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Authors: Tim Parks

Tags: #Humour

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BOOK: Europa
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The effect of my raising my voice was that the Avvocato Malerba now felt obliged to object - though he did so with a commendable mixture of politeness and jocularity - that this was a very cynical, typically Anglo-Saxon, and above all
un-European
way of viewing the world. There were clearly, he said, picking up what had now become, with his offering to pay, our collective tray, those in Europe, visionaries, who thought chiefly of the common good - Jacques Delors and Prime Minister Gonzalez, to name but two, and likewise the Dutch Prime Minister, was it Maartens, who …

But before he could finish speaking and with a quite ludicrous and shameful sense of triumph, as though of a child crushing an insect, or a Rottweiler snapping at some innocent hand that wishes to feed it, I began shouting that far from being Anglo-Saxon my views had been most eloquently expressed by Niccoló Macchiavelli and before that, and even more eloquently perhaps, by the ancient Greeks, whose culture surely lay at the heart of European identity and whose alliance of city states had quite probably been the first example of a European joint venture, though one established primarily of course against an outside enemy, not in the name of any fine principles, and always fraught by internal power games, of the kind, I insisted (aware now as we moved across the fluorescent-lit space that
she
must be no more than an arm's length away on my right), of the kind that had led the great Thucydides to say, and I quoted, speaking far louder than I needed:
We believe, out of tradition so far as the gods are concerned', and from experience when it comes to men, that as a dictate of nature every being always exercises all the power he has at his disposal

There was a brief silence.

The Bundesbank included, I added.

Shall we sit here? Nicoletta asked. I owe you five thousand three hundred lire. Oh forget it, the Avvocato Malerba said. No, please. But I insist. 
Grazie
, Nicoletta said, blushing, it's very kind of you. At which the Avvocato Malerba looked up and, smiling at me from his somehow dusty but boyish cheeks, said, Just take it as a demonstration that not everybody is obsessed by the exercise of personal power, a statement which, on the contrary, I could have shown, only demonstrated the truth of what I had said, in that it served most perfectly to make him look gracious and myself foolish, and all the more so when, on turning round, I realized that
she
would not have heard at all. She had crossed the whole cafeteria since I last saw her and was now leaning over Georg, deep in confabulation.

CHAPTER FIVE

Robin Williams has just read
Carpe Diem
to his Dead Poets Society. How everything leads back. Does he have daughters? Lear asked, of anybody remotely unhappy And even this unexpected analogy, Lear, Cordelia, leads me back through my own daughter's fantasticated lesbianism to
her
. She is the centre, of the world and this trip a vortex, the mind channelled, like the chase of traffic through this interminable tunnel beneath the Alps, in that one direction, her slender video-lit neck just a few paces further forward, but ever distant despite the headlong flight of this coach, these thoughts, never to be touched again, or licked, or when your nail trailed the knuckles of her spine. Everything is past, I tell myself, and yet because of that more present than ever. As if the only paradise one might ever set out to explore were paradise lost.

And it is this, sitting here on the third seat from the back in this luxury coach racing on a slight downward slope beneath incalculable tons of rock through one of those engineering feats which have given us the miracle, so called, of rapid communications, it is this that I cannot understand: how presently omnivorous that past is, how Robin Williams quoting Horace in an Alpine tunnel immediately recalls Robin Williams speaking a demotic DJ Italian in
Buon Giorno Vietnam
when my wife was away at the sea with Suzanne and
she
on the red couch at home in only a silk nightdress admiring the dubbing, saying how clever it was to have matched such rapid speaking and punning, how clever dubbing was in general, putting words in people's mouths, annihilating differences, annihilating barriers - she would love, she said, to get a job in dubbing - and I can smell the sweet perfume in her hair fallen slantwise as she absently preens, I can sense the neatness of her posture sitting cross-legged, telling me in French that this Italian dubbing of American English was so good. And for all my adoration, I tell myself now, for all her complacency, the barriers between ourselves were such, though I didn't know it then, as no polyglot facility or engineering prowess could ever resolve. The words, as now on the screen, were one thing, but the gestures came from quite another language: two cultures indifferently superimposed for the convenience of apparent comprehension, the luxury of immediate entertainment.

