When Wendy met her future husband, she was spiraling fast. Wendy had lost her virginity at the age of fourteen, and had dated a lot of boys since then. Like any addict, she went through random phases of chastity, but then would slowly slide back down the greasy ladder of ‘bit-by-bit,’ from kissing with tongue to letting her breasts be touched, to touching his penis through the trousers, then fingers-to-flesh – and so on, this ladder is widely known – until full intercourse occurred, often in some uncomfortable place. (It could never be a comfortable place, because that would require planning, a conscious decision, ever the bane of the addict.)
But what was Wendy addicted to? It was not so much sex, which was just OK. No, what Wendy enjoyed was the desire of the boy. It structured entire evenings for weeks at a time. She could feel it from the moment of approach. She could read his thoughts the whole time. Am I getting closer? What do I have to say or do (or even think, for the more sensitive boys), to get in?
There was an odd paradox in Wendy, something which would have stunned her if she had been fully aware of it. She was, literally, there for the taking. Any man who cornered her honestly could have her. She was beautiful, exotic, sexy and vivacious – and available for the asking. (Well, not quite ‘asking.’ She wanted to slap the odd sensitive boy who seemed to think she was some kind of exotic goddess who could barely be breathed on, let alone touched. If a boy was insistent, and a little cruel, then she would always open, slow and curled, like the claw of a dead bird.)
This would have stunned the stunted phalanxes of boys who worshipped her from afar. These boys were so intimidated by her beauty and dangerous presence that they were often in danger of fainting when addressing her. She was able to blow them away, like a fly from her arm, with a sigh and a bored, distant gaze. She always misheard them, enjoying their discomfiture. What? Pardon? Sorry? So much fun! Or, she would drop a sexual word into a sentence, and watch them squirm in confused, indecisive excitement. You cunt be serious! (This word, although fine to inflict on stammering, red-faced admirers, was not allowed among her girlfriends – if absolutely required, it was referred to as the ‘see-you-next-Tuesday’ word.)
But it was another kind of boy who always got inside her. (Inside her body, of course; if a woman’s soul has an inside, it requires more than insistence to get into.) It was most ironic, and Wendy would have laughed had she noticed it, before driving and crying. Most of the boys are so obsessed with picking my locks that they never just try yanking the lid open! For that was how it occurred. A boy who did not respect her (well, they had started out as boys, but were now graduating to men; they had grown from seed to seedy); a boy who did not seem to care or notice that she was bright, vivacious, verbal and playful – why then he found almost immediately that she had no other defenses, and could be undone with a sexy sneer.
And sneer they did.
When she first met future husband, Wendy was going through one of her abstinence phases. The past year had started off badly. She had been abroad, in Spain, and had fallen hard for a swarthy sequence of Spaniards. Within a week of entering the country, Wendy found their combination of deference and rules-based conquest almost irresistible. They were very respectful; they opened doors and folded their hands while she talked, and bristled when other men looked at her – and then, at the end of the evening, they felt it their absolute right to have her. I have been deferential all evening – and now it is your turn!
This combination of princess and whore shot black lightning through her whole being. It was unbearably exciting, waiting for the moment when ‘Prince Charming’ was replaced by ‘Olaf the Spanish Viking.’ It was indescribably sexy. It always reminded her of one of her first boyfriends, who had been manic and funny, and would make jokes while she pleasured him. She always loved that little tense fulcrum when he stopped joking, and began sliding inexorably towards orgasm. She loved her power to stop his laughter. The power to change his mind, his whole being…
In Spain, the masculine combination of charm and invasion almost proved Wendy’s undoing. For some reason – but probably because of their deference in public and dominance in private – she did not imagine that the Spanish men were capable of gossip.
They were, of course. A broken English flower had washed up on their fortunate shore, and they were not about to leave their luck unspoken. It took Wendy a moment to realize that she was descending – the first fall is always so soft and unassuming – but it soon became clear that the deference of her dates was diminishing, but that their aggression at the end of the evening was not.
Finally, she had a terrible hour of near-wrestling in a car with a slightly overweight man of over forty. As soon as the combat began, she realized that she was in a terrible bind. To reject a man when he already knows that you’re loose is a terrible insult, which is why so many loose women come to bad ends. All too often, they decide to mend their ways in situations designed to deeply incense immature men.
Wendy had to fend off his advances – for some reason the insistence of a Spanish man was no longer sexy, but made her feel like vomiting. There is my pussy, and his cock, but we are not involved, not the rest of us, not at all. And then she began to feel a great rage within her, a coiled snake of past violations and, without warning, drove the heel of her hand into his nose, which broke far more easily than she would have imagined.
