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Chapter Sixteen

 Valletta

 I

 Now there was a sun-shower over Valletta, and even a rainbow. Howie Surd the  drunken yeoman lay on his stomach under mount 52, head propped on arms,  staring at a British landing craft that chugged its way through the rainy  Harbour. Fat Clyde from Chi, who was 6' 1"/ 142 pounds, came from Winnetka  and had been christened Harvey, stood by the lifelines spitting dreamily  down into the drydock.

"Fat Clyde," bellowed Howie.

"No," said Fat Clyde. "Whatever it is."

He must have been upset. Nobody ever says things like that to a yeoman. "I'm  going over tonight," Howie said gently, "and I need a raincoat because it is  raining out, as you may have noticed."

Fat Clyde took a white hat out of his back pocket and tugged it down over  his head like a cloche. "I also got liberty," he said.

Bitch box came on. "Now turn in all paint and paint brushes to the paint  locker," it said.

"About that time," said Howie. He crawled out from under the gun mount and  squatted on the 01 deck. The rain came down and ran into his ears and down  his neck and he watched the sun smearing the sky red over Valletta. "What is  wrong, hey, Fat Clyde."

"Oh," said Fat Clyde and spat over the side. His eyes followed the white  drop of spit all the way down. Howie gave up after about five minutes of  silence. He went around the starboard side and down the ladder to bother  Tiger Youngblood the spud coxswain who sat at the bottom of the ladder right  outside the galley slicing cucumbers.

Fat Clyde yawned. It rained in his mouth, but he didn't seem to notice. He  had a problem. Being an ectomorph he was inclined to brood. He was a  gunner's mate third and normally it would be none of his Business except  that his rack was directly over Pappy Hod's and since arrival in Valletta,  Malta, Pappy had commenced talking to himself. Not loud; not loud enough to  be heard by anyone but Fat Clyde.

Now scuttlebutt being what it is, and sailors being, under frequently  sentimental and swinish exteriors, sentimental swine, Clyde knew well enough  what it was about being in Malta that upset Pappy Hod. Pappy hadn't been  eating anything. Normally a liberty hound, he hadn't even been over yet.  Because it was usually Fat Clyde who Pappy went out and got drunk with, this  was lousing up Fat Clyde's liberty.

Lazar the deck ape, who had been trying the radar gang now for two weeks,  came out with a broom and started sweeping water into the drain on the port  side. "I don't know why I should be doing this," he bitched  conversationally. "I don't have the duty."

"You should of stayed down in first division," Fat Clyde ventured, glum.  Lazar began sweeping water at Fat Clyde, who jumped out of the way and  continued on down the starboard ladder. To the spud coxswain: "Give me a  cucumber, hey Tiger."

"You want a cucumber," said Tiger, who was chopping up onions. "Here. I got  a cucumber for you." His eyes were watering so bad he looked like a sullen  boy which is what he was.

"Slice it and put it on a plate," said Fat Clyde, "and maybe I will -"

"Here." From the galley porthole. Pappy Hod was hanging out, waving a  crescent of watermelon. He spat a seed at Tiger.

That's the old Pappy Hod, thought Clyde. And he is wearing dress blues and a  neckerchief.

"Get your ass in gear, Clyde," said Pappy Hod. "Liberty call any minute now."

So of course Clyde was off like a streak for the fo'c's'le and back inside  of five minutes, squared away as he ever got for liberty.

"832 days," Tiger Youngblood snarled as Pappy and Clyde headed for the  quarterdeck. "And I'll never make it."

The Scaffold, resting on keel blocks, was propped up on each side by a dozen  wood beams a foot square which extended from the sides of the ship to the  sides of the drydock. From above, the Scaffold must have looked like a great  squid with wood-colored tentacles. Pappy and Clyde crossed the long brow and  stood in the rain for a moment, looking at the ship. The sonar dome was  shrouded in a secret tarpaulin. At the top of the mast flew the biggest  American flag Captain Lych had been able to find. It would not be lowered  come Evening Colors; and come true nightfall portable spotlights would be  turned on and focused on it. This was for the benefit of any Egyptian bomber  pilots who might be coming in, Scaffold being the only American ship in  Valletta at the moment.

On the starboard side rose a school or seminary with a clock tower, growing  out of a bastion high as the surface-search radar antenna.

"High and dry," said Clyde.

"They say the Limeys are going to kidnap us," said Pappy. "And leave our ass  high and dry till this is over."

"It may take longer than that anyway. Give me a cigarette. There's the  generator and the screw -"

"And the barnacles." Pappy Hod was disgusted. "They will probably want to  sandblast, long as she's in the yards. Even though there's a yard period in  Philly coming up as soon as we get back. They'll find something for us to  do, Fat Clyde."

They made their way through the Dockyard. Around them straggled most of the  Scaffold's liberty section in files and bunches. Submarines too were under  wraps: perhaps for secrecy, perhaps for the rain. The quitting time whistle  blew and Pappy and Clyde were caught all at once in a torrent of yardbirds:  disgorged from earth, vessels and pissoirs, all heading for the gate.

"Yardbirds are the same all over," Pappy said. He and Clyde took their time.  The dock workers fled by, jostling them: ragged, gray. By the time Pappy and  Clyde reached the stone gateway they'd all gone. Waiting for them were only  two old nuns who sat to either side of the gate, holding little straw  collection baskets in their laps and black umbrellas over their heads.  Bottoms of the baskets were barely covered with sixpences and a shilling or  two. Clyde came up with a crown; Pappy, who hadn't been over to exchange any  currency, dropped a dollar in the other basket. The nuns smiled briefly and  resumed their vigil.

"What was that," Pappy smiled to nobody. "Admission charge?"

Towered over by ruins, they walked up a hill, around a great curve in the  road and through a tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel was a bus stop:  threepence into Valletta, as far as the Phoenicia Hotel. When the bus  arrived they got on with a few straggling yardbirds and many Scaffold  sailors, who sat in the back and sang. "Pappy," Fat Clyde began, "I know  it's no Business of mine, but -"

"Driver," came a yell from in back. "Hey driver. Stop the bus. I got to take  a leak."

Pappy slumped lower in his seat; tilted the white hat down over his eyes.  "Teledu," he muttered. "That will be Teledu."

"Driver," said Teledu of the A gang. "If you don't stop the bus I will have  to piss out the window." Despite himself Pappy turned around to watch. A  number of snipes were endeavoring to pull Teledu away from the window. The  driver drove on grimly. The yardbirds weren't talking, but watched closely.  Scaffold sailors were singing:

 Let's all go down and piss on the Forrestal  Till the damn thing floats away,

which went to the tune of The Old Gray Mare and had started at Gitmo Bay in  the winter of '55.

"Once he has got an idea in his head," said Pappy, "he won't let go. So if  they don't let him piss out the window, he will probably -"

"Look, look," said Fat Clyde. A yellow river of urine was advancing up the  center aisle. Teledu was just zipping up.

"A fun-loving good will ambassador," somebody remarked, "is all Teledu is."  As the river crept forward sailors and yardbirds hurriedly covered it with  the leaves of a few morning newspapers, left lying on the seats. Teledu's  comrades applauded.

