Authors: Tim Parks
With these ideas flashing through my mind as we entered the service station for our ten o'clock coffee stop, I was reminded again of my new thought of ten minutes ago, that
might be having a. lesbian affair with my daughter, and partly because I wanted to be reassured that this was not the case, and partly because in this way I would be able to see when the girl Nicoletta came out of the Ladies and thus to contrive to go and sit next to her for the coffee and croissant I planned to eat, I decided not to go up the stairs with Colin and Vikram and Georg in the direction of the stylized cup, but to cross a granite-tiled floor and walk past the stylized skirt and trousers to where a stylized telephone receiver pointed the way to three small booths against a cement wall, one of which, thankfully, took my Eurocard, thus resolving the problem of my not having any Swiss currency.
The phone rang for a longtime, so that I began to think I would just have to hold it there ringing for four or five minutes until the girl I was interested in, or imagined I might be interested in, or might be interested in me, came out of the loo, but finally my wife did answer and, on hearing my voice, immediately asked why on earth I was calling. Yes, my wife was her busy, peremptory self I could even hear the vacuum-cleaner booming in the background, which probably explained why she hadn't heard the phone for so long. And I have to confess that I found this cheering, this business of the vacuum-cleaner, and her peremptoriness, and the fact that although it must have been perfectly obvious I was calling from a call-box she didn't think to ask me where I was. I found it cheering because for about one second it gave me the passing and extremely rare sensation of
having done the right thing
- you did the right thing leaving her, I told myself â since I often feel that one of the reasons our marriage reached the sorry state it did was my wife's obsessive use of the vacuum-cleaner, and not only of the vacuum-cleaner but of every cleaning implement, product and aid available to modern man, or rather invented by modern man for modern woman. Simply, the vacuum-cleaner was always on, nudging round my feet when I was trying to read on the sofa or to play draughts with Suzanne, clattering against the bedroom door when perhaps I was trying to sleep late on a Saturday. And this was nothing other, I believe, than one of my wife's many ways of expressing her suffocating desire toÂ
, as the Italians say, to be constantly returning things to their pristine state, or more particularly in my wife's case, her desire to have everything remain exactly as it was the day we were married and moved into the new flat which I had made the terrible mistake (in this case absolutely formative, one of the grand structural mistakes of my life), the terrible, mistake of letting her parents buy for us and of living in ever since, or at least until about eighteen months ago, which means I was there nineteen years, nineteen years, and every year the shutters had to be re-varnished and the walls re-whitewashed and the window-frames re-sealed, and in our relationship too it was likewise understood that everything had to be freshly whitewashed and re-sealed, everything had to be kept in a perfectly mint emotional state, and in particular it was tacitly understood that we had to use the same love language, forever, the. same cooing little terms of endearment we had used during our courtship of twenty-one years before, terms that I have absolutely no intention of evoking here and now, although I can sense their presence as I sit turning over and over my thoughts in the third seat from the back of this powerful modern coach pounding across Europe, I can sense them lurking there below the surface of consciousness, below the modulations of this voice, below the vibrations of big tyres on smooth tarmac, they are present to me, hard dark rocks I would founder on if I went that way. One uses words, love words, I tell myself, for years and years, only to discover one morning that they mean nothing any more. Not only do they mean nothing, but they are dangerous. They are frightening. And yet my wife insisted on our using them. You haven't called me
for ages, my wife would say, or, Why do you get so angry when I call you
Â I refuse to evoke even one of them here and now. My wife insisted that we went on using these words far beyond the point of exasperation, words, as I said, that had meaning once but now meant only the meaning they had lost, the meaning all words always lose when you use them too much and find they mean nothing at all, not rocks then I suppose, but corpses, has-beens, different from the living, different from the never-alive, corals perhaps, sharp and dangerous, hundreds of thousands of sharp little dead creatures. Our love words.
