Sport 25: Spring 2000
Vincent O'Sullivan — One Ordinary Thursday
‘No,’ John said. ‘No, of course I'll not tell her that.’ He moved the receiver a fraction away from his ear. The voice was too loud, too insistent. The soft clutch of the cord wound around the little finger of his other hand. Like tendrils, he thought, that's what Joy would say. ‘You needn't worry then.’ Once again he said, ‘No, of course.’ And then, as if soothing whoever it was that spoke to him, ‘You've enough on your mind.’
He placed the phone back in its cradle—wasn't that what Joy called it? Where it lay, in any case. John put back the phone. Then he took up the thick folded paper he had been reading before the ring shrilled through the house, as it did first thing in the morning, or late at night. As it seemed to do whenever Joy slept, and he rushed through to snatch it up. Before it woke her.
It was one of the treats of the month, to read the New York Review of Books a friend down the road passed on to him. Before the phone had broken in on his morning, he held the paper angled in front of him, catching the early sun. He read an essay about Berlin that spoke of the famous photograph of Russian troops raising the flag in victory above the Reichstag. The picture was there on the same page. The person who wrote the article said to look at the arms of the soldiers, festooned with looted watches. How it depressed him to read that. It was more than fifty years old, that photograph. Yet it made the marvellous fact that the killing concluded on that very day seem grubby and devious. These men who should be heroes were simply thieves.
That mood of disappointment persisted as he folded the magazine and put it beneath a cushion on the couch. He thought as he arranged the cushion to conceal the edges of the paper, why was he even doing this? He was like a child, hiding something that would get him into trouble. A broken vase. A cracked silver-backed mirror he should not have picked up in the first place. He was like a child doing that. He page 65 then stood at the big window, the one Joy called their ‘picture window’. He looked down to the road leading through the gorge, and across to the hill that ten years ago, when they first came here after they married, was bush from top to bottom. The hill was now packed with expensive houses. Most of them tried to conceal themselves behind fast-growing trees, planted in clumps and angles that said the bush is still really here, it only seems we have replaced it.
It continued to nag at him, a little, why that story had so upset him, why he now so carefully put it out of sight. There were only the two of them in the house, for God's sake. And Joy would no more think of reading it than—she'd find one of her extravagant comparisons that amused and irritated him at the same time. ‘Than she'd think of marrying a man who thought a photo like that mattered.’ He spoke more loudly that he intended. The cat on the corner of the sofa looked up, saw nothing was amiss, and placed its head back on its extended paws. Again, there was total stillness. A man standing at a window, watching a yellow truck like a huge toy making heavy weather of the gorge's steep rise. Behind him, a dozing cat. And through the closed door, along the corridor and behind another door, his sleeping wife. The man heard the distant straining of the truck. A fantail zagged across the lawn, and behind Joy's hedge of camellias. ‘You needn't worry then,’ he had said to the other man on the phone. He would like to be able to stand here now and to think of nothing.
When John woke in the mornings, in the bedroom with its glint of Asian brass and its long uncurtained window, the first thing he took in was the expanse of sky. Only when he sat up did the harbour, and the ranges stacked behind it, come into view. Sometimes the whole caboodle, as Joy liked to say, was enough to take your breath away. She said it to friends when the weather allowed them to sit on their sundeck for Sunday lunch. ‘We've a Japanese friend,’ she said, ‘who can't get over how the island sits there dead centre at the end of the gorge and even the trees along that crest seems part of a deliberate deal. I think he's convinced we're the ultimate in Zen gardening and we arranged the lot!’
Her sister sometimes said, ‘Do you have to go on so much about page 66 things Joy?’, but their friends seemed to enjoy it. It was part of her name, her exuberance, why she so got on with people, why she was dead straight and spoke her mind and if you couldn't cope with frankness, she said, then better not talk to me had you? Their friend Tony Moreno, who was near the top in Arts administration, said lunch with the Lawsons was an obbligato for trombone and flute—a lot of Joy's blare and twinkle, the saving touch of her husband's thin, trim note.
