Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Never having being much of a firework fan. Zoё Heller, “Notes on a scandal” – quotes and extracts

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…a moment of sincerity is coming on. ‘To be completely honest,’ they say, or 'To tell you the truth,’ or ‘Can I be straight?’ Often they want to extract vows of discretion from you before going any further. 'This is strictly between us, right? . . . You must promise not to tell anyone . . .’ Sheba does none of that. She tosses out intimate and unflattering truths about herself, all the time, without a second thought. ‘I was the most fearsomely obsessive little masturbator when I was a girl,’ she told me once when we were first getting to know each other. ‘My mother practically had to Sellotape my knickers to me, to stop me having at myself in public places.’ 'Oh?' I said, trying to sound as if I were used to broaching such matters over coffee and a KitKat.

*
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as my mother used to say.
[Matthew 6:34]

*
Women observing other women tend to be engrossed by the details - the bodily minutiae, the clothing particulars. We get so caught up in the lone dimple, the excessive ears, the missing button, that we often lag behind men in organizing the individual features into an overall impression. I mention this by way of explaining why it was only now, watching Bill, that the fact of Sheba’s beauty occurred to me. Of course, I thought. She’s very good-looking.

[Sheba - the biblical name of Saba in SW Arabia. The queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem (1 Kings 10);
Bath|sheba (in the Bible) the mother of Solomon. She was originally wife of Uriah the Hittite, and later one of the wives of David]

*
(She used ‘Hello’, I was pleased to note, as opposed to the awful, mid-Atlantic ‘Hiya’ that so many of the staff favour.)

*
St George’s is the holding pen for Archway’s pubescent proles - the children of the council estates who must fidget and scrap here for a minimum of five years until they can embrace their fates as plumbers and shop assistants. Last year, we had 240 pupils sit their GCSEs and exactly six of them achieved anything higher than a grade E pass. The school represents - how to put it? - a very volatile environment. Attacks on the staff are not uncommon. The year before Sheba arrived, three Year Eight boys, leaning out of one of the science lab windows, pelted the school secretary, Deirdre Rickman, with Bunsen burners. (Her resulting injuries included a fractured clavicle and a head wound requiring fourteen stitches.)
The boys naturally present the worst problems. But the girls are no picnic either.

*
You never appreciate what a compost your memory is until you start trying to smooth past events into a rational sequence.

*
Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secret hopes of ‘making a difference’. They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion. When I was at teacher training college there was none of this sort of thing. My fellow students and I never thought of raising self-esteem or making dreams come true. Our expectations did not go beyond guiding our prospective pupils through the three Rs and providing them with some pointers on personal hygiene. Perhaps we were lacking in idealism. But then it strikes me as not coincidental that in the same period that pedagogical ambitions have become so inflated and grandiose, the standards of basic literacy and numeracy have radically declined. We might not have fretted much about our children’s souls in the old days, but we did send them out knowing how to do long division.

*
'This is a comprehensive school,’ Mawson told her in a jokily reproachful tone as she backed out of his office, not the bloody Lycée.’ Sheba seems to have been rather outraged by this last comment, detecting in it a dig at her privileged naivety. At the time, she promised herself to pursue the matter further - with the Head, if necessary. But she never did. Other things came up, she says. She got too busy. Or perhaps, one conjectures, like so many would-be reformers before her, she simply lost interest.

*
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry, I. . .’ [about Sheba’s son Down’s syndrome]
Sheba shook her head. ‘Please, don’t be.’
Elaine and Michael and Bangs had reorganized their expressions into maudlin frowns of sympathy. I wanted to slap them.
‘No, sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean that I was sorry -’
‘I know,’ Sheba stopped me. ‘It’s just one of those bits of information to which there is no good response.’
There it was again - the perverse refusal to acknowledge my hostility. She seemed to me like some magical lake in a fairy tale: nothing could disturb the mirror-calm of her surface. My snide comments and bitter jokes disappeared soundlessly into her depths, leaving not so much as a ripple.

*
It is pretty clear to me that there was a strong element of calculation in these little bursts of wistfulness and wonderment. By which I do not mean to imply that the boy was cynical, exactly. Simply anxious to please. He had observed that Sheba liked him best when he was saying sensitive things about paintings and so on, and he was beefing up his moony ponderings accordingly. If this was cynical, then we must allow that all courtship is cynical. Connolly was doing as all people do in such situations - tricking out his stall with an eye to what would best please his customer.