Yes, we had to be forever in love, I remember now, my wife and I, so that one had the feeling of something that had solidified, terribly, an awful process of fossilization, a shell one had made for oneself, but that somehow wasn't the right shape any more, wasn't
any more. Again it was a question of propriety, I tell myself, sitting beside Doris Rohr. And perhaps this was why she and Suzanne, our daughter, could never really get on together, because Suzanne would insist on growing up, on not staying the same, and hence was a constant reminder to us that we were not the same either, offering as she did that yardstick of age and of all its attendant transformations in the flesh which children must offer and parents must take note of.
I wanted to have a word with Suzanne, I said.
Her birthday's tomorrow, my wife said drily.
I told my wife I was perfectly aware my daughter's birthday was tomorrow, but even as ! said this I would have liked to have added something to ease this studied and obvious unpleasantness, because it is unthinkable really that two people should live together for nigh on twenty years and then have nothing more than their mutual irritation to trade on the telephone, unthinkable, but apparently the norm, or almost (when things are not worse), and sitting here on the blood-red upholstery of this hideous modern coach, where six video screens have just been lowered in perfect simultaneity from wells fixed in strategic positions in the overhead luggage racks, and where Doris Rohr is offering me an expensive chocolate, her mauve nails turning the pages of
, sitting here thinking of that phone-call to my wife conducted in the freezing entrance to the predictably and it has to be said depressingly designed Chambersee Service Station while watching for sneaky young Nicoletta to come out of the loo, and, from the corner of my eye then, seeing
come in from the coach and head off up the stairs to the cafeteria, perhaps the only woman on the trip to be wearing a skirt as depicted by the stylized sign, so that even from the phone-booth I could see the achingly slim calves black-stockinged above high heels scraping the stone steps like so many matches struck on sandpaper - sitting here in the coach, my mind prey, as it has been for so long, to every passing thought, but somehow not only the prey but the aggressor too, or a prey to its own aggression, self-consuming - sitting here in this parlous psychological state, it once again, I mean as a result of this phone-call, strikes home to me how much I have lost: my role as father and husband, the obviousness of my old life, the simplicity of being somebody's husband, somebody's father, the readiness of an explanation when required, being able to say, This is who I am and what I do. So that as the video two seats in front of me begins to glow and one or two people pull pink curtains against the rain outside to make the screen more vivid, it occurs to me that if I lose my job as well as everything else, this job that I always saw as a mere stepping-stone, a sensible way-station, an income to tide me over while I picked up my ticket to somewhere else (until, like my marriage, it became a desert island, a place of loathed and ultimately terrifying convenience), if I lose my job, I will have lost the last element in life, after wife and daughter and mistress, that gave me any sense of role and identity. And I begin to think, for the first time, that perhaps this trip was not a mistake after all. Perhaps it isn't a mistake, I tell myself. Perhaps I should take it seriously and work hard at it alongside the others, lobbying Euro-MPs and talking to the press and generally making every reasonable and
to save this last attachment I have to the common-sense world of role and identity and usefulness and source of income - myself as paid language teacher at the University of Milan - You should take this trip seriously, I tell myself, very seriously, and stop pretending to be so superior to crazy Vikram with his drink and his dog and his victim politics, and dull Doris with her chocolates and magazines, and dour irritable Dimitra with her square-jawed determination to keep her place on the gravy train. You are arrogant, I tell myself. You are irretrievably arrogant. You are obsessed by the notion that you are somehow superior to every task you have been allotted and every person you have shared your life with. This has to stop, I told myself.
have to stop.
