The hours, p.3
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       The Hours, p.3

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  ‘‘I don’t need much,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘Just a few bunches of something or other.’’ Clarissa feels inexplicably guilty about not being a better friend to Barbara, though they know each other only as customer and saleswoman. Clarissa buys all her flowers from Barbara, and sent her a card a year ago, when she heard of her breast-cancer scare. Barbara’s career has not gone as

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  planned; she lives somehow on her hourly wages (a tenement, probably, with the bathtub in the kitchen) and she has escaped cancer, this time. For a moment Mary Krull hovers over the lilies and roses, preparing to be appalled at what Clarissa will spend.

  ‘‘We’ve got some beautiful hydrangeas,’’ Barbara says.

  ‘‘Let’s see.’’ Clarissa goes to the cooler and chooses flowers, which Barbara pulls from their containers and holds, dripping, in her arms. In the nineteenth century she’d have been a country wife, gentle and unremarkable, dissatisfied, standing in a garden. Clarissa chooses peonies and stargazer lilies, cream-colored roses, does not want the hydrangeas (guilt, guilt, it looks like you never outgrow it), and is considering irises (are irises somehow a little . . . outdated?) when a huge shattering sound comes from the street outside.

  ‘‘What was that?’’ Barbara says. She and Clarissa go to the window.

  ‘‘I think it’s the movie people.’’

  ‘‘Probably. They’ve been filming out there all morning.’’

  ‘‘Do you know what it is?’’

  ‘‘No,’’ she says, and she turns away from the window with a certain elderly rectitude, holding her armful of flowers just as the ghost of her earlier self, a hundred years ago, would have turned from the rattle and creak of a carriage passing by, full of perfectly dressed picnickers from a distant city. Clarissa remains, looking out at the welter of trucks and trailers. Suddenly the door to one of the trailers opens, and a famous head emerges. It is a woman’s head, quite a distance away, seen in

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  profile, like the head on a coin, and while Clarissa cannot immediately identify her (Meryl Streep? Vanessa Redgrave?) she knows without question that the woman is a movie star. She knows by her aura of regal assurance, and by the eagerness with which one of the prop men speaks to her (inaudibly to Clarissa) about the source of the noise. The woman’s head quickly withdraws, the door to the trailer closes again, but she leaves behind her an unmistakable sense of watchful remonstrance, as if an angel had briefly touched the surface of the world with one sandaled foot, asked if there was any trouble and, being told all was well, had resumed her place in the ether with skeptical gravity, having reminded the children of earth that they are just barely trusted to manage their own business, and that further carelessness will not go unremarked.

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  Mrs. Woolf

  Mrs. Dalloway said something (what?), and got the flowers

  herself.

  It is a suburb of London. It is 1923.

  Virginia awakens. This might be another way to begin, certainly; with Clarissa going on an errand on a day in June, instead of soldiers marching off to lay the wreath in Whitehall. But is it the right beginning? Is it a little too ordinary? Virginia lies quietly in her bed, and sleep takes her again so quickly she is not conscious of falling back to sleep at all. It seems, suddenly, that she is not in her bed but in a park; a park impossibly verdant, green beyond green—a Platonic vision of a park, at once homely and the seat of mystery, implying as parks do that while the old woman in the shawl dozes on the slatted bench something alive and ancient, something neither kind nor unkind, exulting only in continuance, knits together the green world of farms and meadows, forests and parks. Virginia moves through the park without quite walking; she floats through it, a feather of perception, unbodied. The park reveals to her its banks of lilies and peonies, its graveled paths bordered by cream-colored roses. A stone maiden, smoothed by weather, stands at the edge of a clear pool and muses into the water. Virginia moves through the park as if impelled by a cushion of air; she is beginning to understand that another park lies beneath this one, a park of the underworld, more marvelous and terrible than this; it is the root from which these lawns and arbors grow. It is the true idea of the park, and it is nothing so simple as beautiful. She can see people now: a Chinese man stooping to pick something up off the grass, a little girl waiting. Up ahead, on a circle of newly turned earth, a woman sings.

  Virginia awakens again. She is here, in her bedroom at Hogarth House. Gray light fills the room; muted, steel-toned; it lies with a gray-white, liquid life on her coverlet. It silvers the green walls. She has dreamed of a park and she has dreamed of a line for her new book—what was it? Flowers; something to do with flowers. Or something to do with a park? Was someone singing? No, the line is gone, and it doesn’t matter, really, because she still has the feeling it left behind. She knows she can get up and write.

