For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband, much as, when you’re dozing, you’re not sure whether you’re thinking or dreaming, whether you’re actually in charge of your own thoughts or have completely lost track of them out of sheer exhaustion. Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older. But then she, too, had grown older in his absence; she was very young when they married.
Those other times were the best times, the calmest, gentlest, most satisfactory times, but they never lasted very long, it’s not easy to shrug off such a doubt. She would manage to set it aside for weeks at a time and immerse herself in unconsidered daily life, which most of the Earth’s inhabitants have no difficulty in enjoying, those who merely watch the days begin and see how they trace an arc as they pass and then end. Then they imagine there’s some sort of closure, a pause, a division or a frontier, marked by falling asleep, but no such thing exists: time continues to advance and to work, not only on our body, but on our consciousness too, time doesn’t care whether we’re deep asleep or wide awake or unable to sleep at all or if our eyes unwittingly close as if we were raw recruits on night duty, what in Spanish we call la imaginaria,
literally, something that exists only in the imagination, perhaps because, afterwards, to the person standing guard while the rest of the world sleeps, it does seem as if that period of time hadn’t really happened—always assuming the soldier did manage to stay awake and wasn’t subsequently confined to barracks or, in time of war, executed. One irresistible slide into sleep and you find yourself dead, asleep for ever. How very dangerous everything is.
When she believed that her husband was her husband, she felt less at ease and found it harder to get out of bed and begin the day, she felt a prisoner of what she had so long been waiting for and which had now happened and for which she no longer waited, because anyone who has grown used to waiting never entirely consents to that waiting coming to a close, it’s like having half the air you breathe snatched from you. And when she believed that he wasn’t her husband, then she would spend the night feeling agitated and guilty, and hope not to wake up so as not to have to face her own suspicions about him or the reproaches with which she chastised herself. She hated to see herself becoming this hard-hearted wretch. On the other hand, during the times when she decided, or was able, to believe nothing, she felt the lure of the hidden doubt, the postponed uncertainty, which, sooner or later, would inevitably return. She had discovered how boring it was to live with absolute certainty and how it condemned you to just a single existence, or to experiencing the real and the imaginary as one and the same, but then none of us ever quite escapes that. She discovered, too, that a state of permanent suspicion is equally unbearable, because it’s exhausting to be constantly observing yourself and others, especially if that other is the person closest to you, always comparing him with your memories of him, for memories can never be relied upon. No one can see clearly what is no longer there before them, even if it’s only just happened, even if the aroma or discontent left behind by someone is still hanging there in the room. Someone only has to go through a door and disappear for their image to begin to fade, you only have to stop seeing something to stop seeing it clearly or at all; the same happens with hearing and, of course, with touch. How, then, can one remember clearly and in its proper sequence something that happened long ago? How could she faithfully recall the husband of fifteen or twenty years ago, the husband who, when she had already been asleep for a while, would slip into bed and, without a word, penetrate her? Maybe all these things vanish and blur, just as happens perhaps with those soldiers on night duty, la imaginaria.
Perhaps they are precisely the things that fade most rapidly.
Her simultaneously Spanish and English husband, Tom or Tomás Nevinson by name, hadn’t always been gripped by discontent. He hadn’t always exuded a kind of all pervading irritation, a deep seated annoyance, which he dragged with him around the apartment, so that it managed to be both deep seated and superficial at the same time. It came with him into the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen, like an emanation, or as if it were a storm hanging over his head, following him everywhere and rarely leaving him. This caused him to be somewhat abrupt and to answer very few questions, regardless of whether these were compromising or entirely inoffensive. He took shelter from the first kind by saying that he was not authorised to reveal anything, always taking the opportunity to remind his wife, Berta Isla, that he never would be given such authorisation, that even if whole decades passed and he were about to die, he would never be able to tell her about his current exploits or his past assignments or missions, about the life he lived when he was away from her. Berta had to accept this and she did: there was a zone or a dimension of her husband that would remain for ever in darkness, always just beyond her field of vision and her hearing, the untold tale, the half closed or myopic or, rather, blind eye; a life she could only imagine or speculate about.
“Besides, it’s best you don’t know,” he told her on one occasion, for his enforced hermeticism did not prevent him from occasion-ally talking about it, in the abstract and without making any specific reference to places or individuals. “It’s often unpleasant, and contains some very sad stories, all doomed to end unhappily for one party or the other; sometimes it’s amusing, but it’s nearly always ugly or, worse, depressing. And I often emerge from it with a bad conscience. Fortunately, that soon passes, it doesn’t last. And fortunately, too, I forget what I’ve done, which is the advantage of such pretend situations, you’re not the one experiencing it, or only as if you were an actor. Actors return to their own selves once the film or the play is over, and films and plays eventually fade. In the long term, they leave only a vague memory, as if they were something dreamed and improbable and definitely dubious. Or else are so out of keeping with yourself, that you think: ‘No, I couldn’t possibly have behaved like that, my memory’s playing tricks on me, that was another me, it never happened.’ Or as if you were a sleepwalker unaware of what you did.”
Berta Isla knew she was living partially with a stranger. And anyone who is barred from explaining whole months of his existence ends up feeling he has the right not to explain anything ever. On the other hand, Tom was, again partially, someone she had known all her life, someone she took as much for granted as the air she breathed. And no one interrogates the air.
