Tony reflects that when you’re young, you expect certain difficulties of old age: being lonely and widowed, your friends dying and your own death approaching. But you never look ahead and then imagine yourself looking back to the past, having to deal with less certainty as friends die and leave you to revisit your former self. He thinks back to Adrian’s line about the imperfections of history. Lots of official history has happened in Tony’s life, including the fall of Communism, 9/11, and global warming, but he’s never quite trusted it like he does events in Greece and Rome or the British Empire. He feels safer with agreed-upon history; perhaps, too, it’s that the history that should seem clearest is the most treacherous. If we can’t understand time, which bounds and defines us, he wonders how we can understand even our personal portion of history.
As the book’s second section begins, Tony reflects upon the specific difficulties of old age and how it affects the way one interprets the past. That is, he thinks, it’s increasingly complicated to try to remember one’s own life the older one gets. Adrian’s definition of history, as inadequate documentation meeting imperfect memory—and resulting nonetheless in a feeling of certainty—seems to hold true, in Tony’s case, for official and long-ago history, though less so both for recent history and for the events of his own life, which are of course embedded within the events of the recent past.
Tony thinks about how for young people, everyone older than a certain age looks older, eventually belonging to the category of the “non-young.” Tony also notes that he still plays a good deal of Dvorak, though not Tchaikovsky. Sometimes he smiles to think that Ted Hughes never did run out of animals.
In these musings, Tony compares and contrasts his assumptions as a young man to the person he’s become today, balancing what has changed with what has remained constant.
Tony gets along well with Susie, though he reflects that younger people no longer feel the need to keep in touch. He imagines her thinking condescendingly of her doddering retired father, though then thinks he’s just being self-pitying.
Tony’s relationship to Susie is rendered all the more obscure by the fact that he is obviously biased, both as her father and as the narrator-protagonist, in telling of it.
Tony thinks of a friend who has a son in a punk rock band: she’d mentioned one title, “Every day is Sunday,” in which that phrase is simply repeated over and over for the entire song. It made him laugh and remember feeling like his own life hadn’t yet begun.
If every day is Sunday, the work week never begins: this anecdote can be related to Tony’s memory of feeling like he was in a “holding pen” in high school.
Tony now describes a letter he received in a long white envelope, from a legal firm: they are writing “in the matter of the estate of Mrs. Sarah Ford (deceased).” He has been left 500 pounds and two documents. After responding with the necessary legal details, he sits down and tries to recall that weekend in Chislehurst from forty years before. Hard as he might, he can’t recall anything substantial other than being manipulated by Mrs. Ford’s daughter (and patronized by her husband and son): why would that require such an expensive apology?
For the first few pages of Part Two of the novel, Tony simply lingers over seemingly unessential details. Now, though, it becomes clear that this may have been yet another delay tactic, before he launches into the event that, it turns out, first triggered him to return to the years of his past described in Part I. His frustration remains regarding the importance of that Chislehurst weekend.
Tony, besides, has successfully put the pain Veronica caused him out of his mind: he never wondered if things would have been better with Veronica, and never regretted his years with Margaret. Perhaps he lacks the imagination to have fantasized about a wildly different life than his own.
What Tony has elsewhere called his “peaceable” nature seems to have prevented him, until now, from revisiting the past fully—he’s preferred to leave it behind him in order not to feel hurt or guilty.
Tony opens the first document to read a letter from Mrs. Ford. She says she thinks he should have what is attached, since Adrian always spoke warmly of him. She isn’t quite sure of her motives, but is sorry for the way her family treated him many years ago, and wishes him well. In a P.S., she says she believes the last months of Adrian’s life were happy. The second document is missing: the solicitor (lawyer) says it is still in the possession of Mrs. Ford’s daughter.
Mrs. Ford’s letter seems to confirm all the discomfort, bitterness, and class envy Tony had felt during that weekend many years ago. However, her motives for sending the other document, as well as why she’d say that Adrian’s final months were happy, both remain a mystery.
Tony reflects that Margaret used to say men were attracted to one type of woman or the other: those who were clear-edged and those who implied mystery. Sometimes she seemed to wish she was the latter, though Tony always said he’d hate for her to be a woman of mystery: for him that was either a façade or, worse, a sign that she was a mystery to herself.
This reflection is another hint that Tony’s relationship with Margaret may be more troubled, at least on her side, than he believes or admits. She seems to have felt that if she were more mysterious, perhaps Tony would not have treated her so complacently.
Tony has been influenced by Margaret’s clear edges over the years: rather than patiently beginning a correspondence with Mrs. Eleanor Marriott, the lawyer, he calls her to ask what else he’s been left. She replies that it’s a diary belonging to Adrian Finn. Veronica Ford apparently has said she isn’t yet ready to part with it. Tony asks her for Veronica’s address.
Although Tony portrays his relationship with Margaret as a simple friendship, it’s obviously deeper than that: this and other anecdotes show how much she’s affected and changed him over the years. Tony’s own stubbornness, though, is also in evidence.
Tony reflects that the less time remains in one’s life, the less one wants to waste it. But he also realizes that he spends much of his time tidying and cleaning things, both in concrete ways (recycling) and less concrete, settling his affairs with his daughter, grandchildren, and ex-wife, and achieving a general state of what he continues to call “peaceableness.” He doesn’t like mess, he reflects. So he makes a series of phone calls: to Mrs. Marriott to ask for Jack Ford’s contact details; to Margaret to arrange a lunch date; and to his own lawyer, T.J. Gunnell.
What Tony long ago learned to think of as his “peaceableness” continues to be a major aspect of his character. Here, though, his attempt to “tidy” his own affairs involves inserting himself into messy, long-buried memories and relationships that he’d thought were definitively part of his past. It seems that he’s peaceable more to himself than to others.
Tony admits that when he first met Margaret, he’d pretended Annie was his first real girlfriend: he had been telling himself that his relationship with Veronica was a failure, anyway, so he wrote it out of his past. But after a year or so married to Margaret, he told her the truth. She understood, asking questions and looking closely at the one photo Tony kept with Veronica and his school friends. As he expected, she didn’t make a fuss: she easily forgave him.
The way Tony tells this story, it seems to confirm his view of Margaret as reasonable, uncomplicated, and easily accepting of him. Of course, it’s possible to draw other interpretations from her behavior, and to infer that she may have been more upset by this revelation than she let on.
On the phone with T.J. Gunnell, the lawyer advises Tony not to doggedly pursue Veronica’s “theft” of the diary—the police wouldn’t be eager to pursue charges against a woman who just lost her mother. He also tells Tony that if the Fords are paying the bills, it’s not a great idea to badger Mrs. Marriott either, as she could slow things down further. It might take 18 months to two years for things to be sorted out. Finally, Gunnell asks if there’s anything in the past between Tony and Miss Ford that might become relevant, were they to pursue civil (or criminal) proceedings. A certain image suddenly comes into Tony’s mind: he thanks Mr. Gunnell and hangs up.