*
Though she cannot say it, or even acknowledge it to herself, she thinks of the working class as a mysterious and homogeneous entity: a tempery, florid-faced people addled by food additives and alcohol.
Little wonder that Connolly seemed so fascinatingly anomalous to her. Here, in the midst of all the hostile, north London yobs, she had found a young man who actually sought out her company, who listened, open-mouthed, when she lectured him on Great Artists. Who proffered whimsical aperçus about the curtains. Poor old Sheba regarded Connolly with much the same amazement and delight as you or I would a monkey who strolled out of the rain forest and asked for a gin and tonic.

*
Did I sense anything sexual in his attitude towards her then? Possibly. But dealings with male pupils of that age are rarely without some manner of sexual undertow. A secondary school is a kind of hormonal soup. All those bodies pressed in on one another - bubbling with puberty and low-level adolescent fantasy - are bound to produce a certain atmosphere. Even I, a woman in my early sixties and, by common consent, no oil painting, have been known to prick the testosteronal curiosity of my fifteen-year-old charges from time to time. It is something to which one becomes inured. Very occasionally, sexual tension will be released in a small explosion of some sort - a groping, a threat. There was one incident, back in 1982, when an absolutely evil little fellow in Year Nine named Mark Roth assaulted the young woman who was coming in at the time to give French conversation. (He was apparently on top of her when her screams alerted a staff member who happened to be walking by.) But that was a singular case. For the most part, the sexual angst of the school's student population is nothing more than an indistinct background hum: so much white noise.

*
He proceeded to wish me good afternoon with the rather too careful politeness of someone who has plans to be nasty.

*
‘… I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to have another go on it’.
‘So you’re censoring me’.
He laughed, mirthlessly. ‘Come ion, Barbara, let’s not be childish. I’m giving you a chance to improve on your first effort’.

*
[Sue] ‘Men are such dogs, aren’t they? Brains between their legs!’
I have never enjoyed this kind of women's talk - the hopelessness of the other sex and all that. Sooner or later, it always seems to degenerate into tittering critiques of the male member. So silly. So beneath women. And funnily enough, the females who go in for this low-grade misandry are usually the ones who are most in thrall to men.

[Sheba] ‘…Why do I always need to tell people what they want to hear? My husband says that I have a lot of empathy but I’m afraid that's just a nice way of saying that I want to please everybody.'

*
[as Connolly luring her into the park]
‘I was sort of watching myself,’ she [Sheba] recalls. ‘Smiling at what a silly I was being. It was as if I had become my own rather heartless biographer’.

*
‘Everyone’s always asking, “How could she? What made her take the risk?” ’, Sheba said to me once. ‘But doing that kind of thing is easy. You know how you sometimes have another drink even though you know you’re going to have a hangover tomorrow? Or, or, you take a bite of a doughnut, even though it’s going to give you fat thighs? Well, it’s like that, Barbara. You keep saying, No, no, no - until the moment when you say, Oh bugger it. Yes.’

*
For various reasons, our society has chosen to classify people under the age of sixteen as children. In most of the rest of the world, boys and girls are understood to become adults somewhere around the age of twelve. They enter puberty and then start doing whatever the adults in their part of the world happen to do - work in factories, hunt bears, kill people, have sex. We may have very good reasons for choosing to prolong the privileges and protections of childhood. But let us at least acknowledge what we are up against when attempting to enforce that extension. Connolly was officially a ‘minor' and Sheba's actions were officially speaking ‘exploitative’; yet any honest assessment of their relationship would have to acknowledge not only that Connolly was acting of his own volition, but that he actually wielded more power in the relationship than Sheba. I don’t think for a minute that he has suffered lasting hurt from his experiences with an older woman. On the contrary, I believe that he’s had a rather thrilling ride. Heresy, I know. But there. It’s what I think.

