Summary - The Night Traveller
Steven Venmore is an Intellectual Property lawyer living and working in London who is haunted by past events. During a period of intense introspection he comes to believe that his realisation of the world beyond him is powerfully dependent on him. His insights into the places and lives of people about him signal the onset of a psychological crisis and a series of experiences with a beautiful woman with whom he becomes obsessed cause him to question his understanding of everything. Although the characters with whom he interacts appear to be independent of him, they also seem to rely upon him. A physical and psychological odyssey leads him to suspect that the choices he makes, not only in terms of the daily mundane things he does, but in terms of his beliefs and his implied acceptance of the world about him, are merely arbitrary. The disintegration of belief and the final undermining of the reader’s ability to rely on what they have understood to be actual, places Steven's dilemma before them in the form of a stark challenge.
At its human level The Night Traveller concerns the search in all humans for another meaningful person, for the ability to comprehend and communicate with others and the destructive forces which prevail in the complex relations between people.
EXTRACT FROM THE NIGHT TRAVELLER BY MJ MAGUIRE
It was a very early morning, one spring. There was the memory of chasing two girls across a field from my house one spring, years ago, very early in the morning, after a night out in town with Andy (Andy! He seemed so real still, though he was constructed of pure imagination now, and he would never realise it or understand what he had become). We’d met two girls in a club and had gone home with them. There was also a café in the South of France one fine April, around 7 AM, the cirrus clouds striated across the pale blue and a filtered haze of morning, which would burn away later; espresso coffee and the first time I had croissants: this day was thick about me, and scattered within, clamouring for notice. There were other things: that day I went fishing with Joe Webb when I was about twelve to a river bank and caught perch, saw a beautiful white haired girl from school walking by, a blueness in her eyes that pained me in contemplation because I knew I would never possess her, lacked the articulation for this: saw something perfect in her. There was the day I sat in the woods smoking a packet of my father’s Dunhill International cigarettes with Simon and Andre when we would have been about fifteen and a beautiful girl from another school with very dark hair and blue eyes and a halter necked top and a summer skirt walked by with a friend, lingering for me, because I’d met her before; but I did nothing about it because I was overcome with a reticent inertia and she moved soon afterwards with her family and I never saw her again. And the walk to school one day when I was, perhaps, six, and remembered it later that same month when another day reminded me of it and it laid down a standard for all other days like this. This is what this day reminded me of, stacked up with the nuances that had built this day, so that it wasn’t one day, it was many days, a distillation of others, a modified veteran of my existence, colouring all other days. It was projected from me so that no-one else could have this same day, or know it in the same way that I knew it, that I felt it and staked absolute possession of it.
Such a day was today: it would be a fine day today, though the sun had not yet fully risen above the horizon. The sky was a pure white blue; pastel colours and mist held the street almost still, but not quite, because I was conscious of a slight stirring in the breeze upon my skin, the merest cold breath of it. I walked along a side street, which was short and blind at one end; the litter and debris of the night and the remains of a busy market from the day before remained uncleared. Orange boxes littered the streets, stacked severally on the pavement, and cardboard papier mache and purple tissue too; and there was other packaging and rotten fruit careless underfoot: and there was the bare scaffold of the stalls, a gentle flap of stray canvas in the hint of a breeze: the morning was aquiver, a certain tension of expectation holding it together.
I was in my dinner clothes; black tie, black tie undone; I was unshaven, a warm tiredness about me, of comfort and a cracked voice from the thickening of my vocal cords. I don’t recall where I’d come from. It seemed to be an unwarranted assumption that there should be causation, or something preceding the moment: a beginning: there may have been none at all though I felt there was some unnecessary reason on call if required. I looked along the street: the world was emptied of people; it may have been a deserted set of some film and yet I met its strangeness with calm, a complete acceptance. I heard an electric milk float whining somewhere a street away, the only threat to isolation, and the sound of a light riffling of some papers on the floor. A newspaper lay there from the day before, felt the cold of the pavement against its skin, and I studied the headlines in passing: POLICE HUNT GIRL’S KILLER. SHARES SET TO FALL AS TOKYO MARKET SUFFERS REVERSES and LIVERPOOL RETURN VICTORS AFTER THRILLER FINAL.