  She rises from her bed and goes into the bathroom. Leonard is already up; he may already be at work. In the bathroom, she washes her face. She does not look directly into the oval mirror that hangs above the basin. She is aware of her reflected movements in the glass but does not permit herself to look. The

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  mirror is dangerous; it sometimes shows her the dark manifestation of air that matches her body, takes her form, but stands behind, watching her, with porcine eyes and wet, hushed breathing. She washes her face and does not look, certainly not this morning, not when the work is waiting for her and she is anxious to join it the way she might join a party that had already started downstairs, a party full of wit and beauty certainly but full, too, of something finer than wit or beauty; something mysterious and golden; a spark of profound celebration, of life itself, as silks rustle across polished floors and secrets are whispered under the music. She, Virginia, could be a girl in a new dress, about to go down to a party, about to appear on the stairs, fresh and full of hope. No, she will not look in the mirror. She finishes washing her face.

  When she is finished in the bathroom she descends into the dusky morning quiet of the hall. She wears her pale blue housecoat. Night still resides here. Hogarth House is always nocturnal, even with its chaos of papers and books, its bright hassocks and Persian rugs. It is not dark in itself but it seems to be illuminated against darkness, even as the wan, early sun shines between the curtains and cars and carriages rumble by on Paradise Road.

  Virginia pours herself a cup of coffee in the dining room, walks quietly downstairs, but does not go to Nelly in the kitchen. This morning, she wants to get straight to work without risking exposure to Nelly’s bargainings and grievances. It could be a good day; it needs to be treated carefully. Balancing the cup on its saucer, she goes into the printing room. Leonard

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  is sitting at his desk, reading page proofs. It is too early yet for Ralph or Marjorie.

  Leonard looks up at her, still wearing, for a moment, the scowl he has brought to the proofs. It is an expression she trusts and fears, his eyes blazing and impenetrably dark under his heavy brows, the corners of his mouth turned down in an expression of judgment that is severe but not in any way petulant or trivial—the frown of a deity, all-seeing and weary, hoping for the best from humankind, knowing just how much to expect. It is the expression he brings to all written work, including, and especially, her own. As he looks at her, though, the expression fades almost immediately and is replaced by the milder, kinder face of the husband who has nursed her through her worst periods, who does not demand what she can’t provide and who urges on her, sometimes successfully, a glass of milk every morning at eleven.

  ‘‘Good morning,’’ she says.

  ‘‘Good morning. How was your sleep?’’

  How was your sleep, he asks, as if sleep were not an act but a creature that could be either docile or fierce. Virginia says, ‘‘It was uneventful. Are those Tom’s?’’

  ‘‘Yes.’’

  ‘‘How do they look?’’

  He scowls again. ‘‘I’ve found an error alrea
dy, and I’m not quite through the second page.’’

  ‘‘One error at the beginning is quite likely just that. It’s early in the day to be so bent on irritation, don’t you think?’’

  ‘‘Have you had breakfast?’’ he asks.

  ‘‘Yes.’’

  ‘‘Liar.’’

  ‘‘I’m having coffee with cream for breakfast. It’s enough.’’

  ‘‘It’s far from enough. I’m going to have Nelly bring you a bun and some fruit.’’ ‘‘If you send Nelly in to interrupt me I won’t be responsible for my actions.’’

  ‘‘You must eat,’’ he says. ‘‘It doesn’t have to be much.’’

  ‘‘I’ll eat later. I’m going to work now.’’

  He hesitates, then nods grudgingly. He does not, will not, interfere with her work. Still, Virginia refusing to eat is not a good sign.

  ‘‘You will have lunch,’’ he says. ‘‘A true lunch, soup, pudding, and all. By force, if it comes to that.’’

  ‘‘I will have lunch,’’ she says, impatiently but without true anger. She stands tall, haggard, marvelous in her housecoat, the coffee steaming in her hand. He is still, at times, astonished by her. She may be the most intelligent woman in England, he thinks. Her books may be read for centuries. He believes this more ardently than does anyone else. And she is his wife. She is Virginia Stephen, pale and tall, startling as a Rembrandt or a Vela´zquez, appearing twenty years ago at her brother’s rooms in Cambridge in a white dress, and she is Virginia Woolf, standing before him right now. She has aged dramatically, just this year, as if a layer of air has leaked out from under her skin. She’s grown craggy and worn. She’s begun to look as if she’s carved from very porous, gray-white marble. She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful.

  ‘‘All right,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m going to soldier on here.’’

