Sigh for a Strange Land
An English writer who spent most of her girlhood in France, MONICA STIRLING represented the ATLANTIC in Paris in the months immediately after the Liberation. We have published her short stories and her first novel, LOVERS AREN’T COMPANY. and have saluted with respect her biography of Ouida which appeared earlier this year. This is the final installment of her lender, valiant novel, which will be published in February.
WAKING with a jolt next morning, I didn’t immediately know where I was. The smoothness of the sheets, the softness of my nightdress, the shortness of my hair, all flurried me. Then, remembering, I groped my way to the window and pulled back the heavy curtain. The street lamps were out, and a pale gray dawn made the snow that had fallen in the night look as if dirty fingers had been at it. In the distance, bells chimed. Shivering, I crept into the bathroom and turned on a tap, very slightly so as not to make a noise. Then I dressed and sat down by the window and waited for Mrs. Ruiz to wake.
At last someone moved in the next room. Presently there was a soft tap on my door. “Up already, my dear child?” said Mrs. Ruiz. She had changed clothes, and her blue pullover made her eyes look even more brilliant and jewel-like. “Did you sleep well? Are you ready for breakfast? I’ve telephoned the hospital. They say your mother has had an easier night, and you can visit her this afternoon. What’s the matter?”
“How could she have had an easier night? It was her first night there. They don’t know what the night before was like for her.”
“I expect that’s just their way of saying she had a good night.” Mrs. Ruiz put her hand on my shoulder for a second. “Let’s have breakfast, and you must meet Joe.”
In the sitting room a young man in dark-gray corduroy trousers, a gray sweater, and windbreaker left the newspaper and map spread on the low table in front of him and shook hands with me. Except for his eyes and smile, he was so unlike his mother as to appear of a different nationality. Although tall, he gave an impression of being stocky, and his smooth skin was almost as brown as his hair, so he seemed to be carved all in one piece and to be more solid than people with a wider range of colors.
“I’m so sorry you’re having such a lousy time,” he said. “I do hope we can help.”
“Thank you very much.”I was relieved at his speaking seriously. Having heard a good deal about the stress the English lay on humor, I had feared he might make jokes like the complicated ones in back numbers of Punch, which we had studied for Anglo-Saxon psychology one term at school.
Breakfast was even better than supper. We had big glasses of orange juice, at least three oranges per glass, and fluffy scrambled eggs with little sausages and crinkled twists of bacon, and hot toasted white bread and all the butter we wanted, and a great deal of coffee and milk and sugar. Determined to try to please them, so they would provide just such a breakfast for Aunt Natasha when she was better, I sat up straight, unclenched my hands, and prepared to answer unavoidable questions. But instead of prying, they offered me a choice of newspaper and then settled to their own, occasionally looking up to smile or pass a dish, and including me in the smiles and passings.
I was prolonging my last piece of toast when the telephone rang. Mrs. Ruiz waved her napkin at it and Joe answered, grimaced, and said, “Would you mind waiting a minute, I’ll just see if she’s still in her room. I know she was on her way out so—” then put his hand over the receiver and mouthed, “Hadn’t you better? It’s that woman again.”
“What have I done to deserve this?” Mrs. Ruiz moaned softly.
“Married into officialdom, darling,” said Joe and handed her the receiver, into which she trilled, “How are you, my dear? No! How simply frightful. . . .”
Putting down the receiver, Mrs. Ruiz said, “Oh dear, oh dear, now I shall have to go round to the embassy right away, and God knows when I shall be able to make my getaway.”
“You daren’t cross her?”
“Not today. Who knows what favors we may need? You’ll look after Resi, won’t you, Joe?”
I was going to say, “I can manage on my own,” but was brought up short by the knowledge that this was a lie of the useless variety. Looking back, it surprises me that I felt no embarrassment at being entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. But I had always seen Aunt Natasha ready to share whatever she had and frequently called upon to put this readiness into action; and as the Ruizes owned a car, traveled, stayed in hotels, and neither pocketed lumps of sugar nor examined the prices on the menu before ordering food, their readiness to help others seemed to me at least as natural as the situation that made us require help. Above all, the Ruizes were not yet real to me, except as potential support for Aunt Natasha. I still assumed love to be exclusively beneficent, was still unaware of the fact that anxiety - sharpened love for one person - can make one deeply callous toward everyone else. Joe was near my own age, and my consideration was reserved for older people. So it did not occur to me to apologize for wasting his time when he said, after his mother had left, “How would it be if I were to show you something of the town until we go to the hospital?”
Before we started out, snow had begun to fall again, but lightly, flakes drifting sideways so gently that one could almost distinguish their individual shapes. Sometimes we were in taxis, sometimes on foot, once in a streetcar, where I was surprised to hear people talking loudly, obviously not afraid of eavesdroppers. At home no one talks loudly in streetcars. I began to understand why it was noisier here than at home.
As snow accumulated on the iron grilles beneath them, the bare-branched trees acquired the look of toy ones based on circles of white enamel. Presently the light changed, became violet, electric. Ordinary sights, such as half a dozen worn donkeys laboriously trotting into an amusement park, appeared in that light, at that hour, to have dramatic significance. Between the stream of lorries, trucks, streetcars, taxis, motor scooters, bicycles, and candy-colored private automobiles, warmly hooded people tried to scurry on booted feet. Soldiers marched stolidly across parallel lines traced in the snow by trams. Children in scarlet caps threw snowballs across a vacant lot.
Imperceptibly, I lost my sense of time, so that now I cannot remember how long we drove about, stopping here and there, Joe quietly telling me about what we saw, not seeming to expect comments, just plying me with diverse facts, as he and his mother had plied me with food, to keep me going.
