I had been told that the interviewer was waiting for me outside in the hotel garden. The muffled oceanic roar of traffic rose steadily from the nearby road. She was sitting alone on a bench amid the raw planted beds and network of gravel paths, gazing down the hill toward the city where the snaking dark shape of the river wound through the old town, trapped by the intricate architecture clamped to its sides. The blackened spikes of the cathedral could be seen jutting above the rooftops.
She had come directly from the train station on foot, she said, since in this city to go anywhere by car was effectively a diversion from one’s aims. The postwar road system had been built, apparently, without thought for the notion of traveling between two points. The giant freeways circled the city without penetrating it, she said: to get anywhere, you had to go everywhere; the roads were permanently jammed while lacking the logic of a common destination. But it was a perfectly pleasant short walk through the center. She stood up to shake my hand.
“Actually,” she said, “we’ve met before.”
I know, I said, and her huge eyes lit up for a second in her gaunt face.
“I wasn’t sure you’d remember,” she said.
It had been more than ten years ago, yet the encounter had stayed with me, I said. She had described her home and her life in a way that had often returned to me during those years and that I could still clearly recall. Her description of the town where she lived—a place I had never been to, though I knew it wasn’t far from here—and of its beauty had been particularly tenacious: it had often, as I said, returned to my mind, to the extent that I had wondered why it did. The reason, I thought, was that this description had a finality to it that I couldn’t imagine ever attaining in my own circumstances. She had talked about the placid neighborhood where she had her home with her husband and children, with its cobbled streets too narrow for cars to pass down, so that nearly everyone traveled by bicycle, and where the tall, slender-gabled houses were set back behind railings from the silent waterways on whose banks great trees stood, holding out their heavy arms so that they made plunging green reflections in the stillness below, like mirrored mountains. Through the windows you could hear the sounds of footsteps on the cobbles below and the hiss and whir of bicycles passing in their shoals and drifts; and most of all you could hear the bells that rang unendingly from the town’s many churches, striking not just the hours but the quarter and half hours, so that each segment of time became a seed of silence that then blossomed, filling the air with what almost seemed a kind of self-description. The conversation of these bells, held back and forth across the rooftops, was continued night and day: its cadences of observation and agreement, its passages of debate, its longer narratives—at Matins and Evensong, for instance, and most of all on Sundays, the repeating summons building and building until it was followed at last by the joyous, deafening exposition—comforted her, she had said, as the sound of her parents’ lifelong conversation had comforted her in her childhood, the rise and fall of their voices always there in the next room, discussing and observing and noting each thing that happened, as though they were making an inventory of the whole world. The quality of the town’s silence, she had said, was something she only really noticed when she went elsewhere, to places where the air was filled with the drone of traffic and of music blaring out of restaurants and shops and the cacophony from the endless construction sites where buildings were forever being torn down and then put up again. She would come home to a silence that at those times felt so refreshing it was like swimming in cool water, and she would, for a period, be aware of how the bells, far from disturbing the silence, were in fact defending it.
Her description of her life had struck me, I said to her now, as that of a life lived inside the mechanism of time, and whether or not it was a life everyone would have found desirable, it had seemed at the very least to lack a quality that drove other people’s lives into extremity, whether of pleasure or of pain.