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From Impossible Object.

There was once a Christian governor of Cyprus called Bragadino who was a good and holy man and who surrendered to the Turks on the understanding that he would be given his life and freedom. This was at the time of the Crusades, when men fought with passion and for piety. The Turkish commander was a politician and an epileptic: he promised Bragadino that he could have his life and freedom then cut off his nose and ears and ordered that he should be flayed alive. But all the time he was being flayed Bragadino maintained such a sweet and seraphic expression that several people watching him were converted. And even when his skin was completely off his angelic smile still continued. This gave the Turks the idea of stuffing it and selling it back to his family. His family bought it and put it in a church, as a moral and religious precept.

The crusades were a proper time in which to observe human nature--the pursuit of holiness for the sake of money, the use of torture for the sake of identity, a time of passionate care and commitment. Those who distributed pain were politicians; those who profited, saints. Either way life was not easy; unless you died young, which was recommended.

There was another such incident at this time, performed by women. The crusades were an excuse for men to get away from women, who pushed them out into the cold like seaside landladies. There was a King of Cyprus who went away to war and left behind a wife and a mistress. The former was barren; the latter as usual, pregnant. As soon as the king had gone the wife imprisoned the mistress and hammered her like a mortar with a pestle. This was to produce an abortion, in the pursuit of morality and religion. But the point of the story is that the child flourished; only the mother died. And the father of course too; who was caught with another of his mistresses and castrated.

When babies have their first experience of love they are already as grown men; green things in the hands of older women, lying on their backs and watching themselves being tickled; the endearments like the forearms of executioners. They are called duck, rabbit, turtle; the seagulls come to get them. For every baby born, there are the million or two dead children.

Perhaps the worst torture at this time happened to an Arab who was condemned by a Mongol to eat himself. He was sat down at a table with a napkin round his throat; was served feet first, perhaps; would have had to tell his host how delicious they were, such is Arab hospitality. And there were still the great delicacies. You close your eyes and open your mouth and in nanny pops them. And the eyes. He would not have got as far as the eyes: he would not have been left even with the smile of Bragadino.

The baby crawls across no-man's-land with its limbs shot off by the drug its mother took to keep it happy. It hopes that one day its mother will come to punish it, because then it will know who it is again. It looks out on a world in which slaves walk round with their hands pierced and hung round their necks like identity discs. It is by pain that caring is demonstrated: we were taught this at Sunday School.

So we wait for the aeroplane to come over the mountain, the stars on a clear night so beautiful. Once men found it easy to be hurt; now they have to advertise in shop windows. They ask for someone to order them; to lock them on the wire floors of cages. Sometimes they dream of walking forwards again like mad archaic statues. But first their hair falls out and then their teeth and their spectacles in piles. They have the vision of the sky opening again. This has always happened at the cost of the skin being stuffed; the million or two dead children.

One winter I was doing research work in the reading room of the British Museum and I used to go for lunch each weekday to a public house. This was of the kind where students and young businessmen jostle over chicken sandwiches and beer, their arms and talk as impersonal as machinery. This suited me, since I like to feel anonymous in a crowd. I occasionally tried to hear what some of my neighbours said, but I seemed able only to catch laughter or exclamations just before or after words, so that intelligibility was as hard to come by as the pin-pointing of an exact present.

One day there came into this pub a couple, a man and a girl, who stood out from the rest of the customers because of their self-absorption and exposure. The man was tall like something grown out of its shell; he had spectacles and fair hair and was almost middle-aged but not quite, because of some vulnerability about him--a daddy-longlegs. The girl was self-contained and dark-haired and beautiful; she was young but at the same time mythical, like Cleopatra. One or the other would arrive at the pub first; would peer round tables and over screens with the gaze of people intent on hidden music; would go out into the cold or into the rain again to wait because like this they were closer to each other and more comfortable than being distant in warmth. They were in love. They seemed a definition of this term--like dinosaurs of extinction. Love is out of date now because it is annoying to others; exposure causes embarrassment.

A London pub at lunch time has a masculine air; there is an activity of elbows like bow-strings being drawn back at Agincourt, feet are on duckboards and glasses are grenades in the hand. There is a roar of agreement as if in a Paris salon that Dreyfus should be shot. I did not like the people in the pub. But I think I am happiest when I feel people are against me.

I was working at the time on a historical book on the relationship between men and women. What interested me was man's view of woman as either goddess or mother or prostitute; and woman's acceptance of these roles for the sake of her identity. I was studying in particular Christian attitudes at the time of the Crusades, and contrasting these with attitudes in classical Greece and Rome.

