Here where two rivers meet by an island, in the early morning, shortly after dawn, there is a mist along the valleys. The sun rises over the railway bridge, white as a moon, and everything is still. I stand before Taw pool, watching the water eddy round the island, my breath cloudy and my thoughts far away. I do not anticipate. And yet there is a moment before the moment that is both a preparation and a culmination. What is about to happen to me is long longed-for, familiar, out of reach, needed, despaired of, completely imagined, but never known: so first, and memorably, comes the intimation that it is about to happen. The light falling from an opening door onto a winter's street. The silence before a phone begins to ring. Anticipation, in the razor-cut of time before it bursts into fulfilment.
The Barnstaple train, headlamp furry in the mist, booms suddenly over the bridge. Rooks rattle out of invisible trees, cawing up into the sky. The premonitory sounds disperse into the slow tumble of the rivers, into my own quiet breaths. The smell of soaked grass and the sharp white air that makes me shiver and the silence after the train.
And then I see her.
This is a story about falling in love. The time is 1977, a generation ago. I am twenty-nine years old, and waiting for my real life to begin. I am engaged in this waiting process in the very small second bedroom of a very small flat in Cross Street in north London, owned by my friend Anna.
She comes back earlier than usual and pours herself a glass of wine, which is not like her, not at five in the afternoon, and says we must talk. So I have a glass of wine too, and we talk.
"The thing is this." She moves her hands carefully before her as if describing an invisible object about the size of a box-file. "This is the thing. I have to think of myself. I have to think of the future. I'll be thirty in January. Which is meaningless, of course. But I would like, one day, to have children."
Anna is home early because she's been visiting a friend who has recently had a baby.
"How was Polly's baby?"
"Like a baby. This isn't about that."
"Yes, it is."
"All right, it is, then. The thing is this. For a baby, one needs a man. And one hasn't got one."
She makes a comic-sad face as she says this, which makes me laugh. Also she's making me nervous.
"I don't know what to tell you, Anna. This is how it is these days. Everyone free to be with who they like, and everyone alone."
"Well, I've decided to do something about it."
Anna is small, slightly built, with a friendly, puzzled sort of face and short hair of that colour that has no name, between brown and blond. She's quick-thinking and funny and honest, and has no luck with men. There was a man called Rory who was part of her life for years and we all assumed they would get married, until he went to Johannesburg and married someone else. This in the apartheid era. Anna knew she was better off without him, but she still cried every night for weeks.
She calls me her walker. We have what is in some senses the perfect relationship, because the sex is behind us. There was a clumsy fumbling sort of affair at college, which went through what are for me the usual phases of eagerness, gratified vanity, claustrophobia, guilt, evasion, and disappearance.
"Bron doesn't do breakups," Anna says. "He does vanishings."
She calls me a coward, but I've never pretended to be a war hero in the battle of the sexes. What am I to say, faced with the wounded eyes, the question why? Not the truth: that this can't be it, that this can't be enough, that there must be more. All love affairs are understood to be forever, and the one who walks away a deserter from the human race.
In the case of Anna, time the great healer worked its magic, and there were other boyfriends who behaved yet more disgracefully, so by the time we met again I was received as an old comrade-in-arms. Since then I've seen her through the long lean years of the unspeakable Rory, and the short turbulent months of an affair with an artist called Jay Hermann. Anna deals in corporate art, which means she sources artworks for hotel lobbies and company headquarters. This makes her a modern Robin Hood, who takes from the rich to give to the poor. Few of her artists are grateful. She tells them they are working in the tradition of the Florentine masters, all of whom painted to commission, but the model they identify with more readily is the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Rivera, an ardent communist, accepted a well-paid commission from John D. Rockefeller to create a mural in the new Rockefeller Center in the 1930s. In order to prove that he hadn't sold out to the archcapitalist of all time, he included in his mural a portrait of Lenin, hiding among many other figures. When Rockefeller found out and objected, Rivera hoisted the banner of politico-artistic integrity, and refused to paint Lenin out. Rockefeller paid him in full, and destroyed the entire vast mural.
