Read Shroud Online

Authors: John Banville

Shroud (5 page)

I dressed, impatiently, as always now. With the years I find these necessary morning rituals increasingly irksome. For whose benefit was I putting on this shirt, this linen suit, this tie that was too short and too broad at the end and made me look, as I could see from the mirror, as if my tongue were hanging out? The old should have a special garment, something like a monk's habit, simple and functional, and suitably presageful of the winding-sheet. I ran my fingers through the crackling strands of my unruly hair, without visible effect; I never wanted to let my hair grow wild like this, especially when it began to turn white, but I felt it would be expected of me, the famous Mijnheer de Professor from the doddery, woolly Old World. Suddenly, like a soft blow, the memory from childhood came to me of my mother wetting a fingertip and smoothing down the comma of wiry hair on the crown of my head that always a moment afterwards would spring up again. I recalled too the curiously voluptuous shiver of disgust I would experience when she was helping me into some new item of clothing, a blouse, or knee-breeches, or a crisp navy-and-white sailor suit with the pasteboard price-tag still dangling from a buttonhole. What was the cause of that inner recoil? An excess of intimacy with my mother, under the chrysanthemum-smell of whose face powder I could detect a medley of more intimate and more exciting odours? No, that is not it, I think; what made me flinch, surely, was an over-consciousness of self, the sudden, ghastly awareness of being trapped inside this armature of flesh and bone like a pupa wedged in the hardened-over mastic of its cocoon. Immediately, again, came the demand:
What self?
What sticky imago did I imagine was within me, do I imagine is within me, even still, aching to burst forth and spread its gorgeous, eyed wings?

The lift was an old-fashioned, rackety affair, the sight of which twanged another vaguely nostalgic string at the far back of my memory. I could hear it coming down from above, stopping at every floor and flinging open its gate with a noise of mashing metals, as if successive armfuls of wire clothes-hangers were being crushed between giant steel claws. When it reached me, though, there was no one in it. The lobby too was empty, the reception desk unattended. Through a partly open door behind the desk I spied the manager from last night, eating a sandwich, sitting hunched at the corner of a table on which there was a typewriter and untidy mounds of papers. He was tieless today, with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled and the collar open on a tufted triangle of bulging chest. Was he, out of costume like this and in slight dishevelment, was he, I wondered, more himself, or less? He was going at the sandwich with the concentrated ferocity of a dog that has not been fed for days. When he saw me looking he did not acknowledge me, only scowled, his jaw munching away, and leaned out sideways and pushed the door shut with his foot. I was about to walk on when there rose unbidden before my mind's eye the image of the coffee mug, the one I had left on the table in the lounge when the taxi arrived to take me to the airport. I saw it all that way away, on what was now the dark side of the world, the rim marked with a dried half moon of gum from my morning mouth, the coffee dregs turning to a ring of furry brown powder in the bottom, just standing there in the darkness and the silence, one among all the other mute, unmoving objects I had left behind me in the locked house, and it came to me, with inexplicable but absolute certainty, that I would never return there. Shaken, I faltered, and put a hand to the desk to steady myself. A clerk came out of the office and looked at me. To cover the moment's infirmity I asked for a map of the city, and the clerk opened one between us on the counter and with a show of laboured dutifulness – why do his kind always glance aside in that blank, bored way just before they speak? – began to show me on it the location of the hotel. Yes yes, I said, I knew where I was! I snatched up the map and without folding it I stuffed it into my pocket and went through the glass door and corkscrewed myself on my stick down the steps into the high, narrow street.

