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Authors: Joanna Kavenna

Inglorious

BOOK: Inglorious
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JOANNA KAVENNA

Inglorious

 
 
 

      

For BM

  

  

 
 

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind

Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed

Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,

And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,

And at his age having no more to show

Than one hired box should make him pretty sure

He warranted no better, I don’t know.

Philip Larkin

     

Chi non può quel che vuol, quel he può voglia

Leonardo da Vinci

 
 

She began it on an ordinary summer’s day when she found – quite in contravention of the orders of her boss – she was idling at the computer, kicking her heels and counting. Rosa Lane, thirty-five and several months, aware of an invisible stopwatch tolling her down, was counting the years, the hours spent sitting in offices, staring at the sky, at the flickering screen that was sending her blind. She had spent the previous ten years in a holding position, her legs locked under a table. She had typed a million emails and strained her wrists. She was no closer to understanding anything. Ahead she saw the future, draped in grey. Behind was the damp squib of her family’s history. She was sitting in the present, with this past and future whirling around her. And outside the city was awash with daytime noise – the grind of traffic, blurred speech, elusive choirs. The noise was ebbing and rising again, and she heard the cries of birds in the eaves. She thought of the river moving and the flow of cars, smoke drifting across the shine and colour.

Sitting at her desk that day, sweating into her shirt, she thought,
If they told me I would never do anything more than
this, would I want to live or die on the spot?
Then she thought,
What is the reason for it all, what is it for?
That really cut her up, so she wrote an email to her boss. It was terse and elegiac. It began with her youth, early career, thanked him for his patronage, communicated her deepest regrets and ended with the words ‘I resign’. She was emphatic; she pressed Send and then she shut down her computer. She picked up her hat and coat and walked. She was having a fit of nerves by the time she passed the guardians of the gate, the two fat porters who sat there trading jokes. They sauntered towards her. If they had
spent another second rattling the keys she would have crumbled and begged them to lock her in for ever. Then the gate swung open. ‘Off home early,’ they chorused, and released her. Rosa went out onto the street, where the cars were queuing to go forward. Then she went home.

It was a Monday in June when Rosa left her job. It was early afternoon, and she sat on the semi-empty train marvelling at the space, the available seats. She felt a gust of air as the doors swept shut. She stared at the adverts for phonecards and car insurance. Palliatives, she thought. She glanced at the passengers, barely noticing their distinctness. A less concentrated crowd but still part of the hordes. She laughed at an advert and picked her ear. A man caught her eye and she quickly dropped her gaze. She observed the dirt on the walls, she traced her fingers round the stains on the seats. She filed every detail of the carriage away.

She was at Dante’s mid-point, the centre of life, when she was supposed to garner knowledge and become wise. This was assuming she had used her earlier years for study and application, like the poet, but she had measured them out in weekend binges and European holidays. For years she had been productive at work and as idle as anything in the evenings. Time coursed along and she earned money. She stayed firmly in her box. She had been a journalist for years, sliding her way upwards. She wrote on the arts. She understood – it was quite plain to her – that she was meant to be ruled, not to rule. She hardly had the mettle for power play and the tyrannical control of fiefdoms. Her life had been supported by a few buttresses: belief in her job, the love of her parents, her relationship with Liam. These had stopped her thinking about anything too deeply.

Yet recently she had been feeling dislocated. The death of her mother, in January, was the start of that. She understood it was natural process, inevitable and unquestionable, but it knocked her off course and she couldn’t right herself again. She went into work and was congratulated on her perseverance,
but at night she was troubled by bad dreams, grief sweats, fear of the void, internal chaos that she tried to keep well buried, aware that her experience was general not exceptional and she really ought to button up. She missed her mother, of course, she felt the lack of her like a deep soundless blackness, and she thought it was impossible that this should be the natural condition of life. She felt as if a seismic shift had occurred; the ground had fallen away, revealing depths below, shapes clad in shadow.

Her mind was casting out analogies, hints at a deeper complaint. She felt restless and she had vivid dreams. Her thoughts held her, stopped her being useful. She lacked a defining metaphor, a sense of coherence. She felt coerced to the social pattern, her instincts dulled. She needed a local mythology, some sense of a reason why. Instead, she was teeming with frenzy and obscenity. She could curse her way home, damning the street and condemning the innocent and guilty alike. And she noticed that her sense of things was changing, it bemused her to think about it. Instead of seeing herself as the centre of her own small world, with the city as the backdrop to her life, she began to see everything as a fractured mess, a wild confusion of competing atoms, millions of people struggling to live. She lacked a doctrine, a prevailing call. She was surrounded by monomaniacs, yet she was indecisive. All ways looked as impassable as the others. She was in a labyrinth, lacking a ball of twine! Disoriented as anything, and she couldn’t kneel and pray, she was sure that wouldn’t help at all.

