The hours, p.6
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       The Hours, p.6

           Michael Cunningham
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  ‘‘We’ve been over and over this. You know who’s coming.’’

  ‘‘Tell me one more name, won’t you? Tell me the name of someone heroic.’’

  ‘‘Martin Campo is heroic, don’t you think? He’s sunk his entire family fortune into publishing important, difficult books he knows won’t sell.’’

  Richard closes his eyes, leans his gaunt head back against the worn, oily nubble of the chair. ‘‘All right, then,’’ he says.

  ‘‘You don’t need to charm or entertain. You don’t need to put in a performance. These people have believed in you for a long, long while. All you have to do is appear, sit on the sofa with or without a drink in your hand, listen or not listen, smile or not smile. That’s it. I’ll watch out for you.’’

  She would like to take him by his bony shoulders and shake him, hard. Richard may (although one hesitates to think in quite these terms) be entering the canon; he may at these last moments in his earthly career be receiving the first hints of a recognition that will travel far into the future (assuming, of course, there is any future at all). A prize like this means more than the notice of a congress of poets and academics; it means that literature itself (the future of which is being shaped right now) seems to feel a need for Richard’s particular contribution: his defiantly prolix lamentations over worlds either vanishing or lost entirely. While there are no guarantees, it does seem possible, and perhaps even better than possible, that Clarissa and the small body of others have been right all along. Richard the dense, the wistful, the scrutinizing, Richard who observed so minutely and exhaustively, who tried to split the atom with words, will survive after other, more fashionable names have faded.

  And Clarissa, Richard’s oldest friend, his first reader—Clarissa who sees him every day, when even some of his more recent friends have come to imagine he’s already died—is throwing him a party. Clarissa is filling her home with flowers and candles. Why shouldn’t she want him to come?

  Richard says, ‘‘I’m not really needed there, am I? The party can go on just with the idea of me. The party has already happened, really, with or without me.’’

  ‘‘Now you’re being impossible. I’m going to lose my patience soon.’’ ‘‘No, please, don’t be angry. Oh, Mrs. D., the truth is, I’m

  embarrassed to go to this party. I’ve failed so terribly.’’

  ‘‘Don’t talk like that.’’

  ‘‘No, no. You’re kind, you’re very kind, but I’m afraid I failed, and that’s that. It was just too much for me. I thought I was a bigger figure than I was. Can I tell you an embarrassing secret? Something I’ve never told anyone?’’

  ‘‘Of course you can.’’

  ‘‘I thought I was a genius. I actually used that word, privately, to myself.’’


  ‘‘Oh, pride, pride. I was so wrong. It defeated me. It simply proved insurmountable. There was so much, oh, far too much for me. I mean, there’s the weather, there’s the water and the land, there are the animals, and the buildings, and the past and the future, there’s space, there’s history. There’s this thread or something caught between my teeth, there’s the old woman across the way, did you notice she switched the donkey and the squirrel on her windowsill? And, of course, there’s time. And place. And there’s you, Mrs. D. I wanted to tell part of the story of part of you. Oh, I’d love to have done that.’’

  ‘‘Richard. You wrote a whole book.’’

  ‘‘But everything’s left out of it, almost everything. And then I just stuck on a shock ending. Oh, now, I’m not looking for sympathy, really. We want so much, don’t we?’’

  ‘‘Yes. I suppose we do.’’

  ‘‘You kissed me beside a pond.’’

  ‘‘Ten thousand years ago.’’

  ‘‘It’s still happening.’’

  ‘‘In a sense, yes.’’

  ‘‘In reality. It’s happening in that present. This is happening in this present.’’

  ‘‘You’re tired, darling. You must rest. I’m going to call Bing about your medicine, all right?’’

  ‘‘Oh, I can’t, I can’t rest. Come here, come closer, would you, please?’’

  ‘‘I’m right here.’’

  ‘‘Closer. Take my hand.’’


  Clarissa takes one of Richard’s hands in hers. She is surprised, even now, at how frail it is—how palpably it resembles a bundle of twigs.

