On her way to the London Library, Mrs Eldon, who still thought of herself as Miriam Sharpe, paused as usual to examine the pictures in the windows of the Duke Street galleries. She hoped one day to find the image she unconsciously sought, without knowing why she sought it, something to lift the spirits, to transport her on an imaginary journey, to give a hint of the transcendence which was so blatantly lacking in her everyday life of words and paper. Today there was a Dutch flower piece, badly darkened by age and varnish, and a portrait of an Elizabethan boy, snug in his ruff, his lashless eyes denoting a childhood of unchildish amusements--nothing, in short, to appeal to the vague restlessness she always felt before settling down to another silent day's work. But farther down the street, in a gallery specializing in images of the nineteenth century destined for easy consumption--girls in frills on swings, neat northern townscapes--she found something to her taste, a smoky winter scene by an artist of whom she had never heard, Eugène Laloue. It was clearly signed at the lower left, and on the frame a small brass plate proclaimed: 'Place du Châtelet under Snow'. She looked closer, drawn in by the dirty yellow sky, smoky where it met the roofs of the buildings, under which she could imagine herself trudging home after a cold day. That yellow sky supplied its own illumination, although there were lights on in the buildings to the left, and even in a shop, too small to be of much consequence but surprising in this vaguely affluent setting. On the ground snow had been puddled into water by passing feet; it dusted the tops of the street lamps and the bench on which no one would sit. Groups of people stood waiting for the horse-drawn omnibus which could be seen approaching in the distance. In the centre of the picture a mother in a long black coat and a large black hat guided a dressed-up child to the nearer pavement. All this was suitably animated. But what continued to draw the eye was the yellow sky, lit from beneath as by a bonfire, stronger, stranger than the human crowd below. Somewhere, in the remote distance, a flag flew.
She stood for perhaps seven or eight minutes examining this image, unperturbed by the jostling passers-by who barely registered in her consciousness, although they were recognizably of the same genus as the tiny winter-clad people in the picture. When she turned away from the window she was vaguely disconcerted to see that there was no snow on the ground and that the sky was the colourless grey of an overcast April day. She could not have said why the picture held such fascination for her, but she recognized that it was the high point of a day which promised nothing more exciting. It was not merely that the scene was of Paris: Paris held no secrets for her. Her work involved brief but regular visits to her agency in the rue Soufflot. These too were of little consequence and led her to wonder where the legendary glamour of the literary scene was to be found. She was intimidated by the decisive young women with whom she had little in common; her work as a translator was satisfactory but it was largely routine, and in this connection she could hardly aspire to prominence. Once out of the office she marvelled at how little time had passed, leaving her free for the rest of the day.
In Laloue's picture, in which were commingled evening, homecoming, or better still homegoing, attachment (the mother with the child) and a context of belonging--for these people were confident enough not to wonder at their surroundings, not to be disconcerted by the bad weather and the fading light, and protected by that flag--she sought and partially found an assurance of a busier and more positive life than the one she knew. She doubted whether her own progress along a busy street could ever be seen as she saw the tiny figures in their urban landscape, purposeful yet unencumbered. In her mind's eye she drifted soundlessly and unobserved, even though she could quite clearly hear her heels on the pavement, could even nod to an acquaintance making for Christie's. In a few minutes she would go up the steps to the Library, make her way to the Reading Room and install herself at a table near the window. That was when real soundlessness would take over, broken only by an occasional cough and the rustle of a newspaper. This was her daily homecoming, as she had thought it to be when she was a student, as she had thought all libraries to be in those innocent days of study and application.
She could not now decide whether a library, any library, was a way out or a way in, a way out of daily life which contained too much confusion and weariness, or a way in to silent communion with true achievement, discarnate, incorporeal, couched in beautiful characters on paper, that smelt finer to her than the most recondite scents. It was somehow not her gift to be part of a crowd, which was why crowds fascinated and intimidated her. She preferred them at a distance, like the crowd in the picture, waiting for the omnibus in the trampled snow. It seemed to her that there was more silence in her own obedient days than there was in this minor scene by a minor painter. The window of the gallery had been protected by a grille. Peering through it she had felt that she was looking at an extinct species. Few passers-by gave it a second glance, from which she deduced that the picture had found its ideal spectator in herself, yet that if she were to be rich and able to buy it and hang it on the wall of her room it wo
uld immediately lose its distinctiveness, as if her own white walls were so alien that even the Place du Châtelet might be perceived as a fiction, so conclusive, so unyielding was the solitude of that room, with its unadorned bed and its faint smell of vetiver. White was the colour of virginity, or of martyrdom, as opposed to the suffused ochre of that imaginary winter afternoon. Yet when she stopped for a cup of coffee, finding herself too distrait to begin work, the picture was in the course of being removed from the window. For this she felt a certain relief, as if she were now able to glance away from some worrying spectacle. After much hesitation, she went into the gallery and asked for a catalogue. There, on an inside page, and suitably secret, was the scene, its colours only marginally different from those on the canvas. Even this was somehow appropriate, the initial experience having proved unrepeatable.
