Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
‘Nicholas—would you excuse me—and get me that taxi?’
He had the face of a man, a distinguished man, suddenly become a boy again, rather comically melted by this evidently unexpected meeting into a green remembering. I made a convenient show of excessive politeness to some other people heading for the tea-room, which allowed me to hang back a moment. He was holding both her hands, drawing her aside, and she was smiling, that strange smile of hers, like Ceres returned to the barren land. I had to go on, but I turned again at the end of the corridor. The man he was with had walked on and was waiting by the tea-room door. The two of them stood there. I could see the tender creases round his eyes; and still she smiled, accepting homage.
There were no taxis about and I waited by the kerb. I wondered if it had been the ‘someone quite famous’ in the sedan; but I didn’t recognize him. I recognized only the fascination. His eyes had been for her only, as if the business he had been on shrivelled into nothingness at the sight of that face.
She came out hurriedly a minute or two later.
‘Can I give you a lift?’
She was not going to make any explanation, and something about her hermetic expression made it, yet once again, infuriatingly, seem vulgar to be curious. She was not good-mannered, but expert with good manners; used them like an engineer, to shift the coarse bulk of me where she wanted.
‘No thanks. I’m going to Chelsea.’ I wasn’t; but I wanted to be free of her.
I watched her covertly for a moment, then I said, ‘I used to think of a story with your daughter, and I think of it even more with you.’ She smiled, a little uncertainly. ‘It’s probably not true, but it’s about Marie Antoinette and a butcher. The butcher led a mob into the palace at Versailles. He had a cleaver in his hand and he was shouting that he was going to cut Marie Antoinette’s throat. The mob killed the guards and the butcher forced the door of the royal apartments. At last he rushed into her bedroom. She was alone. Standing by a window. There was no one else there. The butcher with a cleaver in his hand and the queen.’
I caught sight of a taxi going in the wrong direction and waved to the driver to turn.
‘He fell on his knees and burst into tears.’
She was silent for a moment.
‘I believe that’s exactly what Marie Antoinette said.’
She watched the taxi turn.
‘Doesn’t everything depend on who the butcher was crying for?’
I looked away from her eyes. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
The taxi drew up beside the kerb, and I opened the door. She watched me for a moment, then gave up, or remembered.
‘Your plate.’ She handed it to me from her basket.
‘I’ll try not to break it.’
‘It carries my good wishes.’ She held out a hand. ‘But Alison isn’t a present. She has to be paid for.’
‘She’s had her revenge.’
She had been about to release my hand, but now she retained it. ‘Nicholas, I never told you the other commandment my husband and I kept with each other.’
She said it, and the accompanying look was without a smile. Her eyes held mine a long moment, then she turned into the taxi. I gazed after it until it disappeared out of sight past Brompton Oratory; without tears, but just, I imagined, as that poor devil of a butcher must have stared down at the Aubusson carpet.
And so I waited.
It seemed sadistic, this last wasteland of days. It was as if Conchis, with Alison’s connivance, proceeded by some outmoded Victorian dietetic morality—one couldn’t have more jam, the sweetness of events, until one ate a lot more bread, the dry stodge of time. But I was long past philosophizing. The next weeks consisted of a long struggle between my growing—not diminishing—impatience and the manner of life I took up to dull it. Almost every night I contrived to pass through Russell Square, rather in the way, I suppose, that the sailors’ wives and black-eyed Susans would, more out of boredom than hope, haunt the quays in sailing days. But my ship never showed a light. Two or three times I went out to Much Hadham, at night, but the darkness of Dinsford House was as complete as the darkness in Russell Square.
For the rest, I spent hours in cinemas, hours reading books, mainly rubbish, because all I required of a book during that period was that it kept my mind drugged. I used to drive all through the night to places I did not want to go to—to Oxford, to Brighton, to Bath. These long drives calmed me, as though I was doing something constructive by racing hard through the night; scorching through sleeping towns, always turning back in the small hours and driving exhausted into London in the dawn; then sleeping till four or five in the afternoon.
It was not only my boredom that needed calming; well before my meetings with Lily de Seitas I had had another problem.
I spent many of my waking hours in Soho or Chelsea; and they are not the areas where the chaste fiancé goes—unless he is burning to test his chastity. There were dragons enough in the forest, from the farded old bags in the doorways of Greek Street to the equally pickup-able but more appetizing ‘models’ and demi-debs of the King’s Road. Every so often I would see a girl who would excite me sexually. I began by repressing the very idea; then frankly admitted it. If I resolutely backed out of, or looked away from, promising situations, it was for a variety of reasons; and reasons generally more selfish than noble. I wanted to show
if they had eyes present to be shown, and I could never be sure that they hadn’t—that I could live without affaires; and less consciously I wanted to show myself the same thing. I also wanted to be able to face Alison with the knowledge as a weapon, an added lash to the cat—if the cat had to be used.
