|Vast: A Novel
Ch. III: Homecoming
by Nicolas Travers ©
Conscience is a powerful force, and sometimes it can be hard, very hard, for a man with a guilty conscience to face the world again with equanimity. Colin returns to Richquick shrouded in the bleakness of grey and defeated depression - but fortunately Twister and Wendy appear to have gone, and their desks are neatly cleared.
He explores cautiously, and a fat, greasy girl from a neighbouring Bat Group magazine leers at him, and volunteers that they have in fact been gone some time, exiting in a cloud of mutual admiration.
"For all the world as though they had plans," she simpers, and rolls her eyes. This sounds like a veiled invitation, but Colin scowls. He has seen the girl many times before, and finds her greasiness and her bulk quite repellent. She retreats, looking disappointed, and he sighs in self pity, and lowers himself into place behind his word processor, to power up in a vague hope that labour will earn expiation.
But words evade him each time he tries to focus, fleeing from the grasp of his mind like a myriad evascent shreds of gossamer blown away on a wind of distraction, and his word processor screen repeatedly melts away from serried lines of pale green copy into the sweet, sickly-smelling sheen of the woman's cloak in the basement flat and the hotness and sweat of flesh bearing down upon him, and he soon gives up in despair.
Now Richquick's offices seem to grow closer and stickier and ever more oppressive with each passing minute. Colin tries chasing bits of paper around on his desk, but he has lost all heart for work. Finally he decides to go home, and tidies up neatly before sidling out surreptitiously past adjacent Bat Group magazine desks towards the lifts at the end of the floor, hoping that nobody will notice or care.
But he need not worry. No eye follows him, no stream of gossip swells to note his departure. Other Bat Group employees have better ways of passing their time.
A voice does sing out, briefly, and perhaps enticingly, as he passes Valerie Sweetdream's office. But her call, if call it be, seems to echo as much of a passing greeting as any invitation, and Colin keeps moving, afraid that something in his eyes or his bearing may flag guilt if he pauses to talk.
Two girls from the advertising department waiting for a lift on the landing beyond the Bat group offices eye him curiously, but he presses on, opening a door at the end of the landing to take the stairs down to street level, and then he is free, melting out into the damp heat of a late London summer afternoon to flow anonymously into a stream of homeward-bound commuters hurrying towards Queensway station.
The train bound for Baker Street is even more humid. A mass of warm, sweating bodies crowds the airless Circle Line carriage, too tired and dispirited to try and stake out any individual space, men and women packed together in sexless discomfort, human sardines simmering together in a moving can.
Colin feels small trails of moisture trickling down the side of his face, between his shoulder blades and under his arms, and floats listlessly in the warm damp air, still enmeshed in a sad contemplation of his waste and his folly, his mind playing prosecutor, and judge, and jury, forbidding all defence. He begins to weep internally at his weakness, and his tears swell his misery, and he despises himself for his gutlessness.
The train stops, vomiting its load of suffering humanity onto a platform, and he cannons blindly out into a brawny man, who grunts and stares at him fiercely. Colin is forced to apologise, and for a moment public shame mirrors his inner abasement. Then he is shuffling on, along a tunnel packed with fellow commuters, and all the world is grey, and weary, and worn.
The tunnel leads to another platform, and another train, more crowded still, and he has to shove and struggle again, and stand tight-pinned again between more bodies reeking of bad breath and tired days, until finally a flood wall of hot sweaty flesh sweeps him out at Waterloo, and a tightly packed escalator carries him slowly back from Hades to the world of the living.
Waterloo station concourse is a milling ant-heap of humanity, a lemming drive of commuters hurrying home. Colin grabs an evening paper as he hurries to catch his suburban commuter train, and his spirits lift a little as he spies a vacant seat and wedges himself into place. He is cramped, but anything is better than standing, and he rests in grim contentment as late arrivals pack tight into the passageway between the rows of seats.
