At lunch, Terry offered to drive him to the station; he had a few things to do in town anyway. Mark looked at his wife, who was trying to persuade their daughter to eat a piece of chicken. Sunday lunch at the Rowels’ meant Sunday lunch, even on holiday and even though Gracie had basically become a vegetarian.
“Gracie has her horse-riding lesson,” Fiona said. “Otherwise, I’d take you. Don’t look at me like that. For an hour I’ll just be sitting in the car.”
“If you don’t want to take me—” Gracie said.
They’d been fighting all week and had entered again into a familiar cycle. Fiona shouted at Gracie for being spoiled, and then, to make it up to her afterward, spoiled her. But also, whenever Mark went away, Fiona pretended not to care—she made herself busy.
So when his father-in-law offered to drive him, Mark said, Yes, thank you.
An annual conference on modernism was being held at Senate House that year, and Livy, one of his old students, had put together a panel on nostalgia and asked him to give a paper. That was always the plan, when he agreed to rent a cottage with his in-laws for the second half of June—that he could escape for a few days in the middle.
Not that he disliked his in-laws. Terry was good company. He’d started out as an engineer then switched to consulting and made a lot of money, divorced his first wife and married Fi’s mother, retired in his early fifties and involved himself on various boards. Many people were financially dependent on him, which Terry only complained about humorously. His attitude was, money buys you interesting things, including the attention of people you love. He drove Mark to the station in a Rover 75 with a walnut steering wheel and hand-tooled leather on the gearbox.
In the car park at St. Austell, before getting out, Mark offered to pay his share of the rent for the cottage, which had a cliff-top pool overlooking the beach.
“Don’t be silly,” Terry said. “I’d never hear the end of it.” The way he sat with the engine off suggested the conversation wasn’t over. “You’re leaving me to a house of women.”
“Apart from Tom.” Tom was Mark’s 8-year-old son.
“Yes, of course, there’s always Tom.” And then: “When the girls were young, we used to take a house in Norfolk in the summer, and I’d come up for the weekend. Two days was enough.”
Sometimes he made these appeals to Mark, as a fellow man and outsider to the family, which Mark didn’t know how to respond to.
“I’m sorry about all the . . . amateur dramatics,” he said, meaning Gracie and Fiona.
“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” Terry said. “It makes a nice change. Most of the time we live very quietly.” But then he also said, “This is why second marriages are easier. By the time you fall in love all of this sort of thing is behind you.”
Mark had only a backpack with him—he was going home, after all, to their modest 30s house at the foot of Alexandra Park. So there was nothing to retrieve from the boot or pull out of the backseat. When he closed the door and slung the JanSport over his shoulder, he felt almost like a student again, setting out.
The train to Paddington took just under five hours, but the first part of the journey at least was astonishingly pretty—farmland folded into the rocky hills, occasional villages, the sea. Lying in bed the night before, he had imagined getting some work done (for a week, he’d barely touched his computer) but ended up mostly looking out the window.
Gracie could sense that he was on her side, so she made ironic remarks about her mother that Mark did his best to . . . not encourage. But he also didn’t want to push his daughter away, just at the age when patterns in her relationships with men were starting to form. And so he let Fiona down, by not agreeing with her, or not agreeing with enough conviction, which his wife punished him for in other ways.
But there’s no point in getting away from it all just to keep up these arguments in your head.
He left his seat to buy a coffee and stood in the almost empty carriage, drinking it. Rows of suburban terraces had begun to appear, rear extensions, washing lines, sooty pebble-dashed walls, sheds in the garden, allotments backing onto the tracks . . . sometimes, in the distance, a church spire. How small-scale England is, how close together. For two years he’d lived in Charlottesville, with a post-doc at the University of Virginia, and for much of that time he thought, I’ll probably spend the rest of my life in America. Then he got the job at UCL, and now it was like that part of his life never happened.
After Slough, the weight of London settled on him.
It was almost six o’clock when he got home. The house looked just like they’d left it, with Fiona’s coffee mug on the hall table under the mirror. Shoes on the mat and Gracie’s coat, which she didn’t want to take and argued with Fiona about, lying on the stairs. He picked up the letters and walked through to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water and sat down. There was a cocktail reception for the conference that evening. It would have been simpler to go directly but he wanted to dump his backpack and shower and change and even thought of skipping the opening night altogether.
He’d been feeling, more and more often . . . not quite ready for the next thing, whatever the next thing was. He didn’t want to face his colleagues. Most of his fellow academics couldn’t really imagine doing anything else. It wasn’t the kind of job people opted out of (moderate pay, reasonable hours, real autonomy and a fairly high percentage of your daily working life spent on things that actually interested you, or used to). But Mark got through each year only by making himself all kinds of false promises about what he would do when he quit. Which he had stopped telling Fiona about because they seemed childish. Also, a little insulting, given her own frustrations with her career.
Before the mini-cab came he called her mobile.
“I’m sitting in the kitchen,” he said, “and looking at the drippy tap.”
“How was the journey?”
But she wasn’t really listening, she was moving through the house.
“Long. The cab is on the way, I just wanted to say hello.”
“Are you going out?”
She knew this, he had told her about the reception last night. So he told her again, and she asked him what he was wearing—it showed she was in a good mood. The shirt from Paul Smith she had given him for Christmas, with hundreds of blue flowers.
“Is Livy coming back with you?”
He had mentioned that to her, too.
“I think so. I offered.”
Livy, like many of his former students, had made occasional cameos in their family life and featured in some of his news and dinner table stories. Fiona had met her several times, including the year before, when Livy went for a job at Kings and slept on their sofa bed—the university would have paid for a hotel, but she wanted to see Mark before her interview and practice her job talk again. (Fiona listened, too, and joined in the conversation, because Mark, while in many ways obviously wonderful and supportive, isn’t always good at saying the nice things people need to hear.) Livy didn’t get the job but stayed with them a second night, and got drunk with Fiona after Mark went to bed.