I knew now what I would see. There was a rhythm in the morning and I felt the pulse of its expectation. I walked on a little and saw the doorway and green painted timber frame of a shop window, against which the girl with gold hair was leaning: it was Lesley. Smiling, dressed for evening, in a red dress and with glistening pearls about her clean throat, arms folded pressing her breasts against her; she was bright in the newness of the shining morning. As I approached her I saw the shop was a charity shop and there was a bird cage in the window; a box set of LPs of La Sonnambula, Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano; and another of Jon Vickers' Otello, bound in a dark green cloth; for sale: five pounds each. I noticed the sound of the birds now, about the rooftops and the guttering, and pecking about the stalls; and above, a pigeon, sentinel on the chimney. And somewhere far off, almost within me, was the sound of Maria Callas singing Ah Non Giunge! clipped with precision. But this must have been transitory because there was another music which was with me, gently, persuasively there. Had it stopped, the scene would have collapsed: it kept flowing through it, watery, ethereal. I heard footsteps on the pavement, the sound of the milk float stirring again, imagined the rattle of its bottles and the sound of bottles on doorsteps, though I don't think I heard these - it's hard to say - and then the sound of its electric motor attenuating, becoming distant until I could no longer hear it.
Hello Lesley, I said, a tiredness about my greeting and a shyness in me as I walked to her; and there was an uncertainty too that restrained me from holding her and before I realised this the moment had been whipped away from me by hesitation: I stood awkward and felt foolish, regretful too, because the moments are not forgiving and I was left holding mine longer for her, was blatant. I'd practised such regrets on long ago days like this.
Lesley, looking secure, smiling and secret, seeing the errors of my moves, said:
I was hoping you’d be here, Steve.
I looked down at my shoes, made kicking movements with my foot against the ground and my hands remained in my pockets; it would seem conspicuous, rash even, to remove them.
I thought I’d find you here, I said, looking up. She surveyed me for a few moments, her eyes half closed in the morning brightness, put her head on one side and, decided, took hold of my arm. Her perfume, that same smell I could taste and feel, embraced me again, brushed against me, along with her warmth and a soft allure. She slipped her arm further through mine, an act of ownership, of compassion for my errors, and tugged me gently, my hands in my pockets were excused, made me slightly clumsy, and I understood completely what was required. We walked side by side in a nice shyness, which was almost all mine, and a responsive decorum, a quiet closeness, hers.
We passed along the framework of scaffolding, the boards, the cheap shops, the cardboard boxes; an empty city, which wore the dry echo of morning pavements and the strangeness of our voices.
Where have you been? I asked.
Lesley, shrugging aside the question slightly, said: Nowhere. Waiting for you, Steve. It doesn’t matter. I’ve wanted to see you. I’ve missed you.
There was something intense in the way she said this and then, drawing around, she said, conversationally:
I miss you when you’re not here.
You always say that! I said. We laughed.
Because I always mean it! she said when the laughter was gone but still a recent memory.
I said: I’m glad, regained something of myself by this slight tussle of words, the threading of a link to another time and smiled wistfully at her. She saw my slight recovery and was glad, touched by it. I felt she had contrived this.
I’m glad too, she said, pressed closer.
Lesley put her free hand to my arm, looked at me and stopped and I stopped too. Her hand went to my face, concerned: You look tired.
I said: I’m always tired. It’s late.
It’s early! smiled Lesley.
I nodded acknowledgement as we walked on, but my repressed feelings were brimming at the edge and I said, slightly awkwardly: You look lovely.
It was an awkward breach. Lesley laughed, delighted though, scattering my awkwardness about the street like a dozen empty milk bottles.
