The Last Supper

A Summer in Italy

Rachel Cusk

Picador

Chapter One

 

Self-Portrait, with dinosaurs

 

At night I would often be woken by noise from the road, and afterward would lie awake for hours, unable to sleep. The noise, which was of a strange drunken revelry, would usually begin long after the pubs had closed, though in the deeps of the night I never knew exactly what time it was. I was merely summoned by the sound of unearthly groans and shrieks outside my window that seemed to belong neither to the world nor to my dreams but somewhere in between. They might have been men’s voices or women’s, it was hard to tell. The noise they made came from a region that outlay human identity. Their long, inchoate monologues, vocalized yet senseless, seemed to name something that afterward could not be specified, to describe what by daylight appeared indescribable.

 

This demoniacal groaning would often go on for so long that it seemed impossible it could be coming from living people passing on the pavements. It was the sound of lost souls, of primitive creatures bellowing far inside the earth. Yet I never got up to look: the noise was so unreal that it was only when it stopped that I felt myself to be actually awake. Then I would lie there, full of a feeling of insecurity, as though the world were a wildly spinning fairground ride from which my bed might work loose and be somehow flung away. The groaning sounds and the darkness and the carelessly spinning earth, offering me its fathomless glimpses of space, of nothingness: all this would run on for one hour or two or three, I couldn’t tell.The hours were blank and sealed, filled with gray information: one after another they were dispatched.

 

Then another sound would begin, dimly at first, a kind of humming or droning, steady and industrious. After a while it filled the room with its monotonous note. This was the sound of traffic. People were going in their cars to work. A little later a finger of wan light showed itself at the curtains. When I was a child the night seemed as big as an ocean to me, deep and static: you rowed across it for hour after hour and sometimes got so lost in time and darkness that it seemed as if the morning might never be found. Now it was a mere vacuum, filling up with human activity as a dump is filled with discarded objects. It was an empty space into which the overcrowded world was extending its outskirts, its sprawl.

 

We were living in Bristol at that time, and the slaving past of the city was always present to me, though in the middle-class district of Clifton its brutality was largely semantic, recalling itself amid the boutiques and sofa shops of Whiteladies Road and Blackboys Hill. Yet it seemed to have seeped into the masonry, into the paving stones. I was often told that thebeautiful Georgian terraces of Clifton had for years been neglected and threatened with demolition and that students and artists had lived there contentedly in conditions approximating squalor. But that was in the past: these days the slave owners’ houses were smart again and unaffordable, the streets lined with beauty salons and expensive cars, the baize lawns of the private schools trodden by millionaires’ children from China, America, Japan. Clifton estate agents carried themselves with the preening significance of royal courtiers, while the fume-throttled city sprawled below, with its bombed-out center, its ghettos, its miles of strange, impoverished housing, its uneasy atmosphere both of misrule and of a thorough-minded, inexorable division.

 

Something of the hard-heartedness of that imperial past seemed to live on in the people I met and spoke to every day. Man, woman, and child, they found sensitivity intolerable. Nothing irked them more than the liberal conscience, unless it was anoutspoken sense of injustice. These things impinged on their free bigotry, and on the sense of humor that depended on it. They were not cold or unfriendly; quite the reverse. It was just that their philosophy formed an edifice of startling indelicacy amid the fluted columns and porticoes, the classical perspectives and cloudlike silhouettes, the ancient parks and pavilions, the secret rotundas and rich, ornamented interiors that were their habitat. It was a philosophy composed of two primitive blocks: that everyone should work for what he had; and that what mattered were the good things in life.

 

Encompassing so little in and of itself, this was a philosophy that required, for the sake of texture, of content, a God—and indeed the churches of Clifton did a thriving trade, on the import and the export side alike. I encountered notionsof Christian charity that might have come from the pages of a Victorian novel, so ignorant did they seem of the concept of social democracy, and was beleaguered everywhere by advertisements for the evangelical Alpha course, which, for an initiative that targets those who have lost their way in life, seemed in Clifton to be remarkably well attended. These advertisements took a somewhat startling form: one day I passed one and was driven to stop and look at it twice. It was a photograph ofa man in climbing equipment standing in sunlight on the pinnacle of a mountain. I was surprised, almost affronted, by the caption, which read: Is there more to life than this? I wasn’t entirely sure there was, nor ought to be. But I pondered it all the same. It had a profound effect on me, though not quite the one it intended. Whenever I thought of it, I feltmyself drawing to the threshold of a revelation, a realization so large that it was difficult to see its full extent.