On the way home from one of their friend's protracted lunches Tony remarked that John and Joy were the only case he knew of conversation by osmosis. His wife, who was driving, edged carefully around the orange signs of roadworks before she asked him tartly, ‘What's that supposed to mean?’ Their own marriage, so gossip went, was on a rocky patch.
‘John sits next to her and their arms rub against each other and whatever he's thinking Joy obviously knows and so she says it for him. If you knew what osmosis…’
Rachel Moreno said, ‘I know what osmosis means as well as I do what mean-arsed and envious does. Which may be another surprise to you.’
Her husband laughed and put his hand on her knee. Tony and Rachel were in their fifties. Rachel had been at school with Joy, Tony knew Joy at university, John and Rachel had once worked together for the Wadestown Labour Party. Between them, John once said, they had almost a hundred years of friendship. A mildly pointless non-sequitur, someone or other observed. Once John had also said to his wife, surely it would be fairer all round if Rachel was told?
‘People exist one by one,’ Joy said, ‘the moment one starts legislating in pairs…’ Her sentence went unfinished.
‘Yes,’ John had said, ‘I know you think that, love.’
For all the view that visitors were struck by, John preferred when he woke to look at the clouds. A cliché all right, he would say, but the fact is they never are the same, not two days in a row. Their utter immobility some mornings, the different densities of light they seemed to carry. On other days the streaming and ribboning and teasing out page 67 as the winds drove them north. Joy liked to say the names of painters if she saw him absorbed in the sky. Turner or Corot or whoever, even McCahon when there was a winter storm at seven in the morning, and there was only darkness, and the narrow zip of lightning across one corner of it. He could see what she meant. But he wished she wouldn't. You didn't need to talk about it, you didn't need always to slip the hood of words across things, as if that was the only way they made sense. The changes even now, he thought. At six the only sky had been a deep unmarked summer blue. And now, at not quite nine, how different that same expanse of sky and water and hills. A front moved in even as he watched, a brooding mass of rapid cloud, and beneath it, the sea turned heavy as lead. A wall of shadow was moving across the Hutt Valley when the phone cut across his taking in its dramatic change. A woman's voice spoke quickly, close to tears. He listened to her rush words for at least a minute before he spoke.
‘This morning?’ he repeated after her.
‘It's important,’ she said.
John looked at the squares on the calendar in front of him.Lake Furness, he read, popular with tourists throughout the four seasons. The woman said the cafeteria of the National Library, was that all right, at half past ten? She had cards it was important to put on the table. She told him that twice.
‘Why is that important?’ he asked her.
‘You're pathetic, John,’ she said. He realised, as so often, that he had not said things in quite the right way. He knew he should have said there is no need to be so fussed about things, Rachel. I know about the cards.
Joy was a colour consultant who worked in some of the big government offices when the move was from small private spaces to open-plan work areas. ‘Personality has to breathe,’ Joy liked to say, as she took in the drabness and the conventional spatial areas it was her job to make over into warrens of a different kind. John was an engineer who had taken early retirement. As a young man he had published on wave theory and it surprised anyone who knew him professionally that he had not risen a little more rapidly. No killer instinct, Tony Moreno page 68 put it down to. He meant it as a compliment. Joy and John had each been married before, and neither had children. Forty-fiveish was a good time to put things together again. That was now a decade back. Chalk and cheese, Joy said, when it came to most things, but would you believe it actually worked? But really. Because they were companionable, that was it. Joy had never known a man she so got on with. She often told others how well they got on. John avoided large statements of any kind, and particularly any that might apply to himself. Yet yes, he would say, he'd certainly go along with that. There was no reason why they should hit it off as they did, and yet lo and behold, they did. Companionable, as Joy said, was simply a longer word for sexy.
Rachel, their friend, worked in the photographic section of the National Library. John arrived early, and waited for her in the big entrance area. The black leather armchairs were imposing, comfortable. He liked the marble floor, the sense of high, open space. He heard the click of her heels on the white squares and looked up from the brochure that explained to him how the Library could source almost any interest he might have.