“Where are you going to put her?” Fiona asked.
“I thought, in Gracie’s room.”
“Have you asked Gracie?”
“No. Should I?”
“Probably not. Just don’t put her in our bed.”
“Fiona . . .”
“I’m only joking.”
He could hear the wind down the line, gusting and falling away. It often began to settle at sunset, and Mark imagined the garden and the view, along the coastal path, above the sea. Even when she stood outside, the phone reception was patchy, and teasing and flirting often missed their queues, so the response came late, and the joke fell flat, and the tone changed.
“Why not Tom’s room?” she asked.
“It’s a bunk bed. His toys are all over the floor.”
“She won’t mind. And he won’t care either.”
“Why would Gracie care?”
“Because she’s a 13-year-old girl.”
But his phone beeped—the cab was waiting outside.
“I have to go,” he said.
“I thought I’d talk to Mum tonight, about what we talked about.”
“I thought it would be easier for you, if you weren’t around.”
Fiona wanted to retrain as a psychoanalyst. Tommy was old enough, he didn’t need to come home to his mother any more. It might help her relationship with Gracie, too, if Fiona were more distracted, less engaged. Is that what they teach you in psychoanalysis, he didn’t say. Before the children came along, she’d worked in academic publishing, and for the past few years had supplemented their income with freelance editing, which was low-status and unreliable but made a difference financially. Her own occasional mental health issues (she had had post-natal depression after Gracie was born) often gave her an insight into other people’s. But the training would take four years, and she’d have to pay for her own analysis. They didn’t have the money for it. Fiona wanted to ask her mother, which really meant asking Terry.
“Can we talk about this later?” he said.
“We can talk about it whenever you want. I’m going to talk about it tonight. There’s no point worrying about it, Mark, if Terry doesn’t want to lend me the money.”
“It’s just, if you take his money, every time we go on holiday, or buy a car . . .”
But the cab was waiting; the driver honked his horn.
It surprised him always, the uplift he felt, walking into a party, even if he didn’t particularly want to go. Students in black outfits with white aprons stood around with trays of red and white wine. He always made a point of making eye contact when he took the glass. But he was aware of a pressure to join in the liveliest clusters of conversation, and disliked it.
People seemed happy to see him.
Senate House itself was a vaguely fascist-looking building whose façade was sometimes used by television companies to film New York apartment blocks. Inside it was grand and elegant in a generic way, with marble floors and walls and paneled ceilings. The middle-aged people standing around drinking Casillero del Diablo earned mostly between 40 and 70k and lived in flats or suburban London homes, but the university connection meant they spent their working lives and some of their evenings, too, in surroundings like this, drinking free alcohol, which inflated their sense of self-importance.
He saw Livy talking with Tim Dexter, one of his colleagues, and several other grad-student types, and went over to say hello.
Livy said, “Dennis Galway is here.”
“Is he? Is he really?”
“Don’t make fun of me,” Livy said.
She wore a simple blue dress, and dangling earrings, and looked like someone who had raided her mother’s closet. But maybe that’s only how she looked to him. In most measurable ways, she was one of the younger and more attractive women in the room and seemed to feel it. Mark had never seen her drunk, and she wasn’t drunk yet, but when the tray came round she put her empty glass down and took another one.
Mark liked Tim; they had known each other vaguely for almost ten years.
Tim said, “The only person I was ever excited to stand in a room with was Roland Gift.”
“They have no idea who that is,” Mark told him.
Then Livy said, “Introduce me.”
“To who? Roland Gift isn’t here.”
“To Dennis Galway.”
“I don’t really know him.”
She led him aside, actually pulling at his sleeve. “There’s someone I don’t want to talk to,” she said, when they were standing a little apart, next to one of the columns, on the shallow steps leading to the back entrance. “So act like we’re having an interesting conversation.”
“I’ll tell you later. Tell me about Dennis Galway.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I thought you met him.”
“Years ago. I doubt he remembers me.”
“Why is everyone obsessed with him?” And she laughed. Maybe she was a little drunk.
He felt like somehow Livy had taken him in hand. They ran into others, an American who was spending the year at Wolfson in a small group of Oxford people, and Livy knew everybody and didn’t mind repeating herself. She said, “Why is everyone obsessed with Dennis Galway?” And also, “I’m obsessed with Dennis Galway.”
Mark had the sense that if he didn’t know her, he wouldn’t like her; but he did like her, she had made herself like this out of nothing. Her father, before he died, ran a service station outside Maidenhead, and here she was, in the middle of all these academics, many of them privately educated, very much in the middle and enjoying herself. He also had the feeling that other people were indulging her, which upset him. One of the Oxford dons said to her, “Explain to me what you mean by that,” in a tone that was impossible to read. But maybe he was just projecting. He knew that many middle-aged otherwise reasonable professors were perfectly happy to stand in the presence of clever attractive young women while they showed off how clever and attractive they were.
At one point they did run into Dennis Galway, who had just flown in from San Francisco. He was a short, slightly emaciated 60-year-old man, self-contained and almost athletic-looking (he was known to be an obsessive runner). He also appeared to have a bad cold. “At home, right now,” he was saying to a cluster of admirers, “I’d be a watching a football game and eating lunch. I mean real football.” Galway had studied with Derrida at UC-Irvine and told a story about an argument they had about football and soccer. But he seemed to be on auto-repeat, performing for the English, in low-power mode.
Mark tried to break into the circle. “You won’t remember but we had dinner once, about twenty years ago. With Suzanne Buckley, after you gave a talk at UVA.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Suzanne’s a dear friend.”
