A Novel

Joanna Kavenna


She began it on an ordinary summer's day when she found--quite in contravention of the orders of her boss--she was idling at the computer, kicking her heels and counting. Rosa Lane, thirty-five and several months, aware of an invisible stopwatch tolling her down, was counting the years, the hours spent sitting in offices, staring at the sky, at the flickering screen that was sending her blind. She had passed the previous ten years in a holding position, her legs locked under a table. She had typed a million emails and strained her wrists. She was no closer to understanding anything. Ahead she saw the future, draped in grey. Behind was the damp squib of her family's history. She was sitting in the present, with this past and future whirling around her. And outside the city was awash with daytime noise--the grind of traffic, blurred speech, elusive choirs. The noise was ebbing and rising again, and she heard the cries of birds in the eaves. She thought of the river moving and the flow of cars, smoke drifting across the shine and colour.
Sitting at her desk that day, sweating into her shirt, she thought, If they told me I would never do anything more than this, would I want to live or die on the spot? Then she thought, What is the reason for it all, what is it for? That really cut her up, so she wrotean email to her boss. It was frank and elegiac. It began with her youth, early career, thanked him for his patronage, communicated her deepest regrets and ended with the words I resign. She was emphatic: she pressed Send, and then she shut down her computer. She picked up her hat and coat and walked. She was having a fit of nerves by the time she passed the guardians of the gate, the two fat porters who sat there trading jokes. They sauntered towards her. If they had spent another second rattling the keys she would have crumbled and begged them to lock her in forever. Then the gate swung open. "Leaving early," they chorused, and released her. Rosa went out onto the street, where the cars were queuing to go forward. Then she went home.
It was a Monday in June when Rosa left her job. It was early afternoon, and she sat on the semi-empty train marvelling at the space, the available seats. She felt a gust of air as the doors swept shut. She stared at the adverts for phone cards and car insurance. Palliatives, she thought. She glanced at the passengers, barely noticing their distinctness. A less concentrated crowd but still part of the hordes. She laughed at an advert and picked her ear. A man caught her eye and she quickly dropped her gaze. She observed the dirt on the walls, she traced her fingers round the stains on the seats. She filed every detail of the carriage away.
She was at Dante's mid-point, the centre of life, when she was supposed to garner knowledge and become wise. This was assuming she had used her earlier years for study and application, like the poet, but she had measured them out in weekend binges and European holidays. For years she had been productive at work and as idle as anything in the evenings. Time coursed along and she earned money. She stayed firmly in her box. She had been a journalist for years, sliding her way upwards. She wrote on the arts. She understood--it was quite plain to her--that she wasmeant to be ruled, not to rule. She hardly had the mettle for power play and the tyrannical control of fiefdoms. Her life had been supported by a few buttresses: belief in her job, the love of her parents, her relationship with Liam. These had stopped her thinking about anything too deeply.
Yet recently she had been feeling dislocated. The death of her mother, in January, was the start of that. She understood it was a natural process, inevitable and unquestionable, but it knocked her off course and she couldn't right herself again. She went into work and was congratulated on her perseverance, but at night she was troubled by bad dreams, grief sweats, fear of the void, internal chaos that she tried to keep well buried, aware that her experience was general not exceptional and she really ought to button up. She missed her mother, of course, she felt the lack of her like a deep soundless blackness, and she thought it was impossible that this should be the natural condition of life. She felt as if a seismic shift had occurred; the ground had fallen away, revealing depths below, shapes clad in shadow.
Her mind was casting out analogies, hints at a deeper complaint. She felt restless, and she had vivid dreams. Her thoughts held her, stopped her being useful. She lacked a defining metaphor, a sense of coherence. She felt coerced to the social pattern, her instincts dulled. She needed a local mythology, some sense of a reason why. Instead, she was teeming with frenzy and obscenity. She could curse her way home, damning the street and condemning the innocent and guilty alike. And she noticed that her sense of things was changing, it bemused her to think about it. Instead of seeing herself as the centre of her own small world, with the city as the backdrop to her life, she began to see everything as a fractured mess, a wild confusion of competing atoms, millions of people struggling to live. She lacked a doctrine, a prevailing call.She was surrounded by monomaniacs, yet she was indecisive. All ways looked as impassable as the others. She was in a labyrinth, lacking a ball of twine! Disoriented as anything, and she couldn't kneel and pray; she was sure that wouldn't help at all.
