Ray David seldom lingered on the past, but he felt the presence of it now, and with good reason: he had just said yes to a woman who wanted to write his biography. They were discussing it over lunch at Daniel, on the Upper East Side in New York. It was a week before Christmas. The restaurant was vivid with noise. He sat canted forwards slightly, the table pressed into his chest to steady himself at the startle of corks being fired, crackers pulled.
He wished he had not come. Reluctantly, but in good faith, he had taken a train up to the city through the December snow. The journalist had tricked him, pretending she wanted to discuss an article she was writing for a poetry magazine. He didnt mind. He understood that need for some disguise: for most of his life, he had lived in secret. To his neighbours, in England, he had been the local odd-job man. They thought his scribbling was a hobby. He hadnt liked to correct them. At fifty quid a pop, (a newspaper intermittently bought his poems, and he had joked about it with his wife, Rachel) it would hardly seem rational.
So he had fixed up guttering, glossed woodwork, was gracious at the suggestion he might appreciate the work of clambering on rooftops and replacing slipped tiles; or sinking his arms shoulder-deep inside frozen water tanks in search of drowned birds, or worse; and by the time the first substantial cheques began to arrive, it had seemed much too late to explain.
He had always felt guilty about saying no, as though it showed the meanness of refusing gifts. Instead, without fanfare, he and his wife had simply moved away. Apart from their two children, now grown up, neither had any other family. He had been raised by a spinster who, frowningly, had let him call her aunt, and had long since shunted away the eavesdropped, His mother, youre joking? Not on your life. She had taken him in, he supposed, for sentimental reasons that had not stuck.
Now, after years of slow passage through alien countries, they had settled in America - which had been kind to Ray - in the Catskill Mountains, a few hours from New York. He had a lectureship at Columbia. It was five years since his publishers had re-issued his backlist. There was talk of a Collected Poems. It had been easier to jump ship than he supposed: his work was his home, and it went with him.
A few moments earlier, when the woman put the question of a biography to him, adding, I wouldnt expect you to say either way straight off, she leant towards him, and he could see the line of hair on her upper lip grow dark with sweat. Her nervousness bothered him. He didnt want to disappoint.
Yet he had seen himself refusing, even before the words were out. The vision annoyed him. He preferred surprises. And at the same moment, he heard his aunts No good will come of it her catch-all reprimand snapped out like a farmer cracking whips at rats. Nothing he did impressed her. She turned away from all his tricks. Grow up, wont you? Even his smallness made her impatient. So he said yes also to silence her.
He expected shocks. But there was nothing. The woman exhaled, the tension leaving her brow, and that was all. So he followed his reply with an order from the menu that usually wouldve made him wince. Dover sole with a Pernod and gooseberry remoulade. Remoulade? He had no idea what such a dish might even look like. When it came he could barely eat it. He tried. Gooseberry pips furred his tongue. But there was no other consequence.
Apparently, the question of his ever agreeing to a biography was considered something of a joke at his publishers, or so a young friend once told him a friend in search of praise, and reckless with his dispensation of secrets best left undisclosed. A joke? Ray had pressed him. He had done nothing of which he was ashamed.
Now the woman jabbed at her mouth with the stiff linen napkin, the whiteness illuminating the greyness of her skin. City skin. Fragile with overwork. He felt sorry for her. He wasnt paying attention to the story she was telling him some kind of And then he said, and she said, and well you can imagine played out on the stage of literary publishing. His mind wandered. He anticipated, with a nervousness approaching awe, his wifes reaction when he told her the news later that day.
He noticed the way his host manoeuvred her fillet mignon around all four points of the compass, before shaving off a slender scrap from somewhere in the region of the antipodes, and rather than consuming it, removed it to exile like a foreign planet at the edge of her plate. She appeared to eat nothing, and Ray had a snapshot image of the first lunch his publisher ever took him to: it was in London, then, not New York, and early summer, but he had behaved in a similar fashion though for a different reason shifting his steak around the plate until his editor left momentarily to visit the bathroom, and he slipped the six by four slab of meat into a brown paper envelope in his bag. Ill bring something back, hed promised Rachel.
Blood had dripped through the manila, staining the top page of his manuscript. But that meat, and a print run of five hundred, had been his trophies. He and Rachel had crawled through the escape hatch on to their small square of flat roof. Shall we dine on the terrace? The night was moonless, thick with stars, and they were close enough to Hampstead Heath to hear trees shuffling in the warm breeze. He improvised beef bourguignon, and they were very happy.
Now that he had money, he was able to laugh at those weird doggy-bag antics. But he felt the proximity of his earlier poverty like a new season. It would come again. The circularity of it would find him out on its next revolution. It was a source of wonder to him that this had not already happened.
He ran a mile most mornings. But even walking, he appeared to be in haste. He had to hurry from the poverty before it caught him up.
