Vol 1 No 2
The trees sloping inwards, and the hedge bounding the field beyond, made a triangle of green in which the pylon stood. Beyond it, fields again and then the railway embankment. Beyond the embankment more hedges making transverse lines, and then the roofs of houses bowered in trees, sloping up to the wooded hill-crest, outlined against the sky. But that was a mile, perhaps, two miles away; whereas the pylon —
There was general rejoicing when the pylon disappeared. Mummy was glad, Daddy was glad, Victor was glad and Susan was glad. The morning when it happened they all crowded to the window as if they had never seen the view before. Nor had they — the view without the pylon. Ever since they came to the house ten years ago it had been there — an eyesore, a grievance. ‘It would be such a lovely view,’ they used to say to visitors, ‘if it wasn’t for the pylon!’
Behind and between two trees it used to stand, beyond the garden and directly opposite the house. The trees should have been jealous of the pylon, but instead of masking it they framed it. Every so often Victor, the optimist, now sixteen, would say, ‘Daddy, I’m sure those branches are coming closer together! Next year, you’ll see, they’ll hide it!’ And his father would reply, as like as not, ‘They’re not growing any nearer — they’re growing farther apart! Fir trees and beech trees don’t agree, you know!’
Tree-girt it stood, the interloper, rearing its slender, tapering height against the wooded hillside, the line of which it maddeningly broke, topping with its incongruous yard-arm the ancient earthwork that crowned the hill.
Now it was gone, and in its place they saw the trees that it had hidden and, more especially, two Lombardy poplars growing so close together that if you walked a little distance, either way, they looked like one.
And Laurie, the youngest of the family, too, was glad at first, or thought he was. When he heard his parents saying to visitors, ‘Isn’t it wonderful, the pylon’s gone!’ he would echo, in a grown-up manner ill-suited to his eleven years, ‘Yes, isn’t it wonderful?’ Not that he disliked the pylon on aesthetic grounds, but he thought it was the proper thing to say.
But whereas their grievance against the pylon had been vocal for many years, their gratitude for its departure was comparatively short-lived. They would still say, ‘How marvellous without the pylon!’ but they didn’t really feel it, and after a month or two they didn’t even say it, taking their deliverance for granted, just as when an aching tooth is pulled out, one soon ceases to bless the painless cavity.
With Laurie, however, it was otherwise. Being outwardly a conformer — indeed a rather zealous conformer — he had joined in the delight his elders showed over the pylon’s downfall. He tried to gloat over the square patch of concrete, marking its site, which the demolition squad hadn’t bothered to clear away. But when he stood in front of the window, whichever window it might be — for having a southern aspect, most of the windows of the house had once looked on the pylon — and set himself to gloat, sometimes he would find his eyes straying, even shying away from, the remnant of its ruin. To the others the pylon had been an eyesore and a grievance; to him it was a landmark and a friend. How tall and proud it used to be — 117 feet high — the tallest object in the neighbourhood — taller than the hill itself, he liked to think, though his mind told him that its superior height was only a trick of the perspective.
From surveying the pylon-less gap with a lack-lustre eye it was a short step to trying to imagine it with the pylon there. And then Laurie realized that something had gone out of his life — some standard, was it, by which he had measured himself? No, not exactly that nor only that. The pylon had symbolized his coming stature, his ambitions for himself as an adult. One day his short, plump body would shoot upwards, tall and straight as the pylon was; one day his mind, that was so dense in some ways, and so full of darkness, would fine down to an aery structure that let the light in everywhere and hardly cast a shadow. He would be the bearer of an electric current, thousands of volts strong, bringing light and power to countless homes.
The pylon, then, had served him as a symbol of angelic strength. But in other moods it stood for something different, this grey-white skeleton. In meaner moods, rebellious moods, destructive moods, he had but to look at it to realize how remote it was from everything that grew, that took its nourishment from the earth and was conditioned by this common limitation. It was self-sufficient, it owed nothing to anyone. The pylon stood four-square upon the ground, but did not draw its sustenance from the ground. It was apart from Nature; the wind might blow on it, the rain might beat on it, the snow might fall on it, frost might bite it, drought might try to parch it, but it was immune, proof against the elements: even lightning could not touch it, for was it not itself in league with lightning?
