Peter And The Colonel

Peter and the Colonel
a story
John S Moore

It was the winter of 1975. The pub was only about ten years old, furnished with heavy wooden chairs and tables, varnished like the bar, pale brown with a fake grained effect, and upholstered in pale green plastic. On the walls was red flocked wallpaper in a familiar William Morris design. Two men were standing by the bar. Of one of them Peter could only see the back of a bald head. The other, a short, upright, choleric tempered man was talking heatedly.

‘The welfare state has taken away the insecurity and danger that are the normal condition of mankind. Modern Britain, like other west European countries, is an unprecedentedly safe and secure place to live out your life. I don’t mean just the health service. The fearsomeness of authority has gone. Though they expose you to one or two extra risks nowadays, like wasting all your money in fruit machines or betting shops, they won’t hang or flog you anymore, and they don’t let you starve to death’.

‘Nor will they conscript you’, added the other man.

‘Yes, that’s another thing. So you’d think people would feel safe, but feelings of insecurity and depression are just as common as they ever have been. There are millions of English people terrified by life. I come across them every working day’.

‘He could be talking about me’, thought Peter, a thin, fair haired man of about average height, listening in as he gulped his seventh or eighth pint of weak Keg beer, ‘scared of life, insecure, depressed’. He recognised the speaker as someone he used to go to school with, ten or so years ago. He had spoken to him perhaps a dozen times since then. He must have passed his medical exams, Peter reflected, disagreeably reminded of his own unsatisfactory achievements. At the age of 26, living with a wife and two small children in what he readily admitted was a pokey, smelly, dump, a two roomed rented flat, in the same dreary, north London suburb, his life was one kind of hell. His job, as a junior clerk in a government department, he felt as a cruel oppression. It was ever more intolerable for him to get up in the morning to face his day, and each Monday the prospect of a whole week of numbing tedium made him feel physically ill. All the pleasure had drained out of his life, at least when sober, leaving only duties and ties. Practically impossible as he found it to cope, whether from plain weakness or from the sheer inertia of the chronically depressed, breaking free and running away was out of the question. He had the feeling that all options were closed to him.

He was living beyond his means, drinking far more than he could afford, and his problems were multiplying daily. Debt collectors had started to harass him. His boss had been complaining about his work, and he seemed likely to lose his job. The prospect of the abyss awaiting himself and his family, whenever for a moment he was forced to contemplate it, filled him with as much terror as any picture of prison or workhouse. In particular, he was tormented with guilt. He clung to the thought that his wife still loved him, little as he deserved it. He loved his children, though without joy, knowing that it would be unbearable to have to part from them. Hating himself for doing it, every evening after, sometimes before, dinner, he escaped to the saloon bar of his local, to stay there until closing time.

As for what his wife, Mary really did feel about him, she would not herself have been able to say, though she was certainly very dependent. Physical relations she regarded with half-conscious distaste. The strain of looking after two small children left her constantly exhausted. Not at all a resourceful person, she responded to her husband’s difficulties with an anxiety that kept just short of the point of nervous collapse. She had recently come to accept that something was badly wrong with him, but was far from feeling capable of doing anything effective about it. She berated him whenever he was at home, but that usually seemed to drive him out of the house. It had recently occurred to her that there were methods of treatment for alcoholism and depression, so she had been nagging him to see a doctor. To Peter the path of medical treatment was as closed as any other. He could not conceive that a spell in hospital could make his position other than very much worse. He knew things could always deteriorate, there was no limit to how bad they could get. Besides he was not registered with a doctor.

Nevertheless, the suggestion was in the back of his mind when this typical Friday evening brought this recently qualified medic to his attention. A sign from providence, he told himself. When bald head walked away from the bar, Peter went up to his old acquaintance. He decided to unburden himself. In answer to the question of how he had been keeping, he proceeded to explain everything in embarrassing detail. The doctor listened at first with apparent interest, though the tale was not calculated to inspire much sympathy or respect.

‘I spend my life doing work I hate and despise. Without the money we couldn’t live, and it’s nowhere near enough. Anything else I did I would hate as much. My life is just a round of unremitting shit’, he concluded.

