We started reading Emma soon after the sirens took over our evenings and sometimes our nights. Their expectation was worse than their whine and from the first waning of the winter light in the late afternoon you found yourself nervously gobbling chocolate or peanuts or anything just to fill that pulsating, dark hole where your stomach used to be. Then, as the evening crept into night, your ears became the channels of all tension and fear. Every whirr, chirp, peep and whistle became the start of the horrible moaning whine. Bits of Mozart on the radio, a car alarm in the next street, even the wind: all the familiar sounds were anxiously filtered by the fevered brain, checked for their identity and intentions and finally allowed to pass. It got so bad waiting that you craved for it to be over with for the night. Let the urgent emergency pips break into the music, let the wailing begin, let the door be sealed, the wet rag be put in place over the threshold, the cat be accounted for, the gas masks donned and the cost counted. Two fell here, one fell there. Patriots rose to the occasion. This street hit, these people injured, lightly, moderately, badly or worse. Let the anxious voice on the radio express its fatherly concern and tell us that, this time, it was merely ‘conventional’, good old-fashioned explosives, and if we weren’t lying under piles of rubble, we could take our masks off, unseal our doors, save our wet rags and above all stay at home.
Perhaps that is why we started reading Emma aloud, Molly and I in turn and usually before the nightly wail. Emma is the novel with two of the greatest stay-at-homers in English literature. Mr Knightley and Mr Woodhouse both make staying at home the summum bonum of life, different from all windy ideals in that it is eminently attainable and totally practicable. Going out, says Mr John Knightley, is unnatural behaviour ‘in defiance of the voice of nature, which tells man, in every thing given to his view or his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all under shelter that he can’. I try, as I read, to put into my voice the settled authority of an English gentleman whose idea of shelter is a comfortable fireside and whose enemy is nothing more than dismal weather. This reassuring, if eccentric firmness is not so easy to pull out of one’s throat if one’s hypersensitive ears are ferociously scanning all sounds for symptoms of wailing. The trouble is that the radio is always on, even while we are reading about Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte, so that the hard electronic pips of the news and the drone of undefined voices impose a nervous, irregular punctuation upon the rational grace and subtle poise of Jane Austen’s sentences. Surely Emma does not hesitate so much in her scheming thoughts. Aren’t those pregnant pauses more to do with Harold Pinter’s dialogue than with conversations in the drawingrooms of Highbury? Bravely we read on trying to subject our breathing to the rhythms of Jane Austen rather than the despotic beat of an approaching threat. Will Mr Elton declare himself before the siren? We read faster hoping he does, because after the wail and the sealing of the door and the wet rag and the mask, Highbury becomes an impossible place to return to and, anyway, we all have to stay at home.
It may be uncanny, even absurd, but we have discovered a clear connection between our sealed room and Emma’s Highbury. On appearances no two places on the face of the earth could be more different. Our room looks like an ‘installation’ by Beuys or a wrapped-up project of Christo’s. Its cracks and holes, visible and imaginary, are papered over with broad brown sticky tape. Its windows (two are too many for safety) are covered by two layers of plastic sheeting fixed to the wall and ceiling by delicate strips of masking tape. There is some air trapped inside the sheets of plastic and they swell and billow a little like meagre sails in the gloom of the permanently shuttered room. Some light penetrates through the cracks in the shutters, and the plastic gives a yellowy, amber look. Perhaps this is what a beehive is like in the winter, stuffy, plugged up, lit by weak squibs of amber light?
When the siren wails we know what to do. The hardest thing is to seal the door round about with sticky tape. This is so because you have to open it again (if all goes well) without destroying and tearing the tape. The stuff has disappeared from the shops, people have bought miles of it but we who only have enough for a small war have to nurture it. You do this, once you can open the door again, by tearing it off ever so gently like a loving nurse opening a dressing. Treated this way, the tape stays stickable time after time, wail after wail; it fringes the door like a brown halo, a paper seal of our covenant with whoever is protecting us from poison in the air above Jerusalem.
Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse, might not have deigned to call our room a room (he would have hated the mean windows), but he would most certainly have approved of its sealedness. Although he never heard a siren, and would have refused to believe that people, even non-Englishmen, could be capable of hurling poison at each other, he fully recognised the danger of an open door. Indeed, his disapproval of Mr Frank Churchill has a lot to do with the latter’s cavalier way with doors.
That young man (speaking lower) is very thoughtless. Do not tell his father, but that young man is not quite the thing. He has been opening the doors very often this evening, and keeping them open very inconsiderately. He does not think of the draught. I do not mean to set you against him, but indeed he is not quite the thing.
On that evidence Mr Frank Churchill would not be allowed in our sealed room for, like Mr Woodhouse, we take draughts very seriously. More obsessive even than Emma’s father, we have papered over the keyholes and worry about the hinges. Behind our barriers of plastic and sticky tape we have our last line of defence – two black gas masks.
Wearing a gas mask concentrates the mind and focuses the sight. It concentrates the mind on breathing and focuses the sight on what the reptilian eye-holes let you see. I see Molly fidgeting with the straps that are entangled in her hair. She sees me trying to absorb some of the stillness of the wall behind me. In the first panic of the first time it was hard, almost impossible, to breathe. With experience you learn the trick and understand that breathing doesn’t just come naturally but can be measured and controlled. Talking is quite hard, though, and reading Emma under such circumstances would be out of the question. Apart from anything else, the exertion would steam up our plastic eye-shields and use up too much valuable air. Mr Woodhouse would have considered the masks barbaric but, as a man who put great stress on health, he might in the end have been persuaded that the discomforts of such an unnatural way of breathing were offset by the advantages of being assured that one was imbibing pure air.
Instead of talking or reading Emma, we listen to the radio telling us, in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, Amharic, Yiddish and Spanish that the sirens have sounded all over the country and that we are waiting to count the cost. When it is all over and at least our bit of the country has been allowed to put its masks back in their boxes and unseal itself, we will have energy for nothing but a drugged sleep with the radio purring beside us.
I can wait for another evening to pick up Emma again, but Molly is worried that things won’t come out right. With so much uncertainty around us, with the instability of the very ground under our feet and the walls around us, who can be sure even of the marriage of Emma and Mr Knightley? It does no good to open the book at the last page: we have to get there step by familiar step, sentence by sentence, evening by evening, siren by siren.