The man howled, and raised his hand to strike her back, but she was scrambling back over the passenger seat, clawing to open the door. Goddamn these clothes – which wolf designed these heels for us sheep?
And then something terrible had happened. It was worse than anything she could have imagined.
The man began to laugh.
Wendy could have taken anything else – even, even… But the sight of the man laughing, his dank skin, cupped hand and escaping, spraying blood – it was an image of the most intense madness, and it haunted her. This is a man who was about to get inside me… There are many kinds of pregnancies, she realized. She always made a man wear a French Letter, but a man can plant a seed of madness.
I would have had a giggling, mad child with a broken nose growing within me, she thought later, walking home. The man had let her get out of his car, then driven away slowly, carefully, rolling down his window as he turned the car (making her realize that he had to let go of his nose, and was only doing it so she could hear his gruesome laughter, which was his greatest weapon).
Wendy had been left by a river, a few miles from town. She had not noticed the route – she had been teasing him about his mangy moustache, she recalled, calling him a twelve-year-old little Hitler. And enjoying his discontent, his desire to silence me warring with his desire to have me… What is it about me that gets so giddy when I provoke others into impossible situations? The time when I told the theology student that I was an atheist, while he was undressing. Or the time I told the Jewish boy that I thought the National Socialists had some good ideas. How I love that moment, when the hypocrisy surfaces. I am a most unholy angler! A word so close to ‘angel,’ but in me, so far!
Lying in her dank, slowly-fanned hotel room that night, Wendy had a long and, for her, fairly frank look at her own life. Something odd had happened – more than the near-attack, but less than that awful laughter. In the past, near-escapes had always increased her sense of bravado. The gods protect drunks and little children… And the story, the next day, was always enhanced by whatever narrow escape had almost cut her off from the future. The universe is my friend, and I cannot be killed…
But there was something inescapable about a broken nose. Would the universe have been my friend if I had not hit him? I think not, I think not…
It is hard to escape the brute fact of violence. And the first outbreak of violence is so often the last chance of escape… Because if I accept that, thought Wendy, then what is left for me to reject?
But to reject – to reject her life, as it was, as it was going to be (for its path was becoming quite clear) required that she accept her future. To give up something now, I have to believe that there is more to come…
But what was she giving up? There was no easy answer to that, and Wendy rolled over in her hot sheets. I would love a drink right about now, and if it were last night – or any night since I was fourteen – I would just leap up, and go in search of one, and then tell the story the next day. ‘ Sure, it was three a.m., but a girl gets thirsty!’
No, that had to be restrained, at least for a time. When she had stumbled in, her feet swollen and bruised by the straps of her shoes, she had gone to wash her face, and noticed a fine spray of blood on her white blouse… White! she had thought derisively, her emotions going into a grim spiral. She stared at herself in the mirror – a cracked mirror, spotted on the edges – and had a random, mad desire to pound her face into the glass, to disfigure herself beyond recognition, beyond recovery, beyond… Beyond men, she thought, and certain series of faces were recalled to her, like an orchid recalling the thunder of a stampede, and she flinched visibly. Who has not gone through me? Who has not grunted and splashed sweat and semen and liquor on me?
The feeling was sudden. Wendy vomited into the sink.
When she was done, she pressed her forehead into the glass, looking down. These are the entrails of bad man and a bad slut, which I have removed and will leave alone to rot in Spanish plumbing… Turning the tap on, she watched the little coloured bits and stringy mucous flow down the rusty sink. But the water is also diseased, so it will do no good…
Leaning back, she put her hand on her scant cleavage, feeling the bone beneath, and her heart which could not stop its wild beating, as if it hoped to shake itself loose and roll away. Escape! From what? From the men? No – from you!
What do the men see and want so much that they risk all? she wondered. Marriage, career, jail…? What do they want to possess? I thought it was me, all these years, but no, but no – it is not me. Because the man in the car had me before he tried to take me, and then he left me…
A beautiful women is a tricky, trapped and mirrored castle. Everyone wants, but not for her. Everyone wants a trophy, not a treasure. Men are cannibals; they consume her flesh in hopes of gaining her soul, but the consumption is soulless. She is trapped, pre-judged, as are all who sport visible afflictions.
And all this happened to me when I was the most young, the least able to survive such predations… Wendy was, at this moment, twenty four and three-quarter years old. And if I do not stop it while I am still pretty, it will never stop. ‘I’ will become an ‘it.’
An impulse shivered through her forearms, to grapple her breasts from her very body… Taking a deep breath, Wendy took a step back from the mirror. Undressing quickly, climbed into bed, a deep and sickly shiver rolling through her.