But then the words
remind me that I had vowed I would leave this job, which is a pointless and soul-destroying job. You have been doing the same job year in year out for fifteen years now, I tell myself, staring at titles on a video screen as Doris Rohr pops another chocolate in her elegantly made-up mouth. You have gone on and on doing exactly the same thing, teaching huge groups of students who are never the same from one week to the next and with whom one has no contact at all and who are only interested in passing their exams, punching their meal-tickets. Indeed many of the students on this bus, I tell myself, to whom you were no doubt hasty in your attribution of altruistic impulses, are perhaps hoping that their faces will be remembered by the foreign lectors, ourselves, and that they will thus get better grades in their oral exams. For having come on this trip. For having lent their support. For years and years, I tell myself, suddenly extremely anxious, you have gone on and on teaching students interested in nothing more than the acquisition of a convenient piece of paper, a convenient
, students with no interest at all in English, all the while nourishing, cherishing, defending, the initial illusion that you were somehow
to these people. This has to stop, I tell myself, refusing Doris Rohr's offer of a Walnut Whirl. I should never have taken this job at all. Or never have stayed there for more than a year or two. Then reaching this conclusion, and terribly aware that only a moment ago I had reached the
exact opposite conclusion
, I am appalled at my own vacillation, at my loss of direction and purpose, as this whole trip, I'm obliged to observe, has been a terrible loss of direction for me, a deep lesion in the identity and resolve I had so carefully been constructing, reconstructing, in my little flat with all the new personal items and objects I had slowly been accumulating, to wit my wallet with its purpose-cut spaces for an Italian identity card, an Italian driving licence, my keyring, purchased in heavy snow from a Moroccan on Via Manzoni, which has a little leather pouch the perfect size for a Johnnie (it is presently loaded), my new leather jacket to replace the one
helped me buy, my new music collection, after I threw out the old with all the French singers she taught me to listen to and all the sixties music I rediscovered - yes, I'm appalled, appalled by the idea of being in my job for the rest of my life, and equally appalled by the idea of losing my job and being alone with nothing whatsoever to do or be for the rest of my life - I hate the expression
rest of my life' â and without of course, it occurs to me now, a ready supply of young women, which has been, as I said before, together with screen-based computer games and biliards and arguments about politics, an important solace for me over the last two years. But above all I'm appalled by my lack of resolve, by my not knowing what, even if I knew how, I should do. I'm appalled by my constantly being appalled.
Suzanne was out, my wife said. I could get in touch with her this afternoon.
But then although these credit-card calls are expensive and I really had nothing to say, I made a conscious decision to stay on the phone to my wife for a moment or two longer, partly because Sneaky Nicoletta was not out of the loo yet and partly because
had barely reached the top of the stairs and I did not want to give her the impression that I was still at the stage of hurrying off phones to follow her about and thus still dangerous, although of course I'm perfectly aware that I came on this trip for no other reason than to follow her about, and it may even be that I
still dangerous, something I can hardly deny having been. Indeed, if there is one legitimate, or at least convincing thought in my mind on those occasions when I stand by the phone thinking, Now I am going to call her, now I can't stop myself calling her (so that my finger will begin to punch, or until very recently, the buttons 045), it is the desire to show, in the course of a light and relaxed conversation, that Ã
am no longer dangerousÂ
and that I deeply regret having been so, the desire to end the affair well (when in fact it ended long ago and badly). And if I have learnt not to pick up the receiver on those occasions, or at least to stop dialling after the five, it is because bitter experience has taught me that the longer I go on talking the more violent and outraged I will become, the more dangerous I will show myself to be. How could she say that nothing had really happened, she who had previously insisted to me how important it was to have things happen in life? Make something happen, she said. She put the knife to my throat. It takes more than a kiss to cut yourself free, she said.
But mainly I decided to stay on the phone in the service station to my wife because taken by the idea of coming away from this conversation with something resembling cordiality, or even a deep mutual acceptance. I constantly hope that we can somehow still be friends, my wife and I, despite this terrible thing that has happened to us. It's a desire, I sense, which always seems to be the aspiration of he or she who has abandoned, but never never never of he or she who has been abandoned, as I would never want to be her
(what could that mean?), but only to be her lover again, her beloved again, which is why I suppose my frequently repeated attempts to engineer a happy ending, after all was already over, were so disastrous, because the truth was I was still hoping in some part of myself deep down that it hadn't ended at all, that the discovery of a happy ending might become a new beginning. And I wonder now, could this be my wife's problem, could this be why she is so difficult sometimes? She wants a new beginning. She wants me. to start using those words again. Those words that would be like spitting sharp stones. And' how tedious, I think, how unbearably tedious life is to be forever engineering these same problems that everybody has written about and suffered over for centuries, for millennia: Ariadne gazing out to sea from an empty beach and Samuel Pepys going crazy for his serving maid. To mention but two.