The Genius of the Sea
By Naeem Murr
Published by Free Press
June 2003; 0743237951; 288 pages

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The Genius of the Sea by Naeem MurrChapter 1


The receptionist at Palm Court gave Daniel a smile well beyond the call of her duty. He was thirty-eight, apologetically tall and attractive, with a thick head of unruly black hair. He regarded her with an expression habitual to him -- as if she reminded him of someone and he were trying to work out whom.

Signing in, he said he knew where to go.

On entering the main corridor, Daniel drew together the lapels of his coat. He became aware of this gesture and it troubled him. It was, he realized, his mother's: loving, superstitious, and proprietary.

He wanted a cigarette, but was trying to quit and had cut down to six a day. He'd already smoked four and had a sense he might need the other two later on.

The desolation of the sanitarium -- locked steel cabinets, whitewashed walls, the smell of ammonia -- was of the same species as his own and increased his nervousness. It had always seemed inconceivable to him that this Victorian mansion had once been someone's home.

A second after he'd entered a section of the corridor thrown into darkness by a faulty fluorescent tube, a massive man loomed out just beside him. Shocked, Daniel flung himself against the wall.

A catatonic with a stricken, pox-scarred face was jammed between two empty display cases.

Daniel moved on, increasing his pace and, just as he looked back, fearing the man might have followed him, he walked right into a tiny nurse who'd emerged from one of the rooms. It wasn't a hard collision, but she seemed hurt, throwing her hand up to her forehead.

He took hold of her elbow. "Are you all right?"

"My fault," she replied.

Removing her hand from her brow, she checked it. There was blood on one of her fingers, and Daniel saw a tiny cut above her left eye.

"What happened?" he said.

She gave a little nod toward his chest, and he looked down to see the Parker pen in his breast pocket.

"I am so -- "

"It wasn't your fault," she insisted, "really. It's just a scratch." She glanced now at his hand, which was still cupping her elbow, and he released her. An awkward few seconds ensued.

Pointing back down the corridor, he said, "There's a patient -- "

"Ah."

"In between the -- "

"Yes, yes, I was...Thank you." She hurried off.

Daniel didn't move for a moment. He felt terrible, but re-felt also, with something quite different from regret, the soft percussion of her body. Lovely voice, he thought, accent of some kind. Pretty girl too. Her odor lingered -- a clean, soapy smell. Suddenly a cry pulsed through the corridors.

Gone then, that cry, with its eerie suggestion of his name, and the nurse gone, and the house so still.

He walked on. He'd come without hesitation when Sally had called. A year. She'd written, letters that were essays into pure observation. He knew what she wanted: to begin with an exchange of their sensibilities, divested as much as they could be of bias, history, and personal reference. To begin. But though he'd been trying to strip himself of exactly these things, he'd never responded. A full year. The loss of her had resurrected the other losses: his mother, the dreams of the empty flat, where she was, wasn't; of Galvin, his dear friend, who had been, in the end, the one to fall.

All the sadness of this year, and the anger -- incandescent. And yet, when Sally had phoned, the sound of her voice had caused him to sit on the floor as if he were being informed of a death. Come on Tuesday, she'd said, three o'clock, her tone that of a secretary setting up an appointment.

He now entered the spacious common room at the back. It shook with the explosions, rattling gunfire, and Stuka screams of a war film being watched by a cluster of patients -- most of whom were standing up, for some reason, like a crowd around an accident. The sunlight lancing in through the French doors revealed the room's mealy air.

This was where they usually met. She loved the light from the stained glass and used almost always to be sitting on the stone sill of one of the large windows. She wasn't there, though, and he looked around for her. Cross-legged on the tiles of the fireplace, scribbling into a notebook, sat a patient Daniel had seen almost every time he'd come. A wasted man with haunted eyes and huge, powerfully useless hands, he always put Daniel in mind of the tortured protagonist of some Russian novel. A couple of times he'd entered this room to find his wife engaged in anxious conversation with this man, and had felt a stab of jealousy. Just beside Daniel, at the Ping-Pong table, sat an Asian woman he'd not seen before. She was poring over a scattered pile of pictures she'd torn from old calendars -- a junk on a jade ocean, a chain of mountains like fractured vertebrae, a stag emerging from the misty waters of a loch -- each picture, within this shattering sound of war, a vista into being beautifully alone. Just as he was struck by the consummate sanity of this escape, she lifted her hands and addressed the pictures in some delicately elaborate sign language.

