Nadine Gordimer

Whom to talk to.

Grief is boring after a while, burdensome even to close confidants. After a very short while, for them.

The long while continues. A cord that won’t come full circle, doesn’t know how to tie a knot in resolution. So whom to talk to. Speak.

It comes down to the impossible, the ridiculous: talk then; about this! But to whom. Nobody knew about it. No, of course there must be some friends among those who surrounded us all those years of ours who did know, but since it was not spoken by them, it didn’t ever happen.

So whom to talk to. Necessary; to bring him back, piece him together, his life that must continue to exist for his survivor. Talk to.

There’s no one.

Wind shivers along blue plastic covering the pergola of the house next door.

Wind in sun over the sea; come, abandon that crazy component of the quest and travel to contemplate an ocean!

Wind wags the trees’ heads. No message there, for the survivor.

Nothing to avoid it. There’s only one.

To supply answers to questions that were never asked, never necessary to be asked in an intimacy of flesh and mind that reassured, encompassed and transfigured everything, all pasts, into the living present? Answers. Is that what such understanding, coming to terms with loss, will prove to be? For so far understanding has turned out to have no meaning. Come to lunch, come to the theatre, attend the meeting, take up new interests, there’s your work, you’re a historian—for Christ’s sake, it’s important. Grief is speaking a language that reaches no-one’s ears,drawing hieroglyphs for which there is no cracked code. “Nor hope nor dread attend the dying animal/Man has created death.” Everyone fears death but no-one admits to the fear of grief; the revulsion at that presence, there in us all.

Thinking about it (about the One) and not acting. The trivial irritabilities that are the only distraction; e.g., no bananas left today in the fruit bowl—regression to the quick fix of a child’s craving to eat something it likes best.

She, the survivor, was divorced when she met the man who was to be hers, and so was he, her man who now is dead—months ago, the long while beyond the short while when others still talked of him with her. She had had a couple of brief affairs in the interim between divorce and the marriage, and he had had only one. That was not the difference. It was with a man. He had told her of it as part of the confidentiality, confessions, that come as the relief of another kind of blessed orgasm after the first few of love-making. A form of deep gratitude that is going to be part of love for the other being, if there is going to be love.

There was love and there is love, but only on one side; the reciprocal recipient is gone. Gone? That implies somewhere. There is no somewhere in this death that man has invented. Because if the poet is right, man invented it, there’s no Divine-supplied invention of an after-life in a fully-furnished heaven or torture-equipped hell gymnasium. The beloved hasn’t gone anywhere. He is dead. He is nowhere except in the possibility of recall, a calling-up of all the times, phases, places, emotions and actions of what he was, how he lived while he was. Almost half that life—you don’t count childhood, of course—was theirs. What came before was thought of by them as a sort of prolonged adolescence—full of the mistakes and misconceptions of that state: the two early marriages, his and hers, rather inconceivable, in the knowledge of this one, theirs. The one and only, he would say to her, the days he was dying. The conclusion along with his own coming conclusion.

He had had no children in that first marriage and they had no idea where she, the woman, was—gone to South America, when last her name came up somehow. Unlikely by example of his earthy experience of mayhem with her, that she was still with the man who’d taken her to Peru or wherever. It was agreed between the two who had found the treasure of one another that they had been both naïve and culpable—no excuses—in those marriage episodes; maybe these had even been an initiation for their own: an experience of everything a mating should not be, so that they would be freed to make a real one, theirs.

So she knew, from her experience doubling with his, what emotions, illusions and disillusions, impulsive responses, compromises (how could any intelligent person have been deceived by such obvious contradictions) could bring about so-called marriages. The woman was a Beauty, and the classic case of the disturbed childhood never left behind, taking revenge on the world through the man who had chosen her; her chance of savage rejection. He had tried to make something of what was the hopelessness of the marriage, refused to recognize this, tried to persuade the woman to go with him to psychiatrists and psychotherapists, marriage counselors, and when she cursed and jeered at him, went alone to lie on the couch.