Cars overtake in the tunnel. There are red lights and glare. To the right, yellow neon every so many metres spangles on the curved plastic of our modern coach window, flashes chemically over the deep red upholstery, altering the colours on the screen, as if through fading and intensifying filters. And watching Doris Rohr (who always votes against strike action, who openly says she would be willing to accept less money so long as she can keep her job, her precious job, she whose husband is a surgeon, she who has to decide which of her holiday homes to spend the long summer break in), watching this German woman pensively unwrapping another of her expensive chocolates in the insistent on-off of a dark under-ground brightness, her fingertips plucking unseeing at coloured foil, her eyes happily fascinated by Robin Williams and by the sort of contemporary pieties these films purvey and that we all identify with in opposition to a
status quo
which miraculously no cinema-goer is ever part of, yes, watching solid, square-mouthed, brick-lipsticked Doris, it occurs to me, sitting on the third seat from the back of this coach full of, to use a Colinism, shaggable young women, it occurs to me I was saying,
what an incredibly foolish philosophy the expression
carpe diem
enshrines
.

Carpe diem
, yes, yes, seize the day, seize it, now, and now, and now, then to be marooned there in those few precious hours, days, months, whatever, it doesn't matter, of love, of passion, marooned for all the waste sad time that must stretch after, not shovelling shit against the tide as my wife, would to keep the corpses at least enburied, our grave-clothes decent if nothing else, her impossible struggle to 
ripristinare
, nor gracefully chasing about the mythical urn in the bliss of the moment anticipated - those routine or romantic relationships with intensity, with beauty - no, but waltzing, as I am waltzing, with the living dead, the memory trapped in the groove of an endlessly repeated pirouette pushed to the furthest extremes of vertigo,
she
and I here,
she
and I there and then (when the day was so fatally seized),
she
and I as we might have been, today now, side by side on this seat, in this coach at this moment, her head against my shoulder, now now and still now. Which is the worst waltz of all.

I hate myself for quoting Thucydides, for shouting at the Avvocato Malerba in the Chambersee Service Station. I hate myself for having come on this trip. My idea, when Vikram Griffiths placed his clipboard beneath my nose in the miserable and amorphous institutional space of the foreign lectors' tutorial room - my idea, or rather the idea that so seductively presented itself, was that of showing myself in public again, no, showing myself to
her 
again, of demonstrating that I wasn't the least bit troubled by the sight of her or even by the sight of her confabulating together with Georg. I would show her, and myself - this must have been my idea - that these things did not touch me any more, because she had not after all, I told myself, had such a determining effect on my life. Quite the contrary. She had merely been the catalyst I needed to make a change in my life, merely the particular day I had chosen, at the last, to seize: Tuesday, though it might perfectly well have been Wednesday;
her
though it could equally have been Psycho-tottie or Bologna-tottie or Opera-tottie. Yes, I would come on this trip and be urbane and relaxed. That's what I imagined. I would watch lights flash on and off in deep Alpine tunnels and the effect would not become an image of my obsession, pulsing, lurid, unflattering. For I had left obsession behind, I told myself, when I moved into Porta Ticinese number 45, when I changed my whole music collection, when I bought a new wallet, a new briefcase, a new coat.

So I would come on this trip and I would be sensible and witty and just slightly but not overly ironic when my colleagues talked of
community spirit
and
group identity
, when they made a great show of their knowledge of the legal niceties of Italian Law and European Law, of the way in which we have been victimized and of our ultimately inevitable victory. I would be friendly, savvy, even helpful. And at the end I would return home unscathed, though perhaps with a fresh tottie or two to place on the old back-burner, as Colin puts it, one or two new phone numbers to inscribe in the old 
carnet
. I would have been near her - this was my idea - for three days, and nothing out of the ordinary would have passed between us,
nothing would have happened
, and this in itself would be the beginning of the happy ending I hoped for.

