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Visitors
 


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Visitors


  ACCLAIM FOR Anita Brookner’s

  VISITORS

  “Brookner’s powers of observation and psychological acuity continue, in novel after novel, to produce elegant, spectacularly perceptive writing about what just lurks beneath the facade.”

  —The Miami Herald

  “Paragraph after paragraph shines with intelligence.… As beautiful as a perfectly executed 18th-century painting.”

  —The Philadelphia Inquirer

  “A particularly wise portrayal … a daring novel about the anxiety and alliances of old age.”

  —Christian Science Monitor

  “Quietly true to life.… Her triumph is subtle.”

  —People

  “Brookner, like Jane Austen before her, is a master of nuance, a wit of some repute, and a perfectionist in both plot and character.”

  —The Newark Sunday Star-Ledger

  “Quietly resplendent.… You may want to cheer as Dorothea May goes from a life of quiet desperation to quiet triumph.”

  —The Dallas Morning News

  “Another brilliantly quiet gem. The incomparably subtle Brookner puts soft, revealing touches on the face of loneliness as only the elderly know it.”

  —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  Anita Brookner

  VISITORS

  Anita Brookner is the author of seventeen finely crafted novels, including Dolly, Fraud, Altered States, and Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1984. An international authority on eighteenth-century painting, she became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University. She lives in London.

  ALSO BY Anita Brookner

  A Start in Life

  Providence

  Look at Me

  Hotel du Lac

  Family and Friends

  A Misalliance

  A Friend from England

  Latecomers

  Lewis Percy

  Brief Lives

  A Closed Eye

  Fraud

  Dolly

  A Private View

  Incidents in the Rue Laugier

  Altered States

  Visitors is a work of fiction. The characters in it have been invented by the author. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.

  FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, JANUARY 1999

  Copyright © 1997 by Anita Brookner

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardback in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, a division of Random House UK, London, in 1998.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged

  the Random House edition as follows:

  Brookner, Anita.

  Visitors / Anita Brookner.

  p. cm.

  I. Title.

  PR 6052.R5816V57 1998 823’.914—dc21 97–10494

  eISBN: 978-0-307-82632-9

  Author photograph © Jerry Bauer

  www.randomhouse.com

  v3.1

  Contents

  Cover

  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Towards evening the oppressive heat was tempered by a slight breeze, although this merely served to power drifts and eddies of a warmth almost tropical in its intensity. But this was England: somewhere in the atmosphere was a memory of damp. Truth to tell, the day had been almost uncomfortable: one was not used to such temperatures. The light, however, compensated for everything. Not quite crystal clear, but blinding in the absence of cloud, and gaining authority from the becalmed stillness of the garden, it put Mrs May in mind of novels and stories celebrating gardens other than her own, gardens which were part of estates, demesnes, where richly endowed families conversed in idleness, sat on terraces, or awaited visitors. ‘What meads, what kvasses were brewed, what pies were baked at Oblomovka!’ The great sun, clearer then, must have shone down on that Russia as it did now in London, at six o’clock on a Sunday evening in early September. It was the hour at which she was accustomed to experience a slight failure of nerve. At seventy she understood how closely she was being subsumed into the natural process, feared the dark, welcomed the light. On this particular day the sun had provided a respite from bodily ills; she identified with its power, put her faith in its continuation. The sun was constant, encouraging one to regard it as a familiar. Winter, even autumn, seemed far away, almost unimaginable. She shut her mind against both.

  There was Turner’s sun, of course, a real English sun, dilute in the watery atmosphere, mirrored in the inevitable sea beneath. There was the great sun of antiquity, of which perhaps just an echo reached one at torrid midday. And there was the sadness with which one saw it depart, even though the resulting slight drop in temperature was refreshing. This, for Mrs May, signalled the end of the day, even though some hours remained before she could decently go to bed. And she must not anticipate those darker hours which were to her so precious: solemn hours, hours of infinite recall, of the mind on automatic pilot, throwing up fragments of conversations decades old, or memories of a school-friend not seen for even longer, until that other ancient god, sleep, conducted her into what she privately thought of as her true dimension, in which she became a vivid actor, weightless and sometimes joyful, embroiled in obscure adventures which puzzled her only when she woke. More troubling dreams she was able to discount: the effect of old age, she imagined, since nothing so very terrible had befallen her, although it almost certainly would do in that very near future about which she preferred not to think. The body would betray her; the body was therefore taboo, glanced at without amenity in the bath, and ignored once it was covered. It still functioned, more or less, although there were now pills to hand in both bedroom and bathroom. It was almost a comfort to her to know that there was no-one intimate enough to share the stoicism and distaste with which she endured herself. Strangers, introduced to her for the first time, assumed that she had never married, thinking her self-sufficiency no more than the sum of others’ indifference. That was their business; hers was to give no sign of anything out of order. This she succeeded in doing. Unbeknown to herself, she was considered slightly forbidding. She had few friends now, but that, she thought, spared her the pain of losing them.

