Op. 03

 

CHANGING WORLDS

 

Long Prose

 

Copyright © 1976-2010 John O'Loughlin

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CONTENTS

 

Chapters 1-8

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CHAPTER ONE

 

Michael Savage wearily sat on his bed and casually ran his hand over its puffy white quilt, as though to brush away some loose hairs that had fallen out of his head during the evening.  He had just ceased listening to side two of a cassette and, now that it stood motionless in its deck, he was in some doubt as to his next choice of musical entertainment, particularly in light of the fact that his tape library was, as yet, comparatively small in relation to the considerable size of his by-now redundant record collection.

     Naturally, his neighbours wouldn't want to hear the same cassettes too often.  Indeed, to judge by the philistine nature of their pursuits, it was more than probable that they wouldn't want to hear anything of his at all; though what he was supposed to do with himself, all evening, other than listen to music and play his acoustic guitar, God alone knew!  Perhaps his neighbours would have preferred him to watch TV or listen to some serial on the radio, to do something they could all relate to, irrespective of the fact that young Savage had never felt any great inclination to acquiesce in what he considered to be philistine indulgences.  True, he did possess a small radio of reasonably decent hi-fi, but he had no qualms about being rigorously selective, and only listened to it when there was anything worth listening to, which, from recent experience, didn't seem to be all that often!

     However, there occasionally came moments when he was at a complete loss for something to do, when he didn't fancy walking the drab-looking local streets, listening to music, reading a book, or practising blues runs on his clapped-out acoustic guitar.  Then, in desperation, he would turn to the radio, find a discussion, broadcast, story, or play and, if the subject-matter didn't particularly appeal to him, just listen to the words, noting pronunciations, vocal inflections, tonal changes, individual mannerisms, etc., and contenting himself, as far as possible, with the English language, that ubiquitous tongue of the modern world.  At least that sufficed to keep one in touch with the human voice.  One could learn a lot from that, indeed one could!  But not tonight.  For some reason the thought of listening to the radio never even crossed his mind.

     He got up off his bed, wearily shuffled across to his radio-cassette player and removed the tape.  'Too much dust here,' he thought, giving the tape deck a quick inspection.  'It wouldn't cost me that much to buy some head-cleaning fluid.  I suppose I don't normally take such things that seriously, not being particularly fussy about the condition of my equipment.'

     He quickly slid the cassette into its plastic case and returned it to its allocated place in one of the three racks which served to house the rudiments of what he fancied to be a quintessential distillation of choice sounds, the making of a musical obsession.  As usual, he scanned both the composers' names and titles of these tapes, as if to reassure himself that nothing infra dignum or irrelevant to his tastes had crept-in on the sly, that he wouldn't have to throw anything out because of a suspicion of being duped by incompatible material.  How often, in the past, had he waded, with critical self-doubt, through both books and records in search of misfits, cultural pariahs which seemed a grave obstacle to his peace of mind, a source of sporadic incertitude and sleepless nights!  Ideally, he wanted his various collections to be representative of his current tastes, the essence of a private and highly personal culture that changed as he changed, enabling him to discard those examples of his literary or musical curiosity which somehow failed to satisfy him.  He had no desire to participate in the habit of one who hangs-on to everything he buys.  For the sight of a work the cover or contents of which he detested was not beyond evoking an analogue, in his wayward mind, with the sight of a crucifix to Count Dracula!

     He turned away from both tapes and ruminations alike, walked slowly across to his one and only clock (which rested face-down on the top shelf of his bookcase because it rarely worked in an upright position), picked it up and noted the time.  At 9.30pm it was much too early to go to bed.  It didn't do to acquire a sort of defeatist complex from turning in too early.  He would just have to preoccupy himself as best he could for the next couple of hours.

     "Hello?  Oh, hello!"  As usual it was for the ugly-looking female student from the room above.  "How are you?  Yeah, fine.  We went out for the day.  Are you?  When?  Well I never!  Oh, don't!  You're kidding!  He's such a ... Ha-ha!  Yeah, I thought as much.  Aren't men ...?"

     Michael turned away from his bookcase, from where her strident voice was all too easily overheard, and wearily sat down on his bed again.  Not once in over six months had he answered that damn telephone.  He had consistently shunned it, even though it usually rang dozens of times a day.  It was never for him anyway, so what would have been the point?  He certainly wasn't one to run around in the capacity of unofficial servant to his neighbours!  He didn't even know who they all were anyway; they came and went and, as far as possible, he took little or no notice of them.  In this house, people generally kept to themselves and didn't ask questions.

     "I see.  So you're going next week?  Oh, damn!  Too bad.  Okay then.  Bye."  The telephone clicked off and heavy feet, shod in high heels, ran up the thinly carpeted wooden stairs to the first-floor landing, leaving him to his thoughts again.

     'Subdued conversation, footsteps above the ceiling, coming to a halt, starting again, stopping, starting, shuffling across her floor.  Be helpful if I had eyes that could see through the ceiling, see exactly what goes-on up there.  Frustrates me, listening to their noise every evening without being able to see the cause of it.  Better still if she's wearing a short skirt.  See if her legs are any better than her face.... Reminds me vaguely of when I was about three years old and used to crawl between my mother's feet to discover what she kept up her skirt.  She usually kicked my toy cars away when I got too close, so I never did get to see very much.  Something in the order of an early rebuff, you could say.  Made it difficult for me to get the impression of being wanted.  Like that time after she had cold-bloodedly sent me to the Children's Home, several years later, when the house parents there kicked me around the floor and told me that I was the lowest thing on earth because their infant son had a moment before wriggled through my arms and fallen onto the carpet, slightly bumping his head in the process.  Hard to forget an experience like that because your emotions are so highly charged at the time, and that's generally how memories stick.  Of course, in the heat of the moment his parents wouldn't have realized they were inflicting nasty memories on me, and even if they had they probably wouldn't have cared, considering that their only child was slightly hurt in falling and I was adjudged responsible for it.  Then in the throes of what one can only suppose to be a repentant mood they later turn around and tell me that God knows all about my sins, but that He will stick by me in times of need if only I give my heart to His keeping.  Yeah, and a vengeful old jerk He must be too, if they were anything to judge by!'

     He angrily stared a moment through the narrow french windows of his bedsitter, seeing but not looking.  He had no real desire to look at anything anyway, since the view beyond them hardly constituted anything particularly worth looking at, so overgrown with weeds was the back garden.  He might just as well turn back to his thoughts again.

     'Thank goodness that phone doesn't ring quite as often as the one in my last lodgings!  Conversations going on most of the night, and sometimes as late as 2.00am.  Always some nuisance blabbering about his misfortunes, some idiot trying to induce his ex-wife or girlfriend or whatever to meet him for a weekend get-together, to wear her best clothes, etc., because he would be nicely soused and eager to get his end in at the first favourable opportunity.  Blabbering and swearing for up to an hour on the damn thing, and rarely getting anywhere either!  A dosshouse if ever there was one!  Sheer hell!  Well, I'm glad that much is over and done with anyway.  I certainly wouldn't want to live in a dump like that again!'

     On the opposite wall the large colour poster of a painting by Salvador Dali entitled Swans Reflecting Elephants began to impose its outlandish landscape on his lethargic sensibilities, and the almost instantaneous mental assimilation of it engendered, in his imagination, the notion that he was driving some space vehicle through uncharted territory towards the edge of a lake where the aforementioned scene suddenly arrested his stunned attention and brought the vehicle in question to a jolting halt.  He was staring through the windscreen at what might well have been a scene on Mars.  For had a weirder vision previously crossed the windscreen of any imaginary space-vehicle of his, he would have known it and been able to corroborate it with dozens of examples freshly culled from the repository of a memory well-furnished with such landscapes.

     However, for the time being he was both highly absorbed in the insight afforded him by this latest discovery and secretly elated that he should have conceived of such a notion in the midst of several more down-to-earth ruminations.  Indeed, Dali's brilliant idea of fusing the watery reflections of swans and nearby tree trunks with the heads and legs of on-the-spot elephants had already appealed to his imagination, and he now thought it just as well that you didn't discover everything about any given thing all at once but, on the contrary, gradually woke up to various aspects of it when the time and mood were propitious.  For such a gradual process of enlightenment helped to make life more interesting.  As with a multitude of other things, you had to wait until you had matured into them before really acquiring a worthwhile appreciation of their true worth.

     'When I was in the local bookshop the other day', he resumed thoughtfully, 'that book on Dali easily caught my eye.  Bit I read about his meditating in front of a Vermeer and subsequently sketching a pair of rhinoceros horns ... very surreal indeed!  The essence of Dali.  Surrealism-while-you-wait; camera poised to click real-life surreal montage.  Vaguely reminds me of a former friend of mine who thought Dali a lunatic because it was reported that the painter had told some interviewer he would rather go to a restaurant and order a lobster with telephone, or lobster telephone, than the usual gastronomic fare.  Typical example of what Baudelaire called "Universal misunderstanding", as if Dali were a plumber, insurance agent, clerk, or lawyer to spend time mouthing their jargon instead of his own, i.e. that of a fully-fledged genius of the surreal.  I suppose few people would think it odd if a lawyer discussed law in a restaurant.  Perfectly feasible, if a shade tasteless.  Could even give his fellow diners indigestion.  More lawyers in the world than artists of Dali's calibre anyway.  The sanity of numbers.'

     The old woman who lived in the next-door room had just closed the front door behind her return and was busily rattling her keys about in the hallway.  'She always makes such an abominable row in trying to find the keyhole to her room that anyone would think the damn thing kept moving about!' thought Michael in exasperation.

     However, she wasn't quite the doting old crone he liked to imagine, and he half-surmised that she made a nuisance of herself on purpose, as a form of retaliation for the music he habitually played in the evenings.  Bearing in mind the thinness of the wall separating their two rooms, that seemed a fairly plausible conjecture, at any rate!

     Succeeding with the key at last, she entered her room and Michael Savage's thoughtful head heard the door slam-to behind her.  'Safe at last!' he went on, with her still in mind, 'safe from an evil spirit, perhaps one of her former accomplices in life who, like Maupassant's Horla, will continuously dog her steps, inhibit her from either feeling or touching herself, make her imagine she's being watched, etc.  Old spinsters like that usually don't have any company.  They gradually disintegrate.  Probably wouldn't want to make fools of themselves by trying to gain access to the company of people well accustomed to it.  They gradually become more wrapped-up in themselves, more suspicious of others, increasingly the prisoners of their personal circumstances.  I don't even know her full name.  Just an ugly old bag who occasionally receives a formal letter addressed to a Miss J. Bass.  Creeps around in her room as though she were at a private séance.  Often has the radio on.  Usually classics.  Not much else a woman of her age can really listen to, is there?

     'Well, I would sometimes like to feel sorry for her but, try as I might, it's no use.  The net result is that I only end-up feeling sorry for myself, having to live next to her.  Pity really, because there are so many lonely people in the world, these days, and not all of them are elderly either.  No-one to talk to.  Probably wouldn't feel like talking to anyone even if the opportunity were to arise.  I mean, where could she begin, assuming solitary deprivation hadn't rendered her wholly inarticulate?  Does part-time work somewhere during the day though, so she evidently has something going for her.... Wonder if she's ever had a man?  It wouldn't be impossible but, all the same, I'd hardly be surprised to learn that she hadn't.  Must be awfully frustrating for a woman, living alone so many years.  All work and no play.  And they say the sexual urge is stronger in women?  I suppose it depends on the woman really.  Some of them are awfully tame.  If I've seen each of the three or four females who live in this house more than a handful of times since moving here, over six months ago, I'd be very surprised.  Like the rest of my neighbours, they scuttle away into their own rooms before anyone can accost them.... Not that I'm a man for forming crab-like gestures!  Heaven forbid!  But they don't know that, so they scuttle away in good time.  Saves embarrassment, I suppose.'

     He lay back on his bed and languidly watched a large fly darting around the room.  It seemed to be getting highly annoyed with itself as it flew round and round, up and down, in and out of one thing or another, while buzzing vehemently and colliding with just about every damn thing that got in its way.

     It was always the same on warm evenings.  You opened the window to let-in some fresh air and, before long, some winged insect had found its way through the opening and commenced torturing itself between the walls.  However, the most obvious solution, namely to acquire some cotton mesh with which to prevent ingress, hadn't exactly met with Michael Savage's approval, in view of the fact that his room was rather dingy and he preferred, in consequence, to let-in as much light as possible.  It was simply too bad that these unfortunate insects had to stick their snouts into everything!  Short of shooing them out again or swatting them to death, he would just have to put up with it.  At least he had the consolation of knowing that a fairly clean room wasn't something that would greatly appeal to flies.

     He rose from his bed again and wandered over to the mirror, which appeared to hover atop the dressing table like a guardian angel.  The sun had lightly tanned his face, and this aspect of his overall facial appearance now pleased him.  His hair was growing beyond the six-inch mark, but that didn't particularly bother him because he was due to visit his local barber within the next few days.  A six-inch growth of hair was no great inconvenience to a young man who hadn't yet turned twenty-four!

     He closely looked at his eyes and nose in the mirror.  The former was indicating, through some puffy rings, signs of tiredness, the latter, through its gently aquiline contours, the mark of what he took to be a man of literary and philosophical, though especially philosophical, disposition.  'No boils in view anyway,' he thoughtfully mused.  'Grew out of them some time ago.  Still get the odd one sprouting from the epidermal undergrowth now and again, but it seems they're fast running out of virgin pasture.  They don't thrive on the old spots quite so well.  Have to find somewhere else to sprout up, like my back and chest.  But I usually nip them in their purulent bud before they get a chance to really tarnish my relatively handsome appearance.  A few small scars, but nothing serious.  Worst place is up in the nostrils.  Bad on the lips, too.  Used to put me through hell as a youth.  Probably some blood trouble at the root of it.  Might even have had something to do with that burst appendix I experienced at sixteen.  Some of the poison seeped into my bloodstream.  Seem to recall getting my first boil at around that time.  All very unnatural, when you think about it.  Adolescent tribulations!  Had a difficult time obtaining the right prescription from the local doctor; everything he prescribed only seemed to exacerbate the problem, making the boils worse.  Ended-up going to him every other week with the same sorry story: "Those pills didn't work for me.  Have you any other suggestion?"  Must have exhausted most of his options by the time he got around to prescribing chest pills.  At first I didn't realize, but they seemed to do the trick.  A question of faith.  Got the psychology right in the end.  Faith works miracles we're told.  Believe something will do you good and the chances are you may pull through.  Believe it won't and, no matter how applicable it may be, you might as well write yourself off there and then.  Comes down to the witch-doctor principle, the frame-of-mind you're in at the time.  Reason doctors are generally so positive about things, to prevent you from worrying yourself into a worse condition.  More or less the same principle with fortune-tellers and astrologers.  Giving people what they want, flattering the ego, conciliating, appeasing.  "Why, yes, you ought to become a poet with that sort of gift for words. - Why, yes, I think you'll do very well in that field if you utilize your considerable diplomatic potential. - Ah, yes, you'll meet a highly attractive and very intelligent young woman pretty soon, during the next few weeks in fact."  Financially shrewder than giving them a lot of bad news, I suppose.  People don't usually consult fortune-tellers and astrologers for bad news anyway.  They're mostly screwed-up at the time, hoping for an indication of better things ahead, a favourable prognosis, as it were.

     'It's strange when you think about it really, but there are planets in the Solar System by the names of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, which are in turn symbolically identified with different abstractions culled from Roman mythology, like Venus with love, Mars with war, etc., and astrologers tell you that you came under the influence of certain of these abstractions when you were born in a certain place at a certain time.  But if you're honest with yourself and look at astrology from a sort of existentialist angle, you'll see clearly enough - and without the need of long-range telescopes - that there really aren't any such places as Mercury, Venus, Mars, etc., because what one actually has in the Solar System are large orbiting bodies which, for want of an alternative name, we choose to call planets, with their respective pagan names and mythological symbolism, so that we can commonly agree on what's what.  Okay, so we commonly agree that Venus is symbolic of love, since the planets derive their names from Roman mythology and Venus was the goddess of love.  But that really isn't good enough, because you're only too aware there's really no such place as Venus, that there's just a large mass of molten stuff up there in space which you could alternatively agree to call Elephasia if you wanted to, and that mass of molten stuff has as much to do with love as my lexicon, think what you like!

     'Indeed, now I've gone this far I can imagine the sort of argument which some die-hard astrologer would attempt to counter me with.  A ludicrous one, to say the least, but an argument of sorts all the same.  He would inform me that even if those large masses of planetary stuff aren't given mythical names, they still exist and consequently continue to exert an influence on your birth or mind or destiny.  In other words, now that, as nameless things, the planets are stripped to their bare essentials, viz. size, position, velocity, etc., it would simply be necessary to plot their positions, note down all the people born under a given planetary pattern, say the universal influence of Libra, round them up in adult life, take particulars, and then see whether they possessed anything in common.... Which, considering the vast numbers of people involved and their geographical diversity, could well prove a daunting, not to say impossible, task for even the most obdurately irrational of persons!  Well, I won't go into further suppositions on that score.  Let those who want to deceive themselves continue to do so, until such time as they might learn sense or come up against the Last Judgement.  After all, superstitions won't die out overnight.'

     Leaving his mirror, the young 'rationalist' ambled across to the sink, cleaned his teeth with a bent and worn toothbrush, drank a glass of slimy tap-water, and then began to undress.  It was barely 10.15pm, so he was getting ready for bed well before his usual time, a realization which made him feel slightly ashamed of himself for seemingly giving-in so early.  True, he had read for over two hours earlier in the evening, had listened to music from about 8.30-9.15pm, had thought quite a lot of exacting thoughts.  His day at the office hadn't exactly been what one would call a bed of roses.  On the contrary, it had well-and-truly exhausted him.  It was almost impossible to write successfully, to write as he would have liked to, after such hard work.  One instinctively took to recreation or relaxation, to whatever one imagined made one's life worthwhile or at the very least bearable.  Well, a majority of people did anyway, even if he had always been a bit more obdurate or idealistic, a potential artist who felt himself to be somewhat restricted through solitude and consequently coerced into more intellectuality than was good for him.  If he had never particularly gone out of his way to make friends, it was partly on the grounds that what he took to be his real work only began in the evenings when, clerical routine behind him, he was comparatively free to dedicate the rest of the day to the service of his literary aspirations.

     In the pursuit of these aspirations, which alternated between reading with intent to study and dilettantish composition, he had neither the time nor the inclination to rub shoulders with others in, say, some neighbourhood pub, since too dedicated to his 'deeper calling', as he liked to think of it, to be able to break away from it without feeling the frustrations of a seemingly futile existence.  He would certainly be deceiving himself if, with all his knowledge and literary know-how, he continued to rot away in the boring company of people who knew virtually nothing about the world's greatest literature, had never even heard of Flaubert, Kafka, or Hamsun, let alone read them, and would have been extremely hard-pressed to define the meaning of a word like 'eulogy', or to spell 'instantaneous'.  A reasonably profound education was only justified, it seemed to him, if one could make use of it rather than become its victim.  Education without a purpose or outlet was of scant avail in such a fiercely competitive world, a world orientated towards the survival of the smartest.  Whether one liked it or not, one had a duty to oneself, one had to live with oneself, and that, as he knew only too well, wasn't always an easy thing to do!  Why, this very evening he was too tired to have attempted any serious literary work.  It didn't pay to goad oneself mercilessly, even if one's circumstances were so disagreeable that, in one's impatience to escape them, one was driven to exert oneself more than would otherwise have been the case.  No, one had to succumb to lethargy sometimes, to face facts.  Maybe he would have some interesting or gratifying dreams, during the night, which would partly compensate him for his current impotence?  Like dreams with pretty women in them, for instance.

     Yes, but you couldn't will it.  You had to entrust yourself to your mind's keeping, let it make its own enigmatic decisions irrespective of your conscious priorities.  It would amuse itself in its own fashion, in due course.  Something interesting was bound to turn up, if you waited patiently and weren't regularly insomniac.  Even medieval people would have had access to a world of interior visions which probably transcended the visual impact of modern film by as much if not more than the best of our dreams do today.

     Of course, Michael was aware that his dream-world was no simple paradise, that it contained as many vicissitudes as one either cared or dared to imagine, and some of them beyond imagining; experience having endowed him with a peculiar aversion to that kind of dream which, by dint of its pictorial clarity and sinister feasibility, well-nigh convinces one it isn't really a dream at all but a prolongation or resurrection of waking life, and subsequently engenders a combination of relief and thanksgiving, in the mind, that what took place there wasn't real after all, since one is still free to get out of bed and go about one's usual affairs, which seem relatively congenial, not to say trivial, by comparison.  Fortunately, however, those kinds of oppressively impressionable dreams were comparatively rare, so it was unlikely, on balance, that anything of such psychic magnitude would envelop his sleeping mind tonight.  He would just have to wait and see what fate had in store for him.

     Having undressed, laid out the same clothes for the morning, and then inserted malleable wax earplugs into his ears - a strategy he had developed with a degree of physical inconvenience to safeguard himself from the even greater inconvenience caused by the various noises in which his nearest neighbours freely indulged themselves every night - he switched off the light and gently eased himself between the nylon sheets of his moderately comfortable, albeit long-suffering, single bed.  He reflected that the earplugs would have to be changed in the morning, since it wasn't wise to allow them to become so grubby, through repeated use, that one ran the risk of a serious ear infection.  Since they were already fairly grubby, he decided he would only push them right in to his ears as a last resort, i.e. if there was too much noise.  However, his neighbours were relatively quiet at present, in fact so quiet that he found himself free to wander down some fairly congenial avenues of thought.

     'Muffled sounds above, connubial bliss.  Television on in house next door.  Old woman coughing in front room, whether ironically or otherwise I don't pretend to know. - J'espère, tu espères, il espère, nous espèrons, vous espèrez, ils espèrent. Je sors du train maintenant parce que je suis malade.  Vous aimez ces choses? Je les ai achetées hier matin chez le marchand de gants.  Je voudrais une petite chambre pour deux personnes seulement.  Oui, mon amie et moi.  (Complet, monsieur, malheureusement.)  O, je vois.  Eh bien!  J'aime vos belles jambes, ma petite fleur.

     'Just a few French phrases to round off the day, pretend that things aren't as bad as I picture them.  Might even get a sense of intellectual or cultural achievement if I keep at it long enough, go to sleep with a good  conscience.  Won't get to sleep for an hour or two anyway, maybe longer.  That period of insomnia last year - terrible!  Too much consciousness, brain breaking under pressure of it, incipient neurosis.  Even tried sleeping pills, but they only made me feel like a moron next day.  Wound-up with too many psychological disparities, thoroughly neurotic.  Next stop paranoia, persecution complexes running riot.  Final stop ... no thanks!  Too many sharks pulling everywhichway as it is.  Soon learn to stand on your own two feet again, ignore the mob's acrimonious banter.    Little alternative.  Feel much better without pills anyway, have faith in myself again.  See through it all after awhile.  Find your way out of the maze of incertitude.  Breeze clear before you get lost again.

     'Je vais seul, tu vas seul, il va seul, nous allons seuls, vous allez.... Haven't fantasized so much recently, though I had a regular spell of it at one time.  Goes on and off, like dreams.  Wake up to the realization, one day, that you could go mad if you kept at it too long, get caught in your habits and wind-up preferring fantasy to the real thing.  Same with magazines, which can lead you seriously astray if you aren't careful.  Like walking along the street with a talkative bloke beside you and missing out on a glimpse of the occasional attractive female who passes by, because he demands too much of your attention.  One path to perversity.  Have to watch who you mix with, binding habits engendering excessive sexual constipation.  Find yourself in a social cul-de-sac of your own making!

     'Wonderful power fantasy has, though.  Best of a bad job, so to speak ... I mean, think.  But annoying when you can't sustain the images.  Very frustrating!  Frustrates me, too, when her bedsprings are jingling upstairs and her boyfriend is doing it for all he's fucking-well worth, and she's moaning and coaxing and giving off irresistibly endearing little incentives to goad him on, the stupid prick, and I'm lying here in the doldrums wondering how to ignore their noises altogether.... Well, at least they're fairly normal, considering how merciless city life is at breeding perversions.  Plenty of wankers about.  Used to indulge in a stint of masturbation myself occasionally, just to keep my hand in, so to think, and test my virility.  After all, it wouldn't do to go impotent all of a sudden.  One should have at least three erections a day, according to what I was reading somewhere.  It comes on you unaccountably sometimes, the most seemingly innocuous or incongruous of contexts.  Like sitting in a crowded bus.  Realize you're alighting next stop, so you try to get it down, make it shrink back to normal.  You wouldn't want to draw too much attention to yourself, especially in summertime, what with the possibility of old women in heat.  Could even give someone the wrong impression, someone you couldn't in the least fancy.

