Monday, 9 May 2016

Chapter Eleven. The Reading Club.

Days turned into weeks before my body would answer. Throughout that time I saw only Halas - he had refrained, like a sensible man, from pressing his sisters into service as nurses (I could only imagine the explosion should he attempt to do so with Milena) and so the heavy work of lifting and bracing me as I shuffled around, not to mention all the base work of cleaning and tidying, fell to Halas alone. And through this means we progressed from doctor and patient to host and guest, and thence to friends and fellow-travellers.

The Liberal Reading Club conducted its affairs in German, much to my relief. While, as I learned from hearing their gossip, there were many  wilder nationalist groups among the debating societies of Prague - Young Czechs, Old Czechs, Realists, Progressives and so forth - Halas and his little coterie seemed to take a certain degree of pride in rising above the nationalist fray. Hence German, the lingua franca of Austria and of all of Middle Europe, rather than Czech, the nationalists’ shibboleth.

“Only Czech national spirit is Becherovka!” Halas remarked to me in English, chuckling volcanically - like many of his countrymen, the famous Masaryk among them, he had learned English with an eye to emigration. Fortunately for me he had not carried his plans through, and had no relatives in the New World, and little knowledge of the country to trip me up. His idealistic view of the great people’s republic across the ocean had remained untarnished by contact with reality.

Thus, as his guest, I lent the Liberal Reading Club a certain degree of foreign glamour (albeit borrowed). I could talk with them in German, and I was a Socialist, and an American, and best of all from a Czech point of view a brewer - they could not have taken me to their hearts more readily.

And I admit that my own enthusiasm was not entirely pretence. I listened to one of the Club’s more garrulous members, an elderly lawyer called Kustnitz, explain how Socialism grows faster in cities, where the mutual dependence of man on man is forced on his attention - unlike the countryside, where the “idiotismus of rural life” is allowed to persist, because the farmer can fool himself into believing he is self-sufficient, and the fetters of landlord and tenant, or master and servant, still yoke men into old feudal habits of thought.
“Mutual aid!” Kustnitz cried. “Man is at his heart a specialised social monkey. We can no more survive alone than a single cell from our bodies can live by itself.” The upshot of this was, he went on, that a proper Socialist government should concentrate its efforts on the cities, and should confine itself to creating the conditions there under which mutual aid could flourish - root out the dominance of concentrated capital and coercion, and let Man get on with organising himself into a network of little corporations treating with each other on terms of equality.

His point about mutual aid rang true with me. Though I didn’t cite my own experience - in that peaceful year of 1904 it would have sounded completely incongruous - the city may be a great forcing ground for practical socialism, but the fighting infantry battalion was even better. The importance of rank seemed to dwindle after a little time in the Line - not least, I suspected, because of the delight snipers seemed to take in removing from a battalion any officers who too visibly demanded their perquisites of respect and deference. And food, water, property and all the essentials of life were in practice very largely held in common - only the luxuries of life, such as tobacco or loot, were traded.

I mentioned this to Kustnitz, attributing the observation to a mythical grandfather who had served in the trenches outside Vicksburg (I was vaguely aware that some sort of siege had taken place there during the American civil war in the sixties). He and the others snapped it up at first as an example of man’s natural tendency towards mutual aid. Halas, who had been listening quietly to Kustnitz’s latest enthusiasm with the tolerance of familiarity, remarked in a cynical tone (sounding for a moment rather like his sister; and how she would have made mincemeat of the rhetoric of the Liberal Reading Club!) that it was a shame that it took the last of the great industrial wars to create this cooperative spirit. With Europe sure to be at peace for their lifetimes, how was this helpful spontaneous socialism to be produced?

Kustnitz hemmed and hawed a little. Perhaps, he said, the same spirit of cooperation in the face of danger could be evoked in other ways. After all, warfare was not the only way in which national glory could be assured - look at Herr Nansen, the polar explorer, now the hero of his native Norway. Why, hadn’t the British, after they had secured the oceans for their own use, diverted the undoubted courage of their young naval officers towards the Arctic? Ross, Parry, Franklin and the others had made their names no less immortal than had Saumarez and Hardy and Cochrane.

