Authors: Wendy Perriam
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About the author:
Wendy Perriam has been writing since the age of five, completing her first ânovel' at eleven. Expelled from boarding school for heresy and told she was in Satan's power, she escaped to Oxford, where she read History and also trod the boards. After a variety of offbeat jobs, ranging from artist's model to carnation-disbudder, she now divides her time between teaching and writing. Having begun by writing poetry, she went on to publish 16 novels and 7 short-story collections, acclaimed for their power to disturb, divert and shock. She has also written extensively for newspapers and magazines, and was a regular contributor to radio programmes such as
Stop the Week
Perriam feels that her many conflicting life experiences â strict convent-school discipline and swinging-sixties wildness, marriage and divorce, infertility and motherhood, 9-to-5 conformity and periodic Bedlam â have helped shape her as a writer. âWriting allows for shadow-selves. I'm both the staid conformist matron and the slag; the well-organised author toiling at her desk and the madwoman shrieking in a straitjacket.'
FOR RUTH AND ROGER HOLDSWORTH
dear and generous friends
and incomparable researchers!
The Angels keep their ancient places,â
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangÃ¨d faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
To be religious is to know that the facts of the world
are not the end of the matter.
âNo, no, no, no, no, no,
Daniel was wrenched from sleep, eyes opening to darkness, the taste of fear and curry in his mouth. A last wild âNo!' rumbled from the bedclothes. He raised his head, peered at the alarm clock, its illuminated figures precisely sharp in the soupy gloom of the bedroom. Five past bloody three.
âStop, Tom, stop! You're hurting. That's not a hedgehog-brush.'
He turned over to the humped shape lying beside him, stroked his fingers slowly down its back. It stirred, but didn't wake.
âTom, you mustn't do that. It's not the hedgehog-brush.'
His wife talked in her sleep, mostly gibberish. If a nudge didn't stop her, he usually replied. It seemed more polite, companionable. He opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out â nothing but a rasping croak. âDamn!' he mouthed, instinctively massaging his neck. Last night's sore throat was now full-blown laryngitis.
Slowly, he sat up. His wife's right breast had escaped her low-cut nightdress, a pale, enticing glimmer in the dark. He touched one finger against it, trying not to imagine Tom pawing at the other breast â or something lower down. The fellow was growing clearer in his mind: a hulk still in his thirties, with a head of hair so luxuriantly thick he had to brush it with a hedgehog. His hand fumbled through his own hair, stopping at the thinner patch on top. It was only fractionally thinner, nowhere near balding yet. Penny hadn't said anything, probably hadn't noticed, though it had been that way for months â part of being forty, he supposed. He had hated his last birthday. He had woken with a hangover, and Penny had bought him a sweater in an unflattering shade of purple, a colour he distrusted.
âLamb,' she said. âLamb custard.'
Lamb chops, he corrected voicelessly. He could write a thesis on his wife's nocturnal ramblings. âThe hole in the German maid'; âthe price of frogs'; âred Persil'. Hidden meanings, mumbo-jumbo surrealism. The names were always male: Tom tonight, Mark last week, and a chap called Stewart (Stuart?) had kept cropping up last year. He let his hand close against the breast, insisting on his rights. Jealousy was tiring, and in this case, pretty pointless.
He squinted at the clock again, hoping he'd misread it. Three AM was waking-nightmare time. He had written a poem once called âThree O'Clock'; scribbled it with a pencil-stub at this same unnatural hour â though no one shared his bed then. He could still remember parts of it, the second verse more or less in full:
It is always â¦ (something, something)
The few short hours oblivion and bliss
and then awake like this,
as furious midnight
mauls me in its claws
and hell has gaping jaws,
and all the wrath
the world has ever wrought,
from banished Adam
to baffled astronaut,
in this single howling hour,
this holocaust of thought.
He grimaced at the scansion, the sheer pretentiousness. Good job he'd stopped writing â or at least only innocuous reports now on Third World educational matters. He lay back beside his wife; his soft, inert, still rambling wife. Penelope the faithful, refusing any suitor but her Ulysses. Except she had always been a Penny, despite his objection to the shortening.
