Authors: Andrew Taylor
The Long Sonata of the Dead
HADN’T SEEN A DAM
in the flesh for over twenty years. I had seen him on television, of course—it was increasingly hard to miss him—but the last time I had met him in person was when we picked up our degrees. Mary had been there too.
“Well,” he’d said, punching me gently on the arm. “Thank God it’s over. Let’s find a drink. We need to celebrate.”
“No,” I’d said. “I don’t want to.”
Mary hadn’t said anything at all.
I don’t deny that it was a shock to see Adam after all this time, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. It was the first of the three shocks that happened in swift succession that afternoon.
I was standing at one of the tall windows of the reading room overlooking St. James’s Square. It was a Tuesday afternoon in February, just after lunch, and it was raining. I was watching the domes of umbrellas scurrying like wet beetles on the pavements and the steady clockwise flow of traffic round the square. Adam must have walked across the garden in the middle. He came out of the gate in the railings on the north side. He paused for a moment, waiting for a gap in the traffic.
That’s when I recognized him. Despite the rain, he didn’t have a hat or umbrella. He was wearing a Burberry raincoat but even that was unbuttoned. He had his head thrown back and his legs a little apart. He was smiling as if the weather was a friend, not an inconvenience.
He had been standing like that the very first time I saw him, which was also in the rain. That had been the first day of our first term at university. I was staring down from my room at the cobbled court below and wishing I was still at home. There was Adam, looking as if he owned the place. Thirty seconds later I discovered that he was my new roommate. He was studying English, too, so we saw each other for a large part of every day for an entire year, apart from the holidays.
The traffic parted before him like the Red Sea. He strolled across the road, swinging his bag. I realized that he was coming here, to the London Library.
Adam looked up at the windows of the reading room. He couldn’t have seen me looking down at him—I was too far back from the glass. But I turned and moved away as if I had been caught doing something wrong.
It will help if I explain about the London Library before I go on. It’s a building, first of all, an old townhouse that was turned into a private subscription library in 1841. Its members included people like Dickens and Thackeray, Carlyle and George Eliot. Over the years it has been extended down and up, sideways and backwards, until the place has become a maze of literature.
The pillared reading room on the first floor still has the air of a well-appointed gentleman’s library, with leather armchairs in front of the fireplace, racks of the latest periodicals and galleries of bookcases far above your head. In all the years I have known it, I have never heard a raised voice there.
There are over a million of books, they say, in over fifty languages, marching along over fifteen miles of shelving. Nowadays they have an electronic universe of information to back them up. But it’s the real, printed books that matter. I often think of the sheer weight of all that paper, all that ink, all those words, all those meanings.
The London Library is, in its way, a republic of letters. As long as they pay the subscription and obey the few rules, its members have equal rights and privileges. Perhaps that was the main reason the place was so important to me. In the London Library I was as good as anyone else. Since my marriage had broken up three years ago, I felt more at home in the library than I did in my own flat.
Over the years the collection has grown. As the books have multiplied, so has the space required to house them. Members have free access to the stacks that recede deeper and deeper into the mountain of buildings behind the frontages of St James’s Square. Here, in these sternly utilitarian halls of literature, the tall shelves march up and down.
The library is an organic thing that has developed over the decades according to a private logic of its own over many levels and floors. There are hiding places, narrow iron staircases and grubby, rarely-visited alcoves where the paint on the walls hasn’t changed since the days of Virginia Woolf. Sometimes I think the library is really a great brain and we, its members who come and go over the years, are no more than its fugitive thoughts and impulses.
You never know quite what you may find in the stacks. There are many forgotten books that perhaps no one has ever looked at since their arrival at the library. Where else would I have found
The Voice of Angels
, for example, or learned about the long sonata of the dead?
Now there was a serpent in my booklined garden of Eden. Its name was Adam.
I went down the paneled stairs to the issue hall on the ground floor. I arrived just as Adam came through the security barrier. He was putting away the plastic-coated membership card in his wallet. So he was a member, not just a visitor.
He turned right and went into the little side-hall where the lockers are. I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t recognize me. He never really noticed people. Anyway, unlike him, I had changed a good deal since he had last seen me. I had put on weight. I had an untidy beard, streaked with grey. I was going bald.
I lingered by the window that looks down into the Lightwell Reading Room. I opened my notebook and pretended to examine one of the pages. The book fell open at the entries I had copied from the computer catalogue when I had first searched for Francis Youlgreave in the name index. Only two of his books were listed there:
The Judgement of Strangers
The Tongues of Angels.
They were both reprints from the 1950s.
