by Nigel Jarrett
Beth knew the soundtrack of Dr Zhivago by heart. We used to go around there, in the days of the video-cassette. Eddie would fast-forward and one of us would signal him to stop. Then the film would resume until the next exchange. Eddie would hit pause and we’d all turn towards Beth and wait for her to say what was spoken next.
She was always right—well, nine times out of ten. Most of us who’d read the book thought the film a bit mushy. The ice-palace scene made Beth tearful. Everyone knows it: the lovers are momentarily freed from torment, their love and guilt crystallised with the furniture and fittings; wolf cries pierce the freezing moonlit night. Sick-bucket stuff, one of us remarked out of earshot, before we knew how easily Beth was offended. She suffered in silence. It was Eddie who told us to go easy.
Beth was a one-movie memory freak. Eddie believed she could have passed the test with Brief Encounter. But it was never a party-piece. We’d all been film buffs; foreign stuff mainly: Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini—that lot. A tad out of kilter in the mid-1970s, we smoked like Belmondo, wore Moreau headscarves, cottoned on to signifiers and metaphors (as you do), and dreamed of rebellion. Beth was head dreamer; in fact, a wobbly case. But brighter than all of us.
She’d walked out on Eddie once before. Well, one of a disputatious pair has to leave. No-one else was involved, she insisted. Space was what she needed. It sounded like a cliché. Eddie said the only space he needed was one occupied by him and Beth. After a year they were back together. We kept in touch too, while she was away. We never apportioned blame, always let her explain, she’d phone; we’d answer; there’d be a sigh, or an introductory silence as though heavy breathing were to follow. Once, she did start drawing noisy breaths, before laughing and apologising. That’s just it, you see: she was so much fun.
Then it happened again, twenty years on, when we’d all turned fifty. A few long emails and phone calls to Eddie, apologising and telling him not to worry; a couple of emails to all of us. Then nothing. Eddie wondered if he should report her missing. We didn’t think the police would be impressed. We’re in a permanent post-frantic state, our lives changed for ever. She’s gone.
If it were not too awful to contemplate, we’d fear the worst. And when we’re not doing that, the memories of her ebb and flow like the tides, but without their regularity. And on the cusp of the wave sometimes rides an appeal to our sense of grievance: that what she has done—choosing not to contact us any longer—is hurtful. Would we act in the same way if we had decamped? Isn’t a true friend a friend for all time, till death them do part? Oh my god—that came so unbidden.
It was not like Lara’s disappearance in Zhivago. Eddie once remarked that in the conclusion of Pasternak’s book, one paragraph had been lifted more or less verbatim and given to the Alec Guinness character: “One day Lara went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street, as so often happened in those days, and she died or vanished somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list which was afterwards mislaid…” Eddie said this early on in our Zhivago immersion. After Lara’s final—final?—departure, there hasn’t been much discussion about anything. Poor Eddie. Poor Beth. Poor Lara.
Dr Zhivago wasn’t really a cabaret turn, though Eddie had come home late a few times to find Beth watching it. The colours had leached, so one Christmas he’d bought her a new version, a director’s cut. There’d been a Boxing Day viewing for us all, a Zhivago night in, with biryanis and Tiger beer. The long shot that shows Lara walking into oblivion near the end had raised only dim echoes of Beth’s first departure. Maybe in her it triggered something again. Friends never fully know one another: the undisclosed and unfathomable often lead to odd and inexplicable actions. Beth once said if only we could see ourselves as others see us. Quite deep, that. We’ll watch the film on Blu-ray now, as an unspoken memorial and when Eddie’s not there. He hardly ever is these days.
But we always recall the cassette days, when one of us zapped re-wind and we sat through that too, time’s arrow reversed. All the familiar scenes jerked by: Lara having second thoughts, her shadow growing smaller; Zhivago himself, the walls of his heart paper-thin, rising Lazarus-like after collapsing in a Moscow street; the fetid railway truck waste blowing back against those shovelling it out; Rod Steiger tumbling up the stairs into Zhivago’s arms.
But one episode we remember above all others: it’s where Strelnikov’s red armoured train hurtles like a wound through the Steppes. Backwards.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies award for short fiction and the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times. He is also the author of a poetry collection, a novel, and two other story collections. His work is included in the two-volume anthology of 20th– and 21st-century Welsh short fiction. He lives in Monmouthshire.
Website: http://www.Nigel Jarrett.wordpress.com