The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 7, No. 4

The Berkeley Complex

by Neil Jordan

The Berkeley Complex

I am an actor, although what that means is never quite clear to me. Some days ago, for example, and I can’t remember how many, I was in a line at the supermarket, Dunnes Stores, I think it was. And note how I affect a certain vagueness as to which supermarket. Of course I know it was Dunnes Stores, it’s just that speech with me never quite works like that. I declaim, I become the mode of address I’m using, I speak in character, and that character can never be my own. I had entertained a lady friend the night before and hoped to surprise her with breakfast, I was in the line as I said, behind a group of women with my meager purchases, a melon, I seem to remember, and six free-range eggs, when the girl behind the cash register, dressed in some kind of maroon, rayon smock, as they all are, it was Dunnes Stores after all, blushed at my approach.
           She was serving a mother in a pink tracksuit, with an infant perched in the infant part of the supermarket trolley. I am generally quite unmoved by children, but this infant was, by any standard, divine. The mother was a different matter, she had that irritating certainty generic to young mothers, irradiating not only a bloom of health but an exclamation mark. Look at me! I have a child! I am a mother! I am proud! Of this tracksuit! Of this bum too large! It is evidence of my fruitfulness! My nurturing! So the mother, needless to say, noticed nothing but the infant, the divine one, that was a different matter. The infant noticed all the glitter on the cash register, the music of its opening and closing and the finger of the thin-faced, sallow creature in the maroon rayon whose job it was to operate it. Now you might expect, in fact you would expect, with a probability of certainty of 90 percent, that young maroon-covered Cinderella operating the till would reciprocate the attention of the child. The magnificent certainty of its mother. But no. She didn’t even glance. Her eyes drifted from the shopping on the moving belt, past child and mother, to beyond the mother’s pink shoulder. And she noticed me.
           I was gratified, I will admit that. Recognition is, after all, the staple of the actor’s diet, the cogito of his sum, not so much the reason for his being as the ground his being moves on, we live to be seen, exist to be seen and the awful possibility then presents itself—do we exist when we are unseen? But more of that later. Yes, I was gratified, but not surprised. I had trodden the boards. I had done the soaps some service. My Othello—text stripped to the bone, two lovers, one voyeur, and a handkerchief—was not without renown. Surprise, therefore, was not an issue. But I was surprised, if you will, by how gratified I was. That blush, you see.
           That blush acted upon me like the first drops of water on a parched landscape that had never in its past lacked rain. And note the rather studied use of metaphor. I am an actor after all. The landscape had once been showered with bounties, had been verdant, fruitful, lacustrine. During my Othello, Jane and I had moved onstage and off in the blissful assumption of being admired, observed. Then the run ended and the big drought began and her Iago turned out to be a glass eye in a gabardine trench coat. Even the parts dried up.
           So of course I was gratified. That fragile hint of recognition. I had entertained a lady friend the night before, as I said—and you believed me, of course you would, the slightly rakish tone, the hint of concupiscence, the mirror before me, the profession—actor!—but I hadn’t, merely wished I had or wished you to think I had, wished you to think I had not been walking in this desert, but through a verdant garden continually renewed by rain. No, there have been days when that statement would have been effortlessly true, but those days were long gone. I had spent the evening at the local pub, drank a little too much, found my way home in a blur I don’t remember, woke to the memory of a tangle of limbs around mine, but found myself alone, with a yen for scrambled eggs and a slice of melon. And here, in the supermarket lineup, the young girl behind the checkout desk blushed when she recognized me.
           You see, I have of late been suffering from a complex. Now I could have said that differently, I’ve been suffering from a complex lately, lately I’ve been suffering from a complex, but I didn’t, did I, and why I didn’t is part of the problem. And that problem is the stage. The “of late,” again with its ever-so-slight archaism, its basic mechanism, which is one of delay, and delay, you will find, believe me, if you are ever stuck on stage before an audience of anything more than one, artful delay, is of the stage’s essence. And if you’ve read your Dr. Freud, which I will admit to doing, fitfully and intermittently, but enough to register unease about some of the more basic facts of living, and if you’ve ever acted, you might one day find yourself playing the part of Oedipus and thinking of Dr. Freud. You may one day find yourself playing the part of Oedipus and wondering at the fact that the most pivotal trauma Dr. Freud posited about our passage through this sorry spectacle we call life is based round a theatrical reality. A part. A character. A play. A story, so outlandish, so symmetrical, so complete, that it could never exist without the stage. And you may find yourself wondering about the stage and the world, wondering which is the mirror of which. And you may be wondering now, is that the essence of my complex, some delusional reversal of stage and life, of mirror and reality? And I’m way ahead of you, and will tell you no, my complex is by no means delusional. Nor is it Oedipal. But it is even more profoundly wedded to theatrical realities. I have a name for my complex, a private name. And I’ll share it with you. The Berkeley Complex. And it has of late returned. And when the girl behind the checkout counter recognized me, she blushed.
