‘So at best I have only a few more creative years. But I may have none. Who knows?’
‘That’s true only if this belief is true. It’s also one of those beliefs that you can make come true by believing that it is true.’
‘A self-fulfilling prophecy, you mean?’
I nodded yes. Lewis had just explained to me that mathematicians generally held creativity of the sort that leads to fundamental breakthroughs in mathematics is possible only among the young. Before he reached the age of thirty, he said, his best work, assuming that he had any best work in him, would be in the past. The most he could do after that was work out the implications of his earlier findings and settle into a lifetime of teaching and resting on his laurels.
Lewis paused to consider the idea I had just suggested. The conversation had begun when I asked him to explain his work to me, in terms that I would understand.
‘It’s all about addition and equality.’
I nodded to show that I had heard the terms before. I was secretly relieved that he had not begun by assuring me that his work was simple. I once heard someone ask a similar question of a physicist. He had said, ‘It’s quite simple really,’ and then launched into a complex discussion filled with technical vocabulary, knowing, I suspect, that none of us listening would understand him and revelling in the fact of our ignorance.
I cannot recall Lewis ever telling anyone that mathematics is simple. I know that his goal is to make it simple, and I know that he finds that simplicity beautiful. He also has the ability to explain mathematics with great clarity to those of us who find it difficult. I think he sees himself as a missionary, or perhaps a prophet, with the duty of exposing others to the truth of mathematics.
‘In arithmetic, you see, all the operations are really addition. Subtraction is really negative addition.’
‘I remember that from maths.’
It was Lewis’s turn to nod. ‘And multiplication is a shorthand form of addition. When you multiply four times eight, what you are doing is adding eight fours or four eights together—it’s distributive.’
He stopped to wait for me to process that thought. When I said ‘I see,’ he continued, ‘Division is a form of subtraction—which, remember, is negative addition. The answer is the number of times you have to subtract the divisor from the dividend to reach zero. Thirty-two divided by four is eight because eight is the number of times you have to subtract four from thirty-two before you reach zero. So all arithmetic, and all mathematics based on arithmetic, is a form of addition. Of course you could equally well say that all arithmetic is based on subtraction if you viewed addition as the negative form of subtraction. You can’t say the same of multiplication and division because they’re just specialised cases of addition and subtraction. Although,’ he said more to himself than to me, ‘it would be interesting to work out an arithmetic based on multiplication and division rather than addition and subtraction.’
I could see him making a mental note to do just that. We were lounging on tattered canvas deck chairs on the porch of the flat he rented in Somerville, the town to the east and north of Cambridge. A pizza carton lay open on the table between us. Each of us had a can of beer. Lewis loved pizza, and I was growing to like his favourite ‘white’ pizza, which was made only of cheese without tomato sauce or meat. He had introduced me to it the first time he suggested we have pizza for dinner.
The box still contained two slices of the pizza. I had also learned that Lewis liked to save a slice for breakfast. That first pizza had been cut into eight slices. I ate four and Lewis ate three. He wrapped the fourth slice in foil and put it in the refrigerator, explaining that he liked pizza for breakfast. The next morning he carefully cut it in half and introduced me to the pleasures of cold pizza for breakfast. After that, I made sure that there was a full slice for each of us to eat in the morning.
Lewis had the top floor of what in Boston is known as a ‘triple decker’, an old three-story wooden house, with one flat on each floor. Like most such structures, his had an open porch at the back, behind the kitchen. At one time, Lewis told me, these porches had been used for drying clothes. That spring evening was perhaps a bit too cold and damp for comfort, but I enjoyed sitting outside and Lewis humoured me. The sun had set an hour before, and the porch was lit only by the light coming through the kitchen window. The small back garden held one large tree that grew upward past Lewis’s porch. The leaves were just forming, and the nearest ones shone green in the dim light. The rest were hidden in the darkness. Behind the house was a row of one-story commercial buildings; their roofs were below us. The back of the house faced south, and through the tree we could see parts of the Boston skyline across the Charles River. I liked the porch because it was easy to pretend that we were alone when sat there.
‘And what is the role of equality in your work?’
‘What does one plus one equal?’
‘That’s something we all know to be “true”, isn’t it? We learn that even before we begin school.’
‘You may have learned it before you began school. The rest of us had to wait until someone told us that.’
Lewis laughed to acknowledge the truth of what I was saying. ‘Well, OK, I sort of worked that out for myself. But basically I’m asking what it means to say “one plus one equals two”—in what sense can two numbers be said to equal a third? Or rather, “senses” because I think “equal” has several meanings.’
‘You need to explain that for me.’
‘You sure you want me to get started? We’ll need more beer in that case.’ He stood up, tapping me on the top of my head as he went past, and headed inside. I picked up the pizza box and followed him. He waited until I wrapped the leftover pizza in foil before opening the refrigerator. As I was putting the pizza on the shelf, he reached around me and picked up two cans of beers. Somehow the motion morphed into a hug. Lewis pulled me away from the refrigerator and kicked the door shut. He reached up under my T-shirt and pressed the one of the cans against my back.
‘Arrgh. Lewis, that’s cold.’
‘Now say thank you. I was just warming the beer up for you. Just the way you like it.’
‘I’ll drink it cold.’
‘Say it’s better cold.’ He pressed the cans into my back. ‘Say it.’
‘American beer is better cold, but not as good as Guinness or Harp would be when warmed by your hands.’
‘Are you trying to flatter me?’
‘I’ll succumb to your flattery later. For now, I will enlighten you on the nature of the equals sign.’ He handed me one of the cans of beer. He flipped the kitchen light off and then stepped back onto the porch. He pulled the table from between the two chairs and pushed them close together. When we sat down, he entwined the fingers of his free hand in mine and pressed a knee against mine. We sat there companionately in the dark.
‘So, one and one equal two because that’s the way the game we call mathematics works. We could easily devise a system in which, say, one and one would equal three. But the rule that addition results in an equality would still hold. It is the nature of that equality that interests me. What can it mean? Does the two somehow hold both ones? In the real world, “two” probably started as a convenient way of saying one object and another object. What we would now phrase as “a set of this object and that object”. If I were to give you an apple and then give you another apple, you would have two apples. Two separate objects that would remain forever separate. Two just becomes a shorthand way of saying one and one. Which would be to say that in nature the only whole number that exists is one—zero being the absence of one. The rest are just easy means of referring to sets of varying numbers of ones.
‘But once we invented the numbers and started playing the game of addition and subtraction with them, we gave them a different sort of reality. And two became something more than just a convenient way of referring to a set of this object and that object. That’s when we created mathematics to deal with objects like twos and threes. So we now have an object, a “two,” that can be used to express the sum of one plus one. But is two like a container? Can we open the two up as it were and find both ones? Three plus the addition of a negative one also results in a two. And so on. One can construct an infinite of sums that equal two. So does two hold all possible numbers that can be manipulated through addition to equal two? Or is the two somehow of a different nature from the sums that make it up? If different and unique, how can we postulate equality?’
‘If I were to eat those apples, they would join together in my stomach, and the two apples would become one.’
‘Resulting in one stomach’s worth of digested apple. Again in the real world we are back at one object. The equality of mastication and digestion lead inevitably to the restoration of unity. But let us refrain from following the course of those apples further. In any case, pure mathematics does not concern itself with apples.’
‘Take another example then.’ I wanted to show Lewis that I did understand what he was saying. ‘You and I equal us. Two individuals merging into a couple, a new unity. Surely an entity different from the two individuals that compose it but unique because of the individuals that constitute it. But perhaps the principles of mathematics can’t be applied to the real world.’
Lewis set his can of beer down on the floor of the porch and put his other hand over mine. He started to say something but then stopped. He sat silent for several moments. ‘Sometimes the principles of mathematics just don’t matter.’
‘They matter to you. And you’ll get the answer one day. You’ll figure out what equality means.’ My reassurances came easily. Those of Lewis’s colleagues I had met clearly expected great things from him, and I took my opinion of his work from their admiration. Not that I understood what he was doing. He had shown me one of his published articles. It consisted of equations joined with an occasional word or phrase. I did not know what half the signs met, but people who did were obviously impressed by the paper.
‘Maybe. I don’t have much time left.’ That’s when he explained the youthfulness of mathematical inspiration to me and I commented that his belief in that belief might hinder him from arriving at the answers he sought.
