Whenever I am up high, looking out over the city, I feel like a character in a movie. Not that I feel myself to be glamorous or interesting the way characters in movies generally are, but rather, when I look down at the lines of traffic and the neon lights flashing in shop windows, and the tiny people hurrying here and there, this experience seems to come to me second-hand. I have had this experience many times before, but at some remove, when watching a film in which a sad female protagonist looks down from a window in a high-rise apartment and observes the lines of traffic and the neon lights flashing in shop windows, and the tiny people hurrying here and there, noting the miniature bustling of the city with great interest because her own life seems to have paused and she doesn’t know, for the moment, how to make it travel forwards again.
I am standing, just like this, at the window looking down when the professor hands me the plastic card that will let me in and out of the building. As I slip the card into my pocket she says, ‘Perhaps you might write a poem or two while you’re here?’ She says this casually, but hardly anyone ever asks about this silence of mine, although all the world knows I haven’t written a poem in years. The professor’s apartment is on the twenty-seventh floor. It is large and sun-filled, furnished with antique rugs and expensive-looking paintings. There are exotic potted plants in every room; butterfly iris and monkey faced orchids, ferns as thick as the mane on a lion. She’s flying to Los Angeles where she’s to give a conference paper and has asked me to stay and care for what she describes as her menagerie.
I shrug, a reaction of discomfort rather than indifference. ‘You should try,’ she says, as though what a poet needs in such a scenario is simple effort. We’re standing in the bedroom. I don’t respond but turn back to the window and look down.
Behind me I hear the professor closing her suitcase. To change the subject she asks: ‘Did you know that Jane Austen was skinnier than Kate Moss?’ She is not a poet but a historian of the clothes of poets and the like. For the last several months she has been making an exact replica of Jane Austen’s silk pelisse, so knows much about the shape of Austen’s body. At the conference she is to give a talk on sartorial Austenalia, in which she will discuss the provenance of this coat. ‘Apparently Jane Austen was known to like brown gowns,’ she says, lifting the suitcase from the bed. I don’t know why this fact strikes me as amusing but it does: how now, brown cow. Brown gown. Gown Brow.
The professor wanted very much to wear the coat herself, only her size prohibited this; she once had a fancy, she confesses, of turning up to a conference in costume. ‘Although you,’ she says, eyeing me closely, her glasses slipping down her nose, ‘it might just fit you. Wait, let me fetch it.’
I am still standing at the window. There are seagulls—like small scraps of bright metal—darting in and out of the traffic. They fly around the shiny office buildings of dark glass and some land on the edge of a derelict concrete structure; a faded yellow sign painted on its side reads ‘Keys Cut Here’.
‘Now,’ the professor says, and I turn to see her entering the bedroom with the coat draped over both arms, as if she’d scooped it up from the ground and found the body missing. I stand before her and raise my arms out to the side and she slips the coat on. Of course it fits. Since the accident I have grown very thin. ‘Look’, the professor says, ‘how it suits you.’ She pushes me to the mirror and holding me by the shoulders turns me round.
‘Wear it’, she says, ‘while you are here.’
The professor is not unaware that there is a progression of things that I must learn to care for: first houseplants, then a goldfish, then perhaps a dog or cat. This would be recuperation. Although not children, not any more. No-one had said this, but I can tell it’s what they think, that everybody has already decided I cannot manage what I most want.
‘We grow out of all things,’ the professor says, wistfully, as she rearranges the fabric of the sleeves, ‘including our desires.’
At first I assume she is referring to her own wish to dress herself in the coat, to try it on. This was in part why she’d made it, so that others might have the pleasure of repeating history. Then I realise she is thinking something else, about to say something else, for she breathes in with her mouth open, then closes her lips around this mouthful of air and glances down at her feet. She makes a small dipping motion with her head and I can tell she is tucking everything back in that might otherwise come out, like the picture in a children’s book that my mother used to read to me in which a small fish swallowed a very round and impossibly large white egg.
‘There used to be a belt’, she says quietly, ‘on the original coat.’
We stand then for a few moments, admiring her handiwork, the silk lining, the yellow thread, the slight bias of the sleeves. All of a sudden she says, ‘Would you mind if I take your photograph? It is rare’, she tells me, ‘to find a modern body to fit this coat so well.’
And there it is, this new truth of things; my very personage reduced to an anachronism; there is my circular-tending ribcage, my well-lifted but tiny bosom, my height of five feet eight inches, just a fraction above that of the tallest recorded woman to be unearthed from her burial ground towards the end of the long eighteenth century. Or so the professor tells me.
