It was late one evening in September, soon after I’d come out of hospital with a brand new lymphoma diploma certifying that I had only five years left to live (seven if I was lucky), when the phone rang. I should have suspected something at once; the telephone’s ring had sounded different somehow – rustier – and my whole world tilted sharply to the right as I picked up the receiver. But by then it was too late; I was already drawn back into a past from which I’d long thought myself free.
‘Simon? Hi! This is Foster Grunfeld. I’m calling you from New York. You remember – Foster? Fred Grunfeld’s son? From Deya—?’
‘Yes, of course! Foster! How are you?’
I ransacked the Pandora’s Box of my memory in the hope… Grunfeld…? Wait, just give me a moment—
‘Hey, listen, I was speaking to your great-aunt Beryl in Deya a few days ago. She said you sell old books now, which is why I’m calling you. Fred died suddenly – you know—?’
‘No, I didn’t, I’m sorry—’
‘Yeah… it was quite a blow I can tell you, but the thing is, he was a historian – art and music – very respected – and he’s left behind his library…’ (he could hardly have taken it with him, I thought unkindly) ‘… and we have to sell it because it takes up half the house. Now, you know Max Reed—’
I tripped headlong over Max’s sudden staring grin. He was the one-armed bandit of all time, with three lemons for a heart and a pip for the jackpot (if you could find it on the floor). He knew more about books on art than any punter who’d ever pulled his handle. ‘I know Max—’
‘Ring him! He’s just been over and bought a handful of art books. Fred used to buy from him, so he had first pick, and he mentioned you too. Hey – just come to Deya and look at them. What’s to lose?’
‘Simon, listen!’ his tone hardened dramatically; was someone with him? ‘Are you in or out?’
I strangled the phone against my ear, willing him to die. He breathed on noisily, unaware. I could hardly turn him down; this was the kind of offer that booksellers dreamed of. But Deya… A sickening sense of vertigo overwhelmed me as I clutched the phone – ‘All right.’
‘All right what?’ he demanded.
‘I’m in,’ I grated, visualising his chubby, bespectacled smile of triumph. Foster had begun to seep like gas under the door of my memory. I recalled that I hadn’t much liked him. In fact, now I came to think of it, I could remember ambushing him with Juan, throwing dried donkey droppings and fir cones at him from the top of the giant elephant rocks that guarded the entrance to the cala, the narrow stony beach at Deya. He’d been wheeling and dealing even then – usually beyond our means. And yet I couldn’t help admiring his staying power; to sound unchanged after so many years—
‘I’ll be back in Deya next week,’ he was shouting, ‘so come out Thursday or Friday! Hey, it’ll be great to see you again! Fond memories! Adios, amigo!’
Fond memories? His must be more forgiving than mine.
I slowly replaced the receiver while the implications began to sink in, my lips numb, a faint cold sweat on my face as I stared across the study at an old blown up black-and-white photograph pinned to the far wall – of Deya at sunset, a photograph taken from the garden at Canellun, looking past the Norfolk Island pine towards the two mountain buttresses which towered high above the village. In the deepening darkness of my room the shadows the tree cast seemed to move slightly, as though stirred by a draught—
This was ridiculous! What was I frightened of?
Of memories. Of the past—
Of going back.
I’d returned to boyhood haunts before; it was like returning as the conscience of another time to a place which had long since buried all trace of your existence. The locals stared straight through you on the streets, or worse, recognised something about you and averted their eyes – even the people who had once looked after you and your family. If you were brave enough, you might re-introduce yourself, to expressions of pained or feigned surprise, ‘How you’ve changed, sir!’ (or M’sieu, or Signore—)
I hadn’t changed! Aged, yes, but not changed; childhood was unchangeable, the last playground of conviction; everyone and everything remained the same the moment you passed through it, as though touched by the Snow Queen’s wand and set in breathless memory. As a child, you were given a bag of gold which was soon squandered, and I realised that only more gold would have bought back their loyalty. If I’d known as a child that a single bag of gold was all you got, perhaps I would have spent it… better?
Differently, at least. I rang Max Reed.
‘Ah, Goughie!’ I could visualise his terrible staring grin. ‘So you’re going back to Deya!’
‘Of course you are! It’s nine or ten tons of books – twenty or thirty thousand volumes. I’m too old for that mularky – I drove down to Majorca last week and took what I wanted. Hardly a boot-full, and Foster nailed me to the cross. Don’t pay too much! No one else would be mad enough to go. The one bright spot was seeing your great-aunt Beryl – she’s extraordinary – laughing and joking about Robert, and yet still missing him! How long since you’ve been back?’