     'Je vidé, tu vidés, j'ai vidé, tu as vidé, je vidais, tu vidais, il vidait, vidons.... Pity I can't exercise my French on an attractive young Frenchwoman.  Have to throw yourself in at the deep end if you want to swim.  My ex-teacher, Jacques Potôt, authentic Frenchman.  He knew most of the contemporary idiosyncrasies of Parisian communication.  Typically French in many ways.  I found it difficult not to laugh in his face sometimes, the way he pronounced certain words so emphatically, screwing up his features and accentuating his vocal delivery with the help of violent gestures.  Bit of an actor really.  Good company, though.  Taught me like a friend.  Infinitely better than those stuffed parrots who always keep you at a psychic distance and never reveal anything about their personal affairs.  Only in it for the money.

     'Faites attention, mes eleves.  Parlez après moi les mots "bon", "gros", et "grand".  Il y a deux choses sur cette table - un livre et une plume.... Glad I didn't have to put up with too much of that sort of thing!  It would have been like being back at school again.... Oh, these words, these words!  Innate obduracy, labial contortions, cerebral exigencies, precocious jeremiads, anathematized pudenda, incipient duplicity, clitoral enthralment, inveterate nonchalance.... Idiot who poses with open mouth and inaccessible sex dreams penetration.  Mornings are a good time, though.  Almost invariably wake up with a hard-on.  Wasted potential really.  Still, there's always the possibility of my luck changing for the better some day.  Conquer somebody!  Preferable to fantasizing all the frigging time.  Cerebral exigencies again, high blood pressure.  Think you're going to get a brain haemorrhage, what with all those lewd images flickering through your mind, performing strange rites and requiting unrequited love.  Possession of favourite image hardly sufficient for one's bodily salvation, however.  Have to do better next time, not let her get away scot-free or get snapped up by somebody else, somebody maybe even worse than myself.  Touching hands.  Peeling clothes to bring delectable fruit of female's body to lustful exposure.  Impending embrace in soft silky night-time, light-time, right-time, sight-time honeymoon.   Must sleep, s-l-e-e-p before I go completely crazy.  Sleep!'                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

  

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Gerald Matthews stretched out a hand and switched off the tinny alarm on his pocket-sized alarm clock to prevent it ringing unnecessarily.  For he was already wide awake, having anticipated the alarm some fifteen minutes in advance of the 7am deadline at which it was usually set.  On this occasion, as on a number of previous ones, it was an inconvenience he might just as well do without!

     The practical details of getting up were normally an ordeal for Gerald but, today, the sight of the sun streaming in through a narrow gap in his curtains and the exuberant twittering of local sparrows acted as a kind of invincible goad, and before long he was up and about, frantically hunting  for suitable clothes to wear, scrutinizing his stubble-ridden chin in the oval mirror of his dressing-table, and generally making a fuss of himself.  When, in this fussy fashion, he had washed and dressed, combed back his curly fair hair and polished his new shoes, he sped downstairs, threw open the front door and, almost skipping out onto the garden path, began to vigorously inhale and exhale large draughts of suburban fresh air.  Yes, it was definitely the kind of day to make one feel pleased with life!  One just had to be grateful for weather of this magnificent calibre.  If the cloudless warmth lasted through to the weekend, he would take himself off somewhere for a long walk.

     Sated by his spell of deep breathing, he re-entered the semidetached house and swiftly made his way towards the kitchen at the rear.  However, he hadn't been in there long enough to fry some bacon when a clamber of footsteps above the ceiling indicated that Mr David Shuster, eligible bachelor, lecturer in English, and sole owner of the two-storey property, had risen from the living-death of drug-induced sleep and moronically entered the bathroom, where he would remain for at least another thirty minutes - the fact of his regularly being obliged to contend with the often critical, though sometimes admiring, attention of large numbers of female students having made him, in Gerald's view, somewhat over-solicitous of his facial appearance.  Thus by the time Shuster arrived downstairs, impeccably well-groomed, Gerald would be either clearing away the dishes or, assuming he had already done so, reading one of his many music scores in the adjoining study.

     As it happened, Gerald had just swallowed his last mouthful of toast and was greedily downing a large mugful of thick, sweetish coffee when Shuster entered the kitchen and was heard to proffer exuberant salutation, a manner of greeting which Gerald automatically reciprocated, albeit slightly surprised by the other's uncharacteristic early-morning exuberance.  "Now don't tell me that you're in a good mood this morning," he hastened to add.  "What, exactly, were you dreaming about?"

     "Oh, much ado about nothing," Shuster briskly replied with Shakespearean gusto.  "It went in a flash as usual."   He walked over to the fridge.  "Good God, don't tell me we've run out of bacon already!" he cried, peering in.

     "On the top shelf," said Gerald, carrying his empty mug and plates to the sink.  "I only took two slices this morning."

     "Ah, yes."  Shuster's hungry eyes alighted on the elusive bacon like a bloodthirsty hawk upon its tender prey.  "So how did the music lesson go last night?" he asked, taking command of the frying pan.  "I trust you weren't overly exasperated again?"

     Gerald Matthews smirked ironically in tacit response to this assumption, since he was only too aware of the cause of his Thursday evening tantrums, and replied that it was fortunate for him that he didn't have to see Lorraine Smith more than once a week, since she had all the traits of an utter wastrel.

     "Something of an unwilling piano pupil by the sound of it,"  conjectured Shuster, turning the sizzling bacon over and adding a couple of small eggs to the rather large frying pan.  "You seem to get lumbered with so many like her."

     "Yes, and, what's worse I can't get rid of them," Gerald sighed.  "Why, she still can't properly differentiate between major and minor diatonic scales!"

     "Really?" exclaimed Shuster with apparent unconcern.

     "And I've been going over them with her for the past five months!" cried Gerald, patently exasperated.  "Her sense of interval recognition is virtually non-existent."

     "Dear me," mumbled Shuster, more for his own benefit, it appeared, than for Gerald's.  "So you lost your temper again."

     "Fortunately not!  But I certainly took it out on the piano afterwards.  The grand style, so to speak."  Gerald thought he detected an involuntary wince on Shuster's clean-shaven face at this point and, transferring his washed crockery to the draining board, tactfully added: "I believe you were out at the time."

     "I was indeed.  Invited out to dinner, actually."

     "Not your eminent colleague, the unmusical physics genius, by any chance?" conjectured Gerald smirkingly.

     Shuster smiled patronizingly as he scooped a well-fried rasher onto an empty plate.  It was a standing joke between them that Loper, the physicist, couldn't tell the difference between Mozart and Beethoven, being tone-deaf.  "No, not this time," he calmly replied.  "Friends of a colleague, in fact.  Keen literary minds from down under."

     "So you actually had dinner with Australians for once."  It was like Gerald to jump to concrete conclusions.

     "New Zealanders actually," Shuster corrected.  "Though, quite frankly, I wouldn't care to be entertained by them every week.  It was a demanding experience, both gastronomically and intellectually.  Still, a refreshing change!"

     "Glad to hear you say so," said Gerald, who was now ready to depart the kitchen.  "Well, I must be off in a minute, since I don't want to arrive at the office later than eight-thirty this morning.  Incidentally, there's a literary chap there by name of Michael Savage who might interest you.  I made his acquaintance some time ago, but he's certainly an unusually elusive man.  Not what I'd call sociable at all.... As it happens, I invited him over here last week, but since then I find it difficult to avoid the impression that he's trying to snub me."

     Shuster feigned indignant surprise.  "Really?  And how old is he?"

     "Oh, twenty-three or twenty-four.  He did tell me the other day."

     "Good grief, don't tell me you belong to that perennially eccentric category of age-forgetters!" exclaimed Shuster with cynical relish.

     "Not as completely as I'd like to!" retorted Gerald, whilst admiring his fair countenance in the hall mirror.  "I should like to have remained twenty-five for ever."

     "Humph!  Think yourself fortunate that such wishes are only granted in fairy tales," the lecturer's manly voice boomed from the kitchen.  "Else you might have lived to regret it!"

     "Not the way I live," the twenty-eight-year-old narcissist shouted back and, with a departing chuckle, he was out through the front door and into the sunny street.

 

     On the tube, Gerald pondered various events of the previous evening's piano tutorials.  Like the two occasions, during the second lesson, when he had almost lost his temper with that wretched girl Lorraine Smith, who would never, it seemed to him, come properly to grips with her scales and arpeggios.  Of course, her parents were fairly well off and only too keen to help her get on in life, as they say.  But, as often happened, the children of such parents had their own ideas on that score, being disinclined to take seriously those things that they didn't want to take seriously, with a consequence that they not only wasted their parents' money but, in combating parental pressures, simultaneously reduced their own flair for life.

     This Lorraine Smith, for example, was fifteen or sixteen (he couldn't quite remember which) and a strapping wench, to boot!  For all he knew, she might have been going through the sorts of emotional upheavals which young girls of that age usually experience, and consequently be susceptible to periodic mental aberrations of the kind she often exhibited during her piano lessons.  Still, he couldn't be sure and wouldn't have wanted to conjecture presumptuously, for both their sakes!  He recalled that midway through the Mozart sonata - a performance, incidentally, with fewer mistakes on her part than during the four previous attempts at it - his eyes had wandered from the score and keyboard to her hair and profile, before encompassing her breasts with a swiftly penetrating glance doubtless encouraged by the low-cut blouse she was wearing, only to return thereafter to the bright ivory keys of his upright piano and refocus on her gracefully tapering fingers.  To be sure, he had then summarily corrected a misconstrued interpretation of Mozart's legato indication.  For such little sly investigations of this and certain other pupils' physical appearances to which he occasionally succumbed usually had the effect of morally rejuvenating him, and he would undoubtedly have corrected her playing a lot more, had the opportunity of a more leisurely and detailed investigation of her person regularly presented itself.  However, as a piano teacher, business had to take precedence over pleasure, since he couldn't afford to jeopardize the sanctity of professional etiquette over some teenage beauty who, in his opinion, still couldn't properly differentiate between major and minor diatonic scales.  That would have been an unpardonable indiscretion!  Besides, if compensation was desired, he would be instructing Miss Stephanie Power that very evening, and she was even more attractive than Lorraine.  He definitely wouldn't mind seeing more of her.

     Alighting from the half-empty carriage at his usual station, he hurried up the escalator as though it were merely a staircase, dashed, season ticket in hand, past a slightly-bemused ticket collector, and rushed out into the dazzling sunshine of the glorious 25th June.  It was a ten-minute walk to the music firm and he would be there in good time if he didn't stop en route, as sometimes happened, for a coffee at the nearby Italian café where, at this time of day, a wait in the queue was almost always guaranteed.  Glancing at his watch he decided, in view of the fact it had just turned 8.20am, to abstain from another coffee until lunch.

     Even at this relatively early hour the streets leading to work were thronged with purposefully striding bodies of all shapes and sizes, each of whom was pursuing a secret destiny oblivious of the many other destinies hurrying by to time's pressing dictates.  Yet, although he was very much a component of this universal coercion, Gerald had enough presence of mind to note a variety of features - from an old man's white-washed wizened face to a young girl's rather heavily made-up eyes - which engaged his passing attention.  He stopped briefly twice en route to stare, firstly, through the window of a small music shop with many bright covers of topical and even post-topical songbooks on display, and, secondly, at an array of saucepans and other domestic utensils in a nearby general store - an experience which instantly connoted with the fact that Michael Savage was leaving the firm today.  For they had visited this particular store together just over a week previously, and on that august occasion Savage had divulged his intention of leaving while Gerald had been closely examining a large baking tray, an item he reluctantly but stoically purchased the following day.

     So much for the facts!  At any rate, it was up to Gerald to seize upon the occasion of his colleague's imminent departure by inviting him for a drink and/or meal at lunch time, thereby acquiring the opportunity for an exchange of mutual intentions and problems, as well as possibly even securing ongoing access to his colleague's potential friendship - assuming, of course, that that was mutually acceptable.   However, the recollection that he wanted to be at the office by 8.30am immediately precluded any further dalliance on his part, and he set off, once more, at a fairly brisk pace.  It was now 8.27 and he would certainly have to hurry if, in accordance with the rules of flexitime, he wanted to leave work at 4.30pm that day.  He was so looking forward to seeing his star pupil, Miss Stephanie Power, again!

     

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

'Phew!  I'd better open that window and let-in some fresh air,' thought Michael Savage, getting up from his desk and going across to the nearest window.  'That's better!  No wonder people fall asleep on the job.  Too stuffy for clear thinking.... Well, I couldn't ask for a better day to be leaving this place.  Such a cloudless sky must be a good omen.  The twenty-fifth of June, effectively my D-Day!'

     Returning to his desk, he cast a furtive glance around the elongated office in which it had been his fate to labour in various clerical capacities  for the past five-and-a-half years, before continuing: 'Eight-thirty and still not many people here.  Even old Gerald hasn't arrived yet.  Just as well I got out of bed on time this morning.  Being here at eight-twenty is early for me.'  He turned his eyes towards the young clerk at the desk opposite, a comparative newcomer to the clerical scene, and encountered an impassive gaze, the gaze of reticent youth which, however, he sought to investigate by tentatively smiling upon, the youth duly reciprocating this smile in an equally tentative manner, thereby reassuring him of the latter's shyness or perhaps even deference.  On more than one occasion in recent weeks Michael had been disconcerted and almost intimidated by this adolescent's impassivity, this enigmatic judgement which rarely exposed itself to close scrutiny, although he subsequently dismissed the accusations he had hypothetically, and some would say pathetically, levelled against himself on the grounds that he had as much right to live as anyone else, even if he was occasionally a little paranoid, and that the youth, far from holding himself critically aloof from someone he despised, was probably uncertain of himself and, hence, fairly noncommittal.  That, at any rate, seemed as plausible a conjecture as any!

     'At least old grumpy guts won't be in for a while,' Michael resumed, thinking of the more experienced clerk who sat beside the one in question, as he turned the pages of a recent reprint of the G.B. and Channel Islands rail guide through which he was obliged to investigate the routes and times of the various intercity services the more important representatives of the firm would be obliged to utilize, in due course, for purposes best known to themselves.  'So many stations in these things.  I'd better make sure I keep a close check on the days of the week to which I'm referring.  It wouldn't do to put someone who'll be working Saturday onto a Sunday service!  Also refer to period validity.  Make sure the timetable is still operative.  Some of them don't begin to apply until the tenth of October.  It keeps your mind alert anyway.'

     At that moment a smartly-dressed, portfolio-bearing clerk of average height, but slightly more than medium build, threw open the office door with a flourish and proceeded, at brisk pace, towards the Signing-in-Book at the far end of the room.  He politely smiled at two nearby clerks before casting a glance at the newly-installed electric wall clock, which appeared to hover above the Signing-in-Book like a vulture over a carcass.

     'Ah, there's Gerald now!  Eight-thirty three, eh?  He's a bit late this morning.... What-on-earth's he done to his hair?  It looks a different colour today.  Maybe it's down to some fancy shampoo he uses.  He's growing a beard it seems.  Suits him anyway.  Looks slightly more like a man now.  Always did strike me as being a bit effeminate.  Wonder if he'll say hello.'

     "Morning, Michael!"

     "Morning, Gerald." - 'Christ, that surprised me!  He hasn't been so friendly since I cold-shouldered him last week.  Has probably changed his attitude on account of my imminent departure.' - "How did the piano lessons go last night?" Michael hastened to inquire of him.  "I trust you weren't too tired after yesterday's initiation into that job I gave you?"

     Having removed his summer jacket and rearranged the contents of his rather pretentious-looking black-leather portfolio, which included a sheet of music, a small packet of paper tissues, a wad of writing paper, and a pack of envelopes, Gerald Matthews abandoned his desk and, as though to shield his reply from potentially malevolent ears, replied, sotto voce, that the lessons in question hadn't gone too badly, that yesterday afternoon's headache had gradually subsided, and that his first pupil, an intelligent young fourteen year-old, had put him in a better frame-of-mind to deal with the second one, a young woman of dubious potential and inveterate laziness whose weekly lesson he would have no option but to seriously consider discontinuing if things didn't improve between them.  Undoubtedly, being a rather garrulous fellow, he would have expatiated on that and similar themes at quite some length, had not Michael intuitively foreseen his colleague's verbal self-indulgence and thereupon quickly changed the subject to their office work.  More specifically, to the fact that certain examples of Gerald's recent train-timetabling required slight amendments, the forms to the right of the latter's desk being the examples in question.

     "Oh, right!" said Gerald, returning to his desk and nervously thumbing through them.  "I'll deal with these as soon as possible.  Thanks for drawing attention to the mistakes in pencil, by the way.  I'm afraid I wasn't at my best yesterday afternoon."

     "Not to worry," responded Michael, getting back to his own work.  "We all make mistakes - good, bad, or plain indifferent.... As for me," he continued in a lower voice, "I'll try not to make too many today."  He winked at Gerald, who smiled insightfully on the reception of this ironic remark.  For it struck him as really quite esoteric.

     "Lucky you, Michael," he said.  Then, after a short recollective pause, added: "By the way, if you'd like to celebrate the occasion at lunch time, we could go to that little restaurant again.  Or to a pub, if you'd prefer that."

     Michael's feelings clouded over slightly at the prospect of being invited to take part in this virtually inevitable formality, to eat and talk in the company of someone he didn't have all that much in common with, especially in view of the fact that he hadn't envisaged any such invitation, having made no close friends at the office and hardly being on particularly intimate terms with Gerald, who was anything but his idea of a compatible conversationalist!  Still, it was jolly decent of the bloke to suggest something, all the same.  He would certainly have to oblige him on this occasion.  After all, it wasn't every day that one left a firm.  "We'll go to that restaurant, then," Michael decided.

     By 10.00am all the staff had arrived, including grumpy-guts Vlad opposite, and the office was beginning to seethe with purposeful activity.  The telephones would continue ringing virtually non-stop until lunch time, the gift of an hour's reprieve, and then at 1.30pm, when most of the clerks were back at their desks and diligently scribbling away, off they would go again, an incessant barrage of rings and voices, voices and rings, with their accompanying retinue of doubts, queries, unreasonable demands, abject pleas, pointless remarks, piss-provoking complaints, and last-minute cancellations.  If you survived a week's telephone duty during the peak period of customer/supplier communication, answered all the queries, overcame perpetual earaches, and learnt to become ambidextrous, you were well on the way to a permanent position in the firm.

     However, having been responsible for answering the majority of routine calls hitherto, Michael opted for a breather on his last day.  He assured himself that he had quite enough paperwork to be getting on with anyway, and consequently decided to allow Miss Daphne Smalls, who was seated beside him, to take sole charge of the telephone closest to-hand, it being understood that the 'rise', as he facetiously put it, would do her good.  Well, someone would have to replace him on Monday and she, being the nearest and eldest, if not the most experienced, seemed as good a candidate as any, despite her inability, at present, to cope with a majority of queries.  But she would learn in good time.  A woman of her charm and intelligence could go quite some way in the firm!

     When Michael Savage next glanced at the bright-red wall clock it was just turning 10.30, time for a mid-morning tea break.  Everyone appeared to be rushing around like mad now, as the chief clerk, the assistant chief clerk, and various other personnel of a subordinate though supervisory capacity dished out orders, intervened on the telephones, corrected clerical blunders, sorted letters, scolded junior clerks, and generally worked things up to fever pitch.  Even Gerald, despite his customary composure, was busily engaged in ironing out a ticklish problem with his immediate colleague, a quiet, inoffensive little man by name of Ernie Brock, who had been a loyal servant to the firm for over six years, and who was now rubbing the end of a new pencil against his left nostril in indication, perhaps, of some imminent revelation.... Although, to judge by the worried expression on his clean-shaven countenance, it evidently wasn't a thing permitting an easy solution!  As could also be confirmed by the equally tense expression on Gerald's somewhat more robust features.  To be sure, life was full of such problems, and little Ernie Brock was as susceptible to the vicissitudes of fate as the next man, despite the double bonus of an innate and acquired sagacity which he indefatigably strove to utilize from morning till night.

     'By Christ!' thought Michael, smiling in spite of himself, 'you just have to smile at the way those grey-flannel trousers come up to his chest, as though he were dressed in a sack every day.  Up to his chest, with that tacky little belt girdling his ribs and the seat of his pants all shiny at the back from where he's been sweating in them too often.  Must be an odd sight for the wife every evening, his coming home looking like a glorified scarecrow.  Probably makes him more loveable, brings out her maternal instinct.  ("Yes, there's nobody quite like my Ernie.  He's so individualistic.")  Never seen him without a tie on, either.  Probably against his religion.  Might even ...'  For a moment the shrill ringing of the nearby phone startled Michael out of his sarcastic reflections and he was about to answer it personally when he remembered he had left that privilege to Miss Smalls.  "Hello, are you going to answer it?  Yes?  Good!" - 'Give her plenty of practice.  She'll soon get the hang of things.  Oddly enough, it does take you out of yourself sometimes.  Occasionally find yourself talking to some quite charming people.  One of the few real perks here.... Whew!  Am I glad of that breeze!  Makes me feel like a new man.  A great advantage in this stuffy place, having a seat near the window.  Sustained concentration!

     'That chap opposite-but-one, old grumpy guts, still hasn't said a word to anyone.  You have to wait until he gets a phone call, then you hear a few terse words from him.  Perfunctory but pertinent.  Isn't really what I'd call the most generous of conversationalists.  Quite the contrary!  A member of our unofficially incorporated society of verbal misers, a strictly taciturn type.  Swears under his breath quite a lot though, particularly in the morning.  Often arrives late at the office in a terrible temper, makes that youth next to him quake with fright.  You'd imagine it was the work, or the prospect of work, that riled him, but not at all!  He's one of the most conscientious of people, a stickler for duty if ever there was one!  In all probability, the work prevents his mind from wandering along too many unsavoury paths, keeps him on the track, as it were, especially when he's in a foul mood.... But what it is, exactly, that upsets him ... his Polish ancestry or a dislike of the West or a recollection of the number of attractive females he has to pass-up on his way to the office every morning?  I shouldn't think he's gay or whatever.  At least, he doesn't appear to show much interest in any of the males here, Gerald not excepted.  Indeed, now I come to think of it, he made an unsuccessful pass at some young woman who used to work here last year, some little flash-arse by name of Cathy.  Usual thing, however: already engaged, try again later.  Such, at any rate, was the implication of her rejection.  Well, it's my last day opposite him, thank goodness!  I don't think I'll miss the sight of his ugly mug too much.

     'I wonder what sort of thoughts pass through his mind every day?  Quite chilling, if his face is anything to judge by!  Something approximating to a chamber of horrors or even to a private mental orgy.  Then that conscientiousness could be more than just a guard against the possibility of his thinking too many harrowing thoughts; it could be a sort of penitence, a form of self-punishment, a kind of Kafka complex he wields with all the manic determination of a born masochist, in a desperate attempt to atone for his numerous shortcomings.  Still, he doesn't work too hard, the way I see it.  Although, to be honest, I don't make a point of looking at him all that often, because he would only revolt me and probably return me a nasty look, to boot!  However, what I have gleaned from an occasional curiosity indicates that his introspection is by no means confined to inscrutable reflections but also manifests itself quite unashamedly in what I can only suppose to be a form of demonic humour, some little idiosyncratic joke which the combined dictates of reason and commonsense are unable to restrain from bursting out in all its impassioned exhibitionism.  Maybe some sexual innuendo going on in his head, or a personal moral victory over some senior member of the staff.  In sum, something approximating to a self-induced deliverance from the general tedium of his work.  Dangerous game, though.  You could find people staring at you as if you were a madman.  They have to know who or what you're smiling at.  He's probably been alone too long, no-one to take him out of himself, like my nearest neighbour, Miss Bass.  Therefore no alternative for him but to amuse himself in his own waywardly introspective fashion, to initiate an interruption of the funereal.  Still, it's a very strict upbringing some of those East Europeans get, really.  Too damn strict, judging by the results of it!  Seems to have turned him into a fully-fledged dreamer, turned him in upon himself, a fish out of clerical water.