But I wasn't ready for it. And had I been ready, it would never have occurred to me to do it, I wouldn't have needed it. Had I been
ready
, I would have appreciated that this was not what I hoped for at all, this prosaic, sensibly cheerful fellow seeing through the world with a sort of mild, devil may-care indulgence. I would have known that what I hoped for, what I still hope for, against all the good sense in the world, was, is, some impossible turning back of the clock, not so much a softening on her part, but on mine, on mine, since
she
has never forbidden me to speak to her, she has never said it was impossible. On the contrary, the last time we met she said she hoped one day it might be possible again, she said one day I might see things as she did.

But most of all, as it turns out, I wasn't ready for the train of thought that begins now as Vikram Griffiths, who despite the film has been walking up and down the aisle, his mongrel trotting at his heel, continuing his never-ending parleyings with all and sundry, perhaps in search of the notorious spy — as Vikram Griffiths leans over me, his breath full of whisky, his clothes of dog, and, nodding to the video screen, suddenly pale as the coach shoots out of the tunnel into a world of white mist and drizzle amid the great looming shapes the Alps are, frozen in the contortion of that last orogeny, majestic and broken - leans over, clears his throat and says low, so as not to be heard by Doris, What do you think, boyo?

This business about a meeting this evening?

No. The shagplan, man! He grins, fingers in his dark sideburns. The film! he explains. Don't tell me you hadn't realized why I chose it? Fuckin' toss in itself of course, but gets the girlies in the right old mood, you know. Love thy teacher. Thy Teachers. 
Carp
the old
diem
. Can't get more fuckin' appropriate than that, can you? Without writing ‘shag me' up all over the screen.

My Welsh colleague with the Indian skin puts his arm round my shoulder with what is now an extraordinary assumption of complicity, an avuncular matiness, as if to force me to declare myself in some way. The dog thrusts his snout between the seat and the underside of my knee.

Can you? he insists.

At random I agree, I laugh half-heartedly, I ask, Got anything lined up?

But he's already saying, I don't mind yours either. Lovely little girlie. And he nods back to Nicoletta.

Who I now realize I have forgotten. Astonishingly, in the space of only ten minutes of having her sitting behind me rather than in front, I have forgotten about Nicoletta, her little glow-coloured purse and sweet gratefulness,
clean forgotten
, as they say the way I am so often forgetting the names of my tottie, so that sometimes someone you supposedly
made love to
only a day or so before, Bologna-tottie for example, will call you on the phone and you simply cannot remember the name. Or worse still, you can't remember which of two or three names. You know it's Bologna-tottie, but you can't remember whether Bologna-tottie is Francesca or Marta or Valeria, and for a moment you're desperately flustered, searching for the name, before recalling with a sigh of relief that so long as you don't care, it is perfectly possible to carry on not only a conversation but an entire relationship, or
avventura
 as
she
always used to call them, without ever using the caress a woman's name is. Except that this in turn only reminds you that
her
name on the contrary,
her
Christian name
her
surname
her
second name
her
daughter's name
her
home phone number
her
work phone number
her
address
her
bra-size
her
birthday
her
saint's day
her
daughter's birthday
her
necklaces
her
earrings
her
bracelets
her
brooches
her
ankle-bracelets
her
shoe-size
her
complete wardrobe
her
favourite drinks pastas meats and sweets
her
brands of perfume of deodorant of cigarettes of tampons of chewing gum, and a thousand other details are things
you will neper be permitted to forget
. You will never be permitted to forget them. So that on more than one occasion, having got the phone down on some nameless tot tie, I have found myself dialling
her
number, automatically, without even being aware of it. 045, it begins, it began, for Verona, for my age. Then I stop.

BOOK: Europa
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