I see them, watching from the sidelines, spectators! Tolerant of all views. Interested in all faiths. Open to new suggestions, they earnestly explore all ideas, fairly, without bias; but somehow their research never arrives at a conclusion.
Reluctant to ‘limit’ themselves to one worldview. They never stick their neck out, never nail their colours to the mast, never put their stake in the ground, and never say I believe THIS.
Guilty as charged, I’ve noticed hints of this perspective in my own efforts at writing. Acacia the distant onlooker, making few judgements, appreciating all angles.
‘Unbelief – entertaining all possibilities, floating between opposites – is the mark of a leisurely existence,’ when we believe in everything we believe in nothing. What does believing in nothing do to us?
I was reading this book and the last chapter punched me in the stomach. Winded, I typed it up to get your opinion. Take five (fifteen?) minutes to explore whether you believe in frogs. Hit me with some comments - from the safety of the sidelines!!
It is a Hot Afternoon [Excerpt] from ‘Elizabeth Costello’ by J.M. Coetzee
It is a hot afternoon. The square is packed with visitors. Few spare a glance for the white-haired woman who, suitcase in hand, descends from the bus. She wears a blue cotton frock; her neck, in the sun, is burned red and beaded with sweat.
Past the pavement tables, past the young folk, the wheels of the suitcase rattling over the cobbles, she makes her way to the gate where a uniformed man stands drowsily on guard, propped on the rifle he holds butt down before him.
‘Is this the gate?’ she asks.
Beneath the peaked cap he blinks once in confirmation.
‘Can I pass through?’
With a movement of the eyes he indicates the lodge to one side.
The lodge, put together of prefabricated wooden panels, is stiflingly hot. Inside, behind a small trestle table, sits a man in shirtsleeves, writing. A tiny electric fan blows a stream of air into his face
‘Excuse me,’ she says. He pays her no attention. ‘Excuse me. Can someone open the gate for me?’
He is filling in some kind of form. Without ceasing to write, he speaks 'first you must make a statement.'
‘Make a statement? To whom? To you?’
With his left hand he pushes a sheet of paper across to her. She lets of the suitcase and picks up the paper. It is blank.
‘Before I can pass through I must make a statement,’ she repeats. ‘A statement of what?’
‘Belief. What you believe.’
‘Belief. Is that all? Not a statement of faith? What if I do not believe? What if I am not a believer?’
The man shrugs. For the first time he looks directly at her. ‘We all believe. We are not cattle. For each of us there is something we believe. Write it down, what you believe. Put it in the statement.’
There is no more doubt in her mind about where she is, who she is. She is a petitioner before the gate. Some act is required of her, some prescribed yet undefined affirmation, before she will be found good and can pass through. But is this the one who will judge her, this ruddy heavy-set man on whose rather sketchy uniform (military? civil guard?) She can detect no mark of rank but on whom the fan, swinging neither left nor right, pours a coolness that she wishes were being poured on her?
‘I am a writer,’ she says. ‘You have probably not heard of me here, but I write, or have written, under the name Elizabeth Costello. It is not my profession to believe, just to write. Not my business. I do imitations, as Aristotle would have said.’
She pauses, then brings out the next sentence, the sentence that will determine whether this is her judge, the right one to judge her, or, on the contrary, merely the first in a long line leading to who knows what featureless functionary I what chancellery in what castle. ‘I can do an imitation of belief, if you like. Will that be enough for your purposes?’
His response has an air of impatience about it, as though this is an offer he has had many times before. “Write the statement as required,” he says. “Bring it back when it is completed”
‘Very well, I will do so. Is there a time when you go off duty?”
'I am always here,” he replies. From which she understands that this town where she finds herself, where the guardian of the gate never sleeps and the people in the cafés seem to have nowhere to go, no obligation other than to fill the air with their chatter, is no more real than she: no more but perhaps no less.
Seated at one of the pavement tables she briskly composes what is to be her statement… ‘I am a writer, a trader in fictions,’ it says. ‘I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds – professional, vocational – I request exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely that every petitioner at the gate should hold to one or more beliefs.’