At the hospital Joe came upstairs with me, sat down on a bench in the passage outside Aunt Natasha’s room, said, “Go ahead, Resi, take your time,” and drew a book from his pocket.
It was no longer snowing now, and brightness came into the air, showing up the cleanliness of Aunt Natasha’s fresh bedclothes. When I saw her looking so much better I felt so happy I almost cried. There was a mountain on her temperature chart, but a valley beside it. She had only vague recollections of what had happened yesterday, and asked me anxiously if I had had enough to eat. I produced the chicken sandwich which I had saved from my supper and told her about the Ruizes. She questioned me eagerly, and for a little while it was as if we were back home, each describing to the other the kind of day she had had. I told her Boris was on the way, and also of a plan I had thought out in one of the churches, namely, that Mrs. Ruiz should help Aunt Natasha and Boris and me obtain working permits, and then we should try to find a vacant porter’s lodge where we could take turns at portering while I learned typing and helped Aunt Natasha start dressmaking again and Boris looked for a circus job. She liked the sound of this, and we discussed which part of town we should prefer, should we have any choice.
TO MY surprise and joy, Boris, who had been given my message by Horst only half an hour ago, was waiting downstairs in the entrance hall. With him was Ladislaus. When I introduced them to Joe, Boris beamed with delight. Like Aunt Natasha, he was always delighted if given half a chance to be. This made him comparatively easy to understand.
The only person who refused to contribute a mite of friendliness to the occasion was Ladislaus. He wore a hangdog expression and every now and again ran his hand over his chin as if searching for bristle where there was only down. I knew this gesture of his. He gave Joe antagonistic looks, Boris contemptuous, and me inquisitorial ones. In the past twenty-four hours he had acquired a peevish, grudging air. Boris was so relieved at Aunt Natasha’s being better that he kept hugging me. Then, eager to celebrate, he suggested we should all go to a café.
No sooner were we seated than Ladislaus got up again, looking furious, and went and fetched a newspaper. After talking about Aunt Natasha — and despite his almost uncontrollable excitement Boris did not once forget that she was now officially my mother — we started discussing our future. Joe thought Boris’ circus experience should be exploited, and said he had an American friend with influence at Ringling’s Circus, might this not be useful? This reminded Boris of something, and in his enthusiasm he brought his fist down on the table so heavily that cups and glasses rattled. He had been forgetting, he said, to give us the most important news of all: he had seen a Red Cross delegate who thought we might be able to get to America; after all, we were able-bodied. Boris referred to our able-bodiedness as if suddenly discovering rare, hitherto unsuspected merits in us. The account he then poured forth of prairies, cowboys, Coca-Cola, skyscrapers, glorious opportunities for all was not very plausible, but neither would the prospect of our sitting here, discussing going to America, have seemed plausible a few days ago. Suddenly all my fears returned, because some people, especially strangers, might say that Aunt Natasha was not all that able-bodied. In fact she was elderly, bronchially fragile, and given to drinking too much. The thought that Aunt Natasha and I might be separated against our will so appalled me that, hearing Boris dwell lovingly on the word “future,” I burst out with, “America isn’t the only place where the future can happen.”
Immediately, as if he had been waiting for this, Ladislaus threw down his paper, all traces of bad temper gone from his face. “You see! That’s just what I was saying to Boris! Why always look abroad for the future?” He made “abroad” sound like an obscene word. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Because we have no business here.” His face was flushed.
“What are you talking about?” Involuntarily, I spoke in the cold, balloon-puncturing voice I use when confronted with violent feeling of a kind I am determined not to understand.
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t.” But Joe’s voice was friendly.
“Oh, well, you.” Ladislaus spoke so rudely that I longed to slap his face.
A sorrowful look came over Boris’ face. He put his gnarled hand on Ladislaus’ thin one and said gently, “Keep your temper for when you may need it, my dear boy. Don’t waste it on us.”
“Well, we shouldn’t have come,” insisted Ladislaus, his voice rising. “The whole thing was a mistake.”
“The fighting?” Joe did not sound at all friendly now.
“No, I did not mean the fighting,” cried Ladislaus, gasping just as he does in philosophy classes when told to clarify. “I mean our being here — we ought not to have left.”
I was still sorry for him, when he looked at Boris and added, “I’m not blaming anyone,” in a magnanimous tone, which made me so furious on Boris’ behalf that I snatched up the nearest glass and threw its contents in Ladislaus’ face. A second’s silence followed, during which I was invaded by remorse. Considering how little money we had, I ought not to have wasted Boris’ beer. When Joe beckoned the waiter and ordered more beer I had difficulty in not crying. Boris put his arm round me and offered Ladislaus a large grubby handkerchief patterned with horseshoes. It had been my name-day present to Boris years ago. Refusing this, Ladislaus wiped his face with the back of his hands and announced, “You can do what you like — no doubt you’re already sold to the Americans. But you know as well as I do that it is our duty to go back and fight; after all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
“people aren’t eggs,” said Joe.
“What’s it got to do with you?”
In tears of rage, Ladislaus rushed out of the café, trying to slam the door. Since it was a revolving one, he merely set up a whirring sound like that of a giant toy.
Looking as he did when one of his animals was ill, Boris got up, said wearily, “I’d better see to him,” and followed Ladislaus out. But I sat on, hate churning in me. I felt Ladislaus had betrayed me by suggesting we go back, when he must have known as well as I did that we could not take a no longer young person who had just had pleurisy back to a burned-down apartment in a city with a housing shortage. It did not occur to me that, since she meant nothing to him, Ladislaus had merely forgotten Aunt Natasha’s existence, and had it done so, this would have added to my fury. His anxiety on my behalf seemed to me ludicrous and importunate. A little vanity would have made me kinder to Ladislaus, but my vanity was not of that kind.