He thought about my suggestion and then said, ‘It would be comforting to think that. That’s the danger. Comfortable beliefs seduce us because we hope they are true. I can only keep working and hope that I find the answer.’ He sounded forlorn when he said that. He rubbed my hand with one of his forefingers. I think he was unaware of what he was doing. A Lewis plagued by doubt was a new being for me.
His work was—is—so interior. In my researches, I collected documents and spent my days making notes on them. I worked with objects, pieces of paper and old records mostly. My progress was measured in the notebooks I filled, in the works I read, in the interviews I recorded and transcribed, in the pages I typed. I interacted with people—the immigrants and their family members I interviewed, archivists and librarians. Lewis sat by himself thinking about the nature of numbers and the operations we perform with them. For him a day’s progress might result in a few lines of equations. When he was not working, he filled the time with noise. He talked. He listened to music. He banged doors open. His laugh could be heard a hundred metres away. It was almost as if I loved two different persons. A quiet contemplative one and a frenetic one filled with desperate gusto. But Lewis was not schizophrenic. He was not two people, or three or even more. He was just one. He needed the noise because he existed in quiet. And the quiet descended quickly when inspiration struck. At those times, nothing mattered but the motions of his mind. He stopped and thought, far from any interaction with me or anyone else.
My understanding of his accomplishments is limited by my inability to comprehend the import of his work. I do not remember the exact number now, but by that point he had published several papers. His senior thesis had won a departmental prize at MIT as the best student paper in mathematics that year and then a prize from the university. One of his published articles was currently short-listed for a prize awarded to a young mathematician. From my vantage point, he was a success in his field.
‘You won’t fail, Lewis.’
His response was to continue absent-mindedly rubbing my hand with his fingers. I could not tell if he consciously heard me.
‘Are you all right, Lewis? You seem …’
‘I’m fine. It’s nothing. I’m fine.’
‘You don’t seem fine.’
‘I’m all right. Don’t fuss.’ He spoke belligerently. He was not happy with my pursuit of this topic. Then he shifted abruptly. ‘Let’s take a shower together and then go to bed.’ He jumped up and pulled me into the house, laughing.
As he must have anticipated, my focus quickly shifted elsewhere. After we finished, Lewis fell asleep with his head on my shoulder and my arms wrapped around his torso. Hours later, I half-awoke as he extracted himself from the circle of my arms and eased out of the bed. He was being so careful not to wake me that I pretended that I was still asleep. He quietly closed the door. A few seconds later I heard his desk chair creak as he sat down and then the buzz of his fluorescent desk lamp. A slim rectangle of faint light shone around the edges of the bedroom door. I went back to sleep.
Lewis’s return to bed awoke me again, and again I pretended to be asleep. I had rolled over in my sleep and my back was to him. He lay down facing me. He reached out and placed a hand on my hip. He was asleep within seconds.
When Lewis and I share a bed, he always remains in touch with me. Often we are pressed against each other along the length of our bodies. Because of the differences in our heights, we ‘spoon’ very neatly, with Lewis’s back pressed against my front and my upper arm draped over his torso and my lower arm under his neck and then down across his body. Although I am holding him, still he usually grasps my hands in his. Even when we are not spooned, however, Lewis always clutches some part of my body in one of his hands.
When he is alone in bed, he always holds on to something. The headboard of the bed we had for many years consisted of vertical wooden rods topped by a horizontal plank. If I was not there for him to touch, Lewis would grasp one of those rods in his fist. Our current bed has a solid wooden headboard, and now he stretches out an arm and clasps the edge of the nightstand. And he does not just touch me or these objects, he grips them. Even when he is deeply asleep, he holds them tightly. It is as if he needs to be tethered and anchored while he sleeps, as if he might float away during the night.
In the morning, while he was busy in the bathroom shaving, I stepped over to the window beside his desk. A tablet of the yellow legal-size paper that he used to jot down his thoughts lay centred precisely in the middle. It was covered with equations. Circles heavily drawn in black ink enclosed short phrases or single words. Several of them ended with multiple exclamation points. Lewis had written so heavily and so quickly that the nib of his pen had torn into the paper in several places. I could imagine him stabbing the paper with his pen as he hurriedly wrote down his thoughts. The bottom corners of the topmost sheet curled upward slightly from the force of his writing. I lifted the sheet. The next sheet down was similarly filled.
I opened my briefcase and removed a sheet of paper and an envelope. I wrote the date and then scribbled a note on the paper and then sealed it inside the envelope. On the face of the envelope, I wrote ‘To be opened on 7 April 1997’, thirty years from the day on which I wrote the note, and then left it on Lewis’s desk propped against the jar he used to store pens and pencils.
‘What’s this?’ Lewis confronted me with the envelope when I emerged from the bathroom.
‘Put it someplace where we can find it. You have a better memory than I do. I’m relying on you to remember to open it when the time comes.’
‘But what is it?’
‘Be patient—I am. That’s something you can learn from me. I’ve already forgotten what I wrote, but I’m willing to wait thirty years until we open it to find out.’
‘Thirty years?’ Lewis suddenly smiled with delight. ‘You’re planning on staying with me for thirty years?’
‘Oh, much longer than that. It’s just that thirty years will be enough time to decide the issue we were discussing last night.’
‘What makes you sure that you’ll be able to stand me for that long?’
‘Is it that you’re fishing for compliments then? Besides haven’t your parents and elders told you that time passes very quickly and before you know it you’ll be married for thirty years and have grandchildren? The thirty years will fly past and be done before you know it.’
‘Are your parents counting on you to have grandchildren?’
‘My mother has mentioned it. What about yours?’
Lewis nodded. ‘They used to hint at it.’
‘Do you suppose that we will have any?’
‘Not unless there’s something you haven’t told me.’
‘I think you’ve explored all me bits and pieces. My child-bearing capacities should be clear to you by now.’
Lewis laughed. He looked at the envelope and then laid it on his desk. ‘I’ll put it away in a file folder later.’ He touched the pad of yellow paper on his desk and aligned it carefully with the edges of the desk. Without looking at me, he said, ‘Don’t worry about last night. I get discouraged sometimes and then I get a bit down and I tend to lash out at people.’
‘You can always talk to me, you know. That’s why I’m here—at least that’s one reason.’
‘I know. But I don’t want to burden you with my problems. Besides, we found the best cure for my moods.’
‘Sex. Anytime you see me down in the dumps, just get undressed and throw yourself at me. Wantonness is the cure for what ails me.’
‘I’m Irish. I don’t do wanton. The Christian Brothers beat all the wantonness out of Irish schoolboys early on.’
‘In the one case I am personally familiar with, they failed.’
‘Yes. Now, would you make us some of that Irish oatmeal you so fond of?’ Lewis spoke peremptorily and turned away. He pointedly picked up the yellow tablet and began examining his work, shutting me out.
I recognised my cue. The discussion was over. I was being given something to do that would keep me busy and out of his hair for half an hour. Lewis was setting the terms of our relationship. I had been warned off. I wanted to comfort Lewis and offer him sympathy and support. My notion of love was romantic, and to my mind, that is part of what lovers do. For Lewis, a need for sympathy betokens weakness, and he hates weakness in himself and he hates others’ noticing any weakness in him. I was slowly learning the extent of Lewis’s pride. What I should have done at that point was protest his excluding me from certain areas of his life. But instead I went and cooked the oatmeal. That set the pattern for our future relationship. There are limits on our closeness, boundaries we do not acknowledge, much less cross. But we know where they are drawn.
Lewis and I had been together for over half a year. We were not living together, but all our free time was spent in each other’s company. During the first few weeks, for perhaps half the time, we were simply friends who had sex frequently; the rest of the time we were sex fiends who occasionally paused to catch our breath and, while we did so, talked. Then came a night when we went to bed, started talking, and woke up the next morning and realised that we had been so focussed on our conversation that we hadn’t had sex.
The Hanukkah dinner with his family was a turning point, at least for me. Lewis’s invitation to join his family for dinner was as well an invitation to regard our association in a different light, to see it—potentially—as something more than convenient sex and pleasant conversation to pass the time.
That we had a relationship, one that might just perhaps endure, brought with it the realisation that we had to work out the terms of that relationship. As long as we were no more than casual partners, we could ignore irritating aspects of the other’s personality and habits. If in his own flat Lewis chose to make the bed the two of us had just shared as soon as we vacated it, I could regard it as evidence of an amusing quirk of his personality. He could tolerate my habit of never making a bed (‘Why should I make it? I’m going to get back in it eventually and it will get messed up again. It’s a needless expenditure of effort.’) as long as it was my bed and he knew that more than likely he would not be in it again for two or three days. But once we began contemplating a more permanent arrangement, the issue of ‘anal-compulsive obsession with neatness’ (my accusation against Lewis) versus ‘domestic anarchy better suited to a pig sty’ (his against me) loomed large. It is a trivial example of the negotiations couples make, but there are hundreds of such differences that have to be solved.