She takes her statement back to the guardhouse. As she half expected, it is rejected. The man at the desk does not refer it to a higher authority, apparently it does not deserve that, merely shakes his head and lets the page fall to the floor and pushes a fresh sheet of paper towards her. ‘What you believe,’ he says.
She returns to her chair on the pavement.
‘Can I just glance through?” she says on her second attempt. “Take a glance at what lies on the other side? Just to see if it is worth all this trouble.”
Ponderously the man rises from his desk. He is not as old as she, but he is not young either. He is wearing riding boots; his blue serge trousers have a red stripe up the sides. How hot he must be, she thinks! And in winter, how cold, not a cushy job, being guardian of the gate.
Past the soldier leaning on his rifle he takes her, till they stand before the gate itself, massive enough to hold back an army. From a pouch at his belt he takes a key nearly as long as his forearm. Will this be the point where he tells her the gate is meant for her and her alone and moreover that she is destined never to pass through? Should she remind him, let him know she knows the score?
The keys turn twice in the lock. “There satisfy yourself”, says the man.
She puts an eye to the crack. A millimetre, two millimetres he draws open the door then closes it again.
“You have seen,” he says. “The record will show that”.
What has she seen? Despite her unbelief, she had expected that what lay beyond this old fashioned of teak and brass but also no doubt of the tissue of allegory would be unimaginable: a light so blinding the early senses would be stunned by it. But the light is not unimaginable at all. It is merely brilliant, more brilliant perhaps than the varieties of light she has known hitherto, but not of another order, not more brilliant than, say, a magnesium flash sustained endlessly.
The man pats her on the arm. it is a surprising gesture, coming from him, surprisingly personal like on eof those torturers she reflect, who claim to wish you no hard, merely to be doing their sad duty “now that you have seen,” he says. “Now you will try harder”.
At the café she orders a drink.
Even in this town time passes. The day arrives, her day. She finds herself before a high bench, in an empty room. On the bench are nine microphones in a row. on the wall behind it, an emblem in plaster relief: two shields, two crossed spears, and what looks like an emu but is probably meant to be a nobler bird, bearing a laurel wreath in its beak. A man she thinks of as a bailiff brings her a chair and indicates she may sit. She sits down, waits. The windows are all closed, the room is stuffy. She gestures to the bailiff, makes a motion of drinking. He pretends not to notice.
A door opens, and in file the judges, her judges, judges of her. Under the black robes she half expects them to be creatures out of Grandville: crocodile, ass, raven, deathwatch beetle. But now, they are of her kind, her phylum. Even their faces are human. Male, all of them; male and elderly.
She does not need the bailiff’s prompting (he has come put behind her now) to stand. a performance will be required of her: she hopes she can pick up the cues.
The judge in the middle gives her a little nod; she nods back.
‘You are….?’ he says.
‘Yes. The applicant.’
‘Or the supplicant, if that improves my chances.’
‘And this is your first hearing?’
‘And you want - ?’
‘I want to pass the gate. To pass through. To get on with what comes next.’
‘Yes. As you must have learned by now, there is the question of belief. You have a statement to make to us? Will you read out your statement, please?’
‘I am a writer. I am a writer, and what I write is what I hear. I am a secretary of the invisible, one of many secretaries over the ages. That is my calling: dictations secretary. It is not for me to interrogate, to judge what is given me. I merely write down he words and then test them, test their soundness, to make sure I have heard right.
‘Secretary of the invisible: not my own phrase, I hasten to say. I borrow it from a secretary of a higher order, Czeslaw Milsz, a poet, perhaps known to you, to whom it was dictated years ago.
She pauses. This is where she expects them to interrupt. Dictated by whom? She expects them to ask. And she has her answer ready: by powers beyond us. But there is no interruption, no question. Instead their spokesman wags his pencil at her. ‘Go on.’
‘Before I can pass on I am required to state my beliefs,’ she reads. ‘I reply: a good secretary should have no beliefs. It is inappropriate to the function. A secretary should merely be in readiness, waiting for the call.’
