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Authors: Jeanette Winterson

Written on the Body (2 page)

BOOK: Written on the Body

Her lover runs a finger over the bare lips of the naked woman. Lies over her, looks at her. The lover says nothing


If I hadn’t met you I suppose I
be looking for something. I might have done a degree at the Open University. I wasn’t thinking of this. I never wanted to give him a moment’s worry. That’s why I can’t tell him. Why we must be careful. I don’t want to be cruel and selfish. You do see that don’t you?

Her lover gets up and goes to the toilet. The naked woman raises herself on her elbow and continues her monologue in the direction of the en suite bathroom


Don’t be long darling. (
She pauses
.) I’ve tried to get you out of my head but I can’t seem to get you out of my flesh. I think about your body day and night. When I try to read it’s you I’m reading. When I sit down to eat it’s you I’m eating. When he touches me I think about you. I’m a middle-aged happily married woman and all I can see is your face. What have you done to me?

Cut to en suite bathroom. The lover is crying. End scene

It’s flattering to believe that you and only you, the great lover, could have done this. That without you, the marriage, incomplete though it is, pathetic in many ways, would have thrived on its meagre diet and if not thrived at least not shrivelled. It has shrivelled, lies limp and unused, the shell of a marriage, its inhabitants both fled. People collect shells though don’t they? They spend money on them and display them on their window ledges. Other people admire them. I’ve seen some very famous shells and blown into the hollows of many more. Where I’ve left cracking too severe to mend the owners have simply turned the bad part to the shade.

See? Even here in this private place my syntax has fallen prey to the deceit. It was not I who did those things; cut the knot, jemmied the lock, made off with goods not mine to take. The door was open. True, she didn’t exactly open it herself. Her butler opened it for her. His name was Boredom. She said, ‘Boredom, fetch me a plaything.’ He said, ‘Very good ma’am,’ and putting on his white gloves so that the fingerprints would not show
he tapped at my heart and I thought he said his name was Love.

You think I’m trying to wriggle out of my responsibilities? No, I know what I did and what I was doing at the time. But I didn’t walk down the aisle, queue up at the Registry Office and swear to be faithful unto death. I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t say, ‘With this ring I thee wed.’ I didn’t say, ‘With my body I thee worship.’ How can you say that to one person and gladly fuck another? Shouldn’t you take that vow and break it the way you made it, in the open air?

Odd that marriage, a public display and free to all, gives way to that most secret of liaisons, an adulterous affair.

I had a lover once, her name was Bathsheba. She was a happily married woman. I began to feel as though we were crewing a submarine. We couldn’t tell our friends, at least she couldn’t tell hers because they were his too. I couldn’t tell mine because she asked me not to do so. We sank lower and lower in our love-lined lead-lined coffin. Telling the truth, she said, was a luxury we could not afford and so lying became a virtue, an economy we had to practise. Telling the truth was hurtful and so lying became a good deed. One day I said, ‘I’m going to tell him myself.’ This was after two years, two years where I thought that she must leave eventually eventually, eventually. The word she used was ‘monstrous’. Monstrous to tell him. Monstrous. I thought of Caliban chained to his pitted rock. ‘The red plague rid you for learning me your language.’

Later, when I was freed from her world of double meanings and masonic signs I did turn thief. I had never
stolen from her, she had spread her wares on a blanket and asked me to choose. (There was a price but in brackets.) When we were over, I wanted my letters back. My copyright she said but her property. She had said the same about my body. Perhaps it was wrong to climb into her lumber-room and take back the last of myself. They were easy to find, stuffed into a large padded bag, bearing the message on an Oxfam label that they were to be returned to me in the event of her death. A nice touch; he would no doubt have read them but then she would not have been there to take the consequences. And would I have read them? Probably. A nice touch.

I took them into the garden and burned them one by one and I thought how easy it is to destroy the past and how difficult to forget it.

Did I say this has happened to me again and again? You will think I have been constantly in and out of married women’s lumber-rooms. I have a head for heights it’s true, but no stomach for the depths. Strange then to have plumbed so many.

