Harkness:Chapter Two

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Some of us prefer a quite life while many of us have no real choice. A few choose the darker and different where the music of the time is louder and the winds changeable.

I preferred a quieter time but events and some people close to me ensured I was tormented and I tumbled through a storm of mistrust, turmoil and warfare.

However it all began quietly enough and in the beginning I felt I was on my way home. It was a journey, an odyssey, and I heard the piano notes and a quiet bass. I was going back to where I belonged a long way away back where it apparently all began and where we repeat parts of the future.

“Colour must have come late to human sensation as the shock and beauty still resonates. And even in the twilight of Western culture, anger and emotions tend to rise and fall in stark, ill-fitting monochrome.

“They lack the lustre and sensitivity of coloured flags and have lost the ancient symbolism painted in lights. It always seems at time set like this that they have stumbled back quite easily to their mountainous foundations of black and white anger.”

I wrote that over twenty years ago in a school notebook. I ran on wide-eyed and precocious like a prophet and finished by saying, ‘... fearing fate and curiosity, we stare across the surface of things and hang out our tribal colours wherever we can knock in a nail even though when we look forward we see no rainbow.’

I know what we are supposed to think of adolescent pretensions but this does not bother me much. I lost my embarrassment a long time ago but secretly back then, of course, I still cared what others thought about me. Now, perhaps I am not so disturbed by the ebb and flow of favours and favourites, not quite so much. But back then, well ... I was from an English suburb, and English public school and had lived for a while in the snobby part of Boston. Instinctively I knew this was bad taste and a little too clever.

In the margin of that same notebook there are the remains of some scrawled remarks by a teacher to the effect that this was not suitable for the science class and should at best be kept for poetry or more probably general studies. Then he explained that I must draw out and explain the spectrum before reducing it by loose speculation.

Well, I probably did labour over the frequency of coloured lights, but that particular notebook is now lost and my memory of the events hazy and clouded with the tumble and thump of school desks being shut.

Michael was not my parent’s choice of name or the one that my father wrote in copper plate across my birth certificate. Michael has been an illusion and I wonder how different I would have been if my grandfather had not misheard my real name and started calling me Michael even after he had been corrected a number of times. I was not finally named until my mother gave up and held up Michael as an example of fate and bad judgement.

The name took on a prior existence and gradually became older than my grandparent’s stories but once I understood the tale of my naming it initially gave me confidence and I believed like an ancient Italian in providence and chance.

Years later, when I took the job with GO, I had more diffidence. I feared fate and I tended to conspire with curiosity. I really did stare across the surface of things trusting a meaning would come clear as the jarring rhythm and bad timing would disconnect.

Whereas Monroe would actively and aggressively bang out GO’s tribal colour wherever he could knock in a nail, I looked down from a high gallery with sad admiration and wariness but I was gambling and praying for calming background music.

Shining clarity did arrive when I least expected it. It was the middle of May three years ago. And it came like a sudden image appearing from the past, an old guilty wound that hadn’t healed.

My wife announced she was leaving me. She said I was not the person she had married. I was angry and she was completely calm and serious.

She did not smile.
“Grow up”, she said.

For two nearly three years a physical chill settled on me and in some kind of emotional pact the Caspian Sea froze over. Youthful pale faced public disorder became fashionable.

In London a dancing boat, thin as cardboard, turned turtle at midnight in a black full tide. The curtains at Wapping police station were pulled closed for two weeks as bodies were laid out and wept over.

Suicide bombs went off like Old Catholic bonfires. Then three commercial planes crashed into the eastern seaboard of the United States starting a western crusade and the real war began over a decade later.

Three years on from the beginnings of war I stood on the balcony overlooking the river, which is when you first saw me. I was rambling about Monroe. Then there was someone on the pier watching while a Thames barge ploughs a line up towards Tower Bridge. Days before my grumbling the river police had pulled a body out of the water just down by our shoreline.

Later I watched evening sunshine come off the water in shards of luminescence. Behind the barges lay reaches camouflaged by a forest of high rise converted mills and quayside wharves.

Now seagulls hang and glide low above the ripples and waves squawking barks as warnings to others not to steal their pickings.