It did not help that this was a gay relationship. At the time two young academics might share a flat (a two-bedroom flat!) in order to save on expenses. It would have been a temporary arrangement, one both parties as well as outsiders would expect to end as soon as finances permitted. To say that Lewis and I were in the closet is disingenuous. For us, even so circumscribed a gay space as the closet did not exist. The sexual aspect of our arrangement had to be so surreptitious and furtive—we could not risk anyone finding out—that we did not allow even ourselves, especially ourselves, to think in terms of a relationship we both wanted. For us, our relationship officially did not exist, could not exist, even though it did.
We did not have the freedom that heterosexual couples had to argue about personal matters. We could not relieve our frustrations with each other by engaging in a shouting match over something so inconsequential as our eating habits. (Lewis: ‘Baked beans on toast? What kind of a meal is that?’ Me: ‘A quick one. A toaster. A can opener. Two slices of toast apiece. A large can of beans. I will heat the beans if you insist.’ Lewis: ‘That’s disgusting. I’m going out.’ Me: ‘As you wish.’ All uttered in studiedly calm voices, the hurt hidden behind nonchalance. Lewis did not know that baked beans on toast was a staple of university student life in Ireland and did not realise that I thought I was demonstrating an admirable devotion to household economising. Likewise it did not occur to me that Lewis had never heard of this culinary treat and found it repellent and unhealthy.) We could not even admit the existence of our frustrations. For the outside world, two young men could not disagree over differences in bed-making habits. And so Lewis took to making the bed when my back was turned, and I to luxuriating in squalor when he was absent. And I indulged in baked beans on toast on evenings when Lewis was not present and cooked what he regarded as acceptable meals when he was.
There was a disjunction between our sexual lives and our relationship. Sex was intimate, invasive, experimental, enthralling, exciting. The flesh insisted on intimacy, and that insistence broke down the barriers between us. Indeed the very fact that our sexual activities had to be kept secret made them seem more intimate. They were ours alone. We could not share them with others. Their rejection of our form of relationship perversely made it more ours. Yet its intimacy did not carry over into the rest of our life together. The modern myths of love prescribe that a couple share all aspects of their life together—physical, emotional, social. We had a form of physical intimacy, stifled by our need to be secret and to keep it hidden, an intimacy expressed in private but never in public. Our emotional intimacy was limited and circumscribed by convention and our backgrounds to those emotions appropriate for two young male friends; there was no social intimacy between us. In the United States of that era, even the best of straight male friends rigidly avoided intimacy. They did not confide; they kept their private lives private; they did not interact physically beyond the manly handshake and the shoulder tap.
We also felt guilty. My Catholic upbringing had taught me to regard what we were doing, what we wanted, what we hoped for, as sins. I should have found the nearest priest, confessed my wrongdoings, done penance, and prayed to God for forgiveness and for the strength to resist temptation. Lewis’s religion called for stoning. I knew that my relationship with Lewis would horrify my family. They would have insisted that it not be spoken of, that it never be revealed. It would be regarded as shameful, something rightly abhorred. Had they learned that I was persisting in this course and being open and public about it, they would have disinherited me to conform to society’s expectations. Lewis would later tell me how guilty he had felt and how he had wondered what was wrong with him. He expected his parents to insist that he see a psychiatrist when he told them about us.
Like most homosexuals in the 1950s and 1960s, we learned to hide ourselves. We presented a façade to the world. What we were could never be revealed, not even in some respects to ourselves. We were accustomed to denial, dissembling, secretiveness, reticence. Those habits carried over into our life together. Our relationship was formed by those early days together, and the habits and attitudes we devised to cope with our situation are still our solutions to the problems of our relationship.
Then, too, our personalities militated against intimacy. Both of us are stubborn, proud, resistant to others’ claims on us, quick to be offended by others’ offers of understanding or pity or charity, arrogant. We had to learn trust, the sense of being a couple. We had to learn that it was all right for us to be happy on our own terms.
Lewis and I erected so many boundaries to keep ourselves safe. We sequestered our intimacy behind locked doors. There was a sense that here, in this space, some crippled form of ‘we’ existed. But this space was surrounded by places where only Lewis existed or where only I existed, where neither of us would allow the other in.
We were two individuals, two ‘ones’, who only rarely became that somehow different unity that is a two.
I remember explaining to you what it was I was trying to do, not that I’ve had much success (either in explaining what I do to you or accomplishing it—I still don’t understand equality). I don’t remember exactly what I said to you that evening. I will accept your version of the conversation as an exercise in literary license for the sake of making the point that we were an incomplete form of a couple.
You also pursue your work in solitude. I’ve learned that when you’re writing and you get up to pace about, I should not take that as a sign that you are willing to engage in conversation. You’re thinking and you don’t want me to interrupt you. Pacing is your form of staring into space hoping that the answer you want to solve will take form in letters of burning gold before your eyes.
Whatever happened to that envelope? What did you write in it?
Do we still shut each other out like that?
Not anywhere near as often as we did then. We have overcome those early problems. I think I was afraid to love you too completely. I wanted the intimacy on all levels, but at the same time I resisted it. Perhaps it was the fear of rejection or overstepping some boundary. I was not certain which boundaries were so important to you then that overstepping them would end the relationship, and I did not want to risk angering you by doing that. So I held back because even an incomplete form of intimacy was better than nothing. But I think we did impose boundaries on ourselves not only because of society’s expectations but also because of our personalities and our histories. They made me wary of what was developing between us. I was happy that it was happening, but I worried that it would collapse. I feared the least division between us because I feared that it would irrevocably split us. I was also chary of what I thought might be the demands made on me if we did become lovers in the full meaning of the term. I was stupid enough to worry about what our families would think, what people would think, how we would explain ourselves. I cared far too much for my reputation to display my feelings even in private, let alone in public. I thought if I gave way and surrendered to love of you, it would overwhelm me and that I would be drowned by it. Or don’t you feel that?
‘Letters of burning gold’? I’m not the only one indulging in literary license.
The letter may be in one of the boxes sitting in the lumber room in Brighton. You know the ones—the boxes you never got around to unpacking when you moved from Boston to Cambridge. Yes, I remember what I wrote. But I will not tell you. If you are that curious to find out, you can clean out the lumber room and finally throw away all the rubbish in those boxes. It has been what—thirty years since they came to rest in Brighton? And they were in storage in Cambridge for a decade before that.
Your affectionate nag,
Dear Nag (doesn’t that mean an old, worn-out horse?),
We had to learn that it’s OK to be happy. It took us a while to do that. I’m not sure what I felt at the time about the relationship—you speak of that as if it were an object separate from us by the way. I’m sure I didn’t feel as threatened by outsiders’ opinions as you. But I was raised the eldest son in a Jewish family—I could do no wrong. I didn’t have—still don’t have—your tendency to view any pleasure as a sin. I knew we had to be discreet, but I didn’t feel that as a barrier to intimacy. It was a relief to finally arrive at a time and a place where we could be open about us.
Then, too, I’m not as analytical about emotions and feelings as you are. I tend to accept them as givens. You’re the one who analyzes them. That’s why you can write fiction and I can’t.
P.S. I will be good and sort through those boxes.
Lewis—I was indoctrinated from earliest childhood with the belief that happiness is a trick that life plays on you so that you do not notice that the blade of the guillotine is already falling towards your neck.
But do you think I am wrong about the boundaries and their sources? I need to think more about boundaries—they exist in all relationships. Was ours any different? If so, why, and how?
I do think our relationship is separate from us. Sometimes it’s a beast that has to be fed. Sometimes it feeds us. There is an ‘us’ that differs from you and me.
