Semper Tris, Semper Tristis
It's worth repeating: there is nothing new under the sun. No matter that we believe, each of us, in the inimitability of our specific 'here and now.' No matter that we celebrate so boastfully, and defend so bitterly, our individuality and our free will, and all the other trappings and gewgaws of the ego. It is delusional, all of it; the boards on which we strut and pose have been trodden before, many times. We just replay old scenes, reading from dog-eared scripts fingered by countless actors; waiting, each of us, for a pre-ordained exit. Just as I stand here now, at the open library window, with the Venetian winter freezing my breath, the cold drop below me and the cord against my throat once more. I'm ready--again.
'Again', indeed; I can almost hear the echoes extending forward and backward in time, joys and sorrows Doppler-shifted in perpetuity. How many times? I don't know; in this world alone, the iterations must be countless. And people say that there are an infinite number of universes. We are supposed to imagine them, spreading outwards from each instant of each life, in endless arborisations, encompassing all possibilities. But I don't believe that; at least, I can accept that there may be many worlds, but I don't believe that they will be very different from this one. No; each will be filled with the same people, making the same bloody mistakes. Over and over and over again. And again.
Don't get me wrong, it's not all bad; a consequence of recapitulation is that the little joys also are repeated. So, somewhere, Cat and I are getting married, laughing for the wedding photos. And somewhere else, Jules is kicking up leaves in the damp September spinneys, looking for Wood Blewits, Ceps and Chanterelles. Yes, somewhere we are happy, all of us. There's a kind of comfort in that.
Anyway, there's no point in fighting it. There's no way off these Escher stairs. Whatever I do is only that which I would have done.
And what else could I have done? I mean, after finding Cat and Jules bound together as irrevocably as they were parted from me? Even now I can see Jules, his body contorted and stiffened by the poison, lying with his arms held above his head as though to ward off unseen devils. Cat, next to him, is curled in foetal agony, her fists balled into her swollen face. I only recognise her by her ring. Gold, with a little ruby encircled by smaller diamonds.
I did what I was expected to do. After all, there are formalities to follow in such circumstances. So I exhibited the proper degree of shock. I dispensed and received the appropriate condolences. I did what was seemly. And then I went on holiday. Not for pleasure, but for thought; not for new horizons, but for the reflections best seen in the mirrors of a foreign land. Like so many before me, I retreated to Europe: for a Grand Tour, for a great escape, for the comfort of solitude. For the indifference of strangers.
So for ten days now, and for centuries before and beyond, I have gazed at the tarnished looking-glasses of Italy, reflecting on how I found my wife and her lover, locked in their last contortions, twisted around the ignominy of death. I feel oddly calm about it now. I would have thought that I'd have continued to rage against the deceit, the injustice, the betrayal. But all I feel is sadness that it came to this. It wasn't just our futures that were taken from us; it was also our pasts. All our memories, all our shared stories, now polluted by this one event; always and forever, sullied, mocked with infinite repetition. Past delights now exist only as a counterpoint to present torment; their contemplation adds anguish to grief.
That's why I picked Italy; neither Cat nor I had ever been here before. There are no dead memories to trouble me.
And yet -- it feels so familiar; I am a stranger here, but intimate voices whisper to me from Italy's stony ground and crumbling cities. Part of it, perhaps, is the casts of the dead in Pompeii, frozen in a blazing death. They echo Cat and Jules; or rather, vice versa. The strange poses; the incongruity of death; the cataclysmic nature of the event. How can life change so much in so brief an instant? How can the two sides of the equation - before and after - sum to nothing? But this flavour of introspection is unwise, so I seek out noise and crowds, intending to deafen thought in the clatter and chat of this or that osteria or trattoria, over this or that risotto or antipasto.
Odd how food unlocks memories. I can still hear Jules asserting that only the Italians knew how to cook funghi. And I can see us returning, Jules and I, smelling of Surrey moss and mould, with baskets full of Morels and Shaggy Parasols. The fruits of a day's foraging; treasures stolen from beneath the dripping branches of guardian sycamores. Jules, ever the gourmet, is drooling at the prospect of Oyster Caps with home-made pasta and Montepulciano. I am happy, but slightly bemused; they're only mushrooms.
