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Saturday short story: In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot, by Greville Texidor

We continue our weekly series of New Zealand short stories with the title story from a posthumous new collection by Greville Texidor (1902-64). Photography by Peter Black.

Crossing the railway the road descended between blank walls of windowless warehouses and came to an end before the prison. Seen from the respectable heights of the town the castellated prison resembled the forts supplied with sets of toy soldiers. Under a sky the colour of ashes, the mock mediaeval aspect of the place still suggested a huge plaything, a joke, a fake, the ‘folly’ of some cracked and tasteless eccentric. It was neither functional nor fearful. Its facade of unnatural black, on which the absurdly large stones might have been painted, the tin toy sentry with his gun walking the ramparts, did not inspire the appropriate feeling of awe; only the uneasy horror of hoax.

The taxi man waited, staring in front of him. His manner suggested that this fare would be too distraught to ask for change. This kind of fare to the prison never did.

Perhaps he knows best, she thought. At all events I can’t make the effort necessary to break down that manner and give him a smaller tip. When she got out the driver woke from his trance. He banged the door and the taxi drove away. Overhead, on a jutting platform, the sentry with his gun walked up and down.

The big grey door had knockers and bolts of brass. It was studded with details not seen on other doors. She raised the knocker and knocked. She rang the enormous bell. A shutter slid back. ‘To see Mr Seymour,’ she said to a face through the bars. ‘Kirk Seymour. He’s in here They said I might come.’ The shutter closed. A suppliant, she faced the blind door and the theatrical grimness of the dark walls. No detail had been neglected. A veritable caricature of doom. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here, spoke with Victorian discretion in the grey silence. No wind stirred in the dead end of the street but the stones distilled a bleak, creeping cold. There was no sound but the shunting of trucks on the not so distant railway line, and the heavy steps of the sentry. He took six steps, then turned with meaningless smartness.

‘A friend are you?’ ‘His wife.’ A small door opened in the large one and she followed the turnkey across a courtyard. Inside the buildings a youth was scrubbing the floor. She apologised for making it dirty again. The youth didn’t look up.

‘Step this way please.’ The turnkey shuffled along like an old man, all the keys at his waist seeming to weigh him down. His uniform was grey drab. It was colour putrified. He had a mottled face and watery blue eyes. The kind of face that makes a pretty child and later a fine fair meaty man, till the eyes fade and the weak skin becomes permanently reddened with beer.

‘In here please.’ He switched on the sickly light in the waiting room. He seemed proud of the place. He might have made a good undertaker, she thought, or a shopwalker, but this suits him best of all. False tears oozed from his eyes. As his look glanced off her fur coat, she knew he was thinking, ‘With their fur coats!’ She knew he was proud of the effect the place had on people who got in. Once inside, fur coats or no, they could see how matters stood.

‘You may have a bit to wait.’ He smiled, the ghost of joviality. Treat them polite. That’s my little joke. ‘Take a seat please.’ He rolled the ‘please’ with saliva on his tongue, savouring the situation. Fur coats or no fur coats, lady or gent, they might be here themselves one of these fine days! Her mind muttered, ‘Only an old drunk!’ ‘What was that?’ Her lips had moved. His sagging body tautened. He bared his teeth like an ancient watchdog.

‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘The weather. The weather outside.’

Unnecessary to have said a word. It stood between them clear as a transparency on a slide. Watch your step. They might even get you certified, fur coat and all.

Furniture of the waiting room was yellow varnished. The light bulb was of minimum size. Tattered Digests neatly stacked on the table reflected the mock civility of the turnkey. A narrow window of frosted glass admitted neither light nor air. The air that seeped through the open door was dead air, cold and thick with the smell of disinfectant. Away in the distance a key ground in a lock, doors slammed, and a clatter of metal filled the building, but the steps that passed in the passage fell with a dead sound. Waiting there, eyeing the tattered Digests, she imagined that everything inside this building, enveloped in its artificial air, was dead. The movements inside the prison were not life. What it housed was kept from decay merely for hygienic reasons, preserved there by the cold and the disinfectant.

‘This way please.’

Kirk was sitting behind a wooden counter. He made to get up when she entered—a broken gesture. She moved towards the counter. ‘You have to sit down,’ he said.