I felt the social boundaries as much as you. Not so sure about the personal boundaries. I certainly wasn’t aware of you holding back, if that’s what you’re asking. But then I’ve never been as introspective about my behavior as you are about yours—and mine. I know I used to get rather impatient about my work. I felt that I needed to get an insight down on paper quickly or it would fade from my mind, and there had been times when an interruption caused me to forget what I had been thinking. I wanted to avoid that happening again, and that’s why I shut everybody out when I was working. I had to. And I was driven by my need to figure things out. At the time if you had asked me which was more important, our relationship or my relationship with mathematics, I don’t know what I would have answered. I don’t think I was ambitious for success—I wouldn’t have refused it, but that wasn’t what was driving me. I just had to know the answers to the nature of equality and unity. But it was a separate domain for me. It existed, but so did my relationship with you. I didn’t see any overlap between those sets. I can see that you are using our conversation about the nature of equality for literary purposes. I think I understand your need to do that now, but I wouldn’t have at the time. Back then, I would have argued that you were misusing that conversation. And if I had known how you would use our experiences over the years in your fictions, I probably would have shut you out completely. It’s taken me some time to get used to the way you mine our life together as source material for your writings. But in our first year together I would have seen that as a betrayal of confidences. My family is open about its need to tell all—your way is much subtler.
Subtler? Don’t you mean sneakier?
That too. I just got an email from Sophie. She wants to know when we will be in the States next summer. Event planning, I think.
\Tell her whatever dates are convenient for you. I don’t have anything scheduled.
At least this chapter follows on from the preceding one. I hope this means that you appreciate the need for linear development in the narrative. There are also several issues left unresolved here. I assume those will be addressed in later chapters.
I take your point about the “interior” nature of Lewis’s work, but isn’t that true of many professions? Writing included.
Michelle—Lewis has a colleague who works on the notion of a ‘random walk’. It is a beautiful idea. I commend it to you. Look it up on Wikipedia.
This chapter begins to address one of the themes of the book. So, yes, the issues raised will be dealt with later.
Lewis responded by characterising my foray into mathematics as ‘literary license’. So that part will have to be amended when I can get him to try to explain to me where I am going astray.
I take your point about the interiority of work, although I think the isolation of the writer is exaggerated. Do you or any other editor allow writers to pursue their work in isolation? I have added a note at the head of this section to redo that section. I will emphasize that I am contrasting the differences in the nature of our researches at that time and refine my comments to make it clear what I am nattering on about.
A sunny day here in Errarooey after a week of rain. The sea looks almost warm enough for a swim—at least there are no icebergs in view. Someone is galloping a horse on the strand to the west of our land and there are sailboats out.
‘You are so beautiful.’ In my memory at least, my voice is tremulous with poorly contained emotion when I say that to Lewis. We are lying in his bed facing each other. In the shadows of his dimly lit bedroom, his face seems heart-breakingly perfect. I am suddenly overcome by a surge of longing for him. Not longing for sex—we have just finished that—but a longing for intimacy, for the impossible closeness and oneness.
‘You make me feel beautiful.’ And then he touches my face with his fingertips. The lightest of strokes tracing the curve of my eyebrows, the ridge of my nose, and my lips. When he is done, he says, ‘Stay.’
And I say, ‘Always.’
I used a variant of that scene in one of my stories when I wanted to show two characters deeply in love.
Neither Lewis nor I can be described as beautiful. Even when we first met and were still in our mid-twenties, no one would have said that of us. I was burly—my sports at school had been rugby and hurling—but plain looking. Lewis was lithe. He swam and played tennis and golf. We were masculine-looking, but beautiful we were not.
‘You are so beautiful.’
‘You make me feel beautiful.’
Those words have stayed with me. There is so much about those early days that I have forgotten. So much I cannot recall. Hundreds of conversations are missing from my memory. We talked. I remember that, but what we said I cannot remember. We must have done things together. I know we did. But I remember so few of them, none of them particularly important. The mystery is why I remember this and not that. Why when I think of those early months, only a few scenes come to mind.
I remember Lewis standing at the window in his bedroom very early one morning and commenting on the weather. It is raining. The window is covered with a heavy brown-paper blind that rolls up and down when the spring inside the roller cooperates. Lewis stands to one side and pulls the blind away from the window so that he can peer out. He is naked. The grey light does not so much illuminate his body as create shadows defining the curves and lines. Curves and lines that with increasing familiarity are defining the tangents of desire for me. I lie there half-asleep, imagining my hands on his body. Even without touching him, I can feel him beneath my hands. I know how the side of his chest feels when he raises his arms above his head, the curves of his rib bones hard beneath this skin and the valleys between them that provide places for my fingers to trace. I know the soft flesh at the back of his neck. I know the sudden hardness of his buttocks when he flexes them in pleasure. I know the warm insides of his thighs. I know the way his ball sack moves when I lick it. I know how his nipples grow erect when I suck on them. I know the quivering intensity of his body and then its sudden silence when he orgasms. And I feel so privileged to know these things.
I remember walking across Harvard Yard along one of those diagonal pavements—sidewalks—that criss-cross the Yard, my mind on my research. I look up and see Lewis approaching along an intersecting path. Lewis is talking intently with a student, explaining something. He gestures in sweeping arcs, apparently defining a problem. His eyes scarcely register the others on the path; he notices them only as objects to be avoided. And then he sees me. He smiles and bounds a foot or so towards me. I see in that sudden move, his leg rising on his toes and impelling him forward, his joy in finding me suddenly before him. For a second he forgets his student, forgets where he is, forgets the dozens of people surrounding us. For a second I am the only thing in his universe. Then, just as he is about to embrace me, he remembers that we are not alone. A look of bemused decorum settles over his face. ‘Hello, Pat,’ he says as we stand next to each other, ‘What time tonight?’
‘I’ll be through about seven.’
‘Phone me when you’re ready, and I’ll come to your office.’ The student looks at me, trying to figure out who I am and what claim I might have on Lewis. Lewis and I nod at each other and continue walking towards our destinations.
I remember Lewis and me huddling under an inadequate blanket one very cold winter night in my flat. We are tightly enmeshed. The flat has heavy canvas curtains that prevent light from entering. It is very dark. I aim a kiss towards Lewis’s mouth but find myself pressing my lips against his chin. ‘Make a noise,’ I say, ‘I’ll aim for the source.’
‘What if I fart?’ he asks.
We giggle for five minutes.
I remember watching Lewis at the symphony one night when we were ushering. We are standing at the back centre of the second balcony, high above the floor of Symphony Hall. The orchestra is performing Mahler’s Second. The soprano begins to sing ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n,’ and Lewis’s face is transfigured. And I think, nothing I will ever do will cause him to look like that. I will never be able to give him the joy that he finds in music.
After we return to his flat and get into his bed, I attack Lewis. I make him lie still. He is to be the recipient tonight of my largesse. I touch him, and he moans. I stroke his thighs, and he shivers. I am merciless in pleasuring his body. I want those moans and those shivers. I want him to give me these acknowledgements of the pleasure I am giving him. I want him to shimmer with joy. I want him to dissolve with joy. I want him to be transfigured. I want Lewis to find all music pallid in comparison. I press the fingers of both hands into his buttocks. He tenses his muscles, and I knead the hard flesh. I lick it and nibble at it, sucking it into my mouth, as much as I can wrap my lips around. I have to hold myself back and not bite it. I groan with desire when I think of leaving my teeth marks on his body.
He ejaculates in heaving spasms. When he recovers and catches his breath, he says, ‘Wow! What got into you tonight?’
I say, ‘It was the music.’ But that is not the whole truth and I want Lewis to know the whole truth. I do not want him to think that the music aroused me. So I say, ‘I was jealous of the effect of the music on you, of the look it put on your face when you were listening to it. I want you to feel the same way about me as you do about the music, about your maths. I want all of you, not just what’s left over after you deal with the things that are important to you.’ I am challenging him to accept me, all of me, to give himself to me, all of himself. I clutch at his shoulder, digging into it, bruising. And then I realize that I am hurting him. I release my grip and stroke his shoulder, trying to smooth away the hurt.
Lewis grasps my head in his hands and pulls me into his chest. He wraps his arms around my head and pinions me in his embrace. The hair that runs down the centre of his chest is silky against my lips and face. When I breathe, I can feel a rush of hot humid air flow out of my nose and around my face. I am trying not to cry.
‘You are so beautiful.’ You define beauty for me, not physical beauty, but the beauty of the desired lover. The heart can literally ache. It is painful to want so much.
Lewis lifts my head so that he can look at me and touch my face. ‘You make me feel beautiful.’ If I am beautiful, it is because of you.
Then he makes love to me, quietly, gently.
Mo chroí—One of the few Irish phrases I know is also the most important one. You taught me that phrase. You also taught me to be beautiful. No one else sees it but you, but then no one else matters.