Now the Sommelier lurked, became obsequious at his choice, Montrachet La Pucelles, 95, thank you, as though he had bestowed on him a personal favour. He wanted to tell the man to stop it, and why not join them for a glass? But he knew the form, that such a line would expose everything. The patina of ease that had built up after years of concealed struggle it was just so much gloss that with enough heat and elbow-grease anyone might rub away.
Even his name seemed to hang loosely on him, or so he felt. Often, when people addressed him, he thought they appeared to draw back, nervous that they had uttered the words in their wrong order Ray David or David Ray? and that by turning his name about he might find himself living another mans life.
It was as though his real identity had been left to chance withheld, or worse, lopped off, which only made him feel dismembered, restless for his missing limb. Where was it now? Questions like that will get you nowhere, his aunt had warned. But he was there already: without parents, he had only that name about to fade to nothing in his palm.
He was not an optimist, and his pessimism was a defence that had served him well. One day he was sixteen the aunt left for her weekly visit to the supermarket. She didnt return. Nor did she float to the surface of the missing persons notices. She had merely done a bunk.
Youll stop with me until youre settled. A neighbour, Mrs Briggs from Leopold Street, decided he should lodge with her. She knew more than he did about the womans disappearance, and spoke archly of a pinstriped man in motors.
Only years later did he realise what was meant. Until then he had half-expected her return, minkily ensconced in the back seat of any number of cars, slowing down to take the bend in the road though not, as he discovered, through any interest in his teenage self, glued to the kerb, scuffing the tight black tarmac as summer passed again to autumn.
He supposed at first that her leaving had something to do with the life she often complained shed lost, and that once she had found it she would return. But what was there to come back to? Standing alone in her bedroom, surrounded by their landlords furniture, he saw that she had taken everything of personal value, and was amazed at his inattention: for how long had she been draining the small house of its worth?
She had paid the rent until the end of the month, squared all bills, and saw that Ray was set up with a job, apprenticed to a painter-decorator. But she had left no letter of explanation. Her residue was a brief row of worn-heeled shoes, some near-empty bottles of rose-smelling unguents in the bathroom, and a shoebox full of photographs. He was not certain she intended him to find them. Perhaps she had simply forgotten them.
These yours? Mrs Briggs dusted off the box and handed it to him. He tried to keep his voice steady as he looked inside, for there he was, staring back at himself from the distance of a silver gelatin print taken fifty or more years before: his father, could it be, as a teenage boy? The same dark hair with its unreliable kink. The sallowness and the sharp chin. The smart, bright eye.
There were no documents, only photographs. What had been the story? There were a number of individual shots of a man and woman. Only one showed a couple. It was inside an envelope marked The Kent Lacey Studios, Eastbourne and Bexhill, 1934. Two other photographs bore writing; both were of a woman he supposed to be his mother: one carried the printed inscription Atelier Richard Klepsig, Hildesheim, Gegründet 1888; the other, in copperplate, simply said Edith. The image showed a dark-haired woman in her early twenties, with grave eyes and a gentle mouth. Over her light lace dress she wore a jewelled pendant fashioned in the shape of an irregular star, or snowflake he could not decide which, but from the distance of generations, it appeared to shine.
Please dont feel you have to commit yourself for definite right now, the woman pressed her palms against the damask lunch table. It took him a moment to remember what she was talking about. Of course, he nodded at her, toying with the remains of his Dover sole until its back broke beneath his fork.
A waiter slid past, and the plate was removed as though by sleight of hand. Of course, not right now, he agreed. If he leant back in his chair, he could just see the snow gliding down the windowpanes. When the door opened onto the street there was the sound of hooves, and he caught sight of a carriage driven by a man wearing a Santa Claus hat, the flash of red and the faint high tin of sleigh bells. He thought of his life, how quick it had all been, even in the middle of effort, and as always happened when he thought of this, he felt sad, and the sadness seemed to set him apart.
He was aware that the journalist had spoken, he had not caught her words, but it did not matter. He knew what kind of thing she wanted. It was exactly as she had said she wanted his shadowy self transmuted into something fixed, a definite life for people to pick over. The poems werent enough. He took a sip of mineral water. The rim of the glass had been wiped with lime. Its bitterness surprised him.
Perhaps he could convince himself that he owed it to his children. A mark of status that for years he had been unable to provide. But he knew it was not for them. They were fully grown now, and had made their own way without complaints. They appeared to remember nothing of the early years of toil. Success sat solidly upon them. It amazed him that it should. Even now, he imagined his own life, like that errant aunt, one day just giving him the slip. A biography would change all that.
He tapped at the delicate shell of his meringue until it crumbled. Food for ghosts. The pieces fell through the tines of his fork.
He watched her give her credit card to the Maitre d without glancing at the figures on the bill a habit he had never learnt. He pulled at his cuffs, and noticed the way she raised her eyebrows, smiling Dry cleaning bills! at the smudge of raspberry sauce that had fallen on the sleeve of her cream wool jacket.
