“Our Friend Judith”
by Doris Lessing
I stopped inviting Judith to meet people when a Canadian woman remarked, with the satisfied fervour of one who has at last pinned a label on a rare specimen: “She is, of course, one of your typical English spinsters.”
This was a few weeks after an American sociologist, having elicited from Judith the facts that she was fortyish, unmarried and living alone, had enquired of me: “I suppose she has given up?” “Given up what?” I asked: and the subsequent discussion was unrewarding.
Judith did not easily come to parties. She would come after pressure, not so much-on felt-to do one a favour, but in order to correct what she believed to be a defect in her character. “I really ought to enjoy meeting new people more than I do,” she said once. We reverted to an earlier pattern of our friendship: odd evenings together, an occasional visit to the cinema, or she would telephone to say: “I’m on my way past you to the British Museum . Would you care for a cup of coffee with me? I have twenty minutes to spare.”
It is characteristic of Judith that the word spinster, used of her, provoked fascinated speculation about other people. There are my aunts for instance: aged seventy-odd, both unmarried, one an ex-missionary from China, one a retired matron of a famous London hospital. These two ladies live together under the shadow of the cathedral in a country town. They devote much time to the Church to good causes, to letter writing with friends all over the world, to the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of relatives. It would be a mistake, however, on entering a house in which nothing has been moved for fifty years, to diagnose a condition of fossilized late-Victorian integrity. They read every book reviewed in the Observer or the Times, so that I recently got a letter from Aunt Rose enquiring whether I did not think that he author of On the Road was not-perhaps?-exaggerating his difficulties. They know a good deal about music, and write letters of encouragement to young composers they feel are being neglected!– “You must understand that anything new and original takes time to be understood.” Well-informed and critical Tories, they are as likely to dispatch telegrams of protest to the Home Secretary as letters of support. These ladies, my aunts Emily and Rose, are surely what is meant by the phrase English spinster. And yet, once the connection has been pointed out, there is no doubt that Judith and they are spiritual cousins, if not sisters. Therefore it follows that one’s pitying admiration for women who have supported manless and uncomforted lives needs a certain modification?
One will, of course, never know; and I feel now that it is entirely my fault that I shall never know. I had been Judith’s friend for upwards of five years before the incident occurred which I involuntarily thought of-stupid enough-as “the first time Judith’s mask slipped.”
A mutual friend, Betty, had been given a cast-off Dior dress. She was too short for it. Also she said: “It’s not a dress for a married woman with three children and a talent for cooking. I don’t know why not, but it isn’t.” Judith was the right build. Therefore one evening the three of us met by appointment in Judith’s bedroom, with the dress Neither Betty nor I were surprised at the renewed discovery that Judith was beautiful. We had both too often caught each other, and ourselves, in moments of envy when Judith’s calm and sever face, her undemonstratively perfect body, succeeded in making everyone else in a room or a street look cheap.
Judith is tall, small-breasted, slender. Her light brown hair is parted in the centre and cut straight around her neck. A high straight forehead, straight nose, a full grave mouth are setting her eyes, which are green, large and prominent. Her lids are very white, fringed with gold, and moulded close over the eyeball, so that in profile she has the look of a staring gilded mask. The dress was of dark green glistening stuff, cut straight, with a sort of loose tunic. It opened simply at the throat, In it Judith could of course evoke nothing but classical images. Diana, perhaps, back from the hunt, in a relaxed moment? A rather intellectual wood nymph who had opted for an afternoon in the British Museum reading room? Something like that. Neither Betty nor I said a word, since Judith was examining herself in a long mirror, and must know she looked magnificent.
Slowly she drew off the dress and laid it aside. Slowly she put on the old cord skirt and woollen blouse she had taken off. She must have surprised a resigned glance between us, for she then remarked, with the smallest of mocking smiles: “One surely ought to stay in character, wouldn’t you say so?” She added, reading the words our of some invisible book, written not by her since it was a very vulgar book, but perhaps by one of us: “It does everything for me, I must admit.”