"Pappy," Fat Clyde said, "you intending to go out and get juiced tonight?"

"I was thinking about it," said Pappy.

"That's what I was afraid of. Look, I know I'm out of line -"

Ho was interrupted by a burst of merriment from the back of the bus.  Teledu's friend Lazar, whom Fat Clyde had last seen sweeping water off the  01 deck, had succeeded now in setting fire to the newspapers on the floor of  the bus. Smoke billowed up and with a most horrible smell. Yardbirds began  to mutter among themselves. "I should of saved some," crowed Teledu, "to put  it out with."

"Oh God," said Pappy. A couple-three of Teledu's fellow snipes were stomping  around trying to put out the fire. The bus driver was cursing audibly.

They pulled up to the Phoenicia Hotel at last: smoke still leaking from the  windows. Night had fallen. Raucous with song, the men of the Scaffold boat  descended on Valletta.

Clyde and Pappy were last to get out. They apologized to the driver. Palm  leaves in front of the hotel chattered in the wind. It seemed Pappy was  hanging back.

"Why don't we go to a movie," Clyde said, a little desperate. Pappy wasn't  listening. They walked under an arch and into Kingsway.

"Tomorrow is Hallowe'en," said Pappy, "and they better put those idiots in a  strait jacket."

"They never made one to hold old Lazar. Hot damn, it's crowded in here."

Kingsway seethed. There was this sense of containment, like a sound stage.  As an indication of the military buildup in Malta since the beginning of the  Suez crisis, there overflowed into the street a choppy sea of green Commando  berets, laced with the white and blue of naval uniforms. The Ark Royal was  in, and corvettes, and troop carriers to take the Marines to Egypt to occupy  and hold.

"Now I was on an AKA during the war," observed Pappy as they elbowed their  way along Kingsway, "and just before D-day it was like this:"

"Oh they was getting drunk in Yoko too, back during Korea," said Clyde,  defensive.

"Not like that was, or like this either. The Limeys have a way of getting  drunk just before they have to go off and fight. Not like we get drunk. All  we do is puke, or break furniture. But the Limeys show imagination. Listen."

All it was was an English ruddy-faced jarhead and his Maltese girl, standing  in the entrance to a men's clothing store and looking at silk scarves. But  they were singing People Will Say We're In Love, from Oklahoma.

Overhead bombers screamed away toward Egypt. On some street corners  trinket-stalls were set up, and doing a peak trade in good-luck charms and  Maltese lace.

"Lace," said Fat Clyde. "What is it about lace."

"To make you think about a girl. Even if you don't have a girl, it's better  somehow if you . . ." He trailed off. Fat Clyde didn't try to keep the  subject alive.

From a Phillips Radio store to their left, news broadcasts were going full  blast. Little tense knot, of civilians stood around, just listening. Nearby  at a newspaper kiosk, red scare headlines proclaimed BRITISH INTEND TO MOVE  INTO SUED "Parliament," said the newscaster, "after an emergency session,  issued a resolution late this afternoon calling for the engagement of  airborne troops in the Suez crisis. The paratroopers, based on Cyprus and  Malta, are on one-hour alert."

"Oboy, oboy," said Fat Clyde wearily.

"High and dry," said Pappy Hod, "and the only ship in the Sixth Fleet  getting liberty." All the others were off in the Eastern Mediterranean  evacuating American nationals from the Egyptian mainland. Abruptly Pappy cut  round a corner to the left. He'd gone about ten steps down the hill when he  noticed Fat Clyde wasn't there.

"Where are you going," Fat Clyde yelled from the corner.

"The Gut," said Pappy, "where else."

"Oh." Clyde came stumbling downhill. "I figured maybe we could wander around  the main drag a little. "

Pappy grinned: reached out and patted Clyde's beer belly. "Easy there,  mother Clyde," he said. "Old Hod is doing all right."

I'm just trying to be helpful, Clyde thought. But: "Yes," he agreed, "I am  pregnant with a baby elephant. You want to see its trunk?"

Pappy guffawed and they roistered away down the hill. There is nothing like  old jokes. It's a kind of stability about them: familiar ground.

Strait Street - the Gut - was crowded as Kingsway but more poorly lit. First  familiar face they saw was Leman the red-headed water-king, who came reeling  out the swinging doors of a pub called the Four Aces, minus a white hat.  Leman was a bad drunk, so Pappy and Clyde ducked down behind a patted palm  in front to watch. Sure enough, Leman started searching in the gutter, bent  over at a 90 degree angle. "Rocks," whispered Clyde. "He always looks for  rocks." The water-king found a rock and prepared to heave it through the  front window of the Four Aces. The U. S. Cavalry, in the form of one  Tourneur, the ship's barber, arrived also by way of the swinging doors and  grabbed Leman's arm. The two fell to the street and began wrestling around  in the dust. A passing band of British Marines looked at them curiously for  a moment, then went by, laughing, a little embarrassed.

"See," said Pappy, getting philosophical. "Richest country in the world and  we never learned how to throw a good-bye drunk like the Limeys."

"But it's not good-bye for us," said Clyde.

"Who knows. There's revolutions in Hungary and Poland, fighting in Egypt."  Pause. "And Jayne Mansfield is getting married."

"She can't, she can't. She said she'd wait for me."

They entered the Four Aces. It was early yet and no one but a few  low-tolerance drunks like Leman were causing any commotion. They sat at a  table. "Guinness stout," said Pappy and the words fell on Clyde like a  nostalgic sandbag. He wanted to say, Pappy it is not the old days and why  didn't you stay on board the Scaffold boat because a boring liberty is  better for me than one that hurts, and this hurts more all the time.

The barmaid who brought their drinks was new: at least Clyde didn't remember  her from last cruise. But one across the room, jitterbugging with one of  Pappy's strikers, she'd been around. And though Paola's bar had been the  Metro, further on down the street, this girl - Elisa? - knew through the  barmaids' grapevine that Pappy had married one of her own. If only Clyde  could keep him away from the Metropole. If only Elisa didn't spot them.

But the music stopped, she saw them, headed over. Clyde concentrated on his  beer. Pappy smiled at Elisa.

"How's your wife?" she asked, of course.

"I hope she's well."

Elisa, bless her heart, dropped it. "You want to dance? Nobody broke your  record yet. Twenty-two straight."

Nimble Pappy was on his feet. "Let's set a new one."

Good, thought Clyde: good. After a while who should come over but LtJG  Johnny Contango, the Scaffold's damage-control assistant, in civvies.

"When we going to get the screw fixed, Johnny?"

Johnny because this officer had been a white hat sent to OCS, and having  been then faced with the usual two alternatives - to persecute those of his  former estate or to keep fraternizing and to hell with the wardroom - had  chosen the latter. He had gone possibly overboard on this, at least running  afoul of the Book at every turn: stealing a motorcycle in Barcelona,  inciting an impromptu mass midnight swim at Fleet Landing in the Piraeus.  Somehow - maybe because of Captain Lych's fondness for incorrigibles - he'd  escaped court-martial.

