21. "That we could sit simply in that room again…"
Caro reacted faster than any of us, and she seemed to know exactly where to go. We struggled to keep up with her; she ran as if she wanted to burst her heart. But I already knew what we would find.
She crashed through the study door with an inarticulate wail; there were servants converging on the room from all directions. I was first inside after her, bracing myself for what I would see.
Guy stood in front of the desk, a pistol clutched awkwardly in both his hands. Scattered on the floor at his feet were several unspent bullets. There was a wisp of smoke in the air, and an unfamiliar smell. Blackman was in the chair.
He was alive.
Caro threw herself over the desk with a shriek, and buried her head against her father’s shoulder. His hand came up to touch her hair; she sobbed wretchedly, harshly, as if she was having trouble breathing.
Guy came towards the door, pushed past us and handed the gun to a servant. ‘Go and throw this thing in the fucking lake. And then get rid of all the others.’
The man hurried away. Guy met my eyes, then put his hands up to his face and sank down against the door frame, his head bowing. Barbara crouched by him, resting her hand on his shoulder.
I felt completely helpless, out of place, in the way. Something needed to happen to break up this tableau, something to bring us all back to life. I exchanged a glance with the white-faced Vee, comforting Roxie just beyond the doorway.
A strangled sort of sound came from Caro. After a moment it made sense.
Blackman did not reply. He was mechanically patting his daughter’s head. Caro was quieter now, and after a moment she raised her head and looked at him.
‘I’m sorry…’ he whispered. ‘Guy shouldn’t have stopped me…’
Caro dropped her face, sobbing again. Guy’s head lifted for an instant, but he didn’t look round.
Barbara stood up slowly at Guy’s side. Her eyes met mine; there was such strength there that I felt calmer at once. She walked into the study and stood before the desk, still holding the coat around her.
‘Mr Blackman,’ she began softly, then paused. ‘Robert. I don’t pretend to know everything that’s going on here. I’m not vain enough to think that what happened to me has caused this, although it does seem to have been some sort of trigger. For whatever it’s worth, I’m perfectly all right. I have a few bruises on my upper arm and a slight, repairable tear in my dress. I was a little shocked, but I’m fully recovered now. Believe me when I say – the man who tried to attack me is more deserving of sympathy than I am. He will suffer far more.’
Blackman’s head came up slowly. Caro shifted on the desk, turning over, still hugging her father but looking at Barbara.
‘Please listen to me,’ said Barbara. ‘I want you to believe that whatever you think is wrong, is not a problem. Nothing is a problem if it’s looked at in the right way. I’ve…I’ve seen some remarkable things and some quite horrific things – I know what I’m talking about. I’ve felt as you probably do now, that life is just too much of a struggle to be worth the effort, that everything I’ve done and everything I’ve been has come to nothing and will help no one. I was wrong in those moments, as you are wrong now.
‘I want you to look at what you’ve got. Not the money, the business empire – I suspect you know how meaningless that is. If that was how you measured your worth, you’d have no reason for despair. No – look at what you have right here.’ She made a tiny gesture, indicating all of us. ‘Some of us here don’t know you very well – especially myself – but everyone here feels…I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say, a kind of love for you. I’m not talking about your children; you must know how they feel, even if you try to blind yourself to it. No, I’m talking about a young man, and two young women who came here because you have that rare gift, the ability to communicate across the generations. I think you do that simply by being yourself…and it was by being yourself that you utterly charmed me this evening and made me forget, for a few hours, a private hurt that I expected to have to simply endure for the next few weeks. All right, I think someone,’ she glanced at me, ‘told you I might need distracting. But there was nothing insincere about your interest in me. Thank you for that.
‘Also, let me mention the servants out in the passage. Several of them have tears in their eyes. I don’t doubt you pay more than most employers, but I’m sure that’s not why they work here. Just you be sure you remember that. There’s love out there, too.
‘And lastly, let me talk about your son and daughter. I don’t know Guy, but I’ve seen him behave with great presence of mind in difficult circumstances tonight – and his concern, his desire to right the wrong done me was much appreciated, if unnecessary. I do hope you’re proud of him.