She was taller, more elegant, than his wife, yet looked several years older, although Joy had been a prefect at Diocesan when Rachel was still, as she said herself, a brash and brazen fourth former. She hugged close against her chest a large brown envelope that had she been a nurse, you'd have thought contained X-rays. John stood and removed the black cap his sister had sent him years ago from Greece. It was the kind that with its embroidered cloth and shiny peak allowed men who had spent their lives in government departments to come across as a touch jaunty. Rachel smiled slightly and said, ‘That makes you look sinister, do you know that, John? That cap?’
He patted his thinning hair. ‘You'd be surprised how cold it gets.’ The number of things he found himself saying recently that apologetically said ‘age’.
Rachel said the cafeteria downstairs, that would have to do, when he asked would she rather the coffee shop further along the road? ‘I've someone coming in for these,’ she said. She meant whatever was in the large envelope she held against her.page 69
John paid for their coffees and carried them to a long bench beneath a window that faced a street of parked cars and a few walking figures leaning slightly against the wind. Further off, he could see the lacy front of the Parliamentary Library. When he was a boy he had thought it the nicest building he had ever seen. Although those roses. The roses on the slope in front of it were blown and scrawny, not at all what should have been growing there. ‘I don't think much of those roses,’ he said.
Rachel drew her stool close enough for their arms to touch. She spoke quietly, as though aware of those at the tables behind them. She said, ‘You know why I want to see you?’
‘No,’ John said. As if he had the choice of telling the truth. So she told him she had left her husband the night before. He decided he would not lie to her more than he needed to. He would not say he was sorry, or that it must have come to her as surprise, but he said, ‘I've wondered sometimes why you didn't leave him years ago.’ He said it so quietly, without inflection of any kind, that it seemed he spoke of something so far off it was hardly of great concern to either of them.
His reasonableness was like a pin driven into her. She shifted her stool angrily, its legs scratching against the floor, her arm jogging her coffee so that half of it leaped the cup rim and flagged out across the wooden ledge. John's hand shot forward. He stopped the cup from tipping completely. A woman with dyed red hair and wide-winged glasses was at their side almost as soon as the coffee spilled. A black man from behind the counter stood at her side. ‘I'll just shift this for you, ma'am.’ He moved the brown envelope and ran a Wettex along the ledge. He said, ‘Accidents happen to the nicest people.’ He had a white cloth slung over his shoulder, a steward from a thirties movie on a long distance train across America.
‘I'm making a scene,’ Rachel said. ‘I'm sorry.’
‘Only a small one,’ John told her. He made her smile, that was something.
Then she said what was the hardest thing to say. ‘Your wife's carrying on with my husband,’ she said.
‘Carrying on?’page 70
‘Screwing her,’ Rachel said.
John turned his saucer several times. He looked across at the stretch of road to the straggle of roses below the old library. Then he again turned his saucer. He could tell this irritated the woman beside him. She seemed only just to control the anger that seethed in her.
‘Doesn't that mean anything?’ she demanded. She looked at him directly, disliking him, he knew that.
Jonh looked back at her steadily. We so seldom really take in people's eyes, do we? he thought. Green with brown flecks. He had known Rachel all these years yet had never quite noticed that.
‘Doesn't it?’ she said again.
‘Yes and no,’ he said. Yes, because it was true, and it would not be natural to pretend he didn't mind. And he wished for Rachel's sake it was not true. But no as well, if he told her honestly. If Joy was an ‘item’, to use the word he would never say himself but he knew was the one his wife would choose, if his wife was an item with an old friend, it did not touch him in the way this agitated woman expected him to admit. So instead he said to her, ‘On the whole, Rachel, no.’
