life

He didn't like being talked to in that way, and he especially didn't like it when his uncle swatted him on the back of the head one Saturday afternoon because the sting had hurt so much he had cried, but now that he had overheard his mother say to his father that Uncle Arnold was a dope, Ferguson didn't really care anymore. It was better to visit the Adler apartment in New York than the Ferguson houses in Union and Maplewood, not least because the drive through the Holland Tunnel was something he relished, the curious sensation of traveling through an underwater tube lined with millions of identical square tiles, and each time he made that subaquatic journey, he would marvel at how neatly the tiles fit together and wonder how many men it had taken to finish such a colossal task. But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads. Boats ply in the bazaars. And small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways. But that was the point—that was what gave her diary the power to make the nightmare real. To expect the great callous and indifferent world to care about the child of a pious, bearded father living under the sway of the rabbis and the rituals—that was pure folly. To the ordinary person with no great gift for tolerating even the smallest of differences the plight of that family wouldn’t mean a thing. To ordinary people it probably would seem that they had invited disaster by stubbornly repudiating everything modern and European—not to say Christian. But the family of Otto Frank, that would be another matter! How could even the most obtuse of the ordinary ignore what had been done to the Jews just for being Jews, how could even the most benighted of the Gentiles fail to get the idea when they read Het Achterhuis that once a year the Franks sang a harmless chanukah song, said some Hebrew words, lighted some candles, exchanged some presents—a ceremony lasting about ten minutes—and that was all it took to make them the enemy. Brian, redundant, would have time to write his novel, the great chronicle novel of the Northern working class. Brian would be forced, by redundancy, to confront the knowledge that time was not what he needed, Brian would turn sour. Already he had become unreasonable: later, he would, like everyone else, become sour. Her fears that the break-up of her marriage to Charles might portend a life of solitary, uninvited, ostracized, divorced neglect had not of course been fulfilled, but neither had they been wholly without foundation. She crosses to the sink, pours away her unwanted cup of instant coffee, washes the cup, washes a foil milk bottle top, puts her foot on the pedal bin, opens it, drops in the foil top, gazes absently for a moment at an empty egg box, an empty tomato tin, the scrapings of last night’s spaghetti, some apple peel, some kitchen roll, a browning lettuce leaf, a cigarette carton, a tonic bottle. She wishes they would not throw tonic bottles in the pedal bin: she likes to take them to the newly-provided Bottle Bank. She thinks of rescuing it, but does not. I don’t want to get too like Ma, she repeats to herself: but even as she rehearses these words, a strange, perverse, numbing respect for her mother seeps through her: how she has persisted, her mother, in being what she is, how stubbornly she has refused to divert herself with trivia, how bleakly and boldly she has stared over the years into the heart of nothingness. For it is trivial, it is all trivial, coffee mornings, eating, drinking, the National Theatre, shopping outings, reading books, embroidery, evening classes, country walks, wiping surfaces, emptying waste-paper baskets, Bond Street, Regent’s Park, saving bottles for the Bottle Bank, gardening, telephone calls, listening to the radio, Terry Wogan, going to the hairdresser, chatting to the window cleaner, giving small donations to Oxfam, throwing away silver foil, collecting silver foil, cleaning the bath. It is nothing, all of it. Sex and small children had provided a brief purpose, the energy they generated had made sense of the world for a while, had forged a pattern, a community: clinics, playgrounds, parks, nursery groups, mothers waiting at the school gate: and now: nothing. An idle flutter of garbage over an empty pavement. Coldness, nothingness, grips Shirley as she stands in her kitchen. She knows herself to be biologically dead. Her spirit shudders: she has seen a vision, of waste matter, of meaningless after-life, of refuse, of decay. An egg box and a tin can in blue and white plastic pedal bin. So might one stand forever. She lifts her foot. The lid drops. He also tried to write the great pedestrian realistic working-class novel of the 1970s and 1980s, but he had moved to London, married a middle-class wife, and acquired too good an education to write what he wanted, as he wanted. Alix was, at this stage, perhaps perversely, perhaps naturally, attracted by poverty. It seemed to her less alarming than it had seemed to her parents. She got on speaking terms with it. She discovered the art of sinking. She sank. Not very deep, but she sank. She laid claim to the past—her version of the past—aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright, like a pair of pearl earrings or a post office bond. X marks the spot, and Irie put an X on everything she found, collecting bits and pieces (birth certificates, maps, army reports, news articles) and storing them under the sofa, so that as if by osmosis the richness of them