  When she closed the French doors to the garden she was surprised how dark it seemed in the flat. On this ground floor of an Edwardian mansion block darkness was to be expected. She did not particularly mind this; in winter it intensified the pleasures of reading. The advantage was direct access to the extensive communal garden. She was told, even by relative strangers, that she put herself at risk by leaving her doors and windows open, but she was not nervous, although everyone she knew seemed to be, on guard against imaginary dangers. She was a Londoner born and bred, but she liked to imagine country emanations in the stillness of the early morning. She rose at half past five, donned her late husband’s dressing gown, made tea, and took a tray out to the small table she was entitled to place on that portion of the terrace that was judged to be hers. This too was a blessed hour. At six-thirty, when she thought there might be neighbours about, she went in and had her bath. Dressed, the imperfections of her body superficially disguise
d, she would sigh briefly and prepare to confront the day. This was sometimes difficult.

  Mondays were substantially different from Sundays, even for those who no longer worked. On Monday morning there was a tension in the air, which she could sense even as she drank her early morning tea, in solitude, without a newspaper, without the radio, with nothing to alert her to the day’s events. Monday mornings made her feel vaguely ashamed of her idleness, of her unpartnered state, though neither was blameworthy. Rather she had been cast up on the barren shore of old age by a process of natural wastage, and she in her turn would disappear, unlamented. Given the inevitable disappointments of Monday, Sunday had to be prolonged, particularly such a resplendent Sunday as this had been. She stood at the window gazing out, until the outline of the trees turned a more sombre green. It would soon be dim enough to light her lamps, although left on her own, as she invariably was these days, she preferred not to bother.

  It was at this point on a Sunday evening that her thoughts turned to Henry, her husband, and their past Sundays, unvarying, obligatory, occasionally enriching. For there was no time to enjoy the garden on those distant Sundays, but rather an afternoon trip to Hampstead, to visit Henry’s twin sister, Rose, whom they could not disappoint. Henry had felt guilty at abandoning his sister; he had married not once but twice, leaving Rose forlorn. It had taken Mrs May, the second wife, a whole afternoon to understand that Rose was of rather feeble intelligence, not quite backward or retarded, but responding best to a sheltered life, looked after by her parents’ former housekeeper. She had somehow imbibed a little knowledge, mainly from the Swiss establishment to which they had sent her; she had certainly acquired exquisite manners, though these might simply have been the natural outcome of her quiet nature. Her welcome was rapturous; she ran to her brother like the girl she had once been, though she was now a stout woman in her late fifties. Dressed, scented, she awaited their arrival with a girl’s ardour.

  After Henry had disengaged himself from her embrace it was the turn of Mrs May to be exclaimed over, patted, and led to a chair. Coming from a naturally austere background, she had found this alarming, until, timidly at first, she allowed herself to relax, for there was nothing of which to be afraid. There was little conversation, but a wealth of largely mimed gratification. She sat in a chair next to Rose and allowed her hand to be stroked; she admired Rose’s clumsy embroidery until Henry returned from the kitchen and his settling of the household’s accounts. The tea was served, with the cakes of which Rose was so fond. Henry teased and indulged her like the child she still was, and although she did not quite understand that he had become a man and she therefore a woman, she laughed delightedly at his remarks, hearing the sound of his voice rather than the sense of his words.

  Mrs May said little but was attentive, removing a slopped saucer, unobtrusively substituting a dry one, marvelling quietly at Rose’s dexterity with a cake fork when her remarks were so random and repetitive. But there was always the delighted laughter, until Henry looked at his watch and announced that it was time that they were on their way. Then there were tears, and the housekeeper had to intervene, to put an end to Rose’s prayerful embraces, and lead her to the window for the last goodbye. ‘Until next week, Rose,’ Henry would say, but she did not quite believe him. They waved exhaustively, until they saw her form retreat into the room behind her. Then Henry would shake off the burden of the visit, and they would walk back into town, glad of the activity. A different Sunday then impinged on their consciousness: tourists in T-shirts, tired children, decorous Asian shopkeepers and their families strolling in the park. All this, which could have been entertaining, became alien, as they silently compared it with the life, or half life, they had just left. Henry would sigh intermittently throughout the evening, though Mrs May was naturally equable. She was more than willing to share Henry with his sister; for both of them Henry was of equal importance. Tired, therefore, but uncomplaining, she would set about preparing the evening meal, with scarcely a glance through the window at the garden.

  And they were both dead, both Henry and Rose, within weeks of each other. Rose, supported by various cousins, had fainted at Henry’s funeral, although that had been as sparse and unemotional as Mrs May could contrive it. In that other garden, at Golders Green, Rose had finally understood the facts of death. An ambulance was called; in the ambulance she had a stroke, and in the hospital soon surrendered what consciousness she had left. Her bedside was thronged with those same relatives. Mrs May came and went silently. And then it was over. The relatives dispersed, and she was alone.