In March, concerned about how detached she was feeling, she'd asked Liam to marry her. Liam said no, which shocked her profoundly. More than shocked, she was deeply offended. They flagged on for a few more months, but anyone could tell their relationship was holed below the waterline. There were days when she felt it all as dark comedy, bred of the absurd situation she found herself in. With the clock ticking, she was spending her indeterminate span of years on the underground, holding on tight to a metal pole, checking her emails, earning money and lining her belly. This sense of the ludicrous crept into her prose. In April she'd written an article on Swedish contemporary dance, which opened, "Dark, dark, dark we all go into the dark. The dancers have all gone under the hill." The editor had sauntered over to her desk, and demanded that she erase the offending lines on her computer. "Never," he said. "Never quote that crap again."
By May she was writing in fragments. It was unfortunate, as her job was to write and explain, to produce quantities of lucid prose. Instead, she stared at the computer, with the bare notes of a story in her hand. Embarrassed, she wrote, "The Modernist Novel." After another hour she wrote, "Rosa Lane reports." Then it was lunchtime and she wrote, "If Lunch Be the Lunch of Love, Lunch On." Then later she wrote, "Shuffle Off" and "Mortal Coil" on two lines. Then she accidentally pressed Send and emailed her few phrases to her editor, who ignored them. Her focus seemed to be slipping. Where once she had read the paper every day, noting the preoccupations of society and her colleagues, now she flicked through a few pages and tossed the thing away. She was left withodd words--BLAME, WORSENS, REPRIEVE, SILENCE--and some images of a screaming mother, a model clad in satin, a bomb victim. None of it made any sense. Now she wrote, "I want. We want." And then she wrote, "What is it for?"
There was an evening in late May when she found herself standing on a street--she wasn't entirely sure where she was--and then it seemed to her that the street was widening and widening and the numbers of buses and cars multiplying indefinitely, and there were rows and rows of people stretching eternally, and the ghosts of the dead vivid and clear in the dusk. "Too much now," she said out loud, attracting silent glances from the habitués around her. "Bloody hell there's a lot of us," she added. She reeled past the Albery eyeing the neon haze and the streetlights and the shadows seeping from the winding alleys. Then the crowds seemed to vanish altogether, and she thought of purse pinchers and long-gone hawkers, the flotsam of another era. She thought of them with their capes and cloaks and buckled shoes, and their hats and moustaches and the smell of the streets--dung and offal. They vanished too, and she imagined the city dead and gone, a fierce wind blasting across the earth. She shrugged that off, because it was making her worry. Because the buses looked teeming and drunk with weight she walked home. Three hours later, she arrived at her flat, grimy and sweating, talking quietly to herself.
Leaving her job had a few immediate consequences. Peter the editor called her up, which had never happened before. Gravelly and disappointed he said, "What are you doing Rosa? Are you ill?" Not ill, she had explained. She told him she was fine. She wanted a change of direction. "Towards what?" he demanded. It was as if she had blasphemed in church. She thought of him, a holy confessor with a beard and a belly, in his office with a view of the street. He never went home before 10:00 p.m. He had awife and an assortment of children. A well-paid, powerful job. He lunched with politicians, artists, writers, contemporary sages and wide-eyed pundits; anyone he asked to lunch came along, talked to him with commitment. A good life, in his terms. "You've worked so hard to get to this point," he said. She thanked him, but she said she couldn't go back. "Ridiculous," he said. "Give me a call if you change your mind. Don't leave it too long."
She said, "That's very kind."
"Come on Rosa, give it another go." It sounded reasonable and she said she would think about it. She thanked him and then he was gone forever.
"Do you really want to squander everything?"--that was Grace's version, two days later. Grace--compassionate, withholding evidence--hectored her over a bottle of wine. A hectoring from Grace was no ordinary hectoring. It had sound and fury, high drama. Grace was truly dazzling. She liked to smoke and blast out words. She was incessant in her talk, and that had first attracted Rosa to her. She was a comparatively new friend; it was hard to say if she was more Liam's friend than Rosa's. Rosa had found her at a party, and she swiftly became a fixture. She brought around take-aways and wine and spent long hours at their flat. She was good to be with: she was witty, hilarious, in a conspiratorial way. At parties, she whispered asides behind her hand. Like Liam, she was charming. She glistened with charisma.
"Do you really want to sink without trace?" Grace added. The phrase stuck in Rosa's brain. Sink without trace?
