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Enduring Love (Ian McEwan)


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  Dear Joe,

I feel happiness running through me like an electrical current. I close my eyes and see you as you were last night in the rain, across the road from me, with the unspoken love between us as strong as steel cable. I close my eyes and thank God out loud for letting you exist, for letting me exist in the same time and place as you, and for letting this strange adventure between us begin. I thank Him for every little thing about us. This morning I woke and on the wall beside my bed was a perfect disk of sunlight and I thanked Him for that same sunlight falling on you! Just as last night the rain that drenched you drenched me too and bound us. I praise God that He has sent me to you. I know there is difficulty and pain ahead of us, but the path that He sets us on is hard for a purpose. His purpose! It tests us and strengthens us, and in the long run it will bring us to even greater joy.

I know I owe you an apology -- and that word is too small. I stand before you naked, defenseless, dependent on your mercy, begging your forgiveness. For you knew our love from the very beginning. You recognized in that glance that passed between us, up there on the hill after he fell, all the charge and power and blessedness of love, while I was dull and stupid, denying it, trying to protect myself from it, trying to pretend that it wasn't happening, that it couldn't happen like this, and I ignored what you were telling me with your eyes and your every gesture. I thought it was enough to follow you down the hill and suggest that we pray together. You were right to be angry with me for not seeing what you had already seen. What had happened was so obvious. Why did I refuse to acknowledge it? You must have thought me so insensitive, such a moron. You were right to turn from me and walk away. Even now, when I bring to mind that moment when you started back up the hill and I remember the stoop of your shoulders, the heaviness in your stride that spoke of rejection, I groan aloud at my behavior. What an idiot! I could have lost us what we have. Joe, in the name of God, please forgive me.

Now at least you know that I have seen what you saw. And you, constrained as you are by your situation and by your sensitivity to Clarissa's feelings, have welcomed me in ways that no intrusive ears or eyes will intercept, by means that I alone can understand. You knew that I was bound to come to you. You were waiting for me. That's why I had to phone you late that night, as soon as I realized what you had been telling me with your eyes. When you picked up the phone I heard the relief in your voice. You accepted my message in silence, but don't think I wasn't aware of your gratitude. When I put the phone down I wept with joy, and I guessed that you were weeping too. Now at last life could begin. All the waiting and loneliness and praying had borne its fruit, and I got down on my knees and gave thanks, over and over again until it was dawn. Did you sleep that night? I don't think so. You lay awake in the dark, listening to Clarissa's breathing and wondering where all this was taking us.

Joe, you really have started something now!

We have so much to tell each other, there's a lot of catching up to do. Exploration of the ocean floor has begun, but the surface remains undisturbed. What I'm trying to say is, you've seen my soul (I'm certain of that), and you know how to reach deep into me, but you know next to nothing about the ordinary details of my life -- how I live, where I live, my past, my story. It's only the outer clothing, I know, but our love has to include it all. I already know a lot about your life. I've made it my job, my mission. You've drawn me into your daily life and demanded that I understand it. The thing is, I can deny you nothing. If I ever sit an exam about you I'll come top, I won't get a single thing wrong. You'll be so proud of me!

So, my own outer clothing. I know you'll be here one day soon. It's a beautiful house, set back from a little kink in Frognal Lane, surrounded by lawns, with its own courtyard in the center which no one can see, even if they were to step beyond the front gates (hardly anyone does, apart from the postman) and come right up to the front door. It's a miniature version of some rather grand French place. It even has faded green louvered shutters and a cockerel weathervane on the roof. It belonged to my mother, who died from cancer four years ago, and she inherited it from her sister, who got it in a divorce settlement just weeks before she died in a car crash. I'm telling you this because I don't want you to get a false impression about our family. My aunt had a terrible marriage to a crook who got rich in a property boom, but the rest of our family scraped by with ordinary jobs. My father died when I was eight. I've got an older sister in Australia, but we weren't able to track her down when my mother died, and for some reason she wasn't mentioned in the will. I've got a handful of cousins I never see, and as far as I know, I'm the only one in our family to get an education past the age of sixteen. So here I am, the king of my castle, which God has granted to me for a purpose of His own.