"I am feeling more and more guilty about the screw," said Johnny Contango.  "I have just slipped off from a stuffy do over at the British Officers'  Club. You know what the big joke is? 'Let's have another drink, old boy,  before we have to go to war with each other.' "

"I don't get it," said Fat Clyde.

"We voted in the Security Council with Russia and against England and France  on this Suez Business."

"Pappy says the Limeys are going to kidnap us."

"I don't know."

"What about the screw?"

"Drink your beer, Fat Clyde." Johnny Contango felt guilty about the mangled  ship's propeller not so much in a world-political way. It was personal guilt  which, Fat Clyde suspected upset him more than he showed. He'd been OOD. the  midwatch old Scaffold boat had hit whatever it was - submerged wreck, oil  drum - going through the Straits of Messina. Radar gang had been too busy  keeping tabs on a fleet of night Fishing boats who'd chosen the same route  to notice the object - if it had protruded above the surface at all. Set,  and drift, and pure accident had brought them here to get a screw fixed. God  knew what the Med had brought into Johnny Contango's path. The report had  called it "hostile marine life," and there'd been much raillery since about  the mysterious screw-chewing fish, but Johnny still felt it was his fault.  The Navy would rather blame something alive - preferably human and with a  service number - than pure accident. Fish? Mermaid? Scylla, Charybdis, wha.  Who knew how many female monsters this Med harbored?

"Bwaagghh."

"Pinguez, I'll bet," Johnny said without looking around.

"Yup. All over his blues." The owner had materialized and stood now  truculent over Pinguez, steward's mate striker, hollering "SP, SP," with no  results. Pinguez sat on the floor afflicted with the dry heaves.

"Poor Pinguez," Johnny said. "He's an early one."

Out on the floor Pappy was up to about a dozen and showed no signs of  stopping.

"We ought to get him into a cab," Fat Clyde said.

"Where is Baby Face." Falange the snipe, and Pinguez's buddy. Pinguez now  lay sprawled among the legs of a table, and had begun talking to himself in  Filipino. A bartender approached with something dark in a glass that fizzed.  Baby Face Falange, wearing as was his wont a babushka, joined the group  around Pinguez. A number of British sailors looked on with interest.

"Here, you drink it," the bartender said. Pinguez lifted his head and moved  it, mouth open, toward the bartender's hand. Bartender got the message and  jerked his hand away: Pinguez's shiny teeth closed on the air with a loud  snap. Johnny Contango knelt by the steward.

"Andale, man," he said gently, raising Pinguez's head. Pinguez bit him on  the arm. "Let go," just as quiet. "It's a Hathaway shirt, I don't want no  cabron puking on it."

"Falange!" Pinguez screamed, drawing out the a's.

"You hear that," said Baby Face. "That's all he has to say on the  quarterdeck and my ass has had it."

Johnny took Pinguez under the arms; Fat Clyde, more nervous, lifted his  feet. They bore him to the street, found a cab, and got him off in it.

"Back to the great gray mother," said Johnny. "Come on. You want to try the  Union Jack?"

"I should keep an eye on Poppy. You know."

"I know. But he'll be busy dancing."

"As long as he doesn't get to the Metro," said Fat Clyde. They strolled down  half a block to the Union Jack. Inside Antoine Zippo, captain of the second  division head, and Nasty Chobb the baker, who periodically used salt in  place of sugar in the early morning's pies to discourage thieves, had taken  over not only the bandstand in back but also a trumpet and guitar  respectively; and were now making Route 66, respectfully.

"Sort of quiet," said Johnny Contango. But this was premature because sly  young Sam Mannaro, the corpsman striker, was even now sneaking alum into  Antoine's beer which sat uneyed by Antoine on the piano.

"SP's will be busy tonight," said Johnny. "How come Pappy came over at all?"

"I never had that happen to me, that way," Clyde said, a little brusque.

"Sorry. I was thinking today in the rain how it was I could light a  king-sized cigarette without getting it wet."

"Oh I think he should have stayed on board," said Clyde, "but all we can do  is keep an eye out that window."

"Right ho," said Johnny Contango, slurping beer.

A scream from the street. "That's tonight's," said Johnny. "Or one of  tonight's."

"Bad street."

"Back during the beginning of all this in July the Gut ran one killing a  night. Average. God knows what it is now."

In came two Commandos, looking around for somewhere to sit. They picked  Clyde and Johnny's table.

David and Maurice their names were, and heading off for Egypt tomorrow.

"We shall be there," said Maurice, "to wave hello when you people come  steaming in."

"If ever," said Johnny.

"World's going to hell," said David. They'd been drinking heavily but held  it well.

"Don't expect to hear from us till the election is over," said Johnny.

"Oh is that it then."

"Why America is sitting on its ass," brooded Johnny, "is the same reason our  ship is sitting on its ass. Crosscurrents, seismic movements, unknown things  in the night. But you can't help thinking it's somebody's fault."

"The jolly, jolly balloon," said Maurice. "Going up."

"Did you hear a bloke got murdered just as we came in." David leaned  forward, melodramatic.

"More blokes than that will get murdered in Egypt," said Maurice, "and don't  I wish they would truss up a few M.P.'s now, in those jumping rigs and  chutes. Send them out the door. They're the ones who want it. Not us.

"But my brother is on Cyprus and I shall never live it down if he gets there  first."

The Commandos outdrank them two-for-one. Johnny, never having talked to  anyone who might be dead inside a week, was curious in a macabre way. Clyde,  who had, only felt unhappy.

The group on the stand had moved from Route 66 to Every Day I Have the  Blues. Antoine Zippo, who had wrecked one jugular vein last year with a  shore-based Navy band in Norfolk and was now trying for two, took a break,  shook the spit out of his horn and reached for the beer on the piano. He  looked hot and sweaty, as a suicidal workhorse trumpet should. Alum however  being what it is, the predictable occurred.

"Ech," said Antoine Zippo, slamming the beer down on the piano. He looked  around, belligerent. His lip had just been attacked. "Sam the werewolf,"  said Antoine, "is the only sumbitch here who could get alum." He couldn't  talk too well.

"There goes Pappy," said Clyde, grabbing for his hat. Antoine Zippo leaped  like a puma from the stand, landing feet first on Sam Mannaro's table.

David turned to Maurice. "I wish the Yanks would save their energy for  Nasser."

"Still," said Maurice, "it would be good practice."

"I heartily agree," pip-pipped David in a toff's voice: "Shall we, old man?"

Bung ho. The two Commandos waded into the growing melee about Sam.

Clyde and Johnny were the only two heading for the door. Everybody else  wanted to get in on the fight. It took them five minutes to reach the  street. Behind them they heard glass breaking and chairs being knocked over.  Pappy Hod was nowhere in sight.

Clyde hung his head. "I suppose we ought to go to the Metro." They took  their time, neither savoring the night's work ahead. Pappy was a loud and  merciless drunk. He demanded that his keepers sympathize and of course they  always did, so much that it was always worse for them.

They passed an alley. Facing them on the blank wall, in chalk, was a Kilroy,  thus:

[picture missing]

flanked by two of the most common British sentiments in time of crisis: WOT  NO PETROL and END CALL-UP.

"No petrol, indeed," said Johnny Contango. "They're blowing up oil  refineries all over the Middle East." Nasser it seems having gone on the  radio, urging a sort of economic jihad.