“I’m sick of hearing about the future,” I fumed. But what I meant was, our future frightens me.
“I know.” Joe put his hand over mine. “Let’s think of the immediate present. You had a good sleep last night, so I dare say you don’t want to go to bed early this evening?”
“No, I don’t.” All I wanted at that moment was for it to be tomorrow, and visiting hour at the hospital, and neither mountains nor valleys but only plains on Aunt Natasha’s temperature chart.
“Then why don’t you come to the opera with me? I’ve got two tickets.”
“What about your mother?”
“She doesn’t like opera.”
“Yes. I know it sounds cockeyed, but it’s true. She doesn’t like bullfights either.”
I nodded, not quite so grateful as I would have been half an hour earlier, but grateful enough to realize I had better make an effort to sing for my supper.
JOE’S opera house was even handsomer than the one back home, in the same red plush and airy gilt style, full of cupids with dimpled bottoms of the same consistency as the pink clouds among which they gamboled, shedding musical instruments.
I had been afraid we would be late, but in fact we were early. The performance started at nine, instead of at seven thirty as at home, and the programs weren’t free. Almost everyone there was dressed richly. I stared at the women nearest me, noting the stuffs their frocks were made of, so as to be able to give Aunt Natasha details of texture and color. Particularly impressive was an inflexible gold brocade, the surface alternately glittering and crusty. Its solid magnificence suggested upholstery and gave the woman inside it the look of an odalisque, of being more an object than a person. Aunt Natasha loved stuffs.
When I told Joe I had never seen tonight’s opera before, he looked pleased and handed me a slippery, red-tasseled program in which I read that the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the scenario of Rosenkavalier in three afternoons of February, 1909, then sent it to his friend, Richard Strauss, who was so captivated that he immediately began composing music for it.
“Now,”said Joe, as the audience broke into excited applause. Sleek as a penguin in his evening clothes, the conductor was bowing from the waist. The house lights went out, and a deep rosy streak appeared along the bottom of the crimson curtain’s sculptural folds, as if reflecting a fire in the orchestra pit. “Now . . .” There was complicity in Joe’s smile. Then the tide of applause receded, the conductor’s baton emerged from the fire, the overture started. A prickling sensation ran over my scalp.
The curtain went up on the Marschallin and Octavian in each other’s arms. Almost immediately their tender smiles and amorous gestures, complementing the way they sang, splashing in the music as delightedly as birds in sunlit water, made their love seem exquisitely light. It was as if they shared not only a secret but a joke. Being a mezzo-soprano, Octavian was sung by a girl, but she was as fine an actress as a singer and gave her boyish movements an innocent, impetuous greed, an unreflecting instinct. She snatched kisses as a child snatches candy, yet was disarmingly ready to share their sweetness.
Suddenly, I was reminded of the kisses Ladislaus had given me among the drying cloaks and scattered rubbers, and it was as if something in me contracted, turned over. The sensation combined discomfort and pleasure, but more pleasure, so that I longed to recapture it. When the curtain fell on the first act, met by great waves of applause, Joe turned and asked, “Well?” I nodded, incapable of speech. Then, all at once, I was incapable of silence, oppressed by a physical need to talk, to laugh, to shout, to vent some of the feelings roused by the music.
“Do all English people love opera as much as you do?” I asked, noticing the unmasked pleasure on his face.
“In fact, yes, many do. But I’m not English. Only my mother.”
“What’s your father?”
“Oh.” That half the world lay between us made Joe seem nearer to me than before I had known this.
“My father’s Spanish. But he fought in the Civil War, against Franco, so had to get out afterwards. He was in a refugee camp in France, tried to get to America, couldn’t get a visa, and at the last minute got to Mexico, where my mother joined him.”
“They were married before all that?” Ready for the first time to be aggressive on Mrs. Ruiz’s behalf, I remembered Boris saying, years ago, with a heavy sigh, “There is only one form of underground that never lets up, no matter how often it’s defeated, and that is private life: the greatest resistance movement of them all.”
“Yes, in Perpignan. That’s the place in France where the camp was. Mother had volunteered to help the Spanish refugees.”
I nodded, relieved at having at last found a logical explanation for Mrs. Ruiz’s kindness to refugees. Today, looking back, I find it hard to understand why I kept wanting an explanation for this, except that when Aunt Natasha was ill, suspicion blighted all my thoughts.
DURING the second act, in which Octavian — white wig, white knee breeches, glittering sword — presented the silver rose, I began resenting Sophie. Although forewarned of the plot, I hoped irrationally to see Octavian faithful to his first love; oh, how I longed in those days for stability, how unwilling I was to admit its rarity, with what aching unreason I yearned for the static in a world too full of motion. Yet I was touched by the music that leapt like a fountain of quicksilver from the young lovers’ encounter, so much so that selfreproach entered my voice when I told Joe that I found the Marschallin in every way more attractive than Sophie. Smiling, half agreeing, he added, “When you’re young I guess it’s probably a lot easier to go for someone older than yourself. Because with an older person, their past stirs your imagination, whereas with someone younger the past has got to be quite a bit one’s own work.”
“ That would bring laziness into it,” I said, interested and suddenly guiltily aware that it was laziness that had prevented my seeing the Ruizes other than as Aunt Natasha’s potential protectors. Because I was excited by the music, I wanted to make up for this and, during the second intermission, I asked Joe what his mother had been doing at the hospital the day I met her there. Visiting the sister of an Austrian servant they had had in Mexico, said Joe. What about Mexico? I said. How did I mean, what about it? Well, what was it like? Had he always lived there until now? No, said Joe, he was born and raised there, but had started traveling pretty young and had not been back for several years. They had come to Europe right after the war - his father was a Mexican delegate — and had traveled not only in Europe but all over. Joe had gone to school in England, but not for long; he wanted to learn languages, and his parents thought traveling more important than school, and anyway they all liked being together.