           They are both related, bear with me. When she blushed I was gratified, so gratified that I surprised myself. So gratified that I was relieved. Now think about this. The surprise I understood, but whence the relief? As if a hidden hand clutching my chest had just unclasped, a transparent plastic coating over my mouth had just imploded, I breathed for the first time, it seemed, as young girls say, in yonks, I breathed, felt relief, and only then knew I had not till that moment been breathing. And I recognized my Berkeley Complex. Berkeley—the bishop, that is, not the choreographer—the Trinity Divine who wrote the sentence that expressed, with bleak and inescapable clarity, the actor’s condition.
           Esse est percipere.
           To be is to be perceived.
           Think of it.
           We actors exist to be seen.
           And the corollary is, of course, terrifyingly simple.
           When we aren’t seen, we don’t exist.
           Even as a child I suspected some dissonance at the heart of things. I had a loving mother, too strong maybe, brought up in that old house out in Greystones, where the peeling veranda on the porch looked out over the Irish Sea. Something colonial about it, as if the rains that washed that yucca tree were somehow tropical, but they weren’t of course, they were cold, constant, and damp. Mother too strong, definitely, father ineffectual, wrote pamphlets on a variety of social issues, issues of—what’s the word—civic concern. Inveterate letter writer, to the Irish Times, Independent, Bray, and Wicklow Peoples. But the details are irrelevant, really, suffice it to say that when I woke at night, with the waves doing their business outside and the old house creaking, my greatest terror was that in that dark I was not, in that dark I did not exist, whatever had existed had diminished with the visible universe to what I could see at that moment, which was, precisely, nothing. I would blunder, chest constricted, through the doorways, out the hall, through the other doorway into that animal-odored room with the large brass bed where after an eternity her bangled hand would turn and switch the side-light on and my relief would be her eyes, seeing me, knowing I was seen. A peculiar child you might say, yes, not for me the snuggle under that blanket of maternal warmth, the Oedipal burrowing of my thin body between his and hers, no it was the eyes that did it, those brown orbs under the long dark lashes, illuminated by the yellow light under the shadow of the trembling lampshade. The plump hand with its bangle reaching out to me, the sweet port-sodden breath, all those were irrelevant, it was the eyes I wanted, always to be within the angle of their gaze.
           An awareness of the blessings of mirrors came at an early age. Yes, mirrors definitely helped. They were all over that drafty house and when she finally died, bequeathing it to me, I moved back into that mirrored heaven. Jane of course moved in with me, made an uneasy truce with my familial ghosts. For he had died first, odd how it goes like that, first Papa, then Mama, who never seemed to notice him when alive but was devastated by his absence. There was nobody, you see, to notice her. So she lost all the vital juices, lived in a cocooned memory of the days when they both noticed, even, dear God, loved each other. The old embers, Lord did she rake them over, bringing each memory out of the gray dust until it had given her whatever warmth it had accumulated. The memory, you see, of being looked at had now to serve for the fact. That day in Portrush, she would say, he looked at me, and I would listen, I would listen of course because she had to look at me. Then the sight went, cruelly, two days before she died, she was there but her eyes were no more, and a voice, eyeless, is hardly a voice at all. And the day she died, the most amazing of facts. How life, even at its bleakest, retains the capacity to surprise. One of those eyes, those eyes that so long sustained me, was made of glass.
           I had the undertaker remove it. Both lids peacefully closed, in the open coffin. But one of the sockets empty. And to those of you who shudder with revulsion I would say, Do you think the body will arise on Resurrection Day complete with its pacemakers, balloons of silicon, plastic limbs, ceramic teeth, and glass eyes?
