It is light when he leaves the hotel. Light. Primordial sunlight disclosing empty streets, disclosing form with shadow, the stucco facades. And silence. Here in the middle of London, silence. Not quite silence, of course. Never true silence here. The sublimated rumble of a plane. The burble of pigeons courting on a cornice. A taxi’s busy rattle along Sussex Gardens, past the terraced hotel fronts, from one of which he now emerges.
He feels that he is leaving London unseen, slipping out while everyone else is still asleep, as he walks, with his single small holdall, to the square where he left the car. The square is hotel-fringed, shabby. A few benches and plants in the middle. Sticky pavements. The car is still there, surrounded by empty parking spaces. It is not his. It is someone else’s. He is simply delivering it. Slinging his holdall onto the passenger seat, he takes his place at the wheel.
He sits there for a few seconds, enjoying a feeling of inviolable solitude. Solitude, freedom. They seem like nearly the same thing as he sits there.
Then he starts the engine, which sounds loud in the silence of the square.
He is aware now that he does not know exactly which way to go. He looked yesterday and it all seemed simple enough, the way out of London, south-east, towards Dover. Now even finding his way to the river seems problematic. He tries to picture it, the streets he will need to take. When he has formed some sort of mental picture of where he is going, and only then, he pulls out.
He waits at a light on Park Lane, some posh hotel on one side, the park on the other, staring sleepily straight ahead.
When he gets to the river there might be a problem. He hopes there will be signs for Dover. The possibility of getting lost makes him mildly nervous, even though he would not be in any serious danger of missing the ferry. He has plenty of time. It is his habit, when travelling, always to allow more time than he needs.
He went to sleep very early last night. The previous night, Friday, he had been out late, with Macintyre, the Germanic philology specialist at UCL. And then he had had to get up early on Saturday to take the train to Nottingham and pick up the car from its previous ‘keeper’, a Pakistani doctor. (Dr N. Khan was the name on the documents.) He had done the whole thing on a hangover, which had made the day pass over him like a dream—made it seem even now like something he had dreamed, the time he spent in Dr Khan’s front room, looking through the service history, while the doctor’s cat watched him.
He swings around Hyde Park Corner, the sun pouring down Piccadilly like something out of Turner, the palaces opposite the park half-dissolving in a flood of light.
He squints, tries to push it away with his hand.
Macintyre had not been very helpful. He was supposed to have looked at the manuscript, the section on Dutch and German analogues in particular. They had talked about it for a while, in The Lowlander. Macintyre, with a suggestion of subtle mockery that was entirely typical of him, always insisted on meeting there. The early modern shifts in German pronunciation, for instance. The way some dialects . . .
He has to focus, as he flows through them, on the layout of the streets around Victoria station.
The way some dialects were still impervious to those shifts, after more than five hundred years.
The traffic system pulls him one way, then another, past empty office towers. He looks for the lane that will throw him left eventually, onto Vauxhall Bridge Road.
No, Macintyre had not been as helpful as he might have been. Obviously, he was holding back. Professional jealousies were operative. He did not want to give too much away about what he was working on now. That was why he had wanted to talk about other things. Kept steering the talk away from shop. Wanted to know, when he had had a few Duvels, about his ‘sex life’. ‘How’s your sex life, then?’ he had said.
Well, he had mentioned Waleria. Said something about her. Something non-committal.
The lights halfway down Vauxhall Bridge Road start to turn as he approaches them and after a moment’s hesitation he stops.
Macintyre was married, wasn’t he? Kids.
The lights go green. Unhurriedly he moves off. A minute later – the Thames. That exhilarating momentary sense of space. The water, sun-white.
Then streets again.
In south London he feels even freer. These are streets he does not know, that may be why. Strange to him, these sleeping estates. These hulks, slowly mouldering. He has a vague idea that he needs to find the Old Kent Road. Old Kent Road. That insane game of Monopoly that happened in the SCR once. He thinks of that for a moment, and imagines the Old Kent Road to be liveried in a drab brown.
Signs for Dover draw him deeper into the maze of south-east London. The maze marvellously unpeopled – the low high streets with their tattered shops. The sun shining on their grubby brick faces. Dirty windows hung with curtains. Only at the petrol stations are there signs of life. Someone filling up.
Someone walking away.
He has so much time, he thinks he might make the earlier ferry. His own ‘sails’, as they still say, just after eight. So yes, he may well make the previous one – it is not yet five thirty and already he is in the vicinity of Blackheath, already he is merging onto an empty motorway, its surface shining like water. Speed. There is a tangle of motorways here. He must keep an eye out for signs.
Yes, Macintyre has several kids. No wonder he seemed so threadbare and fed up. So tetchy. Some little house somewhere in outer London, full of stuff. Full of noise. He and his wife at each other’s throats. Too worn out to fuck. Who wants it?
Canterbury, says the sign.
And he thinks, with a little frisson of excitement, This is the way Chaucer’s pilgrims went. Trotting horses. Stories. Muddy lanes. And when it started to rain – a hood. Wet hands.
His dry hands hold the leather-trimmed wheel. Through sunglasses he eyes the wide oncoming lanes. He has the motorway to himself.
Wonderful to imagine it, though. The whole appeal of medieval studies – the languages, the literature, the history, the art and architecture – to immerse oneself in that world. That other world. Safely other. Other in almost every way, except that it was here. Look at those fields on either side of the motorway. Those low hills. It was here. They were here, as we are here now. And this too shall pass. We don’t actually believe that, though, do we? We are unable to believe that our own world will pass. So it will go on for ever? No. It will turn into something else. Slowly – too slowly to be perceived by the people living in it. Which is already happening, is always happening. We just can’t see it. Like sound changes, spoken language.
‘Some Remarks on the Representation of Spoken Dialect in “The Reeve’s Tale”’.
The kick-ass title of his first published work. Published in Medium Ævum LXXIV. Originally written for Hamer’s Festschrift– Hamer who had supervised his doctoral work when he first turned up at Oxford, that first year. A tall, bald man with spacious elegant rooms in Christ Church. Would literally offer you a sherry when you arrived – that old school, that English. The author of works such as Old English Sound Changes for Beginners (1967). Professor Hamer lived, it had seemed, in a fortress of abstrusity. Asleep at night, he must have dreamed, so his young foreign pupil had thought, sipping his sherry, of palatal diphthongisation, of loss of h and compensatory lengthening.
And he had envied him those harmless dreams. Something so profoundly peaceful about them.
Something so profoundly peaceful about them.
Everything so settled, you see. It all happened a thousand years ago. And the medievalist sits in his study, in a shaft of sunlight, lost in a reverie of life on the far side of that immense lapse of time. The whole exercise is, in its way, a memento mori. A meditation on the effacing nature of time.
He likes the little world of the university. Some people, he knows, hate it. They long for London.