"I assumed I would," she said. "It's what we do."
"Rubbish!" said Grace. "Total rubbish!" Her hands were folded in her lap. She kept her gestures succinct and certain. She smiled as she spoke, but she was steely all the same. When she smiled she showed dozens of shiny teeth. Her hair was blond andshe wore it round her shoulders like a vestal virgin. She looked elegant, as she always did, in a skirt that hugged her hips, an opennecked shirt that showed her verdant olive skin. Still, she was inquisitorial and there were certain things she stridently defended. Sitting with her legs crossed, brow furrowed over the matter at hand, Grace said, "You owe it to yourself."
"I have exerted my right to choose," said Rosa.
"And you choose failure and ignominy," said Grace, into her stride. Any moment, thought Rosa, she would raise a fist. She would stand and cry "To Arms!" "What's your plan?"
Rosa had no plan. This caused Grace to release another tight smile. She looked briefly as if she pitied Rosa. Well, perhaps she did, because Rosa was in a sorry state, timorous and plaintive, picking at her nails with an empty glass before her. She had drunk too swiftly and now her head was clouded and her concentration was slipping. Still Grace had something to teach her. "Always plan before you leave a job," she was saying. "Or the other way round, never leave a job without a plan. Are you hoping Liam will support you?" This she said leaning forward, face close to Rosa's, glass of wine in one hand, orb of justice in the other.
"No, not really."
"Not really? Not really? Come on Rosa, don't be ridiculous! You can't expect him to do that. You don't really expect him to do that, do you? What do you mean by not really?" Suddenly Grace seemed unhappy. Her mouth twisted and she looked pained. That was unusual for Grace, who conducted herself with compelling sangfroid, and it made Rosa stare at her. She thought it was something about her indecisiveness, her complete failure to act, which was distressing Grace.
"I mean probably I don't," she said.
Now Grace set down her glass and looked Rosa deep in theeyes. "Rosa, you have to explain this. Probably? Please tell me what you're feeling," she said.
And, nervous because Grace was so fixed on her, Rosa said, "No you're right. I have to stand alone. I was inert, idle, generally lazy. It's a shock when you hit the water, cold on your limbs, but now it's better. Now I am beginning to change."
"Exactly, you said it," said Grace. "Don't just depend on Liam. That's a foolish thing to do." She seemed to relax. She had been holding herself upright, looking angular, and now she curved again. Grace had a delicate slouch. She hunched her shoulders like a child. Her sudden tautness was perplexing at the time, then they moved on.
As for her father! Well, Rosa genuinely frightened her poor father. She understood the deal. He had worked hard, and now he expected a leisurely decline. His wife was dead and for a time he had been a wide-eyed embodiment of grief, quite crazy in the living room, later unkempt in the garden, given to sudden fits of weeping. He wept like he was dying, gasping and holding his head. Really, in the nineteenth century he would have died and they would have said it was from his broken heart. But the doctors had buoyed him with remedies. They cranked him up again and now he was running along well enough. He was not happy, certainly, and it bothered Rosa that she was making him anxious. Still, he had other matters to consider. Aside from the weight of grief, heavy upon him, he was seventy, living on his pension, a recent convert to all sorts of homeopathic medicines, observing a sanctioned diet of fruit and vegetables. If he didn't make her his top priority she understood why. "I don't expect any help," she told him when he called to berate her. He caught her, pinned her so she couldn't struggle and told her off as if she was a child. On the counterattack, Rosa began, "I'll manage fine"--"You alwaysdo"--he said, interrupting promptly. "You always did, I mean, until now. I understand, Rosa. I feel desperately sorry. But this isn't the right thing to do."
"No no, no," she said. "It's not a bad thing. I've decided to take stock."
"Take stock, what does that mean?"
"I've been feeling a little under the weather. As if I'm suffering from ..."
Malaise. Intellectual disintegratian. Epistemological meltdown. A strange rash on my arms that won't be treated. Hypochondria of the undistilled sort. An aversion to conversatian. Acedia plain and simple.
"From what exactly? Really, Rosa, we must get to the bottom of this. You can't just run out of a good job for no reason. Whatever the circumstances, you can't do that."
"I'm not running out for no reason. There's a compelling reason. Viz, I can't possibly do the job."
"Why not?"
