Read Turning Back the Sun Online

Authors: Colin Thubron

Tags: #Travel

Turning Back the Sun (15 page)

“Oh, the little ballerina.” Her voice was touched with intolerance. “A conceited creature.”

It was then that Rayner remembered. He had felt there was something familiar the moment he entered the hall, and now he realized. It was here, more than twenty years ago, that Jarmila and the others had staged their
Sleeping Beauty
for a group of indulgent adults. He ran laughing out of the room and bounded down the stairs to verify. And momentarily, in his bifocal gaze, the stepped hall became a stage and auditorium, and the cream draperies the backcloth of a haunted forest. Childishly, he supposed, but it seemed magical at the time, Jarmila and Miriam were tiptoeing back and forth in muslin tutus which shimmered with silver threads.

He panted back up the stairs. “Do you remember?”

“Of course I remember,” said his aunt. “That girl played a beauty, while you wound up the gramophone.”

“What happened to her?”

“Jarmila Kullman? She”s still living here, but she”s never done anything serious. She”s quite unsuited to the real world. No, she”s never married.”

For some reason this news distressed Rayner even more than that of Leon. Jarmila—beautiful, fine-boned Jarmila—had been the group”s mascot. He asked woodenly, “Do you remember the silver and muslin costumes? I think my mother must have made them.” It was the kind of craft his mother had enjoyed.

“Oh no. They were only paper.”


“Yes,” his aunt said. “Those were just children”s games, you know. Paper and tinsel!”


fter four days, the city no longer appeared to Rayner in the double focus of memory. It had become real, and so was subtly deconsecrated. Once or twice he found himself looking back on the town with wonder. It was the town that had become memory now, and from this safe vantage point a thousand kilometers to the north, it seemed to burn in the wilderness with an unholy vigor.

He was still dragging its shadow after him. At the party next door to his aunt, his hostess greeted him, “So you”re the nephew! Let”s pray for a miracle in your aunt”s health!” But he answered harshly, “Miracles and liver cancer don”t coexist,” and she was visibly shocked.

He felt his own awkwardness. He sipped his schnapps on one side of the room. He had forgotten how people in the city dressed up. The room was a harvest field of coiffured heads, and was filled with their lisping, dreamy accents. People flowed past him like breezes past a crag. They mostly seemed younger than him, but perhaps were not. The women in their low-cut dresses and glacé bows and torques were several of them pretty, and the men full of debonair enthusiasms. He instinctively liked them. But
he found nobody to talk with, and did not recognize a soul. They all seemed to partake of the same identity, voluble, optimistic and a little effete.

But after a while people discovered who he was: the nephew who would inherit. They focused him. Two girls came circling round, talking with the vitality of birds. “Oh, you come from
town!” But instead of condescension, he noticed a streak of awe. “That”s where everything”s going on now, isn”t it?” They seemed to envy him. But their knowledge came from half-read newspapers. “Don”t say the summer”s been hotter than here?
degrees! …” They panted humorously. “Disease? No, we”ve never heard of any disease. You mean
got a cure?” They looked bewildered, “The desert must be fascinating…. B
ut fourteen
murders? So the savages might just walk up and stick an axe in you? We used to have native servants and they were
loyal …”

Sometimes, imprisoned in his head, he heard Zoë”s ribald laughter.

Yet beneath their patter flared an intolerance which appealed to him. Out of their security—the city”s isolation and peace—they were furious with injustice, dismayed at inhumanity, sometimes incredulous. He felt as if he”d returned from a battlefront rather than just another town. “Torture?” demanded one man. “You mean
people do it? They kill them just like that?”

But they seemed to be hung with veils. They could not really comprehend. Away from the hot, fierce streets of the town, from its frightened inhabitants, its searing wilderness, understanding was impossible. Uneasily Rayner felt that compared to these people he was contaminated, and that, by comprehending even a little the paranoia and torture, he came closer to forgiving it. He was even afraid that this might show in his too-easy conversation, in the smoothness with which he sipped his schnapps while talking about death. In a moment, he thought, the indignant man and the two outraged girls—still uncomprehending
—might look at him afresh, and turn away.

And from time to time, behind his eyes, Zoë emerged in a soft, disruptive mockery. Once—so vivid was her image—he even thought she said something; but he could not catch her words.

Then he saw Leon. He was leaning against a cabinet with a glass of wine at his lips. He looked unchanged. The slight plumping-out of his face had dispossessed it of any lines.

Leon caught sight of him at the same moment. “Rayner!”

They embraced, then stared into each other”s eyes, reassembling one another. Leon asked, joking, “Where have you been? Not in that terrible place all this time?”

