‘What will survive of us is love’, seems the most fitting quote for today. I pencil it in alongside the words of other writers:
Out of the ash I rise with my red hair. Within me there lay an invincible summer. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
And nothing does hurt. Not the ache of my feet from eight hours of work, not the marks cutting into my shoulders from the weight of my baggage. My soul sits upright within me. The bus rattles on beneath me, occasionally causing my hand to slip as I trace my pencil along these skeletal words. There’s an elderly woman sat next to me, but I’m not conscious of any prying. The prospect of being judged for the words and ideas of others doesn’t seem too catastrophic. Plus, these quotes have been keeping me hopeful. God, it’s cheesy, isn’t it? But I’m venturing away from endless Facebook posts of these superficially philosophical quotes about ‘positive vibrations’ and god knows what else. I’m heading down the more literary – though admittedly more pretentious – route of writing down quotes in a notebook on my journey home.
‘What will survive of us is love’. I have to credit Isla, really, with my sudden interest in literary citations and other such business. She’s a publisher with a deep love of literature. Endlessly interesting though stubbornly opinionated. Frighteningly quick and as a result, mildly intimidating. So I’m reading for her, in all honesty. I’ve already tried to talk to Isla about Jenny Holzer, a lesser known conceptual artist, whom I was quietly proud of for ‘discovering’ (side note: apparently finding a non-dead artist through the internet doesn’t count as ‘discovering’ them). I still remember her words upon finding out I liked her: ‘Her whole work is full of contradictions. And I wish she’d just choose a bloody medium already. Artist or poet? Make up your mind.’ I didn’t say anything when she said this. I love her, of course, but I can’t help but think that she’s missing the point. Isn’t literature supposed to be full of contradictions? Isn’t the whole point of creativity that there are no rules? But I’m only a novice, so I said nothing.
The source of my latest quote has been keeping me occupied for a couple of commutes now. I read ‘An Arundel Tomb’ on the way to work yesterday. At first, I thought it was this beautifully dignified poem about the all-enduring love of a couple. Like most, I got carried away by the weight of the last line and, in my overly-romantic mind, didn’t take in much else. I broached the subject to Isla over dinner last night, saying what a beautiful poem I thought it was. A small snigger escaped her as she said, ‘read up on Larkin. That should set you straight.’ I should be grateful. I had no idea of the undercurrent of scepticism that, according to Isla and other such academics, makes the poem so characteristically Larkin. All day I was swept up in this dream of romantic plight, only to discover with a sharp realisation that the whole thing actually stood for the exact opposite. Despite knowing the scepticism behind it, I prefer to read it as I first did – with the innocence of optimism. ‘What will survive of us is love’.
* * * *
His footsteps fall heavily upon the ground but he cannot feel any impact. The only thing he can feel is an internal ache, a strangled cry for a warm release from the seasons. The world is particularly harsh today. The smiles of strangers on the street pass over him like a winter breeze; each carrying an unseen, bitter blow. A clamminess spreads on his palms as he has a slow realisation of where his feet are taking him. It’s the same old route, a road to what was once something so familiar. The cars beat past him. All other noise dampens to a quiet hum.
* * * *
I flick through the array of words that fill the pages as the bus rattles on. I showed them to my brother last week and his eyes crinkled the way they do when he can’t believe what he’s reading.
‘I thought you would be showing me quotes from Churchill and Mandela! Not random lines from books.’ He laughed as he said it, and I couldn’t help but laugh with him.
‘They’re coming next, don’t worry,’ I reassured him. ‘But these ones are for Isla,’ I continued, my smile falling back into place. ‘I want her to read them all.’
He smiled a little too knowingly upon hearing this. Siblings, Fran in particular, have some uncanny knack for knowing what is true, but never daring to say it. Only in the pettiest arguments do they then divulge all the thoughts they’ve been collecting – all of which are accurate – but none of which you’ll admit to. That’s usually how it plays out between Fran and me, at least. During our next argument he’ll likely use my little notebook as evidence of me living vicariously through Isla. And maybe he’ll be right.
I stare out the window of the bus, looking but not really seeing. I start assigning the words I’ve written to the world outside. The ‘invincible summer’ of Camus I dedicate to a forlorn looking man wrapped in a thick coat, while a small child running through a park embodies Brontë’s, ‘I am no bird and no net ensnares me’. The bus drives on through the suburbs and passes some police tape just round the corner from a crossing. Bunches of flowers adorn the railings around the tape and I think to myself the words of Larkin: ‘Man hands on misery to man’.