In front the old pier was stranded by the high tide like another group of sheltering wading fowl. Tower Bridge, its drawbridge raised in a faint smile, had red buses and traffic fuming at its edges as an ageing Russian frigate glided backwards downstream saluted the pier, turned and headed seaward past a glassy polished cruiser.

That evening I was waiting for Monroe.

“We will be with you by seven old chap”. He often used the aristocratic plural. Like the Jesuits he dragged a plaintive cord of foreboding around with him. He gave the impression that a group of disciples were just behind waiting in shadow and often they were smiling that he had chosen just them to celebrate with him. But tonight he was bringing Sara.

More party boats churned china blue waves and music seeped up from the Prospect of Whitby, which still hangs Judge Jefferies execution noose over our tidal water edge to excite the tourists.

At eight I walked down to our security gatehouse and talked to one security guard. Down at the pub's entrance, in the hooded shade of the surrounding buildings, shadows began to darken. People were still languidly staring at glimmerings upon water. A taxi drew up and a pair of grey blue pigeons burst into confusion and flew off. And before Sara got out of the cab I knew she had not seen Monroe.

“Is Bill here?” she called over her shoulder as she overpaid the driver and ignored his offering. He shook his head and raised his eyes. “I came down to wait.” I said.

“I haven’t seen him all day.” She looked and sounded tired; “I called. No one has seen him all day”.
“I saw him at lunch.” I said and some strain left her.
“You saw him for lunch.” She now looked slightly hurt. “It’s late isn’t it? I should wait.”
“If you stay here the police will take you for a tourist or a terrorist. They will lock you up. They don't discriminate." It was weak but she smiled for the first time.

From the pub there was a distinct smell of salt water, sea food and alcohol mixing with the twilight. We walked through the garden and I looked up at an airliner’s vapour trails. They were fading chalk lines going dark, weak design markers against a luminous clear evening sky.

We went up in the slow lift of mirrors. It made everyone self-conscious. I looked across a double reflection at her profile. Her eyes worried and I could smell perfume. She had mature but alluringly young looks that seemed timeless even as there were a few sad lines around her eyes. An academic who apparently still claimed her as a friend said she was an Elgin marble brought to life but that often her polished features shone a little too much in daylight.

Between Sara and I there was a looking glass familiarity, Monroe was the bond, and he held a lease of acquaintance. I could take our connection for granted, but sometimes I felt wasted by her reserve. Her too considered smile could be annoying especially when directed at you.

Occasionally I would exaggerate and lie about irrelevancies if I thought it would maintain her attention.

Often a long silent offing separated us. In my case it merged into a befuddled glimmer stretching past the horizon. Outside on the top floor she followed me into the apartment.

“It’s unlike him. He calls or is early.” It was said to herself as she looked about expecting him to walk out of a wall and directly into the living room.

“You know if he’s found a deal we have lost him for days. I’ll see if there are any messages,” I walked into the bedroom and she stood by the door.

“He’s very fond of you Mikie.” She knew I did not like my name being played that way. But back down a dark tunnel a light flickered and I looked over to where her face and eyes were looking at me smiling at her joke, as a message announced itself.

“Hello old chap, it’s Bill. Sorry I am late. You two begin dinner. I had a problem with the lawyers over the Wilkinson agreement, which is not being handled ... properly.” Monroe quietly chuckled but there was no humour and his voice sounded distant.

“I will be there as soon as I can but you know sometimes ... I am sorry... Michael say sorry to Sara for me. I forgot to meet her. I tried calling but got distracted. I’ve lost her mobile number. If I don’t make it tonight I will talk to her tomorrow… in the morning. Best wishes... don’t wait up”.

There was a silence and the receiver echoed down. She immediately relaxed. Monroe’s voice resonated hard and dark. She trailed me through to the kitchen, which has a view down the river to the East.

I could feel her thinking, more comfortable and intimate now, speaking to herself and, as if woken, she started and looked directly at me.

I put my hand out and she took a glass of red wine. A gold bracelet loosely hung against her wrist. Gradually we both felt comfortable and accepting placidly staring down river.

‘You still get the occasional dolphin, what about sharks?’