When Sheba’s story first broke, a chap from the Evening Standard wrote an article in which he alluded to unsubstantiated rumours of Connolly’s sexual experience prior to his affair with Sheba. He went on to pose the question, ‘What red-blooded fifteen-year-old wouldn’t welcome a roll in the hay with Sheba Hart?’ It was a brave, honest piece, I thought, but it brought forth a glut of sanctimonious articles protesting against the journalist’s supposedly frivolous treatment of a serious matter.

*
(Staff complaint at St. George’s is never very fiery or subversive. On the contrary, it tends to suggest a certain pleasure in the cozy predictability of things being unsatisfactory.)

*
The morning grey had given away, in the sudden English fashion, to a brilliant, gelid afternoon. On the patches of street that weren’t in shadow, you could feel the sun warming your hair.

*
It did sound marvelous – having a life so busy and full that doing nothing was an aspiration.

Then Sheba spoke. ‘Listen, would you like to come to dinner on Sunday?’
Surprise made me stupid. ‘What, with you?’
…‘Sunday night is good?’
I wondered if I ought to make some nod to the notion of having to consult my diary. But I thought better of it. I didn’t want to risk her glimpsing the white wastelands of my appointmentless weeks.

*
Any break in my routine – any small variation in the sequence of work and grocery shopping and telly and so on – tends to take on a disproportionate significance. I'm a child in that respect: able to live, physically speaking, on a crumb of anticipation for weeks at a time, but always in danger of crushing the waited-for event with the freight of my excessive hope.

*
In an effort to get off the footwear topic, I tried on my grey shirt. But it seemed that I had put on weight since last wearing it and as I strained to fasten the waistband, one of the buttons pinged off and rolled into the dark, dusty space beneath my dresser. There followed a rather shameful interlude of female madness, which involved me tearing off the skirt and standing on a wobbly chair in the front room, trying to get a full-length view of my naked form in the mirror that hangs over the gas fire.

It's always a disappointing business confronting my own reflection. My body isn't bad. It's a perfectly nice, serviceable body. It’s just that the external me - the sturdy, lightly wrinkled, handbagged me - does so little credit to the stuff that's inside. Sometimes, when I lie in bed at night, I can lose all sense of my body, my age. In the darkness, I could be twenty years old. I could be ten. It’s a lovely sensation to slough off one’s battered old casing for a moment or two. But then, I always wonder, what must it be to have a beautiful body? A body that you don’t want to escape? Several years ago, when Jennifer and I went to Paris together for a weekend break, we saw a woman dancing on the bar at a little bistro in Montmartre. She was very pretty and very, very young. All the men in the place were dribbling slightly. It was a silly thing really, but just for a moment as I watched them watch her, I remember feeling that I would give anything - be stupid, be poor, be fatally ill - to have a little of her sort of power.

I must have made quite a bit of noise during my personal appearance crisis because, at some point, the woman who lives above me began banging on her floor. I stopped crying then, got down from the chair and made a cup of tea. While I sat sipping and sniffling, Portia, my cat, who had been watching my ravings with great, feline contempt, relented and came over to rub herself against my legs.

*
She was only playing at being embarrassed, though. When I handed the sock to her, she threw it in a wooden bowl on the coffee table.
The first time Jennifer came to my flat, I cleaned the place scrupulously in preparation for her arrival; I even groomed Portia, for God’s sake. And still, I had the most terrible feeling of exposure when she walked in. It was as if my dirty linen basket, rather than my unexceptionable sitting room, were on display. But the awkwardness of having a professional colleague observe her living arrangements had not occurred to Sheba. She wasn’t thinking about what I was thinking. She had that absolute, bourgeois confidence in the rightness of her living room, her tatty, gigantic furniture, her children’s stray underwear.
[…] Hanging on the wall were several paintings - the sort of gimmicky modern abstracts that aren’t my cup of tea - and a primitive wooden instrument, possibly African, which looked as if it might be rather smelly if one got too close to it.
[…] When you live alone, your furnishings, your possessions, are always confronting you with the thinness of your existence. You know with painful accuracy the provenance of everything you touch and the last time you touched it. The five little cushions on your sofa stay plumped and leaning at their jaunty angle for months at a time unless you theatrically muss them. The level of the salt in your shaker decreases at the same excruciating rate, day after day. Sitting in Sheba’s house - studying the mingled detritus of its several inhabitants - I could see what a relief it might be to let your own meagre effects be joined with other people’s.