* * * *
The world moves seamlessly around him. The sensation of having somewhere to be passes over him, but he lets go of it. The job centre has nothing to offer now. He comes to a halt as he reaches his destination. The red brick walls of his old home seem as inviting as ever, but his feet remain welded to the adjacent pavement. The walls melt away and he imagines Claire sat at the kitchen table, eating her porridge and honey, as always. The yearning is relentless. Physically, only a road stands between them. But the chasm is much larger than that. His body sways as cars beat past. His heart mimics their pace.
* * * *
My footsteps carry me to the front-door of our townhouse. Isla insisted on putting her stamp on the place, so she did most of the decorating. She spends most time out of the two of us in the house, so it makes sense to have it how she wants it. I’m hopeless at that sort of thing, and in the end she finished it magnificently. Every bit of furniture is so intrinsically Isla. Often I imagine her with the furniture, living inside this strange continuum while I’m at work. The downstairs is dormant, but it holds a quality of being peculiarly alive. Isla works in her office upstairs, so every day I enter the house to silence. Evidently, this doesn’t serve as a great comfort to my musing.
I find her there. The room is mostly dark except for the huge bay window that is positioned directly adjacent to the door, letting in the dying afternoon sun in one sweeping beam. Isla’s desk faces out the window and bookcases line the wall. When I open the door, she turns her head but doesn’t immediately respond to my smile. I perch on the end of my usual armchair and ask her how her day has been. She clears her throat before saying ‘Okay’.
‘I looked up the actual meaning of the Larkin poem today,’ I begin, ‘but I’ve got to admit, I prefer my version.’
‘I knew you would,’ she says quietly, still facing the closed window. ‘I feel like you read it deliberately with a tainted viewpoint so you can force this wholesome message of love upon it.’
‘Well, it’s not me that has to read fiction for a living, so I’m not too torn up about it,’ I laugh as I say it, but she doesn’t really say anything in response. As always, she sits in her own private sphere, impenetrable as the poems I read. Four years we’ve lived together, and I still don’t have an inkling of what goes on in her head. I look at the way she holds herself, all shoulders and no spine. Before I can speak, she asks me to leave; says she’s nearly finished her paper.
‘Of course.’ I say, and close the door behind me.
* * * *
The man tries to focus on one of the cars but as soon as it gets close his eyes blur and throat tightens. Although it’s been a year since he lived there, he cannot help but return. Claire is the only thing he can think of but he still hasn’t caught a glimpse. He searches for her face but is met with nothing but memories. A bitter taste forms in his mouth as he struggles to swallow the words that he had no choice but to accept.
I’m leaving you.
* * * *
Later, I find her fumbling with mugs in the kitchen. This seems strange, because Isla always manages to be so impressively sure of herself. When she drives the car, for example, she does so with such a collected manner. I could never muster it myself – this being one of the many reasons why I make use of the glorious invention of public transport. Isla sees the red light and doesn’t panic. Slow down, she’d always tell me. It’s just the red light, then the orange and then the green. Ease yourself into the stop.
The kitchen light is turned off, so much of Isla’s face remains in shadow. I decide to tackle her uneasiness head-on.
‘That’s an interesting mug you’ve got there,’ I say.
‘I have something to tell you,’ she says, completely ignoring me. I notice something in the way she says it, and it unsettles me. She’s not excited, like she so often is, when wanting to tell me something. She sounds withdrawn – scared, even. I feel fear blanket me the way it always does upon hearing such words uttered with disquiet.
My mind wonders vaguely. Could it be work? I feel a slight tinge in my stomach as I realise I haven’t asked about her papers in a while.
‘I killed someone today.’ A sense of – relief? – washes over me, because of all the news I could have received, there is no fathomable way in which this could be true. So I laugh, but my voice sounds hollow, like it doesn’t even belong to me.
‘No, seriously,’ she says, ‘today. It was an accident, with my car . . . He just stepped out into the road. The man is in hospital now, dead, or nearly dead. Not that it makes much difference at this point. But that’s the end of it now, isn’t it?’ She asks this last question without expecting an answer, which is good, as I can’t give her one.