Although Tony still has no idea why Mrs. Ford left Adrian’s diary to him, or what it might contain, he now has come to think of it as properly his. Even though it’s a stretch to think that Veronica’s withholding of the diary constitutes a crime, Tony will increasingly come to use such language (including evidence, corroboration, clues, and so on) to make sense of what follows. The image that comes to mind, most likely a memory of Veronica (or of Tony himself doing something he’s too ashamed to say), isn’t specified.
Mrs. Marriott takes two weeks to give Tony Jack Ford’s email; Veronica has declined to have her contact details passed along. Tony sends a formal email, offering his condolences and asking if Jack might use his influence to persuade Veronica to hand over the “document” left to Tony. Ten days later Jack replies with a long, rambling email: he’s semi-retired, traveling in Singapore, and makes an excuse about unreliable Wi-fi. He then says he’s never been his sister’s keeper: in fact, putting in a good word for Tony might have the opposite effect. He ends with a jovial phrase about having to dash off for his rickshaw. Tony is suspicious: for all he knows, Jack is in some mansion by a golf course in Surrey, laughing at him. Perhaps class differences resist time longer than other kinds of difference, he thinks. He emails back politely, asking for Veronica’s email address.
In the brief period that Jack and Tony knew each other, Tony had always felt that Jack treated him with bemused skepticism—as if Tony was so unimportant that full-throated scorn would be too strong an attitude to take towards him. Now it seems like little has changed, that Jack is just as subtly and yet gleefully condescending as he’d always been. The fact that Tony still feels the bite of such possible teasing speaks to the persistent strength of his feelings of inferiority even forty years later; he continues to feel this way even as he admits class difference is the primary reason.
Tony meets Margaret for lunch. He thinks how nice she looks, and how he notices what’s remained the same about her looks rather than what’s changed with age. Barely having sat down, she asks him what this is all about, and he laughs: such directness is typical for her. He immediately says it’s about Veronica Ford, (he and Margaret, he notes, aren’t insecure about each other’s previous lovers). She responds, “the Fruitcake?” Tony is uncomfortable, but knows that when he’d told Margaret the story, he’d made Veronica out to be far more unstable, and him more innocent, than was the case, so it’s his fault if Margaret has a rather negative view of her.
Tony’s relationship to Margaret is, again, not necessarily as easy or simple as he makes it out to be—nor as direct as her personality. It’s possible, for instance, not to take Tony at his word when he insists that they easily talk about each other’s previous lovers. The “Fruitcake” anecdote is also another example of the novel’s interest in the way people revise and rewrite their pasts, making others—who are conveniently not around—appear in a different light.
After a series of questions, Margaret asks wryly what the “long-divorced” Tony would do if the presumably unmarried Veronica were to walk into the café at that moment. Tony blushes, but says he wouldn’t be particularly excited to see her. Margaret tells him to forget about it and cash the check, taking them both on that budget holiday they’ve often thought of doing. She says it’s nice they’re still fond of each other, even if she knows he’ll never book the holiday. She looks almost enigmatic as she says this, though Tony knows there’s no enigma to Margaret.
More seems to be going on in this passage than Tony is acknowledging. His blush, for instance, suggests that Tony is intrigued by the sudden return of his long-ago girlfriend. Margaret is performing an easygoing, platonic interest in Tony’s feelings, but her holiday suggestion may well be more serious than she admits (and more earnest than Tony, too, is willing to admit).
Tony realizes that he wants the diary so badly because it might be evidence, or “corroboration”: it might jump-start some aspect of his memory. Margaret again suggests he let it go, but finds it touching that he’s so stubborn. Then she tells him a story about her friend Caroline, who had a husband, children, and an au pair she wasn’t sure about. She asked another friend for advice, who told her to go through the au pair’s things. Caroline found the girl’s diary, and read it: it was full of cruel judgments about Caroline and speculations that the husband had feelings for her. Tony asks if she fired the au pair: Margaret says that’s not the point. As they leave, he recalls another thing she once said: some women aren’t mysterious, but are only made so by men who can’t understand them.
Once again, the term “corroboration” suggests more than simple confirmation of what Tony remembers—it’s a word with more legal, even investigative overtones, although it’s not clear if this is because Tony feels like an innocent victim, guilty himself, or some mixture of the two. Margaret’s advice, meanwhile, has to do with the pain and suffering that can come from knowing too much—Tony’s curiosity about what happened next suggests that he’s precisely the kind of person who might fall into such a situation.
After a week, Jack sends Veronica’s email along with a cheery note about blue skies in Sydney. Tony is surprised and grateful: he tries to return to the few things he remembers about Jack, including Adrian’s harsh judgment about the way English people have a way of not being serious about being serious. He wonders if time has punished Jack for his lack of seriousness. He begins to imagine another kind of life for him: perhaps Jack stumbled into a multinational company job, competent at first but increasingly inept in a changing world. Perhaps he’s a kind of emissary for a big company, sent to various cities to back up the local bigshot, taking his laptop to cafés with Wi-Fi, since hotels are too depressing. Having invented a past for him, Tony can now think about Jack in a way that allows him little to no discomfort.
Adrian, more earnest and serious than any of his school-age friends, had also been frustrated with Jack and other Cambridge students’ flippant attitudes—something that seemed to join Jack and Tony, even if Tony always felt socially inferior to Jack. Now, however, Tony imagines another narrative for Jack—one that, crucially, has value not because it’s true or probable, but because it’s a comforting one for Tony. The novel suggests that people do this kind of thing all the time, constructing comforting stories about other people in order to ease their own pain.
Tony recalls that Veronica’s father drove a Humber Super Snipe—a strange name, it strikes him. He’s wondering if he does in fact suffer from nostalgia, if that means the “powerful recollection of strong emotions” and a regret at the absence of such feelings now. In that case he is nostalgic: for his early years with Margaret, for Susie’s childhood, for the road trip with Annie. He wonders if it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain, too.
Tony is dredging up old memories in an attempt to get what he wants out of Jack: here he remembers the upper-middle-class car (one that was discontinued after the 1960s), but as he does so he begins to reflect more generally about nostalgia and regret, about the inability to relive happy (and perhaps also less happy) times outside of memory.
Tony writes to Veronica and receives a one-line reply: “Blood money?” He can’t understand it, other than the idea that Sarah Ford has offered money in exchange for the pain her daughter caused him. At least this is consistent with his understanding of her as a “woman of mystery,” though at this point he has no interest in “solving” her.
Tony has been assuming all along that the process of guilt, corroboration, and forgiveness will happen in one direction: that he’s the one who’s been wronged. It’s this assumption that the rest of the novel will go on to reveal as tragically narrow-minded.