‘But you’ve still got your family, and I suppose you enjoy getting pissed’, objected the other.

‘I don’t. I just use drink to drown my fear and worry. It stops me thinking, deadens the nerves. As for my family, that’s mainly a source of guilt to me these days’.

‘You need tablets. There’s several alternatives. Librium is what I usually prescribe’.

‘But I’d still be stuck in the same situation’.

‘You could change that. You could just get out, go abroad, run away to sea, become a tramp in the countryside. There’s a thousand possibilities. What do you want to drink’.

‘Large whisky please. Not for me there aren’t. I couldn’t live without her or the children. If I left them or they left me that would be intolerably painful. They’re my lifeline, the only things I care about, but there’s no hope in view’.

The doctor’s earlier companion returned, a stranger to Peter, short of stature, slimly built, bald on top with short grey hair on the back and sides, a thin grey moustache and glasses with thick black rims, dressed in an immaculately pressed dark grey suit. He was introduced as the colonel, and indeed looked the very image of the retired military gentleman, implacably contemptuous of layabouts, wastrels, hedonists and all forms of modern softness. Undeterred, Peter continued with his lamentation. The colonel listened intently as the drunken young man wallowed in self-pity.

‘I’m spineless, willess and incapable. I despise myself and everyone else despises me.’ The doctor grew irritated. Several times in the course of Peter’s harangue he groaned. Then he snapped: -

‘Look, the way you carry on you can’t expect anyone to feel much sympathy for your problems. If you really feel as you say you do you could at least cut down on your drinking for Christ’s sake! It doesn’t make any sense at all’.

Peter continued his mawkish tirade. ‘I’d give up my life, my soul, for their sake, if it was as simple as that. I’d happily sell my soul to the Devil. I know I’m worthless, but I can’t exceed my own strength’.

‘If you feel that bad, you might as well kill yourself. I could prescribe you a course of barbiturates’.

‘I probably will one day, but I can’t bear the thought of leaving them in this mess’.

‘I’m pretty sure they’d be better off without you. Anyone can see you’re heading for divorce. But I suppose you could always cut their throats first’. Peter did not appreciate the jest. As if startled by the shocking lapse of taste, he was silent for a minute or so. Then he expostulated stupidly: -

‘What a revolting thing to say! You’re sick in the head! That’s about the most horrible remark I’ve ever heard! If you weren’t an old school mate I think I’d hit you.’

Then he turned directly to the newcomer and drunkenly repeated his story, described the trap he was in, the Hell that he found his life, all the unpleasant sensations that beset him, the damp, cramped, living conditions, the worry about money, the domestic rows, his own feelings of inferiority, the ugliness that surrounded him. He did not expect sympathy. He became generally offensive and misanthropic.

‘I loathe myself, and everyone around’, he announced.

The colonel gave his own opinion. ‘You choose your own life. Each man is responsible for the life he has determined to lead’.

‘But I didn’t choose this, at least I didn’t want it. I’d take wealth or success without any hesitation. I’m in a hopeless trap, whether it’s my own making is hardly the point’.

‘You can have whatever you want, whatever you set your heart on. Work towards that with all your powers, and you’ll almost certainly get it.’

‘I wouldn’t even know how to begin. Have you- any sugg-estions- yourself?’ By now he was speaking with difficulty.

The colonel appeared to think for a minute. Then he replied, in his strange, old fashioned military manner. ‘In actual fact I’m sure I have. You’ve struck lucky tonight, young fellow, in me you’ve just met someone who’s in a position to sort you out. You must resign from this rotten job of yours on Monday. No I’m not talking about joining the army. Do you fancy working in broadcasting? I’ve a cousin who’s landed a bloody good job in one of the T.V. companies, and is looking for some kind of an assistant. He’s under an obligation to me, and if I tell him to take you on he will. How about it? There’s a career for you if you’re willing to take it up. I won’t even let him fire you till you’ve had a fair crack at it. Apply yourself, and soon you can have all that you desire’.

‘Whatever makes you- think I’ve g-got the ability?’

