I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door. This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.
We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.
* * *
I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.
There were three of us, and he now made the fourth. We hadn’t expected to add to our tight number: cliques and pairings had happened long before, and we were already beginning to imagine our escape from school into life. His name was Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself. For the first day or two, we took little notice of him: at our school there was no welcoming ceremony, let alone its opposite, the punitive induction. We just registered his presence and waited.
The masters were more interested in him than we were. They had to work out his intelligence and sense of discipline, calculate how well he’d previously been taught, and if he might prove ‘scholarship material’. On the third morning of that autumn term, we had a history class with Old Joe Hunt, wryly affable in his three-piece suit, a teacher whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom.
‘Now, you’ll remember that I asked you to do some preliminary reading about the reign of Henry VIII.’ Colin, Alex and I squinted at one another, hoping that the question wouldn’t be flicked, like an angler’s fly, to land on one of our heads. ‘Who might like to offer a characterisation of the age?’ He drew his own conclusion from our averted eyes. ‘Well, Marshall, perhaps. How would you describe Henry VIII’s reign?”
Our relief was greater than our curiosity, because Marshall was a cautious know-nothing who lacked the inventiveness of true ignorance. He searched for possible hidden complexities in the question before eventually locating a response.
‘There was unrest, sir.’
An outbreak of barely controlled smirking; Hunt himself almost smiled.
‘Would you, perhaps, care to elaborate?’
Marshall nodded slow assent, thought a little longer, and decided it was no time for caution. ‘I’d say there was great unrest, sir.’
‘Finn, then. Are you up in this period?’
The new boy was sitting a row ahead and to my left. He had shown no evident reaction to Marshall’s idiocies.
‘Not really, sir, I’m afraid. But there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event – even the outbreak of the First World War, for example – is that “something happened”.’
‘Is there, indeed? Well, that would put me out of a job, wouldn’t it?’ After some sycophantic laughter, Old Joe Hunt pardoned our holiday idleness and filled us in on the polygamous royal butcher.
At the next break, I sought out Finn. ‘I’m Tony Webster.’ He looked at me warily. ‘Great line to Hunt.’ He seemed not to know what I was referring to. ‘About something happening.’
‘Oh. Yes. I was rather disappointed he didn’t take it up.’
That wasn’t what he was supposed to say.
Another detail I remember: the three of us, as a symbol of our bond, used to wear our watches with the face on the inside of the wrist. It was an affectation, of course, but perhaps something more. It made time feel like a personal, even a secret, thing.We expected Adrian to note the gesture, and follow suit; but he didn’t.
Later that day – or perhaps another day – we had a double English period with Phil Dixon, a young master just down from Cambridge. He liked to use contemporary texts, and would throw out sudden challenges. ‘“Birth, and Copulation, and Death” --- that’s what T. S. Eliot says it’s all about. Any comments?’ He once compared a Shakespearean hero to Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. And I remember how, when we were discussing Ted Hughes’s poetry, he put his head at a donnish slant and murmured,‘Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he runs out of animals.’ Sometimes, he addressed us as ‘Gentlemen’. Naturally, we adored him.
That afternoon, he handed out a poem with no title, date or author’s name, gave us ten minutes to study it, then asked for our responses.
‘Shall we start with you, Finn? Put simply, what would you say this poem is about?’
Adrian looked up from his desk. ‘Eros and Thanatos, sir.’
‘Hmm. Go on.’
‘Sex and death,’ Finn continued, as if it might not just be the thickies in the back row who didn’t understand Greek. ‘Or love and death, if you prefer.The erotic principle, in any case, coming into conflict with the death principle. And what ensues from that conflict. Sir.’
I was probably looking more impressed than Dixon thought healthy.
‘Webster, enlighten us further.’
‘I just thought it was a poem about a barn owl, sir.’
This was one of the differences between the three of us and our new friend. We were essentially taking the piss, except when we were serious. He was essentially serious, except when he was taking the piss. It took us a while to work this out.
Adrian allowed himself to be absorbed into our group, without acknowledging that it was something he sought. Perhaps he didn’t. Nor did he alter his views to accord with ours. At morning prayers he could be heard joining in the responses while Alex and I merely mimed the words, and Colin preferred the satirical ploy of the pseudo-zealot’s enthusiastic bellow.The three of us considered school sports a crypto-fascist plan for repressing our sex-drive; Adrian joined the fencing club and did the high jump. We were belligerently tone-deaf; he came to school with his clarinet. When Colin denounced the family, I mocked the political system, and Alex made philosophical objections to the perceived nature of reality, Adrian kept his counsel – at first, anyway. He gave the impression that he believed in things. We did too – it was just that we wanted to believe in our own things, rather than what had been decided for us. Hence what we thought of as our cleansing scepticism.
The school was in central London, and each day we travelled up to it from our separate boroughs, passing from one system of control to another. Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior. None of this, of course, was ever stated: the genteel social Darwinism of the English middle classes always remained implicit.
