Conclusion of the story of Doctor Foster
When he awoke it was morning. After breakfast the phone rang. He told Mrs. Wignall he was sorry she was sick but that he wouldn’t need her again. At the office of The Wittenberg Torch, where he went to place an ad for domestic help, an attractive foreign girl next to him asked if she could have the job. He agreed, and they arranged for her to come and settle the details that evening. She was even more attractive without clothes on, and the details were settled in bed.
And so began the time of riotous living the people of St. Joseph’s found so outrageous. But there was a deeper side to it, of which they were unaware. There was pleasure, yes, but combined with it went an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards Yahweh. Foster was in awe at the enormity of the gift he’d received, the living manifestation of which was this marvelous girl, whose sexual inventiveness made his own fantasies seem as limited as those of a boy before puberty. It was the awakening of first love all over again. Unknown to anyone else it was Margrit who initiated Foster into the orgy, on secret weekends when she’d take him to uninhibited places of hedonism.
The affair ended after she got pregnant. It was she who insisted on leaving. “Are you one to be bound by the ties of fatherhood and family life?” she asked him.
He admitted she was right, remembering what Yahweh had said about loneliness—although he would still see her, and his son, from time to time.
So he took his new mistresses at St. Joseph’s, and then gradually found a group of friends growing around him, so that the orgies now took place at his own house. Qualitatively they were different from other groups of swingers that were popular in those years. Theirs was a very close society, which shared solid intellectual and artistic interests as well. The people of St. Joseph’s saw only the immorality, but knew nothing of the discussions, the music and literary evenings, the amateur theatricals (some of which included sexual acts, performed with taste and love).
But there were the drunken Dionysian revels too: life in this group was far from idyllic, for the idyllic is one-sided. Rather, it was often bestial, the participants lusting vulgarly after those who, shortly before, had been the recipients of tenderness, love and respect. Crude fellatio and cunnilingus were then the norm, for is not the wet and slobbering sucking of one’s partner’s genitals, held with legs apart for all to see, the very epitome of earthy, animal sex, compared with which tender, blushing intercourse is ridiculously genteel and polite? For here both barbarism and civilization reigned together in a harmony of opposites.
Foster individually adored his partners and was adored by them. Some, of course, were jealous or possessive and suffered from his refusal to bind himself exclusively to any one, but in this suffering they experienced an essential part of humanity. He too, if they’d known, had to struggle with the same self-doubt, for he too was human, and as the group grew he was aware of the competition of other, younger, men. He suffered from his own human imperfection, and gave thanks for it.
The orgy of the senses carried over into his painting and writing. He would regurgitate onto canvas in the morning visions which were still coursing through him from the night before, his tubes ejaculating paint, his hands palpitating, kneading the forms before him; and then, in repletion, he would paint a water colour of utter tranquility, working patiently on the finest detail, inspired, one would say, by the peace of God which passeth understanding.
It was the same with his writing. In his passionate outbursts he had no time for anything but a tape-recorder; then he would patiently transcribe in longhand, and work for days correcting and shaping. What he produced was both violent and eternally still, blasphemous and deeply religious, sensuous and spiritual.
The members of St. Joseph’s found it outrageous, the critics were divided over it, but it sold: on the one hand to those who saw, or read, and immediately understood and loved the genius behind it; on the other to those who craved cheap sensationalism.
And so Foster earned money, until the day came when he left Wittenberg. His life, since his dream about Yahweh, had been full of action. He’d had no time to consider whether he was happy or not, which didn’t matter, and very little for calm, lonely reflection, which did.
He went to a tiny village in Austria, where he lived unostentatiously, with none of the uproar that had surrounded him at home. The members of St. Joseph’s would hardly find it credible that he went each morning, except Sundays, to the ornate baroque church and spent up to an hour in mute contemplation.
“Are you repenting for your past sins?” a village girl asked him one morning.
“No!” he said emphatically. “I’m taking time to savour my life. To rest my soul.”
She laughed. “That’s too complicated for us here.”
The girl became his mistress, and they lived together for over a year. They would walk in the mountains, breathe the air, look down at the villages and up into the heavens. They would make love in the meadows, expose themselves naked to the goats and the cows, who looked on indifferently, chewing and producing their milk. They would laugh, and cry too.
Yet she couldn’t understand him, perhaps inevitably: no more than anyone really understood him.