Tony notes that Veronica seems confused by his dogged but tranquil approach. His precedent is the strategy he took when the villa he and Margaret used to live in together began to show signs of wear, cracks and crumbling bits of wall. The insurance company blamed the lime tree in the garden. Although Tony was never a fan of the tree, he objected to the principle of obeying invisible bureaucrats. He prepared a long, stubborn campaign of letters, site inspections, et cetera, until finally the company gave up, to his immense satisfaction.
This anecdote, seemingly out of place in the story, does a few things: it fills in another detail of Tony’s life with Margaret, which he may not have fully appreciated while he had it; and it underlines his own stubbornness, his insistence on not giving up until getting what he wants. This determination isn’t quite depicted as admirable, however.
Finally, Tony receives a letter from Mrs. Marriott containing what she calls a “fragment” of Adrian’s diary, from what seems like a page at random. The text is written in numbered paragraphs, and it begins by asking (as note “5.4”) if life might be considered a wager, and if human relationships might be expressed in a formula. There follow a few formulas with the integers b, a1, a2, s, and v. Then Adrian asks if logic can and should be applied to the human condition. If a link between the integers breaks, he writes, who on the chain is responsible—how far might the limits of responsibility extend? The final phrase is “So, for instance if Tony” before the page ends.
This diary fragment is crucial, both as a key to the relationships between Tony, Adrian, Veronica, and Mrs. Ford, and to the rest of the novel’s plot, which will unfold in large part as the result of Tony’s attempt to understand what Adrian means here. It’s already clear, however, that Adrian continued to be obsessed by questions of responsibility as discussed in school—though here he is trying to apply such abstract questions to his own life.
Tony is first struck by how admirable Adrian still seems, how intense his rational argumentation still remains. He suggests that if psychologists were to plot a graph of pure intelligence measured by age, most people would peak between sixteen and twenty-five. At that age, he remembers now, Adrian had seemed like he was designed to reason and reflect: it was a treat to accompany his intellectual process.
Tony and his other friends were always in awe of Adrian’s intellect. It was in part this intellectual respect that allowed Tony to eventually accept Adrian’s suicide as a rational, even admirable philosophical act.
Tony finds himself comparing his life to Adrian’s: he wonders, thinking of a certain poet, if his life had “increased” in richness and value or if he’d simply accumulated years. Looking at Adrian’s formulas, he wonders if there’s been multiplication, not just addition and subtraction, in his life: he feels uneasy. He realizes that the “If Tony…” refers to something specific that he’s forgetting, but now he reads it as a general hypothetical: if only he hadn’t been so fearful, if only he’d refused to settle into “peaceableness.”
Although Tony doesn’t mention who he’s thinking about, Philip Larkin’s poem “Dockery and Son” has a line, “Why did he think adding meant increase?” to which he might be referring. Tony is also returning to the terms of Adrian’s logical formulae in order to reassess his own life, which now looks pale, boring, and wasteful compared to the high stakes of Adrian’s.
Tony recognizes that he does find comfort in his own stubbornness, however. He keeps sending jovial, jokey emails to Veronica every other day, though also includes “half-sincere” questions about her life. He is pursuing what is rightfully his, not harassing her, he reasons. Finally, one morning he gets a reply: Veronica is coming into town (that is, into London), and says she’ll meet him at 3 in the middle of the Wobbly Bridge—the new footbridge over the Thames, which used to shake a bit when it opened.
Although Tony has just expressed frustration with his own character as contrasted to that of Adrian, the fact that he quickly reverts to his habit of stubbornness underlines the difficulties of changing one’s character and personality, especially so late in life. Indeed, Tony is still incapable of being serious even about what he cares about.
Tony instantly recognizes Veronica by her posture as he approaches the middle of the bridge the next day. She seems tense, as if unhappy to be there. She notes that he’s lost his hair; he replies at least it shows he’s not an alcoholic. She directs him to a nearby bench, then asks why people think he’s an alcoholic. He says it’s just that heavy drinkers never lose their hair: she probably can’t think of a bald alcoholic. She replies that she has better things to do with her time. Tony thinks that he’s changed, but she (and her conversational tactics) haven’t.
Tony’s thought that he has changed substantially seems rather obviously false. Even though Veronica always seemed enigmatic to Tony, she is actually more direct than he is, expressing impatience with his jocular attempt at small talk and witty banter, just as years before she had asked him straight out why it was that he wore his watch inside-out.
Veronica looks somewhat shabby, in Tony’s eyes. Her hair is the same length it was 40 years earlier, though gray now, and he thinks it doesn’t become her. She asks him to get to why he asked her to meet. He protests that he never asked for a meeting, then finally asks her if she’ll let him have Adrian’s diary. Veronica replies that she’s burnt it. First theft, then arson, Tony thinks angrily. But he remembers his strategy to treat her like an insurance company, and merely asks neutrally why she did so. People shouldn’t read each other’s diaries, she responds. When he protests that she and her mother must have read it, she tells him he can read something else if he’d like, and hands him an envelope before turning and walking off. At home, Tony looks through his emails and confirms that he never directly asked for a meeting. He also thinks that Margaret’s theory of women should be modified: he was attracted both to her and to Veronica.
Tony’s immediate judgment of Veronica’s visual appearance seems to underline the fact that certain things about him haven’t changed over the years—the ways he objectified Veronica, for instance. Yet Tony continues to consider himself the victim, responding with anger and bitterness to the revelation that Veronica did away with Adrian’s diary. Tony seeks and does find what he'd call “corroboration” that he was right about not having asked for a meeting—it’s implied that this may be beside the point, however. His final reflection in this scene returns to Margaret’s theory about women being either mysterious or straightforward, but also underlines the way he’s playing with both women, all while assuming himself to be innocent.
Tony remembers thinking, when he was young, about all the adventures that would await him, how he would live as people in novels did. At some point in his late twenties, he realized he’d never live out those dreams: instead he’d mow his lawn, take holidays, and simply live. With time, though, he’s realized that he tried to be mature and was only safe—it was his way of avoiding life rather than facing its difficulties.
Tony increasingly feels as though these events are a kind of adventure—which only emphasizes how much his life has lacked any kind of adventure before this. Thinking life should be like an adventure novel may be naïve, but here Tony realizes that he’s veered too far in the opposite direction.
Tony waits a day and a half before opening Veronica’s envelope, knowing she’d expect him to rip it open immediately. He wonders why she had suggested a meeting, eventually coming up with a theory: she needed to say something in person, which was that she’d burnt Adrian’s diary—something that she wouldn’t have wanted in writing.
Tony has a penchant for coming up with theories to explain and categorize other people’s behavior. As plausible as these theories might be, the novel suggests that Tony may be unable at times to see the difference between theory and reality.
