Harry had tried to enjoy himself at the party but failed. It was as though he were frosted inside. No laughter, no song, and no drink could melt him into the kind of person he so envied, who was loud and free, reckless and uncaring, cavorting like a healthy animal in a migrant herd. In a crowd he was a man with a stuttering mind and a frozen mouth, clenching his glass, wanting nobody to bother him as he sat with his back to the wall, yet hoping that by some magical process he would soon be transformed into one of the happy people, and that at the very first moment of his metamorphosis he would turn and laugh Doris out of his life, like a butterfly flicking the remains of the chrysalis from its wings before it embraced the sun.
But that was not going to happen tonight. So he left with Doris, hardly noticed. “O.K., old boy,” shouted Tony, his host, across the room, an extravagant hand tossed toward them in a forgetful farewell. And out into the street they went, her voice droning on about how silly it all was, how she didn’t know that people could go on like that, how the women looked like depraved creatures, how the men were drunken louts . . . how, how, how. Her mind was spinning in a whirl of words that shattered the privacy of his brooding. Then she was quiet, and they walked down the street of the cold city and only the tap of her shoes on the pavement remained to annoy him.
“Tony’s a friend of mine,” he said. “I’ve told you often enough that if you don’t like my friends just keep away from me. I didn’t ask you to come with me. Oh no, you just came along like Mary’s little lamb, and made sure I wouldn’t enjoy myself.”
He started to walk faster, leaning forward and pushing his conscious legs in longer strides, swinging his arms to his deeper breath, faster, faster, until the quickened sound of her surprised step was yards behind. He must be a little drunk to go on like this; no, not a little drunk — an intoxicated midget.
He suddenly realized that he must have run past where he lived; he was a near neighbor of Tony’S. Without looking, he knew that Doris would be standing at his gate, waiting. He thought of walking on, perhaps even booking into a hotel for the night, but decided he wasn’t equipped for such an adventure. So he turned and went slowly back.
“Harry, you’re drunk.” Her voice reminded him of the way his mother used to say, “Harry, you’re catching cold.” It had that same vague suggestion of pleasure at his disadvantage.
“I’m a little midget, that’s all,” he said.
He pushed the gate open and puffed through. The apartment block looked over him protectively: it was the giant shell of his home, and he was glad that so many other people shared the shell with him. Though he had nothing to do with the other tenants, he liked the idea of their presence above and below his fourth-floor rooms. He was never really alone, he told himself.
He went across the entrance hallway to the elevator, knowing she was following, but as he swung around to tell her she wasn’t wanted, now or ever again, the black-dressed figure of the elderly spinster from the floor above his bobbed up from somewhere. Harry sensed that she had seen him running down the street.
“It’s a little late,” said Doris, “but I’ll come up for a quick cup of tea.”
He held the elevator door open. The spinster slipped in and Doris came after, brushing her eyes over his face with a gleaming obstinacy. She always knew when she wasn’t wanted.
“Five for me, please,”said the elderly spinster, as though he didn’t know.
“I’m at four — you’ll have to go the rest of the way yourself,”said Harry. As though she didn’t know.
When they left her at the fourth, with her finger already on the button for the next floor, there was an expression on her face that Harry knew he would see again the next time they met.
“Talking like that down there,” said Doris. “You’re not a big man, yet you’re no midget.”
“She doesn’t like the idea of a nice bachelor like me bringing a woman into my apartment after midnight,” said Harry. “I don’t either. Turn around and fly away home.”
“Really, Harry, you are a little drunk.”
“An intoxicated midget, that’s right. Go back to your shoe, old woman.”
Her hand grabbed his shoulder, her round face jumped near his. “Don’t, because I love you, I love you,” she. said.
“Here we go again,” he said, walking to his apartment door and opening it. “If you are going to toss off another of those scenes, please don’t use a semipublic place.” He bowed his head as she went past him. Then the brief flicker of his feeling of superiority snuffed out as if struck him that she had got exactly what she wanted and what he had not: now they would be alone together. He slammed the door and said to her back, “Doris, please don’t bother me again.”
AT LEAST she didn’t take off her coat. But she sat down in the sea-grass chair of the lounge, and leaned forward to him as he moved across to stand over her. “I love you. I love you.”
Her voice was high and excited, carried on another of those waves of energy that rolled from within her at any crisis, and her eyes were alight with that aggressive longing that stirred and frightened him. She reached out one little hand. “Nothing you can say can change that, and I know you need me,” she said.
“You just sit there like that and say that, when I’ve told you a million times to get out of my life, you Cheshire Kilkenny cat.”
She pushed both her tiny square hands up under her gray hair to block her ears. The lines that cut deeply in loose pattern from the corners ol her eyes and mouth tightened, and she became that determined figure of concrete immobility against which he was always powerless. But not this time.
