The Destructors (Student Notes)

The story is about a generation who live in East London after World War II. The children create a gang called “Wormsley Common Gang” and they want to breake the laws. Blackie is the first leader of the gang but then Trevor comes and takes the power and leadership. He starts to rule the gang. Trevor is different from others


  • well-educated
  • evil
  • has no emotions
  • comes from an upper-class society
  • his father is an architect
  • organised and planned
  • a good leader
  • diferent from other gang memebers
  • wants the revenge of the war


  • hopeless and sad
  • loves to break laws
  • old leader of the group
  • a little jealous
  • mature
  • doubtful
  • not well organised
  • not educated well
  • a good leader
  • wants the gang to be famous

Old Misery:

  • old
  • has a lot of money
  • lives in a good house
  • poor
  • kind
  • generous
  • naive
  • experienced about wars
  • hopeful
  • happy


  • young
  • respectful
  • obedient
  • innocent
  • naive
  • in abetter relationship with his family above others
  • helpful

Truck Driver:

  • naive
  • experienced about destroying(destructing)


  • after World War II
  • East London
  • everything is grey in the story
  • Wormsley Common Undergrouns Station
  • gloomy
  • dark
  • hopeless
  • 1960′s
  • A new generation has been grown up
  • important for the development of the story


  • gloomy
  • dark
  • hopeless
  • sad
  • unhappy

note: Mood and tone is same in this story!


  • Mike wants to go to the church but none of the gang members wants is. He is obedient.
  • Old Misery was thinking his house before he came in. He had no idea about the destruction.
  • Old Misery was forced to climb walls into his own garden.


  • how children affected from World War II
  • a boy comes from an upper-class society wants his revenge
  • life in East London after the war


  • Trevor’s visit to Old Misery’s house; destruction
  • Trevor’s new and good ideas at the beginning of the story; a new leader is showing up
  • Trevor’s behaviours; no emotions(“love” and “hate”)


  • T’s behaviour towards Mr. Thomas(no harm,treated well)
  • T’s attitude towards Old Misery’s BEATIFUL house(he still wants to destroy it.)
  • Truck Driver’s behaviour to the destruction(we expect him to be guilty.)


  • old generation vs. new generation
  • gang members; naivete
  • T’s leadership; power
  • everything is grey; hopeless


  • creates the tension
  • helps the reader to emphasize with the story
  • grey,ash,beatiful!
  • creates the meaning of the story

because he was living in an upper-class society before the war. He wants to take his revenge by destroying a famous house but other members just want to show the gang’s power in the story.


Revision Booklet on Katherine Mansfield by Mrs Matthews

Below is a fantastic revision booklet created by Mrs Matthews. It is a fantastic resource for students looking at Mansfield’s ‘Her First Ball’



Word find


Ladies room Drill hall Programmes Coloured flags Chaperones Gliding

Fat man Floated Steered Azaleas Mademoiselle Twinkletoes Glided

Stiffly Flying

Mrs Matthews Year 11 Short text revision part 1.


Her First Ball

Katherine Mansfield














1. Where is this story set? NewZealand
2. Perhaps Leila’s first real partner was… TheCab
3. “ It did not matter that she shared the cab with the ……….. girls and their brother. Sheridan
4. Evidence of her isolation- how many miles to get a cup of sugar?

5. Dancing takes place in the DrillHall
6. The very feminine coloured programmes pinkandsilver 7. Animal noise greatest indication of setting MorePork
8. Females to escort dancers chaperones
9. Location of Leila’s early dance lessons Missionhall

  1. Her teacher MissEccles
  2. “She floated away like a flower that is …………. into a pool”tossed
  3. “Floor’s not bad’, said the new voice. Did one always begin with

the floor? And then, ‘Were you at the ………………. On Tuesday?


  1. An ideal refreshment for the tired dancers ice
  2. Compared to the other dancers, the fat man looked


  1. Fat man’s pet name for Leila
  2. Flower that recurs often in the story

Mademoiselle Twinkletoes azaleas

Mrs Matthews Year 11 Short text revision part 1.


Her First Ball Katherine Mansfield






The Son’s Veto -Hardy (notes)


Hardy is the writer of a number of classic novels of the English Victorian era. He stopped writing novels altogether following the outcries that greeted Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895); both were judged in their day to be too explicit in their treatment of personal and social themes. Thereafter he concentrated on writing poetry.

In The Son’s Veto Sophy’s character is presented to us by concentrating on a number of telling moments in her life. The story reveals detail gradually in order to allow us to build up an impression of her. The narrator begins writing from the perspective of a man viewing the woman’s immaculate hair from behind. We hear the exchange of dialogue between son and mother in which the former rebukes the latter for her poor grammar ‘with an impatient fastidiousness that was almost harsh’. The boy’s sensitivity here will eventually lead to his veto over his mother’s wish to re-marry. The vignette of the public-school cricket match illustrates, perhaps best of all, the class consciousness at the heart of the story.

How do students respond to Hardy’s depiction of the boy who eventually becomes the ‘young smooth-shaven priest’ at the end of the story? Encourage them to consider how Hardy makes us feel sorry for the mother.

Wider reading

Encourage students to read other short stories by Thomas Hardy such as “The Withered Arm” and “Tony Kytes, the Arch-Deceiver”. They might also try novels popular at IGCSE/O Level including Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge, and poems such as ‘The Voice’ and ‘The Darkling Thrush’.

Compare with

‘The Fly in the Ointment’ by V.S. Pritchett

‘The Village Saint’ by Bessie Head

‘On Her Knees’ by Tim Winton

Online biographical and critical texts on Hardy can be found at:


Of Mice And Men Essay Example

Below is an example of an essay which recieved a Grade C – Good. The writer clearly understands the novel and themes as posed by the question. Some paragraphs are lacking in detail and the use of language also lacks sophistication, though the message conveyed is clear.

Of Mice and Men



In Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, the characters are trenchantly described as “Lonely Dreamers.” Since there was a stock crash in 1929 everyone got economically depressed. Lennie and George are two men who go to work on a ranch. They encounter many complications. Crooks one of the ranchers wanted to be equal to the others. Candy is a poor old swamper who is depressed of friends and Curley’s wife wants to be a film star but can’t, so they all suffer and therefore dream and are lonely.

 George Milton is a lonely dreamer who has a friend named Lennie Small who is very immature and George is an outcast between the ranchers. The company of Lennie makes George feel lonely and make a picture in his mind about a dream-come-true ranch. George thinks that they (Lennie and George) are the loneliest ranchers because they have no family so George tells Lennie:

“Guys like us that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place.

                                                            (Steinbeck 31-32)

Here loneliness is expressed through George, talking about the unexisting family. George has no quality conversations with someone of his own age, because Lennie is very immature. George desires a family and someone to talk to who understands.

 George Milton dream a lot. He always keeps on complaining that he had to look after Lennie but if he didn’t he could go an make fifty bucks by working in another job. He could then use the money and go buy something he likes, or go to a whore house. George was definitely dreaming because he wasn’t going to leave Lennie alone and please his own will, he tells Lennie what he feels:

“An’ when the end of the month came I would take my fifty bucks and go to a….cat house…”

(Steinbeck 145: 2000 Ed)

George was not allowed to leave Lennie, runaway and get money, it is impossible because George promised Aunt Clara and he would feel guilty to leave Lennie who doesn’t know how to handle things. George was in a very hard position.

Lennie didn’t have much of a family except George who scolds Lennie all the time. If George had a fight with Lennie then Lennie would feel very lonely and have no one to talk to. When Lennie became friendly with George then he would be very happy because he would know that he has George and George has Lennie to look after each other, so he expresses his feelings towards George:

“Because…..because I got you to look after me and, you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”

(Steinbeck 32: 2000 Ed)

Since them both had each other then Lennie didn’t feel lonely and so had someone to talk to. IT was George’s job to look after Lennie so they had to stick together.

 Lennie small has dreams like us. George thinks of having a dream garden and keeps on telling Lennie about it because Lennie wants to ‘tend the rabbits’ so he keeps on wanting to hear about the garden. He also wants to hear about what all is going to be in the garden so Lennie is imagining all of this because he won’t get the dream garden so he asks again:

“Go on; George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove.”

(Steinbeck’s 32: 2000 Ed)

Lennie really likes animals and soft things so he really wants to pet the rabbits and experience the rain in the winter while he is in his imaginary garden.

 Crooks is a very lonely man because he doesn’t have many friends and is a victim on racial prejudice. Since Crooks has no one with him he always sits up at night getting bored and not doing anything just thinking ok companionship, equality, how lonely he is, what and outcast he is and how racist others are towards him. Since he is an afro- American man and the others are white. He then expresses his feelings: 

“A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that.”

(Steinbeck 105: 2000 ed)

Since Crooks is so lonely he is really sad because he finds it very hard to make friends and act the same as the others. Crooks is now having a rough time.

 Crooks is dreaming of seeing hundreds of men walking o the ranches because there aren’t many people on the ranches anyway because no one likes the ranches. Since Crooks is always dreaming he imagines many things, so he dreams that he sees:

“I see hundreds of men bye on the road’ an on the ranches with their bindles on their back.”

       (Steinbeck 106: 2000 Ed)

I think Crooks has an imaginative mind because he is severly lonely because of his skin colour and race and what others think of him.

 Candy is one of the ranchers who  is lonely too and like George and Lennie doesn’t have any relatives with him. Even Candy doesn’t have many friends. Candy is also old so he thinks that one that he will die and leave his belongings with Lennie and George since Candy doesn’t have anyone else. Candy tells Lennie and George:

“I’d make a will an’ leave my share to you guyz in case I kick off,’ cause I ain’t got no relatives nor nothing.”

(Steinbeck 71: 2000ed)

Candy really wants to go away since he doesn’t have anybody with him. So he always thinks how unlucky he is and how deprived he is of his family.


Since Candy doesn’t have much company in the bunk house he hears Lennie and George talking about their imaginative ranch which Candy finds very nice and would like to live on a ranch like they want to. So Candy is prepared to do something in the ranch and share some property so he adds in saying:

“S’pose I went in with you guys. Tha’s three hundred am’ fifty bucks

I’d put in. I ain’t much good, but I could tend the chickens.”

(Steinbeck 87: 2000 Ed)

Candy was so upset about his life so he really dreams of doing things but can’t because it is too difficult for him, but would like to do something with others.


Curley’s wife is in a really bad shape since she has a horrible husband and no one likes her because of the way she acts and dresses, for e.g. she flirts with the ranchers, wears bright red lipstick and nail polish and so everyone wants to keep their distance from her. She only has a poor old dog to give her company since her husband is so mean to her so she complains:

“Why can’t I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely.”

(Steinbeck 122: 2000ed)

She is really upset with her life and is miserably lonely. She is one of the rejects, because of who she is. She has a bad attitude and dresses up really badly, also the way she talks is very annoying.

