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In the small Dutch village of Goes where my first lover grew up, the traditional dress for women is a short sleeved blouse which reveals the biceps, polished on special occasions with red wax until they shine like apples. If there is a Mount Olympus where the gods keep house, I like to think that Mnemosyne must be polishing her biceps vigorously theses days, flashing them at such lowly beings as Aphrodite and Zeus and Pluto. Although her ambiguities and uncertainties are well documented, she has become an unquestioned good, in the forefront of court cases, books, conversations; even the vexed topic of repressed memory is only another aspect of homage. Meanwhile her dark sister, amnesia, is viewed with suspicion and fear: a harbinger of senility, evidence of trauma or, at the very least, a sign of transgression. That which we do not remember, we are doomed to repeat.
Here is something I do remember. In a pew near the front of the church, I swung my legs, too short to reach the floor, and listened to Mr. Chisolm, director of the Sunday school, expound on the parable of the talents. This was in the village of Denholm in the Borders of Scotland where we lived for five years. The church was built of the local grey granite and, in the presiding spirit of John Knox, very plain; the only decorations were the memorial windows. Mr. Chisolm too was a man without adornment. His large face, from collarline to hairline, was a muted strawberry colour, ditto his large hands. He favoured a brown suit. He and his wife lived a few houses away from us and he and a greengrocers. As a delivery boy, he told the Sunday school, he had carried a Bible in his pocket at all times; we should do the same.
Now he repeated the parable. A man, going into a far country, hands over his goods to his servants for safekeeping. He gives five talents to one servant, two to another, one to another. The first two servants trade and double their money; the third buries his single talent in the ground. When the master returns he applauds the first two and reproaches the third.
The talents, Mr. Chisolm explained, were God’s gifts to us which, as good Christians, we must use to our utmost. Failure to do so, he tut-tutted, was a sin. I don’t know how the other children felt, hearing his stern comments, but I yearned to defend the third servant. Was it really so wrong to hang on to what one had been given? Take care of what one had got?
Several centuries before Jesus, Plato, in the Theaetetus, offers various theories of knowledge. “Now let us make in each soul a sort of aviary of all kinds of birds; some in flocks separate from the others, some in small groups, and others flying about singly here and there among all the rest.” He goes on to argue that just as a man can be said to have these birds, at the same time he doesn’t exactly have them; he still has to catch them and in doing so may easily mistake the ring-dove for the pigeon. What better metaphor for the odd relationship we have with our memories.
I was eight the year I sat listening to Mr. Chisolm. My father, who had tested me on the parable before I went to Sunday School, was fifty-seven. We were both of us much more familiar with Thanatos, the ultimate taker away, than with abundance although my father always managed to get what he needed. He was born in 1904, three years after the death of Queen Victoria, the same year as Cecil Beation and Christopher Isherwood. His birth, following the death of a beloved older brother, was surrounded by threats: childbirth might prove fatal to my grandmother; a third pregnancy was out of the question. Between the dead and the unborn my father slipped in to the world and assumed his burden of affection. He was christened John for his brother, Kenneth for himself, Livesey for the father and known variously as Kenneth, Toby, and Silas. Later he took the place of another dead boy; on of my grandfather’s parishioners paid his fees at first public school, then Cambridge University, in memory of a son who had died early in the Great War.
For the two decades before we moved to Denholm my father had been teaching at Glenalmond, a well-known boys’ public school north of Edinburgh. On every possible occasion he had been passed over for promotion. Now, frighteningly close to retirement, he had lured south by Mr. Case, the charismatic owner of a prep school called Blenearne. What Mr. Case offered was the title of vice headmaster and the chance to continue teaching—arithmetic, geography, and religious education—for as long as my father wanted. My step-mother, a former nurse, would be the assistant matron and we would live in the nearby village.
St. Augustine in his Confessions was among the first to pay homage at Mnemosyne’s altar. Memory, he writes, is a crucial stage on our journey to God; he puzzles over its immensity. “All these sensations are retained in the great storehouse of the memory, which in some indescribable way secretes them in its folds.” It is, he concludes, a faculty not of the mind but of the soul.
