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Marina

The gate is stiff and creaks. It opens onto steps: leading to the sandy gravel of the Tuileries. Stepping through the gate, Marina thinks, is like descending into a quiet space, is like finding an oasis, a respite from the citys noise and endeavour. She wears a light beige mackintosh. It is belted around her waist. Underneath are a denim jacket and a black polo-necked sweater. Around her neck she has tied a silk scarf. Her black leather shoes, their heels slightly raised, click off the hard stone. It is a bright morning. Sun shines down on the city. Over the bare trees thin tracts of cloud break the blue. Boughs are cut and pruned for the approaching spring. Already, branches are showing the first tiny buds. Marinas feet sink into the gravel. She feels it pull against her steps, as if trying to hold her for a moment. With her hands in her pockets, her back straight, she moves toward a line of trees. There, the spread of branches seems to diminish the complexity of the city. And there are always seats present. Offhandedly placed as though to invite those passing to sit, to stop and pause on wherever their journey is taking them. Her face is pale. The delicate tones of her skin are whitened in the cold. Her eyes are all the brighter in the soft sunlight. The red of her lipstick is deeper against her skin. Her hair, cut to just below her ears, is blond. Yet along the parting, where it falls to the sides, there are dark roots. And around her eyes, in the corners are fine wrinkles. Marina sits, crosses her legs and pulling her coat over her knees takes a letter from her pocket. She opens it. A light breeze blows through the branches of the trees. Carefully flattening the folded pages of handwritten foolscap, she turns the envelope over in her hand, peers once again at the postmark and begins reading.

10-November-1994

Marina, why I should write to you after so many years is perhaps a puzzle. Why I think you would even remember me I cannot explain. Only that time is strange and a life does not run as straight as one likes to think. We consider ourselves to have moved beyond something only to find that same something remains buried within us. As though we ourselves were the earth and each relationship we formed, each encounter with another, each word, each touch, each love sank down into us. Remained within: the bones, the fossils of our lives waiting to be excavated at some later date. Marina, as I write I sit at the table of a small caf. The caf is on the corner of a square: the Malostranska Namesti. Perhaps you are familiar with the city. Perhaps not. The Malostranska is a square with an old church: baroque in style and shadowed by arches and covered pavements. It is a square cut in two by a tramline. A heavy fog lies over the city: a damp, winter fog mixed with dirt and the smell of industry. There is a small park across from my apartment. This morning, as I stepped onto the pavement, the bare branches of trees were covered in thousands of tiny droplets. They suggested some strange leaf that had bloomed overnight. And they reminded me that for those who take the time to look even a winters day is not without its beauty. I turned and found myself thinking of you. Your face swam into my mind. Perhaps in that unexpected moment, in that sudden deflection of thought, I found something of which I have been aware lately. How many years I have lived in this city. I have become wound through it. It has seeped into me. I am here and I am not here - like its fogs. I have become hard and dark like its stoned streets. I walked. I crossed the old town square. I strolled narrow streets that wind in different directions. I crossed the bridge spanning the river. I stopped at the small island where one often sees older men and women bending to feed ducks and swans. I followed an inclining pathway until I arrived here. There were just the tram tracks, cold and silvery in the silent air. I stepped out into them, looked at them, parallel and impassive. They were held in place by an arcaded pavement. I wondered where they led. Yet I knew where they led. I knew they led onto another street. They turned and swung away. They went on further, heading to a suburb where I have often been. But the fog made their end invisible. The fog that covered the spires and roofs, meant I looked into something no longer certain. Something had disappeared. The fog was a veil over the city. It cut the city off from parts of itself. I knew I was in the city and yet had I not known what lay lost in the fog, had I not known the tracks continued because once I remembered having gone along them, would I have wondered if they led anywhere? Would I have 2

