Sunday, January 29, 2012

Excerpt: Persephone's Children

The sunlight moved gently on the grey face of the lake,  shivering and glittering in the breath of the breeze which slid off the haze-hidden mountains. The late morning sunshine blinked softly through a cowl of mist but the day had dawned bright enough to ensure that the canvas blinds had already been drawn on the hotel verandah.
A slim, angular woman, crossed the road and stood for a moment, watching the move and crush of people before threading her way carefully through the crisply dressed tables and neatly placed chairs.  Dressed in black, loose trousers, a long black jacket and white silk shirt she did not stand out for long but was quickly swallowed by the distracted embrace of the crowd. Sunday lunch at the Beau Rivage was for her, as it was for many of those around her, a necessary ritual, maintained as much for appearances as for pleasure.
She settled herself at a table near the window, removing her sunglasses as she did so and placing them carefully into her handbag. Many years before she had left an expensive pair of sunglasses in a Zurich coffee shop; it would not happen again.  She was not the sort to make the same mistake twice and regarded sensible habits as the foundation of  an ordered life. As she had also done so many times before, Jennifer then placed her bag securely on the seat beside her and turned toward the mountains, waiting for that moment when they would emerge from the mist.  Always she was moved by them and this day would be no different; there was no reason at all why it should be.
The mountains had been cast with a brave hand in a shade of rich, deep blue and the fine-honed edges of ancient stone bore testament both to substance and a sense of security.  It was this unchanging quality which pleased her most.  She ordered coffee and then sat back to wait, watching as the sparrows hopped soundlessly among the granite-topped tables and cream cane chairs, searching for dropped crumbs. They were ordinary little birds, with no particular talents, except a capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.  They were unremarkable but they endured where perhaps others would not.  She could admire them for that.  Making the most of life, that was what it was about.
The hum of cars passing along the lakefront made its way up the hill and mingled with the steady sound of the fountain which trickled in the garden.  A promise of summer drifted in through the open doors, holding tight to the wings of Spring, and  brought with it the heady tang of crushed pine needles.  She breathed deeply, invigorated  by her recent exercise and excited at the prospect of lunch.  It was a short but refreshing walk down the steep hill from her small and always immaculate flat, to the grand old hotel and one which she enjoyed.
There was no preference for either direction.  The going out, she told herself, had a special quality, not only because of the enjoyment which lay ahead, but also because she savoured that moment of perfection when, freshly dressed and with every hair in place, she closed the door behind her and knew with comforting certainty that she was going forth with all in order.
The returning home stood just as solidly upon its own merits with the steepness of the hill demanding enough exertion to aid the process of digestion without raising too much of a sweat, and yet, at the same time providing an adequate amount of exercise for the day. All in all, Jennifer decided each Sunday, as she double-checked that the door of her apartment in the Jordils Residence was securely locked, this was the best of days.  By the time she had properly settled herself into the plump comfort of the restaurant chair on this particular Sunday, there was no reason to change her mind.
The Jordils Residence had been her home for many years, ever since she  fled England and her husband after discovering he was on the verge of leaving her for another woman.  It had seemed easier and much more discreet simply to leave him before he had the opportunity to leave her.  It provided her with some measure of self-respect, if only because she was then able to say with perfect honesty that she  had done the leaving.
She reminded herself frequently, that while John was generous enough with his first offer of settlement, it was she who had been smart enough to act quickly.  It was important to take full advantage of the initial state of guilt.  Such attacks are only ever of temporary duration and, in many cases, remarkably brief.  It was the practical side of her nature which told her that his feelings of guilt would not last. They were no more than a gut reaction to the dramatic changes which had overturned the structure of his life -- changes brought about by his own actions.  There was little doubt that as John adjusted to his new state, more rational responses would emerge and it was vital that her future be well and truly secured before that point was reached.
This was of course exactly  what did happen but by the time Jennifer felt the first brisk winds of a changed attitude she had already gained for herself enough money to maintain a modest but perfectly adequate lifestyle as far away from England as she could sensibly get.  He  would never  be able to pay her enough to compensate for what she now saw as the wasted years,  but at least the time  she had remaining would be spent in security and modest comfort.
 Choosing to live on the continent had also meant that she was able to avoid the unpleasantries associated with divorce.  Distance provided a barrier between one's self and the source of memories,  not to mention the uncomfortable questioning from family and friends.   All in all, she told herself once more,  moving to Lausanne had been quite the most sensible thing to do.
