The Satanic Verses (Reading on the plane back from London)

I know what a ghost is, the old woman affirmed silently. Her name was Rosa Diamond; she was eighty-eight years old; and she was squinting beakily through her salt-caked bedroom windows, watching the full moon’s sea. And I know what it isn’t, too, she nodded further, it isn’t scarification or a flapping sheet, so pooh and pish to all that bunkum. What’s a ghost? Unfinished business, is what. – At which the old lady, six feet tall, straight-backed, her hair hacked short as any man’s, jerked the corners of her mouth downwards in a satisfied, tragedy-mask pout, – pulled a knitted blue shawl tight around bony shoulders, – and closed, for a moment, her sleepless eyes, to pray for the past’s return. Come on, you Norman ships, she begged: let’s have you, Willie-the-Conk.

Nine hundred years ago all this was under waters, this portioned shore, this private beach, its shingle rising steeply towards the little row of flaky-paint villas with their peeling boathouses crammed full of deckchairs, empty picture frames, ancient tuckboxes stuffed with bundles of letters tied up in ribbons, mothballed silk-and-lace lingerie, the tearstained reading matter of once-young girls, lacrosse sticks, stamp albums, and all the buried treasure-chests of memories and lost time. The coastline had changed, had moved a mile or more out to sea, leaving the first Norman castle stranded far from water, lapped now by marshy land that afflicted with all manner of dank and boggy agues the poor who lived there on their whatstheword estates. She, the old lady, saw the castle as the ruin of a fish betrayed by an antique ebbing tide, as a sea-monster petrified by time. Nine hundred years! Nine centuries past, the Norman fleet had sailed right through this Englishwoman’s home. On clear nights when the moon was full, she waited for its shining, revenant ghost.

Best place to see ‘em come, she reassured herself, grandstand view. Repetition had become a comfort in her antiquity; the well-worn phrases, unfinished business, grandstand view, made her feel solid, unchanging, sempiternal, instead of the creature of cracks and absences she knew herself to be. – When the full moon sets, the dark before the dawn, that’s their moment. Billow of sail, flash of oars, and the Conqueror himself at the flagship’s prow, sailing up the beach between the barnacled wooden breakwaters and a few inverted sculls. – O, I’ve seen things in my time, always had the gift, the phantom-sight. – The Conqueror in his pointy metal-nosed hat, passing through her front door, gliding betwixt the cakestands and antimacassared sofas, like an echo resounding faintly through that house of remembrances and yearnings; then falling silent; as the grave.

– Once as a girl on Battle Hill, she was fond of recounting, always in the same time-polished words, – once as a solitary child, I found myself, quite suddenly and with no sense of strangeness, in the middle of a war. Longbows, maces, pikes. The flaxen-Saxon bows, cut down in their sweet youth. Harold Arroweye and William with his mouth full of sand. Yes, always the gift, the phantom-sight. – The story of that day on which the child Rosa had seen a vision of the vattle of Hastings had become, for the old woman, one of the defining landmarks of her being, though it had been told so often that nobody, not even the teller, could confidently swear that it was true. I long for them sometimes, ran Rosa’s practised thoughts. Les beaux jours: the dear, dead days. She closed, once more, her reminiscent eyes. When she opened them, she saw, down by the water’s edge, no denying it, something began to move. What she said aloud in her excitement: ‘I don’t believe it!’ – ‘It isn’t true!’ – ‘He’s never here!’ – On unsteady feet, with bumping chest, Rosa went for her hat, cloak, stick. While, on the winter seashore, Gibreel Farishta awoke with a mouth full of, no, not sand.

Snow.

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988), p. 129-130.

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