ONEBlanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay. In this uneasy month of the year--cold April, long chilly evenings--she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations. These obligations were in any event minimal, but being self--imposed were all the more rigorous: no one else sustained them. Not quite a widow, and therefore entitled to none of the world's consideration, she bore her divorce nobly but felt its shame. I am innocent, she felt like proclaiming on particularly inclement days, and I always was. My husband left me for a young woman with a degree in computer sciences and in whom I can discern not the slightest spark of imagination. As this event baffled her, she felt humbled by it. Thus humbled, baffled, and innocent, she felt all the more need to hold her head high, to wear a smile that betokened discreet but amused interest in what the world had to offer her, and to complete her toilette, down to the last varnished finger-nail, before leaving her house every morning.Leaving her house--in reality a tall brick building containing several mysterious high ceilinged apartments--was the event of the day, after which she felt she could breathe more freely, having launched herself yet again on the world without meeting any resistance. Her steps were brisk although her destination was a matter of some uncertainty. The Wallace Collection knew her, and the National Gallery, but not the British Museum, where she had once felt faint, or the Victoria and Albert, where she had had an alarming prevision of extinction between two glass cases containing Mosan metalwork. She was subject to these irrational feelings, largely concerned with her own end, and needed to summon up a particularly quizzical tolerance in order to keep panic at bay. Her neighbours thought her unapproachable and therefore did not approach her. This did not amaze her for she was so intensely occupied in her attempt to resolve inner contradictions that she rarely noticed the signals she gave out. Many a time she had remembered a face and had smiled, too late, and the smile had faded slowly, to be replaced by a look of sorrow. That too faded slowly, more slowly than she knew.Her husband, Bertie, had left her after a marriage of twenty years, and those twenty years were never absent from her consciousness. She had been very happy, but she supposed that he had not. She had, in those days, felt such energy that she had obliged herself to be less exuberant than she might have been, thinking such exuberance an embarrassment in one who was still uncertain of pleasing. She therefore cultivated tastes which she felt instinctively to be thin, sharp, brittle, like the very dry sherry which Bertie assumed that she liked as well as he did. She was thus always ready with bright conversation for him, as they drank their sherry, full of anecdotes, for she had observed him to be uneasy with anything more subjective, expansive. The need for anecdotes had led to that multiplication of activities which was now standing her in such good stead. Voluntary work at the local hospital fed her seriousness, although what she brought home from those afternoons was more often than not amusing. She thus became what is known as a conversationalist, and always remembered to order more sherry. After his unfaithfulness her husband preferred to think of her as a cold woman, although he knew that she was not. Sometimes he still visited her in the evenings, calling in on his way home. Blanche always kept a few varieties of light discourse on offer, much as she kept certain stores in her cupboards. But these days she drank wine, rather steadily.She maintained an excellent appearance, not so much because she valued such excellence as because she could thus use up much superfluous time. She calculated that she could spend up to an unwanted hour every morning by simply putting herself to rights, and producing a pleasing effect to lavish on the empty day. She took no pride in this, although she might have done; such altruism, such meticulousness is in fact heroic. She saw no heroism in it, but merely a form of despair; the mornings were a bad time for her. Something about the grey London light, bright yet sour, as it entered through her tall windows and intensified the pale walls of her large rooms, kindled an habitual feeling of uneasiness, as if only in the coming of such sunshine as she could remember or imagine would she relax. The sun is God, said the painter Turner. In the uncertain light of these uncertain days, her thoughts turned to images of an illusory but brilliant heat, the sky turned to whiteness, the air dry and filled with scent, the whine of a passing vehicle receding as the afternoon emptied and discouraged movement. She thought of the evenings of these imaginary days, the sun intensifying into redness, the sky cooling to a light bright green, and then to a white that seemed laid over indigo. And of the nights, balmy enough to encourage open windows, late music, the drifting smoke of a last cigarette, sheets