Tony sits down with a glass of wine to read what’s in the envelope. It’s a photocopy of a letter in his own handwriting. He reads it, quickly pours his wine back into the bottle, and pours himself a whisky instead. He thinks about how in telling our life story, we shift things around or make cuts—and the longer we live, the fewer people are left to challenge the account.
Before sharing the contents of the letter, Tony shares his immediate reactions: the letter is meaningful enough to unleash a set of reflections on certain chilling aspects of self-editing one’s memories (and shocking enough to require a stronger drink).
The letter, reproduced in the text, is addressed to Adrian but also to Veronica, whom he calls the “Bitch.” Tony says he hopes that the two of them will end up mutually damaging each other, and will be left with a lifetime of bitterness. Part of him hopes she gets pregnant so that time can make its own revenge, but then Tony writes that it would be unjust to give an innocent fetus the burden of knowing it came from the two of them. Addressing Adrian, he writes that Veronica is a cockteaser who pretends she’s struggling with her principles: if she hasn’t yet had sex with him, he advises that he break up with her, and then she’ll be ready and willing. He tells him to ask Veronica’s mother about “damage” that’s probably been done to her in the past. Addressing Veronica, he says she can’t outsmart Adrian, despite her tactics of isolating him, making him dependent on her, etc., and suggests it’s only a question of whether she can get pregnant before he finds out she’s a bore. The letter continues in this vein.
In Part One of the novel, Tony had mentioned this very letter—it was the one that he briefly described as more serious than the jokey postcard he’d initially sent, but nothing too memorable. At that time, and really until this moment, Tony has been considering himself to be a victim far more than Veronica. Here, however, Tony reveals himself to be strikingly callous, bitter, cruel, and misogynistic. He alludes once again to the “damage” theory, which he’d mentioned in his earlier memory of this letter: but the theory comes across as far darker when yoked to his insults about Veronica’s character and sexual “policies,” as he’d described them.
Tony keeps drinking whisky and rereading the letter. Unable to refute its authenticity, he can only plead that he no longer recognizes that version of himself. He thinks about how cruel and jealous he’d been. But then he wonders why Veronica would give the letter to him: he imagines it’s a tactical move, meant to warn him that he’ll be his own character witness should he try to make any fuss about Adrian’s diary. He thinks, then, about how this was the last piece of communication Adrian received from him before he died. He’d written that time would tell: he recognizes now that time is telling against him. Finally, Tony remembers the first, fake-cool postcard he’d sent Adrian: it was of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a place where people commit suicide every year.
Here, Tony is faced with just the kind of “corroboration” he’s been looking for in various contexts—the only problem is that the evidence is not at all what he wishes to see or hear. Strikingly, however, Tony almost immediately moves to questioning Veronica’s motives, continuing to assume a level of manipulation and deceit on her part that increasingly seems unwarranted. Still, the diary unleashes memories of his final piece of communication with his old friend that are newly, and painfully, meaningful to him now.
The next day, Tony keeps thinking about himself, Adrian, and Veronica, and about how much more hurtful people can be when young. He thinks that it wasn’t cruel of the two of them to tell him they were an item. Rather than shame or guilt, he feels something stronger and rarer: remorse. He describes this as a primeval feeling, characterized by the fact that nothing can be done, no amends can be made. All the same, he sends Veronica an email apologizing.
Tony spends the next day reacting in a number of different ways to the letter: here he first reflects in a general way about the hurtfulness of young people, but then seems to take some personal responsibility for his own past actions, both through the apology he sends Veronica and through his feeling of true remorse.
Tony then thinks about Adrian again, about how compared to Adrian he’d always been a “muddler,” settling for life’s banal realities. He feels remorse more generally about his whole life: about the loss of his friends from adolescence, of the love of his wife, of his early ambitions. He hadn’t wanted life to bother him too much, and he’d succeeded—succeeded at being average at life. Veronica replies to the email, simply saying that he doesn’t get it, and that he never did. He knows he can’t justifiably complain.
In causing Tony to reevaluate his own cruelty, the letter also provokes him to regret what might be considered something quite different—his mediocrity. He compares himself to Adrian even more now that he knows how hurtful he was to his friend, and how little his own life lived up to the allure and courage of Adrian’s own (at least in Tony’s eyes).
Tony keeps wondering: why Veronica had his letter, why she’d bothered to answer his email if she hated him so much, if he’d been awkward or pushy or selfish during their relationship. On another lunch date, Margaret listens to the story. Tony knows she likes being a sympathetic ear, even if he ignored her advice: he also thinks she likes being reminded, by stories like this, of why she’s glad she’s no longer married to him. He asks if she left because of him; she replies that she left because of “us.”
At this point, Tony finds himself needing to return to many other aspects of his past, struck by the fact that if he so dramatically revised one memory, he may well have done the same with others. At the same time, he seems to both want a certain level of closeness to Margaret and to remain willfully naïve about her feelings for him.
Tony reflects again on his relationship with Susie, with whom he gets on “fine.” He remembers thinking, after her wedding where he served as witness, that he’d done his duty: all he had to do now was not get Alzheimer’s and remember to leave her some money. Margaret has been a better grandparent than he has, he admits; Susie once told him he could take Lucas to see football when he’s older—failing to notice that Tony doesn’t like football. At some level she blames him for the divorce, even though Margaret left him.
Tony’s reflections on Susie lead from Margaret’s prior comment: he seems to want to justify his own competence at fatherhood, even while acknowledging his weaknesses in that field. He begins to seem even defensive about the fact that Susie blames him for the divorce; it’s hard to know to what extent either of them is right.
Tony wonders if character develops over time: perhaps it’s like intelligence, but peaks a little later, between 20 or 30. That might explain many lives, he thinks: it might explain what he calls “our tragedy.”
This passage is enigmatic, but has to do in part with Tony’s frustration at how people’s characters often have only a limited capacity to change.
Tony thinks back to Adrian’s diary and what he had written about “accumulation”: life is not just the addition or subtraction of what is gained or lost, but the accumulation (or multiplication) of loss and failure. He also reflects on what Adrian wrote about responsibility: Tony is all for drawing the limits narrowly, and he thinks that he and Adrian came to more or less the same conclusion on that front.
To accumulate implies that everything builds on, changes, and develops from what has come before—there’s a process of exponential growth rather than mere addition. However, Tony also reflects that in questions of personal responsibility, the accumulation of guilt can become excruciating.
Tony envies the clarity of Adrian’s life: in your twenties, he reflects, you have much greater certainty of what life is, and what you are and might become. You can remember everything about your short life. Later, memory becomes “shreds and patches.” Like a black box in an airplane, the tape erases itself if nothing goes wrong—so it’s obvious what happened if you do crash, but much less clear if you don’t.
