Prologue

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The following morning, Laura woke to find herself alone. And as her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom and she began to make out the emerging details – his corner of the sheets turned back, the impression of his head on the pillow, his pyjamas folded neatly on a chair beside the bed – all the anger and frustration of the previous evening came rushing back to her, propelled by a certainty that her husband had stolen away quietly, not out of guilt, nor as a reprisal, but in the belief that he was being considerate.

She eased herself upright, raising her knees under the bedclothes and wrapping her arms around them, then allowed her eyes to scan the room that receded into darkness. It did not occur to her at that moment to question why the room was so dark. It just was. Nor did it occur to her that there was any causal relationship between the gloom that surrounded her and the gloom she felt within. But a heavy stillness seeped from every pore of the apartment, giving her a sense of being incarcerated in this reliquary of unfulfilled expectations. She lowered her chin till it rested on her knees and without warning and for no discernible reason, suddenly gasped as though the air had been sucked violently and unexpectedly out of her lungs, and for several minutes, with her hands covering her face and tears tumbling from her eyes, she convulsed freely, knowing that no one would hear her. And it was not until she stopped crying and had wiped the last tear from her cheek with the flat of her fingers that she heard the rain beating against the windowpane, drumming rhythmically in the deep empty courtyard below.

Pulling a tissue from the box on her bedside table, she blew her nose. Alongside the tissues, unnoticed and momentarily forgotten, the letter from her sister lay opened.

As she emerged further from her sleep she felt a damp chill in the air and recognised the faint odour of mould that had settled in the apartment since winter came. Feeling contaminated, she rose and took a long hot shower, standing motionless beneath the showerhead, letting the water play against her face, willing it to refresh her spirit as much as her body. She felt weighed down by the hopelessness that had engulfed her through the dark days, as though the force of gravity had increased manyfold and was crushing her under its weight. The water bounced off her and splashed erratically on the floor of the bathtub, pooling around her feet. But only when it began to run cold did she reach forward and screw the taps shut.

Wiping the water from her eyes, she watched the last of it swirl down the drain, then stepped out of the bath and towelled herself dry before returning to the bedroom to dress. She used no make‑up. Her only jewellery was the tiny silver wedding band she always wore, and her watch that lay on the table beside her bed. With some irony, she glanced at the address on the envelope. Amid the mundane details of her sister’s letter – the intimate disclosures and eager questions – there had been the inevitable envy – the vicarious excitement of writing to someone in Paris, France.

In the semi‑darkness, she straightened the bedclothes, then stood by the window, parting its curtain furtively with the edge of her hand and watching the rain lash the cobblestones below. From every room, the outlook was the same: a lifeless chasm, trapped in a maze of implacable tenements. ‘Gay Paree,’ she sighed ironically, turning away. She had been there with Michael for almost a year now. Although today, somehow, it seemed longer.

Despite the rain, Laura felt a sense of relief when she opened the door of the courtyard and stepped out onto the Rue du Cherche‑Midi. The air was cold, even for April, and dark clouds had turned mid‑day into a dusk frequently split by vivid lightning. Quickly, she made her way through the traffic to the Métro, anxious to distance herself from the apartment and its oppressive atmosphere. By the time she had reached the Musée d’Art Moderne, the rain had eased to a drizzle; the lightning had abated.

With the same urgency, she crossed the foyer and entered a succession of rooms, searching for the work of one man: Modigliani. A chance remark in her sister’s letter had brought to mind her college days – and an avalanche of associations. Aaron and his beloved Modigliani, the Peace Movement, the euphoria of belonging to something much bigger, more important than oneself. And now, she felt as though it had all happened to someone else. Now, she belonged to Michael; and in almost a year, this was her first visit to the gallery.

***

In 1930, Henry Miller, would‑be writer and patriot of the 14th Ward, left his native Brooklyn, left behind the Atlas Portland Cement Company and the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, turned his back on the home of the brave, land of the free, and set sail for Europe. During the ten years that followed, he lived mostly in Paris, mostly in poverty; but despite the conditions under which his struggle for individual freedom forced him to live – or perhaps because of them – he managed to write three books[i], three milestones in his spiritual development, three giant steps along the narrow, winding path that leads from the darkness of self‑delusion to the brilliant light of personal truth.

***

Peter sat awkwardly on the edge of his bed, staring at the blank pages of his notebook, pen in hand, poised to write; but the words wouldn’t come. Outwardly, nothing had changed. The same sordid little garret on the Left Bank – the same musty smell of damp and age – the same Scandinavian voice in an adjacent room repeating French phrases in response to a cassette recording – the same garbled conversations drifting up from the street below – the same hunger on waking – the same breakfast of warm milk and yesterday’s bread – and the same blank pages waiting to be filled. And yet it was all different now, like a familiar landscape seen unexpectedly from a strange point of view, a change that Peter hardly dared to admit – as if to admit it, thereby forcing himself to test its reality, might destroy it like some kind of mirage.

Twenty‑four hours ago, disillusioned and disappointed, he had been on the brink of forsaking his literary ambitions, for the bohemian lifestyle he had affected in Paris had not offered him the inspiration he’d expected, only an emptiness more stark and implacable than the pages he’d been unable to fill. And now, ironically, it was the fullness of his mind and its compulsive recollection of those events responsible for the change that prevented him from setting his thoughts down on paper. The echoes persisted; a jumbled collage of random details, each vying for attention in arrogant defiance of his attempts to marshal them in proper sequence. Finally, he gave up the struggle, succumbing to the anarchy of his memories and imaginings, and lay down on his bed alongside the unspoiled notebook, staring blankly at the cracks and stains that scarred the ceiling of his shabby little room…

[i]         Tropic of Cancer (Obelisk Press, Paris, 1934); Black Spring (Obelisk Press, Paris, 1936); Tropic of Capricorn (Obelisk Press, Paris, 1939)

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