The hours, p.7
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       The Hours, p.7

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  ‘‘Here goes,’’ she says.

  Guiding Richie’s hands with her own, she helps him dip the cup into the flour. The cup goes in easily, and through its thin wall he can feel the silkiness and slight grit of the sifted flour. A tiny cloud rises in the cup’s wake. Mother and son bring it up again, heaped with flour. Flour cascades down the silver sides. Laura tells the boy to hold the cup steady, which he nervously manages to do, and with one quick gesture she dismisses the grainy little heap on top and creates a flawless white surface exactly level with the lip of the cup. He continues holding the cup with both hands.

  ‘‘Good,’’ she says. ‘‘Now we put it in the other bowl. Do you think you can do that by yourself ?’’

  ‘‘Yes,’’ he says, though he is not at all certain. He believes this cup of flour to be singular and irreplaceable. It is one thing to be asked to carry a cabbage across the street, quite another to be asked to carry the recently unearthed head of Rilke’s Apollo.

  ‘‘Here we go, then,’’ she says. He cautiously moves the cup to the other bowl and holds it there, paralyzed, over the bowl’s gleaming white concavity (it

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  is the next smaller in a series of nesting bowls, pale green, with the same band of white leaves at its rim). He understands that he’s expected to dump the flour into the bowl but it seems possible that he’s misunderstood the directions, and will ruin everything; it seems possible that by spilling out the flour he will cause some larger catastrophe, upset some precarious balance. He wants to look at his mother’s face but can’t take his eyes off the cup.

  ‘‘Turn it over,’’ she says.

  He turns it over in one hurried, frightened motion. The flour hesitates for a fraction of a second, then spills out. The flour falls solidly, in a mound that loosely echoes the shape of the measuring cup. A bigger cloud rises, almost touches his face, then vanishes. He stares down at what he’s made: a white hill, slightly granular, speckled with pinpoint shadows, standing up from the glossy, creamier white of the bowl’s interior.

  ‘‘Oopsie,’’ his mother says.

  He looks at her in terror. His eyes fill with tears.

  Laura sighs. Why is he so delicate, so prone to fits of inexplicable remorse? Why does she have to be so careful with him? For a moment—a moment—Richie’s shape subtly changes. He becomes larger, brighter. His head expands. A dead-white glow seems, briefly, to surround him. For a moment she wants only to leave—not to harm him, she’d never do that—but to be free, blameless, unaccountable.

  ‘‘No, no,’’ Laura says. ‘‘It’s good. Very good. That’s just exactly right.’’ He smiles tearfully, suddenly proud of himself, almost in

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  sanely relieved. All right, then; nothing was needed but a few kind words, a bit of reassurance. She sighs. She gently touches his hair.

  ‘‘Now, then,’’ she says. ‘‘Are you ready to do another one?’’

  He nods with such guileless, unguarded enthusiasm that her throat constricts in a spasm of love. It seems suddenly easy to bake a cake, to raise a child. She loves her son purely, as mothers do—she does not resent him, does not wish to leave. She loves her husband, and is glad to be married. It seems possible (it does not seem impossible) that she’s slipped across an invisible line, the line that has always separated her from what she would prefer to feel, who she would prefer to be. It does not seem impossible that she has undergone a subtle but profound transformation, here in this kitchen, at this most ordinary of moments: She has caught up with herself. She has worked so long, so hard, in such good faith, and now she’s gotten the knack of living happily, as herself, the way a child learns at a particular moment to balance on a two-wheel bicycle. It seems she will be fine. She will not lose hope. She will not mourn her lost possibilities, her unexplored talents (what if she has no talents, after all?). She will remain devoted to her son, her husband, her home and duties, all her gifts. She will want this second child.

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  Mrs. Woolf

  She walks up Mt. Ararat Road, planning Clarissa Dalloway’s suicide. Clarissa will have had a love: a woman. Or a girl, rather; yes, a girl she knew during her own girlhood; one of those passions that flare up when one is young—when love and ideas seem truly to be one’s personal discovery, never before apprehended in quite this way; during that brief period of youth when one feels free to do or say anything; to shock, to strike out; to refuse the future that’s been offered and demand another, far grander and stranger, devised and owned wholly by oneself, owing nothing to old Aunt Helena, who sits every night in her accustomed chair and wonders aloud whether Plato and Morris are suitable reading for young women. Clarissa Dalloway, in her first youth, will love another girl, Virginia thinks; Clarissa will believe that a rich, riotous future is opening before her, but eventually (how, exactly, will the change be accomplished?) she will come to her senses, as young women

  do, and marry a suitable man.