What did it mean, that I would not go back? Was I to die here, in this city? I am not superstitious, I do not believe in premonitions, yet there it was, the conviction – no, the knowledge – that I would not return home again, ever. But then I thought:
Home?
I walked along the street in wonderment and muddled alarm, in the unfamiliar air, smelling the city's unfamiliar smells. At the sunlit corner I came upon the flower seller. She was seated beside her stall on a folding canvas stool. She was a foreigner, another refugee, I surmised, not Russian, this time, but a native of one of those statelets wedged like boulders of basalt, though beginning rapidly to crumble now, between the straining continental plates of East and West. Her skin was a dull shade of khaki, and she was dressed in what looked to me like a gypsy costume, with bangles and many cheap rings, and a brightly coloured headscarf knotted tightly under her chin. She was young, no more than thirty, I thought, but her face was the face of an old woman, pinched and sharp. She was talking to herself, rapidly, in a low, rhythmic singsong, a sort of atrophied whine of entreaty and complaint. I felt a jolt, as in the experience of putting a foot on to the non-existent top step of a staircase in the dark, when I saw from the filmed-over emptiness of her eyes that she was blind. She sensed my hovering presence at once, though, and fumbled a spray of lily-of-the-valley from the stall and offered it to me, her whine intensifying into a pitiful but curiously unurgent, almost indifferent, beseeching. I produced a bank note, in an absurdly enormous denomination, and she put out a thin, leaf-brown hand unerringly and took it, and stored it swiftly in an inner recess of her beaded bodice. I waited for my change, but none was offered. She sat and softly keened complainingly as before, oblivious of me now, it appeared, rocking herself back and forth on her stool. Only then did I notice that she was in an advanced state of pregnancy. Behind me a yellow-and-black tram went past, spitting big, soft, flabby sparks from its overhead connection and causing the pavement to quake. Stooping in the lee of all that force and clangour I turned and hurried on.

I dodged into the first caffè that I came to and sat at a table far at the back, as if to hide from a pursuer. My upper lip was damp with sweat and my heart was joggling from side to side like a cartoon alarm clock. What was the matter, why had that encounter so disturbed me? I recalled the old man in Paris, a distant relative on my mother's side, in his dank apartment in the Marais, pressing fistfuls of francs into my hands and reciting for me the names of people who might help me, in Lisbon, London, New York, chanting them over and over in an urgent murmur, as if they were the verses of the Law. Even now, half a century later, I can recall a surprising number of them – their names, that is, for of course I never went near the people themselves. They would all be dead by now, most likely, and their children grown up, become lawyers or doctors or big shots in the insurance business, who would not care who I was, or what I had made of myself, or how, for no good reason, I had deceived that old man in the Marais, telling him I was someone other than who I was. I lifted my coffee cup with a hand that was trembling again and sought to quell the memories welling up out of the murk of the past.
What is remarkable is not that we remember, but that we forget
– who was it that said that? I looked about me at the caffè's ornate trappings, the chandeliers, the potbellied coffee machines, the gleaming copper spigot at the bar from which a constant purling cord of water flowed. There were few patrons: a panting old man and his panting dog, a woman in an elaborate hat eating pastries, and a clownish, carrot-haired fellow wearing an ill-fitting, loud, checked blazer and a bright yellow shirt with a soiled collar, the wide wings of which were spread flat over the lapels of his blazer, who kept glancing surreptitiously in my direction with a faint, elusive leer. By the door three black-tied waiters loitered, exchanging desultory remarks and eyeing the toecaps of their patent-leather shoes. For a second, strangely, and for no reason that I knew, everything seemed to stop, as if the world had missed a heartbeat. Is this how death will be, a chink in the flow of time through which I shall slip as lightly as a letter dropping with a rustle into the mysterious dark interior of a mailbox? I paid my bill and rose abruptly and made for the door, again as if I were fleeing someone, and had the sensation, as so often at such precipitate moments, of having left something of myself behind, and thought that if I were to look back now I would see a crude parody of myself sprawled on the chair where I had been sitting, a limp, life-sized marionette, hands hanging and jointed limbs all awry, grinning woodenly at the ceiling.

The door, heavy and high, resisted me, and I had to lean my weight into it to push it open. At my back I heard a flapping step, and saw in the sunstruck, bevelled glass panel of the door in front of me the reflection of a grinning face looming at my shoulder. It was the red-haired fellow, the one who had been watching me while I drank my coffee. I turned to confront him, and the door on its stiff spring swung back and struck me on the shoulder, and would have sent me pitching headlong among the tables and the chairs and the legs of the waiters if Carrot Head had not grasped me by the elbow – the one I had bruised on the bathroom shelf, naturally – and held me upright. He had a large, round, high-coloured face, with a sprinkling of ginger bristles on cheeks and chin that glittered in the sunlight falling through the glass. That awful blazer was far too big for him, as were his trousers, and he wore a pair of incongruous, once-white plimsolls with soiled laces and thick rubber soles. He nodded and leered, saying something in what seemed to be dialect. I shook off with difficulty that insistent and insinuating hand, and took a step forward and let go of the door, hoping it would bash my pursuer in the face, but he avoided it nimbly and followed me into the street, still keeping up his incomprehensible patter. The only word of it I could make out sounded like
signore,
which was repeated over and over, with puzzling emphasis, while Carrot Head nodded vehemently and pointed to his own face. I turned away from him and set off along the lofty corridor of the arcade as fast as my bad leg and the uneven paving flags would allow, keeping my gaze fixed furiously ahead. Still Carrot Head would not let me go, but trotted eagerly beside me, burbling away, and leaning down and round and up to push his face in front of mine. And so we went along, by the stone archways, through alternating intensities of shadow and sunlight, glanced at by quizzical passers-by, until, at an intersection, beside a second-hand bookstall, I halted suddenly and took a step sideways and lifted high my stick in a hand white and shaking, and Carrot Head at last fell back, pursing his lips and shaking his head with a sorrowful smile and holding up placatingly a pair of empty palms.