“After seeing you in it,” Betty cried out, defying her, “I can’t bear for anyone else to have it. I shall simply put it away.” Judith shrugged, rather irritated. In the shapeless skirt and blouse, and without makeup, she stood smiling at us, a woman at whom forty-nine or fifty people would not look twice.
A second revelatory incident occurred soon after, Betty telephoned me to say that Judith had a kitten. Did I know that Judith adored cats?
“No but of course she would,” I said.
Betty lived in the same street as Judith and saw more of her than I did. I was kept posted about the growth and habits of the cat and its effect on Judith’s life. She remarked for instance that felt it was good for her to have a tie and some responsibility. But no soon was the cat out of kittenhood than all the neighbours complained. It was a tomcat, ungelded, and making every night hideous Finally the landlord said that either the cat or Judith must go, unless she was prepared to have the cat “fixed.” Judith wore herself out trying to find some person, anywhere in Britain, who would be prepared to take the cast. This person would however, have to sign a written statement not to have the cat “fixed.” When Judith took the cat to the vet to be killed, Betty told me she cried for twenty-four hours.
“She didn’t think of compromising? After all, perhaps the cat might have preferred to live, if given the choice?”
“Is it likely Id have the nerve to say anything so sloppy to Judith? It’s the nature of a male cat to rampage lustfully about, and therefore it would be morally wrong for Judith to have the cat fixed, simply to suit her own convenience.”
“She said that?”
“She wouldn’t have to say it, surely?”
A third incident was when she allowed a visiting young American, living in Paris, the friend of a friend and scarcely know to her, to use her flat while she visited her parents over Christmas. The young man and his friends lived it up for ten days of alcohol and sex and marijuana, and when Judith came back it took a week to get the place clean again and the furniture mended. She telephoned twice to Paris, the first time to say that he was a disgusting young thing and if he knew what was good for him he would keep out of her way in the future; the second time to apologize for losing he temper. “I had a choice either to let someone use my flat, or to leave it empty. But having chosen that you should have it, it was clearly an unwarrantable infringement of your liberty to make any conditions at all. I do most sincerely ask your pardon.” The moral aspects of the matter having been made clear, she was irritated rather than not to receive letters of apology from him-fulsome, embarrassed, but above all, baffled.
It was the note of curiosity in the letters-he even suggested coming over to get to know her better-that irritated her most. “What do you suppose he means?” se said to me. “He lived in my flat for ten days. On would have thought that should be enough, wouldn’t you?”
The facts about Judith, then, are all in the open, unconcealed, and plain to anyone who cares to study them; or, as it became plain she feels, to anyone with the intelligence to interpret them.
She lived for the last twenty years in a small two-roomed flat high over a busy West London street. The flat is shabby and badly heated. The furniture is old, was never anything but ugly, is now frankly rickety and fraying. She has an income of 200 a year from a dead uncle. She lives on this and what she earns from her poetry, and from lecturing on poetry to night classes and extramural university classes.
She does not smoke or drink, and eats very little, from preference, not self-discipline.
She studied poetry and biology at Oxford, with distinction.
She is a Castlewell. That is, she is a member of one of the academic upper-middle-class families, which has been producing for centuries a steady supply of brilliant but sound men and woman who are the backbone of the arts and sciences in Britain. She is on cool terms with her family who respect her and leave her alone.
She goes on long walking tours, herself, in such places as Exmoor or West Scotland.
Every three or four years she publishes a volume of poems.
The walls of her flat are completely lined with books. They are scientific, classical and historical; there is a great deal of poetry and some drama. There is not one novel. When Judith says: “Of course I don’t read novels,” this does not mean that novels have no place, or a small place, in literature; or that people should not read novels; but that it must be obvious she can’t be expected to read novels.
I had been visiting her flat for years before I notice tow long shelves of books, under a window, each shelf filled with the works of a single writer. The two writers are not, to put it at the mildest, the kind one would associate with Judith. They are mild, reminiscent, vague and whimsical. Typical English belles-lettres, in fact, and by definition abhorrent to her. Not one of the books in the two shelves has been read; some of the pages are still uncut. Yet each book is inscribed or dedicated to her: gratefully, admiringly, sentimentally and, more than once, amorously. In short, it is open to anyone who cares to examine these two shelves, and to work out dates, to conclude that Judith from the age of fifteen to twenty-five had been the beloved young companion of one elderly literary gentleman, and from twenty-five to thirty-five the inspiration of another.