Silber, an elderly Jewish-looking fellow who had the air of a librarian, cleared his throat at this point. The supply of unexplored polar ice was rapidly diminishing, he pointed out - as was the supply of unclimbed mountains and uncharted jungles.There were in fact very few good opportunities for heroic exploration left on the face of the earth. And while it might be appealling to envision the nations of the world packing their young heroes into barrels on the tops of giant firework rockets and shooting them off into the sky in order for them to compete for national glory by planting flags in the heavens, it did not seem like a practical political manifesto in the short term. (I enjoyed Silber’s bone-dry ironic humour; in my experience it comes as naturally to the Jew as singing does to the Irishman.) In any case, he added, was socialism not supposed to be an international movement? How could that be created in a nursery of competition between nations? Was Kustnitz calling for some sort of socialist nationalism?

So the evenings would go. No soldier is a stranger to long conversation - our trade is waiting on events, and I had talked back and forth in every direction, on politics or art or football or women, in dugouts and huts and rest camps and railway waggons all along the Front. But it was getting me no closer to Volkoff.

It was that evening, though, as Halas and I were returning home, that fate intervened; all my progress in recovery over the weeks since my arrival was torn away. My limbs refused to answer and I half-collapsed against a wall - Halas’ arm under my elbow keeping me from falling flat, as I felt again the awful sense of damage which had smashed into me during my journey here from the Tolong La. I felt sweat break out across my skin despite the chill of the late evening air, and tears well up in my eyes, and my arms and legs begin to convulse like those of a newly hanged man. And through the tears I saw another set of visions - as disturbing, but far more familiar, than those which had haunted me on my first fall through time.

The Liberal Reading Club met in the upper room of a coffee house in Mala Strana, and the streets had still been busy as we set out to walk the couple of miles home, with the occasional late tram rushing past in a clatter of rails towards the bridges - and then, in a magic-lantern flicker, the trams were gone and so were most of Halas’ well-dressed fellow citizens, and the little coterie of happily drunken students engaged in a vigorous debate by the streetlamp on the corner. Grass - grass! - was growing up through the cobbles now and only a few pinched and shabby old folk shuffled along the pavement, and the little flower garden planted at the roundabout ahead, where the tramlines swept round by the wall of the St Nicholas Church, was disfigured with a huge pillar of wood, adorned with portraits of stern German and Austrian generals and studded up to head height with a scattershot of black iron nails. The jolly houses and taverns along the street had darkened, many had closed their shutters, and even the air seemed thin and cold, and reeking of cheap coal and starvation rations.

I must have pushed back mentally against this vision of 1916, somehow, but the effort was too great, for I felt a splitting pain in my skull and then nothing more. 

My senses returned in flashes of light breaking this darkness - many of them with the seem nightmare quality as the first. The trams and bustling fiacres and cabs would give way to the occasional motor-car, a theatre crowd flooding onto the street would be replaced by a few huddled soldiers sharing a cigarette out of the wind. And, when I finally struggled back to wakefulness in an iron-framed hospital bed, the high-ceilinged ward in which I lay was for a moment peaceful and empty - and then, in sickening flashes, bustling with grey-faced nurses in once-white uniforms worn and grey as well with use and laundering, and every bed with a gravely wounded occupant.

Nothing else in that room illuminated the contrast between past and present (present and future?) better than she did. I never saw her in those flashes forward to the wartime hospital, and I am glad I never saw her worn and tired and heartsick from the endless labour of dealing with the wounded of the War, but when I saw her as she was she seemed to be everything that was best and most sorely lost about Europe in the years of peace.

I had seen her many times before I learned her name - the other staff, the nurses and orderlies and the physicians - referred to her merely as “the lady doctor”, with a look and a tone that ranged from scorn to amusement to respect to envy to adulation. She was dressed always in dark grey, very plain, and though she was small and slight I saw her lift and move grown adults from bed to chair - when she was impatient of waiting for her colleagues or the nurses or orderlies to help - with a kind of wrestler’s mastery of strength and leverage. Her face was dark and oval, and always calm and serious, and when she paused to think  before speaking her mouth would turn down at one corner and a little vertical line appear between her straight black eyebrows, which she would unthinkingly reach up and rub out of existence like a pencil mark.

Her name, I learned, was Barbara - and she wore always at her throat a cameo brooch of a tower with three windows and a lightning bolt, the markings of the tarot card signifying upheaval and the downfall of order, and the attributes of the saint who protects all those in danger of sudden death.

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