     'Well, he can't be expected to restrain himself from lewd or vicious thoughts all the time.  Nobody can do that!  A person isn't born to be entirely good or evil.  You have to mix it up, face the facts.... Gentle dreamer writes bitter satire.  Gentle nun regularly indulges in self-flagellation.  Impotent priest admires The Rite of Spring.  Boisterous rock star turns reflective poet in his spare time.  Inoffensive gent thinks scandalous thoughts.  Offensive labourer regularly attends Mass.  Meditation master writes A History of the Roman Empire.  Spiritual guitarist plays hell with his guitar.

     'Yeah, and that's precisely where a lot of people come unstuck, because they won't or can't accept their other self, whichever self that happens to be, and wind-up going either mad or neurotic.  They may be in a social trap which demands a rigorous consistency in behaving politely, and the only thing they can do then, short of changing their lifestyle, is to effect a subtle deception so that good and evil are effectively interchanged, their particular brand of evil being fobbed off as a manifestation of good and their particular brand of good fobbed off as a manifestation of evil, depending where they're at.  The gentle "spiritualist" who writes revoltingly violent music and the violent "materialist" whose music is enticingly gentle are really two aspects of the same coercion, the coercion which leads you to realize that you're neither an angel nor a demon but a man, and therefore a subtle compromise between two absolutes.

     'Yes, Vlad is a man whether or not he likes the fact, in consequence of which he has to swear under his breath every so often, because a more audible form of swearing could lead to his being dismissed from a firm which is compelled, by commercial necessity, to maintain what some would regard as a highly repressive verbal conservatism.  This repressed anger wells-up in his psyche like molten lava, like a kettle on the boil, and comes bubbling out of him in spite of any last-moment efforts he might make to impede it.  But that's what happens when you haven't got a girlfriend to act as a kind of vent for repressed emotions, enabling you to release so many pent-up feelings through coitus and lovemaking generally.  In fact, I'm in a similar boat to him, and it wouldn't surprise me if Gerald was in a similar boat to us either, something akin to a Ship of Fools, because there are so many of us who are suffering from a dementia peculiar to the age, an age abounding, for all its show of promiscuity, in sexual frustrations, general repressions, and simulated violence, which has given birth to the paradoxical phenomena of the womanly man and the manly woman: the former finding it difficult to assert himself in view of his social repressions and the latter finding it difficult not to assert herself in view of her new-found occupational freedoms.  Indeed, most of the other men in this place appear to be suffering from it too, I can see it on their faces.  For the male sex has been rather undermined recently!'

     "How's the poetry going, man?"

     'Good God, someone's asking me a question!' - "Oh, not too b-badly," stuttered Michael, feeling somewhat embarrassed at being asked such a question at such a time in such a place.  "I try to do a little every day," he added, turning towards the tall, denim-clad figure of Martin Stevens, the general office's only black guy, who had just concluded a favourable telephone conversation with his latest girlfriend and was on the verge of returning to his desk at the opposite end of the room when he evidently thought it appropriate to offer Michael the sop of some friendly curiosity.  "That's the way!" enthused Stevens, his large plum-like eyes veering towards the open window.  "Keep plugging away."

     "I've no real choice," Michael averred.  "There's little else I can do."

     "Really?"

     "Well, you know what I mean."

     "Ha-ha, sure thing, man!" chuckled Stevens, his big round eyes abandoning the window.  "Hey, it's your last day here, isn’t it?  Ha-ha!  Glad to be leaving?"

     "Well, I wouldn't be smiling if I wasn't," replied Michael, who was slightly taken aback, in spite of his apparent good humour.

     "Then you won't be coming back this time?" drawled Stevens with a mischievous glint in his eyes and a broad grin baring his immaculate white teeth.  "Not like you did on the previous two occasions?"

     "No, it's third time lucky for me," confirmed Michael impatiently.

     "Ha-ha, that's the spirit, that's the fucking spirit!  Five-and-a-half years in this sodding place is evidently long enough, right?"  It was the sort of rhetorical question to expect from a guy who had never been in any job longer than five months, or so Michael supposed.  Meantime, Stevens had switched track to a more pragmatic question.  "Got another job lined up, man?" he asked.

     "Not yet," replied Michael, turning red in the face at what he took to be a sarcastic edge to Stevens' tone.  "As a matter of fact, I intend to concentrate on my, er, literary writings for a while, see if I can produce anything worthwhile."

     "Gee, I hope you do," concluded Stevens, before slinking back to his desk with sensuous ease.

     "I didn't know you wrote," Miss Smalls suddenly confessed in an almost begrudging tone-of-voice.  "You look like a writer anyway."

     "Well, I have to do something with myself in the evenings," declared 'the writer' solemnly, not quite understanding her.  "I can't play with my thumbs all the time, you know."

     Visibly taken aback by what seemed like a cruel remark, Daphne Smalls tightly focused her large dark-blue eyes on him in seeming anticipation of another statement.  But, to her disappointment, nothing else was forthcoming from Mr Michael Savage, gentleman poet, potential genius, literary maniac, stultified clerk, womanless scribbler, so she turned back to the pile of forms and envelopes on her desk.  "I occasionally write too," she presently and almost blushingly confessed, looking-up from the envelope she was at that moment addressing.  "Bits and pieces for magazines and local papers."

     "Are they women's magazines?" asked Michael, feigning interest as best he could in this, the most recent of Daphne's personal confessions.  However, the young woman emphatically shook her head and replied that she had written short articles on psychology and sociology in fairly influential scientific journals, albeit declining to name any.

     "I see," responded Michael, his thumb between the pages of the aforementioned G.B. and Channel Islands rail guide, a number of the pages of which were beginning to come unstuck from their bindings.  "And when was this?" he asked her.

     "Oh, a couple of years ago.  I was actually doing part-time work at the time, so during my spare time I often sent letters on psychology and sociology to a variety of interested publications."

     "I see," repeated Michael, who was unable to strangle the acute feeling of ennui stealthily creeping over him, like a wary spider, at the prospect of having to continue this rather half-hearted conversation.  "And did they publish them?"

     "Sometimes.  It really depended on what I was writing, actually.  These days, however, I hardly write anything at all.  I'm usually far too busy in the evenings."

     "Doing what?" asked Michael.

     Daphne took a deep breath, as if unsure whether or not to reveal the truth, but finally her ego got the better of her and she confessed: "Well, I do a lot of social work, mainly locally, which keeps me busy for about three hours a night on three nights a week.  Normally I spend a lot of time just talking to people, finding out what I can about them, what makes them tick, what their views are on various subjects, what problems they have, and so on - a whole host of different things!  Of course, I also read quite a lot, especially late at night."

     "Is that a fact?" rejoined Michael indifferently.

     "Oh, yes."  And here, to his surprise, Daphne dipped into her brightly striped shoulder bag and extracted from its jumble of heterogeneous contents a thick paperback entitled A History of Madness, its cover like something by Hieronymus Bosch, which she then proceeded to brandish quite unashamedly before the startled eyes of the gentleman poet, potential genius, etc., who appeared to be momentarily hypnotized by it and unable, in consequence, to formulate anything even remotely resembling a coherent response.  "I've been reading it for quite some time," she went on, "as you can doubtless tell from the somewhat battered condition it's in at present.  But it's a most enlightening book!"

     'I thought at first she'd got it from a jumble sale, to judge by the state of it,' thought Michael.  'Poor girl, I knew she was neurotic from the moment she started here.  Might have been born unbalanced, for all I know.  Whew! I'll become neurotic again, if I have to sit next to her much longer.  Something in the oppressive atmosphere she creates.  Thank goodness it's my last day here!  I'll be rid of her for one thing!'

     Meantime, Daphne having returned the battered tome to her overcrowded shoulder bag, Michael felt called upon to say something.  "I see," he reiterated, as though entranced.  Then, snapping out of it: "Are all your books like that?"

     Daphne pondered a moment, her mouth hanging open, as though in mute expectation of some spiritual visitation.  "No, not really," she at length replied.  "Mostly psychology, psychiatry, and sociology, with just a little, er, literature thrown-in for good measure."

     'Hum, she certainly seems rather matter-of-fact about it,' mused Michael.  'Leads a regular social life in the evenings, does she?  Well, she won't do herself a power of good, the way I see it, by mixing-in with the spaced-out crowd she's evidently into at present.'

     "Soon be lunch time, Michael," the voice of Gerald Matthews was heard to interpose from a saner section of the office.  "Cod and chips for me today.  How's the work going, by the way?"

     Michael glanced at the pile of completed forms to the right of his desk, the bulk of his morning's labour.  "Oh, not too badly, thanks.  Now that I don't have to keep on answering the phone, I can get on with it.  You needn't worry about having to take over from me after today.  Most of it's done now."

     "Jolly good," smiled Gerald.  "I'd hoped it would be."

     'Ah, it’s twelve-twenty,' observed Michael to himself.  'Think I'll take a wash break, clean the sweat off my face.'

     Grasping his bright blue tea-mug, he strode purposefully out of the office, along the corridor, and down the top flight of stairs towards the GENTS, wherein he proceeded to urinate, wash his hands and face, rinse the mug, comb his hair, and retie the flagging laces of his desert boots, which were usually somewhat loose by this time of day.  Finally, since there was nobody there to disturb him, he leaned his elbows on the windowsill and, gazing out onto the dreary scene the open window afforded one, began to ruminate on what he would eat for lunch.  Certainly not fish and chips, at any rate!  That was far too much the done thing on Fridays.  It would be better to order a doner.  Yes, a kebab would do fine.

     At that moment little Ernie Brock shuffled onto the scene and, noticing him out of the corner of his eye, Michael greeted him cordially, because he was an inoffensive little man who mostly kept himself to himself and consequently inspired a degree of veneration.  Reciprocating Michael's greeting in his customary laid-back fashion, Ernie began to straighten his checked tie and to modestly inspect his priestly countenance in the nearby mirror.  "Nice weather we're still having," Michael ventured to opine from his vantage-point by the window.  "Let's hope it continues over the weekend."  He glanced uneasily at Ernie.  'Not much chance of a positive response from him,' he thought, becoming slightly embarrassed.  'Bit of a drag always reverting to the weather anyway, particularly where he's concerned!  I suppose it's just a formality between us.' - "Incidentally, how's the wife?"

     Although still preoccupied with his clean-shaven reflection in the grimy mirror, Ernie managed an affirmative nod with his balding head, which was then corroborated by a terse statement to the effect that she was fine.  "Good!" sighed Michael, who was grateful for every little crumb of verbal response he could garner in such fashion.  "And how are the babies?"

     Having shuffled to the loo proper, standing-room only, Ernie smiled self-satisfactorily on the reception of this question which, unbeknown to anyone else, directly related to his chief pride in life: namely, his two baby daughters.  "Oh, quite well, thanks," he replied, while simultaneously relieving what sounded to Michael like a hard-pressed bladder.  "The youngest one's teething at the moment, but it shouldn't last too long."

     "Dear me, that must be somewhat painful for her," Michael ventured to speculate, feeling completely out of his depth.  To which speculation, however, there was no reply, so he asked: "Is she crying a lot, then?"

     "No, not really," Ernie replied.  "Fortunately she's a very good sleeper, so she isn't aware of her situation all that often.  Then, too, we've given her a plastic dummy to suck, in order to relieve the pain slightly.  But she's really quite a tough little creature."  At which point, to Michael's surprise, his narrow face expanded into a broad grin, as though in acknowledgement of his own contribution to his daughter's toughness.

     "Good for her," rejoined Michael.  "And how's the other one - talking yet?"

     "We can't stop her," Ernie smilingly averred.  "She evidently takes to the language."

     "Must be a busy job for the wife, then," opined Michael while staring disinterestedly at a couple of large pigeons which had just that moment alighted on the flat roof of a nearby warehouse, the male of the species being engaged in wooing the other, a similarly light-grey pigeon that appeared to be completely ignoring the male's song-and-dance routine in her intense preoccupation with a grubby-looking apple core which someone must have thrown from one of the firm's back windows.  However, she soon discarded this titbit and straightaway flew off towards the roof of another building, while the male, having seemingly enacted a gratuitous performance, picked or, rather, pecked up his wounded pride and took off in the opposite direction, leaving the titbit untouched.

     'These damn male pigeons are always at it!' thought Michael solemnly.  'Making bloody fools of themselves every minute of the frigging day!  I suppose they have little else to do.  Food and sex, sex and food, in a vicious circle.  It must be dreadfully annoying for the female, being accosted every day by any number of puffed-up males on the make and having to take evasive action most of the time.  Not exactly a bed of roses for the male either, having to contend with so many ill-mannered rejections.  Something of a regular cock-up, you could say.  Still, he's not to know one way or the other at first, is he?  Not, of course, unless the mate of the female from whom he happens to be soliciting favours is also there, assuming they do actually establish any sort of long-term relationship and aren't wholly promiscuous, as one might be led to suppose from their general pattern of activity.  But surely, if the mate of the female was nearby, a stranger would have more sense than to accost her, wouldn't he?  Ah well, analogies enough with human life, without the necessity of my having to feel sorry for these damn pigeons!  They breed like flies anyway.  There ought to be something done about them.  After all, they aren't that much of a tourist attraction.  Terrible mess they make everywhere!'

     "... and she'll soon be old enough for nursery," Ernie was saying.  "How quickly they grow!"

     'Good God, I'd virtually forgotten he was there!' - "By the way, what time is it?" asked Michael, as Ernie, having washed and dried his cup, shuffled towards the door.  "Er, twenty-seven minutes past twelve," the latter pedantically obliged, consulting his wind-up.

     "That's good," said Michael.  "It seems to have been a long morning."

     Ernie made no reply but smiled sympathetically before gently closing the door behind him, so once again Michael was left alone with his thoughts.

     'Wonder how he gets on with his wife.  She must be quite a different sort of person, because I certainly can't imagine him living with a woman as quiet as himself.  It would be bad for the children when they got older.  But maybe he comes out of his shell a bit more in the evenings?  Still, he has managed to knock two kids out of her, so there's evidently more there than first meets the eye.  Probably the attraction of opposites.  Like-poles repel, unlike-ones attract.  Then again, homosexuals are like-poles, aren't they? And they attract.  No, what I mean is the attraction of men and women towards people who are temperamentally different from themselves.  I mean it would be terribly boring otherwise, like talking to yourself most of the time, with little or no incentive for debate.  So if his wife is a garrulous person, she doubtless needs a sympathetic ear, someone on whom she can exercise her passion for speech, someone, like him, who's a good listener and therefore won't shout her down or tell her to belt up.  Well, that strikes me as a fairly feasible conjecture anyway, something along the lines of a solid foundation for a durable relationship.

     'But I can't imagine him sexually dominating her, though.  That seems a bit unlikely to me, especially when one begins to take this place into account.  Why, there's too much male servitude here, women ruling the clerical roost.  Ah, but wait a minute!  Perhaps it's his sagacity which stands him in good stead with her by granting him a more subtle domination.  I mean, with a man like him who, unlike old grumpy guts Vlad, never seems to get worked-up about anything or rarely shows it if he does, you'd think he had the most sought-after secrets of the world in his head, that he knew all the spiritual dodges or schemes and was only keeping calm because he also knew, from bitter experience, that resignation was the wisest course.  I mean, one's imagination begins to wander with a man like him.  You never know quite what he's up to!

     'Mind you, he's no dope.  He has a great memory.  His little round head is absolutely crammed with knowledge, superfluous or otherwise.  He's not as simple or lethargic as a superficial appreciation of his personality could lead one to suppose.  On the contrary, there's much of the genuine mystic about him.  He probably knows the Christian religion inside out, back-to-front, and upside down, as well as the right way up, and that undoubtedly has a lot to do with it, with his general air of complacency, as if all's well with the world.  He has faith in the divine plan, in the omniscient omnipotence behind everything, in the diurnal scheme-of-things in which he has his allocated place and, as such, he isn't going to get foolishly worked-up about various problems, real or imaginary, when that wouldn't solve anything but more than likely turn him into a neurasthenic idler with peptic ulcers instead!  No, he's all for a quiet life if he can get it, babies or not!

     'Ah, footsteps on the stairs.  That means it's half-twelve.  Guess I'd better put in an appearance just for Gerald's sake.'

     And, so thinking, Michael Savage hurried out of the GENTS and headed back, mug in hand, towards the general office.

      

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Gerald Matthews had been waiting for over three minutes on the firm's front-door steps when, a shade breathless, Michael eventually arrived on the scene.  "Ah, there you are!" he reproachfully exclaimed, evidently somewhat relieved.  "I wondered where you'd got to!"

     "I was just taking a leisurely wash-break," said Michael by way of an excuse.  "Unfortunately, I got rather carried away by my reflections."

     "Nothing lewd, I trust?" rejoined a smirking Gerald, as they set off in the general direction of their chosen restaurant.

     "Rather prosaic, I'm afraid," chuckled Michael.  "Certainly nothing worth recounting."

     "How disappointing!  And I was under the impression that you were a poet."

     "Did I tell you that?"

     "No, not exactly.  But I was given to understand that you had literary aspirations and, consequently, knew a thing or two about poetry."

     "Well, I probably do know a thing or two about it," said Michael as, crossing the road together, they bore left down a side street, "but I'm no modern poet, I can tell you that!  In fact, I haven't written anything remotely resembling poetry for over a year now, because there's a world of difference between being a clerk who writes something resembling poetry in his spare time and actually being a poet.  So when I eventually realized that I was only a clerk and not a poet, ah! that was when I gave-up trying to write poetry."

     Gerald Matthews blushed slightly in regard to his own artistic pretensions.  "My humble apologies, Mike," he said.  "I suppose poetry isn't exactly the most lucrative of occupations anyway, since a majority of people appear to take no great interest in it."

     "Highly understandable," declared young Savage, his gaze firmly to the ground.  "These days there's so much obfuscation involved with its production that it would hardly appear to be worth their while.  Besides, a majority of people are either too stupid to appreciate great poetry or become so philistine in consequence of their daily chores and jobs, that the serious perusal of anything beyond the popular newspapers would seem to them a complete and utter waste of time!  No, the proper appreciation of genuine poetry has always been confined to a comparatively small minority of people, which, like it or not, is nothing to be wondered at.  However, these days I'm too preoccupied with the study and practice of prose to have much or, indeed, any time to spare on verse."

     "Really?" Gerald responded in a slightly disillusioned tone-of-voice.  "Yet, to return to what you said a moment ago about not writing poetry because you're a clerk, isn't it the same with prose; that even though you write prose in your spare time, you're not really a writer but a clerk who amuses himself by attempting to write prose?"

     Michael Savage's eyes shone with unspoken admiration for his fellow-clerk's perception.  "Absolutely!" he replied, without the slightest trace of embarrassment.  "But, you see, the prose I now write is only done as an exercise, a means of keeping my hand in, so to speak, and therefore it isn't something I take very seriously.  I don't think I would want to offer it to a publisher when it's merely the work of a dilettante rather than a genuinely professional author.  No, if after today I subsequently acquire more time in which to write, I shall be either obliged to ignore it altogether or, assuming that's impossible, revise it extensively.  The point is, one has to have the psychology of an author, not the psychology of a humble drudge-ridden clerk who imagines he's an author.  Do you see what I mean?"

     "Perfectly," Gerald averred.

     "But that was no easy lesson to learn," said Michael gravely.  "For a long time I was like a drowning man clutching at straws.  I chose, in my capacity of full-time clerk and spare-time scribbler, to be incredibly optimistic concerning my prospects of producing work of an acceptably professional quality.  From which fact you can probably deduce how dissatisfied I was with my clerical role at the time."

     On arriving at the restaurant, they quickly spotted three empty tables near the door and, Michael leading the way, elected to sit opposite each other at a small circular one.

     "Well, it's not as busy as I had expected it to be at this time of day," observed Gerald, as he peered into the restaurant's Spartan interior before casting his eyes over the menu.  "Now then ... yes, I'll settle for cod, chips, peas, and a coffee" he went on, largely for the benefit of the short, dark-haired waitress who, to their mutual satisfaction, had lost no time in offering them her professional services.  "And a doner kebab for me, please," requested Michael without bothering to consult the menu.

     "As you like," the waitress responded in a politely matter-of-fact tone, writing out and handing them their respective bills on the spot.  "Oh, and I'll have a tea as well," added Michael rather belatedly.

     "And one tea," she echoed, amending his bill accordingly.  Then she crisply turned on her high-heeled feet and shouted: "Cod, doner, coffee, and a tea!" at an old man with a bald patch and a fat middle-aged woman who were stationed behind the counter in working proximity of the food.  "And is that salad ready yet?" she asked impatiently.  "That customer's been waiting over ten minutes down there!"

     "Salad coming up," replied the old man, suddenly producing a copiously stocked plate of assorted vegetables from behind the counter.  The waitress snatched it from his shaky hand and briskly descended upon the customer concerned, a rather pompous-looking fellow with a thin moustache and thick eyebrows who sat, elbows on table, at the far end of the room.

     "She evidently rules the roost in this place," opined Gerald, leaning across the small table in a confidential manner.  "Knows what she's about, by the sound of it."

     "Yes, she's pretty quick-witted," Michael conceded.  "French actually.  Maria somebody."

     "Well, she certainly has some body," joked Gerald, his eyes on her perambulating form.  "Not one of nature's prosaic types, by any means."

     'It wouldn't surprise me if he was gay,' thought Michael, instinctively leaning back in his chair.  'I don't want him to get too close to me if he is.  Bad enough my being celibate, without running the risk of becoming gay as well!'

     Slightly disappointed that he hadn't amused Michael by his slight show of wit, Gerald turned the focus of conversation back to his colleague by saying: "I expect you're looking forward to the count-down of being propelled into freedom this afternoon."

     "Yes, I might well celibate, I mean celebrate, the occasion later on today."

     "That's the spirit!  Take your friends for a merry drink somewhere."

     'I'd like to inform him that I don't have any friends, but it would only complicate matters,' thought Michael.  'After all, this is supposed to be a friendly get-together.  Change the subject!' - "Are you teaching tonight?" he asked.

     "Yes, but just the one pupil fortunately, assuming she turns up," Gerald replied.  "She had to cancel last week's lesson because of a cold, but I expect she'll be alright now.  A very good pupil actually, much better than any of the others."

     "That must be quite a relief for you," said Michael, who was quite relieved, himself, that Mr Matthews would be engaged all evening.  "From what you've told me about some of them, it seems that you'd be better off teaching full-time in either a school or a college again."

     Gerald offered his colleague the benefit of a sceptical smile, but was not altogether devoid of positive feelings on the subject.  "Well, I have actually been thinking along such lines in recent weeks," he confessed, "considering there's a vacancy, this summer, for an Assistant Director of Music in a pretty good West Country college.  But I'll have to wait and see what sort of response my application receives before committing myself to any high hopes on that score.  I don't want to build castles in the air right now, as I'm sure you can appreciate."

     "One tea for you, and a coffee for you, sir," the waitress suddenly interposed, positioning their respective cups on the table.

     "Thank you," responded Michael, who repositioned his cup closer to-hand, before removing the two sugar cubes from its saucer.  He only took sugar in coffee, as a rule.  'Now I don't want him to start going on about that public-school trip again, what with its bigoted scientologists or something,' he mused.  'I'd rather he ...'

     "Incidentally," rejoined Gerald, "you'll have to show me that short story you told me about last week, the one concerning a music teacher's amorous relationship with his favourite pupil.  It sounds rather fun."

     "Oh that, I'm afraid it's only a sketch at present," declared Michael blushingly.  "I'll have to touch it up a bit before it could be considered worth your while."

     "I'm sure you will," said Gerald, a childishly ironic smile in swift accompaniment.  "I can assure you, however, that there's nothing I won't believe if it really sounds convincing."

     Michael sipped some tea and gently shrugged his shoulders.  "Hmm, I'm not sure it will," he drawled.  "But I'll mail it to you, all the same.  You live at Forty-Eight something or other, don't you?" he conjectured.

