notes for a novel
think of these as preparatory notes, sketches, fragments to be fleshed out soon...
Hero: an autobiography
Elisabeth is a stranger to me, but I have to find her, have to learn her, so that I can be her. I am lucky, lots of people say they knew her, and she has left me clues – she wrote letters and two journals, one on paper and, latterly, one online. To live the life that she stepped out of and be seen to recover, I must first recover Elisabeth. If you were to be baptised by music what song would you choose? I was welcomed into the communion of the living by PJ Harvey. I was born fully formed, clothed in a hospital gown. The notes drifted to me as though through water. I was down deep and they were so far away. I reached for the sound, for the words, strange-familiar sounds. A woman’s voice:
“Dear god life aint kind. People getting born and dyin’. But I’ve heard there’s joy untold. Legs open like a road – in front of me.”
Latching on to the sounds as a way back up, my awareness grew: first light and shadow, then shapes. The ceiling was white, that gave me no clue as to who I was, aren’t all ceilings white, don’t they all have cracks? The music changed, now she sang ‘it’s a perfect day’ and perhaps it was. The room held more than the music and my sheet-covered body, in a corner was an orange moulded plastic chair with metal legs and, sitting on the chair, a man. I held his gaze. He looked tired, haggard and joyful.
As if ordained, the song changed, whispered: ‘the beauty of her in electric light’.
The man spoke, ‘Can you hear me?’
I nodded. Dragging the chair he moved closer, held my hand. I looked at my hand in his and saw that I was wearing a wedding ring, the pair of his. Now the mystery grew. My throat raw and jaw stiff I still managed to ask:
‘Who am I and who are you?’
I think that was more than a month ago – for me time passes unevenly – and since then I’ve come to understand a few things. I know that Elisabeth had a bad car crash, came off the road and hit a tree. She was taken to hospital. She was found unconscious, in a coma. That coma lasted for three days. During those three days Elisabeth’s husband didn’t leave her side. Remembering, as everyone does, that music can often be heard by those in a coma, he asked a friend to bring in Elisabeth’s favourite CDs and played them constantly. So it was that I woke to hear PJ Harvey singing. Today Elisabeth’s husband brought me ‘home’.
Elisabeth is a stranger to me, but I have to find her, have to learn her, so that I can be her. I am lucky, lots of people say they knew her, and she has left me clues – she wrote letters and two journals, one on paper and, latterly, one online. To live the life that she stepped out of and be seen to recover, I must first recover Elisabeth.
Tom is patient, kind, but he recognises the absence as much as I do. I ask him if it’s like a being caught up in a zombie movie.
“I see your mannerisms, the way you move, the things that catch your eye and I know that you are still my Elisabeth,” he said.
His faith is touching. With no memory I have no identity there is nothing to anchor this me to her ’I’. I am trying to learn my lines but the page is blank. I must walk in Elisabeth’s shoes, clothe myself in her fashion and follow the traces of her footsteps. I feel like a detective, but clueless.
Tom is excited to be driving me back to the house that was their home. I am not fearful of being in a car, but I am fearful of arriving. Every object, every sight is another chance for Tom to reach out to Elisabeth, another memory for me to learn. He fills the silence with explanations and stories; nothing it seems is without significance.
“It feels odd to see you in the passenger seat, you usually drive. Even though it went against your environmental ethics to be using the car, you so love to drive.
If you look out of the window to the left you can see BT tower and there’s Centre Point, your sense of direction is terrible so you always looked for landmarks. Do any of these buildings look familiar? Watching you navigate and learn routes by rote – a litany of landmarks and street names – was always fascinating.”
I realise that Tom is trying the same approach: he is laying a trail of breadcrumbs for Elisabeth to follow home.
“We’ve lived in this area for the last four years, although only two years in our current flat. You chose this flat and you chose our last flat too, you’re not always very good at remembering me. Oh shit, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that, it’s just that, oh damn.”
Tom subsides into embarrassed silence. He stops the car outside a tall redbrick building. Home isn’t a house after all. Why did I think it would be? We walk into a clean, but not luxurious lobby. Tom opens the lift door for me. Seeing my hesitation he pushes the button. Home is a small flat on the eighth floor, the top floor. I follow Tom’s lead, turn right and right again to reach a dark green front door. He unlocks it top and bottom.
