He felt huge. As though he’d travelled from some pumped-up planet to schlep his ungainly way around this city. Everything was tiny here-the coffee cups, the pastries, the women, the cars. The cars looked compressed, like an accordion in its pushed-together state. He thought it impossible for a man to drive one and retain any kind of dignity. On the trains he felt like a grown-up on a school outing with a group of children: sinewy, swarthy, precocious children. The men seemed to list slightly-no matter what they were doing while he stood upright, his feet planted solidly and just wide enough apart to keep him from pitching forward at moments of sudden motion. It was a difficult city in which to like yourself.
The heat didn’t help. Sweat trickled down his back and his hands and feet swelled; he looked at his fingers and saw sausages, tumescent in their skins. Everybody who really lived here had gone away to escape the heat. Being here, he couldn’t help thinking of himself as one of a thousand winners of a booby prize.
He and his wife were staying in an apartment loaned to them for six weeks by a friend of a friend. He sat on the balcony and listened to the neighbours, an act that couldn’t quite be classified as eavesdropping because, for one thing, he didn’t speak French and, for another, he really would’ve preferred that they be quiet. His discomfort was made worse by the fact that he couldn’t tell if they were fighting or consoling each other or simply exchanging information-or even whether they were stupid or articulate. Not knowing the language, he never knew when to feel menaced, and nearly everything he heard sounded equally dramatic.
Once, when he’d been sure the neighbours were arguing, his wife said-though he hadn’t asked-‘Listen to them. They’re talking about what to cook for lunch again.’
For a week, they went south, nearly to the Spanish border. They were sunning themselves one day on the pebbly banks of a stream where they’d stopped to swim. He let his head loll to the side. His eyes came to rest on a lizard about the size of his shoe, not two feet from him. The latter half of a fish protruded from its jaws, and both animals were glistening in the sun.
He nudged his wife and together they knelt transfixed in front of the scene. The lizard froze and was so bugeyed that initially they thought the fish was stuck in its throat. But almost imperceptibly, the fish moved towards its vanishing point in the lizard’s belly.
He searched for something to say that was both witty and knowledgeable. Why couldn’t he just watch? But he couldn’t; he was a language animal.
‘It’s odd,’ he said.
‘He seems to think he’s on television.’
She smiled and their eyes met. It was the year she was in love with someone else and sometimes when they looked at one another, the knowledge passed freshly between them and he felt it as acutely as he had the day she’d first told him.
London he loved, always had. He loved the order of it, the way so many things were red or black instead of green. You got tired of green. Also, there was something toy-like about the centre of London and even about some of the people, those who weren’t rude, anyway. There was a quaintness that seemed a denial of the actual state of things. A prissiness, almost. Londoners were like practice New Yorkers, he thought. They were the ones God had to make do with before He dreamed up New York and got city people just right.
He was standing with his wife in front of a fish tank in Kensington. Or was it a pixel tank? They couldn’t be sure. Couldn’t be sure if they were real, the creatures whose noses bumped so believably against the glass, whose bodies whiplashed their way gently through the blue water-if it was water.
He thought they were marvellous. She thought they were fish.
‘But how could they not be?’ she said. ‘Look at them.’
‘I… don’t… think…’ he said, his own nose bumping the glass.
He put his arm around her as they stood there staring at the pixel fish, lingering in the aquarium warmth of each other, a little viscous-eyed themselves. His heart did something that wasn’t quite a leap, exactly-it wasn’t that much-more like it turned over in its half-sleep and sighed contentedly.
Side by side, as though they were kids at a World’s Fair exhibit, their eyes followed the dimensionless swathes of colour on the screen (for he was now sure it was only a screen). But wonder was a thing that had been shrunk. They weren’t looking at a mock-up of something that could traverse the heavens. This was computer-generated imagery, spectacular in its own way, but still. Sometimes he thought everything worth happening had already happened.
‘Are you sure?’ she said. ‘Are you sure those aren’t fish?’
‘Pretty sure,’ he said. ‘Look, when they turn, for a split second, they don’t have any breadth-or is it depth? Their bodies vanish, or just become a line.’
‘I don’t think I like it,’ she said.
She didn’t answer. Instead she said, ‘I like that word, though. Pixels. That’s a word I like. Pixie. Pixie stick. Pinwheel. Pixel. It doesn’t feel like a word that belongs in an adult’s vocabulary.’
Everything was made of granite, and it oppressed him. And yet when the mica sparked in the sun it seemed to him like little messages of hope, an SOS flashing from a place you thought there was no more life.
At night, all the young people were aggressively drunk. It wasn’t their behaviour, per se, that was aggressive. It was the desperate and unhappy way they inhabited their drunkenness that seemed to befit people much older than themselves. People who were justified in being bitter.
‘Do you think it’s the Calvinist thing?’ she asked the next morning.
They were walking along a stretch of beach beside the North Sea, the sand a funny orange colour.
