More News From the Thirties

(Continued Jottings inspired by Chr*st*ph*r *sh*rw**d’s diary in Chr*st*ph*r And His Kind)

Oct. 7. Hitler addressed the Reichstag. Along the Escorial, Loyalists are dug in, and the dull thud of 32.5 millimetre shells penetrates to where I, Chr*st*ph*r, am sitting, just beyond the sloping garden wall and the whitewashed veranda. Only during lunch does the shelling stop and then, Hans says, the Fascists sit in their trenches and eat tinned kartoffeln and apfelstrudel. Jack paces the garden, as always oblivious to impending confusion, composing some piece about limestone in his head, his maniacal calm face looming threateningly over the flowers, which are wilted in the Spanish rain. As I try to write, mud runs infuriatingly down the dirt road in front of the hacienda. Little gets done.
We are all getting along well enough, though yesterday at breakfast Jack refused to speak to Hans, even when Hans politely offered him cream for his coffee. Offering Jack cream is Hans’s way of retaliating for Jack’s snubs—he knows that Jack won’t have cream, and that coffee makes Jack sick; Jack’s coldness to Hans is a way of demonstrating his affection for Georgio. Nonetheless, we remain friends, as if nothing had happened, or was happening, or going to happen, and at lunch wre discussed Milton as calmly as if we were still in the common room at Oxford, while the boys tried killing a chicken by hypnotizing it, then stabbing it while it was concentrating on the feed bowl. This attempt was only partly successful, and finally both boys leapt on it, and put it in the oven, feathers and all. Needless to say, it was not our best meal.
As I write this, I sit in a chair upstairs and think that I am lucky after all to be here in Spain, Fascists notwithstanding, and free of old England, and bigotry, and the problems that fame brings. We at the hacienda—Jack, I, everyone—are always on the verge of starting a quarrel, or of falling into tears. In addition, we suffer from pimples, which necessitate frequent visits to the doctor, who applies cream and wishes us bienvenida, then charges us an escudo, which he slowly slips into his pocket next to his enormous gold watch, smiling broadly all the time. And when we return, we must scrape the mud from our shoes. But no matter, it is good to be here, good to be alive. Suppose we were soldiers, like Tony and Clive, covered with scurf and lice and freezing on some parched plateau? And where would we go if not back to England? Better, I think, the Spanish winter weather than British fog or corporals bellowing orders.

Oct. 8. This evening, Drystan came in on the late boat. He stumbled onto the pier, joking about the boat, which was fifty years old, the ship’s captain, whom he described as an ape with one hand and only half an eye, and the brussel sprouts, which apparently were coated with machine oil. Drystan’s pockets are stuffed with bits of souffle and cigarette butts, which he chews at odd moments before, during, and after dinner, and a small plume of pink gin, as always, ascends from some place about him. Tonight, spurning (as we had fully expected) our offer of the master bedroom, he rolled himself up in the rug on the living room floor and, making sure that the garden hose was inserted into his mouth so he could breathe, fell asleep. At three in the morning, we heard him singing “Maid of Astolat” in his peculiar treble, twenty or thirty verses, his voice sounding even thinner than usual through the garden hoseloud enough, one would think, to wake everyone in the village, but, so far as I could tell, Hans and the chickens slept soundly.

Oct. 9. I have received a letter from Megrim Vorster: “Dear Boy, I tremendously enjoyed your last novel, particularly the part where Robert rushes to Neil’s side after Neil has been bitten by the adder. I could not help wondering, though, whether you have not made Robert a bit too demimonde? Does this consort nicely with his Eton accent and his habit of riding in dirigibles first class? A word from you, and I have no doubt but that the confusion will clear up and all these little quibbles, which I write because I care about you so very much, seem silly, and contemptible, and absurd,
“I know you are sorely depressed over the failure of the Communists in Barcelona. A year ago, who could have foreseen all this? One just goes from day to day, listening to the chatter of the transatlantic cable, and not caring much how it all comes out. The summer with you and Hans now seems like a dream from another time. Do write and tell me that I am too depressed, that things are not as bad as they seem, and that I am not just an old floozy sitting in a sedan chair at Bournemouth and whiling away time playing gin with Mrs. P. and Mrs. Q.—or that, if I am, at least you will forgive me, if not now, when we next meet. Much love, Megrim.”
I feel closer and closer to Megrim with every passing month. No one, I think, writes novels so well as Megrim except for myself, and even I have not reached Escape to Siddhartha, or some passages in Edgar’s Friend. Were it not for Adieu to Aschaffenbach, I think, I would brave rain, channel tides, and all, and rush to his side—but not at Bournemouth.