“None of that,” he said, and tapped the top of her head with his fingers. She rocked back in the chair, and came forward again, pressing her hands tighter against her cars, closing her eyes; her face was pale and unfeeling. It wouldn’t have helped him much to have hit her.
He turned away and walked to the other side of the room, uncorked a bottle off the tray on top of the bookcase, and splashed out a glass of whisky.
“You wouldn’t go on like this if you hadn’t been drinking,” she said. “It is drinking that does it to you, Harry.”
“Doris, I’ve told you the same thing when I haven’t been drinking. I’ve told you in writing. I’ve told you every way I know how. And I can’t tell you any longer unless I have a few drinks first, because you are like . . .”He stopped, confused, because all he could think of was little Miss Muffet. He almost bit his glass in exasperation. “You think if you keep putting your fingers into the pie, or whatever it is, sooner or later you’ll pull me out,” he continued. “Well, I’ll be damned if you will.”
He moved over to the window and pulled the curtains back. The light from the room poured out across the thick parapet immediately below, and into the night. He felt naked and vulnerable, knowing he was framed in the oblong light, above the semidark city, unseeing but able to be seen. Yet he knew he might be far more exposed if he turned back to look at her.
When he heard her heavy sigh he was relieved; that was a sign that she was nearly in tears. “Go ahead and cry,” he said. “Cry till dawn and see where it gets you. I’m the spider that sat down beside you and frightened you away, I hope.”
He clicked his teeth together with the sense of power his own words poured back into him: he was being strong, in a sarcastic sort of way.
“You have an infernal nerve to criticize my drinking,” he went on. “Don’t forget if I hadn’t been so full of drink five years ago, I would never have been such a fool as to get into your clutches. You came out of the bottle like the evil genie and I’ve been trying to rub you away ever since.”
But even as he spoke he again felt that slow movement of fear and weakness deep inside as he thought of her: the gray hair and lined face contradicted by those bright, eager eyes, the short slim body bounding with energy that fascinated and repelled him, tired and lethargic as he so often was. A huntress, and in five years she had not aged one whit, or weakened in her hunt. She was a weird combination of age and girlishness, as though some essential femininity in her had atrophied when she was young, to become wildly alive as she approached middle age. He remembered his pity for her, this schoolteacher cousin of his brother’s wife, and the cheap nobility he had felt at first taking her out. “Just the sort of woman you should associate with,” he had imagined his mother saying. But would she have approved of Doris? He had lived with his mother until the day she died, six years ago, and wasn’t sure he had really known her; and though he had missed her when she was gone, it wasn’t long before he knew that he could manage without her quite happily, thank you. And well enough not to worry whether she would actually approve of any of his friends.
“Poor Harry,” Doris was speaking slowly for emphasis. “You can’t mean it. You need me so much.”
“You think I’m the gingerbread man, that’s it,” he said. “If I were Goldilocks you would be the damned wolf. But you won’t eat me all up, so get that idea out of your head.”
“Harry, talk sense, please.”
“Are you going, Doris? Or are you going to make me go?” But he couldn’t let her drive him out of his own apartment, this room even; a comfortable lounge, two walls lined halfway up with his books, a phonograph to play his own kind of music as loud as he liked, soft deep chairs, a sofa on which he could sprawl, sun-bright Gauguin women on the wall, a firm, neutraltoned carpet, no frills. And she was the only blight, she, and his own weakness.
“Are you getting ready to go?” he said, still looking out the window, and speaking more to the tremor within him than to her.
“It doesn’t matter what you say, I love you. Understand me, Harry.”
“Stop ringing me, writing me letters, walking in here and taking control. You are not, absolutely not, my good fairy.” He had to leave the window for another drink, and managed not to look at her as he went back to the bookcase and the liquor tray.
“You’re not like this all the time, Harry. That’s why I put up with it.”
“I can’t abuse you twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes I feel sorry for you. Almost like you. But you won’t leave it at that. You want to organize my whole life; you want to marry me, you have the gall to tell me. You’re like all the King’s men, waiting for Humpty Dumpty to fall.”
HE FELT himself spinning, spinning into space, into the dark night, falling, and he shivered, cradling his arms about his shoulders, and the sensation shattered like breaking glass; he could actually hear a breaking sound, and he was back in the bright room. He looked down and saw that his glass was smashed over the top of the bookcase where he had dropped it, and the liquid was dripping onto the carpet.
“Watch yourself, sonny boy,” he said. And then he remembered Doris. “That was your fault,” he said, and looked at her. The only change in her position was that her hands were now in her lap; there was no sign even of her threatened tears. She was sitting there, short, white, blunt, waiting, watching. He was clearly afraid now; he wasn’t going to surrender this time, too, was he? He would get out first.
