It’s my stop on the blog tour for The Reckoning by Clár Ní Chonghaile, and I have an extract to share with you!
It does not feel quite right to be sipping wine as I try to figure out if I killed a man. Or, perhaps more accurately, if I drove two men to their deaths. I fear wine is not up to the task. After a lifetime of loyalty to Sauvignon Blanc, I have opted for a ‘ripe and bold’ South African red. I bought it partly because I liked the description on the label – this wine sounds like me, although I am, now, more ripe than bold – but mostly to annoy the sweaty, limp-haired lady in the wine shop in Caen. Quelle horreur! L’Anglaise is not buying French wine. In France! But however bold, even this wine does not, in my opinion, have the gravitas needed for what I am trying to do. I forgot to buy whiskey from the scowling crone and so wine will have to do.
In any case, at my age, whiskey might finally prove my equal. I’ve always won our battles before, still standing as the bottle spun off the table and onto the floor, empty, exhausted, submissive at last. I was proud of my prowess as a drinker. It was something I worked hard at, a professional badge of honour. But nowadays, I’m not sure I wouldn’t end up on the floor myself, my old carcass rattling noisily onto the flagstones like bones cast down by wrinkle-stitched shamans predicting the future. Of all the indignities of old age, not being able to hold my drink bothers me most. Not least because of the pure maliciousness of it. Old age is precisely when one has the greatest need to be a functioning drunk all the livelong day. The irony distresses and delights me in equal measure.
You know where I am because I wrote to you the day before I left, asking you to join me. But I do not really believe you will come, Diane. To be crude, what’s in it for you? I know why I am here. You might say it’s an odd fancy, the product of an age-addled mind that’s beginning to misfire, but I think I might be able to unearth the beginning, the end and most importantly the middle of my story in this place. Even though this is the first time I have set foot in Lion-sur-Mer.
I could have chosen another town. This coast is pimpled with human acne – bars, restaurants, nondescript apartments with bright towels hanging over the balcony rails like flags of convenience. But Lion-sur-Mer is his beach and I liked the absurdity of the name. Lion on the sea. The king of the savannah, adrift and lost in the waves. An aptly fantastical Narnia name for a place that wears the horror of its past so lightly. The welcome booklet on the hall table of this pastel-primped cottage tells me the name may have come from some lion-shaped rocks or reefs. That is too mundane for my liking. I want to imagine a real lion striding down the beach with that peculiarly slow motion, flip-footed grace that all felines have. Where did he come from, this regal sea lion? Who knows? There are more things in heaven and earth, as my mother used to sigh, when she did not know what else to say. If such a thing is true anywhere, it must be true here, where the unthinkable was thought, the undoable done and where the ground still bears the scars of a war that did not know it was not supposed to be. Pockmarked and gutted, the grass and wildflowers do their best to blur the edges, but like wreaths on a coffin, they only draw the eye to the truth.
Enough of fantasies. Shall I tell you what I see before me right now? Shall I fool myself into believing you will read this letter, be transported beyond anger by my masterful prose and pack your bags to come and join me? Why not? I have all the time in the world now to indulge the wildest, most unfounded dreams. At least until the wine, bread and cheese run out and the sand stops trickling through the hourglass of my brain. I’ve never set much store by fad diets with their restrictions, deadlines and unreal expectations but I may have finally found the perfect diet for me: eat this food and then be done. I like its simplicity. I will dream my fantasies as long as I can, as long as there is some cerebral activity to spark these visions into life.
I have dragged a chair and table to the hawthorn hedge that marks the boundary between this sun-freckled garden and the bedazzling beach. The chair is upholstered in white with stripes in the same shade of peppermint green as the wooden shutters on the house: more evidence of the primly perfectionist hand that has made this cottage so insufferably flawless. I am sitting behind the low, wooden gate, a wine glass in my hand and sunglasses protecting my watery eyes from the glare of the sun setting to my left. The beach is nearly empty, just a few families packing up buckets, spades, deckchairs, parasols and all the accoutrements that illustrate just why that word has to be French, even in English. Do you really need a wine bucket on a beach? I fancy I am observing without being observed. It is what I do best.