A shout drew his attention to the little chapel area at the side of the room, and he saw Amir, a male nurse he knew well, on one of the pews. He was trying to soothe a frantic old lady who was clutching a balsa-wood airplane. Amir noticed Daniel at almost the same moment, smiled, and managed to call out, "She's in the conservatory," before the woman struck his mouth with the fuselage.

Daniel waved his thanks and felt a churn of guilt as he went out into the cold and sunny garden. He'd forgotten again to bring a gift for Amir, who'd been so reassuring when his wife had first been admitted three years ago, even writing to Daniel on his own time to let him know how Sally was doing. Amir often surfaced in Daniel's thoughts, had appeared a few times in his dreams. Of course, there were obvious reasons for this, not least of which was the proximity of this kind, compelling, and attractive man to Daniel's wife, whose breakdown had left her so vulnerable. But it was also because he'd been struck by the rare quality of Amir's humanity. Daniel had once heard that, at any given time on the Earth, there lived only thirty-six truly just men. If so, then Amir was one of them -- the one condemned, for obscure reasons, to live out his life here, selflessly, among those suffering the hermetic egoism of madness.

 

Daniel glanced up into the clear blue sky, so unusual for London in early March and, as he looked back down, his vision smeared with the sun, he noticed, at the west end of the garden, a man sitting in a deck chair. Despite the cold, his feet were bare. He wore only pajamas and a cap, the brim of the latter casting a shadow that completely hid his face. The sight of this man stirred something in Daniel -- a memory, a dream, something -- but the imminence of his meeting with Sally made him too nervous to attend to this feeling for long.

By the time he got to the conservatory, Daniel felt as if he could hardly draw air into his lungs. Their last encounter had been a disaster. After one of her perfunctory phone calls, she'd come to him, entering their home as if it belonged to a dubious stranger. He'd planned to paint the sitting room in time for her visit. He'd bought the paint, cleared away the ornaments, and pulled the furniture in toward the center of the room. Then something -- the same part of him that had refused to write back to her -- had resisted, and it was this devoid, contracted place she came into. She perched herself at the edge of the sofa in front of the elaborate tea he'd prepared, her legs fused, her hands woven in her lap, and her lovely, ash blond hair braided, wound up, and pinned back so tight it seemed the full tension of her being depended upon the purchase of a single barrette.

"I'll have it all painted in a week or two," he'd said, instantly annoyed at himself for making excuses.

She didn't respond, just fixed her remarkable eyes, one brown, one green, on Daniel and waited for him to be quiet before making her fiercely timorous declaration: "Dr. Kenton has released me, Daniel, but I asked him if I could stay on at the home to help out and he said that I could."

Silence. There it was: she was better; she was not coming back. He almost fell to his knees, almost took her hands, almost begged her, but managed to hold out until it came -- anger, helpless, inflating him with the vacuous courage of despair.

Pouring tea calmly into her cup, he said, as if it were really of not much importance to him, "Can I at least visit? You do seem a lot better."

"Write to me, Daniel; let's write for a while."

"Oh, you know me" -- he smiled, a smile he'd felt breaking up at his lips like a fragment of ice from some frigid undercurrent -- "I'm not very good at writing."

"I can't stay long." She clearly wanted to leave but seemed physically unable to, as if, here, she were in thrall to him, as if, if he chose it, they would have to live out their lives performing in this peevish and stifling drama.

It was then that he noticed she hadn't touched any of the tea, realized that she wouldn't. When he used to visit her at the sanitarium before she'd asked him not to come anymore, he'd also never been able to bring himself to eat or drink anything in that place.

As he'd sat there, keeping her and himself in suspension, a word had come to him, beautifully new and suggestive: grief. How many lifetimes, he wondered now, would one have to live to learn every word as well at that?