I thought for a moment. ‘Twenty-five years—?’ Longer…
‘Didn’t you go to his funeral?’
‘They bury people the same day out there – there wasn’t time—’ Not strictly the truth—
‘Well, I got the impression from Beryl that it was high time you went back. Hang on,’ he muttered urgently, ‘I think one of my customers is about to faint – is it the beauty of the book, I ask myself, or has he seen the price? I’d better catch him. Good luck!’
Before I could think of another excuse for not going, I rang a travel agent and booked a flight to Palma for the following Thursday, with an open return.
The next few days were spent in the same state of pre-medication as I’d gone through before my biopsy. Responses became automatic and unimportant, while time passed like a cloud, painlessly and swiftly, as I wondered what it would be like to go back, letting my remote imagination stray through scenarios of possible encounters while at the same time trying to re-remember the secret ways between houses and villages and seemingly inaccessible coves.
I began to feel like some ageing agent provocateur pulled out of retirement to infiltrate the country of his childhood. This spectre of a middle-aged man preparing to advance upon his youth would have seemed ridiculous if I’d caught a glimpse of myself in the all-pervasive mirrors that littered the house, but I avoided them, shaving by touch, dressing carelessly.
There remained the very real problem, aggravated by my complete inability to make a decision, of where I would stay in Deya once I arrived. Much as I loved my cousins, who still lived there in their own houses, I felt that it might be awkward for them to have to offer hospitality to someone they hadn’t seen in years, and might no longer wish to see.
The person I most wanted to stay with was Beryl, whose understanding of things, though seldom voiced, was augural, but whose reactions, for the same reason, could be harsh. I’d probably left things for too long, though – beyond good manners, certainly; beyond even great-nephewly bad manners.
The compass point to which I clung now was that it had been Beryl who’d insisted that Foster should get in touch with me. Was it a signal, I wondered, sent in that curious way she had of putting messages into bottles and letting them either sink to the bottom with a shrug, or drift off into the human current which restlessly and forever swept past the narrow cove at Deya?
Right or wrong, I decided it was, and made the telephone call that would finally decide whether I would see it through, or pull myself out of a vortex which seemed already to be turning with a slow, inexorable momentum.
‘It’s Simon. Simon Gough.’
‘Simon.’ No exclamation mark, just the certainty of my name – as certain, it seemed, from the lack of surprise in her voice, as her conviction that I would telephone; and at once I was a child again and she’d unerringly found my latest hiding place: ‘—there you are—’ leaving no room for doubt in either of our minds.
Was I going to come to Deya and look at Fred Grunfeld’s books? She thought I should. Did I need a bed at Canellun? Would I like to use her car? I was welcome to both. She couldn’t drive any more – her eyesight had got so bad that she no longer even recognised the people she knocked down—
I found it almost impossible to hold a normal conversation while being choked by emotion at hearing the sound of her voice again. By the time I’d replaced the receiver I was shaking and sweating.
Memory – so innocent and naive in itself, so potentially fatal when stirred, like the coiled snake that it was in its pluperfect lair. The past was not to be trifled with; while the present and future moved at their own irrevocable speeds, the past was time spent, time-without-energy, which could be moulded or stretched into infinite versions of remembered truth—
My sight had become too heavy and dazed to focus on anything except the cavalcade of violent remembered beauty within, knowing that I would at last reveal it, had to reveal it. I had a story to tell – a love story; a true love story. No one else would tell it now. Once I was dead, the story would die with me.
My past had haunted me for so long that if I didn’t attempt to return to it now – lay bare the ruins which had become the foundations of the rest of my life, I’d not only have denied its existence, but denied my own. And yet, as ego-archaeologist, I’d have to be very sure of my reasons for disturbing not only the catacombs of my own life, but the sacred tombs of others, whose lives, however fleetingly, had changed my own.
Admittedly, Robert was dead now, and beyond harm. As for Beryl, I could simply ask her permission. If she agreed, then I’d write the story for her, for my family – and for Margot and Alastair – at worst an explanation, at best an apology. But above all, I suppose I’d write it for myself, not to be free of it (since my responsibility to it would only increase as I wrote it down), but out of a compulsion to re-live it, to draw out my once familiar self from this now stranger’s dying body, like entrails, poring over them in search of reasons and omens for my continued existence.
To most people, the past was hallowed ground, never to be disturbed; the last memory before dying. Now, perhaps too late, I’d come to realise that it was a place to take by storm, that somehow I had to smash my way back into that maze and wreak havoc among the classical allusions to inviolable monsters, because the past, as surely as it was, once, paradise, could as easily become the womb for monstrous chimeras if left unchallenged.