The sand still bears the day’s imprint – a deep hole hacked into being by querulous, bronze-limbed children, a shallow valley where an achingly beautiful boy and a long-limbed girl lay wrapped around each other like amorous snakes for the best part of the afternoon, a moonscape of craters where brash, sure-footed men played bombastic volleyball. But the sea is coming now to make everything smooth and fresh once again, as it did, no doubt, over 50 years ago, after Robert and all the others staggered through the waves and onto the sand. The sea is the ultimate pardoner. Given time, it will remove all traces of our spilt blood, broken limbs, shattered brains and deflated bodies. If only all relics of our lives could be washed away so easily.
The received wisdom is that people like me, writers and artists, all of us dreamers, are on a quest for immortality, desperate to leave an eternal mark on the world so that when we die, our names and ideas will live on. Maybe I did subscribe to that particular vanity once. But now, I can honestly say that I would rather my footprints be kissed into oblivion by the white-flecked lips of the sea. I crave obliteration. There has been too much pain and it delights me to know that when I am gone, at least some of it will stop. There is a selfishness to this too, of course. Me, me, me. What I want. Still, it will amuse you, Diane, to know that I have fallen foul of that age-old axiom: be careful what you wish for. You’d think I’d have learnt that lesson over the years. I didn’t think obliteration could be partial. I, the ultimate creative, lacked imagination.
I know you’ll find it hard to believe but I haven’t always been so self-obsessed. There was a time, when your father was still here in body and mind, that I felt part of something bigger. We three were a story that I believed was everlasting and irrefutable. Our lives mattered because they slotted into all the other lives to form part of the train track of endlessly improving humanity. In essence, I believed that love conferred immortality. Today, I struggle to fathom such naiveté. What was I thinking? I do not believe in time as a healer but it has certainly cured me of that bullshit.
Sorry, I shouldn’t be profane. I shouldn’t be cynical. I shouldn’t be here and I certainly shouldn’t be speaking to you – albeit through a letter – after what I did. I shouldn’t be alive when he isn’t. And the others, all the others, lurking like restless, can-kicking teens on the wasteland between this world and its reflections. Where is the justice, you might wonder? And I would have to agree. Why has the universe kept me around given what I have done and failed to do? But justice is another of the many things I no longer believe in. Justice and time or rather, to be precise, linear time. I don’t believe in redemption and causality either. I am not even sure I believe in myself in any substantial, meaningful way. Do I believe in you? As an existence, certainly. I know you exist. And then what?
After I arrived here today in a steaming, sun-baked coach, I dumped my suitcase and typewriter and took a stroll around town before heading along a lane inland. I might come across as cold-hearted and cynical, and that’s probably the best you could say, but I can still, somewhat to my own surprise, fall prey to a touch of the whimsy. I thought I might feel something if I walked into France from the coast, the way Robert and the other soldiers did more than half a century ago.
The air was alive with the crackling, end-of-day heat that throbs sullenly along silent countryside roads. I moved slowly, as I imagined they did, weighed down by their soaked kit – the water bottles, ammunition pouches, spades and all the other tools needed to sustain life and dole out death. The hedgerows extended haughtily above me, as they must have towered above your father. They loom out of built-up earth banks; dense lattices of hawthorn, bramble, hazel and blackthorn, shading the labyrinthine paths where I imagine soldiers’ souls still roam. Do you believe in parallel universes, Diane? I do. Call it my opium.
What do the men of Britain’s Second Army make of us all now in the final years of a century that at one point seemed intent on imploding well before reaching a gentle old age? Are they still squatting here, smoking cigarettes and discussing how the world has moved on without them? As I walked along the hedgerows, I imagined what they might be saying on the other side of the looking glass, in that place where the only time is the present. Humour me, Diane. You may not believe it but I am at my most truthful when I am making things up.
