Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (6 page)

BOOK: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
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But then it grew long & dragged at my heart & I knew the execution couldn’t match the first image. And then the clawing fear began. And darkness ate in around the edges. Then they started to lie to me, telling me it was good enough to publish – I knew it wasn’t. And so did Leonard. Although he denied it, his face declared it

the strain puckering his dear deep lines

How often I gave poor Leonard worry.

– Is it possible that we were all wrong?

‘Did you say they are calling it a masterpiece?’


‘Some people say it’s your best book. I think it brings all your themes together. ’

For the first time, then, she looked at me. It was a long, assessing stare.

She looked at me. I looked at her. I dared to meet those startling eyes, their shocking hunger, their intelligence. Around us other beings surged. Families wailing like cats mating: hordes of busy animals. But we were human. We saw each other.

With one accord, we looked away.

I fixed my gaze on the narrowing band of sunlight on the sea lions’ island. While we were distracted, everything had changed. Unnoticed, the great pale sea lion elder had heaved its vast yellow bulk up the mountain, pushed past the black balletic young and surged on rolls of fat and muscle up to
sunbathe on the very summit. Old, solid, surprisingly strong. Late sunlight gilded her.


‘Of course I don’t care at all about the critics.’


‘Of course.’


‘I never gave a fig for their opinions.’




‘What kind of thing exactly do they say?’


I tried to give her what she wanted. ‘That you were trying to link art to the people – ’ But a little devil made me go on. ‘Whereas Bloomsbury became a byword for, you know, snobbery. Art for art’s sake, and all that stuff.’


‘Snobbery? Bloomsbury? We are socialists! Leonard is always out canvassing!’


‘Sorry, sorry. Yes, I know. Your husband was remarkable.’

I watched that past tense give her pause. Her long arms wrapped around her body, her head went down, then up again, her eyes burned, she was formidable.


‘Did you hear me?
We were socialists
. Anti-imperialists through and through!’


I wouldn’t let her hector me.

‘Perhaps that message didn’t reach your public.’


‘The public can be ridiculous …’ (
) ‘But I have a public? – Still? – Now?’


‘You do.’

There was a pause. Something shifted between us. For another brief moment, we looked at each other. Sunlight, or hope, gave her skin a faint flush. Yes, she was very beautiful. (But Edward called me beautiful, too. I was still young, and she was old.)

Her brows lifted. A secret smile.


And in that moment, life poured through me. My new ‘now’. My American now! The particular. That apricot sunlight. It was just on the point of leaving the island, intensifying as it yielded to night. The vault of the sky was indigo violet, making love with the apricot. The animals straining up into it.

And I am here. Life has come back

Indigo, violet, the pigeons circling, each vane of their wing-tips sharp on the glow.

The electric shock of life thrilled me, shivering in an instant across the tiny stalks of hair on my skin, the back of my neck, my hidden places. I was alive. And I had a public.


A low whoosh, then another, and another. And finally something like a
. All four sea lions were back in the water.


‘Let’s go back out on the streets and walk. You say we’re in America?’


‘New York. But it will soon be dark.’


‘Of all places. I never went there! Never went to America. I never cared to, I loved Europe …’

I did want to go. I was afraid. Part of me wanted to stay in my room, never going out, writing, writing. Another part longed to see the world. I loved our car. I was safe inside. Leonard, me, and Mitz Marmoset, and Europe floating past outside the window …

We knew Europe, all our friends went, but America seemed a world away. I imagined the cars in endless ribbons, dozens abreast, streaming into the future, indifferent to me, a vast indifference … Terrifying. I would not exist.

In this American
, was I a different person? The night was coming, but I wasn’t afraid.

On the other hand, I had no luggage. What did they wear, these new … New Yorkers?

‘I have no clothes. Just these old rags. More to the point, I
have no money – ’


‘Nothing at all in your pockets?’ (I had seen it, clearly, a bulge in her pockets.) ‘Alas, I’m not exactly rich.’


‘ – and nowhere to live. Where will I live?’

After all, one had to live somewhere.

Just for a moment, I felt simple pleasure. Somewhere to live. A new place. The fun I had had at Monk’s House. Finding the perfect bentwood chair, glimpsed through the window of an antique shop. Yes, I would have to find somewhere to live!

But is anyone allowed those pleasures twice? Would they suffer me to … begin again? Whichever hell-hounds had let me go.

Maybe I was just released for the day.


‘As I said, I’m not rich. Not
rich. But maybe I can tide you over.’

Virginia was staring at the gravel. We followed the thinning crowd through the gate. The sun had slipped behind the towers that ringed the park like gate keepers. Would it be fun to walk through the park?

Very soon we were just two shadows, silent companions in a world of shades. Every now and then she stepped off the path to touch a plane tree. Her fingertips lingered, digging her nails into the bark. Once, I noticed she wasn’t there and saw her clutching the ordinary black railings, clinging on as if she’d never let go. She came back making small contented noises, tilted forward, smiling and nodding. But not at me. She was on her own.

I thought, if only the others knew – the tired humans walking home, the writers, students, advertising people, eyes on the path, shoulders hunched – that this tall shadow is Virginia Woolf. And she’s with me! I breathed in deep.

We were only five minutes from the gate when she suddenly said ‘I’m tired.’ She stopped. A light through leaves made her face cavernous. She was surely paler than before. She tried to say some more, but couldn’t. I found a seat. It felt cold to the hand, the wooden slats uncomfortable. She sank down with a muffled groan.

‘Virginia, are you all right?’