“Tell me what you saw,” I begged, as we walked to and fro over the thick red carpet, under the diamond-dropping chandeliers. Hunger for the places Joe had seen was added to another hunger provoked by music. Imprecise thoughts of love stirred in me, and with them a new feeling of hopefulness. “Tomorrow” had temporarily ceased to be a threatening word.
Suddenly talkative, I harassed Joe with questions, and although he smiled, he took them seriously, his imagination coming more than halfway to meet mine. He knew instinctively that right then I wanted to hear about places, not people.
First he told me of his birthplace: the pure, eroded landscape, creamy yucca flowers rooted in white sand dunes, cottonwood trees pale gold against the lion-colored mesa, adobe huts and skyscrapers, cactus harvesting and rocket testing, sombreros and Coca-Cola, uranium mines and Spanish missions. Out of his words rose baroque towers radiantly white in transparent desert air, mountains purpled by distance, a spreading elfowl-haunted cactus forest dominated by the ribbed green arms of the saguaro, stiffly upraised, like a giant candelabrum. Crossing the frontier to the United States, he remembered a house where he had been shown a wallet containing a faded photograph of Modjeska and a lock of hair, a relic of love washed up by time in the Arizona desert. He spoke of the mortician’s handless clock ticking over Sunset Boulevard, of the cable cars rushing people up the colored canyons of San Francisco.
Standing in a cave in China he had seen a crowd in blue trousers and padded blue jackets silently watching an American film, Weekend in Washington; in the front row a young Chinese actress slowly tossed a scarlet chiffon handkerchief, drenched in synthetic orange blossom scent, to and fro beneath her tiny nose. Watermelon gaped from the stalls of the flyblown, nightshirted, hoarsevoiced lanes of Cairo, and terrorists in striped pants carried brief cases beneath desiccated palm leaves. Between the rosy marble, the sweat-stained khaki, of Jerusalem’s steep streets perpetually sneering camels climbed, bypassing the old city’s Needle Eye gates and jostling blue-jeaned kibbutz workers who had laid aside their rifles for a few hours’ amusement: the quick and the dead caught up among the tangled mythologies of ancient history.
Just as a composer will return to a motif, so Joe kept returning to Italy, speaking not only of its beauty — the painted past coming to light in the darkness of an Etruscan tomb, fountains flinging liquid fireworks across columned perspectives, the wild delicacy of a topiary garden — but of the people who live there, of their love of life. Even in sorrow, even in poverty, they treat life with affection; the opposite, added Joe, to his father’s birthplace, where death got all the prizes.
Of course Joe did not tell me all this in the course of one talk between two acts of music. But because this was the moment of my geographical awakening, I came to associate much that I acquired later with this moment when Joe’s place names seemed to be rushing into me on the same tide as the music.
My exhilaration grew during the last act of Rosenkavalier. When the Marschallin gave up Octavian, her singing of Hub’ mir’s gelobt, Ihn lieb zu haben in der richtigen Weis’ drew tears from me. I remembered Aunt Natasha closing the eyes of the young man with a camera, and the shock of realizing that, for all his apparent youth and strength, he would never open them again; and as I listened to the beautiful voice singing of renunciation, I caught a glimpse of the fact that saying good-by to a kind of love I was only beginning to understand might seem a death in life. Had Aunt Natasha suffered in this way?
As we walked back to the hotel, the snow friable under our feet, I was languid with enjoyment and gratitude. For the first time I had an inkling of the fact that the Ruizes’ kindness was disinterested and therefore above price; I began to wonder, idly but definitely, not only where they had been, but what they had done there, what they were like.
WHAT are you going to be, Joe?” I asked as we got into our hotel sitting room, where the table was laid with ham, tongue, cold chicken, green salad, a bottle of red wine, and a bowl of apples, oranges, and bananas. The sight of fruit still seemed to me miraculous, and I ran my forefinger over the surfaces, liking the difference between the rugosity of the thick orange skin, the taut silky smoothness of the apple, and the other smoothness, more like linoleum, of the butter-colored bananas. I did not have to appropriate food here. Mrs. Ruiz had already sent a big basket of fruit to the hospital.
“Oh. Do you aim to do heroic things?" I asked uneasily.
“God, no.”Joe laughed, then stopped, looked at me, and added mildly, “I mean that. False modesty seems to me as cretinous as boasting. I genuinely do not aim at heroism. Never mind how people die, what I care about is how they avoid dying, how they survive, how they live. But of course I’m inconsistent. Military service seems to me insane - making people waste time peeling potatoes in some goddam barracks, when war will be a matter of pressing buttons, and once the entire world’s radioactive, much good it will be anyone’s trying to occupy anyone. Yet I’m crazy about war stories, like that one about those British officers who captured the German general in Crete.”
“Maybe you just like seeing a general made a fool of,” I said hopefully. “But what about people resisting, like your father in the Spanish war; don’t you admire them?”
“Oh, sure. I certainly do. But he — they - were against, they were underdogs, one can always see the point of the against side. But unless the world aims to bomb itself out of existence, a majority of relatively sane people have got to be for. . . . You can’t remember the war, of course.”
“Not much. Not that war, at least. You can’t either, can you?”
“Not much. But nothing I’ve heard or read about it, nothing, not even Papa’s stories about the Civil War, got me the way a book of photographs did. I saw it about ten years ago; I was still a kid. Photographs of a concentration camp. Piles of dead bodies, like a compost heap. Resi, do you think any idea’s worth that?”
Slowly, I shook my head. “Except . . . perhaps . . . the idea that that sort of thing shouldn’t ever be allowed to happen again.”
