My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode’s final war report

We did our fighting for freedom by proxy. Bad news drifted in, terrible things happened to other people. One of our sailors lost his wife and four children in a bombing raid on Hull. For a reason I forget, or perhaps for no good reason, all compassionate leave from Iceland had been stopped, but I thought that in the circumstances I should try to get the rule bent for this man. When I told him I’d see if I could work this, he replied: ‘Why bother? They were the only reason I had for going home.’

Archer, the captain of Sierra, was unperturbed by all news, good or bad, and it soon became obvious to me that he was far from sane. To live as he did, like a spider hoarding flies, reducing his handsome accommodations to a warehouse, caring only to measure his self-contentment by the quantity of his acquisitions, was surely crazy. To remain indifferent to the interests or opinions of others, except when to consult them might mean an increase to his store, the encroaching measure of his own greatness: to live thus was surely to be crazy. He was like Sir Epicure Mammon, though for the moment without succubi. The piles of groceries served him as the conversation and re-enacted rituals of Winchester did the midshipman and the doctor.

One cause of wonder was that I couldn’t see what, in the end, he hoped to do with all these sacks of sugar, split peas and the rest of it. How and where would he take it ashore and dispose of it? Of course I could see a use for it in those Southsea boarding-houses, or on the black market, but I was thinking of the impossibility of it ever reaching those destinations. As soon as we touched a British port, the friendly customs men would board us and, as their habit was, head straight for the captain’s cabin and the usual propitiatory drink. They would see what I saw every day, only more so; there might not even be space to raise a glass. They could hardly ignore the thousands of pounds’ worth of contraband piled up before their very eyes. Once I dared to ask him what his plans were. ‘Don’t you worry about that, Cosmos,’ he said. ‘I got friends, in I?’

As the months went by and the rest of us grew more and more bad-tempered, more stupid, more hopeless, except of course for the Wykehamists, Archer grew more radiant, always crisply turned out, always derisive, always winning. His command was of a kind that would irk many seamen, for having got his ship to the site of the boom, his job, not always ably done, was simply to keep it there: it served only as a depot, all the work, admittedly tricky, being done in smaller craft nominally under his orders. He did not seem to care about this, and there was reason to doubt whether his professional skill was anything like equal to his mad self-confidence.

On one occasion a boom defence vessel was for some reason detached and sent to Seydisfjordur on the east coast of the island. This ungainly little craft had run into a gale even more severe than the usual North Atlantic winter blows and broke radio silence to say she was in trouble. Archer had a fondness for the skipper concerned – in fact, he probably valued these boom defence, ex-trawler skippers more highly than anybody around, and perhaps with reason. So he decided to go to the rescue.

He already had steam, for fear of dragging his mooring, as had happened before; and against the urgent advice of his officers, certainly more experienced big-ship sailors than he was, he set forth to save his lost lamb. The consternation of these seamen was increased when he insisted on doing what they wouldn’t have permitted even in far less desperate weather. Incredulous and terrified, we steamed out through the shattered boom and took on the storm with the after hatch open. Sierra got a terrible mauling, lacking power to keep head on to the sea, even if it had always been possible to know where the sea was coming from. At the worst moment of the gale I noticed an effect I have since read about, though it would be impossible to describe it fully – it was as if the entire surface of the sea had been raised up and suspended like a cloud over another turbulent surface.

Though still lacking experience of such marine extremities, I don’t think I was far out in thinking that the ship could hardly live in such a sea, and that a man certainly couldn’t. As I sat in the wardroom, feeling more and more gloomily certain of dying very shortly, Archer descended from the bridge, dressed in duffel coat and balaclava. Abandoning navigation to his subordinates, he was evidently not tortured by any consciousness of a mistake on his part. He poured himself Scotch. ‘Well, Comody,’ he said, ‘it seems we’ve fucking ’ad it.’ He was quite serene. We watched the battering of the ship and its rapid and dangerous festooning with ice. For hours it seemed quite hopeless, but eventually we staggered into Reykjavík, spectacularly damaged. We never made contact with the distressed boom-layer, and I can’t remember what became of it. We stayed in Reykjavík for ages and forgot about the boom.