Then he reads, and the front page of his paper is a gift. A man has brutally murdered his wife with a meat cleaver, concealing chunks of her body in black plastic refuse sacks, and Colin's imagination takes off into overdrive. He pictures Jane, on her knees, pleading for mercy: he is raising an executioner's axe high above her, stripped to the waist and masked, with only his eyes visible, glaring down at her implacably, and she is weeping in abject terror as he sights to strike her midway between her eyes. But his train lurches as he is gathering his strength for a death blow, and he is jerked back to reality, and his triumph is just another dream.
So he reads on listlessly, a weary commuter in a carriage of weary commuters, whilst other middle-aged men around him daydream themselves from dull office workers into statesmen and stars, heroes and millionaires, and a sprinkling of women amongst them dreams of true love, and soon he is fast asleep, and his sleep is totally dreamless.
He wakes again as his fellow commuters began to spill out onto Windsor station platform, the end of the line, and sits for a moment bleary-eyed, struggling to gather himself together. Then he is back on his feet, filing out of his carriage to join a stream of tired, perspiring humanity pressing out of the redbrick Victorian station building, moving with almost robot determination.
Windsor is very nearly as hot and stuffy as London. Colin trudges wearily past the Theatre Royal and up Windsor High Street, past the towering bulk of the Castle garlanded with bright-dressed camera-carrying Americans and Europeans and Japanese, to turn right at the statue of Queen Victoria outside the castle gates - majestic monument to imperial womanhood in pensive weatherbeaten metal - and trudge downhill again along Peascod Street, conscious only of the heat, and his sweating, and his painfully burning feet.
Now he wishes - as he mops at his brow, and tries to ignore a myriad uncomfortable dampnesses multiplying afresh inside his clothing - that he might be miraculously transmuted into something fishy in a cooling river or sea.
But life is life, and humanity cannot change at will. So he trudges on, bravely ignoring a temptation to divert for a moment into a pub for a cooling pint, because Jane has given him strict instructions to be home punctually, so that she may host an evening Church Guild meeting, a conclave of likeminded, rightminded women planning a coming parish church fete.
His feet grow heavier and heavier as he tramps mechanically along St Leonards Road, but he presses on bravely, until finally, and quite exhaustedly, he arrives home at his bijou villa in a narrow side street, where a cluster of trim middle class conversions highlights a scattering of unreconstructed tenements.
The Vasts' cottage stands at the better end of the street: a neat little box setting four upstairs rooms on four at street level, with a tiny patch of flowerbed before, and a handkerchief of a garden behind.
Jane is a perfectionist, and everything both outside and inside the cottage has its order and place. The Vasts' drawingroom at the front of the house is neat and formal: reserved for special occasions and to showcase Jane's pair of matching Victorian button-back armchairs - a present from Jack Wise, her father, a retired solicitor with a big house in Beaconsfield - her interesting Victorian breakfront cabinet packed with a pretty collection of china, and her one or two nice bits of silver picked up at antique fairs. The Vast kitchen gleams with polished pine and fitted appliances, whilst a family room at the back of the house centres on three comfortable chairs gathered in a semi-circle around a large television and video.
The best bedroom is a nest, sunny in primrose and pale green, whilst Sarah, Colin's sixteen year old daughter, has a rather smaller room papered with posters of pop idols and littered with a blizzard of discarded clothing. The cottage's third bedroom is barely more than a boxroom, and serves as a combined dressingroom and office - rails of clothing box round a filing cabinet and a chair and a small table with a terminal and screen and printer where Colin logs up unpaid overtime, and Sarah plays electronic games, and Jane keeps Vast family accounts.
The cottage also boasts an upstairs bathroom and a small groundfloor shower-room, together with a small shed at the back of the house for storing tools and the like, because Jane is a practical as well as a perfect woman, and likes turning Colin's hands to improvements.