She crushed the pink paper napkin in her hand and dabbed at her watchstrap. A single speck of coffee had splashed onto it. ‘I don't believe this,’ she said. And now it was as though John's sitting next to her was of no consequence at all. The man realised that she had pushed away, as it were, from whatever little island of interest he stood on, and she was now preoccupied somewhere else. He moved from the stool and for a moment looked down at her hands as they smoothed out the soft paper of the napkin over and over. He thought of the numerous Sunday lunches and their easy, leisurely talking on the sundeck as the afternoon declined. They would never be like that again, the four of them. There was something so finally ended, and yet the thought of that did not disturb him much. It was there his mind hovered, on how he should have been more moved than he was, more pitying to this woman with her dark severely drawn-back hair, her aging skin. He knew the hollowness she must now be feeling, the fracture of an ordinary world which for now at least she could not imagine ever being restored. He knew all this, and knew he failed her page 71 as well. He said, ‘There's a book I might as well check on while I'm down here at the library.’
He was at the first landing on his way back to the level of the entrance when the American from behind the counter caught up with him. The man spoke with an accent that was as much from the movies as that earlier image of the white cloth across his shoulder. He held out the Greek cap. ‘There'd be a lot of takers for this one, I'm sure of that.’ John noticed as the cap was held towards him that the man's arm was smooth and hairless, as if he had been sandpapered. He felt the man's kindness and warmth. He would have liked to say something more than the stiffish ‘thank you’ that he came out with. But that was always the trouble, wasn't it? To have the right words there when they needed to be used?
He checked the catalogue and filled in an order slip then leafed through an Australian newspaper as he waited for the book to be delivered. It was a memoir by a writer who once had been well known, and now was read by no one much, he supposed, except the kind of people who write entries for biographical dictionaries. He wanted to see the book because his father had once met the author. That was during the war, when his father was in the Air Force, and his mother still in love with a man of twenty-four in a sheepskin flying-jacket in a silver frame. The airman and the author met in a pub in the Strand. The author, who was much older but still liked to talk about Whakatane as it had been more than thirty years before, worked for the War Office and lived across the road in the Savoy. He was kind to his young compatriots and saw these ‘athletes of the clouds” in a romantic haze. He wrote about one of them in the book John looked up. The pilot in the book had won the Victoria Cross and the author felt a twinge of refracted glory as he bought him a pint of Burtons amidst the bluish drift of cigarette smoke, and shared the round of ham sandwiches from the servery where a woman with a wall-eye carved the thick slices the pilot adored. The young man always chatted with the woman who was three times his age, and gave her an armflash for her grandson and signed with the author's thick Waterman fountain-pen the photograph in the Express. The photograph showed the King with his page 72 hand on the young man's arm. The author said yes, a very decent man, because he had written the book about the King's brother which had made him quite famous, as well as rich. Dad had known the same pilot and even shared what he called ‘digs’ with him.
John supposed his father must have been rather like the pilot in the book, with the grin he knew from the photo in the silver frame and his flying jacket lined with New Zealand wool, and his eyes picking up the first specks in the distance as his plane rolled off in its wide sweeping arc and his gloved hand waited to press the button. All that excitement back then. He liked to think of before the famous pilot in the book ditched in the Channel and before Dad came back to the rotten years after that, boozing it up and the rest of it. There was another photo somewhere in one of the boxes under the house. John was wearing his father's cut-away leather flak-jacket. The jacket came down below his knees. He remembered the strange floating feeling against his legs, as if he wore a piece of cloud, he liked to think. Dad's arm was across his shoulder in the photo and the fingers of his other hand gripped at mum's arm. John was a lot older when it occurred to him that Dad held onto his mother so tightly that you could see the dints of the pressed flesh, and Mum seemed to lean away even as she was held, as if the old man needed her there to keep his balance. But Dad's head was only partly in that picture and you could never tell for sure why that had happened. The big bunch of flowers on the table helped obscure him, and were blurred as well. He supposed whenever he looked at the now fading square of shiny paper that somehow the table must have been jogged, and the shutter clicked at the wrong time. It was difficult to imagine how. But there they were, forever, the flowers sliding towards the right hand side of the picture, as if anxious to get away. And as he thought too when he looked at it, at the partially concealed man and the proud solemn boy and the woman with the taut lines of her neck and the indentations where her husband's fingers clutched at her arm, how it was nonsense trying to guess anything about it really, that Joy was the one for fancying things. But it was deeper than fancy, he knew that too. It was all of them, at that moment when the camera preserved them and the table moved, ready to take off, somewhere or other. As they all had done.page 73
John read the book for an hour. Then he placed it on the broad counter with other returned books. Things people read, he thought. A manual on bee-keeping. Islamic art. A dictionary of Tongarevan Maori. A girl in a green school uniform slapped down several folders of musical scores. This in one hour, he thought, the world grazing on dead facts, piling up words, images that cannot mean, can they, whatever they did for those who made them?
