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Authors: Salman Rushdie

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BOOK: The Ground Beneath Her Feet
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Who are you, Standish demands, blinking. He is heavy with sleep, and he’s also wearing his reading glasses, so that everything more than nine inches away looks blurry and unreal.

As he tries to focus on her, she disappears. A crack seems to open in the air itself, and she steps through it and is gone.

The human capacity for rationalization is a thing of wonder. It enables us to disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes. Since what Standish has fuzzily seen is impossible, he concludes that he has not seen it. She must have slipped out the door while he was still dozy, he concludes. He gets up and looks, but she’s gone. Standish notes the further failure of the security system and suspects an inside job. The crazy girl is probably buying the favours of some staff member, a gardener, a handyman. Someone is smuggling her in and being rewarded, no doubt, with some of that sexual action with which she makes so free. It must be looked into. Meanwhile, no real harm done. Standish returns to his book.

Peacefully, Ormus sleeps on.

Mull Standish, a contemporary man, looks for answers in the everyday. Spenta just as naturally turns towards the paranormal, fears a haunting and summons Parsi priests from London and the local Anglican vicar.
Fire ceremonies and exorcisms are sonorously performed. After these rites there are periods, often very extended, when the Indian woman fails to manifest herself. For these absences, as for her presences, no explanation is given; Spenta, however, gives the credit to the servants of Ahura Mazda and the Christian God.

Then Maria appears again, and the whole cleansing ritual is renewed.

There are days when Spenta feels mortally afraid. Deserted by angels, she fears she and her family may now have fallen prey to demons. At such moments she looks to Mull Standish for comfort. Always immaculately groomed, expensively tricked out in silk-collared camel coat or raffishly cigar-chewing in mink, Standish in these agonizing times still stands foursquare on the unsteady earth, a well-planted man, a tree that has no plans to fall any time soon. His calm tones, his gravitas, his sleek hair: these things reassure Spenta, and a gleam comes into her eye, though she is seven years his senior and can have no realistic expectations. Still, she pays greater attention to her appearance, she lowers her eyelashes, she flirts. Standish, noting the advent of an unrequitable love, has grown fond enough of Spenta to let her dream.

For all his apparent solidity these are years of misfortune for Mull Standish. The sudden collapse of a Newark office block for which one of his U.S. subsidiaries supplied cooling systems has been followed by a more general erosion of confidence in his construction business. Due to the end of his liaison with “Sam Tropicana,” his erstwhile lover’s family is determinedly putting the poor mouth on him, and New York’s City Hall has started frowning on his projects and tenders. The IRS irregularities have been squared, but only after the payment of arrears plus a punitive fine. In Britain the end of the pirate phase has done more than financial harm; it has removed some essential excitement from his life. He has wound up his record label and makes his bread and butter, nowadays, from investments in rental property shrewdly acquired during the pirates’ boom years.

Naturally, like any dynamic entrepreneur, and there can be no doubt of the Tightness of that description, he continues to have his schemes and dreams. Hippies in Sloane Square sell yo-yos that light up as they rise and fall. He has a piece of this action, also in much else that is gimcrack and union-jacked and over-priced and sold in Carnaby Street.
His gift for what marketing men call gap analysis has led him to launch a listings service,
Where It’s At
, which begins as a poor folded sheet guiding the young to pleasures both mainstream and “alternative” and quickly grows into a money-spinning weekly magazine. For ordinary mortals, this slate of activities would be proof of robust health, and robustness is the quality Standish—still, in his early fifties, an indefatigable powerhouse of a fellow—works hardest to project. However, he is a man with a broken heart. If he is to be compared to a great tree, then there is something decaying at its core. One day, without warning, it may suddenly fall. Only then will passers-by be able to see the sickness, and understand.

When he walks with Waldo Crossley in the grounds of Methwold’s riverside estate, congratulating his son on the skill with which he has learned to spear leaves and other detritus, flattering him on the way he looks in the Methwold livery, and being rewarded by Waldo’s tear-jerkingly wide, happy, brainless smile—or when he keeps vigil by Ormus Cama’s bedside, seeing in the comatose singer the shadow of his own dead Hawthorne—then Standish’s back is straighter than ever, his jaw firmer, his eye less moist. But he has been poleaxed and no mistake. The danger is that if Ormus fails to awake, Standish may also fall into some final sleep. Their fates are joined. As the months and years go by, and Standish loses hope of an awakening, little threads of his cloak of discipline begin to fray. There’s a tic, sometimes, in the corner of an eye. There are days when a few stray hairs elude his formerly omnipotent brush. When he stands, Spenta notices the first signs of a stoop.