‘For years it’s been my job to judge character. You’re just down. Your morale’s at low ebb. I know you can do it. No doubt about it.’

‘I’ll think about it. I’ll let you know’.

‘I’ll see you again then?’

‘Sure,’ Peter turned away and made for the door marked ‘Gentlemen’. Standing in front of the urinal, he tried to gather his thoughts. He stared at the pattern formed by the flaked off plaster before him, the pattern he had been gazing at regularly five or six times a night for what seemed like years. Sometimes it looked to him like a rabbit running; tonight it was something deeply inane. He tried to think of what he was going to say next. Then something occurred to him. He came back into the bar to find his companions had left.

So much he could recall. He carried on drinking to get very drunk indeed. When he woke up the next morning he was dazed and confused, with no memory of getting home. He reached for the aspirin and codeine bottle. Mary was already up. He climbed out of bed and felt in his jacket pocket, to notice that his pocket watch was missing. In its place was a visiting card of Colonel M-—, whom Peter took to be his acquaintance of the night before. On the card was a nearby address but no telephone number, so without saying anything to his wife, he got dressed, slipped out of the house and went straight there. He found a large, detached neo-Georgian building of yellow brick. Beside the front door was a bell rope. He pulled it and the door was immediately opened. The colonel greeted him with visible pleasure, invited him in, and gave the watch back.

‘You must excuse my light fingers, but I did want you to come here today. I’ve rung that relative of mine, and you can start as soon as you like. Take my advice and you’ll grab it like a shot, it could hardly be worse than what you’re doing now, and if you commit yourself, I promise you’ll get on. You won’t come across another break like this, if you turn it down, that is. If you succeed you satisfy all your cravings’.

‘If I fail?’

‘You must count on not failing. Make success the meaning of your life. Successful you will have the world’s acclaim. Failure is not to be contemplated. See me as your fairy godmother’.

‘"Fairy" doesn’t seem quite the right word for you.’

‘Perhaps you prefer Mephistopheles’.

‘Why are you doing this for me? What do you want out of it?’

‘I’m answering your plea in the pub last night. I haven’t done very much. It’s not a great deal to offer a job to someone who’s so obviously down on his luck’.

‘What do you want in return?’

‘What should I want?’

‘Seven years good luck would be quite enough for me. I’d happily die, even burn in Hell, after that. How could it be wrong to sacrifice your soul for the sake of your family? It’s an unselfish act’.

‘I know you’re a good man. I can see that you meant what you said, however you said it, and that you really do set your family above yourself. It’s the strain of survival that’s driven you to drink. A weaker man would have thrown in the towel. Fate has treated you badly. You deserve a break.’

The colonel wrote down a name and a telephone number. Peter took the scrap of paper, thanked him, shook hands and left. Stepping out into the street, he was surprised to find that he felt elated. Walking home, he stared up at the bare winter trees, and was moved to ecstasy. The twisting branches, silhouetted against the white sky, seemed to address him personally with whispered words of hope and confidence. He did not even feel like a celebratory drink. He was amazed at how much he wanted this new job, about which he knew virtually nothing. As soon as he arrived home he rang the number, was told that it really was for the asking, and accepted. He subsequently did what was expected of him, and threw himself heart and soul into a new career.

Time passed and he forgot the embarrassing person he used to be. He became rich, famous, successful. The indiscretions of his mid twenties became little more to him than the shame and foolishness of his early childhood, mercifully lost to memory. Once he had been an alcoholic, and had sunk dangerously low. Now he was someone of whom his parents could be proud.

A common effect of the passage of time is to reconcile us to ourselves. We come to realise that youthful self-hatred was a simple deficiency in self-understanding, and memories of the cruellest humiliations cease to be painful. Such were Peter’s reflections one morning, shortly after his thirty third birthday, as he lay soaking in his hot, steaming sunken bath, scented with aromatic oils. He thought back on the promise made to him that December Saturday, perceiving that it had been abundantly fulfilled. He reviewed the intervening years.

