:: Article

Alan

By Robert Stone.

A still from the film Last Year at Marienbad, written by Alain Robbe-Grillet

 

The arrangement had been that I would meet these friends at the cinema. Later, we would have a meal together and, I suppose, talk about the film. Well I had seen the film before and although I would have sat through it again, the eating was out of the question for financial reasons. A pint of the English Restaurant’s cheapest lager, a pretty tasty lager, was £5.50 in 2019 which is only a shade less than I think is reasonable to spend on a bottle of wine. Goodness knows what a meal would have cost. I decided to skip almost everything and meet them in the bit of The English Restaurant that is really a pub. Also, when I say these people were my friends I had never met two of them and with those I knew I would have to admit there was a little tension there.

So we were sitting around one of the larger tables, six or seven of us and I was feeling okay and glad I had made an effort when they decided it was time for a cigarette break. Obviously they had to go outside and I found myself at this long table drinking all alone. I had given up smoking several years earlier so this was far from being an unfamiliar situation, nor one for which I was unprepared.

I knew how these things worked. The most nicotine-hungry, the professionals, would suck theirs down to the filter in seconds flat while those who were on one or two a day and inexpertly rolled their own, the dilettantes, would still be skinning up when the real smokers were thinking, ‘Well, I may as well have another one while we are all out here.’ They could be gone for twenty minutes. Longer. They took their drinks with them. They preferred standing in the street to sitting in the pub. I knew how it went. Some non-smokers even go outside with the smokers because they don’t want to sit on their own so long. Not me.

As soon as the door closed on the last of them, on the last, ‘But I thought you smoked,’ (it had been five years with short-lived relapses), I took out my book. I even had a particular book I carried around with me for these occasions, Jean Ferry’s The Conductor and other tales. A grey pocket-sized paperback, 150 pages, published by Wakefield Press of Cambridge, Mass. in 2013. Translated by Edward Gauvin and illustrated by Claude Ballaré. A really lovely book. All the fiction that Ferry wrote, all of his stories very short by almost everybody’s standards and, in my opinion, eminently re-readable. Sometimes I could read three stories in one smoking break. Let’s be clear, I love Jean Ferry and I can even manage some of the stories in French, partly because I know them off by heart.

Now I would argue for the merits of Ferry’s stories with anyone, but I am not the kind of person who flaunts an esoteric interest. If someone sees me reading I don’t ostentatiously put the book back into my bag, giving them time enough to read the spine and make an estimation; just how forbiddingly intellectual, gullible, frighteningly erudite, up to or out of date, acute, naïve or otherwise I might be. I’m a little bit shy about it, so I wait until that door closes.

I often start with Le Tigre Mondain. Three pages of generous, funny, glamorous prose. Sensuous French Surrealism. Self-confident and accommodating. No axe to grind. It seemed the right story then because the main character, if you can say that of a Ferry story, was une très poignante beauté rousse, un peu lasse and one of the women in our group, one of the two I had never met before,  a strawberry blonde, was near enough to la dompteuse to have piqued my interest. So I was reading Ferry’s lovely description of her wonderful red hair, l’éruption encascades d’une chevelure de flammes, piquée d’étoiles d’or, when this unknown woman sat down right opposite to me as though I had conjured her. She did not smoke. She had just popped to the loo, as they say.

Naturally, she asked me what I was reading and I could have said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ put the book away and changed the subject, but that would have been rude and although I was a little shy about Ferry, I was not embarrassed by my interest in him, so I passed the book to her. I closed it first so that it was not open at the page about the beautiful redhead.

She asked me if I spoke French and right away I was straight with her and told her I could read Jean Ferry in French and a few other things, but that I had never actually been to France although I was interested in French books, films and paintings. She was interested in these things too. I remembered to ask her. She was more of a cinephile than me; Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard, Bresson, but I knew enough to keep up and I could tell her something she did not know about Ferry’s work with Louis Malle and Clouzot.

