She had a patron, and in that way advanced in the business exactly like any man. After an apprenticeship in North Carolina, she went to New York for a news-magazine and then to Africa and the Middle East for a wire service. She remained very fond of her patron, an old-fashioned editor who’d refused to obey tradition and assign her to women’s news. He understood from the beginning that she had not gone into journalism to describe women’s clubs or marriages or charity balls, She was attractive and serious and somewhat shy, and the editor was not certain that she belonged in journalism at all. He thought, mistakenly, that she was fragile. But he trained her well in North Carolina and then recommended her to the newsmagazine,
She had wanted to be an historian and in the beginning entered journalism only to learn how things worked: impatient with theory, she was eager to learn the ethics of the street. To her surprise, she liked the milieu, its confusion and haste and chagrin and the instant obsolescence of yesterday’s dispatch. After North Carolina and New York, she knew she would have to go abroad because she wanted to cover politics and war, and she wanted to see at firsthand the countries she knew only from books. In Africa and the Middle East, there were countless opportunities to witness politics and war, disorder and suffering, and no opportunity was ever missed. In time she became senior correspondent for the region, always traveling and often in danger. Her seriousness deepened, but her experiences did not make her either gallant or cynical as they often did her male colleagues. She did not care for cynicism as an attitude and had no need for the protection it gave. She was determined to stay afraid and grinning.
She was a professional and intended to dominate the environment and in the privacy of her own heart was exhilarated by her success. She loved her work, and although she collected numerous offers from newspapers and television networks, she remained with the wire service; a matter of loyalty. Her years as a war correspondent gave her a hard sense of reality and of her place in reality’s scheme. She need not have worried about fear. In the year 1972, a women’s group gave her an award for a series of articles describing the destruction of a village in a west African country. The citation took particular note of the effect of her pieces and concluded that through her courage and compassion she had advanced the cause of women in journalism. She was unaware of the nature of the citation until it was read to her at the banquet. She said then that she would be happy to accept the award on behalf of the dead and dying and the homeless. Then she turned to the president of the women’s group and agreed that she had been fortunate to witness the particular war that had resulted in the destruction of the village. In order that she might win the valuable award and the honorarium that went with it, and be worthy of the citation; surely a small price for those thousands of dead and homeless to pay. Thank God they’d been present, willing, and accessible and available for interviews. She tactfully corrected the president’s pronunciation of the name of the village. She said she hoped that before too long there’d be another war for perhaps another woman to write about, in order that the cause of women in journalism be advanced yet another notch. Thank you, thank you. God bless. The audience of women received these comments in shocked silence. She’d been so unfair, so savage and perverse.., .
“You didn’t have to do that, Paige,” the president said later.
“Yes, I did,” Paige replied,
“You took it and twisted it—”
“Not as hard as I could have,” Paige said.
The truth was, she did not believe that journalism advanced the cause of anything, except her own understanding. It was for that reason that the women’s award outraged her. Better that they give an award to male journalists, war correspondents, whose writing advanced the cause of men. She hated the idea of being a spokesman or spokeswoman or, God forbid, spokesperson of or for anything beyond herself, and agreed with Auden that no poem had ever saved a single Jew from the ovens; journalism’s record was a little better, but not much. She understood that she had certain responsibilities as a result of the work that she did, so she had no objection to appearing at fund-raising rallies for refugees or other displaced persons. If her presence could guarantee a few extra dollars for a good cause, she felt obliged to comply. She’d speak, if called upon, or simply lend her name to a list of sponsors. They were always the same sponsors. She disliked the commotion that attended the rallies, but she believed that it was criminal to stand aside on grounds of temperament or of professional neutrality. In this world there were no neutral professions. Journalism was the least neutral of any of them.
Paige spent most of her professional life abroad in the company of men. She travelled with them in the war zones because soldiers did not react well to women reporters working alone; they became imposters, self-conscious bullies or thin-lipped stoics or Don Juans unless other men were present to keep them honest. She believed she could not discover the truth about men at war unless she saw them with their own kind, at a distance; when she was alone with them, she was the living proof of the Heisenberg Principle.
