Issue 29, Winter-Spring 1963
(The editors, Lowry's second wife and Earle Birney, a longtime friend and neighbor of the author and professor of English at the University of British Columbia, describe the present version as being primarily a job of splicing, in an approximation of Lowry's method and intent, “We have not added a line,” Mrs. Lowry has said in a letter to me. “Malcolm, of course, would then have rewritten, but who could do it as he would have?”)
A man leaves a dockside tavern in the early morning, the smell of the sea in his nostrils, and a whiskey bottle in his pocket, gliding over the cobbles lightly as a ship leaving harbour.
Soon he is running into a storm and tacking from side to side, frantically trying to get back. Now he will go into any harbour at all.
He goes into another saloon.
From this he emerges, cunningly repaired; but he is in difficulties once more. This time it is serious: he is nearly run over by a street car, he bangs his head on a wall, once he falls over an ashcan where he has thrown a bottle. Passers-by stare at him curiously, some with anger, others with amusement, or even a strange avidity.
This time he seeks refuge up an alley, and leans against the wall in an attitude of dejection, as if trying to remember something.
Again the pilgrimage starts but his course is so erratic it seems he must be looking for, rather than trying to remember something. Or perhaps, like the poor cat who had lost an eye in a battle, he is just looking for his sight?
The heat rises up from the pavements, a mighty force. New York groans and roars above, around, below him: white birds flash in the quivering air, a bridge strides over the river. Signs nod past him: The Best for Less, Romeo and Juliet, the greatest love story in the world, No Cover at Any Time, When pain threatens, strikes—
He enters another tavern, where presently he is talking of people he had never known, of places he had never been. Through the open door he is aware of the Hospital, towering up above the river. Near him arrogant bearded derelicts cringe over spittoons, and of these men he seems afraid. Sweat floods his face. From the depths of the tavern comes a sound of moaning, and a sound of ticking.
Outside, again the pilgrimage starts, he wanders from saloon to saloon as though searching for something, but always keeping the hospital in sight, as if the saloons were only points on his circumference. In a street along the waterfront, where a bell is clanging, he halts; a terrible old woman, whose black veil only partly conceals her ravaged face, is trying to post a letter, trying repeatedly and failing, but posting it finally, with shaking hands that are not like hands at all.
A strange notion strikes him: the letter is for him. He takes a drink from his bottle.
In the Elevated a heavenly wind is blowing and there is a view of the river, but he is walking as though stepping over obstacles, or like Ahab stumbling from side to side on the careening bridge, “feeling that he encompassed in his stare oceans from which might be revealed that phantom destroyer of himself.”
Down in the street the heat is terrific. Tabloid headlines: Thousands collapse in Heat Wave. Hundreds Dead. Roosevelt Raps Warmongers. Civil War in Spain.
Once he stops in a church, his lips moving in something like a prayer. Inside it is cool: around the walls arc pictured the stages of the cross. Nobody seems to be looking. He likes drinking in churches particularly.
But afterwards he comes to a place not like a church at all.
This is the Hospital: all day he has hovered round it; now it looms up closer than ever. This is his objective. Tilting die bottle to his mouth he takes a long, final draught: drops run down his neck, mingling with the sweat.
“I want to hear the song of the negroes,” he roars, “Veuton que je disparaisse, que je plonge, à la recherche de I'anneau... I am sent to save my father, to find my son, to heal the eternal horror of three, to resolve the immedicable horror of opposites!”
With the dithering crack of a ship going on the rocks the door shuts behind him.
Looking down from he high buildings on 4th or 5th Avenue and 30th Street in New York you would never have thought there was grass growing down to the East River. But between the Observation Ward of the Psychiatric Hospital and the water, in a little lot to the left of the Powerhouse — a building distinguishable even from midtown because its derricks are out of alignment and yearn over towards the hospital—you might have seen this grass as it grew there.
At the edge of the grass was a broken coal barge and beyond that, a little harbor bounded by two wharves. On the wharf to the right was the Powerhouse and in front of it a shed used by the doctors as a garage, near which a green hospital ambulance was often parked.
