I started writing The Page in 2010, at a time of deep changes in my personal life. Initially, I wanted to exorcise some of the ghosts of my childhood, starting in the little town where I was brought up and lived for fifteen years. Over time the initial structure of the novel drifted, under the pressure of changing interests, travel and world events.
Today I see this work more as a collection of short stories, sharing the same set of characters and a broad story outline. Influences? Well, I do not wish to be pompous, but probably Flaubert, cher Gustave, Monsieur Proust and Monsieur Murakami (Haruki) are there, and also Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, and others.
The Page has its own site here.
At the school gate
The year was 1992. She was waiting for him at the school’s gate, she did most days, ignoring the other boys and the girls’ jealous looks . She was a little taller than him. He much admired her long and muscly legs, her striking red hair, the look and face of an already experienced woman. She was one year older than him. Two years later, then seventeen, he would leave her and disappear from her life. But when he was with her they would meet, cuddle, kiss and talk. Nothing much else would happen between them. But during that time he never missed a date with her. He was always kind and sensual with her, and she thought he was probably a virgin. He was a good kisser she thought. They took long walks near the river, in the park with the tall trees, went to drink italian coffees in the little shop so loved by the pupils, went to see films and from time went dancing at a club which was far too adult for both of them (she knew the doorman and always managed to get her boy in). She was in love with him, passionately by the time he left her, but never told him. He never paused to think of her other than as the beautiful girl, with perhaps bad reputation, he really enjoyed dating. He took pride in being with her, aware of the envious looks his friends gave him when they were together. Oblivious of her deep feelings he was walking tall, thin bodied, handsome face, becoming a man, slowly but inexorably. She would never forget the boy who was kissing her with passion and never took her to bed, contrary to all the others. And there were many others.
She saw him one last time in the town where they both lived, walking tall with another girl at his arm, a small girl, the opposite of herself she thought, the adversary.
It was his day off. Walking straight to his object of desire, he started checking out the new laptops: jewels. How he wished to dare himself to get one of those, on impulse. Yet he was a wise man, never to take excessive spending decisions. Later, well after he’d tasted Berlin, he would fall back on what he knew best, a sleek Acer Windows laptop costing half the price of the Mac Pro of his dreams. Later still he would come back to the store and indulge. Accessing one of the machines on display he started browsing, amazed at the clarity and speed of the Apple apps. How about the news, getting to the BBC site he took a quick look at the front page – more of that dirty war he would yet escape again, too young earlier, too old now – and clicked on the Technology heading. He always ended up there, however tortuous his approach: where he belonged. Google was making record advertising sales, Intel were announcing a new chip for mobile devices.
His attention was soon attracted by an article on virtual cities.
Julian dreamed of his sister. In his dream he conjured her up, his female twin, as he had wished to see her since she’d become a woman, from being his small sis’. She and he visited Berlin. The dream was beautiful. Their understanding was total. She was his soulmate. He showed Jane the places he’d visited in the city, the small apartment he was renting. He said he would introduce her to his friends. They went to a club, and danced, alone, to the sound of a German rock band.
He woke up, a sense of loss and longing in his soul.
He hesitated to involve his sister much more deeply. Yet he felt he needed her. Jane was willing, as his loving sister, and for her own open curiosity: Jane was ready to experiment. He tried to overcome the longing. Somewhere in his far memories, there was someone else, a shadow, and that shadow may be a threat to Jane.
He walked the silent streets, his only companion the tracks of Medúlla. He admired the Brandenburg Tor, visited many buildings. After three weeks Julian knew how to look for work in the city, how to rent an apartment, where some of the night clubs were. He learnt dancing and how to change his clothes. He was beginning to feel at home in this version of the city. This was bringing back memories of his far away past.
In a club near the Monbijou park he made some friends. He reflected on language and identity in the new world. Some of the “twinizens” knew each other already well. There were odd couples. There were questions, mostly unanswered. He missed Sarah, and his sister, in equal parts.