She had had no desire to see him again but she wrote one quite scathing letter which she felt he deserved and which, surprisingly, made her feel much better than she thought it would.  After that, with the past tidily folded up and posted off she had settled down to life in Switzerland.  Her French was enough to manage but she was not so fluent as to risk the loss of privacy.  This was an important consideration for a woman who had things which she did not even want to remember,  let alone discuss.
There were times though when she did think of him, whether she wanted to or not.  His face would rise before her  --  with its sharp hook of a nose, high round forehead and head abundant with thick, black hair which rose at the crown and fell heavily to the edge of his collar.   It was how she had first seen him that day in the shop and,  while time had thinned the hair and sharpened even more the edge to his nose, it was how she remembered him and the image she found hardest to put from her mind.
It all started with the  Indian statue. She had been visiting Wells to see friends and had taken advantage of the long wait before her  train left to explore a little of the cathedral city. She saw  the antique shop from the  other side of the road and hurried across for a closer look.  It was not that she expected to buy as there was little money to spare.  She had just completed a Fine Arts Degree and was hoping to find work in a London gallery, and for the moment the only money she had came from working part-time in a coffee shop.  It was enough though to look; she had learned early to make the most of what she had and antique shops offered pleasure even when one could not afford to buy. They also offered the possibility of promise and the chance to dream of a treasure to be found; something exotic and wonderful but surprisingly unappreciated  --  and therefore available for a ridiculous price.
The figure of the dancing girl took her eye as she pressed close to the window.  She knew instantly, even through the thick glazed glass that it was reproduction and therefore no unappreciated treasure.  It was hard to say what drew her to it and even now, many years on when she chanced to look at it, standing as it did on a small side table in her bedroom, there was no denying that it was a rather mediocre piece of sculpture.
At the same time though, it  had appealed to her. There was beauty locked within the confines of the ordinary. She reasoned that it was this innate and unexpected quality which had taken her attention.  It was only later that she wondered how beauty could be such an intangible part of something mass-produced and in essence so common-place.  When she first saw it, she merely liked it and had been young enough not to bother about wondering why.
The statue was of bronze, richly carved with short, looped skirts, breasts wrapped in a ribbon band and with the hair tied, curled and dressed at the back with an ornate cap. It  was no more than ten inches high, knees crooked in semi-bow, hands together in front with the fingers pointed outwards and the eyes, long lines drawn from the fine ridge of the nose  almost to  the ears.   It had been exotic, enticing and, as she discovered, relatively inexpensive.
The young man  had emerged from behind a curtain at the rear of the shop as she entered. Smiling broadly, he had taken the statue from the window and placed it in her hands.  It was surprisingly heavy and icy cold to the touch.  It came from India, he told her.   It was a minor goddess, but an important one for it was she who stood by the door to welcome guests.  Her hands were together in the traditional greeting of Namaste and her small smile represented the reserved delight that her hosts would have in the receiving of any guests.  But even if one were to be alone forever, destined never to have a guest, it was still a very pretty piece, he  added.
 There had been no choice but to buy it. He was handsome and charming too, with the air of someone who knew far more of the world than she could yet claim.  He was exotic like the statue, but he was not cold to the touch as she discovered when he reached out to take her hand in an unexpectedly familiar gesture of  farewell.  His  hair  moved as  he talked,  silken-black, and  his dark  eyes teased.  Jennifer did not at  first realise that she had in a very short time lost her heart to this dark-haired stranger.  She thought about him all the way home on the train and had not a moment's hesitation in accepting his offer of dinner when he wrote a few weeks later to say he would be in London on the following Friday.  It began as  easily as that, but the statue  proved to be more enduring than the man.
At first she thought he was Jewish and felt strangely relieved when he told her he was Armenian.  It was not that she had anything against the Jews, but rather that she  remembered her father's words.   He had often warned against the dangers of unsuitable marriages.  While it was unwise to marry out of one's class,  he said, it was foolhardy in the extreme to marry out of one's culture.  Mixing religions was even worse and could only end in disaster.  Most religions, he had instructed her, were cults in essence and those from the non-Western world were amongst the worst as the religious and social  beliefs were so intertwined.  The adherence to a rigid mix of customs, ritual and ceremonies meant  that they could not be  adapted to suit the complexities of mixed marriage.   Each would  consider their religion to be superior and so the marriage would begin and remain a power struggle.  There was no reasoning in such situations; religion would always be beyond  reason.  There was enough struggle in marriage without those sorts of complications.  It was better to keep to one's own kind.
