It is after midnight. They are all in bed except me. I have been waiting for the rain to come. A shutter bangs against the kitchen wall and a rivulet of sand trickles from the adobe wall in the long room where I sit. The lamp above my head twirls in the draught. Through the poplars, the forks of light plunge into the flanks of the mountains and for an instant the ribbed gullies stand out like skeletons under a sheet.
Upstairs I can hear my mother and father turn heavily in their sleep. Downstairs our baby calls out from the bottom of a dream. What can his dreams be about? I smooth his blanket. His lips pucker, his eyes quiver beneath their lashes.
I have been married seven years. She is asleep next door, the little roof of a book perched on her chest. The light by the bed is still on. Her shoulders against the sheet are dark apricot. She does not stir as I pass.
At the window, the air is charged and liquid. The giant poplars creak and moan in the darkness. It is the mid-August storm, the one which contains the first intimation of autumn, the one whose promise of deliverance from the heat is almost always withheld. The roof tiles are splashed for an instant, and there is a patter among the trumpet vines. I wait, but it passes. The storm disappears up the valley and the first night sounds return, the cicadas, the owl in the poplars, the rustle of the mulberry leaves, the scrabble of mice in the eaves. I lean back against the wall. The old house holds the heat of the day in its stones like perfume in a discarded shawl. I have come here most summers since I was fifteen.
When I was fifteen, I wanted to be a man of few words, to be small and muscular with fine bones, to play slide guitar like Elmore James. I wanted to be fearless. I am thirty-seven. The page is white and cool to the touch. My hands smell of lemons. I still cling to impossible wishes. There is still time.
The house was once a village wash-house. At one end of the pillared gallery, there is a stone pool – now drained – where women used to wash clothes in the winter. At the bottom of the garden under the lyre-shaped cherry tree, there is the summer pool where the sheets were drubbed and slopped between their knuckles and the slanted stones. That was when the village raised silk worms for the Lyons trade a hundred years ago. When that trade died, the village died and the washing pool was covered over with brambles.
The house became a shepherd’s shelter. He was a retarded boy, crazed by his father’s beatings, by the miserable winter pastures, by the cracked opacity of his world. One night in the smoke-blackened kitchen, he and his father were silently drinking. When the father got up to lock away the animals, the son rose behind him and smashed his skull into the door jamb. After they took the boy away and buried the father, the house fell into ruin, marked in village memory by the stain of parricide.
When we came to look at the place that evening twenty-two years ago, my father sent me up the back wall to check the state of the roof tiles. The grass and brambles were waist-high in the doorway. A tractor was rusting in the gallery and a dusty rabbit skin hung from a roof beam. One push, we thought, and the old adobe walls would collapse into dust. But the beam took my weight and there were only a few places where the moonlight was slicing through to the dirt floor below. The tiles were covered with lichen and I could feel their warmth through the soles of my feet. When I jumped down, I could see they had both made up their mind to buy it.
It is my mother’s favourite hour. Dinner has been cleared away from the table under the mulberry tree, and she is sitting at the table with a wine glass in her hand watching the light dwindling away behind the purple leaves of the Japanese maple. I sit down beside her. She is easy to be with, less easy to talk to. The light is falling quickly, the heat it bears is ebbing away. After a time she says, ‘I never expected anything like this . . . the stone wall that Roger built for us, the lavender hedges, the bees, the house. It’s all turned out so well.’
Her voice is mournful, far away.
A Toronto schoolmaster’s daughter, squint-eyed and agile, next-to-youngest of four, she rode her bicycle up and down the front steps of her father’s school, the tomboy in a family of intellectuals. I have a photograph of her at the age of ten, in boy’s skates with her stick planted on the ice of the rink at her father’s school. She is staring fiercely into the camera in the manner of the hockey idols of the twenties, men with slick side-partings and names like Butch Bouchard.