So here, I present to you, your father, Private Robert Stirling, in conversation.
Private D. Myers: It’s like we never existed. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is, what was the point?
Private R. Stirling: Good God, Dan. Are you still going on about a point? How many times do I have to tell you? There was no point. The war started, the war was fought, the war ended. We were unlucky. End of.
Private D. Myers: You weren’t unlucky. You survived. You coulda seen all the rest, all the things that happened so fast and that made what went on here seem so… out of place. Like we was dinosaurs, or something.
Private R. Stirling: I’m dead, aren’t I? Isn’t that enough for you? What does it matter how or where? I didn’t see much more than you, remember? Okay, I saw that life could go back to normal or something like normal. It was all still there: hot dinners, clean sheets, living to be happy instead of just trying not to die, thinking your own thoughts. It was all still there like a giant slap in the face. I didn’t think it could be possible. And perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Perhaps that was my whole problem in the end. So, yes, I stuck around a bit longer. But it’s not like I got to see Elvis, the Beatles, the moon landing, any of that. I’m here with you, dammit. The war killed me, same as the rest of you.
Private D. Myers: Fair enough, keep your knickers on. Still, d’you get what I mean? All those things you just said and all happening just a few years later. It’s like a big two-fingers-up to us.
Private R. Stirling: Have you been hitting the Calva too hard again, Dan? You’re all over the place this afternoon.
Private D. Myers: I’m just saying it’s like we fought on a different planet. Or in the Dark Ages or something. If all those things were around the corner, how’d we get beaten by hedges? Blown up on beaches? What the hell made us think crossing the sea and running up the bloody sand into the arms of the waiting Nazis was a good idea?
Private R. Stirling: To be fair, Dan, we never thought that. We were just doing what we were told. Very little thinking involved at all. But all the same you might have a point, Danny boy. And speaking of planets let me tell you something else that’ll fry that brandy-soaked brain of yours. They’ve discovered these black holes in space now. Albert Einstein imagined them first but they only named them in the 60s. They are literally nothing, a vacuum where all matter has collapsed in on itself, like that bridge we blew up near Caen, right? The pull of gravity inside these black holes is so damn strong even light can’t escape. They’re like huge magnets, sucking everything in. They come in different sizes, see, and are found in loads of galaxies but the biggest ones are called supermassive black holes. It got me thinking. Maybe the war was a kind of supermassive black hole? It destroyed everything and then became invisible because not even light could escape. Sure, we laughed and joked because nothing can ever be totally, utterly awful. Not for six years anyhow. But underneath and at its core, it was all horror, running deep and sticky through all the days. Maybe the war didn’t end. Maybe it collapsed or caved in so that everything was sucked away. From one day to the next, it was gone.
Private D. Myers: Jesus, mate. I was just saying ain’t time strange. What d’you have to go on about outer space for? You know I ain’t got your smarts. Fuck’s sake.
There’s a fresh piece of writing, Diane, just for you. Your father was something of a science buff. He was endlessly and sometimes annoyingly curious; he couldn’t see a beautiful night sky for the individual stars and he couldn’t see those without trying to name the constellations. I sometimes think it was that desire to put a name to everything that was his undoing. Some things can’t and shouldn’t be named. Naming confers legitimacy and that’s not always wise. Robert fell apart when he realised there was no name for what he’d seen. No name for what he’d done. Even if there had been, he wouldn’t have been allowed to use it.
I suppose I’m picking up where he left off. I want to find the perfect words to describe what happened to him and to us. I’ve come here to find those words and to look for the pieces of your father that were missing when he came back at the end of those six sodden years when time broke its leash and ran wild across the world, while simultaneously standing still like smoke in the air. Time was the bullet speeding towards you as you hid behind a hedge. You didn’t know the end was coming until that infinite moment between your realisation and the bullet’s impact. The infinite and finite twisted around each other like yin and yang. That nanoscopic moment was all and everything, and time was standing very still and very small for you, but also running out very fast.