Once again, Tony shows a certain level of thoughtlessness in his envy of Adrian’s short life—cut short, of course, by suicide. But Adrian’s life seems more meaningful precisely because it has ended: Tony can try to make meaning out of it by perceiving it as a whole, which he can’t do for his own life.
Tony reflects that there’s lot to be said for the spontaneity and immediacy of email: he might have written a letter to Veronica and then have second thoughts before posting it in the morning, but instead he writes an email asking only if she thinks he was in love with her back then. He presses send before thinking too much. In the morning, she replies that if he has to ask, the answer is no. Tony calls Margaret to tell her about this exchange: after a silence, she quietly says that he’s on his own now.
Tony may think that it’s a good thing that he was spontaneous enough to simply send the email, but it’s not at all clear that this was a good idea—indeed, it seems even more troubling for Tony to ask such a question having received the letter from Veronica. Margaret is well aware of this level of thoughtlessness, even cruelty, as she extricates herself from further participation.
Tony thinks about how Jack’s contempt is still biting to him, forty years on. He wonders if his own cruel letter was trying to get back at Veronica for what Tony imagined was her contempt for him. He’s been profoundly, intimately shocked by the aggression in the letter, and imagines that Veronica might have carried resentment for it over many years: this would perhaps justify her destruction of Adrian’s diary.
Returning to the thought of Jack’s emails, which were after all not obviously contemptuous, Tony realizes that fear of others’ contempt and scorn has been a motivating factor for him for a long time—and now one that he projects onto Veronica too.
Tony wonders if there might be a cure for the pain of remorse after all—if it can be made to “flow backwards” and be forgiven: that is, if he might prove that he wasn’t such a bad guy to Veronica after all. He has the tendency to call Susie before a five-day holiday, just so that her last memory of him is a pleasant one. Now, toward the end of his life, he feels a similar desire for people to think fondly of him, to tell others, after his death, that he wasn’t a bad guy.
By using the term “flow backwards,” Tony seems to implicitly be referring to the Severn Bore and the alluring possibility of returning to the past, here so that he can fix things. Tony is portrayed as intensely occupied with what other people think of him, but the novel also suggests that this desire is all too ordinary.
Tony looks back at the Trafalgar Square photo and wonders if he should track down Alex and Colin, asking them for their memories and evidence. But he knows their memories won’t be any better than his, and imagines the painful things about him, Adrian, and Veronica they might say. Mrs. Ford is dead, and Jack abroad: Veronica is the only one remaining.
Though still eager for other kinds of corroboration that he wasn’t a horrible person, Tony is realizing that, as he’s now getting older, there are few such people left. This means that he can largely write his own account of the past, but here he wants something truer—something that will convince himself, not just others.
Tony notes that he doesn’t want to blame Margaret, but that she’d left him with no one else to turn to. He writes another email to Veronica, asking about her parents and saying he has good memories of them. To his surprise and relief, she responds almost as if pleased to be asked. Veronica’s father has been dead for decades, she says, as a result of heavy drinking and eventually esophageal cancer. Tony pauses, remembering his flippant remarks about alcoholics on the Wobbly Bridge. After his death, Sarah Ford moved to London. About a year ago her memory had begun to fail, and the last month had particularly been a struggle: her death was a mercy. Tony rereads the email looking for traps or hidden insults, but it’s just an ordinary, sad story.
The remark about not wanting to blame Margaret comes across as tongue-in-cheek, but it’s quite possible that Tony relies so much on her good sense that he now feels unmoored without her. Both she and Veronica seem simultaneously drawn to and incredibly frustrated by Tony. His flippancy and casual manner, for instance, probably did prove hurtful to Veronica with respect to her father’s sickness and death. This is one of the first times that Tony is able to let go of his assumption that Veronica is manipulating or making fun of him, and simply have compassion for her.
There are various ways to deal with the regular failings of memory that come with age, Tony thinks. Once in a while, though, his brain surprises him. Suddenly, long-buried details from the weekend with the Fords begin to resurface: the view from his attic room to a wood; Jack referring to Mrs. Ford as “the Mother”; Veronica’s sultry good-night kiss to him, after which he masturbated into the little washbin. He googles Chislehurst and discovers that there was never a St. Michael’s church there (it must have been Veronica’s father’s private joke or else another way he was belittling Tony).
Here one more of the images with which The Sense of an Ending began is repeated: sperm circling a basin and being flushed down the length of a home. Tony had emphasized how Veronica seemed to distance herself from him that weekend, but this new memory seems to undercut that view. The St. Michael’s church question, meanwhile, could be a similar instance of mis-remembering.
A few nights later, Tony calls Veronica and suggests they meet again, promising he doesn’t want to talk about her mother’s will. She asks if this is about closing the circle: he says he doesn’t know but can’t imagine it will do any harm. She suggests the restaurant on the third floor of John Lewis (a clothing store) on Oxford Street. On the train, as Tony looks at a girl sitting across from him listening to music with headphones, eyes closed, a memory comes to Tony of Veronica dancing. She didn’t dance, and yet one night she mischievously pulled out his pop records and said she wanted to see him dance. He complied: after a bit he opened his eyes to see her leaping around elegantly. He moved closer and caught her, saying she must have realized it’s not that difficult: she never thought it was, she said.
Even as Tony has been forced to face the reality of how cruel he acted toward Veronica and Adrian, the letter has also unleashed a swath of long-buried memories—many of them positive—such that he does seem to think he can make Veronica choose to believe in a more generous version of himself, one that he’d like to present to her. Meanwhile, after decades of choosing to view Veronica as manipulative, deceptive, and “damaged,” Tony begins to recall another version of her younger self, one both more playful and more complicated than he remembers.
Tony arrives to find Veronica there already, reading a Stefan Zweig novel: he cracks a joke about her making it to the end of the alphabet. He’s suddenly nervous, as he’s never read Stefan Zweig. He shares the memory he just had of her dancing, and she wonders why he remembered that: with this “corroboration,” he feels somewhat more confident.
Stefan Zweig is an Austrian novelist who was extremely popular before World War II but then largely forgotten. Tony’s joking manner is, after all these years, a way of covering for inferiority (here, for Veronica’s sophisticated intellectual tastes).
Tony asks how her last forty years have gone, but Veronica tells him to go first. He relates the account that he tells himself: Margaret and Susie and his grandchildren, his work and retirement and winter breaks. As he’s describing his grandchildren, she looks up, downs her coffee, puts money on the table, and stands up. He protests that it’s her turn, but she leaves before he can do anything. She’s managed to spend a full hour in his company with divulging anything about herself, yet he feels like he’s been on a moderately successful first date, though with someone who’s suddenly prompting long-forgotten details about their shared sex life together, 40 years before. He remembers how part of him hadn’t minded not going all the way with Veronica. Some of that, though, had to do with his fears: of pregnancy, of an overwhelming closeness he might not be able to handle.