Reykjavík in those years was, I suppose, another part of my education. The arrival of the Americans quickly changed the character of the place – dollars did it, and jeeps full of stuff from the PX, but also the demeanour of these new invaders, a sort of unexamined confidence, an inability to think of foreign parts as unlike America in any way that could not be put right simply by assuming its unimportance. When we had first tried out the nightlife of the town we’d gone to the Hotel Borg Saturday-night dance and induced local girls to take the floor with us. But policemen moved in and quietly took the names of the girls, which, we were told, were printed in the newspaper on Monday as additions to an official list of prostitutes. Perhaps they continued to add to this list until it included the names of almost all the women under 40. But in fact the reserve of the women was not broken down until the Americans inconsiderately changed the culture, after which there were many agreeable temporary ménages and many liaisons of a more casual kind.

The beneficiaries were of course mostly the Americans, since they were far more numerous and had much more money. I had not at this stage of my life encountered many Americans, even singly, and in the mass they seemed remarkably alien. Their army seemed a harsher institution than ours, loudly exacting a discipline that for the time turned the soldiers into foul-mouthed robots. It was on the quay at Reykjavík that I first heard, with astonishment and even shock, the language in which American soldiers habitually expressed, with a kind of mechanised misery, their apparent loathing for the Army, for women, for the world they found themselves in. The words they used are now quite commonly heard on the lips of the polite and gently nurtured, but in those simpler times they seemed very startling: cocksucker, motherfucker, cunt and asshole used as insults. These exiled Americans seemed obsessed with shit, and had developed an idiom that has persisted in colloquial American to this day: it depended on a sort of partitioning or disorganising of the human body, as if to give offence by refusing to treat a person as entire, so that you shouted, ‘Get your ass over here,’ or kicked ass, or chased tail. The synecdoche of insult, we rhetoricians might call it. Of course it served merely as everyday linguistic currency and nobody took offence or was entitled to. But it seems I was still not fully hardened to the life and speech of men among men and found it darkened my mood or my mind.

I even wondered what the Icelanders must make of it, knowing English well, as many of them did; but the idioms were strange, for the function of the military patois was of course in part to keep outsiders outside, even other speakers of the language. The Icelanders themselves had a well-preserved ancient language with many deterrent declensions, and they had also a distinctive civilisation, with sane marriage laws, no concept of illegitimacy and no venereal disease. All worth preserving, you’d think, but not immune to the incursions of rival languages and cultures. The British were relatively lacking in imperialist thrust, accepting their unwelcomeness; the Americans seemed incapable of that and came to be thought dollar-wielding tail-chasers. Yet they, not we, were made to feel more at home. Little love was lost between the occupying forces, yet there were those among the British, Archer for instance, who would have taken quite easily to the culture of buck and tail, or whatever might be its English equivalent.

Around Christmas 1941 I met in Reykjavík a British Army captain, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, I seem to remember, a man of about forty, who continued my education. His sexual requirements were of a kind I had never even entertained in fantasy; they were indeed so unusual that they probably could not have been satisfied in Iceland even if he’d been made of money. He liked working-class women, preferably barmaids of fairly mature years, and he did not want them for normal sex, from which he had a chilly aversion. He wanted buggery only, and only with partners who also wanted it exclusively. Preliminary enquiries, you’d have thought, must have called for a certain delicacy, but Ashington had at least had temporary successes. What he wanted, though, was a permanent arrangement, marriage indeed. He deplored the vulgarity of all who sought anything less complete, and dispersed his own energies in long and ingenious tirades against most of humanity, especially Americans. However, he was a charming man and I valued his company.