‘I think it’s the oil,’ he said.
‘Any place built on oil money is bound to have a certain desperation about it. A paranoia. Everything you have is based on a finite, winding-down resource, so you’re just waiting for the axe to fall. Even if it’s not going to fall in your lifetime, you’d still click into the mindset.’
Driving south to Edinburgh, she gazed out the window at the lonely green countryside speckled with stone farmhouses and said, ‘Home would look a little like this if it weren’t for all the ugly bungalows we have.’
‘Does it ever strike you,’ he said, ‘that everywhere is just a better or worse version of everywhere else?’
‘I don’t know. But it does seem like the older you get, the more everyone is just a composite of everyone else you’ve ever met. Except the people you’ve known for a long, long time. They’re the sort of. .. ‘
‘So I wou Id be a prototype for you? A kind of Adam?’
She smiled. ‘Madam, I’m Adam,’ she said.
Sometimes on the Metro, he felt like he was dead. It wasn’t just the fact of being underground, sunk in the stale gloom. It was the way everybody moved through the corridors without seeming to really see each other and the way, when they were on the trains, they all seemed ashamed and lonely, or else frightened, like he imagined people cohabiting in Hades would look.
The ascent to street level was always jarring and only served to reinforce the feeling that he’d been to the underworld. You’d be halfway up the grimy, pissscented steps and lift your eyes and see a leafy canopy coming into view, dappling a blue sky, and beneath it, some limbs-entwined sculpture of two airborne bodies in a permanent, erotic swirl. He suggested to her, only facetiously, that the municipal authorities should provide an in-between place, some kind of decompression chamber between that hell and this heaven. She suggested in turn that the shock served a purpose, that of reminding you that you were never far from either realm.
They ate in French restaurants, looked at artefacts from Africa, and went to American movies. De Niro and Brando in a heist. The latter growing old like a woman, the way some men had the misfortune to. Lips the colour of bad ham, a soft, puckered face, all arbitrary dents like a potato. His girth so deliberate she had a theory about it. Rebelling against whatever had turned him, all those years ago, into pure sex.
‘You don’t just get that big,’ she said, as they walked the canal afterwards. ‘You have to want to.’
‘You think he wants to look like that?’
‘Of course. There was nothing in that body-his body when he was young-that suggested someone who’d get obese. It’s kind of in your face. He’s mad at us. He’s mad at us for turning him into a thing. For having regarded him as perfect. Hollywood fucks you up. No two ways about it.’
‘I’d never have done that,’ he said.
‘If people loved looking at me, I wouldn’t have spoiled it for them.’
‘You don’t know,’ she said. ‘Until the time comes, you don’t know what you’d do.’
When they were students together, in the long ago, they used to cycle down Anglesea Road. Looking up at the lights in the windows, he could nearly feel the warmth and had the urge to lose himself in other people’s certainties. He felt a little lost, amidst everything he was discovering, and he wondered why falling in love should be accompanied by such sadness. His only theory was that a state of perfection-being, like all other things, impermanent-necessarily contained the elements of its own destruction.
They settled in the city. And it was only when he ended up back in some spot they used to frequent as students and didn’t anymore-Bray, for instance, or the Phoenix Park-that he realised how dense the city had become for them. In the beginning there’d been landmarks-places they’d first done this or that-but slowly all the spaces in between had been filled in. There were no longer any gaps, which meant there were no longer any landmarks, any ways of remembering how or where they’d been. When he looked back on all the years they’d spent together, what he saw was a tight weave, a kind of sprawl.
And then one day she told him. It was April, and everything about that evening-the precise time of her announcement, the clothes they wore, the yellow light on the lawn-stood out in a way nothing had for years.
The way she said, strangely: Oh no.
‘It doesn’t mean I don’t love you anymore. Oh no.’ He didn’t think he’d ever heard her use that expression before, not in a way that meant ‘on the contrary,’ and
he wondered was it something she’d picked up from this man. Then he wondered if this was what his life was going to be like now: watching her movements, listening to her talk, looking for signs of some insidious infiltrator, as though the man were an illness advancing.
He was by turns enraged and dreadfully sentimental.
He spent a lot of time wondering what would be worse: being left suddenly and without warning or watching their marriage die a slow death. He thought more about their student days than he had in twenty yec1rs. lf they could see things fresh again, he thought (not the old things, of course, but just any things, anywhere, together), they might be OK, going places had always been good for them. So he convince
The beauty of the city, he remarked, was in inverse proportion to the kindness of its inhabitants. This made sense to him. What could these people possibly owe you, anyway? You were here, weren’t you? He looked around and saw beauty so flagrant and freely distributed that it struck him as promiscuous. At the same time, he became disproportionately grateful for whatever crumbs of decency he was tossed.