The way the “date” unfolds and the way Tony interprets it are rather at odds: one could easily see Veronica’s decision to leave as a sign of failure rather than success. Tony’s self-delusions here only underline the fact that he’s not exactly a reliable narrator even for events that are currently unfolding, much less ones that he’s remembering from many decades before. However, this meeting also allows him to continue to come to terms with the fact that what he’s long considered to be calculating sexual withholding on Veronica’s part was not quite that—that in fact sex was frightening and complicated for him too.
The next week is a quiet one. Tony knows Margaret won’t call if he doesn’t. He’s been feeling somewhat bad about her. He remembers a work party from early in their marriage: Margaret didn’t want to go, and he flirted—he modifies this to a “bit more” than flirting—with a girl, though he quickly cut it off. Now he feels similarly guilty as then, though he struggles to imagine why.
The comparison underlines what seems to be clear despite Tony’s (willful or unconscious) blindness: that in some ways he’s been stringing Margaret along all the while he’s been trying, if not to get Veronica back, then at least to get her to revise her opinion of him.
Tony doesn’t want to press Veronica, but he hopes for a polite message saying it was nice to see him. Even if part of him rolls his eyes at stories of love late in life, another part of him is always touched. He suddenly remembers going to see the Severn Bore with Veronica alongside him—he’d forgotten that she’d been there. They’d shared hot chocolate from a flask, and the two of them had spoken about how impossible things sometimes happened, which you’d only believe if you saw them. In a court of law today, of course, he’s not sure this memory could stand up to cross-examination. Perhaps he’s revising such memories now for new purposes.
Here Tony returns to a memory that he’s described and mentioned a number of times—indeed, it appears to be such a clear and significant memory to him that it seems remarkable that, until now, he’s entirely erased Veronica from it. This perhaps has to do with the particular way he’s tried to remember Veronica, and the fact that their thoughtful, speculative conversation didn’t fit into the version of her that he came to adopt.
Tony’s new theory, though, is that memory survives on the same loops, drawing on the same facts and emotions, for years: but if something new happens at a late stage—such that emotions regarding those long-ago facts change—old memories might resurface. He’s not sure if this is how the brain works, but this is what seems to be happening to him.
Tony once again shows his penchant for “theories” that would reassuringly explain events of his life and those around him. Still, it does seem like the letter—as shocking and unpleasant as it was—has unleashed such a set of new memories.
Tony emails Veronica again, apologizing for monopolizing the conversation and asking to meet again. After a few days, she replies, asking him to meet her at a Tube station he doesn’t know in north London. He thinks this is thrilling, contrasting it to Margaret’s penchant for plans and dislike of surprises. He tries to reactivate other old memories of Veronica, and reexamines his old self: he recognizes that he’d been “crass and naïve,” but also that he needed to maintain his own version of his relationship with Veronica. He thinks back to Old Joe Hunt’s addition to his own definition of history: the “self-delusions of the defeated.”
Tony’s stubbornness and refusal to back down are in full evidence here. He also continues to compare and contrast Veronica and Margaret, the two women in his life, without fully coming to terms with the way he’s failing to respect them by considering them both as “options.” As the scene also shows, Tony is attempting to come to terms with his own “self-delusions,” but much about his own character, past and present, remains hidden to him.
There is objective time, but also subjective—the kind worn on the inside of your wrist—Tony thinks, and the latter is measured with regard to memory. With the appearance of these new memories, it’s as if time is placed in reversed, as if the river runs upstream.
When Tony reaches the Tube station, he sees a familiar posture: Veronica turns and walks off, leaving him to follow her to her car. He tries to make small talk, including sharing his memory about the Severn Bore, but she says, “Driving.” So he looks out the window: first they pass a normal London street, packed with all kinds of people, but then reach a nicer (“posher”) neighborhood. Tony has no idea what’s going on, so he cheerily asks how Jack is doing. She responds that Jack is Jack, and when he launches into another memory, she interrupts him to say, “Waiting.” Suddenly Tony realizes that Veronica is nervous, though clearly not about him.
Veronica’s thoughts and actions were, even many years ago, often confusing and opaque to Tony, and here things seem to continue in such a vein. He attempts to regain a level of closeness to Veronica by sharing the Severn Bore memory—her “corroboration” of his memory of her dancing had felt like a kind of vindication for him—but she refuses to play along, clearly preoccupied with something else.
Finally, Veronica asks him to look along the pavement, where five people are coming towards them. In the front is a man wearing various layers of tweed despite the heat: his jacket is covered with metal badges, and he wears a jolly expression, like someone at a circus. One man with a black moustache, and another smaller, malformed man follow behind them: they all speak in loud voices and seem timid and somehow ageless. They’re accompanied by a young man in a uniform.
The group of men is described exactly how Tony sees them, which accounts for the defamiliarized (that is, purposely confusing and unfamiliar) way they’re depicted. Veronica clearly wants Tony to pay close attention to the group and to understand how they’re related to her, to Tony, and to their past.
After a long silence, Tony asks Veronica what’s wrong with them, and then asks if they’re care-in-the-community. Veronica suddenly lets out the clutch of her car, and, terrifying Tony, she swerves around the block—he thinks about how Margaret was always a nice, safe driver. Veronica tells him that he never got it, and never will.
“Care in the community” refers to a British policy, begun in the 1980s, of caring for physically and mentally disabled people, often outside of institutions. Tony refers to them in a casual, uncompassionate way; hence Veronica’s reaction.
Veronica’s maneuvers have allowed them to get ahead of the group again. The presumed care worker is telling one of them, Ken, that Friday is pub night, not tonight, and he’s protesting. The man in tweed suddenly notices Veronica, and the care worker smiles and holds out his hand. All four ambush her, and she smiles for the first time that day. Tony can’t hear what’s being said, until she says, “Soon,” which they all repeat. The “lopsided” man waves goodbye to her, calling her “Mary.”
Veronica obviously knows this group of people, which is one of the only things Tony is able to grasp from their conversation. Referring to one of the men as “lopsided” further underlines Tony’s lack of compassion with respect to disability. Finally, the reference to “Mary” recalls one of the first things Tony ever mentioned about Veronica—her middle names.
Back in the car, Tony says that they all seemed very pleased to see Veronica. He continues to ask questions, to which he’s met with silence. After trying out a number of conversation topics, he asks why the “goofy chap” called her Mary. Veronica slams on the brakes, then tells him, “out.” Tony complies, though he says she’ll ruin her tires if she keeps driving that way.
Tony’s questions show that he’s obviously curious and wants to know more about the group, but he continues to display a striking callousness by calling people who Veronica seemingly knows and loves “lopsided” or “goofy.”
