The archive was subterranean, its ceilings vaulted, the lengths of its shelving lost in darkness. The letters were kept in box files, along with assorted photographs and objects pertaining to them – books, records, love tokens, hotel receipts, objets d’art, assorted items which may or may not relate to several different kinds of fetishistic sex. Desks inset with leather and lit by lamps with green shades allowed the archivist and one absent other to study the contents of the files. There were two plush velvet armchairs drawn up before an open fire, the only visible source of heating. The epistolary effort contained in the box files must run to millions of words. In among the papers were told thousands of stories, some single-sentence and anecdotal, others spun to novelistic length with the full weight of lives.
It was a grave responsibility, to hold all this under padlock and key. Yes, he had looked over what they had written or said to each other most recently, before the connection was abruptly severed, but he only ventured further back to find something specific, required because what he was writing at the time had prompted him to remember it, or had itself prompted the writing; but otherwise he was scared of jumping into the middle, or scrolling right back to the beginning, and reading chronologically from there. Afraid of all the beauty and heartache he would uncover and necessarily relive, afraid of becoming lost in her words, in their endless exchanges, until he might barely be able to summon himself back into the present. Already he had found himself lingering in the scents which greeted his nose when he opened any given box. He knew it was a danger, that he could so easily find himself marooned there, as if it were a desert island rather than an archive. And if he stayed, one day he might find himself walking into the sea surrounding the island, to swim beyond the shelter of the bay, and drown in the roiling water there, with no-one to hear his valediction as he sank beneath the surface. Because every word he read, he remembered afresh, as if reading or writing them for the first time.
And yet, in spite of this fear, he wanted to relive it all, he wanted to be with her that way; he wanted to dwell and to partake and to dream again. What was finer than the thousands of love letters that they had written to each other, the minuted and unminuted conversations they had had, the story-telling tennis they had played, the love they had made? In his estimation, nothing was. The greatest pleasure left in his life was to read her; and only someone who knew both the power of words and of love could understand why that was so. Of course it was not fair to those with whom he shared a life to lose himself in the past, after all the time he had already spent away from them in the present. It had never been fair, but equally that had never stopped him. There was nothing which he needed to convince or disabuse himself of; he knew his own heart.
Once he had written that while it had perhaps been mad for them to begin in the first place, theirs was not an amour fou. Neither of them was intent on destroying themselves; the connection was rational as well as emotional, and had its roots in the lives each had independently lived, roots which were thirsting for nutrients not available in the soil around them. It may have felt destructive at times as its magnitude made its impact on their day-to-day lives, but even if it had to end sometime, both of them needed it. Their love was necessary. It had to be. It strove to be, and was, and would be, as each looked back at it down the coming years.
Yet he couldn’t help recalling the ending of the film version of Damage, with Jeremy Irons’ character sitting alone in a room, on the wall of which was hung a huge blow-up reproduction of himself, his lover Juliette Binoche and his dead son. Yes, he recognised something of himself in that scene, and knew perfectly well that he must try with all his might not to let Irons’ character’s fate be his too. There ought to be a way to preserve the memories, the actuality of the love, the infinite and undying magnitude of the possibilities it conjured, without letting it overrun him, so that he was free to step in and out of the archive at will, in order to live and love fully in the present, and in the future.
Or so he thought as he sat in one of the armchairs staring at the life-size reproduction of his lover which he had hung above the fireplace. He suspected that for his part no trick, no sleight of hand or head would ever bring him to that place; only time could. But no-one, not even an archivist, had the luxury of commanding a limitless supply of that.