I can’t work any longer. I find myself at the entrance to the park. It’s the same park in which she died. The children are all at school and the weather is bad and the only people around are one or two desperate parents walking babies and a homeless man who sits with his body underneath a swing and his chin on the seat. Leda and I spent our first few walks in this park pointing at things, at birds and flowers, as if they’d been put there for us. However, we trod the same paths so often that I stopped finding it interesting. The smell of semen drifts up from the shrubbery, the specific stink of a species of flora that I’ve never got round to finding out the name of. It is, I realise, my first time entering the park since her death. I never understood the pleasures of walking the way that she did. I’m lazy. She wanted to get a dog, something loping and elegant, as generously limbed as she was, to keep her company. I refused because I don’t like to volunteer to pick up actual shit with my hands three times a day. I can see now what the appeal had been for her though. I need something to do while I’m here – I can’t amble along purposelessly. I feel paranoid and the skin under my shirt collar chafes every time I turn my head. Anyway I suppose it would have been Leda who would have picked up the shit. It’s dull to have regrets. I’m just a person who has made the mistake of staying alive too long.
I sometimes accused Leda of being morbid because of the frequency with which she spoke of death, but she had been born into a family obsessed with mortality. If her lineage had been that of circus freaks then she would have been doomed to grow a beard or take up tightrope walking instead. The truth was that death was such an abstract proposition to me that the subject did bore me. Of course my parents died and I grieved in the usual fashion. I remember their funerals with some clarity. But the grief I had experienced was different, somehow, unreal. What luxury! A grief that allows buffet breaks.
I pause for a moment to look at the map. I know where I am but not where I’m going. The sun filters in a sickly way through the clouds as it tends to do in this country. Like a light bulb in a glass of milk. I clench my hands in and out of damp fists in my pockets. Anxiety has started to creep up over my neck and my chest like something spilled, scalding me. I can hear a couple only a few metres behind me and of course they’re laughing – aren’t couples always laughing? The laughter is loud, obnoxious. They want to prove how free they are, how unhindered by grim reality. I stare at a sign pinned to the map that is meaningless now thanks to rain blurring the ink that once formed words (some plea for a missing dog or a ban on barbecues, something that was once so important that someone felt it needed to be printed out and taken to the park and pinned to the map, but is now just an ephemeral blue-green presence, signifying nothing). Then I start to walk with great long strides down the left fork of the path and through the dark huddle of some overgrown trees away from the couple and I walk past a kicked-over bin and a bench and up the little hill and I’m there all of a sudden. In front of it. The lake.
I look up and then look away immediately. The policewoman has taken a seat beside me on the bench. She sighs and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. She’s come down to my level to make me feel comfortable. She’s good at her job. She looks up at the park warden and smiles thinly and I can see the warden shaking her head. The warden points at me.
‘He’s a lunatic.’
‘I’m dreadfully sorry,’ I say.
‘He fucking isn’t.’
‘All right, well, let’s not get upset.’ The policewoman makes a gesture to the park warden. The warden is swearing too much and the police don’t like it when people swear. I see a fat-bottomed coot plunging head first into the grey water in the distance.
‘Do they belong to the Queen?’ I ask.
‘The swans. Do they belong to the Queen? Is that the trouble?’
‘They belong to me! They belong to the park, I mean,’ the warden corrects herself, looking to the policewoman for reassurance.
‘Actually I think the Crown still retains all rights to mute swans,’ the policewoman says, thoughtfully. She taps her pencil against her front teeth twice. ‘Look, I do need to take down some information. Are you feeling okay? Are you on any medication?’
‘No. Yes. I’m feeling all right.’
‘And what about this lady’s claim? Were you attempting to injure or kill the swan?’
‘I don’t know, really. I just—’
‘He was throttling it!’
‘Something overcame me.’
‘Did you take the swan by the neck?’
‘No. It was too quick. I sort of grabbed it. I think I got its neck in my hand but then it just got away.’
‘I see. And why were you grabbing the swan?’
‘There was this couple laughing behind me. I never meant to come this way.’
‘He’s a lunatic, Christ.’
I turn my head. There are a few people standing nearby trying to see what the fuss is about. Among the gawping faces I recognise one peering down, and she says again, ‘Seb? What’s happening?’