During all that time she had produced her own poetry, and the sort of poetry, it is quite safe to deduce, not all likely to be admired by her two admirers . Her poems are always cool and intellectual; that is their form, which is contradicted or supported by a gravely sensuous texture. They are poems to read often; one has to, to understand them.
I did not ask Judith a direct questions about these two eminent but rather fusty lovers. Not because she would not have answered, or because she would have found the questions impertinent, but because such questions are clearly unnecessary. Having those two shelves of books they are, and books she could not conceivably care for, for their own sake, is publicly credit where credit is due. I can imagine her thinking the thing over, and deciding it was only fair, or perhaps honest, to place the books there; and this despite the fact that she would not care at all for the same attention to be paid to her. There is something almost contemptuous in it. For she certainly despises people who feel they need attention
For instance, more than once a new emerging wave of “modern” young poets have discovered her as the only “modern” poet among their despised and well-credited elders. This is because, since she began writing at fifteen, her poems have been full of scientific, mechanical and chemical imagery. This is how she thinks, or feels.
More than once has a young poet hastened to her flat, to claim her as an ally, only to find he totally and by instinct unmoved by words like modern, new, contemporary. He has been outraged and wounded by her principle, so deeply rooted as to be unconscious, and to need no expression but a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders, that publicity seeking or to want critical attention is despicable. It goes without saying that there is perhaps one critic in the world she has any time fore. He has sulked off, leaving her on her shelf, which she takes it for granted is her proper place, to be read by an appreciative minority.
Meanwhile she gives her lectures, walks alone through London, writes her poems, and is seen sometimes at a concert or a play with a middle-aged professor of Greek who has a wife and two children.
Betty and I had speculated about this professor, with such remarks as: Surely she must sometimes be lonely? Hasn’t she ever wanted to marry? What about that awful moment when one come in from somewhere at night to an empty flat?
It happened recently that Betty’s husband was on a business trip, her children visiting and she was unable to stand the empty house. She asked Judith for a refuge until her own home filled again.
Afterwards Betty rang up to report:
“Four of the five nights Professor Adams came in about ten or so.”
“Was Judith embarrassed?”
“Would you expect her to be?”
“Well, if not embarrassed, at least conscious there was a situation?”
“No, not at all. But I must say I don’t think he’s good enough for her. He can’t possibly understand her. He calls her Judy.”
“Yes, But I was wondering. Suppose the other two called her Judy-‘little Judy’-imagine it! Isn’t it awful? But it does rather throw light on Judith.”
“It’s rather touching.”
“I suppose it’s touching. But I was embarrassed-oh, not because of the situation. Because of how she was, with him. ‘Judy, is there another cup of tea in that pot?’ And she, rather daughterly and demure pouring him one.”
“Well yes, I can see how you felt.”
“Three of the nights he went to her bedroom with her-very casual about, because she was being. But he was not there in the mornings. So I asked her. You know how it is when you ask her a question. As if you’ve been having long conversations on that very subject for years and years, and she is merely continuing where you left off last. So when she says something surprising, one feels such a fool to be surprised?”
“Yes. And then?”
“I asked her if she was sorry not to have children. She said yes, but one couldn’t have everything.”
“One can’t have everything, she said?”
“Quite clearly feeling she has nearly everything. She said she thought it was a pity, because she would have brought up children very well.”
“When you come to think of it, she would, too.”
“I asked about marriage, but she said on the whole the role of a mistress suited her better.”
“She used the word mistress?”
“You must admit it’s the accurate word.”
“I suppose so.”
