"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, October 24, 2021

A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965) by John Christopher

     "A doctor," Matthew said. "I should have thought that would—well, carry some weight still."

     "Weight? With whom? The yobbos? You're still overrating them."

     "The more primitive people are, the more impressionable, surely. And dependent on the mysteries of authority."

     Lawrence shook his head. "It's a question of scale. There was a paper in the Lancet not long before it happened. A study of the psychological effects of the South Island quake, linking up with previous catastrophe reports—the Skopje earthquake, the bombings at Dresden and Hiroshima. Much the same results. Something like three-quarters of the population that survived showed mild mental disturbances of various kinds, about one in ten more seriously ill but little lasting psychosis, and what there was occurring among people apparently predisposed to it. The effects of the Bust seem to have been a bit different. I could do a nice little paper on it myself. In fact, I dreamed the other night that I had done it and that it was published in the B.M.J. Funny thing, I can remember the papers immediately before and after it, too. One on a new technique for nephrectomy and the other on strangulated piles. I'd called mine 'The Anthill Syndrome.' Rather a neat title, I thought."

     "Why anthill?"

     "Because I read somewhere once about the way ants behave when the anthill's taken a beating. Up to a certain level of damage, the pattern's not unlike the one reported in the Lancet: initial disturbance and confusion but fairly rapid recovery as the survivors—or the more enterprising ones amongst them—get over the shock and set about putting things to rights. But it's quite different when the damage exceeds the level. Then, as far as the survivors are concerned, there's no recovery. Their behavior becomes more and more pointless and erratic and destructive."

     "Because the queen's dead, I imagine."

     "I have an idea that wasn't the operative condition, though I can't be sure. But isn't our queen dead, too? I don't mean the person—the guiding force in our society, the source of purpose and identity. It's an interesting speculation. The point is that we're behaving like the second category of ants. There's a mass psychosis, which it would be absurd to try to influence. I suppose there may have been a few relatively sane ants, too. It made no difference. They died with the rest."

     "Don't you think you might be generalizing on the basis of special local conditions? It wasn't like this back on the island. One or two individuals were off their heads, but the rest got together and were doing things."

     Lawrence smiled. "My dear man, you'd better do a paper, too! It could well be different in a small isolated community; in fact one would expect it to be. A few survivors in a tiny place surrounded by sea—or by seabed, anyway—can re-establish identity. I hope they'll prosper. Perhaps our salvation will come out of the islands and the Highlands. By our, I mean human, of course. In a generation or two, perhaps."

Christopher's middle-aged protagonist Matthew Cotter has a successful business growing greenhouse fruits and vegetables. He lives on Guernsey. He is divorced. His daughter is at college in London. His is a quiet and modestly successful life. Like all his friends, he takes a mild interest in the sudden crop of earthquakes in various parts of the world.

But that all seems impossibly far away for a man whose fortunes depend on sales to Covent Garden vendors.

But Matthew will "learn better". 

John Christopher strikes a nicely uncanny note early in the opening chapter:

....Matthew got himself supper, a casserole of pork steak which had been simmering all afternoon in the Aga oven, watched television for an hour and, after making a final round of the vinery, went early to bed. He read for a time, and fell asleep easily. In the early hours he was awakened by a dog barking, and sat up and switched on the light.

     He kept a couple of dozen hens on free range, to provide a supply of non-battery eggs, and there had been trouble with a dog disturbing them at night. It was apparently a small dog which got into the henhouse and chivvied them off their perches. Matthew had got up one night and heard it dash away as he approached. That had been over a week ago, and since then he had kept a shotgun in his bedroom. It would do no harm, he thought, to give it a peppering. He put on socks and shoes, and trousers and a guernsey over his pajamas. Then he loaded the gun and, picking up a torch, went out quietly in the direction of the henhouse.

     It was a clear, fairly cold night—no clouds, a quarter moon, and light sifting out across the sky from the great arc of the Milky Way. He heard the dog again as he went down the path, and stopped short. It was not barking any longer but howling, and he could tell that it was not in with the hens. It sounded like the crossbred collie on the Margy farm. But there was a disturbance among the hens, all the same, a nervous clucking which was, at this time of night, more unsettling than a positive sound of outrage would have been. Matthew tightened his grip on the gun, and went on toward them.

