09 November 2016

He thought: there’ll be time enough in the years ahead sixty years—to repent of this. Go to a priest. Say: ‘Father, I’ve committed murder twice. And there was a girl—she killed herself.’ Even if death came suddenly, driving home tonight, the smash on the lamp-post—there was still ‘between the stirrup and the ground’.

The houses on one side ceased altogether, and the sea came back to them, beating at the undercliff drive, a darkness and deep sound. He wasn’t really deceiving himself—he’d learnt the other day that when the time was short there were other things than contrition to think about. It ­didn’t matter anyway . . . he wasn’t made for peace, he couldn’t believe in it. Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust. A brain was only capable of what it could conceive, and it couldn’t conceive what it had never experienced; his cells were formed of the cement school-playground, the dead fire and the dying man in the St Pancras waiting-room, his bed at Frank’s and his parents’ bed. An awful resentment stirred in him—why shouldn’t he have had his chance like all the rest, seen his glimpse of heaven if it was only a crack between the Brighton walls . . .

He turned as they went down to Rottingdean and took a long look at her as if she might be it—but the brain couldn’t conceive—he saw a mouth which wanted the sexual embrace, the shape of breasts demanding a child. Oh, she was good all right, he supposed, but she wasn’t good enough: he’d got her down.

Above Rottingdean the new villas began: pipe-dream architecture: up on the downs the obscure skeleton of a nursing home, winged like an aeroplane. He said, ‘They won’t hear us in the country.’ The lights petered out along the road to Peacehaven: the chalk of a new cutting flapped like white sheets in the headlight: cars came down on them blinding them. He said, ‘The battery’s low.’

She had the sense that he was a thousand miles away—his thoughts had gone on beyond the act she couldn’t tell where. He was wise; he was foreseeing, she thought, things she couldn’t ­conceive—eternal punishment, the flames . . . She felt terror, the idea of pain shook her, their purpose drove up in a flurry of rain against the old stained windscreen. This road led nowhere else. It was said to be the worst act of all, the act of despair, the sin without forgiveness; sitting there in the smell of petrol she tried to realize despair, the mortal sin, but she couldn’t; it didn’t feel like despair. He was going to damn himself, but she was going to show them that they couldn’t damn him without damning her too. There was nothing he could do, she wouldn’t do: she felt capable of sharing any murder. A light lit his face and left it; a frown, a thought, a child’s face. She felt responsibility move in her breasts; she wouldn’t let him go into that darkness alone.

The Peacehaven streets began, running out towards the cliffs and the downs: thorn-bushes grew up round the To Let boards; streets ended in obscurity, in a pool of water and in salty grass. It was like the last effort of despairing pioneers to break new country. The country had broken them. He said, ‘We’ll go to the hotel and have a drink and then—I know the right place.’

The rain was coming tentatively down; it beat on the faded scarlet doors of Lureland, the poster of next week’s Whist Drive and last week’s Dance. They ran for it to the hotel door. In the lounge there was nobody at all—white marble statuettes and on the green dado above the panelled walls Tudor roses and lilies picked out in gold. Siphons stood about on blue-topped tables, and on the stained-glass windows medieval ships tossed on cold curling waves. Somebody had broken the hands off one of the statuettes—or perhaps it was made like that, something classical in white drapery, a symbol of victory or despair. The Boy rang a bell and a boy of his own age came out of the public bar to take his order: they were oddly alike and allusively different—narrow shoulders, thin face, they bristled like dogs at the sight of each other.

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