by Ken Grimwood


SEVENTEEN  (continued)

The citrine streaks in Linda’s hair had been lightened to an even paler yellow by the days in the Moroccan sun, making it seem as if her hair were reflecting the imagined light from the great gold sunburst tapestry behind the lengthy bar. She clutched at the bar’s railing, laughing, as the ship rolled gently in the North Atlantic swells. Her gin and tonic began to slide across the tilting oaken surface, and she caught it with a deft move, the ice in the glass tinkling with her laughter.

‘Encore, madame?’ the bartender asked.

Linda turned to Jeff. ‘Do you want another drink?’

He shook his head, finished his Jack Daniel’s and soda. ‘Why don’t we take a walk out on the deck? It’s a warm night; I’d like to look at the ocean.’ He signed the bar tab with their cabin number, handed it to the bartender. ‘Merci, Raymond; à demain.’

‘A demain, monsieur; merci.’

Jeff took Linda’s arm, and they walked through the slightly swaying Riviera Bar and out onto the Veranda Deck. The striking red-and-black smokestacks of the SS France jutted above them into the night sky, their sleek horizontal fins like the immobile flippers of two gigantic whales frozen in mid-leap. The great ship rose into an oncoming swell, dipped smoothly into the trough between the immense but steady waves. The stars above were unobscured by clouds, but far to the south a line of thunderheads lit the horizon with constant bursts of lightning. The storm was moving this way, though at thirty knots they’d be clear of the tempest before its violent winds and pelting rains reached this stretch of ocean.

Heyerdahl, Jeff thought, wouldn’t have the luxury of escaping such a random fury; he’d see the coming storm with different eyes, wary and concerned at the tiller of his little papyrus boat, so far from land. It was just such a storm that had stopped him last year, forced him to abandon his damaged craft in heavy seas, six hundred miles short of his goal.

‘Do you really think he’ll make it this time?’ Linda asked, staring at the jaggedly illumined clouds in the distance. She’d been thinking the same thing, wondering about the fate of the affable bearded Norwegian with whom they’d shared the labours and accomplishments of the past three weeks in the ancient fortressed port of Safi, where he’d built – and had last week launched – his historic, purposefully primitive little boat.

‘He’ll make it,’ Jeff said with assurance.

Linda’s filmy dress fluttered in the wind from the approaching storm, and she held tightly to the ship’s railing. ‘Why does he fascinate you so?’ she wanted to know.

‘For the same reason Michael Collins and Richard Gordon fascinate me,’ he told her. And Roosa, he could have added, and Worden and Mattingly and Evans, and the POWs who’d start returning three years from now, in 1973. ‘The isolation, the utter apartness from the rest of humanity …’

‘But Heyerdahl has a seven-man crew with him,’ she pointed out. ‘Collins and Gordon were completely alone in those capsules, for a while, anyway.’

‘Sometimes isolation can be shared,’ Jeff said, looking at the billowing ocean. The warm smell of the oncoming tropical disturbance made him think of the Mediterranean, of a day when that same scent had drifted through the open window of a villa in Majorca. The peppery savour of paella, the lacerating wistfulness of Laurindo Almeida’s guitar, the mingled joy and grief in Pamela’s eyes, her dying eyes.

Linda saw the shadow that had crossed Jeff’s face, and she moved her hand to his, gripped it as firmly as she had the ship’s railing. ‘I worry about you sometimes,’ she said. ‘All this talk about loneliness and isolation … I don’t know if this project is such a good idea. It seems like it’s getting you too depressed.’

He pulled her to him, kissed the top of her head. ‘No,’ he reassured her with a smile full of affection, ‘it’s not depressing me. Just making me thoughtful, that’s all.’