“I’m going back to the party for a few more drinks, and to give you time to work up some self-respecting steam,” he said. “When I come back I want you gone.”
He took his spectacles off carefully, polished them with his handkerchief, and replaced them, and then straightened his tie.
“I want you gone, Doris. I mean it,” he said, and moved to the door. “Call up the pumpkin and mice, Cinderella.” It seemed only a second before he was down to the street again and, even though he wasn’t wearing a coat, he felt no cold as he headed the few hundred yards back up the street to good old Tony’s place. Doris wouldn’t have the nerve to follow him; she hadn’t even the nerve to say anything to him as he had walked out.
Harry turned into the alley that led down the side of an old two-story wooden home that now comprised three apartments. The first door was Tony’s entrance, and going through it into a tiny hall, Harry tripped over a crate of empty beer bottles. “Yippee,” he shouted, “here I come,” and didn’t bother to straighten the staggered angle of his body as he pushed on into the party.
Tony was sprawled, face downward, on the floor of his lounge with two blonde girls sitting on him. The pilot and the radio announcer were sitting on the sofa against the far wall and looked bored. Everybody else had gone.
“That’s the stuff to give him,” said Harry.
Tony screwed his head around and looked up. “Good grief—I thought you had packed up,” he said,
“Can’t keep a good man down,” Harry said. “Do you mind if I have a seat, too?”
He moved beside the prostrate body of Tony, squatted and swung around and dropped. He bounced on Tony’s shoulder as his heels slipped.
“Crikey, man,” said Tony, “do you want to flatten me?”
The fat blonde girl laughed and pulled Harry by his collar, her action tipping him onto his back; his head bumped hard on the floor. The body of Tony heaved under his legs, sharp heels dug into him, the laughter faded into echoes, and then Tony was bending over him, both hands under his arms, and hoisting him up.
“I was going to lift ‘em up on my back from a lying position. But not with you, old bean. You’ve still got your glasses on, anyway.”
“My fault, Tony; what about a drink for little Boy Blue?” Harry tried to grin as he rubbed his head.
The red, fleshy face of Tony grimaced. “Haven’t you had enough? Don’t answer that. I will provide you with more. My hospitality is impeccable, old egg.”
”I want to blow my horn,” said Harry. “Where is everybody?”
“It’s two-o-blinking-clock in the morning,” said Tony.
The fat blonde put her arms around Harry’s neck and rubbed her head against his. “I think you are the funniest little man,” she said. “The funniest little old bald man.”
Harry squeezed her and dug the end of his fingers deeply into the soft warmth of flesh. “ That’s very nice of you, very nice of you.”
Her elbow jerked into the side of his chest, stabbing the breath out of him, and he saw her step away, face twisted, strands of gold hair flipping around her chin.
“What do you think you are doing, you wretch?” she said.
“Shut up, Rosie; he didn’t mean anything,” said Tony.
Harry felt numb down the whole length of one side of his body, and the blonde hair was streaking his vision like lengths of seaweed floating on opaque water. A big hand seized him by the neck and squeezed, and a thick voice blurted in his ear. “Dirty characters can get their heads knocked off.” It was the radio announcer.
The hand squeezed again and then released its grip. Harry flopped around for words.
“I don’t know what, it was nothing absolutely. No objection at all possible I wish to assure everybody. My deepest apologies.” He spoke into a strange opaqueness.
“Leave me alone,” said the blonde. “These Mummy’s boys are all the same.”
Now the whole scene jumped into detail: the white walls with their scattering of regimental flags, the littered Chairs and floor, the huge table burdened with empty bottles, glasses, and scraps of food and paper, even the curling drifts of smoke; the fat blonde before him, pinkish and thin-lipped; Tony in flustered ruddiness, stout and disheveled, holding out a glass; the other blonde, staring about in glazed indifference; the pilot, half lying now on the sofa, tall and young and crumpled; and behind Harry, breathing wetly in his ear, the radio announcer.
“What do you mean, Mummy’s boy?” Harry said as loud as he could.
Tony took his hand and closed it around the glass. “One for the road, eh Harry?”
“Well, Mr. Funnyman,” the blonde said, “we were talking about you earlier, if you want to know, and Tony said you were a Mummy’s boy trying to get along without a Mummy. That’s what makes you so funny, but” — she was leaning a glaring face into his now — “that doesn’t mean you can be naughty with a lady, see?”
“You’re being very nasty, darling,” said Tony. “Don’t take any notice, Harry. Rosie’s half stewed.”
“Now see here,” said the radio announcer. “Don’t you talk about Rosie like that.”
