Friday, 18 May 2012

Not After Midnight by Daphne du Maurier

I’m plundering Daphne du Maurier’s short stories again, this time an account of an ill-fated trip to Crete.

The narrator, Timothy Grey, a teacher at a minor public school and amateur painter, beings his story with the confession that he has been brought down by an affliction that he picked up on his hols. What could it be? A dose of the clap, a skin condition?

I am a schoolmaster by profession. Or was. I handed in my resignation to the Head before the end of the summer term in order to forestall the inevitable dismissal. The reason I gave was true enough – ill-health, caused by a wretched bug picked up on holiday in Crete, which might necessitate a stay in hospital of several weeks, various injections, etc. I did not specify the nature of the bug. He knew, though, and so did the rest of the staff. And the boys. My complaint is universal, and has been so through the ages, an excuse for jest and hilarious laughter from earliest times, until one of us oversteps the mark and becomes a menace to society. Then we are given the boot. The passer-by averts his gaze, and we are left to crawl out of the ditch alone, or stay there and die.

Not giving too much away, he goes on to relate how he had gone to Crete to paint for a week. The hotel was quiet and not badly appointed, although to the unease of the staff, he insists on moving to a chalet that later transpires to have been previously occupied by a man who had drowned in the sea nearby only two weeks before. Grey is unperturbed by this and carries on with his painting. In fact, the only disruption to his peace and quiet is the presence of a loud and abusive American called Stoll and his silent wife. The man drinks like a fish, and, according to the hotel bar-man, he’s even making his own hooch in their chalet:

“The girls say he brews his own beer. He lights the fire in the chimney, and has a pot standing, filled with rotting grain, like some sort of pig swill! Oh, yes, he drinks it right enough. Imagine the state of his liver, after what he consumes at dinner and afterwards here in the bar!”

Following them into the nearby town one night, Grey is confronted by the Stoll, who is keen to extol the virtues of his home-made supply: 

“...The beer they sell you here is all piss anyway, and the wine is poison.” He looked over his shoulder to the group at the café and with a conspiratorial wink dragged me down to the wall beside the pool. “I told you all those bastards are Turks, and so they are,” he said, “Wine-drinking, coffee-drinking Turks. They haven’t brewed the right stuff here for over five thousand years. They knew how to do it then.” I remembered what the bar-tender had told me about the pig-swill in his chalet. “Is that so?” I enquired. He winked again, and then his slit eyes widened, and I noticed that they were naturally bulbous and protuberant, discoloured muddy brown with the whites red-flecked. “Know something?” he whispered hoarsely. “The scholars have got it all wrong. It was beer the Cretans drank here in the mountains, brewed from spruce and ivy, long before wine. Wine was discovered centuries later by the God-damn Greeks.” He steadied himself, one hand on the wall, the other on my arm. Then he leant forward and was sick into the pool.

Grey’s curiosity gets the better of him and he follows them again, this time to a deserted beach. It soon becomes apparent that the Stolls, keen divers and swimmers, have discovered an ancient shipwreck that has not yet been found by anyone else. In the past three years worth of holidays to the island they have stripped it bare. Thinking that Grey might be onto their game, Stoll’s wife leaves Grey an ancient rhyton (an ornate classical drinking vessel) decorated with Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus.

The next day they are gone. Grey is about to depart himself, but the Stolls have left him one last present in the care of the bar-keep:

He bent down and brought out a small screw-topped bottle filled with what appeared to be bitter lemon. “Left here last evening with Mr Stoll’s compliments,” he said. “He waited for you in the bar until nearly midnight, but you never came. So I promised to hand it over when you did.” I looked at it suspiciously. “What is it?” I asked. The bar-tender smiled. “Some of his chalet home-brew,” he said. “It’s quite harmless, he gave me a bottle for myself and my wife. She says it’s nothing but lemonade. The real smelling stuff must have been thrown away. Try it.” He had poured some into my mineral water before I could stop him. Hesitant, wary, I dipped my finger into the glass and tasted it. It was like the barley-water my mother used to make when I was a child. And equally tasteless. And yet... it left a sort of aftermath on the palate and the tongue. Not as sweet as honey nor as sharp as grapes, but pleasant, like the smell of raisins under the sun, curiously blended with ears of ripening corn.

With a few hours to kill before he has to drive back to the port, he decides to check on the deserted cove once again. Realising he’s dying of thirst, he takes another swallow of the home-brew, this time drinking from the rhyton. Taking the boat back, he looks into the water and spots the wreck that the Stolls have looted. Pinned under the anchor is the husband who has definitely had his last drink. Terrified, Grey throws the rhtyon into the waves:

It did not sink immediately but remained bobbing on the surface, then slowly filled with that green translucent sea, pale as the barley liquid laced with spruce and ivy. Not innocuous but evil, stifling conscience, dulling intellect, the hell-brew of the smiling god Dionysus, which turned his followers into drunken sots, would claim another victim before long. The eyes in the swollen face stared up at me, and they were not only those of Silenos the satyr tutor, and of the drowned Stoll, but my own as well, as I should see them soon reflected in a mirror. They seemed to hold all knowledge in their depths, and all despair.

So Grey’s curse is Dipsomania, brought upon him by the poisoned beer... Or has the shock of seeing Stoll’s murdered body under the water tipped him into madness and alcohol dependency? As in the previous story, Don’t Look Now, du Marier leaves the supernatural elements of the tale delightfully ambiguous...

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