  Yes, she will come to her senses, and marry.

  She will die in middle age. She will kill herself, probably, over some trifle (how can it be made convincing, tragic instead of comic?).

  That, of course, will occur later in the book, and by the time Virginia reaches that destination she hopes its precise nature will have revealed itself. For now, walking through Richmond, she focuses her thoughts on the question of Clarissa’s first love. A girl. The girl, she thinks, will be brash and captivating. She will scandalize the aunts by cutting the heads off dahlias and hollyhocks and floating them in great bowls of water, just as Virginia’s sister, Vanessa, has always done.

  Here on Mt. Ararat Road Virginia passes a stout woman, a familiar figure from the shops, a hale and suspicious old wife who walks two pugs on brandy-colored leashes, who carries an immense tapestry handbag in her other hand, and who, by her ostentatious ignoring of Virginia, clearly indicates that Virginia has, again, been talking aloud without quite realizing it. Yes, she can practically hear her own muttered words, scandalize the aunts, still streaming like a scarf behind her. Well, what of it? Brazenly, after the woman has passed, Virginia turns, fully prepared to stare down the woman’s surreptitious glance backward. Virginia’s eyes meet those of one of the pugs, which stares over its fawn-colored shoulder at her with an expression of moist, wheezing bafflement.

  She reaches Queen’s Road and turns back toward home,

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  thinking of Vanessa, of decapitated flowers floating in bowls of water.

  Although it is among the best of them, Richmond is, finally and undeniably, a suburb, only that, with all the word implies about window boxes and hedges; about wives walking pugs; about clocks striking the hours in empty rooms. Virginia thinks of the love of a girl. She despises Richmond. She is starved for London; she dreams sometimes about the hearts of cities. Here, where she has been taken to live for the last eight years precisely because it is neither strange nor marvelous, she is largely free of the headaches and voices, the fits of rage. Here all she desires is a return to the dangers of city life.

  On the steps of Hogarth House, she pauses to remember herself. She has learned over the years that sanity involves a certain measure of impersonation, not simply for the benefit of husband and servants but for the sake, first and foremost, of one’s own convictions. She is the author; Leonard, Nelly, Ralph, and the others are the readers. This particular novel concerns a serene, intelligent woman of painfully susceptible sensibilities who once was ill but has now recovered; who is preparing for the season in London, where she will give and attend parties, write in the mornings and read in the afternoons, lunch with friends, dress perfectly. There is true art in it, this command of tea and dinner tables; this animating correctness. Men may congratulate themselves for writing truly and passionately about the movements of nations; they may consider war and the search for God to be great literature’s only subjects; but if men’s standing in the world could be toppled by an ill

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  advised choice of hat, Engli
sh literature would be dramatically changed.

  Clarissa Dalloway, she thinks, will kill herself over something that seems, on the surface, like very little. Her party will fail, or her husband will once again refuse to notice some effort she’s made about her person or their home. The trick will be to render intact the magnitude of Clarissa’s miniature but very real desperation; to fully convince the reader that, for her, domestic defeats are every bit as devastating as are lost battles to a general.

  Virginia walks through the door. She feels fully in command of the character who is Virginia Woolf, and as that character she removes her cloak, hangs it up, and goes downstairs to the kitchen to speak to Nelly about lunch.

  In the kitchen, Nelly is rolling out a crust. Nelly is herself, always herself; always large and red, regal, indignant, as if she’d spent her life in an age of glory and decorum that ended, forever, some ten minutes before you entered the room. Virginia marvels at her. How does she remember, how does she manage, every day and every hour, to be so exactly the same?

  ‘‘Hello, Nelly,’’ Virginia says.

  ‘‘Hello, ma’am.’’ Nelly concentrates on the crust, as if her rolling pin were revealing faint but legible writing in the dough.

  ‘‘Is that a pie for lunch?’’

  ‘‘Yes, ma’am. I thought a lamb pie, there’s that lamb left over, and you was so hard at work this morning we didn’t speak.’’