In the various zones, the journalists behaved like a large and unruly family, and after the first few assignments she was accepted as one of them. She shared her notes with them and “covered” for them, as they did for her. It was obvious from the outset that she was no den mother or casual mistress either, yet being with so many men so far from home was unsettling to her. The love affairs that she had always involved men far removed from both journalism and the war, It was essential for her to keep the two parts of herself separate. The older correspondents beguiled her with their European manners and old-fashioned pride. Like journalists everywhere, they believed they could easily have been something else: soldiers, diplomats, ministers of the interior, novelists, innkeepers. They used their profession like a suit of armor. She thought of them sometimes as crazed medieval warriors, clanking around the battlefield in cuirass and basinet, invulnerable to the calamities they witnessed. They were not heartless men, far from it, but they saw themselves as recorders and nothing more and had contempt for younger colleagues who sought personal and professional involvement. She found herself personally closer to the older men, though of course intellectually she ran with the others (up to a point). She passionately desired change, by which she meant an end to the killing; she believed herself temperamentally a revolutionary, though she could never kill in the service of an idea. She knew that her affection for the older men was a contradiction, but because she was on the far side of 35-years-old herself she had sympathy for anyone in early middle age who had spent his best years in combat zones. And the men had a certain gaiety.
Some of them were in flight from women and some from bourgeois respectability, and some were merely footloose adventurers. Journalism was a safe haven. They were men who understood and appreciated drama and mystery and who prided themselves on being dry. They did not like it when she praised their work. Yet late at night, when drinking, the emotions would come tumbling out in a torrent. It took only the smallest crack in the armor, a chance word or gesture (if it were late enough), and she would find herself listening to muddled tales of ruined love and opportunities lost; of loosened grips and lives gone to seed. The first time she listened to one of these stories she began to giggle, believing that she was listening to a story, a joke. Then she realized that the speaker was relating events he believed to be true, a part of his own personal history, lachrymose and melodramatic. These episodes were by turns hilarious and heartbreaking and without exception ironic in tone. They seemed to be able to deal with the facts of their lives only through irony: heroic gestures, commonplace ends. Most of the men were excellent storytellers with a sure grasp of idiom and a phenomenal memory for dialogue, their own and others. The stories had been distilled by memory and were now more vivid than the originals.
The conversations were not one-way. She’d collected numerous amusing stories of her own, and while she was less operatic than the men, she was no less forceful. She found them sympathetic and intelligent listeners. Of course the longer she stayed the more the stories, hers and theirs, tended to overlap.
But the men frightened her. She was physically afraid of them, sensing nascent violence. She knew that literally the last thing any of them would do was harm her; indeed, they protected her as they protected each other. She was afraid of an accident. She was afraid they would fall on her. She tried to avoid them in large groups, although that was difficult; they all travelled in a pack. When they were drinking, they had a tendency to surround her and pepper her with stories; at those times she felt under siege. Typically, she would be seated, and they would gather around her, looming over her chair. She was not a small woman, but she was delicate; and the men always seemed robust. A recurring nightmare had her surrounded by large men, who as if on signal commenced to fall like giant trees, crushing the life out of her. It would happen by accident, one of them would stumble and fall and they would all go down like heavy dominoes; there would be no escape for her, she would be smothered where she sat. She would not be discovered until later, like one of the wounded always left behind in any retreat.
She took care to avoid them when they were drinking heavily, Once in Cairo, one of them fell down a flight of stairs, an everywhichway slow motion fall, flailing arms and drunken thuds down a dozen steps. Although there was a good deal of laughter and no one was hurt, she could not expel from her mind’s eye the image of herself crushed beneath the huge body, In her mind’s eye, Paige saw herself walking up the stairs and the man tumbling down toward her, the man out of control. She waited patiently for him, there was no route of escape in the narrow passage; there was no sanctuary at all.
She told an abbreviated version of this story one night to one of the younger men, who at first laughed in appreciation (assuming that he was hearing a joke). Then he turned serious, nodding with sympathy and understanding.
“It’s sexual of course,” he said at last.
She looked at him earnestly, her features softening; she was careful to arrange the expression on her face.
“You’ve been here too long, your time’s up,” the young man said.
“Is that right?”
He said, “Sure.”
She looked at him again, and a wave of compassion for the older men swept over her. How could she have been so foolish? She said, “It is not sex. It is fear. Do you understand fear?” He stared back at her, startled by her intensity. Her expression was benign, but her voice was cold.”That is when you are afraid physically. If you like, I will describe the difference between sex and violence, ecstasy and fear. Would you like me to do that for you?” She bent toward him, her taut face resembling a snake about to strike. But the young man was already rising, excusing himself, thinking that it was a tragedy when editors sent neurotic women to combat zones.