We lay on our bed in the rented room and I fed you plums the colour of bruises. Nature is fecund but fickle. One year she leaves you to starve, the next year she kills you with love. That year the branches were torn beneath the weight, this year they sing in the wind. There are no ripe plums in August. Have I got it wrong, this hesitant chronology? Perhaps I should call it Emma Bovary’s eyes or Jane Eyre’s dress. I don’t know. I’m in another rented room now trying to find the place to go back to where things went wrong. Where I went wrong. You were driving but I was lost in my own navigation.

Nevertheless I will push on. There were plums and I broke them over you.

You said, ‘Why do I frighten you?’

Frighten me? Yes you do frighten me. You act as though we will be together for ever. You act as though there is infinite pleasure and time without end. How can I know that? My experience has been that time always ends. In theory you are right, the quantum physicists are right, the romantics and the religious are right. Time without end. In practice we both wear a watch. If I rush at this relationship it’s because I fear for it. I fear you have a door I cannot see and that any minute now the door will open and you’ll be gone. Then what? Then what as I bang the walls like the Inquisition searching for a saint? Where will I find the secret passage? For me it’ll just be the same four walls.

You said, ‘I’m going to leave.’

I thought, Yes, of course you are, you’re going back to the shell. I’m an idiot. I’ve done it again and I said I’d never do it again.

You said, ‘I told him before we came away. I’ve told him I won’t change my mind even if you change yours.’

This is the wrong script. This is the moment where I’m supposed to be self-righteous and angry. This is the moment where you’re supposed to flood with tears and tell me how hard it is to say these things and what can you do and what can you do and will I hate you and yes you know I’ll hate you and there are no question marks in this speech because it’s a fait accompli.

But you are gazing at me the way God gazed at Adam and I am embarrassed by your look of love and possession and pride. I want to go now and cover myself with fig
leaves. It’s a sin this not being ready, this not being up to it.

You said, ‘I love you and my love for you makes any other life a lie.’

Can this be true, this simple obvious message, or am I like those shipwrecked mariners who seize an empty bottle and eagerly read out what isn’t there? And yet you are there, here, sprung like a genie to ten times your natural size, towering over me, holding me in your arms like mountain sides. Your red hair is blazing and you are saying, ‘Make three wishes and they shall all come true. Make three hundred and I will honour every one.’

What did we do that night? We must have walked wrapped around each other to a café that was a church and eaten a Greek salad that tasted like a wedding feast. We met a cat who agreed to be best man and our bouquets were Ragged Robin from the side of the canal. We had about two thousand guests, mostly midges and we felt we were old enough to give ourselves away. It would have been good to have lain down there and made love under the moon but the truth is that, outside of the movies and Country and Western songs, the outdoors is an itchy business.

I had a girlfriend once who was addicted to starlit nights. She thought beds belonged in hospitals. Anywhere she could do it that wasn’t pre-sprung was sexy. Show her a duvet and she switched on the television. I coped with this on campsites and in canoes, British Rail and Aeroflot. I bought a futon, eventually a gym mat. I had to lay extra-thick carpet on the floor. I took to carrying a tartan rug wherever I went, like a far-out member of the Scottish Nationalist Party. Eventually, back at the doctor’s for the fifth time having a thistle removed, he
said to me, ‘You know, love is a very beautiful thing but there are clinics for people like you.’ Now, it’s a serious matter to have ‘
’ written on your NHS file and some indignities are just a romance too far. We had to say goodbye and although there were some things about her that I missed it was pleasant to walk in the country again without seeing every bush and shrub as a potential assailant.

Louise, in this single bed, between these garish sheets, I will find a map as likely as any treasure hunt. I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will. We shall cross one another’s boundaries and make ourselves one nation. Scoop me in your hands for I am good soil. Eat of me and let me be sweet.

June. The wettest June on record. We made love every day. We were happy like colts, flagrant like rabbits, dove-innocent in our pursuit of pleasure. Neither of us thought about it and we had no time to discuss it. The time we had we used. Those brief days and briefer hours were small offerings to a god who would not be appeased by burning flesh. We consumed each other and went hungry again. There were patches of relief, moments of tranquillity as still as an artificial lake, but always behind us the roaring tide.