The truth was that the recurrent new feeling I had for Alison had nothing to do with sex. Perhaps it had something to do with my alienation from England and the English, my specieslessness, my sense of exile; but it seemed to me that I could have slept with a different girl every night, and still have gone on wanting to see Alison just as much. I wanted something else from her now—and what it was only she could give me. That was the distinction. Anyone could give me sex. But only she could give me … I couldn’t call it love, because I saw it as something experimental, depending, even before the experiment proper began, on factors like the degree of her contrition, the fullness of her confession, the extent to which she could convince me that
still loved me; that her love had caused her betrayal. And then I felt towards the godgame some of the mixed fascination and repulsion one feels for an intelligent religion; I knew there ‘must be something’ in it, but I as surely knew that I was not the religious type. Besides, the logical conclusion of this more clearly seen distinction between love and sex was certainly not an invitation to enter a world of fidelity. In one sense Mrs de Seitas had been preaching to the converted in all that she had said about a clean surgical abscission of what went on in the loins from what went on in the heart.
Yet something very deep in me revolted. I could swallow her story, but it lay queasily on my stomach. It flouted something deeper than convention and received ideas. It flouted an innate sense that I ought to find all I needed in Alison and that if I failed to do so, then something more than morality or sensuality was involved; something I couldn’t define, but which was both biological and metaphysical; to do with imagination and with death. Perhaps Lily de Seitas looked forward to a sexual morality for the twenty-first century; but something was missing, some vital safeguard; and I suspected I saw to the twenty-second.
Easy to think such things; but harder to live them, in the meanwhile-still-twentieth century. Our instincts emerge so much more nakedly, our emotions and wills veer so much more quickly, than ever before. A young Victorian of my age would have thought nothing of waiting fifty months, let along fifty days, for his beloved; and of never permitting a single unchaste thought to sully his mind, let alone an act his body. I could get up in a young-Victorian mood; but by midday, with a pretty girl standing beside me in a bookshop, I might easily find myself praying to the God I did not believe in that she wouldn’t turn and smile at me.
Then one evening in Bayswater a girl did smile; she didn’t have to turn. It was in an espresso bar, and I had spent most of my meal watching her talking opposite with a friend; her bare arms, her promising breasts. She looked Italian; black-haired, doe-eyed. Her friend went off, and the girl sat back and gave me a very direct, though perfectly nice, smile with her eyes. She wasn’t a tart; she was just saying, if you want to start talking, come on.
I got clumsily to my feet, and spent an embarrassing minute waiting at the entrance for the waitress to come and take my money. My shameful retreat was partly inspired by paranoia. The girl and her friend had come in after me, and had sat at a table where I couldn’t help watching them. It was absurd. I began to feel that every girl who crossed my path was hired to torment and test me; I started checking through the window before I went in to coffee-bars and restaurants, to see if I could get a corner free of sight and sound of the dreadful creatures. My behaviour became increasingly clownish; and I grew angrier and angrier with the circumstances that made it so. Then Jojo came.
It was during the last week of September, a fortnight after my last meeting with Lily de Seitas. Bored to death with myself, I went late one afternoon to see an old René Clair. I sat without thinking next to a humped-up shape and watched the film—the immortal
Italian Straw Hat.
By various hoarse snuffling noises I deduced that the Beckett-like thing next to me was female. After half an hour she turned to me for a light. I saw a round-cheeked face, no make-up, a fringe of brown hair pigtailed at the back, thick eyebrows, very dirty fingernails holding a fag-end. When the lights went on and we waited for the next feature she tried, with a really pitiable amateurishness, to pick me up. She was dressed in jeans, a grubby grey polo-necked sweater, a very ancient man’s duffel coat; but she had three queer asexual charms—a face-splitting grin, a hoarse Scots accent, and an air of such solitary sloppiness that I saw in her at once both a kindred spirit and someone worthy of a modern Mayhew. Somehow the grin didn’t seem quite real, but the result of pulling strings. She sat puppy-slumped like a dejected fat boy, and tried very unsuccessfully to dig out of me what I did, where I lived; and then, perhaps because of the froglike grin, perhaps because it was a lapse so patently unlikely to lead to danger, so patently not a test, I asked her if she wanted a coffee.
So we went to a coffee-bar. I was hungry, I said I was going to have some spaghetti. At first she wouldn’t have any; then she admitted she had spent the last of her money on getting into the cinema; then she ate like a wolf. I grew full of kindness to dumb animals.
“We went on to a pub. She had come from Glasgow, it seemed, two months before, to be an art student. In Glasgow she had belonged to some bizarre Celtic-Bohemian fringe; and now she lived in coffee-bars and cinemas, ‘with a wee bitta help from ma friends’. She had packed art in; the eternal provincial tramp.
I felt increasingly sure of my chastity with her; and perhaps that was why I liked her so much so fast. She amused me, she had character, with her husky voice and her grotesque lack of normal femininity. She also had a total absence of pity about herself; and therefore all the attraction of an opposite. I drove her to her door, a rooming-house in Notting Hill, and she evidently thought I would be expecting to ‘kip’ with her. I quickly disillusioned her.
‘Then we’ll no see each other again.’
