The Problem of Susan
She has the dream again that night.
In the dream, she is standing, with her brothers and her sister, on the edge of the battlefield. It is summer, and the grass is a peculiarly vivid shade of green: a wholesome green, like a cricket pitch or the welcoming slope of the South Downs as you make your way north from the coast. There are bodies on the grass. None of the bodies are human; she can see a centaur, its throat slit, on the grass near her. The horse half of it is a vivid chestnut. Its human skin is nut-brown from the sun. She finds herself staring at the horse’s penis, wondering about centaurs mating, imagines being kissed by that bearded face. Her eyes flick to the cut throat, and the sticky red-black pool that surrounds it, and she shivers.
Flies buzz about the corpses.
The wildflowers tangle in the grass. They bloomed yesterday for the first time in, how long? A hundred years? A thousand? A hundred thousand? She does not know.
All this was snow, she thinks, as she looks at the battlefield. Yesterday, all this was snow. Always winter, and never Christmas. Her sister tugs her hand and points. On the brow of the green hill they, stand, deep in conversation. The lion is golden, his hands folded behind his back. The witch is dressed all in white. Right now she is shouting at the lion, who is simply listening. The children cannot make out any of their words, not her cold anger or the lion’s thrum-deep replies. The witch’s hair is black and shiny; her lips are red.
In her dream she notices these things.
They will finish their conversation soon, the lion and the witch…. There are things about herself that the professor despises. Her smell, for example. She smells like her grandmother smelled, like old women smell, and for this she cannot forgive herself, so on waking, she bathes in scented water and, naked and towel-dried, dabs several drops of Chanel toilet water beneath her arms and on her neck. It is, she believes, her sole extravagance.
Today she dresses in her dark brown dress suit. She thinks of these as her interview clothes, as opposed to her lecture clothes or her knocking-about-the-house clothes. Now she is in retirement, she wears her knocking-about-the-house clothes more and more. She puts on lipstick.
After breakfast, she washes a milk bottle, places it at her back door. She discovers that next-door’s cat has deposited a mouse head, and a paw, on the doormat. It looks as though the mouse is swimming through the coconut matting, as though most of it is submerged. She purses her lips, then she folds her copy of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, and she folds and flips the mouse head and the paw into the newspaper, never touching them with her hands. Today’s Daily Telegraph is waiting for her in the hall, along with several letters, which she inspects, without opening any of them, and then places on the desk in her tiny study. Since her retirement, she visits her study only to write. Now she walks into the kitchen and seats herself at the old oak table. Her reading glasses hang about her neck, on a silver chain, and she perches them on her nose, and begins with the obituaries.
She does not actually expect to encounter anyone she knows there, but the world is small, and she observes that, perhaps with cruel humour, the obituarists have run a photograph of Peter Burrell Gunn as he was in the early 1950s, and not at all as he was the last time the professor had seen him, at a Literary Monthly Christmas party several years before, all gouty and beaky and trembling, and reminding her of nothing so much as a caricature of an owl. In the photograph, he is very beautiful. He looks wild, and noble. She had spent an evening once kissing him in a summer house: she remembers that very clearly, although she cannot remember for the life of her in which garden the summer house had belonged. It was, she decides, Charles and Nadia Reid’s house in the country. Which meant that it was before Nadia ran away with that Scottish artist, and Charles took the professor with him to Spain, although she was certainly not a professor then. This was many years before people commonly went to Spain for their holidays; it was exotic then. He asked her to marry him, too, and she is no longer certain why she said no, or even if she had entirely said no. He was a pleasant-enough young man, and he took what was left of her virginity on a blanket on a Spanish beach, on a warm spring night. She was twenty years old, and had thought herself so old…. The doorbell chimes, and she puts down the paper, and makes her way to the front door, and opens it.
Her first thought is how young the girl looks.
Her first thought is how old the woman looks. “Professor Hastings?” she says. “I’m Greta Campion. I’m doing the profile on you. For the Literary Chronicle.”
The older woman stares at her for a moment, vulnerable, and ancient; then she smiles. It’s a friendly smile, and Greta warms to her. “Come in, dear,” says the professor. “We’ll be in the sitting room.”
“I brought you this,” says Greta. “I baked it myself.” She takes the cake tin from her bag, hoping its contents haven’t disintegrated en route. “It’s a chocolate cake. I read online that you liked them.” The old woman nods, and blinks. “I do,” she says. “How kind. This way.”
Greta follows her into a comfortable room, is shown to her armchair, and told, firmly, not to move. The professor bustles off and returns with a tray, on which are teacups and saucers, a teapot, a plate of chocolate biscuits, and Greta’s chocolate cake.
