Athena

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Authors: John Banville
Tags: Literary, Literature & Fiction, nonfiction, Contemporary, Contemporary Fiction
conversations and their outcomes, they just dropped away silently into empty air and were gone; useless to dispute with her – if she believed something had been so then that was how it had been and that was that. Such conviction could make me doubt the simplest of simple facts, and when I had at last given in she would turn away, mollified, with a small, hard look of satisfaction. So now like an anxious naturalist unable to trust his luck I shuffled behind her down those endless, echoing stairs, watching the wing-cases of her shoulder-blades flexing under the brittle stuff of her dress, noting the fish-pale backs of her knees and the fine hairs pressed flat under her nylons like black grass splayed by rain, wincing at the state of her poor heels where those intolerable shoes had chafed them, and I felt myself carried off to other times and other, imaginary places: a spring day in Clichy (I have never been in Clichy), a hot, thundery evening on a road somewhere in North Africa (never been there, either), a great, high, panelled room in an ancient château with straw-coloured sunlight on the faded tapestries and someone practising on a spinet (though I have never seen a spinet or heard one played). Where do they come from, these mysterious, exalted flashes that are not memories yet seem far more than mere imaginings? You believed, you said, that we have all lived before; perhaps you were right.
Are
right;
are
. I cling to the present tense as to a sheer cliff’s last hand-hold.
    When we came to the ground floor she led me along the hall to the rear of the house. I thought she was taking me into the garden – in the barred glass of the low back door viridian riot was briefly visible – but instead she turned down yet another flight of stairs, this one narrow and made ofblack stone. I clattered after her. At the bottom was a dank, flagstoned basement passageway dimly illumined from the far end by a high lunette through which I could see the oddly mechanical-looking legs of people passing by outside in a sunlit street that from here seemed a place on another planet. The air was chilly and damp and smelled strongly of lime. In the suddenly attentive silence A. slipped her arm through mine and I felt with a soft detonation along my nerves her wrist’s cool silkiness and the intricate bones of her elbow pressing against my ribs. Behind the spice of her perfume I detected a sharp, faint, foxy tang of sweat, and when she leaned her shoulder into the protection of my arm the low neck of her dress fell forward and revealed to me (picture an eyeball swivelling downward wildly, the bloodshot white showing) a glimmering pale slope of skin and a deckled edging of lace. I felt so large beside her, so unwieldy, a big, shambling, out-of-breath baboon. I imagined myself picking her up in my hooped, hairy arms and making off with her into the undergrowth, hooting and gibbering. We came to a door and she stopped, and a tiny tremor ran through her like the passage of an arrow through air, and she laughed softly. ‘Here,’ she whispered, ‘here it is.’
    All I saw was a cellar, long and low with a vaulted brick ceiling criss-crossed by a network of wiring from which were suspended a dozen or more naked light bulbs, which despite their profusion shed only a sullen, sulphurous glow that trickled away into corners thick with blackness and died. Along one wall there was a workbench with old wooden planes and mitre boxes and other such stuff, and a battery of powerful electric lamps, turned off, that struck me as vaguely minatory, leaning there ranked and hooded in an attitude of silent alertness. A. began to say something, too loudly, and stopped and laughed again and put a hand to her mouth as the echoes flittered up like bats into the vault of shadows above us. There was a smell, a mixture of sawdustand glue and pungent oil, that seemed familiar, though I could not identify it. Is it hindsight that has conferred on the place a pent-up,

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