Being unused to inner revolts, she thought she had eaten something disagreeable. And it may have been so, but there is truth in fever, as well. The faces of past lovers flowed over her, like rotting lily-pads over – over – she felt like Ophelia, lost to the under-trickling of a slow, deadly stream. Where are they all now?, she wondered, afraid to turn over, for fear of being ill again. Poised on their haunches over some sweet young thing? They fish with dynamite…
But the nausea did not go away, whether she fantasized about killing them, or scorning them from the unassailable vantage-point of some unfathomable wealth or prestige, or returning to their spider-embraces.
Because – because you were not a victim. That thought made her less nauseous, but more terrified. A kind of evil had taken nest in her, an evil which caused great pain in its host and in others, but which blamed only others. Other boys’ faces passed her by, in a flowing mass, and she saw tender, young, hopeful boys, reaching for her hesitantly, and she recalled putting on her acerbic, bitchy, demanding and sexy mask, daring them to come closer, within reach, to be brought down… I hurt them…
But really! Wendy threw her covers aside. She stared up at the turning ceiling fan, exhaling on her, like a slow, slow waterfall of dank air. It needed speeding up, but she had tried that, with the fan at the last hotel, and it had stopped completely, so she just lay there. It’s better than the rotating fan, where you get half a good night’s sleep, in fifteen-second increments…
She snorted aloud. It was too ridiculous! The shy boys were just slower predators! They would possess me with endless deference and jumping up whenever I shifted or squeaked! Running around me in a hypnotic blur, until I pinned them to the wall, substituting ‘plaster’ for ‘spine.’ They did not want to get to know me, any more than those who narrowed their eyes at me and gripped my arm too hard when we crossed the street.
But why? she wondered suddenly. Why did I never taste the more subtle fruit? Why did I spurn the shy boys? Wendy frowned, trying to remember if any of them had ever attracted her. She smiled humourlessly in the dark. Well, really! How could they? How rakish would it seem, to be dashing young me, with such sops hanging from my arm, like puppies from a rising stick?
Ah, she thought. Then it was also my vanity… I wanted to show off as well. I wanted to be thought of as a wild, snorting, lovely horse, running with my own kind, not ridden by pale boys sliding to one side or another… I was to be a force of nature!
All right, so there was a price. But those sniveling boys were just too much! One of them, in upper school, had left little poems and love songs on her tray in the dining hall. They always enraged her. Sometimes, she would force herself to read them, and feel a freezing contempt icing her innards. What does he have to offer me except little rhymes and rank fantasies about my worth? To be so loved, when so unknown – how could that have produced anything except rage? But I never stopped dressing up. I wanted the shy boys to cast themselves at me. I offered my crinoline as a parachute, and then kicked them out of the plane empty-handed…
Wendy frowned. This was getting her nowhere. Bastard or sap. Good choices! No, it had to be more than that. Where are the nice, strong, decent men? The men who open doors and smile at your habits and kiss you firmly but gently? She tried to remember. You know, they don’t seem to be around, not at all. And those – those I remember turned out to be not so nice after all. Does that mean that my beauty is a corrupting force? Am I like a permit to a bureaucrat? Just a shiny chisel to widen and dissolve the decency of others? They went to war over Helen; does that myth endure because beauty sets brother against brother? Because no-one comes out of this pearly pit alive…
There had to have been some nice young men… Not lower class, of course; that’s just the decency of deference. But nice young men. Where were they?
Wherever they were, they weren’t attracted to me… Now that thought made Wendy very sad. She had an image of herself as a wailing child, abandoned on the steps of the boarding school by her mother, who had made a mistake and had to catch a train. These boys weren’t attracted to me. Why? Well, her beauty couldn’t be responsible for it all. Beauty didn’t count for everything. So – perhaps they were not just threatened by my beauty, but did not think that I was a very nice person. That I was vain, and perhaps a little cruel. That – that I used my beauty to attract men, and so just wasn’t very appealing to decent men. That – that I would not be very pleasant to grow old with.
