Poor old Lewis


A short story


by John Brignell


I suddenly thought about poor old Lewis the other day. Why he should come into my head after all these years I cannot imagine, but there he was, just as I was walking down the steps of the University library. I stopped so abruptly that old Whetstone from Philosophy walked into the back of me and we both stumbled down the steps. He wandered off muttering irritably to himself and left me standing there coping with the shock of a sudden flood of memories.

We called him poor old Lewis for years afterwards whenever we spoke of him, but gradually he was forgotten, and most of us who knew him had drifted off in various directions over the years as careers developed.

When was it that he had his turn? It must have been the mid sixties, about sixty four I would think. He had always been a bit strange, with that lank jet-black hair and those piercing grey-blue eyes that never seemed to blink and stared at you out of a brownish, almost dirty looking, face. His origins were a bit mysterious too, and there were all sorts of stories about him, some quite bizarre. Some said that he had been adopted by a wealthy benefactor who had educated him, and there was even a story that he had paid for his own private education with the proceeds of a successful gambling career. It was generally agreed that he came from a family of wandering gypsies, but that probably arose from his appearance. Anyway, he was certainly a brilliant, if eccentric, young research fellow.

It happened one morning in the senior common room. I was a new lecturer then, having just finished my Ph.D., and still rather proud to be in that exalted company. We were sitting around as usual, smoking our pipes, drinking beer and airing opinions on the topics of the day. Old Prof Graves got up and wandered off to give his second year lecture, and that's how the conversation started. Bill Jones from Chemistry watching his retreating back, bowed in a scholarly stoop, said

"Do you know he's been here for thirty years, longer than any of us have lived. He must have seen a few changes."

"Yes, I bet he has" mused Roger Webster, the theologian, "I wonder what changes we will have seen thirty years from now."

"I could tell you, but you would not believe me."

There was a sort of silent shared shock for a moment. It was the first time that Lewis had opened his mouth at one of these informal gatherings. I felt there was something arresting about his voice.

Jim Beresford, seeming unimpressed, took the pipe from his mouth and blew a contented smoke ring in the direction of his pint of bitter before breaking the silence.

"Go on then, try us."

"Well, you will be pilloried for puffing that thing for a start."

Jim, smiling in disbelief, said "Tell me more."

His incredulity obviously irritated Lewis, who became quite animated, an unusual phenomenon, as he was usually as lively as a cod on a fishmonger's slab.

"And that pint will come under attack, along with many other things you hold dear. Universities will change so much that you would not recognise them. They will be rewarded by the Government for achieving mediocrity. Buildings will be falling apart through lack of maintenance. The criterion of success will be how many bodies you can pack in, regardless of qualifications."

I wish I could remember everything he said, now, but as he became more and more irritated by the evident disbelief on our faces he become more and more animated, his remarks getting more and more bizarre.

"Condoms will be freely advertised, and even available from slot machines on the premises."

I leant over to Phillips, who was sitting beside me, and whispered "What's a condom?"

"I think it's a French letter." He whispered back.

"I say!"

But Lewis was in full flow now, his voiced raised, so that he had an audience outside our small group.

"Sodomy will become perfectly respectable."

I noticed Robinson, the University's Chief Medical Officer, slipping out of the side door. George Grace came over, looking rather flushed and uncomfortable.

"I say old man, watch the language. I am chairman of this common room you know, and we do have certain standards."

"Language! Chairman! The time will come when self-appointed busybodies will tell you what language your are allowed to use, and chairman will be one of the words that are banned, even though four letter words will be quite common in works of fiction. You, in particular, will suffer from the change in language. Words you revere, such as 'scholarship', will disappear and be replaced by a vocabulary that you will come to detest. You will end your days a bitter and disappointed man."

There was much more like that. It was all so crazy and meaningless. He had in his mind a grotesque Kafkaesque future for the world in general and universities in particular. He must have ranted on for about half an hour, when Robinson reappeared accompanied by two men in white coats. They seized poor old Lewis by the arms and unceremoniously began to frog-march him out of the room. I rose, raising an arm as though to help him. It was a useless, meaningless gesture, but I could not help it. He turned and looked me in the face with those staring eyes, now somehow terrible of aspect. "It's all right for you" he snapped "you will die in the comfort of a warm bed. I will die of cold and hunger in a cardboard box." Despite the drama the image was so ridiculous and impossible that someone sniggered helplessly.

After he had been taken out we forgot all ideas of work, and discussed the incident long into the afternoon. Robinson came back, looking very tired and drawn. "He's quite mad you know, probably acute schizophrenia. I would not be surprised to find he had been meddling with some of these new psychedelic drugs - a very dangerous occupation."

Phillips piped up "Is there anything in what he says? After all Orwell has made dire predictions which are respected, and 1984 is twenty years away."

"No," replied Robinson confidently "at least Orwell's world had an internal logic of its own. The universities poor old Lewis was predicting owe more to Lewis Carol than Orwell. After all, of all institutions they are rational places, run by vice-chancellors and senates free from outside interference, planned rationally on a quinquennial basis. His universities seemed to have their rules changed every year by Government, so that nobody knew what they were doing, with the mores dictated by self elected groups of people. It would never be allowed to happen. You will have noted how much of his rantings had a sexual basis. I know it is not done to talk about such things in public, but we doctors have to take such things in out stride. Did you notice how he kept suggesting that all words and phrases based on the word 'man' would be banned. I am afraid that he has deep and pathological problems with his sexual identity, which have become exaggerated in his diseased mind, hence the references to perversion".

Over the succeeding years we discussed the incident repeatedly, but gradually it became forgotten, as did poor old Lewis himself.

Anyway, as I say, I suddenly and irrationally thought about him the other day. Why I don't know, but I felt an overwhelming need to find Lewis. It was partly a feeling of guilt, but also one of a sort of self interest. I had to find out what had become of him, and whether he was still making predictions. I re-arranged my classes for a few days, with no little difficulty, and turned private detective. I unearthed various old colleagues, but none had heard anything of him. In fact they barely seemed able to remember the incident. Eventually I found my way to the seaside cottage where George Grace had taken his premature retirement. It was a rather depressing experience, and he himself was obviously suffering from chronic depression.

"Couldn't stand any more of it, old man. Drove me round the bend, all this talk of efficiency and numbers. Got out while I could. Feel somehow that my life has been wasted. Came down here to end my days doing research in the excellent local library, and as soon as I got here they closed the bloody thing. It's the age of the Philistine."

I did glean from him that Robinson was still working in a south coast nursing home, and by telephoning the latter got a number of possible leads on poor old Lewis. After a lot of effort I tracked him down to a mental hospital in south London, and made an appointment with the director.

"Lewis, oh yes, we released him about six months ago. No, he was not cured. In fact he was still seriously disturbed, but that is the policy now, we call it 'care in the community' nowadays. No I don't know where he went."

And there the trail ended. It left me deeply disturbed. I now have this irrational fear of sleeping in a warm bed, even though it has been a hard winter, and through the night I lie awake on my unblanketed sofa thinking about poor old, mad old Lewis.



John Brignell, 1992



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