 Since Curley’s wife is so lonely she dreams a lot. She thinks she is so great and too thinks that she is so beautiful that she can get any guys she wants and get married or dance with him. She dreamt that she danced with her dream- come- true man and so repeated her dream:

“Nother time I met a guy, an’ he was in pitchers, went out to the

Riverside Dance Palace with him.”

(Steinbeck 124: 2000ed)

She thinks that her life is full of miseries so she desires many things

especially having a better husband and becoming a film star.

 Lennie, George, Candy and Curley’s wife are lonely dreamers. Lennie and George get a lot of ideas from dreams and so think that the dreams can come true. They think that dreams can also cause them to solve their problems. Candy is such a lonely sweeper that he thinks that his dreams will help him. Since Curley’s wife has no company she dreams and so her day goes faster. So if somebody is lonely, they dream, then their moods would improve and so they start thinking about other things. Dreaming helps a lot of people. 










Sandpiper – Orientation into the story

 Sandpiper page 371 of “Stories of ourselves”

The passage is located after the first three paragraphs at the start of the story where the narrator is describing the path outside from her house to the sea and the beach near her. The path and the sand on it is a represents destiny or fate. The narrator in the first several paragraphs also describes the beach and what she does and how she feels when she’s there. Her actions and her description shows her personality: calm and neutral. “I used to sit very still”; “I used to sit where the water rolled in… I would sit inside one of these curves… fitting my body to its contour-“.


-Romance: “twelve years ago, I met him. Eight years ago, I married him. Six years ago, I gave birth to his child.”, Sixth summer of our love”, “aglow with health and love”, “ a young couple in a glitzy commercial for life insurance…”

-Nature: “I looked out to sea… water and sand… very edge of Africa… dusty green interior, its mountains, the big sky…”

-Time:” twelve years ago… Eight years ago… six years ago… eight summers…four years… second summer… I was twenty nine. For seventeen years my body had waited…”

Setting & atmosphere

The setting is in Alexandria on a beach during summer which is shown through the repetition of the word “summer”. The repetition of the word “summer” and bright colours give a warm atmosphere/feeling for the reader: “Warm, hospitable sand…sunset along the water’s edge… pale bronze …burnt brown…aglow with health and love…”

Language & tone

The language is colloquial and 1st person although in this extract the majority of it is in third person: “sixth summer of our love- and the last of our happiness” (told in third person as it is a recount/memory) .The tone of the extract is rather melancholic where the narrator is reminiscing the beginning of her marriage. “last of our happiness…thought of those things and missed them…no great sense of loss…”


The author describes the main character in this extract as independent and calm. This is shown by the constant reference to the sea and beach, where the sea is a calm and deep (meaning empathetic) and the beach where she is ever changing and only influenced by one force/person (in this case her husband). “I looked out to sea and now I realize…I thought a lot about the water and sand…I loved her father that summer”. “The white glare, the white wall, and the white path” This quote shows she is now dry and empty carrying on with her own journey along her own path no longer heavily influenced by her husband.

The extract is about the narrator recalling her feelings for her husband and how he has impacted her life. She used to live in Scotland but now lives in Alexandria, Egypt due to the influence of her husband bringing her there on holidays. ”I tried to understand that I was on the edge, the very edge of Africa”. She reminisces the summers in Egypt where she and her husband were madly in love and the aesthetics of their relationships is obvious.  However their relationship falls apart “I thought about our life in my country, before we were married…I thought of those things and missed them-but no sense of loss”. She describes this to show a contrast or dramatic change on their relationship as the author shows at the bottom of the extract that the narrator no longer feels the same way for her husband .Where her description of the sand being “dry, solid white” gives connotations of used up or empty in contrast to the start “-darker, more brownish-beige.”

Sandpiper pg 372

Where in the story?


–          The narrator explained her marriage and lifestyle with her husband.


–           her first trip to Egypt.

–          Explains how her marriage collapsed.

–          Talked about Lucy.

Narrative structure/style

–          Episodic, some of the story is her memory while some is her present life.

–          1st person, perspective of the wife –  limited to her so the reader doesn’t know the husbands point of view or his side of the story.

–          Continuous stream of consciousness.


The narrator talks about her life in Egypt, set in her husband’s family home.

It’s her first time in Egypt and she is an outsider to their way of life and doesn’t really fit in at this point. “tomorrow I would get used to their ways”

The atmosphere is gloomy while she tries to reassure herself that she did the right thing.


There is a lot of colour imagery as the narrator describes her surrounds “black leather sofa” “yellow silk” “flowers in purple and green” “gold bangles” “gold  in her ears”            compared to when she was in Europe , which was  “white” or  “grey” at this point the narrator is still with her husband so this use of colour imagery could be seen as to say that when she was married her life was colourful and bright and happy while in the beginning when she was alone on the beach she describes the setting with only “white”

It could also be seen to be saying that, as all this colour is used to describe a Pakistani woman that the narrators life is dull and she is somewhat jealous of the other woman’s colourful life and that because this other woman accepts and embraces the culture around her she is able to be happy and more interesting in a way than the narrators life.

I should have gone” is repeated throughout the extract showing she is trying to reassure herself that her marriage was crumbling and that her husband “ was pulling away” from her and that she did the right thing in leaving him.


In this extract it is clear that the narrator feels neglected and repressed. She keeps trying to help out but they keep refusing her volunteering help and everything she does doesn’t suit their ways “what am I here for? Keep your hands nice and soft. Go and rest. What have toy to do with these things?” her husband’s family isn’t letting her help. “meals I planned never worked out” “if I tries to do the shopping the prices trebled”- nothing she does is right and fits in to their way of life. The narrator feels useless and this is clear when she says “ I lie content,  glad to be of use” just by her daughter using her as a pillow comforts the narrator and she is doing something and is at least useful to someone. The narrator knows that this will not last and eventually none of them including her daughter will not need her “so soon to come” this adds to the narrators gloom.


The theme of culture clash is evident in this extract as the narrator is unable to accept the fact that she is not needed and other family members do everything for them and she doesn’t accept or understand their ways of doing things and knows that she doesn’t fit in to their culture and life style.

Sandpiper Analysis- P374

Narrative Style

-First person narrative

-Stream of consciousness mixed with dialogue



-Set in a beach house inAlexandria,Egypt.

-The room is the woman’s safe haven. But it is also her prison as it is restricting.

-‘But then she was born here. And now she belongs.’ The woman does not feel like she belongs, but her daughter does.


-Alliteration: ‘…crunches cucumbers and carrots…’, ‘…twisting, twisting.’ ‘…bicycle bell…’, ‘Peeing, Praying and Petrol’.

-Imagery: ‘mountain of yellow grapes’

-Religious reference: ‘I can see the place where we’re going to be… in heaven.’

-Repetition: ‘I am sick… I am sick’, ‘I lie down on the bed… lying on the bed’.

-Listing: ‘vanish, slip away, recede’, ‘my inability to remember names, to follow the minutiae of politics, my struggle with his language, my need to be protected from the sun, the mosquitoes, the salads, the drinking water.’

-Metaphor of the woman’s love with her husband: ‘A fairy godmother, robbed for an instant of our belief in her magic, turns into a sad old woman, her wand into a useless stick.’

-Metaphor of life: ‘losing the intensity of its glare’.

-Tone: distant ‘his room’, hopeless ‘A lover I had and can never have again.’


-Lonely: ‘my only playmate now is Lucy’.

-Hopeless: ‘…I can never have…’

-Longing for familiarity: ‘it will always be winter there’, ‘I am sick… for home.’

-Does not know what she did wrong: ‘…but he couldn’t tell me how.’

-Her cultural boundaries keep her distant: ‘my foreignness… began to irritate him.’

-Tries to find joy in life: ‘Lying on the bed, I hold the cluster of grapes above my face, and bite one off as Romans do in films.’

-Tries to change things but unable to: ‘I breathe on the window-pane but it does not mist over.’



-Culture difference / culture shock

-Past & reality

-Relationship / love


Page 376 (last page)

Prior: The narrator was just referring to a plane incident. Throughout the story she has been looking back on her relationship with her husband.


– first person narration

– episodic narration

– narrator’s thoughts on her relationship from the perspective of who felt like an ‘outsider’ and was ‘foreign’

– ends in present tense – a variety of tenses used to show the episodic nature of the story.


“with each ebb of green water the sand loses part of itself to the sea” – the sand representing the narrator’s values and the sea representing the husband shows the new Egyptian values that the narrator has to adapt to yet each one takes a part of her own values away showing the clash of cultures.

The sea/sand/beachside is a metaphor for her life – this refers back to the beginning of the story where she is describing where here point in life is at the moment.

“But what do the waves know…? And what does the beach know…” – a comparison and a realisation that both sides did not understand each other’s values fully.

“The last of the foam was swallowed bubbling into the sand” – personification. Shows the merging of the two values being ‘swallowed’ by each other.

Language/ Tone


“My treasure, my trap

“To the edge of this continent where I live, where I almost died

Repetition: (the narrator could not forget him; this is emphasized on the fact that he was the only person she thought of during her narrow escape from death. Although there is that distance and lack of intimacy between the narrator and her husband, what they had still remains with her and is what she remembers most vividly.)

His name, his name, his name became a talisman”

– a ‘talisman’ is inscribed showing the husband has a permanent place in her life.

“My Lucy, Lucia, Lambah,”

Personification: (the sand is the narrator and the wave is the narrator’s husband – shows the dominance of the Egyptian culture versus the narrator’s own values. )

“white waves that whip it, caress it, collapse onto it , vanish into it.”

– her relationship process- first mixing of values then loving and protecting, breaking away and finally completely drifted.

“The white foam knows nothing better than these sands which wait for it, rise to it and suck it in.”

“And what does the beach know of the depths, the cold, the currents just there…”

Rhetorical Question: (as if to question life, unknowing what is to be brought upon her – relates to the fate and destiny theme)

“do you see it?”

“But do the waves know of … the scalloped edge?”

“hadn’t all that was not him been wiped out of my life?”


“My Lucy, Lucia, Lambah… Lucy. My treasure, my trap.”

The narrator’s daughter is the only reason she will stay in her marriage.

“Her skin is nut-brown, except just next to her ears where it fades to a pale cream gleaming with golden down.”

With such a detailed description, we can see that the narrator is much closer to her daughter than her husband.

“where I wait for my daughter to grow away from me…”

Although she loves her daughter and wants to stay with her, she realises that this is impossible with her distancing relationship with her husband.

“And what does the beach know of the depths, the cold, the currents just there, there – do you see it? – where the water turns a deeper blue.”

Here the beach is a metaphor of her husband. The narrator desperately wants him to “see”; to understand her and her culture.

“his name, his name, his name became a talisman”

Shows her undying love for her husband and how he gives her strength despite their drifting relationship.


Clash of cultures – “The white foam knows nothing better than those sands which wait for it, rise to it and suck it in.”

The power of love – “his name, his name, his name became a talisman”

Parent-child relationships – “My Lucy, Lucia, Lambah… Lucy. My treasure, my trap.”

Destiny/Fate – “this is what my life amounted to.”

