Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 230

Contemporary

British
Stories

Perspective
Publications

, ,


..


/ /


80- - 90- . ,
,
: ,
, .. , , ,
. :
, ,

.
.

-, , .
Published by Perspective Publications Ltd
6 Rawlinson Road, Oxford 0 X 2 6UE, England
This Anthology first published in Russia in 1994
Reprinted in 1995, 1996, 1998
Introduction Karen Hewitt, 1994
Commentary Karen Hewitt and Mikhail Feklin, 1994

ISBN

0 9523583 0 I

) , , , ,
'Perspective Publications Ltd.\ 1994 .

Acknowledgements
'The Stowaway' from 'A history of the World in 10 'A Chapters' published
by Jonathan Cape. Copyright Julian Barnes 1989. Reprinted by
permission of the author.
'Gifts' from 'On The Yankee Station' published by Hamish Hamilton.
Copyright William Boyd 1981. Reprinted by permission of the author
ana Rogers, Coleridge ana White Ltd.
'On the Day that E.M.Forster Died' from 'Sugar and other stories'
published by Chatto and Windus. Copyright A.S.Byatt 1987. Reprinted
by permission of the author and the Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group Ltd.
'Groundlings' from 'Showing the Flag' published by Hamish Hamilton.
Copyright Jane Gardam 1989. Reprinted by permission of the author and
David Higham Associates.
'Wee Horrors' from 'Not Not While The Giro' published by Polygon
Books. Copyright James Kelman 1983. Reprinted by permission of the
author.
'The Language of Water' first published in 'Sunk Island Review'.
Copyright David S. Mackenzie 1990. Reprinted by permission of the
author.
The Great Profundo' from 'The Great Profiindo and other stories'
published by Jonathan Cape. Copyright Bernard Mac Laverty 1983.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
'Empire Building' from 'Smile and other stories' published by Viking
Books. Copyright Deborah Moggach 1988. Reprinted by permission of
the author and Curtis Brown Ltd.
'Chemistry' from 'Learning to Swim and other stories' published by Pan
Books. Copyright Graham Swift 1982. Reprinted by permission of the
author.
'A Shooting Season' from The Colonel's Daughter and other stories'
published by Hamish Hamilton. Copyright Rose Tremain 1984.
Reprinted by permission of the author ana Richard Scott Simon Ltd.
'Mr Tennyson' from 'Beyond the Pale and other stories' published by The
Bodley Head. Copyright William Trevor 1981. Reprinted by permission
of the author.
The Bottom Line and the Sharp End' from 'Polaris and other stories'
published by Hodder and Stoughton. Copyright Fay Weldon 1985.
Reprinted by permission of the author and Sheil Land Associates.
The illustration shows L'Avaleur de Sabres from 'Jazz' by Henri Matisse,
reproduced by courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Perspective Publications gratefully acknowledges a grant from the British
Council towards the costs of publishing this book.

Contents
Introduction

Julian Barnes
The Stowaway

19

William Boyd
Gifts

49

A.S. Byatt
On the Day that E.M. Forster Died

67

Jane Gardam
Groundlings

86

James Kelman
Wee Horrors

100

D. S. Mackenzie
The Language of Water

104

Bernard Mac Laverty


The Great Profundo

Ill

Deborah Moggach
Empire Building

128

Graham Swift
Chemistry

147

Rose Tremain
A Shooting Season

159

William Trevor
Mr Tennyson

173

Fay Weldon
The Bottom Line and the Sharp End

187

Biographical Notes on the Authors

198

Commentary

201

Introduction
The twelve stories in this anthology were each first published
in book form between 1981 and 1991. All the authors are
established writers of novels and short stories; many of them
have won prestigious literary prizes and they are among the
most respected writers of their generation. You may have
come across translations of the work of one or two of them in
Russian magazines, but most of them are not yet well known
in Russia, and all these stories are published for the first time
in English in a Russian publication.
Twelve stories is not so very many. Why were these
chosen rather than the hundreds of others of high literary
quality published in Britain during this decade? As the editor
of an anthology which I hope will be read widely both by
Russian students of English and by enthusiasts, not exclusive
categories, eager to read our contemporary literature, I had
certain criteria and certain preferences in mind when I made
the selection.
First, they had to be well-written, that is, a celebration in
some form of the English language. I was looking for stories
which made use of the richness or the versatility or subtlety
or ironic precision or bleak clarity or wildly humorous
distortions available to writers of contemporary English.
Contemporary English is a language which has much in
common with, but is not the same as, the nineteenth or early
twentieth century English with which many of you are
familiar. It does not just exist as 'Business English' or as the
language of popular television shows. We also have a living,
imaginative, literary English and I was looking for writers
7

with specific linguistic 'voices' who were not simply turning


out the kind of neutral boring prose inevitably found in
textbooks, and found too often in second-rate and third-rate
'modern stories'.
Secondly, I wanted most of the stories to be set in modern
Britain and deal with situations which are familiar to British
readers. This was difficult. The form is ideal for writers who
want to capture and examine a brief and unusual experience,
such as may occur on holiday in another country. So a huge
proportion of excellent stories are set 'abroad' examining a
clash of cultures. Interesting for us, but not so helpful for
Russians who, in the process of reading contemporary British
stories, would like to find out something about contemporary
Britain. So ten of the twelve stories have British settings and
situations: in London, in suburban England, in the English
countryside, in Scottish cities and in the Highlands. Two fine
Irish writers are represented (William Trevor and Bernard
MacLaverty) but their stories are not specifically Irish. 'Mr
Tennyson' is set in south-west England. One work, 'Gifts' by
William Boyd, is set in France but the basic circumstances
are familiar to thousands of British students who each year
spend some months abroad, between finishing school and
entering University, in order to learn a foreign language. The
story is about a characteristic 'rite de passage'. The twelfth
story, 'The Stowaway', has obviously a quite different
relationship to contemporary Britain, and I discuss it at the
end of the introduction.
Thirdly, several of the stories are told from the point of
view of a young adult or a child, so that it should be easier
for students to compare cultural attitudes. In the collection as
a whole, the characters come from very different social
classes and backgrounds, and family relationships and work
relationships are shown from different points of view.
Fourthly, I tried to ensure that there were stories which
were simple in language and style (though still lively) and
others which demanded a more sophisticated knowledge of
English. I expect, for example, that readers will find the

stories by Mackenzie, Gardam and Moggach easier to read


than the stories by Weldon, Swift and Barnes. (I could be
wrong: if you find yourself on the wavelength of a particular
writer, difficulties of expression and nuance can evaporate.
But don't let them evaporate too easily. These are, by and
large, subtle stories.) Several stories were rejected because a
very specialised knowledge of English was required, but a
brief story by the Scottish writer, James Kelman, written in
an adaptation of the powerful Glaswegian dialect, is
included.
Fifthly, I selected these stories because I like them. There
is, as surely there must be in any decent anthology, a strong
element of personal choice.
These principles of selection do have some consequences.
Many fine writers are not included, either because they write
only full-length novels, or because their stories, for one of
the reasons outlined above, were not suitable. I am sorry not
to have included work by Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie,
Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro and Shena Mackay; and many
more writers could have found a place in such an anthology.
The writers of the nineteen-eighties, though there is a wide
age-span between the youngest and the oldest, are a notably
interesting generation. Had I been trying to compile such an
anthology in, say, 1974, it would have lacked much of the
imaginative energy which I hope you will find here.
Missing genres include science fiction and fantasy. Much
of it is dreadful rubbish, but we have some fine collections of
contemporary fairy-tales and some unnerving meditations on
recent technological developments. I have also had to reject
'experimental' stories in which the English language is
pushed to the extremes of what it can - and cannot - do.
These include stories about hallucinating drug addicts and
obsessive dreamers. And, to my sorrow, the best stories that I
have found by members of our Asian and Carribbean
communities have been set outside Britain. I have included a
story about the Pakistani shop-keeper community, written by
9

a white English writer, because it deals with the way in


which two cultures may meet at all sorts of points.
So the anthology has a bias towards realistic stories in
comparatively normal situations. If this confirms the
stereotype of the cautious British writer, I can only ask you
to recognise the problems of selecting a mere twelve stories,
and to remember that we, too, have our writers of wild,
distorting, disorienting tales.
Every good writer has a distinctive voice. Sometimes these
voices
are
instantly
recognisable Dickens'
or
D.H.Lawrence's, for example - but more often, especially in
short stories, it is a matter of subtle modulation, of placing
words in particular contexts which become powerful and
suggestive, of using colloquial syntax to establish a precise
intimacy with the reader. How much of this 'voice' can be
heard by the non-native reader? It depends, of course, on
how well you know the language - of speech as well as
literature - but it must always be difficult. The commentary
can help with unfamiliar phrases and allusions, but it cannot
'explain' the personal voice of each writer. The following
remarks are therefore not intended as an analysis of the
stories, but as suggestions which may help you to hear the
individual voice.
The stories by MacLaverty and Boyd are both told in the
first person by students who are eager to describe what they
have observed but who are sometimes puzzled. They think of
themselves as articulate and confident, but the language they
use, particularly in the 'article' in MacLaverty's story, and at
moments of tension in Boyd's story, is earnest, almost
anxiously solemn, in contrast to their belief in their own
sophistication. In MacLaverty's story, this earnestness is cut
across by the humane and open language of the Great
Profundo on the one hand, and the crude vulgarities of the
students on the other. It's a story of different voices. In
'Gifts' the focus is entirely on Edward. You should be able
to hear the counterpoint between language and meaning: the
10

hoy tells his story in careful detail, without being aware of


irony, but Boyd makes sure that the irony is there as we
reinterpret that precise prose from a grown-up point of view.
Kdward is intelligent and capable of analysing his own
reactions, but there remains a comic discrepancy between his
language for interpreting what happens, and our language for
explaining it to ourselves.
The young man who tells his story in Mackenzie's 'The
Language of Water' speaks to us without any ironic
intervention by the author. He is old enough to reflect on his
feelings for Garfield, and the language traces exactly his
careful sorting out of confusions about both the past and the
present. This is probably the simplest story to read, because
the narrator is a rational man in whom word and deed and
feeling come close together. Nothing is overstated, but, as is
characteristic of many English stories, much is understated,
especially since the narrator is naturally reserved. You need
to listen for that understatement and its gentle reverberations
of meaning.
Another first person narrator whose effect upon other
people is not what she wants is the Shakespeare enthusiast in
'Groundlings'. Unlike the two students in the MacLaverty
and Boyd stories, she has lived long enough to know that
other people frequently do not take her seriously, but she
also knows that she is the person she is and that she cannot
change her commitment to the way she sees the world.
Gardam gives her a voice typical of a nervous, middle-class,
sixty-year-old woman, but by brief repetitions, back-tracking
corrections, and carefully placed slang appropriate to her
age, she establishes its garrulous, defensive, yet courageous
individuality.
1 asked her which was her favourite play and she said 'The

Winter's Tale but it's getting late for it now.'


I've seen her in a Winter's Tale queue several times so I
didn't know what she meant. I thought that maybe her

11

memory was slipping and she was forgetting what she had
seen. Not that that has ever seemed to me such a great
deprivation. If you lose your memory you can experience
things again as if they were new, like when you were young.
Well no. Never really like that.

The voice of the father-narrator in 'Wee Horrors' is


immensely flexible. It ranges from reflective amusement to
anger, resignation, tenderness, exasperation, fear and horror,
all in the space of three pages. In fact, the story is that voice
registering so much about the quality of daily life in a tiny
incident. Kelman uses a modified Glaswegian dialect and a
colloquial but highly controlled syntax which is very far
from the English you will have learnt in your textbooks.
Probably you will find this a difficult story to read, but if you
can hear the modulations of the voice through the
unorthodox, localised prose, you are indeed an advanced
reader of English.
The other story written in the first person is 'Chemistry' by
Graham Swift which purports to be by a child, or perhaps by
an adult reflecting on his childhood, but the voice of this
narrator is neither childish nor ironically undercutting
childishness. The story is told quietly, almost gravely, by
someone pondering philosophical problems. For these
problems Swift finds ingenious symbols which are not so
much sources of emotional energy as devices to be explored,
examined, decoded by that thoughtful, reflective voice. This
would sound very abstract, were it not that 'Chemistry', like
most of Swift's writing, is concerned with tenderness and
self-deception in family relationships. The voice insists on
the puzzling and profound nature of the familiar.
...As [the boat] moved it seemed that it followed an actual
existing line between Grandfather, myself and Mother, as if
Grandfather were pulling us towards him on some invisible
cord, and that he had to do this to prove we were not beyond

12

his reach. When the boat drew near him he would crouch on
his haunches. His hands - which I knew were knotted, veiny
and mottled from an accident in one of his chemical
experiments - would reach out, grasp it and set it on its
return.

l ive of the stories are narrated in the third person, but in


each of them the voice of the central character has a distinct
role, though it can always be modified by direct intervention
of the narrator's own voice. In William Trevor's 'Mr
Tennyson', for instance, much of the language is a literary
re-creation of the language of fifteen-year-old schoolgirls. (I
use the term 'literary re-creation' because it is not, of course,
an exact rendering of that language, but a specially selected
and ordered version of it.) For much of the time we hear
Jenny's thoughts in the words she would use herself, echoing
round inside her head. In other passages, the narrator tells us
(for example) what Jenny's father thinks about life,
something she could not possibly know herself. William
Trevor is perhaps the best of our writers whose reputation
rests chiefly on their short stories; the art of his stories lies in
his careful movement between the point of view of his
protagonist and that of his watchful, linguistically exact,
narrator. Jenny's love for Mr Tennyson is not mocked, but it
is constantly given a context: 'He had, romantically, a bad
reputation.' We ask ourselves: Did he have a bad reputation
because of his conduct of romantic affairs? Or does this
mean that the schoolgirls thought it was romantic to have a
bad reputation? The ambiguity in the sentence structure is
precise. Is this the voice of the girls or the voice of the
narrator? How does the tone of that adult voice support and
criticise the voice of Jenny? Throughout the story it is a
matter of very careful, skilled placing of words.
In 'Empire Building' we hear plenty of Hamid's judgements
in his own voice: 'a man with business instinct could see the
potential'; 'those Greek ladies knew the meaning of hard
13

work'; 'How solitary was the life of these young English


women with no family to care for them; no wonder they fell
into evil ways'. The voice of the narrator appears at first to
be neutral, smoothly describing the changes in the shop from
year to year. But in fact there is a constant dialogue between
the two voices, because, as English readers will recognise,
Hamid's judgements are uncomfortable ones for them to hear
(though frequently all too true), whereas his understanding of
his own position is faulty. Efficient though he is, he fails to
grasp all the implications of English social values. His
dreams for his son as an educated man, and his response to
Wordsworth's vision of London, are opposed to the pride he
takes in the businessman's house which represents
everything rich and philistine. His dreams and his moneymaking don't correlate. The point will be quickly understood
by the experienced English reader; you should listen to the
simple prose, the quietly understated ironies of that
sympathetic narrator's voice which mingles with Hamid's
own voice.
The prose of CA Shooting Season' by Rose Tremain is
speculative and open. Whereas the half-sentences and brief
statements of 'Empire Building' are basically exclamatory
and straightforward in meaning, the unfinished sentences and
hesitant syntax o f ' A Shooting Season' are the structure for a
truly open search for understanding a difficult relationship.
The voice is largely, though not exclusively, the voice of
Anna, a sensitive woman who is capable of emotional leaps
from various points in her past to the confusing present, from
general moral questions to the specifics of food and drink
and physical gestures. This voice, like that of the Glaswegian
father, is immensely flexible; it comes out of a mind that
naturally fashions symbols for emotions. We have to be able
to follow it up and down and around, listening to the
expression of the lovely and painful images, especially in the
penultimate section, if we are to understand the story.

14

A.S.Byatt in 'The Day that E.M.Forster Died' has a narrator


who occasionally speaks directly to the reader, commenting
on her own story. This is, of course, part of a conscious
technique for exploring the relationship between art and life;
it is also a deliberate echo of the very characteristic voice of
K.M.Forster in both his novels and his essays. That voice
was, as the heroine of this story reflects, deliberately
'agnostic and scrupulous', insisting on certain values but
well aware that those values would not be recognised by the
majority of the world's population, and that it was part of his
own belief that such differences should be respected. It is not
necessary to have read E.M.Forster in English to enjoy this
story, but if you have done so, you will probably understand
it better. More than any other of the stories discussed so far,
this one is about ideas and beliefs, and you should be able to
hear the voice of the highly intelligent Englishwoman, with
her (very un-Russian) reserve and tolerance, who is more
comfortable with anti-climax than with climax, and who
reflects self-consciously on her story as each sentence of it is
constructed and laid before us.
In 'The Bottom Line and the Sharp End,' the voice we
hear, dominating all the incidental humour, is Avril's voice.
More than any other writer in this collection, Fay Weldon
has created a character, a flamboyant, unrespectable, brave,
unselfpitying character. To appreciate this story you should
be able to hear the double tones of self-mockery and selfrespect twined together.
...You did my hair black and 1 had a beehive. How we could
have gone round like that! And I fell in love with the stage
manager. God, he was wonderful. Strong and silent and
public school and he really went for me, and was married,
and I've never been happier in my life. But he was ambitious
to get into films, and was offered a job in Hollywood and 1
just walked out of the part and went along. That didn't do
me any good in the profession, I can tell you.

15

But there is also a quiet counterpoint to Avril's voice, heard


partly in Helen's 'respectable' confusion, and partly in the
linguistically witty commentary by the author - combined,
for example, in the sentence, 'Now Helen pitied Avril,
instead of envying her, but somehow couldn't get Avril to
understand that this switch had occurred.'
I have left Julian Barnes' story, 'The Stowaway' to last,
because it stands apart from the others in the collection in
several ways. Although it can be read as a distinct short story
which stands on its own, it is, in fact, the first chapter of a
full-length work called 'A History of the World in 10 Vi
Chapters.' It is hard to know what to call this work - not
exactly a novel, not exactly a collection of short stories, not
exactly an extended essay on survival. At least I am sure that
'The Stowaway' is not significantly damaged as literature by
being removed from the following 9 lA chapters and read as a
separate story.
Secondly, its narrator is not a human being, and the
'narrative' is a commentary on the story of Noah as
recounted in chapters 6 - 9 of 'Genesis', the first book of the
Bible.
Thirdly, the voice of the narrator is all-important. It turns
what would otherwise have been simply a clever idea into
some of the most brilliant pages in modern English literature.
The problem for the Russian reader must consist in being
able to hear and distinguish the great variety of contemporary
English styles which the narrator adopts, and which change
virtually from sentence to sentence. Using these styles with
this subject matter is incongruous; using them juxtaposed,
one with another, is hilarious.
In the following paragraph, for example, look at the
phrases: 'heavy with the waitings of the rejected'; 'when the
news finally got out as to why we'd been asked...' 'nobler
species', 'insulting terms offered them by God...' 'the
amphibians began to look distinctly smug' and the splendid
English taste for comic understatement in the last sentence.
16

There were splendid animals that arrived without a mate and


had to be left behind; there were families which refused to be
separated from their offspring and chose to die together;
there were medical inspections often of a brutally intrusive
nature; and all night long the air outside Noah's stockade
was heavy with the wailings of the rejected. Can you imagine
the atmosphere when the news finally got out as to why we'd
been asked to submit to this charade of a competition. There
was much jealousy and bad behaviour, as you can imagine.
Some of the nobler species simply padded away into the
forest, declining to survive on the insulting terms offered
them by God and Noah, preferring extinction and the waves.
Harsh and envious words were spoken about the fish; the
amphibians began to look distinctly smug; birds practised
staying in the air as long as possible. Certain types of
monkeys were occasionally seen trying to construct crude
rafts of their own. One week there was a mysterious outbreak
of food-poisoning in the Compound of the Chosen, and for
some of the less robust species the selection process had to
start all over again.

The linguistic nuances are inextricably entwined with the


political ones: for example medical examinations c of a
brutally intrusive nature' were carried out by immigration
officers on individuals coming to settle in Britain from the
Indian sub-continent. This was the phrase used by protestors
and in the newspapers campaigning against the practice.
k
This charade of a ...' is a phrase used to attack supposedly
pointless Government rituals intended to keep the population
satisfied. 'Certain types of...' expresses racists' views in an
officially polite style. 'Distinctly smug', on the other hand, is
a witty comment which could only be made by an
intellectual. Of course you will not be able to hear all the
shades of irony, parody, intimacy, slangy jocularity jin<k
satirical mockery, but you can be sure that the ' ^
voice gives a specific intonation to every s e n t e n c e ^ ^

17

the subject matter itself is deeply serious. If it had been


written in a slightly different fashion, this could have been a
savagely bitter essay. Critics in England continue to argue
about how far the brilliance of the prose undermines the
seriousness of the attack on human arrogance and
ruthlessness. That is a question you must decide for yourself.
As an English reader it seems to me that the good-humoured,
sympathetic moral intelligence of the narrator represents that
other side of humanity which is sadly lacking in Noah's
family. And, whether we like it or not, we have all inherited
the characteristics of Noah and of Barnes' narrator. That, as
you will understand when you reach the end of the story, is a
very English paradox, suitable for an anthology of this kind.
The stories are arranged in alphabetical order of author.
By chance, this means that 'The Stowaway' comes first.
Although it is a splendid story, my advice is to leave it until
you are sure that you can hear some of the other voices from
contemporary Britain which are jostling for your attention.
Karen Hewitt
Oxford, January 1994

18

The Stowaway
Julian Barnes

They put the behemoths in the hold along with the rhinos,
(he hippos and the elephants. It was a sensible decision to use
(hem as ballast; but you can imagine the stench. And there
was no-one to muck out. The men were overburdened with
I he feeding rota, and their women, who beneath those leaping
lire-tongues of scent no doubt reeked as badly as we did,
were far too delicate. So if any mucking-out was to happen,
we had to do it ourselves. Every few months they would
winch back the thick hatch on the aft deck and let the
cleaner-birds in. Well, first they had to let the smell out (and
(here weren't too many volunteers for winch-work); then six
or eight of the less fastidious birds would flutter cautiously
around the hatch for a minute or so before diving in. I can't
remember what they were all called - indeed, one of those
pairs no longer exists - but you know the sort I mean. You've
seen hippos with their mouths open and bright little birds
pecking away between their teeth like distraught dental
hygienists? Picture that on a larger, messier scale. I am
hardly squeamish 1 , but even I used to shudder at the scene
below decks: a row of squinting monsters being manicured in
a sewer.
There was strict discipline on the Ark: that's the first point
io make. It wasn't like those nursery versions in painted
wood which you might have played with as a child - all
happy couples peering merrily over the rail from the comfort
of their well-scrubbed stalls. Don't imagine some
19

Mediterranean cruise on which we played languorous


roulette and everyone dressed for dinner 2 ; on the Ark only
the penguins wore tailcoats. Remember: this was a long and
dangerous voyage - dangerous even though some of the rules
had been fixed in advance.Remember too that we had the
whole of the animal kingdom on board: would you have put
the cheetahs within springing distance of the antelope? A
certain level of security was inevitable, and we accepted
double-peg locks, stall inspections, a nightly curfew. But
regrettably there were also punishments and isolation cells.
Someone at the very top 3 became obsessed with information
gathering; and certain of the travellers agreed to act as stool
pigeons 4 . I'm sorry to report that ratting 5 to the authorities
was at times widespread. It wasn't a nature reserve, that Ark
of ours; at times it was more like a prison ship.
Now, I realize that accounts differ. Your species has its
much repeated version, which still charms even sceptics;
while the animals have a compendium of sentimental myths.
But they're not going to rock the boat6, are they? Not when
they've been treated as heroes, not when it's become a matter
of pride that each and every one of them can proudly trace its
family tree straight back to the Ark. They were chosen, they
endured, they survived: it's normal for them to gloss over the
awkward episodes, to have convenient lapses of memory.
But I am not constrained in that way. I was never chosen. In
fact, like several other species, I was specifically not chosen.
I was a stowaway; I too survived; I escaped (getting off was
no easier than getting o n ) ; and I have flourished. I am a little
set apart from the rest of animal society, which still has its
nostalgic reunions: there is even a Sealegs Club for species
which never once felt queasy. When I recall the Voyage, I
feel no sense of obligation; gratitude puts no smear of
Vaseline 7 on the lens. My account you can trust.
You presumably grasped that the 'Ark' was more than just
a single ship? It was the name we gave to the whole flotilla
(you could hardly expect to cram the entire animal kingdom
into something a mere three hundred cubits long). It rained
20

for forty days and forty nights? Well, naturally it didn't - that
would have been no more than a routine English summer.
No, it rained for about a year and a half, by my reckoning.
And the waters were upon the earth for a hundred and fifty
days? Bump that up to 8 about four years. And so on. Your
species has always been hopeless about dates. I put it down
lo your quaint obsession with multiples of seven.
In the beginning, the Ark consisted of eight vessels:
Noah's galleon, which towed the stores ship, then four
slightly smaller boats, each captained by one of Noah's sons,
and behind them, at a safe distance (the family being
superstitious about illness) the hospital ship. The eighth
vessel provided a brief mystery: a darting little sloop with
filigree decorations in sandalwood all along the stern, it
steered a course sycophantically close to that of Ham's ark.
If you got to leeward you would sometimes be teased with
strange perfumes 9 ; occasionally, at night, when the tempest
slackened, you could hear jaunty music and shrill laughter surprising noises to us, because we had assumed that all the
wives of all the sons of Noah were safely ensconced on their
own ships. However, this scented, laughing boat was not
robust: it went down in a sudden squall, and Ham was
pensive for several weeks thereafter.
The stores ship was the next to be lost, on a starless night
when the wind had dropped and the lookouts were drowsy.
In the morning all that trailed behind Noah's flagship was a
length of fat hawser which had been gnawed through by
something with sharp incisors and an ability to cling to wet
ropes. There were serious recriminations about that, I can tell
you; indeed, this may have been the first occasion on which a
species disappeared overboard. Not long afterwards the
hospital ship was lost. There were murmurings that the two
events were connected, that Ham's wife - who was a little
short on serenity10 - had decided to revenge herself upon the
animals. Apparently her lifetime output of embroidered

21

blankets had gone down with the stores ship. But nothing
was ever proved.
Still, the worst disaster by far was the loss of Varadi.
You're familiar with Ham and Shem and the other one,
whose name began with a J11; but you don't know about
Varadi, do you? He was the youngest and strongest of
Noah's sons; which didn't, of course, make him the most
popular within the family. He also had a sense of humour - or
at least he laughed a lot, which is usually proof enough for
your species. Yes, Varadi was always cheerful. He could be
seen strutting the quarterdeck with a parrot on each shoulder;
he would slap the quadrupeds affectionately on the rump,
which they'd acknowledge with an appreciative bellow; and
it was said that his ark was run on much less tyrannical lines
than the others. But there you are: one morning we awoke to
find that Varadi's ship had vanished from the horizon, taking
with it one fifth of the animal kingdom. You would, I think,
have enjoyed the simurgh, with its silver head and peacock's
tail; but the bird that nested in the Tree of Knowledge was no
more proof against the waves than the brindled vole.
Varadi's elder brothers blamed poor navigation; they said
Varadi had spent far too much time fraternizing 12 with the
beasts; they even hinted that God might have been punishing
him for some obscure offence committed when he was a
child of eighty-five 13 . But whatever the truth behind Varadi's
disappearance, it was a severe loss to your species. His genes
would have helped you a great deal.
As far as we were concerned the whole business of the
Voyage began when we were invited to report to a certain
place by a certain time. That was the first we heard of the
scheme. We didn't know anything of the political
background. God's wrath with his own creation was news to
us; we just got caught up in it w i l l y - n i l l y W e weren't in any
way to blame (you don't really believe that story about the
serpent, do you? - it was just Adam's black propaganda) 15 ,
and yet the consequences for us were equally severe: every
species wiped out except for a single breeding pair, and that
couple consigned to the high seas under the charge of an old
22

with a drink problem who was already into his seventh


century of life.
So the word went out; but characteristically they didn't
lull us the truth. Did you imagine that in the vicinity of
Noah's palace (oh, he wasn't poor, that Noah) there dwelt a
convenient example of every species on earth? Come,
come16. No, they were obliged to advertise17, and then select
the best pair that presented itself. Since they didn't want to
cause a universal panic, they announced a competition for
twosomes - a sort of beauty contest cum brains trust cum
I )arby-and-Joan event - and told contestants to present
themselves at Noah's gate by a certain month. You can
imagine the problems. For a start, not everyone has a
competitive nature, so perhaps only the grabbiest 18 turned up.
Animals who weren't smart enough to read between the
lines19 felt they simply didn't need to win a luxury cruise for
two, all expenses paid, thank you very much. Nor had Noah
and his staff allowed for the fact that some species hibernate
at a given time of year; let alone the more obvious fact that
certain animals travel more slowly than others. There was a
particularly relaxed sloth, for instance - an exquisite creature,
I can vouch for it personally - which had scarcely got down
to the foot of its tree before it was wiped out in the great
wash of God's vengeance. What do you call that - natural
selection? I'd call it professional incompetence.
The arrangements, frankly, were a shambles. Noah got
behind with the building of the arks (it didn't help when the
craftsmen realized there weren't enough berths for them to
be taken along as well); with the result that insufficient
attention was given to choosing the animals. The first
normally presentable 20 pair that came along was given the
nod21 - this appeared to be the system; there was certainly no
more than the scantiest examination of pedigree. And of
course, while they said they'd take two of each species,
when it came down to it... Some creatures were simply Not
Wanted On Voyage22. That was the case with us; that's why
we had to stow away. And any number of beasts, with a
23

perfectly good legal argument for being a separate species,


had their claims dismissed. No, we've got two of you
already, they were told. Well, what difference do a few extra
rings round the tail make, or those bushy tufts down your
backbone? We've got you. Sorry.
There were splendid animals that arrived without a mate
and had to be left behind; there were families refused to be
separated from their offspring and chose to die together;
there were medical inspections, often of a brutally intrusive
nature23; and all night long the air outside Noah's stockade
was heavy with the wailings of the rejected. Can you imagine
the atmosphere when the news finally got out as to why we'd
been asked to submit to this charade of a competition? There
was much jealousy and bad behaviour, as you can imagine.
Some of the nobler species simply padded away into the
forest, declining to survive on the insulting terms offered
them by God and Noah, preferring extinction and the waves.
Harsh and envious words were spoken about fish; the
amphibians began to look distinctly smug24; birds practised
staying in the air as long as possible. Certain types of
monkey were occasionally seen trying to construct crude
rafts of their own. One week there was a mysterious outbreak
of food poisoning in the Compound of the Chosen, and for
some of the less robust species the selection process had to
start all over again.
There were times when Noah and his sons got quite
hysterical. That doesn't tally with your account of things?
You've always been led to believe that Noah was sage,
righteous and God-fearing, and I've already described him as
a hysterical rogue with a drink problem? The two views
aren't entirely incompatible. Put it this way: Noah was pretty
bad, but you should have seen the others. It came as little
surprise to us that God decided to wipe the slate clean25; the
only puzzle was that he chose to preserve anything at all of
this species whose creation did not reflect particularly well
on its creator.

24

I limes Noah was nearly on the edge. The Ark was


behind schedule, the craftsmen had to be whipped, hundreds
nl terrified animals were bivouacking near his palace, and
nobody knew when the rains were coming. God wouldn't
even give him a date for that. Every morning we looked at
I he clouds: would it be a westerly wind that brought the rain
ns usual, or would God send his special downpour from a
inrc direction? And as the weather slowly thickened, the
possibilities of revolt grew. Some of the rejected wanted to
i-mnmandeer the Ark and save themselves, others wanted to
destroy it altogether. Animals of a speculative bent2B began to
propound rival selection principles, based on beast size or
utility rather than mere number; but Noah loftily refused to
negotiate. He was a man who had his little theories, and he
didn't want anyone else's.
As the flotilla neared completion it had to be guarded
mimd the clock. There were many attempts to stow away. A
craftsman was discovered one day trying to hollow out a
priest's hole among the lower timbers of the stores ship. And
there were some pathetic sights: a young elk strung from the
rnil of Shem's ark; birds dive-bombing the protective netting;
211 id so on. Stowaways, when detected, were immediately put
to death; but these public spectacles were never enough to
ileter the desperate. Our species, I am proud to report, got on
hoard without either bribery ot violence; but then we are not
us detectable as a young elk. How did we manage it? We had
parent with foresight. While Noah and his sons were
roughly frisking the animals as they came up the gangway,
running coarse hands through suspiciously shaggy fleeces
nnd carrying out some of the earliest and most unhygienic
prostate examinations, we were already well past their gaze
and safely in our bunks. One of the ship's carpenters carried
us to safety, little knowing what he did.
For two days the wind blew from all directions
simultaneously; and then it began to rain. Water sluiced
down from a bilious sky to purge the wicked world. Big
drops exploded on the deck like pigeons' eggs. The selected
25

representatives of each species were moved from the


Compound of the Chosen to their allotted ark: the scene
resembled some obligatory mass wedding. Then they
screwed down the hatches and we all started getting used to
the dark, the confinement and the stench. Not that we cared
much about this at first: we were too exhilarated by our
survival. The rain fell and fell, occasionally shifting to hail
and rattling on the timbers. Sometimes we could hear the
crack of thunder from outside, and often the lamentations of
abandoned beasts. After a while these cries grew less
frequent: we knew that the waters had begun to rise.
Eventually came the day we had been longing for. At first
we thought it might be some crazed assault by the last
remaining pachyderms, trying to force their way into the Ark,
or at least knock it over. But no: it was the boat shifting
sideways as the water began to lift it from the cradle27. That
was the high point of the Voyage, if you ask me; that was
when fraternity among the beasts and gratitude towards man
flowed like the wine at Noah's table. Afterwards... but
perhaps the animals had been naive to trust Noah and his
God in the first place.
Even before the waters rose there had been grounds for
unease. I know your species tends to look down on our
world, considering it brutal, cannibalistic and deceitful
(though you might acknowledge the argument that this makes
us closer to you rather than more distant). But among us
there had always been, from the beginning, a sense of
equality. Oh, to be sure, we ate one another, and so on; the
weaker species knew all too well what to expect if they
crossed the path of something that was both bigger and
hungry. But we merely recognized this as being the way of
things. The fact that one animal was capable of killing
another did not make first animal superior to the second;
merely more dangerous. Perhaps this is a concept difficult
for you to grasp, but there was a mutual respect amongst us.
Eating another animal was not grounds for despising it28; and

26

being eaten did not instill in the victim - or the victim's


lamily - any exaggerated admiration for the dining species.
Noah - or Noah's God - changed all that. If you had a Fall,
so did we. But we were pushed23. It was when the selections
were being made for the Compound of the Chosen that we
lirst noticed it. All this stuff about two of everything was
Irue (and you could see it made a certain basic sense); but it
wasn't the end of the matter. In the Compound we began to
notice that some species had been whittled down not to a
ample but to seven (again, this obsession with sevens). At
lirst we thought the extra five might be travelling reserves in
rase the original pair fell sick. But then it slowly began to
emerge. Noah - or Noah's God - had decreed that there were
two classes of beast: the clean and the unclean. Clean
animals got into the Ark by sevens; the unclean by twos.
There was, as you can imagine, deep resentment at the
divisiveness of God's animal policy. Indeed, at first even the
lean animals themselves were embarrassed by the whole
Ihing; they knew they'd done little to deserve such special
patronage. Though being 'clean', as they rapidly realized,
was a mixed blessing. Being 'clean' meant that they could be
eaten. Seven animals were welcome on board, but five were
destined for the galley30. It was a curious form of honour that
was being done them. But at least it meant they got the most
comfortable quarters available until the day of their ritual
daughter.
I could occasionally find the situation funny, and give vent
to the outcast's laugh. However, among the species who took
themselves seriously there arose all sorts of complicated
jealousies. The pig did not mind, being of a socially
unambitious nature; but some of the other animals regarded
I lie notion of uncleanliness as a personal slight. And it must
he said that the system - at least, the system as Noah
understood it - made very little sense. What was so special
about cloven-footed ruminants31, one asked oneself? Why
should the camel and the rabbit be given second-class status?
Why should a division be introduced between fish that had
27

scales and fish that did not? The swan, the pelican, the heron,
the hoopoe: are these not some of the finest species? Yet
they were not awarded the badge of cleanness. Why round on
the mouse and the lizard - which had enough problems
already, you might think - and undermine their selfconfidence further? If only we could have seen some glimpse
of logic behind it all; if only Noah had explained it better.
But all he did was blindly obey. Noah, as you will have been
told many times, was a very God-fearing man; and given the
nature of God, that was probably the safest line to take. Yet
if you could have heard the weeping of the shellfish, the
grave and puzzled complaint of the lobster, if you could have
seen the mournful shame of the stork, you would have
understood that things would never again be the same
amongst us.
And then there was another little difficulty. By some
unhappy chance, our species had managed to smuggle seven
members on board. Not only were we stowaways (which
some resented), not only were we unclean (which some had
already begun to despise), but we had also mocked those
clean and legal species by mimicking their sacred number.
We quickly decided to lie about how many of us there were and we never appeared together in the same place. We
discovered which parts of the ship were welcoming to us,
and which we should avoid.
So you can see that it was an unhappy convoy from the
beginning. Some of us were grieving for those we had been
forced to leave behind; others were resentful about their
status; others again, though notionally favoured by the title
of cleanness, were rightly apprehensive about the oven. And
on top of it all, there was Noah and his family.
I don't know how best to break this to you, but Noah was
not a nice man. I realize this idea is embarrassing, since you
are all descended from him; still, there it is. He was a
monster, a puffed-up patriarch who spent half his day
grovelling to his God and the other half taking it out on us32.
He had a gopher-wood stave with which... well, some of the
28

unimals carry the stripes to this day. It's amazing what fear
cnn do. I'm told that among you species a severe shock may
niuse the hair to turn white in a matter of hours; on the Ark
(lie effects of fear were even more dramatic. There was a pair
of lizards, for instance, who at the mere sound of Noah's
-wood sandals advancing down the companion-way
would actually change colour. I saw it myself: their skin
would abandon its natural hue and blend with the
background. Noah would pause as he passed their stall,
wondering briefly why it was empty, then stroll on; and as
his footsteps faded the terrified lizards would slowly revert
lo their normal colour. Down the post-Ark years this has
apparently proved a useful trick; but it all began as a chronic
reaction to 'the Admiral'.
With the reindeer 33 it was more complicated. They were
nlways nervous, but it wasn't just fear of Noah, it was
something deeper. You know how some of us animals have
powers of foresight? Even you have managed to notice that,
nfter millennia of exposure to our habits. 'Oh, look,' you say,
Mhc cows are sitting down in the field, that means it's going
to rain.' Well, of course it's all much subtler than you can
possibly imagine, and the point of it certainly isn't to act as a
cheap weather-vane for human beings. Anyway... the
reindeer were troubled with something deeper than Noahangst, stranger than storm-nerves; something... long-term.
They sweated up in their stalls, they whinnied neurotically in
spells of oppressive heat; they kicked out at the gopher-wood
partitions when there was no obvious danger - no
subsequently proven danger, either - and when Noah had
been, for him, positively restrained in his behaviour. But the
reindeer sensed something. And it was something beyond
what we then knew. As if they were saying, ' You think this
is the worst? Don't count on it.' Still, whatever it was, even
the reindeer couldn't be specific about it. Something distant,
major... long-term.
The rest of us, understandably enough, were far more
concerned about the short term. Sick animals, for instance,
29

were always ruthlessly dealt with. This was not a hospital


ship, we were constantly informed by the authorities; there
was to be no disease, and no malingering. Which hardly
seemed just or realistic. But you knew better than to report
yourself ill. A little bit of mange34 and you were over the side
before you could stick your tongue out for inspection. And
then what do you think happened to your better half? 35 What
good is fifty per cent of a breeding pair? Noah was hardly the
sentimentalist who would urge the grieving partner to live
out its natural span.
Put it another way: what the hell do you think Noah and
his family ate in the Ark? They ate us, of course. I mean, if
you look around the animal kingdom nowadays, you don't
think this is all there ever was, do you? A lot of beasts
looking more or less the same, and then a gap and another lot
of beasts looking more or less the same? I know you've got
some theory to make sense of it all - something about
relationship to the environment and inherited skills or
whatever - but there's a much simpler explanation for the
puzzling leaps in the spectrum of creation. One fifth of the
earth's species went down with Varadi; and as for the rest
that are missing, Noah's crowd ate them. They did. There
was a pair of Arctic plovers, for instance - very pretty birds.
When they came on board they were a mottled bluey-brown
in plumage. A few months later they started to moult. This
was quite normal. As their summer feathers departed, their
winter coat of pure white began to show through. Of course
we weren't in Arctic latitudes, so this was technically
unnecessary; still, you can't stop Nature, can you? Nor could
you stop Noah. As soon as he saw the plovers turning white,
he decided that they were sickening, and in tender
consideration for the rest of the ship's health he had them
boiled with a little seaweed on the side36. He was an ignorant
man in many respects, and certainly no ornithologist. We got
up a petition and explained certain things to him about
moulting and what-have-you. Eventually he seemed to take it
in. But that was the Arctic plover gone.
30

Of course, it didn't stop there. As far as Noah and his


family were concerned, we were just a floating cafeteria.
( lean and unclean came alike to them on the Ark; lunch first,
Ihen piety, that was the rule. And you can't imagine what
richness of wildlife Noah deprived you of. Or rather, you
can, because that's precisely what you do: you imagine it.
All those mythical beasts your poets dreamed up in former
centuries: you assume, don't you, that they were either
knowingly invented, or else they were alarmist descriptions
of animals half-glimpsed in the forest after too good a
hunting lunch? I'm afraid the explanation's more simple:
Noah and his tribe scoffed them. At the start of the Voyage,
as I said, there was a pair of behemoths in our hold. I didn't
net much of a look at them myself, but I'm told they were
impressive beasts. Yet Ham, Shem or the one whose name
began with J apparently proposed at the family council that if
you had the elephant and the hippopotamus, you could get by
without the behemoth; and besides - the argument combined
practicality with principle - two such large carcases would
keep the Noah family going for months.
Of course, it didn't work out like that. After a few weeks
there were complaints about getting behemoth for dinner
every night, and so - merely for a change of diet - some other
species was sacrificed. There were guilty nods from time to
time in the direction of 37 domestic economy, but I can tell
you this: there was a lot of salted behemoth left over at the
end of the journey.
The salamander went the same way. The real salamander,
I mean, not the unremarkable animal you still call by the
same name; our salamander lived in fire. That was a one-off
beast and no mistake; yet Ham or Shem or the other one kept
pointing out that on a wooden ship the risk was simply too
great, and so both the salamanders and the twin fires that
housed them had to go. The carbuncle went as well, all
because of some ridiculous story Ham's wife had heard
about it having a precious jewel inside its skull. She was
always a dressy one, that Ham's wife. So they took one of
31

the carbuncles and chopped its head off; split the skull and
found nothing at all. Maybe the jewel is only found in the
female's head, Ham's wife suggested. So they opened up the
other one as well, with the same negative result38.
I put this next suggestion to you rather tentatively; I feel I
have to voice it, though. At times we suspected a kind of
system behind the killing that went on. Certainly there was
more extermination than was strictly necessary for
nutritional purposes - far more. And at the same time some of
the species that were killed had very little eating on them.
What's more, the gulls would occasionally report that they
had seen carcases tossed from the stern with perfectly good
meat thick on the bone. We began to suspect that Noah and
his tribe had it in for39 certain animals simply for being what
they were. The basilisk, for instance, went overboard very
early. Now, of course it wasn't very pleasant to look at, but I
feel it my duty to record that there was very little eating
underneath those scales, and that the bird certainly wasn't
sick at the time.
In fact, when we came to look back on it after the event,
we began to discern a pattern, and the pattern began with the
basilisk. You've never seen one, of course. But if I describe a
four-legged cock with a serpent's tail, say that it had a very
nasty look in its eye and laid a misshapen egg which it then
employed a toad to hatch, you'll understand that this was not
the most alluring beast on the Ark. Still, it had its rights like
everyone else, didn't it? After the basilisk it was the griffon's
turn; after the griffon, the sphinx; after the sphinx, the
hippogriff. You thought they were all gaudy fantasies,
perhaps? Not a bit of it. And do you see what they had in
common? They were all crossbreeds. We think it was Shem though it could well have been Noah himself - who had this
thing40 about the purity of the species. Cock-eyed41, of
course; and as we used to say to one another, you only had to
look at Noah and his wife, or at their three sons and their
three wives, to realize what a genetically messy lot the

32

human race would turn out to be. So why should they start
getting fastidious about cross-breeds?
Still, it was the unicorn that was the most distressing. That
business depressed us for months. Of course, there were the
usual sordid rumours - that Ham's wife had been putting its
horn to ignoble use - and the usual posthumous smear
campaign42 by the authorities about the beast's character; but
(his only sickened us the more. The unavoidable fact is that
Noah was jealous. We all looked up to the unicorn, and he
couldn't stand it. Noah - what point is there in not telling you
ihe truth? - was bad-tempered, smelly, unreliable,envious and
cowardly. He wasn't even a good sailor: when the seas were
high he would retire to his cabin, throw himself down on his
gopher-wood bed and leave it only to vomit out his stomach
into his gopher-wood wash-basin; you could smell the
effluvia a deck away. Whereas the unicorn was strong,
honest, fearless, impeccably groomed, and a mariner who
never knew a moment's queasiness. Once, in a gale, Ham's
wife lost her footing near the rail and was about to go
overboard. The unicorn - who had deck privileges as a result
of popular lobbying - galloped across and stuck his horn
through her trailing cloak, pinning it to the deck. Fine thanks
he got for his valour; the Noahs had him casseroled one
Embarkation Sunday. I can vouch for that. I spoke personally
to the carrier-hawk who delivered a warm pot to Shem's ark.
You don't have to believe me, of course; but what do your
own archives say? Take the story of Noah's nakedness - you
remember? It happened after the Landing. Noah, not
surprisingly, was even more pleased with himself than before
- he'd saved the human race, he'd ensured the success of his
dynasty, he'd been given a formal covenant by God - and he
decided to take things easy in the last three hundred and fifty
years of his life. He founded a village (which you call
Arghuri) on the lower slopes of the mountain, and spent his
days dreaming up new decorations and honours for himself:
Holy Knight of the Tempest, Grand Commander of the
Squalls, and so on. Your sacred text informs you that on his
33

estate he planted a vineyard. Ha! Even the least subtle mind


can decode that particular euphemism: he was drunk all the
time. One night, after a particularly hard session, he'd just
finished undressing when he collapsed on the bedroom floor
- not an unusual occurrence. Ham and his brothers happened
to be passing his 'tent' (they still used the old sentimental
desert word to describe their palaces) and called in to check
that their alcoholic father hadn't done himself any harm.
Ham went into the bedroom and... well, a naked man of six
hundred and fifty odd years lying in a drunken stupor is not a
pretty sight. Ham did the decent, the filial thing: he got his
brothers to cover their father up. As a sign of respect though even at that time the custom was passing out of use Shem and the one beginning with J entered their father's
chamber backwards, and managed to get him into bed
without letting their gaze fall on those organs of generation
which mysteriously incite your species to shame. A pious
and honourable deed all round, you might think. And how
did Noah react when he awoke with one of those knifing
new-wine hangovers? He cursed the son who had found him
and decreed that all Ham's children should become servants
to the family of the two brothers who had entered his room
arse-first. Where is the sense in that? I can guess your
explanation: his sense of judgment was affected by drink,
and we should offer pity not censure. Well, maybe. But I
would just mention this:we knew him on the Ark.
He was a large man, Noah - about the size of a gorilla,
although there the resemblance ends. The flotilla's captain he promoted himself to Admiral halfway through the Voyage
- was an ugly old thing, both graceless in movement and
indifferent to personal hygiene. He didn't even have the skill
to grow his own hair except around his face; for the rest of
his covering he relied on the skins of other species. Put him
side by side with the gorilla and you will easily discern the
superior creation: the one with graceful movement, rippling
strength and an instinct for delousing 43 . On the Ark we
puzzled ceaselessly at the riddle of how God came to choose
34

man as His protege ahead of the more obvious candidates.


