Across the table, Adam’s adorable wife, Fumiko, was surreptitiously playing with her napkin, and next to her Simon was turned slightly toward the speaker with imperturbable courtesy, eyebrows slightly raised.
As opaque as ever, Simon. What was he really thinking about? About Phillip? About the hospital or his patients or his students? About a rendezvous? One couldn’t think about what the professor was saying—it was impossible to know what on earth it was. The professor had little tears in his eyes now. Either he was deeply moved by his speech, or he was thinking of something else, himself.
Vivian willed a volley of darts Simon’s way and he turned, carefully, to glance at her. Age had treated him well. The lucky bastard was just as attractive—and as casually vain—at over seventy as he had been twenty years earlier! She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue so quickly that anyone who happened to look her way would think it was a hallucination. Simon turned back to the speaker with his almost insultingly decorous expression. Oh, that look must drive his colleagues mad!
Truly, she had never expected these plans of Phillip’s to be realized, and despite Simon’s façade of confidence, she doubted that he had either. Homes that supplied their own energy with sunlight and wind, that recycled their water, that returned to the earth what they took from it, and that, despite their humility, were comfortable and pleasing to live in. Phillip’s least glamorous project, the most profoundly ambitious and dearest to his heart, submerged for so many years in a swamp of bureaucracy, ridicule, and opposition, had been hauled back into the light by a firm of idealistic young acolytes.
People had already moved cautiously into the houses, no insoluble problems had yet appeared, the community was being written up in journals and in glossy magazines. The acolytes were no longer so young, and perhaps no longer so idealistic, but it had to be said that they had reason to be looking as pleased with themselves as they did tonight. Or almost as pleased with themselves, anyway.
It had been kind of Adam to take time out of his schedule to come over. He was something of a grand presence in his field these days, it seemed, owing to a few seminal studies he had conducted concerning the environmental impact of different sorts of energy. He himself had spoken tonight, and she had been surprised by a flood of affection for this unassuming young man. Well, he was hardly young, either, of course—he was well into middle age, but he seemed like a shy younger relative whom she was meeting for the first time since his childhood. And when he stood to make his brief remarks, she was warmed by something like pride.
In fact, she had been a little unnerved about the prospect of seeing him after all this time. Of him seeing her, truth be told. Well, but what could you do. She had steeled herself to sit down at the mirror and apply her makeup dispassionately, as if she were a nurse attending to the illness of a stranger. But when the somewhat portly fellow with thinning hair and glasses, who looked nothing at all like Phillip at that age, took his seat next to her, her heart had turned over. It was the glasses. He looked so breakable.
Months earlier, Simon had been asked by the event organizers to go over the guest list, and he had conscripted her. That had been a lovely evening, lolling about with Simon. They’d both pretended to be as snooty as teenagers about the prospect of this ceremonial, and when they finished their chore for the organizers they went out for a late dinner at a lively Lebanese restaurant and polished off quite a bit of wine. Eventually they’d stumbled into a taxi together, weak with laughter, their arms around each other. They saw one another so rarely these days! How to explain it? One never managed to see one’s friends any longer; they all said so. It was as if time, once a broad meadow, had narrowed to a slender isthmus.
“Who was that sitting next to you?” Fumiko asked as she and Adam walked back along Piccadilly. “The daffy old lady on your left? I talked to her for a moment before dinner, but there was so much going on.”
“Ah! Well. Yes, she was a good friend of my uncle’s. Vivian. She used to be a dancer.”
“Oh la la!”
Years ago, when his future seemed to have arrived, astonishingly, in the form of Fumiko, and the two of them had solemnly exchanged their histories, including a certain number of humiliating, ridiculous, or bizarre encounters, it was only Vivian of whom he had been unable to speak, as if at that delicate moment he could have done some damage to the girl in the photo and the mysterious lover toward whom she floated.
“And what about the other one, on your right, the blond in that dress?”
“Someone with money, I gathered. An enthusiast of Phillip. According to her, anyhow, she was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.”
“Well, here’s to the blond lady, then. It’s a fantastic thing.”
“Yes, it is.” Or an irreproachable thing, at least. Possibly if the principles had been widely adopted twenty-five or thirty years earlier, when his uncle had conceived of the project, excellent precedents could have been established and a certain amount of distraction avoided. But a few well-considered houses here and there were hardly going to appease the fierce sunlight and winds that had since been unleashed, or stay the torrential rains and violent floods.
“It’s so beautiful here,” Fumiko said. “I wish we could have brought Nell.”
“So do I. Maybe next year. Spring break.”
“You know there’s a terrible storm at home…”
“She’ll be all right. She doesn’t get frightened.”
“Don’t let’s go back to the hotel yet,” Fumiko said. “Let’s just keep walking and walking, please.”
It was May, just as it was when he’d first seen it, the city in bloom, regal and fresh. Warm, too, for London.
“Oh, wait—“ she said, and took out her phone. “I want a picture of you right there, to send to Nell.”
They were at a great iron gate, the entrance to a mysterious park. He and Vivian had walked exactly here, over twenty years earlier, the night before he’d returned to the States, and they had also stopped. “Has this been too strange?” she’d asked.
At the time he assumed she meant was it too strange to be half her age. It had never occurred to him until a minute or so ago that she meant was it too strange to be a proxy immortal. “No,” he’d said, “just strange enough.” She’d laughed and quickly kissed him. “You really are very sweet, you know. Just like Phillip.”
Tonight at the end of dinner, he’d kissed her powdery cheek. He helped her up from her chair; she seemed to be having some problem with a knee. He had not said, till next time, and neither, of course, had she.
Fumiko was fiddling with her phone. “A little to your left,” she said.
It would be just twilight at home. Their dignified, ethereal Nell would be comforting her pet mouse while the thunder and lightening raged above her. Almost instantly she’d receive a photo of what was just about to be the world’s very latest moment—by then so long elapsed.
“Okay,” Fumiko said. “Don’t move.”