Friday, March 10

The Book Of Evidence (excerpt)

In John Banville's The Book Of Evidence, Irish expatriate Freddie Montgomery remembers his year at graduate school in California, where he meets a childhood friend, Anna, and the woman who would become his wife, Daphne.
It was through painting also that I met Anna Behrens—or met her again, I should say. We knew each other a little when we were young. I seem to remember once at Whitewater being sent outside to play with her in the grounds. Play! That's a good one. Even in those days she had that air of detachment, of faint, remote amusement, which I have always found unnerving. Later on, in Dublin, she would appear now and then, and glide through our student roisterings, poised, silent, palely handsome. She was nicknamed the Ice Queen, of course. I lost sight of her, forgot about her, until one day in Berkeley - this is where the coincidences begin - I spotted her in a gallery on Shattuck Avenue. I had not known she was in America, yet there was no sense of surprise. This is one of the things about Anna, she belongs exactly wherever she happens to be. I stood in the street for a moment watching her—admiring her, I suppose. The gallery was a large high white room with a glass front. She was leaning against a desk with a sheaf of papers in her hand, reading. She wore a white dress. Her hair, bleached silver by the sun, was done in a complicated fashion, with a single heavy braid hanging down at her shoulder. She might have been a piece on show, standing there so still in that tall, shadowless light behind sun-reflecting glass. I went in and spoke to her, admiring again that long, slightly off-centre, melancholy face with its close-set grey eyes and Florentine mouth. I remembered the two tiny white spots on the bridge of her nose where the skin was stretched tight over the bone. She was friendly, in her distant way. She watched my lips as I talked. On the walls there were two or three vast canvases, done in the joky, minimalist style of the time, hardly distinguishable in their pastel bareness from the blank spaces surrounding them. I asked her if she was thinking of buying something. This amused her. I work here, she said, pushing back the blonde braid from her shoulder. I invited her to lunch, but she shook her head. She gave me her telephone number. When I stepped out into the sunlit street a jet plane was passing low overhead, its engines making the air rattle, and there was a smell of cypresses and car exhaust, and a faint whiff of tear-gas from the direction of the campus. All this was fifteen years ago. I crumpled the file card on which she had written her phone number, and started to throw it away. But I kept it.

She lived in the hills, in a mock-Tyrolean, shingled wooden house which she rented from a mad widow. More than once on the way there I stood up to get off the bus and go home, bored and half-annoyed already at the thought of Anna's amused, appraising glance, that impenetrable smile. When I called her she had spoken hardly a dozen words, and twice she put a hand over the phone and talked to someone with her in the room. Yet that morning I had shaved with particular care, and put on a new shirt, and selected an impressive volume of mathematical theory to carry with me. Now, as the bus threaded its way up these narrow roads, I was assailed by a sense of revulsion, I seemed to myself an obscurely shameful, lewd object, exposed and cringing, with my palped and powdered flesh, my baby-blue shirt, the floppy book clutched in my hand like a parcel of meat. The day was overcast, and there was mist in the pines. I climbed a zigzag of damp steps to the door, looking about me with an expression of bland interest, trying to appear blameless, as I always seem to do when I am on unfamiliar territory. Anna wore shorts, and her hair was loose. The sight of her there suddenly in the doorway, ash-blonde, at ease, her long legs bare, caused an ache at the root of my tongue. The home was dim inside. A few books, prints on the wall, a straw hat on a hook. The widow's cats had left a trace of themselves on the carpets and the chairs, a sharp, citrus stink, not wholly unpleasant.

Daphne was sitting cross-legged in a canvas chair, shelling peas into a nickel bowl. She wore a bathrobe, and her hair was wrapped in a towel. Another coincidence, you see.