It’s stupid, you shouldn’t be pleased, but Mark was pleased, to get this recognition in front of Livy, He wanted to introduce her, but she was already asking Dennis about his new book, Reading Texts, which had become a surprise bestseller. Then she mentioned his first book, which grew out of his PhD, and Mark could see that Galway was paying attention now, he had noticed her. In spite of his cold, and jetlag, the American conveyed an impression of seriousness, and there’s something about the attention of these people . . . but Mark wanted to get away from all that.
At half past eight they blinked the lights. There was talk of going out to eat. Mark had drunk maybe three glasses of wine—it’s not always easy to tell when they refill your glass. He had a slight headache and wanted to go home. But Livy said, “Come on, Mark. I never get to see you.” That struck a new note, but then he noticed that she said the same thing to other people, Tim Dexter, and one of the grad students, Sophie Kopolos, and several others. “I’m stuck in Cardiff and never get to see anyone.” She even said, “I’m going to ask Dennis Galway.”
They were standing around in the courtyard at the back of Senate House, where the lorries park to make deliveries, in the mild summer night. Livy had lit a cigarette; Mark didn’t know she smoked.
Everybody always ate at Ciao Bella, a perfectly ordinary neighborhood Italian on Lambs Conduit, ten minutes away on foot. Mark used to eat there, too, and still associated it with good times, when he had just started teaching at UCL, and was glad to be home, and felt like himself again after living in America. Livy said, “I’m going to tell Dennis Galway, this is the real London, the real London pizza, which you can’t get anywhere else . . .” But nobody could find him; he must have gone back to his hotel.
On the way, Livy took his arm. With her other hand, she pulled a wheelie suitcase over the uneven pavement. “With all my worldly goods,” she said. They straggled in a loose line through Russell Square, under the high dark trees. Seven or eight of them; they’d never get a table, and have to stand around waiting, and then drinking at the pub next door . . . until almost ten o’clock, when the kitchens closed . . . when really he should just go to bed. He had woken up that morning at 7 AM to go running, and swimming in the Atlantic. It seemed weeks ago.
Livy said, “Don’t let me sit next to Henry.”
Henry Whiteman was a professor at Kings. Mark knew him slightly, as one of those academics who appear on Radio 4 to explain popular culture to people in theoretical terms. He had black thinning shoulder-length hair, which was always combed back across his forehead, and wore unusual trainers. His children were already at university; he had married young.
They reached the restaurant as Henry exited, after walking on ahead. “I’ve put my name down,” he said. “About a twenty-minute wait, the waitress said. How many are we . . .”
Livy let go of Mark’s arm. There were tables and chairs on the pavement, under an awning, and more people spilling out of the pub next door. Tim offered to buy the first round and Mark said, “Not for me . . . I think . . .”
“Don’t leave me,” Livy said, in an undertone.
“I’m very tired.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Don’t be silly. The key will be under the pot. You can sleep in Gracie’s room; I’ll make up the bed.”
“Don’t you want me to come with you?”
“I’m just going to bed. It’s been a long day.” Then he said, “Stay and have fun. You young things . . .” He meant Tim, too, and Henry, all of them, and was smiling when he said it, but in the dark maybe they couldn’t see.
It’s always awkward extricating yourself from these gatherings; the only thing to do is go, and he started walking. Through quiet Bloomsbury—office blocks and hospitals, hotel receptions and Georgian terraces. He passed Coram Fields and the back of the Brunswick Centre and called Fiona on her cell.
She picked up on the first ring. He could see the time on his phone, half past nine.
“Hey,” she said, in a whisper. “How was it?”
“Why are you whispering?”
“Tom didn’t want to sleep on his own, so I told him he could sleep in our bed.”
“Fiona . . .”
“He misses you. It doesn’t matter. It’s just for one night.”
“What about Gracie?”
“What about her?”
“You’re leaving her alone with your mother.”
“Everyone’s gone to bed, it’s Sunday night. I said she could sleep with me tomorrow, but I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“If she will . . . She’s on her period.”
“Is this the first time?”
“Of course it’s the first time.”
“Nobody tells me anything.”
“I’m telling you now. That’s probably why she’s been such a little bitch.”
“Fiona . . .”
“It’s fine. Everything’s fine. We had a good time at the riding school. Poor thing . . . when she came home she made me walk behind her. She bled through. She didn’t want anyone to see.”
“I miss you.”
“Well, don’t go away,” she said.
And then he was alone again, in the summer dark, and crossing Euston Road.
The bed seemed cold without Fiona in it, and he lay awake listening for Livy to come home. Around midnight he panicked that he had forgotten to leave the key and went down to check. Their house was set back from the road, on a curved street. No tube near, and Livy didn’t know the buses; hopefully she’d take a taxi. But she’s a big girl; she can look after herself.
He stood in the doorway and listened. Sometimes you could hear people coming home drunk from Alexandra Park on a summer night, but nothing now. Just occasional traffic from the roundabout on the corner.
On the front step, Fiona kept a pot of chamomile. The key lay underneath.
Later he dreamed he was taking an exam. Everyone had a printer under the desk, but for some reason he couldn’t pull out all the pages. The bell rang and he had to put down his pen. Fiona looked at him from the row ahead, without expression, and the teacher said, well, if you want to finish you have to leave the room. Mark gathered his papers and Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, walked in. He was taller than you’d expect and slightly overdressed. Mark said angrily, as he pushed past him in the doorway—you think it’s so clever, but really what you’re asking for is just tricks. A good test tests for understanding.