It is nearly dark and the lights have come on across the valley. She twirls her wine glass between her fingers and I sit beside her to keep her company, to help the next words come. Then she says, out of nowhere, ‘When I was seven, my father said “Who remembers the opening of the Aeneid?” as he stood at the end of the table carving the Sunday joint. “Anyone?” They were all better scholars than me, but I knew. “Arma virumque cano . . . . ” Everyone cheered – Leo, the cook, Margaret, Charity, George, even Mother. My father slowly put down the knife and fork and just stared at me. I wasn’t supposed to be the clever one.’
There is some hurt this story is trying to name, a tomboy’s grief at never being taken seriously, never being listened to, which has lasted to this moment next to me in the darkness. But her emotions are a secret river. She has her pride, her gaiety and her elusiveness. She will not put a name to the grievance, and silence falls between us. It is dark and we both feel the chill of evening. She gets up, drains her glass and then says, ‘Mother always said, “Never make a fuss.” That was the family rule. Goodnight.’ I brush her cheek with a kiss. We will not make a fuss.
She was a painter once, and her paintings have become my memory for many of the scenes of my childhood: playing with a crab in a bucket on a rock in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and watching her painting at the easel a few paces away, her back, her knees and her upraised arm making a triangle of concentration, her brush poised, still and expectant before the canvas, her face rapt with the pleasure of the next stroke.
When I was six she painted my portrait. It was an embarrassment at the time: my friends came to point and laugh because I looked so solemn. But I see now the gift she was handing me across the gulf which divides us from the vision of others: a glimpse of the child I was in my mother’s eye, the child I have kept within me. She doesn’t paint anymore. For a time, marriage and children allowed her a room of her own. But then it was swallowed up or renounced, I don’t know which. She says only, ‘Either I do it well, or I do not do it at all.’
She whispers, ‘Have you seen my glasses?’
‘Your glasses don’t matter. You can do the shopping without them.’
‘I know they don’t matter. But if he finds out . . . . ’
‘Tell him to . . . . ’ But now I’m the one who is whispering.
When I find her glasses by the night-table where she put them down before going to sleep, the lenses are fogged and smudged with fingerprints. A schoolgirl’s glasses.
She says, ‘I know. I know. It runs in the family.’
‘No.’ She gives me a hard stare. ‘Dirty glasses. My father’s pupils used to say that he washed his in mashed potatoes.’
She owns only one pair. She could hide a second pair in a jar by the stove so she wouldn’t be caught out. But she won’t defend herself.
I take her into town and buy her a chain so that she can wear them around her neck and not lose them. She submits gaily but in the car on the way back home, she shakes her fist at the windscreen: ‘I swore I’d never wear one of these goddamned things.’
When we lived in the suburbs of Ottawa in the fifties, she used to come out and play baseball with the kids in the street on summer evenings. She could hit. In my mind’s eye, I see the other boys’ mouths opening wide as they follow the flight of the ball from her bat and I see them returning to her face and to her wincing with pleasure as the ball pounds onto the aluminium roof of the Admiral’s garage. She puts the bat down with a smile and returns to make supper, leaving us playing in the street under her amused gaze from the kitchen window.
When the Yankees played the Dodgers in the World Series, she wrote the teacher to say I was sick and the two of us sat on her bed and watched Don Larsen pitch his perfect game and Yogi Berra race to the mound throwing his mask and mitt into the air. We saw Sandy Amaros racing across centre field chasing a high fly ball which he took with a leap at the warning track. In life, the ball hits the turf. In memory, its arc returns unendingly to the perfection of the glove.
The notaire arrives as dusk falls. We sit down for business under the mulberry tree. When my mother and father bought the house and fields twenty-two years ago, the notaire was a rotund Balzacian figure who observed with amused contempt while the peasants from whom we were purchasing the property passed a single pair of wire-rim glasses round the table so that each in turn could pore over the documents of sale. The new notaire is a sparrow of a woman, my age, a widow with two young sons and a motorcycle helmet on the back seat of her car.