As always, Beryl held the key to everything, if only in her head now. It was she, apparently, who had behaved most honourably of all. By burning her diaries, which she’d kept up night after night since first meeting Robert, she’d not only protected his memory but declared an amnesty to everyone who had ever behaved… not quite as they should have.
As for Robert, if I were to reveal anything of my grand-uncle it would be a glimpse of the dark side of his moon, that unexplored face of his personality which was often turned away from his biographers. Who, after all, apart from Beryl and those closest to him at the time, could put a date to an expression, to a bad mood, to euphoria, to a smashed bowl whose destruction stained and littered with regret an entire day’s work? Or to the moment when the beginning of a poem materialised in a mind which a split second before had been utterly engrossed in the ripeness of a loquat?
On that fateful Thursday morning I found myself sitting at the back of a Boeing jet on the tarmac, looking through the small, rain-spotted window at the drab fifties council estate of London Airport which seemed no more than a denser part of the grey gloom that hung over it. I was astonished at how little it seemed to have changed since I was a child, when it had been the newest airport in the world, and yet had already outlived the imagination of those times.
One by one, after an audible click, the jet engines were switched on and began to climb the scale of whining until they merged together into a banshee scream, the plastic cabin creaking and shaking in protest at the din.
Tail-first, we were pulled from our mother terminal like a piglet from a sow’s teat, juddering with fury.
Interminable minutes later we drew to a lurching, rubbery halt at the beginning of the runway and the plane’s temper took a turn for the worse, the fuselage shaking with repressed fury as the turbines surged to a deafening, intolerable pitch. Cramming my fingers into my ears, I hunched forward, eyes screwed up. This was the first time I’d been in a jet, and quite apart from the absence of propellers, I found the shattering noise unnerving. But it was September, and the plane was half empty, with no one in the seat next to me to witness my growing fear.
I cast about wildly in my mind for something to distract me—
I should have left it blank. My stick disturbed it, and from out of its lair the serpent struck.
I hardly felt a thing—
PART ONE: GENESIS
 the story starts in eden
Rain lashed the window beside me as the aircraft clawed its way upwards. Beneath me, London at last looked as I’d always imagined it would from the air – like Lilliput, a child’s plaything, tiny, embraceable – and was gone as the Elizabethan burrowed into low cloud.
A new door of awareness opened briefly in my ten-year-old mind: there is more; more than power, more than fear, more than me—
The aircraft, so huge on the ground, became suddenly dwarfed by the cloud engulfing us, yawing from side to side, propellers driving us ever higher—
‘Hello, you must be Simon! We’ve been told this is your first time in an aeroplane—’
I tore my frantic, excited gaze from the porthole as a stewardess, neat and perfect in her tailored suit, slipped into the seat opposite me on the other side of the table and buckled herself into her safety belt, smiling, calm—
How on earth did she know my name?
‘I’m Sonja, with a “ j”. Captain Andrews asked me to look after you. It’s not as bad as it seems, I promise. We’ll be above it soon—’
I stared at her dumbly, still trying to work out how she knew me. Audrey – that must be it! Once I’d been through customs and could no longer be seen by my new nanny (whom I already hated), I’d carefully removed every label that she’d tied to me as she worked systematically from a list of final instructions left behind by my mother: ‘Simon Gough, c/o Graves, Canellun, Deya, Majorca, Bally Aric Islands, Spain. Flight B.E.A. 146’, all written on brown luggage labels and tied through the buttonholes of my jacket, through the beltloops of my shorts, and one even sewn into the lining of my school cap—
Sonja smiled brightly at me. ‘Was that your mother at the airport?’
NO BLOODY FEAR!
‘Er – no – she’s in Majorca—’
‘A friend, then?’
‘Ah,’ she nodded wisely. ‘She just sort of sees you off—’
‘Yes.’ I smiled back at her gratefully—
The floor dropped away beneath me, and I fell like a stone – Our Father which art in heaven! – my eyes flying drunkenly back to Sonja, imploring her—
‘Don’t worry, it’s only an air pocket!’
I felt my hands begin to shrink painfully, and looked down to see that she was clasping them across the table.
‘Shall I come and sit next to you?’
‘It’s all right, thank you—’
‘You’re taking it awfully well. But I promise you’re safe—’ Someone was noisily sick further down the aisle. ‘Oh dear.’ She withdrew her hands and anxiously craned across the empty seat next to her. ‘Thank goodness, Sally’s looking after him—’ her eyes suddenly flew back to me, as mine had to hers only moments before. ‘Do you feel sick?’
‘No,’ I grinned. ‘It’s like the Big Dipper!’
And we became friends, miles above the earth.