He would have found most other species a lot more loyal. If
He'd plumped for 44 the gorilla, I doubt there'd have been half
so much disobedience - probably no need to have had the
Flood in the first place.
And the smell of the fellow... Wet fur growing on a
species which takes pride in grooming is one thing; but a
dank, salt-encrusted pelt hanging ungroomed from the neck
of a negligent species to whom it doesn't belong is quite
another matter. Even when the calmer times came, old Noah
didn't seem to dry out (I am reporting what the birds said,
and the birds could be trusted). He carried the damp and the
storm around with him like some guilty memory or the
promise of more bad weather.
There were other dangers on the Voyage apart from that of
being turned into lunch. Take our species, for instance. Once
we'd boarded and were tucked away, we felt pretty smug.
This was, you understand, long before the days of the fine
syringe filled with a solution of carbolic acid in alcohol,
before
creosote
and
metallic
naphthenates
and
pentachlorphenol and benzene and para-dichlor-benzene and
ortho-di-chloro-benzene. We happily did not run into the
family Cleridae or the mite Pediculoides or parasitic wasps
of the family Braconidae. But even so we had an enemy, and
a patient one: time. What if time exacted from us our
inevitable changes?
It came as a serious warning the day we realized that time
and nature were happening to our cousin xestobium rufovillosum. That set off quite a panic. It was late in the Voyage,
during calmer times, when we were just sitting out the days
and waiting for God's pleasure. In the middle of the night,
with the Ark becalmed and silence everywhere - a silence so
rare and thick that all the beasts stopped to listen, thereby
deepening it still further - we heard to our astonishment the
ticking45 of xestobium rufo-villosum, Four or five sharp
clicks, then a pause, then a distant reply. We the humble, the
discreet, the disregarded yet sensible anobium domesticum
35

could not believe our ears. That egg becomes larva, larva
chrysalis, and chrysalis imago is the inflexible law of our
world: pupation brings with it no rebuke. But that our
cousins, transformed into adulthood, should choose this
moment, this moment of all, to advertise their amatory
intentions, was almost beyond belief. Here we were,
perilously at sea, final extinction a daily possibility, and all
xestobium rufo-villosum could think about was sex. It must
have been a neurotic response to fear of extinction or
something. But even so...
One of Noah's sons came to check up on the noise as our
stupid cousins, hopelessly in thrall to erotic publicity, struck
their jaws against the wall of their burrows. Fortunately, the
offspring of 'the Admiral' had only a crude understanding of
the animal kingdom with which they had been entrusted, and
he took the patterned clicks to be a creaking of the ship's
timbers. Soon the wind rose again and xestobium rufovillosum could make its trysts in safety. But the affair left the
rest of us much more cautious. Anobium domesticum, by
seven votes to none, resolved not to pupate until after
Disembarkation.
It has to be said that Noah, rain or shine, wasn't much of a
sailor. He was picked for his piety rather than his
navigational skills. He wasn't any good in a storm, and he
wasn't much better when the seas were calm. How would I
be any judge? Again, I am reporting what the birds said - the
birds that can stay in the air for weeks at a time, the birds
that can find their way from one end of the planet to the
other by navigational systems as elaborate as any invented by
your species. And the birds said Noah didn't know what he
was doing - he was all bluster and prayer. It wasn't difficult,
what he had to do, was it? During the tempest he had to
survive by running from the fiercest part of the storm; and
during calm weather he had to ensure we didn't drift so far
from our original map-reference that we came to rest in some
uninhabitable Sahara. The best that can be said for Noah is
that he survived the storm (though he hardly needed to worry
36

about reefs and coastlines, which made things easier), and


that when the waters finally subsided we didn't find
ourselves by mistake in the middle of some great ocean. If
we'd done that, there's no knowing how long we'd have
been at sea.
Of course, the birds offered to put their expertise at
Noah's disposal; but he was too proud. He gave them a few
simple reconnaissance tasks - looking out for whirlpools and
tornadoes - while disdaining their proper skills. He also sent
a number of species to their deaths by asking them to go aloft
in terrible weather when they weren't properly equipped to
do so. When Noah despatched the warbling goose into a
Force Nine gale (the bird did, it's true, have an irritating cry,
especially if you were trying to sleep), the stormy petrel
actually volunteered to take its place. But the offer was
spurned - and that was the end of the warbling goose.
All right, all right, Noah had his virtues. He was a survivor
- and not just in terms of the Voyage. He also cracked the
secret of long life, which has subsequently been lost to your
species. But he was not a nice man. Did you know about the
time he had the ass keel-hauled 46 ? Is that in your archives? It
was in Year Two, when the rules had been just a little
relaxed, and selected travellers were to mingle. Well, Noah
caught the ass trying to climb up the mare. He really hit the
roof17, ranted away about no good coming of such a union which rather confirmed our theory about his horror of crossbreeding - and said he would make an example of the beast.
So they tied his hooves together, slung him over the side,
dragged him underneath the hull and up the other side in a
stampeding sea. Most of us put it down to sexual jealousy,
simple as that. What was amazing, though, was how the ass
took it. They know all about endurance, those guys. When
they pulled him over the rail, he was in a terrible state. His
poor old ears looked like fronds of slimy seaweed and his tail
like a yard of sodden rope and a few of the other beasts who
by this time weren't too crazy about Noah gathered round
him, and the goat I think it was butted him gently in the side
37

to see if he was still alive, and the ass opened one eye, rolled
it around the circle of concerned muzzles, and said, 'Now I
know what it's like to be a seal.' Not bad in the
circumstances? But I have to tell you, that was nearly one
more species you lost.
I suppose it wasn't altogether Noah's fault. I mean, that
God of his was a really oppressive role-model48. Noah
couldn't do anything without first wondering what He would
think. Now that's no way to go on49. Always looking over
your shoulder for approval - it's not adult, is it? And Noah
didn't have the excuse of being a young man, either. He was
six hundred-odd, by the way your species reckons these
things. Six hundred years should have produced some
flexibility of mind, some ability to see both sides of the
question. Not a bit of it. Take the construction of the Ark.
What does he do? He builds it in gopher-wood. Gopherwood? Even Shem objected, but no, that was what he wanted
and that was what he had to have. The fact that not much
gopher-wood grew nearby was brushed aside50. No doubt he
was merely following instructions from his role-model; but
even so. Anyone who knows anything about wood - and I
speak with some authority in the matter - could have told him
that a couple of dozen other tree-types would have done as
well, if not better; and what's more, the idea of building all
parts of a boat from a single wood is ridiculous. You should
choose your material according to the purpose for which it is
intended; everyone knows that. Still, this was old Noah for
you - no flexibility of mind at all. Only saw one side of the
question. Gopher-wood bathroom fittings - have you ever
heard of anything more absurd?
He got it, as I say, from his role-model. What would God
think? That was the question always on his lips. There was
something a bit sinister about Noah's devotion to God;
creepy, if you know what I mean. Still, he certainly knew
which side his bread was buttered51; and I suppose being
selected like that as the favoured survivor, knowing that your
dynasty is going to be the only one on earth - it must turn
38

your head, mustn't it? As for his sons - Ham, Shem, and the
one beginning with J - it certainly didn't do much good for
their egos. Swanking about on deck like the Royal Family.
You see, there's one thing I want to make quite clear. This
Ark business. You're probably still thinking that Noah, for
all his faults, was basically some kind of early
conservationist, that he collected the animals together
because he didn't want them to die out, that he couldn't
endure not seeing a giraffe ever again, that he was doing it
for us. This wasn't the case at all. He got us together because
his role-model told him to, but also out of self-interest, even
cynicism. He wanted to have something to eat after the
Flood had subsided. Five and a half years under water and
most of the kitchen gardens were washed away, I can tell
you; only rice prospered. And so most of us knew that in
Noah's eyes we were just future dinners on two, four or
however many legs. If not now, then later; if not us, then our
offspring. That's not a nice feeling, as you can imagine. An
atmosphere of paranoia and terror held sway on that Ark of
Noah's. Which of us would he come for next? Fail to charm
Ham's wife today and you might be a fricassee by tomorrow
night. That sort of uncertainty can provoke the oddest
behaviour. I remember when a couple of lemmings were
caught making for the side of the ship - they said they wanted
to end it once and for all, they couldn't bear the suspense.
But Shem caught them just in time and locked them up in a
packing-case. Every so often, when he was feeling bored, he
would slide open the top of their box and wave a big knife
around inside. It was his idea of a joke. But if it didn't
traumatize the entire species I'd be very surprised.
And of course once the Voyage was over, God made
Noah's dining rights official. The pay-off for all that
obedience was the permission to eat whichever of us Noah
chose for the rest of his life. It was all part of some pact or
covenant botched together 52 between the pair of them. A
pretty hollow contract, if you ask me. After all, having
eliminated everyone else from the earth, God had to make do
39

with the one family of worshippers he'd got left, didn't he?
Couldn't very well say, No you aren't up to scratch 53 either.
Noah probably realized he had God over a barrel54 (what an
admission of failure to pull the Flood and then be obliged to
ditch your First Family), and we reckoned he'd have eaten us
anyway, treaty or no treaty. This so-called covenant had
absolutely nothing in it for us - except our death-warrant. Oh
yes, we were thrown one tiny sop - Noah and his crowd
weren't permitted to eat any females that were in calf. A
loophole which led to some frenzied activity around the
beached Ark, and also to some strange psychological sideeffects. Have you ever thought about the origins of the
hysterical pregnancy?
Which reminds me of that business with Ham's wife. It
was all rumour, they said, and you can see how such rumours
might have started. Ham's wife was not the most popular
person in the Ark; and the loss of the hospital ship, as I've
said, was widely attributed to her. She was still very
attractive - only about a hundred and fifty at the time of the
Deluge - but she was also wilful and short-tempered. She
certainly dominated poor Ham. Now the facts are as follows.
Ham and his wife had two children - two male children, that
is, which was the way they counted - called Cush and
Mizraim. They had a third son, Phut, who was born on the
Ark, and a fourth, Canaan, who arrived after the Landing.
Noah and his wife had dark hair and brown eyes; so did Ham
and his wife; so, for that matter, did Shem and Varadi and
the one beginning with J. And all the children of Shem and
Varadi and the one whose name began with J had dark hair
and brown eyes. And so did Cush, and Mizraim, and Canaan.
But Phut, the one born on the Ark, had red hair. Red hair and
green eyes. Those are the facts.
At this point we leave the harbour of facts for the high
seas of rumour (that's how Noah used to talk, by the way). I
was not myself on Ham's ark, so I am merely reporting, in a
dispassionate way, the news the birds brought. There were
two main stories, and I leave you to choose between them.
40

You remember the case of the craftsman who chipped out a


priest's hole for himself on the stores ship? Well, it was said
- though not officially confirmed - that when they searched
the quarters of Ham's wife they discovered a compartment
nobody had realized was there. It certainly wasn't marked on
the plans. Ham's wife denied all knowledge of it, yet it
seems one of her yakskin undervests was found hanging on a
peg there, and a jealous examination of the floor revealed
several red hairs caught between the planking.
The second story - which again I pass on without comment
- touches on more delicate matters, but since it directly
concerns a significant percentage of your species I am
constrained to go on. There was on board Ham's ark a pair of
simians55 of the most extraordinary beauty and sleekness.
They were, by all accounts, highly intelligent, perfectly
groomed, and had mobile faces which you could swear were
about to utter speech. They also had flowing red fur and
green eyes. No, such a species no longer exists: it did not
survive the Voyage, and the circumstances surrounding its
death on board have never been fully cleared up. Something
to do with a falling spar... But what a coincidence, we always
thought, for a falling spar to kill both members of a
particularly nimble species at one and the same time.
The public explanation was quite different, of course.
There were no secret compartments. There was no
miscegenation. The spar which killed the simians was
enormous, and also carried away a purple muskrat, two
pygmy ostriches and a pair of flat-tailed aardvarks. The
strange colouring of Phut was a sign from God - though what
it denoted lay beyond human decipherability ait the time.
Later its significance became clear: it was a sign that the
Voyage had passed its half-way mark. Therefore Phut was a
blessed child, and no subject for alarm and punishment.
Noah himself announced as much. God had come to him in a
dream and told him to stay his hand against the infant, and
Noah, being a righteous man as he pointed out, did so.

41

I don't need to tell you that the animals were pretty


divided about what to believe. The mammals, for instance,
refused to countenance the idea that the male of the redhaired, green-eyed simians could have been carnally familiar
with56 Ham's wife. To be sure, we never know what is in the
secret heart of even our closest friends, but the mammals
were prepared to swear on their mammalhood that it would
never have happened. They knew the male simian too well,
they said, and could vouch for his high standards of personal
cleanliness. He was even, they hinted, a bit of a snob. And
supposing - just supposing - he had wanted a bit of rough
trade57, there were far more alluring specimens on offer than
Ham's wife. Why not one of those cute little yellow-tailed
monkeys who were anybody's for a pawful of mashed
nutmeg?
That is nearly the end of my revelations. They are
intended - you must understand me - in a spirit of friendship.
If you think I am being contentious, it is probably because
your species - I hope you don't mind my saying this - is so
hopelessly dogmatic. You believe what you want to believe,
and you go on believing it. But then, of course, you all have
Noah's genes. No doubt this also accounts for the fact that
you are often strangely incurious. You never ask, for
instance, this question about your early history: what
happened to the raven?
When the Ark landed on the mountaintop (it was more
complicated than that, of course, but we'll let details pass),
Noah sent out a raven and a dove to see if the waters had
retreated from the face of the earth. Now, in the version that
has come down to you, the raven has a very small part; it
merely flutters hither and thither, to little avail, you are led to
conclude. The dove's three journeys, on the other hand, are
made a matter of heroism. We weep when she finds no rest
for the sole of her foot; we rejoice when she returns to the
Ark with an olive leaf. You have elevated this bird, I
understand, into something of symbolic value. So let me just
point this out: the raven always maintained that he found the
42

olive tree; that he brought a leaf from it back to the Ark; but
that Noah decided it was 'more appropriate' to say that the
dove had discovered it. Personally, I always believed the
raven, who apart from anything else was much stronger in
the air than the dove; and it would have been just like Noah
(modelling himself on that God of his again) to stir up a
dispute among the animals. Noah had it put about that the
raven, instead of returning as soon as possible with evidence
of dry land, had been malingering, and had been spotted (by
whose eye? not even the upwardly mobile58 dove would have
demeaned herself with such a slander) gourmandising on
carrion. The raven, I need hardly add, felt hurt and betrayed
at this instant rewriting of history, and it is said - by those
with a better ear than mine - that you can hear the sad croak
of dissatisfaction in his voice to this day. The dove, by
contrast, began sounding unbearably smug from the moment
we disembarked. She could already envisage herself on
postage stamps and letterheads.
Before the ramps were lowered, 'the Admiral' addressed
the beasts on his Ark, and his words were relayed to those of
us on other ships. He thanked us for our co-operation, he
apologized for the occasional sparseness of rations, and he
promised that since we had all kept our side of the bargain.,
he was going to get the best quid pro quo out of God in the
forthcoming negotiations. Some of us laughed a little
doubtingly at that: we remembered the keel-hauling of the
ass, the loss of the hospital ship, the exterminatory policy
with cross-breeds, the death of the unicorn ... It was evident
to us that if Noah was coming on all Mister Nice Guy59, it
was because he sensed what any clear-thinking animal would
do the moment it placed its foot on dry land: make for the
forests and the hills. He was obviously trying to soft-soap 60
us into staying close to New Noah's Palace, whose
construction he chose to announce at the same time.
Amenities here would include free water for the animals and
extra feed during harsh winters. He was obviously scared

43

that the meat diet he'd got used to on the Ark would be taken
away from him as fast as its two, four or however many legs
could carry it, and that the Noah family would be back on
berries and nuts once again. Amazingly, some of the beasts
thought Noah's offer a fair one: after all, they argued, he
can't eat all of us, he'll probably just cull the old and the
sick. So some of them - not the cleverest ones, it has to be
said - stayed around waiting for the Palace to be built and the
water to flow like wine. The pigs, the cattle, the sheep, some
of the stupider goats, the chickens... We warned them, or at
least we tried. We used to mutter derisively, 'Braised or
boiled?' but to no avail. As I say, they weren't very bright,
and were probably scared of going back into the wild; they'd
grown dependent on their gaol, and their gaoler. What
happened over the next few generations was quite
predictable: they became shadows of their former selves. The
pigs and sheep you see walking around today are zombies
compared to their effervescent ancestors on the Ark. They've
had the stuffing knocked out of them61. And some of them,
like the turkey, have to endure the further indignity of having
the stuffing put back into them - before they are braised or
boiled.
And of course, what did Noah actually deliver in his
famous Disembarkation Treaty with God? What did he get in
return for the sacrifices and loyalty of his tribe (let alone the
more considerable sacrifices of the animal kingdom)? God
said - and this is Noah putting the best possible interpretation
on the matter - that He promised not to send another Flood,
and that as a sign of His intention He was creating for us the
rainbow. The rainbow! Ha! It's a very pretty thing, to be
sure, and the first one he produced for us, an iridescent semicircle with a paler sibling beside it, the pair of them glittering
in an indigo sky, certainly made a lot of us look up from our
grazing. You could see the idea behind it: as the rain gave
reluctant way to the sun, this flamboyant symbol would
remind us each time that the rain wasn't going to carry on
44

and turn into a Flood. But even so. It wasn't much of a deal.
And was it legally enforceable? Try getting a rainbow to
stand up in court.
The cannier animals saw Noah's offer of half-board 62 for
what it was; they took to the hills and the woods, relying on
their own skills for water and winter feed. The reindeer, we
couldn't help noticing, were among the first to take off,
speeding away from 'the Admiral' and all his future
descendants, bearing with them their mysterious forebodings.
You are right, by the way, to see the animals that fled ungrateful traitors, according to Noah - as the nobler species.
Can a pig be noble? A sheep? A chicken? If only you had
seen the unicorn... That was another contentious aspect of
Noah's post-Disembarkation address to those still loitering at
the edge of his stockade. He said that God, by giving us the
rainbow, was in effect promising to keep the world's supply
of miracles topped up. A clear reference, if ever I heard one,
to the scores of original miracles which in the course of the
Voyage had been slung over the side of Noah's ships or had
disappeared into the guts of his family. The rainbow in place
of the unicorn? Why didn't God just restore the unicorn? We
animals would have been happier with that, instead of a big
hint in the sky about God's magnanimity every time it
stopped raining.
Getting off the Ark, I think I told you, wasn't much easier
than getting on. There had, alas, been a certain amount of
ratting by some of the chosen species, so there was no
question of Noah simply flinging down the ramps and crying
'Happy land'. Every animal had to put up with a strict bodysearch before being released; some were even doused in tubs
of water which smelt of tar. Several female beasts
complained of having to undergo internal examination by
Shem. Quite a few stowaways were discovered: some of the
more conspicuous beetles, a few rats who had unwisely
gorged themselves during the Voyage and got too fat, even a
snake or two. We got off -1 don't suppose it need be a secret
45

any longer - in the hollowed tip of a ram's horn. It was a big,


surly, subversive animal, whose friendship we had
deliberately cultivated for the last three years at sea. It had no
respect for Noah, and was only too happy to help outsmart
him after the Landing.
When the seven of us climbed out of that ram's horn, we
were euphoric. We had survived. We had stowed away,
survived and escaped - all without entering into any fishy 63
covenants with either God or Noah. We had done it by
ourselves. We felt ennobled as a species. That might strike
you as comic, but we did: we felt ennobled. That Voyage
taught us a lot of things, you see, and the main thing was
this: that man is a very unevolved species compared to the
animals. We don't deny, of course, your cleverness, your
considerable potential. But you are, as yet, at an early stage
of your development. We, for instance, are always ourselves:
that is what it means to be evolved. We are what we are, and
we know what that is. You don't expect a cat suddenly to
start barking, do you, or a pig to start lowing? But this is
what, in a manner of speaking, those of us who made the
Voyage on the Ark learned to expect from your species. One
moment you bark, one moment you mew; one moment you
wish to be wild, one moment you wish to be tame. We knew
where we were with Noah only in this one respect: that we
never knew where we were with him.
You aren't too good with the truth, either, your species.
You keep forgetting things, or you pretend to. The loss of
Varadi and his ark - does anyone speak of that? I can see
there might be a positive side to this wilful averting of the
eye: ignoring the bad things makes it easier for you to carry
on. But ignoring the bad things makes you end up believing
that bad things never happen. You are always surprised by
them. It surprises you that guns kill, that money corrupts, that
snow falls in winter. Such naivety can be charming; alas, it
can also be perilous.
For instance, you won't even admit the true nature of
Noah, your first father - the pious patriarch, the committed
46

conservationist 64 . I gather that one of your early Hebrew


legends asserts that Noah discovered the principle of
intoxication by watching a goat get drunk on fermented
grapes. What a brazen attempt to shift responsibility on to
the animals; and all, sadly, part of a pattern. The Fall was the
serpent's fault, the honest raven was a slacker and a glutton,
the goat turned Noah into an alkie65. Listen: you can take it
from me that Noah didn't need any cloven-footed knowledge
to help crack the secret of the vine.
Blame someone else, that's always your first instinct. And
if you can't blame someone else, then start claiming the
problem isn't a problem anyway. Rewrite the rules, shift the
goalposts66. Some of those scholars who devote their lives to
your sacred texts have even tried to prove that the Noah of
the Ark wasn't the same man as the Noah arraigned for
drunkenness and indecent exposure. How could a drunkard
possibly be chosen by God? Ah, well, he wasn't, you see.
Not that Noah. Simple case of mistaken identity. Problem
disappears.
How could a drunkard possibly be chosen by God? I've
told you - because all the other candidates were a damn sight
worse. Noah was the pick of a very bad bunch. As for his
drinking: to tell you the truth, it was the Voyage that tipped
him over the edge. Old Noah had always enjoyed a few horns
of fermented liquor in the days before Embarkation: who
didn't? But it was the Voyage that turned him into a soak. He
just couldn't handle the responsibility. He made some bad
navigational decisions, he lost four of his eight ships and
about a third of the species entrusted to him - he'd have been
court-martial led if there'd been anyone around to sit on the
bench. And for all his bluster, he felt guilty about losing half
the Ark. Guilt, immaturity, the constant struggle to hold
down a job beyond your capabilities - it makes a powerful
combination, one which would have had the same ruinous
effect on most members of your species. You could even
argue, I suppose, that God drove Noah to drink. Perhaps this
is why your scholars are so jumpy, so keen to separate the
47

first Noah from the second: the consequences are awkward.


But the story of the 'second' Noah - the drunkenness, the
indecency, the capricious punishment of a dutiful son - well,
it didn't come as a surprise to those of us who knew the
'first' Noah on the Ark. A depressing yet predictable case of
alcoholic degeneration, I'm afraid.
As I was saying, we were euphoric when we got off the
Ark. Apart from anything else, we'd eaten enough gopherwood to last a lifetime. That's another reason for wishing
Noah had been less bigoted in his design of the fleet: it
would have given some of us a change of diet. Hardly a
consideration for Noah, of course, because we weren't meant
to be there. And with the hindsight of a few millennia, this
exclusion seems even harsher than it did at the time. There
were seven of us stowaways, but had we been admitted as a
seaworthy species only two boarding-passes would have
been issued; and we would have accepted that decision.
Now, it's true Noah couldn't have predicted how long his
Voyage was going to last, but considering how little we
seven ate in five and a half years, it surely would have been
worth the risk letting just a pair of us on board. And after all,
it's not our fault for being woodworm.

48

Gifts
William Boyd

We land in Nice. Pan Am. I go through customs without


much trouble and stand around the arrivals hall wondering
what to do next - if there's a bus into town; whether I should
get a taxi. I see a man - black hair, white face, blue suit looking curiously at me. I decide to ignore him.
He comes over, though.
'Tupperware? 1 ' he asks unctuously. He pronounces it
tooperwere.
'Sorry?' I say.
'Ah, English,' he says with some satisfaction, as if he's
done something clever. 'Mr Simpson.' He picks up my
suitcase, it's heavier than he expects. He has tinted
spectacles and his black hair is getting thin at the front. He
looks about forty.
'No, 'I say. I tell him my name.
He puts my suitcase down. He looks around the arrivals
hall at the few remaining passengers. I am the only one not
being met.
'Merde,' he swears softly. He shrugs his shoulders. 'Do
you want a ride into town?'
We go outside to his car. It's a big Citroen. The back is
filled with plastic beakers, freezer boxes, salad crispers and
such like. He puts my case in the boot. He shovels stacks of
pamphlets off the front seat before he lets me into his car. He
explains that he has been sent to meet his English opposite
number from Tupperware UK. He says he assumed I was
49

English from my clothes. In fact he goes on to claim that he


can guess any European's nationality from the kind of
clothes he or she is wearing. I ask him if he can distinguish
Norwegians from Danes and for some reason he seems to
find this very funny.
We drive off smartly, following the signs for Nice centre
ville. I can't think of anything to say as my French isn't good
enough and somehow I don't like the idea of talking to this
man in English. He sits very close to the steering wheel and
whistles softly through his teeth, occasionally raising one
hand in rebuke at any car that cuts in too abruptly on him. He
asks me, in French, how old I am and I tell him I m eighteen.
He says I look older than that.
After a while he reaches into the glove compartment and
takes out some photographs. He passes them over to me.
'You like?' he says in English.
They are pictures of him on a beach standing by some
rocks. He is absolutely naked. He looks in good shape for a
forty-year-old man. In one picture I see he's squatting down
and some trick of the sun and shadow makes his cock seem
enormously long.
'Very nice,' I say, handing them back, 'but merci.'
He drops me in the middle of the Promenade des Anglais.
We shake hands and he drives off. I stand for a while looking
down on the small strip of pebble beach. It's January and the
beach is empty. The sky is packed with grey clouds and the
sea looks an unpleasant blue-green. For some reason I was
expecting sunshine and parasols. I let my eyes follow the
gentle curve of the Baie des Anges. I start at the airport and
travel along the sweep of the coast. The palm trees, the neat
little Los Angeleno-style hotels with their clipped poplars
and fancy wrought ironwork, along past the first of the
apartment blocks, blind and drab with their shutters firmly
down, past the Negresco with its pink sugary domes, past the
Palais de la Mediterranee, along over the old Port,
completing the slow arc at the promontory of Cap St Jean,
50

surmounted by its impossible villa. I see the ferry from


Corsica steaming gamely into harbour. I stand looking for a
while until 1 begin to feel a bit cold.
It's Sunday so I can't enrol for my courses at the university
until the next day. I carry my case across the Promenade des
Anglais, go up one street and book into the first hotel I see.
It's called the Hotel Astoria. I go down some steps into a dim
foyer. An old man gives me a room.
I sit in my room reading for most of the evening. At about
half past nine I go out for a coffee. Coming back to the hotel
I notice several young girls standing in front of brightly lit
shop windows in the Rue de France. Despite the time of year
they are wearing boots and hot pants. They all carry
umbrellas (unopened) and swing bunches of keys. I walk past
them two or three times but they don't pay much attention. I
observe that some of them are astoundingly pretty. Every
now and then a car stops, there is a brief conversation, one of
the girls gets in and is driven away.
Later that night as I am sitting on my bed reading there is a
knock on my door. It turns out to be the fat daughter of the
hotel manager. He has told her I am English and she asks if I
will help her do a translation that she's been set for
homework.
I enrol at the university. This takes place at a building called
the Centre Universitaire Mediterranean or CUM as it's
generally known (the French pronounce it 'cume'). The
building is on the Promenade des Anglais and looks like a
small exclusive art gallery. Inside there is a huge lecture
room with a dull mythological mural on three walls. This
morning I am the first to arrive and there is a hushed
marmoreal stillness in the place. In a small office I enrol and
pay my fees. I decide to postpone my first class until the next
day as I have to find somewhere to live. A secretary gives me
a list of addresses where I can rent a room. I look for the
51

cheapest. Mme D'Amico, it says at the bottom of the list, 4


Rue Dante. I like the address.
As I leave the Centre 1 see some of my fellow students for
the first time. They all seem to be foreign - in the sense that
not many are French. I notice a tall American girl surrounded
by chattering Nigerians. There are some Arabs. Some very
blonde girls whom I take to be Scandinavian. Soon the
capacious marble-floored entrance hall begins to fill up as
more and more people arrive for their classes. I hear the poppop of a motor bike in the small courtyard at the front. Two
young guys with long hair come in talking English. Everyone
seems happy and friendly. I leave.
Rue Dante is not far from the Centre. Number four is a tall
old apartment block with bleached shutters and crumbling
stone work. On the ground floor is a cafe. CAVE DANTE it
says in plastic letters. I ask the concierge for Mme D'Amico
and am directed up three flights of stairs to the top floor. I
ring the bell, mentally running through the phrases I have
prepared. 'Mme D'Amico? Je suis etudiant anglais. Je
cherche une chambre. On m'a donne votre nom au Centre
Universitaire Mediterranean.' I ring the bell again and hear
vague stirrings from the flat. I sense I am being stared at
through the peep-hole set in the solid wooden door. After a
lengthy time of appraisal, it opens.
Mme D'Amico is veiy small - well under five feet. She
has a pale thin wrinkled face and grey hair. She is dressed in
black. On her feet she is wearing carpet slippers which seem
preposterously large, more suitable for a thirteen-stone man.
1 learn later that this is because sometimes her feet swell up
like balloons. Her eyes are brown and, though a little
rheumy, are bright with candid suspicion. However, she
seems to understand my French and asks me to come in.
Her flat is unnervingly dark. This is because use of the
electric lights is forbidden during hours of daylight 2 . We
stand in a long gloomy hallway 3 off which several doors
lead. I sense shapes - a wardrobe, a hatstand, a chest, even
52

what I take to be a gas cooker, but I assume my eyes are not


yet accustomed to the murk. Mme D'Amico shows me into
the first room on the left. She opens shutters. I see a bed, a
table, a chair, a wardrobe. The floor is made of loose red
hexagonal tiles that click beneath my feet as I walk across to
look out of the window. 1 peer down into the apartment
building's central courtyard. Far below the concierge's
alsatian is scratching itself. From my window I can see into
at least five other apartments. I decide to stay here.
Turning round 1 observe the room's smaller details. The
table is covered with a red and brown checked oilcloth on
which sits a tin ashtray with C SUZE' printed on it. On one
wall Mme D'Amico has affixed two posters. One is of Mont
Blanc. The other is an SNCF poster of Biarritz. The sun has
faded all the bright colours to grey and blue. Biarritz looks as
cold and unwelcoming as the Alps.
I am not the only lodger at Mme D'Amico's. There is a
muscle-bound taciturn engineer called Hugues. His room is
separated from mine by the WC. He is married and goes
home every weekend to his wife and family in Grenoble.
Two days after I arrive the phone rings while I am alone in
the flat. It is Hugues' wife and she sounds nervous and
excited. I somehow manage to inform her that Hugues is out.
After some moments of incomprehension I eventually gather
that it is imperative for Hugues to phone her when he comes
in. I say I will give him the message. I sweat blood over that
message. I get my grammar book and dictionary out and go
through at least a dozen drafts. Finally I prop it by the phone.
It was worth the effort. Hugues is very grateful and from that
day more forthcoming, and Mme D'Amico makes a point of
congratulating me on my French. She seems more impressed
by my error-free and correctly accented prose than by
anything else about me. So much so that she asks me if I
want to watch TV with her tonight. I sense that this is
something of a breakthrough: Hugues doesn't watch her TV.
But then maybe he has better things to do.
53

Almost without any exertion on my part, my days take on a


pattern. I go to the Centre in the morning and afternoon for
my courses. At lunch and in the evening I eat at the
enormous university cafeteria up by the Law faculty. I return
home, have a cup of coffee in the Cave Dante, then pass the
rest of the evening watching TV with Mme D'Amico and a
neighbour - a fat jolly woman to whom I have never been
introduced but whose name, I know, is Mme Franchot.
Mme D'Amico and Mme Franchot sit in armchairs. I bring
a wooden chair in from the hall and sit behind them looking
at the screen between their heads. While the TV is on all
other source of illumination is switched off and we sit and
watch in a spectral grey light. Mme D'Amico reads out loud
every piece of writing that appears on the screen - the titles
of programmes, the entire list of credits, the names and
endorsements of products being advertised. At first I find this
intensely irritating and the persistent commentary almost
insupportable. But she speaks fairly softly and after a while I
get used to her voice.
We watch TV in Mme D'Amico's bedroom. She has no
sitting room as such. I think that used to be the function of
my room. Hugues sleeps in what was the kitchen. He has a
sink unit at the foot of his bed; Mme D'Amico cooks in the
hall (I was right: it was a cooker) and washes up in the tiny
bathroom. This contains only a basin and a bidet and there
are knives and forks laid out alongside toothbrushes and
flannels on a glass shelf. There is no bath, which proved
something of a problem to me at the outset as I'm quite a
clean person. So every two or three days I go to the
municipal swimming baths at the Place Magnan. Formal,
cheerless, cold, with pale green tiles everywhere, but it stops
me from smelling.
The fourth room in the flat is a dining room, though it's
never used for this purpose as this is where Mme D'Amico
works. She works for her son, who is something - a shipper I
think - in the wine trade. Her job is to attach string to a label
illustrating the region the wine comes from and then to tie
54

the completed label round the neck of a wine bottle. The


room is piled high with crates of wine, which she sometimes
calls on me to shift. Most days when 1 come back I see her
sitting there, patiently tying labels round the necks of the
wine bottles. It must be an incredibly boring job. I've no idea
how much her son pays her but I suspect it's very little. But
Mme D'Amico is methodical and busy. She works like hell.
People are always coming to take away the completed crates.
I like to think she's really stinging her son4.
There are lots of girls I'd like to fuck who do courses with
me at the Centre. Lots. I sit there in the class with them and
think about it, unable to concentrate on my studies. I've
spoken to a few people but I can't as yet call any of them
friends. I know a Spanish girl and an English girl but they
both live outside Nice with their parents. The English girl is
called Victoria and is chased all day by a Tunisian called
Rida. Victoria's father was a group-captain in the RAF and
has retired to live in Grasse. 'Out to Grasse 5 ' Victoria calls
it. Somehow I don't think the group-captain would like Rida.
Victoria is a small, bland blonde. Not very attractive at all,
but Rida is determined. You've got to admire his persistence.
He doesn't try anything on, is just courteous and helpful,
tries to make Victoria laugh. He never leaves her side all day.
I'm sure if he perseveres his luck will turn. Victoria seems
untroubled by his constant presence, but I can't see anything
in Rida that would make him attractive to a girl. He is of
average height, wears bright-coloured, cheap-looking
clothes. His hair has a semi-negroid kink in it which he tries
to hide by ruthlessly brushing it flat against his head. But his
hair is too long for this style to be effective and sticks out at
the sides and the back like a helmet or an ill-fitting wavy cap.
There are genuine pleasures to be derived from having a
room of one's own. Sometimes at night I fling back the
covers and masturbate dreamily about the girls at the Centre.
There is a Swedish girl called Danni whom I like very much.
55

She has big breasts and long white-blonde hair. Is very


laughing and friendly. The only trouble is that one of her legs
is considerably thinner than the other. I believe she had polio
when young. I think about going to bed with her and wonder
if this defect would put me off.
My relationship with Mme D'Amico is very formal and
correct. We converse in polite phrases that would not
disgrace a Victorian drawing room. She asks me, one day, to
fill out a white fiche for the police - something, she assures
me hastily, every resident must do. She notices my age on the
card and raises her eyebrows in mild surprise. She says she
hadn't supposed me to be so young. Then one morning,
apropos of nothing, she explains why she reads everything
that appears on TV. It seems that Mme Franchot is illiterate.
If Mme D'Amico didn't relate them to her, she would never
even know the names of the old films we watch nightly on
Monte Carlo TV. I find I am surprisingly touched by this
confidence.
One evening I go to a cafe with Rida after our courses and
meet up with some of his Tunisian friends. They are all
enrolled at one educational institution or another for the sake
of the carte d'etudianfi. They tell me it's very valuable, that
they would not be allowed to stay in France if they didn't
possess one. Rida, it has to be said, is one of the few who
actually tries to learn something. He shares a room with a
man called Ali who is very tall and dapper. Ali wears a
blazer with brass buttons that has a pseudo-English crest on
the breast pocket. Ali says he bought it off a tourist. The
English style is tres chic this year. We drink some beer. Rida
tells me how he and Ali recently met a Swiss girl who was
hitch-hiking around Europe. They took her back to their
room and kept her there. They locked her in during the day.
Rida lowers his voice. 'On baise,' he tells me
conspiratorially. 'Baiser. Tu comprends? 7 ' He says he's sure

56

she was on drugs as she didn't seem to mind, didn't object at


all. She escaped one afternoon and stole all their stuff.
The cafe is small, every shiny surface lined with grease. It
gets hot as the evening progresses. There is one veiy hardfaced blonde woman who works the cash register behind the
bar, otherwise we are all men.
I drink too much beer. I watch the Tunisians sodomize the
pinball machine, banging and humping their pelvises against
the flat end. The four legs squeal their outrage angrily on the
tiled floor. At the end of the evening I lend Rida and Ali
twenty francs each.
Another phone call when I'm alone in the flat. It's from a
doctor. He says to tell Mme D'Amico that it is all right for
her to visit her husband on Saturday. I am a little surprised. I
never imagined Mme D'Amico had a husband - because she
always wears black I suppose. I pass on the message and she
explains that her husband lives in a sanatorium. He has a
disease. She starts trembling and twitching all over in
graphic illustration.
'Oh,'I say.'Parkinson's disease.'
'Oui,'she acknowledges.'C'est 9a. Parkingsums.'
This unsought for participation in Mme D'Amico's life
removes another barrier. From this day on she uses my first
name - always prefixed, however, by 'Monsieur'. 'Monsieur
Edward,' she calls me. I begin to feel more at home.
I see that it was a misplaced act of generosity on my part to
lend Rida and Ali that money as I am now beginning to run
short myself. There is a postal strike in Britain which is
lasting far longer than I expected. It is quite impossible to get
any money out. Foolishly I expected the strike to be shortlived. I calculate that if I radically trim my budget I can last
for another three weeks, or perhaps a little longer. Assuming,
that is, that Rida and Ali pay me back.