And so he, Laurie, in those moods when nothing favoured him, when everyone’s hand was against him and his hand against theirs, insulated by the flawless circle of himself, he, too, enjoyed the pylon’s immunity, its power to be itself. Whatever stresses might be brought to bear on it, it didn’t care, nor, looking at it, did he, Laurie, care.
All that was over now; his companion was gone; and Laurie-the-pylon was no more.
Deprived of his second self he shrank, his imaginative life dwindled, and with it his other budding interests. An east-wind blight descended on his mind, dulling his vision, delaying his reactions. If he was spoken to, he didn’t always hear, and if he heard he didn’t always answer. ‘But you don’t listen!’ Susan would chide him, in exasperation, and his brother, who went to the same day-school, would defend him: ‘You see, he’s so tiny, his ears haven’t grown yet! They’re really little baby’s ears!’ Then Laurie would lunge out at him, and in the scuffle regain the sense of immediate contact with reality that he had lost.
His mother and father, oddly enough, took longer to notice the change in him, for he had always been more talked against than talking. In fact they might never have noticed it but for his end-of-term reports. These made them think, and one, from Laurie’s form-master, made them quite indignant.
‘I wonder what’s cover over the boy,’ Roger said, knitting his heavy brows and tapping his fingertips against his teeth. ‘He used to be the clever one. Not quick and sharp, like Victor, but thoughtful and original.’
‘I expect he’s going through a phase,’ his wife said, placidly.
‘Phase, indeed! He isn’t old enough for phases.’
‘You’d better speak to him, but if you do, be careful, darling. You know how sensitive he is.
‘Sensitive my foot! I’m much more sensitive than he is. You ought to warn him to be careful.’
‘I only meant we don’t want anything to do with Oedipus,’ his wife said.
‘You shouldn’t spoil him, then. You should be much nastier to him than you are. I’ve more reason to worry about Oedipus than you have. Laurie might marry you, O.K., but he would murder me. It’s I who am to be pitied. No one ever pities fathers. No one ever pities Oedipus’s father, whom Oedipus bumped off. I think I shall expose Laurie on that hill opposite, having first stuck the toasting — fork through his toes.’
All the same, he put off ‘speaking’ to Laurie as long as he could, and when the time came he approached the subject warily.
‘Well, old man,’ he said, when he had got Laurie alone, ‘take a pew and tell me how you fared last term.’
Deliberately he seated himself at some distance, for fear the nearness of his large strong body might arouse the wrong kind of response and inflict a Freudian bruise.
‘Well,’ echoed Laurie, heavily, ‘I didn’t do very well, I’m afraid.’
‘You’re growing too fast, that’s the trouble,’ said his father. ‘It takes it out of you.’
‘I only grew an eighth of an inch last term. They measured me,’ Laurie added, almost as mournfully as if the measuring had been for his coffin.
Drat the boy, his father thought. He won’t use the loopholes that I offer him.
He pulled at his moustache which, unlike the bronze hair greying on his head, had kept its golden colour. Proud of its ability to keep its ends up unaided, he wore it rather long, a golden bow arched across his mouth and reaching to the wrinkles where his smile began. Tugging it was a counter-irritant to emotional unease. But was such an adult, masculine gesture quite suitable in front of a small boy?
‘How do you account for it, then?’ he asked, at last.
‘Account for what, Daddy?’ But Laurie knew.
‘Well, for your reports not being so good as they sometimes are.’ Laurie’s face fell.
‘Oh, weren’t they good?’
‘Not all that good. Mr Sheepshanks — ’ he stopped.
‘What did he say?’ The question seemed to be forced out of Laurie.
Mr Sheepshanks had said that Laurie’s work was ‘disappointing’. How mitigate that adjective to a sensitive ear?
‘He said you hadn’t quite come up to scratch.’
‘I never was much good at maths,’ said Laurie, as though he had had a lifetime’s experience of them.
‘No, they were never your strong suit ... And Mr Smallbones — ’ Laurie clasped his hands and waited.
Mr Smallbones had said, ‘Seems to have lost his wish to learn.’ Well, so have I, his father thought, but I shouldn’t want to be told so.
