We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 3

(Credit: Vivienne Tuffnell)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussions on infant mortality, depressive behaviours, abusive behaviour and sex and gender roles.

“It was a long night; it seemed to be endless, minutes crawling by like years.” Is a sentence many people, pre-covid, would have had difficulty understanding. It’s a very depressive sentence, the psychological time-dilation that occurs in the mind of people caught in a mire of suffering to the point of numbness.

So starts Chapter 3 of The Bet and we are back in the present with Antony Ashurst.

He had fallen asleep, seemingly very briefly as it is still night, in the nursery, by the radiator. In Chapter 1 we had also seen a radiator and I mentioned how it was this human comfort, this artificial bastion against the ravages of nature, a technological marvel to combat the bitter cold and snow in the world outside and here it plays much a similar role. Ashurst is a man attempting to cling to his humanity.

He awakes in a state of confusion. We can assume, given his prior lack of sleep, the events that had occurred, the lengthy walk, the stress, and the lack of food that he basically passed out from tired. I am sure most of us have had situations where we have been so tired we just sleep; on the floor, in a chair, on a classroom desk. Situations where you just cannot stay awake, you do not intend to sleep but sleep becomes you. It’s yet another disconcerting invasion of the bestial, of the natural, of the inevitable into Ashurst’s life and his waking in confusion is almost a microcosm of his current situation.

He could “feel…the deep, bottomless emptiness of the crib” and what I really love about this crib imagery, later described as a “wooden abyss”, is this further blurring of the lines between life and death. It was already such a prominent theme in the first chapter. There, though, it was about Ashurst being lost between worlds. Ashurst wanted to comfort his child, be with his child but to do so would have meant a katabasis, a journey down that he is, as a living, mortal being, sadly all-too unable to make. A crib is supposed to house, nurture and nurse new life and yet, in this circumstance, we see it housing an abyss, a darkness, it is instead being used to nurse death itself. Like a massive star, Ashurst’s child has become such a dense ball of grief that now it is a black-hole, a singularity laid to nurse in this coffin-crib, this “wooden abyss”. It’s fucking poignant.

An antique crib, of the sort I imagine Ashurst would have had in his home, likely used in the Ashurst family for hundreds of years. The description of the crib, the “wooden abyss” also invokes ideas of coffins, of the death he has just experienced, transforming what is supposed to be a resting place for new life into a resting place for death. (Credit: Public Domain via PxFuel.com)

But Ashurst is alive, and not consumed by that black hole. He bites his lip until he draws blood, an act that is described as “the old talisman against tears” which I find incredibly interesting. There is a tendency, in humans, to take what are, effectively, either ‘instinctive’ or possibly conditioned, but either way unconscious behaviours and ascribe conscious significance to them. Biting one’s lip to fight outward expressions of emotions, e.g. crying or laughing, being described as a ‘talisman’, usually a manufactured or processed charm, an object, makes a conscious entity of this unconscious behaviour. It is another invasion of the natural, like his atavistic outburst in Chapter 1, into the mind of an otherwise seemingly well-grounded, intelligent man. As if to take ownership of those unconscious behaviours allows him to feel human again.

“He locked the door behind him, as if he could lock away the feelings, and went downstairs again to the bright kitchen, driven by a hated sense of self-preservation to seek food.”

The final sentence in the paragraph is another one of those Vivienne Tuffnell masterclasses in taking the mundane and soaking it in significance. He shuts and locks the door, a perfectly normal, everyday human thing to do but we are expressly told this time that it is as if he was locking away the feelings. Why are we told this? Isn’t the old adage “show, don’t tell!”? Well in which case is there some significance. To me, yes. If he merely locks the door behind him, and we are left to imply that he is locking away his feelings it is our reflection, our belief, that he is shutting himself off from this. The fact that it is mentioned in the text suggests, actually, Ashurst knows what he’s doing, too. He knows this is a denial, a blocking-out, a rejection of his true feelings. One of the most tragic aspects of this early part of the story is we are made very aware of Ashurst’s awareness. His intelligence is not hidden, his knowledge of what is happening to him is certain. So for every action, every struggle there is an aspect of himself that knows what he is doing, no matter how desperate, odd or painful.