 

Down in the city, the turgid river creeps between its sludge-gray banks. The Avon Gorge rises steeply to either side. A busy road runs down it: the roar of traffic echoes all along the chasm, rising and revolving like a vortex. Once there were mammoths here, and bears, and strange swimming dinosaurs with pointed beaks and close-set eyes. There is a placard by the gorge with drawings of these creatures, and a timeline. It is as straight as a ruler: it runs through the Paleolithic and the Neolithic and the Jurassic, through ice ages colored blue. At the end there is the stub of humanity, smaller than an arrowhead on its long shaft of time. Where it is going nobody knows. The line stops: the future is blank.

 

Every day at the same time I leave the house and walk my children to school. They are five and six. They each wear a navy-blue uniform, and carry a nylon schoolbag of the same color. These things identify them, just as in their picture books the Romans are identified by their togas, the Victorians by their bustles and top hats. They are modern schoolchildren: they belong to their moment in history, which gathers them up in its great impersonal wave. Now and then they make a toga out of asheet, or dress up in the crumpled raiment of an Indian squaw that lies with other costumes in a chest in their room. In the dim light of an English winter in an English provincial city, the forms of other eras vaguely suggest themselves, like mountains in mist. But none of it obstructs the passage of the arrow that flies on and on into its endlessly repeating blankness. They go to school and come back again, go and come back, go and come back. They are happy enough to do it, though theyretain a certain neutrality, as though they have been promised an explanation and are patiently waiting for it to be given.

 

It is on their behalf that I nurture my deepest stores of repulsion for the God advertisement and its insolent question. Ifthere are to be lies, let them not concern the value of life, for not everyone has tired of it yet. Let them not denigrate the world, for there are those whose chance to see it has not yet come.

 

On New Year’s Eve we go to a party on Dartmoor. In the morning I wake in an unfamiliar bedroom and look through the window at the moor veiled with rain. The shrouded hills are desolate. They seem to extend on and on, into an indistinct kind of infinity. After breakfast the women sit on sofas, talking. Their children dart in and out. Sometimes they reach out and catchone, to hold its squirming body and stroke its bright, fine hair. Their female forms are fixed and sculptural: though the children squirm, they are glad to be held by something so firm. The women are both shelter and shrine—they offer and at the same time they ask. They have agreed to stay still: it is the children who choose, between security and risk. It is important that they choose correctly. They mustn’t cling to their mothers; nor must they forget to swim past, close enough to be caught.

 

I stare through the window. From here it looks as though you could walk into the vista of gray hills and never stop, walk and walk without ever reaching anything you could call by its name. In time we decided to leave Clifton and move elsewhere. Our friends were sorry to see us go. They did not believe that we would find a place we liked better, for it seemed obviousto them that we were afflicted with restlessness and with a love of the unknown that in their eyes was a kind of curse, like the curses in mythology that are forever sending people from their homes to seek what perhaps can never be found, for it is in the seeking itself that the punishment lies. Yet I had a terror of my own, which was the fear of knowing somethinginits entirety. To seek held no particular fear for me: it was to find, and to know, and to come to the end of knowing thatIshrank from.

 

Go we must: go we would. But where? In the novels I read, people were forever disappearing off to Italy at a moment’s notice, to wait out unpropitious seasons of life in warm and cultured surroundings. It was a cure for everything: love, disappointment, stupidity, strange vaporous maladies of the lungs. And for disenchantment, too, perhaps; for claustrophobia, and boredom; and for a hunger that seemed to gnaw at the very ligaments of my soul, whose cause was as hidden from me as were themeans of its satisfaction.