*
‘I’ve never seen the point of high heels myself,’ Richard continued. ‘It’s all about creating a sexually provocative posture, isn’t it? Bending the spine, forcing the bottom out. Like those marvelous, purple-arsed orang-utans…’

*
It sounds mad for a woman who has spent her life in the teaching profession to say so, but the truth is, I am not very good with young people. I am perfectly confident in a classroom, where the rules - regardless of whether or not they are respected - are clearly defined. But in other contexts I find myself at a loss. I cannot affect the casual, knock-about style of conversing with the younger generation that seems to be de rigueur these days. I am not a casual person. Horse-play and nonsense jokes do not sit well on me. I tend to become stiff and awkward in young company - and then, when I see that my companions are bored by me, I grow pre-emptively cold and forbidding.

*
‘It's difficult isn’t it, Barbara? One pretends that manners are the formalization of basic kindness and consideration, but a great deal of the time, they’re simply aesthetics dressed up as moral principles, aren’t they?’
‘Oh Richard . . .’ Sheba said.
‘No, I’m serious. I mean, it’s clear that politeness to one’s elders can’t always be justified on the basis of the elder's superior wisdom. It's just that it’s not attractive to see a young person answering an older person back. Isn’t that it? What do you think, Barbara?’
I rather thought that he was a pretentious fool, but I kept that to myself.

[…] Pudding was vanilla ice cream and shop-bought chocolate cake. ‘We’re immediate-gratification people, I’m afraid, Barbara,’ Richard said, sounding not at all afraid, as he cut wedges of cake for the table. I resented his constant explications of family culture. In the guise of welcoming me in, they seemed only to push me further out. You couldn’t be expected to understand our colourful, posh ways.

*
It is always difficult, the transition from noisy refusal to humble acceptance.

*
‘…To have brought up two children - one with handicaps - I mean, that’s huge, a huge achievement. Certainly bigger than anything you could have done by having a career.’

Sheba nodded impatiently. ‘Oh yes, I know. I know all that. And believe me I allow myself plenty of private gloating about my selfless parenting. But raising kids is not the same as what I’m ... It can’t possibly offer the same satisfactions as doing things out in the world. I don’t care what you say, it’s a terrible bore to have never made or done anything noteworthy, to have laboured in such absolute obscurity.’

*
On the way home, I stopped in at LoPrice. The man in front of me at the checkout laid his purchases on the conveyor belt with a terrible, shy precision: a jar of instant coffee; a single Kaiser roll with a smudge of dirt on its hard crust; a tin of tuna; a large jar of mayonnaise; two boxes of Kleenex. I thought of the casually extravagant meal that I had just eaten at the Harts. They surely never shopped at overpriced, unhygienic little supermarkets like this one. No, they would take advantage of their economies of scale and make jolly family expeditions to the flagship Sainsbury’s in West Hampstead. I could just picture them bouncing along the aisles, throwing economy packs of toilet paper into their trolleys and shouting, 'What's the rice situation, darling?' at each other. The man at the checkout watched his things being rung up with careful attention. Back home, he would make his grim tuna sandwich and his cup of sawdust coffee. He would eat in front of the television, as single people do. And then he would turn to his bounteous supply of tissues . . . for what? Tears? Sneezes? Masturbation?

There was a small confusion when the girl at the till mistakenly included my milk and bread as part of the man’s basket. ‘No, no,’ the man murmured angrily. Shooting me a nasty look, he grabbed the little metal divider and slammed it down on the conveyor belt to section off my things from his. Lonely people are terrible snobs about one another, I’ve found. They’re afraid that consorting with their own kind will compound their freakishness. The time that Jennifer and I went to Paris together, we saw an airline employee at Heathrow ask two very fat people in the check-in line where they were both off to. The fat people were not a couple as it happened, and the suggestion that they were, panicked them. Leaping apart, they both shouted in unison, ‘We’re not together!’

I understood their horror. Even Jennifer and I were prey on occasion to a certain self-consciousness about the impression we made as a twosome. Alone, each of us was safely unremarkable - invisible, actually - as plain women over the age of forty are to the world. Together, though, I always suspected that we were faintly comic: two screaming unhusbanded ladies on a day out. A music-hall act of spinsterhood.

