Authors: Tim Parks
I say: Wouldn't it be more logical for me to be the spy? Shouldn't you perhaps be throwing me out of the coach?
The girl Vikram called Sneaky immediately smiles intensely at me, and just as her lips part and I think, Now she is going to speak to me, I see that she is not smiling at what I said at all, but mouthing the words of a song which has begun to come over the coach stereo in a low throb. It's the song has made her smile at me, one of those songs one hears everywhere and pays absolutely no attention to, so that you only recognize the refrain as a kind of distracting bleep in the background noise. And the refrain is
Sei un mito, sei un mito
-You're a myth, you're a myth - meaning no more in Italian thanÂ
wonderful' on the lines one supposes of 'fabulous' in English, which I always take as meaning âtoo good to be true'. Sei
. She mouths and smiles at me.
It would be much more logical for me to be the spy, I insist.
Why? Colin is chewing gum.
I've always thought our demands were over the top, you know that, and then I've never believed in Europe anyway. It's a myth.
I say it with a coy smile on my face.
Vikram Griffiths laughs and the girl next to Sneaky, who can only be described as prettily made-up and entirely uninteresting, very belligerently asks why, why is Europe a myth, on the contrary a united Europe is our only hope for the future. Unity in Europe is our only hope for keeping the fascist nationalists out long-term, she says. Dimitra agrees. You have no sense of history, she tells me, still caressing the dog's snout in her crotch. So I ask, jokingly, if others present are aware what the divorce rate is in marriages between people from different European countries, and when of course they don't know, as why on earth should they, of what use are statistics to any of us? I tell them fifty per cent higher than an average of the average in âeach of the countries concerned. Fifty per cent.
Vikram is looking at me with curious red eyes as if at some oddity he has just remembered never having properly explained to himself - my eager participation in this trip perhaps. He clears his throat and grins: You're talking about yourself, Jerry boyo.
And about you, I tell him.
Twice fuckin' over, Vikram laughs.
And me, Georg admits happily.
So that in the space of a moment three men in early middle age have managed to tell a number of twenty-year-old girls that they are divorced and ergo available, though in Georg's case this is something of a simplification. Rather than mentioning her own separation, Dimitra has got up to return to her seat. You are rather beginning to like Vikram Griffiths, I tell myself. Quite unexpectedly, you are beginning to like him.
Then Colin brags that he doesn't know why we bothered getting hitched at all. He never has. He wriggles his moustache. Know the word âhitched', love? he asks, turning to the girl with the long legs and quality jeans. Know it or not? Where is your English in the end? Don't you girls study English? What's going to happen to you at the exam, I don't know.
This is Colin's way
Let me teach you my favourite words, he insists. The girls giggle. Sneaky is still mouthing
Sei un mito
, and still, quite ingenuously, she smiles at me, bouncing on her seat, and her smiling again makes me ask, What are you going to do about such a young woman who will keep smiling at you like this from great brown eyes (a sort of bright vulnerability suggests contact lenses), who will keep bouncing on her chair and resting her long neck and strong chin on the crinkly white headrest cover â jet-black hair just trembled by the air from her ventilator - and then letting her head cock slowly to one side while the bright eyes hold yours. How am I to behave?
Cuddle, Colin says ominously Anybody know what âcuddle' means?
He hams his Brummie accent, I tell myself, the way so many ex-pats ham their lost identity. The moustache is a pose. Yes, he hams this unpredictable matey belligerence, this curiously Midlands attitude. Colin is home away from home, I reflect, even if not the home you ever really liked.
âCuddle' is p'rhaps my most favouritest word, Colin says. He overdoes it, pouting, twisting his chin from side to side in his collar. You know what âcuddle' means, girls?
The girls, the two in front of me, the two each side of me and the one in front of Georg, all say no, they don't know. What is the word again, please? Thus the girl with the swollen lips.
They shake their young heads.