He had become as successful as he might ever have hoped. He was now acclaimed as a brilliant television producer, and had himself appeared regularly on the small screen for a period as the host of a series of high-class chat shows. He had had two novels published, with strong alcoholic themes, both of which had been lavishly praised by distinguished critics. He had been interviewed by women’s magazines, and many gratifying things were written about him.

Materially, he was very comfortable; as well as this mansion flat in Hampstead, he had a six-bedroom house in the Surrey countryside. His marriage had lasted very well, which is not to say that he denied himself, or felt he ought to deny himself, access to any of the many opportunities for sensual gratification that his wealth and position now laid open to him. Certainly he had worked hard, very hard, over the past seven years, but now his future was assured, and he could afford to relax. He had set his heart upon success and had made it, achieved everything he wanted, money, the world’s esteem, a happy and secure home life, sexual fulfilment, beautiful and intelligent children, both thriving at their expensive private schools. He still saw a lot of the colonel. His friend had a fund of obscure knowledge, and liked to expound perverse religious notions that were strange to Peter’s sociable, worldly temperament. Peter read a lot; he wrote book reviews for a literary magazine, mostly about recent novels, on which he was considered an authority. He was a man of his time, in tune with his age. The colonel on the other hand was full of old mythology and Machiavelli. He had travelled extensively, far more than Peter, who was trying hard to catch up.

Peter was on the crest of a wave. Last summer the whole family had spent six weeks in Kashmir, this winter he was going to visit Peru. Then there was sport, that was another pleasure. Water skiing, yachting, wind surfing, hang gliding, sky diving, there was always something new to try, some new sensation to add to his treasury of experience. Life, with money and fame had become a fountain of delight. With pride he recalled the publication of his first novel, the appearance on television of his first documentaries. ‘Surely’, he said to himself, ‘I haven’t an enemy in the world’; though immediately corrected himself on reflection that visible success always inspires envious spite. He recalled a couple of pieces that had appeared about him in ‘Private Eye’; not that he minded a bit. He was proud of that too, it showed that he had arrived. Too many good things were happening even for ridicule to upset him. He still had plenty of original ideas he could turn to his advantage. His position in the world of broadcasting promised only a more glorious career.

Half floating in the steamy heat, he surrendered to the luxurious indulgence of deep self-satisfaction. Cutting out drink for six months, that had done the trick. The job offer had given him the strength to do that. Then it had really come easy.

What more does modern life have to offer? He could afford to eat in the best restaurants; he could associate with the most famous people in the world without having to humble himself; if he wanted peace and quiet he could even retire to the countryside for weeks, months at a time, to write. He loved the woods and the fields, communing with the life of the plants and the animals he found release from all individual cares. But for the next few weeks he would stay in London, he had a new mistress; an adorable doe eyed twenty five-year-old, with whom he was in love. All this he had played for and won. What more could a man want? Until very recently he had been extremely happy.

That last thought caught him up short. Until very recently? Whyever the qualification? He recalled that for the past few days he had been obscurely conscious of some increasing anxiety, something in the nature of a health problem. Not that he felt there was anything the matter with his physical health, nor would it have upset him all that much if there had been. If he were to die now it would be in the full bloom of his good fortune. It would be a sad passing for one so young, but he would not have died a failure, and he would have at least survived his twenties. He daydreamed his own death, imagining what the obituary writers would say about him. Mary and the kids would be all right; he would leave them plenty to live on. What was troubling him was something else, something in the back of his mind, more of a mental disturbance, mysteriously distressing and a tiny bit terrifying, which he could neither pin down nor understand. Annoyed by this unpleasant twist to what had promised to be a very pleasant meditation, he pulled the plug and climbed out of the bath.

One morning, a few days later, he awoke in a sweat from a horrific nightmare. This recurred. Each time his apprehensions took on more of a tangible form. Following a nightmare, a disagreeable anxiety persisted long into his day. He usually managed to recover his equilibrium by evening. A few weeks passed. He reached the stage where every sleep would be disturbed by the same bad dream; sometimes it would wake him several times in one night. He took consolation in that sometimes the vividness and horror would be relatively muted. Knowing that his nights were to be spent in fear and restlessness he sought to squeeze ever more pleasure from his waking hours. He started going to West End night-clubs. He visited old friends, changed his diet, experimented with vintage wines and expensive delicacies he had never tried before. He bought paintings, replanted his garden with trees. For a period he was able to reconcile himself to the nightmares, and managed to enjoy himself quite well, but he was soon demoralised by the realisation that his problem was still worsening. Where would it end?