He went to the phone in the wide vestibule to telephone home. The woman at the reception desk glanced over to the tall man as he selected a coin from those he spread about on his palm. She heard the button on the apparatus click, and his mild, even voice asking, ‘What else did you think she wanted to say?’ She missed his next few sentences, as he said to his wife that yes, if she thought she could make it down in twenty minutes? He would wander over to the cathedral and see her outside there. The young woman watched the man pass through the double set of automatic doors and then stand in the uneven scatter of sunlight and shadow. One moment he was bright in the fall of it and the next as drab as the walls around him. She rang her boyfriend across in Archives and said she would see him as soon as the other receptionist was back. She wouldn't mind buying him a cap like that one on the old bloke, if only she knew where to get it. He'd look so choice in that when he wore his black T-shirt and sat out on the veranda with his boots resting on the rail.
For the second time in two hours, John sat opposite a woman and watched her stir sugar into her cappuccino. When the spoon was lifted from the cup it wore a slippery white beard, it always reminded her of that, Joy said.
John said, ‘You know I never see those things until you point them out.’ Then directly, because that was the only way to keep things clear, he told her what Rachel has said, and how upset she had been. The worst of all, he said, was the surprise of it. It seemed really to have knocked her.
‘Tony's been “seeing” people ever since they were married,’ Joy said. She jigged the spoon against the side of her cup until John stretched out his hand and lightly touched her wrist. Her fingers then page 74 rose to move against her thick jade beads. ‘I don't see why, this time. Why it's such a fuss?’
‘She knows all that as well as we do.’ John said. ‘Only this time we're her friends.’
His wife leaned back from the table and looked through the curtained café window. The room was timbered and plastered like a Tudor take-off. Behind the curtains the windows were divided into small squares with dark wooden joinery. She said, ‘I've less patience with this sort of carry-on than I used to have,’ meaning the décor that surrounded them.
‘You've less patience with everything.’ John smiled slightly and so did Joy. She said, ‘I'm spoiled by you, that's the trouble.’ He supposed she meant the way he accepted the ‘deal’, or whatever it was. Other people would call it a lot of names. The deal of almost a dozen years ago when they sat like this, across a table from each other but in the most expensive restaurant the city then had, a chance for her to use her French with the waiter. He said that after their holiday in Rarotonga and now they knew each other pretty well and knew even more importantly that they got along, why didn't they make a go of it? Joy had said she thought that was exactly what they were doing, but she was pleased that John said it. She knew before she agreed that it would not be a mistake, she was certain of that. But she had said because she believed it was better to be utterly honest, just as she knew it was not a great risk she was taking anyway in saying it, ‘You know about that friend I mentioned I've been sort of seeing off and on for years? It's nothing that important but I want you to know.’
As simple as that. A kind of distant background murmur they did not refer to, even when five years or so ago he had guessed who the friend was. Yet the lunches went on, Tony and his wife were his friends as well. And his assuming Rachel too must have an inkling of it until this morning and Tony distraught in his early morning call, She's left me, his repeating that, and asking twice that John not let on to Joy. And as he assured him no, he'd not tell her that, admitting to himself—unable any longer not to admit—that his own weakness was profound, who would not think that? And yet he did not think so. He knew and he accepted it, that was all.page 75
Joy's hands now held her cup the way a child grasps a mug, lifting it by its sides, the handle poking like a tongue between her fingers. She said again, ‘You've spoiled me, that's the trouble John. I expect everyone to be as calm. As sane about things.’
‘We've spoiled each other.’ John said. He took up the cake-fork and drove its side against the lamington in front of him. ‘Not even half?’