"It's reality, Father," she said, reluctantly. "Reality is an empty abandoned town, as Musil said. Or was that imagination? Anyway, I don't see how I can sit at my desk presenting reality to people, tailoring it for view, commenting glibly on daily events, when I have no idea what is going on. Do you, really? Gamma rays, for example, I know nothing about them. Any of them. Invisible forces, belief systems, philosophies of the way, I know nothing."
"Do you have the money saved to retrain?"
"No, I don't have any money saved."
"Rosa, that was extremely irresponsible of you."
"It's terrible, I agree. I've been duped." The best scramble to something they call affluence, hysterical borrowing and material clutter. The worst--well, who was she to talk about the worst?
"You could have bought a flat, if you'd wanted to," said herfather. "Then at least you would have something to show for yourself."
"No, no, that doesn't matter. The property ladder!" And she thought, the property ladder is a grand illusion--everything dangling out of reach, and the ladder running up and up higher and higher to a grand crash, the Götterdämmerung of wage slaves, in which the liveried masses will fight a final battle for a small house to call their own and be slain in droves and burnt to a crisp. From the ashes of the wage slave apocalypse will arise a better world.
Meanwhile her father was saying, "It's all so sudden, and extreme. Your mother wouldn't have wanted you to throw everything away."
"Look I'll be honest, Dad," said Rosa. "I'm never going back to that stinking pigpen. I'm not snuffling for scraps anymore. I'm off to find the grail. 'II me semble que je serais bien, là où je ne suis pas,' as someone said. To be plain, I am discarding the Schweinerei. I will have no more of it. Lie your own lies, Dad. I'm off to the temple of truth, wherever the hell it is."
"Rosa, you should go and see a doctor," said her father.
"That's not on my list."
"Your response is disproportionate. Your grief is disproportionate, self-destructive. You refuse to accept that life is hard. Things are never perfect," he said. He was always ready with a platitude. He was good at them, quite adept in their use. Some days he talked in fluent cliché. But so did she. It was a genetic trait. Her family had been unoriginal for generations.
"I understand. I'm one of the lucky ones."--This she told herself a thousand times a day.
"Well, now you'll find out," said her father.
"Find out what?"
"If you are one of the lucky ones," he said.
THE OTHER IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCE--ASIDE FROM THOSE THAT revealed themselves later, including debt, social ostracism, and a few other minor trials--was the end of her relationship with Liam. That was the storm-lashed bark, but really she would have stepped off long ago had the weather been better, the sea altogether calmer. She should have left months ago; that would have been the decent thing to do. But she was weak and a coward, clinging on. Liam, by contrast, and surprisingly, became clinical, like a surgeon. He assessed her chances and decided she was not going to come through. On the day she left her job he came to her with a thin smile. "You did what?" he said. "Really? You did that? Why did you do that?" That! Of all the things she could have done. For Liam, it was the last straw. He wanted to cast her out, denounce her. Then he shook his head. He gave her a profound look. It was an illusion, but Liam was a proper denizen, a firm believer in progress. "Let's not discuss it," he said. "Let's eat." He was terse that evening, and she wondered what he was about to say. He usually judged her harshly; he liked to tell her she was self-dramatising and, sometimes, obscene. He threw her a sortie of stern glances, pierced her with harsh stares and turned to his food. Recently he had stopped finding her funny. They were both misbehaving at the time; neither of them was being reasonable. Rosa had an excuse--she had the stark fact of recent bereavement, loss of meaning, latent despair and the rest--but really she hadn't been reasonable for years. Their life together seemed impermanent. Things were definitely going down the pan. She didn't blame it on Liam. But she hadn't thought about it too hard. She had left her job, and now, she thought, she would get to grips with everything, all the things she hadn't been thinking clearlyabout. She had begun to mistrust herself. Her own self--that was a schizophrenic state, a piece of blatant nonsense. She needed to change her circumstances, but she was lazy and her habits were ingrained. Even so, she was sanguine as she sat there. She was upbeat, slightly restless. It was the summer, and she always liked the summer. She had walked out of the office, never to return, but she enjoyed the shifting of the seasons. Her plans were basic at the time, she was thinking of deep blue skies and how much she liked wearing shorts. She was planning evenings at the Windsor Castle pub, sitting in the garden with friends drinking wine. Saturday mornings, reading papers on Westbourne Grove. The season, she imagined, would run along as the seasons had been running along for years. No one really worked in the summer. They went to summer parties, drank wine from the ritual plastic goblet and talked about sport. She would take up the guitar again. She would bake bread and cultivate a window box. She would train rigorously and run every day. By the autumn she would be fit and lively again. She was only relieved she didn't have to go to work the next day.
