Mantissa, p.1

Mantissa, page 1

 

Mantissa


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Mantissa


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  Then, carefully examining what I was, and seeing that I could pretend that I had no body, that no outer world existed, and no place where I was; but that despite this I could not pretend that I did not exist; that, on the contrary, from the very fact that I was able to doubt the reality of the other things, it very clearly and certainly followed that I existed; whereas, if I had stopped thinking only, even though all I had ever conceived had been true, I had no reason to believe that I might have existed – from this I knew that I was a being whose whole essence or nature is confined to thinking and which has no need of a place, nor depends on any material thing, in order to exist. So that this I, that is to say the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, is even easier to know than the body, and furthermore would not stop being what it is, even if the body did not exist.

  – René Descartes, Discours de la Méthode

  SYLVIA: We must be serious now. My stars say I shall marry a man of distinction, and I’ll look at nothing less.

  DORANTE: If that were me I’d feel threatened, and go in fear of proving your horoscope. I’m an atheist over astrology… but a profound believer in your face.

  SYLVIA: (to herself) What a pest he is! (to Dorante) Will you stop this? What’s it matter to you that my destiny rules you out?

  DORANTE: It didn’t predict that I wouldn’t fall in love with you.

  SYLVIA: No, but it said it wouldn’t do you one bit of good, and I can tell you it’s right. You are capable of talking about something else besides love, I presume?

  DORANTE: From the moment you’re capable of not inspiring it.

  SYLVIA: Really, this is outrageous, I’m going to lose my temper. Once and for all, will you stop being in love with me!

  DORANTE: If you will stop being.

  – Marivaux, Le Jeu de l’Amour et du Hasard

  I

  They were generally represented as young,

  beautiful, modest virgins, were fond of

  solitude, and commonly appeared in differ-

  ent attire, according to the arts and

  sciences over which they presided.

  – Lemprière, under Musae

  IT was conscious of a luminous and infinite haze, as if it were floating, godlike, alpha and omega, over a sea of vapor and looking down; then less happily, after an interval of obscure duration, of murmured sounds and peripheral shadows, which reduced the impression of boundless space and empire to something much more contracted and unaccommodating. From there, with the swift fatality of a fall, the murmurs focused to voices, the shadows to faces. As in some obscure foreign film, nothing was familiar; not language, not location, not cast. Images and labels began to swim, here momentarily to coalesce, here to divide, like so many pond amoebae; obviously busy, but purposeless. These collocations of shapes and feelings, of associated morphs and phonemes, returned like the algebraic formulae of schooldays, lodged in the mind by ancient rote, though what the formulae now applied to, why they existed, was entirely forgotten. It was conscious, evidently; but bereft of pronoun, all that distinguishes person from person; and bereft of time, all that distinguishes present from past and future.

  For a while a pleasing intimation of superiority, of having somehow got to the top of the heap, still attached to this sense of impersonality. But even that was soon brutally dispersed by the relentless demon of reality. In a kind of mental somersault it was forced to the inescapable conclusion that far from augustly floating in the stratosphere, couched as it were in iambic pentameters, it was actually lying on its back in bed. Above the eyes presided a wall-lamp, a neat, rectangular, apposed white plastic panel. Light. Night. A small grey room, a pale grey, the color of a herring gull’s wing. Eternal limbo, at least eventless, tolerably nothing. If it had not been for the two women staring down.

  Obscurely reproached by the closer and more requiring face, it made another unwilling deduction: for some reason it was a center of attention, an I of sorts. The face smiled, descended, with a mixture of the solicitous and the skeptical, concern tainted with a perhaps involuntary suspicion of malingering.

  “Darling?”

  With another painfully swift and reducing intuition it realized it was not just an I, but a male I. That must be where the inrushing sense of belowness, impotence, foolishness came from. It, I, it must be he, watched the mouth glide down like a parachutist and land on his forehead. Touch and scent, this could not be film or dream. Now the face hovered over his. Whispered words issued from the red orifice.

  “Darling, you know who I am?”

  He stared.

  “I’m Claire.”

  Not at all clear.

  “Your wife, darling. Remember?”

  “Wife?”

  The most strangely alarming yet: to know one has spoken, but only by the proximity of the source of the sound. The brown eyes hinted at appalling depths of conjugal betrayal. He tried to attach word to person, person to self; failed; and finally shifted his eyes to the younger and more distant woman on the other side of the bed – who smiled as well, but professionally and indifferently. This person, hands in pockets, trimly observant, wore a white medical coat. Now her mouth also gave birth to words.

  “Can you tell me your name?”

  Of course. Name! No name. Nothing. No past, no whence or when. The abyss perceived, and almost simultaneously, its irremediability. He strained desperately, a falling man, but whatever he was trying to reach or grasp was not there. He clung to the white-coated woman’s eyes, abruptly and intensely frightened. She came a step or two closer.

  “I’m a doctor. This is your wife. Please look at her. Do you remember her? Do you remember having seen her before? Anything about her?”