The strain reached a point where he felt no inclination to continue with his work. This did not matter in itself. He had achieved his ambitions, and was rich enough to live in idleness for the rest of his life, if he so wished. His wife became worried about him, remarking that he was acquiring a worn down, hunted look, with frightened eyes, and vertical creases on his forehead. They discussed the trouble together. She thought he should go to a private clinic in some Alpine retreat for a few weeks.

‘It would be such a shame if you cracked up now, when everything’s going so well for us’, she said.

It was a long time since she had experienced any serious anxiety. For years she had been well cared for, and the memory of those bad early days of their marriage had largely faded. The only thing up to now that she was not really happy about was the occasional presence of the colonel, whom she had always detested and avoided as much as possible.

Peter was unwilling to go away, and reluctant to seek any outside help.

‘You’ve let it get much worse than it need have been’; Mary told him one morning. ‘You could take some sort of tablets, lots of people do, they could put you right in no time. My mother was horribly depressed after my father died, everyone was fed up with her, then they gave her electric shock treatment and it worked like a miracle’. She insisted that he had to do something, and eventually, after much persuasion, he agreed to ask his doctor for help, the same doctor, as it happened, who had been with him in the pub on the night the colonel had filched his watch. When he arrived at the surgery, Peter was disconcerted to notice that his old schoolfriend seemed quite unpleasantly amused, almost jeering at him, as if there were something that he ought to understand but did not, a joke at his expense.

Nevertheless, he came away with a prescription, and for the next few weeks managed, if not to stifle, at least slightly to muffle, his fears. But the drugs left him lethargic and confused, and brought no permanent peace of mind. His nightmare began to invade his waking life.

He would break into a sweat as a suffocating sensation of extreme, indefinable horror began to creep over him. Then he would become aware of himself sitting with a dripping knife in his hand, and a dawning realisation of the vilest and most unspeakable guilt. He knew what he was supposed to have done, but dared not formulate it to himself. Holding a breadknife one afternoon, he felt the onset of the terror, violent palpitations of the heart, tightness of the skin about the temples, unbearable mental pain. He threw the knife to the floor and rushed in to Mary, who was sitting by the fireside, reading; clasping his arms round her neck, he fell sobbing upon her shoulder. She did not know how to react. He stared into her eyes; silently pleading for reassurance and understanding, but whatever she gave was insufficient. Then he understood that he was mad, isolated from her, that she could no longer help or understand him. In her eyes he saw only fear and puzzlement, and how could she reassure when his mind was opaque to her? She could only see him as sick, and was no more willing to enter into his mind than to make love to a leper.

He disengaged himself and walked upstairs to the bedroom, hurling himself onto the bed and clawing at the bedclothes. He remembered one safety valve. Swallowing a handful of pills, he vowed that if ever the agony became absolutely too much to bear he would demand hospital treatment, even at the risk of being stigmatised as mentally ill.

For the whole of next week he intended to visit the doctor, but was scared to leave the house, lest his horrors overcome him while walking on the street, and he run under a bus in a fit of panic. It reached the stage where he had continuously to fight against his nightmare, or the ‘other reality’, as he came to think of it, consciously ward it off, force it away from him. He would try to calm himself by pacing about the house, picking up ordinary objects that had recently come into his possession, souvenirs of his foreign holidays, evidences of everyday reality.

One day the colonel came to see him, dressed exactly as he had been on that fateful evening, years ago. He spoke in an offensive, mocking tone. Peter mentioned his need for a doctor.

‘You’re past that stage now, sonny’, said the colonel, who increasingly took on the attitude of a policeman who had caught Peter red handed in the commission of some particularly despicable crime. He proceeded to moralise, telling Peter he was living in a dream world, demented, a miserable, worthless, contemptible failure. Peter thought this inexplicable, considering the reputation he had built up, the laurels he could rest on if he chose.