Time/ageing/becoming more knowledgeable – “I see different things from those I saw that summer six years ago”

The Signalman by Charles Dickens

The Signal-man by Charles Dickens


“Halloa! Below there!” When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.

“Halloa! Below!”

From looking down the Line, he turned himself about again, and, raising his eyes, saw my figure high above him.

“Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you?”

He looked up at me without replying, and I looked down at him without pressing him too soon with a repetition of my idle question. Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down. When such vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, and was skimming away over the landscape, I looked down again, and saw him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.

I repeated my inquiry. After a pause, during which he seemed to regard me with fixed attention, he motioned with his rolled-up flag towards a point on my level, some two or three hundred yards distant. I called down to him, “All right!” and made for that point. There, by dint of looking closely about me, I found a rough zigzag descending path notched out, which I followed.

The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down. For these reasons, I found the way long enough to give me time to recall a singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path.

When I came down low enough upon the zigzag descent to see him again, I saw that he was standing between the rails on the way by which the train had lately passed, in an attitude as if he were waiting for me to appear. He had his left hand at his chin, and that left elbow rested on his right hand, crossed over his breast. His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped a moment, wondering at it.

I resumed my downward way, and stepping out upon the level of the railroad, and drawing nearer to him, saw that he was a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows. His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw. On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

Before he stirred, I was near enough to him to have touched him. Not even then removing his eyes from mine, he stepped back one step, and lifted his hand.

This was a lonesome post to occupy (I said), and it had riveted my attention when I looked down from up yonder. A visitor was a rarity, I should suppose; not an unwelcome rarity, I hoped? In me, he merely saw a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened interest in these great works. To such purpose I spoke to him; but I am far from sure of the terms I used; for, besides that I am not happy in opening any conversation, there was something in the man that daunted me.

He directed a most curious look towards the red light near the tunnel’s mouth, and looked all about it, as if something were missing from it, and then looked it me.

That light was part of his charge? Was it not?

He answered in a low voice,–“Don’t you know it is?”

The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.

In my turn, I stepped back. But in making the action, I detected in his eyes some latent fear of me. This put the monstrous thought to flight.

“You look at me,” I said, forcing a smile, “as if you had a dread of me.”

“I was doubtful,” he returned, “whether I had seen you before.”


He pointed to the red light he had looked at.

“There?” I said.

Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), “Yes.”

“My good fellow, what should I do there? However, be that as it may, I never was there, you may swear.”

“I think I may,” he rejoined. “Yes; I am sure I may.”

His manner cleared, like my own. He replied to my remarks with readiness, and in well-chosen words. Had he much to do there? Yes; that was to say, he had enough responsibility to bear; but exactness and watchfulness were what was required of him, and of actual work– manual labour–he had next to none. To change that signal, to trim those lights, and to turn this iron handle now and then, was all he had to do under that head. Regarding those many long and lonely hours of which I seemed to make so much, he could only say that the routine of his life had shaped itself into that form, and he had grown used to it. He had taught himself a language down here,–if only to know it by sight, and to have formed his own crude ideas of its pronunciation, could be called learning it. He had also worked at fractions and decimals, and tried a little algebra; but he was, and had been as a boy, a poor hand at figures. Was it necessary for him when on duty always to remain in that channel of damp air, and could he never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone walls? Why, that depended upon times and circumstances. Under some conditions there would be less upon the Line than under others, and the same held good as to certain hours of the day and night. In bright weather, he did choose occasions for getting a little above these lower shadows; but, being at all times liable to be called by his electric bell, and at such times listening for it with redoubled anxiety, the relief was less than I would suppose.

He took me into his box, where there was a fire, a desk for an official book in which he had to make certain entries, a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of which he had spoken. On my trusting that he would excuse the remark that he had been well educated, and (I hoped I might say without offence) perhaps educated above that station, he observed that instances of slight incongruity in such wise would rarely be found wanting among large bodies of men; that he had heard it was so in workhouses, in the police force, even in that last desperate resource, the army; and that he knew it was so, more or less, in any great railway staff. He had been, when young (if I could believe it, sitting in that hut,–he scarcely could), a student of natural philosophy, and had attended lectures; but he had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again. He had no complaint to offer about that. He had made his bed, and he lay upon it. It was far too late to make another.

All that I have here condensed he said in a quiet manner, with his grave dark regards divided between me and the fire. He threw in the word, “Sir,” from time to time, and especially when he referred to his youth,–as though to request me to understand that he claimed to be nothing but what I found him. He was several times interrupted by the little bell, and had to read off messages, and send replies. Once he had to stand without the door, and display a flag as a train passed, and make some verbal communication to the driver. In the discharge of his duties, I observed him to be remarkably exact and vigilant, breaking off his discourse at a syllable, and remaining silent until what he had to do was done.

In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.

Said I, when I rose to leave him, “You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.”

(I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.)

“I believe I used to be so,” he rejoined, in the low voice in which he had first spoken; “but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.”

He would have recalled the words if he could. He had said them, however, and I took them up quickly.

“With what? What is your trouble?”

“It is very difficult to impart, sir. It is very, very difficult to speak of. If ever you make me another visit, I will try to tell you.”

“But I expressly intend to make you another visit. Say, when shall it be?”

“I go off early in the morning, and I shall be on again at ten tomorrow night, sir.”

“I will come at eleven.”

He thanked me, and went out at the door with me. “I’ll show my white light, sir,” he said, in his peculiar low voice, “till you have found the way up. When you have found it, don’t call out! And when you are at the top, don’t call out!”

His manner seemed to make the place strike colder to me, but I said no more than, “Very well.”

“And when you come down to-morrow night, don’t call out! Let me ask you a parting question. What made you cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ to-night?”

“Heaven knows,” said I. “I cried something to that effect–”

“Not to that effect, sir. Those were the very words. I know them well.”

“Admit those were the very words. I said them, no doubt, because I saw you below.”

“For no other reason?”

“What other reason could I possibly have?”

“You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any supernatural way?”


He wished me good-night, and held up his light. I walked by the side of the down Line of rails (with a very disagreeable sensation of a train coming behind me) until I found the path. It was easier to mount than to descend, and I got back to my inn without any adventure.

Punctual to my appointment, I placed my foot on the first notch of the zigzag next night, as the distant clocks were striking eleven. He was waiting for me at the bottom, with his white light on. “I have not called out,” I said, when we came close together; “may I speak now?” “By all means, sir.” “Good-night, then, and here’s my hand.” “Good-night, sir, and here’s mine.” With that we walked side by side to his box, entered it, closed the door, and sat down by the fire.

“I have made up my mind, sir,” he began, bending forward as soon as we were seated, and speaking in a tone but a little above a whisper, “that you shall not have to ask me twice what troubles me. I took you for some one else yesterday evening. That troubles me.”

“That mistake?”

“No. That some one else.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Like me?”

“I don’t know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is waved,–violently waved. This way.”

I followed his action with my eyes, and it was the action of an arm gesticulating, with the utmost passion and vehemence, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”

“One moonlight night,” said the man, “I was sitting here, when I heard a voice cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ I started up, looked from that door, and saw this Some one else standing by the red light near the tunnel, waving as I just now showed you. The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, ‘Look out! Look out!’ And then attain, ‘Halloa! Below there! Look out!’ I caught up my lamp, turned it on red, and ran towards the figure, calling, ‘What’s wrong? What has happened? Where?’ It stood just outside the blackness of the tunnel. I advanced so close upon it that I wondered at its keeping the sleeve across its eyes. I ran right up at it, and had my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, when it was gone.”

“Into the tunnel?” said I.

“No. I ran on into the tunnel, five hundred yards. I stopped, and held my lamp above my head, and saw the figures of the measured distance, and saw the wet stains stealing down the walls and trickling through the arch. I ran out again faster than I had run in (for I had a mortal abhorrence of the place upon me), and I looked all round the red light with my own red light, and I went up the iron ladder to the gallery atop of it, and I came down again, and ran back here. I telegraphed both ways, ‘An alarm has been given. Is anything wrong?’ The answer came back, both ways, ‘All well.'”

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight; and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had become conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. “As to an imaginary cry,” said I, “do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires.”

That was all very well, he returned, after we had sat listening for a while, and he ought to know something of the wind and the wires,– he who so often passed long winter nights there, alone and watching. But he would beg to remark that he had not finished.

I asked his pardon, and he slowly added these words, touching my arm, –

“Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood.”

A disagreeable shudder crept over me, but I did my best against it. It was not to be denied, I rejoined, that this was a remarkable coincidence, calculated deeply to impress his mind. But it was unquestionable that remarkable coincidences did continually occur, and they must be taken into account in dealing with such a subject. Though to be sure I must admit, I added (for I thought I saw that he was going to bring the objection to bear upon me), men of common sense did not allow much for coincidences in making the ordinary calculations of life.

He again begged to remark that he had not finished.

I again begged his pardon for being betrayed into interruptions.

“This,” he said, again laying his hand upon my arm, and glancing over his shoulder with hollow eyes, “was just a year ago. Six or seven months passed, and I had recovered from the surprise and shock, when one morning, as the day was breaking, I, standing at the door, looked towards the red light, and saw the spectre again.” He stopped, with a fixed look at me.

“Did it cry out?”

“No. It was silent.”

“Did it wave its arm?”

“No. It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands before the face. Like this.”

Once more I followed his action with my eyes. It was an action of mourning. I have seen such an attitude in stone figures on tombs.

“Did you go up to it?”

“I came in and sat down, partly to collect my thoughts, partly because it had turned me faint. When I went to the door again, daylight was above me, and the ghost was gone.”

“But nothing followed? Nothing came of this?”

He touched me on the arm with his forefinger twice or thrice giving a ghastly nod each time:-

“That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the driver, Stop! He shut off, and put his brake on, but the train drifted past here a hundred and fifty yards or more. I ran after it, and, as I went along, heard terrible screams and cries. A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us.”

Involuntarily I pushed my chair back, as I looked from the boards at which he pointed to himself.

“True, sir. True. Precisely as it happened, so I tell it you.”

I could think of nothing to say, to any purpose, and my mouth was very dry. The wind and the wires took up the story with a long lamenting wail.

He resumed. “Now, sir, mark this, and judge how my mind is troubled. The spectre came back a week ago. Ever since, it has been there, now and again, by fits and starts.”

“At the light?”

“At the Danger-light.”

“What does it seem to do?”

He repeated, if possible with increased passion and vehemence, that former gesticulation of, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”

Then he went on. “I have no peace or rest for it. It calls to me, for many minutes together, in an agonised manner, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out!’ It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell–”

I caught at that. “Did it ring your bell yesterday evening when I was here, and you went to the door?”


“Why, see,” said I, “how your imagination misleads you. My eyes were on the bell, and my ears were open to the bell, and if I am a living man, it did NOT ring at those times. No, nor at any other time, except when it was rung in the natural course of physical things by the station communicating with you.”

He shook his head. “I have never made a mistake as to that yet, sir. I have never confused the spectre’s ring with the man’s. The ghost’s ring is a strange vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs to the eye. I don’t wonder that you failed to hear it. But I heard it.”