This was somehow a day on which concentration would not be possible, a day on which words must give way to images. The very idea of sitting in the Reading Room repelled her, although normally she was on quiet terms of acquiescence with the work she was employed to do, peacefully translating contemporary novels of no particular merit into English. It was not work she had actively sought; rather it had sought her. Her college tutor had remarked on her facility with languages, her ability to translate French into English and English into French, and had passed on to her a commission which he had no time or inclination to execute. It was an almost irresponsible action, but he had reached the age and stage of life when work is seen as confinement, as a check on natural impulses which perhaps have never had the chance to express themselves. She, the neophyte, with as yet no experience of this, had settled eagerly to the task. And so it had proceeded, with an ease irresistible to one with an urge to prove her worth.
Money was not an immediate problem, although it was a matter of pride to prove to others that she too was a breadwinner. Now she was known for her reliability, but like most reliable people not much valued.
It did not occur to her, or rather it no longer occurred to her, to wonder what she would rather be doing; she knew that she had no particular calling. When very young she had had an amorphous love of the arts; this had dwindled over the years to a panicky relief that she had found employment of a not too onerous kind that did not oblige her to compete with more gifted contemporaries and which kept her within reasonable bounds. Perhaps the Laloue had been an echo of days when she had been ambitious for more, when Paris had seemed to her to be filled with romantic promise, rather than the humdrum workaday city that she was now obliged to visit. She had thought herself to be fitted for better things, yet time had proved otherwise.
Love was to have been the answer, yet now all considerations of love merely served to revive memories of her sister, Beatrice, whose unashamed romanticism she had always deplored. By degrees this had taught her to deplore the remnants of what subsisted of her own unconfessed longings. For it had existed, that desire to see the world as a better place, to endow all sights and sounds with significance, to reinstate the beauty of a universe now beyond her reach. She had scaled down her expectations in the name of realism, of that same exactitude that enabled her to do her work to a satisfactory standard, and to analyse without pity the circumstances that had led to such a diminution. It was not enough to accuse an unhappy childhood; most people did that. Rather there was something critical in her make-up which she did not altogether appreciate.
Memories of Beatrice continued to surface. She saw again the patient look of longing in her sister's eyes, a look that still addressed the younger woman's deeper anxieties. Then she was grateful for her unvarying task, for the qualities that made her such a steady employee and collaborator. Letters from satisfied authors, which were quite frequent, reduced her to subordinate status all over again, but this she accepted. She had long ago decided that life was possible, if not actually gratifying, if one reduced the risk. The risk remained vague, unidentified, but she knew that it existed. The preferred strategy should be one of containment. This, she knew, was faintly shocking to a temperament such as her own which had known a deep original disillusionment, but she did her best to observe it. These days she merely appreciated what could be easily managed, just as she appreciated work that was well within her grasp. Except that on this particular morning it did not seem to be; today her own activities had been reduced to their proper dimensions by art, by renewing a perception of her much younger self. It was not the reality of the Place du Châtelet that disturbed her, so much as a resurrection of the dreaming novice she still harboured, eager for unrestricted experience, before the era of blame and responsibility. Clearly it was safer and more prudent not to look in windows, not to have access to other people's worlds. The world she had grown used to would have to suffice.