Just as she’d promised, we finally broke through the clouds and into the most dazzling sunlight and the deepest, bluest sky I’d ever seen. It was the colour of pure lapis lazuli, that polished stone which had been brought back to Beachborough by Saleem Kassum. It had been sent to him by his uncle in Zanzibar who had bought it from his brother in India who had bought it from an explorer in Afghanistan who had then been eaten by a tiger. It was the impossible colour of heaven, and I craved it with a yearning so poisonous and all-consuming that to possess it was the only antidote. One summer’s evening, strictly against school rules, I laid out, in order of suspense, my entire wealth on the thin grey blanket which covered my bed and which protected even my pillow from ‘dust’. Against the dreariness of the blanket my tube of Life Savers, pocket money and fountain pen glowed, my penknife, given to me (I’d had to swear on the Bible in my locker) by Stanley Baker, glinted wickedly in the sunset which I’d carefully staged for the swap. Kassum stood at the end of my bed shaking his head slowly, a curious, sickly grin on his lips, his liquid brown eyes nervously watching my face.
Kassum was a Muslim, and I remembered something my grandfather had told me never to do to Muslims. With my heart in my mouth, I asked him to bring out the polished shard of lapis lazuli from the pocket of his shorts, where I knew it to be. ‘How beautiful it is!’ I exclaimed in my best imitation of a sultan. ‘How it reminds me of the eyes of my dear mother! How I wish I could give her such a precious reminder of my love for her!’ At which point Kassum was supposed, by Arab lore, to give me not only the piece of lapis but the entire contents of his tuckbox and the hospitality of his house forever.But in a faint cloud of acrid spices he vanished, leaving me painfully alone.
Sonja had gone off to help prepare lunch for the passengers.
I searched the sky again, desperate for something to distract me from where I knew my thoughts were heading. I was going ‘abroad’! I didn’t want to think about school – it was as bad as thinking about death, and last term at Beachborough had been bad – the worst yet, the worst that I could remember of all the schools I’d been to. It wasn’t just the feeling of imprisonment, but the endless dread of punishments, of black marks and stripes, of daily ‘worksheets’ which had to be filled in by the master at the end of each class; if ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ outweighed the ‘fair’ or ‘good’ you were beaten every night until you conformed.
Like most of my fellow boarders I’d already endured seven years at school and a further two and a half years in boarding ‘homes’, first to escape the bombing in London, and then because my parents were both actors, which made it impossible for me to be at home with them except when one of them was out of work and could look after me. But whenever my mother was out of work she became ill – ‘fat lot of good to you’ she would write in her letters – and what with that and my father’s increasing success in films, she assured me there wasn’t much of a home to come home to anyway.
Beachborough itself was as beautiful as any boy could wish, with a dense wood, a lake, a swimming pool, and a wide, slow river bordering the grounds at the foot of the sloping Great Lawn. If the school had been grim and ugly, like those in Dickens’ books, then the discipline and violence within would have made more sense, but as it was, the contrast was baffling, especially when nightmares became reality, when the door of the dormitory was suddenly flung open after lights out—
‘Gough – dressing gown! My study—!’
I was jerked out of my day-mare by Sonja bringing a tray of lunch, a meal made even more exciting by the thought that I was eating it thousands of feet above the earth, with nothing between me and certain death but a few inches of steel.
I discovered that flying was the most natural thing imaginable, that whatever fear was attached to it seemed only to heighten the excitement as I looked down through my window, like God, onto the hills and valleys and rivers of France, and then onto the highest snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees before passing slowly over the Mediterranean, the darkest, bluest sea I’d ever seen, the ‘wine dark sea’ of Homer, which I’d read about at school but had never quite been able to visualise until now. The further we flew over it, the deeper blue it became, until I felt that if the aeroplane were to turn turtle I’d have found it difficult to tell the sea from the sky, the feathery wake of boats so far below from the feathers of cloud so high above. I was utterly and perfectly suspended between the two, in a state of such harmony with both that I could have sworn my heart stopped beating for a time – or beat so slowly that I could have lived for a thousand years. It was as though I were suspended not only in space, but in time.
I gazed, transfixed, as a new range of mountains slowly took shape out of the ether ahead, at the very edge of the horizon. Even the monotonous roar of the engines changed, rose, as if in recognition—
‘Do you know where that is?’ Sonja’s voice fleetingly over my shoulder as she stared out through my window at the approaching mountains. ‘It’s Majorca!’
‘Gosh!’ I gasped, staring down as the island expanded towards me. So this was going to be ‘abroad’!
The sudden sense of escape filled me to the brim. Perhaps I could stay here forever—