Sport 2: Autumn 1989
J.H. Macdonald — On the Burning Deck
4 AUGUST 1986
It is just before night comes down, those few minutes when the trees fill with irrelevant birds and the world hesitates. Front is pixilated. He stands stock still, alert to every possibility that might shiver in the dusk, then bolts into the dark beneath the Moreton Bay figs at the end of the lawn. He reappears a moment or two later, pedigree, investigative, at the foot of a clump of giant bamboo.
These grounds belong to a former Government mansion that has been incorporated into the University, and Alec brings his dog across here for exercise every night. He treats the grounds like a keyholder to a London square. He took the right as professor emeritus.
The gardens are secluded and romantic with their flame trees and Bird of Paradise plants that imply the real tropics; however there are groves of leafless oak trees that contradict them, and a venerable group of Campbell's magnolia, planted late last century by the wife of some high colonial official. Even though midwinter has barely passed, it is the viewing season, for these trees are in flower. I can't decide about them. Their flowers are a coarse, music-hall pink, but the swollen buds you might take for small birds, sparrows, so lifelike are they, perched on those elaborate, Chinese branches.
Tonight I have brought Olga over to take the air, since there seemed to be a break in the almost unceasing showers of rain. She and Alec rest on the terrace of the mansion. Alec lounges against the balustrade, and in her wheelchair, a taffeta waterproof over her shoulders, Olga sits like a wooden god enthroned. She talks endlessly to Alec. I am out of earshot, but I can see that he is getting restless and puts his hand into the pocket of his jacket for his cigarette case.
I whistle Front up, 'End of the game, Front,' and we go back towards the terrace.
I can hear Olga now, 'And after all that, how is it that one can never find the exact word to describe the expression on a person's face? And that is not quite what I wanted to say either. I mean the history of a face too.'
Alec stops leaning on the balustrade and stands up. 'The things you talk about, Olga, are simply not there.' He begins along the terrace.
'Alec,' Olga calls out, 'remember the pooper-scooper.' Olga can't reach down far enough to be able to pick it up. When Alec turns page 55back she says quietly, 'The dog is yours, and you cannot expect your secretary to carry that thing.'
Alec walks ahead, and I follow pushing Olga. The chair needs a bit of manoeuvring over the single step when we go inside. Their flat is in an old block. The fanlight gives the name in ruby glass: Valmouth. Olga and Alec live on the top floor in an apartment made out of several of the original small flats. We have to wait in the lobby for the lift.
Alec says, 'I mean there's no logical connection between what you see and what you want to read into it, Olga.' Olga ignores him. The lift mechanism makes a noise, and through the grille I see it begin to pull the slack loop of cable up as the cage descends.
Alec bends down and speaks to Front. 'Doggy. And doggy, what if human beings all had tails like you, eh?' Front promptly sits down in expectation of something: a pat, a titbit. 'What if that were the case? Poker, diplomacy, human intercourse itself, would not be possible.'
Olga laughs. She turns her wheelchair in a complete circle so as to come to rest facing Alec. She raises a finger in admonition. 'Watch out, riverboat gambler,' she says. 'Tonight's the night the lights went out all over Europe.'
The lift arrives. There isn't enough room for a wheelchair and another person, so Olga goes up first and sends it back for Alec and me.
I have been Alec's nominal assistant now for almost six weeks. There is very little to do. Alec has hardly any correspondence anymore, and seems to prefer to spend most of the day by himself. He stays in his studio, where he makes buildings for an immense model city he is devising. Nevertheless he wants me round in the flat, as we have arranged, should he need me. Sometimes he calls me in to help adjust something in the city, or add a new building. The model is much bigger than a ping-pong table, and we use a boathook. Or at least I do. Alec is not strong enough in the shoulders now to keep the thing steady, and he could easily drop it on the model. We edge the toy edifices out on to the streets and gently nudge them along. When I get them within reach I can sweep them up with a long-handled brush and shovel. Adding things is the reverse. You just put them down in a convenient street, as close to the eventual site as you can reach, and push them the rest of the way with the hook.page 56
Alec is nervous as a cat while we are making these alterations to his city. When I do not quite follow what he has in mind, he gets slightly impatient. 'I do believe, Nicholas, that I shall have to reinstate the system I used with my previous assistants. I will bring the big plan up to date again, and then I can simply give you the drawings and the address. I will go to Olga's room and talk to her while you put the changes into effect.' All the streets on the model have names in Alec's mind, and all these little blocks of wood like cigarette packets are tall houses with street numbers and occupants. He never gets round to doing anything about the map though. It's almost as if he would rather keep it all in his head.
There is a trapdoor in the middle of the city where Alec has made a park. This part seems to be finalised because Alec has glued the miniature trees to the top of the trap so they don't fall off when you open it up and put your head out. But maybe you just have to do that with toy cities. Now and then to move things Alec wants moved, I have to crawl under the table and come out through the trapdoor in the centre of the city. I have an idea then why he has made it.
Olga's room always has flowers. People bring them to her. Really quite a lot of people come to see Olga and sit in her room and talk. Dr Lindenbaum pays more house calls than are strictly necessary, for example. Then there are callers in the late afternoon. They gush at me in the hall when I let them out, 'Isn't she wonderful? Such an appetite for life at her age.'
I have to answer the door. Alec skulks in his studio at that hour of the day.
Olga likes her flowers to be lavish. She likes branches of them in her room if she can get them. The university groundsman cut down an armful of magnolia and gave them to Alec, for Olga. 'Did you ask him for them?' Olga said when Alec brought them in.
'It took me a bit by surprise,' Alec said. He told Olga that the groundsman had called out to him and asked after her. He had seen us come across the night before. So Alec told the groundsman it was our blossom viewing party. He had thought for a moment, then said abruptly that he'd cut some down for her, and gone away and fetched his pruning shears. 'I couldn't say no,' Alec finished.
'Lean man, very bright blue eyes?' Olga asked. Alec said he thought so. Couldn't be sure.
'He's been in those grounds for almost forty years, man and boy,' page 57Olga said. 'He used to wolf whistle at me. It was a standing joke.'
Alec allows himself three cigarettes a day: one with lunch, one after dinner, and one for emergencies. He doesn't always use the emergency one and saves them up for Wednesday and Saturday. Alec does the cooking, and he has people to dinner on those days. Sunday evening is given over to watching television since there might be something 'presentable' to watch that night. On Wednesday Alec's friend Geoff Butler generally comes to dinner. Geoff Butler was once Alec's student. Now he is fifty-five, and they share an interest in wine and food. And they talk about public life. There is a Mrs Butler. The permanent invitation to her has never been dropped, but it is never spoken of. On Saturday Miss Rose comes. Miss Rose lives in one of the flats downstairs. She met Olga when they were both mixed up in the theatre. Miss Rose was the wardrobe mistress sometimes, and sometimes the prompt.
Olga can be a snob. She will not accept that the woman who delivers books to house-bound readers for the public library simply brings the books and takes them away again. She comes once a fortnight, and they have elevenses. It is easiest for the volunteer to find a parking place at that time. The reason is not clear.
Olga says that she is such a nice, intelligent woman, who is very good at choosing books. The volunteer is rather ordinary and suburban. Olga blandly flatters her on her judgment and sensititivity in bringing exactly the books that Olga wants to read, and ignores her embarrassment. Olga's tastes are actually not that specific. She munches steadily through biographies that cover the period of her life. Granted she does have a preference for careers in arts, letters, theatre, music, but politics, the profession of arms, anything touching this century will do. She isn't interested in Frederick the Great, but she is very interested in what Cyril Connolly thinks about Frederick the Great.
A woman comes to clean the flat four mornings a week. She and Olga are thick as thieves. She is the salt of the earth. It is probably a good thing that they are cronies. Her cleaning is pretty perfunctory, but Mrs Wells does a lot of things for Olga that she can't do for herself anymore. Olga can't reach up to hang things in the wardrobe, and she leaves them out for Mrs Wells to put away. Olga wears a mandarin dressing gown all morning, and Mrs Wells helps her get dressed before she leaves at midday.
I don't have lunch with Olga and Alec. I try to get out for a couple of hours when they are having their naps, so I have a snack afterwards. page 58You've got to get a break, or you start to feel as old as they are.
But this job suits me. It gives me time. I get a room and board, and a small allowance: pocket money. At least since Alec's an economist, he has realistic ideas about what you need for pocket money.
And it's a nice room, up under the roof away from the main part of their flat. There's a desk and a bookcase, and I can look over the parapet, away down the harbour to the islands in the distance. They do want me in the flat a lot of the time, but that's all right. It's just wanting me there, not wanting me to be doing anything in particular, and I get plenty of time to get on with my own interests. I had heard about Alec and Olga before I came here, they're well known, and I expected there would be more to it than being simply Alec's secretary. Anyway I couldn't bear the idea of trudging to work at a set time every day with all the other sheep, and trudging home again, and not having anything useful to do in between. Just some stupid job.
I have taken to conducting long conversations with Olga in her room during the second part of the afternoon. She is happy to talk. Then the three of us take tea in there at five o'clock, and afterward Alec goes to cook dinner. 'It keeps him alive,' says Olga.
At first Alec took me with him when he went out for provisions. Now he tends to stay in, and I go out more and more on errands by myself. He still takes Front out every day. Olga goes with him in her wheelchair on the days 'when her legs feel like it'.
Dinner takes place in Alec's studio. It is a vast space that he has carved out of two floors at the top of the building. The outside wall is made of glass bricks. The base for the model city takes up most of the floorspace in the high part of the studio, and there is a sleeping gallery where Alec and Front have their lair. Below that there is an alcove lined with books that is used as a living area. There is a long sofa, covered with a piece of folk weaving, and the round table that we eat at.
Olga's room is quite different from the studio, which is a sort of modern monastery. Her room is full of what she calls her 'souvenirs'. She has a fondness for objects that are Victorian and surrealist at the same time, like small vases in the form of hands. There is an engraving in an ebony frame by the door that I look at as I go in and out. It shows red-coated Marines getting out of a rowing boat beached on a tropical strand, and advancing towards figures in grass page 59skirts. Underneath it is entitled Interview with the Chief of the Gambier Islands. 'That is my souvenir of West Africa,' Olga says, 'not that I have ever been there.'
Olga doesn't use the wheelchair in the house. It folds up and goes with the overcoats and umbrellas in the hall. She has been supplied with a walking frame. She is supposed to use her legs as much as possible to keep them functioning.