‘I'm close enough to shopping at Jennifers as it is.’
He divided one half again, then speared it onto his wife's plate.
‘Who's that?’ he asked.
‘The fat ladies’ shop. Don't you ever look?’
‘Obviously I don't.’
Joy eased out her watchstrap and her forefinger worked against the itch beneath it. John told her, ‘You wouldn't get that rash there if you put nail-varnish on the back of your watch. It coats the metal and the metal's what irritates your skin.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I should have done it.’
They both looked through the tiny squares of glass to the sudden splattering of rain. He felt a weariness with the town, with its weather, even for the moment with his own life, although he knew enough of himself to know that his mild depression would pass. ‘Nothing St John's wort won't fix,’ as he sometimes said to Joy when she asked him what was wrong. A plastic rubbish bin caught by a turn of wind bowled and clattered on the other side of the road. Joy thought of fucking Tony Moreno, and it being found out after all these years. Intermittently, if that made any difference. It was hardly what you would call a highly passionate affair. A preliminary grope at a university party, that was how far its beginnings were. At three in the morning, while everyone else yahooed in someone's sitting room, watching a test from Twickenham. Then another time, the Saturday night it was announced the Prime Minister was dead, and parties wound down all over the country. She had gone to the car to get an address book. And as she leaned across from the driver's door towards the glove box, one knee hiked up on the seat, she felt his hand slide upwards from her knee. It was the suddenness that excited her, the forearm that was like a branch she sat on. She had said, ‘Don't do that!’ She moved back from her page 76 crouching inside the car, the address book held in her hand, and stood beside Tony Moreno who told her you can't go round provoking people like that, young lady. She was taller than he was, which only struck her when he kissed her. She settled her skirt and could never remember whether in fact she spoke, or simply intended to. But someone was standing there on the veranda, calling out, ‘He's dead. Norm's bloody dead.’ That's how far back they went.
John said, ‘You haven't said anything for a while?’
‘Miles away,’ Joy said.
‘So was I,’ he told her. He had been thinking, I've never asked her even that, have I? Where they ever went to be together, I don't even know that.
His wife touched his closed fist as it lay on the table beside his cup. ‘I'm sorry,’ she said. ‘I'm sorry it's all come to this. I'm sorry I ever thought the arrangement would work.’
The next morning John watched the sky. Half an hour before the clouds had been placid, pale tufts. Now the wind had come up again and all that had changed. The harbour was a raw dismal smear. He was glad Joy still slept in the bed on the other side of the room. As soon as she knew his attention was on the harbour, on the movement of sky above the hills, she would feel compelled as usual to say something about it, to do anything, he sometimes thought, except look at it, to be content with things as they were. He knew she intended well. It was her trying to say how she quite understood how he liked looking, and for his sake so did she. To be impatient would not be fair. Fair. Most things come down to that. At least it saved you from sentimentality, from carrying on about things. Sentimental people so seldom told the truth, he was certain of that. Take his friend Kevin Driscoll. Kevin weeping and crying out at the graveside of his wife a year or two back, and his mistress everyone in the department knew about on the other side of the hole and the disappearing box. John hadn't had that much time for either of them but after that he had none. The humbug of it all. He and Joy liked each other—loved each other even, they must do, or they wouldn't be together now—but page 77 there wasn't an ounce of deception. They understood each other pretty well. ‘No God, no sop,’ as Joy had put it, ages back. Avoid those two and life's at least got a chance of adding up.
John moved about the kitchen, slicing the banana into a bowl, making sure the muesli was damp but not sodden. He took teabags from the different jars, the Earl Grey underarm deodorant that Joy believed was tea, and decent English Breakfast for himself. Not to take it so seriously, he was thinking, poor Rachel at the library yesterday. He was dragged back smartly to the world in front of him. From the dining room he heard Joy's aging tabby begin the long-drawn coughing that was likely to end with a serious dab of cat vomit on one of the Turkish carpets. ‘Out, you little bastard!’ he shouted through from the kitchen. Before he reached the doorway to the dining room the creature streaked past his legs and clattered through the cat-door. And his wife's muffled calling from the bedroom, ‘Are you killing my cat again?’