If I was a little younger, she says, taking his arm while they walk on the parterre one late afternoon, I might give you a run for your money.

He hears the loneliness, the echo of a woman standing in the empty room of her future, and decides he has no alternative but to be truthful.

I am one of those, he says, almost tongue-tied for once, for whom the love of women was never really the point.

Wonderful, she claps her hands. I also can see no point in such activity at our age. But companionship, isn’t it? That we can offer each other as twilight falls.

At which Mull Standish finds himself at a loss for words.

•  •  •

Abruptly, Maria stops coming, perhaps despairing of Ormus’s prospects. Neither Spenta nor Standish says so, but both think her absence a bad omen.

They begin to speak of the unspeakable: of the life support. For more than three years, Ormus Cama has needed monitors, drips, plasma. There have been moments when respiratory equipment has been necessary. His muscles have atrophied, he is weaker than a baby, and without the machines, the nursing staff, the orderlies, he could not possibly survive. Spenta asks Standish the unaskable.

What do you think, honestly, will he wake up.

And Standish is no longer able to offer a convincing Yes in reply.

It would be possible to arrange a mishap, he says. A power cut, plus a failure of the back-up generator. Or a tube might accidentally fall out of the sleeping man’s nose, or a life-giving needle drop from a vein. It might be, what’s the word, stumbles Standish. Merciful.

I still believe, Spenta obstinately wails. In I don’t know what, a miracle. In blessings from above. In, what to call it, higher love.

When Colchis Records releases the double-A-side 45 “Beneath Her Feet” b/w “It Shouldn’t Be This Way” by the defunct band Rhythm Center, it is intended as a farewell gesture, a surrender to the inevitable. Ever since the accident Standish has been adamant: Ormus will recover, at that point he will resume his career, and until then it would be both macabre and bad business to put out any discs.

Yul Singh has gone along with this in his equivocal way.

If this is your wish Mr. Standish which I’m offering no opinion then so be it, it’s your call. You change your mind you come and see me. The industry moves on at high speed, you don’t need to be told, so we’ll see about it as and when. God willing I’m still in this seat, maybe I can help you out.

The time comes when Standish and Spenta agree that they want Ormus to sing again, to sing one last time before the machinery ceases to support his life and he departs. Standish asks Yul Singh to set the music free; which request, for all his tough talk and caveats, the ferocious
Colchis overlord—understanding that the request is a kind of death sentence—is unable to deny. Whereupon, to everyone’s amazement, the record is a hit. And Vina Apsara in a Bombay hotel room hears Ormus singing, and flies back into his life: and saves it.

Here she is at his bedside, whispering into his ear. Here is Spenta, not knowing whether to fear her as another revenant demon, or to grieve with her for their mutual loss, or to hope. Here is Mull Standish holding his breath. Here, hovering like vultures, are a doctor, a nurse, an orderly.

In the doorway, hat in hand, is blind Yul Singh.

Ormus, she whispers. Ormus, it’s me.

At which he opens his eyes; it’s as simple as that. His mouth trembles. She bends down to hear him.

The doctor swoops, shoulders her aside. Excuse, please. We must establish the degree of damage. Turning to Ormus with a glitter of bedside teeth, he asks: Who am I?

A drug dealer
.

The voice surprises everyone by its strength, its sardonic note. The doctor points to Yul Singh in the doorway. And he, who is he?

A commissar
.

Then the orderly, carrying clean sheets and towels.

He isn’t important
.

And how about you, the doctor asks. Do you know who you are. Do you know what you want.

Vina
, he calls. She comes close, takes his hand.
Yes
, he answers.
Now I know
.