The wharf to the left, though complicated by an extraordinary arrangement of windchutes, foghorns and ventilators, whose purpose was undiscoverable, had nevertheless a friendlier, more simple quality of holiday, of the seaside. Here white and blue motor boats were moored, with such names as “Empty Pockets III”, “Dunwoiken”, “Lovebird”, boats which seemed as they nudged and nibbled ceaselessly at the suicidal blackness of the stream to tell tender tales of girls in summer.
The only boat that tied up to the wharf by the Powerhouse was the ferry, Tekanas. This, so someone said, went to the Ice Palace at Rockaway.
But between the two wharves and fast against the poverty grass before the hospital lay the coal barge, sunken, abandoned, open, hull cracked, bollards adrift, tiller smashed, its hold still choked with coal dust, silt, and earth through which emerald shoots had sprouted.
In the evenings, the patients would stare out over the river at the Jack Frost Sugar Works, and if there was a ship unloading there it seemed to them she might have some special news for them, bringing deliverance. But none ever came....
Sometimes, when there was a mist, river and sky merged in a white calm through which little masts and tilted, squat towers seemed to be slowly flying. A smudged gasworks crouched like something that could spring, behind the leaning, vaporous geometry of cranes and angled church steeples; and the factory chimneys waved endless handkerchiefs of smoke.
Farewell, farewell, life!
Every so often, when a ship passed, there would be a curious mass movement toward the barred windows, a surging whose source was in the breasts of the mad seamen and firemen there, but to which all were tributary: even those whose heads had been bowed for days rose at this stirring, their bodies shaking as though roused suddenly from nightmare or from the dead, while their lips would burst with a sound. partly a cheer and partly a wailing shriek, like some cry of the imprisoned spirit of New York itself, that spirit haunting the abyss between Europe and America and brooding like futurity over the Western Ocean. The eyes of all would watch the ship with a strange, hungry supplication.
But more often when a ship went by or backed out from the docks opposite and swung around to steam toward die open sea, there was a dead silence in the ward and a strange foreboding as though all hope were sailing with the tide.
The man who now gave the name of Bill Plantagenet, but who had first announced himself as the S.S. Lawhill, awoke certain at least that he was on a ship. If not, where did those isolated clangings come from, those sounds of iron on iron? He recognized the crunch of water pouring over the scuttle, the heavy tramp of feet on the deck above, the steady Frère Jacques: Frère Jacques of the engines. He was on a ship, taking him back to England, which be never should have left in the first place. Now he was conscious of his racked, trembling, malodorous body. Daylight sent probes of agony against his eyelids. Opening them, he saw three negro sailors vigorously washing down the deck. He shut his eyes again. Impossible, he thought.
And if he were on a ship, and supposedly therefore in the foc'sle, the alleyway at the end of which his bunk was must be taking up the foc'sle's entire length. He considered this madness—then the thrumming became so loud in bis ears be found himself wondering if be were not lying in the propeller shaft.
As day grew, the noise became more ghastly: what sounded like a railway seemed to be running just over the ceiling. Another night came. The noise grew worse and, stranger yet, the crew kept multiplying. More and more men, bruised, wounded, and always drunk, were burled down the alley by petty officers to lie face downward, screaming, or suddenly asleep on their hard bunks.
He was awake. What had he done last night? Played the piano? Was it last night? Nothing at all, perhaps, yet remorse tore at his vitals. He needed a drink desperately. He did not know whether his eyes were closed or open. Horrid shapes plunged out of the blankness, gibbering, rubbing their bristles against his face, but he couldn't move. Something had got under his bed too, a bear that kept trying to get up. Voices, a prosopopoeia of voices, murmured in his cars, ebbed away, murmured again, cackled, shrieked, cajoled; voices pleading with him to stop drinking, to die and be damned. Thronged, dreadful shadows came close, were snatched away. A cataract of water was pouring through the wall, filling the room. A red hand gesticulated, prodded him: over a ravaged mountain side a swift stream was carrying with it legless bodies yelling out of great eye-sockets, in which were broken teeth. Music mounted to a screech, subsided. On a tumbled blood- stained bed in a house whose face was blasted away a large scorpion was gravely raping a one-armed negress. His wife appeared, tears streaming down her face, pitying, only to be instantly transformed into Richard III, who sprang forward to smother him.