           Mother. Did the drought begin then, Mother, the day I was thrown back upon the world, with nothing but a glass eye to sustain me? No, later . . .
           A glass eye, though, on a bedside table will strain the happiest of unions.
           Jane, damn her eyes—blue-green, with long brown lashes, an odalisque droop toward the corner—took severe exception. But then again, perhaps we had never had the happiest of unions. The arguments didn’t so much begin then as increase in intensity and frequency, until eventually an endgame was reached: It’s either me or it.
           How typical of this impossibility we call life to present a choice between the disastrous and the unthinkable. But, let’s face it, you do not lose your loved one for a glass eye. So I walked out one tempestuous day, having swept the glass orb from the bedside table into my coat pocket, and strode down the howling gale that the South Pier had become, with every intention of flinging it into the Irish Sea.
           But I couldn’t. Sitting on the wet metal of the Napoleanic cannon, I looked down into those uneasy waves. I imagined the eye sunk in the silt a hundred yards from the harbor, among the conger eels that slinked out from the gaps between the granite blocks. Alone, unobserved and unobserving, it seemed a fate quite literally worse than death, since death would have placed it secure within my mother’s hollow eyelid, in the oaken coffin, the graveyard on Bray Head.
           I returned home to Jane’s unblinking gaze. Did you do it? she asked. I did, I lied. You know, I’ve been worried about you lately, she said, and her eyes seemed to soften. She blinked, finally, twice. You’re dealing with a lot of issues, I suppose. Issues, I echoed. Yes, she said. Does it hurt to talk about them? Hurt, I echoed. Yes. This house, Gerald, I mean is it the healthiest thing to stay on here when . . . When what? I asked. When so much baggage comes—with it . . .
           She was moving closer to me, blinking as she walked. Her eyes, which had seemed dull for months, had regained that blue-green sparkle. I remembered that sparkle, that luminescence, her eyes languorously turning toward me, close, supported by my crooked, exhausted arm. It heralded the onset, or the aftermath, of the thing itself. You haven’t worked, you’ve hardly talked, and whatever happened to your Othello. My Othello, I echoed. Yes, she whispered, as she was up against me now, your Othello, you were going to revive it. My Othello is sleeping, I said, awaiting his moment. Well, she whispered, maybe it’s time we woke him.
           Her eyes turned toward me, later, supported by my crooked, exhausted arm. We should sell this house, she said, move to the inner city while you rehearse your Moor. My Moor, I said. And, she said, we should share a cigarette. And she reached down to my gabardine coat, extracted one packet of Players blue, one Zippo lighter, and one glass eye.
           She left the next day.
           The drought did not begin immediately. No, there was a period of respite, of relief even when the empty house seemed not blessed exactly but favored with an unexpected calm wherein the waves outside the window beat for me and for me only, when the glass eye sat calmly and inanimately beside the bonsai plants, a gift to me from her which I watered, of course, too much unfortunately so they soon began to shrivel and the eye, the blessed eye, reflected their diminishing oriental leaves. There was a period wherein I thought, as one would, it’s all for the best, the dripping underwear no longer hanging from the shower curtain. We could have moved as she wanted, not to this drafty mausoleum at the end of the Greystones line but to a place, a gaff in the inner city, a reacquaintance with old friends, old habits, the theater even, our Othello even, my Moor, her Desdemona, but it was, in the tawdry argot of the afternoon soaps, not to be.
           And one day, there it was, the drought. Strange how it operates, no way to isolate the moment of beginning, all you know is that something has commenced, something is now happening that once was not. The river shrinks, the grass whitens, the leaves curl, a burnished gold, a certain empty beauty at first, then the beauty fades leaving just that, emptiness, a dry well, river bed, fountain, shoreline, whatever the metaphor demands.
           Until that blush on the young Cinderella’s cheek while queuing with six eggs and a melon behind a mother and child at the checkout in Dunnes Stores. I was quietly gratified to be reaffirmed in my existence, paid my two pounds twenty, walked through that subcolonial architecture back to my empty house, sliced the melon, left it by the dead bonsai, fried one egg, toasted one slice of bread, dunked a teabag in a steaming cup, took it out again after a decent interval, poured a splash of milk, drank the tea, ate the breaded egg staring out at the bare, sere emptiness. The sea was so white it was hardly there. And I realized that if the drought hadn’t quite yet ended, its ending had begun.