Oct. 10. Today, as we were sitting down to tea, Georgio tripped over the carpet and threw up. Everyone was perfectly pleasant afterward, of course, but it is clear, though nobody says it out loud, that things are not working between Jack and Georgio, and Hans and me. Someone will have to go. Mrs. Edelweiss served the tea in Dresden china, prattling cheerfully about her childhood in lower Swabia, and making eyes at Hans. “You are a good German boy, no?” she says in her heavily accented Spanish. Hans accepts her attentions docilely with the good humor of the German bauern. Today, he nailed a chicken’s head to the barn door, he says, to scare off the “schicken phlox,” of which there has been an outbreak in the neighborhood. I am more in love every week.
Meanwhile, outside the hacienda, the war continues. One hardly knows where one’s moral responsibility lies. I suppose, by staying in southern Spain, we are lending aid and comfort to the enemy, and that we should go, like the others, to the front. But what about Hans? Is it moral, I think, to let him go get killed for a cause that must, perhaps inevitably, fail? But if war comes, won’t he get killed anyway? It is all so confusing. From the Escorial, the dull pops of Fascist shells, and the neurotic chatter of machine-gun fire in response. The belief of the British colony, that we are all archaeologists, makes my depression worse. Today, Mrs. S., the wife of the English consul, climbed the Escobar with Jack and showed him a goat dropping which, she said, was a Roman lamp. Mrs. S. is a somewhat faded lady with flowing white hair, half of which she dyes with henna, the other half of which she ties in braids, which protrude like beetles’ legs from under the rim of her scarf. She has beady, pale brown eyes under a cavernous brow, and wears a white blouse and a flowing blue chintz dress. This she never changes, even to go to church, which she does in a thick, clumsy, consul’s wife’s way, squatting among the blackclad women in the pews rather like a blue daisy in a field of black toads. I find her amusing. Hans thinks she is dull. Hans calls her “Frau Kirschtorte,” because, he says, she has a face like a torte with cherries of the kind baked in Aschaffenbach. He has made up a song about Mrs. S. which runs:

Ich bin ein glückliches Kind,
Wo sie ist bin ich verschwind,
Nicht an dem selben Ort
Sie ist wie eine Kirschtorte

which I have translated:

I am a happy man,
But I don’t go too near her,
I won’t stay in the same place—
She’s like a cherry torte.

Oct. 11. My writing this morning was interrupted by a domestic crisis. Last night after tea, Hans was seduced by Mrs. Edelweiss, and today he is in despair. In his dogmatic German way, he insists that she has made him pregnant, and I cannot argue the idea out of his head; he says he will name the child—who must, according to him, be a girl, as Mrs. Edelweiss is a girl —Brunhilde. The cold rain slants down heavily under the face of the Escorial, and the shelling goes on, the puffs of smoke hanging like balls of cotton over the northern range before drifting away. Drystan spends all day in his room, coming down each hour for a pot of green tea, which then disappears, pot and all, to—heaven knows where. We can never find them. He is working on act five of Achilles in a Rowboat. Before lunch yesterday, I suggested he remove the Abbot’s Apse scene, and he immediately agreed. But today he put it back. I still feel that the Abbot’s Apse scene should be removed, as it is not consistent with the tone of the second act, but Drystan likes it.

Oct. 12. Today, a second, worse, crisis. As we were all sitting down to breakfast, officials from the Italian consulate along with some police broke down the front door and bore Georgio off with them, blubbering and clutching his favorite teddy bear. I was enraged; and therefore, of course, helpless—sputtering vainly at tricornered hats and pink plumes. Drystan, heroically, tried to convince them that Georgio was a displaced person, and so protected by the charter of the League of Nations; but it was no use: the officials politely declined to listen and, with many bows, departed taking the crying boy with them—to God knows where. As they were leaving, Jack ran out of the hacienda, his heard waving, and begged them to kill him on the spot, but was left standing naked (he had been in the bath) in the rain; and as of this afternoon, Drystan is sitting up with Jack, who is in bed, reading to him from the manuscript of Achilles in a Rowboat, while Hans and I are halfheartedly trying to make bratwurst without any coal. It is still raining.

Oct. 13. Today, after all the trouble of this past week, a joyful surprise. In the morning came a telegram from Megrim postmarked Leeds saying to expect him on the three o’clock train. “Dear boy,” he said, as soon as he saw me, “how are you?” and patted me on the head. When we told him about, what had happened yesterday, Megrim insisted on visiting Jack at once, even before he had taken off his scarf and overcoat. In his unworldly, portly, affectionate, and typically English way, he clumped up the stairs to Jack’s bedroom and embraced Jack several times in his arms, while Hans burst into tears.

Oct. 14. In the afternoon, Hans, Jack, Megrim, and I go to the local bistro. We have the local wine, which is sweet, and the local delicacy, flies in grape leaves. This evening, Drystan and I confer at length about the Abbot’s Apse scene. He decides to tear up his version and let me write it in prose.

Oct. 15. Hitler makes another speech. The papers are now coming out six times a day, but as all the dispatches are heavily censored, there is no point in reading them. Today, I finished chapter seven, and as things stand now it looks like Adieu to Aschaffenbach will be completed before next summer. Today also I received my advance from Craven & Co.—three pounds, the most ever made at one time—but have put it aside for the train fare. The Loyalist line may break, and then we shall have to flee. Mother writes and says that when the year is over she will adopt Hans since I wish it, but she has infuriated me by suggesting that, when Hans comes to England, he be apprenticed as a pastry chef. Nonetheless, at present, amid all the confusion, I cannot think of an alternative, and so things continue, seemingly uncontrollably, on their course. In the Escorial, the Loyalists and Franco’s troops continue to shell each other. Today, the sun came out for the first time in a month.

Oct. 18. Drystan has taken back the Abbot’s Apse scene. He says he will write it after all in couplets.