Liam was watchful for a week, and then he said it. It was a fine June evening when he spilled it. On that evening, like so many others, they were having a quiet meal. The only sound across the table was the click of cutlery. They were like a pair of venerable cockroaches, dining together. She had cooked fish and vegetables with sauce from a packet. She hadn't taken too much time over the details. They were living in a high-rise block by Notting Hill tube. From their living room they could see the city, glowing and sparkling beneath, the cars weaving patterns of light, the buildings rising towards the centre. There was an orange glow hanging over it all, a dusty halo. The evening was crisp, the air was thin and the noise of traffic filled the room.
Liam had no sense of occasion. He disliked high drama. He despised parties; he refused even to celebrate his own birthday. He was deeply uncomfortable at weddings. He thought it was all a fuss, a suspicious fuss. So he had hardly prepared a violent scene. He was dressed in his usual innocuous way: trousers in a cotton fabric, a long-sleeved blue T-shirt. He hated to be conspicuous. He never raised his voice and he disliked confrontations; it was why he struggled in his job. He could generally see the other side of an argument. He called it negative capability and referred proudly to Keats. She thought it was cowardice. They were all afraid, Rosa was afraid of a lot of things, most of them inchoate or unmentionable, but Liam was afraid of his boss and this enraged her. He mostly didn't try. He assumed that his opponents were benighted, but he lacked the will to convert them. He'd suffered a few minor hitches, the painful discrepancy between aspiration and realisation. Still, he was successful enough as a political lobbyist. He had a firm handshake; he looked good in a suit. He was plausible whatever he did.
Usually, they were measured with each other. He had thanked her for dinner, a solitary foray. "Thanks so much. Delicious sauce." "Sainsbury's very own," she said. "Delicious." "Mmm, I know." It was the sort of script that ended with a murder. Or death by mutual tedium. Someone had to crack! Now he was looking carefully at her, wiping his mouth. The dining room was untidy. They had a lava lamp in the corner, which had once seemed like the height of irony. The curtains were purple velvet and had been made by Rosa's mother years ago, when she was a seventies queen of home baking and floral skirts. They had hung in the living room when Rosa was a child. They made the flat look like a stage, prepared for an amateur production, a village pantomime or a motley farce. In recent months she had found they pained her, brought it all back,her vanished mother, the very thoughts she was trying to evade. She had thrown out a lot of things, photos and letters, but she had left the purple curtains hanging there.
The floor of the dining room was covered with newspapers they somehow never managed to throw away, and the living room was just as littered with ephemera. They had a long black leather sofa and black leather armchairs, which matched nothing else but amused them both. Really, neither of them had any sense of style. Rosa had hung some pictures on the walls, West Country landscapes from her parents' house. The walls were white. Rosa distrusted colour and didn't like to use it. It made for an ascetic effect. Visitors often thought they had recently moved in. But they had been there for years.
Liam was rocking back on his chair. In this bland room, wearing bland clothes, Liam was a beautiful man. It was always a shock to Rosa to see how beautiful he was. Now, after ten years, they no longer spoke about the things that concerned them. It was another sort of quietness, like the quietness Rosa found enveloping her prose. He was beautiful, but Rosa wasn't whipping herself too hard. Rosa and Liam had certainly dropped out of the idyll. Their pocket utopia had decayed and a feeling of strain had developed between them. Familiarity made them slovenly with each other; they barely made an effort in their conversations. They gossiped in an easy way, about friends they had known for years, about their jobs. They liked to squabble about the washing up. Of course they loved each other. They had a shared past; they had been friends before they fell in love. Rosa had found Liam fascinating at the start: he was a handsome awkward man, her favourite type. Her love was a mixture of inevitable cliche and basic lust and a sense of shared sympathy and she liked his hurried way of speaking. It was easy to romanticise him, and she did for afew years, until they began to bore each other. They moved in together a few months after they began their relationship; they were inseparable, they couldn't bear to spend a night apart. When he went away for a few days she was bereft. Later they couldn't spend a night apart because the habit was so ingrained.
