“How would you like to live here, Mother?” says Helen, out of the blue.
“You mean in the mountains?”
“No, in France. In Nice. There is an apartment in my building that falls vacant in October. You could buy it, or we could buy it together. On the ground floor.”
“You want us to live together, you and I? This is very sudden, my dear. Are you sure you mean it?”
“We would not be living together. You would be perfectly independent. But in an emergency you would have someone to call on.”
“Thank you, dear, but we have perfectly good people in Melbourne trained to deal with old folk and their little emergencies.”
“Please, Mother, let us not play games. You are seventy-two. You have had problems with your heart. You are not always going to be able to look after yourself. If you—”
“Say no more, my dear. I am sure you find the euphemisms as distasteful as I do. I could break a hip, I could become gaga; I could linger on, bedridden, for years: that is the sort of thing we are talking about. Granted such possibilities, the question for me is: Why should I impose on my daughter the burden of caring for me? And the question for you, I presume, is: Will you be able to live with yourself if you do not at least once, in all sincerity, offer me care and protection? Do I put it fairly, our problem, our joint problem?”
“Yes. My proposal is sincere. It is also practicable. I have discussed it with John.”
“Then let us not spoil this beautiful day by getting into a wrangle. You have made your proposal, I have heard it and I promise to think about it. Let us leave it at that. It is very unlikely that I will accept, as you must have guessed. My thoughts are running in quite another direction. There is one thing the old are better at than the young, and that is dying. It behooves the old (what a quaint word!) to die well, to show those who follow what a good death can be. That is the direction of my thinking. I would like to concentrate on making a good death.”
“You could make just as good a death in Nice as in Melbourne.”
“But that is not true, Helen. Think it through and you will see it is not true. Ask me what I mean by a good death.”
“What do you mean by a good death, Mother.”
“A good death is one that takes place far away, where the mortal residue is disposed of by strangers, by people in the death business. A good death is one that you learn of by telegram: I regret to inform you, etcetera. What a pity telegrams have gone out of fashion.”
Helen gives an exasperated snort. They drive on in silence. Nice is far behind: down an empty road they swoop into a long valley. Though it is nominally summer the air is cold, as if the sun never touched these depths. She shivers, winds up the window. Like driving into an allegory!
“It is not right to die alone,” says Helen at last, “with no one to hold your hand. It is antisocial. It is inhuman. It is unloving. Excuse the words, but I mean them. I am offering to hold your hand. To be with you.”
Of the children, Helen has always been the more reserved, the one who kept her mother at more of a distance. Never before has Helen spoken like this. Perhaps the car makes it easier, allowing the driver not to look straight at the person she is addressing. She must remember that about cars.
“That’s very kind of you, my dear,” she says. The voice that comes from her throat is unexpectedly low. “I will not forget it. But would it not feel odd, coming back to France after all these years to die? What will I say to the man at the border when he asks the purpose of my visit, business or pleasure? Or, worse, when he asks how long I plan to stay? Forever? To the end? Just a brief while?”
“Say réunir la famille. He will understand that. To reunite the family. It happens every day. He won’t demand more.”
They eat at an auberge called Les Deux Ermites. There must be a story behind the name, but she would prefer not to be told it. If it is a good story it is probably made up anyway. A cold, knifing wind is blowing; they sit behind the protection of glass, looking out on snowcapped peaks. It is early in the season: besides theirs, only two tables are occupied.
“Pretty? Yes, of course it is pretty. A pretty country, a beautiful country, that goes without saying. La belle France. But do not forget, Helen, how lucky I have been, what a privileged vocation I have followed. I have been able to move about as I wished most of my life. I have lived, when I have chosen, in the lap of beauty. The question I find myself asking now is, What good has it done me, all this beauty? Is beauty not just another consumable, like wine? One drinks it in, one drinks it down, it gives one a brief, pleasing, heady feeling, but what does it leave behind? The residue of wine is, excuse the word, piss; what is the residue of beauty? What is the good of it? Does beauty make us better people?”