After a time he was aware of two people looking at him kindly, a small old man and a little boy. The boy looked about ten years old with a handsome, intelligent face and fair hair brushed forward. The man thought vaguely of a portrait of Rimbaud at twelve or thereabouts.
“I’m Garry,” said the boy. “My father makes moulds on terra-cotta... One day one of the pipes collapsed and the terra-cotta burst and collapsed. It was fallen through and reached the shore. It was condemned.”
“My name is Kalowsky,” said the old man, “But you shouldn’t be here. It is a terrible place.” Sweat laced the old man’s forehead.
“But you’ll get better soon, you're better already,” Garry continued. “I'll tell you stories, then you'll get better. Do you know it's a funny thing, it's like a miracle, but wherever I am if I'm up in the air, or under the sea, or in the mountains, anywhere—I can tell a story. No matter where you put me, even in prison. I can be sitting, not sitting. Eating, not eating. I can put the whole tiling into that story, that’s what makes it a story.”
“His father’s in prison,” Mr. Kalowsky whispered, “but this is worse than a prison. I even heard the guard say: ‘Crooks ain’t the only bad people, they're worse than crooks in here.’” He sighed. “I have high blood pressure and this never was no place for me whether I am sane or insane. I might be dead by now, so you see—”. He patted him on the shoulder, smiling, “but you will get better soon,” he added.
The man tried to reply but no words came.
“You understand me,” Garry said, taking his hand. “I know, I can tell.”
Bill Plantagenet now knew himself to be in a kind of hospital, and with this realization everything became coherent and fell into place. The sound of water pouring over the scuttle was the terrific shock of the flushing toilets; the banging of iron and the dispersed noises, the rattling of keys, explained themselves; the frantic ringing of bells was for doctors or nurses; and all the shouting, shuffling, creaking and ordering was no more than the complex routine of the institution.
The thrumming came from the powerhouse next door, the sirens from the East River. And that noise at this moment, that roaring like the terrified lions he remembered, crated forward in a hurricane on a ship in the Bay of Bengal, was only an iron bedstead being moved.
The sailors washing down the deck were, it proved, sailors indeed, who swept the alleyway out of habit. But no one had been sweeping for a long time now; it was evening.
A negro came tap-dancing down the ward, mouthing, and the man turned to the wall, to shut his thoughts away from this vision.
“That’s Mr. Battle,” said Garry. “He’s crazy but you can’t help liking him.”
Battle seemed to be dancing, singing, whispering and talking all at once—
“Joe started a poolroom in 1910
When the monkey and the baboon came slowly tipping in
The monkey could shoot rotation but the baboon was no fool.
The monkey axed the baboon, shoot a game of pool?
That ole monkey—”
“Get back to your room. Battle!” an attendant shouted, and Battle vanished.
What time was it, Plantagenet wondered? What day was it?...
Mr. Kalowsky looked small and melancholy in bed. “We can only wait and sec,” he said, pursing his lips in and out. “So many things can happen in a lifetime... I am eighty-two years, and my father lose his money—that's one tiling. I hike from Berlin to Paris, that's another.
“I was one little Jew and my father became rich in Memel, Lithuania. From there he moved to Konigsberg and from there to Berlin. In Berlin I served my time as a silversmith. Then I roamed around.
“I hiked from Berlin to Paris. A rich woman paid my fare the first time but the second time the Germans went to war— 1870. Anyone who couldn't speak fluently French was a Prussian. So I walked over the Jura mountains...”
The lights went out.
Battle, luminous in white pyjamas, was tap-dancing in the dark, his white teeth gleaming as he soft-shoed, whispering:
“That ole monkey put the ace in the comer and deuce at the side
Say, Hightop, give the ace a ride!
The monkey broke the ball, made the 8, 9, 10,
Put deep bottom on a cue ball and kicked fifteen in!...”
Sweltering, delirious night telescoped into foetid day: day into night: he realised it was twilight though he had thought it dawn. Someone sat on his bed with a hand on his pulse, and forcing his eyes open he saw a wavering white form which divided into three, became two and finally came into focus as a man in a white gown.