Again she expects an interruption: whose call? But there are going to be no questions, it would seem.
‘In my work a belief is a resistance, an obstacle. I try to empty myself of resistances.’
‘Without beliefs we are not human.’ the voice comes from the left most of them, the one she has privately labelled Grimalkin, a wizened little fellow so short that his chin barely clears the bench. In fact, about each of them there is some troublingly comic feature. Excessively literary, she thinks. A caricaturist’s idea of a bench of judges.
‘Without beliefs we are not human,’ he repeats. ‘What do you say to that, Elizabeth Costello?’
She sighs. ‘Of course, gentlemen, I do not claim to be bereft of all belief. I have what I think of as opinions and prejudices, no different in kind from what are commonly called beliefs. When I claim to be a secretary clean of belief I refer to my ideal self, a self capable of holding opinions and prejudices at bay while the word which it is her function to conduct passes through her.
‘To put it in another way, I have beliefs but I do not believe in them. They are not important enough to believe in. My heart is not in them. My heart and my sense of duty.’
The little man purses his lips. His neighbour turns and gives him a glance (she can swear she hears the rustle of feathers). ‘And what effect do you think it has, this lack of belief, on your humanity?’ the little man asks.
‘On my own humanity? Is that of consequence? What I offer to those who read me, what I contribute to their humanity outweighs, I would hope, my own emptiness in that respect.’
‘You are not an unbeliever then,’ says the man in the middle
‘No unbelief is a belief. A disbeliever, if you will accept the distinction, though sometimes I feel disbelief becomes a credo too.’
There is a silence. ‘Go on,’ says the man. ‘Proceed with your statement.’
‘That is the end of it. There is nothing that not been covered. I rest my case.’
‘Your case is that you are a secretary. Of the invisible.’
‘And that I cannot afford to believe.’
‘For professional reasons.’
‘For professional reasons.’
‘And what if the invisible does not regard you as a secretary? What if your appointment was long ago discontinued and the letter did not reach you? What if you were never even appointed? Have you considered that possibility?’
‘I consider it every day. I am forced to consider it. If I am not what I say I am, then I am a sham. If that is your considered verdict, that I am a sham secretary, then I can only bow my head and accept it. I presume you have taken into account my record, a lifetime’s record. In fairness to me you cannot ignore that record.’
‘What about children?’
The voice is cracked and wheezy. At first she cannot make out from which of them it comes. Is it number eight, the one with the pudgy jowls and the high colour?
‘Children? I don’t understand.’
‘And what of the Tasmanians?’ he continues. ‘What of the fate of the Tasmanians?’
The Tasmanians? Has something been going on in Tasmania, in the interim that she has not heard about?
‘I have no special opinions about Tasmanians,’ she replies cautiously. ‘I have always found them perfectly decent people.’
He waves impatiently. ‘I mean the old Tasmanians, the ones who were exterminated. Do you have special opinions about them?’
Her thoughts on Tasmania? If she is puzzled, the rest of the panel is puzzled too, for the questioner has to turn to them to explain. ‘Atrocities take place,’ he says. ‘Violations of innocent children. The extermination of whole peoples. What does she think about such matters? Does she have no beliefs to guide her?’
The extermination of the old Tasmanians by her countrymen, her ancestors. Is that, finally, what lies behind this hearing, this trail: the question of a historical guilt?
She takes a breath. ‘there are matters about which one talks and matters about which it is appropriate to keep one’s peace, even before a tribunal, even before the ultimate tribunal, if that is what you are. I know what you are referring to, and I reply only that if from what I have said before you today you conclude that I am oblivious of such matters, you are mistaken, utterly mistaken. Let me add, for your edification: beliefs are not the only ethical supports we have. We can rely on our hearts as well. That is all. I have nothing more to say.’
Contempt of court. She is running close to contempt of court. It is something about herself she has never liked, this tendency to flare up.
‘But as a writer? you present yourself today not in your own person but as a special case, a special destiny, a writer who has written not just entertainments but books exploring the complexities of human conduct. In those books you make one judgement upon another, It must be so. What guides you in these judgements? Do you persist in saying it is all just a matter of heart? Have you no beliefs as a writer? If a writer is just a human being with a human heart, what is special about your case?’