In March, concerned about how detached she was feeling, she’d asked Liam to marry her. Liam said no, which shocked her profoundly. More than shocked, she was deeply offended. They flagged on for a few more months, but anyone could tell their relationship was holed below the waterline. There were days when she felt it all as dark comedy, bred of the absurd situation she found herself in. With the clock ticking, she was spending her indeterminate span of years on the Underground, holding on tight to a metal pole, sitting at her desk checking
her emails, earning money and lining her belly. This sense of the ludicrous crept into her prose. In April she’d written an article on Swedish contemporary dance, which opened: ‘Dark, dark, dark we all go into the dark. The dancers have all gone under the hill.’ The editor had sauntered over to her desk, and demanded that she erase the offending lines on her computer. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘Never quote that crap again.’

By May she was writing in fragments. It was unfortunate, as her job was to write and explain, to produce quantities of lucid prose. Instead, she stared at the computer, with the bare notes of a story in her hand. Embarrassed, she wrote: ‘The Modernist Novel’. After another hour she wrote: ‘Rosa Lane reports’. Then it was lunchtime and she wrote: ‘If Lunch be the Lunch of Love, Lunch On.’ Then later she wrote: ‘Shuffle Off’ and ‘Mortal Coil’ on two lines. Then she accidentally pressed Send, and emailed her few phrases to her editor, who ignored them. Her focus seemed to be slipping. Where once she had read the paper every day, noting the preoccupations of society and her colleagues, now she flicked through a few pages and tossed the thing away. She was left with odd words – ‘BLAME’, ‘WORSENS’, ‘REPRIEVE’, ‘SILENCE’ – and some images of a screaming mother, a model clad in satin, a bomb victim. None of it made any sense. Now she wrote: ‘I want. We want.’ And then she wrote: ‘What is it?’

There was an evening in late May when she found herself standing on a street – she wasn’t entirely sure where she was – and then it seemed to her that the street was widening and widening and the numbers of buses and cars multiplying indefinitely, and there were rows and rows of people stretching eternally, and the ghosts of the dead vivid and clear in the dusk. ‘I had not thought,’ she said out loud, attracting silent glances from the habitués around her. ‘Bloody hell there’s a lot of us,’ she added. She reeled past the Albery eyeing the neon haze and the streetlights and the shadows seeping from the winding alleys. Then the crowds seemed to vanish altogether, and she thought of purse pinchers and long-gone hawkers, the flotsam
of another era. She thought of them with their capes and cloaks and buckled shoes, and their hats and moustaches and the smell of the streets – dung and offal. They vanished too, and she imagined the city dead and gone, a fierce wind blasting across the earth. She shrugged that off, because it was making her worry. Because the buses looked teeming and drunk with weight she walked home. Three hours later, she arrived at her flat, grimy and sweating, talking quietly to herself.

Leaving her job had a few immediate consequences. Peter the editor called her up, which had never happened before. Gravelly and disappointed he said, ‘What are you doing, Rosa? Are you ill?’ Not ill, she had explained. She told him she was fine. She wanted a change of direction. ‘Towards what?’ he demanded. It was as if she had blasphemed in church. She thought of him, a holy confessor with a beard and a belly, sitting in his office with a view of the street. He never went home before 10 p.m. He had a wife and an assortment of children. A well-paid, powerful job. He lunched with politicians, artists, writers, contemporary sages and wide-eyed pundits; anyone he asked to lunch came along, talked to him with commitment. A Good Life, in his terms. ‘You’ve worked so hard to get to this point,’ he said. She thanked him, but she said she couldn’t go back. ‘Ridiculous,’ he said. ‘Give me a call if you change your mind. Don’t leave it too long.’

She said, ‘That’s very kind.’