57

When there is nothing worth watching on television I sit at


the window of my room - with the lights off - and watch the
life going on in the apartments round the courtyard. I can see
Lucien, the patron of the Cave Dante, sitting at a table
reading a newspaper. Lucien and his wife share their
apartment with Lucien's brother and his wife. They all work
in the cafe. Lucien is a gentle bald man with a high voice.
His wife has a moustache and old-fashioned, black-framed,
almond-shaped spectacles. Lucien's brother is a big hairy
fellow called Jean-Louis, who cooks in the cafe's small
kitchen. His wife is a strapping blonde who reminds me
vaguely of Simone Signoret. One night she didn't draw the
curtains in her bedroom properly and I had quite a good view
of her undressing.
I am now running so low on money that I limit myself to one
cup of coffee a day. I eat apples all morning and afternoon
until it is time for my solitary meal in the university
restaurant up by the fac du droit8.1 wait until the end because
then they give away free second helpings of rice and pasta if
they have any left over. Often I am the only person in the
shining well-lit hall. I sit eating bowl after bowl of rice and
pasta while the floors are swabbed around me and I am
gradually hemmed in by chairs being set on the tables. After
that I wander around the centre of town for a while. At half
nine I make my way back to the flat. The whores all come
out at half nine precisely. It's quite amazing. Suddenly
they're everywhere. Rue Dante, it so happens, is right in the
middle of the red-light district. Sometimes on my way back
the girls solicit me. I laugh in a carefree manner, shrug my
shoulders and tell them I'm an impoverished student. I have
this fantasy that one night one of the girls will offer to do it
free but so far I've had no success.
If I've saved up my cup of coffee for the evening my day
ends at the Cave Dante. I sit up at the zinc bar. Lucien knows
my order by now and he sets about making up a grande
creme as soon as I come in the door. On the top of the bar are
58

baskets for brioches, croissants and pizza. Sometimes there


are a few left over from breakfast and lunch. One night I
have a handful of spare centimes and I ask Lucien how much
the remaining bit of pizza costs. To my embarrassment I still
don't have enough to buy it. I mutter something about not
being hungry and say I've changed my mind. Lucien looks at
me for a moment and tells me to help myself. Now every
night I go in and finish off what's left. Each time I feel a
flood of maudlin sentiment for the man but he seems uneasy
when I try to express my gratitude.
One of the problems about being poor is that I can't afford to
send my clothes to the 6 Pressings' any more. And Mme
D'Amico won't allow washing in the flat. Dirty shirts mount
up on the back of my single chair like so many soiled
antimacassars. In a corner of the wardrobe I keep dirty socks
and underpants. I occasionally spray the damp heap with my
aerosol deodorant as if I were some fastidious pest controller.
When all my shirts are dirty I evolve a complicated rota for
wearing them. The idea is that I wear them each for one day,
trying to allow a week between subsequent wears in the faint
hope that the delay will somehow have rendered them
cleaner. At least it will take longer for them to get really
dirty. At the weekend I surreptitiously wash a pair of socks
and underpants and sneak them out of the house. I go down
to an isolated part of the beach and spread them on the
pebbles where a watery February sun does a reasonable job
of drying them out.
One Saturday afternoon I am sitting on the shingle beach
employed in just such a way. I wonder sadly if this will be
my last weekend in Nice. The postal strike wears on, I have
forty-two francs and a plane ticket to London. Small breakers
nudge and rearrange the pebbles at the water's edge. This
afternoon the sea is filled with weed and faeces from an
untreated sewage outlet a little way up the coast. Freak tides

59

have swept the effluence into the Baie des Anges. The sun
shines, but it is a cool and uncongenial day.
The thought of leaving Nice fills me with an intolerable
frustration. Nice has a job to do for me, a function to fulfil
and it hasn't even begun to discharge its responsibility.
I hear steps crunching on the stones, coming towards me. I
look round. It is Rida with a girl I don't recognize.
Frantically I stuff my washing into its plastic bag.
'Salut^ Rida says.
' vaT I reply nonchalantly.
'What are you doing here?' Rida asks.
'Oh...nothing particular.'
We exchange a few words. I look carefully at the girl. She
is wearing jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt. She has reddishblonde medium length hair and a flat freckly face. It is not
unattractive though. Her eyebrows are plucked away to thin
lines and her nose is small and sharp. She seems confident
and relaxed. To my surprise Rida tells me she's English.
'English?' I say.
'Hi,' she says.'My name's Jackie.'
Rida has literally just picked her up on the Promenade. I
don't know how he singles them out. I think he feels he has
another Swiss girl here. He saw me sitting on the beach and
told Jackie he knew an English guy he would like her to
meet.
We sit around for a bit. I talk in English to Jackie. We
swop backgrounds. She comes from Cheshire and has been
living in Nice for the last four months. Latterly she has
worked as au pair 9 to a black American family. The father is
a professional basketball player, one of several who play in
the French leagues now that they're too old or too unfit to
make the grade in the US.
With all this English being spoken Rida is beginning to
feel left out of it, and is impatiently throwing pebbles into
the sea. However, he knows that the only way for him to get
this girl is through me and so he suggests we all go to a
disco. I like the sound of this because I sense by now that
60

Jackie is not totally indifferent to me herself. She suggests


we go to the 'Psyche', a rather exclusive disco on the
Promenade des Anglais. I try to disguise my disappointment.
The 'Psyche' costs eighteen francs to get in. Then I
remember that Rida still owes me twenty francs. I remind
him of this fact. I'll go, I say, as long as he pays me in.
Reluctantly he agrees.
We meet at nine outside the 'Psyche'. Jackie is wearing
white jeans and a scoop-necked sequinned T-shirt. She has
pink shiny lipstick and her hair looks clean and freshly
brushed. Rida is wearing black flared trousers and a black
lacy see-through shirt unbuttoned down the front. Round his
neck he has hung a heavy gold medallion. I'm glad he's
changed. As we go in he touches me on the elbow.
'She's mine, okay?' he says, smiling.
'Ah-ha,' I counter. 'I think we should rather leave that up
to Jackie, don't you?'
It is my bad luck that Jackie likes to dance what the French
call le Swing but which the English know as the jive. I find
this dance quite impossible to master. Rida, on the other
hand, is something of an expert. I sit in a dark rounded
alcove with a whisky and coke (a free drink comes with the
entry fee) and nervously bide my time.
Rida and Jackie come and sit down. I see small beads of
sweat on Jackie's face. Rida's lace shirt is pasted to his back.
We talk. A slow record comes on and I ask Jackie to dance.
We sway easily to the music. Her body is hot against mine.
Her clean hair is dark and damp at her temples. As if it is the
most natural thing in the world I rest my lips on the base of
her neck. It is damp too, from her recent exertions in le
Swing. Her hand moves half an inch on my back. I kiss her
cheek, then her mouth. She won't use her tongue. She puts
her arms round my neck. I break off for a few seconds and
glance over at Rida. He is looking at us. He lights a cigarette
and scrutinizes its glowing end.

61

To my astonishment when we sit down Jackie immediately


asks Rida if he'd like to dance again as another Swing record
has come on. She dances with him for a while, Rida spinning
her expertly around. I sip my whisky and coke - which is
fizzless by now - and wonder what Jackie is up to. She's a
curious girl. When they come off the dance floor Rida
announces he has to go. We express our disappointment. As
he shakes my hand he gives me a wink. No hard feelings I
think he wants to say.
We go, some time later, to another club called le Go-Go.
Jackie pays for me to get in. Inside we meet one of Jackie's
basketballers. He is very black - almost Nubian in
appearance - and unbelievably tall and thin. He is clearly
something of a sporting celebrity in Nice as we get a
continuous supply of free drinks while sitting at his table. I
drink a lot more whisky and coke. Presently we are joined by
three more black basketball players. I become very subdued.
The blacks are friendly and extrovert. They wear a lot of
very expensive-looking jewelry. Jackie dances with them all,
flirts harmlessly, sits on their knees and shrieks with laughter
at their jokes. All the French in the club seem to adore them.
People keep coming over to our table to ask for autographs. I
feel small and anaemic beside them. My personality seems
lamentably pretentious and unformed. I think of my poverty,
my dirty clothes, my shabby room and I ache with an alien's
self-pity, sense a refugee's angst in my bones.
Then Jackie says to me, 'Shall we go?' and suddenly I feel
restored. We walk through quiet empty streets, the only
sound the rush of water in gutters as they are automatically
swilled clean. We pass a cafe with three tarts inside waiting
for their pimp. They chatter away exuberantly.
Jackie shivers and I obligingly put my arm around her. She
rests her head on my shoulder and in this fashion we
awkwardly make our way to her flat. 'Shh,' Jackie cautions
as we open the front door, 'be careful you don't wake them
62

up.5 I feel a rising pressure in my throat, and I wonder if the


bed has squeaky springs.
We sit in the small kitchen on hard modern chairs. My
buttocks feel numb and strangely cold. The fluorescent light,
I'm sure, can't be flattering if its unkind effects on Jackie's
pale face are anything to go by. Slowly I sense a leaden
despair settle on me as we sit in this cheerless efficient
module in this expensive apartment block. Immeuble de tres
grand standing the agent's advertisement says outside. We
have kissed from time to time and I have felt both her small
pointed breasts through her T-shirt. Her lips are thin and
provide no soft cushion for my own. We talk now in a listless
desultory fashion.
Jackie tells me she's leaving Nice next week to return to
England. She wants to be a stewardess she says, but only on
domestic flights. Intercontinental ones, it seems, play hell
with your complexion and menstrual cycle. Half-heartedly I
offer the opinion that it might be amusing if, say, one day I
should find myself flying on the very plane in which she was
serving. Jackie's face becomes surprisingly animated at this
notion. It seems an appropriate time to exchange addresses,
which we do. I notice she spells her name 'Jacqui'.
This talk of parting brings with it a small cargo of
emotion.
We kiss again and I slip my hand inside her T-shirt.
c
No,' she says gently but with redoubtable firmness.
'Please, Jackie,' I say. 'You're going soon.' I suddenly
feel very tired. 'Well at least let me see them then,' I say
with petulant audacity. Jackie pauses for a moment, her head
cocked to one side as if she can hear someone calling her
name in the distance.
'Okay then,' she says.'If that's what you want. If that's
all.'
She stands up, pulls off her T-shirt and slips down the
straps of her bra so that the cups fall free, her breasts cast no
63

shadow in the unreal glare of the strip-light. The nipples are


very small, her breasts are pale and conical and seem almost
to point upward. She exposes them for five seconds or so, not
looking at me, looking down at her breasts as if she's seeing
them for the first time. Then she resnuggles them in her bra
and puts her T-shirt back on. She makes no comment at all.
It's as if she's been showing me her appendix scar.
'Look,' she says unconcernedly at the door, 'I'll give you
a ring before I leave. Perhaps we could get together.'
'Yes,' I say.'Do. That would be nice.'
Outside it is light. I check my watch. It's half past five. It's
cold and the sky is packed with grey clouds. I walk slowly
back to Mme D'Amico's through a sharp-focussed, scathing
dawn light. Some of the cafes are open already. Drowsy
patrons sweep the pavements. I feel grimy and hungover. I
plod up the stairs to Mme D'Amico's. My room, it seems to
me, has a distinct fusty, purulent odour; the atmosphere has a
stale recycled quality, all the more acute after the
uncompromising air of the morning. I strip off my clothes. I
add my unnaturally soft shirt to the pile on the back of the
chair. I knot my socks and ball my underpants - as if to trap
their smells within their folds - and flip them into the corner
of the wardrobe. I lie naked between the sheets. Itches start
up all over my body. I finger myself experimentally but I'm
too tired and too sad to be bothered.
I wake up to a tremulous knocking on my door. I feel
dreadful. I squint at my watch. It's seven o'clock. I can't
have been asleep for more than an hour.
'Monsieur Edward? 'est moi, Madame D \Amico
I say come in, but no sound issues from my mouth. I cough
and run my tongue over my teeth, swallowing energetically.
'Entrez, Madame,' I whisper.
Mme D'Amico comes in. Her hair is pinned up carelessly
and her old face is shiny with tears. She sits down on the bed

64

and immediately begins to sob quietly, her thin shoulders


shaking beneath her black cardigan.
'Oh madame,' I say, alarmed. 'What is it?' I find it
distressing to see Mme D'Amico, normally so correct and so
formal, displaying such unabashed human weakness. I am
also - inappropriately - very aware of my nakedness beneath
the sheets.
'C 'est mari,' she cries.'// est mort.10'
Gradually the story comes out. Apparently Monsieur
D'Amico, sufferer from Parkinson's disease, was having a
final cigarette in his room in the sanatorium before the nurse
came to put him to bed. He lit his cigarette and then tried to
shake the match out. But his affliction instead made the
match spin from his trembling fingers and fall down the side
of the plastic armchair upon which he was sitting. The chair
was blazing within seconds, Monsieur D'Amico's pyjamas
and dressing gown caught fire and although he managed to
wriggle himself onto the floor his screams were not
sufficiently loud to attract the attention of the nurses
immediately. He was severely burned. The shock was too
much for his frail body and he died in the early hours of the
morning.
I try to arrange my sleepy unresponsive senses into some
sort of order, try to summon the full extent of my French
vocabulary.
Mme D'Amico looks at me pitifully. 'Oh Monsieur
Edward^ she whimpers, her lips quivering.
'Madame,' I reply helplessly. ''est une vraie tragedie.' It
seems grossly inept, under the circumstances, almost
flippant, my thick early-morning tongue removing any
vestige of sincerity from the words. But it seems to mean
something to Mme D'Amico, who bows her head and starts
to cry with light high-pitched sobs. I reach out an arm from
beneath the sheets and gently pat her shoulder.
'There, there, Madam,' I say.'It will be all right.'
As I lean forward I notice that in her hands there is a
crumpled letter, peering closer I still can't make out the name
65

but I do see that the stamp is British. It is surely for me. The
postal strike, I realize with a start, must now be over.
Suddenly I know that I can stay. I think at once about Jackie
and our bizarre and unsatisfactory evening. But I don't really
care any more. My spirits begin to stir and lift. I get a brief
mental flash of Monsieur D'Amico in his blazing armchair
and I hear the quiet sobs of his wife beside me. But it doesn't
really impede the revelation that slowly overtakes me.
People, it seems, want to give me things - for some reason
known only to them. No matter what I do or how I behave,
unprompted and unsought the gifts come. And they will keep
on coming. Naked photos, cold pizza, their girls, their breasts
to see, even their grief. I feel a growing confidence about my
stay in Nice. It will be all right now, I feel sure. It will work
out. I think about all the gifts that lie waiting for me. I think
about the Swedish girls at the Centre. I think about spring
and the days when the sun will be out...
The bed continues to shudder gently from Mme
D'Amico's sobbing. I smile benignly at her bowed head.
'There, there, Madame,' I say again. 'Don't worry.
Everything will be okay. You'll see. Everything will be fine,
I promise you.'

66

On the Day that


E.M. Forster Died
AX Byatt

This is a story about writing. It is a story about a writer who


believed, among other things, that time for writing about
writing was past. 'Our art', said T.S. Eliot, 'is a substitute for
religion and so is our religion.' The writer in question, who,
on the summer day in 1970 when this story takes place, was
a middle-aged married woman with three small children, had
been brought up on art about art which saw art also as
salvation. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Death in
Venice, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Or, more English
and moral, more didactic, D.H. Lawrence. 'The novel is the
highest form of human expression yet attained.' 'The novel
is the one bright book of life.' Mrs Smith was afraid of these
books, and was also naturally sceptical 1 . She did not believe
that life aspired to the condition of art, or that art could save
the world from most of the things that threatened it,
endemically or at moments of crisis. She had written three
brief and elegant black comedies about folly and
misunderstanding in sexual relationships, she had sparred
with and loved her husband, who was deeply interested in
international politics and the world economy, and only
intermittently interested in novels. She had three children,
who were interested in the television, small animals, model
armies, other small children, the sky, death and occasional
narratives and paintings. She had a cleaning lady, who was
interested in wife-battery and diabetes and had that morning
67

opened a button-through 2 dress to display to Mrs Smith a


purple and chocolate and gold series of lumps and swellings
across her breasts and belly. Mrs Smith's own life made no
sense to her without art, but she was disinclined to believe in
it as a cure, or a duty, or a general necessity. Nor did she see
the achievement of the work of art as a paradigm for the
struggle for life, or virtue. She had somehow been inoculated
with it, in the form of the novel, before she as a moral being
had had anything to say to it. It was an addiction. The bright
books of life were the shots in the arm, the warm tots of
whisky which kept her alive and conscious and lively. Life
itself was related in complicated ways to this addiction. She
often asked herself, without receiving any satisfactory
answer, why she needed it, and why this form of it? Her
answers would have appeared to Joyce, or Mann, or Proust to
be frivolous. It was because she had become sensuously
excited in early childhood by Beatrix Potter's 3 sentence
structure, or Kipling's adjectives. It was because she was a
voyeur and liked looking in through other people's windows
on warmer, brighter worlds. It was because she was secretly
deprived of power, and liked to construct other worlds in
which things would be as she chose, lovely or horrid. When
she took her art most seriously it was because it focused her
curiosity about things that were not art; society, education,
science, death. She did a lot of research for her little books,
most of which never got written into them, but it satisfied her
somehow. It gave a temporary coherence to her perception of
things.
So this story, which takes place on the day when she
decided to commit herself to a long and complicated novel,
would not have pleased her. She never wrote about writers.
Indeed, she wrote witty and indignant reviews of novels
which took writing for a paradigm of life. She wrote about
the metaphysical claustrophobia of the Shredded Wheat Box4
on the Shredded Wheat Box getting smaller ad infinitum.
She liked things to happen. Stories, plots. History, facts. If I
do not entirely share her views, I am much in sympathy with
68

them. Nevertheless, it seems worth telling this story about


writing, which is a story, and does have a plot, is indeed
essentially plot, overloaded with plot, a paradigmatic plot
which, I believe, takes it beyond the narcissistic
consideration of the formation of the writer, or the aesthetic
closure of the mirrored mirror.
On a summer day in 1970, then, Mrs Smith, as was her habit
when her children were at school, was writing in the London
Library. (She preferred to divide art and life. She liked to
write surrounded by books, in a closed space where books
were what mattered most. In her kitchen she thought about
cooking and cleanliness, in her living room about the
children's education and different temperaments, in bed
about her husband, mostly.) She had various isolated ideas
for things she might write about. There was a story which
dealt with the private lives of various people at the time of
the public events of the Suez landings 5 and the Russian
invasion of Hungary. There was a tragi-comedy about a
maverick realist painter in a Fine Art department dedicated
to hard-edge abstract work. There was a tale based, at a
proper moral distance, on her husband's accounts, from his
experience in his government department, of the distorting
effects on love, marriage and the family, of the current
complicated British immigration policy 6 . There was a kind of
parody of The Lord of the Rings which was designed to show
why that epic meant so much to many and to wind its speech
into incompatible 'real' modern events. None of these
enterprises attracted her quite enough. She sat on her not
comfortable hard chair at the library table with its peeling
leather top and looked from shelved dictionaries to crimson
carpet to elegantly sleeping elderly gentlemen in leather
armchairs to the long windows onto St James's Square. One
of these framed a clean, large Union Jack, unfurled from a
flagpole on a neighbouring building. The others were filled
by the green tossing branches of the trees in the Square and
the clear blue of the sky. (Her metabolism was different in
69

summer. Her mind raced clearly. Oxygen made its way to her
brain.)
It was suddenly clear to her that all her beginnings were
considerably more interesting if they were part of the same
work than if they were seen separately. The painter's
aesthetic problem was more complicated in the same story as
the civil servant's political problem, the Tolkien parody
gained from being juxtaposed or interwoven with a cast of
Hungarian refugees, intellectuals and Old Guard, National
Servicement at Suez and Angry Young Men 7 . They were all
part of the same thing. They were part of what she knew. She
was a middle-aged woman who had led a certain, not very
varied but perceptive, life, who had lived through enough
time to write a narrative of it. She sat mute and motionless
looking at the trees and the white paper, and a fantastically
convoluted, improbable possible plot reared up before her
like a snake out of a magic basket, like ticker-tape, or
football results out of the television teleprinter.
It would have to be a very long book. Proust came to
mind, his cork-lined room 8 stuffed with the transformation of
life into words, everything he knew, feathers on hats,
Zeppelins, musical form, painting, vice, reading, snobbery,
sudden death, slow death, food, love, indifference, the
telephone, the table-napkin, the paving-stone, a lifetime.
Such moments are - if one allows oneself to know that
they have happened - as terrible as falling in love at first
sight, as the shock of a major physical injury, as gaining or
losing huge sums of money. Mrs Smith was a woman who
was capable, she believed, of not allowing herself to know
that they had happened. She was a woman who could, and on
occasion did, successfully ignore love at first sight, out of
ambition before her marriage, out of moral terror after it. She
sat there in the sunny library and watched the snake sway
and the tape tick, and the snake-dance grew more, not less,
delightful and powerful and complicated. She remembered
Kekule seeing the answer to a problem of solid state physics
in a metaphysical vision of a snake eating its tail in the fire.
70

Why does condensation of thought have such authority? Like


warning, or imperative, dreams. Mrs Smith could have said
at any time that of course all her ideas were part of a whole,
they were all hers, limited by her history, sex, language,
class, education, body and energy. But to experience this so
sharply, and to experience it as intense pleasure, to know
limitation as release and power, was outside Mrs Smith's
pattern. She had probably been solicited by such aesthetic
longings before. And rejected them. Why else be so afraid of
the bright books?
She put pen to paper then, and noted the connections she
saw between the disparate plots, the developments that
seemed so naturally to come to all of them, branching and
flowering like speeded film, seed to shoot to spring to
summer from this new form. She wrote very hard, without
looking up, for maybe an hour, doing more work in that time
than in times of lethargy or distraction she did in a week. A
week? A month. A year even, though work is of many kinds
and she had the sense that this form was indeed a growth, a
form of life, her life, its own life.
Then, having come full circle, having thought her way
through the planning, from link to link back to the original
perception of linking that had started it all, she got up, and
went out of the Library, and walked. She was overexcited,
there was too much adrenalin, she could not be still.
She went up and down Jermyn Street9, through the dark
doorway, the windowed umber quiet of St James's
Piccadilly, out into the bright churchyard with its lettered
stones smoothed and erased by the passage of feet. Along
Piccadilly, past Fortnum and Mason's, more windows full of
decorous conspicuous consumption 10 , down an arcade bright
with windowed riches like Aladdin's cave, out into Jermyn
Street again. Everything was transformed. Eveiything was
hers, by which phrase she meant, thinking fast in orderly
language, that at that time she felt no doubt about being able
to translate everything she saw into words, her own words,
71

English words, English words in 1970, with their limited and


meaningful and endlessly rich histories, theirs as hers was
hers. This was not the same as Adam in Eden naming things,
making nouns. It was not that she said nakedly as though for
the first time, tree, stone, grass, sky, nor even, more
particularly, omnibus, gas-lamp, culottes 11 . It was mostly
adjectives. Elephantine bark, eau-de-nil paint on Fortnum's
walls, Nile-water green, a colour fashionable from Nelson's
victories at the time when this street was formed, a colour for
old drawing-rooms or, she noted in the chemist's window,
for a new eyeshadow, Jeepers Peepers, Occidental Jade, what
nonsense, what vitality, how lovely to know. Naming with
nouns, she thought absurdly, is the language of poetry, There
is a Tree, of many One 12 . The Rainbow comes and goes. And
Lovely is the Rose. Adjectives go with the particularity of
long novels. They limit nouns. And at the same time give
them energy. Dickens is full of them. And Balzac. And
Proust.
Nothing now, she knew, whatever in the moral abstract
she thought about the relative importance of writing and life,
would matter to her more than writing. This illumination was
a function of middle age. Novels - as opposed to lyrics, or
mathematics - are essentially a middle-aged form. The long
novel she meant to write acknowledged both the length and
shortness of her time. It would not be History, nor even a
history, nor certainly, perish the thought 13 , her history.
Autoboigraphies tell more lies than all but the most selfindulgent fiction. But it would be written in the knowledge
that she had lived through and noticed a certain amount of
history. A war, a welfare state, the rise (and fall) of the
meritocracy, European unity, little England, equality of
opportunity, comprehensive schooling, women's liberation,
the death of the individual, the poverty of liberalism. How
lovely to trace the particular human events that might chart
the glories and inadequacies, the terrors and absurdities, the
hopes and fears of those words. And biological history too.
She had lived now through birth, puberty, illness, sex, love,
72

marriage, other births, other kinds of love, family and kinship


and local manifestations of these universals, Drs Spock 14 ,
Bowlby, Winnicott, Flower Power 15 , gentrification 16 , the
transformation of the adjective gay into a politicized noun 17 .
How extraordinary and interesting it all was, how adequate
language turned out to be, if you thought in terms of long
flows of writing, looping tightly and loosely round things,
joining and knitting and dividing, or to change the metaphor,
a Pandora's box, an Aladdin's cave, a bottomless dark bag
into which everything could be put and drawn out again, the
same and not the same. She quoted to herself, in another
language, 'Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. 18 ' Another
beginning in a middle. Mrs Smith momentarily Dante, in the
middle of Jermin Street.
Where is the plotting and over-plotting I wrote of? It is
coming, it is proceeding up Lower Regent Street, it is
stalking Mrs Smith, a terror by noonday. It is not, aesthetic
pride compels me to add, a straying terrorist's bullet, or
anything contrived by the IRA. Too many stories are
curtailed by these things, in life and in literature.
In the interim, Mrs Smith read the newspaper placards.
'Famous Novelist Dies.' She bought an early paper and it
turned out that it was E.M. Forster who was dead. He was, or
had been, ninety-one. A long history. Which, since 1924, he
had not recorded in fiction. 'Only connect,' he had said, 'the
prose and the passion.' He had been defeated apparently by
the attenuation 19 of the world he knew, the deep countryside,
life in families in homes, a certain social order. Forster,
much more than Lawrence, corresponded to Mrs Smith's
ideal of the English novel. He wrote civilized comedy about
the value of the individual and his responsibilities: he was
aware of the forces that threatened the individual, unreason,
belief in causes, political fervour. He believed in tolerance,
in the order of art, in recognizing the complicated energies of
the world in which art didn't matter. In Cambridge 20 , Mrs
73

Smith had had a friend whose window had overlooked


Forster's writing desk. She had watched him pass mildly to
and fro, rearranging heaps of papers. Never writing. She
honoured him.
She was surprised therefore to feel a kind of quick,
delighted, automatic survivor's pleasure at the sight of the
placards. 'Now,' she thought wordlessly, only later, because
of the unusual speed and accuracy with which she was
thinking, putting in into words, 'Now I have room to move,
now 1 can do as I please, now he can't overlook or reject
me.' Which was absurd, since he did not know she was there,
would not have wished to overlook or reject her.
What she meant, she decided, pacing Jermyn Street, was
that he was removed, in some important sense, by his death,
as a measure. Some obligation she had felt, which tugged
both ways, to try to do as well as he did, and yet to do
differently from him, had been allayed. Because his work
was now truly closed into the past it was now in some sense
her own, more accessible to learn from, and formally
finished off. She passed the church again, thinking of him,
agnostic and scrupulous 21 . She envied him his certainties.
She enjoyed her own difference. She thought, 'On the day
that E.M. Forster died I decided to write a long novel.' And
heard in the churchyard a Biblical echo. 'In the year that
King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord...'
He had written, 'The people I respect most behave as if
they were immortal and society was eternal. Both
assumptions are false: both of them must be accepted as true
if we are to keep on eating and working and loving and are to
keep open a few breathing holes for the spirit.'
Mrs Smith was still exalted. A consuming passion
streamlines everything, like stripes in a rolled ribbon, one
weaving: newsprint, smudged black lines on the placard,
Wren church, Famine Relief posters, the order of male living
in Jermyn Street shop windows, shoes mirror-bright,
embroidered velvet slippers, brightly coloured shirts, the
74

cheese shop with its lively smell of decay, Floris the


perfumer with the ghost of pot-pourri. And for the ear the
organ, heard faintly, playing baroque music. A pocket of
civilization or a consumers' display-area 22 . She came to
Grima the jeweller, a recent extravaganza, expensively
primitive, huge, matt, random slabs of flint-like stone, bolted
apparently randomly to the shop-frame, like a modern
theatre-set for an ancient drama, black and heavy, Oedipus,
Lear, Macbeth. And in the interstices of these louring slabs
the bright tiny boxes of windows - lined with scarlet kid,
crimson silk, vermilion velvet. The jewels were artfully
random, not precision polished, but fretted, gold and silver,
as stone or bone might be by the incessant action of the sea.
And the stones - huge, glowing lumpen uneven pearls, a
pear-shaped fiery opal, a fall of moonstones like water on
gold mail - were both opulent and primitive, set in circlets or
torques that might have come from the Sutton Hoo ship 23 , a
Pharaoh's tomb, the Museum of Modern Art. Windows,
frames, Mrs Smith thought, making metaphors of everything,
out of the library window I saw the national flag and summer
trees, in here is the fairy cavern and all the sixties myths, and
in the tailor was Forster's Edwardian world of handmade
shirts and slippers. The windows order it. But it is not
disorderly. Even the names - Turnbull and Asser, Floris,
Grima - can work in a Tolkien-tale, a realist novel, or a
modern fantasy. It is all there. There is time.
And then the man, who had turned the corner into Jermyn
Street, plucked her by her sleeve, called her by her name,
said how delighted he was to see her. She took time to
recognize him: he had aged considerably since they last met.
He was not a man she considered herself to know well,
though at their rare meetings he behaved, as now, as if they
were old and intimate friends. His history, which I shall now
tell, was in most ways the opposite of Mrs Smith's, given
that most histories of the university-educated English would
appear very similar to a creature from another planet or even
75

from Japan, Brazil or Turkey. Mrs Smith and Conrad had


been to the same university, attended the same parties, had
the same acquaintances and one or two friends in common in
the worlds of education and the arts in London in 1970.
Conrad had studied psychology whereas Mrs Smith had
studied English literature. He had made passes at Mrs
Smith 24 , but he made passes at most people, and Mrs Smith
did not see that as a token of intimacy. He had been, and
remained, a friend of friends.
In Jermyn Street, as always before, he radiated boundless
enthusiasm, as though there was no one he would rather have
met at that moment, as though chance, or Providence, or God
had answered his need, and hers almost certainly too, by
bringing them haphazardly together . He leaped about on the
pavement, a heavy man with a new, pear-shaped belly
propped on his jeans like a very large egg on an inadequate
egg-cup. He had a jean jacket over a cotton polo-neck
through which rusty specks and wires of hair pierced here
and there. He leaped with a boyish eagerness, although he
was a middle-aged man with a bald brow and crown, and
long, kinked, greasy fringes of hair over his collar. She
particularly noticed the hair in the first moments. As an
undergraduate he had had a leonine bush of it which gave
him presence.
'Come and have a cup of coffee,' he said, 4 have so much
to tell you. You are the ideal person.'
In the past she would, out of fear, or distaste for being
cornered and having her knee pressed or stroked, have
refused this invitation. In the past, she had refused more of
his invitations than she had accepted. There were resilient
moods in which the writer in her was prepared to fend off the
patting, stroking and breathing for the sake of information
Conrad purveyed about things she knew too little about.
Psychology, for instance. It was Conrad who had told her
about the effects of experiments in total sensory deprivation,
men suspended in lightless baths of warm liquid so that sight,
76

and the sense of the body and then the sense of time and the
self were annihilated. It was Conrad who had said that there
were unrevealed numbers of volunteer students, whose
personalities had disintegrated forever in this bodiless
floating. Mrs Smith was curious about what held the
personality together, what constituted the self. Conrad,
whose life experience was varied, told her also, when she
could bear to be told, about forms of bullying and torture,
and about experiments on the readiness of ordinary men to
inflict pain under orders. Mrs Smith was extensively curious
but lacked the journalist's readiness to ask questions.
Conrad's talkativeness was, in its way, a godsend 25 .
But on that June day, she went to have coffee because of
the music. She felt particularly warm to Conrad because of
the music.
The story of the music was, is, a plot almost needing no
character. All that need initially be known about Conrad to
tell the story of the music is that he was a man of
extraordinary nervous, physical and mental energy. He was
not still, he did not stop, he was perpetually mobile. He
bedded women with an extravagant greed and need which
Mrs Smith found sensuously unattractive but interesting to
be told about. He had married a rich and beautiful wife, very
young, but all other women interested him. He liked activity:
he had taken his academic psychological skills into the army,
into the prison service, into commerce. He had an interest in
advising television advertisers. As I said, he was to Mrs
Smith a friend of friends, and in her early days of
childbearing she had heard from friends tales of Conrad's
restless activity. He had set out and joined in the Hungarian
uprising. He had spent his honeymoon in the Ritz, three
weeks without getting out of bed, he had been heard of as
accompanying a filming expedition to Central New Guinea,
to study cannibals, he had several children by actresses, au
pair girls, students. He had been very busy. He had had a
routine medical examination for a job with another film
77

company working abroad and had been discovered to have


tuberculosis. He had been sent to a sanatorium, and the
friends had not seen him for several years. His wife had left
him. All this filtered through friends to Mrs Smith, quietly
running her house, feeding her children, reading George
Eliot and Henry James.
In the sanatorium, Conrad had, in his enforced stillness,
had a vision. He had seen that his life was finite, that it came
only once, that a man must decide what was the most
important thing to him and pursue that, and that only, with all
his power. The most important thing in life to Conrad was,
he decided, music. In the sanatorium that seemed clear to
him. When he came out, gaunt and quiet, he had resigned all
his lucrative work and had enrolled as a music student, a
student of composition. He had married a second quiet wife.
Meeting him at that time, a man submitted to a new
discipline in middle age for the sake of an ideal vision, Mrs
Smith had felt a mixture of envy and cautious scepticism. He
was shining with certainty. The routine pass was couched
almost as an invitation to a religious laying-on of hands. Mrs
Smith rejected it, and went home to a flooded washingmachine, a threatening letter from a released anarchist drugpusher 26 to her husband, and the reflection that in the past
much great art had been produced by the peculiar vitality and
vision afforded by 27 , which could now of course be
cured, to our human gain and aesthetic loss.
She had seen Conrad once again between then and now,
when he had knocked on her door and said she must come to
lunch. The lunch had been expensive - mussels, turbot,
zabaglione, wine. Mrs Smith had scrutinized Conrad, who
ate and drank with passion. He ate all her new potatoes and
all his, glistening with hollandaise sauce, and left an empty
sauceboat. He wiped his lips with a damask napkin: his face
also glistened with exertion and butter: his second wife, he
said, had left him, taking the children. He was paying a lot of
alimony. He had had a motet played at a Contemporary
78

Music Festival in Leamington Spa. He was working for a


cigarette company 28 , devising ways of suggesting that
cigarettes produced sexual pleasure, without this being
apparent. The decline of lipstick-wearing amongst women
made this harder. Once you could use a glamorous scarlet
lip, wet-looking. Now it had to be clean and healthy. He
wasn't happy about this; he had seen too much in the lung
ward in the sanatorium. But there was the alimony. Did she
know any good modern love poems he could set to music?
He wanted to write for single voices, very plain. He had met
an extraordinary Israeli singer. With an extraordinary range.
Did women write love poems? Did she know women ate
mussels because they reminded them of sex? Was it the
marine smell, or the hint of the embryonic? Would she care
for a brandy? An armagnac? A ticket for Stockhausen at the
Festival Hall? The nature of our concept of musical sound,
musical form, was being radically changed, as never before.
He was engaged, too, in research about how to interest
women in fortified wines. Of course, physiologically
speaking, they couldn't take much. Up-market 29 port and
lemon. Class drink preferences were not wholly determined
by money. Would she like a cigar? He rubbed her knee with
his. Big and hot. She dodged efficiently.
All the same, there was the music. He had been in
extremis, and had put music first.
They sat in front of cappucinos in an unassuming coffee bar.
Now she was near him, she saw that he looked ill. There was
thick beard stubble, his face was patterned by broken
capillary tubes, his eyes were veined, his neck tendons stood
out. His shoulders were sprinkled with dandruff and traced
by fallen hairs.
'How's the music?' asked Mrs Smith.
'Marvellous. Wonderful. New. Never better. You look
radiant. You look so lovely. It's marvellous to see you.
looking so lovely. Not a day older - not a day - than when we
79

walked along the Backs together and sat side by side in the
University Library.'
Mrs Smith did not recall that they had done either of these
things. Perhaps her memory - which she must now trust to be
so sharp - was at fault.
'I've just been thinking how pleasant it is to be middleaged.'
'You aren't middle-aged. You're as old as you feel. That's
true, not just something to say. I'm young, you're young, we
can do anything. I've never in my whole life felt so young, so
healthy.'
There were panels of sweat down his nose, in the crease of
his chin, on his clammy brow. The ends of his fingers were
dead white and his fingernails had dirt under them. He
smelled. Across the new coffee smell he smelled of new
sweat and old sweat under it, mortality.
'Tell me how the music is.'
'I told you, it's fantastic. Every day, new discoveries.
Revolutionary techniques. New machines. A new range of
possibilities. I can't get over how fresh you look.'
Mrs Smith knew that she had grey hairs, a marked fan of
lines in her eye-corners, a neck better covered, a body
loosened by childbearing. She did not attract wolf whistles.
She was not generally considered to expect or hope that
advances would be made.
'Don't say that, I'm thinking how happy I am to be
irretrievably middle-aged. Because of time, because I'm in
///we.Listen - I've decided to write a long book - about my
time, the time I've lived and won't have again.'
It was the time, possibly, she had volunteered a serious
confidence in their acquaintance. It was because of the
music.
'By the time we're middle-aged I can tell you they'll have
discovered how to arrest the ageing process forever. They're
working on it. It'll be quite possible soon to stop death, to
stop death in most cases. I assure you, I've gone into it. You
deprive the body of the signals - hormone decrease, loss of
80

calcium, those things - that trigger off ageing. There's a


political problem, they don't want everyone to know,
naturally, they haven't solved the world population problem.
But I have my sources of information. You trick your genes
into working to perpetuate themselves in the body you've
got, not a new one. It can be done. I had a vasectomy. No
more kids, no more alimony, no more splurging 30 my genes
on other beings. Conserve. Perpetuate. Live. Don't talk about
middle age.'
'But I like it.' She wanted him, for once, to hear. 'I've just
discovered I practise a middle-aged art. Spread over time.
Time's of the essence.'
'There's no such thing as time. Time's an illusion. The
new music knows that. It's all in the present. Now. It isn't
interested in the past, or in harmony, or in keeping time, in
tempo, any of all that. We've broken the idea of time and
sequence. We play with the random, the chaotic. Einstein
destroyed the illusion of linear time.'
'Not biological time,' said Mrs Smith, bravely, having
heard these arguments before, though not from Conrad.
'Instantaneous and disposable sounds,' said Conrad,
excited. 'Always different, always now. Biological time's an
illusion too. Only the more complicated organisms die.
Simple cells are immortal. We can reverse that. We must
make a better world to live in. That's what matters. We must
survive. Can I trust you?'
Mrs Smith lowered her eyelids and said nothing. She
expected a sexual confidence.
'I know I can trust you, that's why I met you. These things
are not fortuitous. I was followed here. I'm in danger.'
Mrs Smith did not know what to do with this introduction
of espionage plotting. She continued to look non-committally
intelligent, and to say nothing.
'There's a dark man across there, across the street, with an
evil umbrella 31 . Don't look now.'

81

Paranoia, said Mrs Smith's mind. 'Why?' said Mrs Smith,


more neutrally.
'I am carrying', said Conrad, leaning forward across the
formica table top, breathing stale smoke and sour fear in her
face, 'this folder of secret plans. It's a matter of life and
death. I've got to get them to the Israeli embassy.'
He laid a rubbed and filthy package before her, tied with
various kinds of string, sprouting faded edges of xerox paper.
'This may prevent nuclear war. They have a Bomb, you
know, they may be driven to let it off. Everyone's against
them, fighting for survival, history conspiring...'
'I don't think...'
'You don't know. I worked for British Intelligence, you
know. On some very hush-hush research. All those trips to
eastern university conferences weren't what they seemed. I
know my way around. In Israel everyone's in Intelligence.
They have to be. I recognized it in Miriam immediately. I
can't get her to trust me. I want the Israelis to accept this. In
token of good faith. British good faith.'
Mrs Smith was driven to ask, in a small voice, what 'this'
was, though not, she hoped, as though she really wanted to
know. Across the road the man in a dark overcoat lit a
cigarette, shifted his umbrella, looked through the cafe
window, looked back at the gentlemen's shirts in their bold
colours, scarlet stripes, roseate flowers, black and gold
paisley. He did not look the sort of man to wear such shirts.
'The music department in this university has made an
instrument - constructed a machine - that disintegrates solid
bodies with sound waves. By shaking them. Sound broadcast
by this instrument at certain frequencies disorientates people
completely. Drives them round the bend. Arabs are
peculiarly susceptible to sound. They hear a greater
frequency range. I'm taking these plans to the Israeli
embassy.'
'How terrible,' said Mrs Smith.

