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Authors: Kingsley Amis

Stanley and the Women

BOOK: Stanley and the Women
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STANLEY AND

THE WOMEN

 

 

KINGSLEY
AMIS

 

 

 

 

 

1  
 Onset

 

 

It had been one of Susan’s
most successful evenings. After weeks of hot sun in late June and July, the
weather had turned cool and some of the people, especially the women, must have
been quite glad of the candles round the dinner table. The room, which she had
recently had redecorated, looked bright and cheerful. There was a comfortable,
friendly atmosphere with everybody contributing something to the conversation.
The first course, cold avocado soup with a sprinkling of red pepper on top, had
been made by Mrs Shillibeer, the daily woman, under Susan’s supervision, and it
went down extremely well. So did the cold cooked salmon with cucumber, fresh
mayonnaise and a sauce made out of chopped olives also by Mrs Shillibeer. They
drank a rather good white Burgundy with that, four bottles between the eight
persons there, and a small glass each of a sweet Rhône wine with the
raspberries and cream. By the time Susan took them upstairs for coffee they
were in excellent form.

The
sitting room on the first floor had a low ceiling and a rather awkward shape,
but she had done her best to turn it into an attractive place with carefully
chosen lamps and bright rugs and cushions. The pictures were all personal in some
way too, done by artists known to her or the gifts of friends. A long row of
gramophone records, mostly orchestral, instrumental and chamber works, stood in
a specially built wooden case, part of which housed the rather old-fashioned
hi-fl. But naturally it was books that predominated — no science, no history, a
bit of biography and some essays alongside a lot of plays, poetry, novels and
short stories. Her own two books of collected pieces were among the essays
somewhere, not in any particular place.

Quite a
few of the books had come her way as review copies in the literary department
of the
Sunday Chronicle.
Others she sold off in regular batches, an
established perk that went some way towards making up her salary as assistant
literary editor of the paper. Not far, though, especially considering how much
of the literary editor’s work she had to do besides her own. He was there that
evening, old Robbie Leishman Jamieson, in fact she had very much set it up as
his evening, with an American novelist also present and a new writer of science
fiction or something of the kind, and their wives. Old Robbie was the centre of
attraction on the pale-grey velvet settee with a shot of his favourite malt
whisky in a cut-glass tumbler and Susan encouraging him to tell all his best
Evelyn Waugh stories, especially the one about Noel Coward and the Papal
Nuncio, which had to be explained to the American novelist’s wife.

People
used to say about Susan at this stage of her life that things were going not
too badly for her after some rather rough times earlier on. Back at the
beginning there had been a husband nobody seemed to know a great deal about, an
unsuccessful painter or book-illustrator she married to spite her family,
according to her, and started divorcing as soon as she found the family had
been right about him all the time. Her main attachment after that had been to a
considerably more successful left-wing playwright she lived with for six years
but could not marry because he already had a wife, and as well as being
left-wing was a Roman Catholic, not one of the sort that went in for divorce.
That part lasted till the end of ‘78, when the fellow’s wife developed a
serious illness and he went back to her. On 12 February 1980 Susan began her
second and present marriage and later that year moved into the substantial
Victorian red-brick house up near the pond in Hampstead, once the property of a
minor poet and antiquarian of those days.

She had
passed her thirty-eighth birthday a fortnight before the party for Robbie Jamieson.
At first glance she could have been quite that, a rather tall woman who walked
and stood a bit off centre with her hands on her elbows very often, frowning,
blinking rather above the normal rate and always pushing her upper lip down
over her teeth and pressing the lower lip against it in a doubtful kind of way.
In one of her grey cardigans or unsensational dark summer dresses she could
have been mistaken for a librarian or even a secretary in a local-authority
office, but only for a second and before she realized someone else was there.
Close to and in conversation she showed up as younger, better shaped for a
start and also much more definite in her appearance, with large clear brown
eyes and a very distinctly outlined mouth, and glossy black hair that had a
little grey in it but no more than was enough to show how black and how
genuinely black the rest was. She looked clever, nervous, humorous, something
like devoted or loyal when she gave a person her full attention, and gullible,
and beautiful. It was true she lacked the withdrawn expression to be seen in
most women considered beautiful, but there ought to have been a word for her
combination of features, which was among other things completely distinctive,
meaning less good versions of it somehow never seemed to show up, and the
obvious word always had a lot to be said for it, quite enough in this case.
Anyway, that was the conclusion I came to every time I thought about the
matter. In fact I told her she had been looking beautiful that evening, when
the guests had gone and I was helping her take the coffee things and the
glasses out to the kitchen.

‘That’s
good,’ she said, kissing me. ‘Even in my present state, you mean.

‘I don’t
know what you’re talking about,’ I said.

‘What? Even
attired in one of my old school nighties and without so much as having passed a
comb through my hair.’

‘I didn’t
say a word. Did I say anything at all?’

‘You
didn’t have to, old boy. When I appeared as hostess you radiated courteous
disapproval. Fairly courteous disapproval. For three seconds or so.

‘I very
much doubt whether I radiated anything. You guessed I’d be feeling it, which
isn’t the same at all.’