Tea is poured, and Greta exclaims over the professor’s brooch, and then she pulls out her notebook and pen, and a copy of the professor’s last book, A Quest for Meanings in Children’s Fiction, bristling with Post-it notes and scraps of paper. They talk about the early chapters, in which the hypothesis is set forth that there was originally no distinct branch of fiction that was intended only for children, until the Victorian notions of the purity and sanctity of childhood demanded that fiction for children be made …
” . . well, pure,” says the professor.
“And sanctified?” asks Greta, with a smile.
“And sanctimonious,” corrects the old woman. “It is difficult to read The Water Babies without wincing.”
And then she talks about ways that artists used to draw children as adults, only smaller, without considering the child’s proportions, and how Grimm’s stories were collected for adults and, when the Grimms realised the books were being read in the nursery, were bowdlerized to make them more appropriate. She talks of Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood and of its original coda in which the prince’s cannibal ogre mother attempts to frame the Sleeping Beauty for having eaten her own children, and all the while Greta nods and takes notes, and nervously tries to contribute enough to the conversation that the professor will feel that it is a conversation or at least an interview, not a lecture.
“Where,” asks Greta, “do you feel your interest in children’s fiction came from?
The professor shakes her head. “Where do any of our interests come from? Where does your interest in children’s books come from?”
Greta says, “They always seemed the books that were most important to me. The ones that mattered. When I was a kid, and when I grew. I was like Dahl’s Matilda.. . . Were your family great readers?”
“Not really . . . I say that, it was a long time ago that they died. Were killed. I should say.”
“All your family died at the same time? Was this in the war?”
“No, dear. We were evacuees, in the war. This was in a train crash, several years after. I was not there.”
“Just like in Lewis’s Narnia books,” says Greta, and immediately feels like a fool, and an insensitive fool. “I’m sorry. That was a terrible thing to say, wasn’t it?”
“Was it, dear?”
Greta can feel herself blushing, and she says, “It’s just I remember that seq
uence so vividly. In The Last Battle. Where you learn there was a train crash on the way back to school, and everyone was killed. Except for Susan, of course.”
The professor says, “More tea, dear?” and Greta knows that she should leave the subject, but she says, “You know, that used to make me so angry.”
“What did, dear?”
“Susan. All the other kids go off to Paradise, and Susan can’t go. She’s no longer a friend of Narma because she’s too fond of lipsticks and nylons and invitations to parties. I even talked to my English teacher about it, about the problem of Susan, when I was twelve.”
She’ll leave the subject now, talk about the role of children’s fiction in creating the belief systems we adopt as adults, but the professor says “And tell me, dear, what did your teacher say?” “She said that even though Susan had refused Paradise then, she still had time while she lived to repent.”
“Not believing, I suppose. And the sin of Eve.”
The professor cuts herself a slice of chocolate cake. She seems to be remembering And then she says, “I doubt there was much opportunity for nylons and lipsticks after her family was killed. There certainly wasn’t for me. A little moneyless than one might imagine, from her parents’ estate, to lodge and feed her. No luxuries . . .”
“There must have been something else wrong with Susan,” says the young journalist, “something they didn’t tell us. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been damned like that, denied the Heaven of further up and further in. I mean, all the people she had ever cared for had gone on to their reward, in a world of magic and waterfalls and joy. And she was left behind.”
“I don’t know about the girl in the books,” says the professor, “but remaining behind would also have meant that she was available to identify her brothers’ and her little sister’s bodies. There were a lot of people dead in that crash. I was taken to a nearby school, it was the first day of term, and they had taken the bodies there. My older brother looked okay. Like he was asleep. The other two were a bit messier.”
“I suppose Susan would have seen their bodies, and thought, they’re on holidays now. The perfect school holidays. Romping in meadows with talking animals, world without end.”
“She might have done. I remember thinking what a great deal of damage a train can do, when it hits another train, to the people who were travelling. I suppose you’ve never had to identify a body, dear?”
“That’s a blessing. I remember looking at them and thinking, What if I’m wrong, what if it’s not him after all? My younger brother was decapitated, you know. A god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies, to identify Ed, well . . . he’s enjoying himself a bit too much, isn’t he? Like a cat, getting the last ounce of enjoyment out of a mouse. Or a gram of enjoyment, I suppose it must be, these days. I don’t know, really.”
She trails off. And then, after some time, she says, “I’m sorry, dear. I don’t think I can do any more of this today. Perhaps if your editor gives me a ring, we can set a time to finish our conversation.”
Greta nods and says of course, and knows in her heart, with a peculiar finality, that they will talk no more.