Like so many private schools at that time, Blenearne was based in a country house. Prospective parents were seduced by the beautiful drawing-room and velvety lawns. Also by Casey himself, not so much a devoted educationalist as a swashbuckling buccaneer, complete with a dashing moustache and mysterious past. A mysterious present too. No-on quite knew how he balanced the books or where the money for new buildings came from—stables, a tennis court, a games room—but who cared when he served such good sherry and had such excellent manners.
Years later, thinking I might write a novel about my father, I researched the phenomenon of British private schools. In the nineteenth century, I discovered boys at Harrow and Eton, could not even count on having their own beds; the great hall at Eton, locked after supper each evening, was a world unto itself where no adult dared enter; up through the First World War intellectual accomplishments were discounted if not actively discouraged. As for the many smaller private schools that orbited these historic institutions, they seem to have been an unlicensed free-for-all. Anyone who could get his hands on a large house was able to start one. Of course I mean any middle-class man who had to earn a living and felt himself ill-suited for the army of the church. My father, prior to his stint at Glenalmond, was involved in starting two prep schools, each of which went bust and which together lot him most of his mother’s money. In some ways Blenearne must have felt like coming home.
When I finally visited my grandfather’s church in the Lake District, a decade after my father’s death, I found it even smaller than the one in Denholm and just as plain. Like his son, my grandfather, Samuel, had been passed over for preferment. My grandmother, Florence, who chain-smoked, wore a cloak and hairpiece and said whatever came scaling the church hierarchy, Samuel was given the impoverished living of Skelsmergh. His former parishioners, the few I spoke to, all agreed what a nice man he was and very learned but oh dear, his sermons were dull. Then they went on to tell yet another story about the redoubtable Florence.
In his classic Matter of Memory (1910), the French philosopher Henri Bergson claims that while animals are capable of a certain kind of memory, (a dog recognizes his master), only humans have the knack of withdrawing, uselessly, from the present moment into the past. “Man alone is capable of such an effort. But even in him the past to which he returns is fugitive, even on the point of escaping him, as though his backward turning memory were thwarted by the other, more natural memory, of which the forward movement bears him on to action and to life.”
My father must have gone to Sunday school and church weekly throughout his boyhood and at the various schools he attended, as pupil or teacher, prayers were held once, often twice, a day. Was he a Christian in any meaningful sense? I couldn’t say but for whatever reason when we moved to Denholm, I became the sold church-goer in the family. Mr. Waugh, the minister, shared my grandfather’s gift for flamboyant, but, according to village gossip, mad. They lived in a house shadowed by monkey puzzle trees and she was never seen. From my years of services I recall a single occasion; on winter morning, during Mr. Waugh’s mumbled prayer, someone in a nearby pew began to cut their nails. I counted, wondering if the clicks would go past ten.
What did my father and step-mother do during the two hours I spent at Sunday school and church? Answer: enjoy my absence. In addition, perhaps they did crossword puzzles or went for a drive to see the racehorses that lived on the far side of the river. Perhaps they watched our newly rented television although I’m not certain there were programmes on Sunday morning. When I returned from my devotions, did we eat lunch together or did I, as usual, eat first, alone, while they had a glass of sherry? I don’t remember but suspect the latter.
The most famous of mnemonic devices is of no help in such matters. The invention of memory palaces was at one time attributed to Cicero, the Roman orator. In fact the notion seems to have cropped up in several places in the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. Pliny, Quintilian and the anonymous author of Ad herennium all write about using buildings and images to hold onto memory.
The idea was a simple one. The orator chose different images—striking, ugly, beautiful—to assign different parts of his speech and then placed these images in the rooms of a familiar building, having then only to imagine himself walking though it in order to retrieve his speech. Of course if no suitable building was available that was a problem; rhetoric students were sometimes observed pacing the forum, memorizing it, pillar by pillar.
The use and practise of palaces peaked in the sixteenth century with hyper-elaborate structures and gradually fell out of favour. Jonathan D. Spence in his wonderful book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci describes how when the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci tried to introduce the idea into China, the governor’s eldest son remarked that one needed a very good memory to make use of his advice. And that is probably how the notion strikes most of us today, cumbersome and faintly comic but sixteen hundred years is a good innings for any theory.