Kilroy was possibly the only objective onlooker in Valletta that night.  Common legend had it he'd been born in the U.S. right before the war, on a  fence or latrine wall. Later he showed up everywhere the American armies  moved: farmhouses in France, pillboxes in North Africa, bulkheads of troop  ships in the Pacific. Somehow he'd acquired the reputation of a schlemihl or  sad sack. The foolish nose hanging over the wall was vulnerable to all  manner of indignities: fist, shrapnel, machete. Hinting perhaps at a  precarious virility, a flirting with castration, though ideas like this are  inevitable in a latrine-oriented (as well as Freudian) psychology.

But it was all deception. Kilroy by 1940 was already bald, middle-aged. His  true origins forgotten, he was able to ingratiate himself with a human  world, keeping schlemihl-silence about what he'd been as a curly-haired  youth. It was a masterful disguise: a metaphor. For Kilroy had sprung into  life, in truth, as part of a band-pass filter, thus:

[picture missing]

Inanimate. But Grandmaster of Valletta tonight.

"The Bobbsey Twins," said Clyde. Running around the corner in a jog trot  came Dahoud (who'd discouraged little Ploy from taking a Brody) and Leroy  Tongue the widget storekeeper, both of them with night sticks and SP  armbands. It looked like a vaudeville act, Dahoud being one and a half times  as high as Leroy. Clyde had a general idea of their technique for keeping  the peace. Leroy would hop up on Dahoud's shoulders piggyback and rain  pacification about the heads and shoulders of boisterous bluejackets, while  Dahoud exerted his calming influence down below.

"Look," yelled Dahoud approaching. "We can do it running." Leroy slowed down  and cut in behind his running mate. "Hup-hup-hup," said Dahoud. "YO." Sure  enough: neither of them breaking stride, up hopped Leroy, clinging to  Dahoud's big collar to ride his shoulders like a jockey.

"Giddap there, boss," Leroy screamed, and away they dashed for the Union  Jack. A small detachment of Marines, all in step, came marching out of a  side street. One farm lad, blond and candid-faced, counted cadence  unintelligibly. Passing Clyde and Johnny, he broke off for a moment to ask:

"Wot's all that noise we hear?"

"Fight," said Johnny. "Union Jack."

"Right ho." Back in formation, the boy ordered a column left and his charges  set course dutifully for the Union Jack.

"We're missing all the fun," whined Clyde.

"There is Poppy."

They entered the Metro. Poppy sat at a table with a barmaid who looked like  Paola but fatter and older. It was pitiful to watch. He was doing his  "Chicago" bit. They waited till it was over. The barmaid, indignant, arose  and waddled off. Poppy used the handkerchief to swab off his face which was  sweating.

"Twenty-five dances," he said as they approached. "I broke my own record."

"There is a nice fight on at the Union Jack," suggested Clyde. "Wouldn't you  like to go to it, Poppy?"

"Or how about that whorehouse the chief off the Hank that we met in  Barcelona told us about," said Johnny. "Why don't we try to find it."

Poppy shook his head. "You guys ought to know this was the only place I  wanted to come."

So they begin: these vigils. Having put up their token resistance, Clyde and  Johnny straddled chairs to either side of Poppy and settled down to drinking  as much as Poppy but staying soberer.

The Metro looked like a nobleman's pied-a-terre applied to mean purposes.  The dancing floor and bar lay up a wide curving flight of marble steps lined  with statues in niches: statues of Knights, ladies and Turks. Such was a  quality of suspended animation about them that you felt come the owl-hours,  the departure of the last sailor and the extinguishment of the last electric  light, these statues must unfreeze, step down from their pedestals, and  ascend stately to the dance floor bringing with them their own light: the  sea's phosphorescence. There to form sets and dance till sunup, utterly  silent; no music; their stone feet only just kissing the wood planks.

Along the sides of the room were great stone urns, with palms and  poincianas. On the red-carpeted dais sat a small hot-jazz band: violin,  trombone, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, piano, drums. It was a plump  middle-aged lady, playing the violin. At the moment they were playing C'est  Magnifique tailgate fashion, while a Commando six and a half feet tall  jitterbugged with two barmaids at once and tree and four friends stood  around, clapping hands, cheering, them on. It was not so much a matter of  Dick Powell, the American Singing Marine, caroling Sally and Sue, Don't Be  Blue: more a taking-on of traditional attitudes which (on suspects) must be  latent in all English germ plasm: mother loony chromosome along with  afternoon tea and respect for the Crown; where the Yanks saw novelty and an  excuse for musical comedy, the English saw history, and Sally and Sue were  only incidental.

Early tomorrow deck hands would come out in the bleaching glare of the  pier's lights and single up all lines for some of these green berets. The  night before, then, was for sentiment, larking in shadows with jolly  barmaids, another pint and another smoke in this manufactured farewell-hall;  this enlisted men's version of that great ball, the Saturday night before  Waterloo. One way you could tell which ones were going tomorrow: they left  without looking back.

Pappy got drunk, stinking drunk: and drew his two keepers into a personal  past neither wanted to investigate. They endured a step-by-step account of  the brief marriage: the presents he'd given her, the places they'd gone, the  cooking, the kindnesses. Toward the end, half of it was noise: maundering.  But they didn't ask for clarity. Didn't ask anything, not so much from  booze-tangled tongues as from a stuffiness-by-induction in the nasal  cavities. So susceptible were Fat Clyde and Johnny Contango.

But it was Cinderella liberty in Malta and though the drunk's clock slows  down it doesn't stop. "Come on," said Clyde finally, floundering afoot. "It  is about that time." Pappy smiled sadly and fell out of his chair.

"We'll go get a taxi," said John. "Carry him Home in a taxi."

"Jeez, it's late." They were the last Americans in the Metro. The English  were quietly absorbed in saying goodbye to at least this part of Valletta.  With the departure of the Scaffold boat's men all things had grown more  matter-of-fact.

Clyde and Johnny draped Pappy around them and got him down the stairs, past  the Knights' reproachful eyes and into the street. "Taxi, hey," Clyde  screamed.

"No taxis," said Johnny Contango. "All gone. God how big the stars are."

Clyde wanted to argue. "You just let me take him," he said. "You're an  officer, you can stay out all night."

"Who said I was an officer. I'm a white hat. Your brother, Pappy's brother.  Brother's keeper."

"Taxi, taxi, taxi."

"Limey's brother, everybody's brother. Who says I'm an officer. Congress.  Officer and gentlemen by act of Congress. Congress won't even go into the  Suez to help the Limeys. They're wrong about that, they're wrong about me."

"Paola," Pappy moaned and pitched forward. They grabbed him. His white hat  was long gone. His head hung and hair had fallen over his eyes.

"Pappy is going bald," said Clyde. "I never noticed."

"You never do till you're drunk."

They made their way slow and unsteady down the Gut, yelling occasionally for  a taxi. None came. The street had a silent look but was not so; not so far  away, on the hill ascending to Kingsway, they heard sharp little explosions.  And the voice of a great crowd around the next corner.

"What is it," said Johnny, "revolution?"