thought that perhaps they came to an end? Perhaps they curved or twisted then came to a mysterious halt: to an unexpected nothingness? Would I have felt compelled to walk along them to find if within the uncertainty there was something waiting to be made certain? Sometimes we find ourselves on a street we thought we knew and yet it is not the street we thought we knew. It has changed. There is something about it we do not recognise. Around me sit strangers. One man is lifting a glass of beer to his mouth. He has just turned to look at where I sit. He is now staring blankly at the wall over my head. His eyes seem to find something to focus on. I glance over my shoulder to see what can be holding his attention. There is nothing. I realise it is something within him he is seeing, some face or event he is remembering. The girl, who just served me, walks past. She is young. She has long brown hair. In her gentle movement, the quiet swish of her dark, flat shoes over the floor, I sense something else. Perhaps that is a why I find myself repeating your name to myself. Maybe there is something in her actions, or her face, maybe a suggestion in the way her eyes focus on the couple that have just entered that brings you to mind. She takes a pencil from the pocket of her white blouse. Then quickly turns over the page of a small notepad. Her wrists are thin and through her blouse I imagine her fine shoulders, her firm breasts, the downy feel of her stomach. In the evenness of her mouth, in the flatness of the bridge of her nose there is something of you. Yet maybe I think of you because of something that occurred yesterday. Something that happened and was part of something that regularly happens but yesterday was different. Yesterday evening it seemed to have turned itself around. There is a street near where I live. It rises and then falls sharply. On it is a small shop where I sometimes buy fruit. Yesterday I walked there. Then the sun was setting. I had come up from the park along the riverside. It was not you I was thinking of but someone else. Someone I had arranged to see that evening. A friend. I was wondering if she would be standing in the door and waiting. Would there be a pot of ginger tea on the table as there often was. Would she pull her hair back from her face, suggestively as she sometimes did, and ask me to sit? I thought of the dim glow in the lift to her apartment. I thought of how I would push the metal button of the bell and wait for her answer. Hearing her voice crackling through the bent slats of the intercom. Each time I walked along the dimly lit balcony she stuck her head into the air and waved to me. I wondered if she would be alone: as she was the last time I visited. Then she flattened the corners of her dress down, smoothing them over her bare arms. And I felt unsure, wanted to respond, but held back. Feeling sorry for my diffidence, wishing that just for a short time I could take her in my arms, 3

feel her face next to mine and brush away a disappointment I have always sensed. Yesterday it was her I was thinking about. I was thinking of her brown eyes and how I have noticed she often seems to be searching for something in the face of whomever she is speaking to. It occurred to me that maybe she would have put some lipstick on and that her mouth would be firm but then would dissolve into a smile and she would ask if I wanted to listen to some music. When I am there, we always eat together: her and him, their daughter. He always asks me to cut the bread and then pours us each a glass from the cheap bottle of wine I bring. When we are finished he goes into the kitchen and cleans up. Then she goes to the window where she keeps her potted plants and starts to water them attentively. Last time I was there she turned to me and laughed and, as she had occasionally done before when she thought he could not hear, said he would be jealous and maybe we should go to him. Often I imagine them dancing somewhere. Perhaps in a shabby community hall with a sad looking band playing a measured tune. His head is buried in her shoulder. He is pulling her close to him and yet she is smiling and looking across the floor to a stranger in the shadows. Always I see her feet lightly step over the shiny floor and the more she looks, the more her eyes find the stranger, the closer she moves to him. Each time as I leave and walk across the torn ground in front of the municipal apartment building, the lights smouldering in the night, I have felt it is all a reflection of something else. I am somehow looking behind a curtain but cannot quite understand why and what it is I think I see. Marina, yesterday it was not like that. Yesterday she was subdued. There was no lipstick and she wore a different dress. He was already there and when I came to the door she called to him. We sat in the cluttered living room. She looked at him and asked if there was something he wanted to hear and then put on some music. From the kitchen I smelt cooking. I took the cup she offered but it did not taste of ginger. I stared at the wall by the window and noticed a painting. It had not been there before. When I asked he said he had painted it. It was somewhere in the country. In its blues and purples, in the line of Junipers clumped all on a hill there was something I knew. My eyes were held by it as he told me of a summer they spent there. I found myself trying to place it, wondered why I felt I too had been there. Though when he told me where it was I knew I had never been there. His manner was pleased and she smiled. Then he called the girl over and putting his arms around her, kissed her lightly on the forehead. Marina, I wonder why at times I only remember? Why, when I am sure I no longer remember, your memory returns? As if I am rising on the crest of a wave and then before I have time to brace myself for the descent into the trough, there is memory and memory holds me and I feel immobilised. For that moment memory becomes stronger. 4