When work was going badly she took a resigned view, abandoned her table in the Reading Room and went out again, ostensibly in search of more coffee, in fact to seek the animation of the streets. This was somehow disappointing, far from the vividness she craved. Such mornings--for she would never allow inactivity to encroach on the afternoons--were indeterminate; nothing had happened to change her outlook, and yet in some mysterious way she was able to pick up her daily rhythms at the price of a small delay. Such a process seemed to her miraculous, compensation for a life of meritorious activity, as if the engine of her obedience were strong enough to overcome all obstacles, or would be if only she indulged it a little. Today she was reconciled to wasting a morning. She attributed this disposition to the fact that she had slept badly, having imagined that she had heard Beatrice cry out in the night. In fact there had been no cry, and in any event it had been their mother who had been in the habit of calling her, in those last days before she had been moved to the hospital. It was Miriam who had insisted on this, for her sister's sake as much as for her own. She knew that they must get used to self-sufficiency, and in order to do this they must eschew pity and the sort of terror that another's illness brings. Their mother, for once, had not blamed her, and had seemed to revive in the presence of doctors and nurses, to die a mere eight days later, mute and unobserved, in the small hours of the morning. The outcome of this death, its legacy perhaps, was sobriety for Miriam, flightiness for Beatrice. That was the period of Beatrice's flirtations, before they decided to leave the house and begin their new life. There was no reason now for Beatrice to call out in the night; Beatrice was dead. Nevertheless something had woken her and had left her with a vestigial disquiet that for the moment at least ruled out concentration.
The London Library was now the refuge to which she repaired on most weekday mornings, although she could more easily have worked at home, where there were few distractions. But home, real home, as opposed to some fictitious home which she would know the minute she found it, was unwelcome, especially in the daytime, when she could imagine she heard the ghost of Beatrice's piano, against which she had turned a deaf ear in real life. But Beatrice had been dead for some months, and she herself was no longer a girl resigned to shouldering unwanted family burdens but to all intents and purposes a mature woman, with work to keep her occupied, and in reasonable health, reasonable beyond all expectations. If life were dull, as she had never expected it to be, she had always been stoical in the face of dullness, as if once a certain term of trial were over she would emerge a lighter, more interesting being, able to take on the world, all her fears gone. Instead she had become a connoisseur of various forms of dullness, one age succeeding another as if in some hierarchically ordered progression. Some stages were preferable to others. She had come to appreciate, even to embrace, certain years, the years spent in Beatrice's company, towards the end of her life, before her strange but so logical eclipse had put an end to their companionship, to their misunderstanding, to the strange dread that she felt even now, and would continue to feel, she supposed, for as long as memory were active. As the final repository of her sister's illness she could look back almost with nostalgia to their terminal closeness, which nothing had been allowed to disturb.
How acceptable that earlier monotony now seemed! Those careful Sunday mornings, those sedate walks round the silent streets, noting the gradual return of buds to bushes, obediently suppressing a sigh as the buds emerged so slowly, as the grey clouds sifted in the cold wind of what was still only February! The very absence of weekday noise and agitation was a balm, or was it an additional sedative? Only now did she measure the peace of that prospect. But to measure was to evaluate, to compare. Nothing prevented her from taking such a walk, on just such a Sunday, but now the very idea was hollow, leached of meaning, as everything else seemed to be. A death had occurred, and although she had dealt with it competently, with remarkably little emotion, her life and perceptions had been altered by it, as if oxygen had been withdrawn from the atmosphere, so that her steps were now as cautious as if she herself were in decline. Yet if she felt anything it was ennui, a delirium of ennui, the grey sky and the cold wind obliterating every impulse she might have felt to seek comfort in another climate, another landscape. She was free to leave but felt condemned to stay.
The monotony of her current situation was of a different order, had something shameful about it, useless; without attachments she saw her desire to please as unmotivated, unsolicited. And although this might at a pinch be counted a tribute to some residual innocence, as if she were still an eager girl in quest of friends, she knew that this was not the case. Age had invested her with new emotions--resentment, fear, sorrow--and she was shocked by her consistently ruminative mood, not previously encountered, regretting all the time now the breathless expectations of youth, which her continuance in the world had somehow put to shame. Even the brief willed peace of her former life, or that part of it that she could invoke, as if she were to swallow a sleeping pill, had vanished, to be replaced by what she imagined was a permanent scowl, though when she looked in the glass she saw only bewilderment. She had determined, so many years ago, to be good, but had somehow ended up compromised. Praised on all sides for her devotion, she felt impatience. By contrast those blameless Sunday walks were a guarantee of blamelessness. With their disappearance, her blamelessness was also mysteriously gone.
Yet she was the first to acknowledge that it had not been easy, that false equilibrium, though she almost missed the approving smiles of neighbours, even of strangers, as she accompanied her sister on their small shopping expeditions, their humble excursions. 'So devoted,' she had heard one woman remark to her companion, and had felt a preliminary spurt of horror. 'A devoted couple,' she used to hear said of her parents, yet she knew that their relationship was stormy, uneven, based on very real antagonism. Illness had united them at the end, and they had faced the world together, bringing forth sentimental tributes. And similar tributes had somehow become her due, as she had shortened her steps to accommodate Beatrice, whose poor health was known. Women admired them; men were if anything abruptly dismissive, sensing an oppressively sexless world of sacrifice and obligation. They had been aware of this, could not completely ignore it. But what was resignation in the one was something more complicated in the other. They had survived their history, and besides, they had no other choices.