Do you know one of my strongest memories of that period? I was in your office waiting for you to finish a paper by one of your students. We were going out to dinner and I had arrived early in the hope that you would be ready. You asked for a few minutes so that you could finish commenting on the paper before you forgot what you wanted to say. I pretended to read the newspaper, but in reality I watched you. The last page of the paper had only a few lines on it, and what you had already written when I arrived filled most of that page. You turned the paper over and wrote down the back. When you filled that sheet, you began writing on the back of the next sheet down. By the time you had finished, you had written three pages of comments in that neat handwriting of yours. When you went to the bathroom, I snuck a look at what you had written. You obviously thought the paper was crap, but you very politely took the student to task and showed him what he needed to do to make the paper better. You were training him how to look at documents and what questions to ask of them and to think about the concerns and biases of the person who produced the particular document he had used in his research and why that person might have welcomed certain findings more than others and unconsciously slanted what he wrote. It was teaching in the best sense, and it opened my eyes to what it was that you were doing and why. I remember one line—“You have to ask Why, out of all the things this author could tell us, he is telling us this and not that?” A few weeks before that, I heard you refer to interrogating a document. At the time I didn’t know what you meant. Your comments made that phrase come alive for me. It was so different from the type of ‘research’ and thinking that I do. It was a revelation for me. It has served me in good stead many times when I’ve had to talk to my students about their researches.
PS. I’m not showing this to Geramie and Lynne. I’m going to hog it to myself and read it and reread it.
“You are so beautiful.”
“You make me feel beautiful.”
That goes on the jacket. (I would love to work in “What if I fart?” as well.)
Hmmm—hitherto-unsuspected aspects of you and Lewis. I don’t know if I will be able to be with either of you again without picturing your Mahler-inspired maulings of poor Lewis and your rEsurrRECTIONS. I want more details. I mean—Readers will want more details.
Michelle—Readers can use their imaginations. Patrick
‘What are you writing?’
I was seated at Lewis’s desk. He had wandered into his kitchen a few minutes earlier. I had heard water running and then the clank of a pot being placed on a burner and a snap of a match as he lit the gas. Ten minutes later he emerged carrying two cups of the bitter, stewed liquid he made from ‘American Rose’ teabags. He leaned over and placed one of the cups on the desk. He showed me his cup. The teabag was still submerged in it. ‘I made yours weaker than mine.’ His tea was noticeably a darker reddish brown colour than mine.
‘Thank you. Sorry to put you to extra work.’
‘It’s no trouble. I just take the teabag out of your cup after a few seconds and put it in mine.’ Lewis transferred his cup from his left hand to his right and lay his left hand, palm down, across the back of my neck and gently massaged it. His hand had absorbed the heat from the cup, and it felt warm against my skin. He bent forwards from his waist and kissed the top of my head, pushing my hair away from my scalp by digging into it with his nose and chin until he could press his lips against my flesh.
He often does that. It is an affectionate gesture rather than an amorous one. The signals Lewis employs to indicate that he wants sex and to query if I am in the mood are quite different. The kiss on the pate never leads directly to sex, just to a large glow of well-being and contentment in my chest. Pleasant heartburn.
I put my pen down and reached back and pulled Lewis’s head down beside my neck. I pressed my cheek tightly against his head and gave a theatrical moan. ‘Thanks.’
‘My pleasure.’ He turned his face towards me and kissed my earlobe. ‘What are you writing?’
In leaning over me, he must have glanced at the notebook open on the desk and seen that the contours of the prose did not match the usual paragraphs of academic writing. I was composing a dialogue, and the two visible pages were three-quarters filled with short sentences and lines of what I hoped was realistic conversation between two characters.
‘Sometimes I write short works—sketches, essays. You might say it’s my hobby.’
‘No, not a diary. All of them are fictions. Some of them are totally imagined. Others are loosely based on things I’ve seen or done or heard about. They’re just stories, ways of thinking about how events might lead to other events and the way a life might be affected by that. Fictional histories, that’s all.’
Lewis moved around to face me and perched on the end of the desk, one leg crossed over the other at the ankle. He sipped at his tea as we spoke, half peering at me over the rim of his cup. ‘Do you write about us? About me?’
I extended my legs under the desk and sank down in the chair, so that I could lean back and lift my head towards him without cramping my neck. ‘Not yet. I haven’t done so yet. But I may. I need more time to process us and what we might mean.’
‘Are you going to publish these stories?’
‘Not these. These aren’t good enough to publish. I’m just practising now. Maybe someday I’ll write something worth publishing.’
‘May I read them? I’d like to.’
‘Of course.’ I shut the notebook and handed it to him.
Lewis examined the cover. It was an ordinary school notebook, with A4 size paper. It was one of many I had bought while I was a student at Black Meadows and then at UCD. It was bound so that two facing sheets of paper were visible when the book was open. The cover was mottled browns and tans and blacks. Slightly above the centre of the front cover was a white block about eight centimetres inches by five centimetres.
‘What’s this mean?’ Lewis pointed to the label neatly written in the white block. ‘Tabulae mundi mihi.’ He pronounced the words carefully, syllable by syllable. It came out something like ‘tab-you-lay-monday-mai-hai’.
I repeated the phrase, with the correct pronunciations. ‘It means “for me, the maps of the world”. When I was preparing for the leaving cert exams, our Latin teacher assigned us “Tabulae mundi mihi” as the theme for a practice essay to prepare for the written part of the exam.’
‘An essay in Latin?’
‘Yes. We had to write one each week. Father Jameson would set the theme on Monday, and on Friday we had to hand in the paper. And this one caught my imagination. Mainly because of the “mihi”. The normal word would be “mei”, “maps of my world”, or “meae”, “my maps of the world”. But he used the dative form “mihi”, “for me” or “to me”. That’s what made it a challenge. He was not asking for a description of our maps or our world but challenging us to imagine the maps’ impact on us.’
Lewis looked at me with several questions on his face. ‘What’s a leaving cert exam?’
‘The leaving certificate examinations. Those are the tests we take at the end of secondary—of high—school. They are the qualifying exams for university, or employment if you don’t want to study further. The scores determine what university you can attend and what degree you can study. There are seven of them. We have to sit the exam in Irish, and most of us take the English and maths exams. The rest are determined by your own interests and the requirements of the university degree you want. It takes about three weeks to take all the exams.’
‘And you took the Latin exam?’
‘It was one of mine, yes. And English and maths. I also did French, history, and physics with chemistry.’
‘And you passed them all?’
‘With high grades?’
I shrugged. ‘Well, yes, my marks were considered good.’
‘Hmm.’ He looked at me as if he were wondering what ‘good’ meant but decided not to pursue that line of enquiry. He opened the notebook and read a brief passage. ‘And you adopted the theme of this particular essay as the title of your notebook?’
‘The first essay in the book is an English version of the Latin essay I wrote.’
Lewis turned to the first page and read aloud, ‘For me the maps of the world begin with a small village on the northern coast of County Donegal.’ He read silently for another fifteen seconds or so and then stood up. ‘May I read this for a while or do you need it back now?’
‘No. It’s fine. I have student papers to read. I need to do that.’ My briefcase was sitting on the floor under the desk. I reached down and pulled out a file with the latest round of essays produced by the students in my seminar on colonialism in Ireland. I opened the file, picked up my pen, and began reading the top paper.
Lewis lay down on the sofa with his head at the end with the standard lamp, tilting the notebook towards the bulb to catch the strongest light. Every three or four minutes, he would turn a page. As he did so, the bottom edge of the paper scraped against his clothes. I paid far more attention to that noise than to the papers in front of me. I sat there hoping that Lewis would like my stories, at least some of them. Even one would be enough. I wanted him to admire them and to admire me for having written them. What I did not want was polite and dismissive praise.
It was not chance that led me to have that notebook open before me. That night was the third time I had been writing in my notebook in Lewis’s presence. The two previous attempts to attract his attention to it had been failures. I wanted Lewis to discover the notebook by himself and to realise its importance to me. I did not want to tell him about my hopes of becoming a writer. I wanted him to find that out for himself and find out in a way that did not obligate him to participate in my dreams. It was important that he choose to participate—or not—out of his own wish to do so and not because it was a wish of mine that I had shared with him. I did not want it to become part of our shared narrative because I had told him it should be.
I wanted Lewis to find this out about me because it was something I had previously kept secret from everyone. I had always been careful not to write in my notebook when I might be discovered, and I had always stored the notebook with my other notebooks and books from school, where it was unlikely to be noticed or to be read if found.