What did we talk about that day, the three of us? What did I do? Sat down, I suppose, drank a beer, Stretched out my legs and leaned back, playing at being relaxed. I cannot see myself. I am a sort of floating eye, watching, noting, scheming. Anna came and went between the living-room and the kitchen, bringing cheese and oranges and sliced avocados. It was Sunday. The place was quiet. I watched through the window the mist moving among the trees. The telephone rang and Anna answered it, turning away and murmuring into the receiver. Daphne smiled at me. Her glance was unfocused, a kind of soft groping among the objects around her. She rose and handed me the bowl and the remaining unshelled peas, and went away upstairs. When she came back in a while she was dressed, her hair was dried and she was wearing her spectacles. and at first I did not recognize her, and thought she was yet another tenant of the house. It was only then that I realized it was she I had seen on the lawn that day at Professor Something's party. I started to tell her about it, about having seen her, but I changed my mind, for the same, unknown reason that I had turned away that first time without speaking to her. She took the bowl of peas from me and sat down again. Anna answered another phone call, murmuring, quietly laughing. It occurred to me that my presence was hardly impinging on their day, that they would have done just these same things if I were not there. It was a soothing thought. I had not been invited to dinner, but it seemed accepted that I would stay. After we had eaten we sat on at the table for a long time. The fog thickened. pressing against the windows. I see the two of them opposite me there in that milky twilight, the dark one and the fair: they have an air of complicity. of secret amusement, as if they are sharing a mild, not very unkind joke at my expense. How distant it all seems, an age away, when we were still innocent, if that is the word. Which I doubt.

I was, I confess it, captivated by them, their looks, their composure, their casual selfishness. They embodied an ideal that I had not known I harbored until now. I was still working at my science in those days, I was going to be one of those great, cold technicians, the secret masters of the world. Now suddenly another future had opened up, as if these two had caused a whole rockface before me to fall away and reveal beyond the swirling dust a vast, radiant distance. They were splendid. at once languorous and dashing. They reminded me of a pair of adventuresses out of the last century. They had arrived in New York the previous winter, and drifted by stages across the country to this tawny, sunlit shore. where they were poised now, as if on tiptoe, hands joined and arms extended, with the Pacific all before them. Though they had been in this house nearly half a year their impress was so light, so fleeting, that the rooms had barely registered their presence. They seemed to have no belongings - even the straw hat hanging on the door had been left behind by a previous tenant. There must have been friends, or acquaintances at least—I'm thinking of those phone calls—but I never met them. Once in a while their landlady would descend on them, a darkly dramatic person with soulful eyes and very black hair twisted tight into a bun and skewered with a carved wooden pin. She dressed like an Indian squaw, festooning herself with beads and brightly coloured scarves. She would surge about the house distractedly, talking over her shoulder and trailing a dense, musky perfume, then fling herself with a balletic leap on to the couch in the living room and sit for an hour telling of her woes - the result mostly of what with a throb in her voice she referred to as man trouble - meanwhile getting steadily, tearfully drunk on calvados, a supply of which she kept in a locked cupboard in the kitchen. A ghastly woman, I could not abide her, that leathery skin and daubed mouth, all that hysteria, that messy loneliness. The girls, however, found her greatly entertaining. They liked to do imitations of her, and made catchphrases of things she said. Sometimes, listening to them mimicking her, I wondered if perhaps, when I was not there, they treated me like this, lobbing remarks at each other in a comically solemn version of my voice and laughing softly, in that jaded way they had, as if the joke were not really funny, just ridiculous.

They thought the country, too, was a scream, especially California. We had a lot of fun together laughing at the Americans, who just then were entering that stage of doomed hedonistic gaiety through which we, the gilded children of poor old raddled Europe, had already passed, or so we believed. How innocent they seemed to us, with their flowers and their joss-sticks and their muddled religiosity. Of course, I felt a secret twinge of guilt, sneering at them like this. I had been captivated by the country when I first came there, now it was as if I had joined in mocking some happy, good-hearted creature, the fat girl at the party against whom only a moment ago I had been pressing myself, under cover of the general romp, in wordless, swollen ecstasy.

Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a storybook. (I used to dream of rain—real, daylong, Irish rain—as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It's true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves. Was there not a touch of the preposterous about us, with our tweeds and our sensible shoes, our extravagant accents, our insolently polite manners? More than once I thought I detected a suppressed smile twitching the lips of some person who was supposed to be the unknowing butt of our ridicule. Even among ourselves there were moments of silence, of awkwardness, when a half-formed admission hovered between us, like a bad, embarrassing smell. A trio of expatriates meeting in this mellow playground - what could be more novelettish? We were a triangle, for God's sake!