“I’ll go,” whispered Harry. “Didn’t want to be a nuisance.”
A strong arm went around his shoulder and propelled him firmly forward. It belonged to Tony, of course.
“It would be better if you did take off, old man,”he said. “Can you make it on your own?”
Harry hunched his shoulders in relief. It was ending without any fuss. At the door, he muttered that he was very sorry and went into the hall.
“O.K.”said Tony, and left him, Harry leaned against the wall and pushed himself along to the door. He was better with one shoulder feeling a momentary solidity.
OUTSIDE, he walked carefully up the alley, yet was not conscious of turning down the street until he had reached his apartment block. All the while, though he rubbed his hand up and down his waistcoat, and then dragged it along what must have been the top of a fence, the feel of blonde flesh tingled unpleasantly on his fingers. It was not until he was out of the elevator and had felt the overwhelming triumph of the sight of the door of his home that he forgot about his fingers. He stumbled inside, enveloped in a fleeting happiness, as if the familiar atmosphere was embracing and soothing him.
Doris was still there, sitting on the chair. If she hadn’t moved since he had left, she moved now. She was on her feet, coming to him, taking his arm. “You look sick; what happened?”
“Leave me alone,” he gasped, and pulled his arm. But he felt her fingers tighten and his body rock toward her, and realized that she was even physically stronger than he was.
“I’ll make you some coffee and put you to bed,” she said.
“Leave me alone, I said.”
“Then I’ll go, Harry. But I couldn’t leave you like this.”
She let his arm go and he made his way across the room.
“I know who you are,” he said. “I know who you are, and I won’t let you have me. I won’t.”
“No more nonsense, please Harry,” she cried.
He was feeling the way he should always feel, not caring, unafraid. He knew the feeling would go soon, and that he had to act quickly.
“I know who you are, and you won’t get me,” he said.
He reached the window and pulled it up.
“You’ll catch your death of cold, Harry, if you haven’t got one already. Close that window and don’t be silly.”
He leaned forward and fell across the sill, hardly resting there a second before he let himself slide down to the parapet. The dark air whipped in a gust of wind, and he felt his feet swing out into space.
“Oh, no,” he screamed, and twisted around and clawed at the rough surface and pulled his legs back under him.
He was hunched forward now, his knees drawn right up under his body till they touched his chin as he pushed his face close down to the stone, his elbows and half-raised arms pressed tightly to his sides, his two hands clenched against his bowed head.
Then slowly a sense of the solidity of the parapet and its width freed him from his terror, and he became an untidy parcel of flesh and bone, alone and above the city, under the dark sky. He curled himself even tighter, and snuggled against the parapet, and thought there would be no end to his being there; he was actually warm, he was free and untroubled, cradled by rough granite that was softly billowing under him; he felt that if he put his lips against the parapet and sucked, it would even share its strength with him.
“Harry, Harry. Come up.”
The air chilled about him with her words, and another gust of wind blew, buffeting his body, and he jammed his face down in rebellion.
“This minute, Harry, now,” her voice above him said.
He shook his head, and the rim of his glasses scraped and then shattered against the stone. He pulled his head back and cracked streaks of light found his eyes. Again the wind snapped at him, with a strength that seemed to pull at his exposed head.
“I’ll help you, Harry.”
Now the parapet became bleak and hostile, and just behind him it ended, ready to let him fall; her voice made it so.
“It will be all right,” she said. “Don’t move, there’s no real danger.”
Her hands wriggled past his head and grasped the lapels of his coat. His stomach tightened in a wrenching lurch, and his throat filled and pushed a choking warmth into his mouth. The firm hands held on tightly as his body jerked and quivered, and then her voice came calmly down.
“Reach your hands out and grasp the sill. There’s no real danger.”
He stretched one arm slowly up, and as he was certain because she had told him, the sill was in his grasp.
“Now the other one.”
As he pushed his second hand up, he raised his head and looked at her. She was quite close, the upper half of her body leaning right out of the window to get her hands under his head to his coat.
“Now pull yourself up and I’ll pull you at the same time, Harry.” The voice from her shadowed face was even and unhurried.
He pulled and felt her strain; his coat tightened around his body, biting under his armpits, and he moved up easily, helping himself more by scrambling pushes with his feet. He was up past the sill, and the whole lighted room was before him, when she slid her arms behind his back and pulled him the rest of the way. He fell through the window, his broken glasses dropping off as he slumped to the floor, and she went down with him. He turned on his back, gasping, and she shifted her arms about him and held his head. He heard the panting rushes of her breathing, and felt her whole body trembling. He peered up and dimly recognized that strange possessive light of her eyes flooding over him.
“Oh, Da-da,” he sobbed. “I love you. I love you.”