We pore over deeds of sale and cadastral surveys of the fields: one planted in clover once and now overgrown with mint and high grass. The goat is staked there under the walnut tree and eats a perfect circle for his breakfast. Framed between the poplars in front of the house is the lavender field. Once a year in the first week of August, the farmer comes with a machine which straddles the purple rows and advances with a scrabbling grinding sound, tossing aside bound and fragrant bunches. We watch from the terrace as the field is stripped of its purple and is left a bare spiky green. The butterflies and bees retreat ahead of the mechanical jaws and at the end of the day are found in a desperate, glittering swarm on the last uncut row, fighting for the sweetness of the last plants like refugees crowded into an encircled city.
Then there is the orchard behind the house. It was once full of plums, but the trees were old and wormy and one by one they were dropping their branches, tired old men letting go of their burdens. Father called in the bulldozer, but when it came, we all went indoors and clapped our hands over our ears so that we wouldn’t have to listen to the grinding of steel on the bark and the snapping of the tap roots. In a quarter of an hour, the planting of generations had been laid waste. But it had to be done. The field is bare now, but olive saplings are beginning to rise among the weeds.
The deeds of sale are all in order. My mother runs a finger over the old papers and stops at her name: ‘née à Buckleberry Bradford, Angleterre, le 2 février 1916, épouse sans profession,’ and at his ‘né à Saint Petersbourg, Russie, le 16 decembre, 1913, profession diplomate.’
‘“Épouse sans profession” sounds sad, doesn’t it?’ she says.
They are transferring the title of the property to me and my brother. ‘Just once more,’ she asks, ‘tell me why we have to.’
‘Because,’ I reply, ‘it is cheaper than doing it afterwards.’
Sometimes on the airless August nights, I lie in bed and imagine what it would be like to sell the house, turn it over to strangers and never come back. I find myself thinking of hotel rooms somewhere else: the echo of the empty armoire, the neon blinking through the shutters, the crisp anonymity of the towels and sheets. I remember the Hotel Alesia in Paris, eating brie and cherries together on a hot June afternoon; the Hotel San Cassiano in Venice and its vast letto matrimoniale. I remember the next morning lying in bed watching her comb her hair at the dressing-table by the open window. A curl of smoke is rising from the ashtray and the swoop of her brush flickers in the facets of the mirrors. Through the window comes the sound of lapping water and the chug of a barge. We have the whole day ahead of us. I think of all the writing I might do in hotel rooms. Words come easily in hotels: the coils spring free from the weight of home.
In my father’s house every object is a hook which catches my thoughts as they pass: the barometers which he taps daily and which only he seems to understand; the dark armoire they bought from the crooked antiquaire in lie sur Sorgue; the Iroquois mask made of straw; the Russian bear on a string; the thermometer marked gel de raisin, Moscou 1812 at the cold end and Senegal at the hot end. My thoughts, cornered by these objects, circle at bay and spiral backwards to the moods of adolescence.
‘Old age is not for cowards.’ My father looks at me angrily, as if I cannot possibly understand. ‘I have no illusions. It is not going to get any better. I know what she goes through. Don’t think I don’t. You wake up some mornings and you don’t know where the hell you are. Just like a child. Everything is in the fog. Some days it lifts. Some days it doesn’t.’
He paces slowly at the other end of the long room, at the distance where truth is possible between us. It is late. Everyone else has gone to bed. We are drinking tisane, a nightly ritual usually passed in silence.
There are thirty-four years between us: two wars and a revolution. There is also his success: what he gave me makes it difficult for us to understand each other. He gave me safety. My earliest memory is rain pounding on the roof of the Buick on the New Jersey Turnpike. I am three, sitting between them on the front seat, with the chrome dashboard in front of me at eye level and the black knobs of the radio winking at me. The wipers above my head are scraping across the bubbling sheet of water pouring down the windscreen. We are all together side by side, sharing the pleasure of being trapped by the storm, forced to pull off the road. I am quite safe. They made the world safe for me from the beginning.