But that wasn’t entirely true, he knew; his meditative state had brought about the undertaking that obsessed him now, not the reverse. Linda’s presence, her unaccustomed loving openness, had calmed his battered senses since that day in August 1968 when he had resumed this life to find her waiting at his door with an armful of fresh-cut daisies. But not even the unexpected rebirth of all they’d shared so long ago had been enough to make him forget the torments he had indirectly inflicted on the world through Russell Hedges in that previous life, or the estrangement all of that had forced between him and Pamela. Guilt and remorse were inescapable; they formed an unremitting undercurrent that seemed to constantly erode the foundations of his resurrected love for the woman he once had married. And that ongoing diminution led to new modes of remorse, a present guilt made all the worse by his conviction that he should be able to change his feelings, let go the past and give himself as fully to Linda as she now did to him.

He’d immedately quit his reporter’s job at WIOD in Miami, couldn’t stomach the daily task of seeking and observing and describing human tragedy, not after all he held himself responsible for during those dead years at the government retreat in Maryland. That October, Jeff had waited until Detroit was down three games to one; then he’d put his savings on the Tigers to sweep the last three games of the Series. Mickey Lolich had brought it home for him, as Jeff had known he would.

The stake had enabled him to get a new apartment on the water at Pompano Beach, closer to where Linda still lived with her parents and attended college. He’d met her every afternoon when she was done with classes, swam with her in the gentle ocean or sat beside her by the pool at his place as she studied. She’d moved in with him that spring, told her parents she was ‘getting a place of my own.’ They endured the fiction, never visited the tenth-floor oceanfront apartment that Jeff and Linda shared, and continued to welcome him into their home for Sunday dinner every week.

It had been that summer, 1969, when he’d conceived the project that now consumed him. Linda’s father had planted the seed in his mind one Sunday evening over coffee at the dinner table. Jeff’s habit by then had become to ignore the news, to politely tune out any discussion of national or world events. But that week, his former father-in-law had seized on a single topic, wouldn’t let it go: the just-aborted voyage of Thor Heyerdahl and the Norseman’s quixotic attempt to prove that early explorers, sailing in papyrus-reed boats, could have brought Egyptian culture to the Americas more than three thousand years before Columbus.

Linda’s father had ridiculed the concept, dismissing Heyerdahl’s near-success as outright failure, and Jeff had kept quiet his knowledge that the adventurer-anthropologist would triumph with a second expedition one year later. Still, the conversation set him thinking, and that night he had lain awake until dawn, listening to the churning surf beneath his apartment windows and envisioning himself adrift on that dark sea in a flimsy vessel of his own making, a fragile craft that might succumb to this year’s storms but would return to vanquish the ocean that had claimed it.

That same month he and Linda had driven up to the Cape, as they had before, to witness the controlled fury of the massive Saturn V rocket that lifted Apollo II to the moon. After the launch, as they’d inched their way back down the already overdeveloped Gold Coast with a hundred thousand other cars full of spectators, Jeff’s mind was filled with thoughts of insularity, of removal from the day-to-day affairs of humankind. Not the sort of seclusion and retreat that he had once sought in Montgomery Creek, but a voyage of isolation, an epic journey of aloneness towards a goal as yet unproven.

Heyerdahl knew that feeling, Jeff was certain, as did the crew of the mission they had just watched depart, and none among that crew more than Michael Collins. Armstrong, and to a lesser extent Aldrin, would receive the glory, take those historic first steps, speak the garbled first words, plant the flag in lunar soil … But for those dramatic hours that his crewmates were on the surface of the moon, Michael Collins would be more alone than anyone had ever been: a quarter of a million miles from earth, in orbit around an alien world, the nearest humans somewhere beneath him on that hostile demi-planet. When his command module took him past the moon’s far side, Collins wouldn’t even have radio contact with his fellow beings, would be unable even to see the faraway blue-and-white globe of his birth. He would face the bleak infinity of space in an utter solitude and silence that only five other human beings would ever experience.

Jeff had known then, as he sat stalled in that thirty-mile traffic jam on US Highway 1 near Melbourne, that he must meet these men, must understand them. Thereby, perhaps, he would come to a better understanding of himself and the solitary voyage through time that he and Pamela had been thrust upon.

