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Chapter 7

Life goes on in Soraya's absence - and Balfour continues to try to work on Project Morgenstern.
He tries to give an impression of the the family members as well as their outside influences.


       Tancred demands more than is feasible. Annabelle asserts ... her independence ? I should probably concern myself with the reasons for their reactions, but who has the time ?

       Soraya having embarked on stage one -- she left on Tuesday, and wouldn't be back until late-Sunday -- more devolves on me. What might be called responsibility, yet what seems little more than generally empty (and yet oddly essential) occupation of time. There are more places I must be, more things I must attend to. The household that, between the two of us (the two adults), runs with the rough and tumble smoothness of any household with children is pushed off kilter by any absence; Soraya's, not surprisingly, affects me most of all. (The temporary absence of either child leaves perhaps a greater emptiness but is also a guilty release, lightening the everyday load.)
       More than anything, Soraya's absence must always be made up for by my presence. When she is around there are at least times I can steal away -- to run an errand, or simply to take a moment for myself. Without her, there is no one who can fill in; I am perpetually on call. The children could, perhaps, be left unattended -- for afternoons, at least -- but I can't bring myself to do it. They are self-sufficient in many ways, but also clingy; at home, like toddlers, they'll come to look for me (or Soraya) again and again, without any specific question or requirement, just to be certain that the parent is still there, always available if need be. We probably indulge them more than we should in this respect -- but I also like that feeling of being needed.
       There is no formal separation of household duties between Soraya and me. Each does what s/he can. Evening meals are generally prepared by whoever is home first, breakfast by whoever is up first. The children are led about (to and from school, appointments, friends) by whoever's schedule can fit them in -- most often, but by no means exclusively, by me. Neither Soraya nor I are great cleaners, but if one of us notices the dust accumulating, or the general filth, we'll pull the vacuum out or get the mop or crumple a newspaper to rub the windows clean; over the long term we seem to each do our fair share, without foisting too much on the other. Laundry somehow gets done. Shopping too. (We've never had a housekeeper or even a once-a-week maid; the way we live -- nesting in jumbles of papers and books -- it seems more trouble than its worth. And neither of us is comfortable with outsiders assuming what we feel is our duty; it took us years until we were to any degree comfortable leaving the kids with a baby-sitter -- and we still avoid it as best we can.)
       Without Soraya each task falls to me. The children help, but only in their generally still clumsy way. They can do the dishes, at least, but little beyond that. Every other job is mine to deal with -- and the third and fourth hands I usually have helping me, unasked, aren't there. Without them even the trivial obligations add up.
       And while I bask in being the children's center of attention this too is an additional pressure. With Soraya around I don't have to be as careful in apportioning attention, praise, and rebuke. The children can and do move back and forth between us (and each other), requiring more from -- or simply more comfortable with -- one than another for a time being, a flittering about that, between the four of us, generally remains in some sort of balance. Without Soraya I am relentlessly tugged between them; pleasurable though the pull is I have to take much greater care in not favouring, even briefly, one over the other if I want to avoid an escalation of petty jealousies and louder bids for attention. It is an exercise that quickly grows wearisome.
       Disorientingly, time itself seems to be lost -- as though Soraya had taken along a small bag with two or three of each day's waking hours. I filch minutes where I can, rushing some of my office work, walking at a faster pace, making due with less sleep, but a piece of each day still seems missing.

       Soraya couldn't entirely remove Project Morgenstern from our midst; it is like a shadow that lingers after the object that cast it has been taken away. A sense of dislocation about the it hangs in the air in her absence. Still, so far from the scene, so far behind the scenes, we are reluctant to continue our speculations. Better simply to wait.
       We did so, impatiently. We do. The kids have school, and I have work and the household to run: all that takes time, though it hardly helps occupy our minds. We have our books, and they at least offer transport elsewhere. And, late at night, I stab with my pen at the pages of Project Morgenstern.

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       The pages add up. Most I put aside; they are only practice-sketches. At work, what writing I generally do (outside my remedial-editorial capacity) is per force concise, limited in scope, and hurried. I have to try, constantly, to convince the marketeers in the offices upstairs to take my books under their wings, and so I jot down catch-phrases and contrive catchy one-paragraph descriptions and misrepresent what my authors have written. I hardly have reason to go on at any length; no one would pay any attention.
       Project Morgenstern (and Soraya's absence) allow me to indulge in grander ambitions. At least on a small scale. For now, I like to think that I am building up to it, and so late at night I scribble and type away, trying words and styles and methods out.