We have the ‘bright kitchen’, from one man-made object, the crib, drenched in death, containing the very essence of abyss, we now have this contrasting human construct, the kitchen, which is bright.

And he is driven by a “hated” self-preservation. To some lucky people that might be a hard concept to grasp but to anyone who has ever been in a situation where they just wished they could fade away it’s very real, it’s fucking potent. Guiltily preparing food when you don’t feel at all like eating is something I’ve done. I could do myself the world’s best steak frites at that point and it may as well be tasteless nutrient paste. I don’t want to eat, but I am compelled. It’s another example of that natural invading the conscious space. The human organism’s needs controlling the human consciousness, the closest thing we could get to a ‘spiritual’ self. It feels as though Ashurst is willing himself into spirit. At this moment it may be that he has more business with ghosts than with the real world.

Humans are curious creatures in that we possess consciousness, which is generally considered an ability to think about think abouting. Personally it is my thought that humans ascribe far too much agency to consciousness when, actually, most of the time we are being dragged by unconscious desires. Our conscious actions can mirror those unconscious desires, and it seems we have mechanisms whereby we can unconsciously decide something, and then justify it to ourselves as a conscious decision. In reality we seldom think about many of the things that we do that we consider conscious behaviours. I like to use brushing teeth as a model.

There is no known natural, evolved mechanism for shoving bristles in your gob and rubbing them on your teeth. Various species have various ways of ensuring solid dental hygiene but none have gone to the trouble of inventing a special tool to do it, never mind an entire field of medical specialty. The thing is, though, I don’t actually think about brushing my teeth. I just do it. At one point I had to learn, sure, but eventually with enough learning it becomes habit and once it becomes habit it’s just some shit you do.

What’s more, I would argue rarely do people brush their teeth spontaneously. Rather it occurs at set times – We like to say it is part of our ‘routine’ but then I have to ask what the difference between routine and ritual is. We brush our teeth, usually, as part of the morning ritual and the bedtime ritual. When I think about all of the things that I do at these times to prepare myself very few of them are conscious. Ritual is important to all animals and disruption of that ritual can lead to discomfort but it’s not a conscious consideration of having not done all the right things, it’s an uneasy feeling in the pit of your gut, an intuition that something isn’t right.

I’m autistic so ritual is particularly important to me and there are some things I just feel wrong doing. I can’t, comfortably, leave my house without having had a shower, for example. If I am going out I have to shower. I can never be the guy who stumbles to his local corner shop in his dressing gown and slippers to pick up some milk in the morning because I would have go through my entire washing ritual before I felt comfortable leaving the house. There is no conscious interjection or consideration; it is just something that must be done.

Don’t think you’re prone to ritual? Consider bathing or showering. Do you have a set ‘routine’ – things you do and an order you do them in? What happens if/when you deviate from that order? Does it feel fine, does it feel like something exciting and spontaneous or do you not consider it at all? Perhaps you haven’t even considered the order of operations of bathing? Or washing dishes, driving a car, regular events like getting your hair done, regular activities with friends, eating, drinking etc. Yet we ritualise many of these ‘normal’ aspects of our lives. (Credit: Public Domain via OpenClipArt)

But the significance here is Ashurst is not just uneasy feeding himself. He hates the self-preservation. His unconscious self is driving him to perform a ritual – cooking and eating – and his conscious self, seemingly powerless, hates that his unconscious self is choosing to help him carry on when he presumably wants to climb into that crib and join his dead kid in the abyss, when consciously he probably just wants to melt away into the background. It’s a seeming nothing sentence but, again, Vivienne has managed to make it reflect a war in one man’s brain, Self vs. Self, this see-sawing power of conscious and unconscious minds.

This is going to be one of the major themes of this novel. Ashurst is a man on a journey many of us have to face. Yet many of us rely often on those talismans, those radiators, those human artifices to provide us the comfort through them. We lean upon the manifestations of consciousness to provide us comfort because what is the unconscious if not the reflection of an animal within, a wild, untameable beast. Humanity, our conscious, is art, culture, enjoyment, sacrifice, ingenuity, comfort and being able to make rational, reasonable decisions. The unconscious is anxiety, fretting, worry, reaction, instinct, it punches people in the face, it bleeds, it suffers, it dies, it’s constantly looking over our shoulders, it’s making emotionally charged, spontaneous decision, with little rhyme, reason or rationality.

