I closed my notebook and sat in the cafe thinking about real time. Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress is that real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory.
And history is vitally important because perhaps as much as, if not more than biology, the past owns us and however much we think we can, we cannot escape it. If you only knew how close you are to people who seem so far from you … it would astonish you. ‘Also, it’s a way of honouring those who came before us. We can tell their stories. Wouldn’t you want someone to tell your story? Ultimately, it’s the best proof there is that we mattered. And what else is life from the time you were born but a struggle to matter, at least to someone?
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.
What is terrible is that after every one of the phases of my life is finished, I am left with no more than some banal commonplace that everyone knows: in this case, that women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists. My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man. But I don’t live that kind of life, and I know few women who do. So what I feel is irrelevant and silly…I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out. I ought to be like a man, caring more for my work than for people; I ought to put my work first, and take men as they come, or find an ordinary comfortable man for bread and butter reasons—but I won’t do it, I can’t be like that…
The past is always tense, the future perfect
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.’
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.
I have heard of a strange delusion that the sun does not shine up here. It does; and because of the clarity of the air its light has power: it has more power, I suppose, in light than in heat.
That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?
“I think it means,” I say, “that chance encounters are what keep us going. In simple terms.”