‘And Caro…well, I know her rather better. In the short time we’ve been associating, I’ve come to greatly respect her intelligence and independence. And I have a friend who feels rather more strongly than that – and I place considerable store by his judgement, too. She’s a wholly remarkable young woman. And you—you helped to mould her into what she is today. You shaped both of them, guided them by your example. Just at the moment I can’t think of anyone I’ve known who can match that achievement.’
She paused. Blackman was looking at her still; his face was blank, but I was sure I saw a kind of light in his eyes, something that shone where before there had been only dull emptiness.
No one moved or spoke. Everything seemed frozen, waiting upon her. Barbara took a slow breath and went on.
‘But I’m sure you know all this. Whatever else you are you’re certainly not a stupid man. So…it must be something else. Something else underneath it all that’s been gnawing away at you, that is so…so fundamental it undermines everything you’ve done, everything you are. I don’t know, I can’t guess what that could be. I don’t know you well enough, I’ve never been in your position. All I can do at the moment is ask you, for a little while, to trust me when I say – everything will be all right. More than that – everything is all right. It always has been.’ She smiled with a touch of self-consciousness. ‘That may sound like the sheerest nonsense; I’m not going to give you evidence for the statement, or argue it logically. I just ask you to have faith, for a few minutes, in my judgement. I know this is true, as surely as I know the earth goes round the sun or that grass is green. It is a fact. Just look at your daughter, and ask yourself if the simple fact of her existence isn’t a kind of miracle – and then think about the miracle behind that, that you are aware of her, and yourself, and everything. "Life exists, and identity", Walt Whitman said. How easily we forget to marvel at that. Even in the darkest despair, in our loneliest moments, in the throes of the most awful agony – physical or emotional – even then we exist, we are aware. That is everything. Through us, the universe begins to know itself. Feel the wood of that desk beneath your fingers, Robert. For all our cleverness, our atom-smashing, relativistic science, we don’t have the faintest idea how that works. And I’m not talking about skin and nerves and electrical or chemical processes – I’m talking about consciousness. What is it? Where does it come from when we’re born, where does it go when we die?’
She stopped. Her hand brushed at the stray lock of hair that had fallen forward again.
‘One of the answers to that last question,’ she went on, slightly breathlessly, ‘is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s always here; waiting to manifest itself through another one of us, or through a bird, a cat, or even a plant, I don’t know. It is said there is no death or birth, that what is born and then passes away is just a temporary wave on the surface of the universal ocean. I could tell you I believe that – but I could also tell you how genuinely shocked and sad I was when I thought you might be gone. And in case none of what I’ve said so far had made any difference, let me finish with this.’ She leaned forward, putting her hands on the desk. ‘I’ve thought about suicide, more than once. When I was younger, I made a couple of stupid mistakes. And then, more recently, I thought I had no place in this world, that I’d become utterly estranged from everything I knew, everything I was. I thought I had no purpose. I don’t know now if that was an excess of humility – or some kind of outrageous arrogance, to believe that it should be granted to me to know what my purpose was. But I did come to an odd conclusion, thinking about suicide. Perhaps it won’t make much sense to you, but here it is. If you’re ready to kill yourself, really ready, you’re absolutely free. No one can hurt you any more. You can do whatever you want, walk away from whatever it is that’s hurting you, start anew, travel, write, pray, eat, fast, play football – whatever you want. The world has only as much power over you as you are prepared to grant it. And if you’re ready to kill yourself you’re saying to the world "You have no control over me; I am free to leave at any time I choose." You have nothing more to lose. That seems to me like a very special kind of freedom.’
She straightened up. ‘I’m sorry. I seem to have gone on endlessly. It isn’t my place to tell you anything about your own life; thank you at least for the courtesy you’ve shown me by listening. And let me add one final little thought. If there’s something, anything, any tiny thing you’ve always wanted to do but never found the time for…’ she spread her hands, then had to clutch at the coat to hold it on. ‘Why not do it now? Go and do it.’