“Here. We’re home again. Home again, home again jiggety jig.”
Tom is making tea. Earl Grey is apparently my favourite I take it white with no sugar. Earlier he showed me around the flat, it didn’t take long it’s very compact. Immediately to the left of the front door is the bathroom; only there’s no bath, just a shower, toilet and basin. Tom shows me how powerful the shower is – apparently this is one of the first things Elisabeth checked for when flat hunting.
“Here’s our room,” he said, “I don’t want to crowd you, so I’ll sleep in the other room while you’re getting better.”
The bed dominates the room. It’s low to the floor, squat and plain. Made out of red-stained wood it is incredibly solid. Tom saw me staring.
“I made this bed just before we met, you always loved that we were the only people to have slept in it, although you took a long time to get used to the futon. It’s really quite firm. Good for the back.”
The bedroom walls are white, the furniture mismatched and cheap looking. The room seems divided into two, on one side the surfaces are bare save for a wedding photo in a silver frame, on the other side chaos reigns – clothes are bundled in piles along with paper, books, pens and folders.
“Which side is mine?”
“You sleep on the right.” Tom says looking at the crumpled pillows. “Sorry, I should have made the bed this morning.”
“Don’t worry, perhaps we ought to change the sheets?”
I don’t want Tom to know that I don’t want to sleep in their bed, that it seems like he’s betraying his Elisabeth by wanting me to sleep in her place. Luckily he doesn’t notice my reluctance.
“How stupid of me, of course we’ll change the sheets. I should have done it before collecting you, I’m sorry, I know how much you love clean sheets.”
I looked at him oddly, the question on my lips.
“I haven’t been following your routine, I didn’t do the laundry on Monday, there have been so many other things going on. It’s so good to have you home again. Not because of the laundry.”
Tom’s explanations grind to a halt and we both looked embarrassed.
Looking at the reflection in a bedroom mirror, I am trying to reconcile my nascent awareness of self with the woman staring back at me. ‘Let’s start at the beginning,’ I said, ‘where else is there?’ But where exactly in time and space does the identity that got lost begin?
Tom – I can’t help thinking of him as a stranger, as her husband, disconnected to this tenuous ‘me’, but I’m hopeful that with time and practice the name won’t seem so cold on my tongue – has been telling me how he met Elisabeth and playing Lamb CDs to me. Tom tries to contextualise with music, to reach his Elisabeth beneath my uncomprehending gaze; his faith in its redemptive power reinforced by his success with PJ Harvey.
I’m going to note down the details as he told them to me so that I can memorise them. Later I’ll cross-reference with Elisabeth’s journal and with any other accounts I hear that catch an echo of her voice or a fleeting glimpse of her face.
Tom and Elisabeth met via an online dating site. He contacted her first. The last line of her description attracted him: ‘time wasters need not apply’. I’m thankful that he has kept their email correspondence, but not sure how much importance to give it. Is this four years out of date Elisabeth the self I need to become? Even with Tom as my only witness, I am aware that there are a multitude of Elisabeths to hunt down.
At first her replies are short one-liners. Tom wrote from home first thing in the morning. His emails are full of detail whereas her responses are pinched and reading the back and forth between them I think her lack of engagement is obvious. Tom says he was discouraged and nearly gave up on her.
If there was a turning point, Tom thinks that it was this unexpected response:
First the disclaimer. I get the impression that you want more from me, but I’m writing this in my lunch hour at work in a busy office so I don’t have the luxury of well thought out letters. And anyway, email isn’t conducive to the kind of letters that get anthologised in later years, even if I was capable of writing those kinds of things, which I’m not.
