by Sarah Roberts
In 1989, the rattling course of a demented heartbreak had threatened to extinguish Philip James Flood, from without and within. During a gloomy period of enforced isolation, Philip lay groaning on a mattress whilst his soul, absorbed in the agony of a full-scale reassessment, got to work on repair. It had begun well enough, with a flattering sincerity in fact, but soon afterwards felt drained and oppressed by the task. In the final hour, it gave up, abandoned a grander plan, and decided with wounding finality to throw out all that was not essential. He had survived, but barely. Like a blind man groping at the edge of a desert, a Holy Fool, a frayed wick, he emerged in a place of superior light with an epitaph crackling on his lips: Philip James Flood, 42, a passionate man.
Perhaps I should explain.
When Philip was born they gave him two hours to live. Two hours? His mother said. Maybe four, the doctor said. His breathing is bad.
And his breathing was terrible. After four turbulent hours of exhaling when he should be inhaling and inhaling when he should be exhaling, Philip lay limp and exhausted, roasting in his hospital cot. The first doctor, by now thwarted and undone, left Philip in the care of an ancient colleague who observed the infant under a vaporous gaze, folded his long arms, demolished a peppermint, and moved on. Philip lingered. At five past midnight the following day, he turned his small head from left to right and, triumphantly taking in nothing with sly, heavy-lidded eyes, curled out an exploratory finger – his mother seized it – and the two of them eloped like lovers into the dismal January night.
A decade passed.
By age ten, Philip is a connoisseur and a lover of many things. He makes requests to visit all the city’s most prominent parks and sits, with the dignified air of the convalescent, sketching the anxious faces of the passing well. Late at night, he is propped up on four cushions and dictates to his mother, a harassed and inaccurate scribe, the list of rare books he requires for his studies. He thrives in the company of the Greeks and the Norse gods; he is titillated by the desultory habits and extravagant whims of artists; he frowns with polite concern over the names and dates of the heroic and the dead. In the bright light of a radiant August, he renders Daphne in pen, the nymph so beloved of Apollo, and draws her shunning his advances, becoming a tree and disappearing into the forest. He is happy. When a light-hearted doctor places a metal disk on Philip’s chest and declares him cured, he is overwhelmed. Philip stands at the brink, a little underdone, a hairless late bloomer, and puts one hesitating toe out into a new world. His mother dies of grief; maturity follows.
Over the next two decades, Philip’s desire drives studies in the flying formations of migrating birds, in the habits and instincts of fish and fowl; it powers a winter spent painting morose still life from bored-looking fruit, an autumn emoting in a poorly ventilated drama room and an inspired Spring (most of which he could scarcely remember) wandering alone through the empty corridors of Zen thought. The masters say that life is death. And his flat becomes a mausoleum to the ghoulish remains of four unyielding Bonsai trees which sit arranged in the order of their passing (Red Maple, Red Maple, Ginkgo, Strawberry tree), lined up against the kitchen window. Hidden beneath the bed a neglected trombone lies fuming in its case. But this is life, Philip scrawls on a paper napkin one steely afternoon in March, this is what life is. So far, so good.
But the truth of the matter was a little less clear. Forty years of shallow breathing had taken its toll on the once beautiful face of Philip James Flood. His smooth skin, so praised by his mother, had lost some of its charm. And in contrast to the fleshy folds and heavy jowls that he routinely denied to his lethargic Hungarian barber, Philip’s own flesh had become paler and leaner. As though beginning the slow journey of rising off the skull, it now clung so tightly to the jaw and temples that it described the bones lurking behind with a melodramatic flourish. The admirable forehead was still flanked either side by a few dutiful strands. But the brow had thickened somehow and was now set further forward, alert with a kind of fraternal protection, over the delicate blue eyes that drifted and darted nervously beneath it. One night an abominable child with a talent for mimicry had entertained the street with his lavish portrayal of Philip’s irregular stride, the subtly dropped shoulder and its loose, knocking right arm. Philip retreated in shame. And sitting under the dull glow of a dirty café lamp and in full view of the other customers he began, quite inexplicably and quite embarrassingly, to yearn. He was not sure for what. He put a glass to his dry lips. The sky quivered, then rain.
Over the course of a month his passions deserted him. In a desperate mood, he threw himself at the mercy of the Greeks; they repelled him. He shuddered at the sight of the four Bonsai trees flaunting their remains in a quiet corner. And appealing to reason as a last resort, he confronted his bookcase and levelled with his peers; they caught a whiff of his deficiencies, smoothly ignored him, or turned away in disgust. He prayed to his mother. And fearing the worst, he bought thirty pork pies from the market, restrained the concern of a neighbour with an absurd white lie, and locked his front door for a month.
Spring manoeuvred; summer came.
