A Robert Aickman pastiche, and a great story in its own right…


HUMAN HABITATION by Elizabeth Bowen

“They chose the canals of middle England; ‘There’s a regular network of ’em,’ said Jameson, ‘and you see some awfully jolly country. One reads a lot of poetry and stuff against the Midlands, but personally I think they’re fine. And from our point of view, entirely undiscovered.”

Jameson and Jefferies are students on a walking tour of the Midland canals and the odd barges they see in the utterly rainy darkness, their matches spent to look at maps or light pipes, so as utterly lost as they are rained upon. I once spent a time on the Midland canals in such utter rain, during the 1980s. And no doubt so did Robert Aickman (who was a major figure in Canal administration in real life) of whose work this seems to be a pastiche, even a lampoon, and a mighty Aickman story it is in its own right. How had I not clocked it before? I am going to do the unforgivable and quote huge important chunks from this story below, as the two men manage to reach a human habitation with a girl and her aunt anxiously waiting for a man called Willy to arrive. Was he the shorter shape glimpsed by one J, a shadowy third shape seen walking beside the other J earlier, I wonder? This is an enormously important story, full of faux idealism and dark corners — and church spires worthy of M.R. James. Beautifully and imaginatively written. Did J and J eat Willie’s kippers? And are J and J representative of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens’ version of Zeno’s Paradox? And are these the high philosophies of its time and thoughts of the relationships of men and women? And note the important elbow below that I have italicised.

“Girls, you know, absolute butterflies, and fellows who ought to be working.’
‘Sick’ning,’ had said Jefferies, who also disapproved.”

“At the first prow a bargee was visible, dusky and inhuman; another man walked at the head of the first horse.”

“And beside that big, mindless body trudged another smaller body, shuffling, sometimes desperately changing step in an attempt to establish rhythm. On to these two bodies the dulling eyes of Jefferies’ mind looked out. He thought dimly, ‘If I lose consciousness of myself, shall I leave off being? I don’t believe in Jameson, I don’t believe he’s even there; there’s just something, if I put out my hand, to obstruct it; something against which I should fall if I fell towards the canal, sideways. Why should the fact that one of those men’s legs ache bother me? I don’t believe in either of them. Curse, how my legs ache! Curse my legs! There was once a man called Jameson, who asked a man called Jefferies to walk with him for years and years along a canal, and – they walked and walked till Jefferies forgot himself and forgot what he had ever been. What happened then? I can’t remember … Curse, I’m potty. Oh, curse my legs, they’re real anyhow. But are they? Perhaps somebody somewhere else feels a pain and thinks it is a pain in a man called Jefferies’ legs, and so there seems to be a man called Jefferies with his legs aching, walking in the rain. But am I the person who is feeling the pain somewhere else, or am I what they imagine?’ He was, he decided, something somebody else had thought; he felt utterly objective, walking, walking. Such a silence, it might have been a night in May … He put his hand out and brushed it along the hedge; the hedge was always there, and the rain soaked silently through it.”

“You see, all we shall have done is simply to have come two sides of a triangle. That is all we shall have done. It’s bad luck, isn’t it – we have had a run of bad luck.’ […] she leaned against the window frame, keeping the blind pushed sideways into folds with one elbow. They saw her form against the dim, dark-yellow lamplight — Woman, all the women of the world, hailing them home with relief and expectation.”

“‘Yes,’ said Jefferies. ‘Let’s go on.’ It tired him worse, just standing there. So they went on walking. They did not believe, perhaps, that they gained very much by walking; everything had slipped away from them. They just kept on for the sake of keeping on, and because they could not talk, they could not think. Jefferies felt as though an effort at coherent thought would bring about some rupture in his brain. He had begun to believe vaguely – the thing took form in his brain nebulously without any very definite mental process – that they had stepped unnoticingly over a threshold into some dead and empty hulk of a world drawn up alongside, at times dangerously accessible to the unwary. There was a canal there, but were there not canals in the moon – or was it Mars? The motionless water silently accompanied them, always just beyond Jameson, a half-tone paler than the sky – it was like a line ruled with a slate-pencil, meaninglessly, across some forgotten slate that has been put away.”

“It did seem to Jefferies a game that they were all playing, a game that for her life’s sake she must win; and every dish and bowl and knife that she put down to glitter under the lamp seemed a concession she was making to opponents, a handicap she was accepting.”

“The Aunt, looking into the lamp, tucked in her lips, refolded her hands with precision, and settled down into her bosom. A clock with a big round face ticked loudly on the mantel;…”

“‘There’s eggs, Auntie; I’ll just do up a few eggs.’
‘And yet it does seem a pity not to eat the kippers!’ said Auntie thoughtfully.”

“Jameson, a creature of more easy expansions, had thawed visibly to his very depths. He beamed; his lips, slimy with excitement, glittered in the lamplight; he held the table. Aunt said ‘Well, I never!’ to him when she paused to take another slice of bread, or push her empty cup across to be refilled; the girl, while part of her mind (to Jefferies’ understanding) still stood sentinel, leaned towards Jameson with startled eyebrows over the teapot. He painted that new Earth which was to be a new Heaven for them, which he, Jameson, and others were to be swift to bring about. He intimated that they even might participate in its creation. They gazed at it, and Jefferies gazed with them, but it was as though he had been suddenly stricken colour-blind. He could see nothing of the New Jerusalem, but the infinite criss-cross of brickwork and Jameson shouting at the corner of the empty streets. A sudden shifting of his values made him dizzy; he leaned back to think but could visualize nothing but the living-room: it expanded till its margin lay beyond the compass of his vision. After all, it all came back to this – individual outlook; the emotional factors of environment; houses that were homes; living-rooms; people going out and coming in again; people not coming in; other people waiting for them in rooms that were little guarded squares of light walled in carefully against the hungry darkness, the ultimately all-devouring darkness. After all, here was the stage of every drama. Only very faintly and thinly came the voice of Jameson crying in the wilderness. Whatever you might deny your body, there must be always something, a somewhere, that the mind came back to.”

“The tow-path still went on, it seemed so infinitely that, when hearing the sound of their footsteps suddenly constricted they found themselves approaching the looming masses of the brickfield, it was incredible that the path could have an end.”

This work is supreme Aickman absurdism and much more, as I see Bowen and him walking the same secret circles… secret, till now!?


My endless journey into the back channels of all Elizabeth Bowen’s stories started here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/10/05/the-collected-stories-of-elizabeth-bowen/

PS: see comment below about chronology

2 thoughts on “A Robert Aickman pastiche, and a great story in its own right…

  1. If chronology or cause-and-effect is considered instead of Jungian synchronicity, Aickman was inspired by Bowen, rather than the other way round!

    …though Aickman and Bowen were contemporaries with many mutual social friends.

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