She and Blackman faced each other. After a few seconds he swallowed slowly. Then he pulled Caro’s head close to him and pressed his lips against her hair. She turned her face to his and clamped their cheeks together, gripping him tight.
Barbara expelled a long breath and leaned against the desk. She turned slowly until she was sitting perched on the edge.
One of the servants, a small elderly man, moved from his position just outside the door. He went up to Barbara and spoke very softly. ‘If you’ll come with me, Madam, I think we can find something for you to change into. I’m sure you don’t want to be wearing that dress, not after…’
‘It was a present,’ said Barbara. ‘I want to keep it. It just needs—’
‘That will be seen to,’ said the man. ‘Mr Nicholls will make it as if it had never been torn. It will be ready for you when you leave in the morning.’ He touched Barbara’s arm, very gingerly. ‘Now – please, Madam..?’
‘Thank you.’ Barbara allowed herself to be escorted out. As they stepped out into the corridor Blackman called out softly: ‘Thank you, Wallis. Could you see that coffee is brought to the Brown Room, please? And have Miss Wright join us there as soon as she feels ready.’
The man murmured his assent, spoke a quiet command to some of the others, and was gone.
I turned and looked down. It was Vee, still holding Roxie in a huddle by the door. Roxie’s face was wet. Vee looked up at me. ‘D’you think you could get her to write that down? I wouldn’t mind shoving it under the noses of a few people I know.’
From somewhere I found my voice. ‘I doubt she’ll remember much of it.’
‘Yeah? I’ll never fucking forget it.’
There was movement from the desk. Blackman was gently unwrapping Caro’s arms from about him and standing up. Guy came to his feet at the same time, and Blackman looked at him. ‘Guy, you know where the Brown Room is. Will you show our guests there? I’ll join you shortly.’
Without thinking I went over and put my arms around Caro as she stood beside the desk looking at her father. She leaned her head back against my shoulder.
Blackman’s eyes came up to mine. ‘Do you think she meant what she said? Do you think she believed it?’
‘I don’t doubt it. Every single word.’
He smiled. ‘Yes. I thought so, too.’ He bent his head and kissed Caro’s hair. ‘Caroline, go with Guy and the others. I’ll be along in a minute.’
She looked at him, and he managed a stern expression. ‘You don’t think I’d be ungrateful enough to do anything stupid now, do you? After everything she said? I’d never insult a guest of mine in that manner. Go.’
She put an arm around my waist and allowed me to lead her out to the passage, where Guy stood with the two girls. We walked along in silence, down two passages and a short flight of stairs. Guy plucked a key from behind a hanging drape and unlocked a small door.
We entered a compact room, furnished with a four piece suite of brown leather arranged around a fireplace. There was a tiny window, set in what seemed to be a very thick wall. Guy lit some kind of oil lamp and lifted it up, moving it around so we could see. Around the walls were several paintings, large landscapes and portraits, and some miniatures. Some of the images looked familiar. I was sure they weren’t copies.
The room was cold. A servant came in and made straight for the fireplace. I saw that it was already well-stocked with logs and the man simply added some tinder and struck a match. He crouched there, tending the flame until he was sure it had caught the wood. Then he left without a word.
We sat down. Caro, me, Vee and Roxie on the settee, Guy in one of the chairs. This left a chair for Blackman and one for Barbara, and I wondered if Blackman had already been thinking that clearly when he asked for this room to be made ready. Somehow, I suspected he had.
We didn’t talk. As if of one mind we all watched the fire, losing ourselves in the growing flames. After a few minutes two men came in with trays, setting them down on a small, low table they pulled out from a corner of the room. There was coffee, biscuits and some expensive-looking chocolates. One of the men stood by the door when the other left, but Guy said softly, ‘Thank you, Simmons – we’ll serve ourselves. Just lock the study and send everyone to bed. We’ll clear up in the morning.’
The man left. Barbara appeared in the doorway, dressed in a baggy blue jumper and slacks that were slightly too long for her. She looked around her slowly. ‘This is cosy.’
‘It was my wife’s favourite room,’ came Blackman’s voice from behind her. He came in and carefully shut the door. ‘It hasn’t been used for nearly ten years.’ He gestured towards the chairs. ‘Please sit down.’