I wanted Lewis to understand me, to learn something about me that no one else knew. I wanted him to be part of my secret life and my secret hopes. I was also testing him. If he chose to understand this aspect of my life, that meant that he wanted me, all of me, in his life. I was also hoping for validation of my efforts, for encouragement.
He laughed once. I looked up and caught his eye. ‘The story about the cow.’ I nodded and he went back to his reading.
Two hours later, he closed the book and handed it back to me. ‘These are very good, but I suspect you already know that. You can’t write like this and not know it’s good.’
‘You might be a bit prejudiced.’
‘Prejudiced?’ He chewed that word in his mouth for a few seconds. I think he liked the taste of it. ‘Yes, I am prejudiced. No “might-be” about it. But they’re still very good.’
‘I hope so. I can’t tell.’
‘My father went to school with the editor of The New England Review. If I typed some of these, could I show them to him?’
‘They’re not ready.’
‘I think they are, but then I’m not an expert. Mr Latham is. He’s a kind man. If they’re not ready yet for publication, he’ll tell you why and help you improve them until they are. Let me do this for you. It won’t hurt to find out.’
‘What if he doesn’t like them?’
‘Then he’ll be mistaken and a fool.’
‘He could like them and equally be mistaken. It might be wrong to encourage me in this course.’
Lewis shook his head.
‘Aren’t you worried that I will betray you?’
‘Betray me? How?’
‘By writing about you. About us.’
‘Why would that be a betrayal?’
‘Because I would have to be honest. About myself, I mean. About why you matter to me. About what you mean to me. About what I might wish to have happened. I can’t be honest about you because I don’t know the inside of you yet.’ (I was still in thrall to the idea that perfect love would lead to the perfect understanding of the beloved.) ‘Right now I could only write about what I see on the outside and how that affects me. The characters wouldn’t have our names. They would be fictional. But you would know that I was writing about us.’
‘Will you let me read what you write about us?’
‘You might learn things about me you didn’t want to know.’
‘Yes, I might. There is always a risk to love.’
‘Yes, what else are we talking about? Why else are you showing me these?’
‘I want you to know that I am capable of betrayal. Of confidences, of secrets. That you are not safe or sacrosanct. I want to write about you, about us.’
‘You love me enough to warn me that I might become grist for your mill?’
‘Would you like another cup of tea?’
I shook my head no. Lewis reached for my hands and pulled me up from the chair. He manoeuvred me backwards and eased me down on to the sofa. He sat next to me, leaning into my body so that I had to put an arm across his shoulders. His head came to rest on my arm. ‘Are you asking me for permission to write about me?’
‘No. Not permission. More …’
I was struggling to find the right word to describe what I wanted from Lewis. Before I could speak, however, he said, ‘Good. It is not the sort of thing that you need my permission to do. You need my permission to open a can of baked beans in my presence, but not permission to do something that is important to you.’
‘You may come to regret trusting me.’
‘Have I told you that my family has a summer cottage on Cape Ann, near Gloucester? That’s north of here. Well, north and east. Our house is on the coast.’
‘No. You never mentioned that.’
‘I’ll see if I can borrow my mother’s car. You don’t have any classes or meetings on Friday, do you? My last class is over at 11:00. We could drive up after that. It’s only an hour’s drive, at most two if the traffic’s bad, which it shouldn’t be this time of year and that time of day. We can spend the weekend there.’
‘Won’t it be cold?’
Lewis shrugged. ‘It might be. We can build a fire. But the cabin’s isolated, and there won’t be anyone else around at this time of year. I want you to experience me, I want to experience you, when we are totally alone. I want an opportunity to experience us when we can be free to be us, when we don’t have to worry about the neighbours. We owe ourselves that. You can put it in one of your books later.’
And I did.
I remember that day so well. You were trying to be so modest, but I could tell that you were so proud of those stories. What got to me, though, was the way you told me that I might appear in some of your stories. You were being so careful to warn me that you might “betray” me. I also remember your polite contempt for the concoction I used to call “tea.”
Sophie wants us there in July. Emily is getting married—“finally getting married” is how Sophie put it. She’s in her early thirties now. Doesn’t that make you feel old? The groom’s name is Steve Harmon, and it’s someone she works with and has evidently been seeing for years. They’ve been living together for several months and decided the experiment is working well enough that they can formalize it. Sophie says we will have to stay in a motel. I told her to make reservations for the week before the wedding and for a couple of days afterwards. Do you want to fly directly to Los Angeles or do you want to stop in Boston or elsewhere first (or afterwards)? Let me know, and I’ll make the plane reservations.
Lewis—That ‘tea’ deserved scarequotes for many reasons.
I’ve emailed Emily to congratulate her. My old bones immediately protested at the thought of flying directly to or from Los Angeles. I wouldn’t be able to crawl out of the plane. It must be a ten-hour flight, isn’t it? I couldn’t take that. Even the six hours to the East Coast is becoming a torture. Would you mind if I ask Simon if he can schedule a talk or a lecture for me in New York or Boston? That will give us time to recuperate before flying to LA. The same goes for the period after the wedding. By July I should have enough done on the ‘life’ that Simon can contact publishers in New York and broach the subject of the North American rights. That will allow me to talk with the American publisher and listen to their feedback about the book. If this imposes on your patience, please say so. Maybe you can wrangle an invite to deliver a lecture.
No, I don’t mind at all if we arrive a week early and stay on afterwards. Let me know what Simon arranges, and I’ll book the flights. I don’t think I want to deliver a lecture, but there are colleagues in New York and Boston I can see. The IJNT is turning out to be a lot of work. The outgoing editor is at Princeton and I should liaise with him.
Did I tell you that Margaret Henshold was in Boston last week to deliver a lecture? When she got back, she sought me out to express her profound horror that a restaurant had brought her a tea bag and a pot of hot water when she ordered tea. I had my computer on at the moment and was able to show her the latest statistics from the UK Tea and Infusions Association showing that 96% of the tea drunk in Britain is made from tea bags.
Ah, your favourite website comes through again. You really enjoy deflating the ‘English tea-drinker abroad complainers’, don’t you?
Tea bags are popular in Ireland too.
It wasn’t the bag I was objecting to but the quality of the tea. It tasted as if it were made of ground up rose bushes. There are ‘tea’ bags and then there are tea bags.
You must admit that I make a better cup of tea now.
Lewis—You make everything better now.
Americans have never learned how to make a decent cup of tea, have they? Do you still have that notebook? We should include a picture of it. If you don’t mind, I would love to look at it.
Michelle—Yes. I still have it. It’s in Brighton with my other papers. I will ask Lewis to dig it out and then send it to you. Patrick
PS—Just had a thought. Writers’ archives have become a thing of the past. I have plenty of paper evidence on my early writings. But I stopped writing on paper in the mid-1980s. Since then everything has been electronic, and I overwrite earlier drafts as I revise. I will not leave any evidence of how my writings developed as I worked on them. The only thing that will exist is the final version. I assume other writers follow much the same procedures.
The week after my mother died, Niamh and I met at my mother’s house to remove her things and begin readying the house for sale.
We began with the intention of donating most of her household and personal items to a charity shop, but soon discovered that the rubbish bins were the proper destination for most of mother’s things. Mother gave up shopping about ten years before she died. Niamh told me that each time she offered to take mother to the stores or to buy things for her, mother would say a variant of ‘I won’t be around much longer. It would be a waste of money to buy new things.’ I heard similar remarks. Once on a visit, the bath towels I had been using disintegrated in the wash. All that was left was a sodden mass of fibres. A check of her remaining towels and flannels revealed that most of them were in similar shape. When I told mother that I would buy her new ones, she told me not to bother. She had enough to last her lifetime.
Several times both Niamh and I bought replacements—a new mop, bed linens—for items so worn out as to be useless. Mother appeared not to notice them. She continued to use the same two sets of bed sheets. By the time she died, they were so thin and felt so light they could have been made of tissue paper. We found the sheets Niamh had bought still in their packaging at the back of a shelf in the hot press. When we finished emptying the press, we had that unused set of sheets and pillow cases, two almost unused towels (I identified them as the towels that would be put out for me when I visited), and three large, dark green plastic bin bags bulging with linens, most of them little better than rags, destined to be tossed.