82

'Of course it's terrible. Life is terrible. Destroy or be


destroyed. What I want you to do is keep the duplicate plans
safe - just sit here and keep them safe - and if I'm not back in
one hour take them to one of these people in the BBC Music
Department. The BBC's full of spies. I know them. I have
the list.'
'Terrible I meant,' said Mrs Smith, 'to use the music. The
music...'
He brushed this aside. 'I'll give you 100. 500. Just for
half an hour. As an insurance?'
'I don't want anything to do with it.' Mrs Smith stood up.
'I don't like it. I'm going.'
'Oh,no,' said Conrad. 'Oh no,you don't.You may be part
of the plot, after all. You will stay here where I can see you.'
He clasped Mrs Smith's wrist. The man on the opposite
pavement looked at them again, pulled his hat over his eyes,
became absorbed in the contemplation of a pair of black
velvet slippers, embroidered with a pair of gold stags' heads.
Mrs Smith thought of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Her desire to
get out of this story, international incident, paranoid fantasy,
became overmastering. She tried to pull away.
'I'm going, I'm afraid. I have work to do.'
'You can't go out there. Those people have poison-darts in
their umbrella-tips. Fatal. No known antidote.'
'No, they don't,' said Mrs Smith.
Mrs Smith pulled. 'You have got to help/ She raised her
handbag and banged it against Conrad's bald head and red
ear. He, breathing loudly, grabbed her crisp white shirt by the
collar. Both pulled. The shirt came apart, leaving most of one
sleeve and the left front portion in Conrad's hand. The
restaurant proprietor, assuming rape, approached from
behind the bar. Conrad's parcel fell under the table. As he
bent towards it, Mrs Smith, her face scratched, one lacecovered breast exposed, ran out into Jermyn Street, attracting
the brief, unsmiling attention of the window-watcher. When

83

she was at the corner of Jermyn Street she heard Conrad's


voice, plaintive and wild,'Come back, help me, help me.'
Mrs Smith ran on, down Duke of York Street, along St
James's Square, into the solid Victorian mahogany sanctuary
of the London Library, which, at its inception, at the behest
of Thomas Carlyle, historian and founder member, stocked
the fiction of only one writer, George Eliot, who he believed
had so deep an insight into the thought and nature of the
times that her work was classified, by him, as philosophy.
In the mahogany ladies' room, with water from a
Victorian brass tap, Mrs Smith mopped her face and wept for
the music. She would have to borrow a cardigan to go home
respectably. She had lost some virtue. (In the old sense of
that word, from the Latin, virtus, manliness, worth, power;
and in newer ones too.) She was shaken. She was a
determined and practical woman and would go back to work,
however her elation had been broken.
Conrad was mad. She would not inhabit his plot of deathly
music-machines and lethal umbrellas.
How precarious it was, the sense of self in the dark bath of
uncertainty, the moment of knowing, the certainty that music
is the one thing needful.
'Death destroys a man,' said Forster, the liberal humanist,
the realist, who died on that day. 'The idea of death saves
him.' It would take more than Conrad's local madness to
deflect or deter Mrs Smith.
I have to record, however, that only two weeks later she went
to see a surgeon in the Marylebone Road. She had a pain in
her side, not much, not a bad pain, a small lump, a hernia.
She had a sort of growth 32 , said the surgeon, a thickening
of old scar tissue. He thought it would be better if he took it
out.
'Not just now,' said Mrs Smith. 4 am busy, I have a lot of
work to do, I work best in the summer, it's the school
holidays. In the autumn.'
84

'Next week,' said the surgeon, and added in answer to her


unspoken question; 'it is certainly benign.'
This is not what he said to Mr Smith, and indeed, how
could he have said with such certainty, before the event,
what it was, malignant or benign?
Mrs Smith, during the three weeks that in fact supervened
before she entered the hospital, went as usual to the London
Library. She stared a lot out of the window and tried to think
of short tales, of compressed, rapid forms of writing, in case
there was not much time.

85

Groundlings
Jane Gardam

4s she there?'
'Yes, she's there.'
First thing you ever do is look to see if she's there. Bundle
of clothes in the dark, pressed up close beside the ticketoffice. She's always the same, lying prone on a length of
black macintosh. Nothing much around her, not even a
thermos. Never like the rest of us with camp-stool, rugs and
books. I've never seen her with a book, not in nearly forty
years.
I've known old Aggie Batt in theatre queues all of thirtyfive years, anyway. She looks no different from the 1945
season at The New. Oh my - Olivier, Gielgud, Guinness!
Richardson's Cyrano\ The Old Vic - but it was in St
Martin's Lane then. All London was full of theatres that
were still part of war-time, turned into offices, or shells with
the daylight shining through, or rubble with the daisies
growing.
There was good standing-room at St Martin's Lane. For a
shilling you could stand all down the side aisles, leaning
your shoulder against the wall. They didn't let you sit down,
even for Anthony and Cleopatra or Hamlet in its entirety.
'Eternity' the actors used to call it, but I don't think we ever
did. If you slid down on your haunches, usherettes came
along and hissed at you to stand up because of fire
regulations. Fire in the loins. And they didn't let you take
your shoes off because of being alongside all the people in
86

the stalls who had paid good money. I don't know why the
stalls didn't complain anyway, all the students in huge hairy
duffles' standing down the side-aisles three feet away from
them; but they didn't. It was just after the War when there
was still good-temper about. Students were ever so quiet
then. Shy. You wouldn't believe. Ever so thin and greylooking. Well, it was all the poor food we'd had wasn't it ?
Even bread on coupons. But, oh it was a wonderful year that,
'45 - '46, first term at college for me, all the theatres getting
going, all the actors coming back, new plays starting and the
great big expensive yelling American musicals. After all the
bombed indoor years.
I don't think I was ever so hungry as I was then - much
worse than in the war. If you went to an evening performance
you missed college-dinner, as well as the last bus, and never
a penny over for a sandwich at a Lyons corner house 2 . Twomile walk home, the last bit through Regent's Park at
midnight, but nobody worried. No muggers. We went
dreaming home, stage-struck, Shakespeare-struck, Annie-getyour-Gun struck 3 . Slaughtering over. We'd won. First things
first now. You should have seen Olivier's Mr Puff.
Not that she - Aggie Batt, we christened her - ever was to
be seen queuing for the American musicals or even for the
Sheridan. It was Shakespeare for Aggie Batt, Shakespeare
then and Shakespeare now. Shakespeare all the way. There
was never a Shakespeare night she wasn't there.
That's to say she was there every night that I and my
friends were there, and between us all we didn't miss much.
And Aggie B. was always at the head of the queue as she was
until this very year.
We laughed at her. She wore a balaclava helmet 4 and
men's socks and grey gloves that looked made out of wire,
and shiny brown trousers with flies, and a queer jacket,
double-breasted. Her face was sharp and disagreeable with a
tight little mouth. She had small hard eyes. She looked a bit
mad and she hasn't changed. She has grown no madder. She
is just the same. A little mad. A bit bonkers 5 .
87

I suppose her face is older now. It must be. It must have


more lines on it. It must be more leathery. But I can't say that
I can tell. I mean, you don't if it's someone you're used to
seeing year in, year out, like family. My own face strikes me
as being no different really, until I see the photographs. I
went to an old-students' reunion once and it was terrible.
Embarrassing. Most of us, if we recognised one another, just
yattered 6 on with fixed smiles and slunk off home. But that's
by the way.
Aggie Batt is ageless. Ageless as the years roll on and the
theatre-queues change and become stream-lined and
organised and tickets a matter for scientific pre-plotting. In
her way she is a famous figure, a well-known part of the
London theatre scene. I mean of course well-known to the
groundlings, the queuers, not to the people who only go to
the theatre if they can get a good seat. She is there
repeatedly, at every production. After a first-night if you
don't see her in the queue for the second night you know
there must be something very wrong. A performance at the
National or the Old Vic or the Barbican will have to be
abysmal if she's not present then, and many times more. She
is a comfort, Aggie Batt, disdaining time. She is a symbol.
She is homage. When we see her we grin. We say 'There's
Aggie' but we are really saying 'There's one of us, the best
of us.' Through Aggie Batt we know our tribe.
I've often tried to speak to Aggie Batt but it's not easy.
For all the notice she's taken of me all these years I might be
invisible. It's probably because I'm not serious enough. At
the beginning, when I was eighteen, I was just one of a
gaggle of girls - a first-year student. I'm not that exclusive
about Shakespeare you see, and never was. I like to go to
everything. As far as I'm concerned it's the only way to keep
going, the theatre. Any theatre. I spend a lot of money but I
don't have time as my husband says to spend money on
much else, and I've got money now, having married it. I'm a
very comfortable theatre-goer. I have a fur-lined mac from
88

Harrods and a huge great tartan coat from Aquascutum. I still


get my tickets mostly through the theatre-queue though,
because (a) you get good seats (b) you get good company and
(c) it's home.
More home than home. I don't get the same chance to talk
at home. I very much like nattering on. It's a pity that these
days the queue has changed a bit. There are a lot of people
now not very talkative or who want to sleep. People are
tireder nowadays, especially men. Well, I'm nearly sixty
now. They don't notice me.
Aggie Batt doesn't sleep much. She lies there on her black
macintosh sheet with her eyes open. Whatever I talk about
she scarcely blinks.
The first hour of queuing, if it's a popular production - say
a Hopkins Lear or a new Hamlet - Piggot-Smith or Roger
Rees - the queue will start to collect while it's still dark. If
it's winter it will be still the deep dark. For the first hour's
queueing she'll be lying back to the road, her face up against
the plate-glass (if it's the National) like an Arab in a Gulf
airport in a sandstorm. In winter all the lights are out along
the river - only the occasional window shining high up in the
Shell building and the odd street-lamp on the bridge. As the
dawn comes up somebody, somewhere switches on long
necklaces of light-bulbs, pink and gold, all along the
riverside terraces. They come on as it gets light. An eccentric
idea. You'll notice then, suddenly, - Aggie Batt moves very
quietly - that she's sitting with her knees drawn up in front of
her, eating biscuits out of a bag and staring straight ahead.
She'll get up then and pace about a bit, flexing her fingers in
the wire gloves, her nose sticking out sharp from the
balaclava if it's that sort of day. In summer it's a scarf. She'll
go off somewhere - I suppose to the Ladies at Waterloo
Station - and come back and stand in profile to the river. It's
a tense, fierce profile. Richard III. The Scottish King.
Nothing very friendly about it. She'll stand maybe half an
hour like this. Then she'll turn toward the bridge and watch
The Great Procession.
89

I've rather stopped watching the Procession now, after so


many years. It is the procession of the people of South
London that takes place Monday to Friday with as great
punctuality as the changing of the guard at Buckingham
Palace. It is the procession that floods across Waterloo
Bridge from the Station, across the river to work. It is a very
fine sight. It is an army of silently tramping, non-conversing,
face-forward, jerking, walking, trotting, running ants, heads
held tense, hands hard-gripping on cases, umbrellas,
newspapers, the coming day. It continues, a steady flow, for
the best part of two hours, dwindling off at just after ten
o'clock. It is the march of the disciplined, the bread-winners,
the money-grubbers, the money-needers, often the dead.
Over the Bridge they tramp, south to north, in to the stomach
of London. They don't look over their shoulder and down or
they would see us, their opposites, as in a mediaeval diptych
of heaven and hell7 - or hell and heaven: the motley bundles
of the theatre-queuers looking upwards and over at them as
we blink with sleep. Us, the pleasure-lovers, the pleasureseekers, the unrepentant from across the wide world, the
creatures of high holiday. Gazing and munching and blinking
we sit - big loose Australians, intellectual Indians, serious
Americans, antiseptic Japanese and all the mongrel English,
including me in fur or plaid, the fastidious Yorkshire lad
with the walk-way 8 (another regular) and the lady with the
diamond earrings and the New York accent and the Harrods
deck-chair, reading a famous critic on The Scottish Play9.
Once there was even the critic himself. He drove right up
beside us in a Rolls-Royce. He got out and locked it - you
can park right down on the river-side if it's before eight
o'clock in the morning - and joined the queue. He didn't
speak (like Aggie Batt) even when I offered him a sandwich.
He just smiled politely. He was deep in something to do with
a First Folio 10 .
I remember that I wanted to tell someone that there was
someone famous and he was reading about First Folios and I
90

went back to my place again - I'd been stretching my legs near the top of the queue. Then I went actually to the very
top of the queue and I said to Aggie Batt, 'Look who's there.
He's reading about First Folios,' and - it's one of the very
few times in all these years I've heard her speak - she said,
'Very fragmented.'
What can you say to that? Did she mean that the FF (it
was Ant. and Cle.) was very fragmented? Did she mean that
this critic was very fragmented? Or what I said was not
cogent? That's what the remark used to be at the end of many
of my Shakespeare essays - 'Not cogent.' Maybe she did
think that the play was very fragmented - I know I do.I've
often thought you could cut a lot of those little bitty scenes at
the end. Everyone - actors, audience - are too tired for them
by then. Everybody knows, even if they haven't read the play
they know, that everyone's having to reserve strength for the
death scenes, especially Anthony. Cleopatra - well after the
asp it's all quite for her. She just has to sit dead and be
carried out. The asp must be rather a relief. I'd forgotten all
the notes I had on it once but I think they were on this Aggie
Batt line of argument, and I was grateful to her, for when I'd
bought my ticket at ten o'clock - I always stand to one side
while I check my seat-number and so on, even if the rest of
the queue behind me has to step over my blankets - the great
man looked at me, and I was able to say, 'I see you are
reading from the First Folio, Sir. It's very fragmented isn't
it?' He seemed to be quite surprised.
You'll probably have seen Aggie Batt in the audience
many a time. She doesn't look at all as she does in the queue
in the morning. Oh dear me no. She wears a black dress up to
the neck, long in the arms, and her hair that is invisible under
the balaclava turns out to be long and fine. From the morning
appearance you'd expect what used to be called The Eton
Crop - very mannish and coarse, like metal, the kind that
ought to clatter when you run your hand through it. Julius
Caesar hair. Nothing of the sort. It is light and downy and
thin so that you can almost see the scalp through and it's not
91

so much white as the colour of light, though I'm not putting


this very well.
Oh and dear me, she is thin. Through the black dress you
can see her old shoulder-blades sticking out at the back and
her collar-bones at the front. She has a long shawl affair that
floats about - ancient - and when she lets it go loose you can
see her hip bones and her stomach a hollow below them. She
could be Pavlova in extremis except for oh dear, her legs!
Her legs are old bits of twig. She wears very old, cracked,
shoes with broad black ribbons tied in bows, stockings with
ladders, and often a pair of socks.
She's nearly always in the same seat - G25. You've seen
her. Every time you've been to a London Shakespeare.
You've sat next to her perhaps. It's an old joke in the queue,
G25: someone saying that they'll get to the queue twentyfour hours early so they can get G25 to see what she'd do
without it: see if she'd drop dead. I didn't think anything of
him for saying it.
She never buys a programme, that's another thing. She
doesn't seem to need one. There's a number of people don't,
of course. I remember when I was young I didn't. It was a
snob thing. I used to take the text instead, and a torch, and
follow with my finger. It was very helpful for exams, though
if there was a row of us doing it people round about got
tetchy 11 . We were like glow-worms. In those days I didn't
need a programme anyway because I knew who everyone
was and which was playing what. I know most of them now,
but not like Aggie Batt, who I suppose breathes them all in
by osmosis. As I say, she never has a book with her, she's
not one for a text. It's the performance for her. It's him.
Himself. William the Man she comes for. The play she
wants. The living thing in action. That's what the walk-way
boy says. He seldom speaks either, but he sits near her often
and seems to have picked things up from her.
He says she lives in North London behind Kings Cross
and walks everywhere. She even walks there and back to the
Barbican - five miles each way. She walks there and back in
92

the morning for the ticket and there and back in the evening
for the performance. Isn't she afraid of walking about the
empty Kings Cross streets so late at night? No. She carries in
her purse the exact money for her ticket plus thirty-five p. for
a cup of tea; and her pension book.
But she can't be utterly poor. Walk-way boy says she's
travelled. Seen Hamlet in Denmark. Been to Shakespeare
festivals in Berlin. I asked her what she thought of Berlin and
it was one of her answering days and she said 'Professors of
Shakespeare look like steel rats.' One day I bought her a pie.
She seemed pleased. It was just a pie from the stall under the
station arches but she ate it with hunger and nodded at me
and even answered the question I asked her while I was
gathering up her rubbish. This I have to keep doing for she
surrounds herself with quite a lot of it. I asked her who was
her favourite character in Shakespeare and she said
Enobarbus. I asked her which was her favourite play and she
said cThe Winter's Tale, but it's getting late for it now.'
I've seen her in a Winter's Tale12 queue several times so I
didn't know what she meant. I thought that maybe her
memory was slipping and she was forgetting what she had
seen. Not that that has ever seemed to me such a great
deprivation. If you lose your memory you can experience
things again as if they were new, like when you were young.
Well no. Never really like that.
Next Winter's Tale I told myself I'd take her a bunch of
flowers. I don't suppose anyone ever gave Aggie Batt
flowers. Years and years ago there was a young man used to
be in the queue. Oh, he was about nineteen I'd think and she
must then have been nearly forty. They used to go off
together after an hour or two's queueing, leaving the black
mac. They used to sit side by side on the black mac. He I
remember used to leave a pair of yellow leather gloves on it
to keep their places. He had that ripply, goldielocks hair you
see sometimes on young men and a very soft mouth and

93

gently moving hips. You didn't comment in those days but


you sniggered. Somehow though I never sniggered.
He stopped being around after a while. One of the
sniggerers heard he'd run off to be a ballet-dancer. Aggie
Batt looked madder then, her face more severe. She began to
carry a walking-stick and twirl it about. After I was married,
my husband sometimes came to join the theatre queue with
me - just at first. One day we arrived very early and we saw
the poor old bundle, with the walking stick alongside, on the
black mac. 'Good God, what's that? Who's that poor old
man?'
'Sssh, it's Aggie Batt.'
He looked down the queue and said 'Looks like a string of
winos, but my word! The one at the top!'
My husband's full of quips. Once when I was late home
from a seven-hour stint of the Henrys he'd put my mail out
on the hall-stand re-directed, 'Not known at this address. Try
The National Theatre.' But he wouldn't be bothered with
jokes about Aggie Batt.
And why am I writing all this? What is so special about
her? After all, she's dead now. The London theatre is going
along perfectly well without her. There has been no obituary
and she won't ever be mentioned in any memoir. She's not as
far as I know ever been referred to in a theatre column or
theatre magazine or been interviewed on television. I don't
think she ever heard of television. What was she? An
interesting psychiatric subject for discussion: a woman with
a Shakespeare fixation. That is all.
Well, it is not all. I am writing down all that I know now
about her because it is not all, and because of the wonderful
thing that happened the day she died, and if you don't
believe a word of it, what do I care? Shakespeare's plots
were unbelievable. Larger than life. When people say to me,
'Oh, I say - another story larger than life' 1 say to myself,
think of Shakespeare. Think for example of the story of The
Winter's Tale, and I say, 'Things may be larger than your life
but they are not larger than mine.'
94

Well, it was to be the first night of what promised to be a


marvellous Winter's Tale. The pre-view notices had been
non-pareils. The agency tickets had been sold out weeks
before. We had read already in all the papers of the
wonderful, ice-bound Act One and the blooming and
blossoming dizzy Spring in store for us in Act Two: the
songs and the sheep-shearing, the frolic, then the
regeneration, the triumph over wickedness and death at the
end. Huge portraits of the players were plastered against the
glass sides of the National: pictures of yokels and bears,
statues and queens and sages, and Perdita and her princeling
- the hopes of the world.
I decided that to be sure of a seat I must leave home about
5.30 a.m. and drive to London in the car. I didn't tell anyone
at home that I was going so early because there's opposition
nowadays on account of my leg and the time I didn't see the
Sutton roundabout 13 .
I crept out the house and it was already light - a warm,
Spring morning. All the birds of Tadworth making a racket
like lllyria. I stood for a moment thinking how much I love
Tadworth. All the birds, and so easy for the theatre. I thought
how much more musical suburban birds are than country
ones and wondered what the Southwark birds had been like
in Shakespeare's time. Thinking of Shakespeare and Winter's
Tale I went round to our garden at the back to pick Aggie
some flowers. There were some lovely primroses and still
some nice daffs, though some had gone a bit brown-papery, a
few primulas and six little irises. We've a nice garden. I put
them in a plastic bag with a bit of blue rue we have by the
gate and stowed them in the glove compartment and roared
off down the drive trying not to look in case any angry heads
were sticking out of bedroom windows. My daughter is a
light sleeper and not just now my friend. I imagined her
furious face. 'For goodness sake\ Adolescent! Immature!
Sitting with students!' and so on. My daughter is in
Management Consultancy although I called her Cordelia. She
doesn't understand.
95

It was difficult parking the car that morning. Someone had


forgotten to take the chain down from across the theatre
forecourt and I had to go half-way to Southwark to the carpark where you take a ticket from a sleepy man in a box and
the surface is like craters of the moon. It can't have been
worse in Shakespeare's time. Great puddles. I set off walking
back. Ten minutes.
That can make all the difference from being number
twenty and number thirty in the queue. Each person in the
queue for tickets sold on day of performance is allowed two
tickets. There are only forty tickets altogether unless there
are returns, and there are unlikely to be returns for a First
Night, so ten minutes can mean defeat.
So I went pounding along to the National, past the head of
the queue where of course lay Aggie Batt, fast asleep, and for
some reason feet foremost today, lying at right-angles to the
glass wall, her head below the enormous chin of Edward
Woodward picked out in purple. Even she wasn't first in the
queue for this performance. There was a man ahead of her
leaning against the glass, reading, and then the Yorkshire
walk-way boy sitting cross-legged, staring ahead, numbed by
the secret music under the ear-muffs. 'Late,' I called out, but
neither the man nor the boy nor Aggie Batt made any sign. I
went to the end of the line and dumped my cushion and
blankets and stood out from the wall - we all sit under a wide
cement awning which shields us from the rain - very
different from the old days, humped in raincoats under
umbrellas on little battered stools. I counted back and I was
number 45. So I wasn't going to be lucky.
However, you never know. Miracles sometimes happen
and other hopefuls were still gathering up behind me,
thinking likewise. I wrapped myself up and watched the
Bridge. I slept a bit I think because it suddenly seemed much
lighter and the people round about were beginning to eat
things. I drank some coffee from my thermos and wished I'd
brought a book. There were huge Germans on either side of
me, fast asleep. Nobody to talk to.
96

Soon the day-light began to wane again as clouds came


over and rain began. Never say die, I thought and felt in my
pockets for chocolate - then remembered the flowers I'd left
behind in the glove-compartment, way down Pickle-Herring
Street. I felt tired and my leg was jumping.
However - I put my thermos on the cushion to keep my
place and set off back past the head of the queue. Aggie Batt
had not stirred, neither had the leaning man (what strength of
shin!) nor the walk-way boy. 'Just going to the car,' I called,
but I'm like scenery. They didn't speak.
When I came back again with the flowers in the plastic
bag I had an idea. I have never had this idea before. I have
never asked, for it is not done - to ask someone buying only
one ticket near the top of the queue if they'll buy their
allowance of two and sell one back to you. The walk-way
never buys more than a single ticket and neither of course
does Aggie Batt, but asking her would be out of the question.
It would mean sitting next to her through the play and
chatting, which I knew she would never countenance. It
would be like asking a nun to share her hassock or a fakir to
shift over on his mat.
'S'okay,' said the walk-way boy, lifting off a muff an
inch. Little tinny sounds came out, like distant revels. He let
it spring back in place and I sat beside him and took out my
purse and counted the money. I felt dreadful, breaking the
rules, and I said to the standing man, 'I know him. He's a
very - old friend. I've never done this before.' I looked at
Aggie but she was still asleep. Sleeping late. Peaceful. I took
the flowers from the bag, bound them round with the elastic
band from my sandwiches and the boy and the man watched.
I laid the flowers on Aggie Batt's chest for her to find
when she woke. The boy paid no attention now but the man
continued to watch. 'It's because it's Winter's Tale,' I said,
'It's her favourite. ' Although he did not speak I knew that he
found what I had done acceptable. I also knew that I need say
no more and I went back to my place.

97

I am a garrulous woman. I suppose by now that's clear. I


cannot help it. It is because I am not confident. I am not even
confident about Shakespeare. I only got a Lower Second 14 . I
try to justify myself too much. I try to explain my hungry
need for Shakespeare by trying to be learned about him catching on to other people's stuff about First Folios and
textuality and fragmentation and things not being cogent
rather than just saying that when I am watching Shakespeare
I am happier than at any other time. I knew as I sat down at
the end of the queue again that I had no need to justify
myself to that man 15 and I felt young again. ] felt rather as I
had done long ago, when I was eighteen standing in the aisle
at the New Theatre, famished, light-headed, looking forward.
It was like falling in love.
Soon the necklaces of lights came on and the rain stopped,
leaving big pools about on the concrete. A warm, quite
summery breeze blew over us and I may have dropped off
because all at once I noticed the welcome 9.45 a.m. signs of
life inside the National's glass wall. The counter of the
ticket-office was being dusted and a Hoover was being
wheeled away, lights switched on.
There is a moment in the theatre queue and it is 9.59 a.m.
With one accord, like the audience at Messiah with the lift of
the baton for the Hallelujah Chorus, everyone rises to his
feet. Everyone does a shuffling left turn and stands waiting.
Hardly a sound. Then the man inside looks at his watch,
comes out from his lair, undoes the bolts and opens the glass
doors, and without pause the whole queue begins to flow
forward, each person holding six or twelve pounds or a
cheque-book like a talisman. The queue marches through and
the whole thing is over in less than a quarter of an hour.
But not this morning, for when I reached the head of the
queue, Aggie Batt had not got up. She lay there with her nose
as sharp as a pen16 and the flowers on her chest.
The queue passed round her of course. As was right. I
stayed with her, waiting for the walk-way boy to come with
our tickets and when he did, he knelt down by her and took
98

off his ear-muffs and began to undo her jacket and scarves.
The leaning man who'd been ahead of her had disappeared he wasn't a regular. He'd probably hardly noticed her, deep
in his book. The last tail-end of the queue reluctantly stepped
round her. A few stood lingering about in the forecourt,
looking towards us, before going away.
I told the boy to find someone quick, to get an ambulance,
but he said 'No hurry. She's dead,' and I felt her face and it
was ice-cold. 'She's been dead for hours,' he said, 'I know.
I'm a hospital porter,' and he went inside, slowly, to find a
telephone. 'You'd think that man would have noticed,' I said,
'Standing beside her all this time. He was ahead of her. He
must have been there when she arrived.' 'What man?' said
the boy, 'There wasn't any man. She was head of the queue.'
When the ambulance had taken away what remained of
Aggie Batt, and the walk-way boy gone off to get us some
coffee, I put my ticket in my purse and went over towards the
river. 1 watched the great procession streaming over the
Bridge, swirling along like the water below. The people of
Shakespeare's parish 17 .

99

Wee Horrors
James Kelman

The backcourt was thick with rubbish as usual. What a mess.


I never like thinking about the state it used to get into. As
soon as a family flitted out to the new home all the weans 1
were in and dragging off the abandoned furnishing &
fittings, most of which they dumped. Plus with the
demolition work going on you were getting piles of mortar
and old brickwork everywhere. A lot of folk thought the
worst kind of rubbish was the soft goods, the mattresses and
dirty clothing left behind by the ragmen. Fleas were the
problem. It seemed like every night of the week we were
having to root them out once the weans came in. Both breeds
we were catching, the big yins 2 and the wee 3 yins, the dark
and the rusty brown. The pest-control 4 went round from door
to door. Useless. The only answer was keeping the weans
inside but ours were too old for that. Having visitors in the
house was an ordeal, trying to listen to what they were
saying while watching for the first signs of scratching. Then
last thing at night, before getting into bed, me and the wife
had to make a point of checking through our own stuff. Apart
from that there was little to be done about it. We did warn
the weans but it was useless. Turn your back and they were
off downstairs to play at wee houses, dressing-up in the
clothes and bouncing on the mattresses till all you were left
hoping was they would knock the stuffing out 5 the fleas.
Some chance. You have to drown the cunts 6 or burn them. A
few people get the knack of crushing them between
100

thumbnail and forefinger but I could never master that.


Anyway, fleas have got nothing to do with this. I was down
in the backcourt to shout my pair up for their tea. The woman
up the next close had told me they were all involved in some
new den they had built and if I saw hers while I was at it I
was to send them up right away. The weans were always
making dens. It could be funny to see. You looked out the
window and saw what you thought was a pile of rubble and
maybe a sheet of tarpaulin stuck on the top. Take another
look and you might see a wee head poking out, then another,
and another, till finally maybe ten of them were standing
there, thinking the coast was clear. But on this occasion I
couldnt see a thing. I checked out most of the possibilities.
Nothing. No signs of them anywhere. And it was quiet as
well. Normally you would've at least heard a couple of
squeaks. I tramped about for a time, retracing my steps and
so on. 1 was not too worried. It would have been different if
only my pair was missing but there was no sight nor sound of
any description. And I was having to start considering the
dunnies 7 . This is where I got annoyed. I've always hated
dunnies - pitchblack and that smell of charred rubbish, the
broken glass, these things your shoes nudge against. Terrible.
Then if you're in one and pause a moment there's this silence
forcing you to listen. Really bad. I had to go down, but in the
second one I tried I found some of the older mob, sitting in a
kind of circle round two candles. They heard me come and I
knew they had shifted something out of sight, but they
recognised me okay and one of the lassies told me she had
seen a couple of weans sneaking across to Greegor's. I was
really angry at this. I had told them umpteen 8 times never to
go there. By rights the place should've got knocked down
months ago but progress was being blocked for some reason
I dont know, and now the squatters 9 and a couple of the
girls10 were in through the barricading. If you looked over
late at night you could see the candle glow at the windows
and during the day you were getting the cars crawling along
near the pavement. It was hopeless. I went across. Once upon
101

a time a grocer had a shop in the close and this had


something to do with how it got called Greegor's. Judging
from the smell of food he was still in business. At first I
thought it was coming from up the close but the nearer I got I
could tell it was coming from the dunny. Down I went. Being
a corner block there were a good few twists and turns from
the entrance lobby and I was having to go carefully. It felt
like planks of wood I was walking on. Then the sounds. A
kind of sizzling - making you think of a piece of fucking
silverside 11 in the oven, these crackling noises when the juice
spurts out. Jesus christ. I shouted the names of my pair. The
sound of feet scuffling. I turned a corner and got a hell of a
shock - a woman standing in a doorway. Her face wasnt easy
to see because of the light from behind her. Then a man
appeared. He began nodding away with a daft 12 smile on his
face. I recognised them. Wineys13. They had been dossing
about the area for the past while. Even the face she had told a
story, white with red blotches, eyes always seeming to water.
She walked in this queer kind of stiff shuffle, her shoes
flapping. When she stepped back from the doorway she drew
the cuff of her coat sleeve across her mouth. The man was
still giving his daft smiles. I followed. Inside the room all the
weans were gathered round the middle of the floor. Sheets of
newspaper had been spread about. I spotted my pair
immediately - scared out their wits at seeing me. I just looked
at them. Over at the fireplace a big fire was going, not
actually in the fireplace, set to about a yard in front. The
spit14 was fashioned above it and a wee boy stood there, he
must've been rotating the fucking thing. Three lumps of meat
sizzled away and just to the side were a few cooked bits lined
in a row. I hadnt noticed the woman walk across but then she
was there and making a show of turning the contraption just
so I would know she wasnt giving a fuck about me being
there. And him - still smiling, then beginning to make
movements as if he wanted to demonstrate how it all worked.
He was pointing out a row of raw lumps on the mantelpiece
and then reaching for a knife with a thin blade. I shook my
102

head, jesus christ right enough. I grabbed for my pair, yelling


at the rest of the weans to get up that effing15 stair at once.

103

The Language of Water


D. S. Mackenzie

I went fishing with Garfield the other day. It was a cold,


bright, cloudless morning and the pool I had chosen on the
river was flat and lifeless like a huge skein of grey silk. I
knew we wouldn't catch anything and so did Garfield but I
feigned enthusiasm and said I'd caught two sea-trout there
the day before. Although it was a lie I was able to carry it off
reasonably well because I had caught two but in a different
part of the river.
'Yes,' I said, 'there's a fish in there for us.'
Garfield stood in his worn-out old green waders 1 and
studied the water carefully. He looked out from under the
brim of his fore-and-aft 2 and saw the mirror-like surface of
the big, slow, lazy eddy on the far side. There wasn't a single
ripple on the water and the bushes and trees upon the bank
were motionless with not a leaf stirring. 'It looks a bit flat to
me,' Garfield said.
I usually go fishing alone. The river is beautiful, especially
in the summer at half past five or six in the morning when it
is already light and the sea-trout are beginning to move in the
pools. There is a particular favourite spot of mine away
down river by the estuary. It is hard to get to and if I'm there
really early I can remain undisturbed for hours. I used to go
fishing with my father and now I sometimes go with my
brother but I usually go alone. I suppose it's just that I'm
selfish.

104

It was a little different with Garfield. Garfield is an old


man. He used to go fishing with my father whom he knew for
thirty years or so. He went for company rather than any real
wish to catch fish. He never went fishing with anyone else
and rarely caught any trout. In fact, when my father died six
years ago, Garfield gave up fishing, although it could be said
that he had never really taken it up in the first place. Two
weeks ago Garfield asked me to go fishing with him and
what would normally have been an imposition became
something I felt I wanted to do. No, perhaps that isn't quite
right. What I wanted was that Garfield should catch a fish.
It sounds condescending and I want to avoid that. Garfield
is not a child that you desperately want to succeed in some
small way so that you can heap praise on him. He is a man of
about seventy who still fills me with confusion when I
address him because I know that 'Mr McLeod' is too formal
now but I baulk at calling him Garfield. I meet him rarely so
this little problem has never been resolved satisfactorily. I
wonder if he is aware of it. Probably not.
My feelings about Garfield are further bedevilled 3 by what
Garfield has become. He has shrunk - almost literally - from
the strong, commanding figure he once was to the slighter,
more tentative person that old age and illness have rendered
him. I remember a solid, heavy-set man, bullish both in his
physique and in his driving attitude to life. He was a farm
manager and had large, grained farmer's hands with thick
fingers and fingernails like chips of stone. When I was a
child I felt that these fingers could take my arm and snap it in
two.
Garfield now is thin and rather unsteady on his feet. He
has a variety of cancer - I'm not sure which - and has only
about two years to live.
Just after the death of my father, Garfield made a strange
request, stranger perhaps because he made it of me. He asked
me to take a photograph from my father's bedroom window,
looking down towards the river. He wanted a photo that
105

would show the path by the side of the field, the trees, the
big pool and the fields and farms beyond. I agreed of course,
but never got round to it. So here is the beginning of a
feeling of guilt which is mixed in with all the other feelings
making the whole lot more confused than before.
I find it difficult to like him. I strive to like him. He is a
person you must take uncompromisingly on his terms. (Even
in this there is the beginning of admiration for him.) He is a
straight talker, direct to the point of bluntness. He spent some
time in South America when he was a young man and I once
gave him a book about the area he had lived in. He was
scathingly critical of the book, leafing through it when I gave
it to him and criticising it even before he had read it
properly. I was a bit hurt by this, feeling he should have
tempered his comments, particularly as the book was a gift. I
had just returned from South America, though not the same
place as he had lived in. I felt that he was indirectly
criticising me as well, the inference being that 1 should know
better. I had been there and therefore I should know better.
Couldn't I see that this fellow had drawn all the wrong
conclusions, had made judgements based on very little
experience? In fact Garfield didn't say this at all. Neither did
he say thank you.
Garfield arrived for our morning's fishing at about nine
fifteen. His big old estate car has rust on the wings and
Garfield complained that if he continued buying new parts
for it at the present rate he would have a brand new car in a
year or two as nothing of the original would remain. It was a
joke but I could see that it was also a niggling little worry.
He has had to accept a lower standard of living since he
retired and a new car is out of the question. As he got his
fishing gear out of the back, his rod in its cloth case, his
landing net, bag and waders, I noticed that one of the rear
tyres was almost flat. It had a slow leak, he said, and he
usually pumped it up every morning. This morning he had
forgotten. I had no pump and suggested that we change the
wheel there and then but he said no, wait till we get back
106

from the river. Then there was the question of how to get to
the pool. I had chosen the nearest pool but even this tenminute walk seemed a bit long to Garfield. I suggested that
he could drive round the village to the bridge above the pool
and I could walk down through the fields carrying the rods
since we had already put the rods up. He agreed, and then we
remembered the flat tyre. Right, I said, let's do it now, let's
change the wheel now. But he said no, no, no, it would be all
right, he would walk down with me. I began to feel that it
had all started badly, that things were already out of my
grasp, beyond control, that the morning could no longer be
saved. We set off eventually on foot and I wanted to offer to
carry his bag but I couldn't for fear of calling him a weak old
man. We took it gently, a quiet, unhurried stroll, and when
we arrived at the pool the sun was quite high and the water
was smooth and silver and very beautiful but I knew we
wouldn't catch anything.
'There's a fish in there for us,' I said. 'Don't worry.'
'It looks a bit flat to me.' Garfield said.
We are in the landrover. I am in the passenger seat and
Garfield is driving. He is driving fast along the rutted track
that leads to the Outpost and he is punishing the machine
which is bouncing over the pitted earth, flinging up mud to
either side. I am finding it difficult to maintain my balance
and my fingers hold on tight to the edge of the grey leather
seat because my feet can find no purchase on the metal floor.
In fact my feet hardly reach the floor. It is 1958 and I am
nine years old.
'There she is, Sandy! 4 ' Mr McLeod says, pointing up
ahead to a large stone building reached through a wooden
five-bar gate 5 which has swung open over a huge area of
mud. There seem to be acres of mud; the big barn known as
the Outpost is afloat in a sea of it. Mr McLeod draws the
landrover up as near the big red sliding door of the barn as
possible. When the vehicle stops I can feel the tingling in my
fingers and my bottom as the seat is at last still underneath
107

me. By the time I regain my composure Mr McLeod has left


the landrover, drawn back the huge red barn door and has
disappeared inside.
From the landrover, when I open the door, 1 look down on
nothing but brown mud. I am wearing a new pair of
Wellingtons that I know are meant for such situations but I
don't want to get them dirty. It would be easier, really, if I
got out on Mr McLeod's side as it is nearer the door of the
barn but I feel I should ask him first if this is okay, this
crossing over into his territory, but I can't because he has
already gone and I wouldn't want to call him back just for
this...
Eventually I get out my own side and tiptoe, insofar as I
am able to, round to the door. My Wellingtons are now
muddy despite my efforts but I will be able to wash them at
the outside tap in the yard when I get home so no one will be
angry with me. Mr McLeod is inside the big empty barn,
over there at the far end. He has a hoe in his hand. There is
nothing in the barn but the smell the hay has left behind. The
concrete floor is dry and clean. I turn round and see the
muddy footprints I have left when making the few steps from
the door. Will Mr McLeod be angry? He has left footprints
too, I notice, so maybe it isn't so bad after all. But then I
remember that perhaps this reasoning will not hold, perhaps
it is all right for Mr McLeod to make the floor muddy but not
me. Maybe he will be upset. It is his barn. Mr McLeod has
the hoe in his hand and he is poking about with it above his
head at the ends of the rafters where the sloping roof meets
the top of the wall. What is he doing? I go back to the door
and kick off as much mud from my boots as I can. That
should do. When I walk across the concrete floor now there
is hardly a mark. I make my way towards Mr McLeod. There
are tiny shrieks of alarm from a half-fledged baby pigeon
which whirs down on immature wings from the rafters to the
floor about halfway between Mr McLeod and me. It sets off
running towards me. I have never seen one so close before
and I bend down towards it in wonder at the strange mixture
108

of grey feathers and pink flesh. I am half aware that Mr


McLeod is coming up behind the little bird, in fact he is
running. I have my hands out, feeling I might be able to
scoop up this little creature but just before it reaches me Mr
McLeod shouts a warning. He overtakes the squawking,
frightened, scurrying bird and kills it by stamping its head
into the concrete floor. I am too shocked to cry. Mr McLeod
runs off to kill another pigeon in the same way. The first one,
a yard or so in front of me, continues to flutter for about half
a minute and then stops. It stays in the same place because it
is stuck like glue to the floor. Mr McLeod comes back over
and kicks the dead pigeon towards the door of the barn.
There is a little red mark on the floor. I try to rub it off with
my toe, hoping there is enough mud left on my boot to cover
up this red spot. There isn't. All I do is make the mark bigger
- red and brown. What about the other pigeon? There is a
mark there too, probably. I don't want to go over there. Mr
McLeod calls me from the door and I go out. It is raining
heavily; the mud is deeper. I get into the landrover. I am
thinking of the pigeon, the one Mr McLeod killed in front of
me and I still can't speak. Nobody says anything. Nobody
says anything until I get to Mr McLeod's house. His wife is
in the kitchen and she asks me to take my boots off. I look
round and see all the mud I have brought in on the black and
white tiles of the kitchen floor.
I decided that everything would be all right if we could catch
a fish. It didn't even have to be Garfield who caught it. He
couldn't wade far anyway. I had noticed that the rubber of
his waders had perished where they had been folded over so
there were little holes at knee height. It had been so long
since his last fishing trip and they had laid unwanted in a
cupboard. Which was worse - to point out to him that there
were holes in his waders or let him get his feet wet? I told
him. He waded only a few feet from the bank and I knew he
had no chance of a fish. It would be all right though, even if I
could do it; I could catch one for us. It would be our fish and
109

something would be saved. I fished hard. I cast out as far as I


could and worked the fly as delicately as possible across the
surface of the water. I ached for a fish to rise but the river
said no.
I reeled in and went back to join Garfield. He had already
left the water and was lighting up his pipe. We stood in
silence for a while and just looked at the river. It was as
beautiful as I had ever seen it and I wondered for a moment
if catching a fish had really been so important. 'Too flat,'
Garfield said, and I was torn between wanting to punch him
and wanting to confess that it was all my fault. I could have
forgiven him everything, his awkwardness, what he had said
about the book, even the pigeons, I could almost have
forgiven him for the pigeons if only we could have caught
one little fish.
Garfield said he was tired. He took off his fore-and-aft and
I could see a little sweat glistening on his forehead. He took
out a handkerchief and wiped his face. 'It's a pity,' he said.
We walked back through the fields, slowly. Garfield asked
me to carry his rod and his bag and I did.