That snowy Christmas night we walked, not sober, along the quay, which was lined with American sentries, too many, we decided, for the purpose, and most of them probably angry at having to be under discipline, and cold, instead of enjoying the party indoors. ‘Look at those poor buggers,’ said my friend. ‘They need warming up.’ From an attic in the officers’ club we climbed onto the roof, made snowballs, and lobbed them, soft grenades, at the sentries. Without hesitation two of them opened fire on the roof. We slid down to the eaves on the lee side, got in through another window, and in half a minute were standing at the bar as if we’d been there all evening. Such were the joys. At 22 you naively imagine you’re entitled to some joys. I felt none of the shame or regret that should, on reflection, have followed this absurd and dangerous prank; nor, of course, did Ashington, who had long ago run out of shame. It was all the odder that I, who feared heights and of course also bullets, should have enjoyed myself on the roof. Evidently I was falling under his influence.

Perhaps fortunately I lost touch with him after that evening, but I made friends with another KOYLI called, I think, Banks, whose self-imposed daily task was to compose a filthy limerick. I met him when for some forgotten reason I was sent on an errand to Seydisfjordur. Banks was happily sharing with a pleasant stulka a tiny cabin, decorated on its south-facing side with dried fish. He had acquired a sparse but useful command of Icelandic, not troubling about those archaic cases and tenses; his one complaint was that the language of his mistress was apparently deficient in filthy words, so he had not yet managed an Icelandic limerick. His life was enviable, his talent simple and direct, as unlike mine as I could imagine. I can still remember one of his limericks. It was regular in form, though coarse in content, fit to be remembered for old times’ sake, but not to be quoted.

Sometimes it seemed to me that I was running out of brain as well as of civility. If war is generally a stupefying experience, and it was and is, how much more disabling is the kind of war I was having, for I had none of the ways of resisting its lowering effect that I had identified in Archer and the Wykehamists, in Ashington and Banks. Archer had his suffocating stores, his rather nobly mad desire to incorporate the entire material universe in himself. The Wykehamists, with their gift of turning things conveniently inside out, took inexhaustible comfort in constituting a superior club in the midst of outsiders they liked to describe as ‘mouldy’, Ashington had his absorbing buggery quest, and Banks his pleasant stulka. I had none of these advantages. Instead, I had all the prejudices ingrained by small-town life and education, and they forbade me to take any course of action resembling the fantasies that animated my acquaintances and the freedoms they appeared to assume so naturally.

Because of my job I saw more of Archer than the others, and had more occasion to envy his kind of madness. But increasingly I felt myself hopelessly inapt for the kind of life or the choice of lives that seemed to confront me. Observing freedoms, I grew less free. Once I fell asleep on a leather sofa in the wardroom and woke to find that I couldn’t breathe, the involuntary system had imitated the voluntary and resigned, everything was dark and I felt an appalling panic but could not cry out. Of course I did breathe eventually, but with a convulsion that made others start toward me as if I was ill, which I believe I was, in fact I believe I almost died. They couldn’t help and I did not expect it.

In Shakespeare’s English ‘help’ often means ‘cure’ – ‘Love did to her eyes repair / To help him of his blindness’ – but one can hardly think of that sense as current, except among people who allow their unhappiness to delude them into supposing that professional help can be taken as synonymous with cure, or at any rate the serious hope of it. Cure of what, help with what? I wonder. I am always asking myself why it is that intelligent people are so often willing to seek what they call ‘help’, to go in search of counselling, simply because they are unhappy or cannot make sense of their lives – as if it was an indication of sanity to believe it possible to do this. And anyway, if they cannot manage the affair themselves, what chance has a counsellor who is already in all likelihood convinced that there is no real cause for hope, some overworked therapist whose problems are likely to be worse than the patient’s? However much persons of that sort may be supposed to know, in principle, about making sense of life, it’s a fair assumption that they have become extremely unhappy in the course of acquiring their information.