I'll show you then, Colin says in his Brummie swagger, funny and frightening, and, grabbing the girl Vikram called Sneaky, who is closest, he pulls her to his chest. Then exactly as he makes that gesture, that coercive embrace, I feel a pang of jealousy, I feel that somehow this girl (who has been exchanging smiles) belongs to me, than which nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and sitting here slightly off-centre on the big back seat of this racing coach with the stocky Vikram Griffiths up against my knees winking his comedy-hall wink again, and gorgeous Georg laughing his cultured German laugh, and then Vikram shouting (now Dimitra's gone), Ask âem if they know what âshag' means, Colin boyo, give âem the direct method on that one! I wonder, Why, why this pang of real jealousy for a girl you met only half-an-hour ago, and young enough to be your daughter? Why are my emotions so inappropriate? I ask myself. Because it's propriety that we're talking about in the end. I must remember the word propriety. Why am I reading the slightest signs of complicity as if they were the hallmarks of a fairy tale in the making? What is this immense promise I am always imagining in every woman I meet, as if the girl and I were already in league in a refined and tender and emotionally sensitive way against the Colins and Vikrams and Georgs of this world, the boors the libertines the rakes. And I am reminded, instantly, and with an almost overwhelming sense of derision and loss of faith, of how
used to lie in
sheets Friday evenings feeling deeply in love and infinitely superior to those who
just screwed around
, and the irony must surely be that with all that happened afterwards, the complicity betrayed and the determination to beat her betrayal out of her, or out of me, yes, out of me perhaps, the irony must be, I tell myself, that I still feel superior, and my superiority lies in the violence of my reaction, which is ugly, in the depth of this obsession, which is crippling and exhausting. Yes, your superiority, I tell myself, if such it is, lies in the fact that all the women you've seen since, you've seen not for their own sakes but only in order to repeat every gesture and caress you enjoyed with her, which is unspeakably ugly. Your superiority actually lies in your self-derision, your rancour, your inability to stomach yourself, which is ugly and unhealthy So that in my superiority, if that is what it is, I am uglier and unhealthier still than Colin, who is now saying that his next favourite word is âsqueeze'. âSque-ee-eeze', he repeats, drawing it out quite obscenely, rolling stale chewing-gum along his lips as he does so. Do they know what âsqueeze' means? But before they can say no and hence give him his chance to demonstrate I ask the young girl Sneaky what her real name is and she smiles. Nicoletta.
I'm Jerry, I tell her. Then at my prompting everybody on the back two rows of this coach announces their names, and so we have Margherita on Georg's left by the window, and Bruna the heavily powdered girl between myself and Georg, and Veronica, tiny, generous lips, to my right, and in front, going from right to left, Maura, belligerent, politicized, and Nicoletta, whose friends call her Niki, and the other side of the corridor Monica of the long legs in quality jeans, and Graziano, a tall lean eager boy with acne and a copy of the communist, ex-communist, newspaper,
âSqueeze', Colin repeats, who is nothing if he is not stubborn. Know it or not? Again he shows his chewing gum. Come on, âsqu-ee-ee-zah!
Georg leans forward, Means
, he explains.
Georges accent is German, very correct, very proper, and this fits somehow with the way he holds himself, with the straightness of the back of the neck, which makes the face tilt down a little, a little pedantically, but at the same time cool, relaxed. A man ageing with dignity, I tell myself, almost with nobility. A man who sent heaps of flowers and phoned so often that what could she do?
, if applied to people embracing, or
, if applied to fruit. He smiles, deprecating, cool, like the pro who has just defused a bomb too primitive for him to claim- glory. The girls giggle. Because Colin is mouthing, I can think of somethin' else we could
Georg. She was fascinated by his foreignness perhaps? Almost hourly he phoned, she said. She fell in love with that Germanic authority, that smooth Teutonic wisdom, the charmingly formal gestures, the simple assiduousness, the flowers delivered by a reputable company. I'm just about to plunge into my blind alley again, my splendid isolation, when Vikram Griffiths says, Hey up, Dafydd, what's this?
The coach is pulling off the road.