In their emotional blunders, what she (is it possible she now has the archaic category Widow, out of the range of Miss, Mrs, Ms) had not experienced as he had, was his affair with one of his own sex. How it came about she could and had fully entered with him; the “unnaturalness” of it—not in the sense of some moral judgment on homosexuals, but that she knew, in the exalted gratification he found in her femaleness, that this was what was natural to his sexuality. It had happened as part of the ugly desperation and humiliation of the first marriage. He would accept any distraction, then. Any invitation to attend gatherings and conferences anywhere. Get away. At an architectural conference he was lined up in the inevitable group photograph; found himself at breakfast the next day taking the only free seat, at a table with the photographer. Then talking to him again when encountered in the evening at the hotel pool. The photographer was virtually the only person he had any real exchange with in three days; he himself made no contribution to discussions, he heard but did not follow his architect and town-planner colleagues’ discourses, he was cut off in parched despair of his failure to create some bearable relationship with the woman who was supposed to be his wife; and filled with self-disgust at his failure. The photographer—well, of course—had an unexpected lens on life. An interesting man. He saw wars and floods, natural disasters, the features of strikers and politicians, not a Fury whose image blocked all else. The two men were the same age in years, but not in their conception of themselves. The photographer offered in place of emasculating catastrophic rejection a simple acceptance of something never imagined, unthinkable in relation to oneself as a man: her man. In that state, she supposed, you could have been grateful if a dog came up and licked your hand. Recognition, any tenderness from a fellow human being: something hardly believed possible could happen.

I’m not bisexual, he had told her long ago, in the confessionals of their beginning. It has been the only time ever. It was some months but to me it’s the blank you had a day when you were young and had been drunk all night, your friends told you.

Now that she has seen him dead, felt him cold, she finds there’s something she can’t quite remember—what does it matter—whether he divorced before or after that lapse that was like the blankout of alcohol. Must have told her which, but told nothing else, was asked nothing else by her. No more than he would have put any value on hearing details of her love affairs—and her marriage, unlike his, had no traumatic drama to recount, was amicably ended through mutual agreement that each was leaving youth by differing signposts, shouldn’t foolishly have set out on zigzag footsteps.

But now that her man can exist for her survival only through piecing him together in what is available for recall, there is a gap—yes, a blankout. She can make the re-creation for herself whole only if she can recall what is not hers to recall.

Whom to talk to. There’s only one. One who can recall.

If nobody knows or cares where the Beauty has gone to grow old, the one who was the photographer has not disappeared. As if her eye, now, was programmed to react to the small print of the name appearing in the accreditation to a series of newsprint photographs, there it is, Hayford Leiden. She had been told this name in the lovers’ confessional, long ago. Over the years the modest byline must have appeared here and there in the local and international newspapers she and her man read, but who notices the minute print below the picture?

She wrote in the dark of her head a letter that never got to paper, addressed care of a photographic agency called Magnus whose name often appeared in attributions in place of that of an individual photographer. Where did he live? If she received his address, what would the unwritten letter convey to him? Would he know that the man of the affair, her man, was dead? Probably not, since their circles had not overlapped in all the years of the marriage. She taught history at a university and knew how the alternative history of private lives goes unnoticed by those concentrated on public events; and a news photographer is one such. So the letter was there, as if waiting to be printed out, so to speak, from a word-processor.

She thought of traveling—friends prescribed it—to move away for a time from the environment of her grief, and perhaps to remove her from the necessity to contemplate it. She, in her turn, could accept invitations to conferences as a substitute way of life as her man once had resorted to. There was one from Canada she passed over, but she overcame her reluctance to leave the rooms, the house where his presence was still recognized by his hairbrush in the bathroom and the grubby chairarms where his hands had rested, and accepted the invitation to a conference in an English university city, which perhaps would seem to be less interesting. She didn’t know whether this was so; and whether she had made the choice because the byline of the photographer whose name she was aware of appeared in newspapers from England that she read. She might visit some old friends in England although she had not told any of them she was coming. To pass the time while waiting for the call to board her flight she wandered around the duty-free shop and passing the wine section saw a red wine she and her man had particularly liked, picked up a bottle. Friends might enjoy it as a reminiscent taste of the home in Africa they had left behind.

Once in the provincial English city, an intention came clear to her: she called various photographic agencies in London and was given his address and telephone number. So the voyage admitted its purpose. She stepped back from herself: in half-disapproval. The letter never was written but the telephone call was made. The first time there was a reprieve; an answering service at which she left no message. The next time a man said yes, Hayford Leiden speaking. She gave her name, so-and-so’s wife, in a calm, friendly voice, might have been a caller about to make a sales-pitch. Could she come and see him, briefly. His surprise (or lack of comprehension—what does this woman want) was well-disguised; he was no doubt accustomed, in his work, to bizarre encounters. Totally tied up for the coming week, but if she cared to come to London, say, the following Friday…yes, he remembers her man, met him some years ago.

He is dead, she said. Not long ago. Oh, he was sorry to hear… She would like to talk; nothing personal, she assured, just some dates, events, places, his architectural activities in a period of her man’s career when she had not known him. Nothing personal.

