Winman Blunt, during one particular epoch of his life, was heard to cry aloud ‘I was dead before I was born!’ without ever really wondering what it meant, if he meant it, or if it meant anything at all. Winman lived his life within the pages of books, and the dreams and the imaginative explosions of others. This is his history, his heritage, and his life. It is a story of regret; regret that was inherited, passed down like a memento from father to son. It is a story of a life both real and imagined.
The life of Edward Blunt had been a solitary and slow-burning lament. Like father like son, Edward and Winman slept their lives away. Winman’s mother took an altogether different path through life. Laura, saw no purpose in disappointment. To dream was a risk. Life was what it was and was there to be gotten on with. She built a life, brick by brick, and allowed her husband to live within it. And never did he make a fuss, never did he dare, and together they raised a child who would not as much as countenance it. From an early age, Winman was adept at shaping his opinion around that of the person closest to him and as such, managed to be a most agreeable person without actually doing anything more than nodding his head at opportune moments.
His life was to be a journey straight down the middle of the road. No twists and turns, no tumult; a plodding, pedestrian meander through existence. This was an age defined by conflict and Winman’s war, when it came at the age of seventeen, was a short one. It lasted just twenty-five minutes; the exact amount of time it took from leaving the base to the moment a bullet entered his left buttock, ripping through tissue and muscle before coming to a restless halt at the base of his spine. He had a memory, of lying on the settee in his parent’s living room, actively not making a fuss, as he watched his father leave the house to teach one of the classes that he had been teaching, word for word, without audible complaint for twenty years.
Academia suited Winman to such a degree that it never occurred to him to try the fit of another life. He became as accepted at the university as the furniture in the halls and the patterns on the walls – something that was just there and was neither inoffensive nor the focus of any great attention. His doctorate, another comparative study of the work of Ruskin and Proust, was a success. Winman’s tutor was delighted to find that Winman agreed so whole-heartedly with his oft-put forth opinions that he had reproduced them in their entirety. He recommended Winman for a teaching post at the university. Winman simply nodded his acceptance. It seemed inevitable that he should devote his life to literature; that he should embrace the dreams of others; this was to be a life vicariously lived.
It was around this time that Winman found himself a wife although she, of course, found him.
Julia was living on borrowed time. She had but four months until the completion of her degree, four short months until she would return home to her parents. She had seen Winman in the library, of course she had. If he wasn’t to be found teaching then he would be in the library. They said he was a genius, possibly, but nobody really knew. Julia was hopeful, for whatever might pass at least they might have good conversation. She had asked him to read her essay concerning ‘A remembrance of lost time’. He was an expert, was he not? Three days later Winman was informed by a rather disapproving colleague that they were a couple. Another month and Julia was pregnant. Winman had remarked to Julia, marvelled even, that something that took no time at all should have such an impact on their lives. It was then, she would later acknowledge, that she had felt the first pang of despair.
She had been sure that an academic should make the ideal husband; secure, likely to produce intelligent children, and of course the conversation. Winman was certainly quiet but he was handsome too, although not so much that it should ever cause her to worry. But the books, oh the books! Sometime after their marriage and the birth of their child Adam, and with her brief experience of learned life already losing its luminescence, the loneliness began to bite. She could not compete with the books, oh the books! Winman had become part of the shadows of their house, a winding, spindly terrace in Twickenham. Nabokov, James, Eliot, all could be prevailed upon to elucidate a remarkable riposte from Winman. Talk of politics, art, their son, household chores, bills, the weekly shop, more bills, did not. The silence was deafening. There was always the excuse - ‘work’, though what this entailed had never in twenty years of marriage become clear. The expected novel certainly never materialised. The door to his study would close and that would be the end of it.
Winman Blunt had never made a proper decision in the entirety of his adult life, he’d never had to. The wedding had been Julia’s work, as had the house and anything to do with Adam. The job had been a gift from a flattered Professor and as for Winman’s classes! He taught the very same lessons that had been passed down to him by that same flattered Professor twenty years ago. Winman may have had a desire to acquire knowledge, but he certainly had none when it came to passing it on.
Irritation had become frustration, had become tedium. Julia watched her son grow into a young man she could be proud of and waited for Winman to notice. When Adam enrolled in Winman’s class it took six weeks for him to stop asking his son why he was there.
Winman entered the kitchen, placed his briefcase on the counter and pressed the tips of his thumb and index finger against his temple. He noticed his wife, sat but a metre away, her finger trailing the rim of her scotch glass.