When he woke up, he heard Livy on the phone. Gracie’s bedroom was on the floor below; nothing but a row of floorboards and a bit of plaster separated them. Livy said, “I’m not going to hang up. I said, I’m not going to hang up.” Not loudly, but in the night in the dark it sounded like she was almost in the room. He also heard, “I think I’m going to be sick.” And: “Well, I didn’t want to. Whose fault is that?”
Even after Livy grew quiet, he lay on his back, eyes open, feeling sexually alert; heartsick, too. In Cornwall, for the past three weeks, Fiona had more or less refused to sleep with him. Not that he tried very hard to persuade her. There are facts about your life you just have to resign yourself to, because the alternative is worse. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think about what you want to think about, and sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep, he let himself think about Suzanne Buckley.
She was one of the faculty at UVA, who took him out for coffee when he got to Charlottesville. Remembering her own post-doc experience at Yale, and what it was like to be generally ignored, she promised herself (she told him) that if she ever reached a position where she could . . . Also, their fields were similar, early twentieth century, and she had spent two of the happiest years of her life at Oxford, on a Marshall Fellowship, and liked to talk about England.
A few weeks later she sat in on one of his seminars and invited him afterward to come by her house to discuss the class. Before dinner, around six o’clock—cocktail hour, she said. You could walk there from Bryan Hall and she emailed him the address while sitting (“bored out of my skull”) in a departmental meeting. Suzanne lived in the Venable neighborhood, built for professors a hundred years before. To Mark, as he crossed over West Main, it felt semi-rural—houses hidden among tall trees. He felt a thousand miles from anywhere, like nobody knew him and nothing he did really counted.
By the time he arrived she had already started drinking. It was Thursday afternoon and she didn’t teach on Fridays. Braden has soccer til eight and one of the other mothers is driving him home. This is one of the nicer things about getting divorced, she told him. You start to rely on women again, who let’s face it are basically more reliable.
He tried to smile appropriately.
For two days he had prepared his seminar, on narrative asymmetry in Woolf and Lawrence, which required synthesizing a range of the texts they had discussed so far. The trouble was, only two or three of his students had read them all. Conversation was sporadic, and he ended up lecturing and cajoling and almost pleading people to participate; none of it worked. But Suzanne told him it didn’t matter, everybody makes the same mistake. You pitch the seminar at whoever’s observing you, which of course is the person you’re actually trying to impress, and not the class; she used to do the same thing.
Mostly she wanted to gossip about the students. It was a senior seminar and she knew all the kids. Boys and girls, she called them; this is what you can call them, she said, when you’re 45 years old. She wore a chiffon something around her neck, in spite of the warm evening. But her arms were muscular and she showed them off.
You didn’t have to talk much around Suzanne. At least, you didn’t have to think of things to say; she directed the conversation. She was half a foot shorter than Mark and made him feel very English and large. She also attributed to him subtleties of intention or irony that he couldn’t always keep up with. “I wonder what you think of us, in this backwoods place . . .” Her handsome head seemed too big for her body. She had hard curly hair (the first time he spent the night, he lay awake with her hair in his face). Now, from his middle-aged perspective, he could see that she was determined to go through with something, and had reached a stage in her life where if she decided to do something she did it. But for much of the evening he had no idea what she wanted or meant.
When they walked outside, through French doors onto the back porch, which overlooked the yard (a small creek, half overgrown, glimmered at the bottom; dusk had fallen), she told him to sit on the rocking bench and then sat next to him. From his height, if he turned toward her, he could see down her shirt. Her perfume rose against his face.
“I’m sorry,” he said, when she caught his eye. “I feel a little uncomfortable, this close.”
“Don’t worry about it, that’s what they’re for.”
The memory of this scene continued to arouse him, even though mostly what he’d felt at the time was a sense of shame—that she was exposing him, his obvious and stupid male desire, which she saw right through.
He always woke at seven, no matter what time he went to bed or how little he’d slept. Years of fatherhood had trained him out of lying in. Also, in summer, dawn made the room bright enough to read in.
There was a radio on Fiona’s bedside table, and he turned it on and listened to the Today Program for a few minutes, then went downstairs. His laptop was still in the kitchen from the night before, and for an hour he read over his conference paper, rewriting, shortening, sometimes reading out a paragraph and trying to make it sound like he just happened to be in the middle of a conversation . . . and what he wanted to say was . . .
Then the phone rang and Fiona was in his ear.
“What’re you doing today?” he asked.
“Gracie’s still sleeping, I don’t know. Tom wants to go to this Segway place Terry told him about.”
“It’s a beautiful day, they can go to the beach, which is free.”
“Terry will pay.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“If you want to have opinions about these things, you have to be here.”
For a few seconds he didn’t respond. Sometimes, if you wait a beat, you don’t have to say it. He tried changing tone. “The house feels very empty.”
“What about Livy?”
“She’s still in bed.” And then, when Fiona didn’t answer, “She called someone on the phone last night when she came home. She kept saying, I think I’m going to be sick.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I was in bed. I didn’t even see her come in, I left the key under the pot.”
“If she was sick in Gracie’s bed . . .”
“What could I do?”
“I told you not to put her in Gracie’s bed . . . if she was sick in her room . . .”
“I don’t think she was sick. I think she was drunk, and not very happy.”
“I’m not cleaning it up.”
“Of course, you’re not. You’re three hundred miles away.”
“And you can explain it to Gracie.”
“There’s nothing to explain.”
“Anyway, I have to go,” Fiona said. “Mum’s here.”
Her voice sounded posher to him when he went away; it was one of her defense mechanisms, to put on the accent she grew up with. The presence of her mother brought it out, too. Sometimes, even after fifteen years of marriage, he remembered his first impressions: that Fiona was the kind of girl who only liked boys who could amuse her.
“Say something friendly to me,” he said.
