The Crystal World

FROM The Crystal World by J G Ballard

The steamer was now barely twenty feet from the jetty, and through the porthole Dr. Sanders could see the khaki-clad legs of the reception party. From his pocket he took out a well-thumbed envelope and drew from it a letter written in pale-blue ink that had almost penetrated the soft tissue. Both envelope and letter were franked with a censor’s stamp, and panels which Sanders assumed contained the address had been Cut out.

As the steamer bumped against the jetty, Dr. Sanders read through the letter for the last time on board.

Thursday, January 5th

My dear Edward,

At last we are here. The forest is the most beautiful in Africa, a house of jewels. I can barely find words to describe our wonder each morning as we look out across the slopes, still half-hidden by the mist but glistening like St. Sophia, each bough a jeweled semi-dome. Indeed, Max says I am becoming excessively Byzantine – I wear my hair to my waist even at the clinic, and affect a melancholy expression, although in fact for the first time in many years my heart sings! Both of us wish you were here. The clinic is small, with about twenty patients. Fortunately the people of these forest slopes move through life with a kind of dreamlike patience, and regard our work for them as more social than therapeutic. They walk through the dark forest with crowns of light on their heads.

Max sends his best wishes to you, as I do. We remember you often. The light touches everything with diamonds and sapphires.

My love, Suzanne

As the metal heels of the boarding party rang out across the deck over his head, Dr. Sanders read again the last line of the letter. But for the unofficial but firm assurances he had been given by the prefecture in Libreville, he would not have believed that Suzanne Clair and her husband had come to Port Matarre, so unlike the somber light of the river and jungle were her descriptions of the forest near the clinic. Their exact whereabouts no one had been able to tell him, or for that matter why a sudden censorship should have been imposed on mail leaving the province. When Sanders became too persistent, he was reminded that the correspondence of people under a criminal charge was liable to censorship, but as far as Suzanne and Max Clair were concerned, the suggestion was grotesque.

Thinking of the small, intelligent microbiologist and his wife, tall and dark-haired, with her high forehead and calm eyes, Dr. Sanders remembered their sudden departure from Fort Isabelle three months earlier. Sanders’s affair with Suzanne had lasted for two years, kept going only by his inability to resolve it in any way. His failure to commit himself fully to her made it plain that she had become the focus of all his uncertainties at Fort Isabelle. For some time he had suspected that his reasons for serving at the leper hospital were not altogether humanitarian, and that he might be more attracted by the idea of leprosy, and whatever it unconsciously represented, than he imagined. Suzanne’s somber beauty had become identified in his mind with this dark side of the psyche, and their affair was an attempt to come to terms with himself and his own ambiguous motives.

On second thought, Sanders recognized that a far more sinister explanation for their departure from the hospital was at hand. When Suzanne’s letter arrived with its strange and ecstatic vision of the forest–in maculoanesthetic leprosy there was an involvement of nervous tissue–he had decided to follow them. Forgoing his inquiries about the censored letter, in order not to warn Suzanne of his arrival, he took a month’s leave from the hospital and set off for Port Matarre.

From Suzanne’s description of the forest slopes he guessed the clinic to be somewhere near Mont Royal, possibly attached to one of the French-owned mining settlements, with their overzealous security men. However, the activity on the jetty outside–there were half a dozen soldiers moving about near a parked staff car–indicated that something more was afoot.


Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 11:27 AM  Leave a Comment  

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