In the evening Sarah and her partner talked about their holiday. He was keen to go back to the Alps, to those northern Italian valleys they both loved. She would make him work for it. Always on the principle that the boy had to justify the pleasure he got, eventually. He played that game willingly, eager to please her, above all to conform to the guy he knew she saw in him, and he wanted to be: slightly useless but good to have around most of the time. He knew that judgement was unfair. The reality, their reality was more complicated: Sarah was aware of his deep-seated reliability, also mixed with that childish interest, perhaps even obsession, with what she saw as toys: technology, “games” and his “boxes”. How well she knew him. How little he doubted she was right.
They crossed the plateau, stopping from time to time to admire the alpine plants hiding in the crevasses of the ancient ground. Pools of clear rain water glistened between rocks. Marmots came out in the open to observe them. Julian took many pictures. They walked quietly, stopped on a small ridge, admired the line of peaks, so close now, crystals on the blue horizon. It was now almost hot in the sun. Sarah took off her jumper, then her bra, enjoying the sun’s warmth on her breasts and shoulders, smiling. After three hours they reached the final part of their hike: the climb down a sheer cliff to reach the valley, a thousand meters below. Sarah got dressed again, kissed Julian, fitted the harnesses they always used when they were on near verticals. Julian shivered a little as she fitted the straps around his groin, around his waist. They kissed. How he was looking for a tender evening when they were back.
He went first, careful to strap his harness to the running rail where he could. This was interrupted often by changes of direction along the cliff, a source of anxiety for him when he climbed alone. Today his guide and mentor, his lover, was with him. He felt so confident.
One evening, after a successful workday, he logged on to Mel’s page.
At first he was a bit lost. His own page was minimalist. Her wall appeared to be densely packed, with an impressive list of “friends” and pictures. He looked at her profile picture. The red hair, the young face, the green eyes, the full lips, a simple flowered blouse… a beautiful young woman, a little old-fashion. Something stirred at the deep end of his memories… That picture looked strangely familiar, but still he could not recall who she was. He decided to read her profile. Mel had listed as much as she could, her schools, where she’d lived, where she’d worked.
She was born two years before him, and in the town where he’d spent most of his childhood. She’d also attended the same high school. He paused. Something was wrong with Mel’s page. One of her pictures was that of an adolescent, fresh-faced, athletic, standing in front of what looked like a school entrance with other youngsters. Julian looked at the picture, heart beating, suddenly transported in time. It was his school, and that young man was him, probably shortly before he left for the army – all those years back. He realised suddenly that Sarah was standing behind him: “An old flame has caught up with you?” she asked tenderly, with a touch of concern in her voice.
There was something else on Mel’s page, a link to a location with a photograph: a place called Chi.
Julian paused, on the threshold of recognition. Then, as he sat still, his mind suddenly saw her, the girl at the school gate, waiting for him, tall and smiling. A wave of memories submerged him: the old town, the medieval streets, the library where he worked and studied, the provincial railway station, the ugly buildings from the post war period, the school, the calm waters of the canal, and Melissa: his forgotten friend, his adolescence sweetheart. What happened to her? And why all that secrecy? Why could not she just approach him, write to him, say who she was? Reading his mind Sarah said: “Maybe she has a grudge?”
Nostalgia had overcome Julian, and thousands of pictures were flashing past his eyes: the small shops, the cathedral, Mel at the swimming pool, her breasts, him boxing that big thug, who had insulted her, to a pulp, their walks along the river, his mother asking him: who was that tall girl she saw with him at the market… A sudden dread seized him: where was Mel now? And this page, what was the meaning of it? He took a closer look: the friends listed on her page were all of her, his, generation, and there was something else: when he tried to follow the links they all led to the same message: he was not allowed to see their profiles. “She’s protecting their privacy” Sarah said calmly.
Something else attracted Julian’s attention: there were notes, scores of them, some by Melissa.
For a second he hesitated, then started reading.
The early notes swept through three years of her life: the years they had been “together”, his school years, before the war and the world took him away. Mel had written at first a sort of journal, recounting their first meeting, their first kiss, her hopes, their walks, the many kisses that had followed, the tender touches, her wondering why he seemed to be so gentle, almost shy, with her, and such a tiger with the others, whoever they were. She guessed at his internal violence, the turmoil in his young mind. She, who was ready to give him everything, admitted her puzzlement, at times her irritation. And yet she was writing about the delight of those days, their intimacy, his way of ignoring the jealous looks, the sly comments of the other girls. His way also to fight for her, suddenly changed, his fists tight, his jaws hardened, the pitiless concentration of a much older man. She had made it her mission to win him over, and to give him happiness – for ever. The last happy note was of a walk they had taken along the river, when he spoke to her of the war, and of a man’s duty. She’d been puzzled, and worried. Then the tone of the notes changed. Mel was alone, he had gone, silently, with hardly a good bye.