I am still wearing the coat when she leaves in a taxi. I did not tell her that I know the poem I want to write; that it is about the evening, some decades ago now, when I planted two alder trees with my then husband. It was a greeny dusk, autumn, the garden sloped down into a valley so it was darker where we crouched, digging, than it was at the top of the hill where our house stood. The poem would be about this, I imagined, and about how, afterwards, I returned to the house and ran a bath for our baby son, how I undressed him, how I lifted him carefully into the water, how I sang to him until he fell asleep.
The professor never had children, although this was not by choice, and because I know this I’ve never spoken to her about the exquisite pleasure of slowly washing a baby in a bath of warm water, cleaning the tiny pink fold of skin behind their tiny ears, wiping the sweet-smelling crevice of their neck just beneath their chin, where, if it had been a good day, a line of dirt would have gathered. I cannot tell her what it means to me to remember splashing water on the smooth stretch of my son’s back, then lifting him from the bath, wrapping him in a towel as large as a cloak and bundling him up, his hair wet and slicked back, the soles of his feet pink and plump and damp. Then would come the careful dressing—helping his arms into the tiny sleeves of his pyjamas, lifting his clean bottom onto a nappy, his legs kicking at me all the while. Outside night would gather and my warm, clean child would be carried to his high chair and once seated would open his mouth—tiny moist hole and glistening lips—and would wait, like a bird, for nourishment, the silver spoon bearing a drop of broth.
I try not to think of the things I think of and as the professor suggested wear the coat all afternoon, for to dress well is always to distract oneself. I keep the coat on long after dark and that night fall asleep in it and dream I am chopping off my hair with a very large pair of scissors. My hair, in the dream, is terribly thick and I chop it off in great chunks, holding fistfuls up to be severed, although even with the large scissors it is difficult to cut through—I close the handles only for them to jam on some of the hair while far sections fall out of reach of the blades; still I persist and the scissors rasp and rasp until the job is done: then, voilà—it may be uneven, but the sudden lightness is such a remarkable relief I cannot believe what a burden I have been carrying around all day and all night for all these years.
I feel airy, my neck feels terribly long, I am conscious of the breeze moving over the skin on the back of my neck, a breeze I have never felt before and then I look at myself in the mirror and realise that I look as I did when I was a girl of 12 or 13 and so while my first reaction is one of relief, I know then that this is misleading, a falsity, for the desire to cut my hair stemmed from an urge to unburden myself from my present situation only for the act to return me to an age when I was most sad and on the verge of what has become my life, the one that I want, in the dream, to sever myself from. In the first hazy moments of waking I’m conscious of pining for that particular skill, belonging to women of a different era, of knowing how to pin their hair up in such an elegant and understated way as to hide its massive length and make it appear weightless; a series of small rolling clouds framing a pretty face.
I am inexplicably weary in the aftermath of this dream, but nevertheless I rise and do as I promised and water the plants as the morning sun creeps into the rooms. In an effort to shed the dream I tug my bathers on and take the lift to the rooftop pool. There’s no-one else and I dive in, holding my breath until I reach the far end. My hands tip the tiles: tiny squares of blue and white like a keyboard. I run my fingers over these squares with a dull ache in my chest then push away and float on my back; a domed glass roof covers the pool and when I look up I can see a broken reflection of my body, surrounded by water. Twenty-four seconds, that is what they told me, the mind retains the true details of an event for only 24 seconds before beginning to overwrite these with the errors of recollection. I held him in my arms while he died. I know that I do and do not remember this.
Afterwards I pull the coat on over my damp bathers and make tea. Then I wait. All is silent except for the hum of the building that won’t go away. All day the lift whirs up and down; first the bell, then the whir, then the bell again. I have waited years now for the shape of a poem to rise inside me. I know what this ought to feel like: a transparent bubble, floating up through the slippery but constrictive darkness of human organs, the bubble glistening with some otherworldly gleam like those fish that glow, fluorescent, in the black depths of the ocean. I take my tea to the window and look down.
As night falls I lift the leaves of each plant very gently and press the tip of my index finger into their pots of earth, checking for moisture. When my son was a small child, I planted seeds in our garden, just like this. I cleared a space, and pressed the tip of my index finger into the damp soil. Afterwards I sat in the shade with my son and watched a large spider stun and then devour a turquoise-coloured butterfly, while my child happily placed bright coloured buttons in the palm of my hand: one blue, one gold, one diamond-like. He was sitting on my lap, I could smell his sun-warmed hair. After a time my husband came out and I said, ‘Look—did you see the butterfly?’
‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘could you have saved it, is it too late to save it?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, lying.
For I knew there had been a moment, when I first saw the butterfly, when I could have saved it and didn’t because, so I told myself, I shouldn’t interfere in the natural order of things. So I left it there and looked on as the spider carefully sucked and sucked and sucked at the butterfly’s grey-felted abdomen, emptying it. Repulsion is a strange thing: how we feel it sometimes towards other things and sometimes towards ourselves.
