Thomas arrived unexpectedly, jolting up the hill in the dust-covered taxi. She paid the fare, and he stayed for the summer. They chose to make love in that hushed grey hour which, in hot climates, can be taken for dawn or dusk. They slept till noon, and then, perfunctorily washed, yawned onto the small side terrace, where they were screened from human eyes. They took their bread and coffee here, overlooking the hillside that tumbled down to the sea. When Dea brought the tray she averted her eyes from the sun-flushed triangle at the neck of his robe, and turned away even more pointedly from the sight of her employer’s body, slack and naked under silk.
After the first few days a new routine began. Dea would anticipate them, hurrying the tray to the table the second she heard the click of the latch of their bedroom door. Their breakfast would be waiting for them, as if placed by invisible hands. Sometimes they missed the maid so narrowly that the click of her sandals on the tiles was still fading when he reached out to take an orange from the basket, or her hungry fingers tore into crust and crumb.
The sea moved far below, a purplish blue.
When he left, in the autumn, she discovered that he had tampered with all the clocks. She hurried from room to room, incredulous. Some were running slow. Some had stopped altogether. She had to pack them in straw and take them to the town, where the man in the shop looked at her as if he judged her insane. ‘All of these?’ he asked in careful English. ‘Each one of these requires to be mended?’
‘Each one,’ she said. ‘You can see they all show different times.’
As she left the shop, the man said something to his wife, who was dusting shelves very slowly in the shadows at the back. It was something satirical that she didn’t quite catch. His attitude is ridiculous, she thought. Surely he could understand that there must be one consistent time in every room of a house?
Ah, she thought: an Anglo-Saxon attitude.
All the clocks were restored, except her grandmother’s tiny drawing-room clock, the clock that had tinkled so gently for tea during years of Kensington twilights, at the hour when the sky had seemed to lower itself and rest tentatively on the treetops of Cornwall Gardens. It was a clock with a china case, roses of china strewn at its base, gilt fingers now indicating seven thirty. She knew, by this, at what hour he had done the deed. But in the morning, or the evening?
Neither seemed possible. At seven in the morning Dea was already in the kitchen, or sweeping the long terrace with a monotonous whisper of brushstrokes that broke into her sleep, transforming itself to the sound of steam trains, of waterfalls. At seven in the evening she herself would be walking from room to room, glass in hand, laughing, her silly skirts flouncing over the polished floors. But perhaps it was at some earlier hour – four o’clock? – that he had picked and probed at the tiny balances and springs . . . so that then the hands would falter, hesitate, move feebly for an hour or two, with less and less conviction, until finally, with a delicate shudder, they came to rest. Pre-dawn, then; he worked while she slept, his rather broad, coarse feet padding the tiles, and the moon a curving hoof, a lively bone, hooking at an open shutter for a chink to gain admission.
She missed the clock’s silvery chime, and the loss made her peevish. Anyway it was time to go. The mornings were misty; the fires smoked, and Dea sulked at having to lay them. She packed her bags and closed the house till spring.
In June, unexpectedly, Thomas was back again. You could not say he had changed, except that there was a tension at the outer corner of each eye and the outer corner of each lip. She noticed this tension and saw how, in a year or two, his expression would harden. Age does not creep up, she thought, like a cat burglar – age fells you suddenly. She remembered when she had learned this, the shock it had delivered.
She was seventeen then. On a spree with her schoolgirl’s allowance, in the curtained changing room of a London store; out-striding the black-clad women who would have helped her, making clear with a pout and a toss of her head that she would rather be alone with herself, a Narcissa, staring into the triple silver pool of the long mirrors. She recalled the minute click as she dropped onto a gilt hook the hangers of the experimental clothes. A swish of satin; her own frock dropped onto a chair. She saw the turn of her shoulder, ivory polished; her back’s long curve.
As she raised her chin to admire herself, an overhead bulb, its rays like a ghost’s baton, struck a glancing blow across her face. Gaping, she spun around; her future, in triplicate, bounced at her from the walls. It was a second, a fraction of a second, that Nadine was lost and gone – then her youth slipped back into her, attentive, poised, graceful like a dancer in a line.
But what she had seen, she could not unsee. There was a deep shadow under her chin. There were cavities gouged in the flesh, running from nose to mouth. There were marks under her eyes, as if a fist had made them.
Good morning, the face had said: I am Nadine at forty.
She had left the cubicle in a rush, hastily buttoning her pulled-on frock with one hand, while with the other she thrust into the salesgirl’s arms a bundle of gaping bodices and fighting sleeves, of trailing
belts and seams indecently turned out. Well, she said, scrutinising herself now, I have passed forty, and it is not so bad; it is not so bad as all that.