When they were both seated Guy poured the coffee and handed it around. We sat sipping for a minute or two; for some reason I felt I had never tasted coffee so gorgeous. I even asked Blackman if it was a different brand, but he shook his head.
‘We only use one – my own.’ His eyes shone in the firelight. ‘I suspect we’re all tasting things a little more intensely at the moment.’
Barbara dropped her eyes, but Blackman avoided looking at her. ‘I’ll try not to embarrass you by making any direct reference to what happened in the study,’ he said, ‘but I would like to hear a little more, at some point, of the ideas you were touching on while you were trying to show me what an ass I was. And about the things you’ve seen, too – I have a feeling that you were talking about something quite out of the ordinary.’
‘You could say that.’ Caro’s voice was almost inaudible.
There was silence for a few moments.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Blackman suddenly, ‘why I brought you all in here, except that I wanted to share the special atmosphere of this room with you all. We’ve shared a fair amount already tonight, after all. I suppose I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it wouldn’t do to simply take ourselves off to our beds and pretend tonight never happened. I feel I owe you all an explanation and an apology.
‘So, firstly, I’m sorry. Suicide is a selfish act – and the perpetrator hopes not to have to face the victims afterwards. However, I’m grateful to have the chance to do so.
‘As for an explanation…I don’t know. I can tell you I’ve felt at odds with the world for most of my life – but then I’m sure that’s true of a great many people. And I have often looked at my financial empire and wondered what the point of it is, where all my hard work has brought me to. But it’s easy to belittle material gain, worldly achievement. It may not be worth celebrating, but it’s not a cause for despair. No…what I think it comes down to, in the end, is the essential loneliness of the human condition. Even…even when you lay with someone you love, with their skin pressed against yours, you are alone. You can never truly know them, nor they you. We are all born alone and we die alone.’
He raised a hand. ‘Not original thoughts, I know. But then each of us thinks we are the first, the only ones, to have been truly in love when it strikes – why should despair be any different?’
He paused. Then: ‘Ross and I quarrelled this morning, before he left. I no longer remember what it was about – something utterly trivial, I have no doubt. But it left me feeling so isolated, so utterly alone…how is it that one person can do that to another, often without even intending to? We are so dependent on the goodwill of others, on their approval, on their affection.’
‘It…it is a mistake,’ said Barbara hesitantly. ‘Was it Emerson or Thoreau who said "nothing can bring you peace but yourself"? And yet that’s the last place we look.’
‘I don’t know the quotation,’ said Blackman after a moment. ‘But I can see that it must be true. Yourself, after all, is the only thing you always have. Everything in the world can be taken away from you – friends, lovers, wealth, possessions, home – or you can push them away. Your self is the only thing you can rely on to stay with you. The one constant.’
‘Another name for the Self,’ said Barbara, ‘is God.’
There was an angry clicking of the tongue from Vee. Blackman glanced at the girl, then looked at Barbara. ‘Please…go on. I’m listening. I’m assuming that you’re not trying to tell me that I am God.’
‘Well, no…not exactly. No more…than I am, or Guy is, or any of the others here. Or anyone else in the world. What I’m talking about is something that is common to all of us, a part of our make-up so fundamental that we take it entirely for granted; basic consciousness, the simple awareness of our existence. Strip each one of us of everything individual – name, physique, habits, memories, and finally, what you will come to is that essence, which is identical, not only in us, but in every living thing.’
‘Which is God,’ offered Guy uncertainly.
Barbara turned to him. ‘It is eternal, indestructible, and it knows everything. Doesn’t that sound like a fair basic definition of a deity?’
‘But is has no power,’ I pointed out. ‘If you’re talking about the root of consciousness, bare awareness, it can’t do anything. It can only observe. If you’re going to call it God, surely it should have some power.’
‘It doesn’t need any, because nothing affects it. Nothing else lasts; it is everlasting. Destroy one of its manifestations, its channels – like a human body – and it just pops up somewhere else.’ She paused. ‘There may exist powerful beings, closer to the idea we have of Gods – the nearest Hindu equivalent to the God of the Jews is called Ishwara – but even they are merely forms, collections of tendencies and thoughts, moulded from the same basic essence that lies at the core of each of us.’
