The Frightened Man

Chapter One

The door was made of thin panels, cheap stuff he could put his fist through. She was screaming on the other side. He hated the screams. He raised his fist and saw a knife in it, and he knew where he was then, always this place, this point in this inescapable hell. He shouted at her, meaning to quiet her, but the voice wasn’t his own, something heavy, sinister, frightening: ‘Lily! Lily!’ Her name like blows on the door. He raised his fist and the knife flashed and he

woke. The old dream. The dream more real for a few seconds than the room. He never dreamed of her any more except in this one horror, bellowing her name with a knife in his fist.

He was slumped down in his armchair, one shoulder painful, his neck with a crick in it. Sitting up, rubbing his neck, he came completely to in the present: not the young husband of a suicide but a kind of collage, pieces of him from here and there - that town, the war, the farm - the creation a paste-up of contradictions: an American in England now, a soldier who sought peace, a farmer in a heaving city, a nobody who had become a literary lion. He shook his head the way a dog shakes off water and shouted for companionship.

‘Sergeant!’

His voice disappeared into the carpets and the curtains and the padded furniture of the room, which smelled of his cigarettes, of polish, of coal, of gas, of fish that he had had for supper.

‘Sergeant! ’

He heaved himself up, grumbling, strode down the room through the arch, past the alcove where he kept a spirit stove and dishes and bottles, down to the end of the room where a turn to the left led to the stairway and the upper shadows, and to the right was the door down. He opened it, put his head through. ‘Sergeant!’

At the bottom, a door opened, a fan of green-grey gaslight widening on the floor. ‘Well, what is it?’ Then, before he could answer, ‘We’ve got a bell, you know.’

The old argument. ‘You know I don’t like to use the bell.’ He meant that he didn’t like summoning a man with a bell, but he wasn’t arguing, only going through the motions because he was grateful for another voice.

‘This ain’t a democracy, General. You pay me enough to call me with a bell, just like a dog. Plus I don’t like being shouted at, do I?’

‘You got some biscuits down there?’

‘Biscuits!’ Biscuits were, the voice said, unimaginable. In fact, Atkins was chewing something as he said it. ‘I could rustle up a biscuit, I suppose.’

‘Bring some up, will you?’

‘Cheese, too - you want cheese, I suppose.’

‘If you have it—’

‘Apples? Nice apples in the shops now. Cheese and apple, very tasty.’

‘Anything, anything.’

‘Oh, yes, my eye!’I’

Denton closed the door. He was smiling now. The sergeant’s performances always cheered him, as they were meant to. Sergeant Atkins, ex- of the Fusiliers, pretended he had missed a career in the music halls, now believed he had found it with his employer. And in fact he had; Denton had hired him for the cheeky persona. He walked back down the long, sparsely lighted room, which he no longer saw with any great interest. A year of living in it had dulled his taste for green velvet, gold fringe, dark wood, Karamans bought second-hand. The books, on the other hand - the books were another matter, his and other people’s, in ranks on either side of the bow-topped black stone fireplace, books rising to the dark cornice