The man—a doctor ?—dropped Plantagenet's wrist. “You've certainly got the shakes,” he said.
“Shakes, yes.” The quivering of his body was such that, after his initial surprise, it impeded his speech, “Well, what's wrong with me?” He tried to rise on his elbow which, jumping, did not hold him; he sank or fell back with a groan.
“Alcohol... And perhaps other things. Judging from your remarks in the last few days I'd say it's about as bad as you suspect.”
“What did I say?”
The doctor smiled slightly. “You said, 'hullo, father, return to the presexual revives the necessity for nutrition.' Sounds as though you once read a little book.”
“Oh Christ! Oh God! Oh Jesus!”
“You made some fine giveaways.” The doctor shook his head, “But let's be concrete. Who is Ruth? And the six Can- tabs?”
“Bill Plantagenet and his Seven Hot Cantabs,” he corrected and continued with nervous rapidity, “We went a treat in Cambridge, at the May Balls, or at the Footlights Club. We were all right with our first records, too, we took that seriously. But when we got over here we just broke up.” He grasped the doctor's arm. “I couldn't seem to hold the boys together at all. Damn it, I don't know just what didn't hap- pen. Of course there were complications about unions, in- come taxes, head taxes, a price on our heads—”
“You're British, of course?”
“God knows where they all are now. The bull fiddle's fighting in Spain, and the saxophone section—and it's all my damn irresponsible bloody fault too.” He put his head down, burying it under the pillow. “In a way I lost my contract, I lost my band, I lost Ruth.” He sat up, shaking, looking at the doctor furtively, yet with a certain rebelliousness. “I've been playing in dives. But it's my hands, my hands, look—” he held them out, shaking. “They're not big enough for a real pianist, I can't stretch over an octave on a piano. On a guitar I fake all the time.”
The doctor shook his head. “You didn't leave Ruth because your bands couldn't stretch an octave”, he said. “And where is Ruth? I assume she's your wife.”
“I don't know. I don't care. Hell with her! She only brought me back as a sort of souvenir from Europe. Perhaps it was America I was in love with. You know, you people get sentimental over England from time to time with your guff: about sweetest Shakespeare. Well, this was the other way round. Only it was Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti and the death of Bix... What about a drink ? And I wanted to see where Melville lived. You'll never know bow disappointed I was not to find any whalers in New Bedford.”
The doctor rose and stood looking down at him. “I'll send you a paraldehyde and splash, Perhaps it was your heart you couldn't make stretch an octave.”
“Please don't go!” He tried to sit up, grasping the doctor's arm. “I've got to tell you—”
“Try it here for a few days, you'd better,” the doctor said not unkindly. He disengaged his arm, and wiped bis forehead, sighing. “It won't do you any harm. Where did you get those muscles?”
“Muscles,” said Plantagenet, his teeth chattering. “Yes. I suppose so. That's weight lifting. And I once took a freighter to the Orient, came back full of lions, one day I'd like to tell you about the lions. After that I read Melville instead. Four years ago I held the Cambridge record for the two-arm press; matter of fact, the only weight I can't lift—”
He managed to stagger to his feet, feeling the hospital tilt under him like a ship... Still trembling violently he walked to the high barred windows that gave on the East River. Heat haze hung over the waterfront. He looked down, his knees knocking together, at the wet grass below, and the broken coal barge. Amidships where the hull had split, a mass of wet iron balanced. He glanced away—the tangled object had become a sailor sprawled broken on the deck in brown, shining oil-skins.
From the steel scaffolding that shored up the powerhouse, a pulley dropped a loop of rope; be saw a man hanging by the neck from this; it was the drummer of his band—but the vision faded instantly.
Staring out at the river his agony was like a great lidless eye.
Darkness was falling; through the clearing haze the stars came out. Over the broken horizon the Scorpion was crawling. There was the red, dying sun, Antares. To the southeast, the Retreat of the Howling Dog appeared. The Stan taking their places were wounds opening in his being, multiple duplications of that agony, of that eye. The constellations might have been monstrosities in the delirium of God. Disaster seemed smeared over the whole universe. It was as if he were living in the preexistence of some unimaginable catastrophe, and he steadied himself a moment against the sill, feeling the doomed earth itself stagger in its heaving spastic flight toward the Hercules Butterfly.