Better than that: it was a free-for-all among 200 Royal Commandos and maybe  30 Scaffold sailors.

Clyde and Johnny dragged Pappy round the corner and into the fringes of it.

"Oh-oh," said Johnny. The noise woke Pappy, who called for his wife. A few  dangling belts were in evidence, but no broken beer bottles or boatswain's  knives. Or none anybody could see. Or not yet. Dahoud stood against a wall,  facing 20 Commandos. By his left bicep another Kilroy looked on, with  nothing to say but WOT NO AMERICANS. Leroy Tongue must have been off  underfoot somewhere, clubbing at shins with his night stick. Something red  and sputtering came arcing through the air, landed by Johnny Contango's foot  and blew up. "Firecrackers," said Johnny, landing three feet away. Clyde had  also fled, and Pappy, unsupported, fell to the street. "Let's get him out of  here," said Johnny.

But they found their way blocked by Marines, who'd come up from behind.

"Hey Billy Eckstine," yelled the Commandos in front of Dahoud. "Billy  Eckstine! sing us a song!" A volley of firecrackers went off somewhere to  the right. Most of the fist-fighting was still concentrated in the center of  the mob. Only shoving, elbowing and curiosity at the edges. Dahoud removed  his hat, drew himself up and began to sang I Only Have Eyes for You.  Commandos were struck dumb. Somewhere down the street a police whistle blew.  Glass broke in the middle of the crowd. It sent human waves back,  concentric. A couple-three Marines staggered back and fell over Pappy, who  was still on the ground. Johnny and Clyde moved in to rescue him. A few  sailors moved in to help the fallen Marines. Unobtrusive as possible, Clyde  and Johnny lifted their charge by an arm each and sneaky-Peted away. Behind  them the Marines and sailors began scuffling with one another.

"Cops," somebody yelled. Half a dozen cherry bombs went off. Dahoud finished  his song. A number of Commandos applauded. "Now sing I Apologize."

"You mean that," Dahoud scratched his head, "that if I told a lie, if I made  you cry, forgive me?"

"Hoorah Billy Eckstine!" they cried.

"O no man," Dahoud said. "I don't apologize to nobody." Commandos squared  off. Dahoud surveyed the situation, then abruptly lifted a gigantic arm,  straight up. "All right there troopers, get in ranks now. Square away."

For some reason they shuffled into a kind of formation.

"Yeah," Dahoud grinned. "Right, FACE." So they did.

"Awright men. Let's goooo!" Down came the arm, and away they marched. In  step. Kilroy looked on deadpan. From nowhere Leroy Tongue emerged to bring  up the rear.

Clyde, Johnny and Poppy Hod struggled free of the brawl, dodged round a  corner and began the struggle up the hill to Kingsway. Halfway along,  Dahoud's detachment passed them, Dahoud counting cadence singing it like a  blues. For all anyone knew he was marching them back to the troop carriers.

A taxi pulled up next to the three. "Follow that platoon," Johnny said and  they piled in. The cab had a skylight, so of course before it reached  Kingsway three heads had appeared through the roof. As they crawled behind  the Commandos, they sang:

 Who's the little rodent

   That's getting more than me?

   F-U-C-K-E-Y Y-O-U-S-E.

A legacy from Pig Bodine, who'd watched this particular kid's program  religiously on the mess hall TV every night in port; had furnished black  clip-on ears to all the mess cooks at his own expense and composed on the  shows theme song an obscene parody of which this variation in spelling was  the most palatable part. Commandos in the rear ranks asked Johnny to teach  them the words. He did, receiving in exchange a fifth of Irish whisky when  its owner insisted he could not possibly finish it before they got under way  next morning. (To this day the bottle has remained in Johnny Contango's  possession, unopened. No one knows what he's keeping it for.)

This weird procession crept along Kingsway until intercepted by a British  cattle car or lorry. The Commandos climbed on, thanked everyone for a jolly  evening and snarled away forever. Dahoud and Leroy climbed wearily into the  cab.

"Billy Eckstine," Dahoud grinned. "Jeez."

"We got to go back," Leroy said. The driver made a U-turn and they circled  back to the scene of the free-for-all. No more than fifteen minutes had  passed; but the street was deserted. Quiet: no more firecrackers, shouts;  nothing.

"I'll be damned," said Dahoud.

"You'd think it never happened," said Leroy.

"Dockyard," Clyde instructed the driver, yawning. "Dry dock two. American  tin can with the teeth marks of a screw-chewing fish."

All the way out to the Dockyard Pappy snored.

Liberty had been expired an hour when they arrived. The two SP's bounded  past the rows of latrines and across the gangplank. Clyde and Johnny, with  Pappy in the middle, lagged.

"Now none of that was worth it," Johnny said bitterly. Two figures, fat and  slim, stood by the latrine wall.

"Come on," Clyde urged Pappy. "Few more steps."

Nasty Chobb came running by, wearing an English sailor hat with H.M.S.  Ceylon printed on the hand. The shadow-figures detached themselves from the  latrine wall and approached. Pappy tripped.

"Robert," she said. Not a question.

"Hello Pappy," said the other.

"Who zat," said Clyde.

Johnny stopped dead and Clyde's momentum carried Pappy round to face her  directly. "I'll be dipped in messhall Coffee," said Johnny.

"Poor Robert." But she said it gently, and was smiling, and had either  Johnny or Clyde been less chunk they would have bawled like children.

Pappy waggled his arms. "Go ahead," he told them, "I can stand. I'll be  along." From over on the quarterdeck Nasty Chobb was heard arguing with the  OOD. "What you mean go away," yelled Nasty.

"Your hat says H.M.S. Ceylon, Chobb."

"So."

"So what can I say? You're on the wrong ship."

"Profane," said Pappy. "You came back. I thought you would."

"I didn't," Profane said. "But she did." He went off to wait. Leaned against  a latrine wall out of earshot, looking at the Scaffold.

"Hello Paola," said Pappy. "Sahha." It means both.

"You -"

"You -" at the same time. He motioned her to talk.

"Tomorrow," she said, "you'll he hung over and probably will think this  didn't happen. That the Metro's booze sends visions as well as a big head.  But I'm real, and here, and if they restrict you -"

"I can put in a chit."

"Or send you off to Egypt or anywhere else, it should make no difference.  Because I will be back in Norfolk before you, and be there on the pier. Like  any other wife. But wait till then to kiss or even touch you."

"If I can get off?"

"I'll be gone. Let it be this way, Robert." How tired her face looked, in  the white scatter from the brow lights. "It will be better, and more the way  it should have been. You sailed a week after I left you. So a week is all  we've lost. All that's gone on since then is only a sea-story. I will sit  home in Norfolk, faithful, and spin. Spin a yarn for your coming-Home  present."

"I love you," was all he could find to say. He'd been saying it every night  to a steel bulkhead and the earthwide sea on the other side.

White hands flickered up, behind her face. "Here. In case you think tomorrow  it was a dream." Her hair fell loose. She handed him an ivory comb. Five  crucified Limeys - five Kilroys - stared briefly at Valletta's sky till he  pocketed it. "Don't lose it in a poker game. I've had it a long time."