He had to think how to explain it to her. “The animal principle,” he said at last. “With you it’s become a beautiful dream, emotion, purity. The sensual has become spiritual, and very lovely it is too. But that alone is inhuman. Humans are just as full of lust and passion, of animalism. Of sordid, exciting desires. The spiritual must become sensual again. Sex, pure animal sex, has to have its due.”
“Is life no more than sex, then?”
“Much more. It includes all that can be appreciated when the urge for sex is stilled. Yet in another sense life is sex. Sex creates life, in every way. It’s the passion to live. Without it there’s colourless self-denial, only angels and harps. The cows producing their milk.” He paused. “But sex is death too, for all of life is a process of dying. Is not each orgasm a small death?”
But he was condemned to be alone. In the meanwhile life was there before him, even if he often felt it wasn’t quite real. How much less real, though, was the sedentary family life of many of those around him? For the first time his feeling of sorrow for them outweighed his more usual contemptuous indifference.
He expressed his sadness in another book, and then he travelled on to other cities, leaving the girl behind. She was a happy memory, part of the fabric of his life but only one of the cross-threads, essential for the pattern but not running from end to end. And equally, he was only a cross-thread in her life, which was woven in another direction, with the threads from that stretching away into other fabrics. Life in its entirety was a multidimensional construct of different tapestries, some bright and coherent, some irretrievably tangled, some consisting of nothing but a few twisted threads, some torn off and broken.
In Italy a cross-thread was broken for him, painfully. He was in the south and had circumvented local prejudice sufficiently to attract a dark-haired innocent nineteen-year-old. Unfortunately the son of a family friend considered himself betrothed to her and, following custom in such matters, burst into Foster’s hotel room with a machine gun and sprayed the bed with bullets, killing the girl. Foster, ludicrously, was getting rid of a used condom in the bathroom, or he’d have been killed too.
In a moment he was back in the room, where the boy was weeping over the girl’s naked, bloodstained body. He offered no resistance when Foster took the gun. They stood and looked at each other, blind convention staring in hatred at its insolent challenger. In the boy’s look was all the fury of the man who knew he was right, had justice and honour on his side. Society itself, even the law, would support him and give only light punishment.
Foster hesitated, shocked by his responsibility for this death, caused by his defiance of convention. Did it matter that the convention was evil? Should one simply submit? He looked at the girl’s body oozing red and ugly. Why hadn’t Yahweh forewarned him of this? This was bestial too, a thousand more so than any of his orgies where the senses ran riot. He was horrified and yet fascinated. This too was life, the very horror was part of it.
He couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger as the boy left. He sat in silent respect for the girl until the police came, and there followed the interminable inquiries and formalities. The neat documentation by the living of the incomprehensible fact of death: unable to understand it, they got rid of it by giving it a certificate, as though granting a passport for travel to a foreign country.
We will not follow further Foster’s travels, for his life was such that it would be possible to give only a superficial view of it. It could be made into an adventure story, with stirring deeds and times when Foster feared for his life, but the adventures of his soul would be lost. It could be made into a morality tale, for Foster performed good deeds to help others, but he would prefer them to go unrecorded. It could be made into a pornographic story, for sometimes the revellings continued, but in Foster’s world pornography had no meaning. A love story, a story of violence: all this it could be, for Foster, thriving on life, thrived on opposites.
At long last he returned to Wittenberg. “He’s coming back, have you heard?” the whispers went round St. Joseph’s.
Now in eighteen years the parish had changed, for the children had grown up. There was now a certain antipathy between the old-timers (represented by Major Austin, now churchwarden, and old Miss Nightingale, honorary president of the altar guild), and the under-forties, who felt the world was passing St. Joseph’s by. Their spokesman was none other than the man who’d once got religion. In eighteen years he’d married and raised six children, and turned into an extraordinarily liberal personality.
With the arrival of Foster the old-timers considered it their duty to warn everyone of the danger, while the under-forties tended to laugh and think the older ones had probably misjudged Foster. There was tension before anyone had even seen the man. The rector, always well-meaning, tried to reconcile the two sides, pointing out that Foster had become sufficiently well known as a painter and writer to bring Wittenberg some fame.
“We’ll have a great man in the congregation, even if he’s as difficult as some people say. But he could have changed. And think of the example St. Joseph’s could give the world. Let’s welcome him, show the power of the church working with such a man.” The rector was getting carried away by now: “How magnificent if we at St. Joseph’s could give back to the church a true , repentant sinner!”
