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An Old Fragment

A whole world unfolds before my eyes all because of the regularly irregular dark green edging to a pale green dress worn by a girl in front of me of whom I see only her brown neck.
– Fernando Pessoa (1)

I had noticed him as he got on the bus, but when he sat down beside me my eyes swivelled, took a sky dive to his thighs and got stuck there. It wasn’t that they were classical thighs, like those of Michelangelo’s Adam or David; or even thighs that ran three miles a day, worked out or were tennis enthusiasts. It was that they instantly set me thinking of trees and how a tree bark tells the history of more life than its own. I saw my arms around a tree and thought about the hidden annular rings—all those episodes that are just like the story of thighs, with their hidden wisdom of bones and flesh, history and race, standing proud and evolving in their fluted roundness. Wonderful too how clothes make them even more compelling, how neither cotton, denim nor nylon can diminish their power but only enhance it with more mystery, more illiterable knowledge.

His jeans were well-worn in student-style and something about that made them touchable. My hand almost did it, almost slid over like an old friend and lay on one of those unselfconscious thighs. I recognised something, knew something about him; it was in the way he held his head and looked discreetly to see what I was reading. In his language the words would have suggested pictures, not snail-trails and disjointed spider-strings.
“How far is it to the airport?”
“Not far. About ten minutes.”
“Are you going past the airport?”
“Can you tell me when to get off?”
“Yes. The bus stops at the entrance to Departures.”
We were silent again but close as clams in the one shell. I needed to learn something from him, but all I could ask was what I knew already.
“Are you from Japan?”
No elaboration. I thought of the economic slump, the regimentality, the altars to their deities, kimonos, geisha girls, tea ceremonies, motor-bikes. The only Japanese words I knew were trade names, except for the name of a student I walked around the city with for a day. I remembered his name and the interesting large pore on the side of his chocolatey forehead, but had forgotten to befriend him, as was my peculiar gift.

So I had no phrase to offer as a token of cultural respect. We stayed locked in a poresome observation of each other. The urge to put my head on his shoulder was difficult to resist. It felt like it should have been there, like our bodies were meant to touch. His luggage lurched and he leaned forward to settle it. His hand came to the handle like a piece of sand-coloured satin that had its own life—long, intelligent, graceful. All his skin would have something of that quality. Could I ever be so privileged as to lie touching such skin with my poor white imitation? My own thighs began to heat.

Of course bodies can speak. If I held my hand an inch from your face, you would receive its message and I yours. Without looking, I knew his shoulders were slightly bowed, that he was thinking about my book, that he was noticing my coat, my ear-rings and my nail varnish. But I knew also that he was noticing none of these things so much as the two great question marks that had flashed on over our heads, hook facing hook, marks which formed a symbol of memory. How can you remember and not remember at the same time? There is memory that is beneath the senses, unconscious, but this felt both haptic and unlocateable as a soul. If we had met before, it was as enlightened lovers who had drunk each other’s words as well as looks, who had stretched hands to each other across dinner tables with no oppositions, or with enough oppositions to find the other indispensable to our truth.

The bus arrived at the airport. No further talk had seemed necessary or possible, but a magnetic pull made his leaving seem wrong. He looked back as he rose.
“You are reading Dante.”
The last chance.
“Yes. Have you read him?”
“No, but I have heard that he is very nice.”
Not the word he wanted, I knew, but I was grateful that he knew any English. Who am I to expect everyone to speak my language? I smiled and nodded. There were no more words. He looked back as he walked away with his companion. The deep chestnut of his eyes remains, in that spot, on that neuron's quantum radar. Did I idealise the moment because it was only itself and could be held like a crystal, asking nothing of me but a glass case, safe to love? Was I drawn into that Japanese tendency to appeal to the long palm of destiny and glorify pathos and transience? Is that me, Irish, too? Does it matter? Such encounters form the magic circle of a life, both core-protection and radiating antennae. I may have touched a coiled something—that might unfold itself in time, like a closed hand taunting a child.
There must always be a small corner of rapture, otherwise what's the point?
– Simon Armitage (2)


(1) Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet, ed. Maria José de Lancastre, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Introd. William Boyd, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2010. P. 113

(2) Simon Armitage: 'The Overtones', Seeing Stars, Faber and Faber, 2010, p. 66

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