Out of the shadows into the long piazza I stepped, and paused to stand a moment, breathing hard, waiting for my anger and disquiet to abate, still wondering what the fellow could have wanted of me. With a cold eye I took in what the guidebooks would call the panorama: the wedding-cake façades, the bronze horseman unsheathing his sword, the famed twin churches down at the far end of the square, all bathed in a honeyed, sunlit haze. I find this city no more attractive or interesting than any other I have known. Customs, legends, tales of colourful characters and events, such stuff leaves me cold; the picturesque in particular I find revolting. I do not care what battles Emanuele Filiberto won or lost, or where Cavour liked to eat his dinner. History is a hotchpotch of anecdotes, neither true nor false, and what does it matter where it is supposed to have taken place? How I used to despise those novelists whose paltry fictions it was my misfortune in the early years of my career to be forced to foist upon my students, I mean those northern worshippers of the sun-drenched south, the self-styled pagans – frauds and remittance men all – whose scenes were set on thyme-scented islands, or in pine-shaded hilltop villages, or in that steamy seaport in a disregarded corner of the Mediterranean, where the hero and his sloe-eyed mistress shared their parting dinner in a little restaurant up a side street from the harbour where the tourists never ventured, the anchovies and the bitter olives and the rough local wine, and the restaurant-keeper's wife humming something plangent, and the street arabs wheedling, and the three-legged dog gnawing a knuckle of bone, and the old poet at the next table coughing his life out over a last absinthe. As if place meant something; as if being somewhere vivid and exotic ensured an automatic intensification of living. No: give me an anonymous patch of ground, with asphalt, and an oily bonfire smouldering, and vague factories in the distance, some rank, exhausted nonplace where I can feel safe, where I can feel at home, if I am ever to feel at home, anywhere.

I walked on. A stream of motor cars was flowing swiftly through the square, separating into two channels around the bronze horseman's plinth and meeting and mingling again in cacophonous disorder on the other side. The sun was being stealthily swallowed by a fat, barely moving cloud, putty-grey and burning silver all along its forward edge. A pigeon landed in front of me, descending in an awkward flurry on churning wings, like a rapid succession of violet-grey ink-blot tests. I turned again and struck away from the square, and walked through ever narrower, cobbled streets, until I came out at last unexpectedly into a wide avenue flanked on both sides with chestnut trees in flower. Here I could breathe more easily. As I passed under the first broad, high, cool canopy of leaves, it occurred to me to wonder when a tree would feel most like itself, when it would feel it had most fully achieved its true being. I mean, if it were sentient – and who is to know if we are the only conscious ones, or that our consciousness is the only kind there is? – at what stage of its yearly cycle would it say, now,
now
I am what I am, now at last I am in my total treeness. Would it be in spring's first greening, or the full-leafed glory of June, or autumn flame, or even the gnarled nakedness of winter? And to live that cycle of life within another cycle – the one from bud to bareness, the other, the longer one, from sapling to hollow stump – surely that would be confusing. Would the fall of its leaves feel like incipient death, each year? Would spring feel like rebirth? Thinking these thoughts, in that midday's green dusk, I heard, or felt, rather, a reverberant boom, as if in the distance a great sheet of pliant metal had been struck with a huge, soft hammer. Thunder? I did not think so. Some aeroplane noise? A cannon shot, perhaps, marking the midday hour? Whatever it was it disturbed me. I quickened my pace, veering off in the direction of the hotel.

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