*
Once, as they [Sheba and Connolly] were walking down St. Martin’s Lane together, she caught a glimpse of their rippling reflection in a shop window. It was a long moment before she made the connection and understood that the bony, middle-aged housewife clutching the hand of a teenage son was her.

*
[Ben's twelfth birthday party] It was intoxicating to be included in this raucous domesticity. Not perfect happiness. Perfect happiness would have been something else. But still, such fun! Jennifer once told me about a Hindu temple in a remote part of southern India that she had visited in her student days. It had seemed fantastic to her - impossible - that such exotic scenes of worship took place on the same planet as her own prosaic life in Barnstaple. Back in England, whenever she thought of the sari-clad women dipping themselves in the murky temple pool and lighting incense for Ganesh, she was half persuaded that she had made them up. That was how I felt about Sheba’s household.

*
Sheba has often told me that she thinks there's a rhythm to married life, an ebb and flow in the pleasure that a couple take in one another. The rhythm varies from couple to couple, she says. For some couples, the see-saw of affections takes place over a week. For others, the cycle is lunar. But all couples sense this about their life together - the way in which their interest in one another builds up and recedes. The happiest couples are the ones whose cycles interact in such a way that when one of them is feeling jaded, the other is ardent, and there is never a vacuum.

*
It’s always fascinating to hear bleeding hearts give their soppy rationalizations for delinquency. As far as I can tell, teachers have been congratulating Sheba and Richard for years on having a daughter who is full of grit and spunk, and whatever else it is that modern little girls are meant to be made of. Then, the minute Polly is found guilty of anti-social behaviour, they’re falling over themselves to say that her toughness is merely bravado. Polly is ‘vulnerable’, they say. She is 'anxious’. Well, excuse me - everyone is anxious. What counts, surely, is what you do with your anxiety. The fact that Polly administers Chinese burns to twelve-year-olds in order to get them to surrender their Mars Bars, isn’t ‘a behaviour’. It’s a mark of her character, for goodness’ sake.

*
It has been difficult for Sheba, I think, watching Polly blossom. The way she looks at her daughter sometimes, it’s not entirely friendly. She struggles against the envy. She knows she had her time. But it’s never easy to hand over the crown, is it? I’ve seen her close to tears on a number of occasions, describing the withering of her buttocks or a new knobble of varicose she’s found on the back of her knee. She feels, she says, as if her insides are slowly pushing outward - demanding to be noticed, finally, after all their years of patient service. Welcome to the club, I say. But she doesn’t want to be in the club. She wears a bra to bed every night because when she was a girl, one of her friends’ mothers told her that was the way to stop your breasts from falling. Every night! I’ve told her it’s useless. I’ve told her she could spend her entire life horizontal, with her breasts in steel reinforced slings, and they’re still going to end up looking like empty purses. But she won’t take the bra off.

*
[about Sheba’s mother] It was so much easier be a parent when one was performing for another adult.
[about Sheba and Polly] Dealing with her daughter is never easy, but it’s pretty much impossible without the motivation of an audience.

*
There is, I see now, such a thing as the tyranny of a humble person – the person who nods and watches quietly while you babble and show off and shout too loudly and generally make a fool of yourself. How much healthier to have a friend who isn’t afraid to take you on, to tell you what’s what!

*
My trip to Spain was pleasant enough. I saw some pretty things. But the food was greasy and I was rather miserable. This was the first trip abroad I had taken since falling out with Jennifer and I had forgotten how mortifying it can be for a woman to dine alone in a foreign hotel restaurant. On my return to London, I left a few messages at Sheba’s home, thinking she might ring in from France for them. But I still didn’t hear from her. I became worried that she might ring while I was out on an errand and I invested in my first answering machine - a cream-coloured device with an electronic voice that made announcements in the slightly surprised, pre-war tones of Joyce Grenfell. This purchase introduced a new and not unwelcome degree of suspense to my homecomings. Every time I returned to my flat, I would rush to see if the little red light was blinking. But only once was my anticipation rewarded that summer. And then it was just a message from my landlord, returning a call I’d made earlier about a leak from upstairs. Sheba never did get in touch. I had learned by now a little something about how these things are played. I knew it was important not to overstep the mark, not to appear too clingy, so I left only a few more messages at her house before I stopped ringing her altogether. Then I waited.
I am good at waiting. It is one of my great skills. Richard described the Harts as immediate-gratification people. Well, I come from deferred-gratification stock. In my family, when I was growing up, taking what you wanted at the moment you wanted it was regarded as in very bad taste.