There was a house party that year. Thomas sulked, scrambling each morning down to the crescent of shingle to kick at stones. If she had known he was coming, she would not have invited anyone else; both of them knew this.
‘Be kind to my friends,’ she said. ‘You are too old to sulk.’
‘You are just too old,’ he said.
Etienne was one of her guests. She especially wished she had not asked him; or that he had come alone, for a short visit which would have been in the nature of a rest-cure. In the war, Etienne had been in a camp. He had been at Drancy, and then he was moved east. Sometimes he talked about his arrest and about an unknown person who had betrayed him, but he never talked about what came after that.
Etienne was not a bitter man. But he was aloof and dry. The shadow of what he left unsaid hovered always about his jaw and darkened it, like a nomad bruise, a cloud. His eyes, too, seemed drained of colour, and he kept his hair clipped short, shaved almost, as if in obedience to some harsh regime that might one day march its soldiers south. He ate little, even after dark when it was cool. Something was wrong: he had suffered a digestive disorder, an ulcer of some kind, or perhaps it was typhoid. ‘I keep best on bread and milk,’ he said, ‘the bread not too fresh.’ He smiled a little. Dea started to keep rolls for him, yesterday’s baking, which once she would have taken home to her children.
Thomas said, turning over in bed, ‘That man I hate. He casts a pall of gloom.’
‘A long time ago, Etienne’s family and my family were friends,’ she said.
He said, ‘He might at least shave properly.’
She said, ‘Why did you stop the clocks?’
He said, ‘You know why.’
Her orgasms were regular, each night an efficient fleshly replica of the night before. She wondered about this and decided that, strangely, Thomas was more adept at dealing with the female body than with a clockwork mechanism. There should be more such men, she said, smiling to herself in the glass, pretending to share a crude joke with a female friend.
‘One day,’ Etienne said, ‘sometime in the next century, we will all die, all of us survivors.’
She looked at him for a moment without speaking because she didn’t understand what he meant. How can survivors die?
‘And there will be no more of our convocations,’ he said. ‘No more assemblies of the walking dead. No more waking in the night. No more of this weeping and praying. We will be extinguished. We will be forgotten.’
‘But you can’t be forgotten,’ she said. ‘They have written books, made films. They have interviewed everyone and recorded what they say. They have opened the camps as museums. You can go to see them. There is a whole room full of shoes. I have seen pictures of it.’
‘But I want us to be forgotten,’ he said. ‘It is a great error to believe the Nazis lost the war. For us, you see, they won it, and they win it each day. Each day we re-enact, on ourselves, what was done to us. They are the masters of our hours, and we are their obedient servants. Our ageing is a war, a long war, and each successive death will be a small victory. Each death will go to the wiping out of their triumph.’
‘If you thought that . . .’
‘The logical way –’
‘Yes, of course. So many do. It is put down as falls on staircases. Sometimes as automobile accidents.’
Stifling August. Thomas said, ‘I really want this to last forever.’ Sheets bunched under his body. Her sweat drying. Four in the afternoon; the garden silent. A tap running somewhere, Dea’s tuneless hum from below, and the scent of falling lilies heavy as spice.
He said, ‘You are no company, this summer, Nadine.’
‘No.’ She frowned. ‘Perhaps not.’
‘You are absent. Self-absorbed. Gone down the hill to play on the shingle.’
‘Well . . .’ She frowned. ‘There are things to think about.’
‘So suddenly! And so little practice as you’ve had.’
‘You must not –’
Not totally humiliate me, she had been going to say. He cut in on her. ‘You have fallen in love with Etienne.’
‘No.’ He confused her: was this an accusation or a joke? ‘I have some choices, but that is not one. Etienne has no future.’
‘And you have one?’ He was laughing. ‘Oh, Nadine – and I stopped your clocks to preserve your past. How ungrateful you are!’
The days shortened. The guests went away. Birdsong grew shriller, sharpened, and the air seemed used. This time Thomas left without touching the clocks. Each hour was in its proper place. No arrangements had been made for next year. Finding herself alone, she stared into the mirror, trying to conjure out the woman behind it, the woman she had seen so briefly in the changing room – trying to will her into life. Nadine at sixty, she said to herself.
‘Nadine at Forty’, by Hilary Mantel. © Tertius Enterprises, 1996.
Feature photograph © Matthew Somorjay / Millennium Images UK
In-text photograph © Eric Lessing / Magnum