  She goes back upstairs stealthily, so as not to attract Nelly (why does she always feel so secretive around servants, so guilty of crimes?). She gets to her study, quietly closes the door. Safe. She opens the curtains. Outside, beyond the glass, Richmond continues in its decent, peaceful dream of itself. Flowers and hedges are attended to; shutters are repainted before they require it. The neighbors, whom she does not know, do whatever it is they do behind the blinds and shutters of their red brick villa. She can only think of dim rooms and a listless, overcooked smell. She turns from the window. If she can remain strong and clear, if she can keep on weighing at least nine and a half stone, Leonard will be persuaded to move back to London. The rest cure, these years among the delphinium beds and the red suburban villas, will be pronounced a success, and she will be deemed fit for the city again. Lunch, yes; she will have lunch. She should have breakfast but she can’t bear the interruption it would entail, the contact with Nelly’s mood. She will write for an hour or so, then eat something. Not eating is a vice, a drug of sorts—with her stomach empty she feels quick and clean, clearheaded, ready for a fight. She sips her coffee, sets it down, stretches her arms. This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked. At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums. This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul. It is more

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  than the sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty. Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows, but her access to it comes and goes without warning. She may pick up her pen and follow it with her hand as it moves across the paper; she may pick up her pen and find that she’s merely herself, a woman in a housecoat holding a pen, afraid and uncertain, only mildly competent, with no idea about where to begin or what to write.

  She picks up her pen.

  Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

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  Mrs. Brown

  Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

  For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would have to be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

  It is Los Angeles. It is 1949.

  Laura Brown is trying to lose herself. No, that’s not it exactly—she is trying to keep herself by gaining entry into a parallel world. She lays the book face down on her chest. Already her bedroom (no, their bedroom) feels more densely inhabited, more actual, because a character named Mrs. Dalloway is on her way to buy flowers. Laura glances at the clock on the nightstand. It’s well past seven. Why did she buy this clock, this hideous thing, with its square green face in a rectangular black Bakelite sarcophagus—how could she ever have thought it was smart? She should not be permitting herself to read, not this morning of all mornings; not on Dan’s birthday. She should be out of bed, showered and dressed, fixing breakfast for Dan and Richie. She can hear them downstairs, her husband making his own breakfast, ministering to Richie. She should be there, shouldn’t she? She should be standing before the stove in her new robe, full of simple, encouraging talk. Still, when she opened her eyes a few minutes ago (after seven already!)— when she still half inhabited her dream, some sort of pulsating machinery in the remote distance, a steady pounding like a gigantic mechanical heart, which seemed to be drawing nearer—she felt the dank sensation around her, the nowhere feeling, and knew it was going to be a difficult day. She knew she was going to have trouble believing in herself, in the rooms of her house, and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked atop the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation. Because she is pregnant, she is allowed these lapses. She is allowed, for now, to read unreasonably, to linger in bed, to cry or grow furious over nothing.

  She will make up for breakfast by baking Dan a perfect birthday cake; by ironing the good cloth; by setting a big bouquet of flowers (roses?) in the middle of the table, and surrounding it with gifts. That should compensate, shouldn’t it?

  She will read one more page. One more page, to calm and locate herself, then she’ll get out of bed.

  What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her,

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  when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, ‘‘Musing among the vegetables?’’— was that it?—‘‘I prefer men to cauliflowers’’—was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace—Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished— how strange it was!—a few sayings like this about cabbages.

  She inhales deeply. It is so beautiful; it is so much more than . . . well, than almost anything, really. In another world, she might have spent her whole life reading. But this is the new worl
d, the rescued world—there’s not much room for idleness. So much has been risked and lost; so many have died. Less than five years ago Dan himself was believed to have died, at Anzio, and when he was revealed two days later to be alive after all (he and some poor boy from Arcadia had had the same name), it seemed he had been resurrected. He seemed to have returned, still sweet-tempered, still smelling like himself, from the realm of the dead (the stories you heard then about Italy, about Saipan and Okinawa, about Japanese mothers who killed their

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  children and themselves rather than be taken prisoner), and when he came back to California he was received as something more than an ordinary hero. He could (in the words of his own alarmed mother) have had anyone, any pageant winner, any vivacious and compliant girl, but through some obscure and possibly perverse genius had kissed, courted, and proposed to his best friend’s older sister, the bookworm, the foreign-looking one with the dark, close-set eyes and the Roman nose, who had never been sought after or cherished; who had always been left alone, to read. What could she say but yes? How could she deny a handsome, good-hearted boy, practically a member of the family, who had come back from the dead?

  So now she is Laura Brown. Laura Zielski, the solitary girl, the incessant reader, is gone, and here in her place is Laura Brown.

  One page, she decides; just one. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time. She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself—as if she had been returned from a realm of crushing gravity to her true medium, the suck and swell of saltwater, that weightless brilliance.

  She stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass. A charming woman, Scrope Purvis thought her (knowing her as one does know people who live next door to one in Westminster); a touch

 
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