Wednesday, October 31

Here’s To Illuminated Obsessions!

FOR FIVE DAYS, from the eleventh till the fifteenth of October ninety-eight, I was balancing two very brief but acute obsessions: one was a note on the inside cover of a book I had found in a secondhand shop, the other a young woman who frequented the pool of the hotel I was occupying that week. Both arose at the same time. Perhaps my mind needed something to occupy it. I had a week’s holiday to use up from work, so I took some of the money I had in a substantial account and flew across the Atlantic to wind up in a hotel in Florida; good weather – at least to an Englishman – was practically a certainty and the humid state did not disappoint. My hotel was conspicuously settled against interstate ninety-five; even if you could not hear the cars, you knew they were coming or going and that no one was ever stationary. In that location in that state, one had the feeling that they were being ignored. That was all I wanted and I was at ease.
It was out of season and the hotel was empty. Looking around and accustomed to the place as I was after a couple of days, I understood that this establishment was never busy but made enough business to keep its out-of-state proprietors alive, and that was all they wanted, as well as the Floridian sunshine, which was unlike any other strain of sunshine.
It was a relief to be away from the dismal English October with its rain and winds and cold because the cold was making itself at home after a lengthy migration to the south and the skies always seemed to be dark. Very soon I became used to my surroundings. The air conditioning unit buzzed all day long; the maid did her job; I restauranted in the evenings; I passed my days reading or driving and sightseeing or simply doing nothing.
I knew that I would spend a lot of my time in my room, alone. Before I left I took a number of books from a shop in my town. It was on the outskirts of town and you had to know about it to visit it, otherwise you would just pass it by, because it wasn’t on the ground floor but was located in the basement of an unostentatious building down the hill. I bought a lot of my books there – all purchases cheap and wise.
On the second day I opened one such book and, after absorbing the delicious scent that is both sweet and like vanilla, started on it. I got as far as the third page when I came across a note written there in the most beautiful of biro cursives – ‘To Henry … Here’s to everything illuminated! … Yours, Joyce.’ The note was dated nineteen-eighty-nine.
Notes in secondhand books are not uncommon. It is more uncommon to come across an unsigned book – in those days folk were gladly sentimental – but this one struck me more than others.
I sat there and gazed at it. I sat there and reread it, over and over.
I used to read on the balcony of my hotel room, overlooking the pool, as it served as a delicious little nook for the afternoon sun. I sunbathed nude – because no one could see me, otherwise I would not be so bold – and read for hours. On the third day this inscription struck me. ‘Here’s to everything illuminated!’ What did it mean?
The next day, when the time difference was right, I called up the shop I had bought it from and asked the old woman who worked there. I knew from experience that she usually just sat about filling in crosswords and eating her lunch, so my enquiry might interest her – ‘Hi, I bought a book from you the other day … “Illuminations” by Rimbaud and … and this is a shot in the dark … but I wondered if you had any record of who donated it?’
Silence, no doubt finishing a mouthful – ‘Um, I can look into it.’
‘Could you, please?’
In a half hour she got back to me – ‘Yes, that came from a Henry Dunbar … He often donates books here.’
‘Do you have any other information?’
‘Not really. Though I can tell you he went to the sixth form … a couple of his books have the library stamp in them.’
I asked if it were the sixth form in town and she told me that it was.
‘OK. Thank-you for your help!’
For a while I made phone call after phone call and tried to find out more. I sat on the balcony: a pile of books beside me, a plate of oranges, a beer, a small notepad
‘Here’s to everything illuminated!’
Such a note that I had never seen before. In all of my thirty-eight years I had not come across the phrase before. Perhaps boredom provoked my mind to endow such interest upon the message. After I had assured the college administration staff that I was not insane, they told me that Henry Dunbar was a student there from nineteen-eighty-seven till nineteen-eighty-nine. I asked – ‘Who was his English teacher?’ She told me that only two of the English staff on eighty-nine was still employed there today. ‘Don’t upset them. They’ve been very loyal to this college!’ I told her that she had nothing to worry about.
Mrs. Woodhurst said she had never heard of a Henry Dunbar or a Joyce – ‘Try Mr. Dellar.’
She kindly put me through to Mr. Dellar.
Once I explained my situation to Mr. Dellar he was more open. I was, after all, just inquisitive. He eventually lapsed into a fever of nostalgia, remembering two of his greatest students – ‘That year, nineteen-eighty-nine, they were great competitors, two of the most intelligent and naturally-gifted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching.’ From his voice I sensed that Mr. Dellar was a very good teacher, one who could sing you to sleep as he read Dickens or Pound in the afternoon sun, who cherished the young people tossed at his feet every September.
‘Please,’ I said – ‘Go on.’
‘They were good enough as they were – I mean, when I got them – but when they met each other in my class they just excelled. They only seemed to want to be better than the other. All year they were comparing marks and exchanging knowledge and laughing. Have you ever taught?’