       Character is an obvious difficulty, right from the get go. My figures are not inventions. Much worse: they are my family. Intimate familiarity with them is more hindrance than help. They are flesh and blood, seen, held, interacted with on a daily basis. And I should reduce them to ... not even a snapshot, but rather mere writing ?
       Even straightforward description is difficult. The children, for example, seem in some constant state of metamorphosis, with all their qualities and attributes in flux. And I find it hard to remove myself -- the father-figure, guider, provider -- from my subjective view of them (and, yes, there is always so much I want to see in them, but which I (faintly and unwillingly) realize might not be there). Trying to "describe" them I understand the difficulties most of my authors have as they stutter in trying to describe the books they are working on: the relationship between author and book is much like that between parent and child, books are similar objects, half in their author's control, half completely beyond it, shifting under the nibs even as the writers scratch on the paper. But a book is, at some point, fixed in finished form. Not so a person.
       And Soraya -- my picture of her is coloured by all our experience together, a whole past (even if the vast majority of the details are barely remembered, just lumped together in an indistinct but powerful feeling) adding up to this present. But I don't know how to convey it; I hardly understand it myself.
       I do know that others see Soraya differently -- often very differently. (The children, too, of course, though children are usually anyway thought of as different sorts of beings entirely, hardly taken seriously as people; they are treated like our accessories, like dogs or automobiles, and spoken about with the same patronizing feigned interest.) I do not know if others are right in how they see Soraya. If not necessarily right, perhaps their way of seeing her is more useful in describing her, especially to strangers, or readers. My view is surely too heavily personally coloured -- indeed, as much a reflection of me as of Soraya. To describe her as the world sees her, and not as those that really know her, is surely ... the wiser course ?

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       It is mind that most interests me. In myself and in others. Fortunately, mind is probably readily conveyed -- in the day to day descriptions of our lives, in our conversations, our activity. I think mind may come across -- almost regardless of how I go about this.

       Looks, and bearing, I know less of. I am aware of physical attributes -- I see them, after all -- but I am not good with them. I can make little of them. To make matters worse: the children are literally changing shape before my eyes. (Soraya and I are too, though much less quickly. And Soraya and I have reconciled ourselves to our changes, able almost to anticipate the next sag or tuft of grey.)

       Underneath it all, I'm told, is some sort of emotional microcosm too, and I understand nothing of it (or only so much as to be aware that this imperceptiveness is a fault all four of us share.) I couldn't even guess if our psyches are frail or sturdy, deeply or only shallowly flawed. I hazard any speculation on the subject only with extreme reluctance; I hope the need does not arise.

       Tancred suggested including pictures. But pictures capture only instants. They don't even convey depth, flattening lives in two dimensions. And I could never choose among them, fearing I would choose what I want to show, rather than what is actually there. (Yes, it's a danger in the writing too, but I think readers are more aware of the dangers -- and thus read with the necessary caution -- than mere beholders. Reading is a conscious act, one which the reader must choose to engage in; a picture, here, could not be overlooked, it would be seen, impressed upon the mind, whether the on-looker was ready for it or not.)
       (Tancred suggested filming everything, too. Film affords the illusion of time, but the messy camera imposes itself on the scene, offering only a certain angle, the filmed always conscious of its presence, etc. Aside from that: it is technically too demanding an approach. At least for now.)

       I mull it over and can't escape it. I feel obligated to offer some description, to give some sense of our contours and our measure.
       I will try.

