Read Shroud Online

Authors: John Banville

Shroud (6 page)

Presently I realised that I had lost my way, and I had to stop at a street corner to consult the crumpled map the hotel clerk had given me. I was squinting up in search of a street name when I registered the girl, on the corner opposite, looking in my direction. She was tallish, fair, neither pretty nor plain; I would not have noticed her had she not seemed to be regarding me with a smile, knowing, not unfriendly, as if I were someone she had met long ago, in faintly discreditable circumstances. She stepped forward into the street, squeezing between two cars parked closely nose to tail. Was she coming to accost me? The prospect made my pulse quicken, and I did not know whether to wait for her or flee. Who were all these people, the flower seller, Carrot Head, now this girl, and what did they want with me? The lorry had already braked, its tyres locked and shrieking, when it struck her. I had the sense of her spinning on her toes, head thrown back and hair flying, fast and tensely graceful as a dancer. There was a cry, not hers. A burly, grey-haired man on the pavement behind her threw up one arm and said something loud and deprecating in a deep bass voice. Vehicles squawked and pulled aside to right and left as the lorry hurtled down the centre of the street for twenty yards and came at last to a slewed, smoking stop. The girl had fallen back and was draped against the side of one of the parked cars with her arms flung wide. There was blood in her hair, and a glistening, innocent-looking trickle of blood coming out of her left ear. The large man who had thrown up his arm was toiling toward her at a bow-legged run, but before he could reach her she slithered abruptly to the ground as if everything inside her had suddenly liquefied, and lay in a boneless heap. Now others were running forward, and people were scrambling out of their cars and craning to see what had happened. I turned about quickly and set off at a headlong lurch, not caring which direction I was going in, so long as it was away from there. People jostled me, pressing forward for a glimpse of the fallen girl, with vague, eager, self-forgetting frowns. I was in a sort of panic, gasping, the sweat running into my eyes, and there was a blazing pain deep in my groin. I did not know what I was fleeing from; not the girl's death, certainly, or not only that. A half-formed image came to my mind – from Bosch, was it, or Dante? – of an emaciated, gape-mouthed figure, stooped and naked, running with uplifted arms through a landscape of burning red earth, bearing another figure, its own double, lashed to it tightly back to back. At last I came to the quiet of a secluded small piazza, with cobbles and more strutting pigeons and a patch of dusty grass, all loured over by the baroque, blocky façade of a palace, the name of which I knew I should know but could not remember. Unable to go any further I flopped down on a bench of polished marble. There was no one else about. A noontide pall of lethargy had fallen on the city. That slow cloud now hid the sun, and the soft grey air and the silence calmed my seething nerves. The pain in my groin subsided.

Why such upset? This was not the first violent end I had witnessed. Was it that it was another of death's heartless demonstrations that even the young are not immune to its capricious singlings-out? No, that is too obscure. Perhaps it was simply because the girl had seemed to be looking at me, had seemed to know or recognise me, might even have been about to speak to me. But why should that make the encounter, if such it could be called, so unsettling? In certain circles, admittedly rarefied, mine is a well-known face. I am used to strangers recognising me. They will pause, the young in particular, and look at me, shyly, or with resentment, or more often just that slow, dull, witless stare, as if it is not the real me they are seeing but a representation of me, an animated model set up for their free and exclusive scrutiny. So why should the girl's attention have made me want to take to my heels? Oh, but I knew, I knew of course, why I was agitated: it was not the girl I was thinking of, it was Magda. When she was alive I could hardly be said to have given her a second thought, while now she was constantly on my mind, if only as a shadow, the solitary spectator sitting in the benches above the spotlit ring where the gaudy and increasingly chaotic performance of who and what I am pretending to be is carried on without interval. She lingers there, unwilling shade, wishing to be gone, perhaps, yet curious to see the not so grand finale, with its tumbling clowns and bowing acrobats and trained animals doing their last lap. Only in death has she begun to live fully, for me.