*
Never having being much of a firework fan
[...] As I say, I have never been a big fan of firework displays. All that brightness falling, the sad, smoke smell, the finale that is never quite as magnificent as it should be. And then there’s the dispiriting, figurative tendency in modern fireworks. To stand in the cold, watching coloured sparks momentarily take the ragged shape of a smiley face or a drunken script that spells ‘Happy Holidays’ would seem, by any objective standard, to be a very low form of entertainment indeed. Yet appreciating fireworks is one of those things by which one is judged on one’s child-like delight in life. It is perfectly acceptable to hate the circus. But to admit that one finds fireworks tiresome is to render oneself a pariah. I suspect that only the tiniest fraction of the crowd gathered on the top of Primrose Hill was genuinely invested in the spectacle, but we all stayed there for a full frigid hour, dutifully manufacturing sharp intakes of breath and other symptoms of ingenuous wonderment.

*
[Sheba on Connolly] ‘…It’s like I want to… to… penetrate him. I don’t mean, you know, literally, with one of those ridiculous dildos. The fantasy is more that I would burrow up inside him, somehow. Or be swallowed by him. It's similar to the way you feel cuddling an infant or a kitten, when you want to squeeze it so hard you'd kill it...
[…] Being in love is a condition, isn’t it? It’s like being depressed. Or like being in a cult. You’re basically under the water – people can talk to you about life on dry land, but it doesn’t really mean anything…’

*
Ray ended up going off to Saudi Arabia to work for an oil company, but Marjorie stayed with the church after he left and eventually she started going with Dave, another member of the congregation. They've been married for almost thirty years now and their life is entirely church-centred. Every room in their house is crammed with religious bric-a-brac. They own at least twenty plaster models of Jesus Christ (beatific infant Jesus in porcelain nappies; he-man Jesus with biceps knocking over stalls in the Temple; thirty-something Jesus lolling gloomily in Gethsemane and so on). Over the dresser in their bedroom, there’s a deliciously bad rendering of the Last Supper with all the disciples sporting pompadours and levitating slightly. And in the front room, where Sheba and I are sleeping, there’s a six-by-four-foot poster of a harbour at sunset, captioned with a quotation from Matthew: ' “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” ’ In honour of Easter, my sister has improvised a Passion tableau on top of the telly: a gilt crucifix, encircled by ten china Easter bunnies wearing tam o’shanters.
This is my sister’s real attachment to God, I think: the accessories. Years ago, before she married Dave, we travelled to Europe together one summer and paid a visit to Lourdes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as happy as when she was trolling through the Lourdes gift shops. She liked the amputees and spastics lining up to be dangled in puddles of holy water. She enjoyed the singalongs and the torch-lit processions. But it was the trinkets, the T-shirts, the gewgaws, that really popped her cork. It’s a shame, I often think, that Marjorie didn’t end up a Catholic. She would have got such a charge out of rosary beads.

[Sheba decided to join the family at the Good Friday morning service] Marjorie nearly wet herself with excitement.

*
Sheba: Richard and I have always been so good at talking things out.

*
[about Sheba waiting for date with Connolly] She was shifting anxiously from foot to foot, like someone in need of the toilet.

*
Even when I’m in good spirits, sleep does not come easily to me. I tend to wander around for ages before I get into bed, trying to put off the moment when I pull the cold sheet to my shoulder and acknowledge the closing of another day.

*
I loather going to hairdresser’s and do so as infrequently as possible…

*
Living things out of your mind never prepares you for the reality. My mental preparation for this lunch date – the black-and-white film I had been playing in my head all week – had served only to make actual, colour version more overwhelming.