Not only the palaces per se but also the feats they facilitated have fallen into disrepute. We value memory, for rather different reason, as a highly as Augustine did but the rote memory, so beloved of Mr. Chisolm and the school teachers of my father’s generation, has fallen out of favour; W.H. Auden was considered a fuddy-duddy for making his American students learn poems by heart. My father was blessed with a good memory for the mathematical equations and formulae of his profession. As for the other kind of memory, who knows? He almost never spoke of the past, save for a handful of well-honed stories. But then, I never asked.
In our century the favourite mnemonic device is probably the photograph. The few I have inherited of my father show a beautiful boy and a handsome young man with fair, wavy hair, clear skin, a mouth suggesting both pride and sensitivity and, as several people reported to me, lovely bright blue eyes. Auden might have fancied him, Isherwood too; I have no idea if he had inclinations that way. In my lifetime on of his few close friends, another master at Glenalmond, was gay though of course this was never referred to. As Oscar Wilde’s situation makes clear much that today we insist on naming, then went unnamed. Perhaps my father was a rent boy; perhaps he was victimized by older boys; perhaps he sought younger boys. Who knows?
Certainly no Godfrey Clapham, his former room-mate at Shrewsbury School. At the age of eighty-four Godfrey made the perilous journey from suburban Sydenham into central London in response to a letter I had sent to my father’s few surviving fellow pupils. In the buffet at Victoria Station, amidst travelers and pan-handlers, he explained that they had shared a study. I gazed in wonder at his watery eyes and knobby hands; here was the man who could silence. What was he like, I asked. A nice chap, said Godfrey, quiet. Did you like him? Yes, yes I think so. Did he have hobbies? I remember him, Godfrey insisted, voice rising and, before I could press him further, began to reminisce about the school food, especially bad from 1916-18.
Later, when I returned with a second pot of tea, he produced from his brown plastic shopping-bag proof of his claim: a photograph of the School House at Shrewsbury in 1917. Godfrey himself, long-faced, is standing near the centre of the group, straining slightly as if he must see in order to be seen. My father on the far left, near the railings, is out of focus.
Most of the men who responded to my letter, and nearly everyone who was still alive did answer, either in quavering hand-writing or shouting into the phone, turned out to use the word “remember” in Godfrey’s sense. They remembered my father, that he had existed, that they had known him, but when I showed up to question them they did not, it transpired, remember anything about him. Instead they talked happily about themselves.
What does make us remember one thing rather than another? A writer friend said if you had a use for your memories, you’d remember them. Not so. Not yet. Half Godfrey’s age, most of my school fellows have already vanished from my mind. If I should live so long, will they return?
In The Mind of Mnemonist the Russian psychologist A.R. Luria portrays a man with a limitless memory. The mnemonist, instinctively, uses the theories of Ad Herennium, distributing objects, numbers, words along streets and in buildings he knows. On one occasion, when the actually seems to forget something, he offers the following explanation. “I put the image of the pencil near a fence…but what happened was that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked right on past without noticing it. The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a white wall and it blended with the background.”
By the time we left Glenalmond my father and I had already had several encounters with Thanatos. In May of 1951 his mother, Florence, who had spent her decade of widowhood cheerfully bossing him around, died. On the first of August 1952 he married the school nurse, Eva; perhaps not incidentally she too had recently lost her sole surviving parent, her father. I was born the following year. Two and a half years later, Eva disappeared. For weeks and months I asked for her only to be told she had gone shopping. “My mummy’s gone to buy me sweeties,” I explained to whomever would listen. Eventually someone broke down and told me she was dead. A year and a half after that my father remarried and Little Aunt, who had cared for me since Eva’s death, also disappeared. She went to live with her older sister in Edinburgh, a mere fifty miles away but, to my four-year-old self, not yet a letter writer or reader, a kind of death. We did not have a phone.
In the midst of these disappearances some constants remained. As a boy my father climbed the hills in search of peregrine falcons, and he passed on to me his feeling for nature. I woke to the cawing of rooks in the rookery beside our house. Geese filled the sky each autumn. In the spring baby swallows squawked in their nests outside my bedroom window and tadpoles spawned in the stream at the bottom of the golf-course. I knew where to find the first primroses and later the delicate Star of David. More than all this I had companionship. Our neighbors with four children left their door open for me from breakfast ‘till bedtime. The new moved to Denholm and I was the one who died.