  Alone except for the telephone calls, routinely made on a Sunday evening to ascertain that she was still alive. Henry’s married cousins, Kitty Levinson, Molly Goodman, his doctor and distant connection, Monty Goldmark, all paid her faithful though absent-minded attention. She felt herself to be a stranger in their midst, a truth on which agreement was more or less unanimous. Hospitality was invariably offered, but at the same time there was a tacit acceptance that she would continue her alien life at a distance. Both parties felt some relief at this convention; the cousins, guilty at even feeling relief, redoubled their expressions of goodwill. Again there was little conversation. Mrs May was in no doubt that the calls were motivated by love for the absent Henry rather than for herself. She did not take exception to this; she knew that Henry had been a superior character, that she was little more than his shadow, his relict. It was because they felt so sorry for any woman whom Henry had left alone that their ready emotions overflowed on Sunday evenings, as if even they acknowledged the sadness of those hours, sadness that was perhaps little more than a pause for unwanted reflection, and the knowledge that time was slipping away.

  The conversations seemed to follow an unseen rota, as if Kitty had previously agreed with Molly which one of them was to undertake the task. Mrs May took a small wager with herself as to who was shouldering the obligation on any particular week. If anything she dreaded the interruption of the silence in which she now lived, yet once the routine enquiries had been exchanged she surrendered almost pleasurably to Kitty’s or Molly’s invariable recital: their health, the health of their husbands, the dinner party of the week, the menu served at the dinner party, the projected visit to Kitty or to Molly, whoever was speaking or not speaking, reminiscences of Rose, whom these good women had been assiduous in visiting on days other than those sacrosanct Sundays, the fears they had entertained on Rose’s behalf after the death of her parents, the subsequent splendid behaviour of Henry, and ultimately of herself. This was what really spurred them to keep in touch, not her own health (monotonously good, they supposed, since she never complained), not the reminiscences, but their own unquestioning acceptance of Henry’s priorities. Even though she remained so puzzling a stranger, she was still Henry’s wife.

  It seemed to surprise them that one not of their immediate kin could identify so closely with Henry’s life, and Mrs May could not tell them that Henry had been her subject, as if she had been studying him for a degree and was intent on knowing as much of him as it would be discreet of her to know, without impinging on his own sorely tested privacy. She was a novel reader, which helped, and the cousins were not. So she could not explain her deep appreciation of the differences that existed between them. Henry was festive, emotional, easily moved, extravagant; when he brought her flowers his own cheeks would flush with pleasure. Her own response, though outwardly moderate, was deep. How to explain this to Molly or to Kitty, whose own husbands were usually described in terms of physical ailments? So that the telephone calls were usually a disappointment, at least on their side. After her meagre stock of news was exhausted, after she had made the usual response to accounts of the rheumatism or the recipe for lemon chicken, aware that she was letting them down, and sincerely sorry for the fact, she would ask after every extended family member—fortunately her memory was excellent—and thus repair her reputation.

  ‘I hope you’re looking after yourself, Thea,’ was usually the concludin
g remark. ‘What are you eating tonight?’

  ‘Gazpacho and baked cod,’ she would say, or, ‘Cold tongue with Madeira sauce.’

  In fact she would eat a banana, as she usually did, and settle down with a book. Kitty or Molly would then think more kindly of her, guiltily reassured once again, although after the call they would telephone each other to deplore her coldness. This too she knew and did not resent.

  For if they pitied her she did not pity herself. She had had Henry, so puzzlingly absent. His presence was somehow denied her, owing perhaps to that same rationality or coldness that the cousins deplored. For she could not tell of the loyalty, and gratitude, that had united her with Henry, and was therefore judged unfeeling. Because nothing had prepared her for this unlikely marriage she was profoundly surprised to be acknowledged as a wife. Not to be found a novice, to be made a companion, was her endowment from Henry. Yet there were no photographs of him in the flat, and she was not afraid of the dark, nor did she commune sentimentally with his shade. Simply, he was gone, leaving her as alone now as when he had found her, neither more nor less. As a widow she cut a poor figure, she knew. If she wished for anything now it was to be left alone, to furnish her own silence. She knew that she was approaching the end of her life, and that silence was appropriate. She was unaware that she gave no sign of this, and was thus not understood. But to express her acceptance of these facts, of this situation, would be to invite the charge of morbidity, which she rejected with something of the same distaste as would be felt by Kitty or Molly if she so much as voiced her thoughts. Therefore her conversation consisted largely of enquiries as to the health and welfare of her interlocutor. These protected her and at the same time gave pleasure, easing her into another week with a consciousness of duties fulfilled and obligations discharged. Without this consciousness she would have felt undressed.

 
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