They were so different to the clothes my mother wore, none of these English drawing room colours she was all open-heart crises and burnt vivid oranges, colours that made your pupils dilate and were deep enough to enter your belly and sit there like the aftertaste of a good meal. No flowers, none that I could name, but dancing elephants strutting peacocks and long-necked birds who looked as if they were kissing their own backs, shades and cloth which spoke of bare feet on dust, roadside smokey dhabas, honking taxi horns and heavy sudden rain beating a bhangra on deep green leaves. But when I looked at Mrs Christmas’ frocks, I thought of tea by an open fire with an autumn wind howling outside, horses’ hooves, hats and gloves, toast, wartime brides with cupid bow mouths laughing and waving their hankies to departing soldiers, like I’d seen on that telly programme, All Our Yesterdays.
This quality of discernment, she has realised, does not make Lukas a good person. He has managed to nurture a fine artistic sensitivity without ever developing any real sense of right and wrong. The fact that this is even possible unsettles Marianne, and makes art seem pointless suddenly.
Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. The boy who sang it was unskilled, missing notes more often than he hit, yet the sweet music of the verses shone through his mangling. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone by the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
The other afternoon, when you feel asleep on my shoulder, I drifted off, too. But before I did, it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.
The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.
Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying…But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from the future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
The past is always tense, the future perfect