I sneak into Alec's room now and then and gaze at the model. He knows I am doing it but hasn't said anything. It's like old travellers' tales that speak of the first view of foreign parts: Venice rising like a dream from the Lagoon as you approach in a silent boat; Naples seen from the Bay, before you land and discover its matrix of noise, decaying buildings, public spaces, private rooms, buying and selling, bad government, domestic life, washing out over narrow streets, noblemen, fishwives, urchins, black cats, cut-velvet hangings, broken tables and chairs; the gilded spires and domes of St Petersburg, glittering on a low horizon against the grey skies of the Gulf of Finland; Constantinople; or an Englishwoman who writes in the early nineteenth century about the first sight of the Eternal City after crossing the Campagna, when the guide stops your horses on an empty hilltop and says in grave and sonorous tones, 'Ecco — Roma.'
I find it difficult to, imagine exactly how Olga sees her own life now. She must spend a lot of time thinking back, although she doesn't talk about it very much. I try to see myself as a boy. It's not easy to get hold of; it seems to be like fishing, you've got to wait for them to rise. There's a flicker. It's almost as if I felt a small body crouching inside me for a moment, and the recollection surfaces of Snail Racing. I save it up to tell Olga.
'I used to have a game when I was a little boy, about three or four. You found two snails and put them down on the path, then waited for them to come out of their shells again, put their eyes up, a1nd then you saw which one would go the greatest distance. My father called it that first, I suppose, not me. He would have enjoyed the irony.'
'You like it there?' my mother asks.
'Yes, I do.' It is almost too candid, that question.page 60
'I hope you're getting out of the house. It can become very depressing in the end, cooped up all day with old people.'
'I'm getting a bit of work done, and I try to go for a swim every day. I see my friends.'
'Well, just be careful the old bitch doesn't put a spell on you. You've been spellbound before.'
I suppose she's right. I suppose I'd better make sure I'm getting on with my own things.
3 SEPTEMBER 1986
Alec takes me out to buy provisions. These expeditions take all morning. We have to go by bus to the other edge of the central business district, about a mile and a half away. 'It used to be possible to get everything one needed downtown,' Alec says, 'but there's no grocer, no fishmonger there now. Or if there are, I don't know where to find them.'
So we sit in the spring sunshine at the bus shelter on the other side of our little triangular park, and wait. 'I do wish that they wouldn't cover the buses with advertisements,' Alec says. 'I find it very difficult to tell whether it's a lorry or a bus coming. It was much better when they were all yellow.'
We sit for a while longer, then he says, 'I don't care much for supermarkets. They move everything all the time.'
'It's deliberate,' I say. 'It's meant to be part of the psychology. It makes you look at a whole lot of other things while you're trying to find what you want, and maybe some of the others will go into your trolley as well.'
'That's very interesting,' Alec says, 'but it's no good to me. I couldn't carry home everything I might want.'
On the bus Alec makes for the back seat, where he can sit half screwed round and get a good look out the rear window at anything that might catch his eye. 'You get a much better view here,' he says, 'and a much longer one, looking backwards. I like to keep track of the changes on the route.'
Shopping follows a set pattern. We go to the delicatessen to get coffee and cheese, then to the butcher. Alec has telephoned beforehand, and picks up a small parcel. Alec carries these light items in a string kit. Then we go to the grocer and fill the basket. I carry this. We page 61go on to Chan's for fruit and vegetables. 'This is the best greengrocer in the city,' Alec says. 'Well I think it's the best, and they know it's the best, and they're proud to be running it. I like that.' After Alec has bought the fruit and vegetables he requires, he sits on an upside-down orange crate at the back of the shop with old Mr Chan while young Mr Chan telephones a taxi, and I stand with the carton of vegetables and the basket at the kerb.
Alec's conversation with old Mr Chan is always the same. Old Mr Chan says that it is a nice day, or that it is not a nice day. Since he never leaves the back of the shop his opinion is erratic. Then he asks Alec how long he has been their customer. This is a rhetorical question, but Alec answers it just the same. 'Eight years.' Finally Mr Chan indicates all the choice items on supply and asks if Alec has bought any. He already knows the answer because he watches everything. 'Mr Chan, you'd have me big as a house. And beggar me at the same time,' says Alec. Old Mr Chan replies that as a beggar Alec would not remain big as a house for long, and that equilibrium would soon be restored. He probably knows.
The taxi arrives and we go home in it.
'Thank God the wine merchant will still make deliveries,' Alec says. 'And take the empty bottles away.'
I run into Ivor in a bookshop, and we go for a coffee.
'They call the dog "Front". It's short for "Popular Front", because sometimes he pleases everybody, and sometimes he pleases nobody at all.'
Ivor looks into his cup.
'I wonder how old they are,' I say.
'She would have to be at least ten years older than him, I should think,' Ivor says. 'Old enough, anyway, to make it not very secure for you. Either of them could drop off the twig, just like that, and where would you be? Out on the street. And don't expect me to take you in.'
I ignore that.
We don't say anything. Ivor looks out the window into the street. There's nothing very much going on. He turns back. 'Find out about when Bernice Bobs Her Hair. I'd like to hear about that, Nicky.'
The company that owns the building is having a meeting downtown. Alec is a director and has to go. He looks worn when he comes home. page 62He sits down heavily and pulls a parcel from his briefcase and puts it on the table.
'I bought us some petits fours on the way home to have with tea.'
'Did the meeting not go well?' Olga asks.
'It's just that I'm tired. I don't have the energy for business any longer. And the hill.'
'Do you have angina, Alec?'
'Only a little.' He fishes a bottle of pills out of his pocket and takes one. 'It will go.'
'Fetch Alexander,' Olga says when I go into her room before tea. It turns out that Olga has seen a dog turd behind her bureau. When Alec goes to pick it up with his handkerchief, Olga stops him and makes him bring the pooper-scooper and do it with that.
Olga's room is a low room at the front of the building and looks down into the street. It seems to have been made by joining two rooms in the original flats. It is painted yellow all over, even the ceiling, and when the sun comes in in the morning, it seems like a cornfield. At night when the lamps are on, it glows amber like the inside of a honeycomb.
'Initially Alec didn't approve of what I've done with this room,' Olga tells me. 'He thought it was self-indulgent. I said, "Alec this is my last room. When I leave it will be because I'm dead. I want a burrow." He saw my point of view.'
There is a quite extraordinary collection of papier-mâché furniture that Olga has collected. It seems sinful somehow with its rococo outline and glossy black set with shards of mother of pearl. There is a day bed by the window, a high one so she can observe things outside. 'I am like Madame Colette,' she says. 'She spent the last twenty years of her life on a bed like this, looking into the courtyard of the Palais Royale. She called it her raft. This is my raft.'
25 OCTOBER 1986
It's only after seeing her next to Kitty Rose that you begin to notice how stagy and slapdash Olga's clothes are. It's a hot night, the beginning of the strawberry season, but Miss Rose is sitting straight at the table in her narrow jacket with sleeves down to the wrist. She page 63has a body like a playing card. It's as good as a seat in the front of the stalls for her, dinner.
Alec and Olga perform for Miss Rose. 'Scratch tonight, Kitty. Times are hard. Cold fish and potato. Picnic wine.' Alec's picnic wine is a Tuscan rosé. And he brings dinner in on a handsome plate. He has smothered smoked fish and sliced potato with glistening yellow aïoli and garnished it with black olives and slices of red pepper.
Olga shouts, 'Bravo, the German flag.'
So it is,' says Miss Rose.
People turn up their noses at this sort of thing if you describe it to them,' Alec says, 'and they can't get enough of it if you put it in front of them.
'Other people's behaviour,' says Olga.
'Is beyond comprehension,' finishes Alec.
The food is delicious. And so is the wine. Alec's right. It is an outside wine: a shirt unbuttoned, lying in the sun wine. It's just right. The other three eat and drink sparingly even so, and Alec gives me a large second helping.
'It's a joy to watch the young eat,' Alec says. 'No thought of tomorrow. Nor of liver and lights.'
'Food is the most important thing.' Olga picks up a speck of aïoli on her index finger. 'We think food is the most important thing.
We pay a lot of attention to our food. You should take an interest in food over and above consuming it, Nicholas.'
'I like cooking, but I don't do very much,' I say.
'Kitty Rose here,' says Alec, 'eats out of pure force of habit. What sort of food do you cook?'
'Oh, stews, that sort of thing.'
'Nothing wrong with a well thought out stew. Good food,' he goes on, 'must be simple. That was perfectly simple tonight, fish, potato, garlic mayonnaise, and perfect for a summer night, a night in late spring. But you can't be mean. You must have good ingredients.'
Now comes a green salad. Alec grows things in an old sink on the fire escape. He has put a bit of his rocket and cress in with the lettuce.
'Olga invented this salad dressing,' Alec says. 'You make it in the bottom of the bowl: cut fine a clove of garlic, and grind it up with a pinch of salt and a little bit of sugar. Then add the oil and vinegar. It's rather good. Well we think so.' 'It's the bit of sugar that does it,' says Olga. 'People always eat page 64every last scrap of my salad. I believe in putting a bit of sugar with everything.'
Then we have dessert. Strawberries al limone.
'First fruit,' Alec says. 'Make a wish. Make a wish, Kitty.'
'I see, Nicky, that you don't have one of those dreadful new watches with the numbers changing all the time. Geoff Butler does,' Olga says. 'I should find it most disconcerting, like a neon sign flashing away on your wrist all the time. Wouldn't you, Kitty?'
Miss Rose says something about a pocket watch.
'A pocket watch would be worse. It would be like a time bomb on your person. Or one of those things they put into you by surgery to make your heart beat in an orderly fashion. What would happen if one fell in love?'
'A pacemaker,' Alec offers.
'A peacemaker, imagine. How do they do it?'
'It's got a lump of quartz in it,' I say. 'It oscillates, and that's what regulates the time-keeping mechanism, instead of clockwork. I don't quite understand how it does it.'
'Magic?' says Olga. 'None of our clocks work anymore. You can't find a clockmaker to fix them. Can you, Kitty? We get the time from the wireless.'
'You're a romantic, Olga,' says Alec. 'Clocks are a thing of the past. Soon one won't be able to speak of a clock ticking in an empty house. Nobody will understand.'
He goes into the kitchen to get coffee. Alec and Olga have favourite demitasse cups that vary with their mood. Tonight we have orange porcelain cups with black saucers, very fifties.
Alec lights himself a cigarette and offers one to Miss Rose. She has her own, menthol. I have one of Alec's. Olga never smokes. My attention wanders. I like running my eye along the bookcase and reading the titles. There are a lot of interesting books to be read on these shelves. Alec would let me use the library as I please, but it would take years to make a dent in it.