Jennifer had reasoned that since both the Armenian and Anglican churches were Christian the only differences could be cultural.  She found that comforting.  There were in fact too many positive aspects,  even apart from love,  which necessitated  that she do away with  the inconvenience  of doubt.  There was also the question of money.  He had a good income.  Money oiled many things in a relationship.  Something else her parents had taught her.  With a little effort she could make the positive aspects stack very nicely.   Not only did  he have money, but it was secure and could only increase.   He and  his parents owned the antiques business where he worked and over the years had built  it into one of the most respected shops outside London.  There were only the three of them and they seemed always to be in agreement.  His only brother had emigrated to Australia many years before.
It had appeared,  or so  she  thought at  the time, almost perfect.   In later, possibly wiser years,  she would consider the appearance of perfection to be a danger signal.  One's ability to view the  world more clearly, was, she could reflect, something which actually  improved with age.  It was almost  as if  the young  were meant  to be  half-blind; were meant to  make mistakes.   How else could she have believed that his looks and his money were  a sound  basis for  her choice?
It did not  take long for her to begin to see the world through  different   eyes.    The  learning  began almost immediately and it took a mere matter of weeks, sometimes she thought days,  for her to discover that it was the cultural differences which were the most difficult to bridge simply because they were so heavily disguised as habit.  Even money, after a time, could not lubricate the rusted remnants of their marriage.  She had been misled by many things aside from her own dreams.
  The fact that John, while being born in Jerusalem,  had come to England as a small boy had led her to believe that he must be  more English than Armenian.  She suspected at an early stage that his parents might create problems, but believed in the sanctity of their relationship and hoped that it would overcome all difficulties.  What she misjudged, however,  was the power of the unlived dream and what truly shocked her when confronted by it was the energy of inherited hatreds; that bitter legacy which,  when handed down from generation to generation, kept minds and souls in bondage to the past.
John and his parents,  she discovered,  were tied to a country in which they had never lived and were inexorably bound to a  culture which demanded homage because  it was all that remained of a shattered nation.  She had thought that he was hers, but learned soon enough that  he belonged  to his parents, to his  community and mostly to a  dream which lived only in  the minds of  the world's scattered  Armenians.  His country, or rather that country  which he called his, and one which he had  never seen, was strangely enough  a place which he had no wish to see.
Jennifer  wanted,  at least  in the  early days,  to understand the man she had married, had sought to find common ground on which they could work.  She was, at times, at least in  regard to  others if  not  to herself,  capable of great insight and while she was not  a  particularly  intuitive person,  she could travel far in the realms of reason and generally find safe passage. She had set a formidably rational course through the wild and windswept ocean of John's cultural inheritance and,  while it carried her some distance, it  failed,  in the end,  to carry her far enough.
She came to see that there was no place for the real within the framework  of their dream and it was on this that all reason foundered.  It  became painfully clear that John and his parents needed to hold fast to their particular world perspective in order to survive.  It was not mere choice but destiny. They needed to believe in their own unique suffering so that  they could continue to hate the Turks for the genocide which had been carried out against their people in the early years of this century. The hatred gave them a reason for being.  Without it,  they were nothing.
 Hatred gives people the power to survive but, once survival is assured,  it serves little honest purpose... except in a life without meaning,  and then it becomes the meaning, maintains the belief that one has a role to play.   It was within the horror that the Armenians, like so many displaced and abused peoples,  had a sense of their own importance.  It gave them something to claim in the stead of a country.  Their's was no country of rock,  earth and  tree,  but an  eternal landscape of grief and agony.
Like so many before them, and so many to come, John and his family had been seduced by suffering. Agony may dress in torn, foul robes, but she has a winsome smile.  The heel of oppression is cruel,  but it  leaves a vivid impression of life. Suffering as victim can be a heady draught,  for even in the depths of misery one feels special,  singled out and,  as a result,  truly and vitally alive. It is that sense of aliveness which humans crave and will cling to,  no matter the source.  As often as not it is the sheer,  endless ordinariness of life which keeps people chained to their hatreds.   In the arms of rage,  their rightful inheritance,  John’s ancestors, like so many others before them, had felt once again the salty kiss of power. They wrapped themselves in the cloak of victim and stayed warm and safe, calling foul when the chill winds of reason blew and claiming innocence as their own. 
This inheritance they had then handed down to their children;  at first in memories fired with pain and passion and then in stories well fertilised with rage and hate.  Those children when grown had in turn given it to their children and so it had been passed on to John and his brother,  like some sacred relic,  remnant of a rich and glorious past.   It held such power that,  in time,  it came to live its own truth,  to create its own reality and was written into the genetic code to be  inherited by each and every cell so that the capacity for hatred would remain undiminished throughout the generations;  undisturbed by reason and reality.