Jay Hermann, a small aggressive sculptor, created large aggressive structures out of steel, which Anna sold to property developers. During their affair, he was remorselessly unfaithful to her, and on principle refused to conceal the fact. I had my own take on this.
"He's a prick."
"It's his way of saying I haven't bought him. He minds terribly about his independence."
"Tell him to fuck off."
"I expect I will. But I do like him. And I don't want to have no one. And he's no different to other men. And at least he's honest."
So like Anna. It may sound like masochism, but it isn't. Anna is a realist, and has long been in the habit of making the best of what's available to her.
So Anna has decided to do something about being alone.
"I'm not giving out the right signals. I'm like a taxi with the For Hire light turned off."
"Are you? Why?"
"Because of you."
This I have not seen coming.
"Think about it, Bron. You're a sweet, friendly man, you get my jokes, I don't have to pretend I'm someone else when I'm with you. You're really quite attractive, in your shabby way. And I'm living with you."
"Yes, but we're not--"
"Sex isn't everything. Though it is a first step. If you want to have children."
I feel bewildered.
"So what are you saying?"
"You're in my way. You've got to go."
"But we're just friends."
"No we're not. We're like an old married couple. It's disgusting."
I'm tallish and darkish, with a mass of dark-brown hair and dark-brown eyes, thin and nervy, quick to smile, except I never see my own smiles. The self I see is grave, peers back at me in reflections without lightness or grace. I dress like a student: jeans, T-shirts, loose sweaters. I am a writer, none of whose writings have yet been published. However, I now have a commission, a real contract with a real publisher naming real sums of money, to write a real book. This book will not be one of my three completed novels, all of which lie in a cardboard box alongside letters ending "but I would be interested to see your next work." It will be a work of nonfiction. I call it, for the present, The Book of True Love
. It deals with the phenomenon of love at first sight. For this, a publisher is paying me £2,500, half on signature, meaning £1,250: enough to keep me alive for maybe six months. I am therefore very poor.
"You could always get a job," says Anna the brutal.
"Of course I could get a job," I reply. "But in return for the money I'd have to do the work, yes? Nine to five, yes? Leaving me knackered, yes? So when do I write?"
I have chosen to be time-rich and cash-poor. This has a romantic air about it in a student or a very young man. But soon now I will be thirty years old, and my lifestyle will begin to look sad. So I am in a hurry.
As for The Book of True Love
: the subject has not been chosen at random. Love at first sight fascinates me. In my own love life I appear to suffer from the standard-issue male malady called commitment phobia. It has never presented itself to me as a phobia. Far from hating and fearing commitment, I long for it. But it doesn't happen. Each love affair begins with a flurry of enthusiasm, but soon dwindles into the so-so, the acceptable, the could-be-worse. The prospect of promoting such half-measures into marriage and children appals me. There must be more.
This pickiness baffles Anna.
"What exactly is it you're looking for, Bron?"
"I don't know. I truly don't know."
I don't know. So I conclude that I am fated to repeat the familiar cycle until some outside force stronger than my power to resist blasts me out of my bunker. I conclude that I need to fall in love.
People use a conventional metaphor for falling in love at first sight. They say, "I was struck by lightning." I am in the position of a man who wishes to be struck by lightning and so walks about hatless in storms.
Freddy Christiansen, of whom more later, is vastly amused that I was compiling a book on love at first sight at the time that I myself fell in love. He teases me in Latin, calling me praeceptor amoris
, the teacher of love, after Ovid, and exclusus amator
, the lover shut out. But of course he too knows that it is no coincidence. In Devon, that October of 1977, my mind was crammed with true-life love stories, to which I was more than ready to add my own.
I pour myself another glass of wine. So does Anna.
"Look here, Anna. This is all wrong. Why do I have to go? Why can't men and women be friends?"
"I don't know, Bron. I think maybe it's because of sex."
"That's a terrible admission of defeat."
"Yes, it is rather."