But she didn’t answer. She gathered herself, as if she was bringing herself back from the darkness, pulling her shoulders back like a soldier. With the faintest sigh, she was on her feet. And in a second, she’d set off again.

‘Virginia, you’re going the wrong way.’

Back on Fifth Avenue, the headlights had come on and the shop windows glowed like stained glass. Every so often she stopped and gazed. Those features, indescribably familiar, suddenly grown intimate. In lit close-up, astonished, pleased. How could it be – it
be – that face shone out from my own blue coat, those white hands gestured from its wide blue sleeves? Above my collar, the mauve veins of her temples. I thought my eyes would eat her up.

(They hypnotise us, those images. Woolf, Auden, Nabokov. Monumental, moonlit, deaf. Now she had come to live amongst us.)


‘So much electricity.’ We had paused in a wash of lemon light from a window where giant pastel easter eggs circled the air. ‘It’s dazzling. My eyes are tired. This city must be very expensive …’


After all, she did write
A Room of One’s Own
. She knew you couldn’t live without money.


‘Every so often, I’m tired to death. ’


‘Virginia, we’re nearly home.’



Back in the room, I ordered tea; luke-warm water and teabags arrived. The lack of competence invigorated her.


‘Tea was always appalling abroad. France, Germany. So nothing’s changed.’


I felt defensive about my century.

‘Actually, this isn’t typical. It’s just a rather poor hotel.’


‘Is it poor?
Then why did you choose it?’


Virginia was sitting on the bed. Her long elegant frame made it look short and narrow.

I contemplated the difficulties of explaining the perils of internet deals. First I must explain the internet. No, put it off until tomorrow. ‘Because it’s cheap,’ I said

She had draped my coat over the single armchair. I sank down beside her on the same twin bed, leaving a respectful gap between us.


‘Oh. Are you poor?’


I was furious! ‘Certainly not.’

Her interest was anthropological: I was just a human from another era. No, I wasn’t real for her.

But I
real. Money is a touchy subject. If she was going for frankness, so would I. ‘You ought to be massively rich by now. Royalties, and rights, and so forth.’


‘If so, they certainly haven’t told me. Possibly I was hard to contact.’


I tried not to think she was mocking me. Something to do with the class difference maybe. The elongated vowels of her ‘really’. The accent of someone who had never had to work.

All very well for her to time-travel and end up here with no means of support.


I was chortling with pleasure at the nerve of this woman. I loved the fact that she could talk about money. So many women are incapable of doing so. Brazen, yes, but invigorating. All the same – did she think they’d been sending me cheques?


I blushed with shame. She was definitely laughing. I wanted her to think me intelligent. For one second I almost felt – hatred.

‘So you don’t have any money at all, Virginia?’ (Why should I pussyfoot around with the ‘Mrs’?) ‘That’s rather – inconvenient.’ I snickered, mirthlessly. Two could play at that game.

I poured myself another cup of tea, without looking to see if she needed a refill.


She had gone too far. She was a vulgar woman. But I could wipe the smile off her face. ‘I didn’t take any money with me – on my last day.’


I did feel bad.

‘Sorry, Virginia.’


‘Mrs Woolf!’

taken by surprise


No, it was absurd, I would not – kow-tow. ‘But you know, we are in the twenty-first century.’

not understanding

‘Surely good manners are still important.’


‘Yes. My name is Angela. Just in case you want to use it.’


‘Wait a minute … what’s that in your pocket?’ (
) ‘Oh I suppose it’s just a


‘There is nothing of interest to you in my pockets.’


I saw from her face she was
to me!

Hauteur punctured by childish guilt, a smidgin of fear mixed
with laughter – she looked like Gerda aged one and a half, hiding her banana under the sofa. Which must explain what happened next. Looking back on it I can hardly believe it, but this is what happened. We had a fight!

.’ I reached for the bulges in her jacket, she tried to turn her back on me – we had a brief tussle.
I was tussling with Woolf
. I was stronger, of course – she had been dead for a while! – yet something had changed since she first arrived, when I had touched her hand and there was nothing there. Her body no longer felt liquid, boneless. She was panting a little. No, she was laughing.

There was a hard object in each pocket, straining the frayed tweed of her suit.


‘They’re books, that’s all. I like to keep them with me.’

(Oddly, the struggle made me giggle. I had not been touched for such a long time. I played with my brothers, long long ago. When I was a child, and things were easy, before Mother died and the house went dark.)

‘I mean, they are mine. I did write them. I even published them. I have a right.’

(Why was I justifying myself to
? She was becoming a parent figure. Poor Dr Freud would have something to say, in his flickering, subtle, shrunken way –

– How very late I came to love him. Like fathers, only after they die … I loved my father, but the noise, the groaning, the hurricane that shook the doors. Then, when he’d gone, I could think, in the silence, I could feel for him, I could dare to love him. After Freud died, I began to read him.)


‘My God.
To the Lighthouse
. What a glorious copy.’

I could hardly believe what I saw on the bed. As she pulled it out it had fallen open. I gazed at the print, the Hogarth typeface, the fresh, dense cream of the pages. And then I closed it, and it really sank in.

‘Virginia! It’s a first edition.’

There it was, Vanessa’s lovely design, the grey swirls of the waves below, the few plain strokes to denote the lighthouse, the black dots swarming in different densities to show the light blazing up in a fan. All around it, the lighthouse wall. ‘It’s worth a fortune. What’s the other one?’

stays silent, lost in thought

‘Virginia! Show me the other one! I am excited! It’s incredible!’

starting, and staring hard at the book before handing it over

‘Somehow my books came to find me.’

Angela opens some pages, amazed

BOOK: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
10.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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