cool and dry to welcome the still-warm limbs. But, as it was, she had only these April mornings to work with, chilly, light, unwelcoming, waking her too early, launching her into the day too soon. And so she lingered in her bedroom, and chose her armour with care.This image of the hot day began mildly to obsess her as she walked through the studiously dim rooms of museums in her tweed suit and polished shoes. Sometimes she cast about with rather more assiduity than usual in an attempt to find an image that would match her fantasy. But the images before her eyes presented too much in the way of otherness, brought with them a freight of references that she felt unable to pursue; the skies were either too bland or too stormy, the foliage too alien, the colouring too mild for what she had in mind. Rendered mentally helpless by the half light of those empty days and by the long grey afternoons, she sat on many benches and looked at many pictures. What she saw was not represented on any canvas but was a kaleidoscope of fragments, possibly once seen and quite unconsciously retained. These fragments, apparently disconnected, and with little relevance to her present circumstances, seemed to possess a certain authority, since they came unbidden. She saw a window opened on to a dazzling garden; some sort of tea party, the sun glinting off a silver teapot. And then again a garden in the early morning, with water drops sparkling on the heavy heads of lilac, a cat running fastidiously through dewy grass. And then a white chair and table in that same garden, with Sunday newspapers discarded and ready to be taken inside. This last image she recognized. It was at his mother's house, she thought. It was when we were engaged. It was when I took Bertie's tea out to him in the garden. A conscientious woman, she then reproached herself for indulging in personal reminiscence when there was so much for her to admire on the walls of the gallery. She did not expect art to console her. Why should it? It may be that there is no consolation. But, like most people, she did expect it to take her out of herself, and was constantly surprised when it returned her to herself with no comment. The smile of certain nymphs seemed almost to mock her as she finally stood up to go, and their plump arms seemed to usher her, with much ceremony, from the room. For this reason she always felt slightly reduced by the art of the past, rebuked for her mildness, scorned for her seriousness. The past had its secrets, which she sought very much to know. The National Gallery frequently challenged her assumptions, which was her reason for returning. There was even something contingent in her faintness in the British Museum, where, surrounded by acres of frozen Greek marble, she had been transported in her mind back to a disappointing holiday in Greece; then, as now, strolling through the museum, she had come up against the archaic smile of the kouroi, votive figures who seemed to contain an essential secret knowledge that had always escaped her. Their smile, like that of the Goddess with the Pomegranate in Berlin, pertained to certainty, to fulfilment. Because of this she avoided all echoing spaces, all confrontations with images of festivals from which she felt herself to be excluded, all mysteries which she could only dimly apprehend. This was not simply timidity. It was perhaps the fear of the infidel, neither pagan nor Christian, but it was also awe, the proper emotion to be felt. If she were to be admitted to these mysteries, then they would be revealed to her. It seemed to her that she had only to wait. Nevertheless, she sought instruction, hoping for a sign, hoping to do better. The National Gallery she considered the definitive factor in her faulty education, and she went there two or perhaps three times a week.After these visits, the return to the unenlightened life of her more than ordinary day was difficult to negotiate. She addressed herself to the business of shopping, of buying an evening newspaper, of preparing her return. Still conscientious, she shopped scrupulously, testing everything for freshness, regretting that she was too disciplined to buy great quantities, indulging vast imaginary appetites, piling tables with profusion. But she restrained herself, for on whom would this waste be wasted? Instead of the street markets of her fantasy, she was confined to the bleak neon radiance of a single store. Her polished shoes carried her among welltrodden ways, and finally to the bus stop, outside Selfridges, where she came momentarily to rest. Fragments of other lives surrounded her, other conversations, American, Arabic, Italian, French. A long queue of schoolchildren lounged against the plate glass window of the store, arguing, drinking orange juice out of bottles, wearing baseball caps back to front. They looked hardy, confident, up to date. At the bus stop two dark-haired women, arm in arm, complained loudly to each other about a third. A large bearded man, wired up to headphones, was silently but