Tony feels foolish and humiliated, especially after the hopefulness he’s recently felt, especially about the possibility of overcoming Veronica’s contempt. He’d really thought he could turn back time: he’d taken what she’d said about closing the circle as an invitation, not as biting irony. In fact, her attitude toward him has been consistent over the past few months as well as so long ago. He’d wanted to prove to her that she was wrong to judge him, or rather that her initial liking of him had been right. He’d left common sense behind in imagining he could rewrite the past.
Although Tony wants to change Veronica’s opinion of him and “turn back time,” he hasn’t exactly acted in a way that might invite such reevaluation—indeed, he’s been just as jokey, casual, and unserious as he was as a young man. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Veronica has acted this way toward him (even though her attitude also raises the question of why she continues to feel invested in him in the first place).
Tony’s next week is one of the loneliest in his life: he replays to himself Margaret’s statement that he’s on his own now, and Veronica’s that he just doesn’t get it. Knowing that Margaret wouldn’t yell at him if he called, and would happily agree to another lunch date, makes him feel even lonelier.
Tony knows on some level that Margaret loves him and would happily get back together with him, even if he won’t admit it to himself. Rather than thinking of her, though, he focuses on his own loneliness.
However, Tony repeats that he has an instinct for self-preservation. He rallies, deciding to return to his desire to put his affairs in order—which requires getting his hands on that diary. He writes to Jack, saying Veronica has been just as mystifying to him as she’s always been. He asks for any other advice, and for any way he might illuminate why Veronica wanted to show him care-in-the-community people on the Northern line. Tony writes to Mr. Gunnell, saying that his recent dealings with Miss Ford suggest a certain instability in her, and he now thinks it best that a professional like Mr. Gunnell settle the affairs with Mrs. Marriott. Gunnell responds, but Jack never replies.
Tony’s “instinct for self-preservation” has previously not seemed like such a good thing—indeed, Tony has reflected already that such an instinct has led him to avoid feeling too deeply or taking major chances. Still, he’s also reflected that it might be impossible to change one’s character later in life. Tony’s decision to call Veronica “unstable” in order to get what he wants seems, indeed, chillingly similar to how he called her “damaged” in his letter to her and Adrian.
Not long afterward, Tony is driving to North London, eventually finding himself in the street where he and Veronica had parked. He watches bands of schoolchildren, many on their phones, a few smoking. The girls have very short skirts, and he thinks neutrally about how much things have changed. He waits for hours, then gives up; he continues for a few days.
Some of what the novel has been exploring is how personal changes in one’s own life map onto broader changes in society—here, the schoolgirls’ outfits would never have been allowed in the 1960s, although Tony seems to want to avoid judgment either way.
Eventually, Tony remembers overhearing that Friday is pub night. The following Friday he drives to the pub along the second street where he and Veronica had stopped. No one shows up, so he comes back a second Friday and orders dinner. The week after that, the “lopsided” man and the man with the moustache arrive at the bar, and the bartender immediately brings them what Tony presumes is their regular drink. A black woman who seems motherly comes in after about twenty minutes, pays at the bar, and leads the two men away.
Tony’s behavior reflects an earnest desire to understand the significance of the group of men Veronica had pointed out to him, but also an unwillingness to really engage with them as people, as opposed to figures identifiable through their visual characteristics alone—characteristics that he refers to in ways that many people might find offensive.
Tony becomes a regular at the pub, working his way through the menu: he’s patient. One evening, all five of the men show up at the pub, though three of them enter the shop next door instead. Tony follows them and purchases something before returning to the bar: the three men enter too. Without a real plan, Tony walks up to the bar to order food, and says good evening to the gangly man, who seems about forty. The man takes off his glasses and looks Tony in the face, and Tony says quietly that he’s a friend of Mary’s. The man begins to smile, then panics, whining and shuffling away.
As an older retiree, Tony has a certain freedom to spend time where he chooses: he’s both persistent in trying to figure out the connections Veronica has been wanting him to draw, and unhurried in doing so. It’s significant that the “gangly man” is about forty, the span of years that makes up the novel’s own time—and that Tony has the opportunity to take in the man’s appearance, glasses off.
Tony sits at the bar and looks at the menu; the black woman soon approaches him, and when he says he hopes he didn’t do anything wrong, she replies that it’s not good to startle the man, especially now. Tony says that he’s a friend of Mary’s, to which she replies that, in that case, he’ll understand—and he does.
Tony’s epiphany (which is not yet described) takes place at the cost of upsetting the man, as the care worker warns Tony—another example of how Tony often unwittingly hurts those around him.
Tony had seen the truth in the man’s face, their eyes, color, and expression, “corroborated” by his height and bone structure. This had to be Adrian’s son. Tony’s first reaction is to think about what he wrote in his letter to Veronica and Adrian, about whether Veronica could get pregnant before Adrian discovered she was a “bore.” He had never found her boring; he was just trying to hurt her. Then he remembers the part of the letter about the “innocent fetus.” The very word remorse, Tony knows, comes from the Latin meeting “to bite again”: the strength of the bite this time is immense. He doesn’t believe in curses, and yet feels that there’s something evil and otherworldly about what he did.
The term “corroboration” significantly recalls Tony’s desire to find some kind of evidence that would remove him from guilt or responsibility. Here, though, the corroboration is of a different nature, revealing to him the nature of the mystery that Veronica was attempting to explain to him. With this clarity, the same facts of the past, his own actions and words, once again look entirely different to him in the harm that they must have done.
Tony thinks of how he’d so recently been indulging in vague fantasies about Veronica even while admitting he knew nothing about her life. Now he has some answers: she had gotten pregnant, and perhaps the trauma of Adrian’s suicide had affected her unborn child. Her son can’t function independently and needs constant support. Tony wonders when the diagnosis had been made, and to what extent Veronica had sacrificed her own ambitions and desires for her son—he imagines the guilt and sense of failure she must have felt when deciding ultimately to have him taken into care. He reflects how ungenerous he’d been to think of her as looking unkempt and shabby on the Wobbly Bridge: he was lucky she’d given him any time at all, and it makes sense that she’d burn Adrian’s diary.
Tony has to come to terms with the ways he’s projected imagined pasts onto other people (Jack as well as Veronica)—but since he only has some of the answers, he can’t help but keep imagining other ones, even as he knows that there’s no assurance that his new “theory” will be right. Here, however, Tony’s imagination is engaged not in order to make himself feel better, but in order to really try to put himself in Veronica’s shoes and think about how his own actions have affected and harmed her.