But the colonel was becoming part of his nightmare. He closed his eyes and asked him to leave. Mercifully, when he opened them again he had gone; but then so had the room. In its place was something horribly familiar, and in his hands was a bloodstained knife. He closed his eyes and tried to pray. His childish idea of God was so ineffective that he might just as well have addressed a tree, or a flowerpot, or a wild rabbit running. When he opened his eyes again he was back in his normal surroundings. He breathed a sigh of relief and began to feel confident again. He tried to reconstruct himself in his own mind, thinking of his wealth, his marriage, his reputation, none of which had been impaired by the events of the past few weeks. Somehow he would cure himself of this horrible illness and live like a prince once more. ‘How foolish I have been’, he thought, smiling complacently to himself. Then he heard the wail of police sirens, and his expression turned to blind fright. The noise receded, he breathed calmly again. ‘So!’ he thought, ‘I must be careful, not overconfident, subdued, walk the narrow tightrope between fear and security until this crisis is over’. He relaxed again. It was really very simple; he just had to keep on his guard. His confidence rose. Then a voice seemed to tell him that he had missed the whole point of his dilemma. The crisis would never be over. Perhaps it was the truth. He heard the sirens again, and this time the noise of policemen knocking on his door. He rushed forward to give himself up. ‘Not yet, not yet’, the voice seemed to say, and the horrors receded. And he knew that he could never have given himself up anyway, the possibility that he had some reason for doing so was more unbearable than anything. He could not run forward to embrace the horror, because as he did so his terror increased towards infinity. And in addition to the terrors of the nightmare, he had to control himself, stop himself from running out into the street and killing himself under a car, for after all, it was all very silly. Foolish nonsense. Sirens blared; he recoiled. Sweat poured down his cheeks.

For hours he was victim to this cat and mouse game with the horror.

He resolved to force himself to visit the doctor. It seemed to take an eternity to find his coat. Then he could not remember the address. He tried to visualise the doctor, but all he could manage to see was his image at the bar on that evening long ago. He tried to think of the colonel, but him, too, he could only remember as he saw then. He told himself that much had happened since that night, he attempted to piece together the subsequent history of his friends, but it all seemed like empty fiction. He tried to force himself to believe in it, but he might just as effectively tried to believe he was any character chosen at random from any of the novels on his bookshelves. He could not even telephone the doctor, since he had forgotten his name. He could not seriously imagine that either the doctor or the colonel were what he was trying to persuade himself they were. It was no use leaving the house, to do so would invite disaster.

Meaningless pattern of flaked plaster on a toilet wall. Physical discomfort and a vile, repulsive stench. Through his confusion, he tried to sort reality from illusion. Who was this ‘colonel’? Peter found it hard to focus clearly, but he knew that he definitely was something more than a chance acquaintance in a pub, he had done something to Peter, something against him. The wife, done something involving the wife, something that destroyed his last straw his one hope. And was he joking about it, laughing at Peter? Was there even more to it, was it…?

He sat down on a sofa in extreme despair. Like a tormenting female, teasing him with her charms, the horror would reveal little bits of itself; them coyly cover them up again. The colonel, did he or didn’t he? Whatever is worst for you, my boy, whatever is worst for you. He could feel it building itself up to a climax, like a classical symphony. There was a definite musical pattern to it, which he began to follow, and even found himself enjoying. ‘Frivolous wretch!’, the horror said to him, wrenching him with a particularly painful experience of the other reality, like a torturemaster giving an extra twist of the rack.

He saw Mary enter the room and reached out towards her, but he never managed to touch her. The nightmare reached its final crescendo, the logical conclusion of his entire existence, and seven years rolled back as easily as a staircarpet. The music stopped, the police broke down the door of his squalid little home, and the blood dripped from his knife onto the carpet. The bodies of his wife and two small children lay a few feet from him. Even in these harrowing circumstances, the poverty and neglect were remarked upon.

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