“I don’t feel very friendly.” But this was just her ordinary grumpiness, because she missed him, and Mark didn’t mind hanging up.
Around ten o’clock, he knocked on Gracie’s door—Livy still hadn’t come down. When she didn’t answer, he went in. The curtains weren’t properly closed and light floated in cut-out shapes over the rug.
“I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“Do you want me to go away?”
There was nowhere else to sit so he sat down next to her. The odors of the bed were warm and smoky. He’d have to change the sheets before Gracie came home.
Livy rolled over and hid her face in the pillow.
“You shouldn’t have left me last night,” she said.
“I told you not to leave me with Henry.”
“What happened?” he said again.
“I broke up with him. Well, he broke up with me first, but that was months ago and he didn’t seem to remember so I had to remind him.”
“I thought he was married.”
“He is married. You think I’m disgusting.”
“I am disgusting. I don’t even really smoke.”
Her muddy blonde hair lay spread over the pillow. He could see the chalky lines of her scalp and began stroking her head, feeling mostly pity . . . for his daughter, too, whose bed it was, and whose periods had just begun and who might in a few years have to go through things like this at the hands of people like Henry.
“Don’t leave me tonight,” Livy said, turning over when he stopped and half-sitting up. Her face was still made-up, with dark smudges under the eyes, which gave her a goth look, like one of the teenage girls you see in leather jackets standing outside Camden Underground.
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Yes, please, Dad.” And then, when he stood up to go, “I’ll make it up to you,” which left him with the uneasy feeling that some kind of promise had been made.
Over breakfast he heard the rest of the story. Henry was one of her PhD examiners. She emailed him afterward because she wanted to ask for a reference, and they kept in touch by Facebook, too. Then she got the job at Cardiff and ran into him a few months later at the BAMS annual conference, which was in Birmingham that year. This is when it started. A few of them went out and got drunk, and they were all staying at the same hotel anyway, and he ended up in her room.
After that they saw each other when they could. He agreed to be one of the external examiners at Cardiff, which meant that every summer they had a few days together. Then the job came up at Kings. Part of the reason she felt so nervous is because she thought . . . anyway, it doesn’t matter what she thought, because Henry acted like . . . she was just another candidate. For a while I thought maybe he voted against me, which is why I didn’t get the job; but he says he didn’t say anything. He says that obviously in some ways he’s not a very moral person but at least in academic matters he tries to be scrupulous.
“Did you believe him?” Mark asked.
“I didn’t . . . and then, last night . . . I don’t know.”
“What happened last night?”
“Nothing happened. He thought I was staying at a hotel but I told him I was staying with you. Anyway, he wanted me to get a hotel room, and I said he only wants me like . . . for the weekend, I’m like his conference girl, and accused him of costing me the job at Kings. Then we had a fight about that. And he said . . . anyway, I told you what he said.”
“And you believed him.”
“I don’t know, maybe I did. I think if you go to bed with someone, you can’t be too cynical about them.”
“What do you mean?” Mark asked, now with real curiosity. She seemed to have thought about something that he hadn’t thought about much.
“I mean, I knew he was married when I slept with him. It’s not like he tried to hide it. And all the time we spent together . . . if somebody does that with you, it’s because they’re willing to take a risk—for you. So when he was with me, we were . . . we were very close. And you can’t keep telling yourself it’s all a lie, because you know that’s not true.”
She wore a Prifysgol Caerdydd jumper over her T-shirt, and a pair of running shorts, because she planned to go running and set out from Cardiff with good intentions. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen. “Did Fiona not say anything to you?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I told her about him when I came to stay the last time. I told her not to tell you but then I thought married people don’t really pay attention to that kind of thing.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
He remembered vaguely Livy breaking down in tears the night before her interview, and Fiona telling him to go away. But when he asked her about it later (when they went to bed, and lay there after reading, in the dark), Fiona said, Not everybody is as confident as you. For most people these things are stressful. What do you mean confident? He had never really thought of himself as a confident person.
Your attitude to everything is always, it doesn’t really matter, I can just walk away.
That’s not true. But he wasn’t sure and felt too tired to argue it out.
Their paper wasn’t until four o’clock, but there were several other panels where Mark thought he should probably show his face, and a conference lunch, and it was now almost eleven and he hadn’t left the house. Livy went up to shower and Mark after a minute followed her upstairs. He needed to change into his conference uniform, jeans and collared shirt and jacket, and even though he never had much personal vanity, his appearance still occupied a certain amount of his attention, and he tried to dress in a way that meant nobody noticed how he dressed.
Back in his room, he kept up an argument with Fiona in his head. It stunned him that she hadn’t mentioned Livy’s affair, which even Livy had expected her to do. And then, from Fiona’s point of view, if not quite in her voice: well, she asked me not to; and then, stunned is a little . . . I mean, stunned, really? Why do you care? I don’t particularly care, but I don’t see why—you have this idea, that certain things are women’s business, which you want to shut me out of. What are you talking about, what do you even mean? Gracie, for example. As soon as she turned eleven and wanted make-up and earrings . . . all of these things were decisions you expected me to leave to you. And now she has her period, and it’s like, suddenly, even though you can barely be in the same room together without screaming at each other, suddenly the only relationship that matters . . . You’re very welcome to talk to Gracie about her period, be my guest. At least he smiled as he imagined Fiona saying this.
When Livy came down at last, she wore a green dress with a faint ruffle on the hem. Her lips had a skin-colored gloss; her hair was darker from the shower. Mark almost said you look nice but didn’t.
“Do you mind walking to the station?” he asked.