110

The Great Profundo


Bernard Mac Laverty

The river was so full after the recent rains that the uprights of
the bridge became like prows and for a time I was under the
impression that the bridge, with myself on it, was moving
rapidly forward. So absorbed was I in this illusion that I
accepted the sound as part of it. It was high pitched and
sentimental, sometimes submerged beneath the noise of the
traffic, sometimes rising above it, full of quaverings and
glissandi. My curiosity was ar6used to see what instrument
could make such a noise. Others must ha.ve been similarly
drawn because a crowd of about fifty or sixty people had
gathered in a ring on the left bank of the river - women
shoppers, men with children on their shoulders, young
fellows elbowing each other for a better position. In the
centre stood a tall man speaking loudly and waving his arms.
I edged forward and was forced to stand on tiptoe. Still I
could not trace the source of the music which at that moment
suddenly stopped. Now everyone's attention was directed at
the man in the centre whose eyes blazed as he shouted. He
walked the cobblestones on bare feet, spinning on his heel
now and again to take in the whole circle of the crowd. On
the ground in front of him was a long, black case. With a
flourish he undid the latches and flung open the lid. Inside
was red plush but I could see little else from my position at
the back.
4t is not for nothing that I am called the Great Profundo,'
shouted the man. He wore a scarlet shirt, with the sleeves
111

rolled up and the neck open, but his trousers looked shabby
above his bare ankles. They bulged at the knees and were
banded with permanent wrinkles at his groin. His hair was
long and grey, shoulder length, but the front of his head was
bald so that his face seemed elongated, the shape of an egg.
He was not a well-looking man.
'What you will see here today may not amaze you, but I'll
lay a shilling to a pound 1 that none of you will do it. All I ask
is your undivided attention.'
I noticed a figure sitting by the balustrade of the river who
seemed to be taking no interest in the proceedings. He must
have been the source of the earlier music because in his hand
he had a violinist's bow and, between his knees, a saw. The
handle rested on the ground and the teeth of the saw pointed
at his chest. He was muttering to himself as he began to pack
these implements into a large holdall.
'I want you to look closely at what I am about to show
you.' The Great Profundo stooped to his case and produced
three swords. Epees. Rubbing together their metal cup handguards made a distinctive hollow shearing sound. He threw
one to be passed around the crowd while he clashed and
scissored the other two for everyone to hear.
'Test it, ladies and gentlemen. Check that it's not like one
of these daggers they use on stage. The ones where the blade
slips up into the handle. There are no tricks here, citizens;
what you are about to see is genuine. Genuine bedouin.'
After much to-do 2 he swallowed the three epees (they were
thin with buttons at their ends no bigger than match-heads)
and staggered around the ring, his arms akimbo, the three
silvery cups protruding from his mouth. The audience was
impressed. They applauded loudly and goaded him on to do
something even more daring.
Next he produced what looked like a cheap imitation of a
sword - the kind of thing a film extra, well away from the
camera, would carry. It had a broad flat aluminium blade and
a cruciform handle of some cheap brassy metal. He produced
a twin for it and handed them both around the crowd while
112

he cavorted on the cobblestones shouting interminably about


his lack of trickery and the genuineness of what he was about
to perform.
'While I want your undivided attention, 1 would like you
all to keep an eye out for the Law. They do not approve.
They'll turn a blind eye to trumpet players, tumblers 3 and
card-sharpers, but when it comes to the idea of a man putting
himself into mortal danger on the public highway they have a
very different attitude.'
The crowd immediately turned their heads and looked up
and down the river-bank.
'You're okay,' shouted a woman.
'On you go.'
He took back both the swords from the crowd and held
them to his chest. He straddled his legs, balancing himself,
and put his egg-shaped head back, opening his mouth with an
elaborate and painful slowness. I felt like saying, 'Get on
with it. Skip the palaver 4 .' The man swallowed both the
swords, walked around the ring, staring skywards, then hand
over hand extracted them to the applause of the crowd.
'And now, ladies and gentlemen,' the man shouted in a
voice that heralded the finale of his act, glancing over his
shoulder to check that the Law, as he called them, were not
to be seen, 'I will perform something which will be beyond
your imagination.'
He reached into his black case and produced a sword - a
long and heavy Claymore. He tried to flex it, putting all his
weight on it with the sole of his bare foot, but was unable to;
then with a mighty two-handed sweep he swung it at the
cobblestones. It rang and sparks flew. He balanced it on its
point. The blade alone reached to his receding hairline. He
stood there letting the crowd take in the length of the sword
he was about to swallow. He spread his arms. The spectators
became silent and the noise of the traffic on the bridge was
audible. He lifted it with feigned effort, balanced the blade
for a moment on his chin, then lowered it hand over hand
down his throat. To the hilt. When it was fully inserted the
113

crowd cheered. Planting his bare feet, like someone in a


dream, his head at right-angles to his body, I could hear even
from my position at the back the harsh rasps of the
performer's breath escaping past the obstruction in his throat
as he moved round the ring of people.
This time I was impressed. There was no physical way he
could have swallowed that last sword - it would have had to
come out of his toes. There was a trick somewhere but I
joined in the applause as he withdrew the six-foot sword
from his throat. At this point I felt someone push me, and the
small man whom I had seen pack away his saw elbowed his
way into the middle and extended his hat to begin collecting.
My money was in one of my inner pockets and it would have
meant unbuttoning my overcoat.
'No change,' I said.
'It's not change we want,' said the saw-player and forced
his way past me. As the crowd dispersed I hung around. The
Great Profundo was packing his equipment into his case.
After each item he would sweep back his long hair and
straighten up. The saw-player was raking through the hat,
taking out the coins of the highest denomination and
arranging them into columns on the balustrade. The Great
Profundo sat down to put on his boots.
'Excuse me, gentlemen,' I said, dropping some coins into
the hat 'I am a student at the University and I couldn't help
seeing your act. Very interesting indeed.'
'Thank you,' said Profundo. After all the shouting his
voice sounded soft. 'It's nice to get praise from a man with
certificates.'
'Not yet, not yet. I'm still an undergraduate. I tell you I'm
a student, not for any particular reason, but because I want to
make a proposition to you.' The Great Profundo looked up
from his lace tying. I noticed he did not wear socks. 'I am the
treasurer of a society in the University which, once or twice a
year, uses live entertainment. Would either, or both of you
gentlemen be interested in performing for us?'
114

'How much?' asked the saw-player from the balustrade.


'We can afford only a small fee. But you may take up a
collection at the actual function.'
'If they gave as much as you did just now, there'd be no
point,' said the man counting the money.
'What would the University want to look at the likes of us
for?' the Great Profundo said, smiling at the thought.
'Our society certainly would. It's called the "Eccentrics
Genuine Club". We meet every month and have a few pints,
sometimes entertainment.'
This was not the whole truth. We had met twice that year,
and on both occasions the entertainment had been female
strippers.
'Who?' asked the saw-player.
'Musicians. The occasional singer. That kind of thing.'
'We'll think about it,' said the Great profundo. He wrote
out his address and I said I would contact him after the next
committee meeting.
As I walked away from them I heard the saw-player say,
'Eight pounds, some odds 5 .'
'If my mother was alive, Jimmy, she'd be proud of me.
Going to the University.' The Great Profundo laughed and
stamped his boot on the ground.
The committee of the Eccentrics Genuine Club was delighted
with the idea and even suggested a more generous sum of
money than they had given to each of the strippers. However,
divided between two entertainers, it still wasn't enough. I
made a speech in which I said that if they valued their
reputation for eccentricity - haw-haw - they would fork out6 a
little more. A saw-player and a sword-swallower on
University territory! What a coup! Who could refuse, no
matter what the cost? The committee eventually approved,
somewhat reluctantly, twice the sum given to the strippers.
And they had no objection to a collection being taken on the
night of the performance.

115

With this news and the idea of interviewing him for the
University newspaper, I drove to the Great Profundo's. It
was a part of the city where walls were daubed with slogans
and topped with broken glass. 1 parked and locked the car.
Then, seeing some children playing on a burst sofa on the
pavement, 1 checked each door-handle and took my taperecorder with me. It was an expensive one - the type
professional broad-casters use - which my father had bought
me when I'd expressed an interest in journalism.
There was a selection of names on bits of paper beneath
the doorbells of the tenement. The name on the bell of 14c
was Frankie Taylor. I rang it and waited. Papers and dust
swirled in the corners. A window opened and the man
himself leaned out.
'Remember me?' I shouted. The figure at the window
nodded and waved me up. The stone stairway smelled badly
of cooked food. The Great Profundo was on the landing,
waiting barefoot, when I reached the fourth floor.
'Yes, I remember,' he said and shook hands. 'The student.
Those stairs knacker 7 the best of us.' He led me, breathing
heavily, into the flat and offered me a chair which I declined.
Would he be free - would he and the saw-player be free - on
the evening of the thirteenth of next month? The swordswallower shrugged and said that it was very likely. He sat
down in his armchair and folded his knees up to his chest.
Then he sprang up again and asked me if I would like a cup
of coffee. I refused politely. I offered to write down the date
and time of the meeting but Profundo assured me that they
would be there. He sat down again and began to finger his
toes.
'Would you like a beer?'
'What kind?'
He jumped off the chair and said, 'I'll see what I've left. I
didn't know you'd be coming.' He opened a cupboard and
closed it again, then left the room. I went over to the window
to check that my car was still in one piece.

116

Profundo came back with three cans of lager held together


by plastic loops.
'Tennent's. From Christmas,' he said. He jerked one free
and handed it over and took another himself. 'Don't be
worrying about the car. It's safe enough down there. The
neighbours will keep an eye on it.'
I took the seat he had previously offered and said,'There's
another thing I'd wanted to ask you. I work for a student
newspaper, Rostrum, and I was wondering how you would
feel about giving an interview some time.'
'Me?' I applied pressure to the ring-pull and the can
snapped open. From the triangular hole the lager was fizzy
and tepid. 'Why me? What could I tell you?'
'Our readers are interested in a lot of things. I'm sure with
the life you've led it couldn't fail.'
'Aww here now...' He laughed and looked down at his
feet. Without Jimmy, the saw-player, he seemed defenceless.
He was a shy man, unable to look me in the eye. His voice
was quiet, conversational - not strident like he had been by
the river-bank.
'If it's of any help to you ... in your studies, like ... Oh
would you like a glass?'
'No thanks,' I said. 'Are you busy? Would you mind doing
it now?'
'Do I look busy?' he said spreading his hands. I set up my
machine, took a slug from the can and began my interview.
{See Appendix.)
The bar in the students' Union was hired for the night of the
thirteenth and a low platform stage erected against one wall.
In my role as treasurer I was obliged to be around so another
of the members of the Eccentrics Genuine was sent in his car
to pick up the pair of performers. There was a splendid turnout - everyone in formal evening wear - and I was pleased at
the thought of covering expenses from the door money alone.
After that, what we made on new membership and the bar
was profit. I myself was responsible for about forty new
117

members that night: part of the rugby club, friends from the
Young Conservatives, Engineers, Medics and, most
extraordinary of all, some people from a recently formed
Society of Train-spotters.
The entertainment was due to begin at nine o'clock and
for about an hour and a half before that the bar was
pandemonium. I have never seen students drink so much even the Eccentrics Genuine. As early as eight o'clock they
all began clapping and singing 'Why are we waiting?' But it
was all very good-humoured.
At a quarter to nine I was informed of the arrival of the
artists and went to welcome them. They were both standing
in the corridor outside. The Great Profundo shook hands
warmly. Jimmy nodded and said to me, 'Is there anywhere
we can change, get the gear sorted?'
'Pardon?'
'Like a dressing-room?'
'No. No I'm sorry. I hadn't thought you would need one what with the street and all that.'
'Street is street and indoors is indoors.'
'It's okay, this'll do,' said Profundo. He began stripping
off his checked shirt and getting into his scarlet one. He had
a surprisingly hairy chest. 'You go ahead, Jimmy, warm them
up.' Jimmy continued grumbling and got out his bow and
saw. Profundo edged past him and took a look through the
glass doors.
'A full house, by the look of it.' Then he stopped. 'Is there
no women in there?'
'Not in the Eccentrics Genuine,' I said. 'It's one of the
Club rules.'
'We're not that eccentric,' said another member of the
Committee. 'We know how to enjoy ourselves.'
I slipped in at the back to listen to Jimmy's performance. The
melody he played was the same one I had heard that day on
the bridge but within the confines of the hall it sounded
118

different, more sentimental. The notes soared and trembled


and swooped. One member of the audience, just to my left,
took out a white handkerchief and pretended to mop his eyes.
In playing the saw there is a great deal of vibrato required to
give the notes texture. The player's left hand quivers as the
saw changes pitch.
'He's got Parkinson's disease,' shouted one of the new
Medic members. But apart from that he was listened to
attentively and applauded when he finished his selection.
Afterwards there was a great dash for the bar. Everyone
considered it an interval and I had to hold back the Great
Profundo until the crowd was settled again, which took some
considerable time. While he waited patiently I pointed out to
him that the floor was awash with beer, which might be
awkward for him in his bare feet.
'And now, gentlemen of the Eccentrics Genuine Club, it is
my great pleasure to introduce to you the one and only, the
great, the profound, the Great Profundo...' I gave him such a
buildup 8 in the old music-hall manner that the audience were
on their feet applauding as he made his entrance. He ran,
carrying his black case on his shoulders, and took a jump up
on to the stage. For a man of his age he was almost lithe. His
movements as he opened his box of tricks were sweeping and
athletic.
On my first encounter with him I had not noticed that his
patter, which he began almost immediately he reached the
stage, was so juvenile. He had not tailored his talk for such
an audience as the Eccentrics Genuine. They laughed
politely at some of his jokes. When he inserted the three
epees and held his arms out wide for approval there was a
kind of ironic cheer. His act lacked music and somebody
began a drum-roll on one of the tables. This was taken up
throughout the room until the bar throbbed with noise. Some
others began to imitate a fanfare of trumpets. When he
inserted the two aluminium film-extra swords someone said,
not loudly, but loudly enough, 'He's naive. He'd swallow
anything. 3 ' There was a great deal of laughter at this,
119

suppressed at first in snorts and shoulder-shaking, but which


finally burst out and echoed round the bar. He silenced them
by taking out the Claymore. There was a small three-legged
stool beside him, on which Jimmy had sat to play his saw,
and the Great Profundo, with gritted teeth, swung the
broadsword and imbedded the blade a full inch into it. He
had to put his foot on the stool and tug with all his might to
free it and this occasioned yet more laughter. He stood the
point of the sword on the small stage to let them see the
length of it in relation to his height. A voice said, 'If you
stuck it up your arse we'd be impressed.'
And yet he went on. He did his hand over hand lowering
of the blade into the depths of himself to the accompaniment
of drumming on the tables. When it was fully inserted, he
spread his arms, put his head back and paraded the stage.
Some of the crowd were impressed because they cheered and
clapped but others kept laughing, maybe because they were
drunk, maybe at a previous joke. Then the tragedy happened.
The crowd could see it coming because they suddenly
quietened. With his head back the Great Profundo took one
or two paces forward and stepped off the edge of the
platform. He came down heavily on his right foot which
slipped on the wet floor. He managed to remain upright but
uttered a kind of deep groan or retch which everyone in the
audience heard. He stood there, not moving, for several
seconds, then he withdrew the sword and made his exit.
Some of the crowd stood and applauded, others made
straight for the bar. Jimmy tussled among them with a yellow
plastic bucket to take up a collection.
Afterwards in the corridor I apologized for the behaviour
and handed over the cheque to the Great Profundo.
'It's both on the one. I didn't know Jimmy's second name
so I made it all out to Frankie Taylor.'
'Thanks.' In the corridor lights Profundo's face looked
grey.

120

'I'll take it,' said Jimmy. 'Your audience is a bunch of


shit.'
'I think we may have opened the bar too early. I'm sorry.'
'You're right there. All the fuckin money's going over the
counter. They gave three pounds. I haven't seen pennies in a
bucket for twenty years. l0 '
Before putting the Claymore back in its case Frankie
wiped its blade with a small damp cloth. Against the
whiteness I saw specks of red.
'Will you not have a drink?' I said. 'On the house.'
They refused. They were in a hurry to leave.
When I rang the bell of 14c it was Jimmy who put his head
out of the window and called me up. The door was ajar when
I reached the fourth floor. Jimmy was searching for
something in a cupboard. He barely looked up at me.
'Where's the man himself?' I said.
'Did you not hear? He's in hospital.'
'What?' .
'He was pishing black 11 for a week before he went to see
about it. Must have been bleeding inside.'
'Is it serious?'
'They don't know whether he'll do or not. If you saw the
colour of him you wouldn't hold out much hope.'
Jimmy continued to rummage among the clothes and
papers. He lifted a black brassiere and looked at it.
'Where the hell did he get all the women's stuff?' he
muttered, more to himself than to me. 'What did you want to
see him about?'
'Just to say hello. And to tell him the article will be in the
next issue.'
'A lot of good that'll do him.'
He held a pullover up to his chest, saw the holes in the
sleeves and threw it back into the cupboard.
'I also wanted to return something I'd borrowed.'
'What?'
'To do with the article.'
121

'I'll give it to him.'


'I'd prefer to hold on to it, if you don't mind.'
'Suit yourself,' he said and closed the cupboard door. 'But
the man'II be dead before the week's out.'

APPENDIX
THE GREAT PROFUNDO - SWORD-SWALLOWER

(.Rostrum vol.37, no. 18)


The interviewer deliberated long and hard about whether or
not to include certain parts of the following material but felt
justified in doing so because it is the truth. Once a writer, be
he novelist, critic or journalist, fails to report the world AS HE
SEES IT then he has failed in his craft.
The interviewer visited the subject at his home in Lower
Coyle Street. The apartments were small and sparsely
furnished with little regard for order or taste. It was a
sparseness which derived not from asceticism but poverty.
During the interview the subject was, at first, nervous particularly about speaking in the presence of a taperecorder - then, when he forgot about it, animated.
Throughout the subject was barefoot and fiddled continually
with his toes.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell us something about how you
became involved in such odd profession?
PROFUNDO: Is it on now? Okay. Right. Oh God, I don't
know. I was always interested in circuses and things. It was
about the only entertainment we ever got where I was
brought up.
INTERVIEWER: Where was that?
PROFUNDO: In the country - a village about thirty miles
south of here. The circus would come through about twice a
year. In the summer and maybe at Christmas. I just loved the
whole thing. The smell of the animals - the laugh you had

122

when they crapped in the ring. Some of those people! One


minute you'd see them collecting money at the door, the next
they'd be up on a trapeze. No safety-net, either. Anyway, I
was about sixteen at the time and they'd organized a speeddrinking contest. 1 didn't want to win in case my mother
found out - she was very wary of the drink - but I could pour
a pint down like that. (He mimics the action.) Like down a
funnel. I have no thrapple12, y'see. It was a fire-eater who
told me this - I thought I was just normal. He took me under
his wing and got me at the sword-swallowing.
INTERVIEWER: Did you join t h e circus?
PROFUNDO: Not that year, but I did the next. That was the
year they had the six-legged calf. It's a thing I don't like - the
way they use freaks. I don't mean the wee midgets and all
that - they earn good money and they can't work at much
else. But I remember paying to go into a tent to see this
beast. It was just deformed, that's all. Two half-bent extra
legs sticking out its behind. I felt sorry for it - and a bit sick.
But I said nothing. They took me on as a roustabout13. I tried
all kinds of things at the beginning. Acrobat - anything
anybody would teach me.
(At this point the subject demonstrated a one-armed
horizontal handstand on the edge of the table. The sight
brought to mind the paintings of Chagall where peasants
float above their world with no visible means of suspension.
This physical activity seemed to banish his nervousness and
he warmed to his theme.)
That's not good for me at my age. It's why I concentrate on
swords now. Doesn't take as much out of you.
INTERVIEWER: Do you still enjoy it?
PROFUNDO: It's hard graft in all weathers and lately I've
begun to have my doubts. But if I gave it up what could I do?
How'd I pass the day? One of my main difficulties is that I'm
not good with an audience. There's guys can come out and
have a crowd eating out of their hand right away with a few
jokes. That's hooring14. All the time they're saying, 'Like
123

me, like me for myself. It doesn't matter what my act is, I


want you to like we.' If your act is no good, what's the point.
It's the reason you are out there instead of one of them.
People love to think they could do it - with a bit of practice.
That's what's behind the oldest trick in the circus. Somebody
asks for a volunteer and grabs a woman from the audience.
He throws her around - on a horse or a trapeze or a
trampoline - and we get flashes of her knickers, and all the
time she's holding on to her handbag. You'd be amazed at
how many people fall for it. But it's a plant. I loved playing
that part - sitting up on the benches pretending you were the
little old lady.
INTERVIEWER: And when did you begin to major in the
sword-swallowing?
PROFUNDO: Oh that must have been thirty years ago. It was
a good act - then. Not the way you saw it the other day.
{Laughs.) In those days I had STYLE. A rig-out like one of
those bull-fighters, gold braid on scarlet, epaulettes, the long
black hair and a voice that'd lift the tent. And the swords.
D'you see those things I've got now? Rubbish - except for
the Claymore.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to the good o n e s ?
PROFUNDO: I'm sure they ended up in the pawn. But it
wasn't me put them there. D'you know the way I hand them
round for the people to test? Well there's some cities I've
been in - I'll not mention their names - when I handed them
round they never came back. Somebody buggered off with
them15. But times were very hard just after the war. I don't
really blame people. You deserve all you get handing
expensive items like that into a crowd. But some of them
were real beauties. I collected them all over Europe.
INTERVIEWER: I didn't realize you'd been that far afield.
PROFUNDO: After the war in France was the best. People
had seen such desperate things. They wanted to be amused,
entertained.
INTERVIEWER: But there couldn't have been a lot of money
about - just after the war.
124

PROFUNDO: Whose talking about money? I'm talking about


when it was best to be in front of an audience. They
appreciated me. I had fans. Artists came to draw me.
INTERVIEWER: A r t i s t s ?

PROFUNDO: Well, one artist - but he came time and time


again. I didn't know who he was at the time - a small man
with a white beard and glasses. He didn't talk much - just
drew all the time.
(At this point the subject sprang from his seat and
rummaged beneath his bed and produced a dog-eared folder
from a suitcase. It contained newspaper clippings and
photographs of himself and in a cellophane envelope a
signed drawing by Matisse.) (See Illustration.)
What do you think of that, eh?
INTERVIEWER: This must be worth thousands.
PROFUNDO: I know it's valuable but I wouldn't sell it. Not
at all. I didn't much like it at the beginning - I mean it's
just...But I got to like it the more I looked at it. He did about
thirty of me. Somebody tells me there's one hanging in New
York somewhere.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think I could borrow it to reproduce
with the article?
PROFUNDO: Sure. But I'd like to have it back.
INTERVIEWER: Of course. Why don't you frame it and put
it on the wall.
PROFUNDO: You'd just get used to it then. This way I see it
once every couple of years - when somebody calls. Then it's
fresh. Far better under the bed. The last time it was out was
to show to Jimmy. He didn't think much of it.
INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask you about him. Where
does he fit in?
PROFUNDO: I met Jimmy a couple of years ago when I
came back to work this place. The hardest thing about street
work is gathering a crowd. He does that for me. The sound of
that bloody saw attracts them from miles away and they all
125

stand about listening. Once they're all there I go straight into


the routine. We split the proceeds. Jimmy has a good money
head on him.
INTERVIEWER: I'd Say SO.16

(The subject offered his last can of lager which was refused.
He went to the kitchen to get two glasses in order to share it.
In his absence the interviewer noticed that the subject had, in
his rummagings in one of the cupboards, disturbed a box,
which on closer inspection was seen to contain a variety of
ladies' underwear. The interviewer in all innocence asked
the following question when the subject returned.)
INTERVIEWER: Do you have family? Daughters?
PROFUNDO: No? I'm by myself here.
(The subject then realized that the question was brought
about by the contents of the box. He seemed embarrassed.)
Oh that. You weren't meant to see those. Is that machine of
yours still going?
INTERVIEWER: No. I've switched it off now. I hope you're
not offended by this question, but are you homosexual?
PROFUNDO:

NO,

I'm

not offended

and

no,

I'm

not a

homosexual. I've been in love with many women in my time.


Sometimes I like to imagine myself as one. Wearing their
clothes is a kind of tribute to them.17 It does no one any harm.
INTERVIEWER: (After an awkward silence) And how do
you see the future?
PROFUNDO: I wait for it to come and then look at it
(laughs).
INTERVIEWER: And lastly what about trade secrets? Can
you tell any?
PROFUNDO: There aren't any to tell. You'd better switch
your machine on again. Okay? Trade secrets. I used to keep
the blades very clean - wipe them down with spirit. But

126

there's as many germs on the bread that goes into your


stomach, so after a while I stopped that.
INTERVIEWER: But how on earth do you swallow that big
one?
PROFUNDO: The Claymore? The same way as all the
others. It's a craft. I can't explain it. I once worked with a
man who could eat light bulbs, pins and needles, but I could
never do that kind of thing. My talent is different.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you.

127

Empire Building
Deborah Moggach

It didn't look much when he took it over, the Empire Stores,


but a man with business instinct could see the potential. The
previous owners had been fined by the Health Authority 1 and
finally gone bust. Hamid, however, had standards. His wife
told people this too, with a small shake of her head as if she
were being philosophical about it.
The neighbourhood was a transient, shabby one, with
terraces of bedsits 2 and Irish lodging houses 3 . The parade of
shops, Hamid calculated, was far enough from the Holloway
Road for people to rely upon it for their local needs, which
he had all intention of supplying. The shops were as follows:
a wholesale dressmaking business with a curtained window
behind which the sewing machines hummed - those Greek
ladies knew the meaning of hard work; a dentist's surgery
with frosted glass; a greengrocer's that had ageing fruit and
early closing on Thursdays - now how can anyone prosper
with early closing; then the Empire Stores, and next door to
it a newsagent's run by an indolent Hindu and his wife.
Hamid put a notice UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT in the window of
the Empire Stores and re-stocked the merchandise - liquor
behind the cash desk, where he sat in control, and groceries
along the aisles. His aims were not modest, but his
beginnings were.
His own wife and children were installed in a flat in Wood
Green, three miles away, where the air was fresher and the
neighbourhood more salubrious. The streets around the
Empire Stores were not respectable; you need only have
128

taken a look at the cards fixed to the newsagent's window even a family man like Hamid knew the meaning of those
kind of French Lessons. Business is business, however, and
it is a wise shop keeper who is prepared to adapt. Or, as his
father was fond of saying: to those who are flexible comes
strength.
The local blacks were big West Indians who drove up in
loudly tuned cars and who suddenly filled the shop. They
bought party packs of beer in the evenings and left a musky
male scent behind them. One of the first things Hamid did
was to extend his opening hours until 9 p.m. Then there were
the single young ladies who bought Whiskas and yoghurt and
disappeared into the sodium-lit streets. How solitary was the
life of these young English women with no family to care for
them; no wonder they fell into evil ways. Hamid installed a
second cold shelf and stocked it with pizzas, two ranges of
yoghurts and individual fruit-juice cartons for these bedsit
dwellers and their twilit lives. Such items moved fast 4 .
Sitting at the till, its numbers bleeping, Hamid thought of
the dinner being prepared for him at home - the hiss of the
spices as they hit the pan, the buttery taste of the paratha he
would soon be eating. He thought of his son Arif, his neat,
shiny head bent over his homework, the TV turned right
down. He thought of his own tartan slippers beside the
radiator. Passing them a carrier-bag, he gazed with perplexity
at these lost, pasty-faced English girls.
His main income, however, came from the drunks. It was
for them that within the first three months he had doubled the
bottle shelf-space and increased his range of cans. Business
was brisk in Triple Strength Export Lager. These men, their
complexions inflamed by alcohol, shambled in at all hours,
muttering at the floor, murmuring at the tins of peas. They
raised their ruined faces. Hamid avoided their eyes; he took
their soiled bank notes or the coins they counted out, shakily,
and fixed his gaze above their heads. Flesh upon flesh,
sometimes their fingers touched his 5 , but he was too well-

129

mannered to flinch. Sometimes they tried to engage him in


conversation.
It was bemusing 6 . Not only did they poison themselves
with drink, rotting their souls and their bodies, but they had
no shame. They leaned against the dentist's frosted glass,
lifting the bottle to their lips in full public view. They stood
huddled together in the exit of the snooker hall, further up
the road, where warm air breathed from the grilles.
Sometimes he could hear the smash of glass. Lone men stood
in the middle of the road, shouting oaths into the air.
Business is business. Sometimes he raised his eyebrows at
Khalid, his nephew, who helped him in the shop, but he
never offended his wife by describing to her this flotsam and
jetsam 7 . One night she said: 'You never talk to me.'
It was the next week that a man stumbled in and steadied
himself against the counter. He asked for a bottle of cider
and then he said: 'You'll put it on the slate?' 8
'I beg your pardon?' Hamid raised his eyes from his
newspaper.
'I'll pay tomorrow.'
'I'm sorry,' Hamid said. 'It is not shop policy.'
The man started shouting. 'You fucking wog!' 9 he yelled,
his voice rising.
Hamid lowered his gaze back to the dancing Urdu script.
He turned the page.
'Get back to the fucking jungle, fucking wog land!' the
voice slurred - 'where you belong!'
Khalid appeared from the stock-room and stood there.
Hamid kept his eye on the page. He read that there was a riot
in Lahore, where an opposition leader had been arrested, and
that ghee 10 was up Rs 2 per seer.
'Fucking monkeys!'
Khalid put down the crate of Schweppes 11 and escorted
the man to the door. The next day Hamid wrote a notice and
Sellotaped 12 it to the counter.
He sat there, as grave as always, in his herringbone tweed
jacket. He held himself straight as the men shambled in,
130

those long-lost rulers of a long-lost Empire, eyeing the


bottles behind him. He had written the notice in large red
letters, using Arif s school Pentel13: PLEASE DO NOT ASK FOR
CREDIT AS A REFUSAL OFTEN OFFENDS.14

That was in the late seventies. War was being waged in the
Middle East; a man had walked on the moon; Prince Charles
had still not found a wife. Meanwhile Hamid filled out his
VAT 15 receipts, and in view of increased turnover negotiated
further discount terms with McEwans, manufacturers of
lager.
In 1980 the old couple who ran the greengrocer's retired
and Hamid bought the shop, freehold, and extended his own
premises, knocking through the dividing wall and removing
t h e sign H. LAWSON FRUITERER AND GREENGROCER.

Apart from 'good morning', the first and last conversation


he ever held with the old man was on completion day, when
they finalized the transaction in the lawyer's office down the
road.
'Times change,' said the old man, Mr Lawson. The clock
whirred, clicked and chimed. He sighed. 'Been here thirty
years.'
They signed the document and shook hands.
'Harold,' said Hamid, reading the signature. 'So that's
your name.'
'You know, I was in your part of the world.'
'My part?' asked Hamid.
'India.'
'Ah.'
'In the army. Stationed near Mysore. Know it?' Hamid
shook his head. 'My family comes from Pakistan.'
They stood up. 'Funny old world, isn't it,' said the old
man.
Hamid agreed, politely. The lawyer opened the door for
them.
'How about a quickie,' said the old man.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Little celebration.'
131

Hamid paused. 'I don't drink.'


They reached the head of the stairs. 'No,' said the old
man. 'No, I suppose you don't. Against your religion, eh?'
Hamid nodded. 'You first, please,' he said, indicating the
stairs.
'No, you.'
Hamid went first. They emerged into the sunlight. It was a
beautiful day in April. Petals lay strewn in the gutter.
'If I'd been blessed with a son, maybe this wouldn't be
happening,' said the old man. 'But that's life.'
Hamid nodded.
'You've got a son?'
'Yes,' said Hamid. 'A fine chap.'
'Expect he'll be coming in with you, in due course.'
Hamid murmured something politely; he didn't want to
offend the old man. Arif, running a shop? He had greater
things in mind for his son.
Hamid had a new, larger sign fitted to cover the new, double
shop-front and this time had it constructed in neonilluminated script: THE EMPIRE STORES. He extended both his
liquor and grocery range to cover the extra volume of retail
space, adding a chicken rotisserie for take-outs 16 , a
microwave for samosas' 7 and a large range of fruit and
vegetables - all of a greatly improved quality to those of H.
Lawson. The old man had left the place like a junk heap; it
took seven Skips to clear the rubbish out of the upper floor
and the backyard. One morning Hamid was out in the street,
inspecting a heaped skip, when one of his customers stopped.
She was an old woman; she pointed at the skip with her
umbrella.
'See that?' she said. 'The wheels? Used to have a pony
and cart, Harry did. For the deliveries.'
'Did he really?' Hamid glanced up the street. He was
waiting for the builders who were late again. Unreliable.
'Knew us all by name.' She sighed and wiped her nose.
'No...' She shook her head. 'Service is not what it was.'
132

'No,' agreed Hamid, looking at his watch and thinking of


his builders. 'It certainly isn't.'
Hamid, who always bought British, traded in his old Cortina
and bought a brand-new Rover, with beige upholstery and
stereo-player. He transferred Arif to a private school, its sign
painted in Gothic script, where they sang hymns and wore
blazers' 8 . On Parents' Day the panelled halls smelt of polish;
Hamid gazed at the cabinets of silver cups. His wife wore her
best silk sari; her bangles tinkled as she smoothed Arif s
hair.
The conversion of the upper floors, above the old fruit shop,
was completed at last and Hamid stood on the other side of
the street with Khalid and his two new assistants. He looked
at the sunlight glinting in the windows; he looked at the
dazzling white paint and the sign glowing below it: THE
EMPIRE STORES. His heart swelled. The others chattered, but
he could not speak.
That night Arif stood, his eyes closed and his face pinched
with concentration, and recited:
'Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment, wear .
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,49
His eyes opened. 'Know who it's by?'
Hamid shook his head. 'You tell me, son.'
'William Wordsworth. We're learning it at school.'
For the second time that day, Hamid's heart swelled. He
put his arms around his son, the boy for whom everything
was possible. He pressed his face against his son's cheek.
133

1981. Ronald Reagan became President of the USA. In May


the Pope was shot and wounded. In Brixton there were riots;
Toxteth too. In July Prince Charles married his Lady Di.
Khalid, too, was married by now and installed in the firstfloor flat above the shop. National holidays were always
good, business-wise; by now the Empire Stores was open
seven days a week 20 and during that summer's day, as people
queued at the till, Hamid kept half an eye on his portable TV
set. A pale blur, as Lady Di passed in her dress; a peal of
bells. As Hamid reached for the bottles of whiskey, the
commentator's voice quickened with pride and awe, and
Hamid's heart beat faster. 'Isn't she a picture,' said his
customers, pausing at the screen. Hamid agreed that, yes, she
was the most radiant of brides. Flags waved, flicking to and
fro, and the crowd roared. Our Princess, his and theirs...
Hamid smiled and gave a small boy a Toblerone.
That night his wife said: 'You should have seen it in
colour.'
Hamid pulled off his shoes. 'You've put it on the videotape? 21 '
She nodded and turned away, picking up the scattered
jigsaw in front of the TV, where his daughters had been
sitting.
'We can watch it later,' he said.
'When?' Her voice was sharp. He looked up in surprise.
'It's not the same,' she said, closing the box.
That night a bottle was thrown up through the window of
Khalid's flat. It shattered the glass; Khalid's bride cowered
in the corner.
The next day, while the Royal couple - oh how happy they
looked - departed on their honeymoon, Hamid inspected the
damage. He gazed down into the street, through the wicked
edges of glass. They were intruders, those people entering
the Empire Stores. Yesterday's glory had vanished. Hamid
sat down heavily, on the settee.
'How could they do this to us?' he asked. 'What have we
done to deserve it?'
134

Khalid, who was an easy-going chap, said: 'Forget it.


They were just celebrating.' He lowered his voice, so his
bride couldn't hear. 'They were one over the eight.' 22
'What?'
'Drunk.'
Drunk on the drink he had sold to them. Yesterday they
had had record takings.
He closed up the shop that night and walked to his car. On
the pavement lay a man, asleep, his face bleeding. Cans lay
around him. Hamid remembered how once, years ago, he had
called an ambulance when he had found a person in this
state.
Now he just made a detour on the other side of the
pavement.
That autumn he installed closed-circuit surveillance in the
shop. He now had three assistants and an expanded range of
take-away food. Children from neglectful homes came in
with shopping bags; they had keys around their necks, and
runny noses. They bought bars of Kit Kat and crisps and hot
pasties. These mothers did not look after their youngsters;
they sent them into the streets to consume junk food 23 .
The dressmaker's was taken over by a massage and sauna
establishment, which installed black glass and a Georgian
door. All about lay the ruined and the dispossessed. This was
their country but these people had no homes. New, loitering
men replaced the old. Strange faces appeared for a week, a
month, and then after a while he would jealize they had
vanished. To where? His neon sign shone out over the drab
street. Inside the shop lay the solace of food, and order.
That year his turnover doubled. He fitted out an office in
the store-room and managed his growing empire from there,
drinking tea from his Charles and Di commemoration mug.
He had now converted four flats above the shop, and the
lease of the newsagent's shop next door was coming up
shortly; he had his eye on that.

135

In an attempt to brighten the neighbourhood, the council


had planted young trees along the pavement. Their leaves
were turning red and falling to the ground. Opposite, the
sunset flamed above the chimney-pots. As he said his
evening prayers on the mat behind his desk, he felt both
humbled and grateful.
That evening he looked into his girls' bedroom. They were
two sleeping heads. Arif was in the lounge, bent over his
computer game. Hamid ruffled his hair; Arif smoothed it
down again.
'And have you a hello for your father?'
Arif pressed a button. '570,' he said. '680.'
Later, when Arif was asleep and Hamid had eaten, he said
to his wife: 'They teach them no manners at that expensive
school?'
She turned, 'You think you can buy manners with
money?'
He looked sharply at her. She was putting the crockery
away in the cabinet.
'What are you trying to say?' he asked.
'Manners are taught by example. At home.'
'And don't I set a good example?'
'When you're here.' She sighed, and shut the cabinet. 'I
think he is suffering from neglect.'
'You say that about my son?'
Neglect? Hamid thought of the boys with faces like old
men's, and keys around their necks. Pale boys buying junk
food.
'It's his age,' said Hamid loudly, surprising himself. 'He's
fourteen now. A difficult age.'
'If you say so.'
She sighed again and reached up for something on the top
of the cabinet. It was a box of Milk Tray. How plump she
was becoming; her kurta was strained tight over her belly.
'Come to the shop,' he said, 'and there I'll show you the
meaning of neglect.'

136

She sat down, shaking her head in that philosophical way.


More and more she irked him by doing this. She examined a
chocolate and popped it into her mouth. He looked at her and
the word rose up: junk food.
He ignored this. Instead he asked: 'Doesn't Arif
understand? I'm working for him. For all the family.' He ran
his fingers through his hair. 'For the future.' His voice rose
higher. She glanced warningly towards the bedrooms. 'I'm
working so that he need never work in a shop! You
understand me, woman? Can't you understand?'
She said nothing, though she tilted her head. He thought
she was assenting, but then he saw she was just choosing
another chocolate.
Hindus are lazy. History has proved that point. Their religion
is a dissipated one; Their life-style one of self-indulgence, of
the inaction that comes from fatalism. Take Mr Gupta's
attitude, for example, to the expiry of his lease. He smiled
and raised his hands: the new price was too high; he had this
trouble with his stomach; he had been robbed three times in
the past year. What be, will be...
Hamid would have suggested that Mr Gupta invest in
vandal-proof shuttering, as he himself had done. But he
could always have that fitted when he took over the lease,
which he did just as the trees outside frothed into blossom, in
celebration.
Islam is a progressive faith. He progressed, removing Mr
Gupta's sign and installing THE EMPIRE NEWSAGENTS over the
door. He now had one double shop and one single; his
properties dominated the parade of shops. Indeed, that week
several of his customers joked that he'd soon be taking over
the street. Hamid smiled modestly.
The state of that shop! The squalor and the unexploited
sales area! The possibilities! It was a dusty little con-tob
newsagent's 24 when Hamid took it over, but after a complete
refitment he had doubled the shelf space and the stock, and
introduced fast-profit items including a rental Slush-Puppy
137

dispenser 25 in six flavours - a favourite with the local latchkey children.


Dirty magazines, he was not surprised to discover, had a
brisk sale in this neighbourhood and he increased the stock
from seven titles to fourteen. Knave and May/air, bulging
flesh ... he kept his eyes from this nude shamelessness. He
placed such journals on the top shelf. Boys little older than
Arif came in to giggle and point; they stood in a row on his
display bases. These boys, he thought, they are somebody's
son; does nobody cherish and protect them?
It was during the first month of business that Hamid
opened the local newspaper and read: 'We are sad to
announce the death of Mr Harold Lawson, universally known
as Harry to his customers and many friends. For thirty years
he was a well-loved sight on the local scene, with the fondly
remembered Betty, his pony ...'
Hamid read on. It concluded: 'A modest man, he seldom
mentioned his distinguished army record, serving with the
King's Rifles in India and being awarded a DSO for his
bravery during the Independence Riots 26 . He leaves a widow,
Ivy, and will be sorely missed. It can truly be said that "they
broke the mould when they made Harry".'
Outside the petals had blown into the gutter, just as they
had lain the day Hamid had accompanied the old man into
the street two years earlier. It was the slack mid-morning
period and Hamid stood in the sunshine, watching the clouds
move beyond the TV aerials. For a moment he thought of the
earth rolling, and history turning. He himself was fond of
poetry, despite his lack of education. What was it Arif used
to recite? 'Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
/And pause awhile from letters to be wise.'
That evening he asked Arif who was the English poet who
had written those words. William Shakespeare?
'Dunno.'
Hamid placed his hand on his son's shoulder. 'No, that's
"All the world's a stage",' he said. A r i f s bones were

138

surprisingly frail. He sat with his eyes on the TV screen


where first a house, then a car, burst into flames.
Hamid kept his son's exercise books on a special shelf. He
searched through and found the quotation, written in the
round, careful writing Arif still had a year or so ago.
c
Ah. Samuel Johnson.'
Hamid raised his voice; on the TV a siren wailed.
'Remember?'
He looked at the title: The Vanity of Human Wishes.
Arif said: 'You're blocking my view.'
1983. Renewed fighting in the Lebanon, and the film Gandhi
won eight Oscars. There were fires and floods in Australia
and peace people made a human chain around Greenham
Common. The future King of England was toddling now, so
was Khalid's first-born son in the flat above the Empire
Stores. Property was moving again, as the worst of the
recession' was said to be over, and Hamid converted the
upper floors above the newsagent's shop and sold the flats on
long leases.
With the profits, and another bank loan, that summer he
bought a large detached house for his family, a real family
home in that sought-after 27 suburb, Potters Bar.
'I have worked twenty years for this moment,' he said,
standing in the lounge. There were fitted carpets
throughout 28 . There was even a bar in panelled walnut, built
by the previous owners who had amassed large debts both by
drinking and gambling, hence the sale of this house. He
pictured his children sitting around the bar, drinking
blameless Pepsi.
'This is the proudest moment of my life,' he repeated, his
words loud in the empty room. Through its french windows
there was a view of the garden, a series of low terraces
separated by balustrades. Two small figures in orange
anoraks stood on the lawn: his daughters.
Arif, however, was nowhere to be seen. Hamid would
have liked him to share this moment but his son had been
139

keeping himself to himself recently, growing more sulky. He


had even objected to the move.
'Where will we get the furniture?' said his wife, standing
in the middle of the room.
'We'll buy it. Look.' He took out his wallet. It was so fat,
it couldn't close.
He found Arif sitting in the car, the radio loud. Hamid
turned it down.
'Well, old chap,' he said. 'What do you think?'
'Great,' Arif muttered.
'Earth has not anything to show more fair: ...'
Hamid stood in the garden. The long, blond grass blew in
the wind. It was dusk and he looked up at his home, the
fortress where he kept his family safe. A light shone from
Arif s attic bedroom - he had insisted on this tiny room, no
more than a cupboard up in the roof. Down below were the
bedrooms; then, below them, the curtained french windows,
glowing bluish from the TV. How solid his house, solid and
secure.
Today he wore his tweed suit from Austin Reed. He stood
like a squire amidst the swaying weeds. Summer was ending
now, and grass choked the flowerbeds. Neither he nor his
wife were proficient in gardening, but that did not stop the
pride.
It grew darker. To one side of him rose the block of his
house. To the other side, beyond the trees, the sky glowed
orange. This side lay London. He thought of his shops
casting their own glow over the pavement; he thought of the
blood-red neon of THE EMPIRE STORES shining in the night.
How ashy those faces seemed, looking up at the window to
gaze at the comforts within! Ruined, pasty faces; the losers,
the lost, the dispossessed. The walking wounded who once
ruled the Empire, pressing their noses against his Empire
Stores ...
He thought of their squalid comforts: those rows of bottles
and those magazines showing bald portions of women's
140

bodies. Here at home, on the other hand, he had a mahogany


bookcase filled with English classics, all of them bound in
leather: Dickens, Shakespeare and the poet he had taken to
his own heart: William Wordsworth.
The trees, bulkier now in the night, loomed against the
suffused sky. 'Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/A
sight so touching in its majesty: ...'
A chill wind rattled the weeds and blew against his legs.
He heard the faint thump of music, if you could call it music,
from Arif s window. The long, dry grass blew to and fro in
the darkness. He realized that he was shivering.
His wife said she was lonely. She sat in the lounge, its new
chairs arranged for conversations, and all day she had the TV
on. She talked about Lahore; she said she was homesick. She
talked about her sisters, and how they had sat all morning
laughing and brushing each other's hair. More and more she
talked like this.
'Nobody talks to me here,' she said. 'They get into their
cars and drive to their tea parties.'
'You must take driving lessons.'
'The car is so big. It frightens me.'
'Then you must have a tea party here.'
She thought about this for some time. Then she said: 'Who
should I invite?'
'The neighbours, of course. And then there are the parents
of Arif s schoolfriends.'
'But we don't know the parents of Arif s schoolfriends.'
'What about that boy, what's his name, Thompson? His
father is an executive with Proctor & Gamble. 29 '
'But what shall I cook for them?'
'And that very pleasant couple next door? We've said
good morning often enough, and discussed the state of the
hedge.'
So it was arranged. A small party for Sunday tea, so that
he himself could be present.

