Read Becoming Strangers Online

Authors: Louise Dean

Tags: #Sagas, #General, #Fiction

Becoming Strangers

BOOK: Becoming Strangers
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
Becoming Strangers
Louise Dean

A HARVEST BOOK • HARCOURT, INC.
Orlando Austin New York San Diego Toronto London

Copyright © Louise Dean, 2004

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work
should be submitted online at
www.harcourt.com/contact
or
mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

www.HarcourtBooks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
organizations, and events are the products of the author's imagination
or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

First published in Great Britain by Scribner, 2004.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Dean, Louise.
Becoming strangers/Louise Dean.—1st ed.
p. cm.
1. British—Caribbean Area—Fiction. 2. Middle aged persons—Fiction.
3. Caribbean Area—Fiction. 4. Terminally ill—Fiction. 5. Married people—
Fiction. 6. Vacations—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6104.E24B43 2006 2005002400
ISBN-13: 978-0-15-101174-2 ISBN-10: 0-15-101174-5
ISBN-13: 978-0-15-603266-7 (pbk.) ISBN-10: 0-15-603266-X (pbk.)

Text set in Dante MT
Designed by Suzanne Fridley

Printed in the United States of America

First Harvest edition 2007
A C E G I K J H F D B

A
LSO BY
L
OUISE
D
EAN

This Human Season

PRAISE FOR
BECOMING STRANGERS

"It's hard to believe that this poignant examination of long marriage is Deans first novel, so subtly does she develop the relationships among her characters and so skillfully does she balance delight and despair.... Dean peels back the skin of these marriages with an unflinching lack of sentimentality and an immense talent for close observation and evocative, often poetic detail. She can reach straight into a character's heart, damning her instantly but discreetly in a single sentence. She can redeem (albeit only momentarily) just as swiftly.... All of Dean's characters ... are wonderfully true to their circumstances but are also vividly and consistently themselves, not 'types.' In less skillful hands, the plot—and there is a good, strong plot—might have foundered in bathos, but Dean adroitly sticks to the high road.... Dean has produced an ideal novel, right out of the box."


The Atlantic Monthly

"This rich story ... is a masterpiece about the human condition that will rile the reader's emotions. Recommended."

—Library Journal

"Dean suffuses [this novel] with a comic touch and handles her several narrative threads with skill. Give this to readers who enjoy thoughtful character-centered fiction."

—Booklist

"Adept at sharp dialogue and brisk plotting, Dean is also attentive to character development, choosing authenticity over sentimentality in a book that is poignant, often funny and unexpectedly redemptive."


Publishers Weekly

"What sets Dean's novel apart ... are her astute observations of human nature. Even the novels minor characters are compelling and complex."


Pages

"Read
Becoming Strangers
for all the complicated and often contradictory truths—about friendship, marriage, aging, faith, Caribbean vacations—that can only be found in great fiction; this is a truly remarkable debut."

—Kate Walbert, author of
The Gardens of Kyoto
and
Our Kind

W
INNER OF THE
2006 L
E
P
RINCE
M
AURICE
P
RIZE

"We have rewarded, this year, a book which—simply—believes in love. Which takes us into the experience of several very different people; people who—each commonly caught in an atmosphere of insoluble loneliness and separateness—reach out for the company of another soul, each in their own particular way. I can't think of a better definition of love than this gesture of hopefulness."

—Citation from Le Prince Maurice Prize

In memory of Edward George Waller 1914–1999

Gwendoline Dorothy Waller 1916–2001

This
is
the great private problem of man; death as the loss of self. But what is the self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life.

—M
ILAN
K
UNDERA

1

B
EFORE HE'D HAD CANCER
he'd been bored with life. Since he'd taken dying seriously, he'd been busy; he was occupied with understanding the disease and training his body to resist it. How hardy he was, physically. Six years of operations and excisions, starting with his chest, then the cancerous cells had metastasized to his lungs and on to his liver. A suite of initial excisions revealed each encampment to be partially malignant. He'd insisted on warfare. Each time the doctors told him and his family the chances of recovery were poor and the recurrence of cancer a likelihood. Year after year a fresh crop of cells emerged, excisions followed and he lived. The knife-and-forking of his body seemed to give a perverse impetus to his will to survive.

His tenacious hold on life was partly begotten by the conviction that his life
must
have accrued some value over time. What about all the sights and sounds recorded, all those thoughts tracked? They must be worth something. They must add up to some meaning. Billions of words over the years ordered into a handful
of simple notions. His mother! His country! Right and wrong!

He gave up work. He took to reading. Politics, philosophy, biographies.

An exploratory probe of his pancreas had revealed further metastasis just two weeks previously. They could not operate again, they said. He shook the doctor's right hand with both of his hands and nodded. Later that evening, he overheard his wife sharing the news over the phone, from the study, door closed. 'He's ridden with it. They can't do anything for him now,' Annemieke said.

About three days later, their two adult sons had come by with the tickets for two weeks in paradise, a hotel spa resort on a Caribbean island. Very exclusive. Very final. He'd shaken their hands with both of his and nodded. Annemieke had kissed them.

'He's getting weak,' she had said, looking at her husband. The travelling won't be so easy. But I am strong enough for us both,' she'd added, then excused herself to answer the phone.

He had sat with his boys, holding the gift card between his fingers, pursing his lips, stroking his moustache, murmuring in bass tones, weighing reason as he listened to their news. The older boy was running his own Internet search business, the other finishing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Brussels. He tried to see them as real people.

Meanwhile, he could hear snatches of his wife's excitable conversation in the other room.

'Afterwards,' she was saying repeatedly and with emphasis.

He read the gift card again. The instruction was,
'Vermaak jullie!'
('Enjoy yourselves!'), the implication that once that was done, he could come back and die properly.