The man who’d once got religion shook his head. But others allowed themselves to be convinced, willing at first to show Christian forgiveness and accept their prodigal son with open arms.
If only Foster had been a repentant, prodigal son! Instead, he ignored them. Turned down their generous invitation to become a sidesman. Didn’t come to church, even though the rector went to see him and came away hours later after a very friendly chat. It was all the more galling because various celebrities started to visit Foster to pay their respects. Writers, artists, scholars. Well, the people of St. Joseph’s didn’t know everything, but they certainly knew the glamorous movie star who visited him. But did Foster let his friends, and this actress in particular, meet members of the congregation, or bring them to public functions where they could give a few autographs to the children? Of course not. St. Joseph’s felt justly slighted.
“I suppose he’s having an affair with her,” old Miss Nightingale said with prim satisfaction.
It became known that this indeed was the case. And when a few of Foster’s former devotees started to return and the odd orgy took place once more, general indignation broke out again.
“He’s still in the service of the devil,” Connie whispered excitedly. “Perhaps he’s the devil himself.”
The others had forgotten this rumour, and the man who’d once got religion, remembering how he’d started it, looked embarrassed. But Connie Nightingale had become stubborn in her old age and went around repeating the same thing to everyone, with picturesque details—remembered from eighteen years before—of everything that supposedly went on now. She seemed particularly incensed that all the celebrities came to pay homage.
“Can’t understand it,” wheezed her ally, Major Austin. “In my day famous people had more sense.”
“Now don’t get upset about it, Horace,” his wife commanded. “It’s bad for your asthma.”
The orgies, in fact, were nothing in comparison
with the old days. Foster had mellowed. Everything was more discreet, less antagonistically obtrusive. Foster was now in his seventies, and looked it: worn out, Connie said, by a life of excess (although she herself was younger and looked worse). In this she was, quite frankly, mistaken, for Foster was in excellent health. But he’d had a good life, and the excesses no longer seemed as necessary as before. For the most part, except for the occasional encounter in bed with some attractive woman, he preferred just to write or paint quietly, with less élan. His works no longer had the youthful brilliance but instead a calm maturity, so that they were prized by literary and artistic connoisseurs but no longer appeared on the best-seller lists.
But the old-timers of St. Joseph’s didn’t know everything, and they tried, particularly Connie Nightingale, to make out it was worse than before.
“A servant of the devil, right here among us,” she said on one occasion, with an expression of diabolical cunning. “We can’t put up with that. We must do something.”
The younger ones looked at her strangely, thinking that since Foster’s return she’d gone a bit dotty.
“What have you in mind?” someone asked.
Connie only smiled.
The next day she went to call on Foster. According to what she told everyone afterwards, he invited her in, beat her, undressed her, tied her to a chair and raped her. “And then he just threw me out into the street,” she concluded.
The last was probably true , but no one at St. Joseph’s believed that even a man like Foster would rape Connie Nightingale, and the under-forties thought the whole thing hilarious. She’d apparently expected them all to go to Foster’s house and tar and feather him, but when nothing happened she visited him again. This time, she reported, he did even worse things. More laughter, even from old-timers. Soon people began to get used to the sight of her toddling off to Foster’s house, although he’d learnt not to answer the door if he could help it.
Now although this was clearly her fault, some of the old-timers found in it a reason to blame Foster.
“It’s witchcraft!” Major Austin exploded. “Seen something of it in Africa, you know. The woman’s infatuated with him.”
As she got stranger and stranger, others began repeating Major Austin’s comment and suggesting that here was the traditional case of the devil turning a decent woman into a witch.
Thus Foster once again found himself cast in the role of the devil. Well actually, the under-forties rather enjoyed having a devil in their midst. And to be frank the old-timers enjoyed it too, for here was someone they could legitimately hate, a scapegoat who could be blamed for everything that was wrong. When Connie Nightingale was taken off screaming to a hospital from which she never returned, there was gleeful talk of its being demonic possession, with Foster the instrument of her undoing.
“The whole world’s going to the devil,” Major Austin complained. “If I just had him in the army! What’s happening nowadays?”
“The world’s changing,” his wife said. “It’ll never be the same.”
