“Smee … Oh, yeah. He’s dead.”
“He’s here. On this island.”
“John, are you feeling OK? Smee’s dead. He drove off a cliff in Carmel somewhere, years ago.”
“He’s here, and you know it. You’re after me, working with him.”
“John, come and have a drink. You been away too long. That HUAC shit’s over now.”
“Don’t lie to me, Bonty. Was it you or Smee asking questions about me?”
“John, this ain’t so amusing.” He frowns. “In fact you’re getting to be a pain inna ass.”
“But I know. There’s no point in pretending.”
“What are you? Crazy? Some kind of paranoid nut?”
I back off. “Forget it. Sorry to bother you. Say good-bye for me.” I leave him standing there looking at me, hands on his hips.
It’s four in the afternoon by the time I arrive back at the village. I feel grubby and exhausted. But what’s worse is the confusion squirming inside me. I feel uneasy, frightened. I feel old. I can’t cope with what’s going on. Bonty’s right. Eddie’s right. Smee must be dead, surely … I can’t even ratiocinate. Who, what, where, when?
I try the café. Ernesto isn’t there, as usual. Lazy bastard! I walk down the track to my villa. Outside the front door three men are waiting. I sigh audibly with relief when I see they are locals, old men. Oddly, they are all dressed in dusty black suits.
“Gentlemen, can I help you?” I say.
They hem me in. Brown, gray-mustachioed, seamed faces. They start shouting. Pointing fingers. They talk in some fast glottal patois that I cannot understand. I feel a spray of spittle from their angry mouths. I can understand nothing except one word: “Emilia … Emilia … Emilia …”
Jesus Christ! Her husband and his brothers. I never expected them to be so ancient. No wonder Emilia was interested in me. Then one of the old codgers spits in my face. Another thwacks me heavily across the shoulders with his walking stick. I swing a punch at the spitter. He has gray greasy hair. I hope it’s her husband. I catch him in the throat. He falls back, hawking and gagging. I’m always game for a fight. Then my legs are kicked out from under me. I fall down.
“Bastards!” I yell, suddenly frightened. These old fellows wear prodigious boots.
I hear a woman’s scream. Cries of “Police! Stop it!” Emilia, I think. Bless you.
The old men back off. I shake my head and look up. Ulrike. She switches to German. Those harsh relentless consonants work like a whip. Suddenly cowed, the cuckold and his sidekicks shuffle off. Greasy hair turns and shouts at me. Revenge, no doubt.
Ulrike helps me up. I tell her it’s an absurd misunderstanding. She takes me into the house and looks after me. A cup of coffee. Some sticking plaster on a grazed knuckle.
“You shouldn’t be fighting at your age,” she says. She’s right. I feel terrible, jumpy, as if all my organs are overheating and malfunctioning. Lung popping. Heart shudder. Stomach heave. Like an old jalopy about to break down once and for all.
I stand up and take her hand.
“Here,” I say. “Come and see this.” I take her into my study. There, I pull the cardboard boxes filled with papers and documents aside and reveal the stack of dull-silver canisters.
“You can have it,” I say. “You and Tobias. Take it away, show it, do what you like.”
“What is it?”
What takes me down to the beach that evening? I don’t know. I felt like a swim. Naked, I thought, in the sea, just like Big Sur. My back and legs were hurting where those old buggers had hit me. I imagined floating, my weight suspended in salty water. Cool. Relief.
I feel something has ended, or is about to end. Or else something new is about to begin. I go carefully through the pine trees. The path to the beach, although well worn, is narrow and meanders perilously close to the cliff edge on some occasions.
As I go I think about something I read once, about a certain kind of ant — a stink ant that lives on the floor of the West African rain forest. This ant goes about its ant business on the ground in an unremarkable way. It does not know the curious and bizarre fate nature has in store for it. For in this forest there is a particular type of arboreal fungus that flourishes at the top of the great forest trees. At certain times this fungus releases its millions of spores into the air. They blow here and there, driven by the softest breezes, eventually coming to rest somewhere on the ground. Some of these spores fall, by the law of averages, onto animals and reptiles and some on crawling insects. They are quite harmless except for one species: our stink ant. This one minute fungus spore falls on the stink ant and is absorbed into its ant system. It drives the ant mad. Remember the stink ant’s habitat is the ground, but the lethal poison of the fungus spore engenders in it the sudden desire to climb. So the stink ant, for the first and last time in its life, leaves the ground and begins to ascend. It climbs up and up, higher and higher, until it can climb no more. There, at the very top of the tree, it sinks its mandibles into the ultimate twig — fast, immovable — and abruptly dies. Inside the dead ant the fungus peacefully grows, nourished by ant meat, warmed by the sunlight at the top of the tree. The ant is consumed and a new fungus is born.
Sometimes I look back on my life and I feel like a maddened stink ant driven on by my one random fungus spore. Today, I sense, the time has come to sink my mandibles into the bark at the top of the tree.
* Last Walk finally opened in New York in 1961. It was unpicketed. A few months earlier President Kennedy had crossed an American Legion picket to watch a screening of Spartacus, script by ex — Hollywood Ten Dalton Trumbo. I owe JFK a vote of thanks.
21 John James Todd on the Beach
The sun shines warmly on the beach. The rush and roar of the little Mediterranean breakers is ideally soothing. I abandon the thought of swimming. I sit down in the sun (easy, boy, easy now) and try to relax.
Hamish died last week of throat cancer. Mercifully swiftly. I forgot to tell you — in fact I chose not to; it might have spoiled this story. His solicitor wrote to me, saying that Hamish’s last wishes were that I should be sent some papers he had written on prime-number theory and an unfinished monograph on Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Poor Hamish, I suppose he went a little mad before he died. It can happen easily, I know. I walk up and down the beach and shed a few tears for him. Hamish and his quantum mechanics. Hamish and his maths. I had been recalcitrant material for him; he had been trying to make me “see” things clearly for decades — since we were at school together — and I had blundered along, heedless, saying yes and at once forgetting.
I look back at my life, my threescore years and ten, and think, yes, I would like there to be an underlying order to these seven decades of reality. I would like some sense, some meaning. But if I understand Hamish correctly, everything has changed, this century. The search for “truth” can never be the same. Science, which used to attempt to enumerate all the cogs in the Great Machine, has abandoned that endeavor now. Life at its basic level, the quantum physicists tell us, is deeply paradoxical and fundamentally uncertain. There are no hidden variables, there is no secret agenda for the universe.…
I stop, sniff and look out to sea. This is a mite depressing. Poor old Hamish. God, they’re all dead or dying now. Karl-Heinz, my father, Oonagh, Donald Verulam, Faye, Mungo … on and on. Or lost. Sonia and my children. I haven’t seen them for decades. They stopped writing, steadily. I stopped replying, steadily. Then I used to fantasize that one of them would be curious about me and come and seek me out. Emmeline perhaps … a lean serious girl, I imagined, with a distinct look of my mother. She would have grown suspicious of her mother’s crabbed antipaternal propaganda, unhappy with the name Devize, determined to see the truth for herself, to attempt her own reconciliation.… But why should she? Why should Vincent fill the role I wishfully assigned to him? If only Hereford … Well, it’s pointless now. My loss lingers, a haunting, hurtful regret. But I’m replete with “if onlys.” We’re stuck fast in this being-human game. First prize: mortality. I kick a faded plastic container. It rattles dryly on the pebbles. Like bones.… At least it’s cooler now. Perhaps I could attempt the climb back up.