Authors: Tim Parks
Is he right or is he right?
There is another loud, mainly feminine cheer with canine echo and Vikram Griffiths, stocky, charming, brilliant, makes a mistake, whether of grammar or of stress, or of both - of both - with almost every Italian word he utters, though apparently he speaks Welsh perfectly, and what he is not saying of course to these students who have come along to support us, and in some cases one imagines with genuine altruism, sacrificing precious hours and days that they could have used revising for the exams that are to be held immediately upon our return - what he does
say is how little work we foreign lectors do for our living, how long and lazy our summer holidays are, how little some of us are qualified, how many of us got our jobs because we just happened to know the professor with the gift in his hand, and one of us is having a lesbian relationship with her professor and another is taking money together with his professor to fix exams on behalf of rich and incompetent students, and many of us worked for our professors privately in language schools and translation agencies before we got our jobs, so that getting them was just an extension of an already established
, as the Italians like to put it, and he doesn't say that many of us have been deeply corrupted by receiving an easy and not ungenerous salary for work that nobody checks or even remotely cares about, and that most of us are terrified by the idea of having to go out and find other work and actually make our money in some way that corresponds, however remotely, to the amount of effort we put in. You yourself are terrified, I tell myself, by the prospect of having to find other work. Why else would you have stayed for so long? And Vikram Griffiths, with his handsome sideburns, his subcontinental charisma, and his dog named after the great (apparently) Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, a man who revolutionized forever the metrics of that language now spoken by so few, Vikram does not say that when we arrived at the University long ago each one of us signed a contract in which we accepted that the maximum duration of our job would be five years, because of course we imagined that we would use this time to become something else - a writer, a painter, a mother, a professor, an entrepreneur - but that by the end of those five years, our various private projects having failed, or not having satisfied us as we expected, we couldn't leave, we could, not give up our empty jobs.
We are lost, I reflect, this is the truth about my colleagues and myself in this coach, we are lost in this foreign country that isn't ours, this Europe that may or may not exist, and we wouldn't know what to do if we had to go home. To a man, a woman, we are scared of going home, because most of us are forty and beyond and trapped in this place where life once deposited us, this backwater where autumn leaves circle slowly as they rot, and the unmarried women amongst us are scared of losing their one pillar of security, their state salaries and later of course their pensions, and the married women with families are scared of losing their one outlet from their claustrophobic domestic lives, and everybody is scared, I tell myself, as Vikram Griffiths talks on and on, scratching his sideburns, then his dog's ears, of the loss of identity that would be involved in not being able to say, I work for the University, this is my reason for being where I am, in this foreign country, and not at home in Paris or Athens or Cologne or Dublin or Bruges or Madrid, though most of us frankly have forgotten what home was like. When it suits us we idealize home, I reflect, and again when it suits us we demonize it, and we say we could never have gone on living under Thatcher or under Kohl, or with our parents, or near our ex-wives, or in the intellectual climate in Greece or in Glasgow. Vikram Griffiths doesn't say to these thoughtless, though for the most part charming students, that many of us dream of returning home, but with someone we love, from a position of strength (as they say), as I was obsessed for a long time by the idea of returning to England with
, and she I believe, or so she told me, by the idea of returning to Rheims with me, and indeed we did return there, to Rheims, or at least it was a return for her, and that was a week of such love, such pleasure, as I shall never forget, though she became restless towards the end, complaining how cold her city was and how provincial and narrow-minded its people. She would rather have been in Paris, she said. We must go to Paris together next trip. But we never went to Paris, we never will go to Paris, and it is quite ridiculous, I tell myself, that you are thinking about all this now with Vikram announcing that we shall be stopping shortly for people to pee and announcing that he will be arranging for us all to go for a dinner tonight in Strasbourg, and that rooms in the hotel are double, with two single beds that is, although beds can always be put together, can they not? Ha ha. Even if there is always the risk of someone falling down the gap in the middle at an embarrassing moment, and hence we should choose our partners now without delay or
, ha ha, and he produces his theatrical wink, exactly the same as I got in the corridor when he told me that Georg had christened our coach
The Shag Wagon
, and frankly I must admit that it hadn't occurred to me I would have to sleep with somebody else. Who shall I sleep with? Who shall I ever sleep with?
Freud ironized when people superstitiously ascribed meaning to the casual repetition of a number or a word, when they wanted the contingent world to mean and be more in their regard than it possibly could, or were afraid that that might be the case, afraid of some conspiracy between psyche and everything other. So that when I read
in the ridiculous period when I supposed myself an interesting subject for analysis, I imagined that perhaps like me Freud suffered from the opposite problem, that the more some word or number or name was repeated the less it began to mean, the less anything means. Far from being portentous, the words dissolve to mere sound. Hence, for example, if I never say
name, although I think of little else but her, it is partly because that name is still so powerful that its very articulation causes an emotional seizure, an immediate tension that I feel physically, but also and perhaps more importantly, because by never saying it I keep it that way, I prolong its power, I prevent its dilution in repetition, the way a word like
has been diluted into thin air with all the times everybody says
that, though once it was the name of a girl a god became a bull to rape and half the heroes hoped to find.