‘My class ran late,’ he said, in response to a question she had never asked.
‘Do you not have Adam with you?’
‘Adam?’ The pretence of needing to extract something from the brief case to mask the pause, ‘I think he stayed on with some friends.’
‘His new girlfriend.’
Winman pushed his glasses to his temple.
‘She’s in your class too, with Adam.’ Julia left her seat and moved past him to the sink. She tipped her hand and allowed the copper liquid to pour into the cold steel of the basin. She asked, ‘Do you want some food?’ because that was what she always asked. He refused, because he always refused. He had to work, he must work.
He pulled the cord of the desk lamp to illuminate his world. He looked to his left, to the stack of essays awaiting his thoughts. He could bear to scan, at most, the work of his students. If they made a half-decent stab at regurgitating his class notes he would pass them. A glimmer of original thought and they might do a little better, but that was only if he noticed. He opened his notebook, as he did every evening, and he began, as he did every evening, to write his novel, the novel that he knew must be inside him somewhere. And every evening, after a few hours, he would close his notebook full of empty pages and retire, in hushed, paced footsteps to the bedroom, where Julia would be, or would be pretending to be, asleep.
Sometimes as he drove home through the sterile repetition of suburbia he would realise, with a start, with a great pulsating rush of adrenalin, that he had closed his eyes against the view. There was something about daydreaming with his eyes closed, his brain, distracted but awake, that made the experience more delicious, more vivid. And after nearly two decades his body was trained to navigate the car and the twists and turns of that journey home without him. He never hit anyone. He never hit anything. Yet it was something of an uneasy revelation; that he could make that journey home, literally, with his eyes closed.
The smell of marijuana was faint in the hallway, but it was there. Adam was normally more careful. It was probably the arrival of Winman’s car at the end of the street that had caused him to move away from the window before he had a chance to properly extinguish the joint; those few seconds between the sight of Winman’s car and the bottom of the ashtray; that one final hurried exhalation that had nowhere to go except into the house. Winman pictured the ash, the auburn glow. Julia either hadn’t smelt it yet or had chosen to ignore it. Her discipline was inconsistent.
She was sat in the armchair, her face illuminated by the yellow glow of the television set, an object that had been purchased without Winman’s involvement and whose placement in the house still caused him much bewilderment.
‘I had a faculty meeting.’
‘Would you like some food?’
‘No thank you.’ He had to work. He must work.
‘Your mother telephoned.’
‘Adam’s upstairs,’ she said. But she had not realised that he had already left the room.
Winman sat down at his desk and opened his journal. He looked to the right, to the telephone. He should call his mother but found himself unwilling. He looked to the clock, at an awkward tilt above the door. It was after eight, well never mind then. Eight on a Wednesday meant Bridge with the neighbours. How his father hated it; not merely the game but the neighbours too. He had never said as much, but there was something about the way his faced tensed, the way his left eye would twitch whenever the name Gerald Markham was mentioned that said more than any words could. Hours passed, they must have done for he was sure he heard the clock strike twelve. He lay down his pen and closed the bare pages of the notebook. He looked to his left, to the stack of essays. He really should have marked them by now. He pulled the cord to turn off the desk lamp and made his way, in hushed, paced footsteps, to bed.
Adam was late for a lecture so Julia volunteered to drive him to university. The buses were so unpredictable. She was greedy for this time, time spent alone with him. He always disappointed her. She forgot how much he liked to just sit and stare out of the window as London swept by, how he would turn up the volume of music she had never heard of rather than have a conversation. She hated that he could make her feel so old.
He jumped from the car as it came to a standstill, a goodbye called over his shoulder as an afterthought. If it was his father, she thought, he would have waited for a response. She sat in the car, counted to twenty, and climbed out into the grey car park. Behind her the bus deposited its journeymen and she was enveloped in a rush of students all trying to beat the clock. He really would have been late. She took a left across campus, towards the English block. She hesitated at the entrance to the library, but no, she would not enter. If he was there (logic dictated he would be) her intrusion would be irritating and pointless.
A voice behind her called her name and she smiled before she turned to meet it, a smile just for herself.
Paul Westover was the sort of man who caused women to speak aloud words that they normally saved for their most private of moments, words like ‘rugged’ and ‘dashing’. Words that belonged to the Victorian romance novels she kept hidden under the bed. She felt her cheeks redden as their eyes met. They said he slept with his students.