  He says, ‘‘Here we are. Don’t you think?’’

  ‘‘Pardon me?’’

  ‘‘We’re middle-aged and we’re young lovers standing beside a pond. We’re everything, all at once. Isn’t it remarkable?’’


  ‘‘I don’t have any regrets, really, except that one. I wanted to write about you, about us, really. Do you know what I mean? I wanted to write about everything, the life we’re having and the lives we might have had. I wanted to write about all the ways we might die.’’

  ‘‘Don’t regret anything, Richard,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘There’s no need, you’ve done so much.’’

  ‘‘It’s kind of you to say so.’’

  ‘‘What you need right now is a nap.’’

  ‘‘Do you think so?’’

  ‘‘I do.’’

  ‘‘All right, then.’’

  She says, ‘‘I’ll come to help you get dressed. How’s three-thirty?’’

  ‘‘It’s always wonderful to see you, Mrs. Dalloway.’’

  ‘‘I’m going to go now. I’ve got to get the flowers in water.’’

  ‘‘Yes. My, yes.’’

  She touches his thin shoulder with her fingertips. How is it possible that she feels regret? How can she imagine, even now, that they might have had a life together? They might have been


  husband and wife, soul mates, with lovers on the side. There are ways of managing.

  Richard was once avid and tall, sinewy, bright and pale as milk. He once strode through New York in an old military coat, talking excitedly, with the dark tangle of his hair tied impatiently away from his face by a length of blue ribbon he’d found.

  Clarissa says, ‘‘I’ve made the crab thing. Not that I imagine that’s any kind of serious inducement.’’

  ‘‘Oh, you know how I love the crab thing. It does make a difference, of course it does. Clarissa?’’


  He lifts his massive, ravaged head. Clarissa turns her face sideways, and receives Richard’s kiss on her cheek. It’s not a good idea to kiss him on the lips—a common cold would be a disaster for him. Clarissa receives the kiss on her cheek, squeezes Richard’s thin shoulder with her fingertips.

  ‘‘I’ll see you at three-thirty,’’ she says.

  ‘‘Wonderful,’’ Richard says. ‘‘Wonderful.’’


  Mrs . Wo olf

  She looks at the clock on the table. Almost two hours have passed. She still feels powerful, though she knows that tomorrow she may look back at what she’s written and find it airy, overblown. One always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper. She takes a sip of cold coffee, and allows herself to read what she’s written so far.

  It seems good enough; parts seem very good indeed. She has lavish hopes, of course—she wants this to be her best book, the one that finally matches her expectations. But can a single day in the life of an ordinary woman be made into enough for a novel? Virginia taps at her lips with her thumb. Clarissa Dalloway will die, of that she feels certain, though this early it’s impossible to say how or even precisely why. She will, Virginia believes, take her own life. Yes, she will do that.

  Virginia lays down her pen. She would like to write all day,


  to fill thirty pages instead of three, but after the first hours something within her falters, and she worries that if she pushes beyond her limits she will taint the whole enterprise. She will let it wander into a realm of incoherence f
rom which it might never return. At the same time, she hates spending any of her cogent hours doing anything but writing. She works, always, against the fear of relapse. First come the headaches, which are not in any way ordinary pain (‘‘headache’’ has always seemed an inadequate term for them, but to call them by any other would be too melodramatic). They infiltrate her. They inhabit rather than merely afflict her, the way viruses inhabit their hosts. Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with a life of its own. She might see it while walking with Leonard in the square, a scintillating silver-white mass floating over the cobblestones, randomly spiked, fluid but whole, like a jellyfish. ‘‘What’s that?’’ Leonard would ask. ‘‘It’s my headache,’’ she’d answer. ‘‘Please ignore it.’’