I have many memories and yet they all are curiously mixed together. How truly do I remember? Can I be certain my memories are not imagined memories? Or are not full memories but bits of memories. Is it that as I move further away from that which I am remembering the memories become stronger? The memories expand and replace that from which they have grown? And I ask myself if my memory of you is like this. Marina, I stared at that painting. I heard her get up and go to the kitchen and when she called out that we were ready to eat I was lost in you. The dimple in your chin. How when you lifted your head back to laugh there was lightness in your movement. Your eyes a distant, ancient blue. That spot just above your mouth. Your teeth against mine when we kissed. Tasting mint on your breath. The colour of your hair and how it changed. How it could be dark like earth and at other times russet. Most of all I remembered your face once soft and yet angry. It was as if its anger were only a mask and you were touched and relieved you could be angry and all it would have taken from me was a word or two and the anger would have disappeared and you would have smiled again. Marina I remember that look so clearly and wonder did I fail to say what I should have said. Did I leave the moment hanging; fail to reach that other you. That face seems to be reflected in water as if we were out in a boat on a lake. Yet I do not remember us ever being out in a boat on a lake. Once here when I was out in a boat on a lake I thought suddenly of you. In the broken surface of the water I caught the reflection of the face in front of me and wished it were you. I wished we were together and rowing past the tall grass. I wished it was your face framed against the beeches rising from the bank, against the carpet of fragrant white flowers covering the fields in the distance. Yesterday evening, after we ate, I left. The fog was already gathering. This time it was your face and my face that danced to the slow tune. We followed the band and it was you who looked into the shadows. I realised then what it was that had been so familiar. I wondered why my head was buried in your shoulder. Why did I not lift it, ask you to turn and look at me? Why did I not try to see who the stranger was? You pulled even closer to me and the steady beat of the music held us in its sway. I stood on a near deserted metro platform and wondered why it is always when I am between things, seemingly in transition, that I find you again. Some months ago, in another city I thought I glimpsed your face in a passing car: a wet November evening. The driver of the taxi in which I sat waited. As I handed him his money I looked casually through the window and found myself staring into a car as it swung around us into the middle of the street. In the back, under the amber glow of the streetlights, I thought it was your face caught in the reflection. For an instant I considered asking if we could continue, could follow, but all too quickly what I thought I saw 5

disappeared into the darkness. I stepped onto the pavement with my suitcase and paused. A light rain fell on my uncovered head. The numbers on the doorways shone in the wet and I looked for the sign on the corner of the street, turned, began to walk toward the address I had been given. Maybe it was because I could not be sure it was you that I then filled the not-knowing with the street, with the rain, the murky, dark sky, with the quivering of trees along the pavement. Perhaps because I only thought I saw you I filled my mind with the faces of strangers passing by and then realised I too was a stranger. Had it been you would you have stopped? What would we have said? Would you have recognised me and would there have been someone else on your arm? Or would you have looked at me, said my name and then with a smile or a casual wave, turned away? Was it that my memory simply found a moment in which it could place your face? Did the memory, the curious way the memory came simply catch me unawares? In a strange city without the snare of familiarity did I find myself at a point where I have always been? Faced with a question: a question to which I have still not found an answer? Some afternoons later, sitting in a half-empty carriage of a train, passing through suburbs and stations, I watched the face of an old man reading a tattered magazine. His hands reached now and then into a bag that lay at his feet. He pulled out some bread, some garlic sausage and chewed on them sadly and determinedly. That evening I walked and imagined I saw your face in the face of every stranger who looked my way. I followed one street after another. I turned onto one small side street after another until I arrived at the river. I leaned over its side and looked down into its water. There was a thick fog and the far bank was almost hidden. The line of trees along the riverside reflected the streetlights. Branches spread and thinning leaves shimmered over railings. I thought of a June night when I walked along another river. That river was a wider river and I was sure of what I remembered. It was with you and the trees were full above our heads. The air was sweet and mixed with the scent of flowers and cars and restaurants and summer. You wore a print dress and we were young. Perhaps I thought life would last forever then. Perhaps I did not consider how it twists and turns and can deceive. I wondered if that memory was the one true memory and all other memories branched out from it. That river was a river I had often walked along. I was able to recall its turns, its great buildings, its embankments, the rail bridges, the traffic bridges suspended over it. I wondered if all other memories were tied up with that memory, were variations of that memory and that each time I approached a river somewhere in the back of my mind was that first river and it was always intertwined with you. Marina, if that memory were the core of all other memories, would it ever let me go? Would I ever leave it? Or would I return to it again and again? 6

