Authors: Graham Greene
Graham Greene - The End of the Affair
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who - when he has been seriously noted at all - has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’
For why should I have spoken to him? If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry - I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate.
It was strange to see Henry out on such a night: he liked his comfort and after all - or so I thought - he had Sarah. To me comfort is like the wrong memory at the wrong place or time: if one is lonely one prefers discomfort. There was too much comfort even in the bed sitting-room I had at the wrong - the south - side of the Common, in the relics of other people’s furniture. I thought I would go for a walk through the rain and have a drink at the local. The little crowded hall was full of strangers’ hats and coats and I took somebody else’s umbrella by accident - the man on the second floor had friends in. Then I closed the stained-glass door behind me and made my way carefully down the steps that had been blasted in 1944 and never repaired. I had reason to remember the occasion and how the stained glass, tough and ugly and Victorian, stood up to the shock as our grandfathers themselves would have done.
Directly I began to cross the Common I realized I had the wrong umbrella, for it sprang a leak and the rain ran down under my macintosh collar, and then it was I saw Henry. I could so easily have avoided him; he had no umbrella and in the light of the lamp I could see his eyes were blinded with the rain. The black leafless trees gave no protection: they stood around like broken water pipes, and the rain dripped off his stiff dark hat and ran in streams down his black civil servant’s overcoat. If I had walked straight by him, he wouldn’t have seen me, and I could have made certain by stepping two feet off the pavement, but I said, ‘Henry, you are almost a stranger,’ and saw his eyes light up as though we were old friends.
‘Bendrix,’ he said with affection, and yet the world would have said he had the reasons for hate, not me.
‘What are you up to, Henry, in the rain?’ There are men whom one has an irresistible desire to tease: men whose virtues one doesn’t share. He said evasively, ‘Oh, I wanted a bit of air,’ and during a sudden blast of wind and rain he just caught his hat in time from being whirled away towards the north side.
‘How’s Sarah?’ I asked because it might have seemed odd if I hadn’t, though nothing would have delighted me more than to have heard that she was sick, unhappy, dying. I imagined in those days that any suffering she underwent would lighten mine, and if she were dead I could be free: I would no longer imagine all the things one does imagine under my ignoble circumstances. I could even like poor silly Henry, I thought, if Sarah were dead.
He said, ‘Oh, she’s out for the evening somewhere,’ and set that devil in my mind at work again, remembering other days when Henry must have replied just like that to other inquirers, while I alone knew where Sarah was. ‘A drink?’ I asked, and to my surprise he put himself in step beside me. We had never before drunk together outside his home.
‘It’s a long time since we’ve seen you, Bendrix.’ For some reason I am a man known by his surname - I might never have been christened for all the use my friends make of the rather affected Maurice my literary parents gave me.
‘A long time.’
‘Why, it must be - more than a year.’
‘June 1944,’ I said.
‘As long as that - well, well.’ The fool, I thought, the fool to see nothing strange in a year and a half’s interval. Less than five hundred yards of flat grass separated our two ‘sides’. Had it never occurred to him to say to Sarah, ‘How’s Bendrix doing? What about asking Bendrix in?’ and hadn’t her replies ever seemed to him… odd, evasive, suspicious? I had fallen out of their sight as completely as a stone in a pond. I suppose the ripples may have disturbed Sarah for a week, a month, but Henry’s blinkers were firmly tied. I had hated his blinkers even when I had benefited from them, knowing that others could benefit too, ‘Is she at the cinema?’ I asked.
‘Oh no, she hardly ever goes.’
‘She used to.’
The Pontefract Arms was still decorated for Christmas with paper streamers and paper bells, the relics of commercial gaiety, mauve and orange, and the young landlady leant her breasts against the bar with a look of contempt for her customers.
‘Pretty,’ Henry said, without meaning it, and stared around with a certain lost air, a shyness, for somewhere to hang his hat. I got the impression that the nearest he had ever before been to a public bar was the chophouse off Northumberland Avenue where he ate lunch with his colleagues from the Ministry.
‘What will you have?’
‘I wouldn’t mind a whisky.’