Daniel shut the conservatory door quietly behind him. There she was, the sight of her another collision -- all their collisions, loving and otherwise, remembered in one flinch of the nerves. She hadn't seen him yet. She was squatting in a bed of daffodils, a child ruining her party dress in the mud, a bunch of the yellow flowers cradled in her arms.

He called: "Sally."

She turned her head to him, then checked her watch, surprised. "You're early."

"Am I?"

She seemed relaxed, which relieved him. Standing, she shed the child, ascended years, arrived finally at the brittle grace of one who has lived a little too long. As on that last visit, her hair was tied back in a tightly wound braid, her lovely face breaking out of it, naked, dehiscent.

As he went to kiss her cheek, she shied, clearly afraid he might seek her lips, and said, tapping her fingers against his wrist, "Didn't I buy you a watch?"

"It was automatic," he said, following her out of the conservatory and across the lawn toward the gardener's cottage.

"Meaning?"

"Bit morbid." He was being terse, to punish her -- how childish.

She frowned, confused. "Morbid? Because it was automatic, you mean?"

He didn't answer.

Softly, dryly, she said, "You're the one who should be in here, you know."

Just as they reached the cottage, Daniel indicated toward the man in the deck chair. "Who's that?"

"Not seen him before," she replied, barely glancing over as she shoved the cottage's ill-fitting door open and led Daniel into a single shadowy space cluttered with her life -- ornaments, keepsakes, pictures, photographs, an antique stove, a table set for tea, a single bed. While he took a seat at the table, she carried the daffodils to the sink, lay them on the draining board, and began to prepare the tea.

Silence then, which he found painful, for at the heart of it was that flinch from his kiss, his own helplessness. He looked at her hair again. It had become paler, pearly, seemed unreal, wrapped in such tight convolutions, as if she could just have reached back and removed it, handed it to him, that relic of another life and self, that shell of what had been her sex.

He wanted to be strong, to ask her, as if it were an effort for him even to be curious, why he was here. And yet he wanted also, desperately, for her to know that in the three years she'd resided here -- in this last year particularly -- he'd been able to feel for nothing but what he'd lost. It had made social work a nightmare for him. He'd found himself increasingly incapable of responding to the lies and half lies of his clients, or even to those things that couldn't be true but were. He couldn't find a way to believe what he was being told, to believe, more frankly, in their lives. I'm jolly bloody well going to set fire to her. He'd laughed. Laughed at that Indian woman's anger and despair because it had to be true, and because it was so badly done. While here it was, his wife's slender back, like a paleontologist's dream, lovely bone of life. If only he could return to this at night, after the Grand Guignol, the Indian woman with her thick accent saying, I'm jolly bloody well going to set fire to her.

"Gorgeous day," he said.

Sally glanced back with a smile but didn't otherwise respond. She was selecting a few of the daffodils for a small vase. Astonishing, after everything, how it had endured, that selfpossession of hers, the way she engaged herself absolutely with whatever she was doing. Even her breakdown; even that she'd engaged with so completely it had almost destroyed her.

"So," he said, "apart from the fact that you're living in a garden shed on the grounds of an insane asylum, how are you?"

"It's not a garden shed," she said, as she brought the vase of daffodils to the table.

"It's a nice little place, actually."

She remained in front of him. "It is a little dark, but you should have seen it when I moved in. Did you ever meet the old gardener?"

"No. I did meet his breath a few times, though."

"Couldn't help that. He had stomach cancer."

"I'm surprised anything survived in his stomach."

She examined his face as though she were looking through curiosities in a box, picking them up, putting them down. "Anyway, he lived in this place for almost fifty years, and when he died, apart from a few bits and bobs, they found nothing in here but a skeleton."

"A skeleton?"

"A dog," she said. "It was under the mattress at the base of the bed. They buried the bones with him."

"Good Lord. Well, that's going to be an interesting find in a few thousand years, isn't it: Homo canis. I want to be buried with the penis of my favorite horse."

She smiled, but vaguely.

"You know," she went on, "he had an old mattress that he must have used for the full fifty years, and on it was this perfect little impression of him. Perfect. You could even see the outline of his toes -- you're laughing at me."