He nodded. "We ought to be back early December."

"You'll get your good-night kiss then." She smiled, withdrew, turned, was  gone.

Pappy ambled on past the latrine without looking back. The American flag,  skewered by spotlights, fluttered limp, high over them all. Pappy began his  walk to the quarterdeck, across the long brow, hoping he'd be soberer when  he reached the other end.

 

II

 Of their dash across the Continent in a stolen Renault; Profane's one-night  sojourn in a jail near Genoa, when the police mistook him for an American  gangster; the drunk they all threw which began in Liguria and lasted well  past Naples; the dropped transmission at the outskirts of that city and the  week they spent waiting its repair in a ruined villa on Ischia, inhabited by  friends of Stencil - a monk long defrocked named Fenice who spent his time  breeding giant scorpions in marble cages once used by the Roman blood to  punish their young boy and girl concubines, and the poet Cinoglossa who had  the misfortune to be both homosexual and epileptic - wandering listlessly in  an unseasonable heat among vistas of marble fractured by earthquake, pines  blasted by lightning, sea wrinkled by a dying mistral; of their arrival in  Sicily and the difficulty with local bandits on a mountain road (from which  Stencil extricated them by telling foul Sicilian jokes and giving them  whisky); of the day-long trip from Syracuse to Valletta on the Laferla  steamer Star of Malta, during which Stencil lost $100 and a pair of  cufflinks at stud poker to a mild-faced clergyman who called himself Robin  Petitpoint; and of Paola's steadfast silence through it all, there was  little for any of them to remember. Malta alone drew them, a clenched fist  around a yo-yo string.

They came in to Valletta, cold, yawning, in the rain. They rode to  Maijstral's room neither anticipating nor remembering-outwardly, at least,  apathetic and low-keyed as the rain. Maijstral greeted them calmly. Paola  would stay with him. Stencil and Profane had planned to doss at the  Phoenicia Hotel, but at 2/8 per day the agile Robin Petitpoint had had his  effect. They settled for a lodging-house near the Harbour. "What now," said  Profane, tossing his ditty bag in a corner.

Stencil thought a long time.

"I like," Profane continued, "living off of your money. But you and Paola  conned me into coming here."

"First things first," said Stencil. The rain had stopped; he was nervous.  "See Maijstral. See Maijstral."

See Maijstral he did: but only next day, and after a morning-long argument  with the whisky bottle which the bottle lost. He walked to the room in the  ruined building through a brilliant gray afternoon. Light seemed to cling to  his shoulders like fine rain. His knees shook.

But it wasn't hard to talk to Maijstral.

"Stencil has seen your confession to Paola."

"Then you know," Maijstral said, "I only made it into this world through the  good offices of one Stencil."

Stencil hung his head. "It may have been his father."

"Making us brothers."

There was wine, which helped. Stencil yarned far into the night but with a  voice always threatening to break, as if now at last he were pleading for  his life. Maijstral kept a decorous silence, waiting patiently whenever  Stencil faltered.

Stencil sketched the entire history of V. that night and strengthened a long  suspicion. That it did add up only to the recurrence of an initial and a few  dead objects. At one point in Mondaugen's story:

"Ah," Maijstral said. "The glass eye."

"And you." Stencil mopped his forehead. "You listen like a priest."

"I have wondered." Smiling.

At the end of it:

"But Paola showed you my apologia. Who is the priest? We have heard one  another's confessions."

"Not Stencil's," Stencil insisted. "Hers."

Maijstral shrugged. "Why have you come? She is dead."

"He must know."

"I could never find that cellar again. If I could: it must be rebuilt now.  Your confirmation would lie deep."

"Too deep already," Stencil whispered. "Stencil's long over his head, you  know."

"I was lost."

"But not apt to have visions."

"Oh, real enough. You always look inside first, don't you, to find what's  missing. What gap a vision could possibly fill. I was all gap then, and  there was too wide a field to choose from."

"Yet you'd just come from -"

"I did think of Elena. Yes. Latins warp everything to the sexual anyway.  Death becomes an adulterer or rival, need arises to see one rival at least  done in . . . But I was bastardized enough, you see, before that. Too much  so to feel hatred or triumph, watching."

"Only pity. Is that what you mean? At least in what Stencil read. Read into.  How can he -"

"More a passiveness. The characteristic stillness, perhaps, of the rock.  Inertia. I'd come back - no, in - come in to the rock as far as I would."

Stencil brightened after a while and changed course. "A token. Comb, shoe,  glass eye. The children."

"I wasn't watching the children. I was watching your V. What I did see of  the children - I recognized none of the faces. No. They may have died before  the war ended or emigrated after it. Try Australia. Try the pawnbrokers and  curio shops. But as for placing a notice in the agony column: 'Anyone  participating in the disassembly of a priest -'"

"Please."

Next day, and for days after, he investigated the inventories of curio  merchants, pawnbrokers, ragmen. He returned one morning to find Paola  brewing tea on the ring for Profane, who lay bundled up in bed.

"Fever," she said. "Too much booze, too much everything back in New York. He  hasn't been eating much since we arrived. God knows where he does eat. What  the water there is like."

"I'll recover," Profane croaked. "Tough shit, Stencil."

"He says you're down on him. "

"O God," said Stencil.

The next day brought momentary encouragement to Stencil. A shopowner named  Cassar did know of an eye such as Stencil described. The girl lived in  Valletta, her husband was an auto mechanic at the garage which cared for  Cassar's Morris. He had tried every device he knew to purchase the eye, but  the foolish girl would not pant with it. A keepsake, she said.

She lived in a tenement. Stucco walls, a row of balconies on the top floor.  Light that afternoon produced a "burn" between whites and blacks: fuzzy  edges, blurrings. White was too white, black too black. Stencil's eyes hurt.  Colors were nearly absent, leaning either to white or black.

"I threw it into the sea." Hands on hips, defiant. He smiled uncertainly.  Where had Sidney's charm fled? Under the same sea, back to its owner. Light  angling through the window fell across a bowl of fruit - oranges, limes -  bleaching them and throwing the bowl's interior to black shadow. Something  was wrong with the light. Stencil felt tired, unable to pursue it  further - not just now - wanting only to leave. He left.

Profane sat in a worn flowered robe of Fausto Maijstral's, looking ghastly,  chewing on the stump of an old cigar. He glared at Stencil. Stencil ignored  him: threw himself on the bed and slept soundly for twelve hours.

He awoke at four in the morning and walked through a sea-phosphorescence to  Maijstral's. Dawn leaked in, turning the illumination conventional. Along a  mudway and up twenty steps. A light burned.

Maijstral was asleep at his table. "Don't haunt me, Stencil," he mumbled,  still dreamy and belligerent.

"Stencil is passing on the discomfort of being haunted," Stencil shivered.

They huddled over tea in chipped cups.

"She cannot be dead," Stencil said.

"One feels her in the city," he cried.

"In the city."

"In the light. It has to do with the light."

"If the soul," Maijstral ventured, "is light. Is it a presence?"

"Damn the word. Stencil's father, had he possessed imagination, might have  used it." Stencil's eyebrows puckered, as if he would cry. He weaved  irritably in his seat, blinked, fumbled for his pipe. He'd left it at the  lodginghouse. Maijstral tapped across a pack of Players.