It felt harder to talk outside than it had been at breakfast, and it occurred to him that to break the ice he could hold her hand. You get these stupid thoughts, like you think about jumping in front of the tube. But then they started discussing the conference and it was OK. Livy worried that Dennis Galway might come to their panel, which she sort of wanted him to but also didn’t. Anyway, this was a worry she indulged in partly for the sake of saying something and he didn’t really have to respond.
He ran into him a few hours later talking to Tim Dexter. (Livy, as soon as they approached the conference, entered a different mode and disappeared; there were various people she had to see, and things she had to do.) Dennis looked a little pinker than the night before, a little more awake. They were standing in the hallway outside one of the conference rooms, where a table had been set up with coffee urn and tea urn, plates of grapes and apples, and trays of sandwiches.
“You look better,” Mark said.
“I actually slept last night. How about you?”
“I had a dream about Arsene Wenger. Do you know who that is? I was in school and for some reason he’d set the exam.”
“Sure, the philosopher coach. Why Wenger? Are you an Arsenal fan?”
“My father supported Tottenham.”
“What about you?”
“I never cared much for football. In England you have to care a lot or not at all.”
Then the doors opened and they went in.
He told the same story to other people. You need something to say that isn’t just shoptalk, something funny or funny-adjacent. The conference was split across several sites and he ran into Galway again crossing Russell Square. Luckily the weather had held so far. It was a warm overcast English summer day, the air was heavy enough to muffle the traffic sounds.
Sometimes, Galway said, it’s hard to believe that all of this has no author. Gesturing vaguely upward at the oak trees, which spread their shade across the square. One of those comments maybe you feel a pressure to make if you become successful enough, to say something memorable; but Mark would remember it anyway.
“Where are you going now?” Galway asked.
“I’m actually on a panel in fifteen minutes. On nostalgia.”
“I’ll tag along. If you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Mark said.
For a while they walked silently under the trees.
“Have you heard from Suzanne?” Dennis asked eventually.
“Not in years.”
“I don’t know if you heard about her son.”
“He killed himself a few months ago. Opioid addiction, maybe it wasn’t suicide, I don’t know. For a while he got clean and then he wasn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” Mark said.
“Well, what can you do.”
They were climbing up the steps of Tilden House, and Livy saw him talking to Dennis Galway. She made a face, expressing mild panic. “I’m sorry,” Mark said again, “I think you met last night. Olivia Jennings . . . she teaches at Cardiff and was one of my star students . . .”
“I always remember people who have read my PhD,” Galway said, before the flow of people took him away again. Livy and Mark had to get miked up, and Tim Dexter was on the panel, too. It would be recorded and broadcast afterward online. Thirty seminar chairs, arranged in rows, faced the fireplace, where the panelists were supposed to sit behind a narrow table. Mark always got nervous before these things, which was one of the facts about himself he didn’t like and tried to conceal. These are stupid things, they don’t make a difference to my life, but still, his heart rate ticked up and he became conscious of his breathing; his hearing went a little tinny, too, and when people came up to talk to him he often had to pretend to understand.
Livy seemed nervous, but in a different way. More high-energy. It was her panel and she had to make the introductions. By four o’clock twenty of the seats were filled. (Mark always spent the first few minutes counting heads.) Then a few more trickled in, including Galway. There was another buffet outside and Livy, joking, got up from her chair and walked through the seating area to stick her head around the door. Last orders, she said. It occurred to Mark: she’s better at doing this than I would be. Maybe this is what it’s like to take her class—and he felt like, if the roles were reversed, if she was older than me, I might have been one of those boys who hangs around to ask her opinion about various essays I happened to have read.
In her opening remarks, she spoke off the cuff, and fluently, though a little too fast. From where he was sitting, with her shoulder partly turned, he could see the pinch of her bra hooks under the green dress. Don’t worry, that’s what they’re for, went through his head.
Mark had asked to give his paper first, to get it over with. He always read out his talks and took a sheaf of typed pages from his backpack and carefully arranged them on the table in front. “The anticipation is killing you,” he said, leaning into the microphone, which usually got a laugh. Then slowly and clearly but somewhat monotonously he began to read.
The question he wanted to ask about nostalgia was whether the feeling it refers to is present in the original experience, which is what the later longing harks back to . . . as Hardy puts it, Everything glowed with a gleam; Yet we were looking away . . . or whether that gleam is only a subsequent invention. Mark was a careful scholar who set out to identify small specific uncertainties and then tried to resolve them. In this case, he argued, nostalgics divide into two camps, and Hardy in fact belongs to the second type, for whom happiness is essentially an emotion that can only be remembered, not felt, while for Lawrence nostalgia is a quality baked into the original experience, which he can still taste, in somewhat diminished form, after a gap of years, in some less happy future.
As always, as he read, a voice in the back of his head said: Why do you sound like this? You miserable sinner.
After he finished, he took a few questions, and then Tim Dexter gave his paper and Mark could more or less stop paying attention. He did what he always did and leaned over with his head resting on his hand, as if he were listening closely.
Then Livy gave her paper and opened the discussion to the panel. She used to talk a lot in his seminars, and he had always let her talk, but because of his position of authority and the advantages it conferred him, he had never quite realized that she was quicker on her feet than he was. He realized it now. He said something about Lawrence, and Livy turned intimately to the front row and said, “Of course, we know what men are nostalgic for,” and everybody laughed . . . “especially Lawrence,” she added, and they laughed again . . . while Mark almost blushed. He told himself afterward, the news about Braden had hit him hard, he didn’t have his usual defenses. But he was also thinking of Livy lying in his daughter’s bed, hungover and miserable, while he stroked her hair. You little . . . he thought, it’s all an act with you. These are people’s lives.
But when it was over, she was almost too happy for him to resent her. She said to him quietly, while unhooking her mic, “I’m glad I didn’t have to go on after you. You always make me feel so . . . lightweight.”