“And did the spectre seem to be there, when you looked out?”

“It WAS there.”‘

“Both times?”

He repeated firmly: “Both times.”

“Will you come to the door with me, and look for it now?”

He bit his under lip as though he were somewhat unwilling, but arose. I opened the door, and stood on the step, while he stood in the doorway. There was the Danger-light. There was the dismal mouth of the tunnel. There were the high, wet stone walls of the cutting. There were the stars above them.

“Do you see it?” I asked him, taking particular note of his face. His eyes were prominent and strained, but not very much more so, perhaps, than my own had been when I had directed them earnestly towards the same spot.

“No,” he answered. “It is not there.”

“Agreed,” said I.

We went in again, shut the door, and resumed our seats. I was thinking how best to improve this advantage, if it might be called one, when he took up the conversation in such a matter-of-course way, so assuming that there could be no serious question of fact between us, that I felt myself placed in the weakest of positions.

“By this time you will fully understand, sir,” he said, “that what troubles me so dreadfully is the question, What does the spectre mean?”

I was not sure, I told him, that I did fully understand.

“What is its warning against?” he said, ruminating, with his eyes on the fire, and only by times turning them on me. “What is the danger? Where is the danger? There is danger overhanging somewhere on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen. It is not to be doubted this third time, after what has gone before. But surely this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?”

He pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the drops from his heated forehead.

“If I telegraph Danger, on either side of me, or on both, I can give no reason for it,” he went on, wiping the palms of his hands. “I should get into trouble, and do no good. They would think I was mad. This is the way it would work,–Message: ‘Danger! Take care!’ Answer: ‘What Danger? Where?’ Message: ‘Don’t know. But, for God’s sake, take care!’ They would displace me. What else could they do?”

His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.

“When it first stood under the Danger-light,” he went on, putting his dark hair back from his head, and drawing his hands outward across and across his temples in an extremity of feverish distress, “why not tell me where that accident was to happen,–if it must happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted,–if it could have been averted? When on its second coming it hid its face, why not tell me, instead, ‘She is going to die. Let them keep her at home’? If it came, on those two occasions, only to show me that its warnings were true, and so to prepare me for the third, why not warn me plainly now? And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?”

When I saw him in this state, I saw that for the poor man’s sake, as well as for the public safety, what I had to do for the time was to compose his mind. Therefore, setting aside all question of reality or unreality between us, I represented to him that whoever thoroughly discharged his duty must do well, and that at least it was his comfort that he understood his duty, though he did not understand these confounding Appearances. In this effort I succeeded far better than in the attempt to reason him out of his conviction. He became calm; the occupations incidental to his post as the night advanced began to make larger demands on his attention: and I left him at two in the morning. I had offered to stay through the night, but he would not hear of it.

That I more than once looked back at the red light as I ascended the pathway, that I did not like the red light, and that I should have slept but poorly if my bed had been under it, I see no reason to conceal. Nor did I like the two sequences of the accident and the dead girl. I see no reason to conceal that either.

But what ran most in my thoughts was the consideration how ought I to act, having become the recipient of this disclosure? I had proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking, and exact; but how long might he remain so, in his state of mind? Though in a subordinate position, still he held a most important trust, and would I (for instance) like to stake my own life on the chances of his continuing to execute it with precision?

Unable to overcome a feeling that there would be something treacherous in my communicating what he had told me to his superiors in the Company, without first being plain with himself and proposing a middle course to him, I ultimately resolved to offer to accompany him (otherwise keeping his secret for the present) to the wisest medical practitioner we could hear of in those parts, and to take his opinion. A change in his time of duty would come round next night, he had apprised me, and he would be off an hour or two after sunrise, and on again soon after sunset. I had appointed to return accordingly.

Next evening was a lovely evening, and I walked out early to enjoy it. The sun was not yet quite down when I traversed the field-path near the top of the deep cutting. I would extend my walk for an hour, I said to myself, half an hour on and half an hour back, and it would then be time to go to my signal-man’s box.

Before pursuing my stroll, I stepped to the brink, and mechanically looked down, from the point from which I had first seen him. I cannot describe the thrill that seized upon me, when, close at the mouth of the tunnel, I saw the appearance of a man, with his left sleeve across his eyes, passionately waving his right arm.

The nameless horror that oppressed me passed in a moment, for in a moment I saw that this appearance of a man was a man indeed, and that there was a little group of other men, standing at a short distance, to whom he seemed to be rehearsing the gesture he made. The Danger-light was not yet lighted. Against its shaft, a little low hut, entirely new to me, had been made of some wooden supports and tarpaulin. It looked no bigger than a bed.

With an irresistible sense that something was wrong,–with a flashing self-reproachful fear that fatal mischief had come of my leaving the man there, and causing no one to be sent to overlook or correct what he did,–I descended the notched path with all the speed I could make.

“What is the matter?” I asked the men.

“Signal-man killed this morning, sir.”

“Not the man belonging to that box?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not the man I know?”

“You will recognise him, sir, if you knew him,” said the man who spoke for the others, solemnly uncovering his own head, and raising an end of the tarpaulin, “for his face is quite composed.”

“O, how did this happen, how did this happen?” I asked, turning from one to another as the hut closed in again.

“He was cut down by an engine, sir. No man in England knew his work better. But somehow he was not clear of the outer rail. It was just at broad day. He had struck the light, and had the lamp in his hand. As the engine came out of the tunnel, his back was towards her, and she cut him down. That man drove her, and was showing how it happened. Show the gentleman, Tom.”

The man, who wore a rough dark dress, stepped back to his former place at the mouth of the tunnel.

“Coming round the curve in the tunnel, sir,” he said, “I saw him at the end, like as if I saw him down a perspective-glass. There was no time to check speed, and I knew him to be very careful. As he didn’t seem to take heed of the whistle, I shut it off when we were running down upon him, and called to him as loud as I could call.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!'”

I started.

“Ah! it was a dreadful time, sir. I never left off calling to him. I put this arm before my eyes not to see, and I waved this arm to the last; but it was no use.”

Without prolonging the narrative to dwell on any one of its curious circumstances more than on any other, I may, in closing it, point out the coincidence that the warning of the Engine-Driver included, not only the words which the unfortunate Signal-man had repeated to me as haunting him, but also the words which I myself–not he–had attached, and that only in my own mind, to the gesticulation he had imitated.




Ray Bradbury’s ”There Will Come Soft Rains”

“August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) Ray Bradbury

In the living room the voice-clock sang, Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock! as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness.

Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine! In the kitchen the breakfast stove gave a hissing sigh and ejected from its warm interior eight pieces of perfectly browned toast, eight eggs sunnyside up, sixteen slices of bacon, two coffees, and two cool glasses of milk.

“Today is August 4, 2026,” said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling, “in the city of Allendale, California.” It repeated the date three times for memory’s sake. “Today is Mr. Featherstone’s birthday. Today is the anniversary of Tilita’s marriage. Insurance is payable, as are the water, gas, and light bills.”

Somewhere in the walls, relays clicked, memory tapes glided under electric eyes. Eight-one, tick-tock, eight-one o’clock, off to school, off to work, run, run, eight-one! But no doors slammed, no carpets took the soft tread of rubber heels. It was raining outside. The weather box on the front door sang quietly: “Rain, rain, go away; rubbers, raincoats for today…”

And the rain tapped on the empty house, echoing.

Outside, the garage chimed and lifted its door to reveal the waiting car. After a long wait the door swung down again.

At eight-thirty the eggs were shrivelled and the toast was like stone. An aluminium wedge scraped them into the sink, where hot water whirled them down a metal throat which digested and flushed them away to the distant sea. The dirty dishes were dropped into a hot washer and emerged twinkling dry.

Nine-fifteen, sang the clock, time to clean.

Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted. The rooms were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal. They thudded against chairs, whirling their mustached runners, kneading the rug nap, sucking gently at hidden dust. Then, like mysterious invaders, they popped into their burrows. Their pink electric eyes faded. The house was clean.

Ten o’clock. The sun came out from behind the rain. The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.

Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on woodin one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.

The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball—remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer. The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light.

Until this day, how well the house had kept its peace. How carefully it had inquired, “Who goes there? What’s the password?” and, getting no answer from lonely foxes and whining cats, it had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an old maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia. It quivered at each sound, the house did. If a sparrow brushed a window, the shade snapped up. The bird, startled, flew off! No, not even a bird must touch the house!

The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing, attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.

Twelve noon.

A dog whined, shivering, on the front porch. The front door recognized the dog voice and opened. The dog, once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores, moved in and through the house, tracking mud. Behind it whirred angry mice, angry at having to pick up mud, angry at inconvenience. For not a leaf fragment blew under the door but what the wall panels flipped open and the copper scrap rats flashed swiftly out. The offending dust, hair, or paper, seized in miniature steel jaws, was raced back to the burrows. There, down tubes which fed into the cellar, it was dropped into the sighing vent of an incinerator which sat like evil Baal in a dark corner.

The dog ran upstairs, hysterically yelping to each door, at last realizing, as the house realized, that only silence was here.

It sniffed the air and scratched the kitchen door. Behind the door, the stove was making pancakes which filled the house with a rich baked odor and the scent of maple syrup.

The dog frothed at the mouth, lying at the door, sniffing, its eyes turned to fire. It ran wildly in circles, biting at its tail, spun in a frenzy, and died. It lay in the parlor for an hour.

Two o’clock, sang a voice. Delicately sensing decay at last, the regiments of mice hummed out as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind.

Two-fifteen. The dog was gone.In the cellar, the incinerator glowed suddenly and a whirl of sparks leaped up the chimney.

Two thirty-five. Bridge tables sprouted from patio walls. Playing cards fluttered onto pads in a shower of pips. Martinis manifested on an oaken bench with egg-salad sandwiches. Music played.

But the tables were silent and the cards untouched. At four o’clock the tables folded like great butterflies back through the paneled walls.

Four-thirty. The nursery walls glowed. Animals took shape: yellow giraffes, blue lions, pink antelopes, lilac panthers cavorting in crystal substance. The walls were glass. They looked out upon color and fantasy. Hidden films docked through well-oiled sprockets, and the walls lived. The nursery floor was woven to resemble a crisp, cereal meadow. Over this ran aluminum roaches and iron crickets, and in the hot still air butterflies of delicate red tissue wavered among the sharp aroma of animal spoors! There was the sound like a great matted yellow hive of bees within a dark bellows, the lazy bumble of a purring lion. And there was the patter of okapi feet and the murmur of a fresh jungle rain, like other hoofs, falling upon the summer-starched grass. Now the walls dissolved into distances of parched weed, mile on mile, and warm endless sky. The animals drew away into thorn brakes and water holes.

It was the children’s hour. Five o’clock. The bath filled with clear hot water. Six, seven, eight o’clock. The dinner dishes manipulated like magic tricks, and in the study a click. In the metal stand opposite the hearth where a fire now blazed up warmly, a cigar popped out, half an inch of soft gray ash on it, smoking, waiting.