“And maybe that’s the most insidious of all. Years later, in New York, I met the photographer who had taken those pictures. He told me that while he was doing it he had to keep stopping to vomit. In one room, beside the ovens they shoved people into, was a whitewashed wall and, painted on it, the rear half of a wild boar, and astride it, the lower half of a man in riding breeches, and, printed alongside in Gothic letters, ‘Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness—Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands.’ Why, Resi - God, Resi, I’m sorry - why on earth did I have to go and talk about things like —”
“It’s not that, Joe,” I protested, fighting to get the better of a sudden dizziness. “In the end what else is there to talk about?” I was afraid I might be going to faint, which I had never yet done. “There’s always that going on underneath, always someone torturing someone in a vicious circle. Early Christians get tortured; then later, Christians do the torturing. No matter what the label, there’s always someone doing it, and nine times out of ten doing it on principle.” I heard my voice climbing steeply, trying to escape into the world of light the music had opened to me a few hours ago. But it was no use. There was no escape from the something clawing its way to the surface of my mind. Shivering, I muttered, “It’s not that.”
“Can you tell me what it is?” Joe’s arm was round my shoulders.
“It was years ago; there, where the memorial tank is, only it wasn’t the memorial tank then. Two huge trucks arrived, and all at once there was a crowd of women and children, crying out, and soldiers, and the sound of rifle butts on skulls. They were forcing the women into one truck and the children into the other, and then they drove them off in opposite directions.”
A moment ago I had not been conscious of remembering this. Now it was as vivid to me as if happening all over again. The wind made my ears ache, and I heard the controlled terror in Aunt Natasha’s voice as she snatched me up into her arms and whispered, “Don’t be frightened, baby, there’s nothing to be frightened of, we’re only running because we’re hungry, there’s soup for supper, and we’ll soon be home.” She held me tightly, pressing my face against her coat, which smelled and tasted like an old blanket.
“ I can see why you’d rather be a photographer than a journalist,” I said shakily, seeing the outstretched arms, the frantic blue finger tips. “But you’ve got a great friend who’s a journalist, haven’t you? Your mother was telling me.”
“Yes.” The name Joe mentioned was vaguely familiar.
“I thought his name was Pip.”
“We call him that.” Joe looked surprised. “Why?”
“Have you heard from him lately?”
“Pip never writes. Just turns up. Right now he’s due to turn up any minute. I’m surprised he’s not over there already.”
“He was.” My hands clenched themselves.
“What do you mean? How do you know?”
“ I saw him.”
“You did? Where? When?”
“Back home. That morning.”
“But why didn’t you tell us -”
“I didn’t know. Your mother said Pip. I only knew his real name. And you said a journalist. But he had a camera.”
“Pip often takes his camera along, just in case. You spoke to him?”
I shook my head.
Joe stared at me, uneasiness spreading over his face, giving him a sallow look. His eyebrows drew together in a thick dark line of concentration.
Hunching my shoulders, I tried to think how best to tell Joe the news I could not prevent from hurting him. Then, abruptly, he asked me how it happened.
“I don’t know, Joe. We were running down an empty street, away from a tank, and suddenly we saw a young man with a camera running in the opposite direction. He looked queer, I realize now; but at the time nothing did look queer, because everything was. Then suddenly he raised his arms, like the conductor tonight. And then he fell. Aunt Natasha and I ran to him. But it was too late. We looked at his papers. That’s how I knew his name.”
“Tears ran down Joe’s face, and he swore again and again, softly and monotonously. Suddenly he stopped, stared at me, and asked, “Who’s Aunt Natasha?”
My heart gave a sickening jolt. Then, kneeling beside him, I said, “Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry about Pip, so very sorry. I know that’s no help, but I am. Aunt Natasha’s my mother, I mean she isn’t, but I said so at the hospital so I’d be her next of kin, and they’d let me in any time.”
On and on I went, explaining Aunt Natasha and Boris, Uncle Matthias’ caviar, old Nina and Ladislaus, Boris’ horses, the shutters slamming overhead as we ran, the smell of petrol, the dreamy smile on the young man’s face, the Skaters’ Waltz, Anna of the delicatessen, the sight of fruit. It was the first time I had ever tried to describe our life truthfully to any outside person. Joe had regained control of himself, but his sullen, almost military, look of grief made me angry with Pip. We were still sitting there, silent now, like two people who both have toothaches, so know that kind words will not alter the situation, yet slightly glad to be together, when the telephone rang.
HARDLY aware of what he was doing, Joe fumbled for the receiver. Now the stiffness had left his face, he looked slightly drunk. “What?” He gave the receiver a little shake. Then he looked at me, seeing me this time, and nodded and said, “We’ll be right over,” into the telephone and, to me, “Your mother, I mean your aunt, wants to see you, Resi.”
For a second we stared at each other, then both moved, equally fast. Joe helped me into my coat, tossed over gloves and purse, put on his own coat, scribbled a message for his mother and, at the door, turned back for a scarf, which he thrust around my neck. Then we ran to the elevator. Neither of us spoke. There seemed nothing to say. But Joe held my arm grimly, as if we were walking across a slippery surface and still had a long way to go.
Red lights were burning over the hospital entrance, as they had burned over the theater exits after the rest of the house lights were off. But I was back in a world where neither lights, carpets, curtains, nor elevators that work can camouflage the fact that nothing is too terrible to happen before one is shoveled into the ground and, no matter what does or does not happen, the final shoveling is inescapable. I asked Joe to fetch Boris.
Hurrying down night-lengthened passages, I gradually became aware of a steady humming, as if a giant bee were thinking aloud behind each numbered door. The nurse was outside Aunt Natasha’s room, her hand on the knob. She had a smudged look of exhaustion. Turning the handle without a sound, she opened the door. A man in white overalls stood beside the cage of transparent shiny paper set up on the bed. Inside this lay Aunt Natasha, eyes shut, cheekbones flushed, and with a crumpled look that had not been there earlier. The nurse and doctor glanced at each other.