On the edge of my range of vision I saw Adam crossing the hall to the long counter that divides the staff from the members. He laid down a couple of books for return. The nearest assistant did the little double-take that people do when they encounter the famous and smiled at him. I couldn’t see Adam’s face but his posture changed—he seemed to grow a little taller, a little wider; he was like a preening peacock.
He turned away and passed behind me into the room where the photocopiers and the catalogues are. The two books remained where they were for the moment. I went over to them and picked up the top one. It was a survey of fin-de-siècle British poetry; it had been written in the 1930s by a man who used to review a good deal for the
Times Literary Supplement.
I had looked at it for my Youlgreave research but there wasn’t much there of value and Youlgreave himself was barely mentioned.
The assistant looked up. “I’m sorry, I haven’t checked that in yet—would you like to take it out?”
“I’m not sure. But may I look at it? And at this one.”
She scanned the labels and handed the books to me. I took them upstairs, back to the reading room, and settled at my table. The other book was a biography of Aubrey Beardsley. Again, I had come across the book myself—Beardsley had provided the illustrations for an 1897 collector’s edition of one of Youlgreave’s better-known poems, “The Four Last Things.” There wasn’t much about Beardsley’s connection with Youlgreave—merely the usual unsupported claim that they had moved in the same rather louche cultural circle in London, together with an account of Beardsley’s struggle to extract payment from Youlgreave’s publisher. But the page that mentioned the episode was turned down at the top left corner, an unpleasant habit that some readers have; Adam used to do it with my books and it infuriated me.
I knew then that this must be more than coincidence. That was the second shock of the afternoon. Adam was almost certainly researching Francis Youlgreave. The bastard, I thought, hasn’t he got enough already? Hasn’t he taken enough from me?
I continued automatically turning the pages. A flash of yellow caught my eye. It was a yellow Post-it note that marked the reference in the sources relating to the Youlgreave commission. That too was typical of Adam—he was always leaving markers in other people’s books; I once found a dessicated rasher of streaky bacon in my copy of Sterne’s
There was something written in pencil on the Post-it note.
You’re such a complete shit. You won’t get away with it.
That was the third shock. I recognized the writing, you see, the looping descenders, the slight backward slope, the tendency to turn the dots on the “i”s into tiny but incomplete circles, drawn clockwise, from the left. It had changed significantly over time—for example, the letters were untidier in form and now ran together like a tangle of razor wire on a prison wall.
But there was no doubt about it. A working knowledge of paleography has its advantages. I knew straightaway that the handwriting was Mary’s.
Mary was out of my league. She was in the year below mine. I had noticed her around—going to lectures, in the faculty coffee bar and, once, in the saloon bar of the Eagle, sprawled across the lap of a post-graduate student from Harvard who drove a Porsche. As far as I knew she wasn’t even aware of my existence.
This changed one night in May when I went to a party at someone’s house, taken there by a friend of a friend. We had come on from the pub. Someone was vomiting in the front garden when we arrived. The music was so loud that the windows were rattling in their frames.
We pushed our way through the crowd in the hall and found the kitchen, where the drinks were. That was packed, too. Someone passed me a joint as I came in. Everyone was shouting to make themselves heard over the music. Twenty minutes later, I realized that the joint had been stronger than I’d thought. I had to get away from all the people, the heat and the noise.
The back door was open. I stumbled outside. Cool air touched my skin. There was a little garden full of weeds and rusting metal. A couple was making out on an old mattress. Light and music streamed from the house but both were softened and more bearable. I looked up at the sky, hoping to see stars. There was only the dull yellow glow of a city sky at night.
I sat down on a discarded refrigerator lying on its side against the fence. The dope was still making my thoughts spin but more slowly now, and almost enjoyably. Time passed. The couple on the mattress rustled and groaned in their private world. Then, suddenly, I was not alone.
A change in the light made me look up. Mary was standing in the kitchen doorway. She was wearing a clinging velvet dress the color of red wine. She had a mass of dark hair. Her face was in shadow. The light behind her made a sort of aura around her.
I looked away, not wanting her to think that I was staring at her. I heard her footsteps. I caught a hint of her perfume, mingled with her own smell to make something unique.
“Why do you always look so sad,” she said.
Startled, I looked up. “What?”
“Why do you look so sad?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t feel it.”
“Not sad,” she said. “That’s the wrong word. Like you’re thinking tragic, profound thoughts.”
“Looks deceive,” I said.
“Have you got a cigarette?”
That was an easier question to answer. I found my cigarettes and offered her one. She leant forward when I held up the lighter for her. In the light of the flame I saw the gleam of her eyes, the high cheekbones and the dark, alluring valley between her breasts.