At first she had expected him to write, perhaps even to visit. She tried to talk to some of his friends, those who, she thought, would be willing to share their knowledge of where he might be. No-one she spoke to knew. In desperation she decided to contact his parents. His mother only said to her that her son had gone to war. Neither she nor Julian’s dad would give away anything else. Mel was desperate.
There was only one country he could have gone to, and this was beyond Mel’s reach, a hellhole of murder and destruction, closed to anyone not directly involved with the war. At night she cried, remembering the days, with him, with him alive, their love. Then the notes stopped being a journal. It was as if someone else had taken over, and was reporting, factually, without any feeling.
The first note was a newspaper extract.
Julian turned pale as a wraith. Sarah, suddenly aware of a deadly silence, looked up: her husband was crying. Silent, cold tears, tears of despair. She looked at the screen.
The note stated that the body of Ms Melissa Baudoin, daughter of Mr and Mrs Baudoin of a local village, aged nineteen, had been found at dawn, in a small lane near a night club where she’d been seen dancing with several men two hours earlier. She’d had been strangled by unknown assailants and her wrists cut.
There was a date: Melissa had been murdered twenty years ago.
Hesitantly she looked up towards the statue, the dark bronze of the goddess, dominating this corner of the island. In front of her the jungle. Behind her she could hear the distant sound of waves. Now she forced herself to walk towards the sea, her bare feet light on the cold stones, smooth and ancient, polished by centuries of footsteps. She was feeling the evening chill through her light dress. On both sides of her stood statues and small temples. A torch was burning at the end of the path, below a tall wooden portal. Steps led down to the beach. On the side of the portal she saw a small teleport. She walked down the steps, soon feeling the still warm sand around her feet. The sun was now a red disk low on the horizon. She heard the waves crashing on the shore: big rollers that the surfers must enjoy riding… She walked a bit further, now in semi darkness, shivered a little… Then she saw the dark silhouette, on the water edge, a hooded figure, immobile and softly shimmering in the dying light…
“Come closer Jane ” said a woman voice, as if from a far distance behind the hooded shape. Jane felt a sense of dread but obeyed, as if in a dream. She saw a tall woman wrapped in a black robe, who soon lifted her hood a little. A mass of red hair framed a beautiful sombre face still in the shadow. Jane saw the eyes, fixed on her: a deep darkness, black on black, absorbing all light. The woman smiled, Jane D was petrified. Who was that woman?
She was aware of a fire burning brightly further down the beach, in the distance. Looking up she saw the woman’s eyes, now two soft emerald light orbs. The face was smiling, a woman’s gentle smile. Jane observed the full lips. Gathering her courage she said:
“ That’s a cool avatar you got, you really frightened me”
Silence followed. Seconds, then perhaps minutes passed. The voice suddenly said: “I will share a secret with you Jane: this is not my avatar, it is me”. And then she added: “You should know your brother and I were once very close, a long time ago.” Jane realised the shape looked now more solid, more human. The woman moves slowly closer to Jane. “Is it you who are stalking my brother?” Jane daringly asked. Those bright emerald eyes were now close to Jane’s face.
“My name is Melissa” the woman said, smiling to Jane. “Your brother and I had a date, we just had to wait a little”.
Julian’s summer – A walk in Westerwald
Julian took his camera and walked out in the quiet street, his boots’s soft thump hardly disturbing the peace. A few hundred meters up the hill he entered the ancient woods: there silence reigned, with a rare flutter of wings, and the buzz of insects.
His women were in his mind. First there was his wife Sarah, calm, athletic, her cool gaze over their life together, and his occasional antics – the mistress of his sexual fantasies, strong legs and firm breasts, dominating their relationship in a way he could not, and did not want to resist. Then there was his sister Jane, Jane the younger girl who admired her brother, not without a hint of thinly veiled lust. Jane was sometimes in his dream, a fragile, yet reliable, alter ego, ever present, ever ready when he needed her. The third woman was Melissa, his long lost childhood friend, the girl he had all but forgotten, although perhaps not in the core of his soul, until the call that morning, in the Apple shop. And then, last but a lingering presence, there was Sue, the sales girl who had witnessed his apparent confusion when he had heard Melissa’s voice.