Nine o’clock. The beds warmed their hidden circuits, for nights were cool here.

Nine-five. A voice spoke from the study ceiling:“Mrs. McClellan, which poem would you like this evening?”The house was silent.The voice said at last, “Since you express no preference, I shall select a poem at random.” Quiet music rose to back the voice. “Sara Teasdale. As I recall, your favorite….

“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,

And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one

Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

if mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn

Would scarcely know that we were gone.”

The fire burned on the stone hearth and the cigar fell away into a mound of quiet ash on its tray. The empty chairs faced each other between the silent walls, and the music played.

At ten o’clock the house began to die.The wind blew. A failing tree bough crashed through the kitchen window. Cleaning solvent, bottled, shattered over the stove. The room was ablaze in an instant!

“Fire!” screamed a voice. The house lights flashed, water pumps shot water from the ceilings. But the solvent spread on the linoleum, licking, eating, under the kitchen door, while the voices took it up in chorus: “Fire, fire, fire!”

The house tried to save itself. Doors sprang tightly shut, but the windows were broken by the heat and the wind blew and sucked upon the fire.

The house gave ground as the fire in ten billion angry sparks moved with flaming ease from room to room and then up the stairs. While scurrying water rats squeaked from the walls, pistoled their water, and ran for more. And the wall sprays let down showers of mechanical rain.

But too late. Somewhere, sighing, a pump shrugged to a stop. The quenching rain ceased.The reserve water supply which had filled baths and washed dishes for many quiet days was gone.

The fire crackled up the stairs. It fed upon Picassos and Matisses in the upper halls, like delicacies, baking off the oily flesh, tenderly crisping the canvases into black shavings.

Now the fire lay in beds, stood in windows, changed the colors of drapes!

And then, reinforcements.

From attic trapdoors, blind robot faces peered down with faucet mouths gushing green chemical.

The fire backed off, as even an elephant must at the sight of a dead snake. Now there were twenty snakes whipping over the floor, killing the fire with a clear cold venom of green froth.

But the fire was clever. It had sent flames outside the house, up through the attic to the pumps there. An explosion! The attic brain which directed the pumps was shattered into bronze shrapnel on the beams.

The fire rushed back into every closet and felt of the clothes hung there. The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air. Help, help! Fire! Run, run! Heat snapped mirrors like the brittle winter ice. And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone. And the voices fading as the wires popped their sheathings like hot chestnuts. One, two, three, four, five voices died. In the nursery the jungle burned. Blue lions roared, purple giraffes bounded off. The panthers ran in circles, changing color, and ten million animals, running before the fire, vanished off toward a distant steaming river….

Ten more voices died. In the last instant under the fire avalanche, other choruses, oblivious, could be heard announcing the time, playing music, cutting the lawn by remote-control mower, or setting an umbrella frantically out and in the slamming and opening front door, a thousand things happening, like a clock shop when each clock strikes the hour insanely before or after the other, a scene of maniac confusion, yet unity; singing, screaming, a few last cleaning mice darting bravely out to carry the horrid ashes away! And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.

The fire burst the house and let it slam flat down, puffing out skirts of spark and smoke. In the kitchen, an instant before the rain of fire and timber, the stove could be seen making breakfasts at a psychopathic rate, ten dozen eggs, six loaves of toast, twenty dozen bacon strips, which, eaten by fire, started the stove working again, hysterically hissing!

The crash. The attic smashing into kitchen and parlor. The parlor into cellar, cellar into sub-cellar. Deep freeze, armchair, film tapes, circuits, beds, and all like skeletons thrown in a cluttered mound deep under. Smoke and silence. A great quantity of smoke.

Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:

“Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Third and Final Continent’

The Third and Final Continent
by Jhumpa Lahiri

I left India in 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of ten dollars to my name. For three weeks I sailed on the S.S. Roma, an Italian cargo vessel, in a cabin next to the ship’s engine, across the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and finally to England. I lived in London, in Finsbury Park, in a house occupied entirely by penniless Bengali bachelors like myself, at least a dozen and sometimes more, all struggling to educate and establish ourselves abroad.

I attended lectures at L.S.E. and worked at the university library to get by. We lived three or four to a room, shared a single, icy toilet, and took turns cooking pots of egg curry, which we ate with our hands on a table covered with newspapers. Apart from our jobs we had few responsibilities. On weekends we lounged barefoot in drawstring pajamas, drinking tea and smoking Rothmans, or set out to watch cricket at Lord’s. Some weekends the house was crammed with still more Bengalis, to whom we had introduced ourselves at the greengrocer, or on the Tube, and we made yet more egg curry, and played Mukesh on a Grundig reel-to-reel, and soaked our dirty dishes in the bathtub. Every now and then someone in the house moved out, to live with a woman whom his family back in Calcutta had determined he was to wed. In 1969, when I was thirty-six years old, my own marriage was arranged. Around the same time, I was offered a full-time job in America, in the processing department of a library at M.I.T. The salary was generous enough to support a wife, and I was honored to be hired by a world-famous university, and so I obtained a green card, and prepared to travel farther still.

By then I had enough money to go by plane. I flew first to Calcutta, to attend my wedding, and a week later to Boston, to begin my new job. During the flight I read “The Student Guide to North America,” for although I was no longer a student, I was on a budget all the same. I learned that Americans drove on the right side of the road, not the left, and that they called a lift an elevator and an engaged phone busy. “The pace of life in North America is different from Britain, as you will soon discover,” the guidebook informed me. “Everybody feels he must get to the top. Don’t expect an English cup of tea.” As the plane began its descent over Boston Harbor, the pilot announced the weather and the time, and that President Nixon had declared a national holiday: two American men had landed on the moon. Several passengers cheered. “God bless America!” one of them hollered. Across the aisle, I saw a woman praying.

I spent my first night at the Y.M.C.A. in Central Square, Cambridge, an inexpensive accommodation recommended by my guidebook which was within walking distance of M.I.T. The room contained a cot, a desk, and a small wooden cross on one wall. A sign on the door said that cooking was strictly forbidden. A bare window overlooked Massachusetts Avenue. Car horns, shrill and prolonged, blared one after another. Sirens and flashing lights heralded endless emergencies, and a succession of buses rumbled past, their doors opening and closing with a powerful hiss, throughout the night. The noise was constantly distracting, at times suffocating. I felt it deep in my ribs, just as I had felt the furious drone of the engine on the S.S. Roma. But there was no ship’s deck to escape to, no glittering ocean to thrill my soul, no breeze to cool my face, no one to talk to. I was too tired to pace the gloomy corridors of the Y.M.C.A. in my pajamas. Instead I sat at the desk and stared out the window. In the morning I reported to my job at the Dewey Library, a beige fortlike building by Memorial Drive. I also opened a bank account, rented a post-office box, and bought a plastic bowl and a spoon. I went to a supermarket called Purity Supreme, wandering up and down the aisles, comparing prices with those in England. In the end I bought a carton of milk and a box of cornflakes. This was my first meal in America. Even the simple chore of buying milk was new to me; in London we’d had bottles delivered each morning to our door.

In a week I had adjusted, more or less. I ate cornflakes and milk morning and night, and bought some bananas for variety, slicing them into the bowl with the edge of my spoon. I left my carton of milk on the shaded part of the windowsill, as I had seen other residents at the Y.M.C.A. do. To pass the time in the evenings I read the Boston Globe downstairs, in a spacious room with stained-glass windows. I read every article and advertisement, so that I would grow familiar with things, and when my eyes grew tired I slept. Only I did not sleep well. Each night I had to keep the window wide open; it was the only source of air in the stifling room, and the noise was intolerable. I would lie on the cot with my fingers pressed into my ears, but when I drifted off to sleep my hands fell away, and the noise of the traffic would wake me up again. Pigeon feathers drifted onto the windowsill, and one evening, when I poured milk over my cornflakes, I saw that it had soured. Nevertheless I resolved to stay at the Y.M.C.A. for six weeks, until my wife’s passport and green card were ready. Once she arrived I would have to rent a proper apartment, and from time to time I studied the classified section of the newspaper, or stopped in at the housing office at M.I.T. during my lunch break to see what was available. It was in this manner that I discovered a room for immediate occupancy, in a house on a quiet street, the listing said, for eight dollars per week. I dialled the number from a pay telephone, sorting through the coins, with which I was still unfamiliar, smaller and lighter than shillings, heavier and brighter than paisas.

“Who is speaking?” a woman demanded. Her voice was bold and clamorous.

“Yes, good afternoon, Madam. I am calling about the room for rent.”

“Harvard or Tech?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Are you from Harvard or Tech?”

Gathering that Tech referred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I replied, “I work at Dewey Library,” adding tentatively, “at Tech.”

“I only rent rooms to boys from Harvard or Tech!”

“Yes, Madam.”

I was given an address and an appointment for seven o’clock that evening. Thirty minutes before the hour I set out, my guidebook in my pocket, my breath fresh with Listerine. I turned down a street shaded with trees, perpendicular to Massachusetts Avenue. In spite of the heat I wore a coat and tie, regarding the event as I would any other interview; I had never lived in the home of a person who was not Indian. The house, surrounded by a chain-link fence, was off-white with dark-brown trim, with a tangle of forsythia bushes plastered against its front and sides. When I pressed the bell, the woman with whom I had spoken on the phone hollered from what seemed to be just the other side of the door, “One minute, please!”

Several minutes later the door was opened by a tiny, extremely old woman. A mass of snowy hair was arranged like a small sack on top of her head. As I stepped into the house she sat down on a wooden bench positioned at the bottom of a narrow carpeted staircase. Once she was settled on the bench, in a small pool of light, she peered up at me, giving me her undivided attention. She wore a long black skirt that spread like a stiff tent to the floor, and a starched white shirt edged with ruffles at the throat and cuffs. Her hands, folded together in her lap, had long pallid fingers, with swollen knuckles and tough yellow nails. Age had battered her features so that she almost resembled a man, with sharp, shrunken eyes and prominent creases on either side of her nose. Her lips, chapped and faded, had nearly disappeared, and her eyebrows were missing altogether. Nevertheless she looked fierce.

“Lock up!” she commanded. She shouted even though I stood only a few feet away. “Fasten the chain and firmly press that button on the knob! This is the first thing you shall do when you enter, is that clear?”

I locked the door as directed and examined the house. Next to the bench was a small round table, its legs fully concealed, much like the woman’s, by a skirt of lace. The table held a lamp, a transistor radio, a leather change purse with a silver clasp, and a telephone. A thick wooden cane was propped against one side. There was a parlor to my right, lined with bookcases and filled with shabby claw-footed furniture. In the corner of the parlor I saw a grand piano with its top down, piled with papers. The piano’s bench was missing; it seemed to be the one on which the woman was sitting. Somewhere in the house a clock chimed seven times.

“You’re punctual!” the woman proclaimed. “I expect you shall be so with the rent!”

“I have a letter, Madam.” In my jacket pocket was a letter from M.I.T. confirming my employment, which I had brought along to prove that I was indeed from Tech.