     "Eighty-four," Gerald corrected.

     "Ah yes," confirmed Michael, peeping into his tiny red address book, which had been in his possession for longer than he cared or indeed was able to remember.  "You're the only tenant, eh?"

     "Fortunately for me, otherwise my piano lessons would probably constitute an unpardonable indiscretion, and I'd either be thrown out of my lodgings or compelled to hire a hall somewhere," Gerald averred.

     "But doesn't your landlord ever complain about the noise?" asked Michael incredulously.

     Gerald's pale pink face turned a deeper shade of pink, as though at a slight but, thinking better of taking exception to the word 'noise', which was doubtless innocently intended on Michael's part, he merely replied: "Well, now you mention it, he has occasionally hinted at being disturbed, especially when he's had a few too many drinks somewhere.  But he's generally fairly level-headed and no enemy of music, so, for the most part, he doesn't mind what I get up to in the evenings.  In fact, he's usually out of audible range when he confines himself to his study at the rear of the house - a thing he doesn't always do, however, when inebriated."

     "And thus of the peripatetic school of Aristotle," Michael ventured to speculate.

     Gerald exploded with peremptory laughter.  "Yes, effectively.  Call it irritated itinerantcy, if you like.  Anyway, I don't have to bang the piano to pieces every night, thank goodness."

     "Presumably in order to vent your spleen on it," conjectured Michael.

     "Or split my seams on it," chuckled Gerald, most of whose attention was now focused on the two plates which were steadily approaching them by way of Maria's capable arms.  "Our luncheons are about to be served!" he gleefully observed.

     "Cod, chips, and peas for you, sir, and a doner for you," Maria's deep-throated and more than faintly-seductive voice boomed across the table.

     'Hmm, that smells good!' thought Michael.  'Looks like a fairly decent-sized helping, too.   Not like the few crumbs one gets in so many of these places.'

     "Getting back to what I was saying," said Gerald in a muffled voice, his mouth stuffed with fish, "it's just as well that my landlord is a keen music-lover, otherwise I wouldn't be able to live there."

     "Quite understandably," averred Michael.  "You can't live with just anybody.  I know how it feels, having to contend with a houseful of incompatible and often hostile neighbours every day.  It's one of the least acceptable aspects of single-room accommodation." - 'Yes, life too often becomes a kind of diabolical farce,' he thought.  'By Christ, you have to laugh at it sometimes!  It makes you wonder why-the-devil you were born in the first place, when it's so often like that.  You feel you may even have to ask permission to smile in public.  Too much dead meat for dinner, is it?  Too many walking cadavers around?  Well, I've certainly got more self-respect than to turn myself into a fully-fledged psychological masochist, woman or no woman!'

     "Yes, I've been very fortunate in that respect," confessed Gerald, respecting the symposium.  "My neighbours have generally been fairly congenial people, some of them quite charming, in fact.  Mind you, I did have a spot of trouble with a few fellow borders while teaching at Darksdale."

     "Really?" responded Michael casually.  "And what was the outcome?"

     "Oh, nothing dramatic.  I just felt my teaching abilities weren't being properly appreciated, in view of the fact that I didn't subscribe to their religious persuasion.  Had I been a scientologist, I would doubtless have had a more successful career there.  But it was rather a closed shop, so to speak."  Here he paused for breath, in order to chew some more fish, while Michael, swallowing the chewed-over pulp of a large slice of succulent lamb, unleashed a question to the effect that if what Gerald had said was true, why had he bothered to teach there in the first place, it being evident that the authorities were of sectarian inclination and unlikely, in consequence, to make allowances for black sheep like him.  "But I had no idea whatsoever, initially, that my career prospects would ultimately be jeopardized because of my professed scepticism concerning their beliefs," retorted Gerald angrily.

     "Ah, I see," sighed Michael, regretting his mistake.  "So you gradually fell out of countenance, if that's the right word, with the status quo.  Tell me, do you profess to any Christian beliefs?"

     "Well, there's certainly a lot I admire about Christianity," admitted Gerald, scooping up a forkful of peas and then appearing to deliberate over exactly what he next wanted to say before committing himself to an opinion.  "Now, I'm no expert on theology ..."

     "I shouldn't think one would have to be to answer that question,” interposed Michael impatiently.

     "Well, I won't have someone who probably knows as little about it as me lay down the law, as if those who've studied theology are simply anachronistic fools," rejoined Gerald, "because I do know that there's some good in it, irrespective of my ultimate beliefs."

     'Ironical bastard!' thought Michael.  'As if a thorough study of the subject would necessarily lead one to greater enlightenment!  Apparently, you're only good once you've got the faith. - Emerson shouldn't have advocated things that concur with Christianity if he wasn't a Christian, Ernie Brock said to me the other day in response to a volume of Ralph Waldo's essays I had lent him, quite overlooking the fact that people can theorize and arrive at similar conclusions from completely different standpoints.  As if one couldn't know how to differentiate between good and evil unless one was a Christian, i.e. a person on what they take to be the only true path through life.  The ignorant pricks!  Unacknowledged goodness wells up in me, prevents me from throwing myself at someone - possibly Gerald Matthews - and slashing his throat with this knife.  My kindness is spurious compared with the overwhelming authenticity of theirs.  It lacks the faith.  I ought to join the fold and acquire a certificate enabling me to practise genuine kindness.' - "Of course there's some good in it," he at length responded, not a little annoyed.  "There are always elements of right thinking in theological doctrines, national or international.  But I think it has to be conceded that the converse is also the case, and I don't for one moment believe their upholders can carry on plugging the logical gaps which continue to appear in them, in relation to modern life, with quite the same 'right thinking' as has evidently been the case for some considerable period of time now, however much certain people may like to believe that they're invariably doing the world a power of good."

     Gerald was more than a shade surprised by the vehemence of Michael's denunciation.  "Well, I don't think you'll ever find a system of dogma that's entirely perfect," he rejoined, "not even among the latest sects, who evidently strive to worship in a manner they regard as representative of their ideals."

     'Oh, but haven't I heard all this before somewhere?' thought Michael.  'Wasn't the better part of my childhood psychologically poisoned by people who strove to worship in a manner they evidently regarded as representative of their ideals?  Don't I still suffer from regular relapses into self-deprecation, self-abnegation, the jaws of Christian humility bearing down on me, like some vast whale?  Haven't I had enough of people accosting me in the street, handing me religious pamphlets, inviting me to meetings, free tests, lectures - to just about everywhere but where I really want to go - under the cult-sanctioned vice of disrespect for individual freedom, because someone higher up has put it into their gullible heads that they're the links through which my salvation can become a reality?  Am I not he who, in the interests of charitable trustees, was subjected to such an overdose of Christian asceticism, in his youth, that he constantly suffered from psychological withdrawal pains in later years?  Yes, they evidently strive to worship, these humble souls, but who or what it is they're actually worshipping affords a wide solution, if you ask me.  I wonder what his reaction would be if I told him that, to my mind, true believers are all fundamentally mad.  Try it anyway.  It's about time someone said something again.' - "Personally, Gerald, I think a large proportion of so-called true believers are either simpleminded, psychologically vain, or virtually mad," I said.  "They don't realize they're deceiving themselves, because they've taken their habitual inculcations so much for granted as to end-up being duped by them.  It's rather like that POW who feigned madness as a strategy for getting himself discharged on medical grounds - a novel idea all right, but one with the unforeseen consequence that he was obliged to maintain his deception so persistently and to such a credible degree that he gradually became enslaved to it and ended-up actually going mad.  I mean, we're all mad to some extent, Gerry.  It's just that most people don't realize the fact."

     "Oh, I quite agree," coughed an embarrassed Gerald Matthews, pushing his empty dinner plate to one side and then nervously lighting himself a mild cigarette with the aid of a silver lighter.  "Most people are perfectly aware of the fact that there are religious maniacs in the world, and not just in places like Iran or Ireland either.  Yet even if a significant number of genuine believers are mad or, at the very least, self-deceiving, I can't pretend it's a fact which has detracted from my enjoyment of playing the organ at Sunday-evening services.  On the contrary, it has probably enhanced my enjoyment!"

     'Naturally, mutual preoccupation,' thought Michael, wincing slightly.  'Madness in your favour.  After all, he'd be something of a protagonist there, wouldn't he?  A big wheel, a sort of sophisticated sheepdog vis-à-vis the participating flock.  It makes you wonder, though, why people so often say irrelevant things when you talk to them, never quite understanding how your mind works in relation to the subject of discussion.  All these anachronistic concepts we're obliged to put-up with every day!  By Christ, an atheist winds-up subsidizing the clergy, a non-Christian ends-up supporting Christians! - Yes, but you're Christian, one person says, if you were born in a Christian country. - No, you're not a real Christian, another says, because you don't go to church regularly and believe in Christ as the Son of God Who ascended from the grave on the Third Day and will return to earth during the time of the Antichrist in order to restore order throughout His Kingdom by calling upon the forces of Light to defend His Dominion to the End of the World and Last Judgement.  I doubt, myself, that the Messiah will literally be called Jesus Christ when next He appears on earth.  That wouldn't go down too well with peoples of non-Christian descent for one thing, whether they were born inside or outside so-called Christian countries!'

     Meantime, Michael having lost the thread of his interlocutor's argument, Gerald was saying: "Of course, it is rather difficult to believe in a Son of God Who was separated from the Father and sent to earth via a Virgin Mother, a woman, in other words, who had never taken seed save divinely, if one lacks faith in miracles, in God's omnipotence and ..."

     "But what you're saying," interposed Michael, "suggests to me that Jesus was somehow preconceived by the Father and subsequently dropped, as it were, into the Virgin's lap without the necessity of having to undergo foetal life, which strikes me as even more preposterous than the theory concerning Mary's virginity vis-à-vis St Joseph, whose role as her husband would appear somewhat suspect, not to say gratuitous, in consequence!"

     Gerald's face darkened perceptibly in the turbulent wake of his colleague's rational thrust.  "Now don't take what I'm saying so literally," he responded.  "For if you had listened properly and allowed me to continue, you'd have heard my justification for alluding to such a theory.  Now what I am saying is that, according to Scripture, Mary was endowed with the ability to conceive a child without the necessity of her husband fertilizing her, and that, whether you like it or not, is the whole crux of the Immaculate Conception."

     "Well, it still strikes me as preposterous," confessed the rationalistic Michael Savage, suddenly feeling self-consciously embarrassed about getting carried away by such a juvenile argument in what had by now become a crowded restaurant, and, with so many businessmen present, one overly heathen in character at that!  "I mean, surely a virgin would be in some considerable difficulty forcing a baby through her birth canal, to cite medical terminology, when no-one, not excepting her legal husband, had previously copulated with her and thus 'broken her in', as the saying goes?  Now if St Joseph had copulated with Mary, she wouldn't have been a virgin and therefore the concept of a virgin birth would be a misnomer.  But if St Joseph hadn't copulated with his wife prior to the virgin birth, then what the blazes had he done to justify being her husband in the first place?"

     Gerald's face became momentarily ponderous as, petulantly exhaling cigarette smoke, he gave Michael's questions, which struck him as somehow overly rhetorical, some lightweight consideration.  "Yes, that's an interesting remark," he reluctantly averred, blushing slightly, "and one that seems to tie-in with the, er, fact that we aren't told anything much about the circumstances surrounding the actual birth of Christ, apart from, you know, a few terse references to a bed in a manger, as though the matter were a sort of soft underbelly of theology that didn't warrant closer scrutiny.  But I suppose all this is really beside-the-point from the strictly theological point-of-view, which is less concerned with reason than divine credibility."

     "Well, when one considers the miraculous side of things, it appears to warrant more attention than the Evangelists were evidently prepared to grant it," said an unrepentant Michael Savage.  "Incidentally, the celebration of Christ's birth ties-in with the visitation of the Three Kings which, if scholarly memory serves me well, wasn't actually on the day of his birth at all but some weeks or even months afterwards, and therefore anything but a reliable source of information concerning the events preceding it."

     "Yes, that appears to be the case," conceded Gerald wearily.  "And quite understandably, when one bears in mind the primitive nature of both communication and transportation in those times.  However, returning to what you were saying about the alleged madness of true believers, and considering the fact that there are so many unreasonable people in the world these days, what, tell me, would you propose to replace Christianity with if, by some near-miraculous transformation in the existing state-of-affairs, you were given the opportunity?"

     "A species of Zarathustrianism," replied Michael, alluding to Nietzsche.  "Either that or reason.  For the more I think about Christianity, the less Christian I become.  I see little or no difference between a man who believes himself to be a reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte and one who believes in the Virgin Birth.  To me, they're equally mad.  So either Zarathustra or reason!"

     "Tell that to a fool," chuckled Gerald before beckoning to the waitress.  "Tell that to someone who, besides not knowing anything about Zarathustra, doesn't realize his dilemma.  Like me, for instance."

     "That will be £4.75p for you, sir, and for you ... £4.50," Maria declared, picking up and reading them their respective bills.

     'Hmm, not a bad-looking woman, all in all,' observed Michael to himself.  'Eight-out-of-ten, I'd say.  Wonder who her husband is, assuming that isn't an engagement ring she's wearing.  Not a bad pair of calf-muscles under those sexy black stockings, either.  Nice little arse on her, too.  It could bring out the beast in me, rejuvenate my Old Adam, as it were.'

     "By the way, to what madness do you profess, if that's not an impertinent question?" asked Gerald, once the waitress was safely out of earshot again.

     "Well now, that would be telling," smirked Michael, reluctantly responding to his colleague's curiosity.  "I've passed through quite a few distressing states-of-mind in recent years.  However, the most distressing one entailed a kind of savage neurosis induced by unrequited love, which lasted about three-and-a-half years.  It resulted from the fact that I'd fallen helplessly in love with someone else's woman and, being unable to obtain her in the flesh, could only carry her image around with me in consequence.  She was a student who only worked at the firm during vacation time, meaning, effectively, that I didn't get to see her very often.  In actual fact, I was so infatuated with her that the two attempts I made to leave the firm during those years completely failed, with a result that I ended-up going back there again, getting myself re-employed - a disconcerting, not to say humiliating, experience - and subsequently taken advantage of and landed in deeper clerical water, so to speak, because I just couldn't have worked anywhere else in the knowledge that she would probably continue to reappear there, from time to time, in my absence.  I was effectively chained to the spot.  Though what I found most humiliating was the way she would greet me cordially, when she reappeared on the scene for the first time on each occasion, and then inquire of me why I hadn't left the firm by then, as I had previously if fatuously intimated doing in an attempt to bluff her as to my true position."

     "Poor you," Gerald sympathized.  "And so you returned to the fold just for the opportunity of being near her during those weeks in the year when she was on vacation from college.  And then, presumably, without your having any physical contact with her?"

     "That's love," averred Michael, who felt what he had taken to be the long-dormant pain of this old wound momentarily awakening itself afresh, as though once again he was being cast out from the centre of life and left to suffer on the periphery in a terrible fall from emotional grace.  "One does many strange things under the influence of such a powerful master, or perhaps I should say mistress," he continued.  "I mean, the fact that I remained so long in a job I didn't like all that much, simply because I'd fallen so desperately in love with this young woman, meant I was constantly exposed to a variety of conflicting emotions: those, on the one hand, which bid me stay there because of her and seemed to lend the place a strong sentimental value in my eyes, and those, on the other hand, which bid me leave it because I didn't much care for the work and had budding literary ambitions anyway, the grand result of these conflicting emotions ultimately being the rather savage neurosis, no pun intended, from which I've only comparatively recently recovered.  But it's certainly a major setback in life to have things go against you like that, to be trapped for a number of years in a prison of unrequited love with no prospect of emotional bail, no genuine sex whatsoever, and then to find yourself ignoring other women because they absolutely fail to match up to the one who emotionally enslaved you in the first place!"

     "I know it only too well," admitted Gerald, feeling slightly ashamed of the fact.  "Unmerciful life, isn't it?"

     "Well, it's women who rule this world, to judge by the number of poor bastards currently in it," young Michael Savage truculently averred.  "That's doubtless why we've got the popular notion to the contrary!"

     Gerald Matthews had begun to blush fiercely now and: "So it would seem, so it would seem," was all, in mumbling fashion, he could bring himself to say.

     'That time a female acquaintance told me the firm's manager, old Welsh, had one day asked her, my beloved, if she would like to attend a classical concert with him the following evening,' thought Michael.  'My God, I nearly passed out!  We were sitting in a kind of pub cellar, I recall, with a rock band playing only a few yards away, people dancing all around us, contented couples blissfully wallowing in one-another's funky sweat, the bar fairly seething with drink-crazed bodies, men shouting across the smoke-filled dance floor or frantically jabbering into nearby ears, everyone appearing to buzz with excitement as the music rose in intensity, goading them all into greater feats of participation - an orgy of sound and movement.  Then suddenly that ill-timed and cutting allusion by Trudy to the manager's sexist intention which completely poisoned everything there and then, driving me back upon myself to such an extent that I had to physically withdraw from her, find another seat, endeavour to regain my equilibrium, and attempt to console myself in the knowledge that Julie had made excuses to him, had told him she was fully engaged all week, that nothing had come of it and I was still in with a chance of securing her love, even if only an extremely slender one.  Indeed, whenever I met Trudy, who was probably jealous of me, I knew in advance that she could be relied upon to drag up the past and, wittingly or unwittingly, inflict some such mental torment on me.  I ended-up going out of my way to avoid her.'

     "Incidentally, what do you think of all this latent feminism we've got nowadays?" Gerald was asking, in an attempt to escape from the all-too-formal reality of his embarrassment as quickly as possible.

     "Frankly, I think you'll find enough information on that at the office," replied Michael offhandedly.  "Female authority in virtually all the senior clerical and secretarial positions having had, it seems to me, a noticeably detrimental effect on the dwindling amount of male initiative that's still to be found there.  For what do you suppose happens when, through some such arrangement, the male becomes unaccustomed to dominating the female?"

     Gerald shrugged his shoulders.  "You tell me," he said.

     "Bugger all, old boy!" quipped Michael.  "For a majority of the male staff currently employed there are either effete or effeminate, think what you will!  Naturally, it makes a certain amount of sense that women who aren't also mothers of young children should be given employment, paid a fair wage for their work, given ample opportunity for advancement within their chosen careers, allowed to express themselves as they want, et cetera.  All credit to sexual and social emancipation!  But I, personally, would rather work under a man than under a woman any day.  For, in the final analysis, it seems to me that women should exist in the service of men, not vice versa, no matter how liberated from domestic servitude some of them may consider themselves to be.  However, the overwhelming amount of female authority at the office makes it virtually inevitable that the only males who can tolerate the place for any length of time tend, as I've said, to be either effete or effeminate, and probably gay as well!"

     Gerald deliberated a moment or two before deciding to commit himself to any overt corroboration of this rather disturbing and possibly chauvinistic assessment on Michael's part which, to be sure, struck a painful discord within him, having confirmed an intuition he had formulated (though subsequently dismissed as arid subjectivity) shortly after joining the firm.  Indeed, he wondered whether the time had not come for him to divulge a secret which had been gnawing at his peace-of-mind that very morning, causing his concentration to wander from time to time, with the unfortunate consequence that, unbeknown to himself, there were now more than a few serious clerical blunders to his name!  In regard to the young man opposite, Gerald sensed he was a potentially sympathetic confidant, a person who had evidently experienced his fair share of life's misfortunes and consequently developed an understanding, not to say forbearing, nature.  Yes, he would swallow his pride, that virtue of the unthinking strong.  "Whilst on the subject of gayness," he commenced, in an uncharacteristically subdued tone-of-voice as they  rose from the table, "and in view of the fact that you're leaving today, I'd like to let you in on a little secret of mine concerning a male friend who, I regret to say, claims to have fallen deeply in love with me."

     Michael raised his eyebrows in apparent concern but said nothing as they made their way to the door and out into the sunny street again, where the crowds were now thicker on the ground than before and the women correspondingly more plentiful.  'That's the worst of having a talkative bloke with you when you're in the mood to ogle women,' he thought, as they hurried along as best they could, already fifteen minutes over the lunch hour.  'I find it difficult enough to concentrate on most of what he says anyway, not having listened to steady conversation for so long.  It reminds me of that harrowing experience I had at the chief clerk's flat last year when, largely on account of her ugliness, I couldn't focus my mental attention upon her properly, kept losing the thread of her monologue, and wound-up feeling thoroughly vertiginous.  I remember giving her some of my poems to read as a sort of vengeance for all the inconvenience she had inflicted upon me both then and previously.  I regretted it afterwards, though.  She realized, from then on, there was more to me than first met the eye!'

     "Are you still listening, Michael?" Gerald was asking rather petulantly, as they turned the corner into the street which led to the office.

     "Carry on, Gerry, I'm all frigging ears," lied Michael obligingly.

     "Well, as you can imagine, I'm somewhat loathe to disappoint the poor fellow, since we've known each other for several months now, the occasional drink and casual encounter gradually developing our relationship along ever-more congenial lines.  But now that he's sprung this profession of love on me, well, I feel sort of imposed upon.  It's a rather tricky situation."

     Michael's first impulse was to laugh out loud, since he could never quite take declarations of love between men seriously, but he endeavoured to sound sympathetic as he merely said: "So it seems, Gerry.  The fact is, you'll just have to break ties with him if homosexuality isn't your thing.  I mean, what's the sense in making a sodding martyr of yourself if you lack the faith?  You'll only succeed in making things worse than they already are."

     "As I fully appreciate," sighed Gerald, with more than a hint of bitterness in his voice.  "Indeed, how often does one fall in love with someone who doesn't care a damn about one, only to discover, in one's turn, that someone else has made a similar mistake with regard to oneself!  Now what kind of a world is that?"  It would have been evident to even the least attentive of people that, by now, Gerald Matthews was well-nigh exasperated.

     "Yes, it does seem rather paradoxical," replied Michael, as they crossed over the road.  "Fortunately, however, one doesn't fall in love too often - at least not in my experience.  But so many of our failings to reach a mutual arrangement with other people only constitute an aspect of what a famous French poet called 'universal misunderstanding', if you know anything about that."

     Gerald didn't really, but he pretended, for appearances sake, to the contrary, before quickly going on to say: "I'd much rather lavish my amorous attentions upon the young girl I may be in with a chance of - you know, the one I told you about earlier - than waste time on this fellow whose claim to be so deeply in love with me is positively indecent, no matter how sincere he may appear."

     "I'm sure you would," smiled Michael as they reached the foot of the office steps, now some thirty minutes late back from lunch.

       

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

It had just gone 2.00pm when Mrs Mary Evidence, wife of Gus Evidence and mother, through her first marriage, of Michael Savage, arrived back at her flat on the Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park, North London.  As usual on a weekday she had finished at noon in the large West End hotel where she was employed as a chambermaid, and had decided to walk the six or seven miles between these two locations.  The flat she rented consisted of three medium-sized rooms on the second floor of an otherwise uninhabited three-storey house, with the addition of a combined bathroom and WC on the first floor.  She had lived there for over nine years and, although well aware of the fact that the old house was in a condition of advanced dilapidation and due for extensive renovation in the near future, had nonetheless resigned herself to inhabiting what, by objective criteria, could only be described as an inner-city hovel.  Like many other working-class people accustomed to continual domestic deprivation, she had undergone a paradoxical inversion of egoism and eventually become sentimentally attached to her squalid living conditions.  The prospect she now faced of having to move from this old tenement into a new block of high-rise flats met with scant approval on her part.  In her current abode she felt she did at least possess a vestige of privacy and independence, the sort of freedoms that would probably be denied her, she reflected, in a tower block.

     True, she might have to contend with the ceaseless noise of the numerous heavy vehicles, including lorries and double-decker buses, which passed up and down the busy main road outside; to listen to the local drunks shouting and brawling outside the all-too-local pub at night; to put up with occasional all-night parties in the immediate vicinity; to bear with the mind-numbing disturbance of some neighbourhood shop's unchecked burglar alarm every so often; or to live with noisy young juveniles playing their uncouth games in the adjoining streets and next-door back garden during the afternoon.  But, all these and a host of other things besides, she still maintained that she was to some extent compensated by the consolation of knowing she was mostly her own boss in her own unpleasant little world, independent of those towering monoliths she regarded as infra dignum.