The counter was wide and high. When she sat she could see only his face and his neck and shoulders bent forward. He was wearing an old flannel jacket he used to wear for gardening. She had prepared herself for the shock of seeing Kirk, of seeing him changed, terribly changed, but not for the meeting with this old jacket that used to hang on a lilac bush while he dug.

‘Well and how are you?’ he said.

‘How are you?’ she said. She tried to look him straight in the face and smile as he did, but her eyes slipped surreptitiously to the warder who sat beside him. A great expanse of uniform showed above the counter and over the uniform a fixed and yellow face. She dragged her eyes back to Kirk.

‘Oh fine,’ he said with his obstinate old smile. Kirk was dwarfed by the warder. That face must have been a foot long, she thought. Must have been? Is. I shall keep my eyes off it. ‘You look fine, Kirk,’ she said. ‘You look just the same.’

It was somehow shocking that Kirk looked still the same, sitting behind that barrier. The same? His face seemed swollen. The clear outline of his cheek was lost. But much the same. His hair the same. His eyes. But his eyes examined her searchingly, suspiciously, as if there were something in her face that he questioned.

‘It was nice of you to come,’ he said.

Funny of him to say that.

‘I wasn’t allowed to come till now,’ she said, raising her voice against the silence of the warder. ‘It wasn’t allowed because of your—’ the monstrous magnetic silence of the warder distorted the word ‘resistance’ into ‘—behaviour. I got your letter though. I brought the enema you asked for, but they told me you were receiving medical attention.’

‘I knew they wouldn’t let me have it,’ Kirk said. ‘I might have died. A lot they’d worry.’

That day after the raid. The people hurrying from shattered homes. Trailing from shop to shop among the ruins. The poor discreet distracted druggists. Not without a doctor’s certificate, madam. The rubber shortage—the Japs you know. So many demands. The hospitals, the wounded, the dying. We try to do what we can for everyone. Such agony of mind, such effort of will, so many people involved to produce the enema for the hunger striker. And at the end of that day (so many lives lost) being turned away from the prison. Standing outside the gate with the ridiculous parcel. The clumsy can breaking through wet brown paper. A lot they’d worry. The futility of it. And all the time Kirk knew they wouldn’t let him have it. It was just another trial. His will against theirs. They would refuse and the case would draw public attention to the hunger strikers.

‘When is Levinsky coming again?’ Kirk said. ‘He isn’t much of an advocate for us. Doesn’t seem to have his heart in the job. He ought to try being in here for a bit.’

‘The end of the month. There’s another man in here he has to see.’

‘That will be Green. Green was on the fast the same time as me. A pretty thoroughgoing chap Green. A resister. Not muddled up with any religious beliefs. We might be going on another fast soon. Makes you feel wonderful.’

She listened, thinking, Has he forgotten that he is speaking to me? That telling me about this will hurt me? Has he forgotten altogether that other people can be hurt?

He was still speaking about Green and she noticed how bright red and swollen his face was, as if he’d been too near a hot fire. ‘They can’t keep you here—’ but the phrase broke on the gigantic silence of the warder. ‘I mean it can’t go on forever.’

‘That’s what all the chaps are telling each other. Been telling each other for the last year or two.’

‘But the war’s over,’ she said.

‘Not with the Japs. The Japs will go on. The Japs will hold out. They’re worth ten of us.’

That was what she had always admired about Kirk—his fearlessness in argument—his readiness to take the unpopular side. But now she could see it was only a reaction. He was so conditioned to taking the ‘wrong’ side that he was feverishly standing up for the Japs.

‘They can’t,’ she said. ‘The atomic bomb. We’re blowing the whole place into the sea.’ How blustering and false her voice sounded. The warder had made her say that. She was taking the warder’s side against Kirk.

With thinning patience, ‘Much good that will do,’ Kirk said, ‘blowing everyone into the sea.’

‘It will make it end quicker,’ she said. Without ever moving her eyes away from Kirk, she could still see the face that seemed of a more rigid substance than flesh, the large mouth closed and fixed, the fixed stare of the large opaque eyes. When the pacifists talked of policemen as Gestapo, ‘You’re only making them more like it,’ she would say. ‘Gestapo is fantastic. The job makes them get to look like that. They have families at home—like us.’