‘Nor would I, but you’ll have to make do with rum.’ We sat at a table and fingered our glasses: I had never had much to say to Henry. I doubt whether I should ever have troubled to know Henry or Sarah well if I had not begun in 1939 to write a story with a senior civil servant as the main character. Henry James once, in a discussion with Walter Besant, said that a young woman with sufficient talent need only pass the mess-room windows of a Guards’ barracks and look inside in order to write a novel about the Brigade, but I think at some stage of her book she would have found it necessary to go to bed with a Guardsman if only in order to check on the details. I didn’t exactly go to bed with Henry, but I did the next best thing, and the first night I took Sarah out to dinner I had the cold-blooded intention of picking the brain of a civil servant’s wife. She didn’t know what I was at; she thought, I am sure, I was genuinely interested in her family life, and perhaps that first awakened her liking for me. What time did Henry have breakfast? I asked her. Did he go to the office by tube, bus or taxi? Did he bring his work home at night? Did he have a briefcase with the royal arms on it? Our friendship blossomed under my interest: she was so pleased that anybody should take Henry seriously. Henry was important, but important rather as an elephant is important, from the size of his department; there are some kinds of importance that remain hopelessly damned to unseriousness. Henry was an important assistant secretary in the Ministry of Pensions - later it was to be the Ministry of Home Security. Home Security - I used to laugh at that later in those moments when you hate your companion and look for any weapon… A time came when I deliberately told Sarah that I had only taken Henry up for the purpose of copy, copy too for a character who was the ridiculous, the comic element in my book. It was then she began to dislike my novel. She had an enormous loyalty to Henry (I could never deny that), and in those clouded hours when the demon took charge of my brain and I resented even harmless Henry, I would use the novel and invent episodes too crude to write… Once when Sarah had spent a whole night with me (I had looked forward to it as a writer looks forward to the last word of his book) I had spoilt the occasion suddenly by a chance word which broke the mood of what sometimes seemed for hours at a time a complete love. I had fallen sullenly asleep about two and woke at three, and putting my hand on her arm woke Sarah. I think I had meant to make everything well again, until my victim turned her face, bleary and beautiful with sleep and full of trust, towards me. She had forgotten the quarrel, and I found even in her forgetfulness a new cause. How twisted we humans are, and yet they say a God made us; but I find it hard to conceive of any God who is not as simple as a perfect equation, as clear as air. I said to her, ‘I’ve Iain awake thinking of Chapter Five. Does Henry ever eat coffee beans to clear his breath before an important conference?’ She shook her head and began to cry silently, and I of course pretended not to understand the reason - a simple question, it had been worrying me about my character, this was not an attack on Henry, the nicest people sometimes eat coffee beans… So I went on. She wept awhile and went to sleep. She was a good sleeper, and I took even her power to sleep as an added offence.
Henry drank his rum quickly, his gaze wandering miserably among the mauve and orange streamers. I asked, ‘Had a good Christmas?’
‘Very nice. Very nice,’ he said.
‘At home?’ Henry looked up at me as though my inflection of the word sounded strange.
‘Home? Yes, of course.’
‘And Sarah’s well?’
‘Have another rum?’
‘It’s my turn.’
While Henry fetched the drinks I went into the lavatory. The walls were scrawled with phrases: ‘Damn you, landlord, and your breasty wife.’
‘To all pimps and whores a merry syphilis and a happy gonorrhoea.’ I went quickly out again to the cheery paper streamers and the clink of glass. Sometimes I see myself reflected too closely in other men for comfort, and then I have an enormous wish to believe in the saints, in heroic virtue.
I repeated to Henry the two lines I had seen. I wanted to shock him, and it surprised me when he said simply, ‘Jealousy’s an awful thing.’
‘You mean the bit about the breasty wife?’
‘Both of them. When you are miserable, you envy other people’s happiness.’ It wasn’t what I had ever expected him to learn in the Ministry of Home Security. And there - in the phrase - the bitterness leaks again out of my pen. What a dull lifeless quality this bitterness is. If I could I would write with love, but if I could write with love, I would be another man: I would never have lost love. Yet suddenly across the shiny tiled surface of the bar-table I felt something, nothing so extreme as love, perhaps nothing more than a companionship in misfortune. I said to Henry, ‘Are you miserable?’
‘Bendrix, I’m worried.’
I expect it was the rum that made him speak, or was he partly aware of how much I knew about him? Sarah was loyal, but in a relationship such as ours had been you can’t help picking up a thing or two… I knew he had a mole on the left of his navel because a birthmark of my own had once reminded Sarah of it: I knew he suffered from short sight, but wouldn’t wear glasses with strangers (and I was still enough of a stranger never to have seen him in them): I knew his liking for tea at ten: I even knew his sleeping habits. Was he conscious that I knew so much already, that one more fact would not alter our relation? He said, ‘I’m worried about Sarah, Bendrix.’
The door of the bar opened and I could see the rain lashing down against the light. A little hilarious man darted in and called out, ‘Wot cher, everybody,’ and nobody answered.
‘Is she ill? I thought you said..
‘No. Not ill. I don’t think so.’ He looked miserably around - this was not his milieu. I noticed that the whites of his eyes were bloodshot; perhaps he hadn’t been wearing his glasses enough - there are always so many strangers, or it might have been the after-effect of tears. He said, ‘Bendrix, I can’t talk here,’ as though he had once been in the habit of talking somewhere. ‘Come home with me.’
‘Will Sarah be back?’
‘I don’t expect so.’
I paid for the drinks, and that again was a symptom of Henry’s disturbance - he never took other people’s hospitality easily. He was always the one in a taxi to have the money ready in the palm of his hand, while we others fumbled. The avenues of the Common still ran with rain, but it wasn’t far to Henry’s. He let himself in with a latchkey under the Queen Anne fanlight and called, ‘Sarah. Sarah.’ I longed for a reply and dreaded a reply, but nobody answered. He said, ‘She’s out still. Come into the study.’
I had never been in his study before: I had always been Sarah’s friend, and when I met Henry it was on Sarah’s territory, her haphazard living-room where nothing matched, nothing was period or planned, where everything seemed to belong to that very week because nothing was ever allowed to remain as a token of past taste or past sentiment. Everything was used there; just as in Henry’s study I now felt that very little had ever been used. I doubted whether the set of Gibbon had once been opened, and the set of Scott was only there because it had - probably - belonged to his father, like the bronze copy of the Discus Thrower. And yet he was happier in his unused room simply because it was his: his possession. I thought with bitterness and envy: if one possesses a thing securely, one need never use it.