Of course I disagree with Sophocles when he advises us to call no man happy, for I have known happy men, all in one way or another mad. The only obviously happy individuals are very small children, and they pay for the enjoyment of that state by being hysterically miserable a lot of the time, so that on any dispassionate assessment they, too, are in one way or another mad. I am of course aware that I do not believe what I am saying, feeling it right to let it be known that I am capable of such silliness, that it is one of my more important characteristics. I can on occasion remind myself that people in deep and dangerous misery do seek and get help, or that if they do not, or if help is not to be had or arrives too late, they make the incontestably true demonstration of what it is to need help and not get it.

My experience of what I believe is known as apnoea, a condition ordinarily terminal and, I believe, much favoured by doctors writing death certificates, has not yet been repeated. Its effect, though not definitive, was distinctly lowering, and for a time I lived in a no-man’s-land between the usual world, where one at least feigned general competence and sociability, and a torpor amounting to an unwilled refusal to do so. I would lie many hours in the bath, watching myself grow fat again, an unhappy eater and drinker. When I heard about the sinking of Hood I stayed in the bath all day, getting used to the idea that my friend wasn’t to be one of the three survivors. In more active moments I would play the violin with increasingly hideous technical self-indulgence and a face as long as Albert Sammons’s.

The temporary relief everybody counted on was the mail delivery. At best every fortnight, at worst with intervals of six or seven weeks, we’d watch the postman climb aboard with his sack, and shortly afterwards cluster round him as he called our names. Sometimes you’d get a whole series of letters from the same person, thoughtfully numbered so that you could read them in the right order. You could follow the course of love from longing to desertion in one batch of letters.

The remedy of love would have been to find a girl. It was actually easier for me than for most others to get to Reykjavík, since there might be papers to collect, or the pretence of them, and failing even that pretence, I could tempt Archer with the promise of a case of condensed milk. But the pastoral happiness of Banks, who had nightly in his bed that nice large girl with flaxen hair (far less common in Iceland than might be thought), was not within my scope, even though the women of the country had softened in their attitudes, persuaded by handsome young soldiers less grim of demeanour than their compatriots, and having miraculous access, in this embattled mid-Atlantic island, to ample stocks of liquor and gramophone records. Iceland had its own hit parade, not corresponding to those of the homelands. An American song called ‘Yes, My Darling Daughter’ was a big hit and so was ‘Mr Jones, Are You Coming to Bed?’ a chaste triumph for the English singer Annette Mills, but now, I suppose, forgotten. They played their part in many seductions. But success with women called for talents I didn’t and never would possess.

My lack contrasted with the abundance of a young Irishman named Harrison. He was a man who by a series of coincidences made several appearances in my later life, even after the war. Harrison was wild in a fairly conventional way, a drinker and sometimes a brawler, but also a seductive charmer. Sheltered persons may make civilised assumptions, for instance that courtship or seduction calls for preliminary conversation or verbal foreplay, some exchange of ideas, the establishment of some common interest as preliminary to sex. But in practice it seems the process can be entirely phatic, talk being merely a means of maintaining personal contact when the real message is an understood undersense, conveyed by oeillades, most speaking looks, privy touchings.

Harrison’s intellectual vacuousness could thus be an advantage, especially when there was a language problem, when disinterested discourse was hardly to be expected; but I saw him succeed with intelligent and worldly women. He was thus a master communicator, admired even by Archer. Like a poet, he enjoyed the difficulty overcome. Once he accomplished a rapid seduction when in much pain and for all other purposes incapacitated by piles. Once a drunken impulse led him to invade the surgery of an Icelandic dentist and demand that all his teeth, which as far as I know were sound, should be extracted at once. His appearance after this adventure was as you might expect, and his morale was for the moment destroyed. Rash observers were pleased to see this, supposing that his libertine courses had come to a sudden, self-inflicted and well-deserved end. But once the bleeding had stopped Harrison made light of the problem he had set himself, and long before the end of the period of toothlessness that has to precede the insertion of artificial teeth, a period when the face is crone-sunken, he had, to the general amazement, completely abandoned chastity.