 

We decided to go to Italy, though not forever. Three months, a season, was as much of the future as we cared to see. Perhaps we would return to England; perhaps we would not. We put the house on the market and took the children out of their school. To this place, at least, we were never coming back.

 

The boat we are taking to France leaves from Newhaven, an hour from my parents-in-law’s house. The house is in the countryside. Outside, the village lies in ruminative silence. The hills are black and occasionally a cow bellows out of the blackness. We get up while it is still dark; an April darkness, damp, suggestive, faintly hopeful. It is half past four: it is thefirst stroke of the chisel on the block of our travels, this incision into the night, and the night is resistant. We prize it open, prize the children from their beds, stagger around thick-tongued and white-faced.

 

My mother-in-law has made breakfast. She moves around downstairs in her dressing gown, perfectly awake and composed. Shehas a significant air of readiness: she is like a part-time mythical functionary, a night worker, or one of those people inShakespeare who appear only in the first and last scenes. Her big golden somber-faced dog follows at her heels. She has madeporridge, and rolls. The kitchen smells of new bread. There is marmalade to go with the rolls. The dog sighs, turns around,settles down in a heap of golden fur on the red tiles by the hearth. My mother-in-law wishes she were coming with us. Yet just now she is so fixed in her setting, as we have never been: I have never known a place more homelike than this room in the moment before our departure. I imagine us towing the kitchen behind us, with its dog and oak table and eternal porridge pot, across the plains to Florence and Siena.

 

The two children sit at the table and eat. They keep their rucksacks on while they do it. They do not talk of what it isthey are leaving: the unknown has them in its thrall. On their last day of school their classmates presented them with cards and photographs and a present for each of them. When they saw these things, tears of surprise sprang from their eyes. They didn’t know they would require mementos. They had never held in their hands things of such finality. Now they say goodbyelavishly to the dog. Do they think they will ever see him again? It’s hard to tell. The future is still so incessant to them, coming out of its own blankness in wave after wave and then unexpectedly surfing them back to their own familiar shore. For all they know they might meet him in Italy, sauntering down a street in Rome with his tail wagging in the air, and they’d be more delighted than surprised if they did.

 

We drive for an hour across the Sussex Downs to Newhaven. For a while it is still dark; then slowly the darkness separates itself from the land. It lifts mysteriously away, leaving everything in a naked blue light. In that blue light England looks like a sleeping baby, looks somehow new and unmarked, with its soft hills and blue-tinted slumbrous fields and distanttrees like tiny motionless clouds. Afterward we go along the main road, past Brighton like a bright spill of gems over thehill down to the pale sea, past Lewes, and then we are amid fields again, on the quiet winding road to Newhaven that is likejourneying through a painting. I have noticed this before, this road’s picturesque aimlessness. It has an abstracted, dreamlike quality. It has a disarming kind of innocence before the thrust of departure, arousing a feeling of love for somethingalready lost, something that perhaps no longer really exists.

 

At last the blue light resolves itself into the familiar flat gray of an April dawn on the south coast. We wind our way toward the port, past the toylike Parker Pen factory, past the little train station and into the harbor, whose steeply rising grassy sides seem to be undergoing a kind of surgery, with their diggers and their piles of breeze blocks and their half-finished housing developments that look lived in and discarded before they’ve even been built. Rounding the bend, we see our boat, black plumes of smoke pouring from its funnels, monolithic against the miniature scale of the muddy harbor. There area few other cars waiting under the gray wadded sky, and some lorries, each like a great beast that has crept out of the night with its solitary driver. It is not yet the holiday season: people are at work; children have returned to school. We stare out of our car windows at the other cars. In the back we have clothes, books, a guitar, a box of toys, tennis rackets, athermos flask, a large Italian dictionary, a set of watercolors, and a leather-bound backgammon case. Other people seem to have nothing at all. They gaze through their windscreens, their back seats empty. Sometimes there is a pillow in a faded patterned pillowcase lying on the shelf behind, as if it is the only desire they can conceive of feeling, the need to pull upand sleep for an hour or two. We all inch our way gradually forward. I feel as if we are being held in a last moment of compression, like seeds held tightly in a hand before being scattered; as though our obligation to feel connected to othersisrunning down to its last seconds. It is the only thing that remains to be shed, this garment of nationhood. We move slowly forward in the dull gray light that has broken now over the sea. When it is our turn we show our passports. We say goodbye to the officer in her booth, and roll out across the concrete jetty to where the boat stands shuddering vastly in the water, the smoke streaming from its chimneys, its doors standing open, its insides showing, its men amid the ribs in their white overalls, like people in a strange dream, beckoning us in.