As a result, he went round feeling either awed or infuriated. Queuing in the post office, for instance, was a ridiculously time-consuming activity. But then they put such pretty blue seals on the envelopes. Things they printed out of machines that appeared to be full of information pertaining to your letter and yours alone.
‘Why don’t they just use a standard stamp?’ he said.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I mean I don’t know. Sometimes they do. But how can you get angry with a people whose idea of fast food is a crepe?’
When he made love to her those days, it was as though from afar. He thought of long-distance phone calls during which someone on another continent sounds right next door, and how the illusion is both comforting and disconcerting. This was the opposite of that. She was right there but seemed very far away or as though she were inhabiting another medium altogether, as though she were underwater and he could just barely make her out through the murk.
Of intercourse, she said: For a woman, it’s like you’ve brought the outside world into you. So that afterwards, for a little while, you have a sense of permeability. Like the boundaries between you and the world have blurred. You feel precarious, but you also feel more connected.
He wanted to ask her how it felt then, switching between men, bringing two beings from the outside world in. Did they cancel each other out, like a double negative? Or did she feel twice as connected? He didn’t ask, because he couldn’t bear to hear the answer.
Mostly he wanted to know what she saw in the man. He’d met him. He was extremely seductive. But extremely seductive men tend to walk a fine line, always in danger of veering into the ridiculous. He suspected that was what women loved about him, that he was willing to appear ridiculous. He was a cheap trick who didn’t fear his unmasking.
7. THE WEST
The first summer he grew runner-beans and peas, red-leaf lettuce and onions, but his yield was always too much and he didn’t know what to do with the surplus. He had neighbours, but their gardens were plentiful and self-assured. So this summer he’d opted for a more self-indulgent, impractical selection. He planted corn, of all things (a breed, the seed packet said, suited to the English climate, and he figured that was close enough to the Irish). He doted on the staked willowy stalks, marvelling at the sight of actual ears appearing. But in late July, the rains came and never really stopped. The corn shrivelled on its stalks and died and he felt as though he were witnessing the demise of weak pups in a litter.
Summer days, the tractors roared back and forth past his door. Colossal hulks, either empty, their malevolent-looking prongs exposed, or overburdened with bales of newly mown hay which passed within inches of his window. Having lived in the city for over thirty years, he felt menaced by the tractors. Other days, his neighbour herded cattle past the door, to the field beyond, where wild roses and blackberries grew tangled with the rushes.
He marvelled at the gravity of those beasts. How the earth seemed to pull them to it. It cost them such effort to lift their heads, as though they were labouring under a great burden of feeling. He liked to watch them sway in their slow, almost sensual way as they ambled up the road. He even liked to spy on them when they’d got free of their enclosures and were grazing on the roadside. The half-defiant, halfshamed look in their eyes suggesting that after having been shunted to and fro so often, they weren’t quite sure how to feel about their sudden freedom.
The time of solitude is different, he read. And it was true. His life was like a concentrate. Space was different too, now that he was alone, or perhaps it was the way things occupied spacee. All his life, or all his life with her, he had experienced objects of any kind as simply things underfoot; he hadn’t thought about them at all. Now he felt them pass in and out of relation with him. When a visitor entered his house, he could feel objects recede, only rising up again and regrouping around him when he was once more alone. When he went out for the day, he was conscious that his life, in the form of its things, awaited his return.
He’d come home from Paris alone. It turned out he was worrying about the wrong thing altogether, though there was no way he could’ve known this. Ironic, of course, that he had taken her there to repossess her only to lose her entirely and in the most freak fashion. Actually, it was unbearably common, it was the sort of death that took place on city streets the world over, but the fact that a few seconds this way or that would have altered things so profoundly gave such accidents their freak quality.
The only consolation was imagining all the catastrophes you must’ve skirted without ever having known it. All the times you’d lingered or left early or, at the last minute, taken a different route and made it through the day unscathed. Timing was important, it was life or death, but as there was no way you could foresee the consequences of your most trivial decisions, timing became-paradoxically-the very thing you couldn’t stage manage. In fact, he thought, you would drive yourself crazy if you tried to minimise danger through such means. Still, he marvelled at the blithe way people took their lives into their hands every day and stepped out into the world.
There is no reality but in relation, he read. The problem was loving beings who changed or disappeared. Mourning to him was looking at the world and seeing a monochrome. Knowing that this was its true tint and that all colour was an add-on to delude the faint of heart, which pretty much included everyone.
But not even that lasted. Ien time, he saw blues and greens again. Today, for instance, the world is all flash. The mountains, the grass, the glittering, just visible sea. As though the elements are attempting to outdo each other. This is the liquid, hallucinogenic quality that will mellow, come evening, into a light he thinks of as tangerine. The air itself will acquire colour, will seem to hold it, the way a solid does. He does not know what conditions are necessary for such a thing to unfold. He doesn’t know much at all about wavelengths or the atmosphere or how to read the sky; he can barely tell the direction of the wind with much accuracy. But he can see light in the making.