In Searching for Memory Daniel Schecter draws the distinction between field and observer memories, those memories in which we see ourselves and those in which we see only what we saw. Childhood memories, he claims, are more likely to be field memories. He goes on to discuss how memories can sometimes be flipped from one state to the other and how doing so changes the emotional charge. I try to picture my younger self—climbing a tree or finding a bat that had flown in to the bide shed—but as far as I can tell, I have no field memories. I see the tree trunk, the bat’s tiny ears, the people around me, never myself. When I try the result is a blur, a fleeting image. Was that me? I can’t be sure.
My father at the time of our move was still a good looking man, capable of charm and humour, quick to laugh at a joke, an excellent mimic. People I interviewed, those who praised his beautiful eyes, also commented on this yellow teeth but to me his dentures, like this nicotine stained fingers, only made him more interesting. His suits, he wore one every day, were not yet threadbare. Nevertheless he and my step-mother failed to make friends. She, who had grown up in a small croft in the north of Scotland, regarded the village people as common. As for the other masters at Blemearne I don’t’ know why but none ever darkened our door. Even if they had made friends, it wouldn’t have helped me; they would only have been more middle-aged people smoking and talking and drinking over my head. Without our neighbours, the birds, the familiar landscape, the shape of our family became sharply apparent, like a tree in winter.
No one yet knows exactly how memory works, what forms it, what summons it, what obliterates it. One of the many anomalies is that memory often becomes detached from its source, as in the famous case proposing to Fliess that every person is fundamentally bisexual only to have Fliess respond that he had suggested this to Freud two years before. Looking through the notes I made nearly a decade ago while interviewing people about my father I find the following list: cricket, bonfire, shiatsu. Neither memory nor source follows.
The list of things my father did not do is much longer than the one of those we did. We did not talk or play or, in Denholm, go for walks. He did not help with my homework because he had to supervise his pupils and by the time he came home I was on my way to bed. He did not visit the farm on the outskirts of the village where I went daily, nor did he help with the grocery shopping, my Saturday morning chore. Our main activities together were horticultural; we weeded the garden and picked black currents or gooseberries. He did stop the village boys from throwing stones at me, by speaking to their headmaster. And once, astonishingly, he intervened with my step-mother. She had called me a slut, I was nine, because I hadn’t cleaned my room properly and he said something to the effect that, like him, I was not naturally tidy.
The degree to which questioning distorts the memory is now well-documented, but priming, overt or subtle, is often crucial to remembrance. What I suffered from as an interviewer was precisely the condition I was seeking to remedy: how little I knew my father. I did not know what questions to ask Godfrey and the others, to bring back that blue-eyed boy.
Perhaps because of our solitude we never spent the holidays in Denholm. At Christmas we went to visit Little aunt in Edinburgh and in the summers we went to the town of Pitlochry in the Highlands to stay with my step-mother’s sister. There, sometimes, my father and I would walk the do in the Recreation Ground until she was put to sleep, the year I turned ten. WE did go to the library together where I looked for books about adventurer and he chose genteel murder stories for himself and my step-mother. Once or twice he accompanied me to the putting-green which was run by a former groundsman from Glenalmond. Most of the time though I tapped a ball around the twelve holes alone.
The originator of memory palace, the first practitioner, is said to be the Greek poet, Simonides. At a banquet Simonides recites a poem to the applause of the other guests. His patron, however, meanly declared that he would pay only for the portion of the poem about him. A few minutes later a servant brought word that Simonides was wanted outside. While he was talking to tow men, in some version of the story Castor and Pollux, the roof of the hall collapsed, killing everyone. Simonides identified the mangled bodies not by clothes or jewelry but by remember the seating order. Surely it can be no coincidence that even here memory is inextricable linked to death.
I doubt my father ever went to a banquet; I know he never boarded a plane. He was successful in neither his business ventures nor his teaching. Like his parents, he live in rented or tied accommodation his entire life and, during the years we lived together, he did not buy a new car nor a new suit but he was beloved by three women: his mother, my mother, his second wife. A fourth name ought to appear on this list, but I cannot say with confidence that it does.
A few months ago, driving from Edinburgh to the west coast of Scotland, I passed a sign Rannoch Moor, 1700 feet. Into my head, unbidden, came the sentence: this was where my father nearly died. As far as the eye could see were heather, rocks, bogs, not a tree in sight.