“I'se bin here just up to almos' exactly let me see, men, seventeen days and a half exac.” Battle was tap dancing behind him.
“Dat guy talks wif his feet.”
“Yes sah,” said Battle, whirling around, “I do that thing, Man!”
“He comes from Louisiana; he knocked that old engineer's tooth out,” said Garry beside him.
“Now I catch Jersey Blues,” Battle said. “I'se got fifteen customers.” He skipped off.
—He was conscious that time was passing, that he was getting “better.” The periodic, shuddering metamorphoses his mind projected upon almost every object, bad as they were, were no longer so atrociously vivid. Moreover he had at first forgotten for long periods that he was able to get out when he wished. Now he forgot more rarely. He was only a drunk, he thought. Though he had pretended for awhile that he was not, that he was mad with the full dignity of madness. The man who thought himself a ship. And time was passing; only his sense of it had become subject to a curious prorogation. He didn't know whether it was the fifth or the sixth day that found him still staring out of the window at twilight, with Garry and Mr. Kalowsky by his side like old faithful friends. The powerhouse no longer was a foreign place. The wharves, the motorboats, the poverty grass, he had received into his mind now, together with the old coal barge, to which Garry often turned.
“It was condemned,” he would say. “One day it collapsed and fell apart.”
Garry looked at Bill wildly, grasping his arm. “The houses of Pompeii were fallen!” His voice dropped to a whisper. “And you'd see a house suddenly fall in, collapse; and the melted rock and the hot mud poured down; people ran down to the boat. But it was collapsed.” Looking up he added breathlessly, “Gold rings and boxes of money and strange tables and they dug down the side of the great mountain.”
“Yes suh, man,” Battle danced. “He's de ole man of the mountain. He track along wit a horse and ban'. Put a jiggle in his tail as you pass him by—” he danced away singing, “De biggest turtle I ever see, he twice de size of you and me.”
Kalowsky stood quietly watching, pursing his lips continually in and out like a dying fish. What was that film Plantagenet had seen once, where the shark went on swallowing the live fish, even after it was dead ?
Garry clutched Bill's arm again. “Listen. What do you think will be left of this building in a few years? I'll tell you. They'd still find the brick buildings but there wouldn't be any beds, only a rusty frame, and the radiator, you would touch it and it would fall to pieces. All that would be left of the piano would be the keys; all the rest would rot. And the floor.” Garry paused, considering. “And one of us sat on it and the whole thing fell down, collapsed. We went out the door where the fire escape was and it fell off, seven stories off, it fell down.”
But what bad really begun to make things a bit more tolerable for him was this very comradeship of his two friends. Sometimes he even tricked himself into imagining that a kind of purpose united them. Part of the truth was that like new boys in a hostile school, like sailors on their first long voyage on a miserable ship, like soldiers in a prison camp, they were drawn together in a doleful world where their daydreams mingled, and finding expression, jostled irresponsibly, yet with an underlying irreducible logic, around the subject of homecoming. Yet with them “home” was never mentioned, save very obliquely by Garry. Plantagenet sometimes suspected the true nature of that miraculous day they looked to when their troubles would all be ended, but he couldn't give it away. Meanwhile it masqueraded before them in the hues of various dawns—never mind what was going to happen in its practical noontide.
As a matter of fact, with one part of his mind, he was seriously convinced that Mr. Kalowsky and Garry were at least as sane as he: he felt too that he would be able to convince the doctor, when he saw him again, that an injustice had been committed, which never would otherwise have come to light.
But trying to explain their whole situation to himself his mind seemed to flicker senselessly between extremities of insincerities. For with another part of his mind he felt the encroachment of a chilling fear, eclipsing all other feelings, that the thing they wanted was coming for him alone, before he was ready for it; it was a fear worse than the fear that when money was low one would have to stop drinking; it was compounded of harrowed longing and hatred, of fathomless compunctions, and of a paradoxical remorse, as it were in advance, for his failure to attempt finally something he was not now going to have time for, to face the world honestly; it was the shadow of a city of dreadful night without splendour that fell on his soul; and how darkly it fell whenever a ship passed!