 

Upstairs the boat smells of baked beans and fried food. I remember this smell from other journeys: it lies just off the shoreline like an olfactory fence, through which admittance must be gained in or out. The canteen isn’t open yet, but a queue of people is waiting at the shuttered hatches. We go and sit at the front, in the chilly air-conditioned salon with its wood veneer and hard gray-upholstered arrangements of chairs fixed to the floor. When the boat begins to move we hardly notice. The land slides noiselessly away past the windows. The gray-blue water churns mildly in front. A few gulls hover and circle our bulk and eventually drift back to shore.

 

For a while the two children are excited. They run up and down the half-empty boat, past people who are sitting silentlyorreading newspapers or breaking open packets of food, people who are conversing brightly despite the early hour, people who are already fathomlessly asleep amid their bags and coats and jackets. For each of these groups they reserve a measure ofinterest as they pass and repass them: they cast out looks as fishermen cast out lines; they give them an opportunity, anopening. I see that it is, for them, the central mystery of life, how a course of events forms itself. They tiptoe around theclosed bar with its fruit machines pulsing in the shadows. They keep us abreast of developments in the canteen, which totheir satisfaction eventually opens, though this represents no particular change in their circumstances. For a while they haunt a corner of the salon where a family, all very pale and soft and large and all clad in black, are handing round biscuitsand packets of crisps and colorless fizzy lemonade from a plastic liter bottle. The children clearly feel that this is atransaction of which they might at last entertain some hopes. They stay within this family’s rustling and torpid aura whilethe mother glances at them expressionlessly. Finally, they trail back to our table and sit down. They have exhausted every avenue and come back empty-handed. The boat having been found to be a place of no opportunity, they wish to know when we will arrive.

 

I am studying Italian verbs and phrases. I have a little book in which I write everything down. Faccio, fai, fa, facciamo, fate, fanno. I have not yet spoken any of these words: they are a form of trousseau, a virgin’s drawerful of unblemished linen. I like them in their spotless condition and cannot quite imagine the congress that is their destiny. Vengo, vieni, viene, veniamo, venite, vengono. I also have an Italian textbook, called Contatti! There are various recurring characters in Contatti!, Italian men consecrated in the national customs of eating and drinking, earnest youngItalian women who ask for directions to public landmarks, and even an English couple called the Robinsons. It is full ofhuman situations that are both stilted and consoling, as though through this gauze of language everything impure and uncertain has been filtered away. The signora arrives with her daughters. The American students work hard. Did you sleep badlyat Capodanno?

 

It strikes me that Contatti! has something about it of Debrett’s book of social etiquette, in its insistence on the correct forms of expression within the randomness of the human plight. But there is even more of the atmosphere of the afterlife amid its pages, of an unprogressing limbo where Tony and Mario are forever ordering the appropriate coffee for thetime of day at the bar and Marcella, in her loop of eternity, stands on a street corner in Verona asking Fabrizio for directions to the railway station. People are helpful and kind in Contatti!, but they are untouched by passion or by failure: they do not scream or cry or love, or try to thwart Peter and Mary Robinson in their ambition to purchase a house in theItalian countryside. L’agenzia puo fissare una visita al mattino. The Robinsons seem to have an awful lot of Italian friends for a dull middle-class English couple. They crop up in nearly every chapter, lunching with the Pacianos at their Roman apartment, meeting up for drinks with their old pals Roberto and Carla, Peter banging on all the while about theircasa di campagna, Mary unfailingly repeating her unatmospheric observation that the Italians don’t consume nearly as much alcohol as the English. Because it’s Contatti!, no one tells them to shut up. Evero, says Carla solemnly,beviano molto poco. Yet there is something soothing, something almost instructive in their tedium, for Contatti! startlingly omits to provide translations for the majority of things I say on a daily basis. I have come to rely on harsh imperatives and interrogatives in verbal expression, though I’m sure this didn’t used to be the case. Such grammatical refinements occur much later on in the pages of Contatti!, where in all probability I will never find my way. (It isan alleviating prospect, that of being confined to simple statements, straightforward desires, and polite verbal forms.)