He likes it. The fairy-tale topography of the town. A make-believe world of walled gardens. The quietness of summer. The stone-floored lodge, and the deferential porter. Yes, a make-believe world, like something imagined by a shy child.
Somewhere to hide.
Sun sparkles on wide motorway.
It is just after six and he will be at Dover, he estimates, in an hour.
Yes, he likes the little world of the university. He likes its claustral narrowness. Sometimes he wishes it were narrower still. That the world of the present was even more absent. He would have quite enjoyed, he thinks, the way of life of a medieval monastery – as a scholarly brother, largely exempt from manual labour. He would have enjoyed that.
With, naturally, the one obvious proviso.
Without noticing, he has pushed the car well into the nineties. It manages the speed without effort. He eases off the accelerator and the needle immediately starts to sink and for the first time this morning he feels sleepy – a mesmeric sleepiness induced by the level hum of the engine and the monotonous, empty perspective in front of him. It seems, for long moments, like something on a screen, something spewing from a CPU. Just pictures. Without consequences. He shakes his head, moves his hands on the wheel.
Yes. The one obvious proviso.
Last year, during the Hilary term, he had done the thing he had long wanted to, and had an affair with an undergraduate. It had been something he had had in view since his arrival in Oxford to finish his doctorate. It had taken years to achieve – and the affair itself, when it finally happened, was in many ways unsatisfactory. Just two weeks it had lasted. And yet the memories of it, of her youth . . .
He was sad in an abstracted way, for a day or two, when she ended it with that letter in her schoolgirl’s handwriting, that letter which so pathetically overestimated his own emotional engagement in the situation. And he understood that he had also overestimated her emotional engagement in it. As he had been intent on enacting his own long-standing fantasy, so she had been enacting a fantasy of her own, in no way less selfish. Except that she was nineteen or twenty, and still entitled to selfishness – not having learned yet, perhaps, how easily and lastingly people are hurt – and he was more than ten years older and ought to have understood that by now.
Only when he saw her, soon after, in the arms of someone her own age – some kid – did he experience anything like a moment’s actual pain, something Nabokovian and poisonous, seeing them there in the spring sunlight of the quad.
And by then he was already mixed up with Erica, the medieval Latin scholar from Oriel. That didn’t last long either.
The days he has just spent in London have exhausted him. Not only the meeting with Macintyre. He also had a meeting with his publisher. And a symposium on Old English sound changes at UCL, for which he was one of the speakers. Various social things. He had seen Emmanuele, the short, snobbish, scholarly Italian who had finished his DPhil a few summers ago and was now a lawyer in London. Emmanuele had asked after Waleria, what was happening there? It was at a party of Mani’s, last September, that he had met her. ‘I don’t know,’ he had said. ‘Something. Maybe. We’re seeing each other. I don’t know.’
Solitude, freedom. There is that feeling, still, on the ferry. This in spite of the other people; they are transient strangers, they do not fix him in place. They know nothing about him. He has no obligations to them. Sea wind disperses summer’s heat on the open deck, hung with lifeboats. The floor see-saws. Is sucked down, then pushes at his feet. England dwindles. The wind booms, pulls his hair. Inside, in the sealed warmth, people eat and shop. He wanders among them, nameless and invisible. Sits at a table on his own. His solitude, for the hour it takes to travel to France, is inviolable. He stands at a window, golden with salt in the sunlight. He watches the playful waves. He feels as free as the gulls hanging on the wind. Solitude, freedom.
As soon as he has driven off the ship he puts on the A/C and Vivaldi’s Gloria – pours into the French motorway system with that ecstatic music filling his ears.
The asphalt glitters. It is Sunday morning. Farms lie in the flat bright land on either side of the motorway.
And he knows this motorway well. It follows the so-called Côte d’Opale, towards Ostend. To the left as he drives are the windy dunes.
Welkom in West-Vlaanderen says the sign.
And now it is like he is driving through his own past, through a landscape full of living nerves, of names that are almost painfully evocative. Koksijde, where he went once with Delphine and her mother’s dog – the small dog digging in the sand among tufts of wind-flattened grass. Nieuwpoort – where they spent that summer, he and his parents. The smell of the sea finding its way inland, up little streets – and at the ends of the streets, when you walked down them to meet the sea with your plastic spade in your hand, a milky horizon. Roeselare, where they would visit his father’s parents – the suburban house, with hop fields at the end of the neat garden. Though the memories possess a jewel-like sharpness they seem surprisingly small and far away, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. It has been years since he was here, on this flat tract of land next to the ship-strewn sea, and that his own life has been going on long enough now for things like that windy day at Koksijde to lie more than ten, more than fifteen years in the past is somehow a shock to him. He was already an adult then, more or less, and yet he still thinks of his adulthood as something that is just getting under way.
Feeling a little shaken, he stops for petrol.
Holding the nozzle into the tank he stares at the motorway, the thin Sunday traffic.
That desire for everything to just stay the same. That day at Koksijde, stretched out over a whole lifetime. Why is the idea of that so appealing? Or today, this very moment, the hum of the flowing petrol, its heady sickening smell. The motorway, the thin Sunday traffic. Here and now. The pallid heaven of these hours. Solitude and freedom. Stretched out over a whole lifetime. That desire for everything to just stay the same.
The tank is full.
Walking back from the till – where it felt strange, somehow, to speak his own language with the woman there – he finds himself enjoying the sight of the luxury SUV in which he is travelling. He feels pleased and proud to take his place in it, to start the engine with the touch of a button. Stan´ko is trusting him to hand it over, to sign the papers that will transfer the ownership. And though he does not know him very well – has only met him once, in fact – Stan´ko has every reason to think that he will hand it over.
Stan´ko is, after all, a policeman. The senior policeman of Skawina, a town in southern Poland, nowadays a suburb of Kraków – tractors farting in fields of potatoes next to a multiplex showing the latest films.
You don’t fuck with Stan´ko. Not in Skawina or the neighbouring townships, in Libertów or Wołowice.
It is easy to picture him in this car, moving through the banal landscape of his beat, his wallet abulge.
How that brooding ogre and his ugly little wife produced something as lovely as Waleria . . .
Well, maybe she wouldn’t age well. It was worth thinking about, though he feels no inclination to long-term thoughts. He still doesn’t see things that way. It still feels new, this situation, even somehow provisional. There was a sense, for some time, that they had no obligation to each other, that they were free to see other people. He didn’t. (Unless you include Erica the Latinist, who was still, last September, just about extant.) Whether Waleria did or not he doesn’t know.
He has turned inland, passed Bruges.
Later, Ghent, where he did his undergraduate degree. English and German. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Parzifal.
After Christmas last year he spent a few days in her parents’ dayglo orange house. A scalloped balcony over the white front door. Snow disfiguring all the garden ornaments. Waleria met him at Kraków airport, and drove him to the house, which was near a petrol station on the edge of Skawina.