When the man and girl came into the pub--they would have met out of doors and come in holding on to one another--there were not only the ordinary manifestations of love, the clasped hands, smiles, the gazing on one another like hypnotists; but a further dimension as if they were actors trying to make reality more real than it might be. They seemed to want to prove that love was real by demonstration--an existentialist proposition. And yet they were oblivious of the people around. I had remarked in my work how romantic love seemed to have withered as a result of self-consciousness: the couple seemed not to be unaware of this, but to avoid it. It was as if they were constructing, or honouring, something called love which was separate from themselves; as if they were artists.

The girl had a small dark face surrounded by a fur hat from which her gold eyes looked out. I thought of Anna Karenina at the railway station; her first appearance there and the last, because her end was foreshadowed in the beginning. In the girl's eyes was a depth like a well; you could drop a stone down and listen for ever. When she walked she strode with long legs as if she were skating. When she took her hat off you expected snow to scatter.

The man was older than she. He wore a black overcoat and a brown muffler and seemed always to be looking for somewhere to put his gloves. He did not take his coat off; he wrapped it round him as if he also were waiting for a train. But I could not think so romantically of the man. I was jealous.

The couple ignored the other people in the pub, who ignored them. There was something narcissistic in their rituals: they held hands too long like opera singers, had to keep time to their hidden music, were dragged forward and back and lost momentum. There is an instance in The Valkyrie when Wotan and Brunnhilde have to step towards each other across a stage and to keep pace with a drawn-out climax; their movements are absurd, but also beautiful. The couple were like this.

I usually had a book propped on my knee for something to do between eating. I used the book as a shield, just lifting the pages and shaking crumbs off.

I had noticed the couple for several days before I watched them closely. I think I became interested then partly because of my work. I had had the idea that men wanted to see women as goddesses or prostitutes because these are men's own projections and they have to find objects to accept them or else their own nature becomes unbearable. I remembered a fairy story by Oscar Wilde in which Narcissus looks into his pool and asks the water what it thinks of him; and the water answers that it sees its own reflection in his eyes.

I did not at first hear much of what the couple said. They did not speak much. When they met there were a few of the murmured nonsenses of love; I heard him once say that she looked beautiful and she answered, as if it were a poem--Oh so do you! She had a voice which sometimes bubbled like a fountain. Then they would sit and hold hands underneath a table; rock backwards and forwards as if playing chess. Eventually time would be running out and they would have to order food. I think that they half fostered their absorption so that they could remember time suddenly and feel tragic; he could get up and go to the bar with the Furies after him, and she could watch him disappearing from a distant shore. At the bar he would widen his eyes and gaze at the top row of bottles; live in memory of the table he had just left. Then he would return, and the girl would greet him as if they had been apart for years. They lived in a myth, which was real to them.

I began to build up some imagination about their lives. The girl wore a wedding ring. She sometimes carried gramophone records. I thought she might be a music student. She would play the harp or flute.

The man might be a second-rate conductor. He would fall off his rostrum, flailing at windmills.

At any rate they were both working in the vicinity and were using this pub to meet in at lunch. I did not know why they had nowhere better to meet. The girl was married; probably the man was too. They were not married to each other. I thought--Perhaps all love has to expose itself, since it exists in memory and expectation.

One day when the pub was more crowded than usual and there were no more free tables they had to come over to one at which I sat. This closeness was unnerving; I was suddenly faced with my imagination, like acquaintances meeting in a nudist camp. The girl in close-up was even more beautiful than I had thought; she was in her twenties, probably a mother. Her skin had that quality of the self-possessed; there were no rivers under her eyes for her to cry down. The man had a clown's bright gentleness; he waited for the tea-tray to fall about his head.

I held my book on my knee. It was a book about the Etruscans. The Etruscans were one of the few people of the ancient world who had treated women with dignity. On their tombs husbands and wives lay in each other's arms. This could not have happened with the Greeks and Romans, who were homosexual.

I did not really want to hear the couple talk. The impression that I had of them was that of a silent film. I liked the self-absorption and fluttering of eyes and the long pauses; the impression of white horses rushing across deserts. Speech, self-consciousness, had killed love. You could not lie on a grassy bank and spout Shakespeare.

The man was saying "You cook for him. Clean. Does he expect you to have feelings?"

He had a drawling, upper-class voice, slightly fading at the edges.

Just before this, when they had come in, he had touched her cheek with such triumph.

He said "Anyone can have feelings. On a Saturday night, with you-know-what and a bath."

The girl shook her head. She was eating a chicken sandwich. He waited for her, but she did not speak. I thought she at least might preserve her poetry. When she looked at the man her eyes had the ability to go liquid.

He said "What are you thinking?"

They did not seem aware of myself. They spoke to one side of me.