I know all of this sounds impossibly affected but it flowed quite naturally from my being genuinely surprised with the book. I was having an interesting conversation with a very attractive woman who gave a good impersonation of being someone amused at what I had to say. She got on to talking about the nouveau roman and Alain Robbe-Grillet in particular. I had read and liked In The Labyrinth quite recently and La Plage was in the book of stories in which I had first read Le Tigre Mondain. Years ago I had also read The Secret Room, but I had only a dim memory of it and thought that it concerned some kind of sex dungeon and had the sense not to mention it. Imagine if I had said that and it had turned out to be wrong. I stuck with La Plage; the children accidentally shooing the birds as they walk along the beach. Sanderling. She did not know that they must be sanderling and Robbe-Grillet does not say.

Now I knew I was, as far as I could tell at that early stage, serious about this woman when she brought up Robbe-Grillet’s film Last Year at Marienbad and I did not pretend that I had seen it, which I could easily have done and had done on many previous occasions when confronted with the name of a very famous work of art of which I knew nothing. She was surprised, which in this context was flattering, but also pleased, as you are when you are able to introduce someone you like to something you think they are bound to enjoy.

I don’t know that she actually invited me to see this film with her in so many words, but we exchanged telephone numbers before the smokers returned to the bar. Her name was Marie, although she was not French.

 

I was a single man, as I had been for quite a while. I wasn’t entirely happy with that at the same time as having no real intention of doing anything about it. I had had serious relationships. Co-habitation had happened, but there had been no third anniversaries. I had been accused of being afraid of commitment and even though I had more than once joked that commit brought to my mind the asylum rather than the altar, I didn’t think that was true of me. I think that was just something she had heard on the television.

Still, I didn’t phone Marie for a couple of days. I wasn’t afraid that I would get knocked back. That’s not so bad, not over the phone. There was something more fundamental than that. You know when you look back over your life and see it as a spider’s web labyrinth, dusty and bewildering, of paths not taken, bad choices, wrong decisions? But when do you look at what remains of the life that lies ahead of you, the myriad alternatives and opportunities? Another dusty labyrinth in the making. I find that unnerving. I think unnerving is the word. I did phone her though and she remembered me and said she had Last Year at Marienbad on DVD and would I like to go round and see it? Easy as that. I thought I’d better spend more than six pounds on that bottle of wine. French wine.

Marie was unpretentiously comfortable in her modest flat and that is a very relaxing attitude. She was dressed normally; jeans and the jumper she had worn in The English Restaurant. With that hair, to my mind, she was always dressed up. I didn’t know if she knew wine but she read the label on the bottle I brought and smiled, which could have meant anything. No food, just nuts and olives and another bottle opened ready and that suited me.

Marie’s flat was student accommodation, I thought, not literally, but fifteen years at least since she most likely stopped being a student. She had green curtains. Did it feel like failure? You know, a little bit. I think when you look at someone else’s home for the first time, you are really looking at your own, through a transparency of other people’s things, as if through the eyes of a second self, with more than half an eye on what might have been. She had no photographs, like me. How tidy? How clean? Let’s compare books, CDs, DVDs. What will she be justified in thinking when she sees my place? Will she understand that that gauche ornament is ironic? Is it ironic?

She might have censored her bookshelves. There was plenty of space on them. Lots of sixties French literature, some in French; Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute. Would I censor mine? Where would I put the magazines which had published my work? All over the flat, opened at the relevant page, left lying around faux casually like innocent paperweights that are actually unexploded grenades? Or hidden away in an unlabelled box? In the airing cupboard. Or under the bed. Within easy reach. Naturally.

Other people’s belongings can look like salvage from a train wreck or a plane crash. You find yourself picking through a heartbreaking detritus of toys, letters, blood-stained collars and unpaired shoes. I looked at her pictures and posters. The postcards on the shelf.  It is like finding yourself in a dream cluttered with significance but all of it opaque. Nothing echoes, nothing reminds, no one knows who you are. This is to anticipate by a couple of hours because something like this happens in the film; the lover, Giorgio Albertazzi, insists to the woman, the beloved, Delphine Seyrig, that they share a past which she (some of the time/most of the time) denies.

Anyway, I was getting ahead of myself as you can see and all of this I have to confess is something of a preamble, perhaps of dubious relevance. As always I am never sure that anything is really going anywhere.