Every day while he was there, they went skiing at Zakopane. (‘Do you ski?’ she had asked him, making small talk, when they first met, at Mani’s party. ‘Do I ski? I’m Belgian,’ he had deadpanned. It made her smile.) She was an excellent skier. Warily, he had followed her down the stiffest slopes Zakopane had to offer.
As he approaches Brussels, clouds close over him in the sky. Wind moves the trees at the side of the motorway. There will be rain. Shafts of hard light pick out the distant prominences of the city as he passes. He knows the way without having to think about it – the leaky underpasses, the glimpse of Uccle (those tree-lined avenues, where he was once a bookish schoolboy who lived in a big flat), and then out on the E40 towards Liège, as the rain starts to fall. He feels for the lever that sets the wipers swinging.
Since then, since Christmas, they have seen each other every few weeks. A sense evolved that they were in some way together, a sense of mutual obligation. He wouldn’t put it more strongly than that. Sometimes she visits him in Oxford, or they spend a weekend in London, or somewhere else. They meet, for the most part, in the neutral spaces of hotels. There was Florence in February. There was, at Easter, a week in the Dodecanese, island-hopping, the windy deck of the hydrofoil in its world of vivid blues.
Slowly, they are finding each other out. ‘You,’ she said, ‘are a typical only child.’
‘Selfish,’ she told him. ‘Spoilt. It never occurs to you,’ she said, ‘that you might not be the centre of the universe. Which is what gives you this personal magnetism you have . . .’
‘Now you’re flattering me . . .’
‘It’s nerdy,’ she said. ‘Still, it’s there.’
She was shuffling her cards, her tarot pack. That was a surprise. It seemed she had this New Agey side to her – it wasn’t, he told himself, fundamental to who she was.
‘Okay. You’re going to take three cards,’ she said. ‘Past, present, future.’
They were lying on his bed. Oxford. It was Saturday morning. Last month.
‘So.’ She offered him the pack, fanning it out. ‘Take one.’
Humouring her, he prised out a card.
‘Ace of Wands,’ she said. ‘Past. Take another.’
‘The Tower.’ She made a face of mock alarm. ‘Fuck. Present. Last one,’ she instructed him. And said, when he had taken it and turned it over, ‘The Emperor. Future.’
‘That sounds good,’ he suggested, looking pleased with himself.
She was studying the three cards, now lined up crookedly on the sheet. ‘Okay,’ she said, provisionally. ‘I think I understand.’
‘It’s time to grow up. That’s the headline.’
He laughed. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Well, look at this.’ She was pointing to the Ace of Wands. She said, ‘It’s obviously, you know . . . it’s a phallic symbol.’
It did seem to be. The picture was of a hand holding a long wand, which thickened towards the top into a fleshy knob, a divided hemisphere.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘So it seems.’
‘Well, that’s the past.’
‘What – so I might as well kill myself now?’
‘Don’t be silly.’ It was difficult to say how seriously she took this. She looked quite solemn. ‘The present,’ she said. ‘The Tower. Some kind of unexpected crisis. Everything turned upside down.’
‘I’m not aware of anything like that.’
‘That’s the point. You won’t be, until it hits you.’
‘Unless it’s you.’
She ignored that. ‘Now let’s look at the future. The Emperor – worldly power . . .’
And he made some silly remark about how that sounded like him and started to fondle her nipple, to tease it into life. They were naked.
She said, ‘I think these cards are suggesting that you should maybe stop thinking about your . . . thing all the time.’
He laughed. ‘My thing?’
She put her finger on it.
‘What it means,’ she said, looking him in the eye, ‘is that your skirt-chasing days are over.’
‘But I don’t chase skirt. I’m not that type.’
‘Oh, yes, you are.’
‘I promise you,’ he told her, ‘I’m not.’
It is ideal, he thinks, the set-up they have. He is unable to imagine anything more perfect. He is unable to imagine living more happily in the present.
The huge sheds of the Stella Artois plant at Leuven, its steaming stacks, are half-obscured by the drenching weather.
How well he knows this stretch of motorway, its different surfaces, the sound of the tyres shifting suddenly, dropping in pitch, as you pass from Flanders to Wallonia. How often, in the years he was studying in Ghent, did he drive it, and how insignificant a distance it seems now, as part of his longer journey – he is already halfway to Liège and it feels as though he has only just left Brussels.
And now here it is, Liège – the place where the road plunges down into the valley.
Pines start to appear in the woods as he mounts the heights on the other side, overtaking trucks in the slow lane.
Suddenly fresh, everything.
He needs to finish the piece for the Journal of English and Germanic Philology; he was hoping to have it done by now. The question of whether, in the pre-West Saxon period, æ sometimes reverted to a – or whether in fact the initial change from a to æ, postulated for the West Germanic period, that is to say prior to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, never in fact took place at all. The principle evidence for the former hypothesis was always the form ‘sle-an’ – if that form could be shown to be anomalous, then the whole venerable thesis would start to look very questionable. Hence the importance of his proposed paper, already accepted in principle by the journal, ‘Anomalous Factors in the Form “Sle-an” – Some Suggestions’.
He had used some of the material, teasingly, in his talk to the UCL symposium last week. Quite a stir. (The look on Macintyre’s face!) Yes, this might be it – the thing he has been looking for, the thing that makes him, in the world of Germanic philology, a household name. Something everyone in the field simply has to have read. Worldly power. So he must take time over it – seclude himself with it for the rest of the summer. Stop thinking about his thing all the time.
He is eating a chorizo sandwich, drinking Spa water.
Sitting in a huge Shell services with a Formula 1 theme. Francorchamps is nearby, somewhere in these forests.
There are not many people about. Even though it is high summer – the second week of July – the weather is foul, and there is little to do up here in the woods when the rain is just steadily falling, seeming to hang whitely against the dark slopes of pines.
With cold hands, he puts more petrol in the car. He has an idea that it is cheaper here than in Germany. He isn’t sure. Stan´ko is paying for the petrol anyway. He tucks the receipt into his wallet with the others as he walks out again into the rain.
This is where he leaves the road he knows – the motorway running east towards Cologne. He looks, sitting in the car while the rain falls, at the printed Google map. An indistinct line drops diagonally down from where he is into Germany, just missing Luxembourg. The E42. It ought to be easy. He folds the map and sits there, in the rain-pelted car, finishing his coffee. Luxembourg. Never been there. Like Surrey was a country. Silly. Anomalous. Like ‘sle-an’. A household name. He just needs to devote himself to his work. Stop thinking about his thing. Time to grow up. That’s the headline. He had liked the way she said that.
The windscreen is a mass of trickles. Summer. Still, there is something romantic about the rain. There are not many people about. It was her idea to meet at Frankfurt airport. Not the Frankfurt airport – Frankfurt-Hahn, a no-frills-type place deep in the countryside, and nowhere near Frankfurt; Frankfurt doesn’t even appear on his Google map, even though the little pin indicating the airport is almost in the middle of it. They are used to airports like that, these lovers. Sleepy places next to a village with twenty flights a day at most. They have been in and out of them a dozen times so far this year. In and out. In and out. It was her idea to meet there, and finish the journey to Skawina together, taking their time, spending a night or two on the road.