Not a fool. Not a pig in satins robes, porcus magistralis, out of Grandville. Not the mad hatter’s tea party. For the first time this day she feels tested. Very well: let her see what she can come up with.
‘The aboriginal people of Tasmania are today counted among the invisible, the invisible whose secretary I am, one of many such. When the old Tasmanians summon me, if they choose to summon me, I will be ready and I will write, to the best of my ability.
‘Similarly with children, since you mention violated children. I have yet to be summoned by a child, but again I am ready. A word of caution to you, however. I am open to all voices, not just the voices of the murdered and violated. If it is the murderers and violators who choose to summon me instead, to use me and speak through me, I will not close my ears to them, I will not judge them.’
‘You will speak for murderers?’
‘You do not judge between the murderer and the victim? Is that what it is to be a secretary: to write down whatever you are told? To be bankrupt of conscience?’
She is cornered she knows. ‘Do you think the guilty do not suffer too? What kind of conscience is it that will disregard a cry of such moral agony?’
‘And these voices that summon you,’ says the pudgy man: ‘you do not ask where they come from?’
‘No. not as long as they speak the truth.’
‘Do you believe the voices come from God? Do you believe in God?’
Does she believe in God? A question she prefers to keep a wary distance from. why, even assuming that God exists – whatever exists means – should His massive, monarchical slumber be disturbed from below by a clamour of believes and don’t believes, like a plebiscite?
‘That is way too intimate,’ she says. ‘I have nothing to say.’
‘There are only ourselves here. You are free to speak your heart.’
‘You misunderstand. I mean, I suspect that God would not look kindly on such presumption – presumption to intimacy. I prefer to let God be. As I hope He will let me be.’
There is a silence. She has a headache. Too many heady abstractions, she thinks to herself: a warning fro nature.
The chairman glances around. ’further questions?’ he asks.
There is none.
He turns to her. ‘You will hear from us. In due course. Through established channels.’
It is morning. She is at her table on the pavement, working on her statement, trying out a new approach. Since she boasts that she is a secretary of the invisible, let her concentrate her attention, turn it inward. What voice does she hear from the invisible today? For the moment, all she hears is the slow thud of the blood in her ears, just as all she feels is the soft touch of the sun on her skin. That at least she does not have to invent: this dumb, faithful body that has accompanied her every step of the way, this gentle lumbering monster that has been given to her to look after, this shadow turned to flesh that stands on two feet like a bear and laves itself continually from the inside with blood. Not only is she in this body, this thing which not in a thousand years should she have dreamed up, so far beyond her powers would it be, she somehow is this body and all around her on the square, on this beautiful morning, these people, somehow, are their bodies too.
Somehow; but how? How on earth can bodies not only keep themselves clean using blood (blood!), but cogitate upon the mystery of their existence and make utterances about it and now and again even have little ecstasies? Does it count as a belief, whatever property she has that allows her to continue to be this body when she has not the faintest idea how the trick is done? Would they, the bench of judges, the panel of examiners, the tribunal that demands she bare her beliefs – would they be satisfied with this: I believe that I am? I believe that what stands before you today is I? Or that be too much like philosophy, too much like the seminar room?
Someone sits down opposite her. Preoccupied she does not look up.
‘Are you working on your confession?’
It is the cleaning woman, the one with the Polishy accent. This morning she is wearing a cotton dress, flowery, lemon-green, somewhat old-fashioned, with a white belt. It suits her, suits her strong blonde hair and sunburnt skin and broad frame. She looks like a peasant at harvest time, sturdy capable.
‘No not a confession, a statement of belief. That is what I have been asked for.’
‘We call them confessions here.’
‘Really. I would not call it that. Not in English. Perhaps in Latin, perhaps in Italian.’
The couple sitting at the next table have their little fingers hooked together. Laughingly they tug at each other; they bump foreheads, whisper. They do not seem to have confessions to write.
‘What are you saying in your confession?’