     Gus Evidence, a laconic West Indian who worked at a local engineering plant specializing in precision tools, didn't normally arrive home until around 6.00pm, so Mary almost invariably spent the afternoons either dozing, listening to the radio, or reading books, albeit the kinds of books which her son, with his predilection for the classics, inevitably regarded as of inferior quality.  Apart from a few occasional attempts at serious literature in her youth, Mary Evidence had absolutely no inclination, these days, to read works in that category, preferring the general run-of-the-mill library romance or thriller.  But so much for that, and each to his or her individual tastes!  She would read what her tastes and temperament permitted her to, and no more!

     Having dusted and swept-up in the kitchen at the rear of her flat, prepared herself a small though nutritious salad, and brewed some mild tea, she took herself into the bedroom with tea in hand and sprawled out on the convertible settee which stood bathed in sunlight beneath the large front window there, expressly with the intention of reading from just one such romance - a novel by a certain Martin Curly entitled Nursed Back to Health. Opening it on page 69, she began, tentatively and without real enthusiasm, to read:-

 

"I wanted the nurse more and more with each appearance she made in the ward.  She had only to hold my wrist in order to check my pulse and, to all intents and purposes, I could swear it virtually doubled.  When she reached across the bed of my nearest neighbour to straighten his blankets or, better still from my point of view, bent down to tuck them in, I could swear my vision became ten times sharper at the sight of her sexy black-stockinged legs, the sudden violence of her movements momentarily exposing a glimpse of thighs which were among the most seductive I had ever seen.  She was indeed sexy in the best sense of that word, with firm legs, a shapely behind, ample breasts, fleshy arms, a pretty face, and a mound of pinned-up hair, dark and fine, such as one usually only encountered on women of good breeding.

        "We had scarcely spoken save in the context of matters appertaining to my health and comfort, but I sensed that she delighted in my presence, as I in hers, by what seemed to me the extraordinary efforts she was making to conceal her desire, to avoid looking at me too closely, to steady her nerves, and even by the way she remained shyly reserved with me in conversation, when she was anything but reserved with most of the other patients, seeming to overdo the formality of each routine visit as, with slightly moist palms, she checked my pulse or took my temperature.  Indeed, on more than one occasion I had caught her looking at me when she evidently thought my attention elsewhere!  But she swiftly averted her gaze and returned it to the business to hand, as soon as my optical penetration had found her out.

        "The realization that I would soon be well enough to leave hospital encouraged me to stroll round the ward more often, and even to strike up friendly though inconsequential conversation with a number of my fellow patients who, for the most part, were still confined to their beds in various stages of post-op somnolence.  Nevertheless, I was in some concern regarding my little nurse who, in all probability, would drift out of my life as casually as she had drifted into it, soon to forget that I had ever existed.  Well, if that was the case, I would just have to bear up to it and carry on as best I could.  Fortunately, however, I still had the consolation of knowing that such pessimistic conjectures in no way detracted from my admiration of her many physical assets, which somehow struck me as inviolable anyway, since belonging to one of those special categories of esteemed females of whom nurses, nuns, and teachers comprise the most conspicuous examples; women whose near-angelic activities seem to prohibit, in men, the formulation of lewd thoughts and, more especially, lewd actions in relation to their physical persons.

        "However that may be I felt it incumbent on me to 'make' this curvaceous little angel if it was the last thing I did, my sole intention at this juncture in time being to take her in my arms and let her know just how much I thought of her, how much I wanted her, how much I would satisfy her, irrespective of the adversity I might encounter from the elderly Sister for accosting a junior nurse in the throes of ward duties.  The question was not whether but when could a rendezvous be arranged on the sly?"

 

Mary Evidence put down the book at this point and reflected, while sipping some tea, upon the number of words she had been obliged to skip because of an inadequate education.  True, she had grasped the gist of the narrative thus far.  But that wasn't enough to prevent her from feeling annoyed with herself for having to indulge in yet another superficial assimilation of the many difficult words and phrases encountered, Curly's novel being more complex and even highbrow than she had initially suspected.  Ah well, maybe she simply wasn't in the mood to lavish patience on this brand of literary foreplay today.  She would give it another try, however, because there was little else to do but read at this time of day and, besides, the afternoon still had some hours to run.

 

"As it happened, an opportunity fell to me to make my desires known to Nurse Adams the day before my discharge.  For I accidentally-on-purpose touched the back of her left thigh with my right hand as she dramatically bent over my bedside locker to retrieve a book she had knocked to the floor while making my empty bed, and, in doing so, caused her to smile in what I took to be rather a coquettish fashion.  Caught between a disinclination to make a blundering fool of myself and an overwhelming inclination to appease my desire, I had unwittingly proffered an ambiguous gesture which, fortunately for me, met with her approval.  However, now that her attention was momentarily fixed on me, I hastened to consolidate my advantage by placing an arm round her waist, while she, in what I could only suppose to be instinctive reciprocity, delicately brushed her hand over my forehead and smoothed my mop of hair, thereby inducing me to smile up at her from where I was sitting.  Since my nearest neighbour was preoccupied in his customary studious fashion, and nobody else seemed to be aware of us, I furtively slipped my right hand down the back of her left thigh again and gently ran it up and down the flesh above her stocking top a few times, while simultaneously looking up at her with an eye to catching her approval.  Blushing profusely, she moistened her lips and, bending down, kissed me tenderly on the brow.  She evidently approved of my act!

        "However, not wishing to get caught in such an amorous position by anyone in the ward, least of all her superiors, and, fearing that I might have the audacity to take matters further, Nurse Adams quickly disengaged herself from my wandering hand and summarily made off in the direction of a nearby patient, an old sod on the other side of the ward who, to judge by the pathetic noise he was making, evidently had need of some urgent medical attention!  That being the case, I straightaway groped for my writing pad and scribbled my nurse a brief note to the effect that I desperately wanted to see her after my discharge, adding, in block capitals, my full name and address, together with telephone number, and concluding with a line in praise of her beauty.  I slipped the note, suitably folded, into her hand at the first favourable opportunity later that day, taking care to ascertain whether this further gesture met with her approval.  It did!  She smiled reassuringly and then safely tucked it into her breast pocket.  The deed was done!"

 

Yawning profusely, Mary Evidence closed the book, got up from her settee, and returned to the kitchen, wherein she proceeded to eat her salad.  She was of the opinion that it was always wiser to leave the salad there an hour or two in order to have sufficient time to acquire an appetite, and now that one had arisen she lost no time in placating it.

     Oddly enough, it was at this point that her mind began to return to what her son had said, the previous evening, about his hereditary influences, the main reasons for his innate coolness towards her and preference, during childhood, for his maternal grandmother, a rheumatic old Galway woman with a loving smile who had died when he was barely nine years old, to be shipped back to Ireland for burial.  It was rather vexing to her that he should now choose to uncover and understand things which, out of tact, she had contrived to hide from him in the past, especially in light of the fact that he seemed to know on which side of the ethnic divide that effectively though unofficially existed between them his bread was buttered, so to speak, and had no qualms about being ruthlessly frank with her.  Had he not been so much a product of his late-father's genetic legacy, of the sperm which that man had sown during his brief but productive existence, Michael would doubtless have viewed her in a rosier light.  But the Savage in him was too strong and this, with her predominantly loyalist instincts, Mary Evidence bitterly regretted.

     She, too, was largely a product of her father, a Donegal Protestant who had met his Catholic wife-to-be while serving with the British army in Southern Ireland during the War of Independence, and subsequently converted to Catholicism for matrimonial purposes.  She had a deep respect for her father, who was to retire from the forces as a non-commissioned officer after twenty years service to king and country, subsequently acquiring the lease of a pub in Aldershot and becoming a jovial if rather rotund publican.  However, following his premature death from fever, her mother had decided she wanted to return to Galway, which she hadn't seen for over three decades.  And so mother and daughter set off, as soon as was conveniently possible, for Ireland.

     Once there, they swiftly acquired the lease of a pub which the pair of them were to run, amid much bickering and quarrelling, until such time as Michael's father-to-be further complicated matters by appearing on the scene and precipitating Mary into the worse calamity, from her viewpoint, of a hastily arranged and fundamentally misguided marriage, a marriage she thought would save her from her domineering mother but which was soon to flounder on the rocks of an apparently compatible but essentially incompatible relationship between socially and ethnically mismatched partners.  For Patrick Savage was an entirely different kettle-of-fish from anything she had known before, the middle-class product of a deeply intellectual and catholic family who, try as she might, had about as much interest in becoming an assistant publican as in abandoning the more stimulating company of his friends in other public places.

     Reluctantly, Mary Evidence pondered awhile the unfortunate consequences of that premature, unsettled, and subsequently short-lived marriage to a man whose social and occupational intransigence was a contributory factor in bringing about the demise, through flagging revenue and willpower alike, of their business, duly resulting in the return of both mother and daughter, plus tiny son, to the town from whence they had previously come, where alternative accommodation and, in her case, menial work were assured them through old contacts.  This return, she reflected, was probably for the best, so far as young Michael was concerned.  For although he had subsequently experienced an unhappy and unsettled childhood in the sole company of his mother and grandmother, had suffered from undernourishment and physical neglect, missed out on a considerable amount of elementary schooling (though by the time he went to school at six-and-a-half years of age he could already read simple books, thanks to the private tuition of a local priest), and, following his protective grandmother's death, been sent to a Protestant Children's Home in Carshalton Beeches (from whence he immediately wrote a shocked letter informing his mother that the house parents of the place, being Baptist, were of 'the wrong faith' - a thing he would never cease to hold against her thereafter), he had nevertheless managed to weather the storm, make a few friends in Surrey, improve in health, and acquire, through an intellectual persistence doubtless inherited from his father's side of the family, an uncommonly high standard of education.  So, in spite of his misfortunes, he still had something for which to be grateful.

     However, as to her son's attitude to England, she realized, despite his English upbringing, that he was not and would never become an Englishman, but always be an outsider: a quiet, withdrawn, solitary man who would rely on himself as much as possible rather than seek an accommodation, culturally or professionally, with that which was fundamentally alien to him and for which he had no great respect.... Not that he was incapable of establishing close ties with the odd individual here and there if the opportunity presented itself, a big 'if', however, in view of the extent of his latter-day solitariness!  Still, even if he hadn't found a mind worthy of his attentions since moving from Surrey, and didn't profess the warmest of attitudes towards his mother's largely philistine mentality, nonetheless he had acquired, through reading and observation, a number of useful realizations which partly mitigated the pain of his ethnic isolation.

     Yet his mother had been extremely vexed when, following the pattern of his daily ruminations of late, he had suddenly sprung that piece of genetic detection on her in his endeavour to comprehend the reasons why he had become so solitary, why he favoured one thing rather than another, why he disagreed with her on so many issues, why he was so often discontented with life, so often sad.  "By Christ!" he had said to her one evening, "most other men in my position would have committed suicide by now."

     "Oh, don't be so silly!" she had automatically responded, not quite understanding him.  "Why don't you go out and meet someone?"

     "Meet someone?" he had incredulously echoed.  "And just where do you suppose I'm going to do that?"  But the implication of what he regarded as his intellectual and moral superiority over most others in this inner-city environment was wasted on her, and whenever he sought to remind her that he was the product of a broken marriage, that his self-hatred partly derived from the fact that she had not only married socially above herself but to some extent ethnically contrary to herself, in consequence of which he had never known his father and was of ambivalent class and ethnic allegiance, she would tell him not to dig up the past because the past was dead and he ought to be living in the present.  As if the tortuous present wasn't in some measure conditioned by the past!  It was the present that was troubling him because he was living as a kind of shadow of his father and absolutely despising his mother, not having anywhere else to go in the evenings but to her place.

     And so the plot thickens as we come to the realization that, after barely six months out of England, his mother had married the first good-looking man to come her way, her congenial and protective father having already passed away and accordingly engendered in her the need to escape from the clutches of what she regarded as an imperious, unreasoning, and contemptuous Catholic mother.... With the unfortunate consequence that, in jumping out of the familial frying pan of mother/daughter friction, she had duly landed smack in the ethnic fire of premature marriage to a staunchly Catholic Irishman who hadn't realized, initially, that her Catholicism was only a thin cultural veneer, so to speak, over her late-father's Protestant influence, and that she was the daughter of someone, moreover, who had married a British soldier and spent many years of her life outside the country.  In consequence of which their marriage, beset by deprecatory  rumours, would quickly go downhill, with the inevitable corollary of separation and, so far as Mary was concerned, the difficulty of bringing up a young son in conditions of acute poverty, living with her rheumatic mother in an upstairs front room of an old house on the Victoria Road in Aldershot.

     In fact, it was this latter aspect of her social make up, this confinement to poverty in such a densely urban part of North London as she was now living in that her son, with his traditionally suburban sympathies, artistic temperament, and intellectual aspirations - which had been given a boost by several years domicile in leafy Carshalton Beeches - mainly objected to, insofar as he would have preferred to feel more compatible within the family link, to have had a mother who would appreciate and encourage his literary ambitions rather than one who, by her actions and thoughts, only sufficed to remind him that he was the product of a failed marriage, an incompatible and short-lived parental liaison.  His impatience with her was more often than not the manifestation, purely and simply, of a young intellectual's defence mechanism designed to protect him from the encroaching influences of an alien lifestyle and to maintain, as far as possible, his studious integrity in the midst of an unsympathetic and often hostile environment, particularly now that his mother's ethnic sympathies were channelled into the bonds of her second marriage, with her allegiance to Gus - the dour, unambitious, television-addicted West Indian who only succeeded, it seemed to Michael, in further accentuating the underlying ethnic disparities which already existed between them and making him feel even more unwanted than before.

     Well, that was how things were, irrespective of any good intentions he may have had.  Things were what they were, and for good reason.  History could never be reversed.  He would just have to put up with the indifference and largely commonplace attitudes of his mother and stepfather until he either found someone suitable with whom to set up home or acquired himself quieter and more congenial lodgings.  That was all!

     Having consumed her salad and returned to the settee in the front room, Mary Evidence decided to spend the rest of the afternoon merely dozing, since there wasn't anything to which she particularly wanted to listen on the radio, and that extract from Nursed Back to Health, with its highbrow connotations and general beating about the bush, hadn't really fulfilled her initial expectations, so didn't warrant further attention this afternoon.  She would see how she felt about it the following day.

     For the time being, however, she might just as well delve into the pages of her own unwritten book, the book of her life, to see if she could discover anything especially worth remembering, anything unusual that had happened to her during the course of her humble existence, rather than a rehash of long-standing grievances - like the recollection, for instance, of what had happened in connection with her father's funeral, all those years ago, when, given due military honours, his bier was wheeled through Ulster to the Donegal border with the Irish Republic by a cortège of mixed military and civilian composition, the civilians all northern Protestants who had no idea that he had married a southern Catholic because he had always been careful to hide that fact from his relatives and who, on encountering a priest at the border, now turned back in shock and embarrassment while the military continued apace towards Carndonagh, the destination of his burial, along with the startled priest and such Catholic relatives, including her mother, as had either directly or circuitously made their way from various parts of Britain and the Irish Republic to his ancestral home.  She had been with her mother at the time and was only too glad, despite the shock of hearing firsthand from the priest later on, that she hadn't been party to that larger cortège which, out of sectarian intransigence, had been unwilling to cross the border and follow their relative's coffin to its final resting-place.  Even now the thought of what had happened that fateful day still rankled with her, though something inside her told her that his secret was bound to have been found out one day anyway, and that he probably got no more than he deserved.

     Frantically, she scanned her memory for more agreeable material to delve into, like that time some twenty years ago when she had given birth to a girl which, following baptism, was subsequently entrusted to the care of local foster parents.  It was such a sweet little child that life could have been so much better if fate had permitted her to keep it.  But the fact was she lacked adequate domestic facilities, had to work at an hotel in Aldershot during the day, and already had one little child to cope with anyway.  It was just as well that she had managed to find this baby girl a decent alternative.  Naturally, it had been a very difficult possession to part with, but the feeling of maternal estrangement, at first almost unbearable, soon passed, leaving her free to contend with young Michael who, given his predilection for the best in everything, was anything but an easy child to satisfy!

     As it happened, she had just turned twenty-three when the 'accident' that led to the birth of her baby occurred.  It was a Thursday afternoon and, being off work that day, she had dressed up and gone out for a leisurely stroll.  Not having had any sex for a number of months, she didn't mind the idea of giving somebody handsome a good long, lingering look at her shapely legs if the opportunity were to present itself.  She had opted for a red skirt and a white blouse, she recalled, and had taken the precaution of putting on a clean set of white underclothes, including a matching petticoat, with her then-customary black stockings and high heels.  The weather was agreeably warm, and her stroll had taken her to a pleasantly deserted location out towards Farnborough, where she had decided to sit on the grass and while away an hour or two with the help of a women's magazine.  As luck would have it, she hadn't been sitting there longer than twenty minutes when she noticed a fairly handsome, clean-shaven man of about thirty, possibly an off-duty soldier, take a nearby seat from which he proceeded to stare at her in a conspicuously shameless manner.  Maybe she ought to let him see a bit more of herself, she thought, considering that he was seated in a favourable position, with his bright-blue eyes fixed firmly upon her face.

     Yes, she ought to do something daring, now there was no-one else about to inhibit her.  So she lay back on the grass and, keeping her attention superficially fixed on the magazine in her hands, opened her legs just wide enough to give him optical access to what lay between them.  And how well she remembered her next move!  How, after a few polite exchanges during which it was ascertained that he was only too interested in sampling what she had on offer, they went off together to a more remote part of the field where, out of harm's reach from marauding eyes, he proceeded to sample it for all he was worth, his large powerful hands busily caressing her body, as his small though far from powerless tongue elected to probe her flesh.

     Yes, he was very powerful all over and would dominate and condition her every move.  Soon her clothes were in complete disarray.  She sensed the futility of putting up a struggle with him, of running the risk of getting her clothing torn.  After all, she had voluntarily brought this upon herself and would just have to take the consequences.  He had her where he wanted her.  There was absolutely no point in trying to close her legs, not now that something hard had forced its way up between them and violated the sanctity of her womb, driving its way deep into the cavernous depths of her vaginal interior with a ferocity which momentarily caused her to wet her drawers and loose her sphincter in the confusion of the moment.

       

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

'That's a relief!' thought Michael, as he shut the door to his room and flung himself down upon the bed.  'I've just closed the chapter on five-and-a-half years' service to a firm specializing in classical music examinations.  I'm free at last!  A brisk handshake with the manager, last thing this afternoon, settled the matter for good.  From now on I'll have to condition myself to another life, another world, and bury the past.  I'll have to work hard at my writings over the next few months, do something creative for once, utilize my time constructively.  By Christ, I should have enough to write about!  A dream become reality.  I wanted to dream about being a writer, so I dreamt about it.  The time was ripe for dreaming because I was so far removed from the possibility of actually becoming one, so deeply enslaved by the conditions under which I was then living, that the dream served as the basis of an intention I subsequently proposed to enact.  For a while the dream was more important to me than its possible future realization.  I was immersed in it, in the natural flow of events, the genesis of my intentions until, with the passing of time, those events and intentions began to fade away, to lose their legitimacy, their potency, and the dream accordingly ceased to function as a guideline to future actions but became, instead, an encumbrance, leading me inexorably towards a situation I hadn't in the least bargained for - namely, a painful neurosis!

     'My dream had ceased to maintain the balance with reality, to function as a legitimate reaction to my being unable, at that time, to do anything else.  I no longer dreamt of being a writer, I was a fish-out-of-water, a piece of psychological flotsam on the road to paranoia, a creature in desperate need of recentring, reintegrating.  I had read in Camus, somewhere, about the hero being irremovably centred, though I didn't quite understand exactly what he meant by it.  There seemed to be so much hidden meaning there that I automatically undervalued it at first, even though the phrase stuck in my mind and was to haunt me for several weeks.  But those days are now dead and buried!  One learns from one's mistakes.  I've since come to view that notion in a rosier light, to perceive it as a beacon on the road to moral enlightenment.'

     Getting up from his bed, he ambled across to the alarm clock, which was still resting face-down on the top shelf of his bookcase, picked it up and read the time.  As it was now 5.35pm, he had almost half-an-hour to kill before setting out for his mother's flat, some twenty minutes' walk away.  He wished to himself that he didn't have to visit her flat two or three evenings a week just because doing so afforded him a change of scenery, a little variety, a chance to talk to someone, and the possibility of being able to read and/or write relatively undisturbed by neighbour noises.  Although one did have to contend with a busy road there, which wasn't particularly conducive to sustained concentration or deep thinking!  Frankly, he would much sooner have avoided the dingy old tenement in which her flat was housed, if he could possibly have done so.  But when, from time to time, he had endeavoured to break free of her place, he had found it well-nigh impossible to concentrate on anything intellectual in his single room on account of the various radio, television, stereo, telephone, voice, footstep, front-door, and next-door noises either simultaneously or successively imposing upon his sensibility throughout the rest of the house and its immediate vicinity.  A somewhat lamentable situation which usually discouraged him from making further attempts to go his own way.  Besides, it was too disheartening, being left alone in the evenings after a hard day's uncongenial work.  One had to see someone, even if only a relative.

     'My goodness, I am in a sombre mood this evening,' he thought, turning away from his alarm clock.  'I suppose it's a kind of significant turning-point in my life, leaving the firm today.  It makes me want to break out in more than one direction; for instance, leave London, which has always been something of an embarrassment and even humiliation to me.  Maybe also something to do with that conversation I had with Gerald Matthews at lunch time, his spilling the beans about having a gay man after him, and all the rest of it!  Though, in all honesty, I wouldn't be surprised if he was a bit that way himself, what with his effeminate airs.  Even smokes his cigarettes in a cigarette holder, doubtless afraid that his delicate pianist's fingers may get stained with nicotine, to the detriment of such professional standing as he may have in his pupils' eyes.  Then touches his hair up every now and then, as though to make sure it hasn't got out of place or is still there or something.  Always makes me feel self-conscious, walking along the street with a bloke like that.  False representation.  You imagine people are staring at you, weighing you up, seeing if you really look all that different from other people, people who aren't gay, that is.  Still, you feel much better afterwards, once you've ditched him somewhere and gone your own way.  A great relief in fact!  Better than being pushed around from hand to hand, made to feel sorry for yourself because you haven't the guts to disappoint anyone.  If I couldn't get the woman I wanted, I'd rather stay solitary any day.  At least you're still in with a chance then, provided you aren't solitary for too long of course.  Anyway, I probably won't ever see him again, so what matter?  I'll mail him that short story tomorrow, the one about a music teacher's illicit relationship with his favourite pupil, and then keep my fingers crossed that he won't get in touch with me about it.  If he doesn't want to read the damn thing he can always throw it away.  That would be the simplest course.'

     Shortly before 6.20pm young Michael Savage was sitting in the company of his mother and stepfather, tersely discussing the day's events.  He had brought his mother a one-scene play to read, a dialogue between two strangers who happened to be seated together on a park bench, but had declined at the last moment to hand it to her partly from private misgivings and partly on account of the need he now felt for certain rudimentary adjustments to the text.  He would re-read it himself later, to see exactly what was required.  In the meantime, he was anxious to discover whether she had read the play he'd submitted to her a few nights previously, another one-scene affair concerning the artificial termination of unrequited love through the systematic application, by qualified persons, of a specially deep hypnosis to the victim's psyche, and, if so, what she thought of it?

     "Yes, it was pretty good," replied Mary Evidence automatically, not really remembering to which play he was alluding.  "But I'm afraid I didn't grasp it all."

     'No, I didn't think you bloody would,' thought Michael, taking the typescript of the play in question from the mantelpiece where, unbeknown to himself, it had lain ever since he first parted with it.  'It's just one of those things!'  For it certainly embittered him to think that he only showed her his literary efforts because there was nobody else, apart from his stepfather (who, in any case, took absolutely no interest in his affairs, literary or otherwise), to whom he could have shown them.  If he only had a dog for company he would probably have felt compelled, by force of circumstances, to show examples of his work to the dog instead.  It was like that with creative endeavour.  You wrote something that you believed had value, and then you wanted someone to read it in order to corroborate your belief, to verify that you weren't wasting your time, to confirm that you could commit your thoughts and experiences to paper in a passably accomplished manner, and to establish that someone, even someone intellectually insignificant, could acquire a degree of enjoyment and worthwhile preoccupation from it.  Whether or not his mother read the works he regularly entrusted to her keeping, she almost invariably said something encouraging about them, if only to keep the peace or get the subject out of the way as quickly as possible.  But such encouragement, being superficial, had ceased to mean anything to Michael.  He had seen through it, sensing that anything he wrote would only serve to remind her of his late-father's influence, of the fact that Patrick Savage had more brains than her and didn't really belong to the same social class.  What was the use, he had so often wondered, in saying or thinking things which your actions subsequently contradicted?