“Before you tell me your answer to the question, Mother, shall I tell you mine? Because I think I know what you are going to say. You are going to say that beauty has done you no good that you can see, that one of these days you are going to find yourself at heaven’s gate with your hands empty and a big question mark over your head. It would be entirely in character for you, that is to say for Elizabeth Costello, to say so. And to believe so.
“The answer you will not give—because it would be out of character for Elizabeth Costello—is that what you have produced as a writer not only has a beauty of its own—a limited beauty, granted, it is not poetry, but beauty nevertheless, shapeliness, clarity, economy—but has also changed the lives of others, made them better human beings, or slightly better human beings. It is not just I who say so. Other people say so too, strangers. To me, to my face. Not because what you write contains lessons but because it is a lesson.”
“Like the waterskater, you mean.”
“I don’t know who the waterskater is.”
“The waterskater or long-legged fly. An insect. The waterskater thinks it is just hunting for food, whereas in fact its movements trace on the surface of the pond, over and over, the most beautiful of all words, the name of God. The movements of the pen on the page trace the name of God, as you, watching from a remove, can see but I cannot.”
“Yes, if you like. But more than that. You teach people how to feel. By dint of grace. The grace of the pen as it follows the movements of thought.”
It sounds to her rather old-fashioned, this aesthetic theory that her daughter is expounding, rather Aristotelian. Has Helen worked it out by herself or just read it somewhere? And how does it apply to the art of painting? If the rhythm of the pen is the rhythm of thought, what is the rhythm of the brush? And what of paintings made with a spraycan? How do such paintings teach us to be better people?
She sighs. “It is sweet of you to say so, Helen, sweet of you to reassure me. Not a life wasted after all. Of course I am not convinced. As you say, if I could be convinced I would not be myself. But that is no consolation. I am not in a happy mood, as you can see. In my pres- ent mood, the life I have followed looks misconceived from beginning to end, and not in a particularly interesting way either. If one truly wants to be a better person, it now seems to me, there must be less roundabout ways of getting there than by darkening thousands of pages with prose.”
“Ways such as?”
“Helen, this is not an interesting conversation. Gloomy states of mind do not yield interesting thoughts, at least not in my experience.”
“Must we not talk then?”
“Yes, let us not talk. Let us do something really old-fashioned instead. Let us sit here quietly and listen to the cuckoo.”
For there is indeed a cuckoo calling, from the copse behind the restaurant. If they open the window just a crack the sound comes quite clearly on the wind: a two-note motif, high-low, repeated time after time. Redolent, she thinks—Keatsian word—redolent of summertime and summer ease. A nasty bird, but what a singer, what a priest! Cucu, the name of God in cuckoo tongue. A world of symbols.
They are doing something they have not done together since the children were children. Sitting on the balcony of Helen’s apartment in the suave warmth of the Mediterranean night, they are playing cards. They play three-handed bridge, they play the game they used to call Sevens, called in France Rami, according to Helen/Hélène.
The idea of an evening of cards is Helen’s. It seemed an odd idea at first, artificial; but once they are into the swing of it she is pleased. How intuitive of Helen: she would not have suspected Helen of intuitiveness.
What strikes her now is how easily they slip into the card-playing personalities of thirty years ago, personalities she would have thought they had shed forever once they escaped from one another: Helen reckless and scatty, John a trifle dour, a trifle predictable, and herself surprisingly competitive, considering that these are her own flesh and blood, considering that the pelican will tear open its breast to feed its young. If they were playing for stakes, she would be sweeping in their money by the veritable armful. What does that say about her? What does it say about all of them? Does it say that character is immutable, intractable; or does it merely say that families, happy families, are held together by a repertoire of games played from behind masks?
“It would seem that my powers have not waned,” she remarks after yet another win. “Forgive me. How embarrassing.” Which is a lie, of course. She is not embarrassed, not at all. She is triumphant. “Curious which powers one retains over the years and which one begins to lose.”
The power she retains, the power she is exercising at this moment, is one of visualization. Without the slightest mental effort she can see the cards in her children’s hands, each single one. She can see into their hands; she can see into their hearts.