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Chapter 1 (cont’d)

He forgot about it all in a threefold outburst of hilarity. They stumbled down the concrete stairs in an ever closer and more chaotic embrace. Outside the building they kept running, through shrubs, along the edge of a pond, and they even tried to impede a fountain’s sprinkling. They all got wet, and the girl showed in her tight blouse dark summits. Not desire, as Ladethe stealthily suspected, had caused them to swell, but the cold of the water.

Fortunately their flat was not too far away. They hurried across the square and along an avenue, repeatedly jumping aside for speeding tramcars on their way to the depot. At the opposite corner on the first side-street to the right Zhusah turned her key. She climbed the stairs, immediately followed by Noold. Ladethe hesitated, but then also went in, carefully closing the door behind him. Next to the stairway, between bicycles and junk, were two baskets with long white feathers in them. On some feathers were red stains. For a moment he stared, trembling, but this trembling soon turned into nervously running up the stairs.

Zhusah and Noold were in the bathroom already, and they invited him to join them. He did, but not until they had nearly finished, thus avoiding to undress while they were still there. They laughed at him when he reappeared in his wet clothes, and they quickly improvised dry ones for him.

They sat down in the living-room, where they had a triangular arrangement of small sofas. They sat there for quite a bit of time, each looking at the two others in turn, while sipping red wine. Again all were silent. No words were useful, as all they had in common was too obvious for words, and the many things they did not share would require more intimacy than could have been built up in this short time. So they were alone, every one of them, each with private and distinct worries and joys. They shared the silence and the simultaneous presence of loneliness and togetherness.

As they had done earlier that night, Noold and Zhusah suddenly got up at exactly the same moment. It seemed they had a secret, unnoticeable means of communication, by which they could fine-tune their actions. Again it was Zhusah who actually made the offer: ‘Would you like to join us?’ At first his thoughts halted, then he wondered if she could really have said what he heard her say, and finally his brains and his speech-organs started an autonomous co-operation in which they didn’t involve him at all.

‘But ... how do you ... what exactly ... of course I wouldn’t like to ... I don’t know ... you see I’m ... maybe we ... well, now that we’re ...’ ‘We didn’t want to embarrass you,’ interrupted Noold firmly. ‘We won’t be offended if you turn us down. We’ve an old mattress, and I’ll get you some sheets and blankets.’

Though she agreed Zhusah made one more persuasive attempt. ‘Two men, double joy. Might even be sixfold, if you all appreciate it.’ But there was no way back now. When the parts of his improvised bed had been joined together in the living room, they quickly wished him good-night, and disappeared. Even before they were actually in the bedroom, they started their game for two.

Ladethe lay down and stared at the ceiling for several minutes. Meanwhile he could hear the game take its course. He wanted to think. There was so much he had to think about, and it was all so diverse, without clear connections, without any end or start, that he ran away from it. He fell into a paralysing sleep, in which no awareness existed, except that there was something he still had to do: find the connections, or else conclude that there weren’t any.

Two curious cats woke him up, by tiptoeing on him in careful investigation. Now he knew why. He had ideals. It had been a tempting offer, but he didn’t want it to be like that the first time. He wanted dual love. He wanted a lasting love. Based on feelings, not on mere lust. But his usual, single pleasures did not always stick to what he wanted himself to want. At least that one thing was true, that he wanted to want it. There wasn’t much else he could state in his favour. But he didn’t care much. Also, he had forgotten about the connections he wanted to find, and even about what they were supposed to be between.

The next morning it was cold. By the time he was willing to give up the warm stupor of sleep, the young lovers were already in the bathroom. He didn’t want to get dressed without having washed, and he didn’t want to eat while that tension was still present, so all that was left for him to do was sit down cold and hungry. He lectured himself about being so discontented, because at least there wasn’t any rain dripping on him, and this situation would last only a few minutes, and so on. But as always these arguments only made him angry and more discontented, both with himself and with the situation.

Soon the happy couple appeared in the door, looking like part of the cast for a commercial for cigarettes or drinks. He quickly slipped into the bathroom, with a mumble in response to their good morning. When he returned, breakfast was ready.

Though very hungry he had trouble eating. The mere thought made him shiver: butter or jam accidentally sticking to his fingers, not altogether removed when washing his hands, remaining vestiges later transported by unintended touch, to his neck, or to the corner of an eye or to his hair. But he knew he had to eat, for there was no telling where and when his next meal would be.

Yesterday’s silence was still there, but it seemed different now. Everybody now felt like there should be some conversation, and they all had plenty of thoughts, but none that they wanted to share with the others, especially not with both of them. They all kept searching their minds for a suitable thing to say, but anything seemed silly.

Suddenly it occurred to Ladethe that upon leaving he would have to express his gratitude for their hospitality. He decided to use the next ten minutes, which he expected to be the last of his staying here, to compose a proper way to say it. He soon agreed on the sentence: ‘I am very grateful for your hospitality, but I must go now, perhaps we’ll meet again sometime,’ but then he started worrying about the melody of his voice, which could easily disguise or contort the true nature of his feelings. Another problem was to pick the right moment, for if he just said it at any given time, it might suggest that his decision was influenced by the silence. Which in fact it was, but he didn’t want them to know that. Also, it was impossible to leave in the middle of having breakfast.

