Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
‘Shall we go upstairs?’
‘You go first. I’ll come in a minute.’ She slipped away, and I went up to my flat. Ten minutes passed, and then she was in the doorway, a faintly apprehensive smile on her face. She stood there in her white dress, small, innocent-corrupt, coarse-fine, an expert novice.
She came in, I shut the door, and we were kissing at once, for a minute, two minutes, pressed back against the door in the darkness. There were steps outside, and a sharp double rap. Alison put her hand over my mouth. Another double rap; and then another. Hesitation, heart-beats. The footsteps went away.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Come on, come on.’
It was late the next morning when I woke. She was still asleep, with her naked brown back turned away from mc. I went and made some coffee and took it into the bedroom. She was awake then, staring at me over the top of the bedclothes. It was a long expressionless look that rejected my smile and ended abruptly in her turning and pulling the bedclothes over her head. I sat beside her and tried rather amateurishly to discover what was wrong, but she kept the sheet pulled tight over her head; so I gave up patting and making noises and went back to my coffee. After a while she sat up and asked for a cigarette. And then if I would lend her a shirt. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She pulled on the shirt, went to the bathroom, and brushed me aside with a shake of her hair when she came and got back into bed again. I sat at the foot of the bed and watched her drink her coffee.
‘Do you know how many men I’ve slept with the last two months?’
She didn’t smile.
‘If I’d slept with fifty I’d just be an honest professional.’
‘Have some more coffee.’
‘Half an hour after I first saw you last night I thought, if I was really vicious I’d get into bed with him.’
‘Thank you very much.’
‘I could tell about you from the way you talked.’
‘I was sloshed,’ she said. ‘So tired.’ She gave me a long look, then shook her head and shut her eyes. ‘I’m sorry. You’re nice. You’re terribly nice in bed. Only now what?’
‘I’m not used to this.’
‘It’s not a crime. You’re just proving you can’t marry this chap.’
‘I’m twenty-three. How old are you?’
‘Don’t you begin to feel things about yourself you know are you? Are going to be you forever? That’s what I feel. I’m going to be a stupid Australian slut forever.’
‘I tell you what Pete’s doing right now. You know, he writes and tells me. “I took a piece out last Friday and we had a wuzzamaroo.”’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘It means “and you sleep with anyone you like, too”.’ She stared out of the window. ‘We lived together, all this spring. You know, we get on, we’re like brother and sister when we’re out of bed.’ She gave me a slanting look through the cigarette smoke. ‘You don’t know what it’s like waking up with a man you didn’t even know this time yesterday. It’s losing something. Not just what all girls lose.’
‘Or gaining something.’
‘God, what can we gain. Tell me.’
‘Did I tell you I love your mouth?’
She stubbed the cigarette out and sat back.
‘Do you know why I tried to cry just now? Because I’m going to marry him. As soon as he comes back, I’m going to marry him. He’s all I deserve.’ She sat leaning back against the wall, with the too-large shirt on, a small female boy with a hurt face, staring at me, staring at the bedcover, in our silence.
‘It’s just a phase. You’re unhappy.’
‘I’m unhappy when I stop and think. When I wake up and see what I am.’
‘Thousands of girls do it.’
‘I’m not thousands of girls. I’m me.’ She slipped the shirt over her head, then retreated under the bedclothes. ‘What’s your real name? Your surname?’
‘Urfe. U, R
‘Mine’s Kelly. Was your dad really a brigadier?’
She gave a timid mock salute, then reached out a brown arm. I moved beside her.
‘Don’t you think I’m a tramp?’
Perhaps then, as I was looking at her, so close, I had my choice. I could have said what I was thinking: Yes, you are a tramp, and even worse, you exploit your tramp-hood, and I wish I’d taken your sister-in-law-to-be’s advice. Perhaps if I had been farther away from her, on the other side of the room, in any situation where I could have avoided her eyes, I could have been decisively brutal. But those grey, searching, always candid eyes, by their begging me not to lie, made me lie.
‘I like you. Really very much.’
‘Come back to bed and hold me. Nothing else. Just hold me.’ I got into bed and held her. Then for the first time in my life I made love to a woman in tears.