In the service station I quoted Thucydides, and this is something, sitting once again on the coach, but in the third seat from the back now on the right-hand side, and so in front of Nicoletta and Maura, because Colin has stolen my place and is at this very moment (I can hear his nasal voice) proceeding with his lexicon of favourite words, cuddle squeeze rub neck (verb form) smooch pet, etc., this is something I can't forgive myself.
The actual words I quoted, I remember now, sitting beside the somewhat morose Doris Rohr, whose only exchange with me so far has been to express her concern that we, and in particular Vikram, are asking too much of the University, that perhaps we should have accepted a cut in salary in return for certain guarantees, for her terror is, she says, that we will now all lose our jobs precisely because of this asking too much and that she as a result will be left unemployed and unemployable at forty-three (so says this well-married woman who arrives at the University in one of two fur coats and whose lipstick, make-up and perfume seem to conspire to express the complacency of wealth, rather than the lure of sex) - the actual words I quoted, dredging them up from my love affair with the classics of twenty and more years ago - and it was
genius to realize that in reviving that love affair she was reviving my youth, she was making me feel strong and enthusiastic again, to the point that I actually began to apply for jobs and to read and think again, and even my wife cheered up at the sight of me cheering up and began to encourage me and, encouraging me, became attractive again, so that a wonderful and wonderfully inebriating equivocation developed and continued for nigh on two years, an equivocation which would only make the taste of humiliation and betrayal and abandonment all the bitterer when finally the truth came out of course, but that's as maybe - yes, the words I quoted, as I was saying, were as follows:
We believe, out of tradition so far as the gods are concerned, and from experience when it comes to men, that as a dictate of nature every being always exercises all the power he has at his disposal
, and the occasion for my quoting this portentous and unhappy credo was partly brought about by a decision taken last night by the German Bundesbank and partly by my finding myself next to the Avvocato Malerba in the queue at the till for the purchase of a
cafÃ© au kit
and croissant at the Chambersee Service Station.
We filed into the Chambersee Service Station, built as was to be expected in the ubiquitous Euro-architecture of curved cement-and-glass surfaces, with a generous bristle of flagpoles outside displaying the colours of every nationality the franchise-holders hope to take money from and inside a sense of disorientation generated by flights of steps and walkways and signs that are no longer in any language but just cups and knives-and-forks and wheelchairs and crossed-out dogs all presented in stylized white lines on plastic blue squares, and in fact the moment we're through the steamy swing doors, heavy against the cold, almost all the girls, none of whom is wearing a skirt, follow the sign displaying a human figure distinguishable from another human figure precisely and exclusively because it is wearing a skirt, or dress, rather than trousers, reminding me of something I read not so long ago in
Corriere della Sera
where a woman contributing to one of those
debates about the discrimination against the fairer sex inherent in the insufficient provision of lavatory facilities in public places remarked, against the swim of the debate, that as she saw it the queues outside ladies' lavatories were really caused by the fact that women like to go to the loo together, and to chat there for a while, which again reminded me, though how this can be I don't know (perhaps just the thought of the way women are with each other, something I have always been envious of), reminded me of a desire I frequently used to express to
, usually immediately after we had made love, that I myself would like so much to be a woman, just for a day, or a week, I would like to know what it feels like to be a woman, and this desire was, and sometimes is, a terribly real and intense desire and part of a sort of deep biological yearning of mine, a yearning to do and to be and to have everything. A yearning against mortality, I presume. Or ultimately, since life is distinction and choice, a death wish.
When I mentioned this to
, she would always reply that I wanted to be a woman so that I could make love to a man. In a very profound part of myself I was homosexual, she said, and I should try to have an
sometime with a man as part of this voyage of self-discovery that I had embarked on with her, part of this quest for
a happy healthy sex life
, as she always put it which would make me a profoundly wiser more even-tempered understanding fellow. But I said no, no, I wanted to be a woman for a while, only a day perhaps, or not even, so that I could have sex with another woman, so that I could lose myself in femininity, be all woman licking woman and woman licked by woman, so that I could have sex with
, but she laughed at my excitement and said what a profoundly male and banal fantasy that was and in the end perhaps nothing more than retrospective jealousy because she had once said that the best sex in her life she had had with her Filipino cleaning girl