Just got back from a very interesting journey.
Last night, around midnight – the new year fireworks exploding over the pub round the corner and me having sunk a bottle of wine – I was, for some forgotten reason, looking at the ordnance survey map of around here, looking at the country to the north – the wonderfully named Candover Valley. The villages are Brown Candover, Chilton Candover and Preston Candover. Nearby are some Wallops – Fairleigh Wallop and others. I looked up at one point and saw Francesca’s painting, a Christmas present propped up on the mantel shelf, and a whole sequence of memory re-installed itself – sort of reloaded itself. Summer 1984. Francesca and I went on a mad holiday. It was after you and I had returned from Nepal for the first time and I had left Jo. We ranged over the south of England, stopping in hotels, pubs and staying with some of her friends. We were passionately in love, of another dimension – not of this world. And I remembered we stayed with a couple in a remote house south of Basingstoke. It was full summer and very hot. We swam in their small pool and sat on the edge, drinking the guy’s excellent and deliciously cool home made wine – which surprised me, most home made wine being fit only for the drain in my experience. We stayed in a caravan parked at the side of the house and made love anytime, anywhere we could. One day we went for a walk. Up a side road then up onto a hill overlooking the valley. There was a great wheat field in full ripeness – gold and yellow-white in the heat. We wore very little – she always in slight silks and gossamers. Me in a billowing shirt. The place seemed remote and we hung onto each other and kissed and hugged our way along the path at the edge of the wheat. Then we descended into the wheat out of sight, disappeared among the stalks and made love – gold all round and blue above. This was an experience of heaven in an already faultless world. All this came back as I looked at the map and I tried to trace where it might have been – the house on the corner, the hillside above, the track by the field. There were several candidates, but the name Ellisfield struck a chord. I was determined to go and have a look. This is what I did this morning.
The drive is lovely and the area surprisingly close – about 25 minutes drive. It was raining hard and I splashed through gloomy, rich villages. I turned off for Ellisfield but could make nothing of it. The hills and orientation were right but nothing came to me. I went a little further and stopped just past a corner house. Again nothing. Turned again and traveled up over high country which wasn’t right. I thought I must have been right the first time and came round in a great arc back to where I had been. Stopped on the same corner and looked at the house. And as I looked it slowly came into focus. Yes – this was the place. I could see the swimming pool covered up, the cover spread with blown brown and black leaves, and the conservatory through a beech hedge. Then the slope behind the house with the vineyard. And as I craned my neck – yes – I think a glimpse of the caravan still there. Then, again feeling my way by faint memory, drove up a side road for a way and stopped by a signpost marking a footpath up onto the hill. Parked the car and got out. It had stopped raining. In my mackintosh I walked through the mud up the track. My feet soon got wet through my unsuitable shoes. The landscape opened up and in its brown and black seemed a reverse image of the technicolor memory of that green and gold summer day. I felt like someone in a play. Indeed this was a sort of drama and I felt it. All the symbols were in place – the ageing man in dead winter. The field – which must still bear the same crop – was all stubble and puddles, but I recognised where we turned into the wheat. I stood and buttoned my raincoat up to the neck against the gusts of damp wind. The landscape lovely – dull green and brown with black copses and lines of hedges on the opposite side of the valley. Squalls of windy rain coming in. I turned back and slithered down to the car again. A deep pleasure welled up and I felt content and satisfied. The car got stuck for a bit in the mud where I had parked and I sent up great sprays of sludge as I manoeuvred out. It seemed like a double image – the deep romance, the youth of sorts, the heat, the rich lovemaking, the gold and blue, the ripeness. Now, twenty-five years later, a lone figure, the weight of age, the cut down stubble field and gusting dark weather. So – true romance out of a bad novel.
I had recently met up with Francesca again after all that time. I had been living in France for 10 years and had come back alone and was trying to rebuild some kind of life in England. I found her, searching on the internet and we had met. As the first time, it hadn’t worked out but we were in correspondence. I wondered if my memory of those days, that day, were accurate and I sent the letter I had written to Mark to Francesca. She said it was more or less how she remembered it, which pleased me and surprised me.
But what about these memories, seemingly verified by two people who were there at the time and the only protagonists of the events? Could I continue to conjure up into consciousness further details if I tried really hard? How deep could I go? How far down into the brain’s storage could I descend and retrieve the absolute subtleties of those hours, minutes, seconds? How accurate would they be? Would the certainty of my recovered images and feelings bear any resemblance to that past sensed world? If my brain had constructed the ‘reality’ of those moments as they happened, would it have stored those sensations intact? How would one know?
Let me start somewhere safe. What about our hosts that day? Names? No – I just cannot bring them back. Appearance? She: short and blonde, rather plump? Maybe – but could be completely wrong. He: large and with a goatee beard? Perhaps. He talked of his delight in his job (what job?) and his delight at being home and making his wine (true, the last). Living a good life and asking for nothing more than he had (which was considerable). A memory of his expressed happiness and contentment with day-to-day life. But did he say that? How long were we there? I don’t know. Two days maybe. Where did we go after? I do not know. Perhaps Marlborough.