‘Come on, Rosa, give it another go.’ It sounded reasonable and she said she would think about it. She thanked him and then he was gone for ever. ‘Do you really want to squander everything?’ – that was Grace’s version, two days later. Grace – compassionate, withholding evidence – hectored her over a bottle of wine. A hectoring from Grace was no ordinary hectoring. It had sound and fury, high drama. Grace was truly dazzling. She liked to smoke and blast out words. She was incessant in her talk, and that had first attracted Rosa to her. She was a comparatively new friend; it was hard to say if she
was more Liam’s friend than Rosa’s. Rosa had found her at a party, and she swiftly became a fixture. She brought around takeaways and wine and spent long hours at their flat. She was good to be with: she was witty, hilarious, in a conspiratorial way. At parties, she whispered asides behind her hand. Like Liam, she was charming. She glistened with charisma.

‘Do you really want to sink without trace?’ Grace added. The phrase stuck in Rosa’s brain. Sink without trace?

‘I assumed I would,’ she said. ‘It’s what we do.’

‘Rubbish!’ said Grace. ‘Total rubbish!’ Her hands were folded in her lap. She kept her gestures succinct and certain. She smiled as she spoke but she was steely all the same. When she smiled she showed dozens of shiny teeth. Her hair was blonde and she wore it round her shoulders like a vestal virgin. She looked elegant, as she always did, in a skirt that hugged her hips, an open-necked shirt that showed her verdant olive skin. Still, she was inquisitorial and there were certain things she stridently defended. Sitting with her legs crossed, brow furrowed over the matter at hand, Grace said, ‘You owe it to yourself.’

‘I have exerted my right to choose,’ said Rosa.

‘And you choose failure and ignominy,’ said Grace, into her stride. Any moment, thought Rosa, she would raise a fist. She would stand and cry, ‘To Arms!’ ‘What’s your plan?’

Rosa had no plan. This caused Grace to release another tight smile. She looked briefly as if she pitied Rosa. Well, perhaps she did, because Rosa was in a sorry state, timorous and plaintive, picking at her nails with an empty glass before her. She had drunk too swiftly and now her head was clouded and her concentration was slipping. Still Grace had something to teach her. ‘Always plan before you leave a job,’ she was saying. ‘Or the other way round, never leave a job without a plan. Are you hoping Liam will support you?’ This she said leaning forward, face close to Rosa’s, glass of wine in one hand, orb of justice in the other.

‘No, not really.’

‘Not really? Not really? Come on, Rosa, don’t be ridiculous! You can’t expect him to do that. You don’t really expect him to do that, do you? What do you mean by not really?’ Suddenly Grace seemed unhappy. Her mouth twisted and she looked pained. That was unusual for Grace, who conducted herself with compelling sangfroid, and it made Rosa stare at her. She thought it was something about her indecisiveness, her complete failure to act, which was distressing Grace.

‘I mean probably I don’t,’ she said.

Now Grace became quite ferocious. She set down her glass and looked Rosa deep in the eyes. ‘Rosa, you have to explain this. Probably? Please tell me what you’re feeling,’ said Grace.

And, nervous because Grace was so fixed on her, Rosa said, ‘No, you’re right. I have to stand alone. I was inert, idle, generally lazy. It’s a shock when you hit the water, cold on your limbs, but now it’s better. Now I am beginning to change.’

‘Exactly, you said it,’ said Grace. ‘Don’t just depend on Liam. That’s a foolish thing to do.’ She seemed to relax. She had been holding herself upright, looking angular, and now she curved again. Grace had a delicate slouch. She hunched her shoulders like a child. Her sudden tautness was perplexing at the time, then they moved on.

*

As for her father! Well, Rosa genuinely frightened her poor father. She understood the deal. He had worked hard, and now he expected a leisurely decline. His wife was dead and for a time he had been a wide-eyed embodiment of grief, quite crazy in the living room, later unkempt in the garden, given to sudden fits of weeping. He wept like he was dying, gasping and holding his head. Really, in the nineteenth century he would have died and they would have said it was from his broken heart. But the doctors had buoyed him with remedies. They cranked him up again and now he was running along well enough. He was not happy, certainly, and it bothered Rosa that she was making him anxious. Still, he had other matters to consider. Aside from the weight of grief,
heavy upon him, he was seventy, living on his pension, a recent convert to all sorts of homeopathic medicines, observing a waiting-room diet of fruit and vegetables. If he didn’t make her his top priority she understood why. ‘I don’t expect any help,’ she told him when he called to berate her. He held her up, pinned her so she couldn’t struggle and told her off as if she was a child. On the counter-attack, Rosa began, ‘I’ll manage fine –’

BOOK: Inglorious
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