Lighting up: "Maijstral. Stencil expresses himself like an idiot."

"But your search fascinates me."

"Did you know, he's devised a prayer. Walking about this city, to be said in  rhythm to his footsteps. Fortune, may Stencil be steady enough not to fasten  on one of these poor ruins at his own random or at any least hint from  Maijstral. Let him not roam out all Gothic some night with lantern and  shovel to exhume an hallucination, and be found by the authorities  mud-streaked and mad, and tossing meaningless clay about."

"Come, come," muttered Maijstral. "I feel uncomfortable enough, being in  this position."

Stencil drew in his breath too loudly.

"No I am not beginning to requestion. That is long done."

Beginning then Maijstral took up the study of Stencil more closely. Though  suspending judgment. He'd aged enough to know the written apologia would  only be a first step in exorcising the sense of sin that had hung with him  since '43. But this V. was surely more than a sense of sin?

Mounting crisis in the Suez, Hungary and Poland hardly touched them.  Maijstral, leery like any Maltese of the Balloon's least bobbing, was  grateful for something else - Stencil - to take his mind off the headlines.  But Stencil himself, who seemed more unaware each day (under questioning) of  what was happening in the rest of the world, reinforced Maijstral's growing  theory that V. was an obsession after all, and that such an obsession is a  hothouse: constant temperature, windless, too crowded with particolored  sports, unnatural blooms.

Stencil, returning to the lodging-house, walked into a loud argument between  Paola and Profane.

"So go," he was yelling. Something crashed against the door.

"Don't try to make up my mind for me," she yelled back. Stencil opened the  door warily, peered around and was hit in the face with a pillow. Shades  were drawn and Stencil saw only blurred figures: Profane still ducking out  of the way, Paola's arm in follow-through.

"What the hell."

Profane, crouching like a toad, flapped a newspaper at him. "My old ship is  in." All Stencil could see were the whites of his eyes. Paola was crying.

"Ah." Stencil dived for the bed. Profane had been sleeping on the floor. Let  them use that, thought spiteful Stencil; snuffled, and drifted off to sleep.

At length it occurred to him to talk with the old priest, Father Avalanche,  who according to Maijstral had been here since 1919.

The moment he entered the church he knew he'd lost again. The old priest  knelt at the communion rail: white hair above a black cassock. Too old.

Later, in the priest's house:

"God lets some of us wait, in queer backwaters," said Father Avalanche. "Do  you know how long it's been since I have shriven a murderer? At the time of  the Ghallis Tower murder last year I had hopes . . ." He maundered thus,  taking Stencil by an unwilling hand, and began to charge aimless about  thickets of memory. Stencil tried to point them toward the June  Disturbances.

"Oh I was only a young lad then, full of myth. The Knights, you know. One  cannot come to Valletta without knowing about the Knights. I still believe  -" chuckling - "as I believed then, that they roam the streets after sunset.  Somewhere. And I had only served as padre - in the actual fighting - long  enough to have illusions left about Avalanche as crusading Knight. But then  to compare the Malta that was, in 1919, to their Malta . . . You'd have to  talk, I suppose, to my predecessor here, Father Fairing. He went to America.  Though the poor old man, wherever he is, must be dead by now."

Politely as he could Stencil took leave of the old priest, plunged into the  sunlight and began to walk. There was too much adrenalin, contracting the  smooth muscle, deepening his breathing, quickening his pulse. "Stencil must  walk," he said to the street: "walk. "

Foolish Stencil: he was out of condition. He returned to his pied-a-terre  long after midnight, hardly able to stand. The room was empty.

"Clinches it," he muttered. If it were the same Fairing.

Even if it were not, could it matter? A phrase (it often happened when he  was exhausted) kept cycling round and round, preconsciously, just under the  threshold of lip and tongue movement: "Events seem to be ordered into an  ominous logic." It repeated itself automatically and Stencil improved on it  each time, placing emphasis on different words - "events _seem_"; "seem to  be _ordered_"; "_ominous_ logic" - pronouncing them differently, changing  the "tone of voice" from sepulchral to jaunty: round and round and round.  Events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic. He found paper and pencil  and began to write the sentence in varying hands and type faces. Profane  lurched in on him thus.

"Paola's back with her husband," said Profane and collapsed on the bed.  "She'll go back to the States."

"Someone," Stencil muttered, "is out of it, then." Profane groaned and  pulled blankets around him. "Look here," said Stencil. "Now, you're sick."  He crossed to Profane, felt his forehead. "High fever. Stencil must get a  doctor. What the hell were you doing out at this hour anyway."

"No." Profane flopped over, fished under the bed in his ditty bag. "APC's.  I'll sweat it out."

Neither spoke for a while but Stencil was too distraught to hold anything  in. "Profane," he said.

"Tell Paola's father. I'm only along for the ride."

Stencil began to pace. Laughed: "Stencil doesn't think he believes him any  longer." Profane rolled over laboriously and blinked at him.

"V.'s is a country of coincidence, ruled by a ministry of myth. Whose  emissaries haunt this century's, streets. Porcepic, Mondaugen, Stencil pere,  this Maijstral, Stencil fils. Could any of them create a coincidence? Only  Providence creates. If the coincidences are real then Stencil has never  encountered history at all, but something far more appalling.

"Stencil came on Father Fairing's name once, apparently by accident. Today  he came on it again, by what only could have been design."

"I wonder," said Profane, "if that was the same Father Fairing . . ."

Stencil froze, the booze jittering in his glass. While Profane, dreamy, went  on to tell of his nights with the Alligator Patrol, and how he'd hunted one  pinto beast through Fairing's Parish; cornered and killed it in a chamber  lit by some frightening radiance.

Carefully Stencil finished the whisky, cleaned out the glass with a  handkerchief, set the glass on the table. He put on his overcoat.

"You going out for a doctor," Profane said into the pillow.

"Of sorts," Stencil said.

An hour later he was at Maijstral's.

"Don't wake her," Maijstral said. "Poor child. I'd never seen her cry."

"Nor have you seen Stencil cry," said Stencil, "but you may. Ex-priest. He  has a soul possessed by the devil sleeping in his bed."

"Profane?" In an attempt at good humor: "We must get to Father A., he's a  frustrated exorcist, always complaining about the lack of excitement."

"Aren't you a frustrated exorcist?"

Maijstral frowned. "That's another Maijstral."

"She possesses him," Stencil whispered. "V."

"You are as sick."

"Please."

Maijstral opened the window and stepped out on the balcony. Valletta by  nightlight looked totally uninhabited. "No," Maijstral said, "you wouldn't  get what you wanted. What - if it were your world - would be necessary. One  would have to exorcise the city, the island, every ship's crew on that  Mediterranean. The continents, the world. Or the western part," as an  afterthought. "We are western men."

Stencil shrank at the cold air moving in through the window.

"I'm not a priest. Don't try appealing to someone you've only known in a  written confession. We do not walk ganged, Stencil, all our separate selves,  like Siamese quintuplets or more. God knows how many Stencils have chased V.  about the world."