The last thought brought a tear to her eye. She touched it in wonder. I would not be very pleasant to grow old with, and I would be a bad mother, a bad wife. I would be demanding, and never satisfied, and shrieky, and feel that I was wasting my youth on petty domesticity. I would over-dress my children and demand that they answer me in unison and cut their food with impatience and always imagine that some dashing set was having great fun in some wonderful nightclub which I could just step into. No – I am not going to be that woman, not that way, not in the way which spreads my hips and bakes my pies and widens my arms, or heart…
It was like a sentence of death, thrown down by some white-suited Spanish judge, fluttering down into her dark, hot hotel room, where the bed creaked and the rattan was half-broken and the taps leaked and the mirror had spots. But I hate all that stuff anyway! she thought angrily, wiping a tear away. What am I going to be, homemaker of the year? And children? Do I want stretch marks? It’s like leaving the ‘Mona Lisa’ out in the rain! No, I will age, but I will age like a raisin. I will become compressed and spidery and have tiny wrinkles which cannot deepen because I have no subcutaneous fat left. I will be emaciated, and lever myself like a pair of walking scissors along the beach. I can be lovely for maybe another fifteen years – maybe twenty if I’m lucky. Forty five. So I live until seventy. I have twenty five years of fun, thirty five of decline. Because it won’t all end, not all at once. My standards will just lower. I mean, it’s like a sunset. Sure, there’s a time when the sun definitely winks over the horizon, but before that, it just gets darker bit by bit. No kids, but that’s a lot of fun.
And – and, there’s also the Final Prize. The rich man who doesn’t want children, who’s not too attractive but is content to sleep around overseas. Who gives me a long financial leash (no, she didn’t like that thought – too ‘pet-like’) – a lot of money and just wants me to hear about his troubles and maybe rub his feet once in a great while. And we will have cynical asides about each others lovers, and make love very rarely, but when one of us falls sick, the other will rush to their side and we will realize that we did love each other more than we really had a right to…
This was about as close to tenderness as her imagination could roam without great ruin. He will hold me as I die, or cancel his flings if I break a leg. There was something dry and movie-like about this fantasy… He was always in a tuxedo; she always swept from the room, perfectly-groomed. They were never naked, they never flossed. She thought of this fantasy man, in a tuxedo, at the dentist, and almost laughed. Hard to be urbane with your teeth coming out…
And they would sit, in their declining years (he always switched to a navy blue sailing suit at this point) and they would not speak much, sipping Turkish coffee in a bright sunny café, where the young people would point them out and whisper of their history…
Would it be worth it? wondered Wendy. Something deep pulled her in this direction, towards this kind of marriage, defined more by grim loyalty than tender love. Because there would be no children. I get to keep my figure, my breasts, my skin – and twenty years of my life! But could there be a decent man who does not want to have children? Or could I pretend that I was infertile, reverse my menstrual period, refraining from sex when I was actually ovulating. No – he would notice the blood, of course – perhaps that is why the blood is there.
But really, why do we rush to reproduce? Are we such habitual livestock – or so vain? – that we cannot imagine leaving the world without our little replicas? I mean, there is the life of the mind, a little, or the life of sensation, conversation and travel. It’s not all about squatting and groaning and squirting.
Wendy shuddered. Birth and children are – just – so – I mean, I love my looks! I would feel robbed! How could I love such little thieves? And if I am not going to have children, why not enjoy the equipment a little? So I’m not going to be an artist – I can’t play around with the paint?
Ah, but that little trial balloon phuttered and fell quite quickly. The problem was that Wendy did not really enjoy sex, so the role of pleasure-loving dabbler in the fleshy arts did not hang naturally on her. She had little flickers of urgency, but it was not a connecting experience, not something which left her satisfied. Her satisfaction seemed to rise and fall with the man’s desire. She was satisfied when he wanted her, and dissatisfied after he had his orgasm. Her sexuality was the exact opposite of her lovers.
So if sex is not the big draw, then – then what? What would keep her from settling down into the plump little outfit of ‘compliant wifey’?
Oh, God, but how I hate it! thought Wendy savagely. She got up, knowing that this was going to be a night of lying down and getting up. She went out onto the little balcony, looking out at the night. An electric light leaned out of a window, illuminating a black cat, sitting on a patch of gravelly grass, licking its paws. If I had not gotten up tonight, I would have slept right through that black cat. I would never have known that it existed – and yet… What is the point of me knowing that it exists?
There are thoughts common to all who look upon a sleeping town, thoughts quite different from those of the daytime. Who else is awake? Who is fighting? Making love? Under which roofs are crimes being committed, even as I gaze over them? Rape, murder (no, not murder, thought Wendy; this town is too small for nightly deaths!) The molestation of a child, the self-mutilation of an addict, the stealing away of a burglar, who might well come back for breakfast and ‘tut’ and sigh in sympathy with his victims.
Nights were charged for Wendy; she gained in energy as the sun went down, like some oppositional plant – but tonight was worse than usual.
Why do I not want to be a wife? she thought. There are ten thousand placid wives in this town. They wash clothes by hand and cross themselves and fear black birds and screw with earthy squatting passion – but that is not for me.