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘Such a shame. Nothing is better than someone who is dying to learn, to better themselves, who absorbs every word you say. There is a lot of hassle with teaching, believe me, but occasionally you have students who more than make up for it.’
‘I bet.’ I was sat on my balcony with the Floridian sun all over my pale body.
‘They competed right up until the final day, through exams and everything. If I’m not mistaken Henry got a better grade than Joyce in the end, but only by a mark or two.’
I laughed and he laughed and we both laughed.
‘And, you say, you’ve got a book from her to him saying – “Here’s to all illuminated!” ’
‘ “Here’s to everything illuminated!” ’
‘How lovely!’ Through the miles of telephone lines I could hear him reflecting – ‘Would you be interested in selling it to me?’
I told him I would not dream of such a thing and he understood all too easily. We wished each other good-by. Now that I had this information my mind went wild. Rimbaud’s writing played second fiddle to the note on the third page. ‘Here’s to everything illuminated!’ The cursive was very pretty, firm, very elegant; typical of a young woman trying to make an impression. Had she ever loved Henry? Was it something no more elaborate than two people trying to outdo each other? What had Henry thought of her? Just eight words fired up an interest in my mind of Joyce and her friendship with Henry. I thought of her during the day, as I perspired in the waning furnace of the tropical sun, and in the evening when I ate my meal. It had been nine years and there was no telling what she was up to now. I felt guilty for having missed so much of her life. As I lay there in bed at night – the sheets dusted aside, the air conditioning unit humming, the interstate lights fuming – I wondered why Henry would have rid himself of such a gift. It made no sense. I imagined what someone would have to do to me for me to just discard a note like that. ‘Here’s to everything illuminated!’ Had she got the last laugh and had he, in a fit of jealousy, purged himself of all her effects? On the sunny balcony I could not figure it out. I could only read and reread her note, from Joyce to Henry. Slowly it was he, Henry, who assumed greater effect over me. I had, after all, eight words from Joyce but nothing from Henry. On interstate ninety-five, I thought about the pair of them, those great scholars; perhaps holed up in Cambridge; fighting off adolescence, landing jobs; reaching on and up. I made a promise to myself that when I returned to England I would research the matter further. It is so silly for one to be captivated by something so minute but I could not help it. In someone else’s hands the note may have gone ignored but I discovered it at just the right time, in just the right frame of mind, and my imagination and my interest were stirred and what I discovered about Joyce and Henry upon my return to England is another story for another time.
Henry and Joyce overlapped my obsession with the young girl who frequented the hotel pool.
I quickly learned that she went swimming at particular times. Her two o’clock swims were like clockwork, always there, as sure as the sun was shining. She also took a swim in the evening at just gone five. And, early one morning as I arose from my bed to take a piss, she was swimming at eight. Those were her times, three of them: eight, two, five.
Three is not a very large number but, after the first time I put my sleepy eyes on her, it was a magnificent number.
The pool was located in the middle of the hotel, with white paving all around it, a man-made lake beside, deckchairs, palm trees, stains from spilled drinks. Admittedly I was a little sleepy – though still observant – for her eight o’clock swims, but the two in the afternoon were a staple of my holiday; if I were anywhere else – for instance, driving alongside the watery forests that ran next to the highway – I always made it back for those swims. At two o’clock the light was just so that she descended into the water like a nymph. In a black swimsuit she walked down the handrail’d steps. She was very graceful. The water, in a dozen definitions of how perfect the colour blue should be, rippled off of her thighs. I cannot say, even now, why this was such a spectacle to me, but it was. The pool was always empty but for her.
She swam lengths. That’s all. No more than thirty-years old, she swam lengths. Breaststroke. Her cheeks puffed into the thick tropical air and her face was very striking – and was even more so in that sunshine.
The back and forth of her mid-afternoon lengths served as something to watch, to set my eyes upon as my thoughts drifted aimlessly. I ate lunch on the balcony, put away my plate and cutlery, then took an orange out and stood watching her, thinking of nothing whatsoever. The oranges were unlike anything I had tasted before because the owner of the hotel had recommended me a good place to buy them. They were juicy; sometimes the juice dripped down my chin and onto my chest and the hairs there. Still I watched her.
On the fourth day I lay down on the tiles of my balcony in the sun and listened to the water that she stirred up and I, for no reason I can recall, made myself come. It was a good relief and I lay there and stared at the sun and listened to the water as she swam lengths. On the fifth day I suffered a nosebleed when I was washing my hands after lunch. The bathroom mirror showed me that my nose was bleeding profusely. I stopped it with some of the thin toilet paper; once that was soaked I threw it in the bin and stopped it some more. The toilet was filled with bloody tissues. Then I took the roll and went to watch her swim more lengths. The nosebleed stopped soon after – but don’t think this was anything more than a coincidence – and once she had dried herself off I went for a drive in the car to a zoo that wasn’t doing good business.

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