Jennifer had not been able to share him with that hatred,  nor to share the hatred  with him and so had remained what she had begun... the outsider.  There was not within her the power, nor  perhaps the will, to break  the bloodied bond which held him tied to his parents and the past.  He had been handsome and loving and that helped for a time,  but eventually his  anger had exhausted her,  even though she did not necessarily bear the  brunt of it.   It was sharing him with the anger,  sharing life with the anger, sharing energy with the anger which wore her down.  She removed herself from his passion in order to remain safe and in time he removed himself from her.
"Best forgotten," she murmured quietly to herself as she straightened  the cutlery in  front of her.
 Today  was a special occasion because for once she was not eating alone. She had made one friend in Lausanne, and Monique, with whom she had a  warm but disciplined friendship, agreed from time to time to meet her for lunch.   Jennifer budgeted quite carefully for the regular, if infrequent event.   It always cost more to have lunch with someone else simply because she felt herself less able to be frugal in her ordering of the food.   And there was wine. When she ate alone, she was perfectly happy to drink water, but when lunch became a social occasion, it was expected that one would drink wine.
  Monique at least expected it and her tastes were expensive.  She had a private income and that made her circumstances rather less constrained.  There were times though when Jennifer wished that her friend would either order something cheaper or offer to pay for the wine herself, but it never happened.  Monique always ordered something absolutely excellent, but unfortunately expensive and the bill was always split exactly down the middle.  For Jennifer, the only consolation could be in the drinking of the wine which thankfully helped to numb the sense of irritation which she invariably felt.
Living costs in Switzerland were high and while she had adequate funds they were only enough for moderate living.  Lunch at the hotel was something of an indulgence.  She knew that, but it was also one of the few expensive outings which she allowed herself.  She guarded her privacy and yet at the same time did not want to be seen as unsociable, nor as someone who was living the life of an impoverished hermit.   Lunch on Sunday at the Beau Rivage went some way putting both fears at rest.
She had met Monique one morning while taking a brisk walk along the lake front.  Rather, she saw  her from a distance, resolved to ignore her, failed in her intention and was forced  to participate in a meeting of sorts.   She had seen a figure,  tall, but somewhat askew standing at the water's edge, the right hand  raised  in firm grip upon a walking stick which rose and fell in frenzied waving.
Jennifer had stiffened her resolve as she neared.  She would walk past, re-affirming to herself that she had absolutely no desire to have her morning interrupted and more to the point, not the slightest need to know why this stick of a woman was so outraged.   Compassion and the situation did however combine to overcome her rather flimsy resolution, because as Jennifer had drawn closer, the waving and shaking brought the woman dangerously close to falling and she hurried across the lawn just in time to prevent her from toppling into the lake.
Settling her on a nearby bench,  she had then felt obliged to sit and talk with this seemingly well-bred but somewhat dishevelled creature, all the while acutely aware of the effect that this disruption would  have  on the day's routine.  Surprisingly she soon relaxed and even began to enjoy the  conversation and before farewells were taken each had agreed they should  meet again.  It was only later that evening as she lay  in bed, turning the sods of the day over in her mind, that she realised there was little that would stand as a satisfactory explanation of Monique’s behaviour. What cannot be understood by reason is best dismissed and before too long she  turned toward sleep convinced that most people were a little odd and that some were more odd than most.
When she woke the next morning there had been a strange and troubling sense of something not quite right settled heavily at the back of her eyes.  It was only when she prodded at it for a time that she remembered the events of the day before and found the source of her discomfort. The foundations of a new friendship had been marked out in her life; stark, solid and demanding; they cluttered up space which had previously been open and free.
Jennifer had sighed and turned over in bed, unsuccessfully attempting to find a more comfortable position beneath the badly rumpled sheets.  She was a restless sleeper at the  best of times  and this new commitment  had obviously weighed heavily on her as she slept.  It was not that she did not like having friends,  it was more the making of them which was unnerving.  It was  so important to be  careful in the making  of friends, she had  told herself with a  pang of regret at the hasty promises made the day before.
Friendships should only be established after one had made very, very sure that the other person was suited to one's own situation and  that shared  attitudes and values ensured the relationship  would generate no conflict nor embarrassment. How terrible to make a friend of someone who turned out to be unsuitable and then to be stuck with them forever. They would be a part of one's life whether  one wanted it or not!


Post a Comment

<< Home