Rayner was transfixed by Leon”s sameness. After his suffering, it was baffling. He raked his hands melodramatically down his own face. “Yes, fifteen years! And you see what it”s done to me!”

Leon gazed at him with something between admiration and recoil. “I”d have killed myself,” he said. “I read that the drought had set the savages marauding.”

“They”re marauding through people”s heads.”

“I heard there”d been fourteen deaths.”

“Yes. I fished two out of the river.”

Leon shielded his eyes. “How could you stand it?”

“You have to.”

“Well, I suppose you”re a doctor, and used to it.” Rayner noticed his lips trembling. His gaze was fixed on the rim of his wine glass. Leon said, “It”s so long ago since you left. How do we catch up?” But perhaps he did not want to, because he went on, “Those were magic times, weren”t they? Do you remember the masked ball at Adelina”s? Do you remember …?”

Then, unprompted, he launched down a long, mournful river of reminiscence. He recalled picnics, balls and bathing parties, teenage jokes and childish vendettas, abortive loves, clandestine boating expeditions, accidents,
all in a tapestry of detail. Rayner could not remember half of them. But to Leon the act of remembering had attained a terrible, all-absorbing meaning. His anecdotes followed one another in a maudlin rush, and the old, fastidious intelligence which Rayner remembered was powerless against it.

At last Rayner intervened, “You remember twice as much as I do!”

The room had started to empty. The remaining guests stood islanded among the scattered hors d”oeuvres and emptied glasses.

“But it”s all somewhere inside you, isn”t it? I promise you.” Leon touched his shoulder in confidence, and looked momentarily ashamed as he murmured, “Have you heard about these psychiatrists? There are lots of them in the city now. Do you know about them? They help you remember your infancy.” He looked bereft. “It”s a kind of healing. Just to remember.”

“Has it been?” Rayner felt a desolate pity for him.

Leon balanced his wine glass on the cabinet. He was a little drunk. “Not yet.” Then he took Rayner”s arm with pathetic urgency. “You will be staying in the city now, won”t you? We”ve got everything here.” His grip relaxed. “Too many of the others have gone. Gerhard, Ivar …”

“What”s happened to Adelina?”

“She married and went away too. She lives in the west somewhere. Very happy.” He picked up his glass again. “But I see Jarmila sometimes … poor Jila …”

Then it occurred to Rayner how little he had understood any of their childhoods. They had appeared seamlessly happy and privileged. Yet already serpents were being born. A light tension came fanning up in him when he asked, “And what about Miriam?”

Leon smiled at him. “She still lives here. She”s had a little girl.”

Rayner felt an obscure, foolish pang. “I didn”t even know she was married.” But what did it matter? After fifteen
years she would not be the Miriam he remembered: the girl whose air he”d breathed among the damselfish.

Leon said, “She”s not married anymore. That didn”t last long.”

Rayner knew his heart skip was as absurd as its hurt had been. But he cried out, “Tell her to visit me!”

Overhung by a tasselled parasol, Aunt Birgit was sitting in the shade. Her eyes were shut. The moving air was laced with the sea, and the box trees in the garden smeled of Italy.

Rayner sometimes sensed that when she closed her eyes like this, sitting straight-backed and perfectly conscious, she was practicing death. She never spoke about her illness, but he knew that it was liver cancer from her diet, and from the yellow discoloration in her skin and eyeballs, and that there was nothing to be done. At first he felt guilty that he, a doctor, was living here and unable to save her. Then he realized that his aunt was more reconciled to death than to life. Almost all her relatives and friends had predeceased her, and she would routinely refer to people living not by their Christian names but as “the Melchert son” or “the Garcia girl.” The passions and personalities which had shaken her whole generation—and she had been a political liberal during the worst years—had fallen bleakly redundant, together with the fashions and clubs, the film stars and opera singers, even the connotations of certain words, as if meaning itself had preceded her into the dark.

She was not grieving, but stoic and sometimes censorious. She shared with his father, and with himself, a cruel bluntness. He had come to realize that it was pointless to be oblique with her, and now, sitting beside her in the garden, he felt able to say, “I can”t have interested you as a child, Aunt Birgit. Why are you leaving me this house?”

From the parasol”s shade she tried to seek him out with her eyes. They flinched against the glare. “Because I
loved my brother, and he always had high hopes for you. You”re like him. He cut his own way.” She lifted her hand above her eyes. Their pale glitter reached him at last, but he could not tell what she was seeing. She said, “You were rather a lonely child.”

Perhaps some loneliness in her, Rayner thought, had gazed out and recognized him. Had she given him the house, then, as an anchor or compensation? But soon afterwards she said, “You may do what you like with it. It”s never been much to me.”