This was going to be their last holiday. They had had a few last holidays previously, but this was going to be truly final. His wife's way of confirming this was to remind him now, on the aeroplane, that they had had some good times during their thirty-one years of marriage. She sighed from time to time as she turned the pages of her magazine before setting it aside.

'So many things,' she said to him, resting her jaw on her palm and looking into his face, 'and so empty, so meaningless.'

He agreed without looking at her.

'Very nice, very well made, but next year it is finished and if you are going to spend so much on something ... oh, it just drives me crazy.'

Removing peanut matter from a back tooth, mindful of her lipstick—she was an attractive woman—and taking a last swig of her gin and tonic, she told him that she had calculated they had had over forty holidays during their marriage. She handed the plastic glass, small bottle and tonic can to the flight attendant. The peanut packet she had rolled up and inserted into the can's opening.

He thought of paperbacks, triangular-heaped, wet and spineless by poolsides and of shellfish detritus left
on dinner plates, pink and drying. He thought of the night-time efforts to kick away tucked-in white sheets. Hotels, hospitals—both had required from him a degree of submission. His wife did not submit. Her chin was hard. She used it to conclude her sentences. Her eyes sparkled. If she was pragmatic then she had reason to be. Initially he'd been given six months to live; he'd taken six years so far. It had caused her to be severe.

'Six, nearly seven years of lucidity,' Jan thought, catching her eye and looking quickly away, 'clarity come upon me like the word of God.'

'Excuse me,' he said, as his elbow knocked hers off the central armrest by mistake. He had confirmed his belief, hospital stay after hospital stay, that human relations were best conducted courteously; he was thankful for good manners. The existence of love, unconditional love, he doubted. He even wondered about his children. He had no idea whether he was ready to die; it didn't come in degrees after all, allowing one to get accustomed to it. Death was a binary affair, not cumulative. On/off. The starter pistol fired not a second before it fired.

Now, with the 'fasten seatbelts' lights illuminated and his wife tucking a spare miniature vodka into the pouch in front of her, he reminded himself of his resolve to make it up to her. He barely knew her and he had gone to a great deal of trouble to know her less in the last few years. It was reasonable to think that neither of them was entirely to blame and it was possible,
even now, that they might quit each other as friends. That was what he hoped this holiday was for; he hadn't told her as much, but he assumed she felt the same way. Given that he was, in fact, dying now.

To his left, he saw a segment of fellow Northern Europeans squinting and wincing at the sudden sheath of equatorial sunlight. He reached across his wife and with a neat action, using his forefinger and thumb, raised the shade over their window.

2

A
NNEMIEKE'S PLEASURE INCREASED
as the elevator rose. Her face pronounced a smile as the light illuminated the characters 'PH'. Her boys had not let her down. The room conformed to her standards in luxury; thick white towels, high thread-count sheets, stainless steel and lustrous wood—these were the things she had been persuaded were right.

In the bedroom her husband sat down with a book, adjusting his mouth and glasses with every turn of the page and dropping his shoulders, occasionally giving his neck a little shake.

1 thought reading was supposed to relax you,' she said, not for the first time.

She had gone to freshen up, ready to take a turn about the place, to see what it had to offer, but her husband had settled into the book. He settled, she moved.
This was how they had always been; his illness had simply developed the difference between them as light develops photographic film.

She went off to see the spa. Everything was in order and above all else clean. She was accustomed to thanking God out loud for the cleanliness of any encounter she made—restaurants, friends' homes, schools, and of course, in particular, toilets.

'I can tell a lot about a place when I go to the toilet,' she had declared to a variety of audiences, causing Jan to smile and say quietly,
'Summa summarium.'

On her return to their room she described with careful bird-like hand movements the high ceilings, wooden fans, long glass windows on to an azure swimming pool with an adjacent marble Jacuzzi. She had an eye for detail. The swimming pool was half covered by a Tuscan-effect palazzo roof, surrounded by a tiled veranda that looked out over a cliff on to the tumbling Atlantic Ocean. And, Jan, these are the same tiles that Leni and Eric are having in their shower room. But here they are on the outside. Leni likes to think that no one else puts outdoor tiles on the inside, but I have seen it before, when we were on holiday in the Charente. I told her that.'

She had seen a group of men lounging around the pool, holding their stomachs in. Their women were in the Jacuzzi, talking sideways, keeping their faces to the sun.

Down a tree-lined pathway, there was a roofed bar, she told him, like an Italian outhouse with some thirty
high stools against a brick-finished counter. In the centre there was a pizza oven and the smell of baked rosemary and hot wet Parmesan had made her hungry. Three young women, in robes from the spa, had been sharing a large flat pizza, their glasses were refilled with red-coloured cocktail from an ice-sweating jug. Through gardens with wide-leafed grass and plump blossoms, sprinkler-fat, she had come to a lawn with a small round pool in the middle and behind it a courtyard with access to some ground-floor rooms and a whitewashed stairway that led to the main hotel. On the first floor were two restaurants, one casual in the style of a French bistro, all heavy wood and aluminium, and the other furnished with candelabra and high-backed chairs, presenting themselves to large empty round tables. Some staff sat at one table and talked in earnest. She had stood for a moment at the door, watching them. The manager—the only one who wore casual clothes, the only one who was white—laid his suntanned forearms on the table and held out his handwritten notes so that the staff could see them. He seemed an agreeable young man, with an expressive and animated face. Handsome, she said, making a small leap of judgement. Here she paused.

BOOK: Becoming Strangers
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Now Is Our Time by Jo Kessel
Dead Bolt by Blackwell, Juliet
Crossed Bones by Carolyn Haines
A Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh
Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams
Hypocrisy by Daniel Annechino
Demons by Bill Nagelkerke
Alone by Loren D. Estleman