I imagine you are already rolling your eyes. You know only too well that I am using your father to lure you to this place where, of course, you will not find him, only me. And why should you do that when I gave up my right to see you? It doesn’t matter that I thought I was saving my life and yours. And is that even true? They say hindsight is 20/20 but memory is not. When we look back through time, our mind’s eye is neither clear nor honest. Our gaze is refracted through so many bitter thoughts, so many regrets, both past and present, so many red-faced justifications that it bends and warps until the memory it uncovers bears as much resemblance to what happened as our reflections in crazy mirrors at funfairs. Do they still have those? I used to like them.
All too often, we speak of our powers of recall as if they were independent and neutral. But memory is as much about selection as recollection. We create our perfect selves through the stories we tell every day and we use our memories to embellish this ideal image. The very act of remembrance has motive, as does everything we do. Memories are not static – we recreate them every time we revisit them. We remake them, using fresh information on behalf of the person we have become.
For years, I believed I gave you up to save you and to save my sanity. I am not so brazen that I would entirely deny my own interest. I am self-aware enough to know that I did it partly for myself. Maybe even mostly for myself. But not solely. I have told myself this version of what happened so often, in those measureless hours before dawn, that it feels real. But what if the original memory was false? What if what I told myself on the day I gave you up was false? I am perfectly capable of lying to myself. And I am perfectly capable of believing my own lies, if I want to. I might’ve been a journalist for years but I am also a writer of fiction and if there is one thing I have learned through practicing both disciplines, it is that all facts are subjective. Especially the ones we believe are empirically true.
The woman I am now does not, or cannot, believe she is guilty of callous abandonment. But maybe even in that I am not being honest. If I don’t feel guilty, why am I reaching out to you? There is a thread worth teasing there. Whatever guilt I may or may not feel I am woman enough to recognise that I do want your forgiveness. How crass, you will think. How very common to look for redemption as the door opens to that long night. How very crude to use pity as a lever to pry open your heart. Rest assured, Diane. I am not dying. At least, I am not dying any faster today than I was yesterday. Death is a constant presence at this point. I am 77 after all and just as the century is nearly done, so am I. We have both almost run our course. There will be no place for us in the new millennium and that is as it should be. But I do not have an immediate expiry date. Not yet.
I am not sure how my stay here ends. Part of me wants to slit my wrists and run wild through this tasteful cottage, spurting blood all over the cream sofas, rattan rugs and pale green walls like a balloon pirouetting wildly as the air screams out. I have a visceral, rage-filled desire to obliterate l’ambiance rustique so painstakingly created by the house-proud owner of this cottage. But that seems a bit overblown, even for me.
I’m going to pretend you’re sitting here beside me. It’s a tough assignment even for someone as well versed in the imaginary as me. Ten books under my belt but summoning up your image is almost too much for my powers of imagination. The last picture I saw was from Millie’s wedding two years ago. It was a photograph in your local paper, the Ham and High. I’ll tell you one of my secrets, Diane, but this is just a naughty peccadillo compared to others I will reveal later. Sometimes, I take the train into London and stop in West Hampstead. I wander slowly up to your neck of the woods, puffing my way past the gaudy money transfer outlets and stifling corner shops, up the hill until I get to the rarefied air of Hampstead. I always wonder if I will see you. To be honest, I’m not sure what I would do if I did. Duck into a doorway, probably.
The newspaper photograph was a little blurry but you looked good for almost 50. You wear your years lightly, as I have been told I do though past 70 there is a certain degree of inevitable decay no matter what you do. I’m going to assume nothing much has changed since then. I remember my early 50s, cruising along the flat of life, beyond the peaks and valleys of youth and not yet dodging the precipices of old age. Yours is a tranquil landscape.