That night, the professor climbs the stairs of her house, slowly, painstakingly, floor by floor. She takes sheets and blankets from the airing cupboard and makes up a bed in the spare bedroom, in the back. It is empty but for a wartime austerity dressing table, with a mirror and drawers, an oak bed, and a dusty applewood wardrobe, which contains only coat hangers and a dusty cardboard box. She places a vase on the dressing table, containing purple rhododendron flowers, sticky and vulgar.
She takes from the box in the wardrobe a plastic bag containing four old photographic albums. Then she climbs into the bed that was hers as a child, and lies there between the sheets, looking at the black and white photographs, and the sepia photographs, and the handful of unconvincing colour photographs. She looks at her brothers, and her sister, and her parents, and she wonders how they could have been that young, how anybody could have been that young.
After a while she notices that there are several children’s books beside the bed, which puzzles her slightly, because she does not believe she keeps books on the bedside table in that room. Nor, she decides, does she have a bedside table. On the top of the pile is an old paperback book it must be over forty years old: the price on the cover is in shillings. It shows a lion, and two girls twining a daisy chain into its mane.
The professor’s lips prickle with shock. And only then does she understand that she is dreaming, for she does not keep those books in the house. Beneath the paperback is a hardback, in its jacket, of a book that, in her dream, she has always wanted to read: Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn, which P. L. Travers had never written while alive.
She picks it up and opens it to the middle, and reads the story waiting for her. Jane and Michael go with Mary Poppins on her day off, to Heaven, and they meet the boy Jesus, who is still slightly scared of Mary Poppins because she was once his nanny, and the Holy Ghost, who complains that he has not been able to get his sheet properly white since Mary Poppins left, and God the Father, who says, “There’s no making her do anything. Not her. She’s Mary Poppins.” “But you’re God,” said Jane. “You created every body and everything. They have to do what you say.”
“Not her,” said God the Father once again, and he scratched his golden beard flecked with white. “I didn’t create her. She’s Mary Poppins.”
And the professor stirs in her sleep, and dreams that she is reading her own obituary. It has been a good life, she thinks, as she reads it, discovering her life laid out in black and white. Everyone is there. Even the people she had forgotten.
Greta sleeps beside her boyfriend in a small flat in Camden, and she, too, is dreaming.
In the dream, the lion and the witch come down the hill together. She is standing on the battlefield, holding her sister’s hand. She looks up at the golden lion, and the burning amber of his eyes. “He’s not a tame lion, is be?” she whispers to her sister, and they shiver.
The witch looks at them all, then she turns to the lion and says, coldly, “I am satisfied with the terms of our agreement. You take the girls: for myself, I shall have the boys.”
She understands what must have happened, and she runs, but the beast is upon her before she has covered a dozen paces. The lion eats all of her except her head, in her dream. He leaves the head, and one of her hands, just as a house cat leaves the parts of a mouse it has no desire for, for later, or as a gift.
She wishes that he had eaten her head, then she would not have had to look. Dead eyelids cannot be closed, and she stares, unflinching, at the twisted thing her brothers have become. The great beast ate her little sister more slowly, and it seemed to her, with more relish and pleasure, than it had eaten her; but then, her little sister had always been its favourite.
The witch removes her white robes, revealing a body no less white, with high, small breasts, and nipples so dark, they are almost black. The witch lies back upon the grass, spreads her legs. Beneath her body, the grass becomes rimed with frost.
“Now,” she says.
The lion licks her white cleft with its pink tongue, until she can take no more of it, and she pulls its huge mouth to hers, and wraps her icy legs into its golden fur. . .
Being dead, the eyes in the head on the grass cannot look away.
Being dead, they miss nothing. And when they are done, sweaty and sticky and sated, only, then does the lion amble over to the head on the grass, and devour it in its huge mouth, crunching her skull in its powerful jaws, and it is then, only then, that she wakes.
Her heart is pounding. She tries t
o wake her boyfriend, but he snores and grunts, and will not rouse.
It’s true, Greta thinks, irrationally, in the darkness. She grew up. She carried on. She didn’t die…
She imagines the professor, waking in the night, and listening to the noises coming from the old applewood wardrobe in the corner: to the rustlings of all these gliding ghosts, which might be mistaken for the scurries of mice or rats, and to the padding of enormous velvet paws, and the distant, dangerous music of a hunting horn. She knows she is being ridiculous, although she will not be surprised when she reads of the professor’s demise. Death comes in the night, she thinks, before she returns to sleep. Like a lion. The white witch rides naked on the lion’s golden back. Its muzzle is spotted with fresh, scarlet blood. Then the vast pinkness of its tongue wipes around its face, and once more it is perfectly clean.