My husband and I watched on together: the spider with its long and very pointed legs, tiptoeing over the butterfly’s wings, positioning and repositioning itself in relation to her abdomen. As it did this the butterfly quivered, just every now and then—as if it might, after all, still be alive. And every time it quivered my husband started forwards as if to save it, and every time it stopped he stopped too, deciding that wait—it was still alive and then no—it was, after all, quite dead, this pattern repeating itself until at last we realised we must have missed our chance to save it over and over again because who knew which quiver was the last living quiver and which was the first one caused just by the breeze? Then, out of nowhere came a downfall of heavy rain; we rushed inside, my husband, my son and I, and when I returned the butterfly had vanished.
In the morning, high up in the professor’s apartment, I check again for the feeling of the poem the way one might check for the remnants of a dream, but there is still no sign of the poem being alive inside me, and so I take the lift back up to the swimming pool.
I swim underwater with my eyes closed and when it is time to surface because my lungs cannot bear it any longer, I float on my back. The morning sun strikes the yellow concrete wall that runs along the side of the pool and the bright webs of light that wobble over the surface of the water cast shadows on this wall, the shadows appearing like an enlarged version of an EEG depicting the frantic activity of the human brain. The graphs that track the movements of the heart are somewhat simpler, if I remember correctly.
My son wanted to join the military because so many famous writers had also been in the military. Who? I asked, and he had to pause a moment to think of the names; Hemingway, Orwell, Fitzgerald, he replied. For several minutes I had nothing to say to this, the sheer foolishness of it.
Then I said: Aren’t you afraid of dying? No, he replied. Aren’t you afraid of being in pain? No. Aren’t you afraid of killing someone else? He thought for a moment and said, Sometimes. Sometimes. He met my gaze then looked away, over my shoulder. How deep and wild is the cave of a mother’s heart, how it opens down and down into the molten core of the Earth. He’d always had problems with his eyes. Maybe, I thought, maybe they wouldn’t let him in because of his eyes. I remember looking at his hair and wondering how it could still be the exact same colour it had been when he was that small boy sitting on my lap and passing me buttons. But why? I asked again. Really why? He shrugged, and scratched the back of his neck and said, Because. Because I think it would make a man out of me. He blushed, embarrassed by saying this; he wanted to be the kind of man who could announce such a thing without shame. I stared at him, this boy, my son. The world, I said, the world would be better off without men like that.
This isn’t something any mother can allow, a child taking themselves off to war. But he did it anyway. And I had to drive him, I had to drive him to the airport or the training base or somewhere, I can’t remember exactly where, it was a place I was meant to leave him, say goodbye, and I wasn’t thinking I’ll never see you again, I was thinking someone is going to kill you, this is for certain, some stranger, and I thought I can’t let this happen I can’t let this happen. I couldn’t imagine the way in which I knew I would continue to imagine the things I didn’t know, or rather, I could imagine exactly this, how I would see these invented details for all my remaining hours and what I couldn’t comprehend was how anyone could survive this, his final scene that I was already starting to envisage then, as we drove. I can’t, I thought, I couldn’t, I can’t. I looked across at him. Then the car swerved.
Sometime afterwards they took me to a small room in a large building where a long time ago nuns used to live. This thought comforted me while I sat there, quite alone. The fireplace was blocked up. The window was open to the summer breeze and large trees swayed in the distance. My husband had packed some sandwiches in my bag because we didn’t know how long I would be waiting and I ate these because he’d told me to. When they returned for me they said they had decided to drop the charges. I should have been relieved. But it didn’t really matter by then. I would remember forever the line of pine trees that marked that dark corner of the road where the car skidded. There was only one road home and for a long time I had to travel past those trees, day after day, evening after evening, for there was no alternative. I’d hold onto the steering wheel, shut my eyes tight and just drive.
The raw material of the agricultural era was land. The raw material of the Enlightenment was iron. The raw material of the poem is.
There was once a king who ordered his people to forget on pain of punishment. While I ponder this I run my index finger along the sleeve of the coat, following the repeating vertical pattern of stylised oak leaves woven in thread the colour of straw. The leaves, the professor told me, were a popular symbol of patriotism at the time and for some reason, I don’t know why, I think of Winston Churchill reading Pride and Prejudice on his sickbed while his nation was under siege. In what way, I wonder, does one best come to terms with the history of things?
‘There is the coat that is invisible,’ the professor said, as she held the garment open for me, ‘then the cloak that makes one invisible, there is the red coat with the hood, the coat with its pockets full of crumbs, or stones. Indeed,’ said the professor, lifting the coat onto my shoulders that morning of her departure, ‘the story of women might be deciphered through the tales of redingotes, mantles and cloaks.’ The moment I slipped my hand through the silk tunnel of the arm I felt the thing she was describing; some transformation within reach. Although what I ought to become remains unfathomable to me.