‘Fucking bastards, parents,’ Colin complained one Monday lunchtime. ‘You think they’re OK when you’re little, then you realise they’re just like . . .’
‘Henry VIII, Col?’ Adrian suggested.We were beginning to get used to his sense of irony; also to the fact that it might be turned against us as well.When teasing, or calling us to seriousness, he would address me as Anthony; Alex would become Alexander, and the unlengthenable Colin shortened to Col.
‘Wouldn’t mind if my dad had half a dozen wives.’
‘And was incredibly rich.’
‘And painted by Holbein.’
‘And told the Pope to sod off.’
‘Any particular reason why they’re FBs?’ Alex asked Colin.
‘I wanted us to go to the funfair. They said they had to spend the weekedn gardening.’
Right: fucking bastards. Except to Adrian, who listened to our denunciations, but rarely joined in. And yet, it seemed to us, he had more cause than most. His mother had walked out years before, leaving his dad to cope with Adrian and his sister. This was long before the term ‘singleparent family’ came into use; back then it was ‘a broken home’, and Adrian was the only person we knew who came from one. This ought to have given him a whole storetank of existential rage, but somehow it didn’t; he said he loved his mother and respected his father. Privately, the three of us examined his case and came up with a theory: that the key to a happy family life was for there not to be a family --- or at least, not one living together. Having made this analysis, we envied Adrian the more.
In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to he released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives --- and time itself --- would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.
In the meantime, we were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic. All political and social systems appeared to us corrupt, yet we declined to consider an alternative other than hedonistic chaos. Adrian, however, pushed us to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles should guide actions. Previously, Alex had been regarded as the philosopher among us. He had read stuff the other two hadn’t, and might, for instance, suddenly declare, ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof must we remain silent.’ Colin and I would consider this idea in silence for a while, then grin and carry on talking. But now Adrian’s arrival dislodged Alex from his position – or rather, gave us another choice of philosopher. If Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein, Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche. I had read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley; Colin had read Baudelaire and Dostoevsky. This is only a slight caricature.
Yes, of course we were pretentious --- what else is youth for? We used terms like ‘Weltanschauung’ and ‘Sturm und Drang’, enjoyed saying ‘That’s philosophically self-evident’, and assured one another that the imagination’s first duty was to be transgressive. Our parents saw things differently, picturing their children as innocents suddenly exposed to noxious influence. So Colin’s mother referred to me as his ‘dark angel’; my father blamed Alex when he found me reading The Communist Manifesto; Colin was fingered by Alex’s parents when they caught him with a hard-boiled American crime novel. And so on. It was the same with sex. Our parents thought we might be corrupted by one another into becoming whatever it was they most feared: an incorrigible masturbator, a winsome homosexual, a recklessly impregnatory libertine. On our behalf they dreaded the closeness of adolescent friendship, the predatory behaviour of strangers on trains, the lure of the wrong kind of girl. How far their anxieties outran our experience.
One afternoon Old Joe Hunt, as if picking up Adrian’s earlier challenge, asked us to debate the origins of the First World War: specifically, the responsibility of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin for starting the whole thing off. Back then, we were most of us absolutists. We liked Yes v No, Praise v Blame, Guilt v Innocence --- or, in Marshall’s case, Unrest v Great Unrest. We liked a game that ended in a win and loss, not a draw. And so for some, the Serbian gunman, whose name is long gone from my memory, had one hundred per cent individual responsibility: take him out of the equation, and the war would never have happened. Others preferred the one hundred per cent responsibility of historical forces, which had placed the antagonistic nations on an inevitable collision course: ‘Europe was a powder keg waiting to blow’, and so on. The more anarchic, like Colin, argued that everything was down to chance, that the world existed in a state of perpetual chaos, and only some primitive storytelling instinct, itself doubtless a hangover from religion, retrospectively imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened.
Hunt gave a brief nod to Colin’s attempt to undermine everything, as if morbid disbelief was a natural by-product of adolescence, something to be grown out of. Masters and parents used to remind us irritatingly that they too had once been young, and so could speak with authority. It’s just a phase, they would insist. You’ll grow out of it; life will teach you reality and realism. But back then we declined to acknowledge that they had ever been anything like us, and we knew that we grasped life --- and truth, and morality, and art --- far more clearly than our compromised elders.
‘Finn, you’ve been quiet. You started this ball rolling. You are, as it were our Serbian gunman.’ Hunt paused to let the allusion take effect. ‘Would you care to give us the benefit of your thoughts?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘What don’t you know?’
‘Well, in one sense. I can’t know what it is that I don’t know. That’s philosophically self-evident.’ He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us.‘Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is --- was --- a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened.That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.’
There was a silence. And no, he wasn’t taking the piss, not in the slightest.
Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled. ‘Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.’ And he wasn’t taking the piss either.
Excerpted from The Sense of an Ending © Copyright 2012 by Julian Barnes. Reprinted with permission by Knopf. All rights reserved.
The Sense of an Ending