Then breakfast ignited a fast break. ‘I’m leaving now. Thanks a lot.’ Short and clear. Ten ridiculous minutes wasted. Same as ever. He resumed this folly by quickly estimating that ten minutes is less than one thousandth of a percent of a lifetime, so only a negligible waste after all. Noold shook his hand, while Zhusah kissed him on the cheek. And he left.

They were remarkable people. Remarkably nice. They could have become real friends. If only he’d have tried to reach them, to find out about their way of life, their feelings, opinions, habits, moral standards, and anything that make them the people they are. But he knew no answers whatsoever, to any of these questions, so not just ten minutes, but all of the time he’d been with them he’d wasted. All that time he had prostituted the sense of togetherness, instead of exploiting this rare occasion for a worthy cause. But there was no turning back now. (Or maybe?) No turning back.

He was back on the square again. It had turned into a market-place. He sauntered along the stalls. In the middle of the square was an area without stalls. Coloured lines subdivided it into smaller areas. There were no outer limits other than the stalls, thus everybody watching had to be involved. About fifty people were standing in the area, each one of them in a fixed position as if waiting for a sign. Then suddenly someone jumped over a line, and immediately everybody moved, some to another subarea, others changing position without crossing a line. Although everyone made his own individual move, there seemed to be three different sides, for a man standing on a stall updated a threefold scoreboard after each move. However there was no telling who was on whose side. Ladethe watched two moves, curiously guessing how the new positions were determined. Then several people began yelling at him, that of course he had to move too, and that he shouldn’t just stand there like a fool.

Ladethe, amused by this spontaneous though somewhat unhearty invitation, tried his luck on the third move, and made a big jump towards the centre dot. But this was totally wrong. Everybody pointed at the scoreboard, which indeed showed a dramatic decrease for the middle side. Ladethe quietly waited for the explanation, which would now undoubtedly follow, but instead it was time for the next move, for which Ladethe chose a small step away from the centre. He hesitated first, which made him the last one to move. Now they really got angry with him, for both his hesitation and his eventual decision were fatal, and put all three scores down.

Still nobody explained. They all took it for granted, that he deliberately spoilt the game for them, or out of utter stupidity. It didn’t even occur to them, that he simply didn’t know the rules, because he had never played the game before. Bewilderment kept him from telling them. While the next move was already in progress, Ladethe strode away from them, and never looked back.

When the distance between and the foolish crowd had become sufficient, he stood still and looked up. The swans’ nest was still there, but he couldn’t see if the swans had returned yet. He wanted to find out, but was afraid to sneak into the building at this time of day. Instead he turned to the right, into an avenue leading out of town.

While he walked he kept thinking of the game. His anger grew, and at last he killed his shame with a machine-gun, in an imaginary realm, in which playing that game was strictly forbidden, and a severe enough offence to warrant a capital punishment.

The execution was a relief to him. He walked on with a clear mind, enjoying the fields and the trees he saw. The sun’s heat, which made it almost too hot to walk, didn’t bother him, he didn’t think of what had to be done, of where he had to go or of where he shouldn’t go, he just walked on and enjoyed his own mere existence. He didn’t mind the trucks that passed him from time to time with a hell of noise, dust and smell, perhaps prejudiced by one of them that had a woman driver, surprisingly still a fact unusual enough to surprise him, despite obvious reasons.

After about an hour’s walk he saw some buildings in the fields, some four hundred yartres away from the road. They were clearly not farms or houses, but looked more like a factory or a laboratory. He decided that the buildings were deserted, and probably had been for a longer period. Some windows had been smashed, and there was a wire netting fence all around what now turned out to be just one building, constructed of several parts interconnected by corridors. Some parts had one level, others had two, and some seemed to have one and a half, because the lower one was halfway beneath the surface. He followed the fence until he reached the inevitable hole, and crept in through it. One of the smashed windows gave access to the sunken parts. He kicked out what was left of the glass, and cautiously climbed in. He was in a small room, with all four walls covered with shelves, with dirty, empty glass cans on them. He opened the door, and entered a much larger room, which indeed must once have been a laboratory.

There was no live creature in the room as far as he could see, yet Ladethe doubted his being alone. Laughing to himself he decided he could talk to whoever was there without sight-contact, even easier than with it. ‘Why hide? I’m the intruder, not you! Or are we both? In that case you now know whose side I’m on. I don’t care a damn what gives you the right to be here, provided you don’t question mine. I favour equal rights, and I try to respect isolation.’

No sound was heard. Ladethe sat down on the floor, stretched his legs, and stumbled into a lucid dream in which Zhusah tried to seduce him. But he resisted her filthy lust, which he knew was his own. Why blame yourself for what others unintendedly arose in you? (?)