She had become insensitive and bullish, tardy in her praise. He had become obsessed with the minutiae of their living arrangements. It was impossible for her to explain it to anyone else, it sounded too much like an argument between people who have lived together for too long, but Liam picked at everything she did, an amiable, almost affectionate picking, but it vexed her all the same. It made her reluctant to decide anything for herself, the colour of a cushion, the contents of the fridge, because Liam was likely to complain, gently, mildly, but complain all the same. It all got rancid, touched with fraudulence. When he was irritated his mouth sagged at the sides. He looked like a mangled piece of fruit. And Rosa was like a nought, her mouth constantly open in self-exoneration. She spent far too much time explaining why she put the towels where she put them, or the bread where she put that, or the rest. It was bad for them both. At work, Rosa was an efficient, sensible woman, or had been until she became inefficient and completely nonsensical. But at home she was ill at ease.
"Why do you bother?" she had sometimes asked. "Why does it matter at all?"
He would seem to understand, but ten minutes later it would start again. "Just leave that." "Why are there crumbs on the floor?" "What is this doing here?" "Where is my phone?" "Don't move it again." "What is this?"
Initially she had rebelled, they had fought over trivia, and then she had compromised. She adhered to his customs, she obeyed the edicts of the kitchen, the rigid laws of the living room. Whatevershe did, Liam was fussy; he developed an aversion to water, a loathing of open windows, a set of strange ideas about how you hung dishcloths. So they had piles of perfect dishrags and a committed silence about important things.
"Do you do it because you are trying to control me, or the environment?" she asked.
"You are the environment," he replied. Beautiful Liam, so young-looking, with his muscular frame, his air of health, his smile, his ready charm. A handsome man. Women adored Liam. Men admired him. But she saw him as a nag, a man with his head in the dirt under the table.
When she had posed the question--trying to fix herself to a ritual, eager to get herself locked into something permanent and unceasing, marriage, a romantic idea, good for morale, a ceremony, a party, her father would be pleased, fantastic, a wedding! and so on--and Liam had said no, of course they knew that was it. That precisely was it. Their own miniature Armageddon. The death of love! Completely trivial compared to the chaos around them, of course. It was hard to keep a sense of perspective. For herself she felt her miniature life was going badly. Her mother dead and burnt, and like a sap-headed coward Liam had stalled. He said he loved her, but it wasn't quite right. He had a few things to sort out. They could discuss it in a few months, he said. The rest--on he had gone, like a nervous actor given a difficult speech. Since then, she had been idle and uncertain but really she was waiting for the end. Unable to effect it, but expectant.
On that evening--the finale--Liam looked particularly beautiful. His brown, wavy hair, curling onto his collar. His small nose, which dipped towards his firm lips. The severity of his jawbone. His wide shoulders, his almost hairless chest. His long elegant legs, his small waist, his bony ankles. His white, crooked teeth,chipped at their ends. When she saw him curved into the chair she wanted to fall to the floor and beg for forgiveness. Instead she stood and began to clear the plates away. He was still silent, intent on his glass of wine. He looked fascinating. It was only when he opened his mouth that he betrayed himself. Then he poured it out, a steady stream, placatory words, words for falling asleep to. He didn't believe them anyway, he just poured them out. It was beauty worship, she had diagnosed it long ago. She would hardly have loved him so long, had he not been so beautiful. Recently they had become more polite than ever. It had to be a bad sign. When Grace came round--which she had been doing constantly in recent months, as if she feared to leave them alone--she mocked them for their silences. She chain-smoked and explained that they had developed a fatal caesura. She sat there with her thin hands outstretched, refining her points.
Grace was a towering extrovert--fatal caesura precisely the sort of showy phrase she would come up with--but she was considerate. When Rosa's mother died she had been formidable, relentless in her kindness. Though she had never met Rosa's mother, she said many things that even now Rosa remembered. Decent understatements, offers of help, quiet maxims. "Don't ruin your life. Your mother gave her life up for you. Don't make her sacrifice worthless." "Don't sink. You owe it to yourself. You've tried so hard. And worse will come." Really once Rosa wrote them down, they sounded hackneyed enough, but when Grace pattered them out she thought they were the sanest things anyone had said in a long time. Yet Grace wasn't always such a saint; she was easily bored and when she found something dull she mocked it. She shifted jobs a lot: she had begun as an actress then she changed to TV production and retrained as a lawyer and most recently she had become a journalist, which was how Rosa met her. She lackedinhibitions, and she liked to talk about relationships, psychobabble much of it, but Rosa lapped it up, babbled it back and cited Grace like a friendly guru. For months, Grace had been coming round and saying, "You two, you two are just so fine. You want to grind each other into the ground." She called them pitted; their energies, apparently, were pitted against each other. "It's like a World War I aerial battle," she said. "One of you has to bail out before you both crash. Someone must make the sacrifice, go down in flames." When she said that, she raised her eyebrows and dared them to look uncomfortable. Still they sat there and took it, because they knew she was right.