I suppose this is the point where the penny drops. Or where the fruit goes tumbling from the bowl on the counter, landing with a gentle thud, bruised and forgotten on the cold kitchen floor. She looks at me, making a silent plea, but all I can do is return her gaze. Any words of comfort fall from my mind like the non-existent fruit. Any hope of resolution lays unnoticed on the floor. What can I possibly say? I’m sorry you ran someone over, Isla. I wish you hadn’t. I really wish you fucking hadn’t. But I’m never the one to say something like that. So I remain quiet and wait for her to explain.
* * * *
He hovers precariously on the edge of oblivion. He feels himself gravitate towards the centre of the busy road, knowing that the end, potentially, is just a few steps away. One car flies past. Two. Three. On the tenth car I’ll do it, he thinks. Soon, he’ll be back home again. Not to his flat, but to his first home. Humanity’s first home. Oblivion.
Four. Five. He looks up to the window of their old bedroom, picturing the half-made bed. Six. He takes a step forward. The suffocating memories that shroud him will all disappear. Seven. His eyes dart around and he catches a glimpse of dark hair near the house – Claire, taking out the bins. His stomach somersaults; his wife, Claire, right there, across the street. She seems unreal. She’s making her way back and he knows he’ll lose sight at any moment. He feels himself stir with a conviction that he has never felt before. An urgency spreads – he steps out into the road, heart beating wildly. This could be his last chance, the world turns to background noise and he calls out her na –
* * * *
Of course, this cannot be the end of it. There are questions I need to ask, images I need to conjure. Bridges I need to cross. And there are many ways I thought I’d react to a situation like this, all of them grossly inaccurate compared to the reality. Isla doesn’t start sobbing: she remains strangely sober throughout it all, telling the story with a quiet disconnect that unsettles me more than if she were to crumble. The police contacted her a few hours after the incident, informed her that they’d identified the man. They were reporting the case as suspected suicide, partly due to lack of evidence of misconduct on Isla’s behalf, and partly due to the man’s history. He’d recently divorced due to problems with alcohol, and had attempted suicide just a few weeks before. Isla doesn’t say much else.
‘That’s a lot to go through, Isla. You need to remember that it wasn’t your fault.’
‘That’s what they kept telling me. But I didn’t really see what happened . . . what if I could have stopped it? What if it was my fault?’
Jarred by the weight of her own words, she stops in her speech.
‘I’m assuming you told the police this.’
She looks at me with dog-tired eyes. No, is all she says. I stand up and leave. I decide to find my notebook and flick through the pages. My fingers land on a hurried list of books and poems I was reminding my future-self not to forget. So I sit down, and begin reading.
Some call Paradise Lost the greatest epic poem ever written. For all I’m aware, it could well be. I haven’t read it; the thought of tackling ten thousand lines of Milton is enough to put me off. Truthfully, I’d always been counting on Isla to explain it to me. But during my research, I remember finding an odd fragment which is meant to be one of Milton’s best lines: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ Once seeming like nothing more than a few honest words, they now hold more truth for me than I could have suspected. Granting, those words aren’t applicable for me and they never were. These words are accountable to Isla.
And what of responsibility? What of guilt? In the months that follow, it eats Isla alive, of course. She doesn’t let onto much, but I know it does. I can see it in her countenance, and the way she avoids driving; how she flinches whenever we pass flowers on road railings. It is always like this. She isn’t the first to live through her own death. One of the pilots in the Hiroshima mission was driven mad by guilt in the aftermath of the war. He wasn’t even in the aircraft that dropped the bomb, but he was part of the weather reconnaissance. They had to check the conditions were right. They gave the all clear, and that was enough.
But I don’t do anything too drastic about it. I write down more words, but I never read Larkin in the same way again. I think a lot about survival and imagine the secret of it breaking through:
In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.
Like Jenny Holzer, like waking up and the world begins to align and you know in the heart of yourself that it will go on. Sun beaming through the windows of our townhouse in the suburbs, soaking our skin in the method of existence. We will stir quietly in bed, we will wake up and see clearly what I knew all along. We will know, at last, that what will survive of this – of us – will be love.
Olivia currently studies English Literature at University. Although this is her first short story publication, she has had articles published in The Spark newspaper and a poem published in the University of Reading Creative Arts Anthology. When she is not studying, Olivia spends half her time living at home in Cornwall.
If you enjoyed The Method of Existence, leave a comment and let Olivia know.
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