The ancient English/Mediterranean dichotomy arose in her mind. One is either a body without a mind, or a mind without a body. I would not be like English wives either, she thought. All catty and spidery and restrained and shedding friendships with tight sighs and warding off their men with resigned, toothy restraint.
And motherhood… Wendy shuddered. Another chill swept through her body. She felt as if the earth was flying away from under her, as if she had become the only fixed thing in the universe, and that the world fled from her, in its endless orbit. And the sun’s orbit, she thought. And the galaxy’s orbit. Stand still, my daughter, and the world flies away…
But my looks are designed to seduce, designed to bring me much seed. I am rank pollen, the red bulge of a bird’s throat. And I want none of it! None!
Her hands were gripping the cold stone of the balcony wall. Wendy loosened them, brushing the granite grit from her palms and taking a deep breath. If I were a man, I would go and walk and walk until I collapsed. Then I would get up and drink until I collapsed again. Then I would get up and go in search of war.
Terror was in her soul. As nonchalant as I am, I still broke a man’s nose tonight. I called him a little Franco, and made him bleed. These facts cannot be denied.
So – her options? Get married, become a trouser-wearing suffragette, kiss ladies with pencilled moustaches and rail against the indifference of men? Go into business? Oh yes, I could see myself rising at dawn to go and scribble on carbons all day. I offer myself as a typist! Qualifications? Very long nails and a very short attention span!
The air began to brighten vaguely, with a forgotten smudge of light, in the east, over the town. Wendy leaned against the parapet, feeling the rocky grit pressing against her hips, craning her head. The horizon returns!
Or – just to – continue? That thought had appeal. To be sexy, but celibate. The thought had richness, but it fell apart almost instantly. Wendy knew, deep in her watery bones, that one cannot be celibate and decadent at the same time. Which values are the most pleasurable to destroy? Celibacy and sobriety – there is little else. Nihilism needs the senses to destroy sensation. I cannot offer myself to the gods of random pleasures without letting their priests have at me.
But – could she drink and keep her vagina to herself? But then why drink with men? Drink is the oil of their slithering, lock-picking fingers. Everything is smooth, baby – why resist? “Those greasy fucks!” Wendy whispered, her voice hoarse. The goddamned dishonesty! In my world, everyone lies! ‘You are precious, nothing matters, fuck me, I never say goodbye, our paths will surely cross, everything comes and goes, don’t be so uptight, relax, give in give in give in – not to me, but to the devil we all serve…’
“Somebody, tell me the truth,” she said, to the night, the empty town, the sky without stars.
Finally, the sun came up. Wendy had brought out a rusted metal chair and sat on it, still in her nightgown, her elbows on the parapet, her hands cupping her cheeks.
As she watched, feeling all the inner grime of a morning without sleep, of a daybreak without change, a young man in navy shorts came out from the back of her hotel. Although the street was deserted, he stretched in a self-conscious manner which evoked a thrill of pleasure and recognition in Wendy. After a few minutes, he jumped up and down a few times, than ran up the street.
He had the stiff, high-kneed gait of a runner who cared about time and distance. His hair was dirty blonde. He was English, like her. Wendy saw that in a moment. His hair could only look good after at least a month of sun. He was well-tanned. He possessed a lot of will. He was intelligent. Everything was clear to her, after only a few seconds of watching him run. He needs approval, but he will never get it. He would be pleased to know that I am watching. He likes passing fat Spaniards, lolling in their undershirts. He likes to think of them gazing in dumb envy at his trim, British, imperial form. ‘This is how the Empire was won,’ he thinks – though I do not think he likes the Empire.
Wendy frowned. The young man turned a corner and ran up a street, away from her, up a slight hill. The crunchy slap of his feet. His tight pumping arms. This was a new kind of man to her. A decent man? she wondered. Well no, not quite. But a man who wants to settle down. A man with propriety. A man who would never keep her waiting. A man who would take pleasure in defending her. A man with will, potential, and a defined future. In that, he was a new kind of man. He could no more be dissolute than give birth.
She smiled, and waited for almost an hour until he came running back. As he turned the corner at the bottom of the hill, he could not help but see her. A recognition passed between them, and she felt very naked, very vulnerable, very excited. He ran into the hotel. She turned from the balcony, showered as best she could, scrubbed her face, changed into something conservative, and went downstairs.