The girl said "I'm totally destructive."

The man shouted with laughter.

He said "Of course. The difference between you and others, is you know it."

She shook her head.

When they leaned towards each other they were like blind people putting print into a machine: they could not know what would come out of it.

She said "How are things with you?"

He said "We're in different rooms now."

She raised one eyebrow.

He dropped some food on his lap and swore.

She said "How are the children?"

He said "They've got a new girl friend. In pink tights."

Her eyes were pearls cutting down through her eyelids.

He said "How is yours?"

She said "Oh, she climbs all over me."

I do not remember much more of this first conversation.

I had been interested in them because I was lonely: I cared about love. One sees so little of it. Also I had this theory that only in a mixture of cynicism and romanticism was love possible. But I had not expected it in others. I did not know now if I liked it. I wondered how much from myself I projected on to them. Such processes are in the unconscious.

The couple did not come to the pub again for some time. This was around Christmas; I thought that they must have gone to their separate homes. I missed them. I was living so much on my own that this friendship of phantoms was important to me. I did not have a girl friend at the time. I loved women; but because I could not easily have myths about them I think they sometimes feared me. And perhaps I was afraid of them, that they might destroy me.

Then one day the couple were in the pub again before I had arrived. I was so pleased to see them I almost acted as if I knew them; greeted them like one of the characters in their story. I had already begun to think of them as characters in a story--both the one that they seemed to listen to like hidden music and the one that I was even then thinking of writing. They gave this impression of something being constructed by artifice; which they watched unfolding passively, yet also created. I believed that all life was like this; and they were people uniquely who recognised it. I recognised it myself, and so was involved in their story. But perhaps we could never let each other know; like spies in a foreign country.

But I thought I would be brave and sit at their table.

They were in one of their silences in which love existed like a charge between thunder-clouds. I was still half cynical: I thought that people who acted love so openly must underneath be devouring. When I sat at their table the man looked at me and for a moment I thought he might recognise me; but he recognised nothing. The girl, as always, was sensual. She had taken her coat off. There is a girl in a Moravia story who is very young but when she takes her clothes off has the voluptuousness of an older woman. This girl was like that. The two of them were under some strain. They seemed to hover slightly above their seats like hummingbirds. I thought they might be meeting for the last time. I put my beer down quietly. The man was doing his rocking-chair act; a Cezanne in the evening. The girl's lower eyelids had gone slightly up as if heat had contracted them.

The man was saying "If we went off with each other we'd break within a year. There's a love that destroys you, which is what you've got, and that frees you, which is what you haven't. If you want love then you have to be both together and apart. This works. The other doesn't."

She said "You don't really want me."

He said "I do." Then--"You'll see one day."

They were not eating. Their food remained on their plates like the helpings which come back to children at lunch and tea and supper.

She said "I want us to have some sort of life together. I think love is a common world which you build from day to day. If you don't have that, you don't have anything."

He said "We've got everything."

She said "We've got nothing."

He looked exhausted. He had wrapped his coat around him as if in cold. His mouth was stiff and his words were difficult to enunciate. He said "All poets have always known, that you can't have love by grabbing it. You've read the books. For God's sake."

She said "I'm not a poet."

He said "You are."

She looked like Judith going to Holofernes.

He said "Once society did it for us. Now we have to do it ourselves."

She said "What?"

He said "Make impossibilities."

She said "What's the point?"

He said "To maintain ecstasy."

He spoke like someone making a confession under torture.

She said "All right keep your beautiful marriage."

He did not seem to hear this. He put his head back and closed his eyes.

He said "One does build from day to day. But one adds, one doesn't destroy."

She said "You risk nothing. Nothing'll break you."

He said "Or one loses the lot."

They were silent for a time. They seemed refugees preferring to die than look over the hill to the promised land.

He said "Why don't you leave him then?"

She said "Because you don't want me to."

He said "I do."

She said "I think I have a great capacity for love. I could give myself totally."

He said "You do it then."

She said "I can't bear deceit."

She spoke in her operatic voice.

He said "All life is some bearing of deceit. That's human nature."

She said "I don't believe that."

He said "Ducky, I know you don't."

She said "What?"

He began to tremble.

He said "Like Anna Karenina in the railway station. You spread a little happiness around."

She stood up. She said "That is unforgivable."

I wanted to say--I thought of Anna Karenina!

He said "Oh sit down."

She opened a bag and took out a pair of keys and put them on the table.

The keys lay there like things untouchable except by pincers. I thought--So he did have somewhere to take her. He paid no attention to the keys. I thought--But she won't be able to go now. She went to the door. I thought--He'll go after her. He did not even look up. She went out. The keys remained; one with a shaft like a gun barrel.

I wondered for a moment if I might follow and see where she lived: then I might make a date with her.

The man finished his sandwich. I wanted to say to him--Just because it is impossible, doesn't mean you stop trying!

After a time he stood up. He was the exhausted soldier after five minutes' rest on the march, strapping his pack on and setting out for the firing line. I thought he might still go after her. But he went to the bar and ordered another beer. And when he came back I saw that he was smiling. His was one of those faces that you turn upside down and it comes out different; the clown becomes the cossack. I wondered how he did this. He sat beside me again. His face had become gentle: a cunning child's.

I thought of my story about this man and the girl who looked at themselves in mirrors, who moved the opposite ways from what they intended. I might make the man be living like myself alone up four flights of stairs: the girl coming to make love mornings and evenings. They would use their lunches purely for public purposes; needing an audience because observers influence that which is observed. Or perhaps they did not make love at all, being so concerned with their maintenance of ecstasy.

After this there was another gap of a week or so in which neither of them came to the pub. I felt as if I had missed my opportunity to speak. The man of course had picked up the keys and had put them in his pocket.

Then one day the girl came in on her own, stepping as usual with long legs as if on ice, peering serene and purposeful and still with no rivulets beneath her eyes. I sometimes think this look of hers was simply because she was short sighted. There was nothing unusual about her coming in alone; the man would follow. I waited with my book propped up. I was reading Suetonius. In Suetonius, men and women do little except murder one another. I suppose at first sight I am not very noticeable, being short, shorter than the man--though I look quite like him. The girl gazed across at me and I thought she might recognise me; but she did not; she went to the bar and ordered her sandwich and fruit juice. But she did not go to wait in the cold. And after a time the man still had not followed. I wondered whether they had arranged their usual rendezvous or whether she had come in just by chance. After a quarrel they would both be proud; they would not telephone to make it up. They would prefer to wander in the streets on the chance of casual meetings. I thought I was getting to know them now. In a casual meeting there would be no resentment nor triumph: they would hope for miracles. But still the man did not come. Her face began to look as if it were being hit. I tried to imagine her with her husband and child or children. She would go out each day to study music. Her husband would be a thickset man with well-cut hair. They would sleep in a bed with a canopy like a sea-shell. She had finished her sandwich and still the man had not come. I wanted to talk to her. She was standing picking the petals off daisies to see if she existed.

I thought I could ask her to have lunch: tell her all about the conductors of hidden music.

She waited three-quarters of an hour and then went out. She had looked at the door often. I had not spoken to her. I think she was too sad. Grief is private, because so exposed.

Then the next day the man came in alone. He was so un-self-conscious that you could feel his wondering about himself; looking round tables, over partitions, and asking what he was doing there; making the observations that other people would make if they had been interested. He pulled off his gloves and scraped them down his sides. I thought perhaps he was one of those artists who would burn his life's work because he did not have enough wood for a fire; and this would be convenient for him, because his work was not good enough. The girl did not come in. I did not think she would. I thought that their luck had run out now: or perhaps they were purposely missing each other for the sake of their guilt and ecstasy. He ordered his beer; tapped on the counter. I wondered if he knew what was happening. I thought--He is being forced to be responsible. I have these theories. His sad face flashed like a lighthouse. I wanted to say--She was here yesterday; you should ring her up. But I did not. He did not ask me; he did not ask anyone. I thought--We all have our self-destruction; mine is that I don't tell him. He was so noble he would go to the scaffold smiling. He waited, and then went out.

And then I regretted bitterly not speaking to him, because it was on some trust in my doing this that both he and I depended. If we were working for love, I thought, then it was just some chance as this that might effect it. I was a stranger: love is a matter not of arrangement but of grace: I could have said--She was here yesterday--and then he would have telephoned her. Love is impossible for people in it but not for the stranger; there is the ghost on the street corner, the face in the dream, the accident by the church yard. The happy outcome of love depends on the chance good-will of others. I knew this. All the other people in the pub were working their arms and mouths like oil-drills. Within love is the curse of opposites; you cannot force them, you can only let them grow. But the stranger can break in and impregnate them like a sperm. I had not done this. I had been jealous of him.

I wished to God I had taken hold of him on the bridge of a ship in the gale and had said--Angels do sit on the masthead!

After this there was a spell of cold weather in which the pavements froze and all the young men came into the pub happy because their legs had nearly broken and they had just missed being run over by buses.