"Fairing," Stencil croaked, "in whose Parish Stencil was shot, preceded your  Father Avalanche."

"I could have told you. Told you the name."

"But."

"Saw no advantage in making things worse."

Stencil's eyes narrowed. Maijstral turned, caught him looking cagy.

"Yes, yes. Thirteen of us rule the world in secret."

"Stencil went out of his way to bring Profane here. He should have been more  careful; he wasn't. Is it really his own extermination he's after?"

Maijstral turned smiling to him. Gestured behind his back at the ramparts of  Valletta. "Ask her," he whispered. "Ask the rock."

 

III

 Two days later Maijstral arrived at the lodging-house to find Profane lying  dead drunk and slaunchwise on the bed. Afternoon sun illuminated a swathe of  face in which every hair of a week's growth showed up separate and distinct.  Profane's mouth was open, he was snoring and drooling and apparently  enjoying himself.

Maijstral gave Profane's forehead the back of his hand: fine. The fever had  broken. But where was Stencil? No sooner asked than Maijstral saw the note.  A cubist moth, alit forever on the gross heap of Profane's beer belly.

 A shipfitter named Aquilina has intelligence of one Mme. Viola, oneiromancer and hypnotist, who passed through Valletta in 1944. The glass eye went with her. Cassar's girl lied. V. used it for an hypnotic aid. Her   destination, Stockholm. As is Stencil's. It will do for the frayed end of another clue. Dispose as you will of Profane. Stencil has no further need for any of you. Sahha.

Maijstral looked around for booze. Profane had finished everything in the  house.

"Swine."

Profane woke. "Wha."

Maijstral read him the note, Profane rolled out of bed and crawled to the  window.

"What day is it." After a while: "Paola's gone too?"

"Last night."

"Leaving me. Well. How do you dispose of me." "Lend you a fiver, to begin with."

"Lend," roared Profane. "You ought to know better."

"I'll be back," said Maijstral.

That night Profane shaved, bathed, donned suede jacket, levis and big cowboy  hat and went a-roving down Kingsway, looking for amusement. He found it in  the form of one Brenda Wigglesworth, an American WASP who attended Beaver  college and owned she said, 72 pairs of Bermuda shorts, half of which she  had brought over to Europe back around June at the beginning of a Grand Tour  which bad then held high promise. High she had remained all the way across  the Atlantic; high as the boat deck and mostly on sloe gin fizzes. The  various lifeboats of this most underelict passage east were shared by a  purser (summer job) from the academic flatlands of Jersey who gave her an  orange and black toy tiger, a Pregnancy scare (hers only) and a promise to  meet her in Amsterdam, somewhere behind the Five Flies. He'd not come: she  came to herself - or at least to the inviolable Puritan she'd show up as  come marriage and the Good life, someday soon now - in a bar's parking lot  near a canal, filled with a hundred black bicycles: her junkyard, her own  locust season. Skeletons, carapaces, no matter: her inside too was her  outside and on she went, streak-blond, far-from-frail Brenda, along the  Rhine, up and down the soft slopes of the wine districts, into the Tyrol and  out into Tuscany, all in a rented Morris whose fuel pump clicked random and  loud in times of stress; as did her camera, as did her heart.

Valletta was the end of another season and all her friends were long sailed  back to the States. She was nearly out of money. Profane couldn't help her.  She found him fascinating.

So over sloe gin fizzes for her which took tiny sweet bites out of  Maijstral's five-pound note, and beer for Benny, they talked of how it was  they had come this far and where they would go after Valletta, and it seemed  there were Beaver and the Street for them separately to return to; and both  agreed this was nowhere, but some of us do go nowhere and can con ourselves  into believing it to be somewhere: it is a kind of Talent and objections to  it are rare but even at that captious.

That night between them they established at least that the world was screwed  up. English Marines, Commandos and sailors who came by - going nowhere  also - helped them believe it. Profane saw no Scaffold sailors and decided  that since some of them must be clean-living enough to stay away from the  Gut, the Scaffold too had left. It made him sadder: as if all his Homes were  temporary and even they, inanimate, still wandering as he: for motion is  relative, and hadn't he, now, really stood there still on the sea like a  schlemihl Redeemer while that enormous malingering city and its one livable  inner space and one unconnable (therefore hi-valu) girl had all slid away  from him over a great horizon's curve comprising, from this vantage, at  once, at least one century's worth of wavelets?

"Don't be sad."

"Brenda, we're all sad."

"Benny, we are." She laughed, raucous, having a low tolerance for sloe gin.

They went back to his place and she must have left him sometime during the  night, in the dark. Profane was a heavy sleeper. He awoke alone in bed to  the sound of forenoon traffic. Maijstral sat on the table, observing a plaid  knee sock, the kind worn with Bermuda shorts, which was draped over the  electric lamp hanging from the center of the ceiling.

"I have brought wine," said Maijstral.

"Good enough."

They went out to a cafe for breakfast, about two. "I have no intention of  supporting you indefinitely," Maijstral said.

"I should get a job. Any road work in Malta?"

"They are building a grade intersection - an underground tunnel - at  Porte-des-Bombes. They also need men to plant trees along the roads."

"Road work and sewer work is all I know."

"Sewers? There's a new pumping station going up at Marsa."

"They hire aliens?"

"Possibly."

"Possibly, then."

That evening Brenda wore paisley shorts and black socks. "I write poetry,"  she announced. They were at her place, a modest hotel near the great lift.

"Oh," said Profane.

"I am the twentieth century," she read. Profane rolled away and stared at  the pattern in the rug.

"I am the ragtime and the tango; sans-serif, clean geometry. I am the  virgin's-hair whip and the cunningly detailed shackles of decadent passion.  I am every lonely railway station in every capital of Europe. I am the  Street, the fanciless buildings of government; the cafe-dansant the  clockwork figure, the jazz saxophone; the tourist-lady's hairpiece, the  fairy's rubber breasts, the traveling clock which always tells the wrong  time and chimes in different keys. I am the dead palm tree, the Negro's  dancing pumps, the dried fountain after tourist season. I am all the  appurtenances of night."

"That sounds about right," said Profane.

"I don't know." She made a paper airplane out of the poem and sailed it  across the room on strata of her own exhaled smoke. "It's a phony  college-girl poem. Things I've read for courses. Does it sound right?"

"Yes."

"You've done so much more. Boys do."

"What?"

"You've had all these fabulous experiences. I wish mine would show me  something."

"Why."

"The experience, the experience. Haven't you learned?" 

Profane didn't have to think long. "No," he said, "offhand I'd say I haven't  learned a goddamn thing."

They were quiet for a while. She said: "Let's take a walk."

Later, out in the street, near the sea steps she inexplicably took his hand  and began to run. The buildings in this part of Valletta, eleven years after  war's end, had not been rebuilt. The street, however, was level and clear.  Hand in hand with Brenda whom he'd met yesterday, Profane ran down the  street. Presently, sudden and in silence, all illumination in Valletta,  houselight and streetlight, was extinguished. Profane and Brenda continued  to run through the abruptly absolute night, momentum alone carrying them  toward the edge of Malta, and the Mediterranean beyond.

 

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