In the presence of the warder it was no use. Her mind muttered: Gestapo. Fake Gestapo agent. Hollywood. But too fantastic and crude for Hollywood, the movies are a little more subtle lately.

‘We’ll be in here for a year at least,’ Kirk said.

‘Well but think about what we’ll do when you come out. John will be home soon. We’ll be able to start the cooperative farm.’

‘I don’t think your brother would be much use for a show like that. Not after six years of war. Jack Green would come in. You see, living under these conditions you get to know on whom you can rely. The ones who don’t crack up—who can take it.’

‘You used to get along well with John,’ she said. ‘You always respected each other’s opinions.’ And she wondered, But can he take it? Can he take ordinary life? Here he has nothing to live for but resistance. How can he take the world outside of here?

‘Fasting makes you feel wonderful,’ he bragged. ‘It’s the only break in this kind of boggy existence.’

‘I suppose the food is pretty rotten,’ she said.

Kirk shook his head and they both looked at the warder. He had not changed his position, but something about him had begun to creak. The large eyes had switched in their sockets and stared at her. A Rider Haggard god, she said to herself, that begins to take notice when you least expect it. I wonder if it understands at all or only responds to certain stimuli.

She started, fearing she might have said the words out loud. They would have amused Kirk.

‘We’re not allowed to talk about it,’ Kirk said. He was smiling the way he used to before the war, at their private and particular jokes.

‘Plain English cooking,’ she said, turning with an unthinking civilised gesture to include the warder in their laughter. He was staring straight at the wall opposite. No flicker of eyelid betrayed humanity. Their laughter was quenched. It was like being hit in the face with something flat and cold.

‘What’s new?’ Kirk said. As if he were humouring a child.

‘I haven’t much news for such a long visit. Oh I didn’t mean that. I mean the time element. It makes each word so important. You feel you must weigh each word like a telegram. Nothing seems important enough to say.’

‘I don’t see that.’ He was bristling for argument. ‘You can say a lot in fifteen minutes.’

So that Kirk wouldn’t talk, so that he couldn’t hurt her any more, she chattered desperately about mutual friends, wondering then if she should have mentioned names, whether she should have brought them into the prison. The innocent names. Aunt Mary, the Allinghams, seemed somehow soiled as soon as she had pronounced them. But she wanted so to share something with Kirk, something of theirs, that did not belong to this place. She revived a family joke. But they did not laugh again. The names sounded strange, the sense of the words was sucked away by the jailer’s presence. But Kirk followed the pointless story and trivial items of family news with concentration, as if he thought he might discover in them a message of real importance.

Seeing his eagerness, ‘It all seems so humdrum,’ she said. ‘Oh yes, and then about what we hoped?’

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘What do you mean?’ he said. ‘Can’t you say what you mean?’ His blue eyes blazed. ‘What are you afraid of?’

‘What we hoped. You know. What I expected. Nothing came of it. The doctor said—It doesn’t matter,’ she said. It would only have mattered if Kirk had wanted to know. Whatever I say will be wrong. It doesn’t matter what we say. The warder registers my thoughts. He registers what I am saying, and what I am thinking he registers only wrong. They were silent. Kirk lifted his hand and rubbed his forehead where his hair sprang back in a clean wide sweep. She hadn’t seen his hands under the counter. As he lifted one she could see how it shook. He held it hard to his face to keep it still. ‘How’s the garden?’ he asked.

‘The garden? The garden is lovely. Everything in the garden is lovely. We grow all the family needs and more and the gardener sells them. Such lovely vegetables—’ Kirk had loved the garden. She wanted him to think well of her gardening. But here in this place. The lovely vegetables? She was throwing the lovely vegetables in his face. She felt like a criminal.

‘Who works it?’

‘I’m doing my bit.’ (That sounded too much like Digging for Victory.) ‘I do quite a bit, and a man comes in to help, a returned soldier, such a nice chap, invalided out with war neuroses.’

‘A lot of them will come out like that,’ he said. ‘Wrecked. Never be good for anything ever again. Shell shock they call it.’