The airport is harder to find than he thought it would be. There is more driving, when he leaves the straightforwardness of the E42, on narrow twisting lanes, more following tractors. A hilly landscape. The day is grey and humid. There is insufficient signage. He passes through a village, starting to worry that he might be late after all, and then quite suddenly it is there. Soon he is moving among parked vehicles, looking for a space, in a hurry now.
He finds a space.
And then it happens.
There is a loud ugly metallic noise that for a moment he does not understand.
Then he does and his heart stops.
When it starts again he is sweating heavily.
She looks up from her magazine, smiles.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he says.
‘You’re not late. The plane was early.’
‘Everything was okay?’
She is putting her magazine in her bag. ‘Yes. Fine. You must be tired,’ she says, looking up at him. He appears pale and shaken. ‘You’ve had a long drive.’
‘I’m okay, actually,’ he says. ‘Probably it will hit me later.’
‘Do you want something to eat?’
‘Uh.’ He thinks about it. He was hungry, half an hour ago. He has had nothing to eat all day except a pain au chocolat on the ferry and that chorizo sandwich, up in the rainy Ardennes. Now, however, he isn’t hungry. In fact, he feels slightly sick on account of what has happened to Stan´ko’s luxury SUV. ‘Maybe I should,’ he says. ‘Have you eaten?’
‘I had something.’
‘Maybe I should,’ he says again.
‘Okay. Are you okay?’ she asks, suddenly sounding worried.
‘Yes. Yes,’ he says. ‘Fine.’
They speak English to each other. His English is more or less native-speaker standard. Hers is only slightly less perfect.
He queues at some sort of food place, one of only a few in the airport. The airport is shabby and unexciting. Modest improvement works are taking place behind plastic sheets and warning signs. He orders, in flawless German, a ham sandwich, a double latte.
‘Look,’ he says, sitting down next to her. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’
To his surprise, her face instantly tightens. She looks frightened. ‘Yes?’ she says.
‘I had an accident,’ he says, taking the plastic lid off his latte. ‘With the car. In the car park. Here. There’s some damage. To the paintwork.’
She doesn’t say anything.
‘I hope your father won’t be too pissed off.’
‘I don’t know,’ she says.
‘Do you want any of this?’ he asks, offering her the sandwich. ‘I’m not really hungry.’ When she shakes her head, he says, ‘How was the flight? Okay?’
‘Yes, it was fine.’
‘From Katowice?’ he asks.
‘We’re staying tonight in a place called Trennfeld,’ he says, soldiering on with the sandwich. ‘It’s a couple of hours’ drive from here. According to Google maps anyway.’
‘Gasthaus Sonne,’ he says.
Though she smiles at him, something seems to be wrong.
‘Okay?’ he says.
She smiles at him again, and he wonders if it’s just him – is he just imagining it, or does she seem nervous about something?
‘Let’s go?’ she says.
He takes her little suitcase and they leave and walk to the car park, where she inspects, without passion, the huge scuff on the side of her father’s new car.
He sighs theatrically.
‘I hope your father won’t be too pissed off,’ he says again.
It starts to rain as he walks to the machine by the chain-link fence and pushes euros into it to pay for his stay.
When he comes back, she is sitting in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead.
There is some trouble about getting back to the E42 towards Frankfurt. They spend some time lost in dung-strewn lanes, the dull farm country.
When they are finally on the motorway, they travel at first in silence, as though hypnotised by the movement of the wipers, which are struggling to keep up with a downpour.
He is still thinking about the damage.
About how easily it might not have happened. If he had only arrived a few minutes earlier or later, for instance, he would surely have found a different place to park. There was one slightly tricky space near the entrance that he had almost taken – then he kept on looking, though the space he ended up in, after a few minutes of irritable prowling, was even tighter.
He had needed a piss. That might also have played its part – the way it made him still more impatient and unfocused on what he was doing. And he was tired and hungry and in a hurry and had been stuck behind a tractor for ten minutes while he tried to find the airport. And all of these factors, all of these individually unlikely or indecisive factors had united in the fateful moment, had placed him exactly then and there, and the damage was done.
And what will happen about it?
He will have to pay to have the fucking . . .
‘There’s something I need to tell you, Karel,’ she says.
He doesn’t quite understand the emphasis, has forgotten that he used the same phrase himself, half an hour earlier, in the airport.
A long silence.
He is still thinking about how much the paint job will be, and whether Stan´ko knows someone who can do it for less than the usual price, when he notices that the silence is still going on.
‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ she had said.
And the number of things she might have to tell him shrinks, as the silence extends, until there are only one or two left.
One part of his mind takes that in; the other part is still energetically fretting over the scraped wing.
She is either about to end their little affair, their succession of tousled hotel-rooms, or
‘You’re pregnant,’ he says, throwing the indicator lever, moving out to overtake in a tunnel of spray.
He hopes that she will immediately negative this.
Instead the silence just prolongs further.
Outside, a wet, grey world unfurls around them, wind-whacked trees huddling at its edges, pouring into peripheral vision.
Part of him is still doggedly preoccupied with the prang. That is starting to drift away, though, as if into infinite space.
‘Are you?’ he asks.
Those moments when everything changes. How many in a life? Not more than a few.
Here, now, the moment. On this rainswept German motorway. Here and now.
‘That’s shit,’ he says, still searching the road ahead with agitated eyes.
Finally she had spoken. ‘I think so,’ she said. And then, ‘Yes.’
‘That’s shit,’ he says again.
The prang is far off now, though he is still just about aware of it, like some object far out in the darkness.
His whole life seems to be out there, divested.
What is left? What is he to wrap himself in, now that everything has floated off into space?
It hangs out there, in the darkness, like debris.
She is, he notices, shaking with sobs.
It takes him by surprise.
And then she starts, still sobbing, to hit her own forehead with a small white-knuckled fist.
‘Please,’ he says. ‘Stop that.’
‘Stop the car,’ she says through tears.
And then screams at him, ‘STOP THE CAR!’
‘Why?’ His voice is shrill and frightened. ‘Why? I can’t . . . What the fuck are you doing?’
She had started to open the passenger door. Wind noise roared at her. Cold air and water were sucked momentarily into the civilised leather interior.
‘Are you fucking crazy?’
Her tears redouble and she says, piteously now, ‘Stop the car, stop the car . . .’
He stares more frazzledly at the oncoming world. Suddenly it seems unrecognisable. ‘Why?’ he says. ‘Why?’
She has started to hit her forehead again, her fist knocking on the taut pale skin with a sound that inordinately upsets him.
And then an Aral station’s lit pylon looms out of the rain – the blue word ARAL high above everything – and, indicating, he slows into the lake of the exit lane.