How shall we sing of the coming together of long-parted lovers, separated by foolish mistrust for a sad decade, reunited at last by music? Shall we say (for in song we are set free from surly pedantry, and may hymn the soaring spirit, rather than the crumpled letter, of the truth): they ran singing through fields of asphodel and drank the nectar of the gods, and their kissing was as beauteous as the evening horizon, where the earth first touches and then becomes the sky? Shall we liken his sweeping caresses to the movement of the winds across the surface of
the sea, now raging, now tender, and her arched responses, so eager, so potent, to the surging ocean waves? Shall we go so far as to speak of love divine, all loves excelling, and conclude that there must be a Great Lover looking down upon us from on high, to whose unconditional passion and openness of heart this earthly pair holds up its shining mirror?

No, this is a story of a deep but unstable love, one of breakages and reunions; a love of endless overcoming, defined by the obstacles it must surmount, beyond which greater travails lie. A hurdlers love. The forking, fissured paths of uncertainty, the twisting mazes of suspicion and betrayal, the plunging low road of death itself: along these ways it goes. This is a human love.

Let Vina speak. He in fact died that day, did you know that, she reveals, lying unclothed and overwhelming across my big brass bed one steaming summers day in the middle 1980s in New York. That’s right, she says with a twist of the mouth, he always did have fantastic timing. I come all the way across the world to find him and that’s when the bastard decides to cash in his chips. For one hundred and fifty seconds he genuinely checked out, kicked the bucket, bought the farm. Ormus the flatliner. He went down that tunnel towards the light. Then he turned right round and came on back. Afterwards he told me it was on account of me?, he heard my voice calling behind him?, he looked back, and it absolutely saved his life. Blip blippety blip not-fade-away on the monitor screen, the flatline starts jumping, oh doctor, doctor, he’s alive, it’s a blessing a miracle, he’s come back to us, heavens to Betsy, praise the Lawd. Dead for two minutes but in the third minute he rose again from the dead.

He didn’t come back to us, Vina boasts, he came back to me. Didn’t wake up until I made my appearance, what was the point, right, because I wasn’t there. They’d always said there was nothing wrong with him, levels of electrical activity in the brain were normal, the strong probability being that there wasn’t any lasting damage, he was just perfect and dandy?, except that he wasn’t awake. No, Lady Methwold, there’s no explanation, in these cases they either wake up or they don’t and that’s the whole of it. He could sleep for years, the rest of his life, or he could open his eyes tomorrow. Or in twenty years’ time, not knowing he’s
missed a day, those awakenings are the most difficult, they look at their hands and scream what’s this disease that’s shrivelling up my skin, you have to judge the moment when you show them a mirror?, and it’s a delicate judgement, believe me, there is the danger of suicide.

Vina repeats, proudly: He waited for me, sleeping, all those long years. Nothing in life was interesting any more unless I was by his side. Then I showed up and jeepers if those peepers didn’t pop open right on cue. If that’s not love then I don’t know what. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t give him a hard time later on. But that’s because he’s a man.

A hole has appeared in downtown Mexico City, a chasm thirty metres across. It has swallowed buses, kiosks, children. For years water has been sucked out of the swampy sub-soil to sate the thirsty city, and this is the underworld’s revenge. The fabric of the surface is being unwoven from below. Right here in Manhattan the buildings themselves are beginning to stagger. Just a few blocks north of my brass bed, there’s a brownstone that’s started shedding bricks. A net has been erected to protect pedestrians. People have always jumped off buildings in New York, but this is something new. This building is jumping off itself.

The papers are full of such new catastrophes but Vina wants to talk about old ones. In these years of their semi-retirement she has started coming to me more and more often, and as she removes her clothes she can’t help showing some resentment of the great Ormus Cama, of the prominence given to his talent in the burgeoning histories of the VTO phenomenon. This is the price I have to pay for enjoying her favours: this ceaseless Ormusic, her personal obsessive Camamania. She comes to me to let off summer steam. If I were to object, she’d stop coming. Sex is never the point with Vina. Sex is trivial, like blowing your nose. She comes to me because I know her story. She’s here to write new paragraphs: to complain. That, for Vina, is intimacy. That amuses and arouses her. Vina on the bed, stretching, turning, torments me, knowing I am happy—or at least willing—to be thus tormented. She is forty years old, and fabulous.

BOOK: The Ground Beneath Her Feet
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