Strange, but try as I may I cannot remember exactly how or when we met. In my memory of it, that first, long-ago season in an unreally vivid New York is all haste and noise and sullen heat. Even in the streets I felt as if I were trapped inside a huge, smoky, deafening factory. Everything was always on the move, there was never a moment of cessation or stillness. Traffic thudded day and night along the streets above the corner basement room where I lodged; the papers on the scarred old table I used for a work desk shivered and shifted in the draught from the electric fan some acquaintance had given me, as it turned its fuzzy face and fencer's mask slowly from side to side in obdurate refusal of relief. All day a confusion of disembodied legs passed back and forth on the pavement outside the ground-level window above my table, as if there were a riot, or a disordered, shuffling marathon dance, continually going on out there. And then there was the talk, incessant, raucous, plosive with challenge or swollen with sudden declarations of sincerity and fellow-feeling. I would meet them at the end of their working day –
was one of the sacred words then, pronounced with breathy awe – the scrawny young men in open-necked shirts, with their flat haircuts and Zippo lighters, sweating earnestness, the serious-eyed girls in pumps and calf-length skirts clutching paperback copies of
to their chests like breastplates. The thin, sweetish beer, the charry cigarette smoke, the sudden squabbles that were as suddenly quelled, the shouts and thrusting forefingers, and that gesture of half-angry dismissal of a contrary opinion, so characteristic of the time and place, a free-wristed, sideways slap at the air and the face turning aside, with wrinkled nose and drooping lower lip:
– all this was intensely strange to me, and yet familiar, too, I could not think why, at first, until I realised that of course I had seen it all over and over again, for vears, in the cinema, every Saturday night, when I was young. America on the screen had been more intimately familiar to me than the streets of the city where I was born and where I lived. And so, in New York, the actual New York, that was how I chose to present myself, as a character out of the pictures, a fat cigarette lolling in my lips and a tumbler of bourbon at my elbow. I even used to dress the part, in brown fedora and tight, double-breasted suit and two-toned shoes. Oh, yes, it was quite a figure that I cut. The intellectual as tough guy, that was all the rage, in those days. All I lacked was a companion, some big babe, loose and hard-drinking, and as tough as I was supposed to be. People were baffled, therefore, especially the girls, when it turned out to be sweet, silent, undemonstrative Magdalena that I chose to be my moll, my mate. Even then, when she was still in her twenties, there was a massive, stony quality to her, something granitic and unrelievedly grey, that was curiously attractive, to me, at least. I quickly understood, when I first began to notice her, that she kept to the background not out of shyness or fear – although she was shy, she was fearful – but in order to be able to watch and listen to all that went on from the shelter of anonymity. She was unflagging in her obligingness, doing errands for the men and the bossier of the girls, fetching books for them, and packs of cigarettes, and sandwiches and paper cups of coffee; I can still see her, in her sandals and no-colour knitted dress, her hair in fat braids, coming down the basement steps in that odd, elephantine way that she had, turning sideways and lowering one broad foot on to each step and then bringing the second down to join it, her chin tucked into her fish-pale throat and her gaze fixed on whatever it was she was carrying. She was living on the Lower East Side – a placename that in those days still sounded as suggestively exotic to my ears as Samarkand or the Isles of the Blest – with a plumber, a militant Pole of simian aspect with a revolutionist's wire-brush moustache, who was said to beat her. She would not talk about him, even when she had left him and had come to live with me in my basement, bringing a bottle of bourbon as a moving-in present and one not very large suitcase containing everything she possessed. Late one night the Pole turned up in the street outside, drunk and in a tearful rage and calling out her name, and banged on the door and would have kicked in the window had it not been barred. I wanted to get up and chase him away – even with my bad leg I did not doubt I would be well able to see off the little ape – but Magda prevented me.