Now they were taking the oxygen tent away. Aunt Natasha’s breathing was punctuated by small whistles, like those of a child longing, but not quite daring, to provoke chaos in a classroom. Then she opened her eyes. Her lips formed a crooked smile. “I could do with a little sip of something,” she said, half as if she meant it, half in selfmockery. Instinctively, I looked around. On the under shelf of the bedside table stood the basket of fruit Mrs. Ruiz had given us. None of it had been eaten. Not even the pineapple, with which Aunt Natasha had been particularly delighted. My throat ached as it had done after I had my tonsils out. I touched her cheek. Although hot and dry, it felt softer than ever before, soft as a really old person’s. Suddenly the emptiness inside me was filled by commotion. As if in a nightmare, every bit of me began silently screaming out against what I still would not admit was happening.
“You’re going to be all right,” I heard myself hoarsely whispering. “You are going to be all right, this is just the last lap, they wouldn’t be spending all this money on you, and clean sheets again today, if you weren’t going to get better, it’s going to be all right about the working permits too, and the porter’s lodge, I’ve got my eyes on just the one, we’re going to do fine, the three of us.”
She was still smiling at me, but fixedly, a longdistance smile. She had smiled that way once years ago at the railway station, seeing Boris off to join the circus on tour. We stood waving and, as the train moved, Boris leaned further and further out of the carriage window. For several minutes after we could no longer see him, Aunt Natasha kept right on waving, but more and more slowly, as if her arm were a piece of machinery running down, and she smiled just as she was smiling tonight. Now, at last, my words seemed to reach her. Her smile loosened. She focused me. “Nice . . . and warm here,” she murmured between whistles.
“The porter’s lodge I was telling you about has such a good heating system,” I rushed on. “Even if it’s a bad winter we’d be all right there. And food’s a bit cheaper than at home, I’ve been checking on prices.”
Nearby a door was opened and shut. Someone had been running. When Boris knelt by the opposite side of the bed I was appalled by the greenish pallor in the depths of his face. Emotion could not alter his brick-and-leather tan, but his surface skin suddenly looked detachable from the rest of his face, like peeling wallpaper in a damp room. He managed to smile at Aunt Natasha, and she smiled back, and for a second, because we were all three together, we were in a lifeboat. Then Aunt Natasha’s eyelids began fluttering. Kneeling closer, Boris and I willed her to stay alive, to fight back against whatever was trying to snatch her from us, from little sips and sordid worries, trivial treats and the power of love. Her concertinalike breathing was the only sound in the room.
Suddenly she opened her eyes and looked around. The crooked smile was still there, but instead of being behind it she seemed to have moved up, to be struggling to peer from behind her eyes, glittering now. “Darling,” I whispered, “please, please.” Recognition cleared her eyes for a second. She burrowed her head deeper into the pillow, gave a light sigh, as if of well-being, the kind of sigh I had often heard her give, glass in hand, when we were all three sitting in the kitchen at home, the heat working, something for supper, and no particular trouble in the offing. Then she turned her head, looked straight into Boris’ eyes, laughed, and said, “Listen my darling love -”
The rest of the sentence was submerged by a sound like that of an engine refusing to start. Her hands fluttered, helplessly reaching for nonexistent help. Her beautiful eyes were empty as a window from which someone had just stopped waving. Boris’ head collapsed against his arms. In between sobs I heard the pipes gurgling. But there was a sound missing. I listened for it with maniacal attention. Then something seemed to explode in me. There was a scream. The screaming went on, hurting my head, and was followed by words: “Aunt Natasha, Aunt Natasha, no no no.”
People came running. Doors banged. This sudden banging, unaccompanied by shushing, made me realize with my mind, as well as with my nerves, that Aunt Natasha was dead. Tears rushed down my face, a bead curtain between me and an unfamiliar nurse who was saying, “She’s coming, dear, do try and - all right, dear, your aunt’s right here.” Abruptly, Boris and I stopped crying and jerked our heads round, staring at the nurse. Now that it was coming in gasps, our breathing replaced the sound Aunt Natasha had made. Insanely hoping we stared at the door.
When Mrs. Ruiz ran to me, followed by Joe, I cried out accusingly, “Why did she say Aunt Natasha was coming? Why —” but I couldn’t say more.
Reminded that even the dead are not exempt from filling in forms, I stumbled round the bed, away from that basket of fruit, to Boris. He took me in his arms, pressing my cheek against his jacket with its familiar smell of stables. Grief shared is not grief halved, but we both tried to muffle our sobs. From force of habit, we did not want to wake Aunt Natasha.
SIDE by side on a wooden bench, Boris and Ladislaus are waiting their turn in an office now being used as a refugee repatriation center. An amnesty has been proclaimed. Once again, revolt has been quashed. Once again, haggard pedestrians trudge through corpse-littered streets and ask themselves why without even expecting an answer. This is fortunate, since they do not get one. The atmosphere is cold and foggy. It is easy to mistake anguish for apathy.
Before this, the office was a travel bureau. The posters on the walls offer music in Salzburg, cures in Baden-Baden, skiing in St. Moritz, the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Horse Guards in London, bays in Naples and Rio de Janeiro — worlds that, so far as most people here are concerned, do not exist.
As I come in from the street with a gust of cold air, a small boy not yet inured to waiting manages to clamber up, tears down a bit of skyscraper, and thrusts it into his mouth. His mother promptly emerges from a fiercely whispered conversation with her neighbor and slaps the child. With a powerful shriek, he relinquishes the sodden fragment, and his nose begins to bleed. One or two women glance in his direction and say, “It’s a shame,” but perfunctorily. Though glad of an opportunity to be censorious, few of us have by this time any energy for minor shames.