He was pleased. Then Tim came over and she told him, “You were brilliant, Tim. I don’t know how you do it. It seems like you’re just telling a few funny stories and then by the end, we seem to have arrived somewhere completely surprising.”
There were people who came up to them afterward, including Dennis Galway, who cornered Livy, and Mark watched them together. Livy was almost as tall as Dennis, and you could see her listening to him eagerly, and preparing her face to react to what he said, and then reacting a split second later. But maybe he was being unkind; maybe this is what people always look like from a distance. He stepped outside and walked to the end of the hallway, by a window overlooking the back garden, and called Fiona.
They had the usual conversation, which was not so much a conversation as simply a habit. Often when they picked up the phone they had nothing much to say. How’re the kids? What are you doing now? In the kitchen, swapping wet clothes onto the Aga. Well, I was, until you called. Then he said, “Did you speak to Terry last night? I forgot to ask you.”
“I spoke to my mother, if that’s what you mean.”
“Terry wasn’t there?”
“Terry was there, too.”
“What did they say?”
“My mother was very excited by the idea, she thought it was a good idea. They were very supportive.”
“That’s wonderful. Did you talk about money?”
“It’s not like that. You know that. We don’t talk about money.”
“Well, we need to know about the money.”
“It’s fine, the money is there.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she’s my mother. She says there’s no point doing something like this part time, at my age.”
“What does that mean? Is that code for something?”
“It’s not code for anything. It means what she says; she thinks I should go into this full-time.”
“I don’t mean to keep asking about money but does that mean . . . you don’t plan to take on any editing work, I mean, that we’ll try to live off my salary, because . . .”
“Of course not. Terry has plenty of money, that’s not a problem.”
“Is that what he said?”
“He doesn’t have to say it. That’s what it means when my mother says, we think you should go into this full-time.”
“OK.” And then, when she didn’t say anything, he said, “What?”
“You could be more supportive about this. I thought you’d be pleased.”
“I am . . . I am pleased . . . of course I’m pleased for you. I just worry that relying on your stepfather to pay our bills may sometimes cause tension between us.”
“The only person who seems tense about this is you.”
“OK,” he said again. And then, to change the subject, “I just came out of our panel.”
“Oh, how was it? Was it all right?”
“I think so. You never know. The others seemed pleased.”
He almost told her about Braden but decided not to. She didn’t really know who Braden was, and then he’d have to explain, and by the time he finished his explanation, her reaction if she had any would probably be directed at other things.
It was almost six o’clock, and he wanted a drink. People had started to wander out again into the Square on their way to Senate House. Dennis Galway was giving the keynote, and then there was another drinks reception in the foyer. The old schoolyard panic set in of finding someone to walk with. At the same time he didn’t feel like fit company. The effort to make more small talk . . . but then again, he didn’t want to be the guy following silently on his own. He felt like . . . in all of the situations he faced, he was reacting with . . . subpar responses, like in the panel, when Livy made fun of male nostalgia, and Fiona accused him of being unsupportive . . . The temperature had started to drop, a breeze was kicking around the leaves, and then someone came up from behind and touched his arm.
“I’m so happy it’s over,” Livy said, and without thinking he told her, “You’re really very good at those things. Much better than me. You can tell when people want to be there, when they want to listen to you,” which was true.
“I’m so happy,” she said again and leaned her head for a moment against his shoulder.
He thought, my opinion is still something that affects her.
“What did Galway say to you?”
“He invited me to give a talk in California.”
And Mark felt a pang of jealousy.
The stairs outside the lecture hall were full of people, in threes and fours, standing on the steps. Old friends catching up, but how can they be friends, they never see each other. And all they have in common anyway is . . . academic concerns.
Drinks tables had been laid out on either side of the wide double doors, and Mark picked up a glass of white wine on his way through. There was an empty row halfway down the hall, toward the lectern, but Livy had seen someone she wanted to speak to, sitting a few rows up beside the aisle, and once again pulled on Mark’s hand to make him come along. He followed, feeling strangely slack or passive or . . . not quite present. Her fingers were warm and small and there was a slight awkwardness when she let go again because he didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable by letting go first. At least for the next hour, while Galway gave his talk, he could sit in silence.
A professor from Queen Mary introduced the keynote and Galway had to adjust the microphone when he took the stage. This took a moment, but he never rushed or fumbled. He was used to all this and spoke without notes but also without preamble.
“When we read a text,” he began, “one of the things we look for is evidence of truthfulness, and one of the ways to consider modernism is as a period in which the standard for admissible evidence changed—slowly, and inconsistently, and by various stages.”
It’s just not true, Mark thought. I’ve never walked away from anything. People push me away. Still arguing with Fiona but also trying to explain himself to Dennis Galway. Braden never seemed to me the kind of kid who . . . Even after his father moved out, which is I guess the period when I knew him, or shortly after. Suzanne used to drink a bottle of wine every night, mostly with a meal but not always. Sometimes she drank instead of eating and Braden was old enough to bug her about it. Come on, Mom, he said. It’s not like juice. I tried to stay out of these conversations.
When he left, there were no emotional farewells. Suzanne wrote him a reference for the UCL job, and put him in touch with the woman who became his editor at Duckworth Press and published his PhD. That last night the three of them ordered pizza and Braden and Mark watched a baseball game on TV; Braden was still watching when Mark went upstairs. He never slept well before a flight, even after sex, and lay in the dark wondering if Suzanne was asleep.
“I’m assuming you sometimes come to London,” he said eventually.
She didn’t answer for a while. “This was a nice thing, let’s leave it at that. It was a good thing for me. I hope it was OK for you.”
“Maybe Braden will want to come to London someday.”
“That’s a nice thought,” Suzanne said.