I’m undiminished by the night! she said and jutted her chin slightly for me to see her now because she was very confident of me, of herself, her profile, of where we would be. She kissed me quickly to smooth over the broken tempo, squeezed my arm with her hand. She considered, sobering the moment, heard the thickness of my voice, the smell of cigarette smoke on my clothes and old alcohol:
You’re still under the influence.
I said: Only slightly.
Slightly intoxicated, said Lesley.
I looked for inspiration and found only the sharpness of: Slightly.
Momentarily I felt crestfallen, I had disappointed the moment. I should have linked my intoxication to her, but failed. But it didn’t last. We walked on in silence for a few moments, very close, with no words to cloud the way; an isolation of the early morning drawing us together. We walked towards the corner of the street, the junction with the high street, where decisions awaited us.
Lesley, rubbing her arms, said, It’s still cold. Let’s go somewhere.
Where would you like to go?
Lesley looked hopeful, the day clamouring within her, an exquisite sadness now building in her as she said: Somewhere to see the sun rise.
That’s everywhere today, Lesley.
You know what? I feel like driving down to the coast - watching the sun on the water. Shall we?
She was holding my arm with both hands, squeezing with a thrill of excited suddenness. I laughed, regained my composure and nodded. She looked up where the early morning pigeon was in company now on the chimney stack, where it gave a dual tone gurgling like the chime of marbles in its throat. The sun rose, glanced the rooftops, dull gold polishing the slates, the cold and stillness of an airport morning she knew. It would be a fine day. The grass, shining now in Cheshire, would be as she knew it to be on this day; the meadows and the cultivated fields after the first cut, rolled up, where she had played and loved were part of her signature; the old house where she lived once was unchanged, competed with the changes it endured, for precedence, won, carried the morning. Above all there was a certain May morning in her, which I could see clearly. There were hills in places, with rocky outcrops and mountain springs; ivory whitened hedges dripping in May hawthorn blossoms; cold stone University corridors with students oblivious to the morning, and staircases passed on, calling to her; all littered with the souls and the spirits of her memories. That day, that one day, when everything seemed possible.
I said: Yes, but there was something she must say, welling up in her, a plangent toned cry of joy for love of this morning that would make her weep if she couldn’t share it.
I love days like this; it’s May, isn’t it? A perfect day.
Whatever the calendar says, it’s May, I said. I understood her but couldn’t quite find the soft pulse of her step.
There are only a few more days like this in your life. They’re very few and they go by uncaptured, become more painful.
I smiled, knowing most of her thoughts: And there’s only this day, I said.
Lesley struggled with the perfection of her thoughts for a few moments trying to bring me to the parts of her thoughts we didn’t share:
Do you know that half of the people who have ever lived are alive today?
Is that true?
Yes, said Lesley. I considered this.
That’s a big thought, I said at last. I suppose one of them might live forever.
Lesley said with a glistening certainty: No. Not one, Steve.
Then perhaps this day will last forever, I said ineptly.
It had slightly broken the spell again. We could see the sun rising, and this time Lesley looked crestfallen at her inability to communicate her pain, was slightly disappointed at the failure of our communication, of our inability to strike a perfect chord. It felt like my fault although there was no sense that she blamed me. We drifted past the music store, with its dull yellow light failing the morning and a sports shop, in darkness, wasting its time on the corner. The people would come and go, the staff would change; it would be a boutique in October next year and new people would come and die slowly of experience; other things awaited it and would bring in new people: an electrical store, a mobile phone shop, a delicatessen.
She shook herself loose from her thoughts, regained her brightness and we arrived at an old sports car with its top down, a canvas hood folded behind the seats. It was parked by the roadside. I could see the registration 714 HYP on an old black and silver alloy plate beneath the bumper. I laid my hand upon the rear wing and felt the cold and shine of the body and saw the distorted images in the hardness of the paintwork - flashes of ourselves, the buildings, the thin clouds dissipating in the blue. Many other things were reflecting in the chrome and the sun was a golden gleam on the black leather, still cold because the sun was weak yet, only slotted its bright light down the accord of perfect streets.