‘Darling, how are you?’ He leant down and kissed both of her cheeks, and took her by such surprise that she turned her head away, causing the second kiss to land on the corner of her mouth. His breath smelt of whisky.
‘Here to see old Win?’ Paul was the Head of English, Winman’s boss.
‘I am indeed; I don’t suppose you know where he is?’
‘Office probably, my sweet, head buried in a pile of papers, that sort of thing.’ He shook his head with some kind of wonderment at the thought of it. ‘Listen, did Ginny call you?’ Ginny was Paul’s terribly posh, terribly pretty wife. They said she drank. ‘It’s my birthday in a couple of weeks, and drinks must be had. Fifty, can you believe it?’ The way he said it suggested that he was well aware of the answer. ‘You and Winman will come, won’t you?’ They both knew that Winman would not, he never did.
Julia enquired after Ginny, who had missed the last few book group meetings. Paul looked away for the first time in the conversation. Ginny had not been well, he explained, in a fumbling, round about sort of way. They both knew what he meant.
They said their goodbyes; more kisses were had. She watched him walk away. When he had disappeared from sight she carried on to Winman’s office. She asked Mrs Harris, the lady who took care of Winman’s diary, if he was available. The old lady merely shrugged her response, and went back to her book; a well-worn Mills and Boon. Julia admired her courage for reading it so publicly and in the middle of the day too. She knocked at the door to Winman’s office, and when she didn’t get a response , entered anyway. There he was, head bent over an early edition of Nana.
Julia tripped over a book on the floor. She picked it up and held it out to Winman. A cough and he finally noticed she was there.
‘What is it?’
‘The Dharma Bums’
‘My students keep pushing Kerouac under my door, Salinger too.’
‘Maybe they want you to teach it.’
Winman pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘Yes I suppose they do.’
‘Isn’t it remarkable that people carried on writing books after the nineteenth century?’ She could see that all he wanted was to return to the Zola.
‘You can’t possibly think that what you have in your hands is comparable to what I have in mine?’
‘You don’t seem surprised to see me’ she said. She rarely came to the university anymore. She disliked the pull of the past.
‘Ah, yes,’ he said, ‘Is anything the matter?’
‘No, I just brought Adam in. He was running late.’
‘That was nice of you.’
It was a cold office. It had no trace of personality, or sense of ownership. But it had a nice view, that much could be said. Julia had once bought Winman a whole array of potted plants. The place had needed some life, she had told him. She found them, the plants, three months later in the boot of his car. Dead, wilted. She couldn’t forget the lifelessness and couldn’t understand why. They were just plants.
‘I saw Paul.’
‘Paul, your boss, I bumped into him.’
‘He’s having a birthday party.’
‘A what? Why?’
‘I suppose, because it’s his birthday.’
‘Oh, of course. I see.’
‘I thought I might...’
‘You know, sometimes you speak so quietly.’
She looked at him.
‘It’s as if you aren’t there. And it’s odd because everything else seems to be so, very, noisy.’
‘That’s the protest.’
‘There’s a protest in the yard below your window.’
Winman did not turn around to look out of the aforementioned window. He merely stared straight ahead, at his wife.
‘What are they protesting about?’
‘Because they don’t think that America should be there.’
‘But we aren’t American.’ He pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘How peculiar. They sound so passionate.’
‘Yes,’ she said, thinking how well a plant would look by the window from which the noise could be heard, ‘Yes, they do.’
Winman entered the kitchen and rubbed his thumb and forefinger against his temple. He placed his briefcase on the counter, the briefcase that contained work he would never read, class notes he would never use, and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. His wife and son were sat but a metre away. In front of Julia was an empty glass and an open bottle of scotch. Her finger traced the rim of the glass. Winman would have thought her distracted were she not staring right at him. He looked to Adam, his son who looked just like him. Adam held a half-drunk bottle of beer in his left hand while he tore strips from the label with his right. His appearance had changed, Winman noted. His hair was longer and now curled in wisps around the base of his neck. Julia wouldn't let him get away with that for long. Winman took his keys from the pocket of his jacket and placed them next to his briefcase on the Formica counter.
'Winman...' said Julia.
'I didn't realise the time, I must have fallen asleep in my office.'
Julia looked to her son. Adam looked away.
'I'm not hungry, but thank you very much.'
'Your father died.'
Winman looked up from the crack in the counter that so often captured his attention. The eyes that met his were full of, yes, the sort of pity and apology that one would expect upon deliverance of such news. He supposed it must be true then.
'Dad, I'm so sorry.' said Adam. He took a drink from his beer.