Beatrice had been well named, a stately character, with a natural dignity, according to those whose knowledge of her was based on infrequent acquaintance, and it was true that she bore her increasing frailty with a habitual smile and shake of the head when that Greek chorus of well-wishers and commentators enquired. It was true that the stiffness in her fingers had put paid to a promising career as an accompanist, but the truth was not entirely served when this explanation was forthcoming. There had been an element of willed collapse in that renunciation, a condition endemic in the family background, and rampant in her own acceptance of the supporting role thus forced on her, the younger sister. Or had she chosen it out of fear of contention? She remembered only too well the contentions that had shadowed the years of growing up, or trying to grow up, her mother threatening illness, collapse, even death, if not humoured, her father all tearful resentment, hardly a man at all, or at least not a man as dreamed of by two wistful girls. And further back, even beyond this, there were memories of an embittered grandmother berating her daughter for marrying such a man, while the two girls ran up to their bedrooms and refused to come down, thus prolonging the dissatisfaction that was the very climate of their home. They had learned how to protect themselves, by tacit obedience, by tacit indulgence of their mother's moods, but despite some fairly successful dissembling they had never managed to feel indifferent to this disharmony. Only to each other could they confide their disappointment once they had knowledge of other families, picked up from schoolfriends, who were only infrequently invited to the house. On these occasions either the mother or the father, if he happened to be at home, but sometimes both, would comment on their own bad luck, although the house seemed prosperous enough, even if the visitors were not made entirely welcome. They were there as audience, while the girls, Beatrice and Miriam, suffered a discomfort they were too young to identify as moral. They longed for dignity and were not to find it.
Their respective escapes seemed to them miraculous, though each hankered for the closeness of the other. When Beatrice won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, the younger girl, Miriam, was allowed to go to university, on condition that she continue to live at home and keep her mother company. By this stage their father was ill, and extravagantly awkward, genuine fear shifting in his eyes, and their mother, frightened into showing a timid support, had significant failures of control. On the street, their arms linked, their faces wary, they were accorded an indulgent smile. Beatrice refused to be part of this drama; music supplied her with a world of feeling which she recognized as superior to anything she had ever known in life. But she was circumspect: no expression of pleasure, of excitement, was permitted. In any event it would have been out of place. Their faces identified them as sisters: they appeared well-meaning but unprotected. No one had ever told them they were attractive, with a slightly old-fashioned, slightly irritating appeal. Out in the world they marvelled that they were found acceptable to others, after years of being castigated as unsatisfactory, disappointing. In a perverse but logical manner disappointment was their inheritance. Nothing had prepared them for a welcome.
Since there were no other family members to advise them they had stayed in the house after their parents' deaths, a substantial suburban house on the outskirts of London, until Beatrice's modest celebrity as an accompanist, and her own progress as a translator, prompted their epic flight to the flat in Wilbraham Place, prompted not so much by their own initiative as by their friends' complaints at having to travel so far to visit them. Even so they had no thought of separating; each constituted the other's family, in a very real sense. They had been witnesses to each other's discomfiture, a condition which they could not translate for others. By their twenties, their thirties, they were popular, courted, felt themselves momentarily to be part of the effervescence around them. Those years had run their course. They had their work, they had an agreeable home, but they were a little tired of going to weddings, which to them marked the disappearance of confidantes. It was then that Miriam had succumbed to the temptation of marriage. It had not been an easy decision. She was thirty-five, an age which almost debarred her from youthful romance and its illusions. It was because she saw how dangerous such illusions could be that, wryly, she put in train certain plans of her own, searching out the candidate least likely to disappoint her. She had known him for ever, since childhood, almost. Longing, for no reason she could identify, for a safe haven, she made the necessary telephone calls. Beatrice was not consulted. As a courtship it was well outside Beatrice's experience. Besides, the outcome could not possibly alarm her, would indeed leave her intact, unslighted. The urge to protect had operated in this matter as in all the others. That it then had to be extended to her husband was something for which she had not bargained. It was some time before she perceived, and embraced, the appropriate irony.
Excerpted from Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner. Copyright © 2000 by Anita Brookner. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.