The furniture was in a somewhat better state. My mother had inherited or bought solid pieces meant to last. The upholstery on her favourite chair was worn and stained, but the framework was still strong. Many of the pieces had survived far longer than their original purchasers. The dining room table and chairs, the sideboard, the wardrobes, the beds, many of the tables and chairs in the lounge, my mother’s writing desk, all dated from the mid-nineteenth century. They were ponderous and heavy and dark in the style of the time, the fabrics now faded and dusty smelling.
Both Niamh and I might have taken some of the furniture if we had had room. Neither of us was an O’Connell, however, and mother, who had been an O’Connell, was the great-great-granddaughter of the man who had bought most of this furniture. It was a tenuous link at best, but still these things were part of our inherited body of memory. They had claims on us. They were the background, the setting, of our childhoods. ‘My’ bed was uncomfortable, built for a much smaller person. Yet I had slept in it for most of my youth and on my visits. I would not say that it held happy memories for me, or sad ones for that matter. I did not think of it in those terms, but it seemed to me that I ought to feel a link. That was my predominant feeling towards most such items in mother’s house—that I ought to feel a link to them. That was their claim on me—I should have felt a sense of duty to my mother and through her to my ancestors lodged in these pieces of wood. I did not, and that nagged at me.
The same feeling surrounded the house itself. The land had been in mother’s family since the 1830s. But the house itself was dark and damp, the surroundings devoid of charm. I had no wish to live there. I would gladly have signed over my share in it to Niamh, but she had even less interest in it than I. We both wanted shut of it as soon as possible. In the end, we sold the house to a couple who converted it into a small country hotel—one step up from a bed-and-breakfast. They purchased the furniture as well. ‘It fits the period of the house,’ their agent told ours, ‘and they want it because it adds to the authenticity of the place.’
The personal items were more difficult to deal with. Most of mother’s clothes had to be discarded. They were too old, too decrepit. It mattered less that they were out of style—there is a market for period clothes—but many of the older items were past cleaning. My sister took the jewellery for herself and her daughter, more as items of value rather than as something they might wear. Shoes, old bottles of perfume, cosmetics, underwear—those we swept into rubbish bags.
‘I find that I am closing my mind.’ Niamh and I had taken a tea break and were seated in the kitchen. I was trying to explain my mental numbness to her. ‘I just can’t let myself think of what we’re doing. I pretend that it’s a task with no emotional investment. It’s the only way I can get through this.’
‘I know,’ said Niamh. ‘You just don’t want to think about what you’re doing. Just do it and get it over with. I can’t help thinking that there is so little to show for mother’s life. Just these useless objects. There ought to be more.’
Niamh was right. There should have been more, more objects with memories.
There were no tears in those things. They were too collective—O’Connell family objects rather than personal ones—or too quotidian and general to be personal. One can hardly form a link with a half-used bottle of washing-up liquid or a copy of a book with a press run in the tens or hundreds of thousands. One may take the first to use or the book to read, but there is no sense that this is ‘mother’s washing-up liquid’ or that is ‘mother’s book’. It was as if mother had been the custodian of a family museum and only lightly inhabited a few rooms set aside for her use. When she was alive, the house had been ‘hers’. Now that she was dead, there was, we discovered, little of her left in it, and Niamh and I were removing even that as quickly and with as little thought as possible.
We left the small room that mother used as her office until last. ‘Office’ is too grandiose a term for that room. It is descriptive more of the use to which mother put it than it is of the appearance of the room. There was elsewhere on the ground floor a room identified as the ‘library’; it did contain two tall shelves for books and hence qualified for the name. It had served the male owners of the house—my mother’s uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather—and my father during his infrequent visit as their office. It contained a large, rather overwhelming desk with many drawers and cubbyholes, all of them empty we discovered. When mother inherited the house after the death of her uncle, she must have felt unqualified to use that desk when writing letters or paying bills. Instead she had recourse to a room off the kitchen that had been the housekeeper’s sitting and work room in the days when the house had had a full complement of live-in servants.
I had purchased a packet of file folders and several expandable cardboard document boxes in preparation. We had to sort out the legal and financial documents the lawyer would need to settle the estate. Niamh brought an electric paper shredder from her office so that we could destroy any personal papers that were no longer needed. We spent the first few minutes switching the plugs on the flex for it. The house had been wired for electricity in several stages, and the plugs were of different sizes. It took a while to find the correct one. The room was not bright. It had only a dim overhead light in the ceiling and a stronger anglepoise lamp on the desk. There was only the one chair, at the desk. Niamh sat at it and began opening the drawers and removing files. My mother was methodical and organized, and Niamh was able almost at a glance at the docket on each file to determine if it should be kept or discarded.
The room also held a tall, oak bookcase, almost a cabinet. Each shelf had its own door hinged at the top. The door lifted from the bottom and slid back on rollers beneath the shelf above it. I began from the top shelf. It contained the documents we were looking for—the legal papers and financial records the lawyers would need to settle the estate. I soon filled the document boxes I had brought and took them down the hall for delivery to the lawyer. When I returned, Niamh had finished emptying the desk. She had opened the second shelf. It was filled with a jumble of boxes. Some two dozen of them crowded the shelf.
‘All of these have your name on it,’ said Niamh. ‘This one is open.’ She pulled out a box and handed it to me. The others were taped shut or had cords or elastic bands around them.
The box contained articles cut from newspapers and magazines. The topmost one was an article I had written three years earlier. Beneath it was a review of one of my books, also from the same period. I showed them to Niamh. ‘They’re cuttings. Mother must have stopped collecting them about the time she went blind.’
I pulled out a box from the bottom. The elastic band around it had dried and cracked. It crumbled into several pieces when I tried to take it off the box. Bits of it were fused to the cardboard. The box contained my school records, notes from teachers or the headmaster, photographs of myself in groups of other students. I was apparently looking at a trove of items about my life. ‘Why would she keep all these?’
‘She was very proud of you.’ Niamh’s lips were pursed in a tight line. ‘She would have kept notices about your successes.’ There was the slightest of emphasis on ‘your’.
‘I’m sure she kept your things as well.’ I opened the door of the shelf below that. It, too, was filled with boxes. Happily for me—I could not have dealt with an affronted Niamh at that point—the labels on these indicated that the contents dealt with Niamh or Niamh and her husband. The next shelf down had materials on their two children and their families. The last items in these boxes also dated from about three years earlier.
Niamh and I carried several of the boxes into the kitchen and sat at the table looking through them. ‘But this is everything,’ my sister said. ‘She must have kept anything that had our names on it.’
‘Or even remotely associated with us. These are so trivial, most of them. I would be hard put even to date some of these. Look at this one—an article about a school outing to see a play. All this says is that a group of students from St. Stephen’s School were taken to Navan to see a performance of The Miracle at Knock by a touring company from Cork. I had forgotten this. We took the train to Navan and returned late. There’s no mention of me. Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? Why did she save this?’
‘Perhaps she thought you would like to remember it when you grew older.’
‘If she kept everything like this, we can write our autobiographies. Oh, look at this. Me in hurling kit.’
I handed the photograph to Niamh. She laughed. ‘Oh, slightly embarrassing that. I hope your legs aren’t as spindly now.’ She handed the photograph back. ‘There are some things best not remembered, aren’t there? I hope she didn’t keep similar pictures of me. I shall check all those boxes carefully. There are some things I don’t want Kevin and David to know about their mam. Speaking of my family, I should be driving back. Michael will want his tea at the usual time. We should be able to finish tomorrow, don’t you think?’
‘I think so. Should I deliver those boxes with the deeds and records to Colin’s office? I’ll be driving into town to find something to eat anyway and I might as well deliver those papers while I’m in Drogheda. If I feel ambitious, I will work on the rest of the papers in that case after I get back tonight. If we finish early enough tomorrow, I may drive back to Errarooey. I’ll take all these boxes with my things and sort through them there.’ I wanted privacy before exposing myself to the contents of those boxes. I think Niamh did as well—she put all the boxes about herself and her family in her car before leaving. The past is not always cooperative with the stories we have built of ourselves. If there were revelations, facts that did not quite fit the picture I had of myself, I wanted to uncover them on my own. I had a sense that the contents of these boxes might betray me.
When I returned that evening from Drogheda, I investigated the three bottom shelves. They contained the records of my mother’s life, sorted into categories. In the 1970s and 1980s, she and a friend of hers fell into the habit of going to the cinema every Wednesday. I found tickets apparently for every film they attended. On the back of each ticket was written the date and the name of the film. In the late 1980s, after the ticketing system was computerised, this information was printed on the front of the ticket. My mother had circled the date and the title. The titles were usually abbreviated and my mother had carefully recorded the full version on the back.