The following week he’d begun the first of many trips to Houston. On the strength of his Earl Warren interview the previous year, Jeff persuaded NBC to help him obtain NASA press credentials as a freelance journalist. He interviewed and gradually befriended Stuart Roosa and, through him, Richard Gordon and Alfred Worden and the others. Even Michael Collins proved relatively accessible; the world’s attention and adulation remained focused on the men who had actually set foot on the moon, not on the one who had been, and the others who would be, left behind in lunar orbit.

What had begun as a personal quest for insight into his own state of mind soon grew beyond that. For the first time in many years, Jeff was applying his talents as a journalist, delving skilfully into the thoughts and memories of his subjects, interviewing them best at moments when they had ceased to think of the conversation as an interview, when they had let down their guard in the face of his obviously genuine interest and begun to speak with him on a deeply human level. Pathos, humour, anger, fear: Jeff somehow elicited from these men the fully textured range of emotions that the astronauts had never before revealed. And he knew that their special vision of the universe was part of something he could no longer keep to himself, but had to communicate to the world at large.

He’d written to Heyerdahl that autumn, arranged the first of several meetings with the explorer in Norway, then in Morocco. As the initial impulse that had led Jeff to seek out these special individuals expanded in his mind, as the images and feelings that he gleaned from them took on a power of their own, he realized at last what he was unconsciously but determinedly developing: a book about himself, using the metaphor of these separate lonely voyagers as a means to grapple with his own unique experience, to explain the marbled tapestry of his accumulated gains and losses and regrets.

A fresh chain of lightning illuminated the far-off storm clouds, its dim white reflection playing across the contours of Linda’s angelic face.

And joys, he thought, tracing his fingertips lightly across her cheek as she smiled up at him. He must communicate the joys, as well.

Jeff’s writing room, like most of the other rooms in the house at Hillsboro Beach, south of Boca Raton, had a view of the ocean. He’d come to rely on the constancy of that sight and the unending sound of the surf, much as he had once been so drawn to the white-peaked vision of Mount Shasta from his place in Montgomery Creek. It soothed him, anchored him, except on the nights when the moon would rise from the ocean, reminding him of a certain film that remained unmade in this world and of a time best left forgotten.

He pressed the foot pedal of the Sony dictating machine, and the deep resonance of the heavily Russian-accented voice on the tape was evident even through the little playback unit’s tinny speaker. Jeff was midway through transcribing this interview, and each time he heard the voice he could picture the man’s surprisingly modest home in Zurich, the plates of blini and caviar, the well-chilled bottle of pepper vodka on the table between them. And the words, the outpouring of eloquent world sorrow interspersed with unexpected gems of wit and even laughter from the husky man with the unmistakable red-fringed beard. Many times during that week of intensely expressed wisdom in Switzerland, Jeff had been tempted to tell the man how fully he shared his grief, how well he understood the sense of impotent rage against the irrecoverable. But he hadn’t, of course. Couldn’t. He’d held his tongue, played the callow if insightful interviewer, and merely recorded the great man’s thoughts; left him alone in his pain, as Jeff was alone in his.

There was a tentative knock on the door, and Linda called to him: ‘Honey? Want to take a break?’

‘Sure,’ he said, turning off the typewriter and the tape machine. ‘Come on in.’

She opened the door, came in balancing a tray with two slices of Key lime pie and two cups of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. ‘Sustenance.’ she grinned.

‘Mmmm.’ Jeff inhaled the dark aroma of the coffee, the cool tang of the fresh lime pie. ‘More than that. Infinitely more than that.’

‘How’s the Solzhenitsyn material coming?’ Linda asked, sitting cross-legged on the oversized ottoman next to his desk with the tray in her lap.

‘Excellent. I’ve got a lot to work with here, and it’s all so good I don’t even know where to start cutting or paraphrasing.’

‘It’s better than the stuff you got from Thieu?’

‘Much better,’ he said between bites of the excruciatingly delicious pie. ‘There are enough good quotes in the Thieu material to make it worth including, but this is going to form the backbone of the book. I’m really excited about it.’