Then the man and girl came in together again one day having met just outside; they reeled through the door as if into a bedroom. I thought they were really going too far this time; their hands were groping over each other's backs, sides, coat-tails. I thought--They are too old for this: God sits behind a two-way mirror. Their smiles had gone into skulls with pleasure: they were climbing up each other as if on a rock-face. I wanted to say--Go out into the street again; you can do it better in private. I did not like them then; they were making me feel deformed. The pub was too crowded to sit down. The man was saying over and over again "Oh I do love you!" and the girl was saying "Oh so do I!" I was standing by them in order to get more beer. The young men had their tankards up like boxing gloves. The man and the girl were still clinging to each other. There is a moment in making love which is like the end of a four-minute mile: I wanted to jostle them and shout--Keep going! She was saying "I don't know how you can ever forgive me." He was saying "I never have anything to forgive you." She said "You are so marvellous!" He said "So are you." I wanted to shout--Come on, ref, break it up! I had to push my way between shoulders. I said "Excuse me. Thank you."

He was saying "That had to happen. Didn't you know? You have a genius for love. If you hadn't hurt me, where would we have been? Or if I hadn't hurt you. You're too good. I know you can't bear deceit. It's I who am wrong. I'm trying to change. You're forcing me. It's your instinct, which is true, and my knowledge, which knows this. But look, it can't be easy. We're trying to do wrong, and doing right, and this is impossible. But we can. How do you break things? There's something happening. But we have to go at it backwards. There's one racket, power, and another, love. But love is total; it leaves nothing out. It runs you. What do you think life's like? I'm not going to say any more. You can't expect miracles. You trust. Don't you?"

She said "I trust you, absolutely."

They went to a table and sat stupefied. Every now and then he opened his mouth and then shook his head. Their hands were under the table like elephants grasping buns. There seemed to be a curved drop of concrete in front of them.

After a time she said "How are the children?"

He said "All right."

I do not remember this time how they left; whether they or I went first, whether I watched them out of the door still reeling like wounded soldiers. I remember his giving her back the keys. I think I saw them still at their table as if in some final tableau; the curtain going down and up concealing and revealing them; the crowd standing and moving for the exit. The life of characters in a play is only in their performance: in the empty auditorium are ghosts.

There was another long gap. It became so long that I thought they must finally have settled to go to their room instead of eating chicken sandwiches. Or they might have quarrelled again. I thought--I know the rules; he was wanting to have his cake and eat it; but you don't go on for ever getting more loaves and fishes.

In the spring the atmosphere of the pub changed from a Turkish bath of elbows and overcoats to the bright stillness of a linen cupboard; the doors suddenly opening on to cherry-blossomed streets and cars bright like axes. I had quite given up hoping to see them again. I sometimes dreamed of them because I did not know the end of their story. I wanted to write of them coming across each other again in the distant future. And then one day the girl did come in once more, alone. She was without her coat and fur hat and was dressed in jeans and a striped cotton jersey. She had had her hair cut. She looked like a boy. For the first time in the pub all the men noticed her. She had the sensuality of opposites--the youth and experience, the leanness and voluptuousness, which invited both protection and sadism. Her hair was in a fashionable style shorter at the back than at the sides: you could pull it like bells. There was a large label on the seat of her jeans. She was looking round the pub and not really expecting to find anyone. She was there for the memory. I think I knew then that I loved her: that I could now speak to her. It was not that I had really been afraid before, but simply the power of imagination. I stood. There was a feeling in my throat as if I had put my hand between her legs. Then I saw a man who had come in behind and was staring at her. She had her back to him. This was a man I had not seen before. He was elegant with dark curly hair. I knew that he was to do with her. She had not noticed him. He seemed to be waiting for her, or driving her, as if she were a pony: or as if he were a footman behind a queen. So I could not speak to her. I wanted to tell her that he was there. I knew her situation so well. Then she turned. She recognised him slowly with her short-sighted eyes. She did not move her feet; she swivelled her body, so that her back was still half to him. I thought--She is having it both ways. There were diagonal creases along her jersey and jeans. She said "You!" He smiled. He was different from the other man: he would not need to bang his head against walls to come out smiling. She had opened her mouth and pearls were cutting down her eyelids again. He said, copying her--"You!" He had a voice like a madrigal. Her face began to change--first into the look of being hit which I had once seen when she had been with the man (her man; I felt as if I were standing in for him; this other man was obviously her husband) but then into something hawklike, almost predatory; her top lip lengthening into that of a Red Indian. The husband wore a grey suit and white tie; he looked as if he were picking up a sailor. He said "You didn't expect me." Then--"Do you meet him here?" I thought that her man--the original man--might be about to come in: I could go out into the street and warn him. Then I could at last step into their drama. But I stayed where I was. She said "Did you follow me?" She stood with her head slightly back as if the smoke was in her face with which she sent out signals. She said "Do you have people following me?" She did not sing now; her voice had a slight accent; as if from a flat land with wheat fields. He went on smiling. He jingled money in his pocket. He repeated "Do you meet him here?" She waited; a chieftainess with her eyes on the hills. Then she said "No." He said "Do you promise?" She said "Yes." I thought--She cannot bear deceit. They looked at each other. They neither of them believed.