     He became aware of other noises, carried on the still air. A second dog took up the howling of the first, and he thought he heard a third, more distant. Cows lowing, and the bray, hideous and earsplitting even at a quarter of a mile distance, of one of Miss Lucie's donkeys. The sounds, familiar though they were, had a touch of horror in their present context: this otherwise quiet night, with no breath of wind, the sharply delineated peace of the middle hours of darkness. Then came another sound, as mild, as well known, but now the eeriest of them all. The chatter of birds, awakening from their sleep. One or two first, and then more and more, until Matthew felt that all the birds in the island were awake and shrieking their unease. He stopped again, abreast of the canebrake at the end of his kitchen garden.

     Then, after one swift, barely perceptible shudder, the earth heaved beneath him, slammed him like a rat against itself and, heaving again, tossed him bruised and winded through the air.

Globe-girdling earthquakes (too polite and modest a term for the earth changes John Christopher describes herein) wipe out the old human civilization. A new age dawns, born in blood and filth. Those who work cooperatively fare no better than the gangs of 'yobboes' who rape, beat, steal, kill and generally pursue marauding as a way to engage in what Marx called primary accumulation.

A Wrinkle in the Skin is a tour of the initial weeks of this new dispensation. Matthew and Andy, a boy he rescues from the Guernsey rubble, meet a variety of groups and individuals, some madder or more dangerous than others. 

"Were they all boys?"

     April nodded. Her eyes were steady on his. "Five, and seven, and ten. That was Andy. Dan had wanted him to go away to school, but I prevented it. It was the only thing I remember our fighting about. We compromised, in the end. He was to stay at home till he was thirteen."

     He would have thought there might be awkwardness in listening to her talking about them, but there was none. Her mind was open to his, in trust, and in her voice there was valediction as well as love for those she had lost.

     He said, "I saw their graves."

     "Yes. One goes through stages. There are bad moments still, but not so often, and so bad, I think. And one knows there can never be anything as bad as filling the earth in over them." They began to walk back toward the grotto. April's hand was near his, and Matthew took it; their fingers linked in warmth and reassurance. She talked about the foraging—they would have to go rather farther afield, she thought, to find anything worth while. Although she did not say so in words, he got the impression that she was ready, or almost ready, to accept the fact that it made no sense for them to go on living here.

     He said, keeping it in general terms, "At the moment, we're scavenging on the past. That means there are better pickings where there have been more people. But more risk of the yobbos, of course, too. This is a kind of in-between territory, isn't it? Isolated enough to make foraging difficult, but not far enough off the beaten track to be free from occasional visitors."       

She shook her head. "They don't matter."

     "I doubt if Archie would agree."

     "We were fools to have all our eggs in one basket, and then to hide the basket. I agree there. But we've cleared that up. There won't be any cause for heroics if it happens again. Archie can take them to the well."

     "It's not only that, is it?"

     "What else?"

     "If we'd got back later …"


     Her obtuseness surprised him. He said, "Two women, one of them at least very attractive. There's more to it than the question of losing supplies."

     She stopped and stared at him. There was incredulity in her face, and the beginnings of something else which he could not identify.

     She said, "You don't think you arrived just in time to prevent our being raped, do you?"

     "I think that might well have happened."

     She gave a short gasping laugh. "But didn't? What made you think—? Because we didn't talk about it? Or perhaps because they let us pull our trousers up? That was considerate, but by that time they had decided to amuse themselves with Archie." He heard her voice grow more bitter as she spoke, and knew that part of the bitterness at least came from what she read in him: bewilderment, the shock of realization and, although he fought against it, something of revulsion. He was horrified, not only by what had happened but by the way she spoke of it, casually and brutally.

     Not meeting her eyes, he said, "I didn't know. I'm sorry."

     "You don't know anything," she said, "do you? But what did you expect happens nowadays when a gang of men find unguarded women?"

     He asked, unwillingly but compulsively, "It's happened before?"

     "Look at me!" Her face was angry. "Do you want to know about the first time? The day after I found Lawrence, two days after I dug those graves. I saw them first. I called to them, because I thought the most important thing was that those who were left should make contact. I suppose I thought that if people had been changed they would be more human, not less. I couldn't believe it when they got hold of me. I fought, of course. I hadn't learned how stupid it was to resist. That was the only time it was really painful."

     "And Lawrence?"

     "We'd split up, covering as much ground as possible. He was within earshot, but even though I fought I didn't cry out. They were both strong and under thirty. He could only have got hurt, one way or another. When they left me, I crawled away and found him again. It creates quite a bond, you know, when a man comforts a woman after two other men have knocked her about and raped her."

     Matthew said, 'I've said I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about it."