I can feel your presence all around me. I don't think I'm going to phone you again. It's so awkward, with Clarissa, and writing to you brings you closer. I imagine you sitting here next to me, seeing what I am seeing. I'm sitting at a small wooden table on a covered balcony that extends from the study and looks out over the inner courtyard. The rain is falling on two flowering cherry trees. The branch of one grows through the railings, so that I am close enough to see how the water forms into oval beads tinged by the flowers' pale pink. Love has given me new eyes, I see with such clarity, in such detail. The grain of the old wooden posts, every separate blade of grass on the wet lawn below, the little tickly black legs of the lady bird walking across my hand a minute ago. Everything I see I want to touch and stroke. At last I'm awake. I feel so alive, so alert with love.

Speaking of touch and the wet grass reminds me. When you came out of your house yesterday evening and you brushed the top of the hedge with your hand, I didn't understand at first. I went down the path and put out my own hand and fingered the leaves that you had touched. I felt each one, and it was a shock when I realized they were different from the ones you hadn't touched. There was a glow, a kind of burning on my fingers along the edges of those wet leaves. Then I got it. You had touched them in a certain way, in a pattern that spelled a simple message. Did you really think I would miss it? Joe! So simple, so clever, so loving. What a fabulous way to hear of love, through rain and leaves and skin, the pattern woven through the skein of God's sensuous creation unfolding in a scorching sense of touch. I could have stood there for an hour in wonder, but I didn't want to be left behind. I wanted to know where you were leading me through the rain.

But let me go back to the ocean surface. I used to teach English as a foreign language in a place near Leicester Square. It was bearable, but I never really got on with the other teachers. There was a general lack of seriousness, which irritated me. I think they talked about me behind my back because I cared about my religion -- not fashionable these days! As soon as I came into the money and the house, I gave up the job and moved in. I thought of myself as in retreat -- waiting. I was always quite clear in my mind that this amazingly beautiful place had come to me for a purpose. One week, a shabby one-bedroom flat in Arnos Grove, the next a little chateau in Hampstead and a small fortune in the bank. There had to be a design in this, and my duty, I thought (and time has proved me right), was to be calm and attentive to the silence, and ready. I prayed, meditated, and sometimes took long walks in the country, and I knew that sooner or later His purpose would unfold. My responsibility was to be finely tuned, prepared for the first sign. And despite all that preparation, I missed it! I should have known it when our eyes met, up there on the hill. Not until I came back that evening, back into the silence and solitude here, did I begin to comprehend, so I phoned you . . . But now I'm going round in circles!

This house is waiting for you, Joe. The library, the snooker room, the sitting room with its beautiful fireplace and huge old sofas. We even have a miniature cinema (videos, of course) and an exercise room and a sauna. There are barriers ahead, of course. Mountain ranges! The biggest of which is your denial of God. But I've seen through that, and you know it. In fact, you probably planned it that way. It's a game you're playing with me, part seduction, part ordeal. You are trying to probe the limits of my faith. Does it horrify you that I can see through you so easily? I hope it thrills you, the way it thrills me when you guide me with your messages, these codes that tap straight into my soul. I know that you'll come to God, just as I know that it's my purpose to bring you there, through love. Or, to put it another way, I'm going to mend your rift with God through the healing power of love.

Joe, Joe, Joe . . . I'll confess it, I covered five sheets of paper with your name. You can laugh at me -- but not too hard. You can be cruel to me -- but not too much. Behind the games we play lies a purpose that is neither yours nor mine to question. Everything we do together, everything we are, is in God's care, and our love takes its existence, form, and meaning from His love. There's so much to talk about, so many fine details. We have yet to discuss the whole matter of Clarissa. I think it's right that you take the lead in this and let me know what you think is best. Do you want me to talk to her? I'd be very happy to. I don't mean happy, of course; I mean prepared. Or should we sit down, the three of us together, and talk it through? I'm convinced there are ways of handling it that will make it far less painful for her. But this has to be your call, and I'll wait to hear what you have decided is best. While I've been writing I've felt your presence, right by my elbow. The rain has stopped, the birds have taken up their songs again, and the air is even brighter. Ending this letter is like a parting. I can't help feeling that every time I leave you I'm letting you down. I'll never forget that time at the bottom of the hill, the way you turned away from me, rejected, stunned by my refusal to recognize in that first instance our love. I'll never stop saying I'm sorry. Joe, will you ever forgive me?

Jed
 
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    Excerpted from Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. Copyright © 1998 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.