 

The ferry hums in its sphere of gray cloud and water. It is so large that it has encompassed the sensation of travel itself: sealed in and air-conditioned as we are, we appear to be virtually motionless. There is no tipping or rocking, no groaning of timbers, no wind or sea spray on our faces, no work that is necessary to advance us to our destination. There is nothing to do but wait, for one thing to become another. The great gray nothingness inches past the windows. I have the strange feeling that the other passengers are familiar to me. The man with combed-back hair and plaid shirt sitting reading The Times, the woman in the Barbour jacket with the face of a withered Memling damsel, the hefty Rhinemaiden doing Sudoku puzzles, who purses her powerful mouth round her pen and scans the air with narrowed eyes— surely I have met them somewhere before. Again and again I look at a face or a hairstyle or even an article of clothing and feel a sense of recognition thatis almost like a touching of nerves in distant parts of the body. But instead of gaining substance the feeling recedes and grows indistinct. The memory does not come, just as the memories of certain dreams that on waking seemed so concrete implacably make their way into oblivion, like a train pulling out of a station and slowly vanishing down the tracks.

 

All the same, it would not surprise me if one of these people came and spoke to me of our shared past, however distant and tangential. In Contatti! , Roberto tells the waiter that he has known the Robinsons for many years. Ci conosciamoda molti anni. Peter Robinson adds that they are hoping to purchase a casa di campagna. There is a small circular table fixed to the floor in front of my chair and I put my head on it and sleep for a while. It is a cluttered, gray-lighted sleep suffused with the hum of the ferry and with the same feeling of familiarity, which, now that my eyes are closed and it has nothing to fix on, washes over me in unstructured waves until my knowledge of where I am and what I am doing has been broken up and mingled with things I have thought or dreamed or imagined, mingled and mingled into a gray expanse like the sea, with just a few Italian verbs floating on the surface. When I sit up again the northern coast of France is lying in a rocky beige-colored crust along the horizon. A piercing female voice begins to issue from the loudspeaker warning usof the imminent closure of the canteen.

 

These tidings do not concern us: we are finished with this boat. We strain for release from its numb enchantment. The children are hurling their felt-tip pens back into their rucksacks and urging us into our coats. We go out on deck as the cliffsof Dieppe bear down on us and the wind whirls in a crazed cyclone on the ferry’s snub front, lifting our hair into maniac shapes, tugging at our clothes. The melancholy Dieppe sky is deep gray, its sand-colored rocks friable-seeming and transitory. It looks like a place that would forget itself if it could. After a while we go back inside and file along toward theback of the boat, where people are forming long migratory queues and a girl in a white uniform is clearing piles of smearedplates from the tables and the voice on the loudspeaker is bidding us farewell and a safe onward journey.

 