Another box held the menu cards for every formal dinner she had attended in her life. Again, if the card did not record the exact details, mother noted where and why the dinner had been held. She also jotted down the names of others in attendance and often the dress she wore. ‘Abington’s Hotel. First floor lounge. Jack’s retirement. Wore blue silk with matching hat. Bram spoke. At table with the Maltons and Delaneys.’
As far as I know, mother never took a photograph in her life. She did, however, collect picture postcards of the places she visited, as well as brochures, leaflets, business cards from hotels, souvenir drink mats—anything with the names of the places she had visited or the hotels she had stayed at or the restaurants at which she had eaten. Somewhere on each of them she noted when she was there, why, and with whom. A brochure for a hotel on Aran Island was annotated: ‘5 Aug. 1992. Stayed overnight. With Aoife [a cousin of hers]. Ate at hotel. Good fish. Potatoes. Roasted mixed beetroot and turnip veg. Laver salad with vinegary mussels (tough). Choc gt (which I think means ‘chocolate gateau’). Walked around island in afternoon and again after tea.’
There were also a few boxes of photographs, most of them old. There were pictures of her family and their house, all carefully dated and the people in them identified. I saw my uncles and my mother grow from infancy into early adulthood. My mother posed in a low-belted sheath dress of the 1920s, standing beside a car, one hand on hip, smiling. The pictures of my parents end in the late 1940s, when they began to live apart. After that, there were no more pictures of mother, at least not in the boxes devoted to her. I found a few pictures in the boxes devoted to me that showed my mother and myself together. There were probably some of her with Niamh or Niamh’s family in the boxes labelled with her name.
My mother documented her life. Where she went, what she did, who she was with. But there is curiously little of herself in all of this. She left no record of her reactions to any of these events. Her letters to me were similar. She recited the events of her life but never revealed what she thought about them. To judge from the boxes we found in her office, she obsessively collected objects that attested to her activities and of those close to her. What is not apparent is what she gained from this. Why would anyone save these trivial mementos? Did she ever look at them? The boxes gave no clue.
Did my mother live her life so rigorously on the surface that nothing interior existed? Or is it that the interior mattered so much to her that she could not expose that to others and intentionally confined herself to surfaces? Or did she hope to find herself in these externals? No one, not even those closest to her, knows the answers to those questions. If her intent was to conceal herself behind all these objects, she succeeded. I could build a story around any one of these questions as the defining point of her character and create a person who made narrative sense. I suspect, however, that her true story would embody elements of all three questions. But how would one write a story that did justice to the mysteries of such a life in all its multiplicity?
My father had too many stories in his life, too many narratives of his life, their very contradictions and extravagances saying much about the man. His story would be easy to write. He occupied more psychic and physical space than my mother. He had the larger personality. He was flamboyant, arrogant, boastful, bombastic, egoistical, irritating. He talked about himself endlessly. He loved to create drama around even his smallest acts. My father told you his story—that was his favourite pursuit. I realise that my relationship with my father was fractious and that that colours my view of him. But to me, his visible life was a projection of what he wanted to be seen as, and he was so successful in acting that role that he became it. By convincing himself and others that he was really the person he appeared to be, he became that person. He wrote his own narratives about himself, and outsiders’ acceptance of those narratives validated them for my father.
My mother in contrast had too few stories.
The next day when I showed Niamh what I had found, the boxes provoked the only argument we had over the division of my mother’s things. Our few discussions of the distribution of particular objects had been desultory and more of a ‘Could you use this or should we toss it?’ nature. When Niamh discovered that I wanted to take all the boxes concerning my mother with me, her curiosity was piqued by my interest in them. I think she suspected that I had found something of value in those boxes, that I could not possibly be interested in ticket stubs, hotel brochures, that some buried treasures were behind my desire to take these things. She insisted on examining all the boxes. I think she was disappointed that they contained so little. She clearly thought me mad to want boxes of what she considered rubbish.
Only the photographs excited her. In the end, she ‘allowed’ me to take them on condition that I scan them and then send her the originals along with a CD containing the scans. Immediately on returning to Errarooey that afternoon, I began scanning them and recording the information my mother had written on the back of each one. It took me the better part of two days to finish.
On the second day, Niamh rang to pass along some unimportant information. Towards the end of the conversation, she casually asked how I was getting on with the scans. She was extremely happy to learn that I was almost finished. I told her that I would mail all the photos to her the next day. This prompted a discussion of how safe that would be. ‘They are too valuable to trust to the post office,’ she said. ‘We couldn’t replace them if they were lost or damaged.’ In the end I agreed to drive to my mother’s house again and deliver the photos to Niamh by hand.
Both of us, I think, found the photographs tangible evidence of my mother’s life. They were physical proofs, especially the more candid shots. Like most such photographs, each of them seemed to contain a story, a story that neither of us had witnessed because the images dated to a time before we were born. Why is my mother, age 16, wearing a duster over her dress and holding a battered straw hat? Was she interrupted by the photographer while working in the garden pictured behind her? In the late 1920s was my mother really a ‘flapper’ or was that simply the style of dress she wore? Was my uncle Kenneth, who died when he was in his teens, really as sickly and as morose as he appeared to be?
Given the nature of cameras in the early twentieth century, the people captured in these photos could not have been unaware that someone was taking a picture. They had time to compose themselves, to present themselves as they want to be presented. Those photographs were not the betrayals of an unguarded emotion that some photographs can be. But for Niamh and myself, they documented an unfamiliar life. All these images provoked thoughts about the unknown and now probably unknowable aspects of my mother’s life. She had never spoken of them, and now we were confronted with images that emphasized how little we knew of her. Our mother, who had always seemed so safely herself to us, suddenly had another past. Both of us, I think, saw the photos as a means of filling in the blanks in her history, perhaps of making her more interesting and significant that she was.
There was one oddity. With the photographs was a small manila envelope, its clasp rusted. When I opened it, I found a photograph that had been torn into seven pieces. Someone had used Sellotape to join the pieces together and reassemble the photograph. The effort was not totally successful. The pieces overlapped or failed to meet correctly, leaving jagged white lines. Still the repair was good enough that the contents of the photo are apparent. It shows my parents seated on a stone bench. A dense row of tall bushes behind them blocks the view. On the back of the photograph is written ‘Grant’s Hotel, Wicklow, August 16, 1941’. My parents were married on August 11, 1941. The picture must have been taken on their honeymoon. My mother wears a cloche hat and a simple sleeveless dress, rather like a tunic. Her feet swing free of the ground. She is looking shyly at the camera. My father sits beside her. He has taken off his suit jacket and holds it in his hands. He wears a white shirt and a tie, loosened at the throat. The pants are held up by braces.
Both my parents are smiling. They look happy.
You’ve never shown me these pictures. I’d like to see them. How did you escape the urge to hoard souvenirs? You must have known that your mother was keeping things.
Lewis—Remind me the next time we are together, and I will show you the photographs. The file is on my computer. Niamh has the originals.
I never knew that my mother kept all this evidence of her activities. I suppose that sounds strange, but, as you know, we were never a family that intruded on one another. I never entered my mother’s bedroom, and I seldom stepped into her office. I would never have sat at her desk when she was alive. Then, too, I was shipped off to school when I was twelve, and after that I was home only during holidays and the summer vacation. After I graduated university and went to Boston, I spent only a few days each year with her. When I was at her house, I never saw her engaged in filing her mementos of what she did. She must have waited until I left. I must remember to ask Niamh if she knew of this—perhaps not. She was just as surprised as I to find all those boxes.
Simon is confident he can arrange a ‘lecture tour’ if I am interested. I told him one or at most two talks will be enough. He has asked the New York office of J&S to look into it. He also thinks it will be help sales if I do interviews. I stressed that sooner rather than later is better because we have to make reservations. He also thinks he can arrange something in LA. I told him I would have to ask—how busy will we be before the wedding? Plus LA is so large. I do not want to drive for hours just to give a short talk and sign some books. I hope he does not use this as an opportunity to ‘market’ me. I tried to rein him in. Pat
Another abrupt shift in subject. Things were going so well with the story of Patrick and Lewis and now you interrupt it. Are there photographs suitable for the book?
Patience, Michelle, patience. I return to Lewis in the next section.
There are several possibilities among the photos. I shall return to them near the end. I should at least include those I discuss in the book. Patrick