'Olga is truly cosmopolitan,' Alec is saying. 'Everyone jumps to the conclusion that she is Russian because of her name. She's nothing of the kind. Look. I'll show you.'
He takes his empty wineglass and sets it out in the centre of the table. Then he picks up the cream jug and pours half an inch of cream into the bottom of the glass. Next he adds an equal quantity of coffee out of the pot. After that a measure of wine, and finally page 65water. 'There, that's Olga,' Alec crows. 'It was one grandfather that was Russian.'
Olga has watched this performance in silence.
'I should like a digestivo ,' she says. 'Nicky, there's a bottle of Laphroaig in the sideboard.'
I fetch it to the table with four glass thimbles. Olga picks up the bottle and gives it to me. I should have thought to unscrew the top. I do it for her now and hand it back. Without saying a word Olga pours a breakfast cup of whisky into the mess that Alec has already concocted.
'That was good malt whisky, Olga,' says Alec.
'One must pay for one's pleasures. Nationalism is an indulgence.'
'We all detest the recruiting sergeant beating the drum.'
Miss Rose takes a little round case out of her purse. She looks at her mouth. Just at the moment it looks as if it was made as a place to put pins while you're dressmaking. She does her lipstick again, dark red, using the mirror inside the lid of the case. My grandmother did that too.
'I must go,' says Miss Rose. She takes her bag and puts on one kid glove. Holding the other in her gloved hand, she descends two flights of stairs home.
When she has gone Olga asks, 'Alec, did I remember to take my pills?'
Olga must take cortisone four times daily with food. She suffers from osteo-arthritis.
Olga fell on the lavatory floor. She slid down like a rag doll and now sits on her bottom with her legs stuck straight out in front of her. She is bleeding from her scalp. Alec and I are frightened to move her. I sense in Alec's voice that he is beginning to panic. 'Telephone Dr Lindenbaum and get him to come quickly.'
Olga puts her hand in his. 'I do not think that I am hurt, Alec,' she says.
Dr Lindenbaum comes. Olga has nothing broken fortunately, but she is badly bruised. Dr Lindenbaum and I manage to get her into bed, and he cleans her scalp up. We give Olga a small glass of brandy.
'Thank God,' says Alec after we have closed the door on Dr Lindenbaum. 'We had a long talk with him about eighteen months ago. Olga couldn't manage without someone here. If anything happens to me, Dr Lindenbaum has a place for her to go to. And if Olga page 66goes first I don't know what I do.'
Olga has a hospital bed: the kind you can tilt up. It is in the inner part of the room and is usually screened off from the part of the room where Olga sits. Brandy is good medicine, and Olga seems to want to talk. So I listen. It's a rambling stream of reminiscence:
'I remember the first time I saw an aeroplane. There was a military review, and the aeroplane was to be part of it. I was still a young girl, I must have been eight or ten, and my father took me to see it. I was my father's favourite. I suppose I was spoilt, but exactly what for I don't know; it didn't turn me sour like milk. He doted on me.
'We waited all afternoon in a great crowd on the embankment near the Winter Palace. Then toward supper the aeroplane came. First all one saw was a small speck over the island. It must have been summertime. I remember the sky was very pale green — luminous — and as the speck of the aeroplane came closer it became a red dot.
'My father was a physicist. I suppose he would now be called an electrical engineer. He was employed by the Marconi company and worked on the installation of wireless telegraphy in the Imperial Navy. He was very excited and pushed us to the front of the crowd. We were close to the Palace Bridge. It was one of those bridges that are made on boats, you know?'
'A pontoon bridge?'
'A pontoon bridge,' Olga confirms the expression. 'All the time the water was slapping against the hulls of the boats. It is very cold, the Neva, even in summer. You know how cold water can look cold, sound cold?
'The aeroplane came on very slowly like a dragonfly. It flew quite near to the Palace Bridge, where it turned. It...banked, and its wings were turned against the green sky. It was beautiful. It was like looking at the light shining through the petal of a flower. But a geometric petal, perhaps a wine red peony. It was so curious, the silent crowd, the drone of the aeroplane like a big bee, and the water slapping on the hulls of the boats. My father was almost laughing. His eves were twinkling with happiness. "Olga," he said, "never forget this. You have just seen the twentieth century." Those were his exact words. They seem silly now, but he saw something different from what I saw.'
Olga stops. 'I am very tired now, and I think I should rest.'page 67
There is a letter in Alec's mail from the company that owns the bulilding. I open it with the ivory paper knife as usual and give it to Alec to read.
When he hands the letter back to me he says, 'I shall have to tell Olga now. I tried to avoid it since it will worry her. It'll worry her a lot, but there's no other choice.'
I read the letter. It's not clear exactly what's going on. It's something to do with the redevelopment of the building, and I don't know whether to make any comment or not.
'Just file the letter,' Alec says. 'The situation's quite fluid, however it affects Olga, and I shall have to tell her about it.'
Alec takes out his emergency cigarette, but he doesn't light it.
A squall of barking breaks out in the silent flat: Olga is playing with Front. They have discovered a ritual game that Olga can still play despite her immobility. They observe its rules without referring to proper, livelier games in the past. Olga sits bolt upright in a stiff little armchair with her feet placed square on the floor. Front waits. Quiet. She taps one foot sharply. Front jumps at it, barking and making the play bow of dogs. Olga taps the other foot. Front springs to attend to that. Olga taps the first foot again.
I watch them for a while. Finally Olga stops the game. 'Enough, Front. Sit, sit. That's a good dog.'
I think the greater part of the fascination of the toy city for Alec has come to lie simply in model-making. He is certainly very skilful. He has several buildings of one sort and another in various stages of completion. At present he is painting an elaborate baroque toy. I suppose it's a palace, but I can't see where it fits in the city. He is painting it dusky pink like superior home-made fudge. One is allowed to admire the work silently, but comments seem to annoy him. The palace is more than accurate. When you crouch down to peer at it, you can almost hear Monteverdi.
'When this is finished, it can be fixed in place,' Alec says.
'It goes here.' Alec points to a place on the boundary of the central park that's the trapdoor. I now see that there's a much more rudimentary model there with the same plan: a building that is a hollow square with a central quadrangle.page 68
'I take the interim version away, and we install this with adhesive once the paint dries.'
The palace will stand on the perimeter of a huddle of winding streets whose hub is another one of the basic models, which might be a large church or cathedral. There is a piazza shaped like half an octagon in front of the palace, between it and this mediaeval tangle. A dog-leg street, wide in parts, narrow in others, runs like a river from palace to cathedral.
I look on the bench at the other replacement models Alec is making. There is a large church, two railway termini, and another palace. The eventual location of the stations is easy enough to identify by the ragged open spaces that end with them, but the other palace is a puzzle.
'It's not unlike counting the rings on a tree,' Alec says. 'You see the old city grows inside its wall. Gunpowder makes the wall useless, so the citadel becomes a palace, and a new ring of fortifications that can withstand artillery fire are...' He hesitates. 'Is built some distance away. Suburbs in the exact sense continue to grow outside the fortifications, and when railways are constructed, they are taken to the edge of the town where there is still open space. The town grows like Topsy after the railway age begins. The fortifications are now quite useless, since the city has outgrown them. When the inner fortification is demolished, the open space is converted into boulevards. This is a type of fortification as well, because the danger is beginning to come more and more from within. The boulevards prevent the town from fortifying itself against the sovereign.'
I cannot tell from the way Alec is talking whether the model represents a real city or not. It is pointless to ask him; he will let me know if he wants me to know. I have observed that both Olga and he just disregard remarks and questions that they don't care to acknowledge. They have the ability to behave as if the words hadn't been uttered. The self-possession of it amazes me. I couldn't do it. I wonder if it is a trick of the mind that you acquire with age.page 69
I've caught the flu. And I've been booted out temporarily. I'm in bed at Ivor's place. On the couch in the living room actually. It isn't very comfortable, but it'll do. I didn't want to go home to my mother's. Too many questions.
Olga got me out bloody quickly. 'You'll have to leave until you're better, Nicky. Alec and I can't take any chances with that sort of thing.'
She paid for the taxi, so here I am. In some ways I'm better off here though for a while. I find it a relief. It was getting very oppressive there. Maybe it's just being sick. You don't have to do anything for a while, just be sick. And then the bubble's burst. The symptoms have broken. You know what you've got instead of just feeling terrible and wondering what the fuck it is. Anyway, I'm tucked up on the sofa at the moment, listening to the radio and leafing through Ivor's dirty magazines and other stuff. He's got some interesting other stuff too. I suppose I've got a temperature, but I've been taking aspirin and I feel all right. Ivor and the person he shares the flat with are out at work. It's rather pleasant shuffling round the place on my own, minding my own business. I enjoy ill health.
It's a bit like being a maiden shut up in a tower, being in that place of Alec and Olga's. And you can't say what you think. Well you can, but you might be made to feel foolish. You never know which way Alec and Olga are going to jump. They're not exactly like beings from outer space. Half the time their reactions are like your own, or your friends' your own age. I mean they're not like other old people. They're not inane. They don't hide things, and pretend, things are better than they are. I mean Olga says, 'I could tear the sky down with rage sometimes, being trapped in this thing,' and things like that. Their reactions are quite natural, but somehow they also make you feel inadequate.
You've got to watch your language a bit too. They don't swear much. Not really. Just rather antiquated expressions. You keep wondering if something really gross might have slipped out and you didn't even notice.
Ivor flew into a rage when he found out that Olga had biffed me out. 'You wait on her bloody hand and foot. Ever eager to please. Anticipate her every requirement. Dote on every bloody word. You practically wipe her bum for her. And what does she do in return? page 70Treats you like a fucking leper.'
'It's only for a day or two until I'm not contagious. It seems reasonable enough to me.'
'You're not going back, Nicky?'
'Jesus, Nick. Why not? I'll tell you why not.'
I don't even want to have to think about why not; and he didn't tell me as it happened. I know what he would've said. That they were taking advantage of my good nature. That the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. That it wasn't secure. That it was contingent on their health, and that either of them could go just like that (and he would snap his fingers at this point), and that that would be the end of it. And that it was not getting me anywhere. In fact the only place that it was getting me was down. That I was at their beck and call the whole time. And that at the very least I'd have to draw my own boundaries.
I don't even want to think about why not.
What he did say was, 'What sort of tenure have you got on that room? None?' and 'How long will your bank account last if anything happens to either of them? A fortnight?'
It's true. I would have a problem. I can't get unemployment if I'm a student. I suppose that counts for a thesis.