I found myself getting up and going out with half despair, half anxiety. I felt something bruise about what I had felt about love: I also wanted to see if the man was coming. I had been so happy to see her; I myself was in love; I was in the street on a bright spring day looking out for someone to meet me. I thought--We can no longer be shocked; we find ourselves on corners, beneath windows, and we do not know how we got there. But we would rather be there than anywhere else. I might lay down my cloak in some puddle--for her or for her lover. I might think I was waiting for my own girl with dark hair. But I was not. Ultimately we make no contact; not with anyone, not with ourselves. I was in the street for a breath of air. I turned back to the pub. My beer and sandwich were on a table. The girl and her husband were at my table. I said "Excuse me." She still did not recognise me. She was after all short sighted.

She had such a beautiful skin with a glow coming from the inside as in Venetian paintings. Her husband said "Why do you come here then?" The blackness of her hair made her mouth red and her eyes gold; colours were built up in layers by time and by tradition. He said "You never go to pubs." His watch-chain was gold: he was rich: perhaps the other man was poor. The husband said "Well?" I wanted to say--Tell him you meet a girl friend. She said nothing. She crossed her legs and pulled in the small of her back. In this position she showed off her body.

He said "I know you meet him. You were hoping to meet him today. Why do you lie? You were once honest. He won't come back. He won't do anything for you. How can you love someone who doesn't love you?"

She said "I wasn't going to meet him."

He said "I love you. I'd do anything." He took hold of her wrists.

I thought--Crash the tables, knock over the beer mugs.

He said "You are so beautiful."

A look of peace had come over her face. She stared down at his fingers as if they were bracelets from a lover. I thought--She is in love with pain; she will get it from him.

He said "Come and have lunch."

She said "I've had lunch."

He said "Here?"

He looked round the room with its clanking of human machinery. He seemed amazed. Then he noticed me. He was the only one of them who ever did notice me; as if it were his duty to distinguish natives.

She began to pick his fingers off her wrist. They were burrs from a hedgerow. He had leaned half across her lap. She placed his hand on his knee. He said "Do you love him?" She said "Yes." I began to pick up my books. I thought--They are well suited. There was the look on her face of an eagle above fur. His was a neck with the crowds going over him; he would live full of medals and of glory. I did not want to stay for the end. You know when it is the end because of the change in the music. Everyone gets up and leaves the cinema. She and her husband would lead a good life, the seashell above their bed and the dinners for six people. You avoid the National Anthem and find yourself in the street. It had been raining. You copy the people in the film; take a deep breath and go off to the sunrise.

I tried to analyse, after I had gone, what it was that had happened. I do not know about marriage--I have not been married myself--but it seems to me that what men want from women is a mixture between doll and mother so that they can push the doll around and make her pretty and then, when she cries, ask the mother to punish them. Which she does. This is perhaps the best a woman can do for a man--to be pleased at his weakness. But it is impossible. What a woman wants from a man is a mixture of god and victim--then he can be pitied--but she only tolerates someone who is cruel. This is safe. But neither a god nor a victim is cruel.

I returned to my own life; my own impossibilities. My work at the British Museum came to an end. I made plans to go on a trip to Rome, which is another story.

It was on one of my last days at the pub that I saw the man come in again--her original man, the musical conductor. He had brought a woman. I knew the woman was his wife: he had not even bothered to get her to follow him. She wore dark glasses. She had a face of delicate and strong melancholia, the good contours slightly gone, as if from rain. Her dark glasses were worn to hide something underneath; not from the sun, but the rivulets people cry down. The man was holding her by the arm. She did not look round the pub, did not seem interested in it. He took her to the bar. I saw that she might still be beautiful; was tall and drawn as a film star. He asked her what she would drink. She looked round the bottles and said she would like water. She must be his wife, to ask for water. He leaned right over the bar to make this special request for her. He drummed with his fingers. I remembered all these mannerisms of his: I thought--He will suddenly look round the room and remember he has been here before. Perhaps he even wanted his wife to ask him--Have you been here before?--so he could pretend to be amazed, and say--Yes. She had short brown hair; she drank the water as if it were precious to her. The man looked round: at the oak fireplace, the hunting prints, the elbows like machinery. Perhaps he had remembered he had been here with a girl. His wife suddenly asked him "Did you meet her here?" He said immediately "Yes." I could hear this quite clearly. I had come to the bar to order beer: I had no illusions that he would recognise me. He still gazed round. Perhaps he heard the birds singing. He said to his wife "You knew then?" He put a hand out and patted her behind. She remained motionless. Then she made a face as if there was something bitter on her tongue. He said "Oh that was a long time ago." He chanted this. The woman drank. He said "Do you want me to talk about it?" She did not answer. He hummed. I suppose he often had to have these conversations with himself, having no one else to talk to. He looked towards the door. This was where they had come in, had clung as if under a waterfall, had climbed up each other's rock-face. His wife said "Why did you bring me here?" He said "To exorcise it, ducky." He said this very quickly. Then he said "Don't you want me to exorcise it?" I wondered if she ever answered. He drank some beer. I thought--He will always enjoy his beer. His wife said "Do what you like." Then she smiled. I thought--These people surely cannot last; they will be overwhelmed by what they are doing.