There are people who say that sex isn’t important in a relationship. That friendship and getting along are what coast you through the years. No doubt this is a faithful testimony but is it a true one? I had come to this feeling myself. One does after years of playing the Lothario and seeing nothing but an empty bank account and a pile of
yellowing love-notes like IOUs. I had done to death the candles and champagne, the roses, the dawn breakfasts, the transatlantic telephone calls and the impulsive plane rides. I had done all of that to escape the cocoa and hot water bottles. And I had done all of that because I thought the fiery furnace must be better than central heating. I suppose I couldn’t admit that I was trapped in a cliché every bit as redundant as my parents’ roses round the door. I was looking for the perfect coupling; the never-sleep non-stop mighty orgasm. Ecstasy without end. I was deep in the slop-bucket of romance. Sure my bucket was a bit racier than most, I’ve always had a sports car, but you can’t rev your way out of real life. That home girl gonna get you in the end. This is how it happened.

I was in the last spasms of an affair with a Dutch girl called Inge. She was a committed romantic and an anarcha-feminist. This was hard for her because it meant she couldn’t blow up beautiful buildings. She knew the Eiffel Tower was a hideous symbol of phallic oppression but when ordered by her commander to detonate the lift so that no-one should unthinkingly scale an erection, her mind filled with young romantics gazing over Paris and opening aerograms that said Je t’aime.

We went to the Louvre to see a Renoir exhibition. Inge wore her guerilla cap and boots in case she should be mistaken for a tourist. She justified her ticket price as ‘political research’. ‘Look at those nudes,’ she said, although I needed no urging. ‘Bodies everywhere, naked, abused, exposed. Do you know how much those models were paid? Hardly the price of a baguette. I should rip the canvases from their frames and go to prison crying “Vive la resistance”.’

Renoir’s nudes are not at all the world’s finest nudes, but
even so, when we came to his painting of La Boulangère, Inge wept. She said, ‘I hate it because it moves me.’ I didn’t say that thus are tyrants made, I said, ‘It’s not the painter, it’s the paint. Forget Renoir, hold on to the picture.’

She said, ‘Don’t you know that Renoir claimed he painted with his penis?’

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘He did. When he died they found nothing between his balls but an old brush.’

‘You’re making it up.’

Am I?

Eventually we resolved Inge’s aesthetic crisis by taking her Semtex to a number of carefully chosen urinals. They were all concrete Nissan huts, absolutely ugly and clearly functionaries of the penis. She said I wasn’t fit to be an assistant in the fight towards a new matriarchy because I had
. This was a capital offence. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the terrorism that flung us apart, it was the pigeons …

My job was to go into the urinals wearing one of Inge’s stockings over my head. That in itself might not have attracted much attention, men’s toilets are fairly liberal places, but then I had to warn the row of guys that they were in danger of having their balls blown off unless they left at once. A typical occasion would be to find five of them, cocks in hand, staring at the brown-streaked porcelain as though it were the Holy Grail. Why
men like doing everything together? I said (quoting Inge), ‘This urinal is a symbol of patriarchy and must be destroyed.’ Then (in my own voice), ‘My girlfriend has just wired up the Semtex, would you mind finishing off?’

What would you do under the circumstances? Wouldn’t impending castration followed by certain death be enough to cause a normal man to wipe his dick and run for it? They
didn’t. Over and over again they didn’t, just flicked the drops contemptuously and swapped tips about the racing. I’m a mild-mannered sort but I don’t like rudeness. On the job I found it helped to carry a gun.

I pulled it out of the waistband of my
shorts (yes I’ve had them a long time) and pointed the barrel at the nearest dangle. This caused a bit of a stir and one said, ‘You a loony or something?’ He said that but he zipped his flies and buzzed off. ‘Hands up
,’ I said. ‘No, don’t touch it, it’ll have to dry in the wind.’

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