She was in tears more than once, that first Saturday. She went down to see Maggie about five and came back with red eyes. Maggie had told her to get out. Half an hour later Ann, the other girl in the flat, one of those unfortunate females whose faces fall absolutely flat from nostrils to chin, came up. Maggie had gone out and wanted Alison to remove all her things. So we went down and brought them up. I had a talk with Ann. In her quiet, rather prim way she showed more sympathy for Alison than I was expecting; Maggie was evidently and aggressively blind to her brother’s faults.
For days, afraid of Maggie, who for some reason stood in her mind as a hated but still potent monolith of solid Australian virtue on the blasted moor of English decadence, Alison did not go out except at night. I went and bought food, and we talked and slept and made love and danced and cooked meals at all hours,
sous les toits,
as remote from ordinary time as we were from the dull London world outside the windows.
Alison was always feminine; she never, like so many English girls, betrayed her gender. She wasn’t beautiful, she very often wasn’t even pretty. But she had a fashionably thin boyish figure, she had a contemporary dress sense, she had a conscious way of walking, and her sum was extraordinarily more than her parts. I would sit in the car and watch her walking down the street towards me, pause, cross the road; and she looked wonderful. But then when she was close, beside me, there so often seemed to be something rather shallow, something spoilt-child, in her appearance. Even close to her, I was always being wrong-footed. She would be ugly one moment, and then some movement, expression, angle of her face, made ugliness impossible.
When she went out she used to wear a lot of eye-shadow, which married with the sulky way she sometimes held her mouth to give her a characteristic bruised look; a look that subtly made one want to bruise her more. Men were always aware of her, in the street, in restaurants, in pubs; and she knew it. I used to watch them sliding their eyes at her as she passed. She was one of those rare, even among already pretty, women that are born with a natural aura of sexuality: always in their lives it will be the relationships with men, it will be how men react, that matters. And even the tamest sense it.
There was a simpler Alison, when the mascara was off. She had not been typical of herself, those first twelve hours; but still always a little unpredictable, ambiguous. One never knew when the more sophisticated, bruised-hard persona would reappear. She would give herself violently; then yawn at the wrongest moment. She would spend all one day clearing up the flat, cooking, ironing, then pass the next three or four bohemianly on the floor in front of the fire, reading
women’s magazines, a detective story, Hemingway – not all at the same time, but bits of all in the same afternoon. She liked doing things, and only then finding a reason for doing them.
One day she came back with an expensive fountain pen.
‘But you shouldn’t.’
‘It’s okay. I stole it.’
‘I steal everything. Didn’t you realize?’
‘I never steal from small shops. Only the big stores. They ask for it. Don’t look so shocked.’
‘I’m not.’ But I was. I stood holding the pen gingerly. She grinned.
‘It’s just a hobby.’
‘Six months in Holloway wouldn’t be so funny.’
She had poured herself a whisky.
I hate big stores. And not just capitalists. Pommy capitalists. Two birds with one steal. Oh, come on, sport, smile.’ She put the pen in my pocket. ‘There. Now you’re a cassowary after the crime.’
‘I need a Scotch.’
Holding the bottle, I remembered she had ‘bought’ that as well. I looked at her. She nodded.
She stood beside me as I poured. ‘Nicholas, you know why you take
too seriously? Because you take yourself too seriously.’
She gave me an odd little smile, half tender, half mocking, and went away to peel potatoes. And I knew that in some obscure way I had offended her; and myself.
One night I heard her say a name in her sleep.
‘Who’s Michel?’ I asked the next morning.
‘Someone I want to forget.’
But she talked about everything else; about her English-born mother, genteel but dominating; about her father, a station-master who had died of cancer four years before.
‘That’s why I’ve got this crazy between voice. It’s Mum and Dad living out their battles again every time I open my mouth. I suppose it’s why I hate Australia and I love Australia and I couldn’t ever be happy there and yet I’m always feeling homesick. Does that make sense?’
She was always asking me if she made sense.
‘I went to see the old family in Wales. Mum’s brother. Jesus. Enough to make the wallabies weep.’
But she found me very English, very fascinating. Partly it was because I was ‘cultured’, a word she often used. Pete had always ‘honked’ at her if she went to galleries or concerts. She mimicked him: ‘What’s wrong with the boozer, girl?’
One day she said, ‘You don’t know how nice Pete is. Besides being a bastard. I always know what he wants, I always know what he thinks, and what he means when he says anything. And you, I don’t know anything. I offend you and I don’t know why. I please you and I don’t know why. It’s because you’re English. You couldn’t ever understand that.’