‘Some kind of shock. They treated him in a mental hospital and he came out cured. They call it cured. Like this.’ She lifted her hand and wobbled it painfully to show Kirk how unsteady the returned man was. Her hand fell suddenly and she looked at the warder. There was warning in his silence. Something wrong. What have I done now? It was wrong. Then she forgot the warder, remembering Kirk. His hand shakes, too. He topples from reasonable words into a senseless rage. His eyes burn. I did not think. This barrier destroys all human feelings. No more humane than this wooden god of a warder. Everything you do in this place is wrong. We are under a curse. She stared at the gloved hand on her knee. This horrible hand she had shaken for Kirk to see.

‘It’s all right,’ Kirk said. He thought she’d been scared by the warder. She raised her miserable eyes. His cheeks blazed. His whole face was a question. Even in happier days before the war, he had never looked in her eyes with a more eager scrutiny. But after a moment the interest drained from his face and he turned his head away and shook it slightly as though he would say, ‘It’s no use. I can’t guess.’

Mistaking the movement of her hand for a sign, he paid no attention to its obvious meaning. He had thought she would make a sign that he could interpret. But now his face was lifeless. The red light had left his cheeks. He shrank back in his chair.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. (What was it? Some private thing? A message from outside to another prisoner? What did he want to know? What could I have told him?)

‘You can write, Kirk.’

‘Yes you can write. They censor the letters. Mine must give them a headache.’ A beacon gleam of pride lit in his smile. The pride of the persecuted.

Without warning the warder rose. Forestalling the order Kirk was standing beside him. ‘I have to go now,’ he said. He strutted dwarfed and futile beside the tall warder. She had never thought of Kirk as a small man.

‘Cheer up, you’ll be out soon,’ she said. With the warder he moved towards the door behind the counter.

‘I don’t think so. The war can go on almost indefinitely.’ She knew now. He didn’t want the war to be over.

‘Yes, you’ll be out soon—’

He spoke across his shoulder, propelled by the warder. ‘Not under another year at least. I bet you.’

In the time it took her to reach the passage by the other door they had gone. In the empty passage there was no sign of them.

Only the clatter of keys and the clamour of metal on the dead air. She was still holding the books she had brought for him. The spirit of the place had taken her. Kirk is mad. Resistance is madness. Inside this mausoleum madness is directed against madness. She walked slowly back by the way she had come. She knew she would be watched, would be directed.

‘In here please.’ Another waiting room. With shelves and black leaded grate and a coal fire. It was like the waiting room in a stagnant station where no train would come. The official waited for her to make a request.

‘Can I leave these books for him?’

‘What are they?’

‘Just some books and gardening magazines. Can he have them?’ The official was noncommittal. ‘Leave them here.’ She put them down on the desk and waited for him to say, ‘That will be all.’

She walked without hurrying on towards the entrance hall. She was being invisibly watched, she was being directed.

Across the courtyard the turnkey hurried to meet her. ‘You’ll have to sign the book,’ he said. ‘Sign here please,’ he said with obsequious, watchful jocundity. As on a lantern slide she could see between them simple patterns of hate and fear. The pen spluttered and stuck. ‘No hurry,’ he said. ‘Take it easy, miss.’ He was in no hurry. He liked the work. It was his pleasure to watch the visitors sign. They had to give up their names whoever they were. It was just as well they should see how matters stood.

‘That’s all.’ For the present, his voice seemed to add. He touched his cap. The great door banged behind her. The fake facade spilled discreet gloom into the cold blank day. She waited, still looking along the empty road that did not appear to lead anywhere. She counted the steps of the sentry. One, two—and up to six. One, two, three— ‘Hello there!’ Out of the grey silence the sentry had called. She could see his face now looking down on her. He was quite young, was grinning. ‘Did I make you jump?’ ‘Take the first turn to the left,’ he told her. ‘That brings you out on the road. You can get the tram from there.’

‘Thanks,’ she called. ‘It’s so very kind of you. Thanks so much—’ but he’d turned and was walking away.

Taken from In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot: Selected Fiction by Greville Texidor (Victoria University Press, $30)

* Next week's short story is Refuge in the Present, by Owen Marshall

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