When I was thirteen something wonderful happened. My school, the school I hated, closed down and my parents arranged for me to return to Glenalmond and live with our former neighbours. The happiness that attends these events is indescribable. Days passed without my giving my parents a thought, save during the composition of my weekly letter and the reading of my father’ replies, witty accounts of his and my step-mother’s small doings. I had not heard his voice for almost two months when he phoned to announce that Bleanearne, too, was closing. At the age of sixty-two, already struggling with emphysema, he as out of a job and homeless. My step-mother went to Pitlochry to live with her sister and he took a substitute job at Rannoch School. Sometime that spring the cold dampness of the moor brought on bronchitis which turned into pneumonia.
My step-mother nursed him back to health and he carried on for nine more years to die as his father had done, of a sudden heart-attack, the autumn I was twenty-two. Until recently I would have bet serious money that I did not attend his funeral but soon after my journey across Rannoch Moor, I found myself telling a friend, yet again, the story of his death. How I was at the opposite end of the country, staying in a remote Cornish Village, when I head the news. How I sat on a windy station platform, waiting for the train that would take me to London where I could catch the sleeper north. So you didn’t get back to Scotland in time, she said gently.
A wall, a cloud, a tangle of leaves rose before me. The journey took twenty-four hours. I was in Scotland in time for the funeral. If I was there, then I must have attended. Quod erat demonstrandum: I was present the day when all that remained of my father, my last living relative disappeared into the flames.
And nothing. No memory follows my deduction, not even a shadow, hovering on the tip of my tongue, only a white pool of forgetfulness.
Schacter quotes research which indicates that people remember sad information more accurately when in a sad mood. Would the day return if I re-read The Little Mermaid which always used to make me cry? If I went back to Perth Crematorium, or spoke to people who were present that day and had not themselves forgotten, who could tell me what hymns were sung, what prayers were said? Would I at least start to recall, like Godfrey, that I was present even if I remembered nothing about the occasion? Perhaps. But for now forgetfulness seems more powerful, more peculiarly informative, than memory.
My father finished out the year at Rannoch and got a job in the boys’ half of the girls school I attended. My life as a commuter began. He and my step-mother rented a farmhouse and I spent the weekdays there in a small L-shaped bedroom; every Friday I went back to Glenalmond. For two years the main time I saw my father alone was during our drives to and from the school. I don’t remember us talking, only him hunching forward anxiously, again and again, to wipe the widescreen. Around that time I read King Lear and discovered one of this favourite quotations, “Oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child.” He said it often, joking I assumed.
In class, of course, I sided with the frustrating Cordelia but outside I was firmly in the cap of Goneril and Regan. The only way I could bear the shame of my father’s decrepit car, worn clothes and terrible teaching was by joining in the taunts against him. At my previous school I had been so desperate to avoid my classmates that I hid in the school cloakroom or cut myself with the blade of my pencil sharpener so as to have an excuse to go and see the school nurse; I was determined not to let the same fate befall me here.
For both of us his retirement, at the age of sixty-five, came not a moment too soon. As years before I had gone to church alone, now I went to school, rising, often in darkness, to lay the fire, breakfast and walk down the muddy track to catch the bus. What my father and my step-mother did all day I have not notion—pottered their way through the rituals of meals and drinks, crossword puzzles and television, exclaiming over the birds who visited the feeder, the comings and goings at the farm. I came home at 4:30 to do my homework. At 7:30 they summoned me to supper. At last I was allowed to eat with them.
One of the most pervasive myths about memory, and St. Augustine must be partly responsible for this, is that everything is retained. We may not be able to gain access but it’s all there somewhere, the whole mess of daily life: the tedium, the horror, the anxiety, the joy. Against this science offers the sharp curve of forgetting. In half and hour, research suggests, we forget ninety percent of what we experience. The ten percent that remains will probably stay with us much longer.
Was this what I craved? To sit around the mahogany veneer table and endure my step-mother’s complaints that my father and I were not eating enough. And worse, much worse, the laboured conversation. Boring, stupid, I chanted to myself, dull, bourgeois. Surely I must have understood this was the effect of my presence? As rapidly as possible, I cleared the table, washed the dishes and, leaving my parents to the television, returned to my homework. Soon after the nine o’clock news they called goodnight to me to wonder what they did there. I am the only evidence of my father’s sex life.