The meeting, appointment—whatever—she was still at odds with herself over its presumption, thrusting her life upon a stranger—was for the afternoon. Fiveish, he had suggested. She decided she would stay the night in London at an hotel, inventing some excuse for missing the evening event at the conference.

On the train she was inwardly shaking her head over herself; what was she about. She had some rhetorical suspicions. Is there prurience somewhere sneaking hidden in the woman making this visit? Oh why wound herself with such an accusation. She had emphasized it over the phone: nothing personal. Intimacies left understood; those had nothing to do with her, nothing to do with her man when he entered her and she took him. Nothing personal. Certainly the photographer accepted that, or he would not have agreed to the meeting.

When the taxi from Waterloo delivered her to the address—she did not think it would have been this, a majestic Victorian house advanced to the present with extensions of a sun-room, an adjoining roof-terraced flat, and as she took the path to the main portico, the glimpse past the house walls of a green sweep of garden and trees. The word “Crescent” on her piece of paper had meant to her a semi-circle of dreary London terrace houses sharing identical facades and joined in a single common unit. This house turned its back on the street and apparently shared nothing but access to a large round park exclusive to itself and its circle of neighbors. Could a photographer afford such a place he must be famous—but what would she know about the economics of the publicity professionals. A title inset on the entry wall flourished the names:

Hayford Leiden

Charles Devenmore

She heard his footsteps coming to her before the door opened. There had been no photograph of him to go by: thick white hair and thick black eyebrows, bold as in a Japanese print. A man who had aged well smiling on what were still his own teeth. The face was smoothly dull-tanned (acquired under a sun-lamp in a male beauty salon no doubt). But no, the back of the hand that came out to greet hers was darker. He wasn’t tinted by African bloodline, which she would always recognize, but by some other, Oriental. Still handsome as he once must have been beautiful.

The voice was careless and pleasant, as if to convey, I am ready for you, I know who you are, we know who we are, vis-à-vis one another. As they sat in Corbusier-design chairs regarded by masks from some Eastern culture and West African ones she knew familiarly, there was small talk about what she was doing in England—holiday assumed.

She was at a conference. Her line (his phrase)? Historian. Ah. That seemed to allow this visit an acceptable context for both these strangers, let them off the hook of whatever linked them. Some aspect of her professional inclination. That would do. The dates, places, of an individual life which go to make up what Tolstoy defined as the collective life of the aggregate of human beings. —I met Marc at a conference, used to do some lined-up group photography in those days, as well as what I really wanted—don’t remember what that particular talk shop was all about.—

—You wouldn’t have an old diary with the title of the conference? He must have mentioned it but there’s no note among his papers, and I didn’t pay attention…—

A kindly smile quickly became a dismissive turn-down of the lips, keeping his distance. —My god, no, there were so many I could say bye-bye to and see the world instead. —

She understood he was telling her, if she somehow didn’t know, that he was a news photographer of repute who had himself, far and wide, contributed images to history.

— Marc stayed on a while after the conference. In this country. Can you tell me where he lived? In London. I’d like to see the house, or the street.—

For a moment he was arranging his reply.—I think some small hotel in Kensington.—

He gauged her.

—My flat was in Notting Hill. He moved in. Some months.—

—What was he doing. Work, I mean. With a firm of architects. Or…? He was someone who was always caught up in his projects.—Her hands opened slowly on the space of his death.

—Oh he was recovering from that mess in his life, we had some good times, he got on famously with my crowd then—all gone our particular ways now. USA, Australia, Spain—South Africa. —This last reference apparently reminded him that this one of the crowd, he had just been told, was dead. —Oh good times, there was the project we did together with an artist friend of mine—I think it might even be around still today, secondhand in some museum somewhere—it was a kind of demountable “environment"—very ahead of our generation—that’s what we called it, he did the architectural shell, the artist did some sort of objets trouvés interior stuff, I did the photographs, it was supposed to represent the essential mishmash of our style of living at the time. I think some institute in Manchester—imagine, of all places—commissioned it and it was exhibited here in London, too. Hardly made waves, but we were wild about it together.—

—I thought he took a special refresher course at an architectural institute for a few weeks. Oxford.—

—Not that I know of. He was here in London. Maybe it was something…Yes, there was the idea we’d also do a book together, I’d photograph buildings and he’d write the text on their—what’d he call it—architectural relation to the politics of their period. I even had a publisher friend who pretended to be interested…The bits of text, maybe even the designs for the "environment” thing must have lain around in that little flat until I cleared an accumulation of all sorts of stuff when I moved to one of the others I lived in before—here. Finally. He didn’t bring anything like that back with him?—

