13 July 2012
In Tessa Hadley’s new novel, The London Train, fortysomething Paul’s life unravels after his mother’s death. Adrift in London, he finds himself at Heathrow.
It occurred to him that he could go anywhere, right now. There were all those thousands sitting in his account, enough to buy himself a ticket; and his passport was — he checked — still in the back pocket of these trousers. On the way to Heathrow, he had had no thought other than returning with Marek into London after the meeting. But Marek could drive himself. Sooner or later, in the next week or so, Paul had meant to go back to Elise and the girls at Tre Rhiw: that was his real life. But what if he didn’t go back? What if his life continued somewhere else, and was real differently? The lettered shutters spelling out the names on the board flickered over with their soft susurration: Dubrovnik, Rome, Odessa, Cairo, Damascus. His idea wasn’t cerebral; the assault of his desire for it, dropping through him like a current, unhinged him momentarily. He had enough money, even if he gave half to Elise, for a ticket anywhere, and a room when he got there. A room while he sorted himself out. Enough money to get by for a while because he knew how to live frugally.
For ten or twenty minutes, while he dwelled inside this possibility, it was so real that he felt afterwards the unfinished gesture in his muscles, his clenched jaw; he had meant to walk over to the information desk, ask about last-minute tickets, find out where he could go, get out his card from his wallet, pay. He would have to take the van keys back to Marek. It was a door that stood open, through which he could walk lightly, carrying nothing. This was the sort of thing he used to do; something unfinished in him, which had been set aside and forgotten, stepped up to the adventure with fast-beating heart. He imaged himself walking out from a room somewhere, in a few hours, into a different light: to buy clothes, toothbrush, razor, which he would not know the names for. He could find a bar to eat in, or buy food on the street. The place might be dirty and paoor, it might have some ramparts where the population strolled to take the air in the evenings, it might overlook the sea, it might not. Paul felt himself at a pivot in his life, swinging dangerously loose: if he moved, he would go over to the information desk and everything would follow from there. He had only to keep still. If he went, he couldn’t be forgiven, or forgive himself — freedom would carve out an empty space in him forever. A message drifted through his cells, from his bones, that he must keep still. Eventually Marek came to find him.
At the end of Amor Towles’s The Rules of Civility, Kate looks back on youth.
It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time — by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?
In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions — we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep the card or discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have jusst made will shape our lives for decades to come.