141

For the next week she was restless; she moved about the
house, frowning at the furniture and standing back from it,
her head on one side. During one evening she moved the
settee three times. She took Arif down to Marks & Spencers
to buy him a new pair of trousers.
'Christ,' said Arif. 'It's only a bloody tea party.'
'Don't you dare insult your mother!' Hamid's voice was
shrill. He, too, moved the settee one more time.
The question of food was vexing. His wife thought
sandwiches and cake most suitable. He himself thought she
should produce those titbits in which she excelled: pakoras,
brinjal fritters and the daintiest of samosas. Nobody cooked
samosas like his Sharine.
In the end they compromised. They would have both.
'East meets West,' he joked; his nerves made him highspirited. He joggled the plaits of Aisha, his youngest
daughter; one plait and then the other, and she squealed with
pleasure. 'East, West, home's best,' he chanted to her, before
she scuttled into the kitchen.
He wanted to tell his family how much he loved them, and
how proud he would be to show them off at the tea party. He
wanted to tell them how he had stood in the garden, his heart
swelling for them. But his daughters would just giggle; his
wife would look flustered ... And Arif? He no longer knew
what Arif would do. He only knew that he himself would feel
foolish.
On the Saturday he went into the stock-room of the Empire
Stores and fetched some choice items: chocolate fancies,
iced Kunzle cakes 30 . There was little demand from his
customers for these high-class items. Only the best would do,
however, for those who lived in Potters Bar.
It was a cool, blustery evening. There must be a storm
blowing up. Kentucky boxes bowled along the pavement.
Further up the street a man stood in a doorway, bellowing. It
was an eerie sound, scarcely human. Hamid buttoned up his
jacket as he left the shop, carrying his parcels. Far down the
142

street he heard the smash of glass: he clutched the parcels to


his chest.
Then it happened. He was just getting into the car. As he
did so, he chanced to glance back across the street, towards
the parade of shops. It was at that moment that the door of
the sauna and massage opened and Arif stepped out.
Within him, Hamid's heart shifted like a rock. He could
not move. The face was in shadow; all he could see was the
glow of a cigarette. Arif smoking? For some reason this only
faintly surprised Hamid.
There the boy stood, a slight figure in that familiar blue
and white anorak. He turned to look back at the door; then he
turned round and made his way across the road, towards
Hamid.
Hamid stood. He opened his mouth to cry out, but nothing
happened. Then, as Arif neared him, the street-light fell upon
his face.
It was a thinner face; thin, and knowing, and much older
than Arif. An unknown, shifty, Englishman's face.
Hamid climbed into his car and fumbled with the key. His
hands felt damp and boneless. He told himself to stop being
ridiculous; he felt a curious sinking, yet swelling sensation,
as if he had aged ten years in the last moments.
Driving home, he tried to shake off his unease. After all, it
had been a stranger. Nothing to do with his own cherished
son. Why then could he not concentrate on the road ahead?
He was a level-headed fellow; he always had been.
Sharine was in a state. 'Where have you been?' she cried.
'It's only ten o'clock,' he said, and asked, alarmed:
'What's happened?'
'What's happened? I've spilt the dahl and dropped the
sugar and, oh my nerves.'
She was standing in the kitchen. The air was aromatic with
cooking.
'The children have been helping?'
'The girls, yes, until I sent them to bed.'
'Arif?'
143

She shrugged. 'Him, help me?'


'Where is he?'
'Where he always is.'
Hamid walked up the stairs, up past the first landing, then
up the narrow flight of stairs to the attic. For some reason he
needed to see his son. He knew he would be there, but he
needed to see him.
His heart thumped; it must be those stairs, he was no
longer as young as he was. Thud, thud, went Arif s music.
Hamid knocked on the door.
'What is it?' Arif s voice was sharp, yet muffled.
'It's your father.'
'Wait.'
A few sounds, then Arif opened the door.
'What do you do in there all evening?' asked Hamid.
'Why don't you help your mother? We have a tea party
tomorrow.'
Arif shrugged.
'Why don't you answer my questions?' asked Hamid.
'Why?'
A pause. Arif stood behind the half-open door. Outside,
the wind rattled against the slates. Finally he said: 'Why are
you so interested?'
Hamid stared, 'And what sort of answer is that?'
'Ask yourself.' Arif slowly scratched the spot on his chin.
'If you have the inclination.'
And he slowly closed the door.
That night there was a storm. The window panes clattered
and shook; the very house, his fortress, seemed to shudder. In
the morning Hamid found that out in the garden some of the
balustrade had fallen down. It was made of the most crumbly
concrete.
'Charming,' said Mrs Yates. 'Love the wallpaper, awfully
daring 31 . And what sweet little girls.'

144

Tea cups clinked. Sharine, in her silk sari, moved from


one guest to another. Her daughters followed her with plates
of cakes. Everything was going like clockwork. Looking at
the pleasant faces, Hamid felt a flush of satisfaction. It had
all been worth it. The years ... The work ...
'And where's the lad?' Mr Thompson asked, jovially.
'He'll be down,' said Hamid, looking at the door and then
at his watch. 'Any minute.' Silently, he urged Arif to hurry
up.
Mr Thompson's wife, whose name Hamid unfortunately
had not caught, finished her cup of tea and said: 'Would it be
frightfully rude if I asked to see the house?'
Mr Thompson laughed. 'Rosemary, you're incorrigible.'
Other guests stood up, too: Mr and Mrs Yates from next
door, old Colonel Tindall from down the road, the teenage
girls belonging to the widowed lady opposite.
'A guided tour,' joked Hamid, gathering his scattered wits.
'Tickets please.'
Sharine stood in the middle of the lounge, holding the tea
pot. She looked alarmed but he gave her a small, reassuring
nod. After all, the house was spick and span.
He led the way. Upstairs he pointed out the view from the
master bedroom; the bathroom en suite.
'Carpets everywhere!' said Mrs Yates. 'And what an
original colour!'
'Must have cost you,' said Mr Thompson, man to man.
Hamid nodded modestly, his face hot with pleasure.
'What's up there?' asked Mrs Yates.
'Just the attic,' said Hamid.
But before he could continue, she had mounted the stairs
and Mrs Thompson was following her.
'Rosemary!' called Mr Thompson, and turned to Hamid.
'Women!'
Hamid hurried up the stairs. Thud, thud ... the narrow
treads shook, he could hear above him the thump of Arif s
music, and then he had arrived at the landing and one of the
women was pushing open Arif s door.
145

'May I?' she turned and asked Hamid.


But by then she had opened the door.
There are some sights that a person never forgets. Sometimes
they rise up again in dreams; in his sleep Hamid saw mottled
faces, their skin bleeding, pressed up against the glass of his
shop. He saw stumps raised, waving in his face, in those
long-forgotten alleys in Lahore. All the wreckage of this
world, from which he had tried, so very hard, to protect those
he loved.
Through his life, which was a long and prosperous one, he
never forgot the sight that met his eyes that Sunday
afternoon. Arif, sprawled on the bed, his eyes closed. Arif,
his own son, snoring as the men snored who lay on the
pavements. On the floor lay empty cans of lager and two
scattered magazines, their pages open: Mayfair and
Penthouse32.
Explosions, riots and wreckage all around the turning
world. The small hiss of ir)drawn breath from the two women
who stood beside him.

146

Chemistry
Graham Swift

The pond in our park was circular, exposed, perhaps fifty


yards across. When the wind blew, little waves travelled
across it and slapped the paved edges, like a miniature sea.
We would go there, Mother, Grandfather and I, to sail the
motor-launch Grandfather and I made out of plywood,
balsawood and varnished paper. We would go even in the
winter - especially in the winter, because then we would have
the pond to ourselves - when the leaves on the two willows
turned yellow and dropped and the water froze your hands.
Mother would sit on a wooden bench set back from the
perimeter; I would prepare the boat for launching.
Grandfather, in his black coat and grey scarf, would walk to
the far side to receive it. For some reason it was always
Grandfather, never I, who went to the far side. When he
reached his station I would hear his 'Ready! 5 across the
water. A puff of vapour would rise from his lips like the
smoke from a muffled pistol. And I would release the launch.
It worked by a battery. Its progress was laboured but its
course steady. I would watch it head out to the middle while
Mother watched behind me. As it moved it seemed that it
followed an actual existing line between Grandfather, myself
and Mother, as if Grandfather were pulling us towards him
on some invisible cord, and that he had to do this to prove we
were not beyond his reach. When the boat drew near him he
would crouch on his haunches. His hands - which I knew
were knotted, veiny and mottled from an accident in one of
147

his chemical experiments - would reach out, grasp it and set


it on its return.
The voyages were trouble-free. Grandfather improvised a
wire grapnel on the end of a length of fishing line in case of
shipwrecks or engine failure, but it was never used. Then one
day - it must have been soon after Mother met Ralph - we
watched the boat, on its first trip across the pond to
Grandfather, suddenly become deeper, and deeper in the
water. The motor cut. The launch wallowed, sank.
Grandfather made several throws with his grapnel and pulled
out clumps of green slime. I remember what he said to me,
on this, the first loss in my life that 1 had witnessed. He said,
very gravely: 'You must accept it - you can't get it back - it's
the only way,' as if he were repeating something to himself.
And I remember Mother's face as she got up from the bench
to leave. It was very still and very white, as if she had seen
something appalling.
It was some months after that that Ralph, who was now a
regular guest at weekends, shouted oyer the table to
Grandfather: 'Why don't you leave her alone?!'
I remember it because that same Saturday Grandfather
recalled the wreck of my boat, and Ralph said to me, as if
pouncing on something: 'How about me buying you a new
one? How would you like that?' And I said, just to see his
face go crestfallen and blank, 'No!', several times, fiercely.
Then as we ate supper Ralph suddenly barked, as
Grandfather was talking to Mother: 'Why don't you leave
her alone?!'
Grandfather looked at him. 'Leave her alone? What do
you know about being left alone?' Then he glanced from
Ralph to Mother. And Ralph didn't answer, but his face went
tight and his hands clenched on his knife and fork.
And all this was because Grandfather had said to Mother:
'You don't make curry any more, the way you did for Alec,
the way Vera taught you. 1 '

148

It was Grandfather's house we lived in - with Ralph as an


ever more permanent lodger. Grandfather and Grandmother
had lived in it almost since the day of their marriage. My
grandfather had worked for a firm which manufactured goldand silver-plated articles. My grandmother died suddenly
when I was only four; and all I know is that I must have had
her looks. My mother said so and so did my father; and
Grandfather, without saying anything, would often gaze
curiously into my face.
At that time Mother, Father and I lived in a new house
some distance from Grandfather's. Grandfather took his
wife's death very badly. He needed the company of his
daughter and my father; but he refused to leave the house in
which my grandmother had lived, and my parents refused to
leave theirs. There was bitterness all round, which I scarcely
appreciated. Grandfather remained alone in his house, which
he ceased to maintain, spending more and more time in his
garden shed which he had fitted out for his hobbies of model
making and amateur chemistry.
The situation was resolved in a dreadful way: by my own
father's death.
He was required now and then to fly to Dublin or Cork in
the light aeroplane belonging to the company he worked for,
which imported Irish goods. One day, in unexceptional
weather conditions, the aircraft disappeared without trace
into the Irish Sea. In a state which resembled a kind of trance
- as if some outside force were all the time directing her - my
Mother sold up our house, put away the money for our joint
future, and moved in with Grandfather.
My father's death was a far less remote event than my
grandmother's, but no more explicable. I was only seven.
Mother said, amidst her adult grief: 'He has gone to where
Grandma's gone.' I wondered how Grandmother could be at
the bottom of the Irish Sea, and at the same time what Father
was doing there. I wanted to know when he would return.
Perhaps I knew, even as I asked this, that he never would,
that my childish assumptions were only a way of allaying my
149

own grief. But if I really believed Father was gone for ever I was wrong.
Perhaps too I was endowed with my father's looks no less
than my grandmother's. Because when my mother looked at
me she would often break into uncontrollable tears and she
would clasp me for long periods without letting go, as if
afraid I might turn to air.
I don't know if Grandfather took a secret, vengeful delight
in my father's death, or if he was capable of it. But fate had
made him and his daughter quits 2 and reconciled them in
mutual grief. Their situations were equivalent: she a widow
and he a widower. And just as my mother could see in me a
vestige of my father, so Grandfather could see in the two of
us a vestige of my grandmother.
For about a year we lived quietly, calmly, even
contentedly within the scope of this sad symmetry 3 . We
scarcely made any contact with the outside world.
Grandfather still worked, though his retirement age had
passed, and would not let Mother work. He kept Mother and
me as he might have kept his own wife and son. Even when
he did retire we lived quite comfortably on his pension, some
savings and a widow's pension my mother got. Grandfather's
health showed signs of weakening - he became rheumatic
and sometimes short of breath - but he would still go out to
the shed in the garden to conduct his chemical experiments,
over which he hummed and chuckled gratefully to himself.
We forgot we were three generations. Grandfather bought
Mother bracelets and ear-rings. Mother called me her 'little
man'. We lived for each other - and for those two unfaded
memories - and for a whole year, a whole harmonious year,
we were really quite happy. Until that day in the park when
my boat, setting out across the pond towards Grandfather,
sank.
Sometimes when Grandfather provoked Ralph I thought
Ralph would be quite capable of jumping to his feet,
reaching across the table, seizing Grandfather by the throat
150

and choking him. He was a big man, who ate heartily, and I
was often afraid he might hit me. But Mother somehow kept
him in check. Since Ralph's appearance she had grown
neglectful of Grandfather. For example - as Grandfather had
pointed out that evening - she would cook the things that
Ralph liked (rich, thick stews, but not curry) and forget to
produce the meals that Grandfather was fond of. But no
matter how neglectful and even hurtful she might be to
Grandfather herself, she wouldn't have forgiven someone
else's hurting him. It would have been the end of her and
Ralph. And no matter how much she might hurt Grandfather
- to show her allegiance to Ralph - the truth was she really
did want to stick by4 him. She still needed - she couldn't
break free of it - that delicate equilibrium that she, he and I
had constructed over the months.
I suppose the question was how far Ralph could tolerate
not letting go with Grandfather so as to keep Mother, or how
far Mother was prepared to turn against Grandfather so as
not to lose Ralph. I remember keeping a sort of equation in
my head: If Ralph hurts Grandfather it means I'm right - he
doesn't really care about Mother at all; but if Mother is cruel
to Grandfather (though she would only be cruel to him
because she couldn't forsake him) it means she really loves
Ralph.
But Ralph only went pale and rigid and stared at Grandfather
without moving.
Grandfather picked at his stew. We had already finished
ours. He deliberately ate slowly to provoke Ralph.
Then Ralph turned to Mother and said: 'For Christ's sake
we're not waiting all night for him to finish!' Mother blinked
and looked frightened. 'Get the pudding!'
You see, he liked his food.
Mother rose slowly and gathered our plates. She looked at
me and said, 'Come and help'.
In the kitchen she put down the plates and leaned for
several seconds, her back towards me, against the draining
151

board. Then she turned. 'What am I going to do?' She


gripped my shoulders. I remembered these were just the
words she'd used once before, very soon after father's death,
and then , too, her face had had the same quivery look of
being about to spill over. She pulled me towards her. 1 had a
feeling of being back in that old impregnable domain 5 which
Ralph had not yet penetrated. Through the window, half
visible in the twilight, the evergreen shrubs which filled our
garden were defying the onset of autumn. Only the cherrylaurel bushes were partly denuded - for some reason
Grandfather had been picking their leaves. I didn't know
what to do or say -1 should have said something - but inside I
was starting to form a plan.
Mother took her hands from me and straightened up. Her
face was composed again. She took the apple-crumble from
the oven. Burnt sugar and apple juice seethed for a moment
on the edge of the dish. She handed me the bowl of custard.
We strode, resolutely, back to the table. I thought: now we
are going to face Ralph, now we are going to show our
solidarity. Then she put down the crumble, began spooning
out helpings and said to Grandfather, who was still tackling 6
his stew: 'You're ruining our meal - do you want to take
yours out to your shed?!'
Grandfather's shed was more than just a shed. Built of brick
in one corner of the high walls surrounding the garden, it was
large enough to accommodate a stove, a sink, an old
armchair, as well as Grandfather's work-benches and
apparatus, and to serve - as it was serving Grandfather more
and more - as a miniature home.
I was always wary of entering it. It seemed to me, even
before Ralph, even when Grandfather and I constructed the
model launch, that it was somewhere where Grandfather
went to be alone, undisturbed, to commune perhaps, in some
obscure way, with my dead grandmother. But that evening I
did not hesitate. I walked along the path by the ivy-clad
garden wall. It seemed that his invitation, his loneliness were
152

written in a form only I could read on the dark green door.


And when I opened it he said: 'I thought you would come.'
I don't think Grandfather practised chemistry for any
particular reason. He studied it from curiosity and for solace,
as some people study the structure of cells under a
microscope or watch the changing formation of clouds. In
those weeks after Mother drove him out I learnt from
Grandfather the fundamentals of chemistry.
I felt safe in his shed. The house where Ralph now lorded
it, tucking into bigger and bigger meals, was a menacing
place. The shed was another, a sealed-off world. It had a
salty, mineral, unhuman smell. Grandfather's flasks, tubes
and retort stands would be spread over his work-bench. His
chemicals were acquired through connections in the metalplating trade. The stove would be lit in the corner. Beside it
would be his meal tray - for, to shame Mother, Grandfather
had taken to eating his meals regularly in the shed. A single
electric light bulb hung from a beam in the roof. A gas
cylinder fed his bunsen 7 . On one wall was a glass fronted
cupboard in which he grew alum and copper sulphate
crystals.
I would watch Grandfather's experiments. I would ask him
to explain what he was doing and to name the contents of his
various bottles.
And Grandfather wasn't the same person in his shed as he
was in the house - sour and cantankerous. He was a weary,
ailing man who winced now and then because of his
rheumatism and spoke with quiet self-absorption.
'What are you making, Grandpa?'
'Not making - changing. Chemistry is the science of
change. You don't make things in chemistry - you change
them. Anything can change.'
He demonstrated the point by dissolving marble chips in
nitric acid. I watched fascinated.
153

But he went on: 'Anything can change. Even gold can


change.'
He poured a little of the nitric acid into a beaker, then took
another jar of colourless liquid and added some of its
contents to the nitric acid. He stirred the mixture with a glass
rod and heated it gently. Some brown fumes came off.
'Hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. Neither would work by
itself, but the mixture will.'
Lying on the bench was a pocket watch with a gold chain.
I knew it had been given to Grandfather long ago by my
grandmother. He undipped the chain from the watch, then,
leaning forward against the bench, he held it between two
fingers over the beaker. The chain swung. He eyed me as if
he were waiting for me to give some sign. Then he drew the
chain away from the beaker.
'You'll have to take my word for it, eh?'
He picked up the watch and reattached it to the chain.
'My old job - gold-plating. We used to take real gold and
change it. Then we'd take something that wasn't gold at all
and cover it with this changed gold so it looked as if it was
all gold - but it wasn't.'
He smiled bitterly.
'What are we going to do?'
'Grandpa?'
'People change too, don't they?'
He came close to me. 1 was barely ten. I looked at him
without speaking.
'Don't they?'
He stared fixedly into my eyes, the way I remembered him
doing after Grandmother's death.
'They change. But the elements don't change. Do you
know what an element is? Gold's an element. We turned it
from one form into another, but we didn't make any gold - or
lose any.'
Then I had a strange sensation. It seemed to me that
Grandfather's face before me was only a cross section from
some infinite stick of rock8, from which, at the right point,
154

Mother's face and mine might also be cut. I thought: every


face is like this. 1 had a sudden giddying feeling that there is
no end to anything. I wanted to be told simple, precise facts.
'What's that, Grandpa?'
'Hydrochloric acid.'
'And that?'
'Green vitriol.'
'And that?' I pointed to another, unlabel led jar of clear
liquid, which stood at the end of the bench, attached to a
complex piece of apparatus.
'Laurel 9 water. Prussic acid.' He smiled. 'Not for
drinking.'
All that autumn was exceptionally cold. The evenings were
chill and full of the rustlings of leaves. When 1 returned to
the house from taking out Grandfather's meal tray (this had
become my duty) I would observe Mother and Ralph in the
living room through the open kitchen hatchway. They would
drink a lot from the bottles of whisky and vodka which Ralph
brought in and which at first Mother made a show of
disapproving. The drink made Mother go soft and heavy and
blurred and it made Ralph gain in authority. They would
slump together on the sofa. One night I watched Ralph pull
Mother towards him and hold her in his arms, his big
lurching frame almost enveloping her, and Mother saw me,
over Ralph's shoulder, watching from the hatchway. She
looked trapped and helpless.
And that was the night that I got my chance - when I went
to collect Grandfather's tray. When I entered the shed he was
asleep in his chair, his plates, barely touched, on the tray at
his feet. In his slumber - his hair dishevelled, mouth open he looked like some torpid, captive animal that has lost even
the will to eat. I had taken an empty spice jar from the
kitchen. I took the glass bottle labelled HN03 1 0 and poured
some of its contents, carefully, into the spice jar. Then I
picked up Grandfather's tray, placed the spice jar beside the
plates and carried the tray to the house.
155

I thought I would throw the acid in Ralph's face at breakfast.


I didn't want to kill him. It would have been pointless to kill
him - since death is a deceptive business. I wanted to spoil
his face so Mother would no longer want him. I took the
spice jar to my room and hid it in my bedside cupboard. In
the morning I would smuggle it down in my trouser pocket. I
would wait, pick my moment. Under the table I would
remove the stopper. As Ralph gobbled down his eggs and
fried bread...
I thought I would not be able to sleep. From my bedroom
window I could see the dark square of the garden and the
little patch of light cast from the window of Grandfather's
shed. Often I could not sleep until I had seen that patch of
light disappear and I knew that Grandfather had shuffled
back to the house and slipped in, like a stray cat, at the back
door.
But I must have slept that night, for I do not remember
seeing Grandfather's light go out or hearing his steps on the
garden path.
That night Father came to my bedroom. I knew it was him.
His hair and clothes were wet, his lips were caked with salt;
sea-weed hung from his shoulders. He came and stood by my
bed. Where he trod, pools of water formed on the carpet and
slowly oozed outwards. For a long time he looked at me.
Then he said: 'It was her. She made a hole in the bottom of
the boat, not big enough to notice, so it would sink - so you
and Grandfather would watch it sink. The boat sank - like my
plane.' He gestured to his dripping clothes and encrusted
lips. 'Don't you believe me?' He held out a hand to me but I
was afraid to take it. 'Don't you believe me? Don't you
believe me?' And as he repeated this he walked slowly
backwards towards the door, as if something were pulling
him, the pools of water at his feet drying instantly. And it
was only when he had disappeared that I managed to speak
and said: 'Yes. I believe you. I'll prove it.'

156

And then it was almost light and rain was dashing against
the window as if the house were plunging under water and a
strange, small voice was calling from the front of the house but it wasn't Father's voice. I got up, walked out onto the
landing and peered through the landing window! The voice
was a voice on the radio inside an ambulance which was
parked with its doors open by the pavement. The heavy rain
and the tossing branches of a rowan tree obscured my view,
but 1 saw the two men in uniform carrying out the stretcher
with a blanket draped over it. Ralph was with them. He was
wearing his dressing gown and pyjamas and slippers over
bare feet, and he carried an umbrella. He fussed around the
ambulance men like an overseer directing the loading of
some vital piece of cargo. He called something to Mother
who must have been standing below, out of sight at the front
door. I ran back across the landing. I wanted to get the acid.
But then Mother came up the stairs. She was wearing her
dressing gown. She caught me in her arms. I smelt whisky.
She said: 'Darling. Please, I'll explain. Darling, darling.'
But she never did explain. All her life since then, I think, she
has been trying to explain, or to avoid explaining. She only
said: 'Grandpa was old and ill, he wouldn't have lived much
longer anyway.' And there was the official verdict: suicide
by swallowing prussic acid. But all the other things that
should have been explained - or confessed - she never did
explain.
And she wore, beneath everything, this look of relief, as if
she had recovered from an illness. Only a week after
Grandfather's funeral she went into Grandfather's bedroom
and flung wide the windows. It was a brilliant, crisp lateNovember day and the leaves on the rowan tree were all
gold. And she said: 'There - isn't that lovely?'
The day of Grandfather's funeral had been such a day hard, dazzling, spangled with early frost and gold leaves. We
stood at the ceremony, Mother, Ralph and I, like a mock
version of the trio - Grandfather, Mother and I - who had
157

once stood at my father's memorial service. Mother did not


cry. She had not cried at all, even in the days before the
funeral when the policemen and the officials from the
coroner's court came, writing down their statements,
apologising for their intrusion and asking their questions.
They did not address their questions to me. Mother said:
'He's only ten, what can he know?' Though there were a
thousand things I wanted to tell them - about how Mother
banished Grandfather, about how suicide can be murder and
how things don't end - which made me feel that I was
somehow under suspicion. I took the jar of acid from my
bedroom, went to the park and threw it in the pond.
And then after the funeral, after the policemen and
officials had gone, Mother and Ralph began to clear out the
house and to remove the things from the shed. They tidied
the overgrown parts of the garden and clipped back the trees.
Ralph wore an old sweater which was far too small for him
and I recognised it as one of Father's. And Mother said:
'We're going to move to a new house soon - Ralph's buying
it.'
I had nowhere to go. I went down to the park and stood by
the pond. Dead willow leaves floated on it. Beneath its
surface was a bottle of acid and the wreck of my launch. But
though things change they aren't destroyed. It was there, by
the pond, when dusk was gathering and it was almost time
for the park gates to be locked, as I looked to the centre
where my launch sank, then up again to the far side, that I
saw him. He was standing in his black overcoat and his grey
scarf. The air was very cold and little waves were running
across the water. He was smiling, and I knew: the launch was
still travelling over to him, unstoppable, unsinkable, along
that invisible line. And his hands, his acid-marked hands,
would reach out to receive it.

158

A Shooting Season
Rose Tremain

'You're writing a whatT


'A novel.'
Looking away from him, nervously touching her hair,
Anna remembered, the last time I saw him my hair wasn't
grey.
'Why the hell are you writing a novel?'
Grey hairs had sprouted at forty-one. Now, at forty-five,
she sometimes thought, my scalp is exhausted, that's all, like
poor soil.
'I've wanted to write a novel ever since I was thirty. Long
before, even...'
'You never told me.'
'No. Of course not.'
'Why "of course not"?'
'You would have laughed, as you're laughing now.'
Anna had always been enchanted by his laugh. It was a
boy's giggle; (you climbed a cold dormitory 1 stairway and
heard it bubble and burst behind a drab door!) yet their son
didn't have it: at sixteen, he had the laugh of a rowdy man.
'I don't approve.'
'No.'
'It's an act of postponed jealousy.'
Well, if so, then long postponed. Six years since their
separation; four since the divorce and his remarriage to
Susan, the pert blonde girl who typed his poems. And it
wasn't jealousy, surely? In learning to live without him, she
159

had taught herself to forget him utterly. If she heard him talk
on the radio, she found herself thinking, his cadences are
echoing Dylan Thomas these days; he's remembered how
useful it is, if you happen to be a poet, also to be Welsh.
Three years older than her, he had come to resemble a Welsh
hillside - craggy outcrop of a man, unbuttoned to weather
and fortune, hair wiry as gorse. Marcus. Fame clung to his
untidy look. No doubt, she thought, he's as unfaithful to
Susan as he was to me.
'How did it start?'
The novel-writing, he meant, but he had a way, still, of
sending fine ripples through the water of ordinary questions
which invited her to admit: I was in love with him for such a
long time that parting from him was like a drowning. When I
was washed ashore, the sediment of him still clogged me.
'I found there were things I wanted to say.'
'Oh, there always were!'
'Yes, but stronger now. Before I get old and start
forgetting.'
'But a novelT
'Why not?'
'You were never ambitious.'
No. Not when she was his: Mrs Marcus Ridley, wife of the
poet. Not while she bore his children and made rugs while he
wrote and they slept.
'Do your pockets still have bits of sand in them?'
He laughed, took her strong wrist and held her hand to his
face. 'I don't know. No one empties them for me.'
Anna had been at the rented cottage for three weeks. A
sluggish river flowed a few yards from it: mallard and
moorhen were the companions of her silence, the light of
early morning was silver. In this temporary isolation, she had
moved contentedly in her summer sandals, setting up a work
table in the sunshine, another indoors by the open fire. Her
novel crept to a beginning, then began to flow quietly like
the river. She celebrated each day's work with two glasses,
160

sometimes more, of the home-made wine she had


remembered to bring with her. She slept well with the
window wide open on the Norfolk sky. She dreamed of her
book finished and bound. Then one morning Margaret, her
partner in her craft business 2 , telephoned. The sound of the
telephone ringing was so unfamiliar that it frightened her.
She remembered her children left on their own in London;
she raced to answer the unforeseen but now obvious
emergency. But no, said Margaret, no emergency, only
Marcus.
'Marcus?'
'Yes. Drunk and full of his songs. Said he needed to see
you.'
'And you told him where I was?'
'Yes. He said if I didn't, he'd pee on the pottery shelf.'
'Marcus.'
The rough feel of his face was very familiar; she might
have touched it yesterday. She thought suddenly, for all his
puerile needs, he's a man of absolute mystery; I never
understood him. Yet they had been together for ten years.
The Decade of the Poet3 she called it, wanting to bury him
with formality and distance. And yet he surfaced in her: she
seldom read a book without wondering, how would Marcus
have judged that? And then feeling irritated by the question.
On such occasions, she would always remind herself: he
doesn't even bother to see the children, let alone me. He's
got a new family (Evan 4, Lucy 3) and they, now, take all his
love - the little there ever was in him to give.
'You look so healthy, Anna. Healthy and strong. I suppose
you always were strong.'
'Big-boned, my mother called it.'
'How is your mother?'
'Dead.'
'You never let me know.'
'No. There was no point.'
'I could have come with you - to the funeral or whatever.'
161

'Oh, Marcus...'
'Funerals are ghastly. I could have helped you through.'
'Why don't you see the children?'
He let her hand drop. He turned to the window, wide open
on the now familiar prospect of reed and river. Anna noticed
that the faded corduroy jacket he was wearing was stretched
tight over his back. He seemed to have outgrown it.
'Marcus...?'
He turned back to her, hands in his pockets.
'No accusations. No bloody accusations!'
Oh yes, she noticed, there's the pattern: I ask a question,
Marcus says it's inadmissible, I feel guilty and ashamed...
'It's a perfectly reasonable question.'
'Reasonable? It's a guilt-inducing, jealous, mean-minded
question. You know perfectly well why I don't see the
children: because I have two newer, younger and infinitely
more affectionate children, and these newer, younger and
infinitely more affectionate children are bitterly resented by
the aforementioned older, infinitely less affectionate
children. And because I am a coward.'
He should be hit, she thought, then noticed that she was
smiling.
'I brought some of my home-made wine,' she said, 'it's a
disgusting looking yellow, but it tastes rather good. Shall we
have some?'
'Home-made wine? I thought you were a business/?emw 4 .
When the hell do you get time to make wine?'
'Oh Marcus, I have plenty of time.'
Anna went to the cold, pavement-floored little room she
had decided to think of as 'the pantry'. Its shelves were
absolutely deserted except for five empty Nescafe jars, a
dusty goldfish bowl (the debris of another family's Norfolk
summer) and her own bottles of wine. It was thirty-five years
since she had lived in a house large enough to have a pantry,
but now, in this cupboard of a place, she could summon
memories of Hodgson, her grandfather's butler, uncorking
162

Stones ginger beer for her and her brother on timeless


summer evenings - the most exquisite moments of all the
summer holidays. Then, one summer, she found herself there
alone. Hodgson had left. Her brother Charles had been killed
at school by a cricket ball.
Anna opened a bottle of wine and took it and two glasses
out to her table in the garden, where Marcus had installed
himself. He was looking critically at her typewriter and at the
unfinished pages of her book lying beside it.
'You don't mean to say you're typing it?'
She put the wine and the glasses on the table. She noticed
that the heavy flint she used as a paperweight had been
moved.
'Please don't let the pages blow away, Marcus.'
'I'm sure it's a mistake to type thoughts directly onto
paper. Writing words by hand is part of the process.'
'Your process.'
'I don't know any writers who type directly.'
'You know me. Please put the stone back, Marcus.'
He replaced the pages he had taken up, put the flint down
gently and spread his wide hand over it. He was looking at
her face.
'Don't write about me, Anna, will you?'
She poured the wine. The sun touched her neck and she
remembered its warmth with pleasure.
'Don't make me the villain.'
'There is no villain.'
She handed him his glass of wine. Out in the sunshine, he
looked pale beside her. A miraculous three weeks of fine
weather had tanned her face, neck and arms, whereas
he...how did he spend his days now? She didn't know. He
looked as if he'd been locked up. Yet he lived in the country
with his new brood. She it was - and their children - who had
stayed on in the London flat.
'How's Susan?'
No. She didn't want to ask. Shouldn't have asked. She'd
only asked in order to get it over with: to sweep Susan and
163

his domestic life to the back of her mind, so that she could let
herself be nice to him, let herself enjoy him.
'Why ask?'
'To get it over with! 5 '
He smiled. She thought she sensed his boyish laughter
about to surface.
'Susan's got a lover.'
Oh damn him! Damn Marcus! Feeling hurt, feeling
cheated, he thought I'd be easy consolation. No wonder the
novel annoys him; he sees the ground shifting under him,
sees a time when he's not the adored, successful granite he
always thought he was.
'Damn the lover.'
'What?'
He'd looked up at her, startled. What he remembered most
vividly about her was her permanence. The splash of bright
homespun colour that was Anna: he had only to turn his
head, open a door, to find her there. No other wife or
mistress had been like her; these had often been absent when
he'd searched for them hardest. But Anna: Anna had always
wanted to be there.
'I'm not very interested in Susan's lover.'
'No. He isn't interesting. He's a chartered surveyor.'
'Ah. Well, reliable probably.'
'D'you think so? Reliable, are they, as a breed? He looks
pitiful enough to be it. Perhaps that's what she wants.'
'And you?'
'Me?'
'What do you want, Marcus? Did you come here just to
tell me your wife had a lover?'
'Accusations again. All the bloody little peeves! 6 '
'I want to know why you came here.'
'So do 1.'
'What?'
'So do I want to know. All I know is that I wanted to see
you. If that's not good enough for you, I'll go away.'

164

Further along the river, she could hear the mallard


quacking. Some evenings at sunset, she had walked through
the reeds to find them (two pairs, one pair with young) and
throw in scraps for them. Standing alone, the willows in front
of her in perfect silhouette, she envied the ducks their
sociability. No one comes near them, she thought, only me
standing still. Yet they have everything - everyone - they
need.
'I love it here.'
She had wanted to sit down opposite Marcus with her
glass of wine, but he had taken the only chair. She squatted,
lifting her face to the sun. She knew he was watching her.
c
Do you want me to go away?'
She felt the intermittent river breeze on her face, heard the
pages of her novel flap under the stone. She examined his
question, knew that it confused her, and set it aside.
'The novel's going to be about Charlie.'
'Charlie?'
'My brother Charles. Who died at school. I'm imagining
that he lived on, but not as him, as a girl.'
'Why as a girl?'
'I thought I would understand him better as a girl.'
'Will it work?'
'The novel?'
'Giving Charlie tits.'
'Yes, I think so. It also means she doesn't have to play
cricket and risk being killed.'
'I'd forgotten Charlie.'
'You never knew him.'
'I knew him as a boy - through your memories. He of
Hodgson's ginger beer larder!'
'Pantry.'
She's got stronger, Marcus decided. She's gone grey and it
suits her. And she's still wearing her bright colours. Probably
makes not just her own clothes now, but ponchos and smocks
and bits of batik to sell in her shops. And of course her son's

165

friends fall in love with her. She's perfect for a boy: bony,
maternal and sexy. Probably her son's in love with her too.
'Can I stay for dinner?'
Anna put her glass to her lips and drained it. He always,
she thought, made requests sound like offers.
Anna scrutinised the contents of the small fridge: milk,
butter, a bunch of weary radishes, eggs. Alone, she would
have made do with the radishes and an omelette, but Marcus
had a lion's appetite. His most potent memory of a poetryreading fortnight in America was ordering steak for
breakfast. He had returned looking ruddy, like the meat.
Anna sighed. The novel had been going well that morning.
Charlie, renamed Charlotte, was perched high now above her
cloistered schooldays on the windswept catwalk of a new
university. Little gusts of middle-class guilt had begun to
pick at her well-made clothes and at her heart. She was ready
for change.
'Charlotte can wait,' Marcus told Anna, after her one
feeble attempt to send him away. 'She'll be there tomorrow
and I'll be gone. And anyway, we owe it to each other - one
dinner.'
I owe nothing, Anna thought. No one (especially not pretty
Susan with her tumbling fair hair and her flirtatious eyes)
could have given herself - her time, her energy, her love more completely to one man than she to Marcus. For ten
years he had been the landscape that held her whole
existence - one scarlet poppy on the hills and crags of him,
sharing his sky.
'One dinner!'
She took the car into Wroxham, bought good dark fillet, two
bottles of Beaujolais, new potatoes, a salad and cheese.
While she was gone, he sat at the table in the sunshine,
getting accustomed to the gently scented taste of her homemade wine and, despite a promise not to, reading her novel.

166

I ler writing bored him after a very few pages; he needed her
presence, not her thoughts.
I've cried for you, he wanted to tell her. There have been
limes when - yes, several of them - times when I haven't felt
comfortable with the finality of our separation, times when
Tve thought, there's more yet, I need more. And why
couldn't you be part of my life again, on its edge? I would
honestly feel troubled less - by Susan's chartered surveyor,
by the coming of my forty-ninth birthday - yes, much less, if
you were there in your hessian or whatever it is you wear and
I could touch you. Because ten years is, after all, a large
chunk of our lives, and though I never admit it, I now believe
that my best poems were written during those ten and what
followed has been mainly repetition. And I wanted to ask
you, where are those rugs you made while I worked? Did you
chuck them out? Why was the silent making of your rugs so
intimately connected to my perfect arrangement of words?
'So here we are...'
The evening promised to be so warm that Anna had put a
cloth on the table outside and laid it for supper. Marcus had
helped her prepare the food and now they sat facing the
sunset, watching the colour go first from the river, then from
the willows and poplars behind it.
'Remember Yugoslavia?'
'Yes, Marcus.'
'Montenegro.'
'Yes.'
'Those blue thistles.'
'Umm.'

'Our picnic suppers!'


'Stale bread.'
'What?'
'The bread in Yugoslavia always tasted stale.'
'We used to make love in a sleeping bag.'
'Yes.'

167

Anna thought, it will soon be so dark, I won't be able to


see him clearly, just as, in my mind, I have only the most
indistinct perception of how he is in that hard skin, if I ever
knew. For a moment she considered going indoors to get a
candle, but decided it would be a waste of time; the breeze
would blow it out. And the darkness suits us, suits this odd
meeting, she thought. In it, we're insubstantial; we're each
imagining the other one, that's all.
'I read the novel, as far as you've gone.'
'Yes. I thought you probably would.'
'I never pictured you writing.'
'No. Well, I never pictured you arriving here. Margaret
told me you said you "needed" me. What on earth did you
mean?'
'I think about you - often.'
'Since Susan found her surveyor?'
'That's not fair.'
'Yes, it's fair. You could have come to see me - and the
children - any time you wanted.'
'I wanted...'
'What?'
'Not the children. You.'
For a moment, Anna allowed herself to remember: 'You,
in the valley of my arms, /my quaint companion on the
mountain./ How wisely did I gather you,/ my crimson
bride...' 7 Then she took a sip of beaujolais and began:
'I've tried.'
'What?'
'To love other people. Other men, I mean.'
'And?'
'The feelings don't seem to last. Or perhaps I've just been
unlucky.'
'Yes. You deserve someone.'
'I don't want anyone, Marcus. This is what I've at last
understood. I have the children and the craft shops and one
or two men friends to go out with, and now I have the
novel...'
168

'I miss you, Anna. 5


She rested her chin on folded hands and looked at him.
Mighty is a perfect word, she thought. To me, he has always
seemed mighty. And when he left me, every room, every
place I went to was full of empty space. Only recently had I
got used to it, decided finally to stop trying to fill it up. And
now there he is again, his enormous shadow, darker, nearer
than the darkness.
c
You see, I5m not a poet any more. 5
'Yes, you are, Marcus. I read your new volume... 5
c
No I'm not. I won't write anything more of value.5
'Why?'
'Because I'm floundering, Anna. I don't know what I
expect of myself any more, as a poet or as a man. Susan's
destroying me.'
'Oh rot8! Susan was exactly the woman you dreamed of.'
'And now I have dreams of you.'
Anna sighed and let Marcus hear the sigh. She got up and
walked the few yards to the river and watched it shine at her
feet. For the first time that day, the breeze made her shiver.
Light came early. Anna woke astonished and afraid. Marcus
lay on his stomach, head turned away from her, his right arm
resting down the length of her body.
A noise had woken her, she knew, yet there was nothing:
only the sleeper's breath next to her and the birds tuning up,
like a tiny hidden orchestra, for their full-throated day. Then
she heard them: two shots, then a third and a fourth. Marcus
turned over, opened his eyes and looked at her. She was
sitting up and staring blankly at the open window. The thin
curtains moved on a sunless morning.
'Anna...'
The strong hand on her arm wanted to tug her gently
down, but she resisted its pressure, stayed still, chin against
her knees.
'Someone's shooting.'
'Come back to sleep.'
169

'No, I can't. Why would someone be shooting?'