As soon as the car stops moving, or even a moment before, she is out of it.
He sees her, through the still-working wipers, walk away, hugging herself, and wonders numbly what to do.
He had just stopped on the apron of tarmac short of the petrol station. Now he lifts his foot from the brake and the car moves on at walking pace, under the huge canopy that protects the pumps from the rain.
He has lost sight of her.
One of the parking spaces in front of the shop is empty and he slides straight into it. With his thumb he shoves the button that kills the engine and then just sits there for a few minutes. That is, for a fairly long time. The life of the service station swirls around him, as if in time lapse. He is staring at the stitching of the steering wheel, the elegant leather. There is a temptation just to drive away – drive back to his own life, which feels as if it is somewhere else.
There is no question of actually doing that, however.
Instead he discovers he has tears in his eyes.
Tears just sort of sitting there.
Tears of shock.
Inside the shop, he peers about, looking for her. He hangs around outside the ladies for a minute or two, as if she might emerge. He tries her phone.
He starts to worry that she might have done something silly. That she might have taken a lift from a stranger or something.
He is in the car again, moving slowly through the acres of parked trucks along the side of the motorway, when he finds her. She is still walking. Walking with purpose. She must have been walking, all this time.
‘What are you doing?’ he shouts through the open window, keeping pace with her.
She ignores him.
He overtakes her and pulls into a space among the trucks some way ahead. He sits there for a few seconds, fighting a furious urge to just drive away. Instead, getting out of the car and hunching his shoulders against the rain, he takes his umbrella from the back seat. It bangs into place above him, and immediately fills with sound.
As soon as she notices it – it is very large and has ‘University of Oxford’ written on it – she turns and starts to walk the other way.
Only for show – he is able, with no more than a slight quickening of his pace, to draw level with her, and take hold of her arm.
A truck lumbers past and he drags her out of the way of its spray, into the puddled alley formed by two other, stationary trucks.
‘What are you doing?’ he says. ‘Where are you going?’
Her face is twisted into an unfamiliar tear-drenched ugliness.
This whole situation, this awful scene among the trucks, has taken him totally by surprise.
He waits for her to say something.
Finally she says, ‘I don’t know. Anywhere. Away from you.’
‘Why?’ he asks. ‘Why?’
It has been his assumption, from the first moment, that there will be an abortion, that that is what she wants as well.
Now he starts to see, as if it is something still far away, that that may not be so. It is initially just something that his mind, working through every possible permutation in its machine-like effort to understand, throws up as a potential explanation for what she is doing. She does not want to have an abortion. She is not willing to have an abortion.
In a sense this is the true moment of shock.
He fights off a splurge of panic.
She has not said anything, is still just sobbing in the noisy tent of the umbrella.
He asks, trying to sound loving or sympathetic or something, ‘What do you want to do?’
‘You can’t make me have an abortion,’ she says.
He wonders, Is she a Catholic? A proper Catholic? She is Polish, after all. They have never talked about it.
‘I don’t want to make you do anything,’ he says.
‘Yes, you do. You want me to have an abortion.’
This he does not deny. It is not, after all, the same thing.
He says again, ‘What do you want?’
And then when she says nothing, ‘It’s true. I don’t think you should keep . . . Fuck, stop!’
She has tried to pull away from him, to leave the shelter of the umbrella. He is holding her arm now, tightly, and saying to her, ‘Think about it! Think about what it would mean. It might fuck up your whole life . . .’
She shouts into his face, ‘You already have fucked up my whole life.’
‘You have fucked up my whole life,’ she says.
‘How?’ He asks again, ‘How?’
‘By saying that.’
‘What you said.’
‘What did I say?’
‘ “That’s shit,” ’ she says.
His face is a mad mask of incomprehension.
‘You said that!’
Yes, he did say that.
She is sobbing again, violently, next to the towering snout of a truck. Droplets hang on the truck’s snout. He sees them, hanging there, white. They shake, and some of them fall, as a moment of fierce wind hits everything. Some of them fall. Some of them don’t. They hold on, shaking. He says, loosening his hold on her shaking arm, just wanting to end this awful episode among the trucks, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry I said that.’
It seems so smooth, the way it moves on the endless tarmac. Whispering wheels. It is quiet. No one seems to have anything to say. Not even the weather now. For some kilometres a light mist comes off the motorway, and then it is just blandly dry.
At Mainz, they cross the Rhine.
He knows Mainz as the city where Gutenberg invented printing, and thus ended the Middle Ages; that was what they decided, anyway, at a seminar he attended at Bologna University some years ago, The Middle Ages: Approaching the Question of a Terminal Date. He was asked, afterwards, to write an introduction to their transcripted proceedings.
He finds himself thinking about that, about the terminal date of the Middle Ages, as they pass across the Weisenauer Rheinbrücke, the water on either side a sluggish khaki.
Modernity was what happened next.
Modernity, which has never much interested him. Modernity, what’s happening now.
It started here in Mainz.
And the Roman Empire ended here – from here the legions tried to outstare the tribes on the other side of the demarcating waterway, where now there is the Opel factory at Rüsselsheim, and a little further on Frankfurt airport, the actual airport, an enormity flanking the motorway for five whole minutes.
And the weather darkens again as they leave the airport behind.
What has been said in the last hour?
Nothing has been said.
Pine forests on hillsides start to envelop them on the east side of the Main. And fog.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Ché la diritta via era smarrita
Well, here it is. Dark pine forests, hemming the motorway. Shapes of fog throw themselves at the windscreen.
Finally someone speaks. He says, ‘When did you find out?’
‘A few days ago,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to tell you on the phone.’
A few more minutes, and then he says, ‘And is it mine? Are you sure it’s mine? I have to ask.’
She says nothing.
‘Well, I just don’t know, do I?’ he says.
Sex happens, surprisingly, at the Gasthaus Sonne in Trennfeld. It’s what they always do – hurry to the hired space to undress. It’s what they always do, and they do it now out of habit, not knowing what else to do when they are alone in the hotel room. This time, however, he makes no effort to please her. He wants her to dislike him. If she decides she dislikes him, he thinks, she may decide that she does not want this pregnancy. He is hurried, forceful, almost violent. And when she is in tears afterwards, he feels awful and sits on the toilet with his head in his hands.
It took them an hour to find Trennfeld in the fog – a village of tall half-timbered houses on a steep bluff above the Main. Every second house with a sign saying Zimmer Frei. A few more formal inns – with parking space in front and paths down to the river at the back – in one of which they have a room.
He had told her, as they picked their way through the fog, that she should not assume, should she decide to keep this child, that it would mean they would stay together. It would not necessarily mean that. Not at all. It was only fair, he said, that he should tell her that.
She said nothing.
She had said little or nothing for the last two hours.
Then she said, ‘You don’t understand.’
Sliding across a mysterious foggy junction, he said, ‘What don’t I understand?’
‘That I love you,’ she said drily.
Well, she would say that, he thought, wouldn’t she. Still, his hands took a firmer hold on the wheel.
A sign at the roadside told them, then, that they had arrived at Trennfeld.
And there it was, the picturesque street of half-timbered houses. The Gasthaus Sonne. The low-beamed reception area. The narrow stairs with the Internet router flickering on the wall, up which the smiling Frau led them to their room.
She had a shower and found him lying on the bed, on the grape-coloured counterpane, waiting for her.
Later, when he emerges from the bathroom’s rose-tiled box, she is still crying, naked except for the coverlet that she has pulled partially over herself. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, sitting down on the edge of the bed. It does not sound very sincere so he says it again. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s just,’ he says, ‘this is such a shock. To me.’
‘You don’t think it’s a shock to me?’ There is a pillow over her head. Her voice is muffled, tear-clogged, defiant.
He looks from her pale shoulders to the insipid watercolour on the orange wall.
‘Of course it is,’ he says. ‘That’s why we need to think about this. We need to think about it seriously. I mean . . .’ He wonders how to put this. ‘You need to think about your life.’
He knows she is ambitious. She is a TV journalist – pops up on the local Kraków news interviewing farmers about the drought, or the mayor of some nearby town about his new leisure centre and how he managed to snare matching funds from the European Union. She is only twenty-five, and she is sort of famous, in the Kraków area. (She probably makes more money than he does, now he thinks about it.) People say hello to her in the street sometimes, point to her on the shopping-centre escalator. He was there when that happened. ‘What was that about?’ he said. ‘You’re famous?’
‘No,’ she laughed. ‘Not really.’
She is though, and she wants more. He knows that.
‘Do you see what I’m saying?’ he asks.
They spend a few hours in the dim, curtained room as the afternoon wears on. Nothing outside the room, on the other side of the crimson curtains, which glow dully with the daylight pressing on them from without, seems to have any significance. The room itself seems pregnant, swollen with futures in the blood-dim light.
And the light persists. It is high summer. The evenings last for ever.
Finally, as if outstared by the sun, they dress and leave.
Outside it is warm and humid. They start to walk up the picturesque half-timbered street. There are some other people around, people strolling in the evening, and on the terraces of the two or three inns, people.
She has said nothing. He feels, however, he feels more and more, that when she thinks about the situation, she will see that it would not be sensible to keep it. It would just not be sensible. And she is sensible. He knows that about her. She is not sentimental. She takes her own life seriously. Has plans for herself, is successfully putting them in train. It is one of the things he likes about her.
He notices that there are cigarette vending machines, several of them, in the street, out in the open. They look strange among the fairy-tale houses. A village of neurotic smokers. He would like to have a cigarette himself. Sometimes, in extremis, he still smokes.
Nothing seems very solid, and in fact there is a mist, nearly imperceptible, hanging in the street as the warm evening sucks the moisture out of the wet earth.
They sit down at a table on one of the terraces.
He wonders what to talk about. Should he just talk about anything? About this pretty place? About the high steep roofs of the houses? About the carved gables? About the long day he has had? About what they might do tomorrow?
None of these subjects seems to have any significance. And on the one subject that does seem to, he feels he has said everything there is to say. He does not want to say it all again. He does not want her to feel that he is pressuring her.
It is very important, he thinks, that the decision should be hers, that she should feel it was hers.
They sit in silence for a while, surrounded by soft German voices. Older people, mostly, in this place. Older people on their summer holidays.
He says, desperate to know, ‘What are you thinking?’
‘Why did you choose this place?’
‘Why?’ He is not prepared for the simple, ordinary question. ‘It wasn’t too far from the airport,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to drive too much further today. It was in the direction we were going. The hotel looked okay. That’s all. It’s okay, isn’t it?’
‘It’s fine,’ she says.
He turns his head to take in part of the street and says, ‘It’s not very interesting, I know.’
‘That’s why I like it.’ They share that too – an interest in uninteresting places.
‘I wouldn’t like to stay here for a week or something,’ he says.
‘No,’ she agrees.
Though after all, why not? He does find a lot to like in this place. It is tidy. Quietly prosperous. Secluded in its modestly hilly landscape. Evidently, not much ever happens. There aren’t even any shops – or perhaps there is one somewhere, one that is open mornings only, on weekdays (except Wednesday). Hence, presumably, the cigarette machines. Maybe, with a teaching post at the Universität Würzburg, twenty minutes up the motorway, he would be able to find a way of living here . . .
As a train of thought it is absurd.
And escapist, in its own weird way.
A weird escapist fantasy, is what it is.
A fantasy of hiding himself in a place where nothing ever happens.
She has another taste of her peach juice. She is drinking peach juice, though that does not necessarily mean anything – she is not a habitual drinker.
‘And now,’ she says, ‘we’ll never forget it.’
The noises around them seem to slide away to the edges of a tight, soundless space. He hears his own voice saying, ‘Why will we never forget it?’ as if it wasn’t obvious what she meant. And when she says nothing, he wonders, fighting down a wave of panic, Is this her way of telling me?
He does not want her to feel that he is pressuring her.
Panicking, he says, ‘Please don’t make a decision now that you’ll wish later you hadn’t made.’
‘I won’t,’ she says.
They sit there, swifts shrieking in the hot white sky.
‘Just,’ he says. ‘Please. You know what I think. I won’t say it all again.’
And then a minute later, he is saying it all again, everything he said in the hotel.
About how they don’t know each other that well.
About the impact it will have on her life. On their life together.
There is a furtive desperation in his eyes.
‘Stop this, please,’ she says, turning away in her sunglasses. ‘Stop it.’
‘I’m sorry . . .’
She starts to well up again; a solitary tear plummets down her face.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says again, embarrassed. People are starting to look at them.
He has, he thinks, really fucked this up now. His hand moves to take hers, then stops.
He feels as if his surface has been stripped, like a layer of paint, all the underlying terrors exposed.
‘I just need to know,’ he says.
‘What do you need to know?’
It seems obvious. ‘What’s going to happen?’
‘What you want to happen,’ she says.
‘It’s not what I want . . .’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘I don’t want you to do it just because I want it . . .’
‘I’m not doing it just because you want it.’
It is like waking up from a nightmare, to find your life still there, as you left it. The sounds of the world, too, are there again. It is as if his ears have popped. ‘Okay,’ he says, now taking her hand. ‘Okay.’ It would not do to seem too happy. And in fact, to his surprise, there is a trace of sadness now, somewhere inside him – a sort of vapour trail of sadness on the otherwise blue sky of his mind.
She sobs for a minute or two, quietly, while he holds her hand and tries to ignore the looks of the pensioners who are watching them now without pretence, as if, in this place where nothing ever happens, they were a piece of street theatre.
Which they aren’t.