       Soraya is my love and light.
       She is two years my senior, though she easily looks five years younger.
       She is quite a bit shorter than me at 5' 4" or 5". She has a fuller figure than she had in her graduate school days, but is still petite.
       She still keeps her straight black hair longer than shoulder-length, though she seems to be cutting it back higher each year.
       She has large oval brown eyes and a piercing gaze. She has begun to wear reading glasses.
       She has delicate ankles and wrists. She moves gracefully: often quickly but never hastily.
       Her skin is evenly colored, a shade of brown as though lightly tanned. She doesn't wear heavy perfumes, at most there is usually merely a whiff of sandalwood around her.
       Her voice is melodious yet firm. Her speech can become indistinct when she speaks quickly, a whir of words. Her accent shifts, depending on her conversation partners and her environment (in English and, apparently, in all the languages she speaks).
       (A note on her background would perhaps also be in order at this point.
       Soraya is not, as her name might suggest, of any sort of Persian extraction. Far more unlikely, she is Shan-Burmese (with -- so family lore -- a grandfather who was colonial English). Her parents fled Burma in the early 1960s, when she was a baby, moving from place to place around South Asia without settling down for long. With the rising Indochinese tensions they eventually turned west, to Central Asia in what was then still the Soviet Union. When she was eight her parents and a sister died in an automobile accident there.
       Soraya's father was a scholar of some renown, and colleagues took an interest in fate of the bright young girl left behind. After briefly being shunted off to a Soviet orphanage some families from the local university community took up her cause. The family she finally settled in with there adored her but also wanted better things for her and made every effort to get her to the West. The only means that proved feasible was via a religious organization based in the Mid-West in the United States. When Soraya was ten she finally came to the US -- winding up in a sleepy, dusty city in middle America, taken in by the devout and devoted Pillips family.
       As Soraya tells it, Mr. and Mrs. P. couldn't make heads or tails of the Cyrillic documents she came with or almost anything she said (she spoke some English, but at that time it was heavily Russian-accented, with a touch of Oxford to it too). Her tripping Shan name was entirely too much for them, but it had some S-sounds and "Soraya" was a rare foreign name they were familiar with and seemed to fit this exotic creature from abroad. Soraya accepted it (they could have called her anything they wanted, she always said), and out of gratitude for what they did for her she kept the name ever since.

       (Mr. and Mrs. P. incidentally are also the perpetrators behind our children's names. Soraya insisted it was an honor due them: they should name them. I don't know that I would have agreed knowing what they had in mind -- and I certainly should have known better after the first child was stuck with "Annabelle" (a name I could accept by ignoring half of it). Hearing the suggestion "Tancred" I wanted to put my foot down but Soraya insisted. Perhaps it was an appropriately large sacrifice, given that she was hardly in touch with the Pillips' after she finished high school. (Aside from at our wedding I only met them once.) Still, I thought it unfair that our son should bear the burden.
       Oddly, the names have grown on me. Ridiculous they may be but then as a Balfour I've always lived with the ridiculous, and now Annabelle and Tancred seem just right.))

       Annabelle is twelve. She and Tancred are both too smart by half, and Annabelle has skipped two grades so far (Tancred is set to skip his second in the fall). For all her smarts she is a young twelve.
       In her class of pubescing teens, with everyone two years older than her, Annabelle stands out even more, lingering, physically, in childhood. She is among the smallest in her grade and has only the slightest hint of the padding and curves displayed by almost all the other girls in her classes.
       She stands at a meter-fifty -- just a hair under five feet -- and barely tips the scales, weighing in at 38 kilos (less than 85 pounds).
       She has long, black hair, as straight as and dark as her mother's.
       She has brown eyes, though they aren't as penetrating as Soraya's. Her sight isn't perfect but she insists can still make due without glasses.
       Her face seems only to foreshadow what she might become, her features not yet grown out. Her ears and nose are small. Her teeth are uneven, an overbite starting to creep forward: it will need attending to.
       She is all bounce and flight, her bony arms and legs (like Tancred's) surprisingly strong.
       She squirms and fidgets when her mind isn't concentrated on one activity. She bites her lip, rubs her eyes, and and fiddles with her nose and ears. She is quick and fussy and raises her voice when she gets excited.
       She is a dear.

       Tancred is ten, and growing fast towards overtaking Annabelle in height. He is only two inches shorter, though lankily still some ten pounds lighter.
       He is all scrawn for now, with the boyish clumsiness that comes with that fast-growing age.
       He has a shock of unruly hair, a lighter brown that is more like mine in appearance.
       He has the same eyes as Annabelle (the pairs are indistinguishable) but a broader, squarer face, with sharper features. He has a wider mouth, his teeth more neatly arrayed than his sister's. He has a pointy nose compared to his sister's stub.
       He is athletic, unafraid of competing against the older and larger boys and girls in his class, and usually able to hold his own. He does not stand out as much as Annabelle does among her classmates, not as clearly different. He plays better with them too than his less patient and forgiving sister.
       He is serious and conscientious. He doesn't laugh loudly, though he has a winning smile.
       He looks more passive, more circumspect than Annabelle in taking on any task, waiting and considering before jumping in.

       Balfour is settling into early middle age.
       I've hit forty now. The hair is beginning to thin and grey, the paunch expands, the joints ache more consistently.
       I look in the mirror and hardly know what to say about myself. Nothing feels right as far as description goes. I can not deceive myself but I also don't know what honesty or subjectivity vis-à-vis this visage might be like.
       Perhaps one should think of it this way: mix Annabelle and Tancred, age the resulting composite some thirty years, subtract out all of Soraya and what you are left with is me.