I did manage to forget about the couple then. They lived on at some level of mind because they were still symbols of what I believed about love--of its complexity, even of the necessity of this--but they became unreal to me as people. I thought that they had possessed for a moment some secret about love; but they had betrayed this.

I finished my book on the relationship between men and women: I went to Rome; travelled through Italy. When in Turin I wrote the story about the man and the girl at their future meeting. But this became mixed with a story about myself, and had to be fitted into a larger context. I remembered how I had had the impression that I was a character involved in their story as well as they in mine; and none of us yet knew the endings.

Then some time later when I was travelling in Morocco--a year or so, I do not know; we become confused about age; we do not want to remember it--I saw the man again. I did not at first recognise him: I was not sure where I had seen him before. I thought he might be a colleague from a previous metamorphosis; an academic, perhaps, or a fellow-officer in the war. He was wearing shorts and a dark blue shirt and was holding a beach ball. He was pouring with sweat. He was standing in front of the plate-glass window of a hotel. This hotel had been put up by the government to attract tourists; it was on stilts over the beach, an edifice like a whale. In the plate-glass my vision was doubled; as if the man were standing both inside and outside himself. I was not staying in the hotel; I was in the Arab part of the town, in a room above a cafe. I still did not quite believe, after I had recognised him, that he could be the man in the pub: you see someone in unexpected surroundings and you have no way of fitting him in. The face is no help; everyone has a face; you have to wait for something mutual. He has to be as uncertain as you, in order to create accustomed surroundings. The man had a large rather muscular body on thin legs: Englishmen abroad seem to stand like birds. The plate-glass window reflected the beach; the wind blew sand against it, the lines of waves came in in tiers, they made a trough where the man was standing. I was at some distance, staring at him. His face was redder and more aquiline. I tried to reconstruct what I remembered; his figure a windmill amongst overcoats and elbows. There were three children in a group beyond him waiting as he held the ball; they were boys, bronzed and indolent. I remembered that he had said he had had children--or that might have been in the story I had written. There is something primitive in a group of boys by the sea; they wait to be engaged in some contest with horses and fighting. Beyond them was a young child, a girl, playing alone in the sand. She had dark curly hair and was tiny. I knew it was the man and yet I could not prove it; if I spoke he would not know me, and he might not want to remember the pub. Yet there is always the chance of talking to strangers in a foreign country, and I had despised myself for never having spoken to him before. I thought I could just go up to him and say--I sat next to you one winter; you won't remember me. It was extraordinary how much he sweated. I went up to him and said "You won't remember me. I used to see you in a pub." People make a show of recognition; raise a hand and let it hang above your shoulder. He said "Yes I remember." He had that drawl. I was touched. I thought he might say--Fancy seeing you here! He held out his hand. I took it. I thought--He is confusing me. I said "Do you really remember?" He said "No!" He laughed. I remembered his way of enjoying embarrassment. I said "It was a pub called--" I mentioned its name. I did not want him to get away with it, but he looked delighted. He shouted "Oh!" as if the sky had reopened for him. He said "Then you must meet--" He turned and waved his hand towards the hotel. I thought he was suggesting that I must meet his wife. I remembered I had never really liked him. He said "What are you doing here?" I said "I'm writing a book." He said "Oh you write too?" When he was interested it was still as if it were only in himself. I said "I once wrote a story about you." He said "About the pub?" I said "No, about a journey up through Italy." I thought this at least would interest him. He said "I wrote a story about the pub."