'The whole world's shooting!'
'I must go and see.'
Marcus lay still and watched Anna get up. As she pulled
on a faded, familiar gown, both had the same thought: it was
always like this, Anna getting up first, Marcus in bed half
asleep, yet often watching Anna.
'What are you going to do?'
'I don't know. But I have to see.'
The morning air was chilly. It was sunless, Anna realised,
only because the sun had not yet risen. A mist squatted above
the river; the landscape was flattened and obscured in dull
white. Anna stared. The dawn has extraordinary purpose, she
thought, everything contained, everything shrouded by the
light but emerging minute by minute into brightness and
shape, so that while I stand still it all changes. She began to
walk along the river. The ground under her sandals was
damp and the leather soon became slippery. Nothing moved.
The familiar breeze had almost died in the darkness, the
willow leaves hung limp and wet. Anna stopped, rubbed her
eyes.
'Where are you?'
She waited, peering into the mist. The mist was yellowing,
sunlight slowly climbing. A dog barked, far off.
'Where are you?'
Senseless question. Where are you? Where are you? Anna
walked on. The surface of the water, so near her slippery
feet, was absolutely smooth. The sun was climbing fast now
and the mist was tumbling, separating, making way for
colour and contour. Where are you! The three words came
echoing down the years. Anna closed her eyes. They came
and shot the ducks, she told herself calmly. That's all. Men
came with guns and had a duck shot and the mallard are
gone. When I come down here with my scraps, I won't find
them. But that's all. The river flows on. Everything else is
just as it was yesterday and the day before and the day before

170

that. I am still Anna. Birds don't matter. I have a book to


write. And the sun's coming up...
She was weeping. Clutching her arms inside the sleeves of
the faded gown, she walks from room to room in the empty
flat. Where are you! London dawn at the grimed net
curtains...fruit still in the bowl from which, as he finally
went, he stole an orange...nothing changes and yet
everything...his smell still on her body... And where am I?
Snivelling 9 round the debris of you in all the familiar rooms,
touching surfaces you touched, taking an orange from the
bowl... Where am I? Weeping. The ducks don't matter. Do
they? Keeping hold on what is, on what exists after the shot
has echoed and gone, this is all that's important, yes, keeping
hold on what 1 have forced myself to become, with all the
sanding and polishing of my heart's hardness, keeping hold
of my life alone that nothing - surely not the wounds of one
night's loving? - can destroy. So just let me wipe my face on
the same washed-out corner of a sleeve. And forget. A
stranger carries the dead mallard home, dead smeared heads,
bound together with twine. But the sun comes up on the same
stretch of river where, only yesterday, they had life...
Marcus held Anna. They stood by his car. It was still
morning, yet they sensed the tiredness in each other, as if
neither had slept at all.
'I'll be going then, old thing. Sorry I was such a miserable
bugger. Selfish of me to disturb you with my little problems.'
'Oh, you weren't disturbing me.'
'Yes, I was. Typical of me: Marcus Ridley's Lament for
Things as They Are.'
'I don't mind. And last night -'
'Lovely, Anna. Perhaps I'll stop dreaming about you
now.'
'Yes.'
He kissed her cheek and got quickly into the car.
'Good luck with the novel.'
'Oh yes. Thank you, Marcus.'
171

T i l picture you working by your river.'


'Come and see the children, Marcus. Please come and see
the children.'
'Yes. Alright. No promises. Are you going to work on the
book today?'
'No, I don't think I can. Not today.'
'Poor Anna. I've tired you. Never mind. There's always
tomorrow.'
'Yes, Marcus,' and very gently she reached out and
touched his face, 'there's always tomorrow.'

172

Mr Tennyson
William Trevor

lie had, romantically, a bad reputation. He had a wife and


several children. His carry-on with Sarah Spence was a
legend among a generation of girls, and the story was that
none of it had stopped with Sarah Spence. His old red Ford
Escort had been reported drawn up in quiet lay-bys; often he
spent weekends away from home; Annie Green had come
across him going somewhere on a train once, alone and
morose in the buffet car. Nobody's parents were aware of the
facts about him, nor were the other staff, nor even the boys at
the school. His carry-on with Sarah Spence, and coming
across him or his car, were a little tapestry of secrets that
suddenly was yours when you became fifteen and a senior, a
member of 2A1. For the rest of your time at Foxfield
Comprehensive - for the rest of your life, preferably - you
didn't breathe a word to people whose business it wasn't.
It was understandable when you looked at him that parents
and staff didn't guess. It was also understandable that his
activities were protected by the senior girls. He was forty
years old. He had dark hair with a little grey in it, and a face
that was boyish - like a French boy's, someone had once
said, and the description had stuck, often to be repeated.
There was a kind of ragamuffin 2 innocence about his eyes.
The cast of his lips suggested a melancholy nature and his
smile, when it came, had sadness in it too. His name was Mr
Tennyson. His subject was English.
Jenny, arriving one September in 2A, learnt all about him.
She remembered Sarah Spence, a girl at the top of the school
173

when she had been at the bottom, tall and beautiful. He


carried on because he was unhappily married, she was
informed. Consider where he lived even: trapped in a tiny
gate-lodge on the Ilminster road because he couldn't afford
anything better, trapped with a wife and children when he
deserved freedom. Would he one day publish poetry as
profound as his famous namesake's, though of course more
up-to-date? Or was his talent lost for ever? One way or the
other he was made for love.
It seemed to Jenny that the girls of 2A eyed one another,
wondering which among them would become a successor to
Sarah Spence. They eyed the older girls, of Class 1, IA and
IB, wondering which of them was already her successor,
discreetly taking her place in the red Ford Escort on dusky
afternoons. He would never be coarse, you couldn't imagine
coarseness in him. He'd never try anything unpleasant, he'd
never in a million years fumble at you 3 . He'd just be there,
being himself, smelling faintly of fresh tobacco, the fingers
of a hand perhaps brushing your arm by accident.
'Within the play,' he suggested in his soft voice, almost a
whisper, 'order is represented by the royal house of Scotland.
We must try and remember Shakespeare's point of view,
how Shakespeare saw these things.'
They were studying Macbeth* and Huckleberry Finn with
him, but when he talked about Shakespeare it seemed more
natural and suited to him than when he talked about Mark
Twain.
'On Duncan's death,' he said, 'should the natural order
continue, his son Malcolm would become king. Already
Duncan has indicated - by making Malcolm Prince of
Cumberland - that he considers him capable of ruling.'
Jenny had pale fair ha:ir, the colour of ripened wheat. It
fell from a divide at the centre of her head, two straight lines
on either side of a thin face. Her eyes were large and of a
faded blue. She was lanky, with legs which she considered to
be too long but which her mother said she'd be thankful for
one day.

174

'Disruption
is everywhere, remember,'
he said.
'Disruption in nature as well as in the royal house.
Shakespeare insinuates a comparison between what is
happening in human terms and in terms of nature. On the
night of Duncan's death there is a sudden storm in which
chimneys are blown off and houses shaken. Mysterious
screams are heard. Horses go wild. A falcon is killed by a
mousing owl.'
Listening to him, it seemed to Jenny that she could listen
lor ever, no matter what he said. At night, lying in bed with
her eyes closed, she delighted in leisurely fantasies, of
having breakfast with him and ironing his clothes, of walking
beside him on a seashore or sitting beside him in his old Ford
Lscort. There was a particular story she repeated to herself:
that she was on the promenade at Lyme Regis and that he
came up to her and asked her if she'd like to go for a walk.
They walked up to the cliffs and then along the cliff-path,
and everything was different from Foxfield Comprehensive
because they were alone together. His wife and he had been
divorced, he told her, having agreed between themselves that
they were incompatible. He was leaving Foxfield
Comprehensive because a play he'd written was going to be
done on the radio and another one on the London stage. 4 Oh,
darling,' she said, daring to say it. 'Oh, Jenny,' he said.
Terms and holidays went by. Once, just before the Easter
of that year, she met him with his wife, shopping in the
International Stores in Ilminster. They had two of their four
children with them, little boys with freckles. His wife had
freckles also. She was a woman like a sack of something,
Jenny considered, with thick, unhealthy-looking legs. He was
pushing a trolley full of breakfast cereals and wrapped bread,
and tins. Although he didn't speak to her or even appear to
see her, it was a stroke of luck to come across him in the
town because he didn't often come into the village. Foxfield
had only half a dozen shops and the Bow and Arrow public
house, even though it was enormous, a sprawling dormitory
village that had had the new Comprehensive added to all the
175

other new buildings in 1969. Because of the position of the


Tennysons' gate-lodge it was clearly more convenient for
them to shop in Ilminster.
'Hullo, Mr Tennyson,' she said in the International Stores,
and he turned and looked at her. He nodded and smiled.
Jenny moved into IA at the end of that school year. She
wondered if he'd noticed how her breasts had become bigger
during the time she'd been in 2A, and how her complexion
had definitely improved. Her breasts were quite presentable
now, which was a relief because she'd had a fear that they
weren't going to develop at all. She wondered if he'd noticed
her Green Magic eye-shadow. Everyone said it suited her,
except her father, who always blew up5 over things like that.
Once she heard one of the new kids saying she was the
prettiest girl in the school. Adam Swann and Chinny Martin
from IB kept hanging about, trying to chat her up. Chinny
Martin even wrote her notes.
'You're mooning, 6 ' her father said. 'You don't take a pick
of notice these days.'
'Exams,' her mother hastily interjected and afterwards,
when Jenny was out of the room, quite sharply reminded her
husband that adolescence was a difficult time for girls. It was
best not to remark on things.
'I didn't mean a criticism, Ellie,' Jenny's father protested,
aggrieved.
'They take it as a criticism. Every word. They're edgy,
see.'
He sighed. He was a painter and decorator, with his own
business. Jenny was their only child. There'd been four
miscarriages, all of which might have been boys, which
naturally were what he'd wanted, with the business. He'd
have to sell it one day, but it didn't matter all that much
when you thought about it. Having miscarriages was worse
than selling a business, more depressing really. A woman's
lot was harder than a man's, he'd decided long ago.

176

'Broody 7 ,' his wife diagnosed. 'Just normal broody. She'll


see her way through it.'
Kvery evening her parents sat in their clean, neat sittingroom watching television. Her mother made tea at nine
o'clock because it was nice to have a cup with the News. She
always called upstairs to Jenny, but Jenny never wanted to
have tea or see the News. She did her homework in her
bedroom, a small room that was clean and neat also, with a
pebbly cream wallpaper expertly hung by her father. At halfpast ten she usually went down to the kitchen and made
herself some Ovaltine 8 . She drank it at the table with the cat,
Tinkle, on her lap. Her mother usually came in with the tea
things to wash up, and they might chat, the conversation
consisting mainly of gossip from Foxfield Comprehensive,
although never of course containing a reference to Mr
Tennyson. Sometimes Jenny didn't feel like chatting and
wouldn't, feigning sleepiness. If she sat there long enough
her father would come in to fetch himself a cup of water
because he always liked to have one near him in the night.
I le couldn't help glancing at her eye-shadow when he said
good-night and she could see him making an effort not to
mention it, having doubtless been told not to by her mother.
They did their best. She liked them very much. She loved
them, she supposed.
But not in the way she loved Mr Tennyson. 'Robert
Tennyson,' she murmured to herself in bed. 'Oh, Robert
dear.' Softly his lips were there, and the smell of fresh
tobacco made her swoon, forcing her to close her eyes. 'Oh,
yes,' she said. 'Oh, yes, yes.' He lifted the dress over her
head. His hands were taut, charged with their shared passion.
'My love,' he said in his soft voice, almost a whisper. Every
night before she went to sleep his was the face that entirely
filled her mind. Had it once not been there she would have
thought herself faithless. And every morning, in a ceremonial
way, she conjured it up again, first thing, pride of place.

177

Coming out of Harper's the newsagent's one Saturday


afternoon, she found waiting for her, not Mr Tennyson, but
Chinny Martin, with his motor-cycle on its pedestal in the
street. He asked her if she'd like to go for a spin into the
country and offered to supply her with a crash helmet. He
was wearing a crash helmet himself, a bulbous red object
with a peak and a windshield that fitted over his eyes. He
was also wearing heavy plastic gloves, red also, and a red
windcheater. He was smiling at her, the spots on his
pronounced chin more noticeable after exposure to the
weather on his motor-cycle. His eyes were serious, closely
fixed on hers.
She shook her head at him. There was hardly anything
she'd have disliked more than a ride into the country with
Chinny Martin, her arms half round his waist, a borrowed
crash helmet making her feel silly. He'd stop the motor-cycle
in a suitable place and he'd suggest something like a walk to
the river or to some old ruin or into a wood. He'd suggest
sitting down and then he'd begin to fumble at her, and his
chin would be sticking into her face, cold and unpleasant.
His fingernails would be ingrained, as the fingernails of boys
who owned motor-cycles always were.
'Thanks all the same,' she said.
'Come on, Jenny.'
'No, I'm busy. Honestly. I'm working at home.'
It couldn't have been pleasant, being called Chinny just
because you had a jutting chin. Nicknames were horrible:
there was a boy called Nut Adams and another called Wet
Small and a girl called Kisses. Chinny Martin's name was
Clive, but she'd never heard anyone calling him that. She felt
sony for him, standing there in his crash helmet and his
special clothes. He'd probably planned it all, working it out
that she'd be impressed by his gear and his motor-cycle. But
of course she wasn't. Yamaha it said on the petrol tank of the
motor-cycle, and there was a girl in a swimsuit which he had
presumably stuck on to the tank himself. The girl's swimsuit

178

was yellow and so was her hair, which was streaming out
behind her, as if caught in a wind. The petrol tank was black.
'Jenny,' he said, lowering his voice so that it became
almost croaky. 'Listen, Jenny -'
'Sorry.'
She began to walk away, up the village street, but he
walked beside her, pushing the Yamaha.
4 love you, Jenny,' he said.
She laughed because she felt embarrassed.
'1 can't bear not seeing you, Jenny.'
'Oh, well -'
'Jenny.'
They were passing the petrol-pumps, the Orchard Garage.
Mr Batten was on the pavement, wiping oil from his hands
with a rag. 'How's he running?' he called out to Chinny
Martin, referring to the Yamaha, but Chinny Martin ignored
the question.
'I think of you all the time, Jenny.'
'Oh, Clive, don't be silly.' She felt silly herself, calling
him by his proper name.
'D'you like me, Jenny?'
'Of course I like you.' She smiled at him, trying to cover
up the lie: she didn't particularly like him, she didn't
particularly not. She just felt sorry for him, with his
noticeable chin and the nickname it had given him. His father
worked in the powdered milk factory. He'd do the same: you
could guess that all too easily.
'Come for a ride with me, Jenny.'
'No, honestly.'
'Why not then?'
'It's better not to start anything, Clive. Look, don't write
me notes.'
'Don't you like my notes?'
'I don't want to start anything.'
'There's someone else, is there, Jenny? Adam Swann?
Rick Hayes?'

179

He sounded like a character in a television serial; he


sounded sloppy and stupid.
'If you knew how I feel about you,' he said, lowering his
voice even more. 'I love you like anything. It's the real
thing.'
'I like you too, Clive. Only not in that way,' she hastily
added.
'Wouldn't you ever? Wouldn't you even try?'
'I've told you.'
'Rick Hayes is only after sex.'
'1 don't like Rick Hayes.'
'Any girl with legs on her is all he wants.'
'Yes,I know.'
'I can't concentrate on things, Jenny. I think of you the
entire time.'
'I'm sorry.'
'Oh God, Jenny.'
She turned into the Mace shop just to escape. She picked
up a wire basket and pretended to be looking at tins of cat
food. She heard the roar of the Yamaha as her admirer rode
away, and it seemed all wrong that he should have gone like
that, so noisily when he was so upset.
At home she thought about the incident. It didn't in the
least displease her that a boy had passionately proclaimed
love for her. It even made her feel quite elated. She felt
pleasantly warm when she thought about it, and the feeling
bewildered her. That she, so much in love with someone else,
should be moved in the very least by the immature
protestations of a youth from IB was a mystery. She even
considered telling her mother about the incident, but in the
end decided not to. 'Quite sprightly, she seems,' she heard
her father murmuring.
'In every line of that sonnet,' Mr Tennyson said the
following Monday afternoon, 'there is evidence of the
richness that makes Shakespeare not just our own greatest
writer but the world's as well.'
She listened, enthralled, physically pleasured by the
utterance of each syllable. There was a tiredness about his
180

boyish eyes, as if he hadn't slept. His wife had probably been


bothering him, wanting him to do jobs around the house
when he should have been writing sonnets of his own. She
imagined him unable to sleep, lying there worrying about
things, about his life. She imagined his wife like a grampus
beside him, her mouth open, her upper lip as coarse as a
man's.
'When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,' he said, 'And
dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field.'
Dear Jenny, a note that morning from Chinny Martin had
protested. I just want to be with you. I just want to talk to
you. Please come out with me.
'Jenny, stay a minute,' Mr Tennyson said when the bell
went. 'Your essay.'
Immediately there was tension among the girls of IA, as if
the English master had caused threads all over the classroom
to become taut. Unaware, the boys proceeded as they always
did, throwing books into their briefcases and sauntering into
the corridor. The girls lingered over anything they could
think of. Jenny approached Mr Tennyson's desk.
'It's very good,' he said, opening her essay book. 'But
you're getting too fond of using three little dots at the end of
a sentence. The sentence should imply the dots. It's like
underlining to suggest emphasis, a bad habit also.'
One by one the girls dribbled from the classroom, leaving
behind them the shreds of their reluctance. Out of all of them
he had chosen her: was she to be another Sarah Spence, or
just some kind of stop-gap, like other girls since Sarah
Spence were rumoured to have been? But as he continued to
talk about her essay - called Belief in Ghosts - she wondered
if she'd even be a stop-gap. His fingers didn't once brush the
back of her hand. His French boy's eyes didn't linger once
on hers.
'I've kept you late,' he said in the end.
'That's all right, sir.'
'You will try to keep your sentences short? Your
descriptions have a way of becoming too complicated.'
181

T i l try, sir.'
'I really enjoyed that essay.'
He handed her the exercise book and then, without any
doubt whatsoever, he smiled meaningfully into her eyes. She
felt herself going hot. Her hands became clammy. She just
stood there while his glance passed over her eye-shadow,
over her nose and cheeks, over her mouth.
'You're very pretty,' he said.
'Thank you, sir.'
Her voice reminded her of the croak in Chinny Martin's
when he'd been telling her he loved her. She tried to smile,
but could not. She wanted his hand to reach out and push her
gently away from him so that he could see her properly. But
it didn't. He stared into her eyes again, as if endeavouring to
ascertain their precise shade of blue.
'You look like a girl we had here once,' he said. 'Called
Sarah Spence.'
'I remember Sarah Spence.'
'She was good at English too.'
She wanted something to happen, thunder to begin, or a
torrent of rain, anything that would keep them in the
classroom. She couldn't even bear the thought of walking to
her desk and putting her essay book in her briefcase.
'Sarah went to Warwick University,' he said.
She nodded. She tried to smile again and this time the
smile came. She said to herself that it was a brazen smile and
she didn't care. She hoped it made her seem more than ever
like Sarah Spence, sophisticated and able for anything. She
wondered if he said to all the girls who were stop-gaps that
they looked like Sarah Spence. She didn't care. His carry-on
with Sarah Spence was over and done with, he didn't even
see her any more. By all accounts Sarah Spence had let him
down, but never in a million years would she. She would
wait for him for ever, or until the divorce came through.
When he was old she would look after him.
'You'd better be getting home, Jenny.'
'I don't want to, sir.'
182

She continued to stand there, the exercise book in her left


hand. She watched while some kind of shadow passed over
his face. For a moment his eyes closed.
'Why don't you want to go?' he said.
'Because I'm in love with you, sir.'
'You mustn't be, Jenny.'
'Why not?'
'You know why not.'
'What about Sarah Spence?'
'Sarah was different.'
'I don't care how many stop-gaps you've had. I don't care.
I don't love you any less.'
'Stop-gaps, Jenny?'
'The ones you made do with. 9 '
'Made do?' He was suddenly frowning at her, his face
screwed up a little. 'Made do?' he said again.
'The other girls. The ones who reminded you of her.'
'There weren't any other girls.'
'You were seen, sir -'
'Only Sarah and I were seen.'
'You car -'
'Give a dog a bad name10, Jenny. There weren't any others.'
She felt iciness inside her, somewhere in her stomach.
Other girls had formed an attachment for him, as she had.
Other girls had probably stood on this very spot, telling him.
It was that, and the reality of Sarah Spence, that had turned
him into a schoolgirls' legend. Only Sarah Spence had gone
with him in his old Ford Escort to quiet lay-bys, only Sarah
Spence had felt his arms around her. Why shouldn't he be
seen in the buffet-car of a train, alone? The weekends he'd
spent away from home were probably with a sick mother.
'I'm no Casanova, Jenny.'
'I had to tell you I'm in love with you, sir. I couldn't not.'
'It's no good loving me, I'm afraid.'
'You're the nicest person I'll ever know.'

183

'No, I'm not, Jenny. I'm just an English teacher who took
advantage of a young girl's infatuation. Shabby, people
would say.'
'You're not shabby. Oh God, you're not shabby.' She
heard her own voice crying out shrilly, close to tears. It
astonished her. It was unbelievable that she should be so
violently protesting. It was unbelievable that he should have
called himself shabby.
'She had an abortion in Warwick,' he said, 'after a
weekend we spent in an hotel. I let that happen, Jenny.'
'You couldn't help it.'
'Of course I could have helped it.'
Without wanting to, she imagined them in the hotel he
spoke of. She imagined them having a meal, sitting opposite
each other at a table, and a waiter placing plates in front of
them. She imagined them in their bedroom, a grimy room
with a lace curtain drawn across the lower part of the single
window and a washbasin in a corner. The bedroom had
featured in a film she'd seen, and Sarah Spence was even
like the actress who had played the part of a shopgirl. She
stood there in her underclothes just as the shopgirl had,
awkwardly waiting while he smiled his love at her. 'Then let
not winter's ragged hand deface,' he whispered, 'In thee thy
summer, ere thou be distilled 11 . Oh Sarah, love.' He took the
underclothes from her body, as the actor in the film had, all
the time whispering sonnets.
'It was messy and horrible,' he said. 'That's how it ended,
Jenny.'
'I don't care how it ended. I'd go with you anywhere. I'd
go to a thousand hotels.'
'No, no, Jenny.'
'I love you terribly.'
She wept, still standing there. He got down from the stool
in front of his desk and came and put his arms about her,
telling her to cry. He said that tears were good, not bad. He
made her sit down at a desk and then he sat down beside her.
His love affair with Sarah Spence sounded romantic, he said,
and because of its romantic sheen girls fell in love with him.
184

I hey fell in love with the unhappiness they sensed in him.


I lc found it hard to stop them.
4 should move away from here,' he said, 'but I can't bring
myself to do it. Because she'll always come back to see her
hunily and whenever she does I can catch a glimpse of her.'
I( was the same as she felt about him, like the glimpse that
day in the International Stores. It was the same as Chinny
Martin hanging about outside Harper's. And yet of course it
wasn't the same as Chinny Martin. How could it possibly be?
( hinny Martin was stupid and unprepossessing and ordinary.
Td be better to you,' she cried out in sudden desperation,
unable to prevent herself. Clumsily she put a hand on his
'.houlder, and clumsily took it away again. 'I would wait for
ever,' she said, sobbing, knowing she looked ugly.
He waited for her to calm down. He stood up and after a
moment so did she. She walked with him from the
classroom, down the corridor and out of the door that led to
(lie car park.
'You can't just leave,' he said, 'a wife and four children. It
was hard to explain that to Sarah. She hates me now.'
He unlocked the driver's door of the Ford Escort. He
smiled at her. He said:
T h e r e ' s no one else I can talk to about her. Except girls
like you. You mustn't feel embarrassed in class, Jenny.'
He drove away, not offering her a lift, which he might
have done, for their direction was the same. She didn't in the
least look like Sarah Spence: he'd probably said the same
thing to all the others, the infatuated girls he could talk to
about the girl he loved. The little scenes in the classroom, the
tears, the talk: all that brought him closer to Sarah Spence.
The love of a girl he didn't care about warmed him, as
Chinny Martin's love had warmed her too, even though
Chinny Martin was ridiculous.
She walked across the car park, imagining him driving
back to his gate-lodge with Sarah Spence alive again in his
mind, loving her more than ever. 'Jenny,' the voice of
Chinny Martin called out, coming from nowhere.
185

He was there, standing by his Yamaha, beside a car. She


shook her head at him, and began to run. At home she would
sit and eat in the kitchen with her parents, who wouldn't be
any different. She would escape and lie on her bed in her
small neat bedroom, longing to be where she'd never be now,
beside him in his car, or on a train, or anywhere. 'Jenny,' the
voice of Chinny Martin called out again, silly with his silly
love.

186

The Bottom Line and


the Sharp End1
Fay Weldon

T i l get my pennies together,' said Avril the nightclub singer


to Helen the hairdresser. T i l come in next week and you can
work your usual miracles.'
Helen thought the time for miracles was almost past. Both
Avril's pennies and Avril's hair were getting thin. But she
merely said, T i l do my best,' and ran her practised fingers
through Avril's wiry curls without flinching.
Avril was scraggy, haggard and pitifully brave. Helen was
solid and worthy and could afford to be gracious. Avril had
been Helen's very first client, thirty years before, when she,
Helen, had finally finished her apprenticeship. In those days
Avril had worn expensive, daring green shoes with satin
bows, all the better to flirt in: Helen had worn cheap navy
shoes with sensible heels, all the better to work in. Helen
envied Avril. Today Avril's shoes, with their scuffed high
heels, were still green, but somehow vulgar and pitiable, and
the legs above them were knotted with veins. And Helen's
shoes were still navy, but expensive and comfortable, and
had sensible medium heels. And Helen owned the salon, and
had a husband, and grown children, and savings, and a dog, a
cat and a garden, and Avril had nothing. Nothing. Childless,
unmarried, and without property or money in the bank.
187

Now Helen pitied Avril, instead of envying her, but


somehow couldn't get Avril to understand that this switch
had occurred.
With the decades the salon had drifted elegantly up-market 2 ,
and now had a pleasing atmosphere of hushed brocaded
luxury. Here now the wives of the educated wealthy came
weekly, and the shampooers were well-spoken and careful
not to wet the backs of blouses, and decaffeinated 3 coffee
was provided free, and low-calorie wholewheat sandwiches
for a reasonable charge, and this month's glossy magazines
in sufficient quantity - and still Avril would walk in,
unabashed, and greet Helen with an embarrassing cry of
'darling!' as if she were her dearest friend, in her impossibly
husky and actressy voice. And she'd bring wafting in with
her, so that the other clients stirred uneasily in their wellpadded seats, what Helen could only think of as the aura of
the street: and what is more, of a street in rapid decline once perhaps Shaftesbury Avenue, and tolerable, with
associated West End theatre and champagne cocktails, but
now of some Soho alley, complete with live sex shows and
heroin-pushers.
Sometimes Avril would vanish for a year or so and Helen
would hope she had gone for good, and then there she'd be
again, crying 'do something, darling. Work your usual
miracles. My life's all to hell!' and Helen would pick up the
strands of brown, or red, or yellow or whatever they
currently were, and bleach them right down and re-colour
them, and soothe and coax them into something presentable
and fashionable.
This time Avril had been away all of two years. And now
here she was, back again, and the 'do something' had
sounded really desperate, as she'd torn at crisp dry hennaand-grey 4 curls with ringed finger-claws, and Helen had been
affected, surprisingly, with real sorrow and concern. Perhaps
you didn't have to like people to feel for them? Perhaps if
188

I hey were merely around for long enough you developed a


fellow-feeling for them?
She remembered how once - way, way back - when AvriPs
hair had been long and smooth and shiny, the rings had had
diamonds and rubies on them. Then, at the time of her
auburn pony-tail 5 there'd been engagement rings and
remembrance rings: and later, once or twice - at the time
Avril's hair was back-combed into blonde curls - a wedding
ring. Helen could remember. But nowadays the only rings
she wore were the kind anyone could buy at a jewellery stall
in the market on Saturdays; they came from India or Ethiopia
or somewhere ethnic 6 , and the silver was base and the stones
were glass. 'Cheap and cheerful,' Avril would cackle, from
under the dryer, waving them round happily for all to see, as
the other clients looked away, tactfully. They didn't wear
much jewellery, and if they did it was either real or Harrods
make-believe 7 , and certainly quiet.
Avril came in for the latest, desperate miracle on Friday
evening. She had the last appointment, and of course wanted
a bleach, a perm, a cut and a set. Helen agreed to work late. It
was her policy to oblige clients - even clients such as Avril wherever possible, and however much at her own expense. It
was, in the end, good for business. Just as, in the end,
steadiness, forbearance, endurance, always succeeded
whether at work, in marriage, in the establishment of a home,
the bringing up of children. You made the most of what you
had. You were not greedy; you played safe; and you won.
Helen rang up her husband Gregory to tell him
working late.
'I'll take a chicken pie from the freezer,'
there's a nature programme on TV I want
perhaps I'll do a little DIY8 around the house.'
'Well, don't try mending the electric kettle,'
he agreed not to. Still she did not hang up.
189

she would be
he said, 'and
to see. And
she said, and

4s there something the matter?' he said, and waited


patiently. He was wonderfully patient.
'Don't you think,' she said presently, 'don't you think
somehow life's awfully sad?'
'In what way?' he asked, when he'd given some time to
considering the question.
'Just growing older,' she said, vaguely, already fearing she
sounded silly. 'And what's it all for?'
There was a further silence at the other end of the line.
'Who's the client?' he asked.
'Avril le Ray.'
'Oh, her. She always upsets you.'
'She's so tragic, Gregory!'
'She brought it on herself,' said Gregory. 'Now I must go
and take the pie out of the freezer. It's always better to heat
them when they're thawed out a little, isn't that so?'
'Yes,' she said, and they said goodbye, and hung up.
Avril was ten minutes late for her appointment. She'd been
crying. Her mouth was slack and sullen. Melted blue eye
shadow made runnels down her cheeks. She insisted on
sitting in the corner where one of the old-style mirrors still
remained from before the last renovation. Avril claimed it
threw back a kinder reflection and it probably did, but Avril
sitting in front of it meant that Helen was obliged to work
with her elbow up against the wall. The neck of Avril's
blouse was soiled with a mixture of make-up, sweat and dirt.
And she smelt unwashed. But Helen, to her surprise, found
the smell not unpleasant. Her Nan had smelt like that, she
remembered, long ago and once upon a time, when she'd put
little Helen to bed in a big, damp feather bed. Was that where
the generations got you? Did they merely progress from
chaos to order, dirt to cleanliness? Was that what it was all
about?
'Remember when I had long hair?' said Avril. 'So long that I
could sit on it! I played Lady Godiva 9 in the town pageant. I

190

was in love with this boy and he said if I wanted to prove I


loved him I would sit on the horse naked. So I did. Listen, I
was sixteen, he was seventeen, what did we know? My
mother wouldn't speak to me for months. We lived in the big
house, had servants and everything. What a disgrace! She
was right about one thing: I failed my exams.'
'What about the boy?' asked Helen. Whole-head rootbleaches, the kind Avril wanted, were old-fashioned, but
were less finickity than the more usual bleached streaks.
I lelen could get on quite quickly at this stage.
'He was my one true love,' said Avril. 'We'd never done
anything but hold hands and talk about running away to get
married. Only after I played Godiva he never wanted to run
any further than behind the bicycle shed 10 . You know what
men are like.'
'But it was his idea!'
Avril shrugged.
'He was only young. He didn't know what he'd feel like
later, after I'd gone public, as it were. How could he have?
So I went with him behind the bicycle sheds. It was glorious.
II never forget it. The sun seemed to stop in the sky. You
know?'
'Yes,' said Helen, who didn't. She'd only ever been with
Gregory and someone else whose name she preferred to
forget, at a party, a sorry, drunken episode which had left her
with NSU - non-specific urethritis. Well, that's the way it
goes. Fate reserves these unlikely punishments for the
virtuous who sin only once, and then either get pregnant or
catch a social disease. And she'd only ever made love to
Gregory at night, so how could she know about the sun
stopping? But at least it was love: warm, fond and
affectionate, not whatever it was that ravaged and raddled
Avril.
'Anyway, then he broke it to me formally that he and me
were through. He'd met Miss Original Pure and planned to
marry her when he had his degree. I thought I'd die from
misery. But I didn't, did I? I lived to tell the tale. 11 '
191

'I do look a sight, don't I? Avril said, staring at her plastery


hair, but her mind was on the past. 4t was funny. I stood in
front of that full-length mirror, at the age of sixteen, and tried
to decide whether to do Godiva naked or in a flesh-coloured
body-stocking. I knew even then it was what they call a
major life decision. Naked, and the future would go one way;
body-stocking, another. I chose naked. Afterwards I cried
and cried, I don't know why. I've always cried a lot.
'Then of course I couldn't get into college because I'd failed
my exams so I went to drama school. I got no help from
home - they'd given me up - and I couldn't live on my grant,
no one could. So I did a centre-spread in Mayfairn, perfectly
decent, just bra-less, only the photographer took a lot of
other shots I knew nothing about and they were published
too, and got circulated everywhere, including in my home
town. I tried to sue but it was no use. No one takes you
seriously once you take your clothes off. I didn't know well, 1 guess I was trying to take advantage of him, too, in a
way, so I can't complain. And I can tell you this, if the sun
stopped behind the bicycle shed, that photographer made the
whole galaxy go the other way. Know what I mean?'
'Oh yes,' said Helen, testing a lock of Avril's hair: the
bleach was taking a long time to take. She wondered whether
to ring Gregory and remind him not to try to mend the kettle,
or whether the reminding would merely make him the more
determined to do it.
'Do I look as if I've been crying?' asked Avril, peering more
closely into the mirror. 'Because I have been. This guy I've
been living with: he's a junkie trying to kick the habit 13 . He's
really managed well with me. He was getting quite - well,
you know, affectionate - that's always a good sign. He used
to be a teacher, really clever, until he got the habit. Young
guy: bright eyes, wonderful skin - didn't often smile, but
when he did ... Notice the past tense? When 1 got home from

192

work this morning he'd vanished and so had my rent money.


It gets you here in your heart: you can't help it: you tell
yourself it was only to be expected, but it hurts, Christ it
hurts. I shouldn't have told him I loved him, should I?
Should I, Helen?'
4 don't know,' said Helen. She told Gregory she loved
him quite often and there seemed no sanction against it. But
perhaps the word, as used by her, and by Avril, had a
different meaning. She rather hoped so.
'So you only love people who hurt you?' she asked,
cautiously.
T h a t is love, isn't it?' said Avril. T h a t ' s how you know
you love them, because they can hurt you. Otherwise, who
cares? How am I going to live without him? Just lying in bed
beside him: he was so thin, but so hot: he was so alive! It was
life burning him up, killing him. Just life. Too strong.'
Tears rolled down Avril's cheeks.
She looks eighty, thought Helen, but she can only be my
age.
'Anyway,' said Avril, 4 want a new me14 at the end of this
session. Pick yourself up and start all over, that's my motto.
Remember when you cut off all my long hair? That was after
the Mayfair business; I didn't want anyone to recognise me,
but of course they did. You can't cut off your breasts, can
you? I got picked out of the end-of-the-year show 15 by a
director: very classy he was, National and all that, and he and
I got friendly, and I got the lead but I wasn't ripe for it, and
the rest of the cast made a fuss and that was the end of me;
three weeks later, bye-bye National 16 . And he had a wife
living in the country somewhere, and it got in the papers
because he was so famous, and none of his friends would
hire me, they all sided with the wife, so I got a part in a
Whitehall Revue and did French maids for five years. Good
wages, nice little flat, men all over the place: wonderful
dinners, diamonds. You wouldn't believe it, like in a novel,
but it wasn't me. I don't know what is me, come to think of
193

it. Perhaps no one ever does. I wanted to get married and


have kids and settle down but men just laughed when 1
suggested it. 1 had a blonde, back-combed bob in those days.
Remember?'
Helen did. That was in the days when you used so much
hair spray on a finished head it felt like a birds' nest to the
touch.
'Then 1 had a real break. I could always sing, you know, and
by that time I really did know something about theatre. I got
the lead in a Kurt Weill opera. Real classy stuff. You did my
hair black and 1 had a beehive 17 . How we could have gone
round like that! And I fell in love with the stage manager.
God, he was wonderful. Strong and silent and public school,
and he really went for me, and was married, and I've never
been happier in my life. But he was ambitious to get into
films, and was offered a job in Hollywood and I just walked
out of the part and went along. That didn't do me any good
in the profession, I can tell you. And I kept getting pregnant
but he didn't want us tied down so I'd have terminations 18 ,
and then he went off with the studio boss's daughter: she was
into yoga, and they had three kids straight off. He
complained I could never sit still. But I can, can't I? You
should know, shouldn't you, Helen?'
'About as still as anyone else,' said Helen, and took Avril
over to the basin and washed the bleach off. She hoped she
hadn't overdone it: the hair was very fine and in poor
condition and the bleach was strong.
'I left them to it; I just came back home; I didn't hang around
asking for money. I never do that. Once things are over,
they're over -1 didn't have any children: why should he pay?
We gave each other pleasure, didn't we? Fair exchange,
while it lasted. Everything finishes, that's the bottom line.
But I never liked beehives, did you?'
'No. Very stiff and artificial.'
'I wept and wept, but it was good-times while it lasted!'
194

Avril examined a lock of hair.


'Look here,' said Avril, 'that bleach simply hasn't taken.
You'll have to put some more on and mix it stronger.'
'It's risky!' said Helen.
'So's everything!' said Avril. 'I'm just sick of being
hennaed frizz: I want to be a smooth blonde again.'
I Iclen felt weary of the salon and her bank account and her
marriage and everything she valued: and of her tidy hair and
sensible shoes and the way she never took risks and how her
youth had passed and all she'd ever known had been in front
of her eyes, and fear had kept her from turning her head or
seeing what she would rather not see. She re-mixed the
bleach, and made it strong. Avril would be as brassy a blonde
as she wished, and Helen's good wishes would go with her.
'Well, of course,' said Avril, cheerfully, 'after that it was all
downhill. Could I get another part? No! Too old for ingenue,
too young for character and a reputation as a stripper, so
Iledda Gabler was out. And frankly I don't suppose I was
ever that good. Met this really nice straight guy, an engineer,
but he wanted a family and I guess my body had got tired of
trying, because I never fell for a baby with him, and he made
some nice girl pregnant and they got married and lived
happily ever after. 1 went to the wedding. But how was it, I
ask myself, that she could get pregnant and still stay a nice
girl, and 1 was just somehow a slut from the beginning?'
So late, thought Helen, and the perm not even begun.
Gregory will have gone to bed without me - will he notice?
Will he care?
'So now I sing in night clubs; I'm a good singer, you know.
All I need is the breaks 19 and I'd really be someone ... I do
the whole gamut - from the raunchy to the nostalgic, a touch
of Bogart, a touch of Bacall. Those were the days, when love
was love. And I tell you, Helen, it still is, and the only thing I
195

regret is that it can't go on for ever - love, sex. The first


touch of a man's hand, the feel of his lips, the press of his
tongue, the way the mind goes soft and the body goes weak,
the opening up, the joining in. I still feel love, and I still say
love, though it's not what men want, not from me. Perhaps it
comes too easily; always did. Do you think that's what the
matter is?'
When Helen took Avril to the washbasin and washed the
second lot of bleach away, a good deal of Avril's hair came
with it. Helen felt her hands grow cold, and her head fill with
black: she all but fainted. Then she wept. Nothing like this
had ever happened before, in all her professional career. She
trembled so much that Avril had to rinse off what was left of
the bleach from what was left of her hair, herself.
'Well,' said Avril, when it was done, and large areas of her
reddened scalp all too apparent, 'that's the bottom line and
the sharp end. Nothing lasts, not even hair. My fault. I made
you do it. Thirty years of hating me, and you finally got your
revenge!'
'I never hated you,' said Helen, her face puffy and her
eyes swollen. She felt, on the other side of the shock and
horror, agreeably purged, sensuous, like her Nan's little girl
again. 'Well, you ought to have,' said Avril. 'The way I
always stirred things up in here. 1 just loved the look on your
face! 20 '
After a little Avril said, 'I wonder what my future is, as a
bald nightclub singer? I suppose I could wear a wig till it
grows again, but I don't think I will, it might be rather good.
After the Godiva look21, the Doris Day look, the Elizabeth
Taylor look, then the Twiggy look - the frizz-out, the pile-up
and the freak-out - none of which did me any good at all just plain bald might work wonders for a girl's career.'
A month later Avril le Ray was billed in Mayfair, not Soho,
on really quite tasteful posters, and Helen, bravely, took
Gregory around to listen to her sing. They went cautiously
196

down into the darkness, where Avril's coarse and


mclancholy voice filled out the lonely corners nicely, and a
pink spotlight made her look not glamorous - for truly she
was bald, and how can the bald be glamorous? - but
important, as if her sufferings and her experience might be of
considerable interest to others, and the customers certainly
paid attention, were silent when she sang, and clapped when
she'd finished, which was more than usually happened in
such places.
4 low you doing, Kiddo?' asked Avril of Helen, after the last
set, going past on the arm of a glowing-eyed Arab with a
hooked nose, waving a truly jewelled ring, properly set in
proper gold. 'Remember what I told you about the bottom
line and the sharp end? Nothing lasts, so you'd better have as
much as you can, while you can. And in the end, there's only
you and only them, and not what they think of you, but what
you think of them.'