Later, when Sierra was in dry dock in Liverpool, some nurses had been brought on board by the usual expedient of bribing the dock police with whisky. There was among them a plain, hungry girl whom, after an hour or so, Harrison took to his cabin. On his return an hour or so later, he was accosted by a very beautiful nurse who asked him why on earth he’d chosen to go off with her friend, assuring him that she would give him a much better time. And off they went. Desire for Harrison seemed almost universal.

I met him by accident in Liverpool, Sydney, Seattle, sometimes catching sight of him from a bus or in a bar. Once I ran into him in New York and it turned out that we were both heading for Philadelphia, I to pay a ship’s company, he to meet a girl. We made a long stop for lunch and when we got to Penn Station I discovered that I had left my briefcase, full of money, in the restaurant. We rushed back and found the bag where I had left it, untouched. I attributed this mercy entirely to Harrison’s luck, for I couldn’t imagine that even in the Manhattan of 1943 the bag could have sat there inviolate, waiting for me to pick it up.

In Philadelphia we booked into the same hotel, Harrison of course with his girl. Around 2 a.m. he called to say a crisis had developed and he needed a favour: a girl in New York had found out where he was and was on her way from the station. Would I mind if he parked the other one in my room? Well, all right, I said, but won’t she mind? But she soon arrived, a little shy but seemingly neither angry nor unhappy. Next morning, a Sunday, both these women disappeared and we walked, along with numerous citizens of Philadelphia, across the bridge to Camden, New Jersey, Philadelphia then dry on Sundays. I had formed a vague plan, of no interest to Harrison, of finding out what Camden had done by way of commemorating its well-known resident, Walt Whitman. We paused at a bar and made friends with some relaxing locals; within the hour Harrison had gone off with a woman. I failed in my Whitman researches, never arduously prosecuted, and walked back across the Delaware alone.

I next saw him later in 1943, when he performed the trick that made him, for a while, famous. We had been sent to join the same carrier in Oregon, where lived a girl who rarely ceased to commend what she described as Harrison’s bedroom eyes. Eventually we had to leave what was then the delightful town of Portland and sail down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal, and north to New York. But Harrison wasn’t resigned to leaving this girl behind so easily; she took a trip to San Francisco and he wangled a flight from the carrier to that city, or near it, in an Avenger plane. He spent the afternoon in the city and then had himself flown back, rejoining the ship a hundred or so miles to the south. I have never heard of any similar escapade, though it is unlikely to have been unique in the annals of naval flying.

He was a bastard all right, but it was impossible not to admire him, in the Iceland years anyway, for dealing so competently with a problem that defeated almost everybody else. While they sat around exchanging reminiscences, groaning or giggling over Jane in ancient copies of the Daily Mirror, he was, in his chosen way, living. I remember a bald bold-faced officer, who often boasted about his sexual power and endurance, staring at the cover of some magazine bearing a picture of the Princess Elizabeth, then I suppose about sixteen. Suddenly he gave a sort of roaring moan and plunged his face into the breasts of that image, trembling with genuine or simulated lust. Nobody smiled, though Wykehamist eyebrows may have twitched. I could see that men in these circumstances thought of sex almost all the time, but not in any real sense of women. Sex coloured their ordinary language, but women were weird strangers, freaks with unusual genitals and abnormal breasts; they were a territory to be visited or subdued, natives to be propitiated by trinkets, flattery, or booze, before being occupied, in fantasy at any rate, by force.

Our way of life simply intensified an already existing sexual paranoia. No wonder behaviour generally got worse and worse. There were accidents of various kinds. A petty officer is knocked into the fjord by a carelessly hoisted buoy, quite dead when pulled out of the icy water a minute later. A taciturn trawler skipper falls asleep with his foot on the stove while working on his nightly bottle of whisky, and burns off a lot of the foot before the pain penetrates the stupor and wakes him up. There are many defaulters among the troops, and therefore many mulcts – but no deserters. Where would they desert to? The lava desert? Reykjavík, bristling with MPs?. And if they could dodge them, what next? There was no way of getting back to England.