     For example, he had on more than one occasion decided not to visit his mother again, to stay in his bedsitter all evening and keep his literary efforts to himself.  But the very next day, when his mood had changed and bed-sitter life was becoming (under renewed pressure of neighbour noises) somewhat distressing, he would change his mind, only to return to her place, hand her another typescript, and marvel at the unpredictability of his intentions.  And yet his mother was a woman who, in his judgement, had never read a worthwhile book in her life.  A woman moreover who, at the behest of her TV-addicted husband, could send him scurrying for shelter from some sordid serial or raucous comedy into their spare front room, where he would immediately seek out spiritual companionship from the works of the handful of authors whom he could still aspire to read.  Well, life was certainly no joyride as far as that was concerned!  His mental isolation was virtually complete.

     "So how's the cricket going today, Gus?" he at length asked his stepfather, in an attempt to change the subject to what was currently taking place on the screen in front of them.

     "Oh, not too bad," replied the latter, after due deliberation.  "The West Indies stand a fair chance of winning this Test if the weather stays fine over the weekend.  They've certainly put England in the hot spot."

     "Have they indeed?" responded Michael, as a multitude of black arms shot into the televised air to the resounding encore of 'Howzzat!', and another belaboured England batsman, mindful of the lateness of the hour, awaited mortal judgement from an umpire whose hands, surprisingly, remained imperturbably confined to his coat pockets.

     Not having any real interest in cricket herself, Mary Evidence turned to her son and said: "So today was your last day at work, then."

     "That's right," he confirmed.  "I got free of the firm at precisely four-twenty this afternoon."

     "Then you may have to do some extra writing next week," stated his mother while simultaneously picking up the evening paper. "I'll let you know when it's nine o'clock," she added, making sure that he was reminded of the time he was customarily expected to leave for his lodgings.

     Reluctantly, he opened the thin laminated door that separated 'their' room from 'his' room on such occasions and, gently closing it behind him, ambled over to the front window.  As usual he was thoroughly depressed by the way his life was spent in the evenings, by the absence of compatible communication between his mother and himself, by the absence of congenial companionship with people his own age, by the absence of regular or, indeed, irregular sex with a young woman of his choosing, and by his consequent inclination to withdraw into what he not altogether uncontemptuously regarded as 'enforced intellectuality' in the spare room.  If there had ever been an occasion when he had exchanged more than ten minutes' inconsequential chatter with his mother and stepfather, he had long since forgotten all about it!  His mother only succeeded in exasperating him.  He would never, so long as he lived, be able to hold an interesting conversation with her.  She was an incorrigible philistine who cared absolutely nothing about the arts, took no interest in classical productions, and, frankly, didn't give a damn about his literary aspirations.  It was more than likely that his visits to her flat only succeeded in arousing self-hatred in him by reminding him of his past, by placing him in direct contact with her stupidity, ignorance, poverty, lethargy, etc., to the lasting detriment of his self-esteem.  If only he could get away from her for good, get far away from this constant reminder of all the things he was in rebellion against and which he now perceived as the root cause of his parent's incompatibility and the demise of their all-too-brief marriage, his life would take on new horizons, find happiness, become reintegrated.  He would never be content with it so long as he lived under her influence.  Not in a hundred years!

     Gradually his reflections ceased to run along these rather depressing lines and returned, at length, to his art, his writings, the various attempts which he made to express truthfully, unashamedly, even boldly, the soul and situation of Michael James Savage, a young man who might one day be permitted to present his work to the English-speaking world, assuming he could find a publisher who, sympathetic to subjectively-oriented  literary productions, would be prepared to embrace those aspects or areas of life with which he was becoming increasingly familiar!

     Turning away from the window, from where the steady rumbling of heavy traffic was as obnoxious as the physical and even metaphysical evidence of it passing up and down the Stroud Green Road, he took the typescript of his one-scene play from his jacket pocket and, sitting down in his favourite of the room's two identical armchairs - the one farthest from the window - proceeded with difficulty to read it.  This particular play, half-fanciful and half-realistic, concerned the chance meeting of two young people in his local park and, despite the banality of the context, had been quite absorbing to work on, the previous week.  Maybe it wouldn't require all that much adjustment, after all.  Though it would certainly require a title, as, for that matter, would the one concerning the hypnotic termination of unrequited love.

 

A small suburban park in North London.  A summer's afternoon.  A young man and young woman are seated at opposite ends of a plain wooden bench, the young man having taken the seat some minutes after the young woman.  They are complete strangers to each other.  However, feeling subtly attracted towards the young woman, who is reading a book, the young man decides to say something to her.

 

YOUNG MAN: (Turns towards her) Is that an interesting book you're reading?

YOUNG WOMAN: (Slightly startled) What...?  Oh, yes!  Quite interesting.

YOUNG MAN: You wouldn't be interested in some conversation, by any chance?

YOUNG WOMAN: (Blushes slightly) No, not really.

YOUNG MAN: I just thought you might like to talk to someone.  To put it bluntly, you appeal to me.

YOUNG WOMAN: (Thinks to herself, "God, he's forward, isn't he?  Fancy telling me that!  He might as well have asked me to make it with him.  I'd better be careful.") Sorry, I'm waiting for someone.

YOUNG MAN: (Coolly impertinent) You're not wearing red panties under that skirt, are you?

YOUNG WOMAN: (Somewhat startled) Pardon?

YOUNG MAN: (Smiles) I bet you're wearing red knickers.

YOUNG WOMAN: (Starts to get up from the bench) Sorry, but I don't want to answer that!

YOUNG MAN: (Catches her by the arm) Just a minute!  I'm not intending to rape you, if that's what you're thinking.  I'm essentially very civilized: in fact, too damn civilized!  Sit down a moment, let's talk together.  Are you really waiting for someone?

YOUNG WOMAN: (Reluctantly sits down again) Why should I lie?

YOUNG MAN: To keep me at a distance, of course.

YOUNG WOMAN: (Laughs nervously) I needn't lie to do that!  Besides, even if I were, what business would it be of yours?  (She closes her book and is about to get up again when he puts a restraining hand on her arm.  She begins to look frightened.)

YOUNG MAN: You're very beautiful.  That's the main reason why I must speak to you.  A man like me could spend years looking for someone like you, someone who corresponds to his tastes.  In a sense, you're very fortunate to be so beautiful.  Probably more than 90% of the young women I encounter in this area make either no impression on me at all or only a rather unfavourable one.  Very few of them actually appeal to me, the loner of loners.  But I won't go into details.  Normally I'm quite incapable of getting worked-up about strangers.  I have to get to know people first, to find out more about the person I happen to be taking a physical interest in, just to be on the safe side.  But you pleased me from the moment I set eyes on you, and that's very unusual.  Look, I don't really know why I'm telling you all this, spilling the beans to a complete stranger ... but, well, I haven't spoken to anyone like you for ages and, since you look intelligent, I'm making a fool of myself for your benefit.  You see, I need someone who'll listen to me with a sympathetic ear because, whatever you may think, I'm no monster but a human being in need of a little love and understanding once in a while, just like a lot of other poor buggers who are daily coerced into maintaining a false, pernicious, and self-defeating persona without necessarily realizing it!  Believe me, I'm not homosexual or stupid or poxed or mad or dangerous or commonplace or ... believe me, I'm a damned sight more caring and considerate than most of the men in this world!  Maybe you wouldn't understand ...

YOUNG WOMAN: (Shows signs of interest, in spite of her misgivings) Go on.

YOUNG MAN: Well, for a time I thought I was homosexual, not having a woman and not particularly going out of my way to get one.  But slowly, gradually, it dawned on me that I wasn't really homosexual at all but simply choosy.  I mean (He sighs, as from a realization of the complexity of what he is trying to convey and the odds against his conveying even a fraction of it convincingly), I had to have someone whom I felt it would be possible for me to admire, to talk to, to love, even to worship - yes, don't laugh!  I mean it!  But poor and solitary as I was, I never encountered anyone who sufficiently inspired such noble intentions in me.  In fact, I rarely encountered anyone at all, even casually.  So things just drifted: weeks, months, years, a face here and there, the occasional disappointments, blunt refusals, hypocritical excuses, etc.  I didn't go to university and I left all my school friends behind in Surrey.  I loathe church institutions, pubs, discos, bingo halls, snooker clubs: you know, all the usual social conveniences that are basically intended to cater for average people.  I loathe them all!

YOUNG WOMAN: (Begins to show concern) But haven't you tried computer dating?

YOUNG MAN: (Faintly smiles and nods) Yes, I was desperate enough to give it a go.  And d'you know what happened? (He hesitates to choke back rage and resentment) I wasted my money!  Most of the bitches the firms informed me about didn't even have the courtesy to reply to my letters, quite apart from the fact that those who did took ages doing so.  Even some of the firms had to be reminded about my application virtually every-other-month!  And when they eventually got round to replying, it seemed as though they'd taken a lucky dip and, to pass muster, sent me whatever came up, irrespective of my preferences.  Anyway, the few women I eventually got around to meeting were plain, to say the least!  They'd have humiliated me on the street and exasperated me in the bedroom.   As far as the likelihood of my being able to kindle any genuine desire for them was concerned, it would have been tantamount to flogging a dead horse!  In fact, they might as well have been cows or sheep, for all the passion I felt towards them!  No, I regret to say that computer dating didn't work for me.  You never know exactly what you're getting and, besides, I found the whole idea too degrading.  I had to take one girl back to the station after barely an hour of her company, because she was so damned incompatible.  She hadn't even read one of the several hundred books in my possession at the time.  Not one!  And that was after I'd categorically stipulated a preference for someone literate.  But if that was bad enough, I thought it even worse that she hadn't even heard of, let alone heard, any of the albums in my record collection.  And they call that compatibility?  Well, I soon got rid of her, as well as most of the others they inflicted upon me, too!  Of course, a majority of people always end-up doing what they imagine everyone else is doing at the time.  Climb on the bandwagon, let others think for you, and wait for the lucky number!  For if, by any chance, a man with an ounce of self-determination approaches an attractive female in the park, on the street, or in any other public context with the intention of acquiring her, the spirit of technological progress will declare him to be either an anachronistic idiot or a potentially dangerous maniac who should learn to live with the times instead of wilfully following his personal inclinations, obeying the voice of his desire in his own sweet fashion, and taking the law into his own hands irrespective of the consequences.  As though men were still capable of self-determination in an age like this, when the sheep-like collectivity counts for everything and the lone individual, especially the self-willed creative individual, next to nothing!  Thus speaks the spirit of technological progress!

YOUNG WOMAN: (Raises her brows in apparent concern) I see!  But what makes you so sure that I may be able to assist you?

YOUNG MAN: Simply the fact that you appeal to me.  I mean, I wouldn't mind being seen in your company.  You're very beautiful and, from what I can gather, intelligent as well.

YOUNG WOMAN: (Smiles) Flattery will get you nowhere.  Anyway, I'm waiting for my boyfriend, as I think I told you.

YOUNG MAN: (Frowns) So what's he like: strong, tall, handsome?

YOUNG WOMAN: Oh, good-looking, hard-working, intelligent, loyal, generous, considerate, able.  A good all-round sort really.

YOUNG MAN: And how long have you known him?

YOUNG WOMAN: (Obliged to scan her memory a moment) Just over a year actually.

YOUNG MAN: And you had other boyfriends before him?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yes, a few. (She becomes puzzled) Why d'you have to ask so many questions?

YOUNG MAN: (Unable to restrain himself from shouting) Because I haven't given so much as one kiss to a woman in nearly ten years!

YOUNG WOMAN: (Becomes indignant) Is that my fault?  I'm sorry, we all have our problems, you know.

YOUNG MAN: Yes, and some of us more than others! (In desperation) Can't you drop him?

YOUNG WOMAN: Are you out of your mind?

YOUNG MAN: (Frowns and sighs in exasperation) Why should that bastard take all my share of loving?  Haven't I as much right to love as him, as you, as anyone?  Or is that merely presumptuous of me, a gross delusion, a mode of self-deception engendered by the sight and sound of so much commercial propaganda pertaining to sex?

YOUNG WOMAN: (On the verge of tears) But it's not his fault. He's as entitled to choose a woman as anyone else, isn't he?  It's not his fault if he happened to be in the right place at the right time and you, through no particular fault of your own, weren't.

YOUNG MAN: No, it's life's fault!  Life is always to blame.  That's why some people get everything whilst others get next to nothing.  Fate!

YOUNG WOMAN: (Unable to hold back her tears) Oh, don't make such a damned fuss!  There are plenty of people worse off than you.  Look, if everyone went about spilling their problems over people the way you do, we'd have a civil war on our hands.  At least you're still young.

YOUNG MAN: Yes, and that's precisely what riles me!  Young and bitter!  My God, it sickens me to see so many blatant half-wits, so many ugly, uncouth, depraved men with good-looking women just because they happened to be in the right place at the right time.  I might as well have been born crippled, considering what use I make of the advantages I possess!

YOUNG WOMAN: (Dries her eyes) Haven't you ever had sex with a prostitute?

YOUNG MAN: No, I haven't!  For one thing, I can't afford to.  And, for another, I distrust them.   Besides, they're not the kind of women who appeal to me, as a rule.  So for anything approaching sexual satisfaction, I'm mostly dependent on the occasional wet dream.  Actually, I used to be a bit of a wanker at one time.  However, these days masturbation would only arouse my self-contempt, so I tend to avoid it.

YOUNG WOMAN: Masturbation's puerile.

YOUNG MAN: Fortunately I didn't succumb to it all that often, just once or twice a month in order to clean the works out, as it were, and reassure myself that I hadn't become impotent.  After a while I loathed the self-degradation involved with the use of sex magazines, the models of which I rarely found stimulating.  So I'd resort to my imagination instead, fantasize myself into a climax and hope that I wouldn't become irredeemably perverted or the victim of a cerebral haemorrhage.  Nowadays I don't fantasize as persistently or regularly as I used to; I stop myself going beyond a certain low-key point and limit myself to one or two a day.... Frankly, I believe the fact that I was born in Southern Ireland has something to do with my situation, since I'm the end-product of several generations of Catholic Irish breeding and don't feel particularly attracted towards Englishwomen.  Now I don't mean to sound unduly endogamous, but the fact remains that, when it comes to the crunch, I prefer women of my own race and nationality and ethnicity to those of any other.  I mean, there's nothing particularly unusual about that, is there? (The young woman smiles guardedly but says nothing, so he continues) Look, I'm sorry to keep going on like this, and I didn't mean to upset you just now, but there aren't that many other people around here who would listen to me and, besides, it isn't every day that I get a chance to talk to someone, least of all to someone like you.  The majority of people would probably think me mad and scuttle away in panic.  They'd crucify me if they could.  For most people are frightfully suspicious of what they either can't or won't understand.  They only see what they want to, and are more inclined to consider anything that transcends their imaginative or intellectual limitations to be a form of madness rather than simply something which lies beyond them.  They'd strive, with all their limited powers of argumentation, to make me feel in the wrong, to humiliate and ostracize me, and not simply on ethnic grounds.  If I suddenly went up to that fellow over there, the one in the open-necked red shirt, and asked him what he knew about manic-depressive psychoses or the psychological effects of long-term celibacy, he'd either take fright or, assuming he's as stupid as he looks, become abusively violent.  Indeed, he might even point to the nearest female and say "Why not ask her, mate?"

YOUNG WOMAN: (Smiles through her nose) I wouldn't particularly blame him.  After all, one doesn't normally ask strangers those sorts of questions.  In fact, one doesn't normally approach strangers at all, at least not in London.

YOUNG MAN: I suppose I was being a bit silly then but, well, one sometimes feels the urge to do or say something unusual, if only to prove to oneself that one is still capable of self-determination and isn't utterly predictable.

YOUNG WOMAN: But having it off with a prostitute, or just about anyone, presumably isn't one of those urges in your case?

YOUNG MAN: No, I guess not, since the thought doesn't hold any great attraction for me.  With a man of my sort it has to be all or nothing.  I'd willingly continue to remain celibate until death, if only to keep away from half-measures, or anything which only served to compromise and humiliate me.  I've seen too many half-measures in life to be particularly impressed by them.  God knows what would become of me if I had to settle for someone I secretly despised!  I'd probably become bad-tempered, jealous, cruel, cynical: any number of disreputable things!

YOUNG WOMAN: But aren't you most of those things already?

YOUNG MAN: (Sighs dejectedly) Well, at least I'm suffering on my own terms at present, which is some consolation.  There's always the possibility of my meeting someone who'll really matter to me.  I wasn't born for charity, that's all.  I've seen too much of the negative side of it, its detrimental consequences.

YOUNG WOMAN: (Smiles gently and edges closer to him) So you think I may be able to provide you with the companionship you lack at present?

YOUNG MAN: (Visibly surprised) Eh?  But aren't you waiting for someone?

YOUNG WOMAN: No, not any longer.

YOUNG MAN: You mean someone else is going to suffer on account of me, then?

YOUNG WOMAN: Not necessarily.  Anyway, you've been alone long enough already, haven't you?

YOUNG MAN: Yes, I suppose you're right.  But I may take some getting used to.

YOUNG WOMAN: (Smiles encouragingly) Don't worry!  I'm a fairly patient person.

YOUNG MAN: Yes, you are, aren't you? (He squeezes her hand thankfully) By the way, my name's Stephen Kelly.  What's yours?

YOUNG WOMAN: Susan Connors.  And I'm not wearing red knickers.

YOUNG MAN: You're not? (Blushes profusely) Oh damn!  I was just teasing you.  Please accept my sincere apology. (They embrace each other  and, following a tentative exchange of kisses, the scene ends with the young couple slowly walking away from the bench hand-in-hand.)

 

     'So much for that!' thought Michael, throwing the typescript to one side as soon as he had finished with it.  'I must have been out of my mind to have written such a thing!  Why, I could spend the rest of my life writing about sexually-frustrated solitaries if I'm not careful!  Imagine I'm enjoying myself, what with all those lewd images monopolizing my imagination to the point of surfeit, the inevitable consequence of the gratuitous existence I lead.  Maybe I ought to write a thesis on the pros and cons of celibacy.... No shortage of sexually frustrated people about these days though, and not all of them are ugly or stupid either!  Most of them probably don't know what to make of themselves.  They wind-up blaming their celibacy on the times or, failing that, the sort of people around them, the environment in which they live, or are obliged to live, etc.  Well, I wouldn't get unduly worried about it.  Either you've got access to regular sex or you haven't.  Solitude and frustration are quite enough to bear, without the need to drag an overwrought imagination into the problem as well!  Too many people become the victims of that tendency, quaking beneath some Lawrentian or Reichian sex propaganda.  Indeed, you might as well keep an eye on your potency by jerking off every so often, as quake beneath that!  Admittedly, a somewhat disreputable kind of self-indulgence, and quite inadequate as things go.  But far safer than the pox, and financially attractive in these economically hard-pressed times.

     'Depends what sort of imagination or moral sense you've got, though.  No use degrading yourself beyond a certain point.  Bad enough with conventional sex.  Remember what happened to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Flaubert, Maupassant, and Nietzsche, to name but a few of the nineteenth-century's most famous victims of syphilis.  It didn't matter who you were, the pox was rife in those days.  At least they were fortunate not to have got mugged on the job.  Did happen sometimes.  Even happened in Villon's day.  Coquillards!  Some callous brutes hiding in the background with the express intention of robbing the client of his money and/or valuables as soon as he was in a sufficiently compromising position.  Better safe than sorry!  Too many risky situations in life as it is, and not merely in relation to mugging and prostitution!  Risky situations in virtually every context.  For example, computer dating.  Find oneself dating a woman who embarrasses one by not matching-up to one's aesthetic requirements.  I'd feel somewhat self-conscious in public, what with people evaluating her, comparing us, identifying me with her and vice versa.  I'd have to get rid of her as soon as possible and, if I couldn't find someone else, return to my solitude again.  At least that's preferable to indulging in an ungainly compromise with anyone.  No altruistic hypocrisy here, thank you!  Haven't the charity for it anyway.  Risky in other ways, too.  Might lead to an "accident" some day.  Find myself partly responsible for putting another cynical brat into the world, the unfortunate consequence of an ill-matched liaison.'

     He halted in his mental tracks a moment, tired of the one he had just gone down and anxious to change to one not having any particular connection with his play.

     'World population on the rise and hope on the wane,' he went on thinking.  'Imminent spiritual recession prophesied by eminent spiritual authorities.  Detrimental materialistic consequences virtually inevitable.... I must watch out for the Devil's disguises since, according to what I was reading on a religious pamphlet someone had the audacity to put through the front-door letter flap the other week, it appears that His current disguise takes the form of powerful psychic emanations which, penetrating the brain cells of the unwary, goad people into perpetrating all manner of despicable crimes.  Of the crimes listed for what appears to be the benefit of the general public, we find activities such as mugging, rape, murder, theft, and arson, but don't find activities like fraud, perjury, blackmail, and embezzlement, presumably on account of the Devil's preference for coarse minds in matters of brutality and for subtle minds in matters of deceit, the environment I inhabit evidently having more of the former than the latter in it!

     'Well, he's certainly a versatile old devil who always has an iron in the fire, kindling crime.  Uses the unfortunate to further his infamy.  Instigates all manner of callous deeds, from the theft of a young bride's wedding presents by the best man to the murder of an old woman's husband by one of her long-standing girlfriends.  Won't stop at anything.  It seems that even the Almighty can't manage without him.  He wouldn't have Quakers quaking if it wasn't for the Devil's influence in the world.  They might become too complacent.  Even forget to pray sometimes.

     'But I dare say that a majority of religious maniacs don't realize they're crazy.  I mean crazy in a particular way.  They've been indoctrinated so persistently and scrupulously, by the clerical powers-that-be, that they actually wind-up believing all the superstitious nonsense they hear.  I mean, what real choice do they have?  It's like that POW who, in order to get himself discharged on medical grounds, feigned madness to such a convincing extent that he eventually went mad.  Or like a fellow who hears so much talk of reincarnation that he ultimately comes to believe in it and, in order to appease his spiritual vanity, conceives of himself as a reincarnation of some famous historical person, like Caesar or Napoleon.  Indeed, our capacity for self-delusion is one of our mainstays in life, provided, however, that we recognize it for what it is and keep a regular check on things, in order not to get ourselves locked away, exploited, or overly abused in consequence of allowing it to develop beyond a certain socially acceptable point, and thereby get completely out-of-hand.  We might still be climbing trees or grovelling in underground caves if it wasn't for our capacity to evolve both logical and illogical tendencies in a fairly harmonious if exceedingly complex manner.  Darwin ought to have added a chapter to The Evolution of Species entitled "Competitive Man - a Guide to Future Developments", as a sort of thesis on the human rat-race.  Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost!  What choice does one have?  Anyway, at least I have the consolation of knowing that I'm not a religious maniac, since  whatever madness or capacity for self-delusion I incline towards I've at least taken the precaution of channelling it into a fairly inoffensive belief.

     'How shall I explain?  Well, I occasionally abandon myself to the delusion of believing certain people to be endowed with an ability and/or device which enables them to penetrate my mind and listen-in, as it were, to what I'm thinking at the time, just as a Christian might believe that God was listening-in to his thoughts on account of His divine omniscience.  I say "occasionally" because I wouldn't dream of allowing my thoughts to be highlighted in such a delusive fashion on a regular basis, especially with regard to those changing moods and circumstances which make yesterday's self-esteem tomorrow's self-contempt.  Indeed, I might as well endeavour to believe in God's omniscience ... as allow the recollection of a few past friends, acquaintances, or potential girlfriends to usurp my mental freedom to such an extent that the ensuing delusion claps me in psychic fetters.  After all, what's state-organized religion if not a means society has gradually evolved for channelling the psyche's illogical tendencies into a given theological context, thereby providing significant numbers of people with a common vent for tendencies which might otherwise impose themselves upon society in any number of unexpected and possibly detrimental ways?