The road out of Dieppe winds round and round, round and round and round its empty green hinterland, as aimless and methodical as a geriatric waltz around a deserted dance floor. Beneath a sky the color of smelted iron, raw patches of development stand out on the hills above the port: new supermarkets and warehouses, half-built roads, modern buildings standing in empty car parks, a double row of giant streetlights heading inexplicably off into a field. From a distance, the inharmoniousspectacle of these creations, in which no one object relates to any other, gives it an appearance of almost human inwardness and alienation, like a crowd of total strangers caught in a random moment on a police security camera. We pass a buildinglike a child’s drawing of a Swiss chalet and a building like a cardboard box and a building like a playground climbing framepainted in primary colors. We pass Gemo and Mr. Bricolage and Decathlon. We pass a low, ranchlike building in a tundra of tarmac called Buffalo Grill, with a giant pair of white plastic cow’s horns attached to its tiled roof. The air-temperaturegauge on the dashboard reads twelve degrees Celsius. The sky looks swollen and bruised. We revolve three times around a roundabout trying to identify the road to Rouen. The roundabout is planted with clumps of marigolds in forensic rows, like a cemetery. I wonder what became of the human instinct for beauty, why it vanished so abruptly and so utterly, why our race should have fallen so totally out of sympathy with the earth. An hour out of Dieppe, a shout goes up from the back seat. We are running through somber green countryside now, past meadows grazed by white Charolais cows, past flat affectless fields under low skies, past narrow little lanes that meander out of sight like unfinished sentences. The children have observedthat the temperature gauge has risen by two full degrees. An hour later, on the other side of Rouen, they shout again.

 

In the front seat we are discussing names. My husband has tired of his name: at forty-one, he wishes to change it. This is an unusual wish, but it does not surprise me. As a small child he was sent to boarding school, where his name was a graven fact on every sock and book and toothbrush in his possession, on the toy rabbit he hugged so hard over the years that it became crushed flat, on the metal trunk he dragged behind him along the platform, beside the waiting train; inscribed on the polished plate trophies won by long-disbanded teams, on watches and pens and handkerchiefs, on yellowed monogrammed towels.He has an antique silver christening mug engraved with his initials—ACC— and there are portraits of his ancestors, frowning clerics, on his parents’ walls. It is almost as though his name, so concrete and indelible, preceded him ineverything he did so that he was forever dogged by a sense of obligation. I do not know what this is like, only that it is the opposite of what the artist feels when he puts his name to a canvas. It is the opposite of self-expression. As a childmyown name seemed strange to me, abstract, like a mathematical symbol whose representative function remained mysterious evenonce I’d grown accustomed to what it looked like. It was only when I began to write books and put my name to them that Iunderstood its associative purpose. All the same, an artist might prefer a name less constricted by his mortal soul. The artists of the Renaissance often had such names: Veronese ("the man from Verona"), il Tintoretto ("the dyer’s son"), il Perugino ("the bloke from Perugia"). A few years ago ACC discarded his profession, removed his name from the company letterhead and the ledger of good works. He began to take photographs, portraits of people whose names he writesout in full. They are unknown people, though at a certain level—police files, prison records, social security databases—their citations are as numerous and indelible as ACC’s own. This explains part of his attraction to them. But now he wants a new name to call himself when he looks through the camera lens. I suggest Ace, or even the Ace. It seems to me to be just what is required. Go on, I say; why don’t you?

 

We are barreling toward Paris now, which sits on the map like a great glamorous spider in its web. The road has become crowded. There are old, slouching cars with winking indicators and big glittering ogre-like cars with black windows, tiny battered cars with frantic plumes of smoke fluttering from their exhausts and cars towing enormous caravans. There are trucksand lorries and untidy vans of every description, all blaring their horns. The children play Sweet and Sour out of the window. They wave and smile at everyone who passes. The Sweets wave and smile back. The Sours don’t. The children keep a tallyona piece of paper. As we near the Paris périphérique the road becomes a torrent, an onward rush of roaring, barging traffic all hurtling with carefree ferocity toward the center. In a way I would like to join it: I don’t know, perhaps itwould be easier. Always the effort of resistance, of countermotion, of breaking off into what is untried and unknown: yet the unknown seems in its distance and blank mystery to contain for me a form of hope, a strange force that is pure possibility. Overhead the sky has come apart in great fraying scarves of pale gray and blue. Bursts of soft sunlight fall and fade and bloom again on the windscreen of the car. The temperature rises another notch. On the back seat, the census of the humandisposition finds that people are in general more sweet than sour. Weaving and hesitating and being abused on all sides,weswing gloriously south, onto the Autoroute du Soleil.

 

Excerpted from The Last Supper by Rachel Cusk.
Copyright © 2009 by Rachel Cusk.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC].

 

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