On the first of June, he felt daring enough to visit Maurice Stoat, the surviving third of a jaded college alliance. When Philip arrived at the flats, he found Maurice asleep in the neglected communal garden, a tiny redhead laid out in white tennis shorts and courting a tan under the full glare of the afternoon sun. At the sound of the gate, Maurice sat up with a look of hostile confusion. Oh, it’s you, he said with an unpleasant smile, mon pauvré Philippe. Philip wished that he had not come. But Maurice pointed a finger out towards a gloomy conservatory behind him and added, with a disastrous wink that took out half his face, get yourself to a chair.
Maurice Stoat was the worst conversationalist of all his friends. The eccentricities that had once been tolerated, even applauded, in his younger days had soured over time. He had gradually alienated his past companions with either one of his two moods which, governed by some incomprehensible inner measure of himself, rendered him intolerably obnoxious or stunned with self-pity. His proudest boast was that he had never got passed page sixty in any book and he would often recall that nobody, not even the greats, had succeeded in capturing him. When Philip saw Maurice’s bare legs bending out from his tennis shorts, he felt a wave of pity for him. A doomed copy of Turgenev’s The Torrents of Spring was resting over one knee, opened at page sixteen (the scene in which Sanin enters Roselli’s patisserie for a glass of lemonade), its pages sweating against a few golden hairs.
When Philip returned, the two men sat in silence and regained their strength, Maurice from sleep and Philip from his exertions. I’m finished, Philip said quietly, when the worst had passed. But his friend didn’t answer. From somewhere beyond the high fence, they heard the sound of a girl repeating a tune on a violin. Philip looked across. Maurice’s eyes were closed in deep concentration and the fine point of his chin was wavering in mid-air as he strained, quite hopelessly, to name the composer.
It was the burden of two doomed love affairs that brought the violinist Anna Maslov into Maurice’s empty suburb that day, one regrettably consummated on a windy common in December, the other purely imagined, and neither of the two belonging to her.
It was not unusual for men to fall in love with Anna as she played her violin under the ornate stone arches of the city. There was something about the way her head shook and the uncontrolled mess of black hair over the sobbing right shoulder that made a certain kind of soul rejoice. On that fateful day alone, five impressionable and unfulfilled young men had lost their hearts as they listened to the soar of Vivaldi’s Winter, but it was only the sixth, a poorly proportioned man with short arms named Isaac Munch, who had waited in torment in a violent downpour, and pounded back, his ears ringing, to declare himself taken.
Anna was polite of course. She didn’t know how to be otherwise. But in truth these encounters scared her. And since she retained her childhood habit of smiling when she was afraid, she accepted the four warm coins he gave her with a nervous grin and Isaac, encouraged by her response, bounced off in the wrong direction, elated.
But he soon became a nuisance. Just when she thought he would never find her, she saw his bobbing head, parted distinctively from the crown, making its way through the crowds. He took over. He sat beside her as she played and watched over her money, inspecting the resin and bow on the hour with a solemn nod. By the end of the day, Anna could not wait to be rid of him. But her solitude didn’t last. When she returned home, her sister Lena, a large-limbed and energetic girl, would already be waiting at the door.
Lena was a veteran of the unhappy affair. She had recently emerged from a disastrous run with a married apprentice and had been sent, at the request of their elderly mother, to recover at Anna’s expense. Always in a state of either emotional or physical undress, Lena stood smoking at an open window in only a bra while her sister slept, and a family of incredulous moths filed passed her. In a worrying development, she had begun a memoir of the last affair. But it was a terrible mess, and full of errors; in one poignant oversight Lena had enclosed the torment of his final betrayal inside a bracket, once opened (to settle some score over two towns with the same name) and never closed. Anna dared not criticise. One afternoon, she learned that Lena had sent her memoir to a noted publisher and, from then on, Anna regarded the vacant postman with a kind of frightened awe.
On the day that Philip James Flood emerged from his solitude and visited Maurice Stoat, Anna discovered a thin envelope addressed to her sister lying inside the door. In a panic, and desperate to escape from the draining obsessions of two other people, she boarded an overland train to a quiet suburb, prepared her violin, and established herself on a pleasant corner. By the time Philip found her, a small, good-natured crowd had gathered and he took his place at the back, his long neck cooling under the shade of a giant oak tree. Anna started up again with the possessed Paganini. He watched with terror at the violent rise and fall of her elbow, at the sudden jolts of the head, and at the fury on her face which gave way, quite suddenly, to compliance, to bliss, and to fear. At the height of it all, an E string broke and shot out across the white sky like a famous signature. Philip gasped. He stepped out of the shade and walked slowly towards Anna Maslov with trembling hands. Just before he reached her, Loki, the Norse god of mischief, forced Anna to smile, and the bloated gods were amused once more. When Philip tried to speak, Loki shook with excitement; he laughed and danced.