She stared at the letter, then handed it back to me carefully, gripping it with her fingers as if it were a plate heaped with food. She did not wear glasses, and I wondered if she’d read a word of it. “The last boy was always late! Still owes me eight dollars! Harvard boys aren’t what they used to be! Only Harvard and Tech in this house! How’s Tech, boy?”

“It is very well.”

“You checked the lock?”

“Yes, Madam.”

She unclasped her fingers, slapped the space beside her on the bench with one hand, and told me to sit down. For a moment she was silent. Then she intoned, as if she alone possessed this knowledge:

“There is an American flag on the moon!”

“Yes, Madam.” Until then I had not thought very much about the moon shot. It was in the newspaper, of course, article upon article. The astronauts had landed on the shores of the Sea of Tranquillity, I had read, travelling farther than anyone in the history of civilization. For a few hours they explored the moon’s surface. They gathered rocks in their pockets, described their surroundings (a magnificent desolation, according to one astronaut), spoke by phone to the President, and planted a flag in lunar soil. The voyage was hailed as man’s most awesome achievement.

The woman bellowed, “A flag on the moon, boy! I heard it on the radio! Isn’t that splendid?”

“Yes, Madam.”

But she was not satisfied with my reply. Instead she commanded, “Say ‘Splendid!'”

I was both baffled and somewhat insulted by the request. It reminded me of the way I was taught multiplication tables as a child, repeating after the master, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my one-room Tollygunge school. It also reminded me of my wedding, when I had repeated endless Sanskrit verses after the priest, verses I barely understood, which joined me to my wife. I said nothing.

“Say ‘Splendid!'” the woman bellowed once again.

“Splendid,” I murmured. I had to repeat the word a second time at the top of my lungs, so she could hear. I was reluctant to raise my voice to an elderly woman, but she did not appear to be offended. If anything the reply pleased her, because her next command was:

“Go see the room!”

I rose from the bench and mounted the narrow staircase. There were five doors, two on either side of an equally narrow hallway, and one at the opposite end. Only one door was open. The room contained a twin bed under a sloping ceiling, a brown oval rug, a basin with an exposed pipe, and a chest of drawers. One door led to a closet, another to a toilet and a tub. The window was open; net curtains stirred in the breeze. I lifted them away and inspected the view: a small back yard, with a few fruit trees and an empty clothesline. I was satisfied.

When I returned to the foyer the woman picked up the leather change purse on the table, opened the clasp, fished about with her fingers, and produced a key on a thin wire hoop. She informed me that there was a kitchen at the back of the house, accessible through the parlor. I was welcome to use the stove as long as I left it as I found it. Sheets and towels were provided, but keeping them clean was my own responsibility. The rent was due Friday mornings on the ledge above the piano keys. “And no lady visitors!”

“I am a married man, Madam.” It was the first time I had announced this fact to anyone.

But she had not heard. “No lady visitors!” she insisted. She introduced herself as Mrs. Croft.

My wife’s name was Mala. The marriage had been arranged by my older brother and his wife. I regarded the proposition with neither objection nor enthusiasm. It was a duty expected of me, as it was expected of every man. She was the daughter of a schoolteacher in Beleghata. I was told that she could cook, knit, embroider, sketch landscapes, and recite poems by Tagore, but these talents could not make up for the fact that she did not possess a fair complexion, and so a string of men had rejected her to her face. She was twenty-seven, an age when her parents had begun to fear that she would never marry, and so they were willing to ship their only child halfway across the world in order to save her from spinsterhood.

For five nights we shared a bed. Each of those nights, after applying cold cream and braiding her hair, she turned from me and wept; she missed her parents. Although I would be leaving the country in a few days, custom dictated that she was now a part of my household, and for the next six weeks she was to live with my brother and his wife, cooking, cleaning, serving tea and sweets to guests. I did nothing to console her. I lay on my own side of the bed, reading my guidebook by flashlight. At times I thought of the tiny room on the other side of the wall which had belonged to my mother. Now the room was practically empty; the wooden pallet on which she’d once slept was piled with trunks and old bedding. Nearly six years ago, before leaving for London, I had watched her die on that bed, had found her playing with her excrement in her final days. Before we cremated her I had cleaned each of her fingernails with a hairpin, and then, because my brother could not bear it, I had assumed the role of eldest son, and had touched the flame to her temple, to release her tormented soul to heaven.

The next morning I moved into Mrs. Croft’s house. When I unlocked the door I saw that she was sitting on the piano bench, on the same side as the previous evening. She wore the same black skirt, the same starched white blouse, and had her hands folded together the same way in her lap. She looked so much the same that I wondered if she’d spent the whole night on the bench. I put my suitcase upstairs and then headed off to work. That evening when I came home from the university, she was still there.

“Sit down, boy!” She slapped the space beside her.

I perched on the bench. I had a bag of groceries with me—more milk, more cornflakes, and more bananas, for my inspection of the kitchen earlier in the day had revealed no spare pots or pans. There were only two saucepans in the refrigerator, both containing some orange broth, and a copper kettle on the stove.

“Good evening, Madam.”

She asked me if I had checked the lock. I told her I had.

For a moment she was silent. Then suddenly she declared, with the equal measures of disbelief and delight as the night before, “There’s an American flag on the moon, boy!”

“Yes, Madam.”

“A flag on the moon! Isn’t that splendid?”

I nodded, dreading what I knew was coming. “Yes, Madam.”

“Say ‘Splendid!'”

This time I paused, looking to either side in case anyone was there to overhear me, though I knew perfectly well that the house was empty. I felt like an idiot. But it was a small enough thing to ask. “Splendid!” I cried out.

Within days it became our routine. In the mornings when I left for the library Mrs. Croft was either hidden away in her bedroom, on the other side of the staircase, or sitting on the bench, oblivious of my presence, listening to the news or classical music on the radio. But each evening when I returned the same thing happened: she slapped the bench, ordered me to sit down, declared that there was a flag on the moon, and declared that it was splendid. I said it was splendid, too, and then we sat in silence. As awkward as it was, and as endless as it felt to me then, the nightly encounter lasted only about ten minutes; inevitably she would drift off to sleep, her head falling abruptly toward her chest, leaving me free to retire to my room. By then, of course, there was no flag standing on the moon. The astronauts, I read in the paper, had seen it fall before they flew back to Earth. But I did not have the heart to tell her.

Friday morning, when my first week’s rent was due, I went to the piano in the parlor to place my money on the ledge. The piano keys were dull and discolored. When I pressed one, it made no sound at all. I had put eight dollar bills in an envelope and written Mrs. Croft’s name on the front of it. I was not in the habit of leaving money unmarked and unattended. From where I stood I could see the profile of her tent-shaped skirt in the hall. It seemed unnecessary to make her get up and walk all the way to the piano. I never saw her walking about, and assumed, from the cane propped against the round table, that she did so with difficulty. When I approached the bench she peered up at me and demanded:

“What is your business?”

“The rent, Madam.”

“On the ledge above the piano keys!”

“I have it here.” I extended the envelope toward her, but her fingers, folded together in her lap, did not budge. I bowed slightly and lowered the envelope, so that it hovered just above her hands. After a moment she accepted it, and nodded her head. That night when I came home, she did not slap the bench, but out of habit I sat beside her as usual. She asked me if I had checked the lock, but she mentioned nothing about the flag on the moon. Instead she said:

“It was very kind of you!”

“I beg your pardon, Madam?”

“Very kind of you!”

She was still holding the envelope in her hands.

On Sunday there was a knock on my door. An elderly woman introduced herself: she was Mrs. Croft’s daughter, Helen. She walked into the room and looked at each of the walls as if for signs of change, glancing at the shirts that hung in the closet, the neckties draped over the doorknob, the box of cornflakes on the chest of drawers, the dirty bowl and spoon in the basin. She was short and thickwaisted, with cropped silver hair and bright pink lipstick. She wore a sleeveless summer dress, a necklace of white plastic beads, and spectacles on a chain that hung like a swing against her chest. The backs of her legs were mapped with dark-blue veins, and her upper arms sagged like the flesh of a roasted eggplant. She told me she lived in Arlington, a town farther up Massachusetts Avenue. “I come once a week to bring Mother groceries. Has she sent you packing yet?”

“It is very well, Madam.”

“Some of the boys run screaming. But I think she likes you. You’re the first boarder she’s ever referred to as a gentleman.

“She looked at me, noticing my bare feet. (I still felt strange wearing shoes indoors, and always removed them before entering my room.) “Are you new to Boston?”

“New to America, Madam.”

“From?” She raised her eyebrows.

“I am from Calcutta, India.”

“Is that right? We had a Brazilian fellow, about a year ago. You’ll find Cambridge a very international city.”

I nodded, and began to wonder how long our conversation would last. But at that moment we heard Mrs. Croft’s electrifying voice rising up the stairs.

“You are to come downstairs immediately!”

“What is it?” Helen cried back.


I put on my shoes. Helen sighed.

I followed Helen down the staircase. She seemed to be in no hurry, and complained at one point that she had a bad knee. “Have you been walking without your cane?” Helen called out. “You know you’re not supposed to walk without that cane.” She paused, resting her hand on the bannister, and looked back at me. “She slips sometimes.”

For the first time Mrs. Croft seemed vulnerable. I pictured her on the floor in front of the bench, flat on her back, staring at the ceiling, her feet pointing in opposite directions. But when we reached the bottom of the staircase she was sitting there as usual, her hands folded together in her lap. Two grocery bags were at her feet. She did not slap the bench, or ask us to sit down. She glared.

“What is it, Mother?”

“It’s improper!”

“What’s improper?”

“It is improper for a lady and gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!”

Helen said she was sixty-eight years old, old enough to be my mother, but Mrs. Croft insisted that Helen and I speak to each other downstairs, in the parlor. She added that it was also improper for a lady of Helen’s station to reveal her age, and to wear a dress so high above the ankle.

“For your information, Mother, it’s 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?”

Mrs. Croft sniffed. “I’d have her arrested.”

Helen shook her head and picked up one of the grocery bags. I picked up the other one, and followed her through the parlor and into the kitchen. The bags were filled with cans of soup, which Helen opened up one by one with a few cranks of a can opener. She tossed the old soup into the sink, rinsed the saucepans under the tap, filled them with soup from the newly opened cans, and put them back in the refrigerator.” A few years ago she could still open the cans herself,” Helen said. “She hates that I do it for her now. But the piano killed her hands.” She put on her spectacles, glanced at the cupboards, and spotted my tea bags. “Shall we have a cup?”

I filled the kettle on the stove. “I beg your pardon, Madam. The piano?”

“She used to give lessons. For forty years. It was how she raised us after my father died.” Helen put her hands on her hips, staring at the open refrigerator. She reached into the back, pulled out a wrapped stick of butter, frowned, and tossed it into the garbage. “That ought to do it,” she said, and put the unopened cans of soup in the cupboard. I sat at the table and watched as Helen washed the dirty dishes, tied up the garbage bag, and poured boiling water into two cups. She handed one to me without milk, and sat down at the table.