     "Don't I? Are you sure? The point is, it wasn't just comfort. Lawrence could offer practical help. He had some of those foreign-body contraceptives in his surgery. We dug them out, and he fitted me. It's a coil of stainless steel and nylon, with a funny tail. A terribly cute little gadget. And he fitted Sybil and Cathie when they joined up with us."

     He was trying not to show anything, but she was watching him closely.

     She said, "Yes, Cathiel Which was just as well, because it happened to her a couple of days later. There were eight that time, and two of them couldn't wait for me and Sybil to be free. That was one of the times the men had to watch. The good thing about the ones you saw was that they left Cathie alone. Three of them had me, and the other two Sybil. I'm generally popular. One of them took me with him once, as far as Southampton. I made the mistake of talking, and he liked my accent. I got away in the night, and came back here."

     Matthew said, "If it helps …"

     "All this," she said, "it isn't even the beginning. I haven't told you anything. That man I kicked—the one who was badly wounded—you remember?"

     Matthew nodded. "Yes."

     "He spat in my face while he was in me. Do you think you have the remotest idea how that makes you feel—about yourself, and about men?"

     "No. I know I haven't."

     "There have been five times all together. I don't know how many men—sometimes the same man more than once. The secret is to cooperate because then it's over quicker and less … less hideous. As an extra precaution we have sponges as well as the gadgets. Its not a great deal worse than going to a dentist used to be, if you have the right mental attitude, and the odds are pretty high against conception. But there's always the possibility, of course. Have you thought what that would be like, Matthew? Pregnant, in these conditions, by a beast on two legs who's used you the way a dog uses a bitch? And the other little possibility—of V.D.? The odds are not so high there. So far we've been lucky. At least, I think we have. It's too early to know about the latest episode."

     He felt he must stem the flow of this wretchedness and misery which was pouring from her. He put his hand on hers, holding her, feeling the bone under the flesh. "I didn't know," he said. "I ought to have done. It was stupid of me."

     She turned away. "Not that. Your look when you realized." "It's happened. Bad things come to an end, as well as good. You'll forget about it in time. What you do counts, not what's done to you."

     She stared at him, her face full of pain. "You still don't know anything. I had one man, my husband. I was proud of my body, because he loved it. Now … Lawrence wanted me, so I let him take me. It didn't mean as much as being raped, but it meant as little. I was sorry for him, and I despised him." Matthew said, "That was generous."

     "Generous! My God! And Charley? A boy only a few years older than my son was. And knowing it was the sight of other men using me that had excited him? Do you call contempt generous?"

     He was silent. His hand still held hers, and as though suddenly aware of this, she took it from him. She said, her voice lower but harsh, "Sex and motherhood are the centers of being a woman. Now they mean nothing but disgust and fear.

     Little Archie … no, he hasn't had me, but only because he hasn't asked." She glanced at him, and away. "I'd learned fear of most men, contempt for all of them. Then, when I was washing at the pool, I looked up and saw you watching me. And I had the insane idea that there might still be strength and goodness—in a man, between man and woman. It was my illusion, and not your fault."

     "I don't think it is an illusion."

     She ignored the remark. "I'm sorry about the outburst. You listened very patiently, Matthew."

     The anger and bitterness had gone, but he could almost have wished them back. She was a long way away.

     "Listen," he said. He sought her hand, but she moved from him. "Surely you don't fear me?"

     "No." She sounded tired. "I don't fear you. But I despise you. I despise you as a man. As a person, I think I envy you. What I said when I was bandaging your ankle—I didn't realize how true it was. Nothing has changed for you except the scenery. For the rest of us it was God bringing our world crashing down about our ears, but for you it was—what? An epic in Cinemascope, Stereosound and 3-D. Jane is still alive, and you can amble your way toward her through the ruins. Do you know what? I think you'll find her. And she'll be dressed in white silk and orange blossoms, and it will be the morning of her wedding to a clean young man with wonderful manners, and you'll be just in time to give her away."

     He said, "I want to stay here."

     April shook her head. "You can't do that. I can tolerate the others, but not you."

     "In time, you could."

     "No. You remind me of everything that's finished. I would have to go myself, if you stayed. I don't think you would force me into that."

     There was a response, if he could find it, which would break through the meaningless tyranny of words, which would restore the early morning moment of recognition. But even if he found it, he wondered, could he afford what it would cost?

     April walked away from him, toward the garden and the grotto. After a time he followed her, but he did not try to catch her up.

A Wrinkle in the Skin is a fine, fierce novel, more bitter than bittersweet, more cold than cozy. 

For Christopher's protagonists, plangent emotions are an expensive luxury. Ahead of them there's at least a thousand years of barbarism.


24 October 2021

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