     'Naturally, any free thinker can tear established religion to logical shreds in the cut-and-thrust of his rational arguments.  But that won't prevent him from being illogical in his own fashion, nor ensure that his illogicality won't cause the world more trouble than the institutionalized illogicality of the Faithful.  I guess that was something I overlooked at lunch time when talking with Gerald Matthews about religion, criticizing Christianity for its irrationality and praising the spirit of rationalism.  But the fact that I have certain beliefs of a more private and secular nature makes it virtually impossible for me to cherish various religious and occult beliefs, since, by their very existence, they exclude the possibility of others.  So I don't consider myself a reincarnation of either Caesar or Napoleon.  I don't go about with thoughts of some transcendent Afterlife on my mind, and neither do I literally believe in Christ's Ascension into Heaven or His miraculous ability to change water into wine.  I don't pay much attention to astrological revelations in the papers, and neither do I put much faith in the I Ching, or Book of Changes.  I make no effort to take spiritualism seriously, since I disbelieve in ghosts, and neither do I seek to have my palm read.  In fact, I could draw up quite a long list of beliefs, hypotheses, superstitions, allegiances, practices, neuroses, etc., which mean scarcely anything to me, if I really wanted to distinguish my illogical predilections or irrational manias from more prevalent ones in the world at large.  At least I have the consolation of accepting the situation in my head for what it is, whereas a good many religious maniacs, class maniacs, nymphomaniacs, demonomaniacs, megalomaniacs, dipsomaniacs, erotomaniacs, melomaniacs, and other types of maniac will probably spend the greater part of their lives in virtually total ignorance of their mental situation.  Yet they're often among the first to accuse others of being mad, the self-righteous shallow pates!  Still, when one begins to consider the large numbers of overt maniacs around, it's understandable that the more subtle, refined, or introverted manias should sometimes get overlooked.

     'You'd think, though, that these public exhibitionists would have more sense than to expose their misfortunes to the vulgar eye in such an open manner, arms waving in the air, head nodding vigorously up and down, tongue wagging incessantly, stupid grins transforming their ugly features into grotesque masks.  Evidently not, because they're more often extroverts.  Well, I certainly wouldn't want to invite reproachful comments from passing strangers if it could possibly be avoided!  Nor would I want to deliver myself into the hands of psychiatrists or social workers on account of my personal delusions, either.  I'd far sooner grapple with them on my own and in my own sweet time than deliver myself into their clutches.  They'd probably cure me of one thing only to expose me to something else, and probably to something worse at that - say, an institutional or otherwise external delusion!  I could wind-up becoming a pathological numerologist or obsessed astrologer instead!  Who knows the number of beliefs or manias to which one could alternatively succumb, given a push in the wrong direction.  You meet people and the chances are that, by degrees, they influence you in some way and even coerce you, eventually, into developing a different lifestyle.  I was a confirmed atheist until, God only knows how it happened, I met this young lady who was a devout believer and she pleased me to such an extent that I gradually turned renegade, so to speak, and went along to Sunday-morning worship with her until - wonder of wonders! - I duly discovered a new lease-of-life and became a ductile convert to the faith.  That sort of thing has probably happened to a fair number of desperately lonely and sex-starved people over the years, though I certainly wouldn't want it to happen to me, even if the woman I happened to fall in love with was very beautiful.

     'Imagine me standing in church while the vicar commences praying, and she is next to me with her worldly goods all wrapped up, some of the congregation privately admiring her black-stockinged calf muscles and perhaps even wondering what colour underclothes she's wearing, whilst others prefer to turn a blind eye to such things and shut out all ungodly thoughts until the final AMEN, when the doors are thrown open and the flock streams towards the fresh air outside amidst respectful whisperings and discreet rustlings of quality garments worn by chastened penitents who fear their psychological halo may fall from the tenuous support upon which it perches if they don't get out of the church quickly enough.  And me wondering what the hell it's all about, turning my nose up at other young women and pretending to be unimpressed by her shapely little buttocks trembling in front of me, as I wait my turn to shake the clergyman's hand and cause a smile to illuminate his sagacious countenance.  Though I needn't have worried, because he hadn't noticed anything and wouldn't, in any case, have said anything condemnatory, considering the nature of Nature and the coercive element therein which, however one chooses to address it, initially sanctioned the sexual bond between us.  But no matter, the sun's shining shamelessly outside the church and her skirt's flapping in the breeze, though she keeps everything in place as best she can in order not to give anyone a moral advantage over her, least of all those old women cluttering up the doorway in their eagerness to shake the vicar's hand, every one of them now moral vultures who would be only too grateful for the prospect of alighting on unchaste behaviour among the young people, the spectacle of someone whom they wouldn't have dreamed capable of wearing bright underclothes on such an occasion.

     'Good God, is that it?  The one who led me back to the fold?  No, I haven't fallen so low that I could abandon my atheistic principles on account of someone else!  If, by any chance, I encountered a woman like that, I'd twist her arm in my direction, make her see sense, convince her of the futility of her behaviour.  I'd tell her that she's a fool to other people's games, that it's high time she got her head together, instead of continuing to make a fool of herself, and that if she didn't mend her ways she'd have to find somebody else to slobber over in future.  I'd give it to her straight, make myself feel like a man again ...'

     "Nearly nine, Michael," declared Mary Evidence, popping her head out from behind the door she had just thrust open.  "Now don't tell me you've been day-dreaming all this time!" she added reproachfully.

     "No, just thinking," responded Michael, as he stretched out his hand for the angry little play which had lain neglected on the nearby table.

     Mrs Evidence smilingly sighed, before saying: "Well, we'll see you Monday, then.  Have a good weekend."

     "I'll try to," he said.

     "'Night, then," concluded his mother before returning to whence she had come, where the TV was still inanely droning-on largely for her husband's moronic benefit.

     'I think I'll call my play A Romantic Encounter,' thought Michael, as he swiftly made his way downstairs and out into the street.  'It may as well be called that as anything else.'

      

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

"Yes, I like that one very much," said David Shuster, who sat in close though respectful proximity to where Gerald Matthews had just concluded an impromptu piano recital.  "It's one of Erik Satie's compositions, isn't it?"

     "Partly," replied Gerald, turning around on his piano stool to face his questioner.  "But that's only because of quite a few mistakes on my part, I'm afraid.  It isn't going as well as it ought to at present, despite some recent practice."

     "Well, it doesn't sound too unlike Satie to me," confessed Shuster before asking, in his customarily nonchalant fashion: "Which composition is it, by the way?"

     "Oh, the Sonatine Bureaucratique actually," Gerald obliged.  "I dug it out of my pile of scores in consequence of an unexpected eulogy concerning some of Satie's piano music by that chap Michael Savage last thing this afternoon, notably this and a few other late pieces for which he has apparently acquired a taste."

     Shuster raised his bushy eyebrows in a show of surprise.  "Does he play the piano, then? " he asked, his right-hand index finger momentarily caressing the bridge of his gently aquiline nose.

     "No, not to my knowledge," replied Gerald.  "Although he claims to play the acoustic guitar in a mainly improvisatory fashion."  There was a pause before he continued: "From what I was able to gather from a brief conversation with him during the week, it would seem that he generally dislikes notated music on account of its perceived antiquity, mannerist conventions, and religious connotations."

     Shuster smiled wryly before asking: "Is he an atheist or something, then?"

     "Well, he's certainly no Christian," said Gerald in oblique response.  "I believe he's one of those people who regard religious music as an embarrassing anachronism and therefore won't acknowledge its inspiration, especially in the vocal context, on account of its more or less explicit references to God, meaning principally the Creator, or Father.  You couldn't imagine him singing hymns, cantatas, oratorios, or suchlike religious works.  He thinks people are simply deceiving themselves or, more usually, being deceived by others."

     "So there's evidently a lot of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, etc., to which he won't lend an ear," speculated Shuster, leaning back in his capacious armchair, as though to distance himself further from his only tenant.  "And quite a few modern compositions too, I'll wager."

     Gerald reluctantly nodded his aching head, then said: "Yes, he isn't what one might call enamoured of the general curriculum."

     "Wise man!" averred Shuster.  "I suppose he has his literary tastes down to a fine art too, does he?"

     "That wouldn't surprise me," said Gerald, who was already beginning to regret he had brought up the damn subject of Michael Savage in the first place!  "Although I'm not at all sure what forms they take, even given the fact that I overheard him mention James Joyce and Henry Miller to someone during the afternoon.  But that didn't leave me much wiser, considering I haven't read either of them and don't really know all that much about their works in consequence."

     Shuster raised his brows anew and remarked in a sort of reproachful tone: "Then you were evidently making a big mistake in attempting to secure his confidence, Gerald, since you appear not to have that much in common with him."  He withdrew himself into a moment's silent deliberation, before continuing: "At a guess, I'd imagine him to be the sort of chap who, being an outsider by force of circumstances, relates to writers like Camus and Sartre, amongst others."

     "And who exactly are they?" Gerald wanted to know, in the face of his almost complete ignorance of modern French writing or, more specifically, that branch of it which had never particularly appealed to him on account of its overly left-wing sympathies.

     Shuster opted to forego the ordeal of raising his brows yet again by simply replying: "Highly influential theorists, who constitute the more famous part of what is commonly, though in large measure erroneously, known as the 'Existentialist Movement': a largely philosophical school of writing inspired by Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger.  Interestingly, I was re-reading Sartre's Nausea only last week.  It takes the form of a fictitious journal having more than a little to do with the mysteriousness and even brute horror of existence."

     "Hence existentialism?" Gerald conjectured from the ivory tower-like vantage-point of his piano stool.

     "Yes, in a manner of speaking," confirmed Shuster half-smilingly.  "You see, according to one aspect of existentialist thought - and not the least important aspect either - I am now seated in a manmade 'thing' which, from social expedience, we agree to call an armchair, so that, through uniform conditioning in the matter, we can concur with each other and those around us as to exactly what an armchair is, thereby saving confusion.  However, what you chose to call it outside the everyday world of commonplace references and human relationships is entirely your own affair, bearing in mind its relative reality, or the fact that you can alter its shape at the planning stage and call it a bookgrope, a tiemark, a manpoke, or a showflake, depending on your whim."  It was evident to Shuster that Gerald was anything but happy with this notion, probably because, in his fundamentally conservative nature, he would never have dreamt of doing any such thing.  Nevertheless Shuster continued, saying: "Now that is the entire crux of the matter, of the fact that so many of the things we commonly take for granted as immutable realities are actually mutable and, hence, contingent realities, contrary to popular prejudice."

     "How very enlightening!" declared Gerald bravely, his blue eyes almost hypnotically focused on the right arm of the armchair in which the eccentric and possibly even mad lecturer was still seated.  "I'm afraid I have neither the time nor the inclination for reading anything overly intellectual these days.  In fact, I rarely get beyond a half-dozen pages of my romances after going to bed.  I fall asleep in no time."

     "Lucky you!" exclaimed Shuster, getting up from his 'bookgrope'.  "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all fall asleep so easily!"  He stared fixedly at Gerald a moment, his mind turning somersaults of intellectual daring, and then, changing to an almost resentful tone-of-voice, he said: "Well, I assume that young lady pupil of yours will be here soon, so I'll temporarily retire to my quarters.  See you later."

     Gerald watched Shuster's tall frame pass through the doorway and out of sight with certain misgivings as to just what would transpire later, if things didn't work out to his liking with the young pupil in question.  But, for the time being, he was relieved to have the room to himself again and to be able to get on with replaying the second movement of the Sonatine Bureaucratique, which was trickier than he had remembered from past experience of the piece.  His technique was competent, overall, but by no means perfect, and he reflected that he would certainly have to spend a number of days practising hard if he hoped to bring his playing up to performance standard.  As he had given public recitals in the past, he saw no reason why he shouldn't give a local one in the near future, since the challenge of performing publicly could only induce him to achieve a higher standard of technical proficiency in the meantime, a thing he greatly desired in view of the restrictions his role as private teacher of low-grade piano pupils was placing upon him at present.  Perhaps he would incorporate a few nocturnes by Schubert or Chopin into his prospective recital?  Maybe even a Beethoven sonata, a selection of Debussy's preludes, Ravel's magical Le Tombeau de Couperin, or Mussorgsky's incredibly demanding Pictures at an Exhibition in its original version, assuming, of course, that he could bring them all up to pianistic scratch?  He would see anyhow.  There was still plenty of time for him to make up his mind.

     While toying with these enterprising ideas his hands toyed, as though of their own accord, with the bright keyboard of his Broadwood piano, experimenting with various gradations of tone and touch, inventing strange harmonies, forming arpeggios, scales in contrary and parallel motion, major and minor, diatonic and chromatic, his facile fingers easily in command of the notes.  Yes, he could still bring this old upright to life, cause it to respond to him like a mistress, coax the best out of it, make it rise to the occasion of his occasional nocturnal rhapsodies, when technicalities were safely subordinated to the essential musicality of whatever he happened to be playing and, his head thrown back in rapturous abandon, wave after wave of ecstatic pleasure swept over and engulfed him, bending his will to its omnipotent embrace.  If music was an exacting taskmaster, it could also be an extremely enriching one, a solace from the manifold perplexities of life and a defence against its untimely vagaries.  It had brought him back from the depths of despair in the past and would doubtless do so again in the future.  Music was something that, short of a fatal accident to hands or brain, no-one and nothing could take from him.

     While his nimble fingers continued to explore the hidden depths of sound and meaning which lay buried beneath the bright ivory keys, waiting only for the right touch to release them into the air, his mind slowly changed track and began to explore the imagined body of Miss Stephanie Power, his most attractive and brightest pupil who, providing she had recovered from her illness of the previous week, was due to make an appearance at any minute now.  She had studied under him for just over six months and, despite a slight disinclination to take music of the sort piano lessons thrive upon very seriously, was beginning to reveal latent talents, and not simply with regard to the piano either!  Indeed, her 5' 8" of shapely physique was beginning to have a serious effect upon her teacher's emotional life.  He would have invited her to accompany him to a restaurant on at least three previous occasions had not professional etiquette, incertitude concerning her emotional status, and egocentric reticence combined to inhibit the verbal formulation of his desires, producing a weekly procrastination.  It was certainly high time for him to act if he really hoped to secure regular access to this young eighteen-year-old's enticing physical charms and thereby put his mind at ease.  It definitely didn't pay to let her slip away from the lesson unsolicited every week.  He was beginning to feel more than a trifle distracted - indeed he was!  For it had deeply pained him, the week before, to hear from her mother that she was unwell and would accordingly be staying at home.  That was another opportunity lost, another procrastination to contend with.  It was a wonder to him that he could carry on giving her lessons at all, subject as he now was to nervous strain, coupled to periodic emotional aberrations, whilst in her company.  But one had to carry on with one's duties as best one could, to somehow learn to repress one's emotional intrusions, since man did not live by love alone.  Well, he would just have to see what transpired from this evening's lesson, before committing himself to any further folly!  Things might still work out in his favour.

     Shortly after 8.00pm the musical chimes of the doorbell suddenly awoke him from his morose reflections and, in eagerly answering it, he discovered, to his immense relief, that Stephanie Power was seeking admittance, and doing so in a tight-fitting minidress that emphasized the contours of her figure in a most provocative way.  "Well, hello!" he blushingly exclaimed, before ushering her into his music room.  "I feared you weren't coming this evening," he almost desperately added, as they crossed the threshold together.  "How are you now?"

     "Oh, I'm fine, thanks," said Stephanie, removing her bag from her shoulders and then extracting a music score from amongst its jumble of heterogeneous contents.  "I had a touch of tonsillitis actually, strange as it may seem at this time of year."

     "Poor you," sighed Gerald, eyeing her in an overly sympathetic manner.  "And I had been led to believe from your mother that it was just a cold.  Still, you're looking very well, I must say."  She smiled but said nothing, so he asked: "How's the music coming along, then?"

     Stephanie duly placed her copy of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the ledge formerly occupied by the Satie piece and replied that it wasn't coming along too well, bearing in mind that she had only begun to play the sonata a few weeks previously, and that it was unquestionably more difficult than anything else she had thus far been called upon to play, even with old Miss Edwards, her former teacher.  "I'm certainly doing my best," she concluded, "but it's no easy task, not even in the first movement."

     "Indeed not," confirmed Gerald, as he drew his spare stool up alongside the one on which she was now sitting.  "However, it will soon develop along the right lines if you practise it at least an hour a day.... I say, that's a refreshingly sweet perfume you're wearing tonight.  I can't recall having smelt that one before."

     Stephanie was unable to prevent herself blushing as she turned her admirably bright-blue eyes upon her piano teacher's admiring gaze.  "No, I haven't worn it here before actually," she replied.

     "Well, it's certainly very refreshing," averred Gerald, while continuing to admire her face.  "You make these lessons a far sweeter experience than most of my other pupils do," he boldly added.

     "How very flattering!" cried the young woman, who was momentarily in some confusion.  "I appreciate being appreciated."

     "I thought you might," said Gerald, turning his attention back to the music score and, as though for his own benefit more than hers, saying: "Now then, shall we begin?"

     There was a pause while both teacher and pupil adjusted to the basic requirements of the task to hand.  After a rather tentative start on her part, during which the sustain pedal was left down rather longer than it should have been, Miss Power gradually gained in confidence, steering her way past the various broken chords, tonal indications, and pedal changes with relative ease.  For his part, Gerald coaxed her along in his usual tactfully deferential manner, overlooking the occasional blurred harmony, misplaced note, faulty tone, and dubious timing which crept into the performance in order to keep it moving along as much as possible.  He felt confident that she would soon come properly to grips with the sonata in any case, irrespective of her current failings, because she possessed a natural feeling for music and was usually aware of when and how mistakes were being made.  No doubt, these mostly minor errors would cease to occur as she became increasingly familiar with the music and her technical grasp of it grew correspondingly more comprehensive.  In the meantime, however, he need only draw her attention to those bars of the first movement which were causing her most difficulty, to demonstrate how they should be played, in order not to undermine her own judgement overmuch or cause her to lose confidence in herself.  Quite apart from professionally being the best policy to adopt, he was of the express opinion it was also socially the best, as far as his prospects of keeping on good terms with her were concerned.

     After demonstrating various technical points to Stephanie in this way, Gerald liked to impart additional confidence to her by guiding her fingers over the notes in question, and it certainly wasn't beyond him to put his nearest arm around her waist or take a peek at her rather conspicuously displayed breasts, highlighted, as they invariably were, by a low-cut blouse or dress.  To be sure, she seemed not to mind these little familiarities of his; though it never ceased to amaze him that he hadn't transformed them into something more concrete by now, and thereby achieved a more intimate knowledge of her person, in consequence of the incontrovertibly powerful attraction she always exerted on him.  Was it really a question of professional etiquette over personal vanity or of personal vanity over professional etiquette ... which inhibited him from extending the range and degree of his familiarities?  Or were such considerations no longer applicable because the distinction had gradually become blurred and, having passed the point of no return, he would now simply have to act, regardless of his habitual egocentric reticence, with its retinue of prohibitive demons lurking in wait to ambush every genuine adventurer on love's treacherous highway, before matters got completely out-of-hand and became absolutely unbearable?  Perhaps that was so?  In which case it would undoubtedly be wiser for him to get it over with soon, in order to ascertain exactly where he stood with her.  After all, life wasn't specifically intended for the fostering of disturbing aberrations.  And even if it would be dreadfully embarrassing, not to say humiliating, for him to continue teaching her if she rejected his advances, at least he would then have the benefit of knowing exactly what the position was, as well as the relative consolation of accepting that he had done his duty, as it were, and needn't continue to delude or persecute himself any longer.

     It was towards the end of this lesson when, the Moonlight Sonata's first movement having been played several times, Gerald finally plucked up sufficient courage to proposition Stephanie for a date.  But even then he could only manage to approach the matter indirectly, via the subject of music, by telling her that he had a spare ticket for a concert at the Barbican the following week, and was wondering if she would like to avail herself of it to accompany him there.

     Stephanie halted in her playing tracks and stared incredulously at him a moment, obviously unprepared for any such invitation, which, as soon as she could gather her thoughts together, struck her as both impertinent and undesirable.  Nevertheless, she did her best to sound regretful when, blushingly, she replied: "Thanks for the offer, but I'm afraid I shall have to disappoint you, since I've decided, in consultation with my mother, to discontinue my lessons as from today."  The words were hardly free of her lips when Gerald's mouth fell open in shocked surprise.

     "Oh?" he responded unbelievingly.  "What appears to be the problem, then?"

     "Precisely that I'm sick and tired of playing this sort of crap and want to do something better with my time, like joining a rock band and playing electric keyboards!" shouted Stephanie in exasperation.  "Besides, I've had enough of your sneaky little voyeuristic games and sly caresses.  If you were really a man, and not a snobby little wimp who's afraid of getting rebuffed, you'd have asked me out long ago, and not in such a roundabout way either!  My boyfriend's twice the man you are, what with your smelly aftershave lotion and spotted cravats!"

     Gerald was virtually speechless and almost on the verge of wetting himself.  "But I only w-wanted to h-help you," he stammered, blushing scarlet.

     "Yeah, well the best way you can do that is to leave me alone and let me get out of here so that I can meet my bloke as planned!" yelled Stephanie, jumping up from the piano stool and reaching for her shoulder bag.  "Find somebody else to take to your sodding concert!" she added sarcastically, and was already through the door by the time a stricken Gerald Matthews noticed that her music score was still on the piano stand. 

     Instinctively grabbing hold of it, he ran out of the room and, catching up with her at the front door, pathetically held it out to her, as he stuttered: "You'd b-better take this with you in c-case you ever n-need it or have a ch-change of h-heart in the f-future."

     "A change of heart?" jeered Stephanie, opening the front door.  "You can take that sodding thing and stuff it up your big fat arse!" she screamed and, without even bothering to look back at him, ran off down the path and out into the comparative freedom of the empty street, leaving Gerald Matthews standing speechless in the open doorway, the Beethoven sonata limply dangling from between his sweaty fingers.

     "Dear me, looks like another woman's run out on you!" a deep voice sounded from behind him and, turning round in a sudden panic, he encountered, to his considerable embarrassment, the tall figure of David Shuster standing in the hallway with a glass of Scotch in his hand.  "You don't seem to have much luck with young women, do you?" he added in a sort of unpleasantly rhetorical fashion. 

     With a gruff sigh, Gerald quickly closed the door and was about to pass swiftly in front of his landlord when the latter stretched out his free arm and stopped him in his bolting tracks.  "Seems to me you were deluding yourself over that vulgar little titbit," said Shuster ironically, as he wrapped his arm around Gerald's shoulder.

     Although he would have preferred to extricate himself from both the taller man's embrace and the stench of whisky emanating from his breath, Gerald was feeling so shattered by the totally unexpected outcome to his evening's plans, and by the vulgar ferocity of Stephanie Power's onslaught upon his romantic sensibilities, that he reluctantly resigned himself to the situation in which he now somewhat shamefully found himself, and even allowed the semi-drunken lecturer to tighten his embrace as, with tears welling-up in his eyes, he stuttered: "I just d-don't understand what c-came over her, that she should have t-taken such strong offence to what I s-said."

     "Now, now!" soothed Shuster, solicitously patting Gerald on the shoulder blade, "don't take it all so damn personally!  She probably didn't mean the half of what she said.  Besides ..." and here he paused as though to add emphasis to the significance, in the circumstances, of what he was about to say "... you've always got me to fall back on, old boy."

     Gerald was unable to prevent himself blushing with this remark and, although he fought the temptation that now assailed him to sob-out his grievances on Shuster's ample chest, the conspiracy of pressures which surrounded him was too great, and imperceptibly he found himself sliding towards total submission to Shuster's will, as the older man, scenting victory, gulped down the rest of his Scotch and ran his free hand caressingly over Gerald's trembling back.  "There, there!" he soothed.  "You'll soon be feeling better!"