“Thank God too,” said the rector, alienating them both.
What suddenly united St. Joseph’s and turned young and old against Foster was the publication of his last book, in which it was apparent that the characters were drawn from members of the congregation and from the faculty of the university. The book was an extraordinary apocalyptic kind of thing, in which they were all shown, neither as welcomed into heaven nor thrown into hell but as condemned to return to earth.
Now the more sensible commentators pointed out that the characters were created with sympathy, this was no longer the old Foster who’d looked down on everyone but a man of understanding who regarded with genuine pity those who, for whatever reason, had been forced to live out their half-lives in the shadow of St. Joseph’s or the university. But the faculty members, considering themselves intellectuals, were incensed. The atheists thundered against Foster’s naive religiosity. And as for St. Joseph’s—well, the congregation couldn’t abide his pity. Even the more moderate members (who, in the prime of their middle-class upward mobility, had been treated more harshly in the book than the old-timers) sided with the conservatives. Except for the rector and the man who’d once got religion, they all began to hate Foster.
“Impossible man!” they said. “We’ve got to get rid of him!”
“Devilry! Witchcraft!” Major Austin shouted.
“Remember Connie Nightingale?”
“How do we get rid of him?” the others asked him.
“I’ll tell you! We must... I think we should... oh hell, hang him on a post and bang nails into him!”
“Do you really mean that?” the rector said severely.
For once Major Austin looked sheepish. “No, of course not.”
The next day came the news of Connie Nightingale’s death. Most would have done no more than shrug if it hadn’t been for Foster. He shrugged too, when he was told the news. Said she’d been dead for most of her life anyway. Said terrible things, showed no respect: it was heartless, when he’d been responsible for it all and turned her into a witch. A vile man. An odious man.
“No, no, no,” said the man who’d once got religion. “He was only being honest, don’t you see?”
They didn’t. But the problem solved itself.
Foster was sublimely indifferent to the arguments going on around him when he set out that Friday afternoon for Toronto in a blissful mood. He’d finished a painting and, unlike those times when he’d been restless at the thought that he mightn’t get new inspiration, he felt there was no need to paint or write anymore. He had to take the painting to Toronto, however, to a colleague he’d promised it to. It was one of those days in midsummer when warm sun alternated with violent thunderstorms, and there’d been a shower just before he set out. He enjoyed driving, since it brought a feeling of peace and an opportunity to think. As he reached the 401 and turned onto it to head towards Toronto, he realized it was twenty-two years since the dream.
“Another two years to put up with St. Joseph’s,” he thought, “to make twenty-four. But what was it He said? As long as you like, just let me know when you want a change. Do I want a change?”
He didn’t notice as the car left the road, hit the bridge abutment and plunged down a hillside into a small river. But there was no feeling of surprise when he found himself walking along its bank. The car was further back, he supposed, but he didn’t turn round because all that was a mere dream he’d left behind. The river, broader now, stretched on enticingly round a bend; it was exciting, needing exploration. And now the sun was fully out, a sun which warmed him pleasantly and which he was tempted to take down in his hands to find out what it was made of. He was naked and his body younger, firmer, full of life and power. Nothing like his body of... how long ago was it?
He walked on, eagerly, to the bend in the river. Forests on either side. Trees vibrating with life, animals he could sense amongst them. How magnificent to be alive. What was it all about? He didn’t know, but he would find out. Round the bend in the river was a group of young girls, all naked too, splashing and playing in the clear water, laughing as he approached. He waved to them as he walked by, feeling strength in his loins and a powerful desire for them all. Who first? he wondered idly. A gleam came into his eye as he realized that an enticingly rejuvenated Constance Nightingale was amongst them. My God! what a figure she had, and yet in his long sleep she’d seemed so dreary. Or so he supposed, for he couldn’t really remember.
He glanced again at the women, passed on, and his desire for them subsided. There was time enough for all of them, and for all the other wonderful things he wanted to do. He recalled something about books he’d written and wondered if they were in the library here. Probably, but why bother with them? There was a universe to explore. But plenty of time.
Without looking back, he strode up the hill—oh, how pleasurably the mosquitoes bit and the thorns scratched!—towards his cottage in the woods.
“Hello, you old bugger!” he said as he opened the door, to the figure who awaited him.
The Comedy of Doctor Foster, by A. Colin Wright
Published on line in Paperplates Magazine.