I can understand them behaving like that in their position. I can understand a bit what it might be like. I mean what would you do in their position? What are you going to do when you're grinding along at the end of your life. What do you do when you know that it's all over, and you're going to die soon. Not in forty years time but next year or perhaps the year after? At least they keep their chins above water, which is more than most people do. And they cheer me up, take me out of things. And that's more than bloody Ivor does with his constant bloody sardonic remarks. It's a good thing he's out at work and not here getting on my wick.
Anyway I'm managing to get some of my own stuff done there, and in any case I'd have to find another room as well as a job. I like this better. I've had jobs before. I'd end up like Ivor: not getting a thing of my own done, wearing out my life grinding away at the fucking nine to five, and getting a shitty outlook like him as a result.
It's a bit like being back at home though. Teenage son in the house. I don't actually wear pyjamas to bed again, but you can't slouch about. I mean it would be dreadful if Olga caught you in the nude on the page 71way to the lavatory in the middle of the night. And you've got to be careful not to pee on the seat, and remember every time to pull the chain, and make sure to sluice your whiskers out of the basin after you've shaved, and not leave your toothbrush just anywhere. The bathroom is quite House and Garden , and Olga and Alec are discreet about that sort of thing. I've been trying to figure out ever since I've been here whether they've got false teeth. They must have, it's not possible otherwise, but there's never a sign.
What I like about Alec and Olga is that they — what would you say? They insist on the best. God, that sounds like a slogan for a superior department store. The old-fashioned kind that advertises by exhortation; its wares are good enough not to need slyer procedures. But they do. They do insist. If it's a novel, they don't allow you to skip on to the next page before you've understood the one you're on, and if it's a painting you must look intently. If it's food you relish it. If it's music you listen. You don't let your attention wander. You don't gobble. You don't take it all for granted.
7 NOVEMBER 1986
Every morning as soon as I get up I take the dog round the block to lift his leg, but sometimes we go on longer expeditions at daybreak, Front and me. This is the best time of the year for it. I tend to wake up when the sun comes up, and just now I find myself waking up really early, before anyone else.
It's like a mountaintop being out in the city early on Sunday morning. You've got the place to yourself. No noise. No traffic.
It's difficult enough keeping Front quiet and under control until we're out of the building, and once we're outside I don't even bother. He leaps at me as we cross the intersection. 'Oh, Front. Jump, jump.' Round the corner he just lets rip up the avenue. After that first break he begins to stop and visit every post, then he remembers and turns to check back with me.
I think I like the early part of our walk most. Horizontal shafts of light from the new sun pass between the houses on the east side and play across the street under the summer canopy of the trees. As you look away uphill, long bars of shadow run over the pavement, and closer, things impede and divide the level fall of light: silhouettes of foliage, low branches, and the ironwork of gates dance on the ground. page 72Sunlight dribbles in fine white lines along overhead wires and picks out the undulating markings on the bark of the London planes.
'Glory be to God for dappled things...' Why do I think that? I don't even believe in God. But what better way to put it?
We turn on to the campus, and I stop in the main yard to look in the bookshop window. Front stands beside me with his tail half down. It is his think and wait position. All these books are inviting me to judge them by their covers. All those brilliant orange and blue designs make me long to be able to read books by osmosis, soaking up their insides just by looking at them in a shop window, not having to find money to pay for them or set aside time to go through them leaf by leaf.
Out on the next street there is a man coming towards us on a ten speed bicycle. Riding no hands. He is middle-aged, and his thickened body seems precarious, balanced on the delicate machine. When he sees me, he looks sheepish. I will Front not to chase the bicycle as he rides past. The spell of the early morning works, thank Christ, and Front doesn't.
We go into the park. Olga won't say a word about Alec's city. It's funny. I've tried to get her on to talking about it several times. I once asked her point blank, and the answer I got was, 'Adolescents devour novels and then think the world's like one,' or something like that. And children play with blocks. Maybe he just enjoys playing God. He's an architect manqué . Anybody can see that. But the city looks like somewhere real. It's not a project. There's nothing visionary about it.
It seems quite specific. It's a port. And it's flat. That rules out places like Naples or Lisbon. I even went to the public library to search out street plans as part of this enquiry. It almost seems to be one of those watery places that were started on marshes and sandbanks like Venice or Amsterdam, or Leningrad.
I hear the sound of a truck in the distance now. The silence and the freedom don't last long. The traffic starts to build up. It doesn't really matter after the first instrusion. It is the idea of absolute silence that has been destroyed; that is what's irritating, and afterwards the actual noise isn't very significant.
It's not Leningrad. I found that out by looking in the book. Alec's city grew around a mediaeval kernel, and wasn't willed out of nowhere.
'Damn.' Here's Front with a stick held delicately in his muzzle. He thinks we've got to the right place. We always chase sticks here, page 73before we go down out of the park. I'll have to throw some for him, I suppose. Demanding little ratbag.
'Drop, Front.' He won't. He clenches his teeth tighter, pins his ears back, and growls. He's wedged the stick back behind his incisors and won't let me take it off him. I could trick him by blandishing another in exchange. Invariably he wants what other people have got. Easier said than done though, finding a piece of broken branch in well groomed gardens like these.
'Front, you silly dog. You can't chase it if you won't drop it. Don't you even know the part you really like is chasing them, not hanging on to them?'
Dogs aren't always that nice. This possessiveness is all a bit too reminiscent. I find another stick and throw it down the bank. It wears them out faster when they have to fetch it back uphill.
We'll go on down the back street. In the main one the shop windows aren't really that interesting. Even here the secondhand bookshops are for weekdays; you need to be able to go inside. But I want to buy myself a summer shirt. I see one that I wonder about: scarlet with snakes and ladders all over it drawn by grown-up children in every other conceivable colour.
I like to stop for a rest and sit on the waterfront near the ferry ber ths before going back. It's a cheerful place to contemplate things. There's an esplanade and places along the quay for launches to tie up, with steps down. We sit at the bottom of the Admiralty stairs, one step above the water. By the time we've come this far, Front is generally very happy just to sit and look at things, and he doesn't pester me. The water laps at the step, and it's warm in the sun now. You've simply got to close your eyes to the rubbish floating in the water.
Now Olga did once say, 'Public life keeps a man's mind too busy, and men are not encouraged to ruminate.' I suppose that might have something to do with it.
There's a naval training ship moored over at the passenger wharf; at what was the passenger wharf. There aren't any liners anymore, just cruise ships now and then. It's South American. A barquentine, I think. It was open day last weekend for the public to go on board. What a laborious business: all brass fittings and Manila rope and pulleys and creaking wood. Interesting to look at though. You have to look at it and take careful note, because it'll go away and you might never see anything like it again. You can see why stuff used page 74to be so expensive, though. Trade. Having to be carried in tiny boats like that.
I'd never visualised before how tall the masts would be: trees. There was a radio programme I heard once, talking to an old man who'd been round the Horn under sail as a young man; spoke nonchalantly of working the rigging in mountainous seas. Thousands of miles of empty seas there. I suppose it wouldn't make much difference if it was a thousand miles or a hundred yards in a stormy sea though.
A floating bottle knocks against the very bottom step, and knocks again. Might have the answer instead of a call for help. Let it go. You'd get dirty if you tried to catch hold of it now. It's gone a bit further on. Can't reach it.
A slight current catches the bottle and carries it away from the wall. It dips, and dips again, with the slight motion of the water. I watch its slow progress and think of almost nothing at all as it floats further away, until it is almost outside my range of vision.
There is someone leaning over the parapet above me. A Sunday fisherman. 'Watching the tide come in?' he asks.
Were I to open my eyes, I know that I would find my room darkened, however it must be well past daybreak. I heard Nicky let himself and Front out. It was only a short time ago.
It displeases me curtains being closed in a room after the sun has come up. The light soaks through the fabric and shows up its grain. There is something distasteful about that, and I don't like the obscure brown light it produces in a room. Once I would get up straightaway and let the light in with a flourish, but it is not so easy now. I can no longer just get out of bed, walk across the room, and draw back the curtains, simply because I want to. I have to consider every move beforehand and weigh the expenditure of energy that it entails, and any pain, against necessity and the extent of my desire. I could cross the room. It is within my capabilities. I could do it with the usual difficulties, acerbating the dull, dull pain that never leaves my joints. I could open the curtains. But why today. Why more today than tomorrow, or yesterday? Better, I think, to lie still and wait with my eyes closed until I hear Alec moving about. Alec will come and let the light into the room. I can watch it. Then I will push myself page 75up off the mattress, get on to my feet, and cross the hall to the lavatory. Better to wait for Alec.
Better to keep my eyes closed. Better to keep them closed and carry on with the screening in the broken cinema.
I call it the broken cinema because one can really only see fragments. The details are the real thing. The rest is story-telling. Winter Palace: Summer Garden. That's story-telling. But the dip in the railing along the embankment beside the Summer Garden, the place where the ground had sunk and there was always a puddle. If there was going to be a puddle anywhere. That's real. That place is real. That's where I used to break away from my nurse's hand, and run ahead, and crouch down and dabble my hand in the water, and she would shout at me not to. That's real. And the lop-sided pillars in the railing just there, so you thought the granite vase on top was going to tumble off on to your head. That's real.
I can see well enough with my eyes closed. I could reconstruct this room in every particular, I have spent so much time in it. I have spent so much time in it with nothing to do except wait. It is my waiting-room, and I do exactly what you do when you are waiting for the dentist. I start in one corner, up by the ceiling, and I look at everything, one after another. After all you can't read all day. You can't listen to the radio all day, can you?
And I could also describe the salon in my father's apartment exactly. There: I can see black kid boots, black worsted stockings above them — my own ankles, my own feet, me looking down at them. Well brought-up feet, together, flat on the floor, side by side. And lamplight on the marmalade parquet. I used to follow the pattern with my finger. I remember that very well. How old am I? Six, kneeling on the floor following the pattern with my finger. But no, the kid boots belong later, sixteen. My skirt has reached my ankles. One's hems were let down every year, according to a graduated programme, according to the convention, between the ages of twelve and sixteen. How ridiculous it seems. Three or four years later the fashion was to walk round in sheer stockings as if one's legs were naked. It seems so pointless. And it was so important, such a fuss, then.
And I used to sit there in the salon in winter. Morning after morning at the table in the salon, reading under the lamp.