  He looked. There was something expectant in the wife’s expression, and yet hurt, almost peeved, as if its owner resented both the stupidity of the procedure and his silent stare. She looked nervous and tired, she wore too much makeup; the air of someone who has put on a mask to prevent a scream. Above all she demanded something he was not able to give.

  Her mouth began to announce names, people’s names, street names, place names, disjointed phrases. Some were repeated. He had perhaps heard them before, as words; but he had no idea what relevance they were supposed to have, nor why they should increasingly sound like evidence of crimes he had committed. In the end he shook his head. He would have liked to close his eyes, to have peace to reforget, to be one again with the sleeping blank page of oblivion. The woman bent closer still, scrutinizing him.

  “Darling, please try. Please? Just for me?” She waited a second or two, then glanced up. “I’m afraid it’s no good.”

  Now the doctor leaned over him. He felt her fingers gently widen his eyelids, as she examined something about his pupils. She smiled down at him as if he were a child.

  “This is a private room in a hospital. You’re quite safe.”

  “Hospital?”

  “You know what a hospital is?”

  “Accident?”

  “A power cut.” A hint of dryness enlivened her dark eyes, a merciful straw of humor. “We’ll soon have you switched on again.”

  “I can’t remember who…”

  “Yes, we know.”

  The other woman s
poke. “Miles?”

  “What miles?”

  “Your name. Your name is Miles, darling. Miles Green.”

  The faintest flit of an alien object, a bat’s wing at dusk; but gone almost before it was apprehended.

  “What’s happened?”

  “Nothing, darling. Nothing that can’t be cured.”

  He knew that was wrong; and that she knew he knew. There was altogether too much knowing about her.

  “Who are you?”

  “Claire. Your wife.”

  She spoke the name again, queryingly, as if she began to doubt it herself. He looked away from her to the ceiling. It was odd, yet soothing; gull-grey, yes, gulls, one knew gulls; lightly domed, and quilted or padded into small squares, each of which was swollen out, pendent, with a little cloth-covered grey button at its center. The effect was of endless upside-down rows of miniature but perfectly regular molehills, or antheaps. Somewhere, in the momentary silence, a sound obtruded, the hitherto unnoticed ticking of a clock. The doctor leaned over him again.

  “What color are my eyes?”

  “Dark brown.”

  “My hair?”

  “Dark.”

  “Complexion?”

  “Pale. Smooth.”

  “How old do you think I am?” He stared. “Have a guess.”

  “Twenty-seven. Eight.”

  “Good.” She smiled, encouragingly; then went on in her briskly neutral voice. “Now. Who wrote Pickwick Papers?”

  “Dickens.”

  “A Midwinter Night’s Dream?” He stared again. “Don’t you know?”

  “Midsummer.”

  “Fine. Who?”

  “Shakespeare.”

  “Can you remember a character in it?”

  “Bottom.” He added, “Titania.”

  “Why do you remember those two in particular?”

  “God knows.”

  “When did you last see it acted?”

  He closed his eyes and thought, then opened them again and shook his head.

  “Never mind. Now – eight times eight?”

  “Sixty-four.”

  “Nineteen from thirty?”

  “Eleven.”

  “Good. Full marks.”

  She straightened. He wanted to say the answers had come from nowhere, that being mysteriously able to answer correctly only made incomprehension worse. He tried feebly to sit up, but something constrained him, the tight way the bedclothes were tucked in; and a volitional weakness, as in nightmares, where wanting to move and moving are aeons, or an eternal baby’s crib, apart.

  “Lie still, Mr. Green. You’ve been under sedation.”

  His secret alarm grew. Yet one could trust those alert and intent dark eyes. They held the muted irony of an old friend of the opposite sex – completely detached now, yet still harboring the ghost of a more affectionate interest. The other woman patted his shoulder, reclaiming her share of attention.

  “We must take it easy. Just for a few days.”

  He reluctantly transferred his look to her face; and derived from that “we” an instinct to displease.

  “I’ve never seen you before.”

  She laughed, a little noiseless gust, as if she were amused, he was so preposterous.

  “I’m afraid you have, my dear. Every day almost for the last ten years. We’re married. We have children. You must remember that.”

  “I don’t remember anything.”

  She took a breath, slightly bowed her head, then glanced again across at the doctor, who he now sensed shared, though it was veiled behind her bedside manner, his growing dislike of this implication of blame, or moral imperative. The woman was too anxious to establish an ownership of him; and one has to know who one is to wish to be owned. He felt an overwhelming desire to be inviolable: an object she might pretend to possess, he could not fight that, but not her tame pet to prove it. Best to regain the nothingness, the limbo, the grey, ticking silence. He let his eyelids fall. But almost at once he heard the doctor’s voice again.

  “I’d like to start some preliminary treatment now, Mrs. Green.”

  “Yes, of course.” He caught the wife-face making a simper across the bed, woman to woman. “It’s a relief to know he’s in such good hands.” Then, “You will let me know at once if…?”

  “At once. Don’t worry. This first disorientation is quite normal.”