After that, she kept her fear mostly to herself. But there were moments when she was unable to do this, These were moments of terrible incongruity, when her world seemed to turn upside down. One night she and a friend, the wife of one of the correspondents, returned late to the hotel after dinner. It had been a pleasant dinner, they had not talked of the war at all. The others were in the lobby, sitting, when the two of them walked in, cheerful after a stroll through the darkened streets. All of the men stood up as they approached, their faces polite and composed; the wife nudged Paige, smiling, a silent comment on the good manners of these men. But Paige knew better. She knew right away that something was wrong. There was one moment of awful silence, and then one of them turned to the wife and said they’d just got word that her husband had been hurt, Paige moved to put her arm around the girl, but the men quickly gathered round, the largest of them reaching for her, cradling her almost. Then Paige caught a glance from one of them, and she knew that “hurt” meant “dead.” After a moment, they all sat down again, and when the wife had stopped crying they told her what they knew. They told the story as they might write a dispatch. Each fact was given a source and its own special value. Conjecture was labelled as such. They all spoke in very low tones and assured the wife that everything possible was being done. Her husband was very popular, and they felt the loss as keenly as she did.
There was nothing more to be done, The embassy had been notified. Each man had rung up his best source in the government and appealed, as a personal favor, for verification; for any verified fact at all. Incredibly, the wife then reached out and touched each man—as if the men were talismans. They waited in the lobby until dawn, when the deputy ambassador called with a complete account. They had found the body, and it was being returned to the capital. For the rest of that day and the next, they remained at the wife’s side. But Paige never forgot the moment when they entered the lobby, the men slowly rising, Paige knowing that something was greatly wrong.
She’d been abroad for seven years. She decided that the eighth year would be her last. She believed she belonged now in America. The eighth year was a horror, it opened with a letter from her mother; she and her father were separating after 40 years of marriage. It was a terse letter, no details supplied. A month later a friend in North Carolina sent her an obituary notice; her old editor, long retired now, had died of a heart attack. Some weeks after that a close friend, a young American foreign service officer, was killed in Indochina. She was 37 now and understood that there would be years like this one. She decided that the best way to get through it was to concentrate on her work, and to do that she needed a holiday. She arranged for a month’s leave in Cyprus, intending to do nothing but lie on the beach and read. However, after a week, she found herself living in O’Ryan’s apartment. He was one of the resident British journalists, a friend of a friend, the largest and most reckless of all of them, though he did not wear what she had come to regard as the usual badges of instability. He had not been wounded in action, was not divorced, and did not drink heavily. However, he had a high tolerance for pain and a jaunty attitude toward his work. He seldom drank because he wanted his senses keen for journalism.
They knew each other by reputation but had never met. He’d worked the Far East and had only recently arrived in the Mediterranean. During her holiday, the ceasefire on the island collapsed, and she cabled her office that as long as she was there she might as well cover for them. She and the Englishman began to cover the war together,
You see, he said to her one night. We make an ideal team. I do the military, you do the civilian.
Oh yes, she said. It’s perfect.
I describe the search, you describe the destroy. We are the yin and yang of journalism.
Yes, wonderful, she said.
I can see us sharing the Pulitzer Prize or whatever it is they give you Ameddicuns.
Smashing, she said. Just what I’ve always wanted. But don’t forget Stockholm.
I’d quite forgotten, he said. I do beg your pardon. Now look here. I’ve found this new village. You’ve never seen so many wounded people. Wounded and dead everywhere. They re preparing a new attack tomorrow, I’ve been assured of that on highly reliable authority. It’ll be an especially heavy barrage. We can go to it. I’ve hired a car and driver, we can doubleteam the battle. How would that be?
Oh lovely, she said.
I knew you’d like it.
I can’t wait.
Car’s hired for six in the morning. We get there by nine, watch the shooting ‘til noon; we can be back to file in the afternoon. Rest of the bastards will be climbing out of the rack, or finishing their lunch drinks—
Will you be armed?
Bloody right I’ll be armed. You too.
Well then, why don’t we stage our own firefight?
No managing of the news, he said. We take the dead where we can find them,
How wonderful for us,
Now go to sleep, he said. We’ve got to be keen for tomorrow.
Is that really true, why you don’t drink? To keep your senses sharp?
For journalism? You want them sharp?