I was thinking about what to write to you last night to be more open as you’d asked and settled upon describing my biggest ambition, to understand this is, at least in part, to understand me. I want to build my own house. Not because I’m impossible to please, though that may be the case, but because I want intimate knowledge of every brick, girder, beam that shelters me. I want it to be a house of many rooms, for there to be space to dance on a sprung hardwood floor. I want the windows to be large – full of sunlight in summer, cloaked by heavy crimson velvet curtains in winter. I want the furniture in my house to be handcrafted. I value the simple and well made over the bright and gaudy. Texture is important for if you do not value how things feel against the skin you live a dead, numb life. Colour is energy on so many levels, I want the flexibility and purity of white so that wild and swirling accents can enter, become intimate and leave without ever being permanent enough to weigh upon my heart. And if I were to second-guess my future self I’d predict that tempestuous squalls of blue and green would be forever making their way through the rooms chased by luxuriously fleshy pinks.
Pottery. There is something so wonderfully solid about pottery, as if in every glazed pot, no matter how modern, there beats the heart of a Paleolithic Venus ready to nourish and succour us.
As to where this house will be… Near the sea, surrounded by a lush garden of scented herbs and vegetable delights. If this sounds unbearably bucolic I make no apologies. In fact I’d rather live within walking distance of all the urban amenities – the galleries, markets and theatres – though how to strike a balance eludes me.
Although this tells me a little about who I am supposed to be, it gives me nothing to hold onto. It is such an oblique turning point. Why was Tom attracted to this woman? I need an anchor. His response tells me nothing, except that he too would like to build his own home and create a Zen garden. I know that Tom weights this email with an immense importance, but why? I need to stop reading the courtship correspondence, as he calls it, and attempt to assimilate for a while.
Tom has left me alone for the morning. He needed time away from me I think, since he can’t mourn Elisabeth’s disappearance with her face in the room.
Elisabeth’s journal is heavy in my lap. Ring-bound it is covered in velvet the colour of fresh oxygenated blood, ruby. The pages are lined and her handwriting is erratic. Instead of starting at its beginning I am trying to find entries that match up with her email courtship with Tom. Each page is dated and, rather strange, postcoded. Elisabeth records herself in time and space. She moves around, frequently. Flicking through the pages I see Tripoli, NoHo, Melbourne and a clutch of different London addresses – none lasting for more than a few months. Time is unevenly folded, a beaten up concertina, months can pass with no entries then, for a week or two, every day deserves comment, sometimes a single day will have two or three entries. The long silences are never explained, never remarked upon.
I find the page I’m looking for: 1 July 2000. This is the day that Tom first emailed her. The entry is short and looks hurried; the blue biro ink scuttling across the page.
Sunday, 1 July 2000, NW10
Burning up, consumed from the inside out, skin like salted crackling. Cold shower earlier did nothing to soothe the heat of my thoughts. Helen in a white shift looking as though she had stepped straight out of H.D.’s imagination. I’m choking here need a breeze, cool air across my face. Planning to escape London soon, escape Helen’s gaze.
Work is an endless litany of details. Put in long hours today on the proofs, but still way behind schedule and find that I have no concentration for it. Crave cool stone corridors and darkness, a monastery cell, the scent of Mediterranean air, the clarity of lemon oil. Yet my mind returns to Helen, always Helen. My thoughts scatter and rearrange themselves – iron filings drawn to her without will or purpose.
Bleeding today, but with no sense of release. Blood is slow and dark, jellied by the heat perhaps. As ever, I’m loath to dam its stream. Nor will I dam (should that be damn?) this tide of passion, the trickle of sweat, this meandering account.
At what point does lust end and love begin?
The next page is covered with dried blood. So much to ask Tom. Does he know Helen; does he even know of Helen and what of H.D.? Should I read on until Tom is mentioned? I’ve looked at the wrong date anyway; she would have only read his opening letter the next day in the office. The next entry is several days later, she is still writing only short emails to Tom at this point.
Wednesday, 4 July, NW10
When, when will I be free of this schedule? Already books are going to press weeks later than they should. My brain is being fried by London’s dry heat. The air is unmoving and the pavements unforgiving. No word from Helen since the weekend, it seems she took the whispering breeze with her. I ache. I read today that fishermen have a phrase for the turning of the tide – they say the sea reconsiders. Is now a good time to launch ships or should I reconsider? It is, after all, Independence Day. What, I wonder, would the Americans advise?
I feel as though I’ve arrived late for a play – so many names and unknown characters. I must ask Tom for a list of dramatis personae. It seems the narrator is being upstaged already and the leading man is waiting in the wings and refuses to be hurried.