‘We could.’ I looked at her dumpy figure beside me. ‘How old are you?’
‘Ge’ away wi’ you. I’m all of twenty.’
‘I’ve got a proposition to make.’ She sniffed. ‘Sorry. A proposal. Actually, I’m waiting around for someone ... a girl … to come back from Australia. And what I’d very much like for two or three weeks is a companion.’ Her grin split her face from ear to ear. ‘I’m offering you a job. There are agencies in London that do this sort of thing. Provide escorts and partners.’
She still grinned. ‘I’d awfla like you just to come up.’
‘No—I meant exactly what I offered. You’re temporarily drifting. So am I. So let’s drift together … and I’ll take care of the finances. No sex. Just companionship.’
She rubbed the insides of her wrists together; grinned again and shrugged, as if one madness more was immaterial.
So I took up with her. If they had their eyes on me, it would be up to them to make a move. I thought it might even help to precipitate matters.
Jojo was a strange creature, as douce as rain—London rain, because she was seldom very clean-and utterly without ambition or meanness. She slipped perfectly into the role I cast her for. We slopped round the cinemas, slopped round the pubs, slopped round exhibitions. Sometimes we slopped round all day up in my flat. But always, at some point in the night, I sent her slopping back to her cubbyhole. Often we sat for hours at the same table reading magazines and newspapers and never exchanging a word. After seven days I felt I had known her for seven years. I gave her four pounds a week and offered to buy her some clothes and pay her tiny rent. She accepted a dark-blue jersey from Marks and Spencers, but nothing else. She fulfilled her function very well; she put off every other girl who looked at us and on my side I cultivated a sort of lunatic transferred fidelity towards her.
She was always equable, grateful for the smallest bone, like an old mongrel; patient, unoffended, casual. I refused to talk about Alison, and probably Jojo ceased to believe in her; accepted, in her accept-all way, that I was just ‘a wee bit cracked’.
Then one October evening I knew I wouldn’t sleep and I offered to drive her anywhere she wanted within a night’s range. She thought for a moment and said, goodness knows why, Stonehenge. So we drove down to Stonehenge and walked around the looming menhirs at three o’clock with a cold wind blowing and the sound of peewits in the moon-drenched wrack above our heads. Later we sat in the car and ate chocolate. I could just see her face; the dark smudges of her eyes and the innocent puppy-grin.
‘Why are you grinning, Jojo?’
‘ ‘Cause I’m happy.’
‘Aren’t you tired?’
I leant forward and kissed the side of her head. It was the first time I’d ever kissed her, and I started the engine immediately. After a while she went to sleep and slowly slumped against my shoulder. When she slept she looked very young, fifteen or sixteen. I got occasional whiffs of her hair, which she hardly ever washed. I felt for her almost exactly what I felt for Kemp; great affection, and not the least desire.
One night soon after that we went to the cinema. Kemp, who thought I was mad to be sleeping with such an ugly layabout—I didn’t attempt to explain the true situation—but was glad I was showing at least one sign of normality, came with us, and afterwards we all went back to her ‘studio’ and sat boozing cocoa and the remains of a bottle of rum. About one Kemp kicked us out; she wanted to go to sleep, as indeed I did myself. I went with Jojo and stood by the front door. It was the first really cold night of the autumn, and raining hard into the bargain. “We stood at the door and looked out.
‘I’ll sleep upstairs in your chair, Nick.’
‘No. It’ll be all right. Stay here. I’ll get the car.’ I used to park it up a side street. I got in, coaxed the engine into life, moved forward; but not far. The front wheel was flat as a pancake. I got out in the rain and looked, cursed, and went to the boot for the pump. It was not there. I hadn’t used it for a week or more, so I didn’t know when it had been pinched. I slammed the lid down and ran back to the door.
‘I’ve got a bloody flat.’
‘Don’t be such a loon. I’ll sleep in your auld armchair.’
I considered waking Kemp, but the thought of all the obscenities she would hurl round the studio soon killed that idea. We climbed up the stairs past the silent sewing-rooms and into the flat.
‘Look, you kip in the bed. I’ll sleep here.’
She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and nodded; went to the bathroom, then marched into the bedroom, lay on the bed and pulled her wretched old duffel coat over her. I was secretly angry with her, I was tired, but I pulled two chairs together and stretched out. Five minutes passed. Then she was in the door between the rooms.
‘Come on where?’
She stood there in the door for a silent moment. She liked to mull over her gambits.
‘I want you to.’ It struck me that I’d never heard her use the verb ‘to want’ in the first person before.
‘Jojo, we’re chums. We’re not going to bed together.’
‘It’s only kipping together.’
She stood plumply in the door, in her blue jumper and jeans, a dark stain of silent accusation. Light from outside distorted the shadows round her figure, isolated her face, so that she looked like a Munch lithograph. Jealousy; or Envy; or Innocence.
‘I’m so cold.’
‘Get under the blankets then.’
She gave it a minute more and then I heard her creep back to bed. Five minutes passed. I felt my neck get stiff.