Julia stood up and placed her hand upon his shoulder. Winman flinched at the touch. He wondered how long it had been. A long time and yet not long enough.
'What should I do?' He asked of his wife.
'You should go to your mother,' she said.
'She said she didn't want a fuss.' Adam could not look at his father. Perhaps he didn’t want to see him upset.
Winman walked to the corner of the kitchen and placed his hands against the fridge. He had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. He thought of his father and of his childhood. He knew with certainty that his life would change, that he would change and yet he could not fathom where the thought had come from. Something, somewhere in the very ether of his life had altered.
'He went to sleep,' said Julia, as she hovered behind him, unsure of what she was supposed to do. 'He went to sleep and he never woke up; it’s how he would want to go.'
His father was just sixty years old. He just didn't wake up, thought Winman, as he looked at his wife properly for the first time that evening, or that year, or in their marriage.
His mother was predictably appalled when he appeared at the house in Harrow. Why had he come, what did he want, why did he always have to make such a fuss? He had thought, he'd explained in a strained voice that did not sound like his own, that she might be distressed.
'I've been thinking about this day for long enough,' came the response. It affected Winman more than he realised.
Her friends’ two doors down had offered her dinner and she wanted out of the house. People kept turning up and she couldn’t bear the pity. Winman was not invited. When he expressed the previously unthought-of decision that he would be staying the night, his mother turned to look at him.
'You know, sometimes I forget that you're a grown up.' She pulled on her coat, a burgundy wool, and closed the door softly behind her.
Winman looked around the living room. It remained as in his youth. The soft velvet grey three piece suite where he used to spend hours with his books (his mother would not allow him to read in his room for more than an hour. She feared it would make him introverted). The cork lined walls that had proved an invaluable scratching post when, aged twelve, he had come down with chicken pox. He'd got a wallop from his mother for that. His father had just looked on, as he always did.
There was a knock at the door. He considered ignoring it. He had no more time for pity than his mother did. He wouldn't know what to say anyway. It would be awkward and he hated when it was awkward, although it always seemed to be. What the hell, he thought. He opened the door.
Doctor Walker stood a few steps back. He was leaning towards the window, trying to peer through the curtains to see if anybody was at home.
'Ah' he said and stuck out his hand. 'Hello, young man, it’s been a long time.' And then, as if he had only just remembered, he added, 'I'm so sorry for your loss.'
Doctor Walker had been their family doctor for over forty years. He knew everything about them; the sort of things that mattered and about everything else, Winman supposed he knew nothing.
'Is Laura home?' The Doctor sat himself down in the grey armchair.
'She's gone for dinner with neighbours.' Winman saw the Doctor raise his eyebrows. No, he thought, that wasn't what one normally did upon the death of one’s husband.
'Could I get you a cup of tea?'
'Do you have any Bourbon?'
Winman pulled open the door to the pantry. He pushed aside the tea bags, the Bovril, the endless, endless, packets of Digestive biscuits. He pulled out a bottle of cooking sherry.
'I'm afraid this is all I could find,' he said, placing a glass in front of the Doctor. 'My father wasn't a big drinker. My mother doesn't like it in the house.'
The Doctor picked up the glass. 'This is for you, Winman. Take a sip, get used to it.' Winman did as he was told.
'I want you to know that I've sorted out the Death Certificate.'
'I don't understand.'
'Winman take a drink.' He stood up and moved to the fireplace. He put his hands in his pockets. 'There was a high level of opiates in your father’s bloodstream. I found an empty bottle on the bedside table. I prescribed them; back pain, over a year ago. I guess he never took them. Take a drink.'
Winman did as he was told.
'Son, I want you to know that I moved that bottle. I don't think your mother noticed and as I said, the Death Certificate will read heart attack.'
'Are you allowed to do that?'
'Would you rather she knew?'
Winman noticed a scratch in the oak coffee table. She'll be furious when she sees that, he thought. 'No,' he said.
'Good boy, finish your drink.'
The Doctor looked down upon him as Winman did as he was told. It was a look of grave concern.
‘Winman I’ve known your father for over forty years…’
‘Knew,’ corrected Winman, ever the pedant, even in death. ‘You knew him for twenty years. You must adjust the tense.’
The Doctor blinked. ‘Quite. As I was saying, I’ve been wracking my brain all morning Winman. I just can’t think of a reason for this. The one thing that set your father apart from others was the sheer lack of complaint you heard from him. I don’t think I heard a protest or grumble or a whinge escape his lips in forty years. He was that sort of person wasn’t he? He just, sort of, rubbed along.’