The motorway is taking them north-east, towards Dresden. In the vicinity of each town the traffic thickens. The sun looks down at it all, at the hurrying traffic glittering on the motorways of Germany. It is Monday.
They woke late, to find the sun beating at the curtains, beating to be let in. Heat throbbed from the sun-beaten curtains. They had kicked off the bedding. She had not slept well. She was, in some sense, it seemed to him, in mourning. He had no intention of talking about it, not today.
Last night, after the scene on the terrace, they had walked for an hour, walked to the end of the village and then along the river – little paths led down to it, to wooden jetties where boats were tied in the green water. Steep banks on the other side, where there were more pretty houses. Clouds of gnats floated over the water. It was evening, then, finally. Dusk.
They walked back to the Gasthaus Sonne. They hadn’t eaten anything.
In the harshly lit room, she said, ‘You always get what you want. I know that.’
‘That isn’t true,’ he murmured. Though even then he thought, Maybe it is. Maybe I do.
She was undressing. ‘I should get used to that,’ she said. ‘I know people like you.’
‘People that just drift through life, always getting what they want.’ She was speaking quietly, not looking at him.
‘You don’t know me,’ he told her.
‘I know you well enough,’ she said.
‘Well enough for what?’
She went into the bathroom with her washbag.
He lay down on the soft mattress. He was still trying to think of a single significant instance, in his whole life, when he did not get what he wanted. The fact was, his life was exactly how he wanted it to be.
It had been his plan to visit Bamberg the next morning, and that is what they did. They stuck to his plan, and spent the morning sightseeing, as if nothing had happened. In the Romanesque simplicity of the cathedral, he pored over the tombs of Holy Roman Emperors.
Heinrich II, † 1024
The middle ages. Yesterday’s mad scenes next to the motorway, among the trucks, seemed very far away in the limpid atmosphere of the nave. Their feet whispered on the stone floor. They were walking together, looking at statues. He felt safe there, doing that. He did not want to leave, to step out of the hush into the sun, the blinding white square.
She still wasn’t saying much. She had hardly spoken to him all morning.
Maybe this was the end, he thought, as they walked in the streets of Bamberg, every blue shadow vibrating with detail.
Maybe she had decided – as he had intended, in the madness of yesterday – that she didn’t like him.
He had disappointed her, there was no doubt about that.
Lunch, though, was almost normal.
Sunlight fell through leaves into the quiet garden where waiters moved among the tables. This was what he had imagined. This was what he had had in mind. Not the scenes next to the motorway. This windless walled garden, the still shadows of these leaves. This was what he wanted.
That she was pregnant, and what would happen about that, was the one thing he did not want to talk about. The decision had been made. There was nothing else to say. They would, at some point, have to discuss practicalities. Doctors. Money. Until then, talking about it might simply open it up again – might somehow unmake the decision – so he stayed away from the subject, or anything like it.
After lunch they drove out of the town to the church of the Vierzehnheiligen. They were standing outside the church, and he was reading from a leaflet they had picked up at one of the tourist stands. ‘ “On 24 September 1445,” ’ he read, ‘ “Hermann Leicht, the young shepherd of a nearby Franciscan monastery, saw . . .” ’
He would not have started if he had known how the story went.
He went on, quickly, ‘ “A crying child in a field that belonged to the nearby Cistercian monastery of Langheim. As he bent down to pick up the child . . .” ’
He had already started on the next sentence when he saw that it was even worse.
‘ “As he bent down to pick up the child, it abruptly disappeared.” ’
He wondered whether to stop reading the thing out.
Deciding that that would only make matters worse, he went on. When he had finished, he shoved the leaflet into his pocket. ‘Should we go in?’ he said.
And then inside, in the mad marble dream of the interior, something similar happened.
They were standing at the altar, inspecting the statuary there – each statue was numbered and there was a key to indentify them. That was what he was doing. Pointing to each of the fourteen saints, and telling her who they were, and what they did. For instance, he pointed to one and said, ‘St Agathius, invoked against headache.’ Or, ‘St Catherine of Alexandria, invoked against sudden death.’ Or, ‘St Margaret of Antioch, invoked in . . .’
It was too late – he had to say it.
He wished then more than ever that they had not driven out there, in the heat of the day. He didn’t like baroque, or whatever this was. And he had a feeling that something was coming unstuck.
The next saint, he told her, was St Vitus, invoked against epilepsy.
‘St Vitus’s dance. And so on,’ he said. Her eyes, he was sure, were still on St Margaret of Antioch. ‘Here, I won’t read them all.’ He handed her the paper and, after standing there for a few seconds, started off at a leisurely pace across the brown marble floor, past pinkish columns, their markings swirling like the clouds of Jupiter.
She was still at the altar.
The place was as full as a station at rush hour.
Full of murmurous voices like the wind in a forest.
He found himself standing in front of the font – another extraordinary accretion of kitsch – staring at its pinks, its golds, its powder blues.
A stone bishop holding in his hands his own gold-hatted head.
As weird, he thought, as anything in any Inca or Hindu house of worship.
A stone bishop holding in his hands his own gold-hatted head.
A martyr. Presumably. And he wondered, with the habit of wanting to know, who this man was. This man, who had invited oblivion on himself, or taken it peaceably – the stone face on the severed head was nothing if not peaceful – when it took him.
He looked up, looked for her.
She was not at the altar now. She was near the entrance, where the devotional candles were. And she had put a euro in the box and was taking a candle and lighting it from one of the ones already there.
He wondered, again, whether she was in any sense devout. Her personal mores – as far as he had been able to make them out – suggested not. Or at least had not in any way led him to think that she might be. The first time he had set eyes on her, more or less, she had been snorting cocaine, at Mani’s party.
Everyone else in that space was moving, it seemed, and she was standing still. She was standing still and watching the little flame that she had lit.
Which meant what?
He wanted to ask her. He did not dare. He was frightened about what she might say.
‘I preferred the cathedral in Bamberg,’ he said, as they walked down the hill, hoping that she would agree – as if thatwould mean anything. As if it would dispel the worries that had started, since they arrived at this place, to interfere with his tranquillity.
She said she would have expected him to prefer the cathedral. ‘You’re not interested in anything post about fifteen hundred,’ she said, ‘are you?’
‘Fifteen hundred,’ he said, pleased that she was at least being flippant, ‘at the very latest.’
‘Why is that, do you think?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You must have some idea. You must have thought about it.’
‘It’s just an aesthetic preference.’
‘Is it?’ She was sceptical.
‘I think so. I just feel no love,’ he said, ‘for a place like that.’ He meant the Vierzehnheiligen, and he seemed determined to do it down.
When she started to praise the tumbling fecundity of its decoration, he took it almost personally.
‘I just don’t like it,’ he said. ‘Okay?’
She laughed. ‘Okay.’
‘I’m sorry. Whatever. You liked it. I didn’t. Fine.’
They drove back to the motorway – a few kilometres through humid fields of yellow rapeseed.