‘This is clearly something you have thought about at some length,’ said Blackman slowly, ‘but I am inclined, at the moment, to agree with Conrad. If you’re trying to convince us of something, to sell us the idea that we are greater than we imagine, then some kind of power must be a part of that package.’
‘The only power we have,’ said Barbara, ‘is to step back, to disassociate ourselves from what happens, from our own actions and the effects of them, from the actions of others.’
‘That sounds like an abdication of responsibility,’ said Vee. ‘That’s one of things that bothers me about religion; you can take refuge in the Almighty whenever you make a mistake.’
‘The problem with responsibility,’ Barbara said after a moment, ‘is that we are not what we imagine ourselves to be. This border of skin that seems to enclose us – we take everything inside it to be us, and everything outside it to be other. In fact what happens is a complex series of interactions, and not one of them is actually anything to do with us. We don’t make mistakes, for two reasons – no mistakes are made, and we don’t do anything anyway.’
‘What?’ muttered Caro. ‘That’s stupid.’
‘I think,’ said Blackman, ‘without wishing to presume on your goodwill or tax your powers of explanation, that you’ll have to expand on that.’
Barbara smiled. ‘I’ll try. Please understand, I’m not setting myself up as an authority. I can only tell you what I’ve grasped of this teaching, and I can’t hold myself up as any kind of example of what I’m talking about – as Conrad can testify. But it has made things easier for me in the last few months – and more importantly, it seems to me to be a true picture of the universe.’
‘We’re listening,’ said Guy. He leaned over the table, poured another cup of coffee from the pot and gave it to Barbara.
‘Thank you.’ She sipped the coffee, then looked at the cup intently. ‘Perhaps that’s a good simple example. Guy just gave me some more coffee; that would be the usual way of looking at what just happened. In fact an arm moved, coffee was poured, and passed, and accepted – all any of us did was watch that happening.’
‘That’s Conrad’s speciality when it comes to drinks,’ murmured Caro.
Barbara smiled at her. ‘Well, he’ll be relieved to know he’s not alone.’
‘You’re saying,’ put in Roxie, ‘that Guy didn’t really do anything just then?’
‘Well…a body that has been given the name Guy certainly moved and poured the coffee – all I’m saying is that what acted wasn’t him. He is the observer, the consciousness watching. That’s all any of us are – in fact we’re the same consciousness.’
‘A kind of gestalt?’ asked Vee.
‘Nnnot really.’ Barbara shook her head. ‘As far as I know that term would apply to individual things that bond to form something greater. In this case there are no individuals.’
Vee pulled a face. ‘Listen – I was pretty fu—I was impressed with what you said earlier. But I can’t swallow this. Sorry.’
‘That’s all right. It does run counter to every common-sense notion we have about the way things are – or it seems to. Conrad and I have been over it several times and I’m not sure he’s any nearer to believing me.’
‘A little bit,’ I said. ‘This "no individuals" bit is the hardest thing, I guess.’
‘Go back to the coffee,’ said Guy. ‘You said I had nothing to do with it. I can accept – just about – that I am not my body, so I didn’t perform the physical act. But I had the idea that you might like some more, and that caused the action. Wasn’t that me?’
Barbara took a deep breath. ‘No. It was your mind – or just mind, to be more accurate. Think about it – where did the idea actually come from? Where do any of our thoughts come from? Not from us, but from memories and associations, things from outside – coffee, guest, cup, lift, pour; none of these things are anything to do with us. The mind puts them together in certain combinations, and action happens. We just watch.’
‘Ah,’ sighed Blackman. ‘And there was I thinking I’d built an empire.’ His eyes met hers. ‘And raised two children. I was given considerable credit for the latter act, as I recall.’
Barbara faced him squarely. ‘A collection of tendencies and memories called Robert Blackman was given credit by another collection called Barbara Wright. That’s all that happened. The mind that I call mine made patterns of words and presented them, via the power of speech, to your mind. You and I weren’t involved.’