"So don't give in."
"No. I've thought about it very carefully, and I'm sure I'm right. You have to go."
"Thanks a lot."
I feel ill-used.
"Now you're cross."
"I just don't think me being your friend had anything to do with this other thing. It would be a sad world if we were only allowed to be friends with one other person all our lives."
"You're cross because you don't know where you'll go to live. I've thought about that. You can go to Bernard's place, in Devon."
"You're tidying me up."
"You could do your book just as well in Devon as here. Probably better."
"That's all sorted then, isn't it?"
"Oh, Bron. You know I don't want you to go. Don't be mean to me about it."
Her hand on mine.
"You do understand really."
"Yes. I suppose I do."
Oh yes, I understand. If I loved her more, I would be the man she's looking for: the husband, the father of her children. So why don't I? Because I'm not in love with Anna. There it is again. The mystery ingredient.
"You'd be a lousy provider, anyway."
"You don't know that. I'm just a late developer, financially speaking."
"Actually I don't mind about that. I meet enough rich men in my work."
"Have one of them."
"They're all dull and old. Even the young ones. Oh Bron, wish me luck. It's so fucking hard."
"Good luck, Anna."
I raise my glass and she raises hers and we drink and refill.
"So you will go?"
"All right, all right, I'll go. You want me to go right now?"
"No. Not right now."
"Do you realise we've drunk a bottle of wine in a quarter of an hour?"
"It's because I'm tense."
"So I must be tense too."
"Are you still tense?"
"No. Now I'm drunk."
We look at each other and grin like fools.
"Anna, if I'm going to fuck off out of your life forever--"
"I didn't say that."
"I'll rephrase. If I'm to go--"
"No. I do want you to fuck off out of my life. Just not forever."
"Until you're hitched up."
"After which I take it the occasional friendly intimate moment will be out of the question."
"Entirely off the menu."
"So this is our last chance."
"Don't even ask."
She opens a second bottle of wine, unoffended.
"Just a thought."
"I do have some pride. I don't want to be the easy fall-back option. The one who'll do when there's nothing better around."
"No," I protest, gallantly and also truthfully. "You're the best. A man can dream."
"Quite a small dream, Bron. A dream of short duration."
"Only because we're friends. Or not-friends. Or whatever it is we are."
"Only because you're not in love with me."
No answer. Pour the wine. But Anna drunk can be very direct.
"And by the way, why not? Why aren't you in love with me?"
"Oh God. I don't know."
"You look so moronic when you say that."
"I feel moronic. I'm not doing this deliberately. I'd be in love with you if I could. And anyway, you're not in love with me."
"That's because I don't want to do it on my own. It's too fucking miserable, being in love on your own. I've been there."
"So have I."
"I have. When I was younger."
"Oh, sure. For ten minutes."
"So anyway. I'll call Bernard."
"I already called him. He said you could have the gate-lodge. He sounded pleased."
"Well, fuck you."
But she doesn't. So we eat takeaway pizza and watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips
on television and cry at the end. The next morning I move out.
I wrote in the kitchen of the gate-lodge, the only warm room. The iron range was roaring, I had banked it high and opened all its vents. There was condensation on the inside of the windowpanes. I had a cloth, a blue-and-white tea towel, with which from time to time I wiped the window clean. I liked to look out at the trees, and the gap in the trees that was the beginning of the path through the wood. By my right hand there stood a mug of coffee, brim-full and smoking; by my left hand, the careful stacks of index-cards, my file of aphorisms, quotations, anecdotes. The top card read: "The ivy clings to the first tree it meets," which was Napoleon's description of the business of falling in love. Before me, pinned to the windowframe, were Dante's words on first seeing Beatrice: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi
. "Behold a god stronger than I, who comes to rule over me." And just below, my own selection of lines from Marotte's letters: "I leave doors open to feel closer to you . . . Please obtain slower clocks . . . I need only a warm room, a still mind, and you."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Trial of True Love by William Nicholson. Copyright © 2006 by William Nicholson. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.