Athena

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Book: Athena by John Banville Read Free Book Online
Authors: John Banville
Tags: Literary, Literature & Fiction, nonfiction, Contemporary, Contemporary Fiction
clincher. (Was he somewhere in the house even now, spying on us?) Oh, I had it all worked out in a flash. As I descended the stairs behind her, my gaze, heavy now with rekindled tumescence, fastened to the back of her neck with its straight-cut fringe and tapering wisp of dark down the shape of an inverted candle-flame, I was working up a fine head of indignation at Morden’s wiliness (by now I had conjured up his big face with its Cheshire Cat grin suspended before us in the stairwell), while in another, altogether shadier part of the forest something that had drunk the magic bottle was getting bigger and bigger as my mind, by itself, as it were, speculated in dark excitement on how broad might be the brief that he had given her. But at the same time I kept telling myself it was all nonsense, a fantasy made up out of my head and one or two other areas of my ice-encased anatomy, a story to tell myself to light the drabness in which I was sunk; if she had known who I was it was probably just boredom, or curiosity, or an impulsive wish to meddle in Morden’s affairs that had prompted her to address me there in the sun and shadow on that noisy street-corner where I stood dithering in gloomy, middle-aged dishevelment. Yet abruptly now, as if she had heard the rusty cogwheels of my long-disused libido squeakingly engage, she stopped and turned with one hand on the banister rail (I notice, by the way, that she has acquired elbow-length black gloves to match the little black hat and veil I have already imagined for her) and looked up at me from under her painted, soot-black lashes with a smile of complicity that fell upon those labouring meshed gears of mine like a warmed drop of amber oil, and it was as if it were we, and not Morden,who were the conspirators in some double double-cross too complicated to be grasped by my poor overburdened understanding.
    ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I want to show you something.’
    How can I communicate the strangeness, the thrilling incongruity of that first hour with her? It was as if we were aloft on an ill-strung net which she was negotiating with careless ease while I was in danger of losing my footing at any moment and ending up in a hopeless tangle of trapped, flailing limbs. I kept waiting with foreboding for her to tell me why we were here and what it was she supposed we were doing (why, I wonder, did I assume that an explanation would inevitably mean disappointment?), but I waited in vain. She just went along in her flitting, abstracted way, pointing out this or that wholly unremarkable feature of the empty house, as if everything had already been understood and settled between us. She was half tour guide and half the bored madam welcoming an unprepossessing new client to this gaunt bordello. She made no mention of Morden (but then, did she ever speak of him directly, in so many words, in all the time I knew her?), didn’t tell me her name or ask mine.
Did
she know who I was? Perhaps when I saw her through that hole in the false wall she in turn caught a glimpse of me and wondered who and what I was and determined to find out. How calmly I pose these questions, yet what a storm of anxiety and pain they provoke in me – for I shall never know the answers for sure, no matter how long I brood on it all, no matter how many obsessed hours I spend turning over the scraps of evidence you left behind. Anyway, for her purposes, whatever they were, probably someone else would have done just as well as I, some needy other who, I suddenly realise, from this moment on will always be with me, now that I have conceived of him, a hopeful phantom lingering just beyond seeing in the corner of my mind’s jealous eye. I do not think she was lying, Imean I believe that as time went on she became convinced that of course she had known who I was, whether she had or not. (I am so confused, so confused!) Things like that got lost in her, dates, events, the circumstances of certain meetings, decisive

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