excerpt

It sometimes seems to Toby that his life turned out the way it had from a failure of imagination. He had lacked sufficient vision, he had not dreamed clearly enough for even those things he desired most to materialize. He sensed that other people, his friends, had envisioned their futures with a definition that bordered on will. They had seen themselves with husbands or wives; had seen houses, plum jobs, children. Nothing had turned out exactly as they imagined, of course. And many had gone. To England or Canada or the States, to the Gulf or Australia. Whole families slipped away to other parts of the globe, wives following husbands, brothers following sisters, elderly parents persuaded to live in suburbs with grandchildren, shopping malls, washing machines.

But whatever eventually happened to them, Toby knew his friends had begun with the idea that a particular life was waiting for each of them. They sat in somebody’s garden, young and fearless and certain, talking politics and a bright new India, falling in love with one another and dreaming futures they could name. They seized them the way they grasped the necks of bottles, and they tipped their heads and drank. For a time, Toby waited to catch up and then slowly came the idea that he never would. Something sharp in them was, in his own nature, blunt. He could feel it even as a young man, even when Jean was by his side, sitting among them in a garden lit with lanterns and listening as one quick voice replaced another.

“What do you think, Toby?” (It might have been anything – women’s rights, the cut of a new suit.)

“I think I’d better have another.” Appreciative laughter. He hadn’t had a strong singing voice of charm or looks, but he was easygoing and loyal – a sweet fellow, Colleen called him – a general favorite. He held his own.

Eventually there would come a call for music.. Glasses refilled, a raucous chorus, chairs pulled in an untidy circle. Jean, who always sang flat, clapped her hands until she could resist no longer and then joined in, defiant and joyous, grinning when the guitarist told her to move; she was putting his instrument out of tune. Toby pulled his chair closer to hers. After they had gone through several rounds, a few people began to yawn. Some set off home, dropping their hands on the shoulders of those still sitting, kissing cheeks. The songs grew quieter. Colleen sat on the ground, her back to Toby’s chair, her legs stretched before her. At dawn a small group would still be talking, fingertips smelling of cigarettes, empty glasses clustered near the legs of chairs. Jean had gone but Toby could not tear himself away. Someone’s sister, looking pale and tired, would lean forward to convince the boy she thought she would marry (in fact it would be another, asleep on the sofa inside) about the work she intended to do in a literacy program. How urgent she was, how hoarse-voiced, how lovely, pushing an unruly bit of hair behind her ear. It was all too important to sleep.