energetically stretching the fingers of his left hand, as he jabbed the fret of a phantom guitar. Elderly, tired, and overdressed, the widows of the neighbourhood emerged from gloomy flats for their afternoon stroll; Blanche saw stark and heavy colour applied to sagging cheeks and lips, patent leather shoes crammed on to plump and painful feet, hair golden and unnaturally swirled and groomed. Blanche watched a woman wearing a heavy fur coat feel for the edge of the pavement with her stick; a scaly hand, ornamented with long red nails and an accumulation of rings, emerged from the weighty sleeve like a small armadillo. She felt terror for this woman, as she imagined the painful process of dressing up, of assembling the attributes of wealthy old age in emblematic and unsympathetic fashion, much as those nymphs in the National Gallery, with their pearls and their golden hair, their patrician smiles, had carried their freight of attributes to mock her present condition. But the nymphs had mocked her own exclusion from their world of love and pleasure; the widows mocked, like the fates, unconsciously, indifferently, but with a sense of foreknowledge: you will come to this. You will be like us, unpartnered, still fashionable, doughty, stiff of body and sad of mind, obstinate, tough, liable to blame everybody else, our daughters-in-law who do not telephone us often enough, our grandchildren, who, although adored, are incomprehensible, the porter of our expensive block of flats who fails to bring up the laundry, the hairdresser or the manicurist who plans to take an inconvenient holiday. Blanche, who had neither diamonds nor fur coats nor daughters-in-law, regarded these women studiously, empathizing all too accurately with their stoical disappointment. Beneath the golden hair, their ancient eyes stared back without curiosity, all fellow-feeling long gone, half-heartedness still whipped up into some sort of discipline, expectations very low. As the sun made a brief appearance, the over-painted lips smiled, revealing the ghosts of girls long gone. Then the sun disappeared again, leaving only the ordinary day behind, and all the expressions resumed their habitual air of resignation.The person on whom Blanche would have liked to have lavished all this alternative waste and profusion (for waste was as illusory and haunting as the absent sun) was no longer there, and there was no family for whom she might have liked to prepare meals and treats. The only child of parents long since dead and almost forgotten, Blanche had begun her apprenticeship of living alone from an early age, and was thus an expert. An expert is not necessarily contented with his or her expertise, and Blanche found her skill sorely tried as the days grew longer. Her marriage had been a source of amazement to her because there was always somebody to talk to. At the beginning she had talked too much, too artlessly. Novices in love think they have to explain their childhoods, recount their entire history up to the moment of meeting the object of their choice. And they do not learn from the fact that this process may have to be repeated. Blanche, although innocent, had learnt her lesson quickly, and had come round fairly soon to the sort of impersonal conversation that her husband most enjoyed. Like many rich men, he thought in anecdotes; like many simple women, she thought in terms of biography. He called her fanciful but was at one time proud of her. He liked to travel, to beautiful and fashionable places, and while he looked up old friends in these places she wandered through the towns, by the shore, lonely and content, knowing that he would be there when she got back. When they met again in the evenings, in these fashionable and beautiful places, she would try to tell him of her simple enjoyment, her solitary cup of coffee, her walk in the public gardens, or some conversation she had overheard. But he was impatient with this, and had much to tell; his information was full of incident, as if his friends, like himself, had more staccato lives, faster, more eventful, more objective. It was then that she had learnt to tailor her conversation to his requirements and to those of his friends; she was not calculating in this, but simply wanted to please. And she succeeded admirably, for his friends, who were not quite hers, found her rather amusing. As she was habitually elegant, she passed muster very well. But she always thought back to the early days, to her breathless welcoming of him in the evenings, her dashing to the kitchen to bring him a taste of something she had prepared that afternoon for dinner, and to what he called her romancing. Her transformation into the controlled and quizzical creature she had become had been effected on the whole without pain. It was her husband who had fashioned her into the woman she was now, so independent, so dignified, so able to manage on her own.
Excerpted from A Misalliance by Anita Brookner. Copyright © 2005 by Anita Brookner. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.