We had our drinks, our nuts and olives, the DVD was ready primed in the machine, the rest of the bottle was to hand. She turned off all of the lights,

– Make it like a cinema, she said and she sat on the sofa, leaning right into me, so that it seemed almost obligatory to put my arm around her. The usual cheesy music struck up, l’orchestre fait éclater ses plus bruyantes fanfares, as Ferry says. Even so, I was pleased to see that Marie had not turned off the subtitles.

I’m not going to tell you what happens in Last Year at Marienbad, but it is not in any sense an ordinary kind of film and I found it immediately engrossing at the same time as being very aware of the enchanting bouquet of Marie’s incendie bouclé actually touching my cheek. The film draws you into its world, its baroque palace, but there is a scene around the fifteen minute mark which pulled me most unexpectedly into a different world entirely.

All of the women are laughing, happy laughter, but all of the men are stony-faced and cadaverous, particularly the husband, Sacha Pitoëff, M – l’autre homme au visage maigre. Lots of the men in the film look a bit like him. They are playing cards. Then Pitoëff says to the lover, Giorgio Albertazzi, l’homme à l’accent italien,

– I suggest a different game. A game I always win.

Albertazzi replies,

Si vous ne pouvez pas perdre, ce n’est pas un jeu. If you can’t lose, it’s not a game.

It’s not really easy to work out what he is saying exactly because of his accent.

Pitoëff says,

Je peux perdre, mais je gagne toujours. I can lose, but I always win.

Essayons, says Albertazzi.

 

This reminded me of something which I am altogether confident is a memory that had lain dormant in my mind for thirty years, which was of the utmost importance to me and which I had not more consciously recalled in all of that time. It came over me like a vision.

A little boy, standing in the middle of a football pitch, wearing the all-white Leeds United strip of the Revie era, but covered in mud. There is even mud in his hair so that his black mop was sticking straight up one side as if he were wearing a fur helmet. Those red rosebud lips of his, that should have got him into trouble but never did, the only colour in this otherwise monochrome apparition. Everyone else has left that muddy field, but he is refusing to do so. He is staring out like a figure looking out of a photograph, but there is no such photograph. So who is he staring at? Not at me, I think, but perhaps at our father. Someone is most likely cajoling him. Coaxing, persuading, wooing. This is my younger brother, Alan. He is not upset, at least not in the way that little boys often are and he is in no way aware of the absurdity of his position. If he knows that others are finding him ridiculous he has brushed aside the remotest possibility that they are right to do so and he is saying, to someone, to everyone,

– I will not lose.

That was Alan, that was his keynote and it was readily misunderstood. His father misunderstood it always. Perhaps everyone did, except for me. You see, really, Alan did not care about losing and he certainly did not care about winning. It was just that he would not be beaten. He knew that people were better at football than he was. Me for a start, although I was two years older. But he thought it was nonsense that you might measure victory or defeat in terms of who had scored the most goals, the most runs, the most points. He was not interested in sport.

Alan often lost, in the conventional way, but he would never admit that. Again, not in the petulant whine of those who always have an excuse to hand to explain their bad luck. Alan had no patience with the idea of luck. Often defeated, technically, as many a victor pointed out to him, but never resigned, never forlorn. I think now that he may have lacked a word to describe himself. Indomitable. No dompteuse could tame Alan.

You might have thought a fist fight would have settled this. We were boys after all. But knowing what he was like, who would have fought him? We knew he only played for stakes no one could afford to lose. He might not have thrown acid in your face like they do these days, but you would have had to knock him out. Realistically, you might have had to kill him. Besides, everyone loved him. No one would have said so, no one would even have made an articulate thought of it, but, I believe, he was our hero.

Sport is not the best example. It makes the notion of winning and losing too literal. I remember (this is not something that I had ever forgotten as I had forgotten the image of Alan on the football pitch) father and Alan and I on the beach, the annual holiday at the seaside, perhaps the first of those holidays without mother. We were playing in the sand, the three of us, building castles at first, but then that was changed, a change that I think was ill-advisedly suggested by our father. We started to build a dam.