           A triangle of sunlight came through the smudged kitchen window, illuminating the dried leaves of the bonsai. The earth inside the brown plastic vase was overflowing with cigarette ash. The glass eye reflected it and me and the segment of melon beside it. I lifted the eye so it reflected them no more, and wondered whether their presence was diminished by this lack of reflection. I saw myself in its convex glare, forehead and cheeks distended, the room behind me curved into its glass circularity. Mother, I whispered. And I placed her in my right-hand pocket, threw on my overcoat, walked out into the world.
           Into the unobserving street, onto the empty train, and through the eyeless city. I was alone in my carriage and alone observed the stations interrupt that rolling mess of ocean. It didn’t care whether it was seen or not, it pitched and ruffled without even the courtesy of regularity to its movement. Eucalytpus trees soughed past my window, pines, jutting elbows of manicured wilderness, houses, elegant and dowdy, a browning, shuttered swimming baths, a parkland, a sanctuary for birds. Then the roofscape of your average city, a hint of Victorian grandeur in Pearse Station, an escalator that looked like an old version of someone else’s future, a fumble with the ticket at the turnstile, a right turn down Amiens Street underneath the Brunelesque bridge that train I had just vacated trundled over. I walked, having no direction, and found my destination, not having looked. It was the Olympia Theatre. We had planned, in the days when we still made plans, to revive Othello there and I wondered on what stage, if any, she was rehearsing now.
           Is there anything quite as sad as a theatrical façade abutting a busy street in the early morning sunlight? The metal canopy jutting onto the pavement, the tattered board above it advertising last winter’s pantomime. Theatrical flamboyance unobserved. Or, observed alone by me. And I was pondering the mysteries of observance when I observed myself walking at a purposeful clip down Dames Street, turning right beneath the theater awning and walking through the glass double doors.
           That it was me, I was certain. The doors swung back now, just so, in and out with the force of my entry. And that I was standing on the opposite curb observing the doors swing closed again, I was certain too. But of how to reconcile both irreconcilable facts I was not certain at all. So I walked through the halting traffic, across the smoking street to the doors I had just entered, and entered them again.
           It was all must inside and damp red velvet. There were large mirrors on the walls and a booth in the center of the aisle of the alcove. There was a girl in the booth, rearranging ticket stubs. If she noticed that I was making my second entry, she gave no sign of it. I walked down the half circle that the aisle became, in my nostrils the corrosive smell of damp from the red carpet. The circular aisle gave way then to a door, and the scallop-shaped fan of the theater interior. I walked through the rows of seats with their velveteen covers, all around me the emptiness of my echoing footsteps. The stage was in darkness with the curtains pulled back. I heard a footstep then and recognized immediately that it was not my own. It was a woman’s step, with a dragging heel that sounded familiar.
           I thought you left, Jane said.
           I did?
           Two minutes ago.
           Where did I go?
           I don’t know. Where did you go?
           Tell me what I did before I left.
           Are you talking in riddles?
           No. Please. Tell me what I did.
           You kissed me and you promised this time to sort it out.
           Sort what out?
           See—I knew. Nothing changes.
           Her head bowed low, hair falling over her face, and her shoulders heaved. She was crying.
           Don’t cry.
           I can’t help it. Hold me.
           I walked slowly to the stage and put my arms around her. I felt a rage of unease inside me.
           Promise me you’ll do it.
           Do what?
           Please. Please. Her shoulders heaved again.
           I promise.
           I heard footsteps behind me. For a moment I feared they were my own. Then I heard the sonorous tones of a director.
           Now. Desdemona and Iago.
           I let my arms course down her woolen cardigan and wondered when she’d bought it. I stepped backward. For some reason I didn’t want them to see my face. So I slipped through the flies, blundered through the warren of half-remembered alcoves and out the stage door.
           I bought a Cuban cigar which I set between my lips, unlit, sat in a café opposite, and drank endless cappuccinos. I had a feeling he’d come back. Knowing myself as I did, the depths of prevarication to which I could sink, unless he had effected a radical change in my nature, I was sure he would come back. But he didn’t. He came out again.