Wendy sat in the little restaurant. It was a low-ceilinged room with too many tables. Some form of state subsidy seemed to be in place, because there were three waiters for eleven tables, and the service was terrible. The waiters stood by the kitchen, bantering, gossiping, joking. They laughed in wracking cackles which sounded almost like sobs. Their uniforms were unpressed. They drank a lot of water. There did not appear to be any management. They looked quite different – one was overweight, one short, one tall – but Wendy suddenly realized that they were brothers. Probably the sons of an owner who had died at least six months before, and had left the hotel in the hands of his children, who did not care for it.
That would explain why the hotel had deteriorated so much. The last time Wendy was here – eighteen months before – the place had sparkled with homespun charm. (That was a phrase from the advertisement – ‘homespun charm’ – which Wendy detested. What did it mean?) She had arrived just over two weeks before, and found that the hotel had fallen from grace. Whatever ‘homespun charm’ meant, it had vanished. The woman Wendy was travelling with had gone on a week’s hiking tour, but Wendy had stayed behind, feeling great lassitude. ‘Why not change hotels at least?’ her friend had said. But Wendy didn’t want to. Allegiance to memory, perhaps. It was once a very nice place.
Finally, the fat waiter came and stood over her, eclipsing a bright window.
“Something for madam?” he asked, his eyes twinkling from the fading light of some ribald joke.
“Coffee and bread,” she said, squinting at him.
“Yes…” Wendy had to consciously block the ‘please.’ Why be polite to the incompetent?
The fat man brought her food and coffee , and she ate quickly, hungry all of a sudden. After finishing her bread and marmalade, she looked up at exactly the same moment that the young runner came in. His eyes were fixed on her, as if he had seen her location through the walls before entering the restaurant.
He nodded, and she nodded back, her heart pounding. I cannot move!
The man went over to the back of the little room, and Wendy’s heart sank. He talked with the trio of waiters; she could tell that he spoke Spanish, and approved. Did he gesture at my table? she wondered. Yes! He came over and bowed slightly.
“Good morning,” he said, in English.
Wendy smiled, her heart full of some strange, sticky substance. Happiness? “Good morning.”
“Would you mind if I joined you for breakfast? I am terribly worried that I am losing the ability to speak English.”
Wendy paused, then nodded. “By all means.”
He sat down, brushing his hair back from his forehead. She noticed that he was still perspiring a little, from his run, and was pleased. It means that he came down before fully cooling off, to increase the odds that I would still be here…
“My name is Reginald Spencer,” he said, leaning forward to shake her hand.
“Wendy Moulinex,” she said.
The waiter brought Reginald coffee and bread. “Gracias.” He took a sip. “French. Norman?”
“1066,” she said. “We came over with William the Conqueror.”
“And what are you doing in Spain?”
“I have a friend, but she has gone hiking for a few days.” How delightful, to see the play of fear in his eyes in the moment between me having a friend, and that friend being a ‘she.’ “And you?”
Reginald took a tiny bite of bread and chewed for a moment. Wendy thought that his bite was so small – and his chewing so rapid – that the bread would more dissolve than be swallowed.
“I’m joining the Foreign Office in the autumn,” he said, “so I thought I’d spend the summer going through Europe, to get a look at the goods, so to speak. It was going to be a coach holiday – or I thought I might hire a car – but it turns out to have been a running holiday.”
“‘Have been?’ Are you almost finished then?”
“Well, I was hoping to get to Germany and the Eastern European countries, but it’s mid-August, and so far I’ve managed to run through France and a bit of Spain.”
“So, tell me about a running holiday.”
He smiled. “It’s smashing! You travel by day, and cramp by night. I always wanted to see the night life, but I can’t walk very well after getting to a new place.”
Wendy noticed that his smile was a little strained. Something was askew in his personality. She began to relax, and smiled back. “So, you run all day, and then fall into bed at night. Well, as a taxpayer, I confess to being most relieved.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, if this is your idea of a holiday, I believe that you will work very hard in the Foreign Office, and I shall get my money’s worth.”
“Yes, I imagine that I will. This is going to be a very important decade.”
There was a pause for a moment. Reginald took a sip of his coffee. “So tell me about yourself,” he said.
A spasm passed across Wendy’s face. Oh god, I believe I have lost the capacity to lie! “I am a very sad girl,” she said, almost afraid to breathe.
Reginald’s eyes widened, then seemed to sharpen. He put his cup down carefully. Wendy watched him dizzily. A kind of panic seemed to be radiating from his skin.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “That sounds entirely more lonely than it is. Than I am.”
“Well,” he said, leaning forward. “Perhaps not ‘entirely.’”
Wendy held his gaze, and felt a certain aspect of her personality crumble and give way. Beyond this wall of tension was a great, poised, waiting space. “So, tell me about you,” she said softly.