“And then she said that while she liked intimacy and sex and everything, she enjoyed waking up in the morning alone and her own person.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Of course. But now she’s bothered because the professor would like to marry her. Or he feels he ought. At least, he’s getting all guilty and obsessive about. She says she doesn’t see the point of divorce, and anyway, surely t would be very hard on his poor old wife after all these years, particularly after bringing up two children so satisfactorily. She talks abut his wife as if she’s a kind of nice old charwoman, and it wouldn’t be fair to sack her, you know. Anyway. What with one thing and another, Judith’s going off to Italy soon in order to collect herself.”
“But how’s she going to pay for it?”
“Luckily the Third Programme’s commissioning her to do some arty programmes. They offered her a choice of The Cid-El Thid, you know-and the Borgias. Well, the Borghese, then. And Judith settled for the Borgias.”
“The Borgias,” I said “Judith?”
“Yes, quite. I said that too, in that tone of voice. She saw my point. She says the epic is right up her street, whereas the Renaissance has never been on her wave length. Obviously it couldn’t be, all the magnificence and cruelty and dirt. But of course chivalry and a high moral code and all those idiotically noble goings-on are right on her wave length.”
“Is the money the same?”
“Yes. But is likely Judith would let money decide?” No, she said that one should always choose something new, that isn’t up one’s street. Well, the Renaissance. She didn’t say that, of course.”
“Of course not.”
Judith went to Florence; and for some months postcards informed us tersely of her doings. Then Betty decided she must go by herself for a holiday. She had been appalled by the discovery that if her husband was away for a night she couldn’t sleep and when he went to Australia for three weeks, she stopped living until he came back. She had discussed this with him, and he had agreed that, if she really felt the situation to be serious, he would dispatch her by air, to Italy; in order to recover her self-respect. As she put it.
I got this letter from her: “It’s no use, I’m coming home. I might have known. Better face it, once you’re really married you’re not fit for man nor beast. And if you remember what I used to be like! Well! I moped around Milan. I sunbathed in Venice, then I thought my tan was surely worth something, so I was on the point of starting an affair with another lonely soul, but I lost heart, and went to Florence to see Judith. She wasn’t there. She’d gone to the Italian Riviera. I had nothing better to do, so I followed her. When I saw the place I wanted to laugh, it’s so much not Judith, you know, all those palms and umbrellas and gaiety at all cost and ever such an ornamental blue sea, with grape vines all over the place. You should see her, she’s got beautiful. It seems for the last fifteen years she’s been going to Soho every Saturday morning to buy food at an Italian shop. I must have looked surprised, because she explained she liked Soho. I suppose because all that dreary vice and nudes and prostitutes and everything prove how right she is to be as she is? She told the people in the shop she was going to Italy, and he signora said, what a coincidence, she as going back to Italy too, and she did hope an old friend like Miss Castlewell would visit her there. Judith said to me: ‘I felt lacking, when she used he word friend. Our relations have always been formal. Can you understand it?’ she said to me. ‘For fifteen years,’ I said to her She said: ‘I think I must feel it’s a kind of imposition, don’t you know, expecting people to feel friendship for one. Well. I said: ‘You ought to understand it, because you’re like that yourself.’ ‘Am I?’ she said. ‘Well, think about it,’ I said. But I could see she didn’t want to think about it. Anyway, she’s here, and I’ve spent a week with her. The widow Maria Rineiri inherited her mothers house, so she came home, from Soho. On the ground floor is a catty little rosticceria patronized by the neighbours. They are all working people. This isn’t tourist country, up on the hill. The widow lives above the shop with her little boy, a nasty little brat of about ten. Say what you like, the English are the only people who know how o bring up children. I don’t care if that’s insular. Judith’s room is at the back, with a balcony. Underneath her room is the barber’s shop, and the barber is Luigi Rineiri, the widow’s younger brother. Yes, I was keeping him until the last. He is about forty, tall dark handsome, a great bull, but rather a sweet fatherly bull. He has cut Judith’s hair and made it lighter. Now it looks like a sort of gold helmet. Judith is all brown. The widow Rineiri has made her a white dress and a green dress. They fit, for a change. When Judith walks down the street to the lower town, all the Italian males take one look at the golden girl and melt in their own oil like ice cream. Judith takes all this in her stride. She sort of acknowledges the homage. Then she strolls into the sea and vanishes into the foam. She swim five miles every day. Naturally. I haven’t asked Judith whether she has collected herself, because you can see she hasn’t. the widow Rineiri is matchmaking. When I noticed this I wanted to laugh, but luckily I didn’t because Judith asked me, really wanting to know: ‘Can you see me married to an Italian barber?’ (Not being snobbish, but stating the position, so to speak.) ‘Well, yes,’ I said, ‘you’re the only woman I know who I can see married to an Italian barber.’ Because it wouldn’t matter who she married, she’d always be her own person. ‘At any rate, for a time,’ I said. At which she said asperously; ‘You can use phrases like for a time in England but not in Italy.’ Did you ever see England, a least London, as the home of licence, liberty and free love? No, neither did I, but of course she’s right. Married to Luigi it would be the family, the neighbours, the church and the bambini. All the same she’s thinking about it, believe it or not. Here she’s quite different, all relaxed and free. She’s melting in the attention she gets. The widow mothers her and makes her coffee all the time, and listens to a lot of good advice about how to bring up that nasty brat of hers. Unluckily she doesn’t take it. Luigi is crazy for her. At mealtimes she goes to the trattoria in the upper square and all workmen treat her like a goddess. Well, a film star then. I said to her, you’re mad to come home. For one thing her rent is ten bob a week, and you eat pasta and drink red wine till you bust for about one and sixpence. No, she said, it would be nothing but self-indulgence to stay. Why? I said. She said, she’s got nothing to stay for. (Ho ho.) And besides, she want to know. And so she’s only staying because of the cat. I forgot to mention the cat. This is a town of cats. The Italians here love their cats. I wanted to feed a stray cat at the table, but the waiter said no, and after lunch, all the waiters came with trays crammed with leftover food and stray casts from everywhere to eat. And at dark when the tourist go in to fed and the beach is empty-you know how empty and forlorn a beach is at dusk-well, cats appear from everywhere. The beach seems to move, then you see it’s cats. They go stalking along the think inch of grey water at the edge of the sea, shaking their paws crossly at each step, snatching at the dead little fish, and throwing them with their mouths up on the dry sand. Then they scamper after them. You’ve never see such a snarling and fighting. At dawn when the fishing boats come in to the empty beach, the cats are there in dozens. The fishermen throw them bits of fish. The cats snarl and fight over it. Judith gets up early and goes down to watch. Sometimes Luigi goes too, being tolerant. Because what he really likes to join the evening promenade with Judith on his arm around the square of the upper town. Showing her off. Can you see Judith? But she does it. Being tolerant. But she smiles and enjoys the attention she gets, there’s no doubt of it.
“She has a cat in her room. It’s a kitten really, but it’s pregnant. Judith says she can’t leave until the kittens are born. The cat is too young to have kittens. Imagine Judith. She sits on hr bed in that great stone room, with her bare feet on the stone floor and watches the cast, and tries to work out why a healthy uninhibited Italian cat always fed on the best from the roticceria should be neurotic. Because it is. When it see Judith watching it gets nervous and start licking at the roots of its tail. But Judith goes on watching, and says about Italy that the reason why the English love the Italians is because Italians make the English feel superior. They have no discipline. And that’s despicable reason for on nation to love another Then she talks about Luigi and says he has no sense of guilt, but a sense of sin; whereas she has no sense of sin but she has guilt. I haven’t asked her if this has been an insuperable barrier, because judging from how she look, it hasn’t been. She says she would rather have a sense of sin, because sin can be atoned for, and if she understood sin, perhaps she would be more at home with the Renaissance. Luigi is very healthy, she says, and not neurotic. He is a Catholic of course. he doesn’t mind that she’s an atheist. His mother has explained to him that the English are all pagans, but good people at heart. I suppose he thinks a few smart sessions with the local priest would set Judith one the right path for good and all. Meanwhile the cat walks nervously around the room, stopping to lick, and when it can’t stand Judith watching it another second, it rolls over on the floor, with its paws tucked up, and rolls up its eyes, and Judith scratches its lumpy pregnant stomach and tells it to relax. It make me nervous to see her, its not like her. I don’t know why. Then Luigi shouts up from the barber’s shop, then he comes up and stands at the door laughing, and Judith laughs, and the widow says: Children, enjoy yourselves. And off they go, walking down to the town eating ice cream. The cat follows them. It won’t let Judith out of sight, like a dog. When she swims miles out to see, the cat hides under a beach hut until she comes back. Then she carries it back up the hill, because that nasty little boy chases it. Well. I’m coming home tomorrow thank God, to my dear old Bill, I was mad ever to leave him. There is something about Judith and Italy that has upset me, I don’t know what. The point is, what on earth can Judith and Luigi talk about? Nothing. How can they? And of course it doesn’t matter. So I turn out to be a prude as well. See you next week.”