"I'm not laughing at you." This was so Sally. "I'm just -- "

"Anyway," she said, "the point is that you'd think it'd be good that there wasn't anything in here -- for me, I mean, moving in. But the oddest thing about someone who has nothing in his home is that it makes it so...well, so unbearably intimate somehow."

"Too intimate for you?" he said.

Her smile was deeper this time. She seemed to have found it, the thing she would buy, would keep.

"Even for me."

She went to the fridge and opened it.

"Oh, damn," she said. "I'm going to have to run up to the house."

"Do you want me to go?"

She shook her head. "I'm always afraid they'll realize it sooner or later."

"Realize what?"

Pulling the door open, she threw back, just as she stepped out, "That you're completely mad."

A few moments after she'd left, Daniel stood up. As he did so, a movement in the room startled him. It was his own reflection in a mirror he hadn't seen for years: her old bathroom mirror from before they were married, the small oval one at the heart of an elaborate art deco frame. The dimness of the cottage held the blaze of grass at its threshold, the door like an opening of sunlight in deep space. He thought of stepping outside to have a smoke but knew she'd be back soon. On her dresser, he noticed his own photograph huddled among others, a black-and-white in which his face was half obscured by the shadows of leaves. Her father was there, too, the man who'd thrown a pot of boiling tea over her bare back when she'd bumped into his chair as a child, whose scars -- whose face -- she still bore.

Intimacy. Daniel thought of the old gardener alone for fifty years, of his mattress; of Sally's mattress then, and a fleeting desire to be that -- her impression, even to the toes. Unbearably intimate? Not for his wife. Intimacy functioned as a kind of dialysis for Sally.

He picked up the photograph of her father, who looked so happy, washing his Rover with his two swimsuited daughters. The little girls had been caught like large fish in his powerful arms, hysterical with joy. Lie? Was it a lie, this picture? It was the picture she'd chosen. Except for their hair, the girls might have been twins. It happened then, as Daniel was examining the picture, like the instantaneous resolution of an optical illusion: not laughing but screaming; their father's eyes sinister, his smile vicious; not joy but horror, unequivocally. Then, just as quickly, just as completely, joy again. Here was the reason she'd selected this photograph. Like his mother, she would not have a lie near her. He knew from Jill some of the awful things her father had done. But Sally never talked about her father and rarely brought up the past. She lived as much as she could in what engaged her at any moment. Not that she eradicated the past. Indeed, Daniel never got the sense that she wished anything different, not her father's most brutal acts, not her breakdown, not the day after day of Daniel's letter not arriving. She regarded such things simply as the yield of her life, and she kept them -- her scars, that oval mirror, these photographs, even his longed-for letters, even letters that never came she kept. With the capacity few have to truly delegate their emotional history to things, she was a woman who surrounded herself with the tropes and totems of her life's intimacies.

Damn her. He was having a conversation with her as he always did while she was not here, as her body was with him when she was absent, as her voice would be panned now for weeks from the residue of his waking. She'd done this on purpose. She knew him. He wouldn't speak to her but would speak into the empty room that she was.

His own half-shadowed face stared back from the oval mirror. Damn him. Why couldn't he have written back? His regret now, encountering the flesh and blood of her, was so extreme it displaced him, placed him in the oval mirror. This was what he'd become, not a man with no reflection but a reflection with no man. A lie. He wasn't the one who couldn't respond. For a full year he'd spun hundreds of letters out of his head -- observations, formulations, longings. He had so much to say about his love, but had not said it, not written it.

Suddenly it struck him: Sally couldn't live without this kind of response. With whom then? The Russian? Amir? Stop. He had to stop this.

Now, through the open door of the dim cottage, he saw her coming out of the house with the bottle of milk. Sitting down, he watched her traverse that blaze of grass. She halted and chatted for a while to the man in the deck chair before resuming her approach.

As she entered, he said, "What were you talking about?"

"What?" She gave him a confused look.

"What were you talking about with that patient?"

Her face became overcast, almost angry, which frightened him. He remembered when it all started, how irrational she became, how things he'd never expect would make her hysterical.