           Smoking this time, a habit I thought I had quenched last year. An irritating actorly strut to his walk. Was that really how I looked, I wondered, how I appeared to others, the gabardine sitting rakishly on the shoulders, the sleeves hanging free? Please let that not be me.
           But me it was, actor, turning left down Crowe Street through the jumble of Temple Bar. The coat fluttered in the breeze from the Liffey, the empty sleeves were insufferably smug, if the pose was sickening, the poseur was nauseating.
           He turned right at the riverside and walked along the busy window of Virgin Records on Bachelor’s Walk. There was a kid of East European descent selling copies of Big Issue and I stood, ignoring his outstretched hand, staring in the window at a display of Leonard Cohen records. I saw the brown hair crawling over the collar of the rumpled gabardine coat, I saw the thick right hand run abstractedly through it, I saw myself move right, toward the entrance, past the left hand of the kid proffering the rolled-up copy of Big Issue, into the huge, pulsing interior. And I followed. I saw myself go from dark to light, into a world of desultory youths fingering through piles of CDs, up an escalator to the classics section. I walked from the escalator through the lanes of music as he did, I saw him stop by the compilation display and I stopped too. I saw his finger flick over the alphabetical headings until it reached C, and I knew in advance what I or he was going to choose. Leonard Cohen, Greatest Hits, of course, how unimaginative if inevitable. Jane always had a terminal weakness for that lugubrious two-note baritone voice, he missed her, or if he didn’t miss her, he wanted to abide for a moment in the common universe that was her. And I noticed then, how could I have missed it, how how how how, the torque, the half-circle that snaked inside his shirt collar, the two rubberized ear pads at either end, with the cable that coiled from them to his coat pocket, which could only have led to a CD Walkman. And I felt angry for a moment, I thought, how unmannerly, how unlike me or him, to come equipped with an accessory I would never have dreamed of possessing. And he picked up the CD with thick, stubby fingers and rapidly, with a sleight of hand I never knew I possessed, slipped the silver disk into the breast pocket of his gabardine coat.
           I was stilled for a moment by fear for myself. I began to sweat suddenly, glanced around behind me to see if anybody had noticed, one of those Virgin Records employees in the maroon golf shirts, a store detective, maybe, then I turned back to see myself walking with an effortlessly casual lope toward the down escalator. And I began to will myself safely out of the store. Don’t panic, I said, keep up that lazy, careless demeanor, lean that way, just so, off the moving handrail and that’s it, a glance to left, to the right, walk off the last moving step to the open glass doors, to the street outside. I half expected to hear an alarm sounding as I made it through the doorway, into the bright sunlight and then remembered he had palmed the disk, not the cover. And I began to congratulate myself then, following behind at six feet or so, weaving through the crowds down Bachelor’s Walk, through the cars that trundled over O’Connell Bridge. A theft, albeit a minor one, perfectly commissioned, the goods sitting snugly in my left-hand breast pocket. I had reached my right hand in to feel the disk in my gabardine coat before remembering it was he, not I, who had done the deed. And I saw him pausing slightly in his journey as his right hand pulled the disk out from his gabardine coat. He leaned against one of the metal uprights of Butt Bridge and inserted the disk into his Walkman. He placed the earphones on his head and turned round, hunching low, to adjust the volume. A train shuttled overhead and as he fiddled with the levels, his eyes glanced up and I swear they caught mine.
           As if a mirror had been placed, my eyes met mine, glinting with reflected sunlight, thirty or so feet away, the passing crowds and traffic intervening. My heart stopped or some such cliché, no it didn’t stop but the sweat that oozed from my pores once more wasn’t caused by the weak, afternoon sunlight. It was those eyes, more knowing than mine, more themselves than mine, infinitely more at home with what they saw, which of course was my eyes, reversed. They met mine, the lines round the corners creased in the briefest of smiles, then the head turned and moved on.
           He was making for the Tara Street DART station, of course, he had to be, the slow, crushed trek out to Greystones in the rush-hour crowds. And I followed, as by now I knew I must. There were two impulses to the following: the impulse to follow him, that is me, and the impulse to simply, like a carrier pigeon, return home. I bought my ticket, as he did, a one-way, no return, moved up the escalator into the cathedral of smoked glass above, and ran behind him into a waiting train.

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