In any event it then turned out, when
gave me his, I mean Freud's, biography to read during that, as I said,
, euphoric, and above all infantile wallowing that was the first splendid year of our relationship - it then turned out that Freud himself, though he never publicly admitted it, had become fascinated by the repetition in his life of the number 62 - on a coathanger, on a hotel key - so that he began to believe he must die at that age. And sitting slightly right of centre in the back seat of this coach, having successfully kept my head down and options open throughout the frenetic discussion when everybody was trying to get the bedfellow they wanted, or perhaps trying not to get the bedfellow they didn't want, or alternatively insisting that they have a private room so that they could then introduce into it, should the occasion arise, the bedfellow of their choice, I'm surprised when the wide-eyed girl in front suddenly turns to ask all of us behind to guess what our seat numbers are without turning to look at the plastic tags on the headrests, to guess the number and to scribble it down on a piece of paper. And while everybody else is wildly out, I guess, with a sudden perception of its obviousness, 45, which is my age of course, as 045, I see, when I write the number down on the back of this morning's cafÃ© receipt, is the phone code for Verona, where
lived until so recently. Four five. I remember Freud, and it occurs to me, as these things unfortunately will, that perhaps I am going to die this year or even this week, for tomorrow will be the fourth of the fifth. Though Freud did not die at sixty-two.
How did you guess? the girl asks, and she is doing that business of cocking her face to one side again, bouncing slightly on her knees, rocking, so that her head bobs up and down above the back of her seat.
I just felt the number 45 come to my mind, I explain. Then not wanting, from sheer vanity, to say it was my age, nor to appear ridiculous by speaking of intimations of mortality, I surprise myself by adding and at the same time in a way discovering: Perhaps it's because I live at number 45, Via Porta Ticinese. From the corner of my eye I can see Georg smiling wryly, and naturally he thinks I looked at the number tag some while ago and am lying now, and rather pathetically in order to get the girl's attention, whereas in fact I am telling her
to get her attention. For I did have this intuition, there's a part of me is genuinely alarmed. I do live at 45 Via Porta Ticinese and no longer at number 7 Via delle Rose as for so many years. The number 45, I tell myself, did simply come to you, invaded your mind, uninvited. That's frightening. Which then reminds me - but I wonder if there is anything now that will not remind me - that all in all this is not so unlike the way I drew
attention when first we met. I mean, I told her, as now, the truth about something which wasn't really explicable, an intuition that invited ridicule, but that proved to be an important discovery for me. I said - and in the sudden awkwardness and intimacy that can come with the closing of lift doors I was trying to explain my lack of enthusiasm for a job that I had had for years but to which she had only just been appointed and was excited about - I said I somehow felt that the University and indeed the whole city of Milan had been a kind of trap for me, a kind of spell, and that what's more I had the feeling, insistently, that there was another place where I was meant to be, or perhaps a whole other life I was meant to be leading, a different destiny.
I remember laughing, embarrassed, as the lift doors opened again on another floor, and it's easy to imagine, looking back these four and more years, that this embarrassment, this sense of having said a puzzling and disconcerting thing that I hadn't meant to say, made me attractive, in the way vulnerability is attractive, if only because it invites the exercise of power.
But what makes this moment here now in this speeding coach with this pretty girl so different from that moment then in the lift four-and-a-half years ago, is that I was unconscious of it then. It was a delicate and unconscious seduction then, without any studied effects, just two people with no idea at all of the adventure they were about to embark on, an immensely precious moment precisely because so dense with consequence and so blind (so that if the encounter were depicted on some vase of ancient Athens or of Crete, there would be all sorts of mythical animals round about, scaly, hoofed and horned, and a seer looking on who foresees everything, who knows everything that must happen, but who also knows he must not speak and will not be understood if he does, since foresight, and indeed wisdom in general, can never be passed on,, only memories, only the interminableÂ
of narrative). And I shall never be able to do that again, I tell myself here in the coach. Never again such a blind seduction, such a blithe leaping into the dark, as if doing no more than stepping out of one's own front door. For everything is conscious now, everything is mapped and charted. And this is something
never understood, I don't think, my ingenuousness, I mean, in the lift that day, my forty-year-old boyishness, to the extent that when we first made love, and this was in the flat in Via Mazza with her daughter out at the nursery and Greta, the friend who was sharing the place, speaking interminably on the telephone which she would take out on the balcony for privacy, not realizing that her inane conversations were all the more audible through the open bedroom window - when we had finished making love she laughed saying how quickly we had ended up in bed together, and this was partly, she said, partly, because I had been so brazen, saying I was unhappy with my marriage like that no more than two or three sentences into our first conversation. And in the lift of all places.
I genuinely had not appreciated that implication in what I had said, though now she mentioned it I realized that it had indeed been there, and had been meant, for I couldn't at the time have been more unhappy, and when I spoke to her like
, complaining about what I saw as a boring job, what I had really been doing was complaining about the wife who, playing on my own weakness, my sense of âresponsibility', kept me in that job, A different destiny! she laughed, A spell! You're so romantic!
But an hour or so later, when I was in the kitchen washing dishes I hadn't even eaten off in response to an embarrassing need I always feel to offer practical help and lend a hand and show that I am aÂ
good modern man
, even when betraying my wife, she was suddenly at my ear whispering, Turn around, and when I did so it was to find a meat-knife at my throat. She burst out laughing, the steel was actually against my skin, then she kissed me with very deliberate passion, which thrilled and frightened, precisely because so deliberate, so knowing, and, handing me the knife, she said,Â
, use it! Cut yourself free! It takes more than just a kiss to break a spell, and again she burst out laughing in that very foreign very French laugh that I need only walk to the front of the coach to hear again, since she laughs unceasingly. That French laugh. She is all lightness and laughter. Only it would not quite be the same. Her voice has never sounded the same since the day I ceased to believe in its complicity.
But now Georg, tearing up the metro ticket he wrote his guess on, is saying that he lives at number 63 Viale Lotto, that his birthday is on the nineteenth of the eleventh, and that his car registration number is Ml 807 653, but that none of this would even begin to lead him to deduce, or no? that he is sitting in seat number 47.