Sara’s eyes came off the river and sharpened as she sat on the window ledge and looked back at me with a smile and then darkly said, ‘Are you still writing?’
‘Still,' I said.
‘You look well’, her eyes looked as though they were weighing the odds. ‘Are you?’
“I like and don’t like living alone.’ I said.
Her eyes looked down and she ran a hand along the windowsill as a dark silhouette of a seagull flashed past the window.

‘Are you still seeing Sally?’ She knew the name was wrong. Anyone whose attention I wanted she called Sally. An Aunt Sally I think and I said no.

The water shone and ran in red, white and ginger curls. The eastern sky hung over the crowded reaches in an unstained screen of photographic blue. We moved into the living room with French windows and balconies facing east and west.

A slight breeze rustled some curtains as she talked about her art foundation. “I have been writing about early Renaissance painting because some of it helped to raise Venice above the winter flooding. What do you think?” she grinned. “Do you think if we made them a decent offer they would sell Venice?”

The room seemed darker and more intermit.

‘My contribution was less than half a millimetre,’ she smiled and her eyes caught the darkening sky. “So we surpassed Canute. We stemmed the tide. Well actually, we raised the beach. Can I have some more wine?’

Outside the sun etched buildings into shadow and burnt into windows. Gradually the sun quivered above the ebony buildings making fires of startling orange and crimson on the far windows below Crystal Palace tower. Then the water was burnt sienna and yellow ochre and then darker blue. A change came over the river and the Thames fell silent as though chilled by the day’s wasting colour.

She had an enigmatic gaze a soft peach complexion and her hair looked light blond in the light and was splayed and woven with curls. Her voice could be gentle; soft and angry and she ruled her own palaces. She was tall and could be sultry. She controlled every room she entered as though outside there was a cosmic disaster but she… She had come to reassure you that it was under her control. She litters streets and countryside; it was said, with broken hearts.

‘It’s a shame he missed the sunset’. Sara looked taller and younger.

The light and shadow separated out the furniture of the room, made them museum lit and silent.

Her legs re-crossed beneath a long cotton print. We talked about a young actress and a film we had seen.

“You know the studio has problems with film piracy. We discovered our latest was selling on the streets of Bangkok before the New York premiere.”

She laughed with disbelief.

I raised an eyebrow.
“Jake our brand protection man...”
“You call your brand protection police Jake. Are you surprising there are problems”?
“Honest Jake that’s what they call him, I think he’s from Louisiana, he phoned yesterday from Singapore. Says we should beam the new one directly into the Paris theatre for the premiere. But I still think the French producers will steal it and lease it back to us”.

She smiled across at me in the gathering gloom and I said,
‘You remember the director. You met him at that dinner we had a month ago in New York.
“Was he the one that has a belief in ritual exorcism?” She smiled seemingly at her own voice. She knew it was not a question.
“Well, he now believes piracy is another sign of the gods’ displeasure at his wanton self-indulgence. He’s now walking about in an old suit and brown shoes predicting financial ruin. He says he allowed himself too much freedom to make another personal statement… No one is actually sure what the first one was.’

I feigned seriousness and she laughed louder.

‘Don't let Bill know,’ she said. ‘He will ask to see his pension rights and union card. He's shameless when it comes to unstable economics and bad art.’ She laughed again and then became quiet.

‘Thanks for looking after me’ she nodded and smiled.
She looked at her watch and then over to me and I wondered what connection time and I had for her.
‘We would have been ok together wouldn’t we...’she said and I nodded and we both smiled.
‘But he is going to marry me,’ she said. ‘Quite soon ... Michael, so I am sorry but I won't stay for dinner. I know you understand.’ She did not smile. ‘I have drunk too much.’

She seemed to make up and rearrange her mind.

‘I'll drive you,’ I said.

‘No you have also drunk too much. I’m fine I will call a cab.’ And she walked to the phone.

‘Sara let me drive you.’ I tried not to sound pleading.

‘No dear.’ She smiled. ‘It would not be good for either of us. If Bill arrives say I drank you out of wine and went home to find some more. Also tell him to switch his phone on and I will leave a message’ She left. And ten minutes later my face was still warm from a kiss on each cheek.

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