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Present Tense

Did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountains green? For the millions of Britons who have mouthed the words of William Blake’s hymn, the question has always been rhetorical. Of course Jesus walked there, if not across the Thames, then across the Avon or the Mersey, as certainly as Arthur pulled the sword from the stone.

But since the fall of the holy British Empire, Britain itself seems to have forgotten how to walk. It has stumbled out of its colonies, devolved out of its alliances and is staggering out of its constitutional monarchy and established church. Could even the mystical Mr. Blake expect a nation that has enough trouble erecting the Millennium Dome in Greenwich to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land?

Nevertheless, even in England there are spells of sunny weather. Somewhere in Albion (in Hurst Green or Wakefield or Temple Fortune), someone is rising again or drinking morning coffee (or tea) or reading a morning paper (the Times or the Daily Mail or the Scotsman) and wondering whether today is the dawn of a new era. Too young to have been blitzed, these optimists ignore headlines of strife in the Middle East and strikes in the Deep North. For them, Damascus has nothing to do with Syria. Instead, it’s that magical rest stop at the side of the motorway where, like the apostle-to-be Saul, they can find the keys to their Destinies and drive a new road to a sunny future.

But right now, it is 6:24 in the morning, Nov. 1, 1993, and Hazel Burns and Spencer Kelly are in bed. Having joined up shortly after midnight, they have achieved not only spectacular sex but also a remarkable intimacy for such a brief encounter. No wonder. Hazel and Spencer, now 23, have known each other since the age of 12, when they met on holiday “somewhere in Britain, just outside Penzance or Edinburgh or Hastings, close to Southampton or Newport or Torquay.” During the intervening years, although they have spoken for weeks’ worth of calling cards and 10 pence pieces on public telephones, they have avoided the decisive step of meeting once again in person.

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For Hazel, the issue is beauty. She is aware that her late-blossoming blondness blinds men to her more interior charms and worries lest her physical presence destroy her treasured phone intimacy with Spencer. For Spencer, it’s the job. Disappointments and tragedies, small and large, have kept ambition at bay. At present, Spencer is working as house-sitter and minder for an elderly agoraphobe named William who is afraid to abandon the limited knowledge of his habitat for the infinite questions of the outside world.

It is Hazel, stricken with an attack of late-night enthusiasm, who finally seizes the day and insists that they meet. But even now, on the perfect morning after, in Williams’ splendid mansion, Spencer is riven with doubt. Although the immediate choice is between spending the day in bed with an armful of Hazel or returning an armful of library books, " . . . all he really wanted to know was are you my Damascus?” Or stated less biblically: Is Nov. 1, 1993, the day when he will grip Hazel by the hand and live by the present tense and turn his life to some purpose?

For it is another of Richard Beard’s conceits that Spencer and Hazel have lived their whole lives on this one day, Nov. 1, 1993. Although Nov. 1 is All Saints’ Day throughout Britain, there is something of “Groundhog Day” to “Damascus,” with our hero and heroine, like Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, doomed to repeat this single day unless they can move forward into the present tense. “It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in the Kingdom, in Quarndon or Northampton or Newry or York, in Kirkcaldy or Yeovil or Lincoln or Neath, a baby girl is born. Her name is Hazel,” opens the book. But it is also “the first of November 1993 and somewhere in Britain, just outside Penarth or Holyhead or Dover . . . it’s the last day of the holidays and Spencer Kelly (12) wants to hold Hazel Burns (12) by the hand.” It is Nov. 1, 1993, when Hazel (14) wears her first mini-skirt; it is Nov. 1, 1993, when the deaths and divorces that define the Burns and Kelly families occur. November 1, 1993, is Damascus Day, and those who fail to recognize it are doomed to repeat it.

The road to Damascus never did run smooth and is pitted with more hazards than simple questions of commitment. Telephilic Hazel has chosen as a profession the teaching of long-distance correspondence courses. From an invisible lectern, presenting courses on subjects from the kings and queens of Britain to the British detective novel, Hazel has developed her own private theater, hiding behind an unlisted address and the voice of a cat-owning spinster. Teaching has brought her one peculiar student in particular, named Henry Mitsui. The son of an Australian mother and a Japanese diplomat, Henry led an unremarkable life until the day his parents discovered, in his bedroom, “certain diagrams . . . filed in coloured folders [representing] a series of ingenious machines and ideas for committing murder in sealed rooms, including a gun mechanism concealed in a telephone receiver and a poison gas which made its victims strangle themselves with their own hands.”

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On the advice of the famous Dr. Osawa, Henry’s wealthy father sent his son to England. But now, on Nov. 1, 1993, having graduated from his correspondence course, Henry is due to return to Japan. The first to recognize his own appointment in Damascus, Henry is obsessed with the goal of meeting and marrying his invisible teacher. He escapes his father and, armed with nothing more than a telephone number and a packet of poison, tracks Hazel down to William’s mansion. There, over a billiard table at the bottom of a drained swimming pool, Hazel, Spencer and Henry play for their lives, a game that might as well be called Damascus.

The questions that Beard and his friends ask in between bank shots are about as deep and dangerous as the pool: Is there some grand scheme, or is life “like a newspaper, disconnected and arbitrary from beginning to end.”

Though the volume of the novel is low, it is never lite. “Damascus” is utterly, optimistically charming. Beard’s London bears little resemblance to the decadent mod-land of Hanif Kureishi or the neurotic inferno of Martin Amis but seems like a city with not only a present tense but a future. Remember, Damascus was only a converting point for Saul. Jesus, Jerusalem and hope became his new destinations.

A young Brit, born in 1967, a man who came of age in the Thatcher years, Beard is perhaps a bit self-conscious at wearing his heart on his newspaper. Like his first novel, “X20: A Novel of (Not) Smoking,” which was greeted with great admiration three years ago, “Damascus” is ticked and tricked up with a Nicholson Baker’s dozen of stylistic marzipans. “X20" was set in 20 chapters, counting down the narrator’s final cigarettes and days. An acknowledgment on the last page of “Damascus” claims, “All except twelve of the nouns in ‘Damascus’ can also be found in the Times (London) of Nov. 1, 1993.” Maybe Beard felt he needed all this icing to protect him from a Hampstead chill of middle-class romance.

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He needn’t have worried. There is a simple beauty and a compelling wit behind the veils of Beard’s star-crossed lovers. The naked radiance alone of Hazel’s coming of age would do Gwyneth Paltrow proud. After a long Nov. 1, 1993, we can’t help but gaze with naive fondness at Spencer and Hazel, or Henry and William, each with his or her passport firmly stamped “Damascus,” flying or loving or slouching back to Tokyo or Notting Hill or Jerusalem.


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