The phone rang often in the days following Leda’s death but I had mostly ignored it. For some reason on this occasion I felt compelled to answer. Moved is the more precise word. My hand was moved by some force to pick up the receiver. I heard myself saying ‘Hello,’ that terrible sound. It was as if it echoed through catacombs before it reached my ears. It bounced from walls and gained some sick momentum. I said ‘Hello’ again to break the spell. The person on the other end of the line had said their hello at the same time and so we spoke over one another. Then I felt compelled to say ‘Hello’ once more, so as not to be interrupted. As I said it I realised it was ridiculous to say ‘Hello’ three times.
‘Oh, Anne. Sorry for saying hello so many times.’
‘Just checking up on you.’
‘I didn’t hear you say hello, I wasn’t trying to interrupt.’
It is Anne, a colleague and friend of mine and Leda’s, a tutor in the art history department of something called Galleries (she couldn’t care less for pictures or sculptures, but is obsessed for some reason with the buildings that contain them), who stands over me now. She intervenes as I sit there, staring into the grey lake. She tells the policewoman that I am the husband of the woman who drowned in the lake. She places a hand on my shoulder and guides me to her car, and then she drives me to my house, and I make us coffee. She sits across from me. I remember I once saw her eat an orange during a lecture and juice had run down her fingers. She had wiped her fingers on her scarf and I had looked away.
‘Put the cup down,’ I suggest, ‘it’s much too hot to drink.’
‘I’m drinking it so as to have something to do with my hands,’ she says, ‘and so I don’t have to make conversation.’
‘Ah,’ I say.
‘Oh, all right,’ she says. She puts down the coffee and looks me in the eye and says, ‘How are you doing?’
I say, ‘Fine.’ I smile, or rather I spread my lips across my face and do an impression of smiling, which has worked in the past.
‘How’s the course proposal coming along?’
‘Very well.’ I get up and look at the drinks cabinet. ‘Oh yes. Very, very well indeed. Very well.’ It’s a Giorgetti walnut Canaletto cocktail cabinet with gold leaf. We bought it in Harrods and it was ‘honestly the most beautiful thing’ that Leda had ever seen in her life. I take out a bottle of rum and hold it aloft. ‘RUM?’ I ask.
‘Why are you shouting?’ Anne raises her eyebrows. She says that she will have some rum. I pour it into her coffee and mine. She says she is only having rum in her coffee to keep me company. I say that is fine even though I don’t care whether she keeps me company or not. After we toast with our mugs I try and settle back on the sofa but Anne is staring at me curiously and a little fiercely.
‘Seb, you can’t murder every swan you see. You have to start thinking clearly.’
‘Yes,’ I say, inhaling the sweet steam through my nostrils. I briefly imagine lying on a bed of dead swans. The odour molecules bind and transmit their beautiful information upwards. I close my eyes.
I phoned the Samaritans a week ago. I was standing (or sort of leaning really) at the top of the stairs looking at the pattern of the wallpaper from very close up, which meant that with my myopia I was really seeing it for the first time – the grain, the way the colour of the leaves had been printed ever so slightly outside the line of the leaf. I said to the Samaritans that I ‘couldn’t cope’ and they had said to me ‘it sounds like you’re having a really difficult time over there’ and I had thought ah, but over where? On widower mountain where the winds blow icily over strange, hard fruits that used to be my eyes, my ears, my teeth, but that are now just marbles vibrating inside my skull waiting for a thaw to come? But all I said in response was, ‘Yes, I am, thank you,’ and the Samaritan said, ‘Oh, you’re welcome.’
I wake in the morning with eyes gummed and sore. There’s a feeling I get when I’ve been drinking, a coldness that sets around my eyeballs. I’ve never been able to find a name for it, and nobody else admits to feeling similarly, but I have experienced it so many times that I know for sure it’s a result of drinking too much. It is my skull making itself known.
I set about trying to leave the house and fail spectacularly. I end up at the kitchen counter with my hands over my head and bent forward as if I’m about to be taken roughly from behind. I’ve never explored that sort of thing properly. There was an evening when I was making love to Leda and she poked a finger noncommittally in that direction. I was terrified of enjoying myself so I screamed.
I’ve taken it upon myself to learn more about her. Even in death, why shouldn’t I get to know my own wife? I’m unlikely to find a woman to interest me more. I take a trip to the library. It’s the first time I’ve set foot in the place, even though I signed a petition to save it. There are three other people in there, and they all seem to occupy space on a spectrum from mildly to considerably insane. One old man resides within the vast expanse of a sports jacket. It sits approximately six inches above his head, which cranes forward on a thin brown neck. A hooked and spotted nose sits prominently in the middle of his face, with delicate glasses perched on top. He excites a great deal of phlegm inside his throat intermittently and reads the New Yorker, while his feet, which don’t touch the ground, kick euphorically upwards so that the entire table ricochets, sending the paper flying towards his face, which distresses him, which in turn sets him to exciting the phlegm inside his throat. It is rhythmic and greatly alarming, and I wonder how on earth the fat man lying on the floor beside him can sleep.