"Please don't, Daniel," she said. "Please please please don't."

The ensuing silence was painful.

He tried to think of something safe: "Nice of them to let you stay here."

She went over to the kitchen area and switched on the kettle. "Yes," she said.

"So, you're the gardener now -- officially?"

"I am."

"You're happy here?"

She wrapped the rest of the daffodils in a sheet of newspaper. He didn't think she was going to respond, but she finally said, "Well, I've gained a certain calm, I suppose. Nowhere for me to retreat to from here. It's sort of my last stand."

"Your what?"

"Do you remember Mabel?"

He nodded.

The kettle boiled. She filled the teapot and brought it over to the table.

"She told me once that whenever she got really depressed she'd take a long walk and make a mental note of all the places it might be possible to kill herself."

"Mabel?" He was surprised. "She always seemed so unbearably chipper to me."

"It's not that she wanted to do it. She just needed to know that she could if she had to."

"And you -- "

"No, I don't mean me, not like that," she cut in. "I just mean that that was her last stand. Mine's just a little more prosaic."

"Well, are you absolutely sure it is your last stand? I mean, couldn't it be your almost last and if-I-have-to-come-over-there-you'll-get-the-back-of-my-hand stand? Couldn't it?"

She smiled but looked disappointed.

"So, what do you think my last stand is?" he threw out quickly.

"I don't know -- to be heartless? What do you think?"

"To have a pair of knockers."

"You can't take anything seriously, can you?"

"I am serious. A change of sex. I'd become a woman: I'd be totally unreasonable; I'd make sure my period would last three weeks of every month; and I'd ask my husband in the middle of the filthiest sex if he loved me."

"That's not 'a woman,' that's me."

"Yes, darling, becoming you is my last stand, that's why I love you."

Despite the lightness of this declaration, she went visibly cold and busied herself filling the milk jug.

All the pain he'd managed to liquefy with his facetiousness recrystallized. He looked out of the door to see the form of that man -- with whom she'd spoken -- on the lawn. She had spoken to him. In the bright sunlight the man appeared two-dimensional, like a photograph from which the face had been carefully cut out, so exactly placed was the shadow cast by his cap's brim.

"The garden at our house has gone to rack and ruin, I'm afraid," Daniel said, without the strength to attenuate the reproach in his voice.

She didn't respond, and remained at the sink, though there wasn't anything more for her to prepare.

"Sal -- "

"It's not our house anymore, Danny, it's your house."

She couldn't look at him. He sensed that things were very precarious now and sat still and quiet while she brought over the milk jug and placed it on the table.

Everything was ready. She sat, bent over a little, biting at the skin around one of her nails. Why was the silence so often hers? It bothered him, but he couldn't find a way to make it his own. Jill also chewed the skin around her nails. When the sisters were together, he could see those two shy little girls in that unhappy home: feral, clinging to one another, gnawing at their fingers. They still communicated with their eyes and little flickers of expressions, and were physically very close, as if their bodies belonged as much to each other as to themselves. They looked alike, but Daniel had become attuned to their differences. Sally had more of her father's features, the strong nose, the almost hawkish aspect of his eyes. But she had that Pre-Raphaelite hair, and had inherited a certain expression Daniel had seen in photographs of her very beautiful mother. It was an acute awareness of beauty. Looking out of photographs, Jill and Sally's mother seemed like a woman who was looking into a mirror, trying, always failing, to find a single flaw. It was the very paradox of this inherited expression asserting the beauty of Sally's odd, sharp, asymmetrical features that made her, even at a first encounter, so physically compelling. But that expression hadn't made it through to Jill, though Jill looked much more like her mother, had a face that was a kind of elegy to that original beauty, marred just slightly, like a lovely face with a cut or a bruise, by certain of her father's features. No, Jill had no awareness of or belief in her beauty. What she had was that stubborn flaw at her brow, that expression of brave intransigence.

"I'm worried about you," Sally said at last.

He almost laughed. "You're worried about me?"

"I know what you're like," she said. "Are you seeing people?"

"Seeing people?"

