in light, time, the mathematic dust of creation in toto, also they are the great playwrights, whose tragedies they work through lives, our lives here on the lowest, most plastic of planes.
“Once in a while, one is called to sit at the feet of such a mind, a mystery, and learn more directly, and he is called a Beethoven, a Schopenhauer, a Shakespeare, an Aristotle or an Edison. Many times they go mad, many times their contemporaries deem them mad, because the old ignorance still holds such sway, makes so much sense already—one thinks of Galileo Galilee, of Jesus of Nazareth or Nikola Tesla.
“We willingly learn from the men who’ve gone before us, but we ignore at a far greater cost the ancient, immaterial minds who were their geniuses.”
Mr Winthrop was now leaning against the bookshelf—the incongruous image of a man at once relaxed and keenly switched on. Diane felt the burden of being his subject, of holding the whole thing together by not looking or seeming the wrong way, uncomfortable for example. She tensed her lips in a way she hoped seemed determined and reflective, as though she were taking it all in. In reality she had begun to be nervous about Genie, she had been imagining Roland coming to find her on the fair grounds, drunk and emotional and going to town on what was left of her in front of everybody. This was when Mr Winthrop sighed, scratched his forehead and asked her to leave.
“Your friend,” he said at the tent door, “is fine, you’ll find her at the cake stall,” and he indicated with a small and intimate gesture the direction. At the time Genie didn’t question how Mr Winthrop knew this—here was a kind of relief at being excused, also at having her solecism, whatever it was, that minute thing that had put him off his trick, forgiven by that little gesture, his face close to hers, but later that night it had occurred to her that he shouldn’t have known where Genie was, for she was at the cake stall, and with no Roland in sight.
Diane lay supine in Mr and Mrs Winthrop’s bed, and was asleep in that loosely held sense, because she was unresponsive and horizontal, but in reality she was mutely experiencing the room as an extension of her dream. It was an urgent reinterpretation and reordering of her body’s impressions of herself, itself, the bed, the room, into other difficult experiences and feelings such as the feeling of roomness, the interpretation of the quiet as a spoken statement, meaning something, and the sensation of stillness as a kind of movement, even a movement made in response to the spoken statement of roomy quiet. With this ongoing menagerie of abstract senses also was the greater, overshadowing conviction that things were not right, that the thoughts and impressions of the room, which was only a small part of a universe equally teeming with things speaking directly to her, was part of a language of unremitting, inexorable doom. Besides all this also was the sense of other persons engaged in this grand, ischaemic, frenetic ballyhoo, people of great authority and understanding; screaming, rending their metaphysical garments at the implication of a final, endless night. Somewhere outside of her, of the room in fact, beyond the closed door was the gentle, wavering sounds of Gabriel Fauré’s Poèm d’un jour: Recontre, and this is what eventually woke Diane up, when the song, played over and over as it was, began to be understood in its discrete, objective sense.
In the family room Mavis in her little nightgown stood at the record player, watching the record turn, hand poised by the machine’s arm to bring it back again. Diane listened in secret—they listened together, and Diane watched small, sleepy eyes waver and start, then with a new, alert resolution at the conclusion of the piece, guide a hand instead to lift the arm from the record and leave it there.
“That’s a wonderful song,” said Diane, now aware of being found out. “There are two other parts, no?”
“Lewis weed his bed,” said Mavis, “you have to give him a bath.”
In the children’s bedroom Lewis was flat and still beneath his sheets. From the threshold of the door Diane gently called his name.
“Lewis…Lewis, wake up, sweetie.” She smelled at the air.
“He’s acting,” said Mavis.
“Go to bed please, Mavis,” said Diane, and Mavis padded back to bed, of her own warrant it seemed to Diane, and faced the wall with her covers brought over her shoulder. Beneath Lewis’s blanket, as Diane carefully drew it back, half-expecting to find nothing—Lewis’s toys; soft teddy bears, a snake, a hamster and an oversized Toll House Cookie were gathered together in the middle, that nook where was the now definite smell of a wet bed. His eyes were shut tightly—tears were running.
Suddenly he let out a long whine, then threw himself out of bed, pointing at his sister safe inside her pink mosquito net; “I told you not to tell, Mavis!” The little boy stomped out of the room, sniffling and crying as he wrestled off his pyjama top, still buttoned.
The Winthrop’s bath was the kind with a tap that never stops dripping. It was pleasantly cool in there. Diane enjoyed that smell of metal, mineral, calcium, because it was clean, cleaner maybe than the rest of the house, not like bedsheets, wallpaper, cigarette butts left in ashtrays, things with fibres and minute crevices in which things hid. Cast iron, copper and glass had those associations of cleanness which the other things for Diane didn’t. It was cool in there because the window was open. Lewis wanted it that way because, he said, the bath was too hot. The bath was just right. Diane had tested it then retested it; it was the way that Mrs Winthrop had told her to have it—the way it was best for the children. Lewis at first had pretended not to enjoy his bath—his second bath that night, but now he played with his toys, absorbed, as though she wasn’t there at all, or maybe was some kind of servant, and that was probably true. It felt a bit that way but she didn’t mind. Lewis in a very real way was like a small, immature Mr Winthrop. And this was very much his domain. Without Mr and Mrs Winthrop in the house, it was as though she had entered into another, littler world, and found herself observing the strange traditions and goings-on of a little people. Little politicians, who in turn examined her, to find out what she was, not necessarily what she wanted or whether she was a threat as such, but examined her simply as a human does examine things.
She wondered when it was that things changed, that is, when Lewis, or any child would cease to examine other people in the terms and in the mode of one exploring, and would begin to examine people the way an adult does, the way she was now, with the simultaneous understanding of what oneself was, and what the other meant to them. Adults uniquely, Diane thought, appraise human souls; there is a hierarchy. There is a hierarchy, we learn it somehow, she thought. Maybe it’s not handed down to us, but absorbed—it’s in the record somehow, and we pick it up. That was a kind of evil. That certainly was a kind of evil. A fact of life on this world, this plane as Mr Winthrop might put it. She shuddered; she hated to think of Lewis, this boy whom she loved for many reasons but chiefly because he was innocent, change into something, was changing into something there and then, something low and dense.
There was a groan and a series of bubbles erupted beneath Lewis’s nose, and Diane looked intently at him, expecting some kind of reaction from him, some apology she could dismiss with a smile, but he only stared, still into that middle distance through rising steam, undisturbed, thinking of whatever.