She would never have been friends with Grace, had her mother not died. It was after the death--only a few weeks after--that she went to a party and got so drunk she started talking to Grace about extinction. Grace--always one for talk--lapped it all up and ordered them a taxi. Grace liked Liam from the start; she called him the beauty. Really she was a tonic, and Rosa soon found she was unburdening everything to Grace. She disgorged it all, and Grace smoked and made her salient comments, qua a lot of psychogurus and philosophers Rosa hadn't read. While Rosa had lost all sense of myth and purpose, Grace was sure she had it cracked. "Humanism, with dignity," she said, Grace the oracle with long blond hair. "That's all we need. Compassion for fellow man." And then she said, "Bentham, Mill, utilitarianism, darker twist, Sartre and existentialism, Richard Rorty. Anti-Darwinism. No selfish gene. Dependent on others. The Beauty of Creation"--she said something like that, though it sounded pretty fluid when she said it.
On the evening when Liam spilled some of it out--not all, not all by a good way, a long shot short of the truth, but spilled out more than he had before--they were treading in matrimonialtreacle, both of them well stuck, struggling to lift a foot. That night the room was full of signs and portents. Liam had left his jacket on the floor--for him, a cataclysmic act. The kitchen was a serried shambles of pots and pans. The system had broken down. A dishcloth had dropped on the linoleum, and no one had stooped to collect it. There were these small signs of ferment and then a few remnants of order, everything incommensurate. On the mantelpiece were some postcards, sent by mutual friends from sundry locations, which had curled with the heat from the gas fire. The shelves were full of books they could hardly say one of them owned more than the other, the furniture belonged to both of them, tasteless though it was. The sofa, the inconsequential oak table with the matching chairs, the bookcases they had built together. The room felt like a museum, even as Liam started to speak.
"This can't continue," he was saying. He was sounding very quiet and reasonable. That was a trick of his; it had nothing to do with what he was saying at all. There was a long pause, while Rosa wondered what couldn't continue, whether she had broken another of Liam's domestic codes, but there was something about his expression, the twitching of his brow, and the way he kept running his hands up and down his arms, that made her think it might be the end. He was explaining that he had talked to her before about their problems. He wasn't sure they could carry on. Had he even said "fight the same fight"? Or was it "run the same race"? It was that sort of phrase slinging, and then he said they had different goals. It was clear they had stultified. The marriage question had brought it all into relief. They had struggled on, but now they had to be sensible. He mentioned that you had to abandon a sinking ship. It was the best thing to do, for everyone.
"But the captain has to go down with it," said Rosa. "With theship." Though she realised that wasn't the point. So she stayed there on her chair and shifted around, bit her nails, picked a scab on her finger. He was talking about love and choice and other things she later found she couldn't really remember, and then he said, "There's nothing else to do." He mentioned the future, a future that would make them happy. He couldn't see it, he said, with his hand on the back of a chair. He couldn't imagine it at all. Then he said, "I just don't feel I can offer you the love you need."
That phrase, of all of the phrases he used, was the one that really stuck in her mind. Anyway, personal pyrotechnics aside, solipsistic whining and so on, it was clear that he had an objective. Liam was rarely honest, he hated telling the truth, but he was decisive. He stood and walked to the window. The evening light was kind to him, faint and flattering. His face looked particularly high-boned and perfect; his eyes were cloaked in shadows. He cut a fine stoical figure.
"Things have shifted altogether," he said. "We have to let each other go."
She put the plates back on the table, and sat down again. Already, he seemed more energetic. She realised he had been thinking this for months, perhaps years, and this caused her to reassess him. There was hardly even a chance to resist, so persuasive were Liam's pauses. Into the pauses, she understood, he was pouring the weight of his conviction. His brow was furrowed but he had stretched his legs out under the table. He looked settled and quite determined. He would stay there, stock still and patient, until she walked the plank, unstuck herself altogether.