He was looking towards the three boys. He did not want to introduce me. He began again. "You must--" but he often did not finish his sentences. He looked at the hotel. I thought I should say--It's all right, I won't tell your wife about the girl in the pub--but then I remembered his wife knew already. I thought--He expects people to drop off trees for him. He said "Do you know this coast?" I said "No." He said "I was at Tamanet after the earthquake." I said "I know." He said "How?" I said "I mean, I know there was an earthquake." He shouted with laughter. I thought--People must sometimes land on him like apples. He said "I meant, I once wrote a story about that too: you might have read it." I said "What was your story about the pub?" He said "It was told by a man who had seen us that winter." He banged his head. He said "But you can't exist! Or you're myself. You see how this is impossible!"

The three boys on the beach were waiting for him to play with them. They resented the intrusion of the stranger. I could not place the small girl with curly hair: there was no other family on the beach, and she did not seem to belong to them. The boys were pushing at the sand with their toes and picking it up and hopping on one foot. I waited for his wife to come out; she would be wearing dark glasses and would trust the sun like a lamp she knew would not burn her. He said "Don't go!" I had not intended to go. I wanted to involve myself at last in their story. He threw the ball to the boys where it landed in a pool and splashed them. The small child suddenly put down her bucket--she had been building sandcastles--and ran towards us. She moved with her legs kicking sideways as children do by the sea. She ran right past: I thought she must be running to her mother. I saw that the girl had come out from the hotel. I had not expected this. It was as if she, too, were reflected in my memory double. She was walking towards us and she seemed to have nothing on. There was the way she walked as if on ice, her long legs bending very little at the knee, her boy's and woman's body, the black hair that made her colours so remarkable. She appeared to be seen from two directions at once--both full-face and in profile. The Egyptians had painted like this; with the legs and head sideways and the body straight to the front. You can only get the whole of a person by this sort of art, deception. We all seemed to have been waiting for her. She wore a two-piece bathing suit spotted like a leopard. The boys by the sea seemed holding the reins of horses. The small child had jumped up into her arms. The child was her daughter. The spaces between us were confused; there was a light separating and connecting us. I thought--There are people in the unconscious who stand like this: I am frightened of something so powerful and empty. She seemed to absorb all the light around and turn it to gold. The man said to me "Do you remember--" He mentioned her name. She stretched out her hand. The boys in the background had not moved: I thought--they might have been done some great injury; the sons of a tribal king with no wives left. I told her my name. The man said "He used to sit next to us in the pub that winter." The girl said "Yes I remember!" Her whole face lit up. I burned with it. I said "Do you?" Her voice had bubbled over. The child in her arms was struggling to get free: the man took it: it pressed itself in front of his face like a screen. She said "You used to be reading books in Latin." I said "Yes, how clever of you!" I knew I was still in love. I wanted to ask--How did you get here then? I had not expected them to manage it. I had always known that they had possessed some secret. They had not betrayed it.

One of the boys was coming over to us. He was the eldest, tall with dark hair brushed forwards like feathers. He went up to the woman and said "Are you going to bathe now?" He said this gravely, as if he were her tutor. I noticed again how her face seemed exposed; something peeled, translucent. She looked at the man and waited for him to speak: he was tickling the child. The child was fighting; was trying to embrace him. I wanted to tell them how happy I was to find them; that they had proved something that I had hoped but not believed about love. I wanted us all to stay on this beach for ever. I said "How long have you been here?" The man said "About a month." The girl turned to the boy and said "All right, I'll come." This was in her operatic voice; a decision to embark on a long journey. I could not bear that she should go. She turned to me and said "Are you staying?" I said "In the town." I got the impression then that she was asking me to rescue her. I did not understand this. The boy waited. She moved towards the group; their backs to the sea and the reins on their horses. There is an image of a queen being lifted on the shoulders of acolytes, before she is placed on the pyre. They reached the edge of the sea and stood there. I thought--Perhaps she cannot swim. The waves beyond were taller than she; like the steps of a building in an earthquake. She walked into the water and turned her back and fell into a wave. The boys moved cautiously round her. Then she began to swim. She swam expertly. The man was still holding the child; the child was snapping at him. The man pulled his head back. I thought--They should not be doing this in public: then--All this has happened before. I wanted to ask him how he had managed to achieve love; what he thought would happen later. The others were swimming out to sea; her arms and feet like moonlight. I thought I might offer to hold the child for him; I am good with children. Then he could join the others. But he put the child on his back and called out "Hold on tight!" The child stopped struggling. It put its arms round his neck and clung there. The man waited for a moment and said to me "What was your story?" I said "About the future. A meeting." He said "Good." The child was strangling him: he put his tongue out. He seemed so often to be acting. He said "We'll be seeing you then." He ran down to the sea with the child on his back kicking as if he were a pony. The waves were much too high for them, the heads of the others were far out like oil. I wanted to shout--It's too rough! But I thought that they would always be people who would run into danger, because of their secrets about love and what was possible.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Mosley, Nicholas
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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