You’ve not given in to grey hair and I am glad about that. When we met that one time, back in the 60s, I felt an irrational delight to see you had my fine, blonde hair. You wear glasses – you must’ve inherited your weak eyes from your father’s side. Robert’s parents both needed glasses though he said his mother was too vain to wear them. I’m sure he needed them too in his last year but by then, I don’t think he wanted to see the world too clearly any more. I have my own pair now but I don’t always wear them either. One doesn’t always need to see everything.
I was delighted to see that photo – payback for years of anonymous snooping – but the image was disappointingly static and formal. A wedding pose. Your eyes are squinting, your smile is tight and fake as though you are fed up now with this mother-of-the-bride stuff. Even as a baby, you had a no-bullshit glare. It used to frighten me a little – I was thinner-skinned then – but the woman I am now rejoices in its memory. The photo, however, gives me no sense of fluidity. I cannot imagine your face in motion. What would you look like if you were here, staring at me through the shadow-shimmering rays of the dying sun? Would you have hate in your eyes and what would that even look like on you now? Do you hate me, Diane? I am genuinely curious. I have always been so quick to hate, so quick to condemn, so quick to deny love, at least since that awful September day 50 years ago. Are you like me? Or did you manage to preserve the optimism I felt back when I still believed that life could be perfect, that all things being equal life would, in fact, be perfect? Did the scales fall off your eyes too? Or is the final, fabulous irony the fact that I, Lina Rose, the acclaimed writer who ‘wields her pen like a scalpel as she probes false prophets of naïve idealism and unfounded optimism’, have a daughter who still believes in a benign universe despite everything?
When I said earlier that I was wondering if I had killed a man, or men, you probably thought I was being facetious. I was not. How can we possibly estimate our individual responsibility for any event that involves us? We would need the omniscience of a deity to know how our actions are seen by those they affect. Then we would need the calculus skills of a Leibniz to make sense of the infinite sequences and series that bring us to our defined limits. And then, on top of all that, we would need a Caroll-ian imagination. It’s a tall order for any human, even the most rational and clear-sighted. I am neither of those things.
I was, of course, referring to your father. Primarily. I will tell you of the other man too but later. For now, the question is did I kill your father? Having dodged the bullets bending around these hedges, having survived the road to Paris and the push into Belgium and all the rest, did my big-eyed incompetence as a wife and my inexcusable inability to hear him bring about his end? Or was it ‘just’ the war? But that seems too pat. The war killed millions in its time and afterwards when overloaded brains exploded behind drawn curtains in poky bedrooms or on lonely moors where curlews carved the skies with their spiralling cries. Your father was among these casualties of war but that is not the whole story. And what a daft concept the whole story is anyway. As if our messy lives could be stitched together with a single thread.
The sun has gone now and it is getting chilly. Northern Europe will disappoint like that. This continent has no consistency. I am going inside to sit on one of those pristine cream sofas, under the faintly sinister eyes of the fake Degas ballerinas, bowing and arabesque-ing across the walls. I know that’s not a word but I am a writer and a rebel and I will make up my own words if I damn well please. I might very well have to soon.
I have a story to tell you, Diane. It is my story and your story and the story of a century that remade the world like a supermassive black hole. When we reach the end, you will be the ultimate arbiter of whether it was worth your time. You will also sit in judgment on me and on the memories I reveal. I do not expect absolution but I must conclude that I yearn for forgiveness.
I will walk up to the main street to post this tomorrow morning. Finding your address was too easy for an ex-journalist like me. It begs the question: did you always want to be found? The next chapter will follow in a few days. I shall imagine myself as Dickens and you as my reader, agog for the next instalment of this fascinating serial. Modesty has never been my strongest quality and besides, I need to feel the heavy hand of time on my shoulder because it is there and it is not moving.
The Reckoning was published on 15 October by Legend Press. Many thanks to Lucy Chamberlain for the proof copy and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.