At the prospect of struggling yet again to dissuade Boris from going back, I feel very tired. Apart from an obscure conviction that officialdom will always play in our daily life the part moths play in closets, I still have remarkably few political ideas. My earlier anger at Ladislaus’ attempt to drag us back was due not to any considered desire to change places, but to my determination that Aunt Natasha should convalesce with a roof over her head. This point no longer has to be considered.
Ladislaus does not dare utilize this fact. He is reluctantly but genuinely intimidated by my black clothes, with their strong but inoffensive neutral smell of stuff that has not yet needed cleaning. Alert for opportunities to be angry, I despise him for this. Everyone’s motives seem to me suspect, except those of Boris, Kitty, and Joe; or it might be nearer the truth to say that I understand Boris’ motives, and hardly think of Kitty and Joe as having any. For me, these two still live on the further side of an invisible frontier. This makes their company unexacting. Occasionally, Joe crosses this frontier, as when he and I turn the pages of an illustrated weekly containing photographs of and by Pip. New print smudges under our fingers. “He never made the front page before,” says Joe savagely. “How they like you to be dead. Do anything for you then. The only infallible way to win friends and influence people. See my best seller, Dying Can Be Fun.”
It is Joe who insists on my being supplied with mourning. When first he speaks of this, Kitty looks distressed and says Oh, why, darling, too young, Aunt Natasha surely wouldn’t have wanted it. “That’s not the point,” says Joe, not waiting for my answer—I am still incapable of uttering more than a few words without bursting into tears — “The point is Resi. How’s she to handle herself? She may not need mourning right now, not here where half the town’s in mourning. But she’s going someplace else eventually. And she’s young enough for people to ask her cockeyed questions, hell bent on getting enthusiastic answers. ‘Aren’t you glad to be here?’ That sort of crap. Which you don’t ask a person in mourning, for God’s sake.’ And a look of disgust comes over his face.
For this look of disgust I am at present more positively grateful to Joe than for anything else. Like the severity with which his face meets grief, it reveals a capacity for impersonal irritation, that fragile but unique prop of justice. But the black clothes do have a keep-off-thee-grass effect, and I am aware of this, even in the dazed state in which I move about, trying to cause no inconvenience except to officials, against whom I now feel malevolent impulses. I don’t understand these impulses, nor do I try to, and they are encouraged by my conviction that I have nothing to lose.
As we start to argue, Ladislaus’ face assumes a recently acquired look. Every inch a chieftain. The fact that his present decision concerns life and death instead of to keep or not to keep white mice ought to touch me, but doesn’t. Not at the time. Grief has not ennobled me. Nor have I yet met anyone it has ennobled. This seems to me natural. Neither courage nor courtesy can alter the fact that grief is an amputator. So instead of making an effort to understand Ladislaus, I wish ferociously that he would remove himself. Presently he does just this, but takes his time about it, thrusting his hands into empty pockets with ostentation, in order to show that he is only going to the window because his legs need stretching.
Boris refers again to the amnesty. As we have known other amnesties, his belief in its viability is as fragile as my own. But he speaks as if this were not so. There is something unnatural about the courtesy with which Boris and I attend to the other’s views. We are overdoing it, on purpose. Each afraid the other may have lost the capacity to feel, we both deliberately manifest a type of consideration that would be superfluous were this the case. Then, seeing Ladislaus turn back to us, I say, “Well, but, Boris, amnesty or no amnesty, there’s still fighting going on —”
“That’s not official,” he says quite seriously.
“Still, you don’t want —”
“I want to be somewhere familiar.” When he speaks naturally, his voice is slurred by exhaustion. “I’ve nothing to lose, so I may as well lose it at home.”
“Then I’ll come too.”
He shakes his head. “You’d be in the way.”
“You only say that because you think it’s the only argument likely to have any effect on me, you know you do.”
He smiles dejectedly, then says, “I know it doesn’t seem so now, Resi, but you’ve got the future.”
“The future?” An emotion I don’t understand seizes me. “I hate the future,” I cry, and at that moment this is true. “I hate the future. Ever since I can remember, everything dreadful’s always been done because of the future, excused because of the future. One might as well be a Christian and shift everything onto the back of the afterlife. Oh, Boris, don’t sound like Ladislaus. It isn’t as if you can be consistent the way he is, he really thinks we owe it to the future to go back, but you wouldn’t have gone back if Aunt Natasha were still alive, you know you wouldn’t, oh, damn, damn, damn,” because I am crying again. Not that this makes me conspicuous. Tears are commonplace in this former travel bureau.
“It’s true.” Boris puts his arm round me, gentling the anger out of my sobs. “It’s true I wouldn’t go back if she were alive. Not till she were well. And not unless she wanted to, even then. I couldn’t do that to her again.” A haggard look comes over his face, then he rubs the bridge of his nose and says, “I only meant that as long as you’ve someone to care for, you’ve got a future.”
“I care for you, Boris,”I say, meaning it, yet helplessly aware that I am offering him less than a shadow of what I gave to Aunt Natasha. With her, the world outside seemed to me unpredictable hostile; without her, I have no inside world, and my capacity for loving is diminished accordingly.
“So do I for you, Resi dear,”says Boris, and I know he is up against the same difficulty.
“Ladislaus says -”
“To hell with Ladislaus.”
My astonishment at Boris’ tone shows me that I have never before heard him curse a personal acquaintance. Like Aunt Natasha, he tends to see three sides to every question, and has even been known to suggest that civil servants and policemen are human.