Of course. Otherwise there’s no point, is there?
I suppose not, she said.
I can already hear the sound of incoming,
Yes, I expected that you might.
And you, the cries of the wounded.
Go to hell, she said.
Yes, I can hear them in your head. The screaming. Inside your lovely head are all the casualties trying to escape. To escape their prison. That head of yours, it’s Lubyanka or Flanders Field, depending on your point of view.
Go to bed!
I’m in bed.
Go to sleep!
Not before a goodnight kiss, he said.
No kiss, she replied. By no means no kiss. I’m afraid I might catch whatever it is you’ve got.
No, he said. You’re immune. But you can give me a goodnight kiss anyway. A kiss from Paige, angel of mercy, journalism’s nanny. You ought to show me the same consideration you show the damned casualties!
Screw you, she said, grinning in spite of herself.
That’s what I’ve been waiting for! he roared, shaking with laughter and burying his face in her neck.
He was in many ways the worst of all of them. But he made her laugh. His nickname in the Far East had been Wretched Excess; at times she thought of him as a character out of Camus or Beckett. She believed he was the most thoroughly rootless man she had ever met, anywhere. He couldn’t even be bothered to follow up on a story. Wretch was a man without a memory; each day was absolutely new, no dawn like any other; no one moment had any connection to any other moment. History was discontinuous, except of course for women; women marked the various stages of his life. In that way they were a convenience. The one thing to be said for Wretch was that he did not frighten her, despite the obvious and alarming fact that he was the most violent man she knew. He was the one man she had good reason to fear but did not.
She believed it was his sense of limitless possibility that enchanted her; he had a morning cheerfulness, a kind of rampant gaiety, that drew her to him. She thought he led an utterly seamless existence, his life and his work were one, each reinforcing the other. She’d begun her career with a search, and she knew she’d abandoned that search some time back, There wasn’t any single detail of war with which she wasn’t familiar, But her hard-won knowledge had gained her nothing. She had it all firsthand, and all she knew for certain was fear. Perhaps that was all there was to know. She had hoped that the details would lead her to some larger understanding—of herself or of humanity in general. She had hoped her experience would lead her to a General Historical Theory, something beyond cliché. For a very brief period, she thought she would find the answer in Wretch. Every morning they drove to a burning village, a village no different from the one the day before; similar casualties, identical acrid odor; “the stench of cordite.” How many times had she written that? His enthusiasm never diminished; he charged from the
636 car in the direction of rifle fire like a child chasing a pot at the end of the rainbow.
She asked him one day what he hoped to find.
He d looked at her, puzzled. What was there to find? It was not a question of searching and finding or of hoping either. It was just describing what was there.They searched, you didn’t. It was interesting describing the search—
Of course, he’d said.
You never lose interest in it?
No, he said. Certainly not. It’s what I do. What I’ve always done.
Why not? she persisted. Why don’t you lose interest?
He’d shaken his head, exasperated. Stupid female questions.
Sincerely, she said. I want to know. And I want to know another thing. I want to know what you think you’re doing. I mean, you write about it—OK. But then what? Do you see yourself improving matters? Or is it just personal?
Christ, he muttered.
No, really, she said. I want to know.
It’s very simple, he said. Too simple for you. You don’t grasp that I’m not like you. You like things complicated. That’s the big thing with you. The more complicated the better. The more complicated the more depressing. You thrive on it! He was sneering now and his voice was rough. Anything natural, he said, you’re not up for it—
Oh really, she’d replied, stung. That wasn’t fair, she was just trying to understand. She said, If you had any imagination—
He turned on her then, furious; she thought for a moment that he was going to hit her. But he rose from the bed, pale and shaking with anger, moving deliberately to the clothes closet. He began to remove her things, dropping each garment on the floor; then he pitched her suitcase on top of the clothes. He said, Go cry on someone else’s shoulder. Take your bloody theories to someone else’s bed. She wanted to reach out to him, but didn’t, and in a moment he was gone, leaving the door ajar.
The next day she left Cyprus and returned to her base in Africa. She was glad to be home, all the old crowd was there and they welcomed her with open arms. The first night at dinner they asked her if it were true, they’d heard rumors, she and Wretched Excess O’Ryan. . . .
It’s over, she said.
There was a general sigh of relief; they were glad to hear it.
