Alan Hunter: Gently where the roads go

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Alan Hunter Gently where the roads go
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    Gently where the roads go
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Alan Hunter

Gently where the roads go


In the east country the air is sparkling, in the west country the air is tender, but in this place, in the middle of England, the air is asleep all the time. It isn’t flat, it isn’t hilly. It isn’t beautiful, it isn’t ugly. It isn’t town on the one hand nor country, quite, on the other. It is the land of the Great Road, a subsection missed by the geographers, a land moulded and informed by the great passages of men. First the prehistoric tribes, sending their slinking scouts before them, moving cautiously over the lowlands to unhunted forest upcountry; then the Celts, the horse-tamers, chanting songs of Bran and Gwydion; and the Romans, great marchers, paving the miles to Pictishland; followed Angle and Saxon, fierce quarrellers and kingdomers, the Danska, fiercer than them all, and his French-speaking cousins; baron, pedlar, shuffling friar, tinker, soldier, murderer, thief, riding, treading, rolling the wheels of their ponderous slow carriage; Armada message, crop-haired troopers, levies northward to Culloden; po-shay, mail-coach and curricle along with fret-chimneyed steamers; and the coughing, clanking upstart following its symbolical red flag, maturing quickly, multiplying, inheriting the Road in a generation. All these set their stamp on the passive, silent land, making it like no other land: that which bounded the Great Road. Having for meaning, southwards to London, weary marches to the Tweed, the environs of an inn, the turn which concealed a highwayman. Nobody came there to look at it, nobody saw it with pleasure. Ghosts tilled it, ghosts dwelt in it, but North and South was its only significance. Day by day, century by century, traffic and souls crowded through it; sterilizing it by long denial into the rank of the semi-real. And still today nobody sees it, the anonymous fields and dusty hedgerows, the chaffy verges, the soiled copses, the ugly ribbons of unpainted houses; only the rubber-blackened road and the ever-rolling files of traffic, and the signs, fixing points in the long abstraction of North and South. Nobody sees it. Until one day a spotlight falls hard and sharp on a small section. When the semi-real becomes real. But perhaps no more understandable.



Teodowicz was sitting on her bed. He was a big man with high cheekbones and eyes that gleamed between narrowed lids. She hadn’t seen him come in, but that was the way with Teodowicz. He sat there shirtless, gleaming with sweat, scratching the brown hair on his chest.

‘I didn’t know you were coming tonight.’

‘Have I upset something?’ He was apologetic.

‘No, damn you. Do you think I have a man here every night?’

He shrugged, a faint check with his shoulders. ‘Not every night. You’re not insatiable. And it doesn’t matter, not to me. You can have as many men as you like.’

‘Thank you for nothing.’

She came into the room. The room was small and airless and sweet-smelling. It contained the bed with its faded green overlay and a wardrobe and dressing-table, huddled together. She didn’t switch on the light. A dim light was coming out of the parlour. At eleven p.m. it was still sweltering and she herself wore only a dress. She went to the dressing-table, found cigarettes, swore because she broke a match in lighting one.

‘Have you been here long?’

‘Only half an hour.’

He spoke without a trace of accent. But because of that you knew immediately that you were dealing with a foreigner.

‘I thought I wasn’t seeing you till Wednesday. Why this sudden change of plan?’

He shrugged again, saying nothing, his eyes inspecting her hungrily.

‘Something wrong, is there?’

‘Put that fag out.’

‘Oh no.’ She struck a defiant attitude. ‘I’m tired. I’ve got some coffee on. You can cut out the funny business till later.’

‘Put it out.’

‘I tell you you can wait.’

‘I’m not in a mood for waiting, Wanda.’

‘And I’m not in the mood for getting on the bed. So you can lump it.’

‘Put that fag out.’

She was suddenly frightened by his tone of voice; it was so flat and self-intent. And then, as was usual with all her emotions, the fear translated itself into the erotic. She stabbed the cigarette into an ashtray.

‘All right, you bastard,’ she said. ‘Bloody have it.’

‘Take your dress off.’

‘Can’t you unwrap the goods?’

‘Do as I say. Take it off.’

She sniffed, but hoisted the dress up, and stood naked by the dressing-table.

‘Men,’ she said scathingly.

‘Come here.’

‘Come and get it, if you want it.’

‘You will come here.’

‘I’m damned if I will.’

‘Wanda,’ he said, ‘you will come here.’

Again the jolt of fear, twisting itself into an aphrodisiac.

‘You bullying swine,’ she said, coming. But not quite within reach. ‘You can’t damn well order me around. I’m not a pro, and you know it.’

‘Come closer.’

‘What’s got into you?’

‘You hear what I say?’

He lifted his two large, hairy, hands, the fingers crooked like grappling irons.

She gave a crooning sort of moan.

‘You Polish bastard,’ she said.

‘Get on the bed.’

‘You’re a swine.’

‘Just do as I say. Get on the bed.’

She got on the bed. He penetrated her with little or no foreplay. It was unusual. She had always known him as a cultivated lover. Fiercely and intently he took what he wanted, then lay, completely spent, a dead weight in her embrace. She felt defrauded, a little uneasy; what was wrong with him tonight? She wasn’t satisfied, he didn’t care; he seemed a long way off.

‘You’re heavy,’ she moaned.

He separated from her and lay on his back. The bed was not a full double and he was still heavy on her arm. She shifted it irritably. One leg rolled off. She sat up to prevent the rest of her following. She felt angry with him. He’d given her nothing. He was beginning to treat her like a habit.

‘Get me a cigar out of my jacket.’

‘Why should I get your damn cigar?’

He rolled his head over. His face was shiny. It looked complacent; and he smiled.

‘Just get me a cigar.’

She breathed heavily and felt for his jacket. It was an oil-stained khaki garment which he always wore when driving a truck. In the breast pocket were the cigars, a tin of Dutch ‘Willem II’s’. She stuck one between his thick lips and held a match to it. He sucked.

‘Happy now?’

‘Huh,’ he grunted. ‘Didn’t you talk about some coffee?’

‘You’ve a bloody nerve!’ she fired at him.

He smiled again.

‘A big cup.’

She didn’t bother to dress again. She went through naked to the counter. The large coffee machine was cold but a percolator was bubbling on an electric ring. She took two cups from under the counter, of the size preferred by the truck-drivers, scooped demerara sugar into them and filled them with the coffee, black. When she returned to the bedroom Teodowicz was still lying on his back. He had his head cradled in his arms and the room was heavy with his cigar smoke. He sat up to take the cup, blew on it, and drank a big draught; then he set it on the floor and resumed his former position. Wanda re-lit the stubbed cigarette. She sat down on the single, flimsy chair.

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