‘He just rubbed along.’
Hours later, after the doctor had gone, after Winman had finished off the rest of the sherry, after his mother had returned with one bit of good news at least - the Markham’s were confident that a replacement could easily be found for Edward in their Bridge quartet - Winman accepted that he could not sleep and arose from the bed in which he had spent so much of his youth. He walked through the house, in hushed, paced footsteps. At the end of a hallway with walls filled with the faces of the past, was his father’s study. He pulled the cord to the right of the door. After a flicker and then two, light filled the space. It was no more than broom cupboard really, but it had been his. He remembered to correct the tense. The walls were bare. There were no plants or ornaments on the shelves, no pictures on the walls. He sat down at the desk. Its contents were neat, ordered. To the right was a pile of essays. Winman took one from the top. Adam Bede. He put it straight back. In the very centre lay a diary, his father’s diary. Winman traced his finger over the leather bound cover. Its texture was a surprise, soft and expensive. Winman stole his notebooks, those empty wordless tomes, from the University. He opened it and without so much as a glance inside he placed it back on the desk. No. He could not. How he would hate it if Adam should read his own diary. A nonsensical thought, for what would he read? And yet the thought of his son discovering that Winman had nothing to say was almost as bad. Winman picked up the book. He wanted to know his father. It would be nice to meet him, finally. He stole a look behind him. He opened the diary.
He never was sure what made his fingers open at that page; the time his father took a cruise along the Nile in 1932. How the exoticism of the place, the staff aboard the boat, even the other guests had mystified him! Winman thumbed back and forth through the diary. This was not a snapshot of a particular passage in his father’s life, it was a summary of an entire life lived. The many travels he took. The time he tried to haggle for a carpet in a Marrakech souk; sailing down the Niger with Nigel, his best friend from university; making love to Laura in a flea-ridden hotel somewhere within the labyrinth of Marais alleyways. But was it Laura? The name was correct but the description not quite right. She appeared throughout. She never ages. Paris again, but winter now; a city encased by snow, like a picture postcard. 1936, Aqua d’Valencia with Spanish comrades; his father, a modest hero among many. Mexico, Greece, Italy for the food, oh the food! The sheer orgasmic pleasure of the pasta, holding the fork high above his open mouth and just letting the oozing cheese just drip, drip against his tongue. A love affair in the city, and just the very sense of her, of blond hair and silk against flesh. Stopping an obnoxious neighbour in his tracks with the most withering of withering remarks; the joy that the remark had appeared in his mind in an instance, rather than ten minutes too late. The son, the child; a hero at war.
Winman put the book down upon the desk. He looked to his left, to the little tin that sat encased in a layer of ash grey dust. Inside, within a blanket of crisp silver foil, were twenty cigarettes. Winman took one from its resting place, crushing the foil with the clumsiness of his touch. He held the cigarette beneath his nose. The scent was aromatic. Winman’s father had never smoked, Laura would never allow it. But having the cigarettes there, within reach, meant that he could have, if he’d really wanted to. Winman opened first one drawer and then another. There, swathed in a sheath of papers, bills, notes to jog a memory, was a silver lighter. He wondered where his father had got it, and when, and why. With an impulsion that took him by complete surprise, he took the silver lighter from the drawer, put a cigarette between his lips, flicked the lighter into golden life and inhaled his very first lung-full of tar, tobacco and smoke. Because he was but a man, his body protested with a cough that seemed to erupt from deep within his belly. And yet without even thinking he took another drag. He thought about this action. He liked it. He liked the sensation, the taste, the way the cigarette looked between his fingers. He liked that his mother would hate it, and wondered where that thought had come from. Winman picked up the diary again, and this time he did not just scan the entries, he began to read about the life of a man whose life had taken place only in his head. Because of course his father had never travelled, he’d never ventured any further than Brighton, and even that had been cut short when Laura had balked at the seediness of the place. And of course, he’d never had a love affair; it would take far more of an embrace of existence for that. And of his son, was he proud? Winman would never know but he knew with gut wrenching certainty that he was no war hero. He had drifted into the path of a bullet just as he had drifted through life, as if his eyes were closed; constantly immersed in preoccupation with nothing at all. And as he sat there, falling headfirst into the depths of his father’s regret, it dawned on him with a sense of conviction that was unlike anything he had ever known, what a terrible thing it was to spend the last moments of one’s life alone but for the thought ‘what might have been’.