Strange to say, he drifted out of her life as easily as he had drifted into it. In retrospect, the entire episode seemed fantastic. She realized now how deeply she had hurt him with the remark about imagination, though she did not completely understand why. The thought of it stirred her to melancholy; but she was angry, too. What was there about him? Opposites attract, she concluded finally; live by the sword, die by it, etcetera.
In Africa a week, she found herself fatigued. She was seldom tired and thought that a good night’s sleep was all she needed. That night, tumbling into bed, she knew that she would dream; she found herself looking forward to sleep, and to the dreams that sleep would bring. She thought she would try to transport herself to another time and place, assume a new persona altogether; falling asleep, she remembered that her birthday was next week. Thirty-eight years old; six months to go in Africa. Suddenly, just then, she decided that she would leave right away, She would cable the office the next morning and leave as quickly as she could arrange passage. She hugged her pillow and fell asleep, though she did not dream.
She woke on her birthday, understanding nothing. She was surrounded by white. White walls, a white net over her; she was clad in white, in a bed with white sheets. Her arms were chalk white, there was a white plastic band around her wrist. Then, slowly coming to, she understood she was in a hospital. She was frightened, what was she doing there? Still wondering, she dozed, then wakened, then dozed again. A nurse looked in, smiled, and left. She dozed. The nurse returned and moved to her bed when Paige’s eyes fluttered. Seeing her eyes open, the nurse smiled broadly; pink teeth in a lean black face.
She would be all right now, the nurse explained in French. They had been worried, Madame was in a coma for almost a week. But she had responded to treatment. The nurse gave her a complicated name, apparently the name of the disease; a tropical disorder of some kind. Paige knew after a moment that this was not the nurse but the doctor. She was suddenly overwhelmingly grateful that the doctor was a woman. She began to cry, they were tears of relief. The doctor smiled distantly.
There were a number of men, colleagues apparently, who wished to see Madame, but perhaps not just yet.
No, she said.
Perhaps in two days or three.
Three days, Paige said.
The doctor smiled. Three days, then.
When will I be free to leave?
A week, ten days.
Paige smiled. Ten days, make it ten days.
The doctor shrugged. The beds were in demand.
I can pay, Paige said.
In that case, Madame, the bed is yours.
Three nights later they all came, the regulars. They brought with them bottles of liquor and mixer and a Scotch cooler of ice. They’d had hors d’oeuvres prepared at the hotel and passed these around. They brought a fistful of cables with them, messages from friends everywhere. It was a regular party, they joked and laughed for some time. They looked at her like jewellers examining a gem and told her she seemed quite fit for someone who’d been in a coma 72 hours before. And they were indelicate, as always.
You almost bought the farm, one of them said.
. . . the fellow in the bright nightgown.
She looked up, puzzled. What was that?
A joke of W. C. Fields’s. That was what he called death, ‘the fellow in the bright nightgown.’
Why? she asked,
I don’t know, he said. I don’t know why.
They all laughed again. The party was getting rowdy, and one of the nurses came in to disapprove. They waved her away. Paige was tired, but she did not tell them to go. She couldn’t, these were her oldest, dearest friends.
It grew noisy. One of them bumped her bed and moved away, laughing. They were telling an old story now, hard for her to follow; it was a story about Wretch. She was getting sleepy, she was more tired than she realized. The drugs clouded her mind, she felt she was living in slow motion. Her bones ached. The nurse came in again and was told to leave. There was an argument, more laughter. Then a pause, and she saw they were all looking at her, knowing now that they’d overstayed their welcome. She was ill, she needed rest, They gathered around her bed, leaning down one by one to kiss her on the cheek, staring into her sad blue eyes. One of them touched her hair. She smelled the fumes of the whiskey and the smoke from their cigarettes. She moved her face on the pillow, they each kissed her in turn and mumbled their pleasure that she was all right, and that her illness was nothing permanent. Her eyes had been half-closed, she was looking sideways at the door. Then she glanced up, their faces were above her, expressions blank, like masked surgeons in an operating theater. They loomed, large and misshapen. She looked away and they slipped out of her vision and she felt them all, every man, as a potential fallen; leaning over her, seductive, not anchored, teetering, not fastened to anything. If she was not careful they would smother her, one more random killing. She looked back, trembling. She was terrified now, beginning to go to pieces, fighting it, knowing it was only a matter of seconds. Then one of them moved, and when she flung up her hands to protect herself he kissed her fingers and danced away.