Or is it?

I know all too many ‘rational’ people whose decisions are made solely upon their ‘feeling’ about an issue, rather than any conscious consideration, research, data gathering or the prerequisites of making a ‘rational’ decision. What’s more that unconscious self, the reactive part of us also has us snatch kids out of the way of oncoming traffic when they’re in danger, jumps into rivers to save people and gives us the response “I don’t know why I jumped in, I just felt I needed to do something!”. Whilst the rule of thumb might be a simple “conscious good, unconscious bad” many of the worst atrocities have been committed under the cold, ‘rational’ light of consciousness and much of the best of humanity is done by acting without thinking at all, entirely unconscious.

Ashurst is in an unfortunate situation whereby the warmth of a radiator, looking at a nice painting or going out for drinks with the guys isn’t going to mend the divorce between his conscious and unconscious selves. He’s a man truly divided, divorced of mind, almost. It is going to take significant cognitive couples-counselling to get any sense of ease back in his life and that is going to require the best of both of his selves. He is going to have to learn to trust his feeling, let his body drag him to the kitchen, let his unconscious prop him up whilst his conscious has no patience or impetus to keep living but also he will have to probe, investigate, learn, consider and process consciously.

Sorry! I know that’s a lot to take in. But, such is the level of human complexity in all of Vivienne’s novels that I’ve read, and yet go look at the words. She presents it all so simply that it could easily be ignored. I think that to skirt around it in order to avoid that complexity would be to completely miss the point of her writing, though. She is an ideas writer, a philosophical writer – she may not describe herself as such but she works so much of the human cognitive complexity, as well as the morals, ethics and balances of it, into her work that I can see no other means of describing it. There is clearly a particular focus, too, on this Jungian balance between the conscious and unconscious minds. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with Jung I think he was a man with a big idea who was probably along the right lines for coming to some significant understanding about the human mind and Ashurst is almost a vessel for attempting to understand some of those things on the part of the author.

Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He was very much a pioneer of psychoanalysis and coined many concepts still discussed today, such as the ‘collective unconscious’. His individuation of concious and unconscious minds is explored heavily in ‘The Bet’. (Credit: Public Domain)

So Ashurst’s brain tells his feet, much to ‘his’ chagrin, to go grab some food. What he eats is ridiculously Spartan, he has a bit of dry bread, some water and an apple. Hardly a banquet but the body wants what it wants and clearly what it wanted to do in that moment was consume whatever was available without preparation! I’ve been there!

At this point there’s almost a shift in the narrative voice. It is as if we are following Ashurst in his progression from his limbo, caught between sleep and wakefulness, life and death, and back to the groundings of what we might call ‘reality’. We get interjections in the text of his thoughts, even as he’s eating.

“A glass of water. OK, not too bad; even a bit better. Try an apple. That’s enough. What do I do now? What can I do? I can’t sleep, surely.”

It is as if the very unconscious and primal act of eating, sating the unconscious need, has allowed his conscious self to emerge from his cocoon of misery, look around and go “Oh, shit…Life!”

How often do we find this ourselves? How relatable is this? Being stuck in a rut, or mired in a funk and then you perform one act of basic self-care and it’s like a reawakening. I know I’m very prone to it but I’m an autistic person prone to anxious-depressive episodes but I’ve seen it in others with all sorts of situations of overwhelming emotion. This is what I was talking about earlier about how Ashurst is going to have to learn to marry his conscious and unconscious self, his conscious motivation is clearly linked to ensuring his unconscious desires are in some way satisfied. Whether you’ve just had a bad day, you’re experiencing grief or trauma, a breakup or just some other random extreme of emotion the unconscious can overwhelm us. Yet sometimes all it takes is eating one meal, getting something to drink, having a bath or a shower, getting dressed, tidying up – these little rituals! We’re back to rituals again! Sometimes all it takes is performing those little ‘normal’ rituals to ease the unconscious turbulence and suddenly find yourself ‘awake’, consciously, again.