‘Why did you light that candle?’ he asked, trying to sound no more than vaguely interested.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I didn’t know you were religious,’ he said.
‘I just felt like it. Is it a problem?’
‘Of course not. I was wondering, that’s all.’
‘I just felt like it,’ she said again.
He asked, ‘You don’t believe in God?’
‘I don’t know. No. Do you?’
He laughed as if it should be obvious. ‘No. Not even slightly.’
And then they were on the motorway again, north-east, towards Dresden.
He said, after a while, ‘I’ll pay for it, of course. The . . .’ He found himself unable to say the word.
He needed to know, however, that the decision still stood.
It seemed it did.
She said, just looking levelly out at the motorway, ‘Okay.’ And then, ‘Thank you.’
He wondered, having started to talk about it, whether to talk about it some more. To ask, for instance, where she wanted to have it done. To nail it down with details. Specific places. Times.
The silence, while he wondered this, ended up lasting for over an hour.
And now they are stuck in traffic outside Dresden. It is five in the afternoon. Light screams off windscreens. The air conditioning pours frigid air over them.
Satisfied again that he has no major problem, small ones start to trouble him. It was a fault in his plan for today, he thinks, that they should be passing Dresden at this time. He ought to have known that this would happen. It was foreseeable. (He moves forward another few metres, sick of the sight of the van in front of him.) It was an unforced error.
And the damage to Stan´ko’s paintwork – that is still there, to be talked about, to be apologised for.
To be paid for.
Another thing to be paid for.
He is thinking about the piece he needs to write for the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. ‘Anomalous Factors in the Form “Sle-an” – Some Suggestions’. He is in the shower, offering his face to the warm streams of water, thinking about it. Thinking about the work that needs to be done. The hours that will need to be spent in libraries – Oxford, London, Paris, Heidelberg. The shower is in a sort of hollow in a stone wall – the whole bathroom is like that. The windows, two of them, are narrow slits. The functional elements, though, are impeccably modern. The tiles on the floor are warm to the soles of his feet when he steps out of the shower and takes a heavy towel. Tastefully done, everything. Once it was a monastery, now it is an upmarket hotel. While he towels himself he leans towards one of the windows, which is set in a deep narrowing slot in the wall, to see out – steep forested hills, quite far away. He likes to imagine the time when this was a monastery, when it sat in fields next to the meandering, pristine waters of the Elbe. When the only way to get to Königstein was by walking for an hour. When Dresden was a whole day’s walk away. He towels his hair, flattens it with his hand until he is satisfied with how it looks. ‘Anomalous Factors in the Form “Sle¯an” ’. That must be his focus now. Now that this nightmare is over, and the future is there again.
It is early evening. The sun puts warm shapes on the wall opposite the windows. The decoration is monastic minimalist: fluid lines, unelaborated. Polished stone. White sheets. Everything white.
She is sitting on a pale leather sofa, hugging her knees, looking towards one of the windows, with its view over neat modern houses to the hills farther away. Disappointingly, the hotel is surrounded by suburban normality. Streets of newish single-family houses, and a sort of industrial estate.
Kilted in the white towel he descends the two stone steps from the shower room. He starts to search in his suitcase for his deodorant. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asks.
She is sitting on the sofa, hugging her knees.
He applies deodorant.
‘Are you hungry?’ he asks again, not impatiently, just with a different intonation, as if she might not have heard him the first time, though she must have.
‘The food’s supposed to be excellent,’ he tells her, looking forward to the meal himself. ‘French. They’ve got a Michelin star.’
This was to be their treat, this immaculate hotel and its Michelin-starred food – their indulgence, their luxury. Tomorrow night they will be at her place in Kraków. The day after that, she will be at work again, on television, and he will be on a flight to Stansted. She likes her work. Just after they arrived at the hotel, late this afternoon, someone phoned her. It turned out to be her producer. It was interesting to hear her work voice, and it seemed obvious, overhearing her – just from the tone, he understood nothing else – where her priorities were.
He is doing up his linen shirt.
She is sitting on the sofa, hugging her knees.
‘I can’t do it.’
‘Can’t do what?’ He thinks she might mean the Michelin-starred meal, that she is feeling too depressed or something.
When she doesn’t answer him, he starts to see that this is wrong. She does not mean the meal.
‘I thought you decided,’ he says, quietly, trying to sound unperturbed as he does up his shirt.
‘So did I.’
He finishes doing up his shirt. What this means, he thinks, is that he will have to do it all again. He will have to do yesterday evening, again. She is going to make them do that again. He sits down on the pale sofa. She is sitting sideways with her feet on the sofa, facing away from him, and he puts his hands on her shoulders and starts to say, again, all the things he said yesterday.
‘I know,’ she says.
He is saying the things, softly saying them, with a tired voice, as if he is unpacking them, and putting them out on a table for her to see.
‘I know,’ she says.
He is whispering them in her ear, his mouth is next to her ear. He is able to smell the light scent of her sweat – fresh sweat and stale sweat. To feel on his face, which sometimes touches hers, the dampness of her tears.
‘I know,’ she says, ‘I know.’
His arms are encircling her, his hands on her stomach.
‘It’s all true what you’re saying,’ she says.
‘Yes, it is . . .’
‘And none of it makes any difference. I just can’t.’
She takes his hands in her hands. Other than that, she does not move. Her hands are very warm and very damp.
She says, ‘This child has chosen me to be its mother, and . . . and I just can’t turn it away. Please understand.’
‘Karel,’ she says, ‘please understand.’
His forehead is heavy on her shoulder.
‘Do you understand?’ she wants to know, in a whisper.
‘No,’ he says. It is not quite true. Not quite.
The situation, anyway, is simpler than he thought. It was always very simple. The last two days have been a sort of illusion. There was only ever one possible outcome. He sees that now.
They stay there for a long time, on the pale sofa.
The sun won’t stop shining.
‘Now what?’ he says finally. What he means is: Where does this leave us? Where does this leave our two lives?
‘Are you hungry?’ she asks.
‘No,’ he immediately says. He finds it hard to imagine ever feeling hunger again. He finds it hard to imagine anything. The future, again, seems no longer to be there.
‘Do you want to go for a walk?’ she asks, for the first time shifting her position, turning towards him, so that her shoulder moves, and he has to lift his head. ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ she says.
‘Where?’ Having lifted his head, he is looking at the elegantly minimalist room as if he does not know where he is.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Wherever. Why don’t you put some trousers on?’
Docilely, he does.
They leave the hotel and start to walk towards Königstein. The pavement follows the main road. Traffic sometimes whizzes past. Sometimes there is silence. Sometimes there are trees, or from somewhere the smell of cut grass.
It is five kilometres to Königstein, the sign says. They do not stop. It is high summer. The light will last for hours. They have time to walk it, if they want to.
This is an excerpt from All That Man Is by David Szalay.