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  ‘‘A lamb pie sounds lovely,’’ Virginia says, though she must work to stay in character. She reminds herself: food is not sinister. Do not think of putrefaction or feces; do not think of the face in the mirror.

  ‘‘I’ve got the cress soup,’’ Nelly says. ‘‘And the pie. And then I thought just some of them yellow pears for pudding, unless you’d like something fancier.’’

  Here it is, then: the challenge thrown down. Unless you’d like something fancier. So the subjugated Amazon stands on the riverbank wrapped in the fur of animals she has killed and skinned; so she drops a pear before the queen’s gold slippers and says, ‘‘Here is what I’ve brought. Unless you’d like something fancier.’’

  ‘‘Pears will be fine,’’ Virginia says, though of course pears will not be fine at all; not now. If Virginia had performed properly and appeared in the kitchen that morning to order lunch, the pudding could be almost anything. It could be blancmange or a souffle´; it could, in fact, be pears. Virginia could easily have walked into the kitchen at eight o’clock and said, ‘‘Let’s not bother much about the pudding today, pears will suit us perfectly.’’ But instead she skulked straightaway to her study, fearful that her day’s writing (that fragile impulse, that egg balanced on a spoon) might dissolve before one of Nelly’s moods. Nelly knows this, of course she knows, and in offering pears she reminds Virginia that she, Nelly, is powerful; that she knows secrets; that queens who care more about solving puzzles in their chambers than they do about the welfare of their people must take whatever they get.

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  Virginia picks up a curl of crust from the pastry board, molds it between her fingers. She says, ‘‘Do you remember that Vanessa and the children are coming at four?’’

  ‘‘Yes, ma’am, I remember.’’ Nelly lifts the crust with elaborate competence and drapes it into the pie pan. The tender, practiced movement reminds Virginia of diapering a baby, and briefly she feels like a girl witnessing, in awe and fury, the impenetrable competence of a mother.

  She says, ‘‘There should be China tea, I think. And sugared ginger.’’

  ‘‘China tea, ma’am? And ginger?’’

  ‘‘We’ve not had Vanessa in more than a fortnight. I’d prefer to give her something better than yesterday’s scraps for tea.’’

  ‘‘China tea and sugared ginger would mean London, they don’t sell that here.’’

  ‘‘The trains run on the half hour, the buses on the hour. Aren’t there other things we need in London?’’

  ‘‘Oh, there’s always things. It’s just, it’s half past eleven now, and luncheon is far from finished. Missus Bell comes at four. You said four, didn’t you?’’

  ‘‘Yes, and by four o’clock I meant the four o’clock that arrives almost five hours from now, now being exactly eight minutes past eleven. The twelve-thirty train would get you to London a few minutes past one. The two-thirty would deposit you back here just after three, quite promptly and safely, with the tea and ginger in hand. Am I miscalculating?’’

  ‘‘No,’’ says Nelly. She takes a turnip from the bowl and cuts off its end with a practiced flick of the knife. So, Virginia

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  thinks, she would like to slit my throat; just so, with an off hand stroke, as if killing me were another of the domestic chores that stand between her and sleep. That is how Nelly would murder, competently and precisely, the way she cooks, following recipes learned so long ago she does not experience them as knowledge at all. At this moment she would gladly cut Virginia’s throat like a turnip because Virginia neglected her own duties and now she, Nelly Boxall, a grown woman, is being punished for serving pears. Why is it so difficult dealing with servants? Virginia’s mother managed beautifully. Vanessa manages beautifully. Why is it so difficult to be firm and kind with Nelly; to command her respect and her love? Virginia knows just how she should enter the kitchen, how her shoulders should be set, how her voice should be motherly but not familiar, something like that of a governess speaking to a beloved child. Oh, let’s have something more than pears, Nelly, Mr. Woolf is in a mood today and I’m afraid pears won’t do nearly enough to sweeten his disposition. It should be so simple.

  She will give Clarissa Dalloway great skill with servants, a manner that is intricately kind and commanding. Her servants will love her. They will do more than she asks.

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  Mrs. Dalloway

  Entering the hallway with her flowers, Clarissa meets Sally on her way out. For a moment—less than a moment—she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman, harsh-faced, impatient, ten pounds lighter than she ought to be. For a moment, seeing this stranger in the hall, Clarissa is filled with tenderness and a vague, clinical disapproval. Clarissa thinks, She is so agitated and lovely. Clarissa thinks, She should never wear yellow, not even this deep mustard tone.