We were a triangle. It happened, the inevitable, one afternoon a month or so after we met. We had been sitting on the porch at the back of the house drinking gin and smoking something with a horrid taste and the oddest effects. The day was hot and hazy. Above us a coin-coloured sun was stuck in the middle of a white sky. I was watching a cloud of hummingbirds sipping at a honeysuckle bush beside the porch steps. Daphne, in shorts and halter and high-heeled sandals, stood up, a little unsteadily, blinking, and wandered into the house. I followed her. I was not thinking of anything - I was fetching more ice, something like that. After the glare outside I could hardly see indoors, everywhere I turned the air had a huge dark hole in it. Idly I looked about for Daphne, following the sound of the ice tinkling in her glass, from the kitchen. through the living-room to the bedroom. The blind was drawn. She was sitting on the side of the bed, gazing before her in the amber half-light. My head suddenly began to ache. She drained her drink in one long gulp, and was still holding the glass when we lay down together, and a bead of ice slid out of it and dropped into the hollow of my shoulder. Her lips were chill and wet. She began to say something, and laughed softly into my mouth. Our clothes seemed tight as bandages, I clawed at them, snorting. Then abruptly we were naked. There was a startled pause. Somewhere nearby children were playing. Daphne laid her hand on my hip. Her eyes were closed, and she was smiling with her eyebrows raised, as if she were listening to a distant, dreamy, and slightly funny melody. I heard a sound, and looked over my shoulder. Anna was standing in the doorway. I had a glimpse of myself as she would see me, my glimmering flanks and pale backside, my fish-mouth agape. She hesitated a moment, and then walked to the bed with her eyes on the ground, as if deep in thought, and sat down beside us and began to undress. Daphne and I lay quietly in each other's arms and watched her. She pulled her blouse over her head, and surfaced like a swimmer, tossing her hair. A metal clasp left its mauve imprint in the centre of her back. Why did she seem to me so much older now than us, world-weary, a little used, an adult joining tolerantly in a children's not quite permissible game? Daphne hardly breathed, her fingers steadily tightening on my hip. Her lips were parted, and she frowned a little, gazing at Anna's bared flesh, lost in a sort of vague amazement. I could feel her heartbeat, and my own. We might have been attending at a ritual disrobing.

A ritual, yes, that's how it was. We strove together slowly on the bed, the three of us, as if engaged in an archaic ceremonial of toil and worship, miming the fashioning and raising of something, a shrine, say, or a domed temple. How grave we were, how pensive, with what attentiveness we handled each other's flesh. No one spoke a word. The women had begun by exchanging a chaste kiss. They smiled, a little bashfully. My hands were trembling. I had felt this choking sense of transgression once before, long ago, when as a child I tussled with two girl cousins in the dark on the stairs one winter evening at Coolgrange - the same dread and incredulity, the same voluptuous, aching, infantile glee. Dreamily we delved and nuzzled, shivering, sighing. Now and then one of us would clutch at the other two with a child's impatient, greedy fervour and cry out softly, tinily, as if in pain or helpless sorrow. It seemed to me at times that there were not two women but one, a strange, remote creature, many-armed, absorbed behind an enameled mask in something I could not begin to know. At the end, the final spasm gathering itself inside me, I raised myself up on trembling arms, with Daphne's heels pressed in the small of my back, and looked down at the two of them gnawing at each other with tender avidity, mouth on open mouth, and for a second, as the blood welled up in my eyes, I saw their heads merge, the fair one and the dark, the tawny and the panther-sleek. At once the shudder started in my groin, and I fell upon them, exultant and afraid.

But afterwards it was Daphne alone who lay in my arms, still holding me inside her, while Anna got up and walked to the window, and lifted the canvas blind at the side with one finger and stood gazing out into the hazy glare of afternoon. The children were still at play. There's a school, Anna murmured, up the hill. She laughed quietly and said, But what do I know, I ask you? It was one of the mad widow's catchphrases. Suddenly everything was sad and grey and waste. Daphne put her face against my shoulder and began to weep silently. I will always remember those children's voices.