He was never safe. His memory begins at a window in Saint Petersburg on a February morning in 1917. A sea of flags, ragged uniforms and hats surges below him, bayonets glinting like slivers of glass in the early morning sunlight. The tide is surging past their house; soon it will break through the doors, forcing them to run and hide. He remembers the flight south in the summer of 1917, corpses in a hospital train at a siding, a man’s body bumping along a dusty road in Kislovodsk, tied by one leg behind a horse. I see it all as newsreel. He was there, with the large eyes of a six-year-old.
As he gets older, his memory scours the past looking for something to hold on to, for something to cling to in the slide of time. Tonight, pacing at the end of the room while I sit drinking the tea he has made for both of us, it is Manya who is in his mind, his nursemaid, the presence at the very beginning of his life, a starched white uniform, warm hands, the soft liquid syllables of a story at bedtime heard at the edge of sleep. She followed them south into exile. She was the centre of his world, and one morning she was no longer there.
‘I woke up and she was gone. Sent away in the night. Perhaps they couldn’t afford her. Perhaps they thought we were too close. I don’t know.’
Across seventy years, his voice still carries the hurt of that separation, a child’s helpless despair. He was her life. She was his childhood.
I try to think about him historically, to find the son within the father, the boy within the man. His moods – the dark self-absorption – have always had the legitimacy of his dispossession. Exile is a set of emotional permissions we are all bound to respect.
He is still pacing at the other end of the room. He says suddenly, ‘I don’t expect to live long.’
I say: ‘It’s not up to you, is it?’
He stokes the prospect of his death like a fire in the grate. Ahead of me the prospect beckons and glows, sucking the oxygen from the room. He says he is not afraid of dying, and, in so far as I can, I believe him. But that is not the point. In his voice, there is a child’s anger at not being understood, an old man’s fear of being abandoned. He does not want a son’s pity or his sorrow, yet his voice carries a plea for both. A silence falls between us. I hear myself saying that he is in good health, which is true and entirely beside the point. He says goodnight, stoops briefly as he passes through the archway, and disappears into his room.
On some beach of my early childhood – Montauk Point? Milocer? – he is walking ahead of me, in those white plastic bathing shoes of his, following the line of the water’s edge, head down, bending now and again and turning to show me what he has found. We decide together which finds go into the pocket of his bathing suit. We keep a green stone with a white marble vein in it. He takes it to a jeweller to have it set as a ring for her. In some jewellery box back home, it is probably still there.
I don’t believe in the natural force of blood ties. There is nothing more common, more natural than for fathers and sons to be strangers to each other. It was only on those silent beach walks together, our voices lost in the surf, our footprints erased by the tide, our treasure accumulated mile by mile, that we found an attachment which we cannot untie.
There was a period in my twenties when that attachment foundered on my embrace of victimhood. It is a natural temptation for sons of powerful fathers. I was elated with destructiveness, righteous for truth. They had sent me away to school when I was eleven, and I wanted to know why. We had ceased to be a family in the flesh, and became one by air mail and transatlantic telephone. Once a year, for a month, in this house, we tried to become a real family again. Such is the story which the victim writes. I wanted to know why. I see his hands covering his face.
Why did I cling to the grievance? The truth is I loved going away from home, sitting alone in a Super Constellation shuddering and shaking high above Greenland on the way back to school, watching the polar flames from the engines against the empty cobalt sky. I won a first-team tie in football. I listened to Foster Hewitt’s play by play of Hockey Night in Canada on the radio under my mattress after lights out in the dorm. I was caned for a pillow-fight, a wild and joyful midnight explosion of feathers, the only true uprising that I have ever taken part in. After such an uprising, the punishment – twelve stripes with a bamboo cane – was an honour.
I read King Lear in Gallimore’s English class. He frog-marched us through every scene, battering us with his nasal southern Ontario intonations: until I fell in love, for the first time, with the power of words.