“I am…” He stopped, then laughed. “I am intrigued, I suppose. Travel is not usually the time for truth.”
“Don’t,” she said softly, and Reginald suddenly looked terrified. “Don’t be glib.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Wendy smiled. “Let’s just say this: the moment you tell the truth, you can stop travelling.”
They talked for over an hour, in the empty wooden restaurant, and their conversation kept stalling, sliding into banalities, and then spiking into sudden, unmasking honesty. It was exhausting, and after agreeing to meet for dinner, they retreated back to their rooms after breakfast, both needing a lie-down.
As she lay, Wendy thought of Reginald lying down in another room, probably not forty feet from her own, and when she slept, she dreamed that they were two balloons, trying to join inflated hands as they bounced in fear over a jagged and spiky land.
When Wendy came down for dinner, Reginald was standing in front of the check-in desk, dressed in a suit that did not fit him very well. He smiled apologetically, and Wendy’s eyes stung with little tears at the realization that he had gone out during the day and bought a suit for their dinner. The poor boy… He has not had much experience with women.
Reginald walked forward to take her hand as she stepped down. It was a tender, protective gesture, and it filled her heart with a strange peace. This deference will not end in a broken nose. A broken heart, perhaps, but that is infinitely better!
“You look – lovely,” he said.
Wendy nodded slowly, almost shyly. He’s looking into my eyes! “Thank you.”
“I, on the other hand, look as if I have grave-robbed a Spanish undertaker.”
“No, you’re fine.”
“Thanks. Now I know how you look when you lie.” He opened the door for her, and she tried to glide through, like a princess.
Outside, the air was hot and thick. Wendy had put half a handful of talcum down her underwear, and felt glad. Not because I expect to grant access though. He wouldn’t know what to do with it!
That last thought was an old, cynical echo, combined with a sort of holy fear of a man who did not know his way around a woman’s plumbing. He will put me on a pedestal, and not just to peek up my dress!
Reginald was looking at her in wonder, tempting all her devils with the white face of an acolyte . “Don’t,” she said.
He looked away. “What?”
He knows, she thought, but needs a moment to compose. And so, he will say:
“Sorry.” Silence. His brow furrowed. “You don’t like to be stared at.”
“No, I don’t.” Wendy suddenly noticed that she was taller than Reginald, but that it didn’t bother her at all. As long as he doesn’t go bald!
“I thought,” he said, guiding her arm gently, “that we might walk up to the castle at Olite. It’s not far.”
Wendy nodded. Her lips twitched, but she didn’t know what kind of smile fit this kind of happiness.
The walked onto a stone bridge. She wandered over to the edge. He trailed behind. Dark forests, little insects, slow ripples.
“So, tell me about yourself,” he said, staring at the water, “other than that you’re sad.”
“I am an eldest sister. We lived in the country when we were young. Now we live in London. My parents want me to get married so bad that they smell like sulphur. Sorry, don’t know what that means. I was never very good at following the rules.”
“So you don’t want to get married?”
She almost laughed. “Well, funny you should mention that…”
“What do you mean?”
“Just – I was thinking of it when I saw you running away. This morning.”
“Oh! You saw me go?”
“Like a little white rabbit.”
Reginald frowned. “Hm.” He was not too pleased with that, it seemed. Wendy tried to rally him.
“You must be enormously fit.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose so.”
“Have you always been a runner?”
“Oh, no. No – that’s the odd thing. My brother is the sportsman. I am the man of letters. I just thought – let’s do something different this summer. Something I will remember. Something to bully my future children with when they’re lazy.”
“‘I ran through Europe, so you can darn well go and get some tobacco for papa.’”
“Are you close to your brother?”
Reginald took a deep breath, then exhaled. “Well, that’s no simple question. Sometimes, it’s like we’re the same person. Other times, we’re mortal enemies.”
“What does he do?”
“He sits in a room and reads.”
“Is he ill?”
“No. He – he just doesn’t know what he wants to do. He can’t focus, can’t organize himself. He’s an idealist.” Reginald cocked his arm, holding up a mocking fist. “‘No compromise! No surrender!’ He’s the family Torquemada.”
“That’s my youngest sister. ‘Wearing dresses oppresses the workers.’”
“What would the workers do who make the dresses, if no one bought them?”
“I shall use that on her. On second thought, no. She has an answer for everything.”
“That’s not Tom,” said Reginald reflectively.