       So: those are our appearances, as filtered and reassembled in written form by the least objective (in this regard) of men.
       Does it help in understanding who we are and what we do ? Perhaps, along the way, it will. But I've never been much for picturing character.

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       More important -- and far more complex -- is determining where we stand in terms of the knowledge we have accumulated, the reason we work with, the intellectual baggage we lug along.
       The children constantly surprise me, both in terms of raw (often very raw) ability and their eery mental acuity, but they do have so much left to learn. Soraya seems all-knowing, a pure, intimidating fount of wisdom. And I am an ignorant but eager bumbler, helping where I can.
       I exaggerate, unwilling to see any of the weaknesses I'm sure Soraya has (beyond those I approve of) and surely greatly overestimating the kids as well. (My own humble self-estimation is probably closer to the mark, if also not quite right.)

       I can't map our minds, however, or slice them up (like they did Lenin's) and present the paper-thin layers for evaluation.
       I can look towards: our outside (and extraliterary) influences. (Extraliterary because the literary so dominates our lives: it does not need a chapter of its own, it is our very being.) More pieces to make us less puzzling .....
       Among them are:

       Television: We are not enthusiasts. I watch some sports events, the occasional movie, and can be seduced by whatever anyone else is watching if the set happens to be on. Soraya watches the the Sunday morning talk shows, late evening news, and, once a month, a sampling of the most popular primetime shows (to keep a finger on the pulse of public interest). The children, easily hypnotized by anything flickering on the screen, are tightly monitored. Lots of shows are off limits for them (news programs (too graphic), daytime talk shows, game shows), and for almost anything else we require that they get our permission before turning on the set (slacking off only weekend mornings when we let them waste their time on cartoon drivel without first obtaining our okay).
       We generally have enough else to occupy us, not making the TV too great a temptation.

       Film: Soraya and I do go to many of the big movies that open up (with Soraya more likely to see them than I). The kids are rarely taken -- they're too old for the age-appropriate movies (i.e. too bored by this bland and often infantile fare), and far too young for the interesting flicks. Occasionally we'll drag them to a revival.
       Soraya's favourites are pre-code Hollywood and 1960s British. Mine: 1940s and 50s American. The kids will watch anything (if we let them).

       Video/DVD: We're too lazy to pursue it seriously. Sometimes we feel the urge to watch some classic someone mentioned (or obligated to show it to the kids), but it is usually too much of a bother. On average we'll rent a bunch (of two or three movies) once a month, and that suffices.

       Music: Soraya goes for mournful 60s and 70s rock 'n' pop. Bowie (in Memory of a Free Festival or Conversation Piece mode), Nico wailing earliest Jackson Browne, that sort of thing. Nothing peppier than The Thirteenth Floor Elevators. I'm more flexible and less demanding, leaning towards classic rock, but happy with classical music too.
       Tancred is tentatively moving towards freewheeling jazz (though for now he still sticks with the more traditional sort most of the time). Annabelle is strictly classical. She is struggling angrily with Bartók right now, and reaching for some Schoenberg (Verklärte Nacht, most recently), but most of the time it is less challenging orchestral pieces (from pre-Mozart times): von Dittersdorf and Vivaldi are recent favourites. (See-saw-simple music, Tancred calls it, though he'll stop and listen if it's Bach.)
       Both kids hum the pop tunes of the day -- they're inescapable -- but neither will turn the radio on to find those songs (or, thank god, insist on getting the CDs). And Annabelle, continuing her Congolese explorations, hops around to some of the contemporary pop from there. She gets us to listen to Papa Wemba and the like.

       Internet: Soraya uses it for some book-information and the convenience of e-mail. I look up sports scores. The kids are closely monitored and hardly allowed to look for anything on their own, though we do allow them occasional (and then incessant) Instant Messaging sessions with classmates.

       Newspapers: Soraya and I read the local broadsheets. Tancred has shown some interest and will have a stab at going through the morning papers, while Annabelle will only read whatever is pointed out to her.

       Magazines: We subscribe to a nice assortment of magazines and periodicals. These include:

(Letters in brackets indicate who peruses each magazine.
Key: S-Soraya, B-Balfour, A-Annabelle, T-Tancred)

       In addition, a number of periodicals are bought at newsstands each week -- usually by Soraya, usually when something strikes her eye. These impulse buys (like much of her reading) are generally work-related, as she looks for book-ideas and potential authors (usually of the celebrity rather than literary kind)

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