‘Well,
you were, weren’t you, so it’s not so different. Not that I’m complaining, I
promise you.’

I said,
‘I don’t think it’s egotistical or funny or like a Jew or like a gangster of me
to fancy the idea of my wife getting herself up in a bit of style. Which would
indeed include a much more expensive dress than the one you’re wearing. Nicer,
too. Also something in the way of earrings or —’

‘Of
course it isn’t funny, darling, it’s sweet of you, but you know how hopeless I
am, I’d still only pour soup over it. Here.’ She pulled part of her skirt into
the light. ‘Actually this is probably mayonnaise.
Bugger.’

I
managed not to press the point. In spite of what she had said just now Susan
always kept her hair neatly trimmed and shaped, but with everything else I
could think of her careless attitude to her appearance did seem pretty firm. It
connected up somehow with her ideas about art and her position as a writer, an
obviously important part of her life she had never wanted me to inquire into. I
thought in one way it was rather a shame, not getting the most out of a
complexion and colouring as good as hers, but I have always been a great
believer in letting people decide things like that for themselves, and there
was not much I could have done about this one in any case. So when she asked me
in various ways if I thought the evening had been a success I not only said the
right things but said them enthusiastically. I went on record as being quite
sure the meal had been remarkably popular, old Robbie had had the time of his
life, the Americans had gone down well enough with the others and had also been
suitably entertained, and more in the same strain, not that she was in much
real doubt in her own mind, of course. By this time we had finished in the
kitchen and were back in the sitting room.

‘Shall
we have just one more last quick drink?’ I said.

‘Why
not?’ said Susan, screwing up her face.

I
poured her a small brandy and myself a smallish Scotch and water. As I did so I
realized I had put down a couple already that night.

‘Good
old Stanley,’ she said in a very slightly dreamy way. ‘Without whom none of it
would have been possible.’

‘What
do you mean? You organized the whole thing.’

‘That’s
exactly what I do mean.’

‘It’s
true I was responsible for the wines, and there I feel I can claim some credit.
The Beaumes-de-Venise in particular. Never been known to fail. Actually I think
even old Robbie approved, don’t you?’

‘Darling,
what I’m trying to say is, you let me have the entire evening exactly the way I
wanted it even though it wasn’t really your sort of evening. Just like you let
me have my life the way I want it, as far as you can. Even though, well, parts
of it aren’t quite your sort of life, I suppose.’

We
looked at each other and she smiled and half-shut her eyes in the way she
sometimes did.

‘You
don’t hear me complain,’ I said. ‘Shall I come and sit over there?’

‘Let’s
go up.

The
words were not even out of her mouth when the buzzer from the street door went,
a short burst but long enough.

‘Shit,’
said Susan with an annoyance I shared.

When I
took the phone arrangement off the wall there was nobody at the other end,
though not quite silence, more like a very loud seashell. I said Hallo several
times and there was still nothing.

‘Probably
a drunk going home from a pub,’ Susan said.

‘Not
this late I shouldn’t think. Nobody left anything, did they? I’d better go and
see.

 

 

The outside door was at
the far end of a short glassed-in passage over a dip in the ground. I opened it
and looked around and saw nothing at all even when I stepped out, only street
lighting and a few parked cars, in fact I was just about on the point of going
back in when I heard somebody say something, a mumbled couple of words in a man’s
voice. I said Hallo again, still without getting any answer. Then after more
silence the same person spoke again, tentatively.

‘Dad?’

‘Steve!’

There
was no one else it could have been, though even now I had not really recognized
the voice. I already knew that something was wrong, before I could think of any
possible reasons. At the same time I felt the slight muzziness slip away from
my head. I walked up the street a few yards and found my son alongside the
next-door garage, or just stepping out from that corner. Nineteen he was that
year, a tall lad, taller than me, also fairer, and of course less bald. He
seemed to be wearing his usual assemblage of dark jacket and trousers and light-coloured
open-necked shirt. I thought he was avoiding my eye, but it was hard to tell in
the patchy light. Usually we hugged each other on greeting but not this time.

‘Well,
fancy seeing —’

‘Okay
if I come in for a bit?’

‘Of
course it’s okay. It’s great to see you, Steve-oh. What can I offer you? Drink?
Bed? Food? Anything within reason.

I
turned away towards the house but he stayed where he was. ‘Got some people in,
have you?’

‘No. We
did have, but they’ve gone. There’s just Susan and me. We were —’Have you got
those colour photographs I took that year in Spain?’ ‘Hey, you’re supposed to
be in Spain now, aren’t you, you and, er, you and Mandy? Why aren’t you there?
Didn’t you go, or what?’

‘Oh,
yeah. See, I wanted to get my head together.’

‘What?’
That last bit bothered me for a moment, until I put it down as another of the
vague phrases he and his mates picked up out of nowhere, rode to death for a
few weeks or months and suddenly forgot. ‘But did you go? When did you get
back?’

‘Just
now.’

‘You
mean today.’

‘Just
now. Victoria. I walked.’

‘Not
all the way here from Victoria, surely to God? It must be about…’

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