Reading Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s witty take on Pride and Prejudice, reminds me how much art makes of mixed, lost, or unsent messages lit by hope or darkened by despair, the giddiness of thin secrets. Think Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or The Great Gatsby, ‘if only’ novels that spark readers’ tinder, not the Dirty Realists, although a Ray Carver narrator does begin a story opening his front door to a knock from a photographer with no arms. Ah, that crackling of interest.
I know a shy man with a knack of avoidance. His imaginatively varied excuses: a dog dying, elderly overseas visitors, medical complications, jury call-up, mini-crises’ detailed pettifoggery, would form an interesting dossier. His no-shows, like persistent rumours, can prompt rather than cancel the focus he shrinks from. Christmases, weddings, birthdays, pose a threat cruising police cars trigger in the guilty.
His is the missing face in group photographs, yet when he does mix socially he passes scrutiny, his sly jokes a perfect fit as envy and curiosity gathers around his wit. If pinioned by an insistent camera his look is sombre, a dustjacket portrait masking a whisper of brittle hurt, but then, he is an obsessive writer.
Loaded words, said and unsaid, risk both arabesques of delight and misery. I returned from travels to discover a letter under an antimacassar on my armchair, left – hidden hurriedly then forgotten? I shall never know – by either my house sitter or his girlfriend. A lovelorn paean, the letter was to her, but not from my house sitter. Of course, I read and re-read it, abuzz.
That writer fails in his private life because of mixed messages he emits. His godforsaken stares, failed smiles, captured in some group portraits, include his own weddings he barely attended. When asked by his son how he proposed he replied that he only became betrothed in leap years when spinsters pop traditional questions, thus absolving him of both the consequences, and the rash optimism of brides, in one succinct sentence.
Noisily busy in the next room I once heard a lengthy message being left on my machine. When played, to my utter horror, it had vanished due to a connection fault. Its staccato echo an earworm loitering, I never found out who believed I neglected to respond after receiving it.
An editor who reads submissions blindly once rejected my work then emailed again saying he had previously published these titles that did not match those in my covering email. So we awkwardly emailed back and forth, both of us apologetic thinking we were blameworthy, the error, mine, a cause of retrospective embarrassment, its absurdity the sort Jane Austen would have embroidered.
On anniversaries passing in silence does that reclusive writer lean his forehead to a window recalling haunting sagas of wrongdoing, arms hanging limply, scorched throat aching? Or is his mostly meticulous self-exile apt for him? The heart rises and falls as we dance our tightropes of language and decisions. At least I am no longer in love, wish I were intriguingly so.
No lichened cross to mark a grave
Tracing the tangled passions behind the Bounty mutiny for a photo-essay, today’s viewpoint of where and why those years ago, the labyrinthine correlations of that heartbreaking mystery of marine history, grants glimpses that leave me obscurely sorrowful. Fearful of arrival’s enigma, hauling my work gear, and personal baggage, familiar with betrayal’s heft, I travel far to places all separated by water, see scarlet birds where blood spilled, including the locale of one of those movies, and another about Gauguin, but cinematography’s not my thing.
Murder sites, evil and stupidity linked viruses, stalk my thoughts, sticky heat reminding me of army days. After precariously capturing a backlit cliff’s crags from which a birds’ egg collector plunged to her death, I crouch like a forensics expert near a deserted rubbish dump guarded by a patrolling Pacific gull fixing me with a prosecutor’s eye, collect several tarnished coins dating back to my schooldays craving a discovery to pierce time’s tyranny.
In my rental reading about sea creatures’ evolution I drink alone, sorrow over ruined relationships, my weak preference for adventure an avoidance of obligation. Forever undone by one woman, I suspect youthful Fletcher Christian might have floundered in that state over Isabella Curwen, the heiress who supposedly drove him to sea by marrying his older, more responsible, first cousin, John Christian. Was Fletcher on the rebound when he met Mauatua, a tall beauty he also called Isabella, the Tahitian chief’s daughter who mothered his children?
Beachcombing, wind buffeting shore waves, I think of John Buffet playing the missionary to vulnerable Pitcairners, those descendants of mutineers and egg collectors. I, and that longed for woman, might irritate each other now if stranded together on a remote island. My haphazard heart cast away, I imagine Mayhew Folger’s whaler sighting me when I stoop for a delicate shell muttering a loved tongue twister. Belligerent Bligh’s wife, Betsy, collected shells he saved for her, conjuring my passepartout image of a greedy man’s true love for a woman in pre-photographic days. Waves hush, crush, a constant throughout time, rocks, horizon, and the past, dwarfing me.
Olden-day voyagers ventured so far under sail. Lacking future inventions, their fuel free and abundant, a fact some moderns can’t grasp, these distances were ever dangerous. Wind batters the Pacific’s numerous islands, the savage past’s evidence swept clean. It also billows and bellows around the Lake District. Windermere’s wind moans at windows, pounds roofs. The spookily quiet Belle Isle, dwelling place of Isabella Curwen and her descendants, is where some folk believed Fletcher Christian sheltered until the furore died down after England’s most wanted man stole home disguised.
In Cumbria assessed by a jury of rooks high above I tote a hip flask, tempted to see myself as the hardened reporter on truth’s trail, or a pigtailed ancient mariner home from an agony of sea with a tale to tell. It might have been Bounty movies that started this. Trying to do justice to tragics who were once flesh, blood, and beating hearts, I can’t resist siding with the strange charm of Fletcher the flawed rebel. I’ve reached sad music time now, time to leave for the airport - no sea-sprayed journey for me - leave his turmoil behind as he left England, and Isabella, for the last time.