If only sleep were infectious, so that he could catch her languid germ; even wake as she did, indulgently and slowly with long, luxurious yawns, instead of erupting into instant fretful consciousness; all the problems fastening on him like a brood of starving leeches. Probably better to get up and make some tea, find something for his throat.
He stumbled to the bathroom, blinking as the light snapped on â a harsh fluorescent glare. The mirror wasn't kind. His skin looked sallow; dark rings beneath his eyes, a dirty rash of stubble on his chin. He inspected his hair again. No different from last night, though follicles must shrivel every day, decaying with one's brain cells. There was so much one could lose: teeth, hair, voice, erections, love. He searched the bathroom cupboard for some pastilles, sorting through his daughter's stuff, feeling oddly touched by her box of heart-shaped soaps, the garish turquoise bubble bath which could only dry her skin.
He drifted into her room, sat down on the empty bed, ran a regretful hand across the flat, unrumpled duvet. She had been away four days now. Had he lost his voice in sympathy with her? Or she lost hers as a rebuke to him? He tried to say her name aloud, irrationally angry when it came out as a grunt. If he thought in terms of punishment, then â¦ No, stick to practicalities. It was tea he needed, not pastilles, something to soothe his larynx. He tried to swallow, gagged on broken glass, tiny jagged shards blocking his oesophagus.
He crept down to the kitchen, which still smelt of last night's curry. It seemed alien, unwelcoming, a room which didn't know him. Things looked so different in the middle of the night â the dark panes reflecting nothing; an ordinary cup grotesque. He switched on the portable television, which they kept next to the microwave, so that Penny could watch âBreakfast News' while he skimmed through the papers. Two forbidding-looking females were conversing on a sofa, conversing with no words. He adjusted the volume, wishing he could bring his own voice back by the mere flick of a switch.
âBut surely that's the point, Ruth. I mean, Nietzsche was quite right about the death of God.'
He turned God off, sat waiting for the kettle to whistle out its boil â or had that too lost its voice? Perhaps the non-existent deity had sent a plague on all of them: kettles, daughters, stepfathers.
He took a tea-bag from the container labelled âSUGAR'. It had worried him at first, the way Penny broke the rules: stored used stamps in the tea-caddy, kept the sugar in its packet. But he was more accustomed now to his wife's chaotic clutter: old letters in the spoon-drawer, piles of ironing on the chairs. He sniffed the milk â tolerably fresh â seized the kettle as it began to pant and splutter, unplugged it in mid-whistle. He dunked the tea-bag, watched the brown stain slowly ripple out, then pale and tremble as he shocked it with cold milk. He shut his eyes and sipped. Still difficult to swallow. It hurt his ear as well. But if he took the day off, there'd be endless complications. He had an important morning meeting with the UN Evaluation Team, followed by an equally important lunch with Juliet. Silent meeting, whispered lunch.
He climbed up on a chair and rummaged for his cigarettes, which he'd put deliberately out of reach on the highest, least accessible shelf. He'd stopped smoking just last week, the day Pippa had departed for her grandma's; made a pact with Whoever might control things: give me back my daughter â and her voice â and I'll give up my Camels. He lit one from the gas, struggled to inhale, relaxing as the pain gave way to an exquisite surge of relief. Starved of nicotine for four whole days, he'd become increasingly uptight. Penny had bought him chewing-gum and some obnoxious herbal cigarettes he had consigned straight to the bin. And he could hardly chew gum at work, not whilst earnestly discussing the desperate lack of funds for teacher-training in Botswana.
He rubbed the misted windowpane, peered out at the garden, which was only void and shadows. He still felt claustrophobic; the house tightening like a noose around his neck. He must get out, get air. He groped his way back upstairs, stripped off his pyjamas and put on a shirt and jeans. He knew Penny wouldn't wake, but he scribbled her a note, in case: âWalking Rover. He was busting for a pee.' It was a silly joke between them: the phantom dog (like phantom Tom) which needed its night exercise. He called it to heel as he set off down the silent street. He had never had a dog â he found them too exuberant. Penny was his dog: affectionate and loyal, with her wiry hair which needed constant grooming, her deep expressive eyes, the amazing way she trusted â trusted life, and him.