David was to say later that it could all have been a dream, for he had no clear or continuous recollection of how he had got from Grand Central Station to The Roosevelt, or from the exalted lobby of The Roosevelt to the solid and dignified brownstone that stood in a pool of dappled shadow on a street that was as quiet, as still and unhurried as some idyllic village neighbourhood somewhere, across the smoky glow of the East River, in Brooklyn Heights. At the top of the broad flight of stairs that led up to the Cohen’s imposing front door Meg Cohen turned and reached down to draw David up to her level, her hand on his elbow, steadying him. Michael was parking the car. When David lifted his head to look at her, Meg slipped an arm about his waist and pulled him imperceptibly closer, her eyes searching his face.
‘David, David,’ she sighed; and then, impulsively, she leaned forward and brushed his forehead with warm, dry lips, like a soft gust of the harmattan. She gazed at him in wonderment and throwing back her head with a sudden, surprising guffaw cried out, ‘I promise I won’t pounce on you, you know! You are quite safe!’
David shook his head, smiling ruefully, and Meg grabbed his arm again. ‘Come on, my darling, let’s go in.’
‘They shot Prizzi’s Honor here,’ Meg explained, as she turned the key in the brass lock and eased open the heavy door. ‘You know, the Mafia movie. Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner. This was the Don’s house. Come on in, honey.’
The way was opened into a high, dark, silent room, cool and mysterious as an aquarium. The shapes of a worn leather couch, a wing-backed chair, the polished surface of a side table, a bowl of fruit, the richly intricate pattern of a vintage Persian carpet, seemed to float out of the gloom. It was not difficult in that setting to imagine the wraiths of fragrant cigar smoke, curling and twisting slowly in the still air, to invoke the spirits of long-departed mobsters and the leering, fish-like smiles of hit-men and supplicants. Meg had disappeared through another doorway into the next room, leaving David standing alone for a moment, one hand holding on to the back of an armchair while his eyes adjusted to the dim interior light. Peering about him he saw heavy framed paintings on the walls, nineteenth-century portraits of bankers and maiden aunts by the look of them, a landscape or two, a bosky river-crossing containing a hunting party set against an ethereal backdrop of cliffs and piled-up clouds; the portrait of a horse. On a coffee table in the centre of the room lay copies of Vanity Fair, Fortune, National Geographic and Vogue, beside a well-thumbed edition of Kovel’s Antiques and Collectibles. He had not imagined, at all, the Cohen’s life – communicating with Meg from Johannesburg and Cape Town, half a planet away, he had been speaking and writing emails and letters to a disembodied spirit, an imagined being who required no material existence or context beyond that of ‘living in New York’ – a New York that had its own, pre-eminent life, an existence of which Meg and her husband were simply an anonymous, constituent part. Now, David sensed, as he began to absorb these first impressions of his hosts’ Brooklyn Heights habitat, it was to the Cohen’s New York that he would have to acclimatise; it was not just Meg herself but her world that he would be expected to understand. He had not sufficiently anticipated the need for such intimacy, he had thought it would be easy to maintain his distance, but now that he was here it was obvious to him that he was already in a sense no longer a stranger, more than a visitor, almost a part of the Cohen’s milieu – and he was not sure that he wanted it.
Framed in the doorway, the light behind her charring the edges of her dress, burning the loose strands of her hair, Meg gestured impetuously.
‘Here. You have to see this.’
When David reached her side, crossing that polished expanse of floor, Meg Cohen clasped him to her with her left arm and flung her right arm upward and outward towards the high sash windows opposite with the triumphant flourish of an impresario or a woman releasing a dove into the air.
‘There!’ she cried.
It was, as she had written, a sight that dazzled.