It was my turn for a dose of the sun, so I didn’t see Betty. On my way back from Rome I stopped off in Judith’s resort and walked up through narrow streets to the upper town, where, in the square with the vine-covered trattoria at the corner, was a house with ROSTICCRIA written in black paint on a cracked wooden board over a low door. There was a door curtain of red beads, and flies settled on the beads. I opened the beads with my hands and looked in to a small dark room with a stone counter. Loops of salami hung from metal hooks. A glass bell covered some plates of cooked meats. There were flies on the salami and on the glass bell. A few tins on the wooden shelves, a couple of pale loaves, some wine casks and an open case of sticky pale green grapes covered with fruit flies seemed to be the only stock. A single wooden table with two chairs stood in a corner, and two workmen sat there, eating lumps of sausage and bread. Through another bead curtain at the back came a short, smoothly fat, slender-limbered woman with greying hair. I asked for Miss Castlewell, and her face changed. She said in an offended, offhand way: “Miss Castlewell left last week.” She took a white cloth from under the counter, and flicked at the flies on the glass bell. “I’m a friend of hers,” I said, and she said: “Si,” and put her hands palm down on the counter and looked at me, expressionless. The workmen got up, gulped down the last of their wine, nodded and went. She ciao’d them; and looked back at me. Then, since I didn’t go, she called: “Luigi!” A shout came from the back room, there was a rattle of beads, and in came first a wiry sharp-faced boy, and then Luigi. He was tall, heavy-shouldered, and his black rough hair was like a cap, pulled low over his brows. He looked good-natured, but at the moment uneasy. His sister said something, and he stood beside her, an ally, and confirmed: “Miss Castlewell went away.” I was on the point of giving up, when through the bead curtain that screened off a dazzling light eased a thin tabby cat. It was ugly and it walked uncomfortably, with its back quarters bunched up. The child suddenly let out a “Ssssss” through his teeth, and the cat froze. Luigi said something sharp to the child, and something encouraging to the cat, which sat down, looked straight in front of it, then began frantically licking at its flanks. “Miss Castlewell was offended with us,” said Mrs. Rineri suddenly, and with dignity. “She left early one morning. We did not except her to go.” I said, “Perhaps she had to go home and finish some work.”
Mrs. Rineiri shrugged, then sighed. Then she exchanged a hard look with her brother. Clearly the subject had been discussed, and closed forever.
“I’ve known Judith a long time,” I said, trying to find the right note. “She’s a remarkable women. She’s a poet.” But there was no response to this at all. Meanwhile the child, with a fixed bared-teeth grin, was starting at the cat, narrowing his eyes. Suddenly he let out another “Ssssssss” and added a short high yelp. The cat shot backwards, hit the wall, tried desperately to claw its way up the wall, came to its senses and again sat down and began its urgent, undirected licking at its fur. This time Luigi cuffed the child, who yelped in earnest, and then ran out into the street past the cat. Now that the way was clear the cat shot across the floor, up onto the counter, and bounded past Luigi’s shoulder and straight through the bead curtain into the barber’s shop, where it landed with a thud.
“Judith as sorry when she left us,” said Mrs. Rineiri uncertainly. “She was crying.”
“I’m sure she was.”