I think, in fact I'm convinced of it now, that I could get my father to agree to almost anything I wanted. I wanted to stop going to school, and he agreed to that. 'The schools are full of lunatics and insurgents,' page 76he told my mother. They were too. The war was going badly for the regime. Everywhere was electric with politics. 'Olga will learn nothing there with things the way they are. She is better to stay at home. She's an intelligent young woman. She'll inform her mind just as well here.' My mother thought it was wrong for me to be isolated in the house. She maintained that I would fall a victim to my own fancies. Maybe she was right. However my father said, 'As soon as it's safe to travel, just as soon as this filthy war is over, we are leaving. We are going back to America. So carrying on at a Russian school, and rubbing shoulders with Russians won't help Olga very much in the long run. She is better at home reading in English.' I don't know what my Russian mother said to that later. She said nothing in front of me.
But that's all story-telling. I have no need to tell these stories to myself. I have told them over and over. They explain things, perhaps, but the broken film is my actual life: the scraps and details. And my lifeline, lying here flat on my back.
Lord God, I was an impatient, fretful, bored young woman then. Who would think I can now lie awake half the night cast on my back; sit in my room all day; go no further than the next room; and yet I do believe I'm as happy now as I've ever been. No unhappier. Of course I was restless for my real life to begin then.
It was more tolerable than school at home. I could read anything I liked there. And I did. I read anything and everything I could find that would take me away. Anything to get me out of that hermetic apartment: the Mysterious East, the South Seas, any romance.
And every afternoon I went with my mother paying calls. Except one no longer paid calls. One walked a short distance to another house and rolled bandages. One sat and rolled bandages and rolled bandages in one identical room after another. War charities. And each salon had the same windows, inner and outer, shut tight against winter, and the same veils of ornate lace muffling them, the same heavy swags of damask or velvet, tasselled and fringed, like hussars' uniforms now one comes to think of it. But there were no more hussars. They were mainly killed by then. They were taking the Sixth Reserve, it was said: fathers of families over forty.
There was always the same dusk outside by early afternoon. And the same dessicated little plants on a wire stand in front of the window.
The winter before there had been some pretence at social life, keeping up the charade that it was the hostess's day. There would be something page 77from the pastrycook. Oh I must have been a nuisance to my mother. I can still hear her voice now, explaining that my father had forbidden me to go to school, and that she brought me out so that I shouldn't be marooned. But it didn't matter. Now one worked in silence, rolling away. The servant would come in to trim the wick. That was all.
How odd it is that there should be no sense of time — no sense of the interval of time. One used to think there would be. One would be conscious of the weight of the years. However I have to do incessant little sums to figure it out. That would have been...how long ago? No, be exact. That would have been in 1916. Eighty-six less sixteen gives seventy. That one was easy. Seventy years ago exactly. And it means nothing. A talisman; there is no sense of things filling up the space in between.
Concentrate: you are in the pohutukawa tree. There. There is the filigree shadow in the sand; the leavings of a picnic underneath you, rumpled table cloth, red and white checks, cups, plates, knifes, haphazard.
Nothing happens. Let your eye wander. There is the lichen on the gate post, the colour of rust, but a bloom like velvet; there the picket gate, jammed open, can't be closed. There, on the verandah by either side of the door, are the two giant clamshells: white, fluted, undulating calcium lips. People keep putting cigarette butts in them. You'll get round to washing them one day.
Nothing happens. You wear a dress without sleeves. Your arms are heavy. There is loose flesh on your upper arms that swings. You wear a dress printed with tropical flowers. Scarlet. It suits you. Your hair is somewhere between blonde and grey, your skin lightly tanned.
Nothing happens. Fifty-two from eighty-six is thirty-four. Preserve that. Thirty-four.
Nothing happens. The sound of locusts in the dome of the tree forces its way back into your mind. They deafen you. Water laps closer to the picnic things. The tide is coming in. This is the South Seas. You will have to get down out of the tree and pick up the lunch things. It feels the same. There is no sense of time.
What happened? Nothing happened. You escaped. Well, you thought you escaped. You escaped when he captured you. You escaped again. It was by mistake. You escaped by mistake. You were captured again by mistake. You gave up. You taught yourself to tolerate capture. But you still wanted to escape from time to time. You taught yourself to tolerate capture, and in doing so you escaped.page 78
But there is Alec at the end of our beach with our visitor. There are no half-shadows in the middle of the December afternoon, and those two are really no more than black stick figures, launching the dinghy. But there is a reminder of my father in our visitor. Just the slightest trace. I guess they're the same age: the age I remember my father as being, those few years before he died. Maybe it's something about the way they both hold themselves. He was always so American, Father. Yankee. Yankee doodle. Yankee doodle dandy, stuck a feather...Democratic. And his sisters, visiting them in Concord, Massachusetts, after he died. Ha. It wouldn't do for me. Too...too ethical.
Picking up a man on a streetcar in Boston, and taking him back later to their house to be introduced. I knew quite well that he was a working man. It was the best fun watching them try and come to the point. One had the feeling their Puritan grandeur was paid for by speakeasies.
What do you say after that? What do you do? Just wait. It is better to wait. You have no need to open your eyes. Reconstruct this room. It would be superb to run into a room that faces east in the morning, and be taken by surprise yet again.
But Alec will open the curtains before long and let the morning in. The new sun will reach right into this room, filling it with pale, blonde light, and the unevenness in the old window glass will ripple on the end wall. For a moment the day will register on my retina as on photographic film. The daylight will skid across the horizontal surfaces, and disengage from the objects they belong to bright and dark zones, dissolving their normal forms. And those things will cast exaggerated shadows, which this blonde light will tenderly colour smoke or cinnamon. And it will break on certain items: the rim of the crystal vase of tulips, the glaze on a procelain jar, the gilt title on the spine of a book, the bevel of the looking glass over the fireplace, the silver back of my hairbrush. It will refract or reflect, and pattern this room with needle points of light. For a moment the new geometry will dance in my room like a late Braque or some jazz, and then it will recompose itself. The parrot tulips in the vase will resemble the open beaks of ravenous fledglings again, and my armchairs and my bureau will take back their familiar volumes.
A noise. Is that Nicky back? And Front? Alec? Nicky, I think. A lighter step?
Dear Nicky. Himself so like the first little dog. Inching out of the night into the human circle round the fire. Offering himself for page 79domestication.
But I must wait for Alec and pass my time in this broken cinema, reviewing these promiscuous scraps: parts and elements of different kinds massed together without order or interval.
There, it was Alec after all. Alec has come in at last.
'Come, Olga, I will help you up.'
Once I am standing, my dressing gown on, I say, 'Alec, tell me, do you feel the time in between?'
'No, Olga, I do not.'
'Neither do I, Alec, neither do I.' I put my hand on his sleeve.
There is a tremendous fuss going on. Alec is going to give Olga a party for her birthday, which falls on New Year's Eve. Mrs Wells has been made to get out the table linen that belonged to Alec's grandmother and wash it again and starch it. Miss Rose and Olga are going through Olga's wardrobe trying to decide what she should wear. They get me to go down and bring Miss Rose's Singer back up to Olga's room, since it will have to be altered, whatever they select. Alec says the model will have to be taken down anyway so that there will be ample room in the studio, and supper need not be a buffet. There is a lot of talk on this point, and about the prospective bill of fare. Olga finally comes out against a sit-down meal, 'Provided there is unity to it. The...agglomerations people take off buffets are disgusting. They show no restraint.' So the centrepiece is to be Baked Ham á la Café Royale . That decision was easily reached. There is nothing much else that can feed twenty-five people and still be within the scope of an ordinary domestic kitchen. Alec has found a young woman who seems reliable to do the cooking, and she is prepared to bake the ham the very day and leave it to cool. 'It should be just not quite cold,' Olga says. 'The texture of cold ham cooked days beforehand is too stolid. I used to do it myself for parties. If the ham is out of the oven by five it should be exactly right for supper by eleven. It's worth the rush because it does make all the difference.'
'Quite right. Quite right,' Alec agrees.
'And I want some young people invited. They're more ornamental than paper streamers.'
The rest of the menu changes to and fro every time they talk about page 80it. Miss Rose comes up to let out the dress. Alec and I start to pack the city up. Alec writes out labels giving the name of the street and the number for every building, and gums them on the bottom. I put them in cartons and carry them up to the box room. We work in complete silence for long periods of the day. It seems to make you melancholy for no very good reason, clearing away street after street. Neighbourhoods, quarters go into boxes, and it feels as if you are deleting talk, laughter, all the comings and goings of everyday life, the unseen crowds in the streets, with the definite, unperturbed manner of someone who folds an item of business correspondence with precise, knife-like creases after reading it.
Since it's Christmas my mother insists I go with her to visit my grandmother, who still lives in the town she grew up in, although she's been in hospital for years. I hate going. It's a long way. It takes all day there and back. It will be hot and uncomfortable in the car, and there will be too much traffic and no enjoyment driving. Besides my grandmother's got senile dementia. Visiting her won't make the slightest difference. She doesn't talk. She's been bedridden for the last couple of years and can't walk. She won't recognise us.
I can cope with Gran all right, but the rest of that psycho-geriatric unit is disgusting.
'I don't like going by myself,' my mother says, 'and it's got to be done. Anyway I want to go.'
My mother is always trying to resurrect my grandmother by talking about her: what she used to do, what she used to say, what she thought; what she would have done, would have said, would have thought, if she were here again.
Going into the ward is like exploring an abandoned house without permission. The corridor is always empty. You advance tentatively; you never know what you will encounter next. A male nurse appears. He tells us as usual that relatives are welcome to visit at any time; we should look in one of the day rooms. Something half suggests stories that might or might not be true about small cruelties done to the patients.
In the room the nurse refers to, a row of old women are sitting in armchairs lined up against the wall. The existence they lead has laid waste to their bodies in the same way. They are all scarecrow thin. Inactivity has atrophied their muscles until their arms and legs page 81are feeble, rudimentary levers. Their skin is lizardlike. Their necks are gaunt with deep shadows.
There are no men. There are only a handful of them in this ward for some reason.
In the other lounge there is always a television set going. That one is reserved for continent patients, I imagine. It is carpeted and has a pleasant outlook. This is an internal room. There is a linoleum floor, and in the corner a cage for a house bird. It seems to be the routine to get the chronic patients to sit up in here for an hour or two in the morning, after they've been washed, and put them back into bed when the midday meal is over. As we come into the room a flicker of interest rustles through the old women. They mumble, gibber, pick at the hems of their skirts. Even though it is a hot summer day the staff have put grubby knitted rugs across their knees, but they've mainly fallen off again.
My grandmother sits opposite the other women. She is tied into her wheelchair so she doesn't drop out. She has an orthopaedic collar round her neck, but her head has sunk down on to her front. She raises her head very, very slowly, once we are standing right in front of her and have called her by name. We sit down. There is a catheter bag lying on the floor next to the wheelchair, and you have to take care to avoid it as you draw up your seat. One of her hands has twisted, and I take the other one. It is little more than a bunch of chicken bones.