They had known each other almost since they were children, when Tomás Nevinson was cheerful and frivolous, and free of mists and shadows. The British Institute in Calle Martínez Campos—next to the Museo Sorolla and where he had always studied—abandoned or released its students when they were thirteen or fourteen, after the fourth year of baccalaureate. The fifth, sixth and pre- university years, the three years preceding university, had to be taken elsewhere, and quite a few students moved to Berta’s school, the Studio, even if only because it was also co‑educational and secular, which was not at all the norm in Franco’s Spain, and because it meant not having to travel to a different neighbourhood, since the Studio was based in nearby Calle Miguel Ángel.
Unless they were completely hideous or dull as ditchwater, the “new boys” usually enjoyed great success with the opposite sex, precisely because they were “new,” and Berta soon fell primitively and obsessively in love with young Nevinson. There is much that is arbitrary and instinctive about such young loves, not to say aesthetic or presumptuous (you look around and say to yourself: “I’ll have him or her”), loves that, inevitably, begin timidly, with shy glances, smiles and inconsequential conversations that nevertheless conceal a passion that instantly puts down roots and seems guaranteed to last until the end of time. It is, of course, an entirely theoretical and untested passion, learned from novels and films, a fantasy in which a single image predominates: the girl imagines herself married to her chosen one and he to her, like a painting with no history, that never changes or develops, and the vision ends there, because both lack the ability to go any further, to see themselves at some remote age that does not concern them and which they fancy to be unreachable, or to imagine anything more than that culminating moment, beyond which everything is vague, everything stops; or which the more clear-sighted or stubborn see as consummation. In an age when it was expected that women, when they married, would add a “de” to their family name, followed by that of their husband, Berta was even influenced in her choice by the look and sound of her far-off future name: to become Berta Isla de Nevinson, so evocative of adventures and exotic places (one day, she would have a business card on which precisely those names would appear, alongside who knows what other facts or titles), was simply not the same as becoming Berta Isla de Suárez, the surname of the classmate she had liked until Tom turned up.
She wasn’t the only girl in her class who had noticed Tom in that vehement, resolute way, and who nursed certain aspirations. Indeed, his arrival caused a general stir in the microcosmos, which lasted for two whole terms, until he was claimed by his rightful owner. Tomás Nevinson was quite good-looking and somewhat taller than most of the other boys, he wore his fairish hair rather old-fashionedly combed back (like a bomber pilot from the 1940s, or like a railway worker when he wore it shorter, or a musician when he wore it longer, although never very long, contrary to the coming trend; for the benefit of the visually curious or those with a good memory, when his hair was short, he resembled the B‑movie actor Dan Duryea, and, when it reached its maximum length, he resembled leading actor Gérard Philipe); and his whole person radiated the solidity of someone immune to fashion and, therefore, to the insecurities that, when you’re fifteen, take so many forms, and from which almost no one escapes. He gave the impression of not being subject to the age he lived in, or of skimming over its surface, as if he cared nothing for chance circumstances, for example, the date you were born and even the century you were born into. His looks were, in fact, no more than agreeable, and he certainly wasn’t an example of sublime youthful beauty; indeed, his looks bordered on the insipid, and would be undeniably so about twenty years later. For the moment, what saved them were his full, shapely lips (which made you feel like running a finger over them, touching rather than kissing them) and his eyes, which were either a dull or a bright, tormented grey, depending on the light or the incipient torment gathering within them: penetrating, restless eyes, and rather more almond-shaped than usual, eyes that rarely rested and that contradicted his otherwise serene appearance. You could sense something anomalous in those eyes or perhaps a warning of anomalies to come, which were there crouched and watching, as if it were not yet their moment to wake and they needed to ripen or incubate in order to reach their full potency. His nose was undistinguished, rather broad and unfinished-looking or, rather, ending without a flourish. His chin was strong, almost square and slightly prominent, which gave him a determined air. It was the whole that was attractive and charming, and what prevailed was not his appearance, but his frivolous, ironic personality, always ready with a sly quip, and as unconcerned with what was going on in the outside world as he was with what was happening inside his own head, which was never easy to divine, not by himself and certainly not by those close to him; Nevinson avoided introspection and spoke little about his own personality or beliefs, as if he thought both things childish and a waste of time. He was the very opposite of the adolescent discovering himself and analysing and observing and trying to understand himself, impatient to find out what kind of person he is, not realising that such inquiries are pointless because he is not yet complete and, besides, such knowledge does not come—if it ever does, and is not constantly being modified and negated—until he has to make some really difficult decisions and act on the spur of the moment, and when that happens, it’s too late to change and be a different kind of person. Anyway, Tomás Nevinson was not particularly interested in being known and certainly not interested in knowing himself, or perhaps he had already completed the latter process and considered the former to be a job for narcissists. This could perhaps be attributed to his English ancestry, but, ultimately, no one really knew what he was like. Beneath his friendly, diaphanous, even affable appearance there was a frontier of opacity and reserve. And the greatest opacity lay in the fact that others were unaware of that impenetrable layer or else barely noticed it.
Copyright © 2019 by Javier Marias. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.