“And so,” said Mrs. Rineiri, with finality, laying her hands down again, and looking past me at the bead curtain. That was the end. Luigi nodded brusquely at me, and went into the back. I said goodbye to Mrs. Rineiri and walked back to the lower town. In the square I saw the child, sitting on the running board of a lorry parked outside the trattoria, drawing in the dust with his bare toes, and directing in front of him a blank, unhappy stare.
I had to go through Florence, so I went to the address Judith had been at. No, Miss Castlewell had not been back. Her papers and books were still there. Would I take them back with me to England? I made a great parcel and brought them back to England.
I telephoned Judith and she had already written for the papers to be sent, but it was kind of me to bring them. There had seemed to be no point, she said, in returning to Florence.
“Shall I bring them over?”
“I would be very grateful, of course.”
Judith’s flat was chilly, and she wore a bunchy sage-green woollen dress. Her hair was still a soft gold helmet, but she looked pale and rather pinched. She stood with her back to a single bar of electric fire-lit because I demanded it-with her legs apart and her arms folded. She contemplated me.
“I went to the Rineiris’ house.”
“Oh, Did you?”
“They seemed to miss you.” She said nothing
“I saw the cat too.”
“Oh. Oh I suppose you and Betty discussed it?” This was with a small unfriendly smile.
“Well, Judith, you must see we were likely to?”
She gave this her consideration and said: “I don’t understand why people discuss other people. Oh-I’m not criticising you. But I don’t see why you are so interested. I don’t understand human behaviour and I’m not particularly interested.”
“I think o should write to the Rineiris.”
“I wrote and thanked them, of course.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“You and Betty have worked it out?”
“Yes, we talked about it. We thought we should talk to you so you should write to the Rineiris.”
“For one thing, they are both fond of you.”
“Fond,” she said smiling.
“Judith, I’ve never in my life felt such an atmosphere of being let down.”
Judith considered this. “When something happens that shows one there is really a complete gulf in understanding, what is there to say?”
“It could scarcely have been a complete gulf in understanding. I suppose you are going to say we are being interfering?”
Judith showed distaste. “That is a very stupid word. And it’s a stupid idea. No one can interfere with me if I don’t let them. No, it’s that I don’t understand people. I don’t understand why you or Betty should care. Or why the Rineiris should, for that matter,” she added with the small tight smile.
“If you’ve behaved stupidly, there’s no point in going on. You put an end to it.”
“What happened?” Was it the cat?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But it’s not important.” She looked at me, saw my ironical face and said: “The cat was too young to have kittens. That is all there was to it.”
“Have it your way. But that is obviously not all there is to it.”
“What upsets me is that I don’t understand at all why I as so upset then.”
“What happened? Or don’t you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t give a damn whether I talk about it or not. You really do say the most extraordinary things, you and Betty. If you want to know, I’ll tell you. What does it matter?”
“I would like to know of course.”
“Of course!” said she. “In your place I wouldn’t care. Well, I think the essence of the thing was that must have had the wrong attitude to tat cat. Cats are supposed to be independent. They are supposed to go off by themselves to have their kittens. This one didn’t. It was climbing up onto my bed all one night and crying for attention. I don’t like cats on my bed. In the morning I saw she was in pain. I stayed with her all that day. Then Luigi-he’s the brother, you know.”
“Did Betty mention him? Luigi came up to say it as time I went for a swim. He said the cat should look after itself. I blame myself very much. That’s what happens when you submerge yourself in somebody else.”
Her look at me was now defiant; and her body showed both defensiveness and aggression. “Yes. It’s true. I’ve always been afraid of it. And in the last few weeks. I’ve behaved badly. It’s because I let it happen.”
“Well, go on.”
“I left the cat and swam. It was late, so it was only for a few minutes. When I came out of the sea the cat had followed me and had had a kitten on the beach. The little beast Michele-the son, you know?-well, he always teased the poor thing, and now he had frightened her off the kitten It was dead, though. He held it up by the tail and waved it at me as I came out of the sea. I told him to bury it. He scooped two inches of sand away and pushed the kitten in-on the beach, where people are all day. S I buried it properly. He had run off. He was chasing the poor cat. She was terrified and running up the town. I ran too. I caught Michele and I was so angry I hit him. I don’t believe in hitting children. I’ve been feeling beastly about it ever since.”