‘He said ... well, that Latin didn’t come easily to you. It didn’t to me, for that matter.’
‘It’s the irregular verbs.’
‘I know, they are the devil. Why should anyone want to learn what is irregular? Most people don’t need to learn it.’ He smiled experimentally at Laurie, who didn’t smile back. He unclasped his hands and asked wretchedly, but with a slight lift of hopefulness in his voice:
‘What did Mr Armstrong say?’
Mr Armstrong was Laurie’s form-master, and it was his cruel verdict that had rankled most with Laurie’s parents. It couldn’t be true! It had seemed a reflection on them too, a slur on their powers of parenthood, a genetic smear, a bad report on them. And it was indignation at this personal affront, as well as despair of finding further euphemisms, that made Roger blurt out Mr Armstrong’s words.
‘He said you were dull but deserving.’
Laurie’s head wobbled on his too plump neck and his face began to crinkle. Appalled, his father ran across to him and touched him on the shoulder, pressing harder than he knew with his big hand. ‘Don’t worry, old chap,’ he said, ‘don’t worry. When I was your age I had terrible reports, much worse than yours are. You’ve spoilt us, that’s what it is, by always having had such smashing ones. But now I’ve got some good news for you, so cheer up!’
Laurie raised his tear-stained face open-eyed to his father’s and set himself to listen. His father moved away from him and, drawing himself up to give the fullest effect to his announcement, said:
‘It doesn’t matter so much what these under-masters say, it’s what the Headmaster says that counts. Now the Headmaster says — ’
Suddenly he forgot what the Headmaster had said although he remembered that some parts of his report had best not be repeated. Reluctantly, for he meant to keep the incriminating document hidden, and believed he had its contents by heart, he pulled it out of his breast-pocket, ran his eyes over it, and began rather lamely:
‘Mr Stackpole says, Hm ... hm ... hum — Just a few general remarks, and then: “Conduct excellent.” Conduct excellent,’ he repeated. ‘You’ve never had that said of you before. It’s worth all the others put together. I can’t tell you how pleased and proud I am.’
He paused for the electrifying effect, but it didn’t come. Instead, Laurie’s face again began to pucker. For a moment he was speechless, fighting with his sobs; then he burst out miserably:
‘But anyone can be good!’
Trying to comfort him, his father assured him that this wasn’t true: very, very few people could be good, even he, Laurie’s own father, couldn’t, and those who could were worth their weight in gold. After a time he thought that he was making headway: Laurie’s sobs ceased, he seemed to be listening and at last he said:
‘Daddy, do you think they’ll ever build the pylon up again?’
His father stared.
‘Good Lord, I hope not! Why, do you want them to?’
Laurie shook his head as if meant to shake it off.
‘Oh no, no, no. Of course not. It’s an eyesore. But I just thought they might.’
That night Laurie dreamed that he had got his wish. There stood the pylon: much as he remembered it, but bigger and taller. At least that was his impression but as it was night in his dream he couldn’t see very well. But he knew that he had regained his interest in life, and knew what he must do to prove it to himself and others. If he did this, a good report was waiting for him. But first he must get out of bed and put on his dressing-gown which lay across the chair, and go downstairs, silently of course, for if they were about they would hear and stop him. Sometimes, when he was sleepless, he would go out on to the landing and lean over the banisters and call out: ‘I can’t get to sleep!’ and then they would put him to sleep in the spare-room bed, where later his father would join him. But long before his father came up he would be asleep, asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, such an assurance of security did the promise of his father’s presence bring.
And now if they heard him moving about he would just say that he couldn’t get to sleep, and put off his visit to the pylon to another night. Oh how clever he was! It was the return of the pylon into his life that made him clever.
Nobody heard him; they had gone to bed. The house was in darkness, but if he was a burglar he wouldn’t mind about that, he would be glad; and Laurie-the-burglar was glad, too, as he tiptoed downstairs in his felt-soled slippers.
But the door — could he unlock it? Yes, the catch yielded to his touch as it would have to a real burglar’s, and he remembered not to shut it, for he must be able to get in again.
He went round to the front of the house. Now the pylon was in full view: its tapering criss-cross shape indistinct against the hillside, as if someone had drawn it in ink on carbon paper with a ruler; but where it rose above the hill — and it soared much higher than it used to — it was so clear against the sky that you could see every detail — including the exciting cross-piece, just below the summit, that Laurie used to think of as its moustache.