‘If only,’ John said. A phrase he had picked up from the teenagers next door, as they yobboed about on their skateboards on the concrete drive. He lifted the warm pink mess from the carpet with a paper towel, and flushed it down the toilet. He scrubbed at his hands with the nail brush that lay on the shelf above the handbasin solely because of the puking cat. By the time he carried Joy's breakfast through to her she was out to it again. He took the saucer from beneath the cup and placed it over the top. Then he took his own tea and muesli through to what Joy called the conservatory and he himself, more accurately, the glassed-in porch. The sky seemed to have lowered and frayed. The clouds now skidded along the crest of the hill across the gorge. Below them a sudden huge swathe of sunlight slid across the slope. Like a pulled rug as Joy had said on a similar day. How on earth that poet fellow on the radio got the idea that talk like that ‘sharpened awareness’, wasn't that what he said? And the woman who was so edgy most of the time oohing away as if someone had all of a sudden rubbed a windscreen for her and she now knew where she was going. To be fair, he supposed, that sort of talk worked for some people, but it certainly did not for him. Low cloud, a southerly of around forty knots an hour, with intermittent showers. Why couldn't people just page 78 put things like that for a change? Things looked just as good surely if you called them by their right names.
He held his tea mug to warm his hands. It was a good feeling, that. Rubbing velvet so it flowed with your touch. A warm river stone against your cheek. All those things that were good when you were five and are just as good now. Chalk under your fingernails. The screech when you took an old nail out with the claw of a hammer. Rotten sensations like that. They lasted too. Do any of them now and it was fifty years ago as well, exactly the same. Time collapsed. Or became an accordion, more like it. The past and the present meeting, touching together. ‘You make me so happy, you do know that? Joy telling him that once, out of the blue, in a New World supermarket as he handed down tins of cat food from a shelf too high for his wife to reach. And the only other time she had told him, so frankly, on a calm June day six miles off the coast of Kaikoura, the mountains strung out above the rising green lift of coast, as they waited with a boat-load of tourists. Just before the captain told them he had picked up two whales on his sonar screen, that they would rise sixty yards away in about a minute's time. There was a hush as the tourists grasped the rails and held their cameras at the ready, a waiting that was so brief, so drawn out, at the same time. Joy saying that about loving him as she leaned close against him, and the quiet wait until the surfacing, and the grace and slowness of the whale's stupendous tail lifting against the distant mountains turned the pit of his stomach with elation, as nothing else had ever done.
John sat on the settee, his hands resting to either side. It would be an hour at least before his wife dressed and came through. He felt the edges of the journal he had hidden beneath the cushion yesterday morning prickle softly against one hand. He unfolded the page where he had left off, the picture of the raised flag. The arms with their looted watches. He read on, angling the paper to catch the light. And a detail towards the end, that he read over twice. About a young girl handing out cyanide sweets while Bruckner played on a gramophone. He did not know what Bruckner sounded like but imagined it as both grand and tender together, could one say that? The swell and pomp of music that made flags stream out against a breeze and men page 79 stir with theatrical belief in conquest, victory, and then at last, defeat. And the quietness, the tenderness, that other music dabbing at their souls, whatever that might mean. And through the grandiloquence and the comforting, the child walking in her white frock, a child among old men, holding out her plate of sweets, the plate for error to escape itself.
The image of the girl was vivid in his mind, the drift of her innocence through the dark uniforms and gleaming caps. He had no idea why the story so moved him, why he so wished he had never read it. In the crush of things so contradictory he felt his own complete ineptness before fact, history, whatever one liked to call it—that towering vague cliff at whose foot he saw his own figure, so ineffectual, and across it, like montage in a film, the slow moving of the girl as though down the aisle of a church, and the descending hands, the black cuffs, towards the plate she carried. He closed his eyes against the blurring of the printed columns in front of him. I must try to think of nothing, he told himself… I must try to think of nothing.