Authors: Tim Parks
Copyright Â© 1997, 2011 by Tim Parks
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First published in Great Britain by Seeker & Warburg 1997
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
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10 9876543 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.
Tongues of Flame
An Italian Education
Europa (in Athens) does business
at truly reasonable rates.
You needn't fear interraption
or the gainsaying of whims;
also, she offers irreproachable
sheets, and - in winter -
a coal-fire. This time, Zeus,
come as you are. No bull.
Love's night & a lamp
judged our vows:
that she would love me ever
& I should neper leave her
Love's night & you, lamp,
witnessed the pact.
Today the vow runs:
âOaths such as these, waterwords.'
Tonight, lamp, witness her lying
- in other arms.
âMy dear girl, where there are women
there are sure to be slaps. It was
Napoleon who said that, I think.'
I am sitting slightly off-centre on the long back seat of a modern coach crossing Europe. And this in itself is extraordinary. For I hate coaches, I have always hated coaches, and above all I hate modern coaches, not just because of the strong and nauseating smell of plastics and synthetic upholstery, but because of the way the supposed desires of the majority are now foisted upon everybody - I mean myself - in the form of videoscreens projecting from beneath the luggage rack every six seats or so, and of course piped music oozing from concealed loudspeakers. So that even as we pull out of Piazza dell'UniversitÃ into the morning traffic on Corso Vercelli in this strange city I have lived in for so long of stone and trams and noble facades and Moroccans selling boxes of contraband cigarettes laid out on the pavements under propped-up umbrellas - because it's raining, as it will in Milan in May - even now, before the long trip has hardly started, we are having to listen to a smug male voice singing with fake and complacent hoarseness about
un amore passionale
, which he cannot, he claims, forget, and which has
destroyed his life forever
, a theme, I suspect, that may be the very last thing one needs to be subjected to at only shortly after eight on a Monday morning, and not long after one's forty-fifth birthday. Though many of the younger travellers are singing along (the way fresh recruits, I believe, will sing along on their way to war).
Yes, that it was a mistake, I reflect, sitting slightly right of centre on the long back seat of this modern coach setting out across Europe, that it was a big mistake to have come on this trip, I have never doubted from the moment I agreed to it, and perhaps even before, if such a thing is possible. Or let's say that the very instant IÂ took this decision was also the instant I recognized, and recognized that I had always recognized, that coming on this trip was one of those mistakes I was made to make. You were made to make this mistake, I thought. By which I don't mean of course to put it on a par with the grander and more spectacular mistakes that have given shape and structure to what one can only refer to as one's life, just that, upon having agreed, in answer to a request from a colleague, to sign my name at the bottom of a list of other signatures of other colleagues, I immediately appreciated that this was precisely the kind of squalid, absurd and wilful mistake that somebody like myself would make. This is the kind of thing you do, I told myself. You agree to travel for twelve hours on a coach in one direction and then, two days later, for twelve hours on the same coach (a modern coach to boot, with piped music and videos and synthetic smell) in the return direction, in order to lend your name, for the very little it is worth, to a cause which not only do you not support, but which from a purely intellectual point of view, if such a miracle exists, you oppose, you oppose it, and this, what's more, through an appeal to an institution which again not only do you not support, nor subscribe to in any way, but which you frequently feel perhaps should not exist at all. This is the kind of person you are. And trying to find a comfortable position for my head on a brushed nylon headrest at the back of this big coach presently jammed at a crossing despite the green light, I reject once again that when, and this would have been early April, Vikram Griffiths said to me, clearing his throat and rubbing his fingers across a polished Indian baldness, as he will, or in his sideburns, or in the down of hair behind his thick neck, and then adjusting his spectacles, as he is doing at this very moment some way up the central corridor of this hideous modern coach, leaning stockily, dog nipping his ankles, over the shoulders and doubtless breasts of a young girl, gestures one presumes he makes out of nervousness and a desire to give people the impression that what he is saying is important and exciting - a dramatized nervousness is perhaps what I mean, a nervousness become conscious of itself and then tool of itself in a never-ending and self consuming but always coercive narcissism - when Vikram Griffiths said to me, swallowing catarrh, though without his dog that day, Jerry, boyo - because Vikram is not just an Indian but a Welsh Indian, the only Indian ever to speak Welsh, he claims - Jerry, boyo, we are going to appeal to
- clearing his throat again - and we would
much appreciate your support,
Â what I should have done, of course, was to laugh in his face, or produce some more polite gesture but of similar subtext, as for example enquiring, Europe? or just, Where, sorry? as though genuinely unaware that such an entity existed.