Sue had already helped him, by providing that little diversion, slipping her telephone number in his hand, as he was retreating, somewhat afraid of that distant voice, that ghostly reminder of his far away past. For some reason, rather than being irritated by her intrusion, he had been grateful.
This mixture of human beings, some he knew very well, and felt protected by, others who were at this time, vaguely threatening, to his tranquillity, maybe peace of mind, was whirling in his thoughts, erratically, looking for a direction. The temperature was rising as he walked along the shaded path, he judged around 28 deg by now. It would be very hot in the afternoon. Sarah had gone to the swimming pool with Jane. He imagined the two of them, the redhead and the darker girl, in the blue water, probably observed by a few of the local boys. He smiled, he trusted Sarah entirely, and for Jane, he would know immediately if she was attracted by anyone. Away from the direct sunshine, under the shade of the tall trees, the path was dark. He was alone. He felt a sudden urge to be close to Sarah, to her fresh skin, to her long legs and smiling lips. This happened more often when he was on his own, walking or exercising. Sudden outbreaks of lust, a brief erection, then misty thoughts of what would happen when they did meet again.
His thought drifted to Sue: was she available? Not that he planned to be disloyal to his wife, no, he was just curious. Her way to approach him, that day, in the midst of a crowded shop, had been a weird mixture of salesmanship, and outright proposal. Yet he was not sure of her motives. He had come to the shop to look at the new laptop. Then his phone had rung. He’d moved away from the exhibition area to have a bit of privacy – Melissa’s voice had sent him to a spin. And Sue had appeared from nowhere as he was leaving the shop, deep in thoughts.
He was looking for some light angles for shady and well lit shots. He had already decided to spend some money on a new lens, perhaps one that wouls straddle his 18-55mm and 55-200mm, to allow him to take close-ups as well as distance shots without switching lenses. That and the new laptop! That was his ambition. He changed the light settings and took some shots in the shade, knowing that he had also many editing options. Someone had told him once that there was no skill in digital photography, it was all software! He could only disagree profoundly. Often he had spent hours editing a few pictures, and often abandoned the edit to go back to the original version: still the best, raw as he had taken the shots. Photography and writing were for him two facets of the same art: the snapshots, then the long period of trial and error, shaping, improving (sometimes), more often going back to what had already been done. Some writers think the most difficult stage was the first draft: again Julian disagreed, for him, the first draft came too easily. What followed was far more painful: the doubts about style and content, the fear of cutting, not enough or too much. Above all the uncertainty of really communicating his thoughts to the reader. Who wrote that easy ready was painful writing?
That personal relationship, that teleporting of characters and locations. Sarah, Jane, Sue and Melissa, were in his mind like characters in his novels. They shared with his characters the capacity to make him change his mind, to make him see life and themselves differently from his first thoughts. This brought him back to Melissa. Her call was indeed strange, unreal, her voice just a little too far away. Was it an oax? But from whom? And how would “they” have known about his relationship? He’d left Melissa years back, when he was still only seventeen, as he went to the army. Then she had disappeared from his life, or perhaps it was the other way round: he had disappeared from hers. His memories were failing about that time: had he tried to forget her deliberately? His feelings about Melissa were jumping from deep regrets to anger with himself, and back to overwhelming guilt. But it was so long ago. The feel for her being, her presence, even her face, which he had once cherished so much, was far away.
His thoughts turn back again to Sue. He did not know what she wanted, except that it was not simply salesmanship. He felt a vague attraction, yet she was a plain girl, and very young. The writer in him knew she was like a character added to the story, without apparent reason, without the author knowing exactly why and for what purpose. Sue was a wild card, rather than the long forgotten book that Melissa was. If Sue was the recent addition to the story of his life, Melissa was the story, at least up to his encounter with Sarah. Now he saw it clearly: Melissa had been there, somewhere hidden in the deepest corner of his memories, but present, as if in the material of his life, as a hallmark on a sheet of velum. Then Sarah had arrived, and he had “forgotten”, the new picture had displaced the old one. As for all those other beings, in the interval, he knew they had counted for very little.