“You were angry.”
“It’s no excuse . I would never had believed myself capable of hitting a child. I hit him very hard. H went off, crying. The poor cat had got under a big lorry parked in the square. Then screamed. And then a most remarkable thing happened. She screamed just once, and all at once cats just materialised. One minute there was just one cat, lying under a lorry, all quite still, and watching my poor cat.”
“Rather moving,” I said.
“There is no evidence one way or the other.” I said in inverted commas, “that the cats were there out of concern for a friend in trouble.”
“No,” she said energetically. “There isn’t. It might have been curiosity. Or anything. How do we know? However, I crawled under her lorry. There were two paws sticking out of the cat’s back end. The kitten was the wrong way round. It was stuck. I held the cat down with one hand and I pulled he kitten out with the other.” She held out her long white hands. They were still covered with fading scars and scratches. “She bit and yelled, but the kitten was alive. She left the kitten and crawled across the square into the house. Then all the cats got up and walked away. It was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen. They vanished again. One minute they were all there, and then they had vanished again. One minute they were all there, and then they had vanished again. One minute they were all there, and then they had vanished. I went after the cat, with the kitten. Poor little thing, it as covered with dust-being wet, don’t you know. The cat was on my bed. There was another kitten coming, but it got stuck too. So when she screamed and screamed I just pulled it out. The kittens began to suck. One kitten was very big. It was a nice fat black kitten. It must have hurt her. But she suddenly bit out-snapped, don’t you know, like a reflex action, at the back of the kitten’s head. It died, just like that. Extraordinary, isn’t it?” she said, blinking hard, her lips quivering. “She was its mother, but she killed it. The she ran off the bed and went downstairs into the shop under the counter. I called to Luigi. You know, he’s Mrs. Rineiri’s brother.”
“Yes, I know.”
“He said she was too young, and she was badly frightened and very hurt. He took the alive kitten to her but she got up and walked away. She didn’t want it. Then Luigi told me not to look. But I followed him. He held the kitten by the tail and he banged it against the wall twice. Then he dropped it into the rubbish heap. He moved aside some rubbish with his toe, and put the kitten there and pushed rubbish over it. Then Luigi said the cat should be destroyed. He said she as badly hurt and it would always hurt her to have kittens.”
“He hasn’t destroyed her. She’s still alive. But it looks to me as if he were right.”
“Yes, I expect he was.”
“What upset-that he killed the kitten?”
“Oh, no, I expect the cat would if he hadn’t. But that isn’t the point, is it?”
“What is the point?”
“I don’t think I really know.” She had been speaking breathlessly, and fast. Now she said slowly: “It’s not a question of right or wrong, is it? Why should it be? It’s a question of what one is. That night Luigi wanted to go promenading with me. But I felt ill. He was very nice to me. He’s a very good person,” she said, defiantly.
“Yes, he looks it.”
“That night I couldn’t sleep. I was blaming myself. I should never having left the cat to go swimming. Well, and then I decided to leave the next day. And I did. And that’s all. The whole thing was a mistake, from start to finish.”
“Going to Italy at all?”
“Oh, to go for a holiday would have been all right.”
“You’ve done all that work for nothing? You mean you aren’t going to make use of all that research?”
“No, It was a mistake.”
“Why don’t you leave it a few weeks and see how things are then?”
“You might feel differently about it.”
“What an extraordinary thing to say. Why should I? Oh, you mean, time passing, healing wounds-that sort of thing? What an extraordinary idea. It’s always seemed to me an extraordinary idea. No, right from the beginning I’ve felt ill at ease with the whole business, not myself at all.”
“Rather irrationally, I should have said.”
Judith considered this, very seriously. She frowned while she thought it over. Then she said: “But if one cannot rely on what one feels, what can one rely on?”
“On what one thinks, I should have expected you to say.”
“Should you? Why? Really, you people are all very strange. I don’t understand you.” She turned off the electric fire, and her face closed up. She smiled, friendly and distant, and said: “I don’t really see any point at all in discussing it.”