Monday, 24 November 2008
My mother and her brother in about 1926
If I were Roland Barthes I would say the punctum was either the walking stick - a studio prop, I imagine - or my mother's left hand clutching at her white suit. I would wonder about the nervousness in that gesture and in the little extended finger. And of course, like anyone else, I would look hard into those eyes. Studio shots of children always makes them look somewhat terrified, but the brother's eyes are knowing rather than scared. As for my mother's, they challenge and ponder.
'Think of them as children once,' I would say to myself many years ago when faced with someone threatening or hostile. Odd to think of a life - a form - spooling back like that. Martin Amis's Time's Arrow applied the time reversing method to an entire book, but once the reader got over the glitter of the technique and was no longer dazzled by it, there was little left, except a cliché about a Dr Mengele figure. Moments were stunning, but the grip on life as a whole was crude.
Maybe it can't help but be crude. Time telescopes. Things either swell and gangle like the giant in Jack, or they curl up like specimens in a bottle. I could make her large or small, but I'd like to see her as she was.
This is the part of her life of which I know next to nothing. In the early nineties I was invited to Romania as part of a British Council writers' group, the others being Helen Simpson, Valentine Cunningham, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer and John Harvey. I flew into Bucharest from Budapest. There was a party and the next morning I was shown round parts of Bucharest by a bright attractive girl who asked where I was going next. I told her Cluj. How are you travelling? she asked. By plane, I said. Her face fell. Which airline? she asked. I fished out my ticket. Tarom, I said. Her face fell again. Then she shrugged. I suppose it's all right, she reassured me. They haven't had a crash for two years.
The morning after that I was at one of the Bucharest airports, I can't remember which, but the one for local flights. It consisted of a shed with a bench on either side. It was a dull morning. A clutch of German businessmen did their best not to look concerned opposite me. We were ushered out on to the tarmac and on board. The plane started up. Immediately there was a smell of damp and burning. We took off. We juddered a little. Someone took a swig of something. I was getting a headache and had entered one of my resigned moods, the kind I used to get in Budapest taxis. Time went slowly, less arrow more lava. Two of the most beautiful air hostesses I have ever seen appeared and offered ice-cold black coffee. Beauty can be extraordinarily consoling. I'd be plunging to my death in good company and I frankly didn't care whether we plunged or not.
Safely landed I was taken to my hotel in the city centre. It had once been a grand hotel with marble panels and a mirror lined staircase. The marble was cracked with missing patches, the mirror blurred and green-grey. All the furniture in my room was falling apart. I opened a drawer and the front of it came away in my hand. The plugs were hanging off the walls. I turned on the taps and there was no water. I lay down. Then I was called to my event. Two men in the lobby wanted to sell me currency on the way out. I think it was currency.
The event was really a series of events in the university. A much respected and friendly translator and scholar, Bill Stanciu, offered to show me round. I told him my mother lived here and described what she told me about the house and its location. I told him it was in a hillside, overlooking a park with a skating rink. When she was ill she would stand in her window and wave to the skaters. It was the house where she contracted the rheumatic fever that led to everything else.
He took me to the most likely place. It looked convincing. No skating rink but a dried up municipal pond that might have served for one. Houses on a hillside, built into the hill. The bottom rooms would have been damp, hence the rheumatic fever. But I couldn't pick out the house. How could I? I tried to calculate which house might offer the best view of the now dried up skating rink. Several did.
But somewhere here there once existed a much reduced domain. A place by the window: skaters outside shouting and waving back.
Fiddly useless stuff. Hardly knowledge, not even particularly convincing guesswork. But maybe that is the most moving aspect of human life: the losses, the vanishings, the tiny scratches on the film of a movie in which we are watching a crowd roll forward. I did at least have some idea of the direction the crowd took. Everyone has to start somewhere.