But get back to details. Francesca in a pale blue bikini which was too loose or too thin. When she got into the sunlit water of the pool it went slightly transparent. When she swam on her front it rucked up between her buttocks and was watery and flowed over her flesh. Her flesh looked rubbery in the water, as if it would squeak if you ran your thumb over it, like a baby’s. Strands of pubic hair between her legs escaping from the swimsuit. Was I sat on the side with my feet in the water watching this as she turned and swam away? Emotions – slight jealousy of her exposing herself in front of another man, excitement in my stomach and the beginnings of an erection, wonderment and slight disgust at the earthiness of it. The folds of skin, the hair, the arse. Then she was away up the pool and turned, wiping her face with her hand and smiling. Did she? I seem to see it. When I think in detail, I see the detail. The thin blue line of her bra top, twisted as she swam. Just the detail. And I can feel her flesh – her strong back. The firmness of her buttocks, the sudden caving in of her cunt through the hair. But her’s in particular. Perhaps. But perhaps now a mixture of other traces of other backs, other cunts.
When I think of the whole scene, not the detail, I am not looking out of my eyes. The point of view is somewhere above. I am in the scene. How can that memory be correct? How has my brain taken all those details and put them together and thrust them into another projection – an architectural projection of an actual scene, lifted and turned through random degrees and presented as a reality?
Do I truly remember the coolness of the caravan after the swim? The carpet under bare wet feet? The stretching, squeaking removal of Francesca’s wet swim suit as she lay back on the bed. The feel of the scratchy tartan blanket? The smell of chlorine? Wet skin to wet skin? Wet lips and knocking teeth? The dying at climax? What details of movement, touch, sensation, emotion can be caught now which are not tainted by further accretions and distortions? Was it all thus? And was there not that other thing, that intangible incommunicable ‘atmosphere’ or ‘timbre’ of those moments? Does not the whole edifice of the memory begin to disintegrate if it is not held together by an invented visual, sensual myth, constructed like scaffolding around this crumbling dream by a brain desperate for security, for identity?
The relationship between my imagined self of then and my constructed self of now must interact in their deceptions, my current persona (or personas) conspiring with the mythologised memories to cook up something to my liking, or at least something bearable. Something, though, limited by my capacity for self-pleasure or self harm – salt or sweeten to taste.
The scene with Francesca was not, of course, acted out in isolation. It had many implications for all concerned. I was married at the time to someone else. Francesca had a sometime boyfriend. The other people attached to these acts and these memories are part of the myth and lend not only a broader panorama to the emotional patterns but also make the further construction of a moral structure or story inevitable. And what I am today must surely alter the image of the self of then.
So the construction of these memories with their attached emotions and moral stances, their details of sensual recollections with the attached personas waltzing around in dances newly choreographed with every subsequent act in the passing of time – this construction is working with a store of material my brain has archived for its own purposes and reconstructs for its own purposes. The idea that these deeply individualised parts of my psychological identity are of no real significance to the deeper and unknown purposes of my brain can lead to a slippage of one’s grasp on the everyday. Who or what is creating the illusion of memory and ultimately of a self? And for what purpose – if any?
I am back on the winter hillside south of Basingstoke. I am descending in the mud and stubble. The rain is coming on again; the weather is dark and blustery, late afternoon. As I come down to the car I start to feel happy and content. When I sit in the car I actually smile. I feel a comfortable, self-satisfied warmth filling me. Is it the serenity I am perhaps looking to achieve before death? Maybe – but now I believe it was the realisation that by sudden chance I had a marvellous addition to my own mythos. The coming together of a realisation of age, a memory of achieved youthful adventure, the strengthening of my moral distance from the past acts and, more than anything, the realisation that the time’s span and the appropriate weather had come together to make the story, the play, almost perfect. So it was worth recording and sending to my friend Mark as a description, not of the acts of that day and of the past, but of my own creating self, my own created self newly minted and deepened by this tale, this fiction.
If it had not been for my imposition of the story on that particular time and that particular weather, they would have been what they were and happened as they did, whether I was there or not. And the moments of existence, the total mystery of ‘this and not nothing’ would have taken place, as ever it will do. The implication of this brings me to the far edge of my understanding of my, our, position. Our playful selves, our moral stances and our conscious thought sit as a tiny craft on an immense sea, a sea as indifferent to our being there as the actual sea on the planet. This sea of indifferent matter not only washes up to our attempts to control the material world, but is us – we are part of the monstrous, indifferent, utterly cold, amoral just-so world. The patina of morality and affection with which we construct our safety sits like a transparent mist on the surface of this shoreless ocean. And those ‘sinful’ attitudes and actions we name in a rising arc – ‘naughty’, ‘selfish’, ‘bad’, ’monstrous’, ‘evil’ – are just the cold matter we are made of asserting itself – our war against it merely a stop gap action holding back a tidal wave of uncaring energy. It has no regard for our social selves nor any of the things we in our consciousness believe we care about. The ripple of emotions which defines what we are – our loves and discriminating tastes – are local phenomena which we have projected onto this blank screen of matter as if it meant anything, had some effect or could influence the attitude of this, one might say, emotionless energy. But there the imagination falters and one must become silent.
I will stick to my story of the lonely man full of years on a wintry hill in Hampshire, nurture it and add it to the many myths which I need so desperately to allow me to move about in the material world. It is a fiction of sorts but then, given what we know of our brains, so is everything else. The Indian civilisations knew this and developed the idea of divine play. They were and are right. The cast of our own theatre pieces may be brought out daily to enact our own dramas in our own brief time in consciousness when the curtain, amazingly, goes up, and we are ‘on’!