"I mean just people, friends?"

He was irritated at this condescension. "I see Rich. Actually, it's Jillybeans's birthday today. What is she now -- six?"

"Five. I made her a little dragonfly costume for her party."

"Nice. Apparently, Laura has -- "

"Why didn't you write to me?" she said.

He'd expected it, but not this directly.

"It wasn't -- " His voice lost traction and he cleared his throat. "It wasn't my idea for us not to see each other."

"I couldn't see you," she said. "Not for a while. Every time I saw you, it made me feel poorly."

Poorly -- this was institutional code, the term used for the patients who'd had lapses. He hated to hear her say it. More than any food, it was the language of a world, the understanding of the nuances of that language, that made you a part of it.

"So, what do I make you feel now?" he said.

"That I'd like you to be happy."

"I was happy when you called."

She frowned and scraped at something on the tablecloth. It was an impatient gesture. On the table: sandwiches, scones, ginger cake, biscuits, cheeses, julienned vegetables. Ridiculously elaborate and -- it struck him -- none of it to be eaten: a culminating ritual. Daniel studied the table for a flaw, unable to believe that she'd done it, and so implacably, setting it into its final resonance with that impatient gesture. This beginning, the table just now perfectly set, was the end. These pristine arrangements of food were in their essence a disarray of things eaten, of crumbs, wine stains, coffee cups, and sputtering candles. And he was the last guest, had lingered, believing that this woman, beyond her duties as a hostess, had found him attractive and fascinating.

But she'd just made that impatient gesture.

"How often do you see Jill?" she asked.

"We work in the same office," he replied, being deliberately obtuse.

"You know, I always wished we could all have lived together, you, Jill, and I. She's so much more sensible than the two of us. I realize it's awful, but I was often thrilled when she broke up with those dreadful boyfriends of hers."

"She just didn't choose the right men."

"You were glad when it was just the three of us, weren't you?"

"Well, it's every man's fantasy, isn't it -- sisters."

He was being flippant, but she responded seriously.

"I wouldn't have minded," she said. "Even -- " She stopped herself.

"Minded what?" he pursued, amazed. The hostess, after backing him to the door, had offered an indiscretion.

"You were so different, Danny," she said. "Most of Jill's boyfriends reminded me of my dad."

"You know, I sometimes think that the only reason you married me was because I was one hundred percent not your dad."

"That's not true."

"Anyway, Jill's boyfriends weren't abusive, none of them were."

"Not in that way. But they were all so bloody male."

"Morgan?"

"I don't think you understand Morgan very well."

Her protective tone bothered Daniel; the tinder of his old jealousy began to smoke again.

"They didn't seem anything like your dad to me," he said stubbornly. "Abusive or not, your dad was a brilliant man and they were a bunch of bloody Neanderthals -- Morgan excepted."

"The only difference was that my dad was ambitious; but he was completely male. That's why he was the way he was."

"Because men are brutal?"

"I'm not talking about men, I'm talking about him. My dad was the way he was because he wanted to have an imagination."

"He was a scholar," Daniel said. "Famous. You're saying he didn't have an imagination?"

"He made himself one."

"How can you make yourself an imagination?"

She tugged the hem of the tablecloth to remove a wrinkle. "He was fiercely ambitious and smart. He was a pure male who surrounded himself with women. He was a good man who violated us. Deliberately. That's imagination by main force, Danny."

Her face had become flushed. He couldn't tell if she was giving him this or taking it away. It was in her nature to develop such theories, though he'd never been sure if she actually believed them.

"Well, anyway," he said softly, eliding it, "that explains why Jill almost always chose men without imagination."

Sally grimaced. "Yes, but I just don't see how you could live with someone like that. Seems like hell to me."

"And this doesn't?"

She looked at him, seemed merely curious. "Is this hell for you, Danny? Am I hell for you?"

"No. No. But I can't say these last years have been exactly ecstatic for me either."

She continued to stare at him for a while. It was a simple, discrete acknowledgment. He knew that she couldn't engage right now with the subject of his unhappiness.

"Oh," she abruptly exclaimed, "do you remember that awful fellow, the one who came to Richard and Laura's wedding with us?"