She had finished high school in Australia, and had even had a year doing languages at Sydney University. But then she had met Pete, and it ‘got complicated’. She’d had an abortion and come to England.
‘Did he make you have the abortion?’
She was sitting on my knees.
‘He never knew.’
‘It could have been someone else’s. I wasn’t sure.’
‘You poor kid.’
‘I knew if it was Pete’s he wouldn’t want it. And if it wasn’t his he wouldn’t have it. So.’
‘Weren’t you – ‘
‘I didn’t want a baby. It would have got in the way.’ But she added more gently, ‘Yes, I was.’
A silence, a small shrug.
I couldn’t see her face. We sat in silence, close and warm, both aware that we were close and aware that we were embarrassed by the implications of this talk about children. In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love.
One evening we went to see Game’s old film
Quai des Brumes.
She was crying when we came out and she began to cry again when we were in bed. She sensed my disapproval.
‘You’re not me. You can’t feel like I feel.’
‘I can feel.’
‘No, you can’t. You just choose not to feel or something, and everything’s fine.’
‘It’s not fine. It’s just not so bad.’
‘That film made me feel what I feel about everything. There isn’t any meaning. You try and try to be happy and then something chance happens and it’s all gone. It’s because we don’t believe in a life after death.’
‘Not don’t. Can’t.’
‘Every time you go out and I’m not with you I think you may die. I think about dying every day. Every time I have you, I think this is one in the eye for death. You know, you’ve got a lot of money and the shops are going to shut in an hour. It’s sick, but you’ve got to spend. Does that make sense?’
‘Of course. The bomb.’
She lay smoking.
‘It’s not the bomb. It’s us.’
She didn’t fall for the solitary heart; she had a nose for emotional blackmail. She thought it must be nice to be totally alone in the world, to have no family ties. When I was going on one day in the car about not having any close friends – using my favourite metaphor: the cage of glass between me and the rest of the world – she just laughed. ‘You like it,’ she said. ‘You say you’re isolated, boyo, but you really think you’re different.’ She broke my hurt silence by saying, too late, ‘You are different.’
She shrugged. ‘Marry someone. Marry me.’
She said it as if she had suggested I try an aspirin for a headache. I kept my eyes on the road.
‘You’re going to marry Pete.’
‘And you wouldn’t marry me because I’m a whore and a colonial.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t use that word.’
‘And because you wish I wouldn’t use that word.’
Always we edged away from the brink of the future. We talked about
future, about living in a cottage, where I should write, about buying a jeep and crossing Australia. ‘When we’re in Alice Springs … ‘ became a sort of joke – in never-never land.
One day drifted and melted into another. I knew the affaire was like no other I had been through. Apart from anything else it was so much happier physically. Out of bed I felt I was teaching her, anglicizing her accent, polishing off her roughnesses, her provincialisms; in bed she did the teaching. We knew this reciprocity without being able, perhaps because we were both single children, to analyse it. We both had something to give and to gain … and at the same time a physical common ground, the same appetites, the same tastes, the same freedom from inhibition. She was teaching me other things, besides the art of love; but that is how I thought of it at the time.
I remember one day when we were standing in one of the rooms at the Tate. Alison was leaning slightly against me, holding my hand, looking in her childish sweet-sucking way at a Renoir. I suddenly had a feeling that we were one body, one person, even there; that if she had disappeared it would have been as if I had lost half of myself. A terrible deathlike feeling, which anyone less cerebral and self-absorbed than I was then would have realized was simply love. I thought it was desire. I drove her straight home and tore her clothes off.
Another day, in Jermyn Street, we ran into Billy Whyte, an Old Etonian I had known quite well at Magdalen; he’d been one of the Hommes Révoltés. He was pleasant enough, not in the least snobbish – but he carried with him, perhaps in spite of himself, an unsloughable air of high caste, of constant contact with the nicest best people, of impeccable upper-class taste in facial expression, clothes, vocabulary. We went off to an oyster bar; he’d just heard the first Colchesters of the season were in. Alison said very little, but I was embarrassed by her, by her accent, by the difference between her and one or two debs who were sitting near us. She left us for a moment when Billy poured the last of the Muscadet.