Since the death of my step-mother’s brother-in-law, Thanatos had been neglecting us. Now Little Aunt came to stay from Edinburgh. At first she seemed her usual self, always glad to see me, but day by day she stayed in bed longer, rose from her arm-chair with more reluctance, had not appetite even for her favourite cough sweets. One afternoon, arriving home from school, I went to her room and found her cheeks hollowed. Her breathing was loud and strange. I crept into her room several times, fascinated, afraid. Something was happening; I had no idea what. My parents simply said she was under the weather and dispatched me to Glenalmond. Next day my father phoned with the news Little Aunt was dead. She was only in her early seventies but no one mentioned a cause. Once a gain I have no memory of the funeral. At sixteen, I may or may not have attended.
Little Aunt left a will naming me heir to her small store of worldly goods, my father he executor. All his life he had done what women told him. Now he did my step-mother’s bidding, honoring the verbal bequests she claimed Little Aunt had made in her final weeks. If she had lived, my step-mother explained to me, she would have changed he will. She couldn’t believe how badly you’d turned out: spoiled, rude, lazy.
I know little of my father’s last four years. I finished school, I went to university. When I asked him for the parental contribution to my grant, he refused, arguing that I could always come home during the holidays. He wrote to me at university, making little silk purses out of his and my step-mother’s dull days. I hope I wrote back. When I did pay one of my rare visits home he also wrote to me coming into the room where I worked to place on the table an envelope bearing my name. How I wish now I had kept those letters. Alas, as soon as I figure out that no response was required, I destroyed them. The last time I saw my father alive, after a year abroad, such a letter passed between us. Like all the hand-delivered missives, his final words expressed disappointment at my conduct.
In my pew at Denholm I recognized the third servant’s situation but only in material terms: if you already had a ten-speed bicycle, you would probably get a pony. It took me years to grasp that this was an account of the spiritual, the psychological, not of bank balances and careers. If security and happiness are among your early companions, there’s a good chance they’ll continue to be so. But if despair and difficulty rock your cradle, they may show an unfortunate tendency to take up permanent residence in your household. “From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
Cricket, bonfire, shiatsu. Mnemosyne, Thanatos, Eros. In all our lives these three dance in attendance. On is banished for a while, then another, but never for long. In the old stories it is Eros who defeats Thanatos, who goes down into the underworld and returns triumphant. Now, in our secular century, Mnemosyne seems to offer our main hope against Thanatos and who knows this better than those of us who were given only a single talent.
If I were to make a memory palace for my father, then I would use one of our schools, not Blenearne of which all save his classroom have blurred, nor Rannoch which I never new, maybe Morrison’s Academy for Girls. Between the double entrance doors I’d put my father, squatting, oblivious to the lengthening ash of his cigarette, telling with gusto some story he had told before, perhaps the one about his mother n the hospital, unable to get the nurse’s attention, throwing a plate of biscuits at the door. Outside the headmistress’s office, I’d put him on the golf course at Glenalmond, playing the number tow hole, squinting into the sun, pleading with the ball as it winged its way down the fairway. In the school gym with its dangling ropes and vaulting boxes, I’d put his endless devotion to my step-mother. How happy he was already ready to tell him what to do. In the library where I read from A to Z, I’d put what I do remember from the time of his death.
A few weeks later, one overcast morning, I was driving his car along the main road, the journey we had made twice a day, when I spotted something on the tarmac ahead. I stopped and went to kneel beside the wounded partridge. There were no other travelers, only the sough of wind in the pine trees, no blood on its tawny plumage; clearly the partridge had suffered a blow from and earlier vehicle. When I reached for it, the bird was too weak to resist. In my hands its heart beat with eerie speed, and I knew by the filming of its eyes that death was near. All the country lore of my childhood told me I ought to put it out of its misery. But as I moved towards the verge a movement caught my eye. In the long grass half a dozen other partridges were bobbing and clucking. The bird was not alone; the rest of the covey were trying to draw me off, distract me, save it. I set the warm bird down in the grass, close to its companions, and drove away.