Tears form in my mother's eyes. She begins to cry silently. There is nothing to be done, and it is the pity and grief of it that move her. Mother weeps with her head up. She has found a way to ride it out.
I just feel bleak. I look at my watch. At least Gran is not restless. One of the other old women begins to talk. It takes a bit of listening to make out the words. 'Behind the cowshed,' she says, 'be...be...behind the cowshed.' Sometimes I try to make sense of what they say and talk with them, but today I look away.
Now that the animation has gone, Gran's appearance is unstable. It is noticeable how asymetrical her features are, and she looks like various other people, blood relations, in turn, not herself. Her profile, the shape and weight of her head, look like her brother's today, and that resemblance has never been apparent before.
My mother stops crying. Over. She wipes her eyes and blows her nose.page 82
The same nurse comes back into the day room. He says to us, 'She's been quite frisky these last few days, haven't you, Sybil?'
My mother stiffens. They get the names off the roster. Nobody has ever referred to my grandmother as that. She called herself 'Bill'. The nurse coaxes, 'Come on Mrs Cumming, give us a smile.' Gran's eyes follow him. She begins to smile for him, a slight smile, like a new baby's, that you can only see if you want to. It seems a bit pointless to make a fuss about what name they give her.
They say the road home is always quicker. After you leave the town, it winds through rolling country for a while, then drops down to sea-level and runs straight along the flats for perhaps twenty miles. I concentrate on driving.
'D'you want a smoke, Nick?' Mother asks. 'A "faggerette"?'
I take a hand off the wheel for it. After a while she says, 'She can only weigh four or five stone,' then adds to perk herself up, 'Always tiny but perfectly formed.'
This long, straight bit is the worst part of the trip. The road is really boring to drive on. Nothing to look at; you can't see the sea but there's always a stiff wind blowing off it so you have to watch the wheel all the time.
'I can't bear the way they just sit,' I say. 'What an existence. The really conked-out ones you can understand, but the others in that other room. They just sit all day; and that bloody television set going all the time.'
The road finally begins to climb into the hills in a series of difficult bends. There is one coming up that has the wrong camber and I have to keep an eye out for it.
'Look at Olga Burton or Dad's mother. They keep interested.'
'Your father's mother was born with a silver spoon. You get confidence from that.'
'But Gran just seemed to give up and get worse and worse and worse. '
We're stuck behind a truck on a long hill, and I have to change down.
My mother admits, 'I know what you're getting at. Underneath she always had a pessimistic outlook.'
The road is clear, and I can get past the truck.
Mother continues, 'But Nick, that doesn't mean it's not a real thing: what she's got. She kept her head above water as long as she could. page 83Her life was constructive.'
'Well I don't understand it.'
She lights another cigarette. She smokes for a while before speaking again.
'It's one of those things in life, Nick. That's all. One of those dreadful, random things that happen.'
I ask her to light me another smoke too. 'I suppose so,' I say.
'When she's dead we won't have to think about her like this. We can remember her as we would have wished her.'
We drive on without saying anything for a while. The road is now running level along the top of a ridge. It falls away into steep gullies on either side. A powerful car overtakes us and disappears round the next bend.
'Did something happen to the Sunshine Clinic?' I ask. 'I looked for it on the way in and I couldn't see it.'
NEW YEAR'S EVE
Miss Rose pushes Olga in. The dress is a triumph. Miss Rose has arranged its skirt in the wheelchair so that Olga nests in yards and yards of baroque drapery. It is somehow reminiscent of a goddess that you lower from the clouds on a chariot in a seventeenth century court theatre. The heavy silk is more or less the colour of an elephant, but shot with imperial purple so dark that it is almost black. The effect is of austerity and incredible richness at the same time. The bodice seems pinned together with numerous silver clasps like votive brooches. Perhaps one should light a candle.
'The making in that dress, it's wonderful,' Miss Rose says. 'You don't see it now.'
'The New Look,' says Olga. 'The Korean War paid for this.' She fingers the stuff of her skirt. 'One shouldn't say that sort of thing.'
'Not at all,' Alec says. 'It keeps your immunity up. People who don't get a very nasty shock when it finally dawns on them how things are. Take to religion. Do all sorts of silly things.'
'Well, wool did very well by us. We went overseas again for the first time since I got here. First class. Went on a flying boat. Came back in a stateroom. Wagons-lits everywhere. Grand hotels. Did a lot of shopping.'
Ivor is the first guest to come, one of the young persons who have been drummed up, and he's all over Olga like a rash, saying that he has heard so much about her from me, and that he has been very interested to meet her. He works his eyes and teeth for all they are worth, and has adopted a smarmy tone of voice like the President as well. He asks Olga in a roundabout way how old she is, alluding to vulgar jokes about never asking a woman her age. His gallantry reminds me of a masher on stage. And Olga's age is by now a matter of pride, of course, and she sings, 'I am as old as the century.' It will be her refrain for the night. Then she embroiders it a bit, 'It took me until I was eighteen to find out though. I was a fortnight older according to the Julian calendar.'
A lot of people arrive all at once bearing gifts. 'Young man,' Olga says to Ivor, 'I have social responsibilities. But we shall have a long talk later.' Abandoned.
I decide that if I pretend to look after the drink I can appear sociable and not really have to talk to people if I don't want to. But I can watch and listen as much as I like.
Two women take up position at the end of the bar and begin a long intense conversation. One has handcraft earrings, expensive, silver and ivory; they shake according to her passion. The other, thick hair cut like a page boy, but iron grey.
'...so I got him a personalised number plate for his car. It reads HUBRIS.'
'God it's ridiculous. And that's about the only item of progress you can chalk up on the slate.'
'It was quite cheap HUBRIS. The expensive ones say things like LARRY 1.'
' GREED 1 is probably quite cheap too. Nobody would want that.'
'Oh, I don't know. There are circles these days where explicit greed is nothing to be ashamed of. And not just if you're una traviata.' She picks up her drink, pauses. 'And the best part of it, though, was he didn't know what it meant. I caught him at the dictionary a few days later.'
I've been feeding gins at regular intervals to a man with a very red face and watery blue eyes. He comes up to the bar again. Front is lying underneath. Front doesn't like parties. He doesn't like all the strangers who don't really pay him very much attention.
'So sad, little dog?' says the man. Front moves his tail listlessly. Experience has taught him that it is not even worthwhile responding page 85with a whole heart to these kinds of casual overture. The red-faced man pushes his glass at me for a refill. 'I often wonder what dogs do all day,' he says. 'Generally they're so busy, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.' I push his glass back without comment. I'm not getting into this. He might bore for Europe.
Olga wheels herself over. Miss Rose has abandoned her stand behind the chair.
'So kind, Nicky.' Olga vaguely indicates the bar. 'And your friend, so handsome, and so sympathetic.'
A third woman comes to join the two along the bar. 'Well girls?' they turn to include her. She looks at one then the other. 'Oh, I'm not listening to your grumbles again. If you don't like men, don't live with them, that's what I say.' And then there were two again.
Olga is talking to Ivor now on the far side of the room. It is a long conversation, and at times they bend forward like conspirators, and at others lean back and relax. Then, without even being aware of it, as she is talking, Olga draws one arthritic leg up and crosses it carefully over the other at the knee. I've never noticed her do that before, but of course, it is the obligatory deportment of the new woman between the wars.
The red-faced man is now talking intently to a young woman. 'It's about thirty miles upriver. From the sea. Freshwater. But they have sharks, and I'll tell you why. They have barnacles, and it's to get rid of them.'
'But barnacles are nice, on wharves and things.'
'Oh, silly. It's not on wharves. The barnacles are on the sharks. They drop off in freshwater. Still it's odd seeing the fins across the lawn. That far from the sea.'
'It's my opinion...' It's the earring woman again. 'It's my opinion that men are simply less evolved. Their technology might suggest the opposite, but otherwise they are simply less evolved than us.'
Supper is announced. And it does convey the patrician effect that Olga had asked for: grand and plain. They have brought out the nineteenth century table settings hoarded away against occasions like this. The deep cut crystal glitters, the double damask shines, and all the Staffordshire plates and dishes wait as if for a large family on Sunday after church. Alec's nephew stands by the ham with carving knife and fork. With cordiality he transfers slice after slice of rose flesh on to the thick rimmed plates with the Tree of Life design. The ham makes a splendid centrepiece indeed: simmered with lemon, page 86skinned, scored in a diaper pattern — every lozenge studded with a clove, Demarara sugar packed on to glaze it, then baked in a tray of Spanish wine. We open bottle after bottle of South Australian champagne.
Yet there is no decoration as such on the table. No flowers. No fruit.
'I want my food to be the fruits of the earth.' Olga says. 'And I am a greedy woman. I like to feast my eyes too. I want my food to look like the fruits of the earth as well, not technicolour and frills.'
I advance on Ivor, having loaded my plate. 'You were deep in talk.'
Ivor finishes his mouthful. 'I didn't find very much out. I asked direct in the end, what it was like, Petersburg. I said I would like to go there.'
'She was evasive. "The most artificial city in the world: that's what Dostoevsky said at any rate." "Is it like Amsterdam or Venice?" I asked. "Only enough to draw attention to the difference. But that's what Somerset Maugham said." '
'How tiresome: Arrived Venice. Streets full of water. Please advise. You've been played with, Ivy. Like a trout.'
But they're bringing on dessert: superb Nesselrode puddings and crystal basins of strawberries, raspberries, and peaches cut up in salad and doused in liqueurs.
'So Olga's eighty-seven?' says Mrs Wells. 'It's a good age. Seen a lot. My Mum used to say she'd seen four Kings and two Queens. That's how she put it. Course there was more to life in the Caledonian Road than four Kings and two Queens, but that's how she put it. Here, have some of this pudding, Nick.' She hands me a great plateful of Nesselrode pudding.
The two women have resumed their conversation nearby.
'And he says the language they use in these boardroom battles is extraordinary. They really go to town.'
'He must join in though?'
'No, I don't think he does.'
Ivor has picked up one of Olga's birthday presents, a picture book of recipes. 'It's all ostrich head in the sand stuff this. Dream of Heaven for the materialist middle classes. But for them to believe these days, it's got to be predicated here on earth. Look.'
'You have to ignore the nuclear power plant, missile base, industrial housing estate, motorway just outside the picture. Or, when those things weren't around, ordinary people got a crack at this kind of banquet once in a lifetime. Subject of course to war, famine, plague, social controls, et cetera, et cetera.'
He goes on looking through the book; it is very pretty.