With beating heart and tingling nerves he hastened towards it, through the garden gate and out into the field, feeling it impending over him long before he reached it, before he could even properly see where its four great legs were clamped into the concrete. Now he was almost under it, and what was this? Something grinning at him just above his head, with underneath the words ‘Danger de Mort’. Abroad all pylons had them. He hadn’t needed to ask his father what the skull and crossbones meant; he hadn’t needed to ask what ‘danger de mort’ meant: ‘Your French is coming on!’ his father said. In England pylons didn’t bear this warning; the English were cleverer than the French — they knew without being told. In England pylons were not dangerous: could this be a French one?
It was a warm night but Laurie shivered and drew his dressing-gown more closely round him. But if there was danger of death, all the more reason to go on, to go up, to be one with the steel girders and the airs that played around them. But not in a dressing-gown, not in bedroom slippers, not in pyjamas, even! Not only because you couldn’t climb in them, but because in them you couldn’t feel the cold touch of the steel upon the flesh. It would be a kind of cheating: you wouldn’t win the good report, perhaps, which depended, didn’t it? on doing things the hardest way.
Lest anyone should steal his night-attire Laurie hit it under a low bush close by the monster’s base. Clever Laurie, up to every dodge! English pylons had steps — iron bolts like teeth sticking out six inches from two of the four great supporting girders, and reaching to the top, making the climb easy. But this one hadn’t, so it must be a French pylon. He would have to climb the face of it, clinging to the spars as best he could, for the pylon was an empty shell until almost the top, where a network of struts and stays, like a bird’s nest in a chimney, would give a better foothold.
When he had started he dared not look down to see if his clothes were still there, because climbers mustn’t look down, it might make them giddy. Look up! Look up! The climbing wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be, because at the point where the girders met, to form an X like a gigantic kiss in steel, there was a horizontal crossbar on which he could stand and get his breath before the next attempt. All the same, it hurt; it hurt straddling the girders and it hurt holding them, for they were square, not rounded as he thought they would be, and sometimes they cut into him.
That was one thing he hadn’t reckoned with; another was the cold. Down on the ground it had been quite warm; even the grass felt warm when he took his slippers off. But now the cold was like a pain: sometimes it seemed a separate pain, sometimes it mingled with the pain from his grazed and aching limbs.
How much further had he to go? He looked up — always he must look up — and saw the pylon stretching funnel-wise above him, tapering, tapering, until, when he reached the bird’s nest, it would scrape against his sides. Then he might not be able to go on; he might get wedged between the narrowing girders, like a sheep that has stuck its head through a fence and can’t move either way.
And if he reached the top and clung to the yard-arm, which was his aim, what then? What proof would he have to show them he had made the ascent? When his school-fellows did a daring climb, they left something behind to show they had; the one who climbed the church-spire, clinging to the crockets, had left his cap on the weathercock; it had been there for days and people craned their necks at it. Laurie had nothing to leave.
And what had happened to him, this boy? What sort of report did he get? He had been expelled — that was the report he got. It had all happened many years ago, long before Laurie was born: but people still talked of it, the schoolboy’s feat, and said it was a shame he’d been expelled. He should have been applauded as a hero, and the school given a whole holiday. Perhaps it was just as well for Laurie that he had nothing to leave, except some of his blood — for he was bleeding now — which wouldn’t be visible from below. But they would believe him, wouldn’t they, when he told them he had scaled the pylon? They would believe him, and make out his report accordingly? Would they say, ‘Jenkins minor has proved himself a brave boy, he has shown conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, in that he has climbed the pylon which no boy of his age has ever climbed before, and in commemoration of this feat the school will be granted a whole holiday’?
Or would they say: ‘Jenkins minor has been a very naughty boy. By climbing the pylon he has disgraced himself and the whole school. He will be publicly expelled in the school yard, and the school will forfeit all half-holidays for the rest of term’?
Well, let them say that if they wouldn’t say the other! At any rate he would have made his mark.