A large part of the rest of this chapter is Ashurst and those rituals.

Before we get there, though, there is another conscious consideration of his. “I can’t sleep, surely.” Would imply to me that he’s absolutely knackered but too full of thought to sleep. He sees the sleeping pill left for him by the doctor, Gavin, and it is seemingly used as a means of introducing the character of his aunt, Sophie.

She had already been mentioned, if I remember correctly, but we didn’t get a good idea of who she is. This little passage gives us a lot more of an impression of her.

Ashurst’s doctor, Gavin, had wanted to call Sophie but Ashurst was hesitant.

“You know Sophie;” he says, “you know how she just takes over everything. She mustn’t have now. This is for me.” Ashurst tells Gavin.

This is a hint at another major theme of the book which is feminine dominance and given the goings on of the last chapter I get the feeling I’m about to go on another monologue of meaning!

There are very few female characters in the book who don’t come across like pieces of shit. I can think of two off the top of my head – perhaps we shall find more as I re-read and analyse the book deeper.

Now you could look at that situation as frighteningly misogynistic! You could ask why so many negative portrayals of women? What about their positive qualities? Why present the male as victim when, overwhelmingly, around the world, women are victims of masculinity and not vice versa.

For one thing, the fact that we are asking these questions is surely part of the point, right? If every portrayal of a female is drenched in a post-feminist positivism, or worse a deep sense of victimhood – is that not disempowering women?

It’s a truth fairly universally acknowledged that power corrupts, but I don’t necessarily think this novel wants to explore that. One of the main aspects of the whole journey is Ashurst learning his own potency, how to live with that power and what to do with it so that he can wield it responsibly. That’s where I think the purpose of the female presentations in the book is.

There is a character later on who, it could be argued, is just as domineering as Ashurst’s aunt, Sophie, but who does so with such compassion and care that it is evident she is not using her power to satisfy her own needs, or gloss over her own insecurities, but to assist others. We have met Judy and Jenny who I expressed in no uncertain terms were absolute pieces of shit who use their power in order to satisfy their own insecurities. Again it’s this balance of conscious and unconscious, of action and motivation, of understanding who you are, why you do what you do and trying to consider whether what you are doing is ‘right’, whatever that might mean to you.

I don’t think women are presented in a bad light because of any internal misogyny on the part of the author, nor do I think she hates women or thinks they’re all bad. I think it’s a presentation of a collage of women she has met, people she has experienced, who misogyny allows to misbehave by categorising women as powerless when, actually, they can wield much power even in a society that degrades them and attempts to strip them of their power.

To ignore the capabilities of a human to behave badly, to act in bad faith or to hurt others based upon nothing but their sex or gender is to ignore everything we know of anthropology, psychology and human behaviour. It is, in itself, an act of sexism to suggest women must be presented as either ‘good’ or victims.

Sophie represents a very interesting case. We will learn more about the relationship between Ashurst and his aunt as time goes on, but she is almost the archetype of the unease between conscious and unconscious selves. She is all about presentation, stiff-upper lip, being proper, doing right and yet – she rarely does the right thing, never mind for the right reasons. It’s a very human presentation and I know ‘Sophie’s! I know women for whom control and presentation are everything and any deviation is met with a harshness, a cruelty and a power that one could even describe as uniquely feminine, a raw, maternal power capable of taking the biggest, strongest man and making them feel like the smallest, scolded child.

Given how disempowered women have been, and the manners in which society, over time, has conditioned them to wield that power, a huge part of gender equality is going to be women gaining power. As mentioned, it is generally believed that ‘power corrupts’ but what about the power of life and death that doctors have? What about the power of female member of the RNLI to rescue people whose lives are at risk at sea? Sorry to use the Uncle-Benism but ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and those who learn to be responsible with their power often end up less susceptible to those corrupting forces.