His throat was tight. He thought of the box of photographs. There was no proof that that couple had anything to do with him. So many people looked just like him. With minimum effort, he could disappear in crowds. Used to being invisible, he had found that he belonged nowhere, just as his aunt had predicted, but that nowhere was also the only place where he was most himself, without knowing, absolutely, what that meant, which was so great a part of those moments joy - their polished solitude that often felt like nothing more than loneliness.
Rachel knew a good deal about this. But even she could not go with him to that unmapped place. Shortly after they first met, he had shown her the photographs. She studied them carefully. But her expression of surprise was all for him, breaching that new chamber of his separation. She touched his cheek, and kissed him hard, telling him that she didnt care a fig her expression for anyone but him. He had felt the vertigo in her kiss. They really did have no one but each other.
Now he wanted the lunch to end so he could get out of the city and hear the trees drip on the slates as the snow melted in the pines. He wanted to be in his room with one light greenly gleaming at the corner of his morocco-topped desk and the taste of lead on his tongue where he had licked his close-shaved pencil between the lines. That was life. What the hell was this? And he wanted his sweet wife Rachel to be beside him, warm and close, the particular comfort of her presence after the thought had run him through and he had set his mark there in its slipstream.
He wanted all that now, and not this. His breath came high in his chest, as with a lie, or the botched attempt at a performance he could not pull off. He looked away, draining the honeyed lees of his Sauterne. The woman was fumbling with her cellphone, peering at it in dismay. He wondered what call she might have been expecting, who was in her life. He noticed for the first time the dull leather of her briefcase: good, but old, a careful purchase, or something perhaps inherited. He knew nothing about her, and his ignorance made him feel selfish, but now it would seem false to ask.
Standing in the doorway of the restaurant, he looked at the snow, already fallen into shade beneath the slug of traffic. At the house it would be violet and untraversed. Rachel will have saved it for him. She will take him outside when he gets home and they will celebrate its crispness with their footsteps, tasting the top of it like shattered creme bruleé.
He hesitated, and the woman appeared to take his hesitation for the apprehensiveness of age, myopic scrutiny of the street for cabs. She even tried to take his arm. He moved away. He wondered that she could not see that violet snow cloaking him with its terrific alchemy. He did not belong here. He could not flourish in this trickless glare of life-for-definite. He missed his wife, and wished, passionately, that she were there at that moment to undo the hex that he was labouring under by his idiotic yes.
The woman stepped out into the street ahead of him, taking exaggerated care on the sleety pavement. He did not follow her immediately. He stood in the shelter of the restaurant doorway and looked out at the snow. Her cellphone was ringing and she blushed now when she answered it, glancing nervously back at him. Perhaps she was just relaying the good news to her publishers. She seemed smaller in the street, and much younger than he had supposed, and much happier too. Her shoulders were raised and he noticed her take a little half-skip forwards. She turned back towards him and he saw he could not quite hear her words that she was saying thank you. She nodded as she spoke and held her arm up in farewell, turning back to call All best wishes! and waving her arm around as though to deliver him the city as a gift. She had not said Merry Christmas.
He lingered in the doorway, watching the traffics slow motion towards the Avenue and liking its hushed attendance, which seemed to be a kind of commemoration, a carnival float in honour of the seasons close. He looked after the girl along the street and could see her crossing at the traffic lights, the first to step off the pavements as the light showed green, and he felt a quick lurch to think of her safety, hurrying with her trophy through the crowds.
Now people would survey his life and look for explanations, but the source of his work was gone. It had disappeared even as he glimpsed it. He had never meant to capture it. To wish to bring it back was foolish, and macabre, much too late.
Momentarily, at lunch, he had told himself that a biography might erase something of the smooth outrage of living for so long on so little. But of course that was a lie. Everything that had happened had happened. Time had passed. He and Rachel had aged, and he hated to think of it, but there it was. There was nothing to be done about it. Now things were different, but only on the surface, and with a change of temperature, even this appearance of solidity could fade. Beneath it all, what was he? Possibly it had something to do with those strangers photographs, possibly not. He knew that the answer was somewhere out of reach, and in a place on which neither he nor anyone else would ever be able to lay their hands.
A sudden gust of wind sent the snow flying upwards and the light appeared blue where the white rushed across it. He stepped out into the street, tilting his head back. He had left his gloves behind in the restaurant but did not want them now. He turned his palms upwards. Snow landed, dissolving there, and he remembered how as a child he had similarly longed to catch it, and that he had smiled, always, to see that it could not be done.
Sparrows and snowy camellia, Ichiryusai Hiroshige (1797-1858) Inscription on the top right reads: Crows and kites contend for food, Sparrows squabble for nests. Alone I stand by the pool in the wind and snow at evening.