I should have refused. It surely would not have been impossible even for a man who is known to be living alone and enjoying a life of very fewÂ
to have found some kind of excuse relative to one of the three designated days when this particular modern coach was to be speeding up interminable kilometres of
present our case to Europe
. It should not have been impossible. Yet not only did I not refuse, but I actually leapt at the chance, I said yes immediately. Not only did I not look for an excuse to avoid this tiresome and I suspect hypocritical pilgrimage, but I actually overlooked the perfectly good excuse that did present itself, to wit my daughter's eighteenth birthday, the party to celebrate which will take place tomorrow in my no doubt much-censured absence. And not only, I reflect, as the coach's big engine vibrates beneath my seat â and what I'm trying to do I suppose is to grasp the nettle, all the nettles, just as firmly as ever one can - not only did I accept immediately, by which I mean without a second's mental mediation, on reflex as it were, but I then went out of my way to make my acceptance affable and even friendly. I said, Why surely, Vikram, of course I'll come, and I signed my name immediately and immediately, without mediation, I reached into my pocket to pull out the new wallet I had recently bought, as I have bought so many new things of the small and vaguely intimate variety of late, and paid immediately (which was quite unnecessary) the two hundred and twenty thousand lire the trip is costing, a sum which frankly, given the present state of my finances, I can ill afford. You can ill afford it, I told myself. Though I must say that money for me of late has been taking on the feel of a currency one is eager to be rid of before moving on to some other country, a currency, that is, that will not be current for much longer, and which it does not even occur to me might be exchangeable.
I paid my money to this Vikram of the dark skin, deep Indian voice and incongruously Welsh accentÂ
and in order then to explain a readiness which I feared would not be understood (since when have you ever shown any inclination to
fight for the cause?)
, I actually went so far as to say that since others were making the very considerable effort to organize this trip on everybody's behalf, the least somebody like myself could do was to
and come along. I could read a book, I said, during the long journey, I had a lot to read for work, for prospective work, or I could just think (just!). And standing there in the spare because institutional room where our encounter took place, amongst graceless office furniture on a stone-patterned linoleum floor indifferently cleaned by a pampered and unmotivated menial staff, standing there talking to this man whose fecklessness rivals even my own, whose only stable relationship appears to be his passion for the mongrel dog whose hairs smother all his shabby clothes, I was trying to reassure him that there was nothing peculiar in my so rapidly subscribing to hisÂ
, that there was nothing peculiar in my eagerly adding my name to his list of scrawled signatures. I was almost apologizing, for God's sake, for enrolling in his expedition. Or rather, I was already concealing what 1 already knew in my heart to be the real and only reason for my behaving in this extraordinary and inconsistent fashion, for -my agreeing, that is, to come on this ridiculous and pointless trip; the same reason, it should be said, why I have now, even as I sit here churning these thoughts on the back seat of this coach as it inches its way out to one of those nodal points where the motorway system plugs into the city so that one can be sucked off at tremendous speed to some other and in every way similar city - the same reason why I have now suddenly buried my face in a book the words on whose pages I not only do not see but do not even really want to see. For
has just stood up to get down her dark leather document-case from the overhead luggage rack. She is in the third seat from the front on the left.
And to think, to think that for more than six months now, or is it a year? I had been speaking of myself (to myself) as a man healed, as a man emerging once and for all from the throes and miseries, and I suppose it has to be added ecstasies, of what I can only refer to as the great crisis, the great adventure, the great collision of my life, Yes, I had begun to look upon myself as that person who has been through it all and emerges the other side âa happier and a wiser man', who glances back at others crossing life's rapids with a sort of affectionate and satisfying irony. And chattering to myself in my mind, as one does, or buying furniture for my little flat, or purchasing all those little things - my new wallet - that I suddenly felt it sensible to replace, so that life could start anew, free from every encumbering reminder, I would tell myself: Splendid, not even a whiff of albatross, not a hint of that weight and stench you have carried around with you for so long! Yes, the road to excess, I would quote to myself, and I remember doing this with a cheerful complacence that it is embarrassing to recall, the road to excess - perhaps I would be putting on a CD of Handel or of Mozart (I had been keeping very strict control on my listening material) - truly does lead to the Palace of Wisdom. Though one might have quibbled over the word âpalace', I suppose. But even if designations along the lines of âservice flat or âhovel' or even âbunker' would perhaps be more appropriate for the species of wisdom I had arrived at, the point I'm trying to make is that prior to meeting Vikram Griffiths, our Indian Welshman, in the English Institute staffroom that day, I had felt I was cured. No, better still, I felt I had cured myself. There was pride involved. For at no point had I sought help from anyone, had I? No, I had fought my own way out of the flood, born up by the scraps of reason and self-respect one inevitably clutches at once it becomes clear one has no stomach for the darker option. And if, after what seemed a very long time at sea, the surf had set me down at the last in a place that was far away from where I plunged in and quite unknown to me and above all lonelier than any other place I had ever been before, all the same it did give me every impression once I got there, once I closed the door on my tiny apartment, of being
, of being, that is, a place of arrival, the kind of place to which the words âhome and dry', or at least âdry',might be applicable.