But here's Kitty Rose sitting beside me in cherry red silk and matching shoes to eat her sweet. 'A good party, Nick. Although Olga will drop when it's over. It'll take her days to recover.'
'Well, you've got to admire the way they never give in.'
'Sometimes it's not enough. Then Olga loves to be the centre of attention, and Alec plays up to her. They mind each other very well.'
'How long have they been together for, then?'
'I don't know, Nick. I've never asked, and I've never been told. She was with him when he came here to the University at the end of the war. He doesn't come from here either. He's from a big family down south. One of those big runs in the South Island.'
I get coffee for Kitty Rose and me.
'Olga is never what you'd call intimate,' Kitty says. 'Not with me at any rate. Warm, yes. Candid, yes, but certain things are kept silent. She draws her line in a different place from the rest of us; and it might make you think she is giving more than she in fact does. Certain things are kept quite silent about. It'll be for Alec.'
I turn right round to face Kitty Rose.
'They had a seaside place. I never went there. I think Olga used to spend weeks at a time there by herself when she was able to. When she was younger.'
She stops to consider, then she picks my sleeve. 'Nick, the ships.'
On the waterfront all the ships in port are joining in, sounding their fog horns to mark midnight.
'We must sing. We must sing,' Olga calls out.
Alec joins in. 'Come on everybody.' We join hands and form ourselves into a rough circle and sing for the New Year.
Afterward one ship's horn carries on when the others stop, and collective jubilation becomes the lament of a single wandering beast, and the call strips the night naked. Someone on the ship realises it has been going on far too long, and the horn stops.
Somebody says, 'Anyone want to smash beer bottles? It'll be on now outside the Post Office.'page 88
Next day Mrs Wells and the young woman who did the catering come in to clean up.
'Triple time, Professor Burton,' says Mrs Wells.
'Of course, Mrs Wells, of course.' It has been allowed for already.
The day after that Alec and I begin slowly unpacking the model city and putting it back.
I have left my windows wide open to catch a bit of the night air. Still the heat of summer stops you from sleeping. You turn, wake, doze; struggle, turn, wake, and doze once more.
There is a noise that I hear in the house that wakes me, and I open my eyes. The darkness in the room is palpable. The house is silent. The clocks are broken and have not been mended. There is no traffic in the streets. The city is empty. Its inhabitants have gone on vacation and abandoned it.
There's the noise again: a long scrape of metal on wood. Is there somebody about in the apartment, an intruder? Another long scrape. Nobody? Scrape. It is the rhythm of Olga pushing her walking frame ahead of her as she moves. One soundless pace. Then the scrape. Downstairs. She pushes her frame forward again across the floorboards. Another pace. The frame scrapes again. Pause. Scrape. The rubber cap must have fallen off the leg again. A pause. Scrape.
A door closes. I hear the catch. It is Olga getting up in the night. The house is silent again. The clocks are broken. Time makes no sound.
15 MARCH 1987
Ivor is lugging a big book about Malevich around in his bag. He has just got it out of the public library.
'Have you noticed a real rash of books about the Russian avant garde coming out?' I ask.
'Yes, and they're all published in New York. Kill two birds with one stone, that's that agenda. Stalin lurks just beyond the back cover of all of them, and you can get the artists for being naive utopians, and the bolshies for being inherently oppressive. Inevitable.' Ivor stretches out on the deck. 'And never one word, never one bloody word that suggests that there might have been a tiny bit of idealism page 89in it somewhere, just a tiny bit, however misplaced. That there might be a better system of running things than organised private greed. Socially cemented-in bloody private greed. Just a tiny hint that something else might be worth trying.'
It's getting late in the year, and the baths are getting cold. There are hardly any people here, and it's only just warm enough to sit in the sun and dry off after going in the water. No green-house effect here yet.
The man with the artificial leg is here, though. He's one of the regulars. It's disconcerting to swim up behind someone swimming with a stump in the lane reserved for people doing lengths. I don't like being in the same lane with anorexic women either. A couple of them are regulars too — skeletons moving through the water with frightening slowness.
I am going to try and keep on coming to these baths every day until they close for the winter. I like them better than the indoor ones. Especially since they've been renovated, and wrecked in the process. I used to come here as a kid. That was different. I was made to have swimming lessons. I never learned to swim properly. I would watch the trains instead; the railway ran along outside the boundary of the baths. Whenever a train came past I would stand up in the water and refuse to begin practising strokes again until it had passed out of sight.
I taught myself to swim years later. Funny really that I didn't earlier. It's so pleasurable moving alone in another element. I like the salt water. It's more buoyant than fresh. But the baths are melancholy somehow in March: an everyday, one aspirin kind of melancholy like a fairground packing up.
The man with the wooden leg has finished and is over in the far comer of the pool strapping it back on to his stump. I try not to be inquisitive about this, but it's hard not to.
The summer rowdies have gone by this time of the year.
This swimming pool is a modernist artefact. That's what we say. I think...how can I say this...I think that the pool is consecrated to Apollo. That seems silly. I couldn't use those words with anyone. Could I say them to Olga? To Ivor? I would probably be greeted with silence. They wouldn't say anything. But I don't mean 'consecrated to Apollo' like some high flown Victorian journalist to refer to a place where people sit in the sun. It's hard to explain what I mean — this lucid architecture, these up-in-the-air, looking-down page 90places, the gangways, the bridges, the white light that casts a sharp grid of shadow on the pavement, the terracotta and blue paint (those colours that modernist architects loved). I imagine it's what a temple might have been like: covered in bright paint; festivals; aerial music of pipes; little stars on things; a place of civilisation; and light hearted, matter-of-fact, everyday divinity.
'Bugger.' That's a headmaster's thought, that next thought: mens sano. But with headmasters it sounds compulsory, part of the stupid team, blue bound latin textbooks. I don't want to think headmasters' commonplaces.
I turn the pages of Ivor's book.
'I can never really cotton on properly to what these people are about. Sometimes I get it, and then it dissolves again.'
'It's probably the red, blue, and yellow glamour of the new world,' Ivor says, 'that they were conjuring up out of thin air.'
'It doesn't seem convincing.'
Ivor rolls over and looks at the page.
'They're old. Look. They've gone brown with age. Paper torn. Foxing. Powdering paint.' You have to forget about the glossy white page that surrounds the illustration in a new book and consider the object represented: 'Sacred relics tended by curators and scientific conservators.' Ivor giggles, sits up, and recites:
The island is celebrated for the Beauty of its women, its scenery, and the sacred schlong of St Nicholas, which is the pride of the basilica. The superstitious inhabitants believe that unless the annual miracle occurs, which it does on the feast of the Saint, harm will befall them. It is said that the Relic failed to erect itself once in 1883, when phylloxera reached the island's vines, and again in 1941, when the island was occupied by the Wehrmacht without resistance. Sceptics present at the revelation of the Relic might note a superficial resemblance to a shrunken and withered carrot that ought to have been thrown out long ago.
A couple sitting on deckchairs by the diving board looks round, and the woman says something to the man.
'Andiamo, donkey,' says Ivor.
We've missed a bus, and we walk back slowly along the waterfront by the railway yards. It's an interminable stretch. Halfway along, a restored steam locomotive is standing on the turntable by the old engine sheds. It is a former express locomotive, not so old, but big, made page 91fifty years ago, perhaps, to pull well laden trains over steep hill country. They must be getting it ready for an enthusiasts' outing. Some men are about to operate the turntable, so Ivor and I stop and watch. It revolves inch by inch bringing the locomotive into position parallel to us. Before it had been in shadow — a black silhouette, heavy- shouldered and deep-chested, a bull. It's a quarter to four, and now low, late afternoon sun runs across the locomotive's flank, and this oblique light reveals all its working parts in chiaroscuro: a low relief of boiler plates, rivets, tubes, valves, cylinders, pistons, rods, hubs, axles, wheels, flanges.
'There, d'you see that,' Ivor says. 'That's cubism.'
We walk on. I repeat Olga's story about seeing the aeroplane to Ivor.
'I was lying in the dunes once,' he says, 'and a micro-light flew over. Lord knows where it came from. It buzzed very slowly over my field of vision. Its wings were done up like a rainbow, and it passed across a Rita Angus sky.'
We go on. It's a godawful, long, boring walk this way. After all the years the tumbledown fence beside the yards is still blackened by soot from steam engines. Rubbish covers the footpath. Nobody ever walks along here, and nobody ever cleans up. Sheets of newspaper have blown between the palings of the fence and jammed there, and the print has been washed off by the rain, and there are empty cigarette packets whose cellophane wrappers are steamy with stale moisture and the ink has leached away. Somebody must have passed by recently and left behind a fresh banana skin that still holds the shape of the fruit.
Ivor picks up his thread again. 'The trouble is that this is the new world, and the same old crap keeps going on. That's why you can't see it.'
'Now,' Olga asks when I come in, 'Nicky, how many lengths did you swim? And what did you see on this afternoon's excursion?
The first is a ritual like saying 'How do you do'. I'll answer it if she asks again, but it's the second part Olga is generally interested in. But I can't tell her about the locomotive. It's too complicated.
'Nothing very much,' I say in the end. 'There was nobody very interesting at the pool. I came back along by the railway yards. There's nothing there but rubbish. There was a steam locomotive out, though. I stopped and looked at that for a bit.'page 92
I change the subject. 'I think that film Oberst Redl is coming on to general release. I saw it last year at the festival.'
Olga is obviously preoccupied and wants to talk about something. She was highly interested in Redl last time I mentioned it. I won't make any more attempts at conversation and will wait for it all to come out.
Olga puts down her cup. 'The company is considering selling the building. Alec tells me it may mean we shall have to move. This has happened before. It is one of Alec's little games. We will not have to move. We have the lease, and we own twenty-five per cent of the shares in the company. We bought them to prevent just such a thing happening. We can't move.'
'It would be a tremendous business moving, but you'd have lots of help.' I've just said something very silly and far too close to the bone.
'We can't move.'
'From what I've seen, I don't think it's anywhere near coming to that,' I say.
'Well,' Olga sums up, 'I think it's one of Alec's little rigmaroles. We shan't give it a further thought. Now, the spy Redl?'
'The film's coming back. I thought it was a wonderful film. And the Radetsky March, isn't it just the quintessence of jingling spurs and rattling harness and quixotic sabre rattling?'
'So they use that, do they?'
Front has been killed. It was a stupid accident that need not have happened. I was throwing a ball for him in the little triangular park when it bounced the wrong way, off downhill into the busy street. Front was hit by a car. He must have died instantly. There wasn't a mark on his body, just a thin trickle of blood from his muzzle. When I carried the body back to Alec, the driver was decent enough to come up to the flat with me and explain.