*
‘Hiya!’ he was saying. ‘Sorry I’m late. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.’ He approached very quickly, and then, without warning, he made a sort of dive at me, like a bird swooping on food. Rearing back, I felt a glance of damp lip on my chin and understood, too late, that he had been aiming to kiss my cheek. A hard knock ensued, his head colliding with mine, and it became clear - again too late - that he had been going for a kiss on both cheeks. He stepped away and I stood up from the bar stool. The immediate introduction of physical intimacy was a horrid misjudgement on his part, I felt. He had never so much as shaken my hand before.
‘No, no, you’re not late,’ I said. (He was, of course. But only by seven minutes or so.) As I rose from my stool, my handbag, which had been resting on my lap, fell to the floor. When I bent to pick it up, I could hear the oceanic roar of my own rushing blood.

*
Sheba and I had an argument about children, once. We were talking about my retirement and I made a jokey remark about how desolate it was going to be.
‘Oh, don’t say that,’ Sheba said. She looked genuinely pained. But somehow, her remark irritated me. I felt that I was being shut up.
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ I asked. ‘It’s the truth. I am a dried-up old lady with no husband, very few friends, no children. If I’d had just one child
‘Oh nonsense.’ Sheba’s tone had a surprising sharpness. What do you mean, nonsense? You don’t even know what I was going to say.’
‘Yes I do. You were going to say that a child would have given your life meaning or made it worthwhile or whatever, and that isn’t true. It’s a myth. Children give you a lot of things, but not meaning.’
‘How can they not? Look, when you die, Ben and Polly will be living. When I die, that’ll be it - there’ll be nothing left.’ Sheba laughed. ‘You think my children are my immortality? They’re not me, you know. And if life is meaningless, bearing children is just giving birth to more meaninglessness...’
‘But I’m alone, Sheba, don’t you see?’
She shrugged. Confronting a married person with the irreducible fact of one's singleness is usually the trump card that ends the discussion. I was surprised to find that Sheba did not yield. 'Being alone isn’t the worst thing in the world,’ she said.
‘But it's funny, isn't it,’ I said, ‘how it’s always people who aren’t alone, who say that?’ I was quite angry now.
‘Not so funny,’ Sheba replied. ‘Maybe they’re in the better position to judge.’
‘Look, Sheba, the only indisputable purpose humans have on the earth is to reproduce. And I haven’t done it. There’s no getting round that.’
‘Purpose - that’s closer to it,’ Sheba said. ‘Children do give you a purpose. In the sense of keeping you busy, in the sense of something to get out of bed and do every morning. But that’s not the same as meaning.’
I laughed rather bitterly, I’m afraid. What I thought was: That is the sort of fine distinction that a married woman with children can afford to make.

But she was right. Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out To Do lists - reorganize linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself - slices of ice-cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while, you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this any more. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.
People like Sheba think that they know what it's like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her hand-writing was the best thing about her. But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don't know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the laundrette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can't bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, ‘Goodness, you're a quick reader!’ when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out. They don't know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground. About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

*
To get to Bangs’s bathroom, I had to go through his bedroom. Here the fry-up smell gave way to another, equally strong scent of body - a sort of stale, hormonal mugginess. When I used to visit my father after my mother died, his unlaundered dressing gown gave off a similar odour. Bangs didn't have a proper bed, just a mattress on the floor and a very flat, defeated-looking duvet, dressed in a cover of almost sinister ugliness: navy octagons, mustard squiggles. I had a brief vision of Bangs purchasing it - standing clueless in the bed linen department of John Lewis while a dragon-lady assistant with a wire-wool beehive and a vast, iron-clad bra, assured him that it was a very ‘masculine' choice.
In Bangs’s bathroom he, or perhaps some previous inhabitant of the flat, had adorned the lid of the toilet with a cosy -a grimy, orange fur cover - which proved horribly damp to the touch. The sink had green water stains beneath its taps, and propped up in the bath tub there was a clothes horse hung with a collection of socks and briefs that had gone stiff and crackly as they dried. Adjacent to the tub there was a small, plastic counter. Here, set out with poignant symmetry, were the instruments of Bangs’s toilette. A bar of Imperial Leather soap. A small bottle of Silvikrin hairspray. A tub of something called Krazy Hair. And a rather ancient grooming set, each faded-red-plastic item of which was imprinted with the words, The Burgundy Collection. It is bizarre, really, that spinsterhood is considered the uniquely pathetic destiny, when bachelors are the ones so fatally ill-equipped for a spouseless life.