197

Biographical Notes on the Authors


Julian Barnes was born in Leicester in 1946. He is the author
of seven novels: 'Metroland', 'Before She Met Me',
'Flaubert's Parrot', 'Staring at the Sun', 'A History of the
World in 10 V2 Chapters', (1989) 'Talking It Over ? , and 'The
Porcupine' (1992). His work has been translated into many
languages, and he has won distinguished literary prizes in
both France and Germany.
William Boyd was born in 1952 in Ghana and educated at the
Universities of Nice, Glasgow and Oxford. He has written
several novels including 'A Good Man In Africa' (1981) and
'Brazzaville Beach' (1990) both of which won literary
prizes; also film scripts and short stories. 'Gifts' is taken
from a collection of his stories, 'On The Yankee Station'
(1981).
A.S.Byatt was born in 1936 and educated at Cambridge
University. She taught at the Central School of Art and
Design and at London University, before becoming a fulltime writer. She has published five novels, including
'Possession' (1990) which won the Booker Prize, several
critical works including .'Degrees of Freedom', a study of Iris
Murdoch, and 'Sugar and other stories' (1987) from which
'The Day that E.M.Forster Died' is taken.
Jane Gardam was born in North Yorkshire in 1928. She has
published eight novels for children, including 'A Long Way
from Verona' (1971) and novels and collections of stories for
adults including 'God on the Rocks' (1978), 'Bilgewater and
The Pangs of Love and other stories' (1983). 'Groundlings'
is taken from 'Showing the Flag and other stories' (1989).
198

Jane Gardam's novels and stories have won many literaiy


prizes.
James Kelman was born in Glasgow in 1946 and lives there
with his family. He has published several novels including
'The Busconductor Hines', 'Greyhound for Breakfast'
(1987) for which he won two literary prizes, and 'A
Disaffection' (1993). 'Wee Horrors' is taken from a
collection of short stories, 'Not Not While the Giro' (1983).
David Mackenzie was born in north-east Scotland, and was a
social worker before teaching English abroad. He now works
as a systems analyst. His first novel, "The Truth of Stone'
was published in 1991. 'The Language of Water' is taken
from 'The Minerva Book of Short Stories 4' (1991).
Bernard Mac Laverty was born in Belfast and worked for ten
years as a medical laboratory technician before- going to
University in Belfast. He moved to Scotland as a teacher,
before becoming a full-time writer. He has published two
novels, 'Lamb', and 'Cal', both of which have been made into
films, and several collections of short stories. The story
included here is from 'The Great Profundo and other stories'
(1987).
Deborah Moggach was born in 1948 and lives in London.
She has published ten novels, including 'Porky' (1983) and
'To Have and to Hold' and has written for radio, television
and the stage. 'Empire Building' comes from her collection,
'Smile and other stories'(1987).
Graham Swift was born in London in 1949. He has published
five novels, 'The Sweetshop Owner' (1980), 'Shuttlecock'
(1981), 'Waterland' (1983), 'Out of this Word' (1988) and
'Ever After' (1992). 'Waterland' has won many prizes and
recently been made into a film. Graham Swift's work has
been widely translated. 'Chemistry' is taken from his
collection of short stories, 'Learning to Swim' (1982).
199

Rose Tremain lives in London and Norfolk. She was chosen


as one of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983, and
since then has published several novels including 'The
Swimming Pool Season' (1985) and 'Restoration' (1989).
She has also written many plays for radio and television, and
volumes of short stories. Her most recent novel is 'Sacred
Country' (1992). 'A Shooting Season' is taken from her
collection, 'The Colonel's Daughter and other stories'
(1983).
William Trevor was born in Ireland in 1928, and most of his
novels and short stories are set in Ireland. Among his novels
are 'Fools of Fortune' (1983) and 'The Silence in the
Garden' (1989), both of which won literary prizes. He is best
known for his short stories which have been published in
many volumes. The most recent is 'Family Sins and other
stories' (1989). He has also written many plays for the stage,
radio and television. 'Mr Tennyson' is taken from the
volume,'Beyond the Pale and other stories' (1981).
Fay Weldon was brought up in New Zealand and went to
University in Scotland where she studied economics and
psychology. After ten years or working at odd jobs she
started writing, and since then has published more than
twenty volumes of fiction, and the screenplays for many
films. She lives in London and Somerset. Her best known
novels include 'PuffbalP, 'Down Among the Women' and
'The Hearts and Lives of Men' (1987); her work has been
widely translated. 'The Bottom Line and the Sharp End' is
taken from her volume, 'Polaris and other stories' (1985).

200

Commentary


.
- ,
,

80- - 90- .

- .
. - .

The Stowaway
You can read the story of Noah's Ark (in the human version)
in the Bible, Genesis, Chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9. Much of
Barnes' humour derives from imagining the practical
difficulties of Noah ? s voyage, but the story is also used as a
metaphor for characteristic human social and political
behaviour. Noah's values and attitudes are ours.
Consequently, the language works on many different levels.
The commentary gives many examples, but does not attempt
to be comprehensive. Almost all the expressions are comic in
their context, but they have additional uncomfortable effects.
201

'squeamish': too fastidious about dirt and about natural


human functions
2

'dressed for dinner': changed into formal evening dress

'Someone at the very top': mocking, contemptuous


reference to those with political power over us.
4

'stool-pigeons': informers

'ratting': informing

'rock the boat': criticise the official version, thereby


creating difficulties.
7

'smear of Vaseline': a greasy petroleum substance


which, when smeared on a camera lens, gives a 'soft-focus'
romanticised photograph.
8

'Bump that up to': increase that to

'teased with strange perfumes': 'be able to smell the


exotic perfumes intermittently, depending upon the strength
of the wind'.
10

'who was a little short on serenity': 'who was famous


for her violent bad temper' (a neat example of classic
English ironic understatement).
11

'whose name began with J ' : Japhet

12

'fraternising': not just 'being friendly'; this has strong


political overtones of being friendly with the enemy.
13

'child of eighty-five': according to the Bible, Noah and


his sons lived to be several hundred years old.
14

'willy-nilly': whether we wanted to or not

15

'Adam's black propaganda': politically convenient but


untrue propaganda, accusing the serpent of persuading Eve to
eat the apple.
16

'Come, come.': Colloquial expression meaning, 'Really,


you mustn't be so stupid.'

202

17

'obliged to advertise': in Britain, most employers are


obliged to advertise their vacancies for jobs, even if they
would prefer not to. Jobs, prizes, scholarships and so on
cannot simply be given to friends and relations. Comic use of
jargon.
18

'grabbiest': those who were willing to grab whatever


they could.
19

'read between the lines': decipher the true meaning of a


statement which is outwardly simple and explicit.
20

'normally presentable': outwardly suitable

21

'given the nod': i.e. the nod of agreement or acceptance

22

'Not Wanted On Voyage': standard notice attached to


luggage stowed in the ship's hold because it will not be
required during the journey. In this context, of course, it has
a different meaning.
23

'a brutally intrusive nature': this was the expression


used to condemn medical examinations of Indian and
Pakistani girls coming to England to marry Indians and
Pakistanis already settled in the country. The girls were
examined to see if they were still virgins - on the grounds
that if they were not, they were not 'serious brides' but
illegal immigrants who were looking for a marriage of
convenience.
24

'smug': self-satisfied - and thereby arousing irritation or


rage in other people.
25

'wipe the slate clean': clear off all accumulated debts


and obligations. In this case, 'abolish mankind'.
26

'of a speculative bent':


philosophical ideas and theories.
27

who

were

attracted

by

'the cradle': the structure that held the ark upright while
it was being built on land.

203

28

'Eating another animal was not grounds for despising


it...' A sentence full of ironical political and religious
implications.
29

'If you had a Fall, so did we. But we were pushed.' The
Fall refers to Adam and Eve eating the apple, and so bringing
sin and death into the world. The next sentence echoes the
popular question, 'Did he jump, did he fall, or was he
pushed?' It can be used literally, if someone dies in
mysterious circumstances, but it is also used ironically to
discuss political resignations and so forth.
30

'galley': kitchen on a ship

31

'cloven-footed ruminants': i.e. cows and sheep. The


comment refers to Jewish and Muslim laws about clean and
unclean food. (In this context we always talk about 'clean'
and 'unclean', not 'clean' and 'dirty'.)
32

'taking it out on us': relieving his feelings of


humiliation before God by displaying his own cruel power
over the animals. In general, victimising because one has
been a victim.
33

'the reindeer': readers of the novel, A History of the


World in 10 V2 Chapters, of which this is the first chapter,
learn later the reasons for the reindeer's fear of the future.
34

'mange': skin infection in animals

35

'better h a l f : jocular term for a husband or a wife

36

'seaweed on the side': as vegetables on the side of the


plate which has meat in the centre. A common phrase in
restaurants.
37

'nods from time to time in the direction of ...':


unenthusiastic attempts to follow an unpopular policy on ...
38

'negative result': in English, 'negative' is not normally


used about ordinary human situations. (Russians often say,
'Do you have negative feelings about X?' The word is not
used in English in this way in Britain, though it is sometimes
204

in America.) For the English, it is a scientific word with no


emotion attached. 'Negative results' are scientific results, as
significant as 'positive results'. When Barnes uses it to
describe the greedy, unnecessary death of the carbuncle, he
is being highly ironic. As with understatement, the emotion
is greater because it is being suppressed within this scientific
word.
39

'had it in for': felt particularly aggressive towards

40

'had this thing': had this obsession (contemporary slang,


often contemptuous)
41

'cock-eyed': literally, with eyes turned in different


directions - therefore, 'crazily stupid'.
42

'smear campaign': efforts by politicians to discredit


their rivals by putting out rumours (accurate or not) about
their private or public lives.
43

'delousing': removing lice from the hair or fur

44

'plumped for': chosen (colloquial, rather jocular)

45

'ticking': the creature which ticks to attract the opposite


sex is the death-*watch beetle.
46

'keel-hauled': the expression is explained in the rest of


the paragraph.
47

'hit the r o o f : was overcome with sudden rage

48

'role-model': an older or more experienced person who


can be admired and imitated. Often used in a psychological
context - is so-and-so a suitable role model for this young
person?
49

'that's no way to go on': that's not the right way to


behave.
50

'brushed aside': ignored

51

'he knew which side his bread was buttered': he knew


how to get privileges for himself from the authorities (i.e.
from God). A contemptuous phrase.
205

52

'botched together': badly, clumsily constructed, and


likely to collapse.
53

'aren't up to scratch': have not achieved the required


standard.
54

'had God over a barrel': political slang meaning 'had


God in a position where he could not manoeuvre or
negotiate' (so where Noah had the real power).
55

'simians': monkeys

56

'to be carnally familiar with': (obsolete, and hence


comic, here) to have sexual relations with.
57

'rough trade': prostitutes who provide perverse and


violent sexual activities.
58

'upwardly mobile': sociological jargon meaning


'ambitious for higher social status and active in trying to get
it'.
59

'coming on all Mr Nice Guy': slang, meaning 'playing


the role of the nice, good man in a stereotyped film or book'
with the implication that he is not to be trusted in this role.
60

'to soft-soap': to persuade by false friendliness and


pleasant pictures (as in television advertisements where a
voice cajoles and the pictures show an implausibly delightful
life).
61

'Had the stuffing knocked out': lost their natural


courage and initiative through harsh treatment.
62

'half-board': standard hotel expression meaning


'breakfast and evening meal, but not midday meal'.
63

'fishy': not to be trusted

64

'conservationist': ecologist, committed to protecting


nature
65

'alkie': alchoholic

66

'shift the goalposts': change the rules in the middle of a


game to make sure that you win. The expression is usually
206

used in a political context, to describe - for example - the


behaviour of a government which alters the basis on which
statistics are calculated, so that they can be used to show
how successful (rather than unsuccessful) the government's
policies are.

Gifts
English teenagers who have left school and intend to go to
University often take a 'year o f f to work or study abroad,
see a different life and culture, and, they hope, learn a
foreign language. Edward is unusual in actually attending a
University, but this University is providing special language
courses for foreigners. Some of the courses will be quite
short, others will last a year. Boyd can assume that the
majority of his readers will have visited France, probably
several times, so that they will feel more experienced than
Edward. He ensures that Edward himself explains what is
relevant for understanding the story, so the commentary
makes no attempt to provide unnecessary background
information.
The story is set in the mid-1970's, when there was a postal
strike for several weeks. Edward's predicament - no money
could be sent to him - was a real one for such students.
1

'Tupperware': a special brand of plastic plates, storage


jars, etc, sold not through shops but through personal
contacts, friends selling to friends. It was an American idea,
appealing to the kind of women who, in Russia, would have
been making trips abroad to buy things and sell them in their
home cities. The 'Tupperware' is in the man's car.
2

'use of electric light is forbidden during hours of


daylight': The French, like the Russians, are fond of putting
207

official-sounding, hand-written notices on walls. This is a


literal translation from the French, and sounds comically
unidiomatic in English.
3

'long gloomy hallway': the description of Mme


D'Amico's flat is very recognisable; it is probably more
cramped than most equivalent Russian flats.
4

'stinging her son': tricking her son out of more money


than he intended to give her.
5

'Out to Grasse': a pun on 'out to grass', the phrase used


to describe retired horses who are allowed to graze in the
fields in their old age.
6

'carte d'etudiant' (French): student's card, allowing


many concessions, especially on public transport
7

'On baise, ....Baiser. Tu comprends?*: (French) 'We


fucked her ... Fucked .. Do you understand?'
8

'fac du droit' (French): law faculty

'au pair': French expression for someone, usually a


student, who lives in the household, doing some housework,
looking after children and, in theory, living as a member of
the family. It is another very common way for girls (and a
few boys) in Edward's situation to live cheaply abroad for
their 'year o f f .
10

'C'est mon mari ....II est mort' (French): It's my


husband ...He's dead.'

On the Day that E.M.Forster Died


E.M.Forster (1879 - 1970) was a novelist and essayist, best
known for his last novel, A Passage to India. His writing
'voice' is very distinctive though difficult to characterize.
208

Byatt quotes him and you should read the passage carefully.
He was intelligent, sceptical, a passionate humanist who
believed in decent behaviour, tolerance, reason, but who
knew that there were powerful, more vicious forces, against
which his own values would find it difficult to contend.
(In Britain, we respect the right of authors to call themselves
by their initials. E.M.Forster is always spoken of as ' Em
Forster', never as Edward Morgan Forster. Similarly we say
'Aitch Jee Wells', and 'Dee Aitch Lawrence').
This story is asking questions about life and death and art,
and about the connections between them. Although there are
many references to English life and to art, no attempt has
been made to annotate all of them, since their meaning in this
story should be clear from the context.
1

'naturally sceptical': 'sceptical' is not usually a


pejorative word in English culture, and certainly not here.
Mrs Smith naturally distrusts grand ideas which try, with
little evidence, to connect everything to everything else. But
her scepticism is not an angry rejection of such ideas; she
likes to distinguish between what she feels and what might
be generally true. Notice the sentence a little further on: 'Mrs
Smith's own life made no sense to her without art, but she
was disinclined to believe in it as a cure, or a duty, or a
general necessity'. The word that stands out here, is
'disinclined', a mild, but deliberate word, the kind of word
Forster might have used, a very English word. From the
evidence around her, she does not believe that art is
necessary for most people; 'disinclined' simultaneously
implies a tentative intellectual position and a stubborness
about her own belief.
Throughout the story, words are used carefully to define
attitudes and values that are culturally unfamiliar to

209

Russians, so you should try to notice them, not let them pass
as unimportant.
2

'button-through' - a dress with buttons all the way down


the front which can easily be opened to display the results of
her husband's violence.
3

'Beatrix Potter': a famous writer of stories for small


children (early twentieth century) which use wonderfully
sophisticated language and are greatly enjoyed by both small
children and literate grown-ups.
4

'Shredded Wheat': a kind of cereal, with a picture on the


packet showing someone eating the cereal with a packet
beside him with a picture showing someone eating with a
packet beside him ... ad infinitum
5

'Suez landings and the Russian invasion of Hungary' For


the British, the autumn of 1956 was chiefly notable for an
unsuccessful and politically embarrassing attempt to take
back the Suez Canal from Egypt. This military 'adventure'
took place, by chance, at the same time as the Soviet
invasion of Hungary, and the two crises are linked in our
minds. Many Hungarian refugees, particularly intellectuals,
came to Britain as a result of the invasion.
6

'current complicated British immigration policy': the


Government was simultaneously trying to discourage
immigration to Britain from the West Indies and the Indian
subcontinent and to demonstrate that it was not racially
prejudiced. Rules about citizenship in the British
Commonwealth were being changed.
7

'Angry Young Men': some novelists and playwrights of


the 1950's who wrote about the realities of everyday life.
They always denied that they were a group.

210

'cork-lined room': Proust, when writing his great novel,


wanted to be free from all distractions and worked in a
sound-proof room lined with cork.
9

'Jermyn Street': Mrs Smith is walking around some of


the most expensive and elegant areas in London.
10

'decorous conspicuous consumption': 'conspicuous


consumption' is a sociological term to describe the need of
rich people to display their wealth as a sign of status. (New
Russians are notable for conspicuous consumption). The
traditional wealthy classes in Britain also display their
wealth, but more discreetly, more elegantly, with greater
aesthetic effect.
11

'omnibus, gas-lamps, culottes': words of fairly recent


origin, denoting man-made inventions or activities.
12

'There is a Tree, of many One. The Rainbow comes and


goes. And lovely is the Rose.' Mrs Smith is quoting odd lines
from Wordsworth's poem, 'Intimations of Immortality from
Recollections in Early Childhood' often known as the 'Ode
on Immortality'.
13

'perish the thought': a traditional exclamation meaning,


'Certainly not that!'
14

'Drs Spock ...' The doctors all wrote books about child
development.
15

'Flower Power': youth culture of love, peace and drugs


in the late 1960's.
16

'gentrification': the process of turning slum and


working-class districts into places attractive to the middle
classes. It happens all over London and elsewhere. Socially,
some areas go up while other areas go down.
17

'the adjective " g a y " ': the word used to mean


'cheerful, lively'. In the late 1960's it began to be used
211

regularly and openly by homosexuals to describe themselves.


It was not considered a pejorative word, so anyone who
wanted (and wants) to speak decently about homosexuals
could use it. Consequently, it is now almost impossible to
use the word in its earlier sense.
18 c

Nel mestro del cammin di nostra vita' (Italian): the first


line of Dante's The Divine Comedy.
19

'attenuation': thinning out, and therefore,, in this


context, 'gradual disappearance'.
20

'In Cambridge ...' For much of his long retirement,


Forster lived in rooms in King's College, Cambridge.
21

'agnostic and scrupulous': exact words to describe


Forster, though in Russian terms they may seem to be
something of a paradox. See the note on 'naturally sceptical'.
Forster's writings and characteristic values are strongly felt
in this story, and you should read carefully the quotation
from one of his essays.
22

'A pocket of civilisation or a consumers display area':


there is an implied question, a paradox here; read the note on
'decorous conspicuous consumption'.
23

'Sutton Hoo ship': a Viking ship with a hoard of


treasure, buried with a Viking chief and not discovered until
earlier this century near Sutton Hoo in the south-east of
England.
24

'He had made passes at Mrs Smith ...': a pass is an


explicit physical gesture which invites further sexual
developments.
25

'godsend': literally ' sent by God', but it has lost its


religious connotations. It means someone who, or something
which, unexpectedly provides a satisfactory solution to a
problem, often a simple, practical problem.
212

26

'drug-pusher': drug dealer

27

'': tuberculosis

28

'He was working for a cigarette company ...'


Advertising laws in Britain do not allow you to make claims
which can be shown to be untrue. So advertisers try to
suggest links (between, for example, smoking and sexual
pleasure). Some people believe that such suggestions are
(like art) more effective in attracting customers than direct
statements.
29

'Upmarket': intended for those at the higher end of the


social scale.
30

'splurging': pouring out messily (colloquial).

31

'evil umbrella': about ten years after the date when this
story was set, a Bulgarian diplomat, Georgi Markov, was
killed by a poisoned umbrella in London, presumably by the
KGB. Byatt's readers, with ten years more knowledge of the
world than Mrs Smith, will know that poisoned umbrellas
like destructive music machines may be bizarre and
horrifying, but they are not simply a paranoid fantasy.
32

'a sort of growth': a small tumour. Doctors speak to


patients of 'malignant tumours' - i.e. cancerous, and of
'benign tumours' - i.e. non-cancerous.

Groundlings
This story assumes a basic knowledge of the London theatre
world . Most of the references to actors, theatres and
productions are simply an accumulation of the narrator's
memories over forty years, and do not require explanation.
You should know that the National Theatre, built in the late
1960's stands on the South Bank of the Thames, not so very
far from where Shakespeare's 'Globe Theatre' was built. The
213

National is a stark, box-like structure of concrete and glass,


and the area is rather bleak and shabby, though with a fine
view of the Thames.
In Elizabethan theatres, the majority of the audience stood on
the ground surrounding the stage and were known as
groundlings. Obviously they were not the rich and important
people, who had seats, but the ordinary people who crowded
into the theatres like the narrator and her friends centuries
later. Clever Shakesperian critics sometimes suggest that
Shakespeare was addressing the 'important people' and
inserted a few bawdy jokes into his plays 'for the
groundlings'. This snobbish view is nowadays not taken
seriously. We understand that Shakespeare's rich and varied
interests in all kinds of people and their activities is what
makes him such a popular dramatist (he is a truly popular
dramatist) four hundred years later.
1

'duffles': duffle coats

'Lyons corner house': cheap but decent eating places in


the centre of London
3

'Annie-get-your-Gun struck': obsessed


American musical, 'Annie get your Gun'.

with

the

'balaclava helmet': a woollen hat that can be pulled over


the face with holes for eyes; a fashion adopted from the
Russians during the Crimean War.
5

'A bit bonkers': out-dated slang for 'a little mad' - but
not outdated for the sixty-year-old narrator.
6

'yattered': this and associated words like 'nattering' are


also period slang for 'gossiping'.
7

'a mediaeval diptych of heaven and hell - or hell and


heaven': such pictures show crowds at the Last Judgement,
being sent either to Heaven or Hell. The question here is
which group is which?
8

'walk-way': an unusual term for a 'Walkman'.


214

T h e Scottish Play': there is a theatrical superstition that


it is unlucky to mention Macbeth, so this is a traditional
euphemism.
10

'First Folio': the first collected edition of Shakespeare's


plays, published in 1623.
11

'tetchy': irritable

12

'The Winter's Tale': Much of the meaning of this story


is connected with The Winter's Tale, which is a play in
which blind jealousy, cruelty and suffering in the first part
give way to marvellous scenes of youthful delight, and then
of moving reconciliations among the old people. It celebrates
the fact that after many years of misunderstanding and guilt,
true enduring love can restore people to a belief in life and
its meaning.
We never know precisely the significance of the play for
Aggie Batt. Perhaps the young man - a homosexual at a time
when homosexual practices were illegal - may have played a
part. Perhaps not. However, the play is full of flowers, and it
is entirely right that Aggie Batt should be given flowers for
this perfomance.
13

'the time I didn't see the Sutton roundabout': obviously


the narrator crashed her car on a roundabout on the Sutton
road. Sutton is an outer suburb of London.
14

'Lower Second': a not-very good degree. The best is a


First, then an Upper Second, then a Lower Second, then a
Third. Perhaps it's like getting a 3 - a goodish 3.
15

'I had no need to justify myself to that man ...': The


narrator is chronically full of anxious guilt, and would expect
to feel very bad at asking the walk-way boy to buy her a
ticket. Acceptance, reconciliation, not having to justify
oneself is the central loving feeling at the end of The
Winter's Tale.
215

16

'Her nose as sharp as a pen': a quotation from Henry Vthe account of Falstaffs death as given by Mistress Quickly.
'His nose was as sharp as a pen, and a' babbled o' green
fields'.
17

'The people of Shakespeare's parish': even the


procession of the conscientious workers is a procession
which has come from Shakespeare's parish, the area on the
south bank of the Thames. 'Parish' is a warm word
suggesting local pride and affection. This last sentence
makes much of the rest of the story fall into place.

Wee Horrors
The speech of those who live in Glasgow (Glaswegians) is
very lively and specific, but difficult for other inhabitants of
Britain to understand. The language of this story suggests
rather than directly imitates the accent; the syntax is
colloquial, reflecting the intimate voice of the narrator, and
some of the unorthodox punctuation (omission of
apostrophes, for example), also reminds us of the speaking
voice.
Glasgow has many old tenement houses, similar to the big
old houses in the centres of your cities. They are uncommon
in England, but Russians should find the 'geography' of this
story fairly easy to follow.
1

'weans': children

'yins': ones
216

'wee': little (standard in Scotland)

'pest-control': pest-control officer who would try to


spray the fleas with a chemical.
5

'knock the stuffing out ...': when used of people, this


means 'destroy their confidence, courage, effectiveness'.
6

'cunts' - obscene word for female sexual parts, here used


simply as a contemptuous word for the fleas. Nevertheless, it
is still generally taboo, more so than 'fucking'.
7

'dunnies': basements, cellars

'umpteen': quite a lot of ... (The implication is 'not


fourteen or fifteen or sixteen but umpteen').
9

'squatters': homeless people who move into empty


houses, illegally but sometimes tolerated by the local
authorities.
10

'the girls': local prostitutes

11

'silverside': a fine cut of beef

12

'daft': foolish, often describing a grown-up whose brain


is more like a child's.
13

'wineys': alchoholics

14

'spit': a long metal rod, usually arranged so that it can


be turned mechanically in front of a fire, on which pieces of
meat are speared and roasted; a giant shashlik arrangement!
15

'effing': from the letter ' f , pronounced ' e f f ; a


euphemism for 'fucking'

The Language of Water


This story takes place in the Scottish highlands. The fishing
at the centre of it is 'fly-fishing' which requires the
fishermen to wade into the water making the fly at the end of
217

the rod behave as though it were a real fly landing on the


water. Fly fishing is an art and is rarely successful in still
water.
1

'waders': very high rubber boots for wading in the river

'fore-and-aft' a cap with a brim at the back and at the


front
3

'bedevilled': made more complicated (no sense of the


'devil' is left in the word).
4

'Sandy': Scottish diminutive form of Alexander

'five-bar gate': a gate with five horizontal bars and a


diagonal bar joining them. With walls and hedges separating
one field from another, we require many gates, which, in the
highlands are often set across the road to stop the sheep
straying. This is the most typical form of farm gate.

The Great Profundo


This story must be set in the late sixties or earlier. Shillings
and pennies are still part of the coinage: they disappeared in
1971. (We now have 100 pence to the pound, but the word
penny has been more-or-less replaced with ' p ' pronounced
'pee'). Also, British readers would guess the story to be set
in Belfast, probably before the outbreak of the present and
enduring period of the 'Troubles', which occurred at the end
of the sixties.
1

'a shilling to a pound': i.e. odds of twenty to one.

'to-do': fuss, unnecessary activity.

'tumblers': acrobats
218

'palaver':
unnecessary.

talking,

discussion

which

is

usually

'odds': odd coins.

'fork out': pay out

'knacker': exhaust (colloquial)

'buildup': introduction intended to excite the audience

'He'd swallow anything.': a pun on 'swallow ? which can


also mean 'to believe whatever one is told, however
ridiculous'.
10

'I haven't seen pennies in a bucket..' i.e. I haven't seen


such small worthless coins ...
11

'pishing black': pissing (urinating) some dark liquid,


presumably blood.
12

'thrapple': dialect word for 'thropple', i.e. throat or


gullet.
13

'roustabout': labourer

14

'hooring': whoring, i.e. prostituting oneself

15

'Somebody buggered off with them': to 'bugger off


with' means, simply, 'to go off with'. 'Bugger' is a jocular
term, officially a sexual term referring to anal intercourse,
but usually used in ordinary situations to express cheerful
exasperation. 'What a silly old bugger you are!' as somebody
drops something or falls over himself.
16

'I'd say so': emphatic and ironic phrase of agreement.


Here, for instance, the narrator is thinking that all his
conversations with Jimmy have been about money.
17

'a kind of tribute to them'. Note that Profundo thinks of


tributes to women, a sentiment utterly different from the
attitudes of the members of the Eccentrics Genuine Club
which amuses itself with female strippers and debars women.
Student clubs like the 'Eccentrics Genuine' existed and
exist, though they appeal to a specific minority of students,
219

such as those listed by the narrator. This is not just a club


whose members want an excuse for getting drunk; there are
all sorts of social implications here, for which there is no
obvious Russian equivalent. The members are, or like to
think of themselves as, higher up the social scale than most
students and their contemptuous vulgarity when watching
Profundo's performance is constrasted with the reaction of
the crowd by the bridge who are supporting him and keeping
a look-out for 'the Law'.

Empire Building
In this story Moggach is thinking about the old British
Empire and what it means in contemporary Britain. British
India (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) had its own
strong cultural significance for millions of British citizens
with family connections in the old Empire. It was different,
remote, but 'part of us'. Perhaps it's a bit like the Caucasus
for Russians, even those who have never been there. In the
1960's and early 1970's, many Indians and Pakistanis settled
in Britain. They mostly came from middle-class professional
or business backgrounds, and they were (and are) extremely
efficient shopkeepers. The story is sociologically accurate,
and set in recognisable districts of London.
1

'fined
premises.
equipment
have gone

by the Health Authorities': for having unhygenic


They would have been forced to buy new
which they could not afford, and therefore would
bankrupt, 'gone bust'.

'bedsits': one-room accommodation for rent, with a


communal bathroom/lavatory and kitchen. Perhaps there
would be seven or eight bedsits in one (English-sized) terrace
house, with several of the rooms shared by two people.
220

'Irish lodging-houses': the Irish in London, like other


national groups, tend to stay together. Usually they rent
individual rooms, and pass them on to other Irish workers if
they return to Ireland.
4

'Such items moved fast': These items were quickly sold


because they required no cooking and were comparatively
cheap. Like the owners of your kiosks, Hamid is constantly
adapting to the changing needs and fashions of his
customers.
5

'Sometimes their fingers touched his ...': Many English


stories of the Empire, written at the beginning of this
century, had little scenes in which the white man touched the
fingers of the brown man, and was too well-bred to flinch.
This, like the conversation with Mr Lawson is exploring the
ironies of reversed social status.
6

'bemusing': bewildering

'flotsam and jetsam': literally, bits and pieces floating


after a shipwreck; here, referring to the alchoholics.
8

'You'll put it on the slate?': i.e. keep an account


(originally written on a slate) which will be paid in the
future.
9

'wog': extremely offensive term for a black or brown

man
10

'ghee': butter or other fat in which Indian food is


cooked. Hamid is reading that the price has been increased
by 2 rupees.
11

'Schweppes': tonic water

12

'Sellotaped': used Sellotape, a transparent sticky tape


for mending torn paper, sealing envelopes, etc.
13

'Pentel': a brand of fine ball-point pen

14

'PLEASE DO NOT ASK ...': This is the standard


courteous notice about not accepting credit.

221

15

'VAT': Value Added Tax. VAT is added to many


products and services in Britain. In the late seventies it was a
new tax and only a small percentage of the total cost. Now it
stands at 17 V2 % (1994).
16

'a chicken rotisserie for take-outs': a special device for


roasting chickens which would then be sold to be taken out
and eaten off the premises (like the pizzas).
17

'samosas': little fried Indian pies, now very popular

18

'wore blazers': the private school has a school uniform


and a well-organised, old-fashioned atmosphere. Many such
schools were founded to provide an appropriate education for
the boys who were going out to run the Empire in the 1920's
and 1930's.
19

'Earth has not anything to show more fair': the poem is


a sonnet by Wordsworth enitlted 'London 1802'.
20

'seven days a week': It was not against the law to open a


shop on Sundays, if it was family-owned and used the family
for the work. Employing people was a more complex matter,
though the law has recently changed, and more shops are
open on Sundays.
22

'video-tape': very few people had videos in 1981.


Hamid is already 'advanced' in what he can afford to and
chooses to buy.
23

'one over the eight': drunk - i.e. had drunk one more
than eight pints of beer (a very large amount! ) Khalid's slang
is old-fashioned, which is characteristic of those who learn
the language in another country.
24

'junk food': food prepared for instant eating, often


containing lots of chemicals and preservatives. It is a
pejorative term, indicating that the food is rubbish, in
contrast to properly cooked food made of fresh ingredients at
home, for eating around a table. Much Western food now in
Russian kiosks is what we would call junk food.

222

24

'con-tob newsagents': a small shop selling newspapers,


confectionary and tobacco.
25

'Slush-Puppy dispenser': Slush-Puppy is the name of a


commercial drink made of half-melted ice and violently
coloured chemical 'fruit-juices'. It is sold from a special
machine which Hamid rented.
26

'Independence Riots': the riots between the Indians and


the new Pakistanis when Britain gave up its imperial power
in India. Another historical irony.
27

'sought-after': very desirable area with many people


searching for houses to buy.
28

'There were fitted carpets throughout ...': The English


reader will instantly recognise from the description of the
house that it is, indeed, solid, expensive, secure - but in
atmosphere very unlike the houses of the old British officials
who ran India in the days of Empire. Hamid buys a tweed
suit, thinking of gentlemen and Wordsworth's poetry, but his
house is a fortress, the house of a successful businessman.
It's almost as though he had planned to become one of the
Russian intelligentsia but had found himself to be a 'new
Russian'.
29

'Proctor and Gamble': big multi-national firm,


producing many things including detergents and domestic
chemicals.
30

'iced Kunzle cakes': they are, of course, factory-made,


and Sharine's food will be much more delicious, but Hamid
feels that these packaged cakes must be 'high-class'.
31

'Love the wallpaper, awfully daring.': This and the later


comment, 'What an original colour' are a 'polite' way of
saying, 'What terrible wallpaper, what clashes of colour!
What strange ways of decorating your house!' The reader
understands, but Hamid does not, that this is an English

223

coded way of being very critical and (if it is recognised),


rather rude.
32

'Mayfair and Penthouse': sub-pornographic magazines i.e. they are sold openly in newsagents, though our present
laws require that they should be displayed only on the top
shelves, out of reach of children.

Chemistry
1

'the way you did for Alec, the way Vera taught you':
Alec is the boy's father, Vera is his maternal grandmother.
2

'quits': people are quits when debts and obligations on


both sides are paid. In this case they are of course emotional,
family obligations.
3

'within the scope of this sad symmetry': a characteristic


image for this writer, inviting careful thought about its
meaning.
4

'to stick by': to remain loyal to

'impregnable domain': see note 3 above

'tackling': eating

'bunsen': a small gas-heater, standard use in chemistry


laboratories; more powerful and more effectively controlled
than ''.
8

'a cross section from some infinite stick of rock': a


crucial image, instantly understandable to English readers.
'Rock' is a large sweet shaped like a thick stick, perhaps 30
centimetres long and 3 centimetres wide. It is made of a
white, more-or-less brittle sugar substance, covered with a
pink sugar skin. Throughout the entire length there are pink
harder sections moulded into letters and arranged in the
white material so that wherever you cut across the stick, you
can see the pink letters of BRIGHTON or LONDON or
224

wherever. It is a typical children's treat at seaside towns,


hence the title of Graham Greene's novel, Brighton Rock
Swift imagines that this cylindrical sweet which shows the
same words at any cross section has, instead of words, an
outline of a face moulded in hard pink sugar throughout its
entire length. If that idea is clear to you. you can then
imagine a 'concept' of rock, in which the rock would stretch
for infinity, and the face would somehow change if one cut
across the rock at 'different times', showing how facial
features both remain and alter from generation to generation.
9

'laurel': our laurel is not the plant from which you


collect hard green leaves for cooking. We call that 'bay'.
'Laurel' is a poisonous plant; sometimes a distillation of its
leaves is used for medicinal purposes, but it contains a small
quantity of prussic acid.
10

'HNO3': nitric acid

A Shooting Season
The story takes place in Norfolk, the north-eastern county in
East Anglia. English readers will recognise 'Anna' and
'Marcus' as typical names for people who come from the
educated upper middle classes. However, like the characters
in most of the other stories, they have had to find and make
their own way in life. Anna is constantly associated with
simple bright colours, maternity, permamence - at least, for
Marcus. For herself it is more difficult.
1

'dormitory': the image is of a boys' boarding school.

'craft business': Anna and her partner sell pottery, rugs,


probably baskets, home-made jewellery and other things

225

which have been made by themselves or their friends - and


which will mostly be well-made and attractive.
3

'Decade of the Poet': decade is used in English only for


'ten years', not, as apparently in Russian, for 'ten days'.
4

'businessperson': Marcus is being ironical. Businessman


is the usual word but it assumes a male. 'Businesswoman'
seems too limiting to some women who prefer
'businessperson'. Anna has not suggested that she cares
about terminology, but Marcus is trying to irritate her.
5

'get it over with': 'to do something one hates doing, in


order not to be forced to think about it'.
6

'peeves': slang word from 'peevish', meaning 'fretful,


complaining'. So 'peeves' means fretful, querulous
complaints.
7

'You in the valley of my arms, my quaint companion on


the mountain ...': part of a poem which he had written to her.
8

'Oh rot!': What nonsense!

'snivelling': half-crying, half-whimpering, like a child. If


a grown-up uses it about herself, it is an attack on self-pity.
Anna is trying to be self-critical about her memories, but by
using the next word, 'weeping', which is more powerful than
'crying', the real measure of her grief is allowed to surface.

Mr Tennyson
Willian Trevor sets most of his stories in Ireland, but this one
is set in south-west England where he himself now lives.
226

'2': When this story was written Jenny would have


been entering the 'Fifth Form' or the 'Fifth Year'. It is most
unlikely that the class would have been called 2A. However,
since 1991 we have now re-numbered all our classes, so it's
out of date, anyway.
2

'ragamuffin': a charming word for a little street beggar

'he'd never in a million years fumble at you ...': one


example, from dozens, of schoolgirl language; you should be
able to hear the excited gossipy tone, the exaggerations, the
romantic naive images, the embarrassed but excited attempts
at a sexual vocabulary.
4

'Macbeth': Shakespeare (and Mr Tennyson) insist on the


general disorder which Macbeth brings about by his
unnatural murder of Duncan (his King, his kinsman and his
guest). The lesson is relevant to what Mr Tennyson says
later.
5

'blew-up': lost his temper; a phrase characteristically


applied to parents.
6

'mooning': day-dreaming

'Broody': normally means 'having a strong desire to


become pregnant, wanting babies. Probably here it just
means 'behaving like a girl in the process of growing-up.'
8

'Ovaltine': a hot, milky, malted drink

'The ones you made do with.' A colloquial way of


saying, 'The ones whom you used as inadequate but justabout-acceptable substitutes; the stop-gaps.'
10

'Give a dog a bad name ..': Once a dog gets a reputation


for biting people because he bit someone once, he will be
considered to be a constant danger, always biting people.
11

'Then let not winter's ragged hand deface, In thee they


summer, ere thou be distilled ...': Shakespeare, Sonnet 2.

227

The Bottom Line and the Sharp End


The style and paragraphing of this story are typical of Fay
Weldon's writing. Much of the comedy - and of the
underlying humanity of the story - is in the allusive language
on which it is virtually impossible to comment without being
laborious and spoiling the lightness. One tiny example out of
dozens will illustrate the problem. In the third paragraph we
read: 'All the better to flirt in .. all the better to work in ...'
Obviously this is a comic contrast. English readers will also
hear echoes of the Bad Wolf pretending to be Grandmother
in Little Red Riding Hood. 'What great eyes you have,
Grandma!' 'All the better to see you with, my dear ...' 'What
great teeth you have, Grandma!' 'All the better to EAT you
with ...' The echo is scarcely conscious, and should not
normally be the subject of an extensive note. But English,
like Russian, is full of such echoes, and even when you
cannot recognise them, you should be able to hear the
liveliness of a voice which is constantly jolting our linguistic
memory - usually for comic effects.
1

The 'bottom line' is the line drawn at the bottom of a


sum in arithmetic, and specifically of an account in which
money is added and subtracted. It is almost always used
metaphorically to mean, 'the only fact that ultimately matters
is the amount of money available (for a plan or a project)'.
The 'sharp end' is the bows of a ship (the front end) and it is
also used metaphorically to describe difficult and pioneering
experiences. 'I was at the sharp end' means 'I was pushing
alone through unknown waters, rather than being helped
along in a company of supporters.' Avril adapts the
metaphors for her own use.

228

'drifted up-market': slowly changed so that it appealed to


people of greater wealth and higher social status than
formerly.
3

'decaffeinated coffee
...low-calorie wholewheat
sandwiches': self-consciously 'healthy' food, much favoured
by this class of people. Weldon makes many jokes about the
changing fashions of different classes and groups. Of course
the class comedy is almost impossible to explain, and much
more complicated than Russian (or Soviet) traditional
accounts would suggest. But Weldon is explicit about the
difference between Avril and Helen's other customers, and
she also traces back the changing fashions of Avril's world
of struggling actors and unglamorous night clubs.
4

'henna-and-grey': henna is used for dying hair red or


reddish - but the grey is showing through.
5

'pony-tail': long straight hair gathered together high on


the back of the head, and then allowed to drop freely.
6

'ethnic': in this context popular word for third-world


countries, especially when discussing their crafts and art.
7

'either real or Harrods make-believe': either (for


example) real diamonds or very high-quality artificial
diamonds - unlike Avril's ostentatious stage jewellery
8

'DIY': Do It Yourself - i.e. handyman's work which the


householder does himself, instead of paying an expert to do.
9

'Lady Godiva': A mediaeval heroine who, to save her


husband's honour, rode round Coventry on a horse, dressed
only in her long hair. The townspeople, out of respect,
avoided looking at her.
10

'Behind the bicycle shed': traditional corner in the


school grounds where unobserved experiments in smoking,
sex, and other forbidden activities could be carried out.
11

'I lived to tell the tale': jocular expression meaning I


survived a difficult time so that at least I could enjoy talking
about it afterwards.
229

12

'Mayfair': Upmarket, sub-pornographic magazine.

13

'junkie trying to kick the habit': drug addict trying to


give up drugs.
14

'I want a new me': 'I want a new personality, a new


identity'.
15

'end-of-the-year show': the display put on by drama


students to attract directors who might want to employ them.
16

'National': read the story,


collection.

'Groundlings', in this

17

'beehive': hair style in which hair is combed up and


piled on top of the head, and held in place with hair-spray.
18

'terminations': abortions

19

'breaks': lucky chances

20

4 just loved the look on your face!': Usually, as here,


used of pleasure at someone else's look of shock, horror or
bewilderment.
21

'After the Godiva look ...': a witty run-through of all the


various styles she has undergone - and it gives a context for
her brave, comic, unselfpitying 'just plain bald might work
wonders for a girl's career'.

230

12.11.98. 84x108 1/32.


. . . . . 10.
1404. 1000.
, . , . , 37.