At breakfast, Claire conveyed the message that she had had enough. She did so very gently, very softly, playing with the gold chain around her wrist, tugging a little at the sleeve of an olive-green cardigan, scratching her cheek briefly, the execution of the lover carried out in such a delicate manner that it was perilously easy to think, if only for a moment, that nothing whatsoever had happened. The tap continued to drip, the fridge to let off its intermittent shiver, the newspaper to advertise a weekend in Paris for lovers for £109 (return). Had a West London equivalent of Mount Vesuvius erupted at this moment, and miraculously preserved the physical evidence of the scene in lava, there would have been nothing to suggest that this had been anything other than a cosy breakfast between two people (surely close friends, even a couple, the museum caption would read, for did you see how close they were sitting?), in a narrow dilapidated kitchen decorated in an erratic arrangement of buttercup-yellow and lime-green tiles.
In the summer of 1863, the art critic John Ruskin was on a walk across a valley in the Engadine region of Switzerland, when the sky darkened abruptly to an ominous grey-black hue. Having been warned of the severity of summer storms in the valley, Ruskin ran to find shelter in a mountain hut, and from its safety, witnessed a most violent natural commotion breaking overhead.
Rain began lashing down, jagged lines of lightning streaked across the sky, followed by bellowing, tearing sounds, as if the earth were opening up or the planet disintegrating. The windows shook from the sound of thunder, a nearby tree took a direct lightning strike and split down the middle, its insides smoking from the electric charge. A river that ran alongside the house swelled to the bursting point, rushing by in a dark brown frenzy, carrying with it a tortured medley of broken branches.
It looked as if the end of the world had come, as if this were the moment of death and of apocalypse. But of course, it was no such thing, it was merely a passing thunderstorm in a little valley in Switzerland, a storm that would be over in under half an hour, would kill no one and would disappear from public memory shortly after.
The contrast led Ruskin to the idea that thunderstorms were what death, and dramatic events, generally should be like, but usually were not; the idea that our life’s dramas rarely look as dramatic as they are. Our most cataclysmic moments are typically free of gravitas, of necessary thunder; a person dies, but instead of the sky darkening and lightning striking, the sun continues to shine and the birds to sing. Someone drops overboard to their death and the seagulls circle charmingly and the fish swim out. One person tells another that they no longer want to grow old with them, and the toast pops up.