I went to my first dances and breathed in that intoxicating scent of hairspray, sweat, powder and the gardenia of girls’ corsages, that promise of lush revelations in the dark. I became an adult in a tiny tent on a camping ground north of Toronto. The gravel was excruciating on my knees and elbows. The girl was very determined. She guided my hands in the dark. Afterwards she slapped my face, like a caress.
I did what I wanted. Because I was at school, I didn’t have to bring her home; I could keep sex a secret. But I clung to the grievance of banishment.
I clung to another grievance too, but this one as much my making as his. I said to him, You have crushed her. She used to paint. Not any more. She has wishes for you and for me, but none for herself. Not anymore.
He never forgave me for that, for the absolution I had given myself in blaming him. I see his hands covering his face.
‘Truth is good, but not all truth is good to say.’
My son is sitting on his grandfather’s knee, working over his grandfather’s hands with his gums. I notice that his signet ring, a carving in amber of Socrates set in a gold oval – one of the survivors of exile and the pawnshop – is missing from the little finger of his left hand. In its place there is a small university ring which seems to pinch. He notices me looking at it.
‘I gave it to your brother. You’ll get the watch.’
The tops of his hands are strong and sunburned, but the palms are gullied and clenched with arthritis. He no longer wields the axe.
He is tender and wary with his grandson, this messenger of life and his mortality. He strokes the child’s chest absently, as if relearning a long-forgotten gesture. My son turns in his lap, and with infantile deliberation removes his grandfather’s spectacles. They exchange a blue glance across seventy years. ‘In the year 2000,’ my father says, ‘he will be sixteen.’
When I come through the beaded curtain with my breakfast, my mother is whirling the baby around slowly beneath the mulberry tree, cheek to cheek, holding his arm out against hers in the old style and crooning, ‘Come to me, my melancholy baby.’ My son has a wild look of pleasure on his face.
‘You dance well,’ I say.
She whirls slowly to a stop and hands him to me: ‘No, I lead too much.’
She whispers in the baby’s ear, ‘Crazy old granny, crazy old granny.’ She is not crazy. She is afraid. Her memory is her pride, her refuge. The captions of New Yorker cartoons not seen for forty years; lyrics of Noel Coward and Gerty Lawrence songs from the London of the thirties; the name of the little girl with Shirley Temple curls in the desk next to hers at Bishop Strachan School for Girls; the code names of all the French agents she helped to parachute into France during the war: her memory is a crammed shoebox of treasures from a full life. It is what happened five minutes ago that is slipping away – the pot on the stove, the sprinkler in the garden, what she just said.
The memory which frightens her, which portends the losses still to come, is of the last time she saw her mother. They spent a week together, and as they were leaving, her mother turned to my father and said, ‘You’re Russian, aren’t you? And who is this charming girl?’
When I was eight, I spent a weekend with my grandmother in the large dark house on Prince Arthur Avenue in Toronto. We ate breakfast together: tea on a silver service, Ryvita biscuits imported from England, with the London Times in a feathery edition two weeks late. I sat on the end of her bed and we had a conversation, tentative and serious across the gulf of time. I had never seen her hair down before, masses of it – grey, austere and luxuriant against the pillows. There is a kind of majesty in some old women, the deep red glow of a banked fire. I talked on and on, and she followed me with her eyes and a whisper of amusement on her lips.
Then there came a Sunday, not many months later, when I was ushered into the dark mahogany dining room and knew at once from the slope of her shoulders, the terrible diminution of her presence, the slowness with which she turned to meet my eye, that she had no idea who I was. She stared out through the window at the blank wall of the new hotel rising to block her view. She said nothing. Her eyes were still and grey and vacant. I was speechless through lunch with her, and, when I left, I knew I would never see her again. She died several years later in a nursing home north of the city. Her will, that last relinquishing gesture of generosity in a generous life, enabled my father and mother to buy this house.