But now he is home. Colin pushes wearily at a small iron gate set in an iron fence that protects their small front flower bed from marauding cats and dogs, and notices with anger that some vindictive and uncaring animal has once again attempted to rape a hollyhock that he has been nurturing carefully.
Then he raises his key wearily to open his front door. But suddenly the door swings open, and Sarah is facing him, dressed in her blue and white check school uniform, holding out her arms and grinning a grimace of totally artificial welcome. He steps back instinctively.
"Daddee, my sweet, sweet Daddee." Sarah lunges at him, her voice trilling shrilly. However Colin's retreat makes her miss her target, and she cannons up against him, scrabbling wildly at the front of his jacket.
Her small green eyes harden suspiciously, and her trill climbs half an octave into a shrill reproachful squeak. "Daddee, you don't want your loving daughter to hug you in a loving welcoming hug."
Colin smiles wanly, and attempts to disentangle himself. Sarah's eyes are gleaming with a demand that he knows only too well, and he is certain that she is going to cause him pain.
"Daddee, I need some money." Her squeak runs on into a breathless gabble. "St. Anne's is organising a trip to the seaside, we'll be away a week, just think of the peace you'll enjoy, we're going to take tents, and cook our own food, and all my friends are going..."
She has a vicelike grip on his jacket, and looks up at him with an expression combining saccharine sweetness and pure avarice in perfectly balanced parts.
"Please, Daddee, Mummy says she's sure you've got some spare cash hidden away in your wallet."
She pats Colin clumsily in a bid to locate his wealth, but he fends her off deftly.
"I'm sorry." He shakes his head sorrowfully, filling his voice with all the sympathy and understanding he can muster. "I've only got a couple of pounds."
"But I only need fifty quid. I'm sure you've got that squirreled away." Now Sarah's mouth trembles dangerously, and her eyes begin to fill with tears. "Mum says she's sure you've got fifty quid."
She looks at him from behind a damp curtain of reproach, and her eyes are sharp to catch any wavering.
Colin reaches into his hip pocket, pulls out his wallet and holds it out silently. He has long wondered whether Jane explores his pockets, and now he is certain. But disillusion also brings a sense of victory. It is far better to spend than be stripped.
Sarah combs through his wallet carefully, and stares at her father suspiciously as she hands it back.
"You're sure you haven't hidden it somewhere..." Her voice tails away accusingly.
Colin shakes his head silently.
For a moment she stares at him with an expression of baffled fury, and then she turns away into the house, stamping off grumpily.
Colin follows, quickening his pace in a bid to reach the stairs before any further problems pounce. But unfortunately Jane Vast emerges from the kitchen at the same moment and blocks his way, smiling a very determined greeting.
"I told Sarah you'd help finance her project..."
Her voice starts strongly, and then tails away uncertainly as she notes a hardness in Colin's eyes.
Colin stops at the bottom of the stairs and spreads his hands. "I can't, I'm broke."
"But..." For a moment Jane seems about to press her attack, but she hesitates. "I thought you had some..."
Colin holds out his wallet again, feeling just a little triumphant, way down deep inside himself.
Jane glances at the wallet, and looks up, and her eyes search his. She is deeply suspicious, but she is also on very tricky ground, for she can hardly tell Colin that she has herself secretly counted his money not long since. Her lips tighten into a thin angry line.
"I see." She is silent for a moment, and then shrugs. It is clear that whilst she realises that she may have lost a skirmish, she is in no way conceding defeat.
She looks at her watch, and her voice becomes bossy. "Well, it's a good thing you're home early. You can watch television with your daughter for half an hour, then I want you both to have an early supper, so that I can clear the kitchen."
She stands blocking Colin's way until he turns reluctantly away from the stairs. Sometimes, even quite often, Colin wishes for a strength, and brutality, capable of enabling him to impose his own will on life. But he is not a battling man, and he yields, and heads for the Vasts' family room. For peace is always priceless, even it must sometimes be bought with cowardice.
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