Meanwhile, fleets steamed confidently into the unprotected harbour. They included those convoys which were to proceed, all too slowly, round the North Cape to Murmansk. Once we put on proper uniforms we’d long since given up for blue battle dress, except in Reykjavík, and were inspected by a baffled and rather cross admiral. After a year or so our discipline, such as it was, may be said to have faltered; Archer continued to dispense punishments, but less often and less severely. It was hard to devise any that seemed worse than the one we were already enduring. And there were few opportunities to commit great crimes. Homosexual conduct was of course possible, and that was a crime on which their lordships were unrelentingly hard; but no case was ever reported. It is difficult to believe there weren’t any, yet it is possible: it simply became the fashion for nothing to happen. We just sat and grew older as lightless winter followed nightless summer and the gales swept down the funnel of the fjord, commonplace emergencies by now, though once made unusually interesting because, to Archer’s delight, most of the army camp on the headland was lifted up and blown into the sea.

Very occasionally, in a protracted spell of calm weather, we risked a football match on the lava shore. Since the game was after lunch, and lunch was after a lot of pink gin, exhausted colleagues would soon be vomiting on the imaginary touchline. Another fine-weather diversion was pony-trekking. The ponies were small and feeble, probably because they couldn’t eat lava. Among our more dashing companions at the time was another doctor, Anglo-Irish, who had let it be understood that he was one of those hard-riding gentlemen like Major Robert Gregory, celebrated by Yeats for riding a race without a bit. He no sooner mounted his small beast than it reared and slowly bolted, dumping him onto the desert. Later I was told that this accident was more likely to happen to an experienced rider than to a novice, for Iceland ponies don’t behave like horses; they are to be mounted from the offside, and very gently, since they are not accustomed to leg contact and any such pressure makes them bolt. This no doubt explains the equestrian doctor’s humiliating fall. He remounted to loud cheers, and the party continued at walking pace, until it stopped at a farm for tea. You knocked at the door, cried ‘Bless!’ and were welcomed with tea, bread and butter, gravely served.

On one such excursion we had ridden across the dry bed of an inlet, to find, as we returned, that the incoming tide had filled it to a depth of some six feet, something we ought in common sense to have foreseen but hadn’t. We had to choose between a detour of some miles, which would be a slow business on these ponies, and simply forcing them to swim across. In fact, there was no real choice, for it was already getting dark; we had to go by water. My pony gave up about forty yards from the farther shore, which I reached independently. The doctor took a photograph of me emerging cold and wet, and because the light was late and strange, my image appeared on the print with a distinct halo. Meanwhile, my spectacles were at the bottom of the sea.

Back on board the doctor sent me to bed, warmly wrapped up but denied alcohol. He thus brought off three coups at once: he had at last found an emergency to deal with, he had a compromisingly absurd photograph and the prohibition of alcohol gave him his revenge for that unkind laughter. There followed three days of gales, and then, without hope that they would still be there and intact, I took a boat and went at low tide to seek my glasses. I found them at once, unharmed and gleaming, caught between two stones and washed clean by many Atlantic tides. I understood why people made grateful sacrifices to Poseidon.

However, most of our recreations had to take place on board. Archer had ordered a roulette wheel, two zeros, from England and set up a casino, with himself, of course, as banker. On the lower deck gambling games were illegal except for the virtually harmless Crown and Anchor, but we, it seemed, were allowed to lose money more stylishly. And so the time passed. What I felt to be an intolerable existence was, as it must now seem, better than endurable if you think of the conditions under which other people were living – in submarines and corvettes, in the rear turrets of bombers, even in Tube shelters, to say nothing of German and Japanese and Russian prison camps. But I was too young and too self-absorbed to dwell on such comparisons. I persisted in regarding this time as a prison sentence, however comfortable the gaol. If it was a prison at all it was a phoney prison, and I was becoming pretty phoney myself. Sometimes I was reconciled to the idea that I could go on eating and drinking too much, and losing small sums to Archer at cards and roulette, until, with all the others, I had grown grey, doddering around the dear old hideous ship while somebody in London, who might long ago have seen how hopeless and useless we were, was thinking of something else entirely.