A dam, a barrier, that would protect our fortifications from the inevitable destruction promised by the incoming tide. That this was inevitable was as obvious to me as it must have been to our father, but we pretended that we did not think so. We made a game of this. At first, we could all three take a sober view of the matter. We planned. We saw how far away the dam should be from the city we had sworn to protect, how long it was practical to make it and how high. We could see where the sand for our structure might be dug from. We rolled a number of flint boulders to where we might need them. We could dig ditches to divert water away from the citadel. We might even have thought of building a secondary defence, within the outer wall, to which we could fall back in case of disastrous broaches and incursions. So much for the plan, but then we had to work.

This was towards the end of our day. We were already tired. I find it easy to imagine now that our father was rather bored. If he had had things on his mind that would have been reasonable enough. Even so, we battled that water, the three of us, a team, a family of a sort. We collected and dumped buckets of sand. We bailed out moats with those same buckets. We slammed down ballast with heroic endeavour into the holes in our shattered bulwarks. Marvellous, dramatic saves. Alan began to work with a fury. The closer father and I got to giving up, the harder Alan worked. He was so young, but he would not relent, he would not let even the sea beat him, not even time.

Father and I stood back finally and let that little world drown, collapse about our feet, let the sea pour in among the ruins and pour away. Our solid sand began to stream like lava as its nature changed beyond the critical point, turning the solid to liquid, the outside to the inside. We stood back and watched Alan amid this watery Apocalypse, surrounded by harmless whirlpools. His masonry dissolved into a sugary morass, a seeping squalor. He scrambled over terraces and down scree. He stemmed rivulets and leaped canyons. He stepped from gap to breach in a weary dance. We were apart from him. The paper flags that had flown from our squat towers floated around his ankles. The sand ran helplessly through his fingers.

My father picked him up in the end and walked away with him. Alan said nothing but his legs kicked and his elbows thrashed with a real intention to hurt.

– Come on, young Canute, father said, that’s enough now.

I don’t think Alan ever forgave father for that. Is it possible that he considered him a coward thereafter? That seems too terrible. He may have wanted to die on that beach as so many boys have died on beaches. He had been betrayed.

I overheard father talking to Alan later, trying to explain. He told him about tides. But that was all misunderstanding. I knew that even then. Alan was neither stupid nor ignorant. He didn’t think the tide would not come in. His refusal to give up the dam was not based on that.

We looked out to sea later that day as we ate our chips and drank our pop and where we had been playing was six feet under water.

Father got the Canute legend wrong as well. King Canute did not think that he could order the tide to retreat. He was demonstrating to his courtiers that he could not and so proving to them that they should not treat him as though he were more than a man. Of course, it’s just a story in any case.

 

There was one more thing and Albertazzi and Pitoëff playing their game made me think of that too. They play the game three times in the film and Pitoëff does always win, but we see that you don’t need cards to play. They use matchsticks and something else, gambling chips maybe.

We were at home, because I remember the big table where we did everything and the evening light and what it did to the tablecloth that father always insisted on. Since I left home, that sombre house where nothing ever happened, I have never lived anywhere we had any use for a tablecloth. We must have been playing at cards. Cribbage perhaps, maybe gin rummy or some kind of whist. Desultory games in which none of us was really interested. They are not games you can learn to play well beyond a certain point.

We had finished playing and Alan was building a castle of cards. He wanted to use the whole deck and he had worked out how many he needed to make the bottom layer. The bottom layer was not too hard. That was a greasy old deck of cards, the only one we ever had in the house; pompous kings, sly jacks and the queens whose faces gave nothing away. I don’t know if the age and condition of that deck should have made the task of building a castle with it easier or harder, but I do know that Alan couldn’t do it. He bit his red lips in concentration.

He was very tired. I’ve lost track of how old he was. It’s not easy to be exact about time when nothing seems to change. This must have been after the dam and the football. He kept building his pyramids, laying his floors, pitching the roofs, and the castle kept falling down, sliding to the side under its own immeasurable weight as though teetering to those feeble disasters was its destiny. He got so close a couple of times but then he would catch a dog-eared edge with a trailing cuff or his knee would tug that wretched cloth against a table leg or just nothing, it would fall down as an old man gives up the ghost and dies.

But Alan would not stop. He seemed to be showing no impatience, no exasperation and no sense of this futility while the sunny motes span around his black thatch in that dusty room. Now, I know that building a card castle is not impossible. I could probably build one right now if I had a deck of cards and I think Alan could have done it then, even with that deck, on another day when he was less tired, exhausted really. Clumsy with fatigue.