With good reason, Jeff knew; this new project had been forming in his mind ever since he’d begun writing the first book, the one about Heyerdahl and the lunar-orbit astronauts. That had been a modest critical and commercial success when it was published, two years ago, in 1973. He felt sure that this one, for which his research was almost complete now, would surpass even the best segments of his earlier work.

He would write, this time, of enforced exile, of banishment from home and country and one’s fellow men. In that topic, he felt he could find and convey a core of universal empathy, a spark of understanding rising from that metaphoric exile to which all of us are subject, and that Jeff grasped more than anyone before him: our common and inevitable expulsion from the years that we have lived and put behind us, from the people we have been and known and have forever lost.

The lengthy musings Jeff had elicited from Alexander Solzhenitsyn – about his exile, not about the Gulag – were, as he’d told Linda, unquestionably the most profound of all the observations he had gathered to date. The book would also include material from his correspondence with deposed Cambodian Prince Sihanouk, and his interviews in both Madrid and Buenos Aires with Juan Peron, as well as the reflections he had garnered from Nguyen Van Thieu after the fall of Saigon. Jeff had even spoken with the Ayatollah Khomeini at his sanctuary outside Paris. To ensure that the book was fully democratized, he had sought the comments of dozens of ordinary political refugees, men and women who had fled dictatorial regimes of both the right and the left.

The notes and tapes he had amassed overflowed with powerful, deeply moving narratives and sentiments. The task Jeff now faced was to distil the essence of those millions of heartfelt words, to maximize their raw power by paring them to the bone and juxtaposing them in the most effective context. Harps Upon the Willows, he planned to call it, from the hundred and thirty-seventh psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon

there we sat down, yea, we wept,

when we remembered Zion.

We hung our harps upon the

willows in the midst thereof …

How shall we sing the Lord’s

song in a strange land?

Jeff finished his Key lime pie, set the plate aside, and sipped the heady richness of the fresh-brewed Jamaican coffee.

‘How long do you think –’ Linda began to ask, but her question was interrupted by the sharp ring of the phone on his desk.

‘Hello?’ he answered.

‘Hello, Jeff,’ said the voice he’d known through three separate lifetimes.

He didn’t know what to say. He’d thought of this moment so many times in the past eight years, dreaded it, longed for it, come to half-believe it might never arrive. Now that it was here, he found himself temporarily mute, all his carefully rehearsed opening words flown from his mind like vanished wisps of cloud in the wind.

‘Are you free to talk?’ Pamela asked.

‘Not really,’ Jeff said, looking uncomfortably at Linda. She had seen the change in his expression, he could tell, and was regarding him curiously but without suspicion.

‘I understand,’ Pamela told him. ‘Should I call back later, or could we meet somewhere?’

‘That would be better.’

‘Which? Calling back later?’

‘No. No, I think we ought to get together, sometime soon.’

‘Can you get to New York?’ she asked.

‘Yes. Any time. When and where?’

‘This Thursday, is that all right?’

‘No problem,’ he said.

‘Thursday afternoon, then, at … the Pierre? The bar there?’

‘That sounds fine. Two o’clock?’

‘Three would be better for me,’ Pamela said. ‘I have an appointment on the West Side at one.’

‘All right. I – I’ll see you Thursday.’

Jeff hung up, could sense how pale and shaken he must look. ‘That was … an old friend from college, Martin Bailey,’ he lied, hating himself for it.

‘Oh, right, your roommate. Is something wrong?’ The concern in her voice, on her face, was genuine.

‘He and his wife are having bad problems. It looks like they may get a divorce. He’s pretty upset about it, needs somebody to talk to. I’m going up to Atlanta for a couple of days to see if I can help.’

Linda smiled, sympathetically, innocently, but Jeff felt no relief that she had so readily believed the impromptu falsehood. He felt only guilt, a sharp, almost physical stab of it. And, intensifying that guilt, a rush of undeniable elation that he would be seeing Pamela again, in only three days’ time.

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide.
Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning.