They had honey in the café and it reminded him of bronze covering the age of trouble. He had a headache. It was as if some incessant craving had entered a crystallographic body, a monstrous exactitude that accumulated but couldn’t be released. He wondered whether he might make one last effort. He swallowed some green tea and rather grandly began to speak. It was supposed to sound eloquent and ruthlessly brilliant. He spoke about the need to just find the place to stand, to be allowed to be there, to set up his stall – let everyone like him have such a place, a solid place, somewhere where then he’d be able to move the whole earth. But everything grew more complicated as he spoke, as if the sentences were not ready or weren’t even in the right hemisphere. And as he went on it was obvious to him that the lines, periods, cycles of what he was saying, everything that was presupposed, well, it couldn’t just be squeezed out without the conventions of inserting them into another. And he saw the whole notion of cooperation becoming more and more complicated. There was a moment when he just stopped talking and saw himself looking at the mug of green tea as if a space had emerged out of itself. The bee works at the creation of thirteen-thousand-faceted combs, never taking her eyes off the whole, and the honey runs down.But he had tried something that had proved beyond his instincts and his words and thoughts. We all stand on the earth. There is no place to lever it. The earth moves us not vice versa. Or something like that. And yet space emerges from the cooperation of the beehive.
‘ Your dad had six wives?’ she was saying.
‘And now he has nothing but some youngster who doesn’t know how to count her toes. He buried thirteen of my brothers and sisters. It was not enough to depress him. Nothing has yet been found to depress him. I wait for letters saying he’s hanged himself or whatever. But I get nothing and hear nothing. It’s conceivable that he’s either happy or indifferent. But I can’t recognise anything about him that makes me want to know him better. I suspect he still believes he’s destined for great things. But he buckles down to the powerful and disregards the powerless. He won’t admit he is poor. That he’s gone to the dogs. ’
‘ Oh my God. That must be hard for you.’
And yet she didn’t really know what she meant by that.
She listened in for something below the surface of what he was saying, as if she might find the why that would trump his own story and give her a reason to stay intrigued. Was this man, this father, someone who had refused to be overwhelmed by the circumstances and people surrounding him? Had he somehow refused to be crushed? Had he succeeded? And what then was the son doing telling her about him? Was he wanting her to recognise some great truth that would glisten unbearably onto his own life? And did he want her to see this and somehow admire him? Which? Who? The father or the son? Or both? Or was this just an invitation in her pocket, one she didn’t need to read. Who wants to be with anyone who just wants to be praised all the time? Perhaps, she thought, glaring eagerly into his young eyes, he’s just tired, as the young often are, and attacking an already defeated idea?
‘He is what he is. I’m not a charity case. Dragging him into this just spoils any peace I might dream of having. I don’t want his story to own me. I want to be ignorant enough to know his mysteries but they are of absolutely no interest to anyone else.’
So that was how he explained it. Like someone unable to change his skin, he’d die. It was more like faith and as such had nothing to do with the truth of anything. What did he spend his time doing besides posting out his thoughts? He was a lecturer and had written a book. So for him, after all, success and failure were less actions and even less finished decisive answers.
He was like the dazzling peacock, a bright calico hanging in Perugia, some golden puzzle of God. That’s what she sometimes glimpsed. Other times, the confusion and anger was like a fierce self love-hate thing, like he was a troop of fighting crabs in a bucket. In his slovenly beauty she saw a kind of exorcised soul. His will to believe had overreached his will to know. His spirit had looped out to create other believers, and together he had somehow closed a circle and cast himself into belief without reason. She wondered about the book he’d written. In writing it she had glimpsed a little of this amphibious nature, this impulse to swim out without even a glance towards land and without the impulse to become a fish. She felt cunning and sly, a kind of peroxide root in a sensual voice. Being so, she was a certain evidence against him. She knew what acting should be. Everything about him was sheer hope. What she couldn’t tell was whether this was for his father’s sake, the old man with the umpteen wives and children, or for his own. Her elevation sank and sank as she pondered him. The soft gasp of the wind from outside lifted the curtains at the window like sails, or wings that beat invisible threads into the facts of life.
‘Your trouble is that you know someone is oppressing you but you don’t know the name of him. You have no more than pseudonyms and nom de plumes. Nor do you know just how far you have fallen. You sense that it’s been a long way, that where you are now is a long way down. But you’re not sure. You actually seem a little suspicious that the bygone days don’t want anything to do with you. In which case, your rage is just a kind of tourism. Or better, a foreign correspondence. The worst kind, the kind that dehumanises and indulges in gross sensationalism of all kinds. Which makes you more angry. And terrified that someone might see who you are. That’s why you are as you are, a kind of fraud. You find nothing but ashes in olden times. There’s nothing there that explains what you’re feeling and what is really happening.’
She realised she couldn’t keep this up for long.
She tossed her head so that her hair tumbled about her face, black as slate in mist. Her skin gleamed uneven and cumulous above itself whilst he hunched, still like a tidy cat. What does your conscience say about cats? Being lethal, they are never a waste of time. She posed herself as a lifeless doll come back to life, careful with her black lipstick and powders to take everything back to its infantile state. Her mirror images, shadows, guardian spirits, souls and deaths, they tumbled through the whole scenario. In front of the pine framed mirror she had picked up for a song from one of the local antique markets she performed her doubling other, staring at herself as if here in the glass was protection from annihilation, the counterpart of dreams, the soil of boundless self-love, a primal narcissism that either would banish the usurper or become her. She sometimes let slip her collapsing awareness at times like this, and by slow degrees let her conscience drag her across her own image. Let’s be honest. Her regressions were benign. And kind of magnificent.
But he, on the other hand, felt there was something more genuine in his ancestors than in himself. He was in full earshot of the world and yet he sounded shrill and beggarly. He didn’t seem to pursue more than a stilted, self-pitying extended simile of migrations, colonisations, journeys, pilgrimages that ruffled feathers like anarchically disordered ravens. But he craved a force that he was too weak to embrace. Every rebellion was a kind of descent from need. It was a substitute for whatever had already gradually fallen apart inside. Its power was operating in direct proportion to his ability to do without it. Like an addict, homelands and watersheds exhausted his material. Without them he knew things later would become much worse. He remembered a phrase: ‘the Gods in exile became demons,’ and suppressed it because he thought that if he didn’t everything would collapse into terror.
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Read the complete novel 'The Ecstatic Silence' here.