Soon he was too tired to argue with himself: too tired and too frightened. For the pylon had begun to sway. He had expected this, of course. Being elastic the pylon would have to sway, and be all the safer because it swayed. But it shouldn’t sway as much as this, leaning over first to one side, then to the other, then dipping in a kind of circle, so that instead of seeing its central point when he looked up, the point where all its spars converged, the point where his desires converged, the point which meant fulfilment, he saw reeling stretches of the sky, stars flashing past him, the earth itself rushing up to meet him ...
He woke and as he woke, before he had time to put a hand out, he was violently sick.
‘I can’t think what it can be,’ his mother said. ‘He can’t have eaten anything that disagreed with him; he ate the same as we did. You didn’t say anything to upset him, did you, Roger?’
‘I told him about the reports,’ her husband said. ‘You asked me to, you know. I did it as tactfully as I could. I couldn’t exactly congratulate him on them, except on his good conduct, which he didn’t seem to like. Yes, I remember, now, he was upset: I did my best to calm him down and thought I’d succeeded. I hope the poor boy isn’t going crackers—we’ve never had anything like that in my family.’
‘He’s highly-strung, that’s all, and your presence, Roger, is a bit overpowering. I know you don’t mean it to be, but if I was a little boy — ’
‘Thank goodness you aren’t.’
‘I might be frightened of you.’
‘How can he be frightened of me, when he wants to sleep with me?’
‘I’m often frightened of you,’ said his wife, ‘but still I want to sleep with you.
‘This is getting us into deep waters,’ Roger said, stretching himself luxuriously. ‘But you won’t be able to sleep with me tonight, my dear, because you’ve arranged for me to sleep with Laurie.’
‘Yes, he’s in the spare-room bed.’
‘He’ll never find another father as accommodating as I am.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’
‘At any rate I hope there won’t be any repetition of the incident — the upshot, the fall-out, or whatever you call it.’
‘I’m sure not, he was fast asleep when I left him. But you know, Roger, he was a bit light-headed — he kept muttering something about the pylon, very fast in that indistinct way children talk when they’re ill and half-asleep — ’
‘I hope he doesn’t take me for the pylon.’
‘Oh dear, how silly you are. But what I mean is, if he wakes up and mentions the wretched thing, because it seems to be on his mind, just say — ’
‘What shall I say?’
‘Say that it’s dead and buried, or cremated, or on the scrap-heap, or whatever happens to pylons that have outlived their usefulness. Say that it’s nothing to be afraid of, because it doesn’t exist, and if it did — ’
‘If it did, which it doesn’t, it’s still nothing to be afraid of, because men made it and men have taken it down, taken it to pieces. It’s not like Nature, there whether we want it or not; it’s like the things he makes with his Meccano. From what I gathered he seemed to think it could have a kind of independent existence, go on existing like a ghost and somehow hurt him. He reads this science fiction and doesn’t distinguish very well between fiction and fact — children don’t.’
‘All right, all right,’ said Roger. ‘Don’t worry, Anne. I shall have the situation well in hand. I shall say, if he wakes up, which please God he won’t, “Now, Laurie, just pretend the pylon is me — or I, to be grammatical”. That will give his imagination a jolt, and turn it in a different direction.’
Anne thought a moment.
‘I’m not sure that I should say that,’ she said. ‘If he asks you, hold on to the pylon being artificial, something that man has made and can unmake, and that’s all there is to it.’
‘Very well, dear wife,’ said Roger, and they parted for the night.
Laurie was lying, cheeks flushed and breathing quickly, on the extreme edge of the bed, as he always did to give his father room. Gingerly Roger stole in beside him, and laid his long, heavy body between the sheets. Lights out! He slept late, for his wife wouldn’t have them called, and woke up wondering if Laurie was awake.
He wasn’t; his face was much less flushed and his breathing normal.
I’ll stay in bed till he wakes up, his father thought. He may have something to say to me.
At length the boy began to stir; consciousness returned to him by slow stages, and deliciously, as it does in youth, down gladsome glades of physical well-being. Sighs, grunts and other inarticulate sounds escaped from him, and then he flung his arm out and hit his father full across the mouth.
‘Hi there, I’m not a punching bag!’
Laurie woke up and gave his father a rueful, sheepish smile.
‘Well, say good morning to me.’
‘Good morning, Daddy.’