"Barry."

"Yes, Baz. So horribly English. Still lived with his mother, didn't he? Don't you remember him and Jill having sex next door in that hotel? God, it just made me sick to hear them. He was like a bloody jackhammer. I couldn't stand him." Sally was getting passionate. "Those dreadful, racist jokes, that little gap in his teeth he seemed so bloody proud of. To think of him touching her. I hated it. I just -- "

"Stop it," he said gently. For a moment, he was dreadfully, precariously happy, to be able to say this to Sally. She seemed his wife again, leaning in close, gnawing at her finger. This was a lovely parenthesis from that finished table of tea things.

"You hated it, too," she said.

"He must have gone on for an hour. As a general rule men don't like to be made aware of the astonishing sexual stamina of other men."

"Sexual stamina, darling, results from a lack of empathy." She smiled at him. "You're just a very, very empathetic person."

"I feel so reassured," he said. "Thank you, Sally."

She got back to her point: "But you hated it because it was her, too, because it was Jill, didn't you?"

She was being oddly insistent, which gave him pause.

"I suppose," he reluctantly conceded.

She waited, wanting him, he could tell, to be more definite. He did have a proprietary feeling toward Jill. She'd provided ballast for his often painfully unbalanced relationship with Sally. She had earth in her. You could hear it in her voice, a loam. And Jill's clear and uncomplicated love for him, as much as it sometimes frustrated Daniel, also allowed some essential part of him to be, and to develop. He had hated those boyfriends, had hated listening to Barry having sex with her that night, but he also envied those men their superciliousness, their straightforward appetites, the way they would talk to him, with a flaccid belch and an appraising glance at his wife on the balcony, about what a goer Jill was. These men had simple lizard brains; they had to blink to swallow their food.

But he wasn't going to give Sally anything else.

Sally waited a few more seconds, then made her declaration: "Jill adores you. She always has."

The parenthesis had been closed. She'd said at last what she'd brought him here to say. Here they were, twelve years after she'd made that call and seduced him. Twelve years later she wished she'd given that old boyfriend just one more night so that Daniel's evening with Jill could have followed its otherwise inevitable course. Now Daniel knew why he was here. The hostess had become incontinent and impassioned in order to let him know that he was perfect for one of her other guests. Surely she had to be aware that every man who came here did so for her, for this hostess with the obscurely important and eternally absent husband, who worked her way into exquisite intimacies with her male guests in order to say, when they had started to pin her gaze and contrive reasons to take her hand, that she, that girl in the brown dress, adores you, would be perfect for you. Twelve years.

"When can I come to see you again?" he said.

She looked away but sat up straight. "You should have written to me, Danny."

"I could -- "

"I want to start over."

"Start over? With whom? Amir? With that bloke in the deck chair?"

"What?" She regarded him with amazement. "No. Not -- at least for now -- with anyone. Don't get like this again, Danny. I was never unfaithful to you."

He hated to feel it, that old, acid jealousy, intensified now by his regret. There was so much he wanted to say to her, all the things of this last year. She'd given him a chance, had asked him to write, to begin slowly, but he'd failed, hadn't told her the truth, had lived in sin with his love of her. Could there have been a worse deception and debauchery than the fevered celibacy of these last years?

"I know," he said, standing.

She stood also, brushing down the front of her dress. She fetched the bouquet of daffodils from the counter and handed it to him. "Put them in the sitting room, on the mantelpiece."

Taking them, he walked to the door and hesitated again. There was nothing more that could possibly be said. The sun was in her face: she was squinting at him; her father's odd features. It was astonishing how unattractive she could look. He'd often tried to take hold of these moments as a way into ceasing to love her, but it was never any good. The silence between them was now so absolute that the pressure of it made him want to laugh. Even to say good-bye now would be a kind of lie. He walked out.

As Daniel passed the man in the deck chair, he was jarred again by that elusive familiarity. What had that man and his wife talked about? Still looking back at him, Daniel shunted right into an upheld hand. It was the old lady Amir had been trying to placate in the recreation room. Still clutching her airplane, she stared up at Daniel with dazzled love.

