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Authors: Anita Brookner

Visitors

BOOK: Visitors
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Anita Brookner
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VISITORS

“Brookner’s powers of observation and psychological acuity continue, in novel after novel, to produce elegant, spectacularly perceptive writing about what just lurks beneath the facade.”


The Miami Herald

“Paragraph after paragraph shines with intelligence.… As beautiful as a perfectly executed 18th-century painting.”


The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A particularly wise portrayal … a daring novel about the anxiety and alliances of old age.”


Christian Science Monitor

“Quietly true to life.… Her triumph is subtle.”


People

“Brookner, like Jane Austen before her, is a master of nuance, a wit of some repute, and a perfectionist in both plot and character.”


The Newark Sunday Star-Ledger

“Quietly resplendent.… You may want to cheer as Dorothea May goes from a life of quiet desperation to quiet triumph.”


The Dallas Morning News

“Another brilliantly quiet gem. The incomparably subtle Brookner puts soft, revealing touches on the face of loneliness as only the elderly know it.”


Kirkus Reviews
(starred review)

Anita Brookner

VISITORS

Anita Brookner is the author of seventeen finely crafted novels, including
Dolly, Fraud, Altered States
, and
Hotel du Lac
, which won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1984. An international authority on eighteenth-century painting, she became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University. She lives in London.

ALSO BY
Anita Brookner

A Start in Life
Providence
Look at Me
Hotel du Lac
Family and Friends
A Misalliance
A Friend from England
Latecomers
Lewis Percy
Brief Lives
A Closed Eye
Fraud
Dolly
A Private View
Incidents in the Rue Laugier
Altered States

Visitors
is a work of fiction. The characters in it have been invented by the author. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.

FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, JANUARY 1999

Copyright © 1997 by Anita Brookner

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardback in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, a division of Random House UK, London, in 1998.

The Library of Congress has cataloged
the Random House edition as follows:
Brookner, Anita.
Visitors / Anita Brookner.
p. cm.
I. Title.
PR 6052.R5816V57    1998   823’.914—dc21     97–10494

eISBN: 978-0-307-82632-9

Author photograph © Jerry Bauer

www.randomhouse.com

v3.1

Contents

Towards evening the oppressive heat was tempered by a slight breeze, although this merely served to power drifts and eddies of a warmth almost tropical in its intensity. But this was England: somewhere in the atmosphere was a memory of damp. Truth to tell, the day had been almost uncomfortable: one was not used to such temperatures. The light, however, compensated for everything. Not quite crystal clear, but blinding in the absence of cloud, and gaining authority from the becalmed stillness of the garden, it put Mrs May in mind of novels and stories celebrating gardens other than her own, gardens which were part of estates, demesnes, where richly endowed families conversed in idleness, sat on terraces, or awaited visitors. ‘What meads, what
kvasses
were brewed, what pies were baked at Oblomovka!’ The great sun, clearer then, must have shone down on that Russia as it did now in London, at six o’clock on a Sunday evening in early September. It was the hour at which she was accustomed to experience a slight failure of nerve. At seventy she understood how closely she was being subsumed into the natural process, feared the dark, welcomed the light. On this particular day the sun had
provided a respite from bodily ills; she identified with its power, put her faith in its continuation. The sun was constant, encouraging one to regard it as a familiar. Winter, even autumn, seemed far away, almost unimaginable. She shut her mind against both.

There was Turner’s sun, of course, a real English sun, dilute in the watery atmosphere, mirrored in the inevitable sea beneath. There was the great sun of antiquity, of which perhaps just an echo reached one at torrid midday. And there was the sadness with which one saw it depart, even though the resulting slight drop in temperature was refreshing. This, for Mrs May, signalled the end of the day, even though some hours remained before she could decently go to bed. And she must not anticipate those darker hours which were to her so precious: solemn hours, hours of infinite recall, of the mind on automatic pilot, throwing up fragments of conversations decades old, or memories of a school-friend not seen for even longer, until that other ancient god, sleep, conducted her into what she privately thought of as her true dimension, in which she became a vivid actor, weightless and sometimes joyful, embroiled in obscure adventures which puzzled her only when she woke. More troubling dreams she was able to discount: the effect of old age, she imagined, since nothing so very terrible had befallen her, although it almost certainly would do in that very near future about which she preferred not to think. The body would betray her; the body was therefore taboo, glanced at without amenity in the bath, and ignored once it was covered. It still functioned, more or less, although there were now pills to hand in both bedroom and bathroom. It was almost a comfort to her to know that there was no-one intimate enough to share the stoicism and distaste with which she endured herself. Strangers, introduced to her
for the first time, assumed that she had never married, thinking her self-sufficiency no more than the sum of others’ indifference. That was their business; hers was to give no sign of anything out of order. This she succeeded in doing. Unbeknown to herself, she was considered slightly forbidding. She had few friends now, but that, she thought, spared her the pain of losing them.

When she closed the French doors to the garden she was surprised how dark it seemed in the flat. On this ground floor of an Edwardian mansion block darkness was to be expected. She did not particularly mind this; in winter it intensified the pleasures of reading. The advantage was direct access to the extensive communal garden. She was told, even by relative strangers, that she put herself at risk by leaving her doors and windows open, but she was not nervous, although everyone she knew seemed to be, on guard against imaginary dangers. She was a Londoner born and bred, but she liked to imagine country emanations in the stillness of the early morning. She rose at half past five, donned her late husband’s dressing gown, made tea, and took a tray out to the small table she was entitled to place on that portion of the terrace that was judged to be hers. This too was a blessed hour. At six-thirty, when she thought there might be neighbours about, she went in and had her bath. Dressed, the imperfections of her body superficially disguised, she would sigh briefly and prepare to confront the day. This was sometimes difficult.

Mondays were substantially different from Sundays, even for those who no longer worked. On Monday morning there was a tension in the air, which she could sense even as she drank her early morning tea, in solitude, without a newspaper, without the radio, with nothing to alert her to the day’s events. Monday mornings made her feel vaguely ashamed of
her idleness, of her unpartnered state, though neither was blameworthy. Rather she had been cast up on the barren shore of old age by a process of natural wastage, and she in her turn would disappear, unlamented. Given the inevitable disappointments of Monday, Sunday had to be prolonged, particularly such a resplendent Sunday as this had been. She stood at the window gazing out, until the outline of the trees turned a more sombre green. It would soon be dim enough to light her lamps, although left on her own, as she invariably was these days, she preferred not to bother.

It was at this point on a Sunday evening that her thoughts turned to Henry, her husband, and their past Sundays, unvarying, obligatory, occasionally enriching. For there was no time to enjoy the garden on those distant Sundays, but rather an afternoon trip to Hampstead, to visit Henry’s twin sister, Rose, whom they could not disappoint. Henry had felt guilty at abandoning his sister; he had married not once but twice, leaving Rose forlorn. It had taken Mrs May, the second wife, a whole afternoon to understand that Rose was of rather feeble intelligence, not quite backward or retarded, but responding best to a sheltered life, looked after by her parents’ former housekeeper. She had somehow imbibed a little knowledge, mainly from the Swiss establishment to which they had sent her; she had certainly acquired exquisite manners, though these might simply have been the natural outcome of her quiet nature. Her welcome was rapturous; she ran to her brother like the girl she had once been, though she was now a stout woman in her late fifties. Dressed, scented, she awaited their arrival with a girl’s ardour.

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