‘What I said before: that I cannot afford to believe. That in my line of work one has to suspend belief. That belief is an indulgence, a luxury. That it gets in the way.’
‘Really. Some of us would say the luxury we cannot afford is unbelief.’
She waits for more.
‘Unbelief – entertaining all possibilities, floating between opposites – is the mark of a leisurely existence, a leisured existence,’ the woman goes on. ‘Most of us have to choose. Only the light soul hangs in the air.’
‘Tell me, how many of us get through, pass the test, pass through the gate?’
The woman laughs, a low laugh strangely attractive. Where has she seen her before? ‘Through which gate?’ says the woman? ‘You believe there is only one gate?’ a new laugh passes through her, a long, luxurious shudder of the body that makes her heavy breasts quake. ‘Do you smoke?’ she says. ‘No? Do you mind?’
From a gold cigarette case she takes a cigarette, strikes a match, puffs. Her hand is stubby, broad, a peasant’s hand. Yet the fingernails are clean and neatly buffed. Who is she? Only the light soul hangs in the air. It sounds like a quotation.
‘Who knows what we truly believe,’ says the woman. ‘It is here, buried in our heart.’ lightly she smites her bosom. ‘Buried even from ourselves. It is not belief that the judges are after. The effect is enough, the effect of belief. Show them you feel and they will be satisfied.’
The phrase comes back to her again at dusk, as she is taking a stroll along the town wall, watching the swallows swoop and dive above the square. A light soul. Is she a light soul? What is a light soul? She thinks of soap bubbles floating up among the swallows, rising even higher into the blue empyrean. Is that how the woman sees her? Certainly her life has not been a hard one, by most standards, but nor has it been easy. Quiet perhaps, protected perhaps: an antipodean life, removed from the worst of history; but driven too, the word is not too strong. Should she seek out the woman and set her right? Would the woman understand?
She signs, walks on. How beautiful it is, this world, even if it is only a simulacrum! At least there is that to fall back on.
It is the same courtroom, with the same bailiff, but the panel of judges (the board, as she must now learn to call it) is new. There are seven of them, not nine, one of them a woman; she recognises none of the faces. And the public benches are no longer empty. She has a spectator, a supporter: the cleaning woman, sitting by herself with a string bag on her lap.
‘Elizabeth Costello, applicant, hearing number two,’ intones the spokesman of today’s board (the chief judge? the judge-in-chief?).
‘You have a revised statement, we understand. Please proceed with it.’
She steps forward. ‘What I believe,’ she reads in a firm voice, like a child doing a recitation. ‘I was born in the city of Melbourne, but spent part of my childhood in rural Victoria, in a region of climatic extremes: of scorching droughts followed by torrential rains that swelled the rivers with the carcases of drowned animals. That, anyhow, is how I remember it.
‘When the waters subsided – I am speaking of the waters of one river in particular now, the Dulgannon – acres of mud were left behind. At night you would hear the belling of tens of thousands of little frogs rejoicing in the largesse of the heavens. The air would be as dense with their calls as it was at noon with the rasping of cicadas.
‘Where did they suddenly arrive from, these thousands of frogs? The answer is, they are always there. In the dry season they go underground, burrowing further and further from the heat of the sun until each has created a little tomb for itself. And in those tombs they die, so to speak. Their heartbeat slows, their breathing stops, they turn the colour of mud. Once again the nights are silent.
‘Silent until the next rains come, rapping, as it were, on thousands of tiny coffin lids. In those coffins hearts begin to beat, limbs begin to twitch that for months have been lifeless. The dead wake. As the caked mud softens, the frogs begin to dig their way out, and soon their voices resound again in joyous exultation beneath the vault of the heavens.
‘Excuse my language. I am or have been a professional writer. Usually I take care to conceal the extravagances of the imagination. But today, for this occasion, I thought I would conceal nothing, bare all. the vivifying flood, the chorus of joyous belling, followed by the subsiding of the waters and the retreat to the grave, then drought seemingly without end, then fresh rains and the resurrection of the dead – it is a story I present transparently, without disguise.