Indeed, I've always had the palate of a goat; for me, a mushroom is just a mushroom. I like them, but in terms of taste, I really can't tell the difference. I soon learnt to tell them apart by sight, however; in particular, to distinguish the most sought-after delicacies from their dangerous cousins. The Devil has the best music, they say; and I always felt a frisson, a note beyond hearing, at the sight of a toxic ascocarp. Even their names would sound a melody in minor chords: Ivory Clitocybe, Fly Agaric, Jack O'Lantern, Death Cap and, of course, Destroying Angel. Yes, their appearance thrilled in a way that the discovery of yet more Field Mushrooms and Scotch Bonnets could not. But Jules never understood this. He was a creature of passion, not intellect; he had no interest in things which did not directly give him pleasure.
Poor, dark Jules. I always told him that his delicate tastes, ever pursued to excess, would be his downfall. I didn't think he'd take Cat with him, though.
After I found them, I called for an ambulance. I knew there was no point; I knew they were dead; but what else could I do? To make the call, I had to walk out of Jules' cottage, hidden in a wooded valley like the witch's house in a fairy tale, and go up the little hill that Jules called Lord Sycamore's Castle. I kept waving my phone around, but the bars didn't light up until I'd got to the top. Jules always complained about having no signal, and swore he was going to pay to have a land-line put in; but I think he liked escaping from his City life each weekend.
I phoned from the top of the hill, on the samara-scattered ground beneath a giant tree. I remember picking up one of the winged seeds and flicking it into the air, to see it helicopter away; but it just dropped to the ground, like a bird with a broken neck.
Afterwards, I went back to the house and into the kitchen. There, in the pan, the remains of a mushroom risotto; cold, congealed and unattractive. On the work surface, a half-empty bag of dried fungi. Field Mushrooms, by the look of them, at the button stage; common, harmless and - I'm told -- delicious. But the inquest would find that this bag contained a high proportion of Death Caps and Destroying Angels. It's difficult enough to tell these from young Field Mushrooms when they're fresh; when dried, they are indistinguishable. Death by misadventure, they said, noting Jules' obsession with collecting and eating wild fungi. A tragic accident, they said. Incapacitation must have been unusually rapid; but then, the batch of mushrooms they had ingested contained extraordinarily high levels of amatoxins. Stranger things happen. It made the national news, briefly; and a local paper ran an article on the dangers of amateur mycology.
Yes, that's what happened. Something like that, anyway. But it's hard for me, now, to recollect details, to put events in the right sequence. Everything seems to repeat itself, so many times, in different orders. It's like standing between two mirrors, trying to work out which of the infinite reflections to focus on. Perhaps it doesn't matter. In one universe, they didn't eat the mushrooms. In another, they did. But they die in every universe, in all possible universes.
And so, as I sit in a pavement café in Rome, watching the crowd's churn, I feel the reverberations of repeated moments: Jules, Cat and I. Then and ever. And, yes, all this contributes to the uneasy familiarity, the feeling that I have somehow walked into my own life as an observer.
But it's more than that. The feeling follows me, day by day, mile by mile, to the bitter cold of a Venice in January. I walk past the Doge's palace, where traitors were once hanged from the windows. I watch the moored gondolas nudge each other, as though they've seen me before and are seeking to place me, muttering to each other like old women on a bench. It feels wrong to be here, alone; it's as though there is a space next to me, forever empty, forever full, where Cat should be, where she always is, and never will be again.
I remember when that space first got filled; Cat and I would leave work separately, to confound the gossips, and meet up on Queen's Walk, by the Thames. We'd buy a paper, and a bottle of wine, and we'd watch the river, and half-heartedly look at the crossword while I twisted the ends of her long, fine hair around my fingers. These moments were special in their gentleness; they brought peace; I just felt like I didn't have to pretend any more. I thought Cat felt like that too. Maybe she did for a while.