  The headache is always there, waiting, and her periods of freedom, however long, always feel provisional. Sometimes the headache simply takes partial possession for an evening or a day or two, then withdraws. Sometimes it remains and increases until she herself subsides. At those times the headache moves out of her skull and into the world. Everything glows and


  pulses. Everything is infected with brightness, throbbing with it, and she prays for dark the way a wanderer lost in the desert prays for water. The world is every bit as barren of darkness as a desert is of water. There is no dark in the shuttered room, no dark behind her eyelids. There are only greater and lesser degrees of radiance. When she’s crossed over to this realm of relentless brilliance, the voices start. Sometimes they are low, disembodied grumblings that coalesce out of the air itself; sometimes they emanate from behind the furniture or inside the walls. They are indistinct but full of meaning, undeniably masculine, obscenely old. They are angry, accusatory, disillusioned. They seem sometimes to be conversing, in whispers, among themselves; they seem sometimes to be reciting text. Sometimes, faintly, she can distinguish a word. ‘‘Hurl,’’ once, and ‘‘under’’ on two occasions. A flock of sparrows outside her window once sang, unmistakably, in Greek. This state makes her hellishly miserable; in this state she is capable of shrieking at Leonard or anyone else who comes near (fizzling, like devils, with light); and yet this state when protracted also begins to enshroud her, hour by hour, like a chrysalis. Eventually, when enough hours have passed, she emerges bloodied, trembling, but full of vision and ready, once she’s rested, to work again. She dreads her lapses into pain and light and she suspects they are necessary. She has been free for quite some time now, for years. She knows how suddenly the headache can return but she discounts it in Leonard’s presence, acts more firmly healthy than she sometimes feels. She will return to London. Better to die raving mad in London than evaporate in Richmond.


  She decides, with misgivings, that she is finished for today. Always, there are these doubts. Should she try another hour? Is she being judicious, or slothful? Judicious, she tells herself, and almost believes it. She has her two hundred and fifty words, more or less. Let it be enough. Have faith that you will be here, recognizable to yourself, again tomorrow.

  She takes her cup, with its cold dregs, and walks out of the room and down the stairs to the printing room, where Ralph is reading the page proofs as Leonard finishes with them.

  ‘‘Good morning,’’ Ralph says brightly and nervously to Virginia. His broad, placid, handsome face is red, his forehead practically aglow, and she can immediately see that, for him, it is not a good morning at all. Leonard must have growled at some inefficiency, either of recent vintage or left over from yesterday, and now Ralph sits reading proofs and saying ‘‘Good morning’’ with the flushed ardency of a scolded child.

  ‘‘Good morning,’’ she answers, in a voice that is cordial but carefully unsympathetic. These young men and women, these assistants, will come and go; already Marjorie has been hired (with her terrible drawl, and where is she just now?) to do the jobs Ralph considers beneath him. It won’t be long, surely, before Ralph and then Marjorie have gone on and she, Virginia, emerges from her study to find someone new wishing her a red-faced, chastened good morning. She knows Leonard can be gruff, stingy, and all but impossibly demanding. She knows these young people are often criticized unfairly but she will not side with them against him. She will not be the mother who intervenes, much as they beg her to with their eager smiles


  and wounded eyes. Ralph, after all, is Lytton’s worry, and Lytton is welcome to him. He, like his brothers or sisters to come, will go on and do whatever they do in the greater world—no one expects them to make a career out of assisting at the press. Leonard may be autocratic, he may be unfair, but he is her companion and caretaker, and she will not betray him, certainly not for handsome, callow Ralph, or Marjorie, with her parakeet’s voice.

  ‘‘There are ten errors in eight pages,’’ Leonard says. The brackets around his mouth are so deep you could slip a penny in.

  ‘‘Lucky to have found them,’’ Virginia says.

  ‘‘They seem to congregate around the middle section. Do you think bad writing actually attracts a higher incidence of misfortune?’’

  ‘‘How I’d love to live in a world in which that were true. I’m going for a walk to clear my head, then I’ll come and pitch in.’’

  ‘‘We’re making good progress,’’ Ralph says. ‘‘We should be through by the end of the day.’’

  ‘‘We shall be lucky,’’ Leonard says, ‘‘to be through by this time next week.’’