She did not like to talk about herself or her life; when she did mention some event from the past her voice would take on a tinge of puzzlement, as if what had happened had happened to someone else and she could not understand how she knew so many of the details. Nor did she care particularly to hear about my life before we had met. Others, even the brashest among our acquaintances, regarded me with a kind of wondering respect, with a holy reverence, almost: I was the real thing, a genuine survivor, who had come walking into their midst out of the fire and furnace smoke of the European catastrophe, like Frankenstein's monster staggering out of the burning mill. To Magda, though, herself a survivor, I was simply Vander – she did not care to call me Axel; it sounded, she said, like the name of a guard dog – a man much like any other, more volatile, perhaps, than the ones she was used to, potentially more violent even than her Pole, but still no more than a man. She did not remark particularly my dead leg or my blind eye, and accepted without comment the bragging lies I told her as to how I had come by them – my stand against a rampaging mob, the blow I got from a storm trooper's rifle butt – lies I had rehearsed so often that I had come almost to believe them myself. Early one sweltering morning, though, I woke out of a doze to find her leaning over me – our bed was a mattress on the floor – with her large, soft face propped on a hand, contemplating me in big-eyed, solemn silence. For a minute neither of us stirred, then she touched a fingertip to the pulpy lid of my bad eye and murmured,
"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee"
and the bristles stood up on the back of my neck, as if it were an oracle that had spoken. Who would have expected Magda, big, slow, flat-footed Magda, to come out with something so grave, so sonorous, so biblically apt to both our states?

My life with her was a special way of being alone. It was like living on intimate terms with a creature from another species; she was to me as remote and inaccessible as some large, harmless herbivore. At times I thought there was no mystery to her at all, that she was as blank as she seemed, then at others I grew convinced that this appearance of unmoving calm that she displayed was a mask she had fashioned for herself behind which she too must be locked in frantic strategies of calculation and control, practising, like me, for a part she did not believe she would ever be able to fill convincingly. In the state of mutual incomprehension that was our life together we were forever surprising each other. She was alarmingly well read, as in the early days I had frequent and shame-making cause to discover. Already I had made myself adept at appearing deeply learned in a range of subjects by the skilful employment of certain key concepts, gleaned from the work of others, but to which I was able to give a personal twist of mordancy or insight. In everything I wrote there was a tensed, febrile urgency that was generated directly out of the life predicament in which I had placed myself; I was fashioning a new methodology of thinking modelled on the crossings and conflicts of my own intricate and, in large part, fabricated past. I could discourse with convincing familiarity on texts I had not got round to reading, philosophies I had not yet studied, great men I had never met. My assertive elusiveness, as one critic rather clumsily called it, mesmerised the small but influential coterie of savants who sampled and approved of my early pieces. Though they might question my grasp of theory and even doubt my scholarship, all were united in acclaiming my mastery of the language, the tone and pitch of my singular voice; even my critics, and there were more than a few of them, could only stand back and watch in frustration as their best barbs skidded off the high gloss of my prose style. This surprised as much as it pleased me; how could they not see, in hiding behind the brashness and the bravado of what I wrote, the trembling auto-didact hunched over his
Chicago Manual,
Grammar for Foreign Students?
Perhaps it was the very bizarreries of usage which I unavoidably fell into that they took for the willed eccentricities in which they imagined only a lord of language would dare to indulge.

Do not misunderstand me: I have no doubt that I possess genius, of a kind. It is just not the kind that it has pretended all those years to be. I sometimes think that I missed my calling, that I could have been a great artist, a master of compelling inventiveness, arch, allusive, magisterially splenetic, given to arcane reference, obscure aims, an alchemist of word and image. Indeed, my critics often grumble at the desolate lyricism of my mature style, seeing behind it the pale hand of the poet. I take their point. Mine is the kind of commentary in which frequently the comment will claim an equal rank with that which is supposedly its object; equal, and sometimes superior. In my study of Rilke, an early work, there are passages of ecstatic intensity that world-drunk lyricist himself might have envied, while those long, twinned essays on Kleist and on Kafka are as desperate and inconsolable as any of the plays or the parables of those two hierophants of dejection. Shall I bow before these great ones? Shall I bend the knee to their eminence? Damned if I will. I hold myself as high as any of them, in my own estimation. What troubles me only is the thought of all I might have done had I been simply – if such a thing may be said to be simple – myself.

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