Footsteps echoed and I swung around and hurrying through the fog was a couple in long coats. Their feet moved briskly along the pavement, their shoes crackling over fallen leaves. I wanted to go after them, to say to them I was a stranger and now I questioned if I had ever been anything but a stranger. Instead I also began to walk. As they pulled away from me, as their huddled shapes became more and more a part of the fog, I turned onto nearby street. I saw a doorway and there were lights and music. Going down a narrow stairs, I pushed through a swinging door and took a seat. It was the dark brown hair I first noticed. I saw it over the edge of the magazine and then stood and walked to where she sat. Her hands tilted the glossy pages down a little. It was not your face. She looked like you and yet could not have been you because her manner was ever so different. There was something about her eyes that placed her in another world. Marina, I realise in returning, you are always behind me. I am only really pulling you from the past. There is nothing of you in my present anymore. Maybe memory is a disease. Perhaps I remember when uncertainty is close because remembering is holding on and holding on at least offers some semblance of continuity. Though I have wanted to let go of you, I cannot. Because letting go would be admitting you were gone and that I had not succeeded where I most wanted to succeed. To live with the fact you are not here would be to live with my failure. Perhaps I have disguised this failure as a failure I imagine to be temporary. Or a failure that involves you and in a subtle way is your failure too. This failure is a failure I would like to think might yet succeed because its essence is the past. I imagine the nostalgia it evokes to be more real than that which is actually in front of me. There is no need to question the possibility of success because it is imagined in a vacuum. That you are not here with me is part of my knowledge of you and my knowledge of you is also my knowledge of me. I cannot escape memory because without the faculty of mind that remembers, I would be incomplete. Should we not view memory then as an unruly child? Giving it the attention it needs, and yet being firm. Knowing we must be firm? Should we not try and separate the memory from the void in which memory flourishes, the void in which memory becomes deception? Can we not recognise our failings are as much a part of any equation as those of another? Marina, yesterday evening I was thinking all this as I turned the key in the lock of the door. I lay in the dark and slept and woke and this morning on the pavement you were still there. The fog is still thick. It is unlikely it will clear today. I have grown used to it. I have grown accustomed to this citys moods, to its melancholy. These are days I feel alone here, days I feel time pull me in its unending tow. In a moment I will call the waitress over and ask for another coffee and then put my pen down. Marina, I have written because I wanted to say this, because I wanted in some way to clear the ground between us. I would like to be able to forget 7

but cannot and wonder if maybe that is so unusual. I have written to say nothing other than you are sometimes there and I have come to accept your absence. I have come to accept our separation as reality. Perhaps when I am finished writing I will fold this piece of paper, place it in an envelope and seal it but not post it. I have written before and then left the letter lying on top of a table or a desk until I have mislaid it: only to find it later and ask if really I should send it. Maybe the not sending it is part of the memory - is part of the not wishing to let you go. I look forward to spring. Last year I found myself walking over a piece of waste ground. It was a February afternoon. There were derelict warehouses and the grate of a train against rails. Growing between the debris, the broken slates, the refuse, growing between the thawing, cracked puddles were the first crocuses. They were fragile in the breeze and the sky was reflected in a piece of broken glass. I thought of us. I thought of us somewhere in the country. I thought of the branches of trees. The sun is slipping between leaves. Your legs are stretched out. The light catches the delicate coating of hairs along your arms. Just above the bone of your ankle is a faint graze. You look at me, laughing. Then you tip your head forward and your fingers tie a red scarf about your hair. In my mind I cannot place that memory as real or yet accept it as unreal. Perhaps my memory holds you the way I hold you when I think of that band playing. My memory holds you and you pull closer and now you can see the face of the stranger. You know who he is. So your feet move quicker and you feel closer to where you want to be and all I can do is move in the sway of the music. Yours

She strolls under the trees. Tiny stones rest for a moment on the toes of her shoes and then slip off. They find their place again in the gravel pathway. Is there a sudden lightness to her step? Does she only imagine she is walking a little more freely? She leans her head to one side, leans and lets her hair fall from her face. Then she feels the paper of the envelope in her pocket and sighs. The path in front of her leads to a fountain. There is a small boy sitting on its stone wall. His eyes are almost hidden between the high collar of a suede coat and a dark brown cap. He stares into the water. A man standing beside him, notices her looking, and tips his hat in an old-fashioned way. She steps up to the surface of the water. Its relief is held in short waves. When she gazes into it the sky above her is stretched in ribbons. The blue is 8

darkened and the scudding of the cloud is curved. Her face is caught for a moment, her hair falling towards the reflection, her red lips and blue eyes becoming part of the movement. For an instant she thinks she sees another face over her shoulder. Then the boy moves his hand and the small waves coming against the stone side increase. No longer does the water contain the image and the reflection fragments and is lost. The boy turns and smiles at her. She smiles back. Marina looks to the wide steps that lead back to the street. She looks for the face of the man she is to meet and finds it. He lifts his arm and waves. She walks to where he is standing. Then stops and stretches up to kiss him on the cheek. His eyes search her face. He puts his arm around her and they begin to walk, to climb the steps, their heads slowly disappearing and becoming part of the world again.

Copyright Peter Millington. December 1996.

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