“If it’s the last thing I do,” he continues, glancing with uncharacteristic animosity toward the window, “if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to stop Ladislaus’ ruining your life the way I ruined Natasha’s.”
“The way you —”
“The way I ruined Natasha’s.”
“But you loved her.”
Sighing explosively, Boris runs his fingers through his already upended hair. “All the more reason. Listen, Resi, you may not think so, but I’m asking you something important.”
“You don’t love him, do you?”
“Who?” Suddenly nervous, I am prepared to be on the defensive.
“Ladislaus? Of course not.” My scorn is genuine. I am still at an age to imagine that only certain categories of person are romantically lovable: the wicked perhaps, but not the dull; the emaciated possibly, but certainly not the obese. It has never occurred to me that I might love Ladislaus.
“In that case,” says Boris with faint satisfaction, “there’s no reason, no reason at all for you to pay attention to what he says. Because he’ll go the way I went. When he finds himself at the liberty-what-crimes-are-committed-in-thyname stage, he’ll be stunned to discover you can no more make a robot out of the incalculable than you can catch the wind in a net. You’d have to go a long way to find a better specimen of the type made to be shot by both sides.”
“But,” I am greatly struck by this, “but, Boris, suppose that’s the type I like?” As I say this I am convinced that for once Boris is wrong; Ladislaus is not at all like that.
“Then I’m going to try to make sure you like it someplace where liking it is feasible. You’re not going to repeat Natasha’s mistake.”
“But she never said —”
“I don’t suppose she did. I don’t suppose she ever saw that situation the way it was.”
“How was it?”
Boris runs his hand over his face. “She was all right in Paris,” he begins, and suddenly I know from his tone that he has argued this way, against himself, over and over. “More than all right. She wasn’t pining. Not she. It wasn’t in her character. She just had to love someone. Or rather, she just had to love. If a lamppost was all there was available, she loved that, and made a success of it.” His voice is honeyed by the indulgence into which time has changed his jealousy. “There was nothing inevitable about it,” he continues. “She’d given up searching for me. So had I for her. What was the good? You can’t defeat history. And that would have been that, if only she’d not run into that taxi driver.”
“But, Boris, whether or not she was still looking for you, she wanted to find you. She told me so.”
“Of course she did. So did I want to find her.” A little ardor flickers in his face. Then he looks at me with tenderness and exasperation. My throat tightens. I sense that this tenderness and exasperation are intended not for me but for a young Natasha I can only guess at. Yet the expression is familiar. Someone else has recently looked at me in just this way.
“You’ll understand when you fall in love.” Boris speaks in a tone suitable to “when you have scarlet fever.” “Of course we wanted each other. All the same, if want had been our master she might be alive and happy. There’s only one thing I can do for her now: prevent you from making the same mistake without the excuse of love.”
“If you go and I stay we shan’t see each other again, and, Boris, we’re all we’ve got.”
Shaking his head, Boris puts his free hand under my chin and tilts my face toward him. “You make everything personal. Just like Natasha.”
“Am I at all like her?”
“A little. But you have some of your grandmother’s ruthlessness too. Maybe that will safeguard you against emotional improvidence.”
Still inside the circle of Boris’ arm, still looking at him, I slowly realize that I have already lost him. He is trying to protect me for Aunt Natasha’s sake. I am doing the same for him. Equally ghost-ridden, there is nothing more we can do for each other. I shall never forget Boris, But here among the posters is our last station platform. Our smiles are fixed, our throats stiff. Now the past is over. And I don’t want the future; then, suddenly, as if she were beside me, I hear Aunt Natasha say, “Nothing’s ever over and done with, there are prolongations in time.” I am still shivering when Ladislaus strolls over and, eying us complacently, says, “So you’ve decided to come back with us after all?”
If there were either affection or anxiety in his voice, I would try once more to persuade Boris to take me along. But Ladislaus’ manner is hectoring, his voice febrile, and he keeps looking over his shoulder. It does not occur to me that he is derailed among broken images and exhausted by his struggle to convince himself that this is not so. Instinctively, I want to do the opposite of whatever he advises. I don’t want to share the future with Ladislaus, and suddenly I know that I shall forget him, forget him to such an extent that one day his name will escape me. As if sensing my thoughts, he exclaims angrily, “You’re going to America! You are! Go on, admit it.”
“Don’t be a bloody fool,” says Boris harshly. “Resi’s going to —”
“Resi’s going to choose,” says a fourth voice. Joe has just arrived to pick me up as arranged. Involved with Boris, I had forgotten this arrangement. But Ladislaus must have seen him crossing the square. Hence the backward looks.
“Yes. I don’t have to” — suddenly it dawns on me — “right now I don’t have to go anywhere.” For the first time in my life, this is true.
Making this discovery, I am startled by Joe’s expression. It is one I haven’t seen on him before. He looks pale, furious, despairing. Something stirs in me. If Aunt Natasha were there to be told about it, this something would be identified as pleasure. But I’m on my own now. So I don’t understand my feelings, let alone anyone else’s.
“I don’t have to go behind curtains, nor across oceans,” I say, slowly groping my way. “And it needn’t be always the future. Not if I can choose. Because I can choose the present.”
Tears come into my eyes. Looking at Boris, I again remember him calling private life the greatest resistance movement of them all. Ladislaus puts out his hand. I clasp it. Inside me something cold and hard is splintering. As I look round the room at the ill-treated faces, a rush of emotion replaces my apathy. No longer one of them, I immediately want to help them.
Words fly from me. Joe’s hands grip my arms. I don’t know whom I love, but suddenly I know where I’m going. To Italy, right back where I started from. To the country I can’t remember, the country where I was born of displaced parents who once hoped to see their children native-born citizens. There, perhaps, I shall one day re-enter the strange land of love, where tomorrow is not always a threatening word.