‘Why? because today I am before you not as a writer but as an old woman who was once a child, telling you what I remember of the Dulgannon mudflats of the childhood and of the frogs who live there, some as small as the tip of my little finger, creatures so insignificant and so remote from your loftier concerns that you would not hear of them otherwise. In my account, for whose many failings I beg your pardon, the life cycle of the frog may sound allegorical, but to the frogs themselves it is not allegory, it is the thing itself, the only thing.
‘What do I believe? I believe in those little frogs. Where I find myself today, in my old age and perhaps my older age, I am not sure. But the Australian continent, where I was born into the world, kicking and squalling, is real (if far away), the Dulgannon and its mudflats are real, the frogs are real. they exist whether or not I tell you about them, whether or not I believe in them.
‘It is because of the indifference of those little frogs to my belief (all they want from life is a chance to gobble down mosquitoes and sing; and the males among them, the ones who do most of the singing, sing not to fill the night air with melody but as a form of courtship, for which they hope to be rewarded with orgasm, the frog variety of orgasm, again and again and again) – it is because of their indifference to me that I believe in them. And that is why, this afternoon, in this lamentably rushed and lamentably literary presentation for which I again apologise, but I thought I would offer myself to you without forethought, ‘toute nue’ so to speak, and almost, as you can see for yourselves, without notes – that is why I speak to you of frogs. Of frogs and of my belief or beliefs and of the relation between the former and the latter. Because they exist.’
She comes to a stop. From behind her, the sound of gentle handclapping, from a single pair of hands, the cleaning woman’s the clapping dwindles, ceases. It was she, the cleaning woman, who put her up to it – well, let us see what kind of response this flood of words, this gabble this confusion, this passion. passion gets.
One of the judges, the man on the extreme right, leans forward.
‘Dulgannon,’ he says. ‘That is a river?’
‘Yes, a river. It exists. It is not negligible. You will find it on most maps.’
‘And you spent your childhood there, on the Dulgannon?’
She is silent.
‘Because it says nothing here, in your docket, about a childhood on the Dulgannon.’
She is silent.
‘Is childhood on the Dulgannon another of your stories, Mrs. Costello? Along with frogs and the rain from heaven?’
‘The river exists. The frogs exist. I exist. What more do you want?’
The woman among them, slim, with neat silver hair and silver–rimmed glasses, speaks. ‘You believe in life?’
‘I believe in what does not bother to believe in me.’
The judge makes a little gesture of impatience. ‘A stone does not believe in you. A bush. But you choose to tell us not about stones or brushes but about frogs, to which you attribute a life story that is, as you concede, highly allegorical. These Australian frogs of yours embody the spirit of life, which is what you as a storyteller believe in.’
It is not a question; it is, in effect, a judgement. Should she accept it? She believed in life: will she take that as the last word on her, her epitaph? Her whole inclination is to protest: vapid! She wants to cry. I am worth better than that! But she reins herself in. She is not here to win an argument; she is here to win a pass, a passage. Once she has passed, once she has said goodbye to this place, what she leaves behind of herself, even if it is to be an epitaph, will be of the utmost inconsequence.
‘If you like,’ she says guardedly.
The judge, her judge, looks away, purses her lips. A long silence falls. She listens for the buzzing of the fly that once is supposed to hear on such occasions, but there does not appear to be a fly in the courtroom.
The mud frogs of the Dulgannon are a new departure for her. Give them time: they might yet be made to ring true.
‘I refer to your first appearance before this court, when you gave as your occupation ‘secretary to the invisible’ and made the following statement: “a good secretary should not have beliefs. It is inappropriate to the function”; and, a little later, “I have beliefs but I do not believe in them.”
‘At that hearing you appeared to disparage belief, calling it an impediment to your calling. At today’s hearing, however, you testify to a belief in frogs, or more accurately in the allegorical meaning of a frog’s life, if I understand your drift. My question is: have you changed the basis of your plea from the first hearing to the present one? Are you giving up the secretary story and presenting a new one, based on the firmness of your belief in the creation?’