  ‘‘Hey,’’ Sally says. ‘‘Great flowers.’’

  They kiss quickly, on the lips. They are always generous with kisses.

  ‘‘Where are you going?’’ Clarissa asks.

  ‘‘Uptown. Lunch with Oliver St. Ives. Did I tell you? I can’t remember if I told you.’’

  ‘‘You didn’t.’’

  ‘‘Sorry. Do you mind?’’

  ‘‘Not at all. Nice to be having lunch with a movie star.’’

  ‘‘I cleaned like a demon in there.’’

  ‘‘Toilet paper?’’

  ‘‘There’s plenty. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’’

  ‘‘Bye.’’

  ‘‘The flowers are great,’’ Sally says. ‘‘Why do I feel nervous?’’

  ‘‘Having lunch with a movie star, I suppose.’’

  ‘‘It’s just Oliver. I feel like I’m abandoning you.’’

  ‘‘You’re not. Everything’s fine.’’

  ‘‘You’re sure?’’

  ‘‘Go. Have a good time.’’

  ‘‘Bye.’’

  They kiss again. Clarissa will speak to Sally, when the time seems right, about retiring the mustard-colored jacket.

  As she continues down the hall, she wonders over the pleasure she felt—what had it been?—just a little more than an hour earlier. At this moment, at eleven-thirty on a warm June day, the hallway of her building feels like an entrance to the realm of the dead. The urn sits in its niche and the brown-glazed floor tiles silently return, in muddied form, the elderly ocher light of the sconces. No, not the realm of the dead, exactly; there is something worse than death, with its promise of release and slumber. There is dust ri
sing, endless days, and a hallway that sits and sits, always full of the same brown light and the dank, slightly chemical smell that will do, until something more precise comes along, as the actual odor of age and

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  loss, the end of hope. Richard, her lost lover, her truest friend, is disappearing into his illness, his insanity. Richard will not accompany her, as planned, into old age.

  Clarissa lets herself into the apartment and immediately, oddly, feels better. A little better. There’s the party to think about. At least there’s that. Here is her home; hers and Sally’s; and although they’ve lived here together almost fifteen years she is still struck by its beauty and by their impossible good fortune. Two floors and a garden in the West Village! They are rich, of course; obscenely rich by the world’s standards; but not rich rich, not New York City rich. They had a certain amount to spend and they lucked into these pine-planked floors, this bank of casement windows that open onto the bricked patio where emerald moss grows in shallow stone troughs and a small circular fountain, a platter of clear water, burbles at the touch of a switch. Clarissa takes the flowers into the kitchen, where Sally has left a note (‘‘Lunch w. Oliver— did I forget to tell U?—back by 3 latest, XXXXX’’). Clarissa is filled, suddenly, with a sense of dislocation. This is not her kitchen at all. This is the kitchen of an acquaintance, pretty enough but not her taste, full of foreign smells. She lives elsewhere. She lives in a room where a tree gently taps against the glass as someone touches a needle to a phonograph record. Here in this kitchen white dishes are stacked pristinely, like holy implements, behind glassed cupboard doors. A row of old terra-cotta pots, glazed in various shades of crackled yellow, stand on the granite countertop. Clarissa recognizes these things but stands apart from them. She feels the presence of her own

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  ghost; the part of her at once most indestructibly alive and least distinct; the part that owns nothing; that observes with wonder and detachment, like a tourist in a museum, a row of glazed yellow pots and a countertop with a single crumb on it, a chrome spigot from which a single droplet trembles, gathers weight, and falls. She and Sally bought all these things, she can remember every transaction, but she feels now that they are arbitrary, the spigot and the counter and the pots, the white dishes. They are only choices, one thing and then another, yes or no, and she sees how easily she could slip out of this life— these empty and arbitrary comforts. She could simply leave it and return to her other home, where neither Sally nor Richard exists; where there is only the essence of Clarissa, a girl grown into a woman, still full of hope, still capable of anything. It is revealed to her that all her sorrow and loneliness, the whole creaking scaffold of it, stems simply from pretending to live in this apartment among these objects, with kind, nervous Sally, and that if she leaves she’ll be happy, or better than happy. She’ll be herself. She feels briefly, wonderfully alone, with everything ahead of her.

 
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