“Excuse me, Madam, but is it enough?”

Helen took a sip of her tea. Her lipstick left a smiling pink stain on the rim of the cup. “Is what enough?”

“The soup in the pans. Is it enough food for Mrs. Croft?”

“She won’t eat anything else. She stopped eating solids after she turned one hundred. That was, let’s see, three years ago.”

I was mortified. I had assumed Mrs. Croft was in her eighties, perhaps as old as ninety. I had never known a person who had lived for over a century. That this person was a widow who lived alone mortified me further still. Widowhood had driven my own mother insane. My father, who worked as a clerk at the General Post Office of Calcutta, died of encephalitis when I was sixteen. My mother refused to adjust to life without him; instead she sank deeper into a world of darkness from which neither I, nor my brother, nor concerned relatives, nor psychiatric clinics on Rash Behari Avenue could save her. What pained me most was to see her so unguarded, to hear her burp after meals or expel gas in front of company without the slightest embarrassment. After my father’s death my brother abandoned his schooling and began to work in the jute mill he would eventually manage, in order to keep the household running. And so it was my job to sit by my mother’s feet and study for my exams as she counted and recounted the bracelets on her arm as if they were the beads of an abacus. We tried to keep an eye on her. Once she had wandered half naked to the tram depot before we were able to bring her inside again.

“I am happy to warm Mrs. Croft’s soup in the evenings,” I suggested. “It is no trouble.”

Helen looked at her watch, stood up, and poured the rest of her tea into the sink. “I wouldn’t if I were you. That’s the sort of thing that would kill her altogether.”

That evening, when Helen had gone and Mrs. Croft and I were alone again, I began to worry. Now that I knew how very old she was, I worried that something would happen to her in the middle of the night, or when I was out during the day. As vigorous as her voice was, and imperious as she seemed, I knew that even a scratch or a cough could kill a person that old; each day she lived, I knew, was something of a miracle. Helen didn’t seem concerned. She came and went, bringing soup for Mrs. Croft, one Sunday after the next.

In this manner the six weeks of that summer passed. I came home each evening, after my hours at the library, and spent a few minutes on the piano bench with Mrs. Croft. Some evenings I sat beside her long after she had drifted off to sleep, still in awe of how many years she had spent on this earth. At times I tried to picture the world she had been born into, in 1866—a world, I imagined, filled with women in long black skirts, and chaste conversations in the parlor. Now, when I looked at her hands with their swollen knuckles folded together in her lap, I imagined them smooth and slim, striking the piano keys. At times I came downstairs before going to sleep, to make sure she was sitting upright on the bench, or was safe in her bedroom. On Fridays I put the rent in her hands. There was nothing I could do for her beyond these simple gestures. I was not her son, and, apart from those eight dollars, I owed her nothing.

At the end of August, Mala’s passport and green card were ready. I received a telegram with her flight information; my brother’s house in Calcutta had no telephone. Around that time I also received a letter from her, written only a few days after we had parted. There was no salutation; addressing me by name would have assumed an intimacy we had not yet discovered. It contained only a few lines. “I write in English in preparation for the journey. Here I am very much lonely. I sit very cold there. Is there snow. Yours, Mala.”

I was not touched by her words. We had spent only a handful of days in each other’s company. And yet we were bound together; for six weeks she had worn an iron bangle on her wrist, and applied vermillion powder to the part in her hair, to signify to the world that she was a bride. In those six weeks I regarded her arrival as I would the arrival of a coming month, or season—something inevitable, but meaningless at the time. So little did I know her that, while details of her face sometimes rose to my memory, I could not conjure up the whole of it.

A few days after receiving the letter, as I was walking to work in the morning, I saw an Indian woman on Massachusetts Avenue, wearing a sari with its free end nearly dragging on the footpath, and pushing a child in a stroller. An American woman with a small black dog on a leash was walking to one side of her. Suddenly the dog began barking. I watched as the Indian woman, startled, stopped in her path, at which point the dog leaped up and seized the end of the sari between its teeth. The American woman scolded the dog, appeared to apologize, and walked quickly away, leaving the Indian woman to fix her sari, and quiet her crying child. She did not see me standing there, and eventually she continued on her way. Such a mishap, I realized that morning, would soon be my concern. It was my duty to take care of Mala, to welcome her and protect her. I would have to buy her her first pair of snow boots, her first winter coat. I would have to tell her which streets to avoid, which way the traffic came, tell her to wear her sari so that the free end did not drag on the footpath. A five-mile separation from her parents, I recalled with some irritation, had caused her to weep.

Unlike Mala, I was used to it all by then: used to cornflakes and milk, used to Helen’s visits, used to sitting on the bench with Mrs. Croft. The only thing I was not used to was Mala. Nevertheless I did what I had to do. I went to the housing office at M.I.T. and found a furnished apartment a few blocks away, with a double bed and a private kitchen and bath, for forty dollars a week. One last Friday I handed Mrs. Croft eight dollar bills in an envelope, brought my suitcase downstairs, and informed her that I was moving. She put my key into her change purse. The last thing she asked me to do was hand her the cane propped against the table, so that she could walk to the door and lock it behind me. “Goodbye, then,” she said, and retreated back into the house. I did not expect any display of emotion, but I was disappointed all the same. I was only a boarder, a man who paid her a bit of money and passed in and out of her home for six weeks. Compared with a century, it was no time at all.

At the airport I recognized Mala immediately. The free end of her sari did not drag on the floor, but was draped in a sign of bridal modesty over her head, just as it had draped my mother until the day my father died. Her thin brown arms were stacked with gold bracelets, a small red circle was painted on her forehead, and the edges of her feet were tinted with a decorative red dye. I did not embrace her, or kiss her, or take her hand. Instead I asked her, speaking Bengali for the first time in America, if she was hungry.

She hesitated, then nodded yes.

I told her I had prepared some egg curry at home. “What did they give you to eat on the plane?”

“I didn’t eat.”

“All the way from Calcutta?”

“The menu said oxtail soup.”

“But surely there were other items.”

“The thought of eating an ox’s tail made me lose my appetite.”

When we arrived home, Mala opened up one of her suitcases, and presented me with two pullover sweaters, both made with bright-blue wool, which she had knitted in the course of our separation, one with a V neck, the other covered with cables. I tried them on; both were tight under the arms. She had also brought me two new pairs of drawstring pajamas, a letter from my brother, and a packet of loose Darjeeling tea. I had no present for her apart from the egg curry. We sat at a bare table, staring at our plates. We ate with our hands, another thing I had not yet done in America.

“The house is nice,” she said. “Also the egg curry.” With her left hand she held the end of her sari to her chest, so it would not slip off her head.

“I don’t know many recipes.”

She nodded, peeling the skin off each of her potatoes before eating them. At one point the sari slipped to her shoulders. She readjusted it at once.”

There is no need to cover your head,” I said. “I don’t mind. It doesn’t matter here.”

She kept it covered anyway.

I waited to get used to her, to her presence at my side, at my table and in my bed, but a week later we were still strangers. I still was not used to coming home to an apartment that smelled of steamed rice, and finding that the basin in the bathroom was always wiped clean, our two toothbrushes lying side by side, a cake of Pears soap residing in the soap dish. I was not used to the fragrance of the coconut oil she rubbed every other night into her scalp, or the delicate sound her bracelets made as she moved about the apartment. In the mornings she was always awake before I was. The first morning when I came into the kitchen she had heated up the leftover sand set a plate with a spoonful of salt on its edge, assuming I would eat rice for breakfast, as most Bengali husbands did. I told her cereal would do, and the next morning when I came into the kitchen she had already poured the cornflakes into my bowl. One morning she walked with me to M.I.T., where I gave her a short tour of the campus. The next morning before I left for work she asked me for a few dollars. I parted with them reluctantly, but I knew that this, too, was now normal. When I came home from work there was a potato peeler in the kitchen drawer, and a tablecloth on the table, and chicken curry made with fresh garlic and ginger on the stove. After dinner I read the newspaper, while Mala sat at the kitchen table, working on a cardigan for herself with more of the blue wool, or writing letters home.

On Friday, I suggested going out. Mala set down her knitting and disappeared into the bathroom. When she emerged I regretted the suggestion; she had put on a silk sari and extra bracelets, and coiled her hair with a flattering side part on top of her head. She was prepared as if for a party, or at the very least for the cinema, but I had no such destination in mind. The evening was balmy. We walked several blocks down Massachusetts Avenue, looking into the windows of restaurants and shops. Then, without thinking, I led her down the quiet street where for so many nights I had walked alone.

“This is where I lived before you came,” I said, stopping at Mrs. Croft’s chain-link fence.

“In such a big house?”

“I had a small room upstairs. At the back.”

“Who else lives there?”

“A very old woman.”

“With her family?”


“But who takes care of her?”

I opened the gate. “For the most part she takes care of herself.”

I wondered if Mrs. Croft would remember me; I wondered if she had a new boarder to sit with her each evening. When I pressed the bell I expected the same long wait as that day of our first meeting, when I did not have a key. But this time the door was opened almost immediately, by Helen. Mrs. Croft was not sitting on the bench. The bench was gone.

“Hello there,” Helen said, smiling with her bright pink lips at Mala. “Mother’s in the parlor. Will you be visiting awhile?”

“As you wish, Madam.”

“Then I think I’ll run to the store, if you don’t mind. She had a little accident. We can’t leave her alone these days, not even for a minute.”

I locked the door after Helen and walked into the parlor. Mrs. Croft was lying flat on her back, her head on a peach-colored cushion, a thin white quilt spread over her body. Her hands were folded together on her chest. When she saw me she pointed at the sofa, and told me to sit down. I took my place as directed, but Mala wandered over to the piano and sat on the bench, which was now positioned where it belonged.

“I broke my hip!” Mrs. Croft announced, as if no time had passed.

“Oh dear, Madam.”

“I fell off the bench!”

“I am so sorry, Madam.”

“It was the middle of the night! Do you know what I did, boy?”

I shook my head.

“I called the police!”

She stared up at the ceiling and grinned sedately, exposing a crowded row of long gray teeth. “What do you say to that, boy?”

As stunned as I was, I knew what I had to say. With no hesitation at all, I cried out, “Splendid!”

Mala laughed then. Her voice was full of kindness, her eyes bright with amusement. I had never heard her laugh before, and it was loud enough so that Mrs. Croft heard, too. She turned to Mala and glared.

“Who is she, boy?”

“She is my wife, Madam.”

Mrs. Croft pressed her head at an angle against the cushion to get a better look. “Can you play the piano?”

“No, Madam,” Mala replied.

“Then stand up!”

