A day in an old town
[ fiction - july 07 ]
Life, thought the philosopher-girl, is a surprisingly poor preparation for death. Except in three clear and rare cases. She counted them off on her fingers as she lay beside last night's useless boy. First: where a person lives so intensely each day that there's simply no more living to be done at the end of all the days. Second: where a person lives so weakly each day that death just happens when the lukewarmness turns a bit too cold to be described as continued life. And third, where there's a pulse of deathly, lively solemnity which throbs always in your ears and on which you depend, but which doesn't come from you.
But you can't say these things. You can't say them in Oxford, although the swifts scream like demons around the tower, and you know that the mortality rate amongst their fledglings is thirty per cent. You can't say them there because you couldn't put in enough footnotes, or you would have to put in too many. Also because it's not good to be intense; it shows that you've lost your perspective. You can't say them in Jerusalem, because the business there is showing that the contrary is true – that life is the best possible preparation for its end – and it is not nice or polite or positive or, actually, intelligent or original, to question the business of the place.
She ruffled the boy's hair. With her brother, who was also in the Golani brigade, he had done swashbuckling things in southern Lebanon. He had looked her up when he was backpacking through England. They drank mineral water in a pub. He told her how he had a Syrian's skeletal hand on the mantelpiece of his room at the kibbutz, and she told him about St Godric of Finchale, who prayed all night once a week, submerged up to his neck in the icy River Weir. Then they went, surgically and antiseptically, to bed.
At ten thirty four precisely the sunlight in the old library hit the desk where she always worked. Tomorrow it would be ten thirty six, and the day after that, ten thirty eight. As it always did, it bounced off the sandstone eyes of a sphinx, worked its way through Thucydides, trickled over Euripides, dropped down and back to Homer before moving on and pausing in the high chivalry of the Middle Ages. Then back again, though it was astronomically impossible, to the Aegean Bronze age, which seemed to lap it up, for it always faded there.
And only after it faded could she write again. Write to forget and to unforget; to lance the boils on her brain; to drain and to breed the pus of ego; to know her littleness and to know that her littleness did not matter much.
After the morning's words, her brain still panting and her soul still sweating, she walked alone by the dark river. She sat for a while by a pool, clutching and biting her knees. Here, drunk with academic triumph and cheap wine, a boy she had known had drowned. When they pulled him out and laid him in a bag under the willow, weed had made a golden circlet in his hair. It was ridiculously Athenian, but the rats as well as the poetry had got him. A blade of grass circled in the stream. She wondered if he knew, and wondered if she really cared.
She followed the grass downstream, noting that it was switched from a clockwise turn to an anticlockwise turn by a swan's eddy, and from a turn to a calm, straight course by a moorhen's thrash, and that it joined, with naval precision, a snaking flotilla of beer cans that soon cascaded over a lock gate.
Leaning against the gate, she pulled out a notebook. The day's list, written neurotically that morning, commanded and accused her. She added a couple of items to show that she was not intimidated, and then walked off to something that was not on the list at all.
On the way she thought suddenly and violently of the way the heat makes the air of Megiddo shudder; of how the desert of Judea reaches out and clutches at your throat in the canteen at Mount Scopus; of how an old minefield outside Jericho is full of exploded dogs; of how the black Greek priests worship a gallows; and how the children of Silwan play in the graves.