I went out to my mother's place in a taxi. I wrapped Front's body up in Christmas paper and buried him in her garden.
I overhear Olga talking to Alec in his studio. 'It wasn't anybody's fault. You know how awful the dog could be if he didn't get his game. You couldn't keep him shut up in here all the time. Now, we won't discuss the matter again.'page 93
'I met Alec on the Chelsea Embankment,' Olga says, 'one Sunday morning in 1944. It was the time of the first flying-bomb raids, the "doodle bugs". You could hear them coming. Up to a point you could judge where they might fall by the way the motor cut out just before they came down. The next lot were sudden death, the V2.'
'You couldn't hear them coming. Anyway I could hear this one. It was going to come down quite close. I took shelter behind the parapet of the embankment. You were advised to crouch down and cover your face with your arms. So that your back, which is protected by muscle and bone to some extent, presents the smallest possible exposed area to flying debris. I had a clutch purse, and I remember holding it across the back of my neck as well, as a shield.
'The bomb did come down nearby. There was a great blast, and the ground shook a lot, but nothing except a cloud of dust and dirt landed on me.
'When I uncovered my face, there was a man, crouching facing me. He stood up, and I stood up. He offered me a cigarette. He had a good case, smart jeweller, you could see. I was wearing a Schiaparelli suit that I bought in Paris in 1938. I'd been flush when I came back from South America. Bleu marine , navy blue. It was pretty shabby by that stage of the war, but it had been elegant once. And well made. My hair would have been filthy and done up in a scarlet scarf like a turban. It suited me. I wore it all the time.
'I was OK. I'd survived. I might have been covered in grey dust from head to toe, but there was a bloke offering me a smoke from a silver case. And he was covered in grey dust from head to toe too.'
'That was Alec?'
'That was Alec. He pretended to be concerned for my wellbeing, but I think all he wanted was human company until he got over the jitters. It wasn't exactly what you'd call a pick up. He offered me lunch.
'I said, "I'd much rather be offered a bath."
'Baths were at premium then. One used to beg them from one's friends. The blitz played havoc with the gas, and everybody was filthy. A bomb coming down streets away would still shake all the dirt out of your ceiling.
'He said, "As it happens, I can."'
'I'm going to make my fortune; you're going down, Nicky.'
'Down. Manchester, soft furnishings, children's wear, ground. You're going down, like a lift in a department store.'
'And you're on your way to the basement.'
'And I'm going to make my fortune. I'm going to invent a game for people with morbid preoccupations like you. It's going to be called The Grim Reaper.'
'It's going to be called The Grim Reaper and it's going to make my fortune. Like Trivial Pursuit.'
'I know I've got morbid preoccupations, but you would too. Anybody would, with it in front of their eyes the whole time. It makes you think about things. You can't help it.'
'And the aim of the game will be to reach one hundred with all your faculties and no degenerative diseases. It will combine bridge; you'll be dealt a genetic inheritance and have to bid on it. And there'll be a bit of Monopoly, because there'll be a pile of cards like the community chest.'
'Your scoring system is going to have to be pretty complicated.'
'A bagatelle. I think I'll call the community chest "State of Morale", and you multiply it by your genetic inheritance to see how you're going. It will contain items like "A Decent, Secure Income". That'll be worth 5000 points. And "A Crumb of Human Comfort". Say 75.'
'You could have personality traits like "Supreme Egotism" worth 7500. And "Never-wavering and in the End Pointless, Idiotic, and Not Very Admirable Determination to Fly in the Face of Fate" worth 7500 too.'
'There that's my Nick. Feeling better?'
'You'll have to have "Low Blows From Fate" as well like "You Contract Leprosy", "Alzheimer's Disease" minus 15000.
'But that would spoil the game. Take all the interest away. You'd have to twiddle your thumbs until the other players finished.'
'You'll have to have a couple of "Miracle Cures" like Jokers.'
'They're stealing your youth, Nick. You have to get out, the sooner the better.'
'I know it might be better, but it's not that easy. They're not that dreadful. I guess they think about things a lot too. One has to show page 95a little compassion.'
'I guess they do, but the bubble's burst for them. It's not a cloud hanging over their future. It's arrived and they manage. Anyway it's getting you down, and they do make outrageous demands. You can't call your life your own.'
'There's been nothing that's made us think about this before, you know. Do you remember your parents being preoccupied with the problems of the senile when you were younger? And you wondered why they went on and on about it. It's a thing that you've got to deal with at some stage going through life.'
'But that's no reason to steer your ship on the rocks. You've got to get out soon.'
'I'm thinking about it, Ivy. I'm thinking about it.'
'Alec should get another dog immediately,' Olga says, 'otherwise he will never go out. He will stay in here and rot. I have told him so. I think a cocker spaniel would be suitable; such a Mendelssohn dog. It would suit Alec's frame of mind.
Alec and I do go on an expedition to the kennels. There is a jet black dog there, a spaniel bitch puppy. Alec plays with it for a while, calls it 'Rosa'. Then he tells the dog-breeder that he will have to give it more consideration.
'Suit yourself,' she says, 'there's plenty more that want them.'
So we come back empty-handed. Alec explains to Olga that he does not feel able to train a puppy again now. 'It was too soft and too alive,' he says.
30 APRIL 1987
'You're playing games with me, Alec,' Olga says. 'This has happened before. Nothing ever came of it.'
'The situation is different now, Olga. The world is different. The building is too valuable. We couldn't afford the rent even if we could stay.'
'But the lease. The rent is fixed.'
'The rent is fixed. The rent is fixed every three years according to the valuation. The valuation would be far too high.'page 96
'That's just part of your game, Alec.'
'No it's not. It is not. The rent is effectively a small percentage of the valuation, Olga. It's the normal practice.'
'That's rigmarole, Alec. It's about a quarter of a per cent. I know that. We can afford that.'
'Olga, don't get into things you don't understand.'
He stops, then begins again.
'Damn it, Olga, do you have any idea what the next valuation is likely to be?' Alec names a figure, and starts to do mental arithmetic, muttering as if he were repeating his prayers.
'It's nothing but greed, Alec, pure greed. We don't need that kind of money. We need the flat.'
Olga stops. She passes her hand across her forehead, an old liver-spotted hand.
'Alec, we can't move. We're too old. We're too old to start again. We're too old to even think about what would need to be done. And I don't want to. Do something about it Alec.'
'Olga, we've got no choice. They'll force us out. And anyway it might be better for us to go to a Home now.'
'No, I won't believe that. You're still mesmerised by the silly figures. It's just a greedy game, Alec.'
'Olga, we don't have control of the company. The other directors can sell the asset, and then the economics are against us.'
Alec has already used up his emergency cigarette, and he starts another one.
'And even if the directors could be persuaded to let things lie, circumstances would force us out, Olga. The building's old. The roof was last redone in 1955. It's no longer economic to keep on patching it. Besides the structure's strong enough to take a penthouse. It would improve the figures. And the lift's old. It'll have to be replaced when this certificate expires, whatever happens. The directors have already indicated that they would be very disinclined to replace the lift unless there is a real prospect of the returns improving. The current residential tenancies can't support it. They could maroon us up here, Olga.'
'I won't believe it. There must be a law against it.'
'The tenancy law in this country is primitive. There are some very hard men on that board, Olga, and they're not above dirty tricks. They want an improvement on residential returns, and that's it. People won't pay high rents and put up with the facilities that this building offers. They wouldn't even if we renovated the kitchens and bathrooms. page 97It's too old-fashioned. We're better to take this offer.
I won't believe it.' Olga says this to herself more than anybody else. 'And I won't sign anything. You've buggered it, Alec. You've buggered it. You're nothing but a silly old man who still wants to play with the other directors. You want to believe that you've still got an astute head for business. Well you haven't. We were meant to be protected against this sort of thing.'
Olga gets up out of her chair with difficulty, as usual, pushing herself up, using the arms as a lever, then holding the edge of the table to steady herself. I always watch this procedure with bated breath, but Olga must be left to do it for herself. What independence of movement she still has must be respected. She grabs at her walking frame and pulls it to her, then very slowly she leaves the room. The regular scraping of the frame on the floor is all that breaks the silence.
Olga stops when she reaches the model city. She raises her arm as if to sweep part of it on to the floor. She stops and lets it fall again. She turns round.
'What about Kitty Rose, then? What about her?'
Olga turns back and carries on with her progress towards the door. Then she falls. She falls heavily against the table on which the toy city is laid out. The table moves slightly with the impact, and this sideways movement dislodges buildings in a wide swathe across the city's heart.
A puddle of urine enlarges on the floor by Olga's body. She is breathing heavily and strangely. I ring Dr Lindenbaum. It looks as if Olga has had a stroke.
He confirms that and calls an ambulance. It will take her to public hospital.
It is very late when Alec and I get back from the hospital. Olga has recovered consciousness, but she is paralysed down one side, and can only talk gibberish: 'Umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb, umb.'
The doctors say the outlook for rehabilitation is not very optimistic.
Alec sits down on the sofa in his studio and puts his head in his hands. Then he sits up and suggests a small brandy as a nightcap. When I come back with the bottle from the kitchen, he has got himself under the model somehow. He is standing in the trap and carefully putting the pieces back in line.page 98
'Olga's life,' he says, 'Olga's life. What did she tell you about it in the end?'
'Not very much.'
9 AUGUST 1987
Once it becomes clear that Olga will never come home from hospital, Alec agrees to the developers' proposals and relinquishes the apartment. A place is found for him in a geriatric village. Dr Lindenbaum is as good as his word.
I visit Alec there. It's a small room but pleasant enough. It's on the fourth floor of the residential building and looks out across the tin roofs of suburbia to the tidal flats of the upper harbour. The day I visit him the sky is overcast with dirty cotton wool clouds and the tide is in. The water is muddy and pale and the light is hard. It dances on the harbour water like brilliants stitched to a piece of cheap dress material.
Alec made an endowment to the school of architecture, on condition that they take ~he model city. They didn't want it. 'Well, it really had nothing to do with that,' he says.
Alec has kept Olga's bureau in his room. He is a lot more stooped now. He fiddles in a drawer and brings out a small box, which he gives me. I find a small procelain snail inside. It is English, Worcester, but seems much more exotic, glazed dark blue and rust, and embellished with Byzantine gilding.
'Olga asked me to get this some time ago, for your birthday,' Alec says.
The flats are still there, and still residential. The stock market fell later in the year, and the economics of the project became marginal, so the developer re-sold the building.
I use the snail as a paperweight.