And nothing continued to happen, until, after the best part of two years that somebody in London did tumble to the fact that we were never going to build the boom. Perhaps it couldn’t be done; what was by now clear was that we couldn’t do it. So once again we sailed away through the wreckage, back to the Clyde.

I was nearing the end of my connection with Archer, still thinking of him as mad, because the now enormous collection of groceries in his cabin couldn’t conceivably be got ashore and into the black market or the boarding-houses for which he must have intended it. Well, I couldn’t conceive it, but he could. He managed the whole thing very deftly with the aid of his friends, though I still feel I ought not to say how. More surprisingly, since his was after all surely a record of failure, he was promoted and joined his cronies in a shore establishment. His new lofty rank took him out of my range, but I did once run into him again.

Sierra went to refit in Liverpool, a port with which she obviously had a strong affinity, and her time in dock was marked by the usual illegal festivities. We left, this time for Algiers, with a new, sane, but odious captain, and for reasons I will shortly relate, I returned after a while to Liverpool to await passage to New York. I now had my last sight of Archer. I ran into him at the Adelphi, emerging from the dining-room with a blonde girl on his arm. It happened that I knew this woman, for she had turned up at dry-dock parties; indeed, I had inadvertently seen her naked in the bed of Archer’s successor, attended by a half-naked younger sister she was keen to initiate into pleasures she was still, though only just, reluctant to taste fully. In these circumstances Archer for once looked weary and rather pathetic, as if the fatigue attendant on his unremitting quest for women and goods was beginning at last to tell on him. He was suspicious, as he would not have been two years earlier, of the jocular endearments exchanged with his blonde. When he went out for a few minutes, she and I arranged to meet later that week. On his return Archer wanted to know what we had done or talked about in his absence. This was most unlike him. It seemed he now had many worries, not the least of which being that he was practically impotent and very restless in his attempts to disprove it. Or perhaps the girl had her reasons for telling me so, and I mine for wishing it to be so. Perhaps the impression I had of an Archer suddenly gone into a decline was born of a wish to see some justice done, a wish that he should not always be able to stand menacingly over the company, his face disfigured by the prospect of triumph, on the point of making his decisive trick.

Next morning I got my orders and sailed later that day for New York. I never saw Archer or his girls again. As for him, I suppose he must have died long ago. I still see him, linen perfect, bull head lowered, pig’s eyes glinting, voice a West Country din, fly open; his aim always to grab, cheat, outwit, penetrate. Any loss of force, any weakening of his ability to detect weakness in others – of the powers that made him so remarkable a cardplayer – would shortly be followed by total incapacity. He cannot, at close to a hundred years old, be sitting in one of his boarding-houses, breathing heavily over a card table or just staring at the sea or at women passing by on the seafront, his little eyes animated by hopeless calculations of lust or money, with Herbert at ninety simpering beside him. To have lived only for the sake of such designs and desires was to have suffered a kind of madness, possibly too common to have been recognised as such, but in the end certified by time itself. So let us, if only in mercy, consider him dead. As for his blonde, she sent me, a few weeks later, a clipping from her local newspaper announcing the double wedding of herself and her sister to two GIs, one from Kansas, one from New York State. There was no letter, but the mere sending of the clipping supplied the necessary Archerian overtones of triumph, of desire satisfied, of design vindicated, of avarice for the moment quieted. I hope their hedonism survived the test of the future. Here were the female complements of Archer, except that they had youth on their side – but not for ever.