Ah, 60s Spiderman, everlasting bucket of memes! (Credit: Used without permission via MemeGenerator.net)

A huge part of that incorruptibility comes from understanding, though. One of the first things you have to understand is that you are, no matter how much you may think you are good, always capable of doing bad things. Nobody is immune to this. Even Jesus Christ, whom many Christians hold up as the paragon of passivity and innocent, lambly virtue, got pissed off with some money lenders and flipped their fucking tables! One must be aware of one’s anger, one’s insecurity, one’s passion, one’s desires – One must, funnily enough given the themes we’ve already discussed, be aware of who one is as both a conscious human entity and a snivelling, angry, scared, desperate unconscious human animal to truly harness the good of one’s own potency and to utilise it in good faith.

This is not innate.

Regardless of sex, gender, religion, belief, colour, creed, favourite genre of music, football team you support or preferred ice cream flavour. There is no innate mechanism for goodness or badness in human beings – there are conditions that can give someone a lean in one direction or another, but no hard-and-fast, set-in-stone deciding factor that says this person is good and this person is bad.

I think that’s something Vivienne is trying to achieve with her presentation of women in this book. She has empowered her women, but to what end? How do they wield that power? It is a warning not merely to women but to all people (the use of women is almost an inversion device, we have an ongoing book about men using their power to oppress women, it’s called real fucking life – so by flipping it rather than asking the same questions of society it is asking different ones) to be careful as they move forward in a world where people are asking for power to be distributed more equitably. To ask the questions who are the kinds of people who are likely to appeal for that power, seek that power and desire to use that power? Are they going to be the incorruptible paragons of virtue who have undergone painstaking journeys in their lives to understand themselves such that they can use their power for good? Or is that power likely to be usurped by the people most likely to fight most vociferously for it? Do the kinds of people willing to fight that hard for power have the right attitude, the right self-knowledge and understanding to wield it?

Now for further clarification that’s not to say that I, or Vivienne, think that women are incapable of wielding power. Women are likely no more, or less likely than men to abuse power. The point is that the established social convention makes powerful women a much more compelling medium for the message Vivienne wants to deliver. Men have been wielding the majority of power for a long time and it’s quite clear they’re hardly incorruptible paragons of virtue, either, to put it fucking mildly. But that’s the point. Can we really engender misuse of power when history has shown powerful people, men and women alike, acting horrendously when in possession of it? Or do we need to look deeper and ask questions not of men and women but of people.

In that case, I maintain that the reason women are used as majority carriers and abusers of power in ‘The Bet’ is to provide that inverted perspective. It is a measure to ensure that it becomes impossible to make this just another story of men being dicks and encourage us to ask the questions as, and of, human beings in general.

What it also allows us to do is look at masculinity from the flipside, too. Masculinity as we know it is being eroded and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. There are aspects of conditioned, masculinised behaviour that are outright fucking destructive. But there is a risk that in framing the arguments in a ‘men bad, women good’ point of view we actually risk alienating a lot of would-be good men, tarring them with the same brush as actual pieces of shit. What’s more it is going to require reformulating what masculinity should be, a change in identity that many people may struggle with. We need to ensure we are giving them role models of what a positive masculinity can, or should look like.

If this isn’t the best stock image ever I don’t know what is. “Manly Big Shot Hat Beard” is how he is described and he represents a very present, yet anachronistic view of masculinity. Formal, severe and broad. Is this the view of masculinity we want projected forward into our future? (Credit: Public Domain via Maxpixel.net)

Masculinity is already presented in a very one-sided fashion, mainly by men who do not understand their conscious and unconscious selves who want to present a one-sided view of it so that they can deny their own vulnerability and insecurity! Men cry, men get scared, men break down, men suffer mental health problems – not every man is a strong and stoic perfect and chiselled demonstration of what ‘masculinity’ is supposed to be. The truth is men are human. Women are human. They are equally vulnerable sacks of meat, caught in a crazy evolutionary dance, aware that one day the music will stop, the ball shall end and they are absolutely addled with mixed feelings and emotions about the whole damn thing. I got the feeling this was Vivienne’s main point with it and as I have mentioned elsewhere, particularly in the introduction, as a somewhat non-conventional male this hits me hard. I can safely say when it comes to misuse of power I’ve been both a perpetrator and victim. I’ve been a perpetrator to people of all genders, I’ve been a victim of people of all genders. There’s no universal to it.