—Not among the papers I’ve found. It would have been interesting as part of his vision as an architect I’m hoping to put together; there’re all the conventional plans that he designed in his practice. I have those.—

Her host became hostly, or backed away from the rising past he had summoned.—Wouldn’t you like a drink? Or tea, coffee? Whisky? Vodka?—

—Thank you. If you are having one—vodka, please, with tonic.—

An antique butler’s tray table was crowded with liquor bottles and glasses. He left her to fetch ice and tonic water; in the brief absence she could take the chance to look round at what the room held—but they could not be relevant, these Lucien Freud and Bacon nudes, these photographs of the host and another man (Charles Devenmore?) enlaced on a beach, or each individually, one behind his camera in a ruined city, the other on a stage, Shakespearean open-mouthed with rage (the lover evidently an actor)—these could not have been the objects her man had lived this other life among; in that small shared flat, too long ago.

He prepared the drinks and when he had given her hers lifted his own in the social ease therefore supposed between them—a moment in which he might have been going to toast—the past: her man, his man—quickly dismissed so that she might not notice. But she had; the moment lay between them to be examined. He approached it in a generalized way, side-lining what she had said on the telephone. Nothing personal. Only dates, places, professional activities in those months in the shared flat, to bring her man back, piece him together, his life that must continue to exist for her survival.

—It’s always a problem to get people—other people—to understand the kind of commune of gays. What someone from outside can find in it that I don’t think—I know—doesn’t function among other groups. Something to do with a minority, the healing to be found with us—I don’t mean some solemn holy-male thing…—

She stirred denial, in her chair. – We’ve had—I have many good friends among homosexuals…—

He took an audible gulp of his vodka and laughed, with a gesture to her to do the same.—Oh yes, some of my best friends are Jews, man’s best friend is his dog.—

What could she say? She was not equipped for this kind of repartee, it was not the encounter or the occasion for it, if he was choosing to make her the butt of insults he’d received in his lifetime. She had told, told him, nothing personal and now he was transgressing the limits of recall she had assured him of.

He was suddenly looking at her in an inescapable way she couldn’t elude, couldn’t interpret, confidential or goading.

—Of course I didn’t want him to go.—

Why did this man who had forgotten her man among many others, couldn’t give her the plain facts that were all she asked of him, want to assert—claim—shared feelings with her: her man who had left her for death, his sometimes lover who had left him; their man. Was it amusing him to do so? He went on to recount as an old incident recalled for her benefit—I’d gone off on a trip with someone else, it was to Surinam. As you can see, I’m half-and-half, the name Dutch, the skin Malay, fine old colonial ancestry, isn’t it. I had a notion to find my Malay roots there, the new affair went along with this. He didn’t understand it was an adventure I needed at the time. So when I returned to our flat I found the place empty—he’d gone back to South Africa. I don’t know to what. That crazy woman. God knows.—

—If he wasn’t divorced before you met him he divorced then.— She knew herself being lured into confidence never meant to come about.

He poured himself another vodka, gestured to her glass, over which she placed her palm.—I’ll tell you something. I did come to South Africa once, maybe ten, twelve years ago. On an assignment. I asked whether he was around; so then I heard about you. Just curious, what had become of him. Someone told me where you and he lived. But I didn’t try to look him up, considering…—

There was a hiatus that could not be called silence because while they did not speak there was passing between them a vivid dialogue of the unexpressed.

Then she took up the ready lug of ordinary social intercourse, slotted into place the polite visitor about to leave.—Well, thank you for letting me bother you, I must be off, now.—

—Sure you won’t have another drink?—

She was standing, ready for the lie, also.—My train to catch.—

As she hung her bag over her shoulder some hard shape in it nudged her hip; she had forgotten to give the man the bottle of wine she had brought along at the last minute before closing the door of her conference hotel room—as she knew she wasn’t going to look up the friends she had bought it for, it had seemed to serve as a useful gesture of apology for an intrusion.

He received it with appreciative pleasure.—All the way from South Africa! Charlie and I’ll regale ourselves tonight.—He read out the name on the label, two words run into one, most likely those of a Boer wine farmer after the old war lost to the British, the defeated still spelling in Dutch from which his own language, Afrikaans, derived.—Allesverloren, “everything lost"—ah, you see, from my Holland side—grandmother—I

can translate…—

She walked block after block before remembering to look for a taxi or bus stop. Should have asked if there was perhaps a photograph from that time. Could have, since the terms of the visit had been violated. But no.

You know the one you knew. Cannot know the other, any other. Allesverloren.