"You know it too," he said. "We can't continue." Rosa noted the shift. This can't continue, we can't continue; the transition from the impersonal to the specific was marked, almost literary in its contrivance. His speech had definitely been rehearsed. There waseven a suggestion he had been coached. She wondered briefly which two-bit swine had helped him, but really it didn't matter. He said, "Rosa, you know I love you. I'm really sorry about the death of your mother. But we can't lie endlessly." His face was flushed and he slapped his hand on the windowsill. He sounded angry.
"I know things have been bad. But why now, precisely? Is it because I've left my job?" asked Rosa.
"Of course not," he snapped. "That's just another disaster. I wanted us to split and then your mother died, and so I couldn't. Now, I suppose, I ought to think that we can't split because you've left your job. But I can't think that anymore. Fundamentally I'm not the right person for you. I feel this now, more than ever before. You must feel it too. There's a danger because of recent events that you might just cling to me, and that's a bad idea. That will make things worse, and we'll be even more trapped. We would have had this conversation ages ago, if it weren't for your mother." His use of the subjunctive was needlessly baroque. It didn't suit him. He was standing at the window, silhouetted against the haze, looking quite composed. It seemed that he had decided everything. She suddenly understood that there were plans built around this speech, a whole structure of necessary changes. He was far ahead of her.
He was lucid and, she later understood, dishonest. He told her he loved her. There was a lot of sad talk, and he mustered some tears. It went on for hours. At one stage she even thought he was enjoying it. He said, "Rosa, will you be OK?" and tried to touch her. She brushed him off, angrily, and said, "Yes, yes of course."
"Of course I will move out," said Liam. "I'll go as soon as you want me to."
"Or I can," said Rosa.
"No Rosa, definitely not," he said, shaking his head. Again he tried to move towards her and she stepped back. He said, "I won't hear of it. I'll go and stay with Lorne."
At that, she nodded. She had a few ideas in her head, mingling with the glutinous stock of her earlier thoughts. She realised that he was her home, that he had been for years, and so wherever he was not was not her home anyway. Makes this room an everywhere, she thought of saying, but realised it was hardly relevant. For a long time, she had relied on love--her patched-up version--to keep her sane. Later, she decided she would be the one to go. They parted at the door of the bedroom, and he hugged her to him. They held each other for a while, though in retrospect it seemed a beggarly amount, after all those years. She was startled and she couldn't cry. She was waiting for a final confession, but he stepped back, red-faced, and said, "I'm just going to sort out a few things. Goodnight."
And this time goodnight was absolute, a categorical good-bye, she thought as she undressed and got into bed. She lay there for an hour, listening to his careful motions outside, her stomach making little flutters that stopped her from going to sleep. Rosa--staring at the electronic alarm clock, the pile of books on the bedside table, his and hers, the trappings of their life together--waited while Liam turned the handle of the door. He came quietly into the room. He reached the bed and paused. He was fumbling under the pillow, and she realised he had come in, not to caress her one last time, or to weep for the death of love, but to find his pyjamas. Submerged in bathos, she turned her head to the wall. Liam moved softly to the door, and walked out.
When morning came, she pushed the curtains apart and watched a low mist tumbling along the tops of the houses. She saw it was a tranquil day, beautiful in the soft shifts of light and the tendermoan of planes and cars. She drew the curtains again and waited with her head down until Liam went to work. She hid under the covers when he came to get his clothes. She heard him slide the wardrobe open, and feigned sleep while he rustled through his suits. He was stepping quietly, trying not to wake her. The sheets were clammy with her sweat. When Liam had gone, she walked through the flat touching their stuff. She sifted through the shirts hanging in the wardrobe. She handled the photos scattered on the desk, their books, their CDs. In their years together the boundaries between them had become permeable. Their personalities had combined in some things. In others they were distinct and mutually unintelligible. As she walked through the kitchen she thought there was nothing she wanted to complain about. She smiled as she ate breakfast and watched the sunlight flickering on the floor. She wondered if she should take the milk with her. "Now your ties are really cut," she said. "Quite right too." I do not fear to be alone, she thought. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake. But that was hardly true. She was afraid, trembling with a sense of foreboding. So she occupied herself with practicalities. She always enjoyed packing. She spent the morning throwing out her papers, superfluous clothes and books, aged detritus. She took a large suitcase and filled it with things. She bundled the rest into boxes and stuck notes on the top. ROSA'S BOX, they read. Then she called Sandra Whitchurch and asked if she could stay with her.
INGLORIOUS. Copyright © 2007 by Joanna Kavenna. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.