There is nothing in the library remotely to do with Latvia. Perhaps on closer inspection it would be wiser to let the library die. I wonder if I can unsign a petition. Instead I go online. I type ‘Latvia’, and ‘Latvian history’. I leave twenty tabs open while I reheat a fish pie. As I spoon the mashed potato into my mouth I think of something that the anthropologist Johannes Fabian once said: ‘Somehow we must be able to share each other’s past in order to be knowingly in each other’s present.’ I finger my credit card, the hard impressions of each number.
I book my flight.
I leave the house while it is still dark. The chill catches my breath and releases it like powder slapped from a gymnast’s hands. I catch the bus with people who seem awake, dressed, prepared. I feel somehow naked and ashamed. I’m carrying the largest carry-on bag that I can find: an old, curmudgeonly brown leather overnight bag that belonged to my father and that I insisted on using for trips much to Leda’s annoyance (and despite the fact that she bought me a new wheeled suitcase that had a sleek red carapace, and which I nicknamed The Ladybird and doomed to a life in the attic).The leather of the handles has become shiny over the years from being handled first by my father’s hands and now by mine. On the train to Gatwick the light pales and coolly silhouettes the branches of trees, thick mist rising among the legs of grazing horses. The sun eventually appears: red, completely round, severe and painful-looking, at the very edge of the sky. The country looks quiet and I am sorry all of a sudden to be leaving it.
On the plane people seem to arrive with full bladders and bowels – immediately there is a queue of six people for the toilet, which I am sitting close to. Their hovering presence at my elbow interrupts my concentration. An old lady leans heavily on my seat and says to nobody in particular, ‘I’m too old for this,’ and when nobody in particular pays any attention she shrieks, ‘I’m ninety-two!’
‘Perhaps you should think about going on a cruise next year,’ I suggest, gently prising her blue little claws from my seat so that I can rest my head. She opens her mouth to protest but I can see that she’s perfectly able to support her own weight so I simply nod and close my eyes to dissuade her from carrying on. I’m very tired but unable to sleep. Glancing upwards I make eye contact with a large man who has joined the queue for the lavatory. In turn he grins at me as if neither of us is aware of the stink he is doubtless about to produce. On the screen in front of me I see the blinking avatar that represents us in the air on our way to Latvia. It seems so close, so ridiculously close.
I listen to the hum of the engine, feel the cold breath of the air conditioning carrying a sigh from the front of the plane to the back. My newspaper lies abandoned on the tray in front of me. I can’t read for more than five minutes without coming across a word that somehow looks wrong, my brain playing tricks on me. ‘File’ I read, and think, surely not? File?
The stewardess comes and hands me my plastic cup full of ice, my concentrated orange juice, strangely thick. In my hands I clasp the thing that lay in the last envelope of all – a lock of, unmistakably, Leda’s hair.
There’s no right way to grieve. I know that because so many people have told me, but also because I’ve done my homework. Rachmaninoff, for instance, suffered badly from depression brought on by his loss. For three years following the death of Tchaikovsky in 1893, he couldn’t write a note. He recovered due in part to auto-suggestive therapy – one simply wills a thing to be and it is so. How sweet. However, in 1915 Rachmaninoff’s dear friend Scriabin died and this time he reacted differently. For many months he gave concerts solely of his friend’s music. What a lovely way to mourn; they asked for his repertoire and he retorted, ‘Only Scriabin tonight.’ I’d like to give other things thought, the university, for instance, the new course. The university will lose interest if I don’t put something together, and quickly. Yet every evening I sit in front of my computer and I try to lead my fingers to the keys and instead they flutter above, and I must again admit: this concert, like yesterday’s and that of the day before, will be for Leda. I imagine my audience getting restless. They whisper and start to chuckle nervously. The sound becomes intolerable. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, uproarious and open mouthed.
There are many pathological causes of laughter: epilepsy (gelastic seizures), cerebral tumours, Angelman syndrome, strokes, multiple sclerosis, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (motor neurone disease). The name for uncontrollable and persistent laughter is, of course, Homeric. The etymology of Homeric laughter can be traced back to the Iliad – asbestos gelos – the unceasing laughter of the gods, who look down upon us to see our suffering and delight in it. The reason their laughter is without end is because our suffering is without end.