Rayner wondered in astonishment: what, then, was much to her? She had lived here more than forty years.

But she went on stiffly, “Perhaps this house would remind you too much. No one should live in the past, and yours wasn”t easy.”

Rayner said, “Mother was all right to me. It was only her drinking. You know she couldn”t stand it when he died. She lost her grip.”

But his aunt said, “Whatever she drank for, whether it was loneliness or remorse, drink never cured anything.”

Rayner said edgily, “Remorse?”

“Well, your father was so much older, and she was a romantic creature.”

Rayner knew, suddenly, that he was above an abyss. Yet his mother”s life seemed eons ago. She stood arranged in his memory, completed by death. She could not now be changed. Whatever was true. On his aunt”s lips “romantic creature” carried no softness. She had always despised his mother. He caught the tremor in his voice: “You mean Uncle Bernard?”

“That was a foolish young man.” Her lips tightened. “Your father never liked him.”

“My mother wouldn”t have done that.”

“I don”t know what he was to her.”

Into the silence Aunt Birgit”s cat—a plump Persian—dropped from its tree and settled under her chair. For
years Rayner had conceived of his mother only by a handful of mental images, and the last of these—her sallow face, as she climbed into the car which would kill her—flickered up behind his eyes.

He had not been an ideal son. Even before his father”s death he had retreated into his own privacy and into the world of his friends. But he wanted to exonerate her, and a hardness appeared in his voice. “My mother at least gave me my freedom. She never pleaded for my help or made me feel bound to her. I know she was frail, but I loved her. I don”t think my childhood was unhappy. Quite the contrary …”

His aunt seemed to relent. “I didn”t mean to say she was a bad woman. Only she could be scatterbrained.”

“But she was there when it was important. She even saved my life when I was little. It was only in the last few years she started to break up. My early memories are all of her smiling, laughing …”

“When did she save your life?” In his aunt”s rasping voice, the idea sounded sentimental.

“During the fire. You remember we had a fire?”

“Yes I do. That was an unfortunate accident. I remember your father had to sack the native maid when he returned.”

“I”d forgotten that.”

“Well, you were only five. We could afford more native servants in those days. They weren”t very reliable, and who could blame them? They were paid nothing. This one somehow started a fire which gutted half the house. Luckily she rescued you first.”

“I don”t even recall her.” Rayner”s memory reached back in ache and puzzlement; it strained at the blue gauzes of smoke, trying to see distinctly. “I thought it was my mother.”

“Your mother was not in the house.”

“Where was she?”

His aunt looked down and observed her hands. They were glazed with liver spots as big as coins. “I don”t know where she was.”

The nurse emerged onto the terrace, glanced at them, then went back indoors. A pair of hoopoes skittered over the grass. Rayner closed his eyes against the dazzle of the declining sun; its colors swarmed behind his eyelids. He heard children giggling in the garden next door. Aunt Birgit”s hand, hanging limp now, discovered the cat under her chair and started weakly to stroke it. For a long time its purring was the only sound in the world.

At last Aunt Birgit said, “The house, you understand, is only yours if you want it. I wouldn”t blame you for not staying in this city. I wouldn”t stay if I were a young man.”

Rayner did not know what to answer. But if he lived in the capital, it would not be on this street. He would feel too much a child again. But he said, “If I decided to sell, it would be nothing to do with the house, only the city.”

His aunt nodded. “It”s always been an awkward site for the capital, you know. It”s pretty, but it”s not practical.” She eased herself to her feet. “In the end all our best young minds go to other places. You, for instance, and Gerhard. This is only a place to be a child in.”

He escorted her back to the house. She walked delicately and very upright, as if supported by an unseen stick. Once he took her arm, but she flicked his hand away. He did not know if he revered or resented her.

It was as they were climbing the three steps to the terrace, and he was looking down to where the balustrade met the earth in a rounded finial, that he remembered the lizard. The terrace was identical to the one in his parents” house, and something in the way the stone ball disappeared into the ground, leaving a ruffle of warm dust around its base, awoke in him a memory of the lizard”s trial.

Ivar, Gerhard, Leon and he had trapped it while it was basking under the ball. It was a bloated ghekko, the color
of damp earth. Gerhard yelled, “Let”s execute it!” But he might have been teasing Leon, who was squeamish. Their treble voices rose in the dust. “We”ll put it on trial!”

They sat in a row before it. Ivar had secured its leg with a strand of string. It froze, panting. Gerhard picked up a small rock and placed it ceremonially in front of him. “It deserves to die.”

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