  He glowers; Ralph turns a finer and more precise shade of red. Of course, she thinks. Ralph set the type, and did it carelessly. The truth, she thinks, sits calmly and plumply, dressed in matronly gray, between these two men. It does not reside with Ralph, the young foot soldier, who appreciates literature but appreciates also, with equal or perhaps greater fervor, the


  brandy and biscuits waiting when the day’s work is done; who is good-hearted and unexceptional and can barely be counted on to perpetuate, in his allotted span, the ordinary business of the ordinary world. The truth likewise does not (alas) reside with Leonard, brilliant and indefatigable Leonard, who refuses to distinguish between setback and catastrophe; who worships accomplishment above all else and makes himself unbearable to others because he genuinely believes he can root out and reform every incidence of human fecklessness and mediocrity.

  ‘‘I’m sure,’’ she says, ‘‘that between us we can get the book into some sort of acceptable shape, and still have Christmas.’’

  Ralph grins at her with a relief so visible she has an urge to slap him. He overestimates her sympathy—she has spoken not on his behalf but on Leonard’s, in much the way her own mother might have made light of a servant’s blunder during dinner, declaring for the sake of her husband and all others present that the shattered tureen portended nothing; that the circle of love and forbearance could not be broken; that all were safe.


  Mr s. Brown

  Life, London, this moment of June.

  She begins sifting flour into a blue bowl. Outside the window is the brief interlude of grass that separates this house from the neighbors’; the shadow of a bird streaks across the blinding white stucco of the neighbors’ garage. Laura is briefly, deeply pleased by the shadow of the bird, the bands of brilliant white and green. The bowl on the counter before her is a pale, chalky, slightly faded blue with a thin band of white leaves at the rim. The leaves are identical, stylized, slightly cartoonish, canted at rakish angles, and it seems perfect and inevitable that one of them has suffered a small, precisely triangular nick in its side. A fine white rain of flour falls into the bowl.

  ‘‘There we are,’’ she says to Richie. ‘‘Do you want to see?’’

  ‘‘Yes,’’ he answers.

/>   She kneels to show him the sifted flour. ‘‘Now. We have to


  measure out four cups. Oh, my. Do you know how many four


  He holds up four fingers. ‘‘Good,’’ she says. ‘‘Very good.’’

  At this moment she could devour him, not ravenously but adoringly, infinitely gently, the way she used to take the Host into her mouth before she married and converted (her mother will never forgive her, never). She is full of a love so strong, so unambiguous, it resembles appetite.

  ‘‘You’re such a good, smart boy,’’ she says.

  Richie grins; he looks ardently into her face. She looks back at him. They pause, motionless, watching each other, and for a moment she is precisely what she appears to be: a pregnant woman kneeling in a kitchen with her three-year-old son, who knows the number four. She is herself and she is the perfect picture of herself; there is no difference. She is going to produce a birthday cake—only a cake—but in her mind at this moment the cake is glossy and resplendent as any photograph in any magazine; it is better, even, than the photographs of cakes in magazines. She imagines making, out of the humblest materials, a cake with all the balance and authority of an urn or a house. The cake will speak of bounty and delight the way a good house speaks of comfort and safety. This, she thinks, is how artists or architects must feel (it’s an awfully grand comparison, she knows, maybe even a little foolish, but still), faced with canvas, with stone, with oil or wet cement. Wasn’t a book like Mrs. Dalloway once just empty paper and a pot of ink? It’s only a cake, she tells herself. But still. There are cakes and then there are cakes. At this moment, holding a bowl full of sifted flour


  in an orderly house under the California sky, she hopes to be as satisfied and as filled with anticipation as a writer putting down the first sentence, a builder beginning to draw the plans. ‘‘Okeydoke,’’ she says to Richie. ‘‘You do the first one.’’

  She hands him a bright aluminum cup measure. It is the first time he’s been entrusted with a job like this. Laura sets a second bowl, empty, on the floor for him. He holds the measuring cup in both hands.

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