On the Existence of Mount Rushmore and Other Improbabilities

Jenny Diski

The thought came to Ellen in the middle of one night. First she was asleep and then she was awake with a single question in her head, as if it was asking itself so urgently it couldn’t wait until morning to have itself thought about. The question was this: does Mount Rushmore exist? And then, in answer to her weary: Well, of course it exists; a supplementary question: How do you know?

Got her! That was the end of the night’s sleep. It didn’t matter how much she told herself that she couldn’t care less about Mount Rushmore, had never given Mount Rushmore more than a passing thought, and firmly turned on her side to get back to sleep, it just wouldn’t go away. She sat up, lit a cigarette and the bed side lamp, and gave it a passing thought.

All she could think about Mount Rushmore was that Cary Grant and whatwashername – Eva Marie Saint had crawled all over it trying to get away from ... James Mason, she thought, in North by Northwest. They had clambered across the faces of American presidents carved into the mountain-side in – she didn’t know where. Which presidents? Lincoln, she was sure, but who else? She didn’t remember, if she’d ever known. Why should she? She lived and worked in London, England. She didn’t have to know about Mount Rushmore. Except that she’d been woken up, and her night’s sleep ruined worrying about it.

She wished Martin hadn’t taken his Encyclopaedia Britannica with him when they split up. She missed that more than she missed him. Tomorrow, she promised herself, she would go to the library at school and check it out. Now, could she please go to sleep?

The trouble is once you’ve turned on the light and smoked a cigarette, you have to watch the dawn come in through the venetian blinds. It was a law of some kind. She stared grimly at the blackness seeping through the cracks in the slats.

Ellen used to be a history teacher. She worked, still worked, though now in the English department, at a comprehensive school of the kind the local middle-class parents managed not to send their children to. Since everyone had to stay at school until 16, and it was not permitted to tell pupils they didn’t have a hope of getting decent grades at what was then CSE and they’d be better off going out and earning a living, she had been in charge of a bunch of 16-year-olds who were supposed to be studying for the history exam. None of them was very able, but Tracy was the least able of them all. Her dimly lit face had never brightened with a sudden thought, but she was pleasant and worked heart-breakingly hard. It always surprised Ellen how much effort Tracy put into her work, in spite of never achieving anything more than a pat on the back for trying.

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