"Francis! She told me you wouldn't come. Peevish, she is."

Daniel couldn't think how to respond.

Her gaze settled on the flowers, and her voice swooned, "Oh, you brought him." Putting her airplane down, she took the bouquet carefully out of Daniel's arms. "Such a quiet child." She lay the bouquet into the dry basin of an old birdbath. "Never cried, 'cept in the morning. Then he was all glisteny." Suddenly she looked back up at him, confused. "Didn't you die in the war? I thought you all did. Bert did. And my Bertie."

The pretty nurse who'd collided with Daniel in the corridor suddenly appeared. A small Band-Aid covered the cut above her eye.

"There you are, Consuelo." She spoke in a quick whisper, and he realized that her accent was Welsh. "The doctor's not going to hurt you, now."

"But my son's here," the old woman protested.

"Oh yes, but he has to go." The nurse threw Daniel an entreating look. "He'll be back again in no time."

"Do you have to go?" the old woman asked, deflated.

"Yes, but I'll return soon."

"Are you off to fight again?"

"Yes."

Yielding to the arm the nurse now placed around her shoulders, the old woman allowed herself to be shepherded toward the house. But, just a few yards away, she pulled free and looked back at Daniel, confused. "They said you was dead."

"They were wrong," he called.

When she and the nurse were out of sight, Daniel lit a cigarette, flicking harder than he needed to at the flint of his antique steel lighter as if restarting his stalled self. He kept the lighter in his hand for a moment, drawing comfort from its solidity and weight, looking at his own face distorted on its surface. After taking a few deep drags, he moved on toward the house.

"Son." A man's voice. Daniel turned around. It could only have been the man in the deck chair. Then Daniel saw them, the daffodils, which he'd been about to leave behind, lying on the birdbath; saw his wife still at the threshold to the dark cottage, twelve years away, a woman loved nostalgically by the sun, saturated, obscured.

"Thanks," Daniel called to the man as he retrieved the flowers. The man didn't say anything more, just cleaned out the bowl of his pipe then, strangely, without filling or lighting it, lifted the stem toward the shadowed void of his face.

  Copyright 2003 Naeem Murr
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

From the author of New York Times Notable Book The Boy comes this mesmerizing evocation of the worlds that live within a single man, and the mysteries at the heart of life.

Heralded by The New York Times Book Review as having a "genius for the unexpected," and as a writer of "sharply intelligent prose," Naeem Murr arrived on the literary scene with his critically acclaimed first novel, The Boy. Murr lives up to this praise with his brilliant and original new work.

Daniel Mulvaugh is haunted by his failures. He has tried not to think about the death of his closest friend, for which he feels responsible, or the reasons for his mother's lifelong secrecy. He's estranged from his wife and true love, and his ability to connect to his life has begun to elude him. At this impasse, he can no longer find distraction in his pub-happy friends, or fulfillment in dealing with the squalid troubles of his social welfare clients.

When fate beckons Daniel in the form of Amos Radcliff, a bizarre ex-merchant marine living in Daniel's childhood apartment, he finds comfort in surrendering to this man's stories about his experiences on the high seas. But Amos isn't all he seems, and Daniel soon realizes that the key to his own past resides somewhere in these increasingly intimate and disturbing tales.

Between Amos and Daniel, the story moves back and forth: from the working-class pubs of London to the shantytowns of Bangkok, from a sanatorium for the mentally ill to a South American merchant ship crewed by misanthropic sailors, from this world into a deeper and more mysterious one of primal loss, love, and betrayal.

The Genius of the Sea takes both Daniel and the reader on a journey into a contemporary heart of darkness -- and light. Naeem Murr has crafted a richly compelling waking dream of a book.

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Author

Naeem MurrNaeem Murr grew up in London and has lived in America since his early twenties. He received a Masters degree from Syracuse University and was awarded a two-year Creative Writing Fellowship to Stanford. A recipient of numerous awards and scholarships for his writing, he has published a number of prize-winning stories and novellas in literary journals. His first novel, The Boy, a New York Times Notable Book, was translated into six languages.

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