would pass through the fabric while she was sleeping and seep right into her. A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913. “It’s just that he loses control sometimes. As soon as he gets the business established again, and gets back to work, you know how he loves to work, he’ll be fine. The drinking is only temporary—it’s like medicine for him, like he has a terrible headache and needs to anesthetize himself, you can sympathize with that, Judd, can’t you? We might be the same way in his place. He’s a good, decent man who only wants to provide for his family. He’s told me how sorry he is, and he’d tell you except—well, you know how he is, how men are. He loves you no matter what he says or does, you know that don’t you? What a dreary life an author's life is, I thought. The purple wildflowers, the grey dirt, the smell of the pine needles cooling. The tall trees halved by lightning. The waning sun on the hills in the distance, bright blue and white. Whose bike was she riding anyway? A log-hewn fence. The wail of a far-away truck slowing. The monotony of an unburned forest on the sun-drenched hillside. Why did she have to be tipsy before she could notice anything? To be described is to be seduced. Shit. One turn of phrase. One thing noticed that she'd never noticed. It worked always. There is proud happiness, happiness born of doing good work in the light of day, years of worthwhile labor, and afterwards being tired, and content, and surrounded by family and friends, bathed in satisfaction and ready for a deserved rest—sleep or death, it would not matter. Then there is the happiness of one's personal slum. The happiness of being alone, and tipsy on red wine, in the passenger seat of an ancient recreational vehicle parked somewhere in Alaska's deep south, staring into a scribble of black trees, afraid to go to sleep for fear that at any moment someone will get past the toy lock on the RV door and murder you and your two small children sleeping above. I’ll never have a past never had All day the same old record. All alone in that great empty house. She must be a very old woman now. I have forgotten what way I am facing. You have turned aside and are bowed down over the ditch. It is a help sometimes to get up and pace to and fro between the seats, like a caged beast. I did not care. I just sat on, saying, If this train were never to move again, I should not greatly mind. On the other hand, I said, these are the horrors of home life, the dusting, sweeping, airing, scrubbing, waxing, waning, washing, mangling, drying, mowing, clipping, raking, rolling, scuffling, shoveling, grinding, tearing, pounding, banging and slamming. And the brats, the happy hearty little howling neighbour’s brats. Of all this and much more the weekend, the Saturday intermission and then the day of rest, have given you some idea. But what must it be like on a working day? A Wednesday? A Friday! And I fell to thinking of my silent, back-street, basement office, with its obliterated plate, rest couch and velvet hangings, and what it means to be buried there alive, if only from ten to five, with convenient to the one hand a bottle of light pale ale and to the other a long ice-cold fillet of hake. Nothing, I said, not even fully certified death, can ever take the place of that. It was then I noticed we were at a standstill. If I could go deaf and dumb I think I might pant on to be a hundred. Just concentrate on putting one foot before the next or whatever that expression is. Sit at home on the remnants of my bottom counting the hours - till the next meal. The very thought puts life in me! We shall fall into the ditch. Oh! It will be like old times! That will do, just prop me up against the wall like a roll of tarpaulin and that will be all for the moment. Maddy Rooney, née Dunne, the big pale blur. You have piercing sight, Miss Fitt, if only you knew it, literally piercing. I start eating my doily instead of thin bread and butter. Mr Barrell (testily). What is it, Mrs. Rooney, I have my work to do. Don’t mind me. Don’t take any notice of me. I do not exist. The fact is well known. It is suicide to be abroad. But what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution. Oh I am just a hysterical old hag I know, destroyed with sorrow and pining and gentility and church-going and fat and rheumatism and childlessness. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. The story of my life does not exist. Does not exist. There’s never been any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one. Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the masthead ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer ‘Yes’; if we are truthful we say ‘No’; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect rag-bag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen, on a line in a gale of wind. Sometimes I think everything I’ve done those years, everything around me in fact, I don’t know if you feel this way but everything is vaguely—what—fictitious. ...the way people modelled themselves on someone else, a few people, it’s only natural, mostly mimicking up, repeating a superior’s gestures or expressions. A man sat in a corner chair in a living room set with a coffee table in front of him and books or covers of books arrayed on the wall behind. I watched TV in my motel. Broad and open like a summer waitress who says there you go when she deposits the food in front of you.
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