He came out of the woods on the edge of a wide field of wheat that had already been harvested. Balls of straw were meticulously bound and stacked across the field. Had they really accounted for very little? He thought about erasing characters from a story: he thought that maybe he had been recreated in the book Melissa was writing, another incarnation of himself, not quite the one he knew, but close enough, close enough to exchange a phone conversation. He laughed, walking along the edge of that field, now in full sun. He took several panoramic shots of the distant hills: the Westerwald was bright and shimmering in the heat. His steps now took him to another path, a road rather, but not for cars, but for farm engines and tractors, meandering across several other fields. At a small cross he took to the left bringing back to the edge of the woods. Small wooden huts perched on stilts at the top of light ladders: possibly seats for bird watchers or even hunters in the autumn. A farmer was working in his field, late harvester, the sound of the tractor’s engine bringing back memories of his childhood, all that way back, where Melissa and him had lived. Views from his school briefly flashed in his mind: the very pictures that had blinded him when she called.
Then, as if in slow motion, the truth came in full view, the certainty he had suddenly acquired: how could Melissa call him, when she had been dead for so many years? And then that question: how did he know? How did he know Melissa was dead? How could he be so sure? But he was. Whoever, or whatever, had called him that morning could not have been his friend, at least not her as he had known her, the smiling girl with round cheeks and breasts, the long legs, the beautiful teeth…
Walking back into the shade of the woods he stopped, looking back, trying to rationalise his thoughts, the wild vortex in his mind. He would talk to Sarah about it, she was good at looking at confused situations and find her way through them: she would show him what happened. The path was taking him back to the village, the sun was now much hotter, it was near midday. Back on the small terrace he decided to write down his thoughts. One simple explanation was that he had entered a phase of introspection: he got preoccupied with memories of his youth, had probably mixed up several parts of it, the school, his friendship with Melissa, his life away from the town of his childhood. When the call came, probably an oax, hadn’t the caller given him a different name, not Melissa at all? He had convinced himself the call was from Melissa, but evidently it was not. As for Sue, her appearance was coincidental: he had looked very interested in the new laptop, her job was to follow up, she was doing her job by offering him help. It was all very simple: once again Sarah would laugh… But something did not fit that reasonable story. The caller had mentioned their town by name, and the name she had given him, was it not the surname the other boys had given her at the time? His vision got blurred: la comtesse – la contessa – they had called her that because of the proud way she held her head, among the other kids, when they came out of the school, and she was waiting for him, her very special man. He stopped writing, only someone close to them both would have recalled that after all those years. Then there was the voice. It was inescapable that he knew that voice, despite the distorsion, the background noise: it was hers.
I walk those streets, in a capital which is not yet mine, but no longer foreign. On Regent Street the crowd of commuters is rushing, febrile, a brownian flutter of legs, faces and scents, and that distorted shyness that city dwellers now wear, as if it were a protective armour.
In no hurry – this is my day off – I slowly edge towards the Apple store, mecca of divine design, pleasure to the eyes, and loved by many. The staff are welcoming, all of them so young, I cannot help wondering what the minimum age of work can be now: 15? 16? Shouldn’t they be at school? At thirty-something I feel at time overtaken by generations I no longer belong to, and even less understand. This is the age of contempt, masquerading as correctness, the ultimate development of the society of the spectacle, the last twist of accumulation. As I start exploring the latest laptop – a marvel of steel and glass, I scan the news, check the latest financial scandal, then my phone rings – a few notes that mark an unknown caller.
The voice is distant, I guess from an overseas network, and female. She says her name. Through a long tunnel, images crystallise in my mind, forgotten snapshots from a dreamy past. Distractedly I move away from the exhibits, find a quieter corner, and listen. Soon her voice fades away, a slow incantation, a murmur, a shadow of memory.
- I Can’t Stop Thinking About You Tonight (reddevilandy10.wordpress.com)
- The Ravishing (and Often Disturbing) History of Red Hair (bellasugar.com)
- DANIEL…an excerpt (quildor.wordpress.com)