At various conferences he came across people who knew Professor Buckley, and he also sometimes heard typical English reactions to over-articulate American women, and felt like, OK, the stereotype is partly true, these women have been acculturated to take what they want but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own sense of . . . fair play, or honesty, or . . . but he didn’t always know what he was standing up for. About a year after he started going out with Fiona he sent Suzanne a long letter, explaining his job and personal situation, and she replied by email to say that it was great to hear he had landed on his feet. But he never had any communication with Braden.
There was a burst of applause and he realized the talk was over and bent down to put the wine glass under his seat, so he could clap. Then it was just a question of making your way out of the hall, in the stream of people, which slowed to an eddy around Dennis Galway. Already, a queue had formed by the drinks table but he waited in the queue and took another glass of wine. He hadn’t really eaten since breakfast. Sophie Kopolos was leaning over the banister by the stairs. He didn’t want to talk to her but he also didn’t want to stand there by himself.
Then Livy came over and said, “I lost you for a minute. Every time I turn around . . .” She had two bottles of beer and gave one of them to Sophie. Tim was there, too, along with Henry Whiteman, who was discussing the lecture.
“Only Americans talk like that.”
“Like they just discovered Virginia Woolf.”
After a few minutes, Mark excused himself and wandered off to find the loo. He wasn’t in any particular hurry. At the sink, he waited for the water to get hot and rubbed his hands under the tap and held them against his forehead. Sometimes when they were arguing about sex Fiona told him, Just have an affair, that way I don’t have to feel guilty any more. I don’t want to have an affair, that’s not what I want—looking at himself in the mirror. Well, what about what I want? she said. Then he walked out again and scanned the crowd for familiar faces. But he only saw Livy and Henry and Tim and Sophie, so he waited in line for another drink.
You think I’m more confident than I am. He was still talking to Fiona in his head. For example, I never had much confidence with women. I always felt like they could do what they want.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, when he joined the others.
“That’s not a very interesting subject.”
“It’s so funny to see you getting drunk,” Livy said.
“I’m not even a tiny bit drunk.”
“When I was your student I never thought I’d be standing like this, in Senate House, with all my professors. . . . Everybody had a crush on you,” she added, and for a second Mark didn’t know who she was talking to.
But this is boring for everyone else; you have to put a stop to these conversations.
Later he found himself in a group with Dennis Galway. People around Dennis were always trying to impress him. Somebody said, “It was like dinner with the Hammershois. You don’t really go for the food or conversation.” Mark started telling the story about Arsene Wenger then realized he’d already mentioned the dream to Dennis, but by that stage there was nothing he could do but carry on. In the back of his head, the same voice said, you miserable sinner, but it didn’t really mean anything. People laughed, it was fine.
“My father was always a Tottenham fan, he hated Arsenal,” Mark said.
They stood in the gallery, overlooking the hall below, while across the space, maybe thirty feet away, he could see Livy and Henry talking in one of the windows. Well, Henry was talking and Livy looked down and didn’t answer. He felt another jealous pang, like a slight sudden pressure on the heart, a physical sensation, and it seemed strange to him that it was almost exactly the same feeling he had when Livy told him that Galway had invited her to give a talk in California. Which was also none of his business. A waitress approached with a tray of canapés, tuna tartar on an oat cracker, and he picked one up delicately with his fingers and put it in his mouth.
“I’m sorry if I upset you,” Dennis said.
“I’d like to write her something, but we’re not in touch.”
“I’m sure she’d like to hear from you.”
“I never know what to say, for this kind of thing. Anything you say just seems hopelessly . . .”
“It doesn’t matter. This is what I tell myself. Sometimes you just have to show up.”
You put yourself in these positions, where people give you advice; you almost ask for it, and then all you can do is take it, because it’s what you asked for.
At ten o’clock they kicked everyone out, and Mark tried to find Livy to tell her he was going home. Instead he got dragged along to the Queens Larder, down a narrow side street. It had been raining but now the rain had stopped. Flowers dripped from hanging baskets; the cobbles streamed. Don’t leave me, she had said. This was running through his head, too. Maybe I promised something, I don’t know. Nobody had eaten, everyone was drunk, and suddenly a surge of high spirits carried him along. Mark noticed a faint red flush along Livy’s neck, like a rash, strangely touching. He thought, there are probably things I can say that would make her happy. I don’t know how many people that’s true for anymore.
He ended up at the bar with Tim, who was buying a round, to help him carry the drinks. Tim said, “We need to find a way to get her to London.”
“Livy. She says she’s miserable at Cardiff.”
“There may be other things going on.”
He felt something buzzing in his pocket, against his keys, and handed the pints to Livy and Henry outside, spilling some of the beer. Then crossed over the road toward the private gardens while taking out his phone. Gracie had called; he didn’t pick up in time but pressed the call back button and waited under the trees for the phone to ring.
“Hey, sweetie. What are you doing up? It’s almost eleven.”
“I had a fight with Mum.”
After a pause, she said, “I don’t want to tell you.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“She hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you.”
“Well, she said she hated me.”
“People say lots of things, it doesn’t always mean very much.”
“Why are you taking her side?”
Her voice was hushed, though, and not really angry, and close to tears.
“Do you want me to talk to her?” he asked.
The tables on the pavement were wet, and he could see Tim wiping down one of the benches. Henry offered Livy a cigarette and hunched over, cupping the match in his hand, while Mark felt a wave of restlessness passing through the trees.
“No,” Gracie said. It was like a voice from another world. “I miss you.”
“When are you coming home?”
“The day after tomorrow. Just two more days. You just have to get through two more days.”
“I’m going to hang up now,” Gracie said. Then he was alone again, in the dark, watching the others in the light coming through the pub window.