*
All my life I have been the sort of person in whom people confide. And all my life I have been flattered by this role -grateful for the frisson of importance that comes with receiving privileged information. In recent years, however, I have noticed that my gratification is becoming diluted by a certain weary indignation. Why, I find myself silently asking my confiders, are you telling me? Of course, I know why, really. They tell me because they regard me as safe. Sheba, Bangs, all of them, they make their disclosures to me in the same spirit that they might tell a castrato or a priest - with a sense that I am so outside the loop, so remote from the doings of the great world, as to be defused of any possible threat. The number of secrets I receive is in inverse proportion to the number of secrets anyone expects me to have of my own. And this is the real source of my dismay. Being told secrets is not - never has been - a sign that I belong or that I matter. It is quite the opposite: confirmation of my irrelevance.

[…] ‘Can you guess who?' he asked. He smiled coquettishly. If he had had a fan, he would have flicked it.

*
There are certain people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness - seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle-class lives. They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realized - how their seeds might have sprouted little green shoots of weirdness, or even, with the right sort of anti-nurture, blossomed into full-blown lunacy. It occurred to me now, as I watched him sink down into his beanbag, that Brian Bangs was one of these people.

*
It seems to me that an enormous amount of vice – and virtue for that matter – is a matter of circumstance. It’s entirely possible that that if my cigarettes had run out sooner, Sheba would never have been betrayed at all.

*
[Barbara about her cat] ‘How long has she got?’ (How smoothly we slip into the idiom of hospital melodrama!)

[…] …then I bent down and picked her up. There was a pale murmur of displeasure here, but no struggle I took her into the bedroom and tried sitting cross-legged on the bed with her in my lap. She wasn’t happy with this so I let her arrange herself on the counterpane and then curled myself around her, very gently scratching her under her chin. Her eyelids fell but did not quite close - her customary, slightly creepy expression of pleasure - and presently she began to purr.

Then, at last, I did cry. Although, because mourning - even for dumb animals - is never the focused, unadulterated business we pretend it to be, my tears were only partly for Portia. Once the engine of grief was revved up, it began ranging, as grief tends to, about the crowded territory of my other discontents and regrets. I cried from guilt and remorse that I had not been a better, kinder pet owner. (All the times I had rubbed Portia’s nose in her own mess when she didn’t make it to the litter box.) I cried because I had dealt what seemed to me an almost certainly fatal blow to my friendship with Sheba. I cried because I had been desperate enough to consider a liaison with a ludicrous man who collected baseball jackets and even he had rejected me. I cried because I was the sort of woman at whom girls in the hairdresser’s giggle. I cried, finally, at the indignity of my crying; the sheer stupidity of being a spinster blubbing in her bedroom on a Saturday night.

*
‘You’re mad! You really believe this stuff is the truth! You write about the things you never saw, people you don’t know.’
‘Well, that’s what a writer does, Sheba.’

*
Luckily, I have housework to keep me occupied. Eddie will be here in a few days and I’ve been Hoovering and dusting and washing like a dervish to get the house ship-shape in time. I’ve grown to rather love this house, I realize. The timer we have spent here has been terribly sad, of course. But terribly intense too and even wonderful in its way. I keep staring at things, willing myself to remember them: the faded blue dressing gown that Sheba is always leaving draped across the sofa or lying in a heap in the hall; the antique Moroccan tiles in the kitchen; the velvet-clad hangers in the closets. Of course, memory is not really as obedient a faculty as that. You can’t consciously decide what is going to adhere. Certain things may strike you at the time as memorable, but memory only laughs at your presumption. Oh, I’m never going to forget this, you say to yourself when you visit the Sacre Coeur at sunset. And years later, when you try to summon up an image of the Sacre Coeur, it’s as cold and abstract as if you’d only ever seen it on a postcard. If anything unlocks the memory of this house for me, years from now, it will be something - some tiny, atmospheric fragment - of which I’m not even aware at the moment. I know this and yet still I persist in making my little inventory, trying to nail down my recollections: the queer taste of the herbal toothpaste that Eddie’s wife uses; the long-finger shadows that the trees in the street cast on the living-room floor in the afternoons; the steamy sweetness of the bathroom after Sheba has been in there.

*
...what is romance, but a mutual pact of delusion? When the pact ends, there's nothing left.

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