‘Now I’ve got to get up. You, lazybones, can stay in bed if you like.’
‘Because you weren’t too well last night. Your mother gave a poor report of you.’ He paused, regretting the word, and added hastily, ‘That’s why you’re here.’
Laurie’s face changed, and all the happiness went out of it.
‘Because I had a bad report?’
‘No, silly, because you weren’t well. Your were sick, don’t you remember? In other words, you vomited.’
Laurie’s face lay rigid on the pillow; the shadow of fear appeared behind his eyes.
‘Yes, I do remember. I had a dream, oh, such a nasty dream. I dreamed the pylon had ... had come back again. It couldn’t Daddy, could it?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Will you have a look, to make quite sure?’
‘All right,’ his father said. ‘Anything for a quiet life.’
There followed a convulsion in the bed-clothes, gusts of cool air rushed in. The room grew darker. Standing in front of the low casement window, Roger’s tall figure blotted out the daylight. The outline of his arms down to his elbows, his shield-shaped back and straddled legs showed through the thin stuff of his pyjamas; his head, that looked small on his broad shoulders, seemed to overtop the window — but this was an optical illusion, as Laurie knew. Pulling the bedclothes round him he breathed hard, waiting for the verdict.
His father didn’t speak at once. It’ll do the boy good to get a bit worked up, he thought; strengthen the reaction when it comes. At length he said:
‘Seems to be a lot going on over there.’
‘A lot going on, Daddy?’
‘Yes, men working, and so on.’
‘What are they working at?’
‘Can’t you hear something?’ his father asked, still without turning round. Laurie strained his ears. Now he could hear it quite distinctly borne in through the open window — the thudding and clanging of the workmen’s hammers.
‘What are they doing, Daddy?’
‘Well, what do you think?’
Laurie’s mind went blank. Often it happened that when his father asked him something, a shadow seemed to fall across his mind.
‘Is it anything to do with the pylon?’
‘You’re getting warm now.’
‘Are they — are they — ?’
‘Yes, they are. They’re working on the concrete platform where the pylon used to stand.’
‘They’re not building it up again, are they, Daddy?’
‘I couldn’t tell you, old chap, but I wouldn’t put it past them.’
Laurie’s face fell. If only his father would turn round! His imploring glances made no impression on that broad straight back.
‘But if they are, Daddy, I couldn’t go on living here.’
‘I’m afraid you’ll have to, son, it’s our home, you see. You’ll get used to the new pylon, just as you got used to the old one.’
‘I shan’t, I shan’t!’ wailed Laurie, hungering more and more for the sight of his father’s face. ‘Can’t you tell them not to do it, Daddy? Can’t you order them?’
‘I’m afraid not. They wouldn’t pay any attention to me, Laurie.’
At the sound of his Christian name, which his father only used for grave occasions, and at the idea that there existed people for whom his father’s word was not law, the bottom seemed to drop out of Laurie’s world, and he began to whimper.
Then his father did turn round and looked down at his hapless offspring from whom all stiffening of pride and self-control had melted, huddled in the bed-clothes. He stifled his distaste and said what all along he had been meaning to say but had put off saying until the last of his son’s defences should be down.
‘Don’t worry. I was only ragging you. They’re not building a new pylon. They’re just breaking up the old one’s concrete base. And high time, too. I can’t think why they didn’t before.’
As he turned away from the window the sunshine which his body had displaced followed him back, filling the room with light. He sat down at the foot of the bed.
The effect of his long-delayed announcement had been magical: it exceeded his wildest hopes. Laurie was radiant, on top of his world, a different creature from the abject object of a moment since. He tried to put his relief and gratitude into words, but could only smile and smile, in a defenceless almost idiotic way. To break the silence his father asked:
‘What made you frightened of the pylon? Had it done you any harm?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Laurie, recollection contracting his smile into a frown, ‘it had.’
‘What kind of harm?’
Laurie considered. How could he make the pylon’s mischief plain to his father?
‘Well, it made me sick for one thing.’
‘Oh, that was just something you ate,’ said Roger, well remembering it was not. ‘We all eat things that disagree with us.’
‘It wasn’t only that. It ... It hurt me.’
‘How do you mean, hurt you?’