Lesley, now recovered, said: I’ll drive, shall I?
Yes. Where are we going?
Let’s go south, she said, nodding in a southerly direction. Somewhere over there.
Smiling, I indicated a quiet acquiescence with a slight movement of my hand and a cock of my head. I pulled the cable inside the door to open it, held onto the cold of the chrome windscreen grab handle to ease myself in and pulled the door to by the door capping, the sound of this returning to us from the walls of the high buildings. Lesley smoothed her skirt beneath her legs and turned the ignition on; in response there was the pinking sound of the fuel pump working from the rear feeding the carburettors; she pulled on the starter and the engine started. The whiteness of her knuckles strained a moment as she engaged first gear by means of a black shiny bakelite knob and then released it deftly, anticipating a new command. The car drew from the kerb and we turned into Edgware Road. The early streets were litter strewn; there were occasional figures, a gauntlet of buildings holding back the surprise of day as we passed.
We drove south down Edgware Road across Westminster Bridge, southward, for the coast; no traffic impeded us or slowed our progress, just the empty villages of London, littered with debris, suppositions of yesterday. Sometimes a stir from a doorway blanket woke upon us. We drove south on A roads, the morning gaining on us as we went: a bird in the sky, the hedgerows aflutter, a sharpness and clarity about the green, a haze amongst the buildings; the pale dry grey-blue of May roads, the greyness of pavements before the sun touches them, the grass verges spilling onto them; sprays of tall grasses and barely opened white flowers around the base of telegraph poles; red iron and glass telephone boxes. A postal worker, shirt sleeved, was whistling in the morning: no other stirred from the villages; a lone squirrel paused fast-motioned on a tree.
We didn’t need to speak. There was a completeness in the picture, which didn’t require anything else, an articulation which did not pause for intervention. There was a perfection about Lesley too: hands red-nailed on the bakelite steering wheel, its steel spokes shining; an occasional bright look from her, her hair loose, golden; the whiteness of her skin; heels lain in the footwell, her bare feet on the pedals. The sun was climbing above the rim and May, flourishing in the day, was gaining confidence amongst the fields and trees. We had the top down although it wasn’t warm at that time because she didn’t want to close out the morning. She didn’t articulate this, but I knew it.
The fields rolled out a fragile splendour of morning, rolled down from low hills as if they always had. Tight rolled cylinders of hay and occasional rectangular stacks stacked high brought in new feelings and fresh signatures which played in the light that fragmented into the tree lined roads; rich interplays of all I knew were singing about us. We edged the town where the houses grew and the streets slowed the sound of the wind in our ears, the cold backwind pulling from behind, diminishing. We drew up along the road on the seafront, and a new sound, of the sea, came in as the engine stopped; but before it was there I heard the sea in my mind: the voices of new experience joining old ones, of Formby sands and the beach at Naples where I stayed once when I was twelve years old and swam all day in the sea, with the newfound freedom of vigour and competence. A world of independence now lost to me, but clamouring for form, was relived here.
Lesley stepped into her shoes and crossed the pavement, skipped in realisation of her ambitions. It was the music of the train writhed with a woman’s voice, a siren from the shore, now loud, insistent above the sound of the sea, which became Lesley. She was calling to me, had abandoned me in the excitement of her own construction, climbed the seawall and dropped down to the sand. I caught her challenge, threw my jacket into the car and ran to her, caught up with her heavy in the sand, where she had removed her high heels now, discarded them on the sand - one turned sideways, the other upright by the chance of its fall. I ran on the sand and knelt to my laces, kicked off my shoes and we ran, now on harder sand, ribbed and compacted, wet, then into the ice shock of sudden water. Laughter, wild and gurgling in our throats, became reckless as, hand in hand, we ran deeper into the water. Then, gasping for breath, tentatively wading out, more slowly as the water held us heavily about the knees; our cries were carried over the water and mingled with other voices from other times.