‘And mistakes..?’ said Guy. ‘I seem to remember you saying no mistakes are ever made.’
‘More accurately, there are no such things. To go back to the coffee – had you poured it on the table, that would have been considered a mistake. But only relative to your intention to pour it in the cup. And if the coffee is all over the table, where is your intention in that moment? Nowhere. The reality is that the table is wet. The concept of mistakes comes from comparison – we hold up reality against an ideal, against what we would like it to be. Reality is what it is.’
‘So we should never try to change things?’ asked Roxie. ‘Never try to make things better…?’
Barbara gave her a sympathetic look. ‘Do absolutely everything you can,’ she said. ‘Just remember, when things appear to go wrong, it’s simply what’s happening, it’s not a disaster. "Disaster" is just a label we give things that don’t conform to our definition of another word – triumph.’
‘The two impostors,’ added Blackman.
‘Yes – I wonder how much of this was in Kipling’s mind when he wrote that?’
‘Okay,’ said Vee after a pause in which no one spoke, ‘it’s a pretty philosophy. Absence of individuals aside, I can accept it for the sake of argument. But if we do nothing, can’t take any credit for our triumphs or blame for our mistakes – what’s the point? It makes nothing worth doing.’
Barbara nodded. ‘There’s a vast gulf,’ she said, ‘between an intellectual grasp of these concepts and the reality of living in the full knowledge of the Truth. I don’t suppose any of us will achieve that in this lifetime. I met a man who had, and, although it took me a while to grasp the implications, I think that meeting changed my life.’ She looked at Vee. ‘I agree that it seems a bloodless, joyless kind of existence, merely observing while life goes on around us. But I’m convinced there’s a kind of bliss in it that we can hardly comprehend, that we perhaps catch occasional glimpses of, but which is normally so covered up by the activity of our minds…’ She stopped, and put a hand to her forehead. ‘I’m sorry, I seem to have started a sentence I can’t finish.’
Roxie laughed. Barbara looked around at us. ‘After tonight, I think I shall have to shut up for the rest of this year. I’m sorry – I obviously miss teaching more than I realised.’
‘Why don’t you go back to it?’ asked Blackman. ‘I’m sure you were superb.’
Barbara coloured slightly. ‘That’s a very long story,’ she said. ‘For another time. Let’s just say there’s a bit of a blot on my record.’
‘If there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask. I do have considerable influence in all sorts of places.’
‘That’s very kind.’
‘Hardly. Especially as apparently I have nothing to do with the offer. Thank my mind.’
Guy looked at his watch. ‘I think maybe now we’re ready for bed.’
Roxie leaned towards Barbara. ‘Just one thing.’
‘Well, me and Vee…and Guy, and…well, you know what the Bible says about us.’
‘It mentions the men, anyway,’ muttered Vee.
Roxie stared earnestly at Barbara. ‘What does this…this teaching say about us?’
Barbara’s face was thoughtful. ‘I…haven’t much experience…I haven’t known anyone like you before. All I can tell you is what I’ve read. If you believe in reincarnation, it is said that the circumstances of life are chosen by each soul, in order to learn certain lessons – and also, that each soul is given everything it needs to reach realisation, enlightenment.’ She smiled. ‘And remember – there are no such things as mistakes. Whatever you are – is what you’re meant to be. It all depends on what you do with what you are.’
‘Even though you can’t do anything,’ shot Vee. But Roxie shushed her and nodded at Barbara. ‘Thanks.’
Barbara spread her hands. ‘Truly, it’s nothing to do with me. I admit, I was a little uncomfortable at first, with the idea of you and the things you were saying. But if we’re shown everything for a reason – chiefly, I think, to learn to love – then my meeting you has borne fruit. We only have to spend a little time with people, to look at them properly, to see that…well, that they are worthy of love.’
‘All people?’ asked Blackman.
Barbara gave him a wry smile. ‘Remind me to tell you about some overgrown pepper-pots I encountered,’ she said. ‘Sometimes it is difficult.’