‘In my dream it did.’
‘In your dream? You’ll have to tell me about your dream. But make it snappy — I’ve only got five minutes.’
‘Yes … perhaps, sometime ... You see, in my dream it was much stronger than I was, and I couldn’t get to the top.’
‘Why did you want to get to the top?’
‘Well. I had to, because of the report, and to see what sort of report they would give me if I did get to the top.’
‘I know what,’ his father said. ‘When you’re a big chap, bigger than me, perhaps, you’d better be a pylon-builder. Do you know how much they earn?’
Pure numbers had an attraction for Laurie, though he wasn’t good at maths.
‘No, tell me.’
‘Ten shillings an hour when they’re on the ground, and a pound an hour when they’re in the air ... You’d soon be a rich man, much richer than me. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’
‘I don’t want to be rich!’ moaned Laurie. ‘I want — ’ he stopped.
‘Well, what do you want?’
‘I want to be safe, and I shouldn’t be if the pylon was there.’
‘What nonsense!’ said his father, at last losing patience. ‘It’s nothing to be afraid of.’ He remembered his wife’s words. ‘It’s only something men have made, and men can unmake. You could make one yourself with your Meccano — I’ll show you how. It’s only a few bits of metal — that’s all it is.’
‘But that’s all the atom bomb is,’ cried Laurie, ‘just a few bits of metal, and everyone’s afraid of it, even you are, Daddy!’
Roger felt the tables had been turned.
‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘I am afraid of it. But — ’ he tried to think of a way out — ‘I never dream about it.’
As always, his father’s presence gave Laurie a feeling of helplessness; it was as if his thoughts could get no further than the figure turned towards him on the bed, whose pyjama-jacket, open to the morning airs, disclosed a hairy, muscular chest.
‘But I can’t help what I dream, can I?’ he said.
His father agreed, and added, ‘But you can help being frightened — frightened afterwards, I mean. You’ve only to think — ’
‘But I do think, Daddy. That’s the worst of it.’
‘I mean, think how absurd it is. If you were to dream about me — ’
‘Oh, but I have, ever so often.’
His father was taken aback and tugged at his moustache.
‘And were you frightened?’
It took Laurie some time to answer this. He sat up. wriggled his toes, on which his father’s hand was resting, and said:
‘Not exactly frightened.’
‘Well,’ said Roger, smiling, ‘what effect, exactly, did I have on you?’ Laurie shook his head.
‘I couldn’t quite explain. Of course, in my dream you were different.’ ‘Nicer or nastier?’
‘Well, not nastier — you couldn’t be.’
Now it was Roger’s turn to feel embarrassed. He stared at Laurie, and all at once Laurie’s face turned scarlet.
‘Oh, I didn’t mean that, you know I didn’t,’ he pleaded. His hands traced circles on the rumpled bed-clothes and his head oscillated with them. ‘I said not nastier, because you never are nasty, so you couldn’t be nastier, if you see what I mean.’
‘I think I do,’ his father said, mollified and more relieved than he was prepared to show, ‘although I am nasty sometimes, I admit. But how was I different, in your dream?’
‘That’s just it, you weren’t so nice.’
Roger didn’t like the idea of being thought less nice, even in someone s dream. But he had to say something — he wouldn’t let Laurie see he had been hurt.
‘What was I like?’ he asked, with assumed jauntiness.
‘Oh you were like yourself, to look at, I mean — not really like of course, because people never are, in dreams. But I always knew it was you.
Less and less did Roger relish the idea of his dream personality being made known to him. Would it be cowardly to change the subject?
‘Don’t you ever dream about your mother?’ he asked hopefully.
‘Oh no, never, nor about Susie or Victor. Only about you.’
There seemed to be no escape. Roger grasped the nettle.
‘When you dream about me,’ he asked, ‘what do I do?’
‘Oh, you don’t do much, nothing to speak of. You’re just there, you see.’
‘I do see,’ said Roger, grimly, though he didn’t really. ‘And you don’t like me being there?’
Laurie wriggled; his plump hands left off making circles on the sheet and clasped the front of his pyjama-jacket.
‘No, I’m glad you’re there, because I always feel safer when you are, but — ’
‘But what?’ Let’s get to the bottom of it now, thought Roger.