The beach was filled with strangers that morning: an Edwardian young man and his lady, who walked here once, were here; he had ached for her and left her in a short time when he stopped aching. She loved a while and forgot and their ways did not re-cross and gradually the memories were dissipated and lost and so were they; only the recollection of their day remained. The beach was a place of strangers, now distilled within us, perhaps the sole inhabitants contriving a new story which was dying before us, joining the company of ghosts and strangers: a feeling of the place persisted. We listened to them, the ghosts. The water had splashed us, wet, wrapped thigh deep in the sea; the sun was gold on Lesley’s wet skin and stray wisps of golden hair were blown about her face as she looked at me breathless and serious, because there is nothing so fine or beautiful or as serious as a great moment. And we knew it was here and it burned us inside, with searing sincerity, because it couldn’t last. We kissed, long, and I held her wet, the sun burning through the morning. She felt cold and I felt in her a deep shivering empathy and a silent desperation as she felt the moment receding, clutched at it to hold on to it. There was an intensity in me, too, a love for her that hurt. The occasional warmth of her breath was on me. Her dress was wet upon her, clung to her thighs and between her legs so that she was naked in my imagination; her breasts were cold and poised. I ran my hands over her breasts and the right hand continued down her side to her hip. Then I put both hands around her waist and pressed her close to me. We held each other for as long as we could, but the moment prised itself away; concentration failed us, a quiet sedation stole over us and we walked from the sea hand holding hand; then my arm was about her waist wrapped in quietness and the smell of the sea. Lesley looked down at the sand; it felt warm now, with the sun upon us and in contrast with the cold of the water. But the mist of earlier was gone: the sky looked quite blue. The music had ended; I could hear only the sea.
We walked closely entwined, my arm about her waist still, her clinging red dress and the ends of her bedraggled hair turned darker by the water; up the beach we went towards the car. We were wet, stinging with sea salt. The seafront buildings looked bright now, a prism of rainbows in the glass, burning southward in the sun, clear and absolute, resolute against infection; there were some cars on the road, but not many, and morning curiosity was turning upon us. We stopped and held each other again and I kissed her quietly, soberly and in confirmation of lost things which we clung to.
Lesley drew back from me at last, smiling and ran the back of her fingers rasping up my face.
You need a shave, she said.
The first words broke remaining spells, regretfully, necessarily, but I smiled broadly at her and pressed her into me. The high heels dangled from her left hand and her head was against my chest and shoulder.
It’s morning, I said.
Yes, she said, the sun with its sovereign eye, flatters the golden rooftops…
I laughed out clear like a bark on the hillside. Someone else said that, Lesley, I said.
Who? She demanded suspiciously.
Shakespeare or God are the best bets!
Lesley laughed. Are you sure they did? Perhaps I thought it up independently specially for you today.
When you put it like that…it suddenly sounds completely new…and I believe you. God or Shakespeare copied it.
It’s only a question of timing, then. It is hanging in the air to be captured at the perfect moment. It belongs to no-one.
I frowned momentarily, to retain some ownership of the morning, not to share it with anyone else but her; to hold off the claims of others on the beach from years ago. She sensed this. She pushed out her lower lip, raised her shoulders, her arms loosely folded across her, a petulant look which became a slight hug of self congratulation, and then shrugged it off.
It’s a lovely morning, she said.
It was. I stared out of the kitchen window of my flat. The light glancing across my face made me grey, shadowed the skull sockets of my eyes and the lines of my face, accentuating the troubles in my expression which I saw in the ghostly reflection of the window. Beyond, the clay-fired bricks were dark and the rain on the walls ran from the chimneys above the purple slate, and the rain was flat on the window, drizzled from the sill; rain on the rooftops collected to the gutter and ran a torrent in the grid from the drainpipe below: like a rainy day when you prayed for sun, pressed your nose to the window, hoped for some blue prospects in the drifting grey sky and wore the day out with a hope. It was Friday 7th September and the day, the weekend, was lost to Lesley.
MJ Maguire Copyright ©2010
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