I never minded the rapport between her and Jules; it's kind of flattering when other men admire your wife, and I was happy that my two best friends liked each other. And although on one level I knew that people have affairs all the time, and that Jules in his time had been distastefully promiscuous, that always seemed to be irrelevant; adultery is something that happens to other people, in other times. Not to me, not with my wife, not then, not now.
That final, catastrophic deconstruction hurt as much as the betrayal; the fact that my whole life view, the entire moral fabric and framework of my existence, had been revealed to be false - that was, in a way, the deepest cut. All my assumptions about who the good people were, and how the good people behave, had been flayed raw and dragged through filth. And once there is no shared moral edifice on which to stand, well, anything goes and nothing matters. It is as though the trapdoor has suddenly opened beneath your feet; you look up, seeking the sky, but see only the sycamore bracket and frame, shuddering under a sudden weight.
I walk on, over bridge after bridge, past one cold canal after another, and eventually find myself outside the glorious pale symmetry of the Biblioteca Marciana. I go inside. For warmth; or for another reason. Once within, I am transported by the almost decadent beauty of Venice's greatest, oldest library; the symmetry of the tiled floor, the wonder of the painted ceiling. But I feel that this is not what I have come for; so I take the stairs, and leave the grand spaces of the ground floor behind me.
The rooms are smaller up here, more intimate. I revel in the studious silence, the smell of books and gentle learning. I probably shouldn't be here, but something draws me, and gives me a confidence that defies argument. Any curious looks are quelled by my heavily accented 'buon giorno' -- another foreign academic, that's all. I turn into a room; why? I don't know -- but it has to be this room. The smell of old leather: civilisation bound.
I find a table close to a massive window, framed by equally massive drapes. The cords to pull them back are like slender ropes. One trails loose in coils on the floor. I follow it, with my fingers, from its free end to a brass cleat, thick as two fingers, set into the masonry at shoulder height. I pull down on the line, with all my weight; the cleat is immovable. When I stop, the cord has left its pattern in the skin of my palm.
I look down on the cold, decaying city spread out before me. The clouds are the grey of gun-metal. Outside, on the road three stories below, a police van draws to a halt, and half a dozen carabinieri get out. They look serious, yet uncomfortable. Like boys who have been asked to do a reading in church. Their breath smokes in the air.
I turn away from the window, and take a book from the shelf. Without looking; yet not at random. It is as though I knew it would be there. As though I knew it would fall open on this very page, the page that depicts them, immortalised in oil. He is dark, and stands behind her, with animal force. I feel his contempt. She is mine, his expression says; then and now and forever. She looks mockingly at me, holding a scroll; her long, fine hair falls over her shoulders. On her hand is a gold ring, with a red ruby; on her lips, the small, eternal smile. I drag my eyes away from her, and look down to the inscription, which I clumsily translate from the Italian. ''The Lovers: Niccolo de Laurentiis, c. 1670. The young couple were subsequently poisoned by the artist, who was hung for his crime.'
There is a dull, pulling weight inside my chest, as though something profound is being slowly torn away from my being. I am surprised to find that, gently, silently, I am weeping. But how could it be otherwise? I have always been him, then and now and forever. The frozen streets of Venice; the heat of human passions, the weight of despair, the lightness of the drop, the chill of the grave. They echo now and ever.
Outside, a sea mist is rolling in. The first wisps are plucking at the clumsily parked cars lining the street far below. I find that I am leaning against the window, my forehead against the old, cold glass. Something brushes my arm. I catch it, half-consciously. It sits well in my hand. Slender and flexible, yet strong; smooth, yet with a discernible texture of delicate corrugations that rub familiarly against my skin: a rope in miniature, the curtain cord. Yes, I know; I'm ready, again.
It is inevitable, as always, as ever; this moment, then and now and forever. I open the great window onto a cold eternity; I feel the breath catch in my throat.
"On Lord Sycamore's Castle
I heard the morning stop;
Over my head, the springing birds,
Under my feet, the drop."
From 'Lord Sycamore': Charles Causley, ~1960. (Sycamore wood was traditionally used in gallows construction).