Has she changed her story? It is a weighty question, no doubt about that, yet she has to struggle to fix her attention on it. The courtroom is hot, she feels drugged, and she is not sure how much more of this hearing she can take. What she would like most is to lay her head on a pillow and have a snooze, even if it has to be the filthy pillow in the bunkhouse.
‘It depends,’ she says, playing for time, trying to think (come on, come on! she tells herself: your life depends on this!). ‘You ask if I have changed my plea. But who am I, who is this I this you? We change from day to day, and we also stay the same. No I, no you is more fundamental than any other. You might as well ask which is the true Elizabeth Costello: the one who made the first statement or the one who made the second. My answer is both are true. Both. And neither. You have the wrong person before you. If you think you have the right person you have the wrong person. The wrong Elizabeth Costello.’
Is this true? It may not be true but it is certainly not false. She has never felt more like the wrong person in her life.
Her interrogator waves impatiently. ‘I am not asking to see you passport. Passports have no force here, as I am sure you are aware. The question I ask is: you, by whom I mean this person before our eyes, this person petitioning for passage, this person here, and nowhere else – do you speak for yourself?
‘Yes. No, emphatically no. yes and no. both.’
Her judge glances left and right at his colleagues. Is she imagining it, or does the flicker of a smile pass among them, and a whispered word? What is the word? ‘confused’?
He turns back to her. ‘Thank you. That is all. You will hear from us in due course.’
‘That is all?’
‘That is all, for today.’
‘I am not confused.’
‘Yes, you are not confused. But who is it who is not confused?’
They cannot contain themselves, her panel of judges, and her board. First they titter like children; they abandon all dignity and howl with laughter.
She Wanders Across the Square.
It is, she would guess, early afternoon. There is less bustle than usual. The locals must be at their siesta. The young in one another’s arms. If I had my life again, she tells herself, not without bitterness, I would spend it otherwise. Have more fun. What good has it done me, this life of writing, now that it comes to the final proving?
The sun is fierce. She ought to be wearing a hat. The courthouse scene has not left her, the ignominy of it, the shame. Yet beneath it she remains, strangely under the spell of the frogs. Today it would appear, she is disposed to believe in frogs. What will it be tomorrow? Midges? Grasshoppers?
Astonishing that a court which sets itself up as an interrogatory of belief should refuse to pass her. They must have heard other writers before, other disbelieving believers, or believing disbelievers. Writers are not lawyers, surely they must allow for that, allow for eccentricities of presentation. But of course this is not a court of law. Not even a court of logic. Her first impression was right: a court out of Alice in Wonderland, a court of paradox. The first shall be last and the last first. Or contrariwise. if it were guaranteed in advance that one could breeze through one’s hearing with anecdotes from one’s childhood, skipping with laden head from one belief to another, from frogs to stones to flying machines, as often as a woman changes her hat (now where does that line come from?), then every petitioner would take up autobiography, and the court stenographer would be washed away in streams of free association.
She is before the gate again, before what is evidently her gate and hers alone, though it must be visible to anyone who cares to give her a glance. It is, as ever, closed, but the door to the lodge is open, and inside she can see the gatekeeper, the custodian, busy as usual with his papers, which ripple lightly in the air from the fan.
‘Another hot day,’ she remarks.
‘Mm,’ he mumbles, not interrupting his work.
‘It did not go well, I’m afraid, today.’
‘I know you are not a judge,’ she says. ‘Nevertheless, in your judgement, do I stand any chance of passing through? And if I do not pass through, if I am deemed not good enough to pass, will I stop here for ever, in this place?’
He shrugs. ‘We all stand a chance.’ he has not looked up, not once. Does that mean something? Does it mean he has not the courage to look her in the eye?
‘Do you see many people like me, people in my situation?’ she continues urgently, out of control now, hearing herself out of control, disliking herself for it. “In my situation”: what does that mean? What is her situation? The situation of someone who does not know her own mind?
The man behind the desk has evidently had enough of questions. He lays down his pen, folds his hands, regards her levelly. ‘All the time,’ he says. ‘We see people like you all the time.’