‘Well, you make me think I’ve been doing something wrong.’
Roger’s heart sank. It was too bad. Hadn’t he always, throughout his parenthood, tried to give his children just the opposite impression — make them feel that what they did was right? Not so much with Victor and Susie, perhaps; he did tick them off sometimes, he really had to. But he had never succeeded in making them feel guilty; whereas with Laurie — ‘Now listen,’ he said. ‘Stop fidgeting with your pyjamas or you’ll be pulling off the buttons and then you will have done something wrong.’ Switching himself round still further on the bed he stretched his arms out towards Laurie and firmly imprisoned the boy’s restless hands in his. ‘Now listen,’ he repeated, propelling Laurie gently to and fro, making the boy feel he was on a rocking-horse. ‘Dreams go by contraries, you know.’
‘What does that mean, Daddy?’
‘It means that when you dream something, you dream what is the opposite of the truth. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘So, if you dream about me and I seem nasty, or about the pylon and it seems nasty, it really means — ’ he stopped.
‘Yes, go on, Daddy,’ said Laurie, sleepily. He was enjoying the rocking motion — so different from the pylon’s sickening lurches — and didn’t want it to stop. ‘Please go on,’ he begged.
‘It means that we’re both — the pylon and me too, well, rather nice.’
Before Roger had time to see whether this thought was sinking in, there came a thunderous pounding at the door. Releasing Laurie’s hands he pulled his pyjama-jacket round him and called out ‘Come in!’
There was a stampede into the room, a racket and a hubbub like a mob bursting in, and Susan and Victor, fully clothed, were standing by the bed.
‘Oh you are lazy,’ Susan cried. ‘You haven’t even begun to dress, either of you, and you haven’t heard the news.’
‘What news?’ Roger asked.
‘Awful news, dreadful news, the worst. Isn’t it Victor?’
‘It’s simply frightful. It’s the end,’ Victor said. ‘You’ll never guess.’
Their faces beamed with happiness.
‘Well, why are you so cheerful about it then?’ their father asked.
‘Oh, just because it is so horrible,’ said Susan, and their faces glowed afresh. ‘You’ll never guess, and so we’ll tell you.’ She caught Victor’s eye to give him his cue, and at the tops of their voices they chanted in unison:
‘The pylon’s coming back!’
Dead silence followed; even the impression of noise, which had been as strong as or stronger than the noise itself, was banished.
‘You don’t say anything,’ said Susan, disappointed. ‘We hoped you’d be you’d be ... just as upset as we are, and you just sit there in your pyjamas ... like… like ...’
Her voice died away into the silence which had returned with double force, and seemed to occupy the room even more completely than the uproar had.
Roger’s voice broke it.
‘But you’re wrong,’ he said. ‘They’re not making a new pylon, they’re only breaking up the platform of the old one.’
‘No, no,’ said Susie, dancing to and fro. ‘It’s you who are wrong, Daddy. You aren’t always right, you know. You see we’ve been across and talked to the men themselves, and they say they are building a new pylon taller than the last — ’
‘A hundred and thirty seven feet high,’ put in Victor.
‘Oh yes, a huge great thing. We were so horrified we couldn’t wait to tell you. It’s true, Mummy, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid it is true,’ Anne said.
‘There, we told you! And now the view will be spoilt again for ever!’
Stung in his masculine pride, shorn of his mantle of infallibility, Roger lost his temper. These wretched children! Ill-mannered brats, why had he spoilt them so? ‘Now you clear out!’ he thundered, adding, ‘I don’t mean you, Anne.’ But his wife had already gone.
Laurie remained, but where? He had slipped down between the bed-clothes, out of sight and almost out of mind. Now he came to the surface and let his stricken face be seen.
‘Oh Daddy!’ he exclaimed. ‘Oh Daddy!’ But what he meant by it he could not have told, so violent and discordant were the emotions that surged up in him. Indeed, they seemed to sound inside his head, drowning another noise that punctuated but did not break the silence: the hammer-strokes from which would rise a bigger and better pylon.
‘I’m here, Laurie, I’m here!’ his father said, but remembering the effect his presence had in Laurie’s dreams he doubted whether it would be much consolation now; for was not Laurie always in a dream?
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