Josephine Hart “Damage”
There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.
Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home.
Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city.
For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe.
We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.
I have been at the bedsides of the dying, who looked puzzled at their family's grief as they left a world in which they had never felt at home.
I have seen men weep more at the death of their brother, whose being had once locked into theirs, than at the death of their child.
They say that childhood forms us, that those early influences are the key to everything. Is the peace of the soul so easily won? Simply the inevitable result of a happy childhood. What makes childhood happy? Parental harmony? Good health? Security? Might not a happy childhood be the worst possible preparation for life? Like leading a lamb to the slaughter.
Marriage is not the gamble we sometimes say it is. Over its course we have some control. Our choice of spouse is mostly intelligent, as well as romantic.
Children are the great gamble. From the moment they are born, our helplessness increases. Instead of being ours to mould and shape after our best knowledge and endeavour, they are themselves. From their birth they are the centre of our lives, and the dangerous edge of existence.
Their health, a random good fortune at best, is often regarded by us as the result of breeding and care. Their illnesses, when serious, destroy happiness. When they recover, we live for years with knowledge of what their death could mean to us. The arbitrary nature of our passion for children, who reveal so little of themselves during their short stay with us, is, for many, life's great romance. But, unlike the object of our romantic love, we do not choose the child who will be our son or daughter.
No earthshaking revelations on the nature of life seemed to attend Martyn's entry into the world. He was there, almost as though we had always expected him, a loved and perfect son. Sally was born two years later. My family was complete.
In my thirties I looked at my small children gratefully, lovingly, and lost. Surely here was the centre of life, its core? A woman, two children, a home. I was on high ground, I was safe.
We had the serenity and happiness of those who have never known unhappiness or terrible anxiety.
I have sometimes looked at old photographs of the smiling faces of victims, and searched them desperately for some sign that they knew. Surely they must have known that within hours or days their life was to end in that car crash, in that aeroplane disaster, or in domestic tragedy. But I can find no sign whatever. Nothing. They look out serenely, a terrible warning to us all. 'No I didn't know. Just like you ... there were no signs.' 'I who died at thirty... I too had planned my forties.' 'I who died at twenty had dreamed, as you do, of the roses round the cottage someday. It could happen to you. Why not? Why me? Why you? Why not?'
But of course in reality Ingrid and I sat down with Sally. And Martyn—a different Martyn, tentative, undeniably in love—sat down with Anna.
Our sanity depends essentially on a narrowness of vision—the ability to select the elements vital to survival, while ignoring the great truths. So the individual lives his daily life, without due attention to the fact that he has no guarantee of tomorrow. He hides from himself the knowledge that his life is a unique experience, which will end in the grave; that at every second, lives as unique as his start and end. This blindness allows a pattern of living to hand itself on, and few who challenge this pattern survive. With good reason. All the laws of life and society would seem irrelevant, if each man concentrated daily on the reality of his own death.
"It's a cliché, of course," said Wilbur, "but I find there are so many versions of truth. Versions of the truth may be perfectly acceptable, as most of the time nobody knows the whole truth, do they?"
"That sounds slightly cynical." I tried to lighten things a little. "Romance, like idealism, may be the last refuge of the cynic."
"The story I told you."
"That's all it is to you, a story?"
"How can it possibly be more? You didn't know me then, or Aston, or Peter. In that ignorance other people's lives are always only stories. The images I gave you were like illustrations. If I disappeared from your life tomorrow, that's all you would have. Images in a story, gestures frozen in a frame."
We have our story. Leave it alone. Leave everybody else in my life alone. As I do with you.
The tightness between my shoulder blades told me that it was a cross I had decided to bear. Others hide their pain in their bloodstream, or intestines, or it reaches the surface of their skin, daily stigmata. A childhood image from my Catholic nanny, one of her holy pictures of the cross being carried on the road to Golgotha, had all these years later become my body's image for my soul's pain.
French is his second language, and he says sometimes the discipline of another language reveals the truth more clearly.
Touching her face she said, "I did it to stop the pain, with this." She held up a small blood-spattered white towel with a knot in it. Her face was streaked with blood. The swelling of her cheeks made her face look as though all its outlines had been raised, while her eyes seemed to have been forced back into tiny pools of black in some lumpen moonscape.
"The pain was devouring me. This helped."
She picked up the towel again and lashed herself. A spurt of blood dropped into the glass on the table. Some image of Anna came obscenely to me. Her face, I thought, had always had something swollen—indelicate—about it. Perhaps that was the key? Anna had no delicate features that could be harmed by the brutality of kisses that must save a life.
There was a full moon in the starless sky. I thought how rarely I had noticed such things. Some deep failure of the soul perhaps. An inherited emptiness. A nothingness passed from generation to generation. A flaw in the psyche, discovered only by those who suffer by it.
It takes a remarkable short time to withdraw from the world.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Josephine Hart “Damage”