He nodded, taking a deep breath. Overhead, the darker stars were coming out. They walked on, into a narrow stone street with thick cobblestone shadows. “He’s – paralyzed by questions,” said Reginald after a while. “No answers satisfy him. I mean, I tell him: Tom, each age has its own answers! The age we live in has certain answers. Take some. Take one! Why question everything? Why be utterly robbed of the capacity for action! I hate to see him rotting away in that little clapboard room, reading and questioning and throwing his best years down the drain! It’s such a waste!”
Wendy noticed that Reginald’s hands were shaking. “He’s younger?” she asked.
“Younger, yes.” He took another deep breath. “Sorry. He frustrates me no end. So much potential. He could have been anything.”
“Well, he’s not dead.”
“We didn’t have the money to finish school,” said Reginald suddenly. “Sorry, that’s most un-British. I’ll have to turn my passport in. ‘Hullo, pleased to meet you, my family has had money troubles.’ Most uncouth.”
“Everyone had their difficulties in ’29.”
“No, we’re land-based.”
Something was churning up in Reginald; Wendy could see that. She could not resist poking at it. It was cruel, but it was her.
“So Tom didn’t get a scholarship. I did.”
“What a shame.”
Reginald shook his head. “No, that’s not it. He’s more intelligent than me, in so many ways. He couldn’t march to the socialist drumbeat.”
“He could have though. He’s self-destructive, I think. Didn’t want to succeed. His aversion to socialism was just an excuse.”
“Why wouldn’t he want to succeed?”
Reginald paused. “We’re just walking – don’t you want to eat?”
“No yet,” said Wendy. “Tell me.”
“Our mother. War widow…” He pursed his lips. “This is probably familiar territory.”
“No, we’re a clan of women,” said Wendy. “Queen bees. My father was too old when war came. He did get some terrible paper cuts, though.”
That was a dangerous joke, even thirteen years after the war. But Reginald took it all right, she saw with relief. “My mother fell into a ten-year depression. More than ten – eleven, more like. Twelve? Anyway, she sort of fastened onto Tom. I kept my distance.” He shuddered. “She was like quicksand.”
“And your father?”
“Dad?” Reginald smiled. “He’s a good sort. Brusque, but his heart’s in the right place. He’s entering politics, yea even as we speak.”
They walked. Spanish insects circled them, lazily bumping into the stone walls. A laughing peasant couple walked past, arm in arm. Reginald and Wendy simultaneously envied an imaginary simple life. Neighbours, food, priest, death…
“Are your shoes all right?” asked Reginald.
“My mother can’t make thirty yards, even with aspirin.”
“I’m fine. I am a sensible girl. One does not travel with stilettos.”
He glanced at her sideways and smiled. “Sensible walking shoes. You are an old maid in the making.”
It was his turn to make a dangerous joke. And her turn to take it all right.
“So, your brother does not want to succeed because your mother was depressed.”
“That’s the thesis,” shrugged Reginald. “Stated baldly, it doesn’t have quite the same ring.”
“How would you put it?”
“Tom is stalled because – because he’s got sort of a religious soul. Putting Tom in the modern world is like putting a monk in charge of a factory. Or diplomacy. He has all these pure, perfect, impracticable standards. He would never accept any metal because it would never be one hundred percent pure. I swear, I’ve thought of pointing out that his clothes will always have a little dust in them, even right after they’re washed. If I ever got him to believe that, he’d live naked for the rest of his life.”
She laughed, and it was an odd laugh, thought Reginald. Something a little tinny about it. And – desperate?
“So, you’re more comfortable with an alloy, so to speak?” she asked, glancing at him sideways
“Nothing is pure except maths!” he said, his hands coming up in fists. “And maths do not exist in the real world. The air we breathe is not pure. The water we drink is polluted. We are always sick, just a little. After eighteen, we die a little each day. We die a little more, and then a lot more. Babies are lovely, and poo themselves. The sun has spots. Beautiful skin, under a microscope, is like the moon. It’s all nonsense, this purity, his idealism. So he’s perfect, but he cannot act. I am imperfect in his eyes, of course – perhaps worse – but I shall save his skin nonetheless!”
“Hm,” murmured Wendy. “And that is why you have joined the Foreign Office?”
Reginald’s face was red.
“To save him?” she prompted. His anger – or was it rage? – pulled at her darker instincts. How I love to provoke the enraged! This was familiar ground.
But Reginald broke the pattern, and it was probably then that she fell in love with him. He shook his head, so rapidly that it appeared to shimmer in her peripheral vision. Then he turned to her and said:
“Wendy, I think that I would far rather go to dinner, light a candle and talk about you than discuss my brother.”
“All right,” she said in a small voice, and allowed herself to be led away.