Across the water, beyond the Cohen’s walled garden, Manhattan was on fire, a golden glow like heat, like a thousand concentrated suns, radiating from the dense mass of towering buildings that rose like torches out of the gathering dusk. At the foot of the richest stretch of real estate in the world, the old New Amsterdam traded by Indians for beads and promises, the broad sluggish flow of the East River bore the gilded reflection of this brilliant rapacity and deal-making flair like treasure. Approaching, David placed a hand against the window as if placing his hand to the fire, or perhaps to feel the shielding glass for reassurance or protection – lest he be consumed. Past the soaring towers of the World Trade Centre which anchored Manhattan above Battery Park his eye traversed outwards into New York Bay, picking up and following for a few moments the Staten Island Ferry, its orange and black paintwork giving it the appearance of a child’s brightly-coloured toy as it sailed steadily by the distant, operatic figure of the Statue of Liberty.
‘Isn’t that a sight?’ Meg sighed, resting a hand lightly on David’s shoulder. ‘It’s impossible to tire of it! I look at that and I am reminded, every time, of how precious life is, how full of beauty and wonder. There is so much to live for, my darling; so much to experience, so much still to do!’
And then, quite fiercely, Meg twisted his shoulder so that David was turned to face her.
‘Don’t you go dying on me, you hear! David? I didn’t bring you all this way from South Africa just so you could die!’
She held his gaze, defiantly, a blunt compatriot, her mouth set like a strand of wire in the jutting frame of her jaw, refusing to soften her words.
Shocked, for a moment David simply stared back, as one stares at a stranger.
He saw how much older Meg looked, than he had remembered her; he saw that there were threads of grey in her untidy tangle of chestnut hair; he saw the crows feet at the corners of her eyes, and the age-blotches on her skin. Yet as he looked properly at her for perhaps the second time that day he was reminded that she had been beautiful. His heart knocked unexpectedly, reimagining an ancient path, remembering her rose-pink nipples and the blue vein that pulsed just beneath the skin, recalling the lovely weight and softness and proud curve of her breast. Her breasts, beneath the mauve silk blouse that stood open at her throat, seemed shrunken now. The humid, sourish cleft between her open thighs, pale as the moon, momentarily assailed his middle-aged senses like a taste of summer’s oppression.
But Meg had caught his gaze, and there was something in the steadiness of those inquiring dark eyes, something amused and watchful and sympathetic that dragged him down to earth and coaxed a wry, apologetic smile to his lips. He shook his head, looking out towards Manhattan and the calm expanse of the bay again as if finding in that fading golden vista something he might, just, be able to believe in. He turned to face Meg once more.
‘No,’ he said eventually. ‘I have no immediate plans in that direction.’
‘You fool,’ Meg, who had been waiting for him to answer, responded quickly, sucking in her breath, and her eyes filled with tears. ‘You sweet, silly fool.’
David put out a hand as if to touch her, but instead let it fall by his side.
‘I guess we have a lot to talk about, you and I,’ he murmured, so softly that Meg inclined instinctively toward him, straining to hear. Speaking up he added, ‘It’s been a long time, Meg. You have to admit. A lot of water under the bridge. Letters, emails, these are not reality. It’s been ten years since the last time we saw each other. Ten years! For years, we didn’t even write. Though there are,’ he added, able at last to meet her gaze, ‘some things I remember like yesterday.’
Doting on him, this old flame of hers, Meg merely smiled, content for the moment.
‘Well, you’re here now,’ she said simply. ‘And we have all the time in the world.’
And indeed, it seemed to David Honiman for a happy, exhausted minute as he stood swaying in the golden late afternoon sunlight, wanting more than was wise to be buoyed by Meg’s apparently limitless optimism, seduced perhaps by the illusions of past attachment, the ghosts of their former intimacy, that there might be time after all. Time enough, anyway. Thinking of this, tempted to believe however provisionally in the idea of time as panorama, time spread out before him like the view from Meg’s tall windows, time as a journey whose pleasures and discoveries still awaited the willing traveller, David nodded and sighed, looking at Meg with a ghostly smile.
‘Wouldn’t it be good if that were true?’ he murmured at length.