My mother is cool and lucid about her own prospects. I do not believe these things run in the family, and I tell her so. She nods and then says, ‘I’m sure I would make a cheerful old nut. Don’t you think so? In any case,’ and here she picks up her drink and walks into the kitchen to look to her cooking, ‘it’s much worse for those you leave behind.’
In the next village, a theatre troupe is staging Oedipus on a tiny stage built into the sandstone cliffs at the foot of the village. There is a little boy in front of us in the stands, sitting between his mother and his father. He is about five. Oedipus and Jocasta circle each other slowly against the towering folds of sandstone: the eternal story unfolds in the night air. Oedipus turns his bleeding eyes upon us: ‘Remember me, and you will never lose your happiness.’
The little boy rocks backwards and forwards on his seat. He says to himself in a small voice, ‘Now I understand everything.’
Then he falls asleep on his mother’s lap.
We stay behind afterwards while they dismantle the set. From the top row of the stands, the valley stretches out below us in the amber afterglow of nightfall. The vines and cane wind-breaks are drained of colour. The first lights in the village appear. It was this landscape which made me into a European: man’s hand is upon it, the millennia of labour, the patient arts of settlement. The stillness is human: the rim of light at the edge of a shutter, the snake of a headlight, the swish of the irrigation sprinklers drenching the earth in the dark. In Canada the silence among the great trees was menacing. No light for miles. The cold. I had no quarrel with the place. I just wanted to get out.
She is standing beside me looking out into the dark valley. She leans her weight against my shoulder. I met her in a street dance in London eight years ago. Within two weeks I had brought her here, knowing that this was the place which would reveal us to each other.
My favourite photograph of her was taken in the first week we spent in this country. She is on the terrace walking towards me, wearing a white dress and a red Cretan sash. Her right hand is pushing the hair back off her forehead. She is smiling, her gaze directly into mine, shy and fearless. It is the last photograph in which she is still a stranger, approaching but still out of reach, still on the other side of the divide, before we fell in love.
The valley below us is black now. A breeze lifts up from the earth and the olive groves. She points to the sparkling village perched ten miles away on a promontory of ochre: ‘It’s like an ocean liner.’
I am thinking of the Andrea Doria. She went down off Nantucket when I was nine. They sent divers down, and they took photographs. She was lying in shallow water, and the lights of her bridge, by some impossible chance, were still on. Like the livid eyes of some great beast staring at the hunter who has brought her down, the ship’s lights streamed through the ocean darkness. As a child I used to dream about those pictures of the great ship glowing on the bottom of the sea. It seems to me now that those dreams were an image of what it would be like to die, sinking in the folds of the ocean, your own eyes blazing in the salty dark.
On the way down the hill from the village, through the vaulted tunnel of the plane trees, white and phosphorescent in the headlights, she sings to me. Verdi as always. Flat as always, her head leaning back, her eyes staring up at the trees rushing by through the sun roof.
‘I am not flat.’
I am laughing.
She ignores me and sings on in a husky voice, ‘Libera me…de morte aeterna.’
From the village road, the house looks low and small, its back hunched against the mistral. By Christmas, when the notaire has filed the deed, it will belong to my brother and me. But whatever the deeds say, it will always be my father’s house. I cannot sell it any more than I can disavow the man I became within its walls, any more than I can break the silences at the heart of family life.
The lights are out. My parents are both asleep, and our son is in his cot.
She says, ‘Let’s not go in yet.’
We climb up into the field behind the house where the beekeeper has his hives, and where you can see the whole of the Luberon mountains stretched out against the night sky. The shale is cool and the dew is coming down. We watch for satellites and for the night flights to Djibouti, Casablanca and Rome. There are many bright cold stars. A dog barks. In the house, our child floats in his fathomless sleep.
‘Cassiopeia, Ursus Major, Orion’s Belt . . . I must learn the names, I want to teach him the names.’
Out of the dark, as if from far away, she says, ‘What do you need to name them for?’