  The woman, his alleged wife, looked down at him, still unconvinced, still tacitly accusing. He realized, but with irritation, not sympathy, that she was flustered, without a recipe for such situations.

  “Miles, I’ll be in again tomorrow.” He said nothing. “Please try and help the doctor. Everything’s going to be all right. The children are missing you.” She tried one last appeal. “Jane? Tom? David?”

  Her voice was almost wheedling, and made them sound more like overdue bills, past follies of spending, than children. She took another small breath, then bent and pecked him on the mouth. I plant this flag. This land is mine.

  He did not watch her leave, but lay looking up at the ceiling, his hands by his sides beneath the bedclothes. The two women spoke by the door in low voices, out of sight. Sedation. Power cut. Anaesthetic. Operation. He shifted his feet, then felt for the side of his legs. Bare skin. He felt higher. Bare skin. A door closed, the doctor was back beside him. She reached and pressed a bell-stud beside the bed, and scrutinized him for a moment.

  “You must try to understand it’s a shock for them as well. People don’t realize how much they rely on recognition as a proof they exist. When things like this happen, they feel scared. Insecure. Right?”

  “I’ve got nothing on.”

  She smiled briefly at the non sequitur; or perhaps at the notion that loss of clothes was more shocking than loss of memory.

  “You don’t need anything. It’s very warm. Much too warm, in fact.” She touched her own white tunic. “I wear nothing under this. They keep the thermostat so high, we’ve all complained about it. And not having any windows.” She said, “You know what a thermostat is?”

  “Somehow.”

  He craned a little, looking for the first time around the room. There was indeed no window, and hardly any furniture, no more than a small table and a chair in the far left-hand corner from where he lay. The walls were grey-quilted like the domed ceiling. Even the door opposite the foot of the bed was quilted. Only the floor had been spared, in some attempt to lighten the monotony of the rest: it was carpeted in a dull flesh-pink, the tone painters once called old rose. Quilting, padding, prison: the connection escaped him, but he sought the doctor’s eyes, and she must have guessed what he lacked words for.

  “For silence. The latest thing. Acoustic insulation. We shall move you out as soon as you start picking up.”

  “Clock.”

  “Yes.” She pointed. It hung on the wall behind him, near the corner to his left, an absurdly fussy and over-ornamented Swiss cuckoo clock, with an alpine gable and a small host of obscure shapes, peasants, cows, alpenhorns, edelweiss, heaven knows what else, carved on every available brown wooden surface. “It was left us by a previous patient. An Irish gentleman. We thought it added a human touch.”

  “It’s awful.”

  “It won’t disturb you. We’ve disconnected the striking mechanism. It doesn’t cuckoo anymore.”

  He remained staring at the hideous clock: its lunatically cluttered front, its dropped intestines of weights and chains. It did disturb him, standing for something he feared, he couldn’t say why; an anomaly, an incongruous reminder of all he could not remember.

  “Was he cured?”

  “His was rather a complex case.”

  He turned his head and looked up at her again. “He wasn’t?”

  “I’ll tell you about him when you’re better.”

  He digested that. “This isn’t –”

  “Isn’t what?”

  “Mad people?”

  “Heavens no. You’re as sane as I am. Probably saner.”

 
Now she sat on the edge of the bed, her arms folded, turned slightly towards him, as they waited for the bell to be answered. Two pens and a thermometer case were clipped inside an upper pocket of her tunic. Her dark hair was bound severely back at the nape, she wore no makeup; yet there was something elegantly classical about the face, of the Mediterranean. The skin was very clear, a warmth hidden in its paleness, perhaps she had Italian blood; not that she did not seem perfectly English in manner, obviously of well-bred, even upper-class, background, the sort of young woman whose intelligence had made her choose a serious profession rather than live in idleness. He wondered if she were not after all Jewish, a scion of one of those distinguished families who had long combined great wealth with scholarship and public service; then wondered from where on earth he could even wonder that. She reached a hand and patted the side of his body, to reassure him.

  “You’re going to be fine. We’ve had far worse.”

  “It’s like being a child again.”

  “I know. The treatment may not work at once. We must both be patient.” She smiled. “So to speak.” She stood and pressed the bell again beside the bed, then resumed her seat.

  “Where is this?”

  “The Central.” She watched him. He shook his head. She glanced down, said nothing for a moment, then looked at him with one of her quick quizzes. “I’m here to get that memory of yours back into circulation. You search. Everyone knows the Central.”

  He sought; and in some peculiar way knew both that the seeking was a waste of time and that there was something wise in not trying. It was not so unpleasant, after the first shock, this total severance from all one was or might be: to be not expected to do anything, to be free of a burden, forgotten in its kind, but deducible by its absence – a weight one had never seen, yet one’s mental back felt relieved. Above all there was the restfulness of being in this coolly competent young woman’s hands and care. A delicate neck and throat showed in the discreet V of the white tunic.

  “I wish I could see my face.”

  “I’m your mirror. Just for now.”

  He consulted it, and saw nothing distinct at all.

 
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