We spoke to him, father and I.

– That’s enough. Tomorrow. In the morning. When you are rested.

He carried on as if he had not heard a word; collecting together the fallen cards and beginning once more to place one against the other and then laying the lintels that would become a floor so long as the whole thing did not slip to catastrophe, which it always did infallibly at some unpredictable point. I think I can still see those hands, spanning with no little difficulty the breadth of each card in turn, all equally treacherous from ace to king.

We went to bed, father and I. I don’t know what time it must have been or what I might have considered to be late at that age, but we were both too tired to watch him any more. Or something like that.

I woke next morning to find that Alan had not come to bed. Had he gone? I went to look after him. I so wanted, at least this is how I think of it now and I hope it was so, to see that castle of cards proud and complete on that big table. I so wanted it, that I think I did see it. And yet I saw it before I entered the old front room, before it was possible that I might have seen it. Alan was a shaman, engaged in his defiant ritual, conjuring a fragile fortress that was in reality unassailable and indestructible because it was founded in dreams. No imaginary city has ever been demolished against the dreamer’s will. He was trying to save us all.

I pushed the door open. In that front room was Alan, still at the table, asleep with his head in his arms and with the jumble of playing cards slathered around him and on the floor in a shattered mandala. I never knew what had happened. He might have built his castle and fallen asleep in its tottering shadow. Or he might have laid down his head in despair. A despair we had taught him to feel. Perhaps even Alan did not know if he had ever built that castle.

 

Naturally, Marie asked me what I thought of the film and I had to tell her about Alan because I had little else to contribute. And that seemed like a sympathetic way of talking about myself, to Marie anyway. She said that she would like to meet him, which felt like an important thing to hear her say.

 

I hadn’t seen Alan for years. Father died, we moved to other cities, lost touch, like brothers do. Was I going to spend a day crossing the country, a journey costing a large fraction of a week’s wage, to see a man who could barely be bothered to come to the phone when I rang him? I hardly got a postcard from him. Was this his right number? Probably. Was this the right address? Probably not. I got the idea that I maybe never had a brother at all and that Alan was just a shadow I had cast, the little boy I had wanted to be. But that is not right. We did try for a while, it was not as bad as this sounds, but our hearts weren’t in it and there got to be too much to explain that we didn’t want to talk about. Perhaps that was it.

I think Alan and I came to speak different languages. I don’t know for sure at what point that happened. I could repeat what he said, but I didn’t know what he meant. I don’t think Alain Robbe-Grillet would have meant anything to him. He was never much of a reader. Maybe he grew to feel what Jean Ferry called a degoût abject for life. For me included.

 

Then a couple of weeks ago, I was at the airport with Marie and I think I may have seen him. A man of my age, of course, bearded now, his lips masked, all in denim, stocky with shoulder-length black hair and pushing a trolley piled with a ludicrous quantity of cases, like his old dream castle. I think it was him because I think he looked like me. I wanted to shout out to him but I was embarrassed to do it in that echoing cavern of a place and I could have been wrong in front of Marie and everyone. I couldn’t bring myself to call out like that across the years. If I had chased after him to get another and better look we might have missed our turn at the check-in. But did he see me? Am I kidding myself when I say that I think he glanced my way, that I detected a look in his eye? I saw two red-headed children run up to him before I had to turn away. Of course I would like to have known if he had been tamed, or if he was still indomitable, if he had found a game he thought was worth playing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton in the UK. He works in a press cuttings agency in London. Before that he was a teacher and then foreman of a London Underground station. He has two children and lives with his partner in Ipswich. He has had stories published in Stand, Panurge, The Write Launch, Eclectica, Confingo, Here Comes Everyone, Punt Volat, The Decadent Review, Heirlock and Wraparound South. He has had a story published in Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar chapbook series. Another will be published in 2021. Micro stories have been published by Palm-Sized Press, 5×5, Star 82, The Ocotillo Review, deathcap and Clover & White. Longer stories will soon come out in The Wisconsin Review and The Main Street Rag. A story has been published in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020 volume. I tweet mostly about stories here: @RobertJStone2

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 13th, 2021.