Tony has no one to tell this to: as Margaret said, he’s on his own, and now must return to his own past to reevaluate it. He thinks of Adrian, his philosopher friend whose intellectual acumen and noble gesture of suicide has reemphasized, as time went on, the comparative littleness of Tony’s own life. Now he sees Adrian as he really was: a young man who got his girlfriend pregnant and couldn’t face the consequences. Tony has to entirely reevaluate the way he always saw Adrian: in fact, he was just another version of Robson. For the first time, Tony realizes he and his friends never thought about Robson’s girlfriend or their child. He imagines the child being adopted, then attempting to trace his or her birth mother. He wants to apologize to Robson’s girlfriend for the way they’d discussed her and for the little attention they gave to her pain and shame. Adrian, in turn, had been an actual adult, unlike Robson; yet he couldn’t even face marrying his girlfriend. Rather than grandly refusing the gift of existence, Tony concludes, Adrian was just afraid of being trapped into marriage and family life.
For many decades, Tony has unquestioningly accepted his own preferred version of Adrian’s character, one in which Adrian was an intellectual genius far more clever and mature than anyone else, and one whose mental acumen even, perhaps, justified his own suicide. In some ways, Tony’s realization leads him to reevaluate his own past immaturity, particularly regarding the ways he and his friends paid little attention to imagining the pain of Robson’s girlfriend—comparing her to Veronica, Tony now recognizes that there was much more to the story than he accepted. However, it’s striking that Tony is quick to replace the reigning version of Adrian that he’d always accepted with a new, and newly airtight, version—merely creating a new “theory” about Adrian.
Tony wonders what he possibly knows of life: he’s lived so carefully, avoiding being hurt, paying his bills on time, staying on good terms with everyone. He now has a special kind of remorse, for hurting someone—Adrian—who thought he knew how to avoid being hurt.
This is a slightly different conclusion Tony draws from his epiphany—one that has to do both with his own desire to avoid hurt and being hurt (one that’s nonetheless failed) and with the difficulty of ever being certain about the past.
Tony writes an email to Veronica with the subject “Apology.” He doesn’t expect her to respond or to think better of him, but he ends by wishing her and her son the best. He’s not sure if he feels better or worse after sending it. He begins to think more often of Susie, of his luck in simply having a child that can lead an independent life.
Tony has previously thought about Susie in rather humdrum terms, not exactly fondly or warmly. By comparing Veronica’s parenting situation to his own, however, he’s able to be more grateful for his own years of parenthood.
Tony’s life continues. He recommends books to the sick and dying, volunteering at the hospital. He asks Mr. Gunnell not to pursue the diary affair. He thinks of how little has happened to him over the years.
Despite Tony’s epiphany, little has changed in his own life, at least outwardly—memory’s deformations, it’s implied, are not always externally evident.
Then, Tony receives an email from Veronica, which is almost the same as an earlier one: it says he still doesn’t get it, and never will, and tells him to stop trying. He imagines an epitaph reading “Tony Webster—He Never Got It,” though reflects that this is melodramatic. He returns with some regularity to the pub and shop where he’d become a regular. He’d never felt like he was wasting his time when he’d waited there—he might as well spend his time there as anywhere else, at this point in his life.
After a painful but illuminating epiphany, with all the realizations that it unleashed, Tony now has to come to terms with the fact that this may not have been a real epiphany at all—that Veronica’s frustration with him might not be resolved by his attempt to apologize and to set things right with her.
One evening, after a conversation with the barman where Tony tries and fails to order thinner “hand-cut chips” (which turn out not to be hand-cut at all), he returns to his table to see the five men from the care home return, together with the young care worker Tony had initially seen with them. The care worker goes over to Tony and, introducing himself as Terry, says that “Adrian” (Jr.) is upset by Tony’s presence. Tony apologizes, saying he doesn’t want to upset anyone ever again. Terry looks at him as if he’s being ironic, but Tony says he’ll just finish his food and leave.
The conversation between Tony and Terry underlines the fact that Tony has come to accept the problems he’s always had with being ironic and unserious—and the ways those character tendencies have harmed other people. Even in his attempt to be serious now, realizing that he is upsetting Adrian by his mere presence, Tony still comes across as ironic.
Terry asks if Tony minds him asking who he is: Tony replies that he was a friend of Adrian (Jr.)’s father many years ago, and used to know Adrian’s mother Veronica quite well too: in fact they’ve seen each other recently, in the last weeks and months, though probably won’t be seeing each other again.
Tony’s attempt at explanation rests on the epiphany he’d had the last time he had seen Adrian Jr.—and yet, as Veronica had implied, this realization itself only showed how he still didn’t “get it.”
Terry replies that what Tony is saying doesn’t make sense. First, Tony clarifies: he knows Adrian’s mother as Veronica, but Mary is her second name, which is what Adrian calls her by. But Terry says that Tony must not understand: Mary is Adrian’s sister, not his mother: his mother died six months ago, and he took it quite badly. Tony automatically eats one chip, then another, thinking about how thin chips are so much more satisfying than these fatter ones. He offers Terry his hand and says that Adrian (Jr.) seems to get very good care. Terry stands up and says they try, though budget cuts happen almost every year. Tony wishes them all good luck.
“Six months ago” corresponds, of course, to the date that Sarah Ford died, leaving the documents and 500 pounds in her will to Tony and prompting the events of the novel, as well as the memories that those events unleashed. Tony’s response underlines the shock of this new revelation with his immediate inability to react with anything other than stupefaction. Still, Tony can bid farewell to Terry and leave the situation behind—in ways that Veronica, for instance, cannot.
Later, at home, Tony “gets it all”: why Mrs. Ford had Adrian’s diary, why she said his last months were happy, what Veronica meant by blood money, and what Adrian’s strange formulae in his diary meant. One a was Adrian, the other was himself, Anthony, or what Adrian called him when trying to be serious. The b was a baby born to a mother dangerously late, damaged as a result. Tony thinks of the chain of responsibility: he’d urged Adrian to talk to Veronica’s mother about her daughter being “damaged.” Tony knows he can’t change or solve anything now.
Only at the very end of the novel do all the various strands come together. The fragment of Adrian’s diary had been an attempt to assign responsibility for the child—and, ultimately, for his own planned suicide. The novel doesn’t suggest that Tony (or Adrian) bears absolute blame or responsibility for this, but at the very least he’s forced to grapple with not knowing just how responsible he should feel.
Toward the end of life, Tony realizes, one gets the chance to ask what else one might have done wrong. He thinks of everything he could never know or understand. He thinks of Adrian’s definition of history, of a carefree woman frying eggs, unconcerned when one breaks, then later making a secret, horizontal gesture beneath the wisteria while waving farewell. He thinks of the Severn Bore, rushing past upstream, pursued by students. He ends by saying that, beyond accumulation and responsibility, there remains great unrest.
The novel ends as it began, with strong images that reflect both the power and the deceptiveness of memory. Sarah Ford remains perhaps the most enigmatic character in the novel, her actions (from this gesture up to and including her relationship with Adrian) tragically difficult to understand. Tony ends by reflecting on the ultimate inability ever to know what really happened in the past, to understand other people, and to reach any kind of relief from such unrest.