Whilst structure may imbue particular groups with an increased tendency to power, again, there is no innate mechanism for it! That tendency does not equal certainty. Despite the power imbalance in Western culture there are many incredibly powerful women and many incredibly powerless men. Determinism is bullshit! This world, to the best of our current models, is probabilistic. What do you do if those dice roll and give you power? Does it matter if you’re male, female or non-binary? How might that power, or the potential corruption thereof, manifest based upon these different circumstances?

These are questions Vivienne is asking and I honestly do not think I have read a more compelling presentation of gender roles, particularly masculinity (and particularly the pitfalls of the various social expectations of it), than in this book. Yet the main use of the device of having a male victim of female power is not to present women in a bad light, or men as hard done by. I think it’s to remind us that, circumstances being different, we can all be pieces of shit. We can all emit these negativities, these auras, we can all objectify, discredit, abuse, act without compassion because of our own prejudices, assumptions and neuroses.

None of us are immune to acting as villains and in presenting an alternative to what is a culturally dominant pattern of male dickheadery, Vivienne removes the veneer of cultural coding and makes it about something more fundamentally human and universal.

Lengthy sidetrack, let’s get back to Ashurst.

He wanders about his house, like a living ghost, haunting it. But his conscious mind is still racing. He heads to his bedroom, to the en suite in which his wife, Jenny, had died in labour for a child who would also die. The bedding is “twisted into a tangled shape, pillows dented and askew.” In a way the environment is a manifestation of Ashurst’s interior world so, what do we do? We ritual!

He tidies up.

Humans are conditioned early on to consider being ‘tidy’ a virtue. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and all that. To the extent that this can become a ritualised behaviour, that tidying up one’s house can be a mirror of a need to tidy up one’s life. (Credit: Thibault fr CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It’s a return of personhood to a man stripped of it by tragedy. He’s a normal chap doing normal stuff. Of course there’s a touch of pain, rather than fully remake the bed he merely puts a throw on it. The energy to remove the bedding not matched with a readiness to truly ‘change’ it. It’s one of the things about human ritual is the depth of meaning we place in the inanimate. I have objects myself, a small Chinese style ornamental teapot, a clockwork mantel clock, which remind me of people since passed. They are of no functional value to me. If I’m honest with myself they merely take up space in an already cluttered living environment. But I couldn’t bring myself to put them in a box in the attic or donate them elsewhere because they mean so much to me. I, too, despite the minor inconvenience of these objects, cannot bring myself to change them.

He looks at his dead wife, Jenny’s, belongings and simply cannot touch them, and in fact Ashurst has to leave. Much like me and my mementos there is something very real to Ashurst about these inanimate objects, a power to them whereby moving them, changing them, acknowledging them just makes what has happened to him real. Despite the fact that in this moment he is very much in his real world, rather than the limbo he was before, there’s still a longing for that limbo, for that uncertainty. I don’t think it’s a wish for things to go back to how they were for reasons that will become obvious, but it is indicative of someone mid-process. He is not yet ready to move on.

There is discussion of how the house is dusty since Jenny offended the cleaning lady – since we’ve already met Jenny and you know my feelings on her as a character this comes as no surprise. It is another subtle character detail, though, that can easily slip through the net. Jenny is basically just a piece of shit! Not merely when chatting in the pub with someone equally shitty, she’s not trying to ‘fit in’, she just fits, she’s shitty with friends, shitty with loved ones and shitty with the house’s workers.

This also gives us an idea of some kind of stasis in Ashurst and his world even prior to the tragic events at the start of the book. His life has been on hold for clearly a lot longer than just that. Combined with the knowledge we gained of his mother being ill, her suicide, his father’s recent death and the fact that he is still a very young man we can fairly well surmise, in fact, that whilst this is a person who has been alive for 19 or 20 years, it is also someone who has ‘lived’ through very few of them.

He is now a man stripped bare of those stifling binds and whilst we can fetishise and get teary-eyed about wild animals being re-released into captivity the truth is that the wild life is full of dangers. It must surely be likewise for a human being, having been a captive of circumstance for so long. The freedom to do what thou wilt is, actually, a weighty responsibility for someone, like Ashurst, who knows pain as a closer friend than many of us do by his age. I find the use of a seemingly wealthy, privileged young man as the fulcrum of suffering is another deft use of inversion by Vivienne to render the message of universality a lot clearer. Suffering is inevitable, and cruelties can be inflicted by anyone on anyone.