Mala rose to her feet, adjusting the end of her sari over her head and holding it to her chest, and, for the first time since her arrival, I felt sympathy. I remembered my first days in London, learning how to take the Tube to Russell Square, riding an escalator for the first time, unable to understand that when the man cried “piper” it meant”paper,” unable to decipher, for a whole year, that the conductor said “Mind the gap” as the train pulled away from each station. Like me, Mala had travelled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no reason other than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death would affect me, and stranger still, that mine would affect her. I wanted somehow to explain this to Mrs. Croft, who was still scrutinizing Mala from top to toe with what seemed to be placid disdain. I wondered if Mrs. Croft had ever seen a woman in a sari, with a dot painted on her forehead and bracelets stacked on her wrists. I wondered what she would object to. I wondered if she could see the red dye still vivid on Mala’s feet, all but obscured by the bottom edge of her sari. At last Mrs. Croft declared, with the equal measures of disbelief and delight I knew well:

“She is a perfect lady!”

Now it was I who laughed. I did so quietly, and Mrs. Croft did not hear me. But Mala had heard, and, for the first time, we looked at each other and smiled.

I like to think of that moment in Mrs. Croft’s parlor as the moment when the distance between Mala and me began to lessen. Although we were not yet fully in love, I like to think of the months that followed as a honeymoon of sorts. Together we explored the city and met other Bengalis, some of whom are still friends today. We discovered that a man named Bill sold fresh fish on Prospect Street, and that a shop in Harvard Square called Cardullo’s sold bay leaves and cloves. In the evenings we walked to the Charles River to watch sailboats drift across the water, or had ice-cream cones in Harvard Yard. We bought a camera with which to document our life together, and I took pictures of her posing in front of the Prudential Building, so that she could send them to her parents. At night we kissed, shy at first but quickly bold, and discovered pleasure and solace in each other’s arms. I told her about my voyage on the S.S. Roma, and about Finsbury Park and the Y.M.C.A., and my evenings on the bench with Mrs. Croft. When I told her stories about my mother, she wept. It was Mala who consoled me when, reading the Globe one evening, I came across Mrs. Croft’s obituary. I had not thought of her in several months—by then those six weeks of the summer were already a remote interlude in my past—but when I learned of her death I was stricken, so much so that when Mala looked up from her knitting she found me staring at the wall, unable to speak. Mrs. Croft’s was the first death I mourned in America, for hers was the first life I had admired; she had left this world at last, ancient and alone, never to return.

As for me, I have not strayed much farther. Mala and I live in a town about twenty miles from Boston, on a tree-lined street much like Mrs. Croft’s, in a house we own, with room for guests, and a garden that saves us from buying tomatoes in summer. We are American citizens now, so that we can collect Social Security when it is time. Though we visit Calcutta every few years, we have decided to grow old here. I work in a small college library. We have a son who attends Harvard University. Mala no longer drapes the end of her sari over her head, or weeps at night for her parents, but occasionally she weeps for our son. So we drive to Cambridge to visit him, or bring him home for a weekend, so that he can eat rice with us with his hands, and speak in Bengali, things we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die.

Whenever we make that drive, I always take Massachusetts Avenue, in spite of the traffic. I barely recognize the buildings now, but each time I am there I return instantly to those six weeks as if they were only the other day, and I slow down and point to Mrs. Croft’s street, saying to my son, Here was my first home in America, where I lived with a woman who was a hundred and three. “Remember?” Mala says, and smiles, amazed, as I am, that there was ever a time that we were strangers. My son always expresses his astonishment, not at Mrs.Croft’s age but at how little I paid in rent, a fact nearly as inconceivable to him as a flag on the moon was to a woman born in 1866. In my son’s eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world. In a few years he will graduate and pave his own way, alone and unprotected. But I remind myself that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong. Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.











The Lemon Orchard by Alex la Guma

The Lemon Orchard (1962)

Alex la Guma

The men came down between two long, regular rows of trees. The winter had not passed completely and there was a chill in the air; and the moon was hidden behind long, high parallels of cloud which hung like suspended streamers of dirty cotton wool in the sky. All of the men but one wore thick clothes against the coolness of the night. The night and earth was cold and damp, and the shoes of the men sank into the soil and left exact, ridged foot prints,but they could not be seen in the dark.

One of the men walked ahead holding a small cycle lantern that worked from a battery,leading the way down the avenue of trees while the others came behind in the dark. The night close around was quiet now that the crickets had stopped their small noises, but far out others that did not feel the presence of the men continued the monotonous creek-creek-creek.Somewhere, even further, a dog started barking in short high yaps, and then stopped abruptly.The men were walking through an orchard of lemons and the sharp, bitter-sweet citrus smell hung gently on the night air.

‘Do not go so fast,’ the man who brought up the rear of the party called to the man with the lantern. ‘It’s as dark as a kaffir’s soul here at the back.’ He called softly, as if the darkness demanded silence. He was a big man and wore khaki trousers and laced-up riding boots, and an old shooting jacket with leather patches on the right breast and the elbows. The shotgun was loaded. In the dark this man’s face was invisible except for a blur of shadowed hollows and lighter crags. Although he walked in the rear he was the leader of the party. The lantern-bearer slowed down for the rest to catch up with him. ‘It’s cold, too, Oom,’another man said.

‘Cold?’ the man with the shotgun asked, speaking with sarcasm. ‘Are you colder than this verdomte hotnot, here?’ And he gestured in the dark with the muzzle of the gun at the man who stumbled along in their midst and who was the only one not warmly dressed.This man wore trousers and a raincoat which they had allowed him to pull on over his pyjamas when they had taken him from his lodgings, and he shivered now with chill, clenching his teeth to prevent them from chattering. He had not been given time to tie his shoes and the metal-covered ends of the laces clicked as he moved.

‘Are you cold, hotnot?’ the man with the light jeered.The coloured man did not reply. He was afraid, but his fear was mixed with a stubbornness which forbade him to answer them. ‘He is not cold,’ the fifth man in the party said. ‘He is shivering with fear. Is it not so, hotnot?’ The coloured man said nothing, but stared ahead of himself into the half-light made by the small lantern. He could see the silhouette of the man who carried the light, but he did not want to look at the two who flanked him, the one who had complained of the cold, and the one who had spoken of his fear. They each carried a sjambok and every now and then one of them slapped a corduroyed leg with his.

‘He is dumb also,’ the one who had spoken last chuckled.

‘No, Andries. Wait a minute,’ the leader who carried the shotgun said, and they all stopped between the row of trees. The man with the lantern turned and put the light on the rest of the party.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘Wag’n oomblikkie. Wait a moment,’ the leader said, speaking with forced casualness. ‘He is not dumb. He is a slim hotnot; one of those educated bushmen. Listen, hotnot,’ he addressed the coloured man, speaking angrily now. ‘When a baas speaks to you, you answer him. Do you hear?’ The coloured man’s wrists were tied behind him with a riem and the leader brought the muzzle of the shotgun down, pressing it hard into the small of the man’s back above where the wrists met. ‘Do you hear, hotnot? Answer me or I will shoot a hole through your spine.’

The bound man felt the hard round metal of the gun muzzle through the loose raincoat and clenched his teeth. He was cold and tried to prevent himself from shivering in case it should be mistaken for cowardice. He heard the small metallic noise as the man with the gun thumbed back the hammer of the shotgun. In spite of the cold little drops of sweat began to form on his upper lip under the overnight stubble.

‘For God’s sake, don’t shoot him,’ the man with the light said, laughing a little nervously. ‘We don’t want to be involved in any murder.’

‘What are you saying, man?’ the leader asked. Now with the beam of the battery-lamp on his face the shadows in it were washed away to reveal the mass of tiny wrinkled and deep creases which covered the red-clay complexion of his face like the myriad lines which indicate rivers, streams, roads and railways on a map. They wound around the ridges of his chin and climbed the sharp range of his nose and the peaks of his chin and cheekbones, and his eyes were hard and blue like two frozen lakes.

‘This is mos a slim hotnot,’ he said again. ‘A teacher in a school for which we pay.

He lives off our sweat, and he had the audacity to be cheeky and uncivilized towards a minister of our church and no hotnot will be cheeky to a white man while I live.’

‘la, man,’ the lantern-bearer agreed. ‘But we are going to deal with him. There is no necessity to shoot him. We don’t want that kind of trouble.’ .

‘I will shoot whatever hotnot or kaffir I desire, and see me get into trouble over it. I demand respect from these donders. Let them answer when they’re spoken to.’

He jabbed the muzzle suddenly into the coloured man’s back so that he stumbled struggling to keep his balance. ‘Do you hear, jong? Did I not speak to you?’ The man who had jeered about the prisoner’s fear stepped up then, and hit him in the face, striking him on a cheekbone with the clenched fist which still held the sjambok. He was angry over the delay and wanted the man to submit so that they could proceed. ‘Listen you hotnot bastard,’ he said loudly. ‘Why don’t you answer?’

The man stumbled, caught himself and stood in the rambling shadow of one of the lemon trees. The lantern-light swung on him and he looked away from the centre of the beam. He was afraid the leader would shoot him in anger and he had no wish to die. He straightened up and looked away from them.

‘Well?’ demanded the man who had struck him.

‘Yes, baas,’ the bound man said, speaking with a mixture of dignity and contempt which was missed by those who surrounded him.

‘Yes there,’ the man with the light said. ‘You could save yourself trouble. Next time you will remember. Now let us get on.’ The lantern swung forward again and he walked ahead. The leader shoved their prisoner on with the muzzle of the shotgun, and he stumbled after the bobbing lantern with the other men on each side of him.

‘The amazing thing about it is that this bliksem should have taken the principal, and the meester of the church before the magistrate and demand payment for the hiding they gave him for being cheeky to them,’ the leader said to all in general. ‘This verdomte hotnot. I have never heard of such a thing in all my born days.’

‘Well, we will give him a better hiding,’ the man, Andries said. ‘This time we will teach him a lesson, Gom. He won’t demand damages from anybody when we’re done with him.’

‘And afterwards he won’t be seen around here again. He will pack his things and go and live in the city where they’re not so particular about the dignity of the volk. Do you hear, hotnotT

This time they were not concerned about receiving a reply but the leader went on, saying, ‘We don’t want any educated hottentots in our town.’

‘Neither black Englishmen,’ added one of the others.

The dog started barking again at the farm house which was invisible on the dark hillside at the other end of the little valley. ‘It’s that Jagter,’ the man with the lantern said. ‘I wonder what bothers him. He is a good watchdog. I offered Meneer Marais five pounds for that dog, but he won’t sell. I would like to have a dog like that. I would take great care of such a dog.’

The blackness of the night crouched over the orchard and the leaves rustled with a harsh whispering that was inconsistent with the pleasant scent of the lemons. The chill in the air had increased, and far-off the creek-creek-creek of the crickets blended into solid strips of highpitched sound. Then the moon came from behind the banks of cloud and its white light touched the leaves with wet silver, and the perfume of lemons seemed to grow stronger, as if the juice was being crushed from them.

They walked a little way further in the moonlight and the man with the lantern said, ‘This is as good a place as any, Gom.’

They had come into a wide gap in the orchard, a small amphitheatre surrounded by fragrant growth, and they all stopped within it. The moonlight clung for a while to the leaves and the angled branches, so that along their tips and edges the moisture gleamed with the quivering shine of scattered quicksilver.