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In the Fountain

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But now I must sleep. Indeed. A nice line to end it all. A final rest for my characters and for my story. For myself. A softer rest, a more liberating release from such imposing confines, than I could ever truly live. Sixty-four years on, and this pool is the same as ever – save, of course, the piece of plaster horn floating somewhere in the lake’s silty depths. My calcifying rest has been eternal, as it shall always remain. A mercy, to let my lovers live and also myself; an equal mercy to let it end.

From the water’s edge, I can see the lights flashing in the main house. Silhouettes, black as the night above, float by the windows. They seem to be laughing, as far as their outlines can reveal. They seem to smile, to joke, to wander through their library with a mildly content aimlessness. I wonder what the occasion is and who this party is for. Who are the invitees? Old relatives of the Tallis family, as I have written? Perhaps. There is no way for me to know. In truth, the Tallises could be long gone from this property by now. The man I see walking the grounds in the mornings may well be the grandson of one of those red-headed little boys. More likely, he is not. But as he will never see me, does it matter if he is not himself? Does it matter what a little girl six decades past thought from the wrong side of a window pane?

Now, that is not the same. I must be fair. The little girl was never a little girl. The little girl, being the metaphor she is, can claim neither blame nor innocence. Metaphors are not responsible for the conclusions they imply, just as this fountain is not responsible for my life inside it. The little girl, the girl I so vainly (or was it boldly?) named after myself, has always been a vessel for a life lived beyond these concrete walls. A life with a sister so sharp and caring as poor Cecilia Tallis, a mother who loved me despite her distance (the migraines, after all, were not her fault), a boy as unexpected as Robbie Turner. Oh, Robbie. I could not give myself everything, though I am sorry he was the one to suffer.

And yet, even in this false life where I was a girl who slept in the bedroom overlooking my fountain, I could not escape certain things. Fiction cannot escape truth, even in contrivances as elaborate as my own. Briony Tallis watched her admirable sister and the housekeeper’s son break a vase and other things through a thick glass window. I, the Briony who is me, shared a plane with Cecilia and her story for a mere instant when she hopped into the fountain to fetch the shards. Briony Tallis heard nothing at all, while I heard only the garbled echo that manages to persist through so many gallons of water. I saw only a mirage-like version, refracted oddly by the heat, of that summer in 1935 from inside my fountain. I swore it was Robbie Turner, blushing or else heat-exhausted, coming up the drive to meet Cee with a letter in hand. I could not read it, so I spent some years devising the contents. I made myself the deliverer, so that I, Briony Tallis, could reasonably know them too. I did, in fact, have my head upon the fountain’s edge that night when some anonymous great figure (Paul Marshall, chocolatier, was an invention; I’m afraid I could not conceive a more interesting name or profession) knocked a girl, with hair so bright I could see it in the starlight, to the ground. I did not watch the rest, but I could guess. And I had reemerged to see Robbie leading a pair of similarly-shaded boys out of the woods.

But I did not see him after that. He had been talking about medical college that day at my fountain, had he not? Perhaps that was where he went. But I had seen the origins of something exceptional when Cecilia Tallis removed her dress, and I could not imagine him so far detached from this place. And so, to protect him from erring, I pinned him down. He was fixed, fixed inside a generalised prison, where only Cecilia would find him.

It was a sad day, some years later, when Cecilia Tallis reappeared on the grounds. She came to my fountain that day in 1940, sat on the edge. She was not crying, I do not think, though I thought she might have been earlier. I heard it from her brother Leon, who had come for the funeral. Robbie Turner, not safe after all. Robbie Turner dead, dead in a far-off and invisible war. I wish I could have ignored it, but truth is sticky and my fiction could not escape it. Not entirely. I changed my mind over the years, but the compromise is what stuck. He lives, he dies. He is still dead.

Sometimes I wonder if I pushed too far. This story, my plot and my characters and my precious thematic echoes, has given me something to do over the decades. It is a dull life, living in a fountain. I have been here so long I do not remember another one. Did I ever swim farther than a few metres at a time? My story has pulled me, if only a little, from this water. It has also made it worse, in some ways. I only know what I am allowed to know by those who come near enough. The tense push and pull of my imagination and reality, the reality I know exists beyond these grounds, grates on me more with each passing year. Perhaps I would have been best to ignore the Tallises altogether.

Yet I live in their reality, too. If only on the fringes, I am a part of the story. Me, me, the Briony with a tail and scales and an eternity to live.
It can never be enough. Did you know, I spent most of my life believing my fountain was a model of the Piazza Navona in Rome? It was only some years ago, when a man walked by and remarked about a day he spent in the Barberini, that I realised my mistake. My home is not my home. My story is not my story.

It is better that it, and I, sleep now indeed.