Ashurst moves instead to his father’s room, another realm of stasis. It’s another Vivienne masterwork of turning the pedestrian into a champion sprinter. She simply describes the room and in so doing gives us an insight into this enigmatic figure of Ashurst’s father, simultaneously grand and domineering and yet vacant and Spartan.

A tudor four poster bed (this one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London – from around 1590). Ashurst’s father has a bed similar to this. The description of his room suggests this is the grandest feature, otherwise his room is described as quite bare. Partly as a result of Sophie’s insistence on Ashurst getting rid of his father’s belongings after his death but he is also suggested to have not kept a lot there anyway. (Credit: Kotomi_ CC-BY-NC 2.0)

This whole segment, Ashurst moving from room to room as Vivienne describes the room could be looked at mindless descriptive word-padding, but when you actually think about how it is presented, the seeming shift of the narrative voice from being third-person and disconnected to seeming to reflect Ashurst himself it becomes a lot more powerful of a thought.

“How can you feel like a stranger in your own house, a house his family had lived in for over five hundred years?”

That becomes the key point. This description is not for us. Although we are seeing these rooms, these objects, this furniture for the first time it, so, it feels, is Ashurst. He is a stranger in his own home, this dense museum of memories that he wanders through, seeking sanctuary. Every nook, cranny, corner, drawer, wardrobe and bathroom of the building is drenched in significance and meaning and in attempting to find a haven he ambles, like Dante in Hell, finding only the banshee wails of past sorrows, regrets and memories. Imagine what horrible things would have to occur, what tragedies you would have to accrue to make every room in your house a haunting reminder of all the terrible things that had happened to you, alienating you with their presence.

We get snippets of his life, his late wife’s voice creeping in, mockingly, to criticise the grandeur of his home – the power of belittling. Hers is an acerbic voice, not so much the mighty, small axe chopping down privilege as the boom of a Titan melting it, dissolving it and any sense of identity that may come with it. Jenny is powerful, Ashurst’s legacy is not. There are shades of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Tess’s encounter with Alec by the d’Urberville tomb. All the ancestral swords and shields of the past are long since rusted, the nobility of their great name dissolved in the present by the potency of the living. A so-called noble past means nothing.

Every room reminds him of someone with whom he has shared trouble, himself, his aunt Sophie, his wife, his father. Every object is soaked in significance, every room resonating with memories.

The kind of house I imaging as Ashurst’s family home. Not the biggest but of sufficient grandeur to impress. (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere.com)

When you consider the meaning of a ‘home’, a supposedly safe, comfortable environment, your own space, to which you can retreat, it’s not just voices of the past that reverberate through this chapter. It is the inner turmoil of the present. Ashurst is a man lost amidst the familiar. He surveys everything familiar and finds only the estranged.

It’s really quite clever writing, the house comes to symbolise not merely bricks-and-mortar. We have already, in Chapter 1, had the reflection of Ashurst’s mind in the natural, his brain-fogged, grieving, confused state matched by weather, the cold, dead, snow and the moonlight. The focus was on him in this acting-without-thinking phase. It was primal, it reflected an unconscious.

Now the moonlight is dulled, we aren’t in the unconscious realm anymore. This house, the description of it and how it reflects Ashurst shows him at his conscious level, the identity he has, and the thoughts he has of himself and his life and what we find is a man who doesn’t know very much about himself. He is a stranger in every room he visits, an accessory in his own memories, constantly at the mercy of the power of others. He looks at every room and says “I can’t stay here.” He finds no comfort in any corner of his home and, by extension in any corner of himself.

He is a man who is a stranger not just in his house, but in his skin.

Little surprise, then, that he relents, knocks back the sleeping pill left for him by his doctor and elects, at least in the short term, to the mercy of escape.

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Missed the other parts?
We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Introduction
We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 1
We Lack Discipline Read: The Bet – Chapter 2

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Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

One thought on “We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 3

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