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

'What a sleep!' thought Michael, emerging from the nocturnal depths of image-bloated subconsciousness.  'Did I dream all those dreams or do I imagine I did?  There were horsemen, I remember.  Yes, horsemen wearing top hats and riding through a deserted town.  But then everything goes blank.  I don't even know what they were doing there or where they were going.  They disappeared too quickly.  Then there was that woman, probably Julie, my usual temptress, scheming in the background.  But I think that was another dream, possibly the one before, because she certainly didn't have anything to do with top hats and horses!  Anyway, she didn't run away from me as on previous occasions, though I have no clear recollection, at present, of exactly what she did do.

     'We must have had sex anyway, because I can distinctly recall being shown a pair of black suspenders before her flesh well-nigh smothered me.  At least that's how it appears now, though I don't dream sex all that often, alas, and I can't will myself to either, because dreams have a life of their own and only show one what they want to, irrespective of one's  personal wishes.  Since I haven't so much as kissed a woman in over five years, my dreams tend to be a bit unromantic, if not downright dismissive of women generally!

     'Perhaps I ought to return to Ireland, even though, not having brought myself over here, I don't remember anything about it, profess disbelief in Christianity, speak with a suburban Surrey accent, and intend to work as a free-thinking author?  I don't seem to have much romance living in London anyway, though I've known one or two nice girls in the past.  If only I knew someone nice at present, it might help a bit.  But apart from Gerald Matthews, whom I've no real interest in, and a couple of old friends in Redhill, whom I ceased to have regular contacts with quite some time ago, there aren't any people to speak of really.  In fact, it's almost as though I was an Englishman until, being obliged to move from Surrey to London several years ago, I got lost in the crowd somewhere and became just another man with an Irish name in London, meaning a sort of outsider.  Yet, to be honest, I've always felt myself to be an outsider anyway, even as a child in Aldershot, and particularly as far as love is concerned.  I even used to have dreams in which everyone went out of a building through one door and I alone went out of it through another.'

     Desiring to break away from these troublesome thoughts, Michael Savage turned over in his bed and began listening to the continuous clumping of high heels across the floor of the room above.  It was both annoying and puzzling to him that the tenant there couldn't arrange to wear something quieter indoors, like a pair of slippers or sneakers, instead of always making so much damn noise.  Such an arrangement would doubtless have been more considerate of her, and would have prevented Michael from assuming that she did it just to annoy him, since he had never taken any real sexual interest in her.  Yes, there were always women who turned spiteful or vindictive when they realized that you had no romantic designs on them, probably because the ultimate decision as to with whom one had sex for whatever purposes was fundamentally a female's affair which didn't warrant male objections!

     However, before long, Michael's thoughts began to get the better of him again and, after a further dose of resentful subjectivity centred on personal truth, they shifted up a gear, so to speak, to a more objective realm of mental inquiry.

     'You stare manifestations of truth in the face when you realize that, against their innermost desires, many young people are obliged to sleep on their own every night; that evil is as ubiquitous as good and that, in theological terms, the God who apparently made you also made the people, animals, insects, etc. which regularly torment you; that before He made man His speciality was reptiles, including dinosaurs; that a priest who involves himself in politics is betraying the cause of religion to the same extent as a politician involved in religion betrays his political responsibilities; that inequality between people is not a social anomaly but a fact of life; that many people pass through life without ever having experienced genuine love or friendship; that the subconscious mind plays a greater role in determining consciousness than might at first appear.  Indeed, now that I come to think of it, some author I was reading recently was of the opinion that we haven't got a subconscious, that the subconscious is basically just a myth, and consequently something to which we oughtn't to attach any great importance.  As if a person thinking "1066, Battle of Hastings, defeat of King Harold by William the Conqueror" was simply pulling such factual thoughts out of thin air instead of drawing on his psychically submerged, and hence subconscious, internal memory bank!  Now is that the truth?  Is that the kind of enlightenment people are daily surfeiting themselves with, lacerating what remains of their intellectual integrity?  Jesus!  I wish I hadn't ... there I go again - Jesus!  By Christ!  God Almighty!  Bloody Hell!  My God!  Damn it!  Holy Smoke!  Good God!  Heaven Forbid! - invoking the usual kinds of religiously inspired exclamations the modern "rationalist" dredges up from the depths of his subconscious to torment himself with, to remind himself that, no matter how rational he may imagine himself to be, he's still the inheritor of several generations of transmitted psychological attitudes, and therefore very much a product of traditional religious belief!

     'Goodness me, haven't we learnt better by now?  Or is it that we're simply decadent and don't take ourselves seriously enough these days?  That we're too often conscious of living a lie which we can't do anything about, which only psychologically cripples and humiliates us, transforming our thoughts into inarticulate bubbles that well-up, like pieces of flotsam, to wash against the shores of our consciousness where, confronted by twentieth-century life, they burst and fester?  Well, what would be the point of writing a serious thesis on behalf of those who find conventional religion an embarrassment if nobody could learn anything from it?  Or if it could be discarded as a source of idiotic self-deception, a blatant example of free thought which, coming from a contemporary intellectual, is all very well in its place, but nothing to be taken too seriously because it takes all types to make a world and, besides, someone else is bound to come-up with an alternative view before long, so what matter?  Reminds me of that dubious notion we have concerning sunset and sunrise, the going down and coming up of the Sun, as though the Earth stayed perfectly still while the bloody Sun danced around it!  Seems more accurate to think in terms of, say, "earthrise" and "earthset"; though I doubt that a majority of people could be re-educated on that score overnight!  After all, delusions, deceptions, illogicalities, absurdities, etc., are pretty much an integral part of the crazy world we inhabit.'

     Having thought which, Michael stretched out his hand to pick up the battered old alarm clock which had lain face-down by the side of his bed all night and, noting the time, dropped it back down on the floor, before continuing: 'It's 8.00am, so I've been awake nearly half-an-hour.  Half-an-hour too long, since I resent waking up when what I was dreaming promised to enthral me.  Usually end up either thinking or fantasizing too much.  Then, in the latter event, getting up with a hard-on and not being able to use it because there's no woman around is a pretty frustrating experience.  A regular affair in my life, though.  Like what I was thinking the day before yesterday about bumping into old acquaintances in the street, particularly those females who were potential girlfriends, and being asked how you're doing, etc., and, to minimize embarrassment, you reply "fine", considering they probably don't really give a toss about you anyway and, having had the misfortune to bump into you, are only too eager to get away again, to escape from the unpleasant connotations or feelings you awake in them in consequence of the recollection that they were already happily attached to some other male when you'd had the nerve or audacity to proposition them in the first place, and therefore had no real alternative but to reject you, while you're simultaneously annoyed with yourself for allowing them to get away with a lie from your mouth, even though you're well aware that it probably wouldn't have served your purpose to let them know how you're really doing, in view of the largely paradoxical nature of modern life, with its social hostilities, fears, suspicions, prejudices, and hypocrisies lurking dangerously close to the fragile surface of its ostensibly promiscuous standards.

     'Indeed, the notion of a promiscuous society seems to me more like a myth than a reality, something that has no real applicability to the world a majority of people are accustomed to living in these days.  Unless, however, my upbringing was so strict that I now suffer from the delusion of taking what I project of myself into the world for the world itself?  Anyway, you'd expect certain persons and categories of people to be promiscuous in any age, regardless of the prevailing Zeitgeist.  Take students, for example.  These days it appears that, having plenty of time on their hands and a fair number of attractive members of the opposite sex to choose from, most of them can usually have their sexual desires satisfied more easily, not to say frequently, than other people.  For college should be an ideal mating-ground, especially when there's a fairly even distribution of the sexes there.

     'That student upstairs, for instance: no sex starvation in her life!  She certainly knows what's good for her, if the noise I'm put through every night is any indication!  She should get an honours degree if she stays the course and doesn't lose her current lover in the meantime.  Though I don't think there's much chance of that happening.  Why, she's too accommodating!  Keeps him satisfied.  A morale booster, if ever there was one!'

     For a moment he had to smile, in spite of the relatively cynical nature of his thoughts, which were all-too-symptomatic of his self-image as an outsider, a man who had no real choice but to live on his own in view of the absence of alternative solutions.

     'I wonder, though, whether life wouldn't be a bit harder for her if she lacked a man, if she hadn't been so much as kissed by a man in several years,' he went on, turning onto his other side.  'Indeed, she might require a little extra coaxing out-of-bed in the mornings, perhaps a little extra incentive to stir herself, because it certainly isn't a good thing to be continuously cut-off from congenial company, to be on your own every night.  You get some nasty thoughts that way, some nasty feelings inside, particularly when you're all the time surrounded by neighbours whose lifestyles are so alien to your own that you have no alternative but to keep to yourself in the evenings.  You could soon become neurotic if you weren't careful, swamped by incertitude and guilt, the incertitude and guilt of a man who fancies himself to be in the way, living against the grain but unable to do anything about it because he is what he is and they are just as surely what they are, and no compromise seems possible.  I wonder how she would feel with no-one to visit her apart from the landlord once a month, with no-one to keep her company in the evenings, to flatter her vanity and explore her flesh.  She'd probably wind-up frightened of going mad.  Wind-up like Sartre's leading character Antoine Roquentin in Nausea: too conscious of the fact that she exists because she hasn't got anyone to help her be instead.

     'Well, at least I have the consolation of knowing that I can sleep much better now than I did during the first year or two of my enforced exile in London.  No wonder I became so hopelessly neurotic then.  Too much consciousness is the ultimate torture, akin in Lawrentian parlance to being at "a perpetual funeral", bearing in mind the gravity of the matter.  For you need to black out every night in order to effect a partial rejuvenation of the organism and be resurrected, as it were, the following morning.  Still, I needn't get unduly intellectual at present, because it isn't particularly dignified lying here with the smelly sheets all rucked up and the quilt smeared with sweat from past abuses.... Now my temples are throbbing from the pressure of so many thoughts!  Perhaps I had better fantasize instead, although it's always unnerving to fantasize in this state-of-mind, afraid of bursting a blood vessel or concussing myself.  Imagine myself dying from a cerebral haemorrhage or partly concussed and crawling out into the entrance hall for some meddlesome person, like old Miss Bass in the front room, to phone for an ambulance and have me carted away on a stretcher.  And what would I say to the hospital staff, assuming I wasn't dead on arrival?  "I had just got my imaginary tongue between her imaginary labia when, to my utmost surprise, I experienced a mental ejaculation which knocked me out."  Case of another over-idealistic paddy biting the realistic dust?  Or just another victim of unrequited love?  Probably better off dead than alive anyway.'

     At which point Michael gave way to another smile that seemed to assail him from beyond the focal-point of his conscious mind, as though in response to an interested spectator of the principal proceedings which now, as on other occasions, were overly cerebral.

     'I remember having a favourite fantasy that involved a pretty dark-haired nurse,' he resumed thinking, 'who would take my temperature in the orthodox fashion, thermometer to mouth, and then allow me to take hers by inserting the instrument into her vagina, until I was sufficiently satisfied with the ensuing reading and could thereby verify the continuation of her habitually good health.  "And how many times have you been fucked, Nurse White?  Thirty-five times by the age of twenty-two?  But I would have thought at least five hundred!"

     'Yes, how the mind functions!  One minute I'm deadly serious, the next minute I'm able to joke.  To be sure, it would be an incredibly weird experience writing all these thoughts down on paper without any punctuation, the way Joyce did for Molly Bloom in Ulysses, to draw attention to how the mind gets carried away with itself in a torrent of verbal excitement.  That would be even weirder than ... ah! That reminds me.  I mustn't forget to post that short story to Gerald today, the one I told him about in the restaurant yesterday.  It will give him a surprise.  He probably thought I was just bluffing him, considering I didn't really relate to him and, if the truth were known, had no real sympathy for his problems, what with him being so effeminate and all that.

     'In fact, I'm more than a little relieved to have finally got away from him and, no less significantly, from that music firm, what with all the strange people who worked there!  For instance, little Ernie Brock.  Reading in the street every lunch time.  Why-the-devil he couldn't take a walk without reading, I'll never know!  He was lucky not to get pushed off the pavement and run over, the way he walked about virtually oblivious of everyone and everything except the book he happened to have his nose stuck into at the time.  And while he held a book in one hand his other hand held an apple, which he would nibble at from time to time in positively Adamic fashion.  In fact, it seemed to rank fairly highly in his hierarchy of daily priorities, including, in addition to sustained silence, a regular perusal of the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, which he appeared to know back-to-front and right-to-left.  Though that didn't prevent him from re-reading them or induce him to boast of his knowledge.  Oh, no!  He was far too knowing to fall for that crass shortcoming!  An authentic Christian if ever there was one, an earnest crusader for the dissemination of Christ's message, and a classical scholar, to boot.

     'He apparently knew a little Greek, because it's the done thing in the clergy and he intended to become a clergyman one day.  You wouldn't hear him comment on it though, not him!  Wouldn't comment on accidents, either.  Some over-weight fellow at the office got himself knocked down by a car on his way to work one morning and all little Ernie Brock could manage to say, when the chief clerk informed him of it, was: "Oh, I see".  She never got another word out of him, not even some simple curiosity!  In fact, I can't pretend that I reacted very concernedly to the news myself.  But at least I endeavoured to show some interest, because things like that didn't happen very often and it provided one with a pretext for dropping work a few minutes.

     'Still, Ernie might have shown some concern, even if the fellow who had to stay off work all week with severe bruising to his buttocks did happen to be a self-professed atheist!  But I suppose, not being particularly accident-prone himself, it didn't really occur to him, bearing in mind the extensive nature of his perambulatory reading habits.  Never in the wrong place at the right time.  Too absorbed in his reading to have any time to worry about the possible consequences of being pushed off the path or failing to spot the curb.  Didn't give a damn about the world, but kept himself to himself most of the time.  Seemed to carry the Gospels around on his conscience, as though intuitively aware that he was constantly under strict surveillance from the Omniscient, the justification for his priestly etiquette, and therefore under binding obligation to behave in a thoroughly moral manner.  That could be the reason why he often reiterated childish banalities under his breath whenever experiencing what I can only suppose to have been a premonition of anger, as though to shield his thoughts from the possibility of cursing or swearing, and thereby protect his claim to an afterlife of eternal bliss.  Perhaps afraid that such sinful aberrations could leave a rather conspicuous moral stain on an otherwise exemplary record?

     'It must be terribly frustrating for a person to develop that kind of neurosis, though.  More frustrating, still, if you're a Catholic who goes to confession every week.  You could end-up wondering whether you hadn't forgotten to mention something, whether you oughtn't to make a note of all your sins, or potential sins, as they happened in case, either by forgetting or overlooking some of them, your omissions subsequently went against you, come Judgement Day.  But, then, if you failed to understand exactly what constituted a sin in the first place, as so many people ...'

      Michael Savage drew a halt to his thinking at this point, since the clumping of high heels across the floor above him momentarily arrested his attention.  He still couldn't prevent himself from imagining it was all done on purpose as a kind of punishment for his sexual reticence, his self-containment, his disinclination to get into conversation with the woman.  Although, in another and more rational part of his mind, a little voice was telling him that, like so many of her kind, she probably suffered from an inability to remain still.

     However, it didn't occur to him that she might be totally unaware of the extent of the noise she was unwittingly inflicting upon him, as he went on: 'I wonder who it was once informed me that the Church always "comes out" in times of persecution?  Naturally, he wasn't lying to me, because you'd ordinarily expect people who were being persecuted to stand up for themselves, whatever their beliefs.  I mean, most people would probably retaliate if provoked strongly enough, not just stand put and bless their enemies, like a bunch of cowardly masochists!  He was more than likely seeking an ulterior motive to justify the Church's "coming out", to enable him to puff it up a bit with otherworldly connotations.  After all, it would be too down-to-earth without the Creator's backing, that ultimate authority which men like Moses wielded so successfully not only against his Egyptian oppressors but against virtually every other godforsaken people either audacious or stupid enough to get in his way as well!  Indeed, I can well remember having sat behind a row of nuns at a cinema showing Moses, or some such religious epic, in all its martial ferocity and blood lust, with people succumbing to a violent death every-other-second, especially among the Hebrews' enemies, while (to judge by their rapt attentiveness during the screening and their excited chatter in the intermission) the nuns were positively lapping it all up, taking it all for granted, never for a moment doubting that the "badies" didn't get what they deserved, that Jehovah's ruthless retribution wasn't the sine qua non for one's optical acquiescence in the slaughter, or that the "Chosen People" weren't perfectly justified in driving other peoples from their "Promised Land".

     'Now, much as I'm no anti-Semite, it seems to me that there's little sense in endeavouring to argue with people like that: minimum response!  They'd probably consider you mad.  What would be the point in arguing, anyway?  I'd only succeed in arousing their resentment.  A waste of time bashing your head against such an impervious wall.  You wouldn't alter it to any appreciable extent; it's been there too long.  Besides, whoever heard of anyone, least of all a religious maniac, relinquishing his habitual source of consolation in the face of opposition from the first scoffer or cynic who happened to cross his path?  You might as well expect people to renounce religious faith altogether, if it was that vulnerable to attack!  After all, it wouldn't really be a genuine faith without some form of steadfast loyalty to the cause.  Returning to what I was thinking yesterday, they'd probably have some other faith or mania instead, something that would adequately serve the purpose of an alternative delusion.  Who knows the number of godforsaken beliefs or manias one could alternatively succumb to, given an opportunity to begin afresh?  Even I acquiesce in a delusion which a good many people, in their inability or unwillingness to draw simple conclusions from it, would doubtless regard as an exceptionally unique species of madness!'

     For a moment the sound of heavy footsteps in the hallway, coinciding with the cessation of clumping noises across the floor above, put a stop to his thoughts by indicating, to his great relief, that the upstairs tenant had exited her room and was rapidly proceeding towards the front door which, upon reaching, she would thoughtlessly open and, just as thoughtlessly, slam shut with a firm grip of the door handle.  That done, Michael Savage could relax back into the grip of his thoughts again, without having to fear an immediate resumption of her noise.

     'As for my personal delusion, which seems to have less hold on me these days than formerly, due in all probability to the slow emergence of alternative delusions of a no-less personal nature, I shall permit myself to expand on it a little more than yesterday, indicative of the degree of spiritual emancipation to which I've recently attained, insofar as I would previously have felt too constrained by the imaginary presence, as it were, of my omniscient eavesdroppers to be able to reveal myself to them in such an open fashion.

     'Well, these psychic eavesdroppers may not have been Gods the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost, but the impression I frequently had of being listened-in to by extraneous beings undoubtedly suggests something analogous to the sphere of orthodox religion.  Yet if I confess to the fact that I suffered unrequited love so intensely, for several years, that I was eventually compelled to carry an image of both the form and spirit of my beloved around in my head every day, then I'd probably be getting somewhere nearer the root of the problem.  For it was during this period of intense emotional attachment to a particular woman that I experienced, in addition to neurosis, a sort of Rimbaudian derangement of the senses.  I would have been utterly incapable of transferring my love to anyone else, since my devotion was so powerful that, even had I eventually succeeded in finding a viable substitute, the very fact of her inherent otherness from the woman I was in love with would ultimately have precluded me from taking her seriously.  So I went solitary through the crowded streets of London, while Julie's image accompanied me where another man's woman would accompany him.  In fact, she became such an integral part of me that gradually she wormed her way into my daily consciousness as a sort of witness, a person whom I had mysteriously endowed, in imagination, with an ability and/or device for penetrating my mind and listening-in to my thoughts, much the way that, say, God the Father might be perceived as doing the same by people of a more traditional, not to say institutionalized, disposition!

     'But if Julie could invade my mental privacy in this fantastic fashion, then what was there, by a cumulative effect, to prevent her friends or acquaintances from doing so, too?  And not only them but, by further extension of the delusion, some of my acquaintances and former friends as well - for instance, people at the office?  A regular retinue of omniscient eavesdroppers who come-and-go according to the circumstances, the frame-of-mind you're in, who or what you're thinking about, how busy you are, where you are, or what you're doing, because, no matter how blatantly absurd it may seem, you do then have some kind of company, however simulated, transient, indifferent, or even hostile, to put you on an imaginary pedestal, to witness your daily joys and tribulations, failures and successes, and, last but by no means least, to induce you to objectify your thoughts.  You do then have people, however attenuated, imaginary, or secretive, with whom to share your favourite rock albums, people who'll comment from afar, as it were, on what you're playing, who'll corroborate and stimulate your own opinion of a particular instrument, musician, composition, tone, tempo, arrangement, melody, harmony, or anything else notably pertinent to the album concerned.  As though you had established a private audience or loyal band of followers with whom a psychic communion could be sustained by dint of whatever connections you may formerly have had with them on the planes of friendship or acquaintanceship.  So maybe, in extending the delusion into the realm of sentiment, Julie wants to be near you, wants to know exactly what's going on in your little world but, because of various social commitments, attachments, or misgivings, can only satisfy these wants indirectly, discreetly, clandestinely, through the medium of a kind of telepathic communication, with or without certain of her friends or acquaintances being present while she listens-in to your thoughts.

     'Yes, they speak of the insanity of love, how a man would cross the globe ten-times-over if only to be near the one person who truly pleases him; how entire armies are destroyed in the wake of his frustrated desire for sexual fulfilment; how the temples of dedication crumble to dust with the sacrifice of his beloved's lips; and how, in the throes of some tortuously unrequited passion, the poison is imbibed, the noose tightened, the bullet fired, or the water embraced.  The ineluctable ferocity of love, slayer of a thousand peoples, betrayer of a million secrets, ravisher of a billion hearts, desecrater of a trillion truths!'

     There suddenly ensued a tremendous explosion of rattling keys or, rather, of key and keyhole in head-on confrontation, as the old woman next door, having evidently exited her room, grappled with the manifold complexities of her lock, preparatory to dropping first keys and then handbag on the floor in consequence of a sum of perplexities which the lock had unmercifully brought to a head!  Eventually, after gathering both belongings and composure together, Miss Bass went on to exit the house in her customary discreet fashion.

     Meanwhile, Michael had turned onto his opposite side and begun to reflect back on what he had been thinking in relation to his ideal temptress, the one with the plaited hair.  She had come to him in a dream, as on many previous occasions, only this time she had been friendlier towards him, even to the extent of abandoning herself to his caresses and promising to requite him.  That, to be sure, was a rather novel experience in itself, one which he had no reason to suppose would ever happen again.

     'So I believed, albeit tactfully, sparingly, intermittently, that Julie could penetrate my mind and thereupon secure access to my thoughts,' he continued to muse afresh, encouraged by the departure of yet another neighbour.  'I even went so far as to dupe myself into assuming that one of her friends, an impulsive young woman I had spoken to on more than a few occasions, could succeed in winning me over and subsequently disentangling me from what had gradually become a somewhat ambivalent predicament.  That this friend, being no less seductive in her own fashion, could provide an amorous diversion which would somehow mitigate the hardship of my futile allegiance to Julie - something, alas, which wasn't to be underestimated by such a naive presumption!  But such is life, and since nothing can be sold without a price, so I had to pay dearly, in my perverse imagination, for the imaginary presence of my beloved.  And not just in a purely physical sense, but also with regard to those shameful feelings of remorse which invariably descend, like famished vultures, upon anyone who habitually disappoints his idol, who is acutely conscious of every mortal mistake he makes and who, in the manner of a mortified penitent, needs to apologize to this idol for having thought the wrong thoughts, done the wrong deeds, and generally failed to live-up to the idealistic standards he had formerly set himself.  I even wrote a short poem which went:-

 

                                   The people who listen-in to

                                                  His thoughts restrict him.

                                                  He is afraid to offend them.

                                                  Among their number might be

                                                  The woman he loves.

                                                  What if he were to think her

                                                  A ruthless whore?

 

     'Yes, that's it!  A kind of lyric poem, to which I later added a short prose poem of similarly paranoiac import which, if memory serves me well, ran as follows:-

    

The thing that would particularly make subservience to Christianity unattractive to me would be the constraint of mind attendant upon acknowledging an ostensibly omnipotent and omniscient Deity.  The constraint of fearing to let slip from one's thoughts anything which, to Him, might seem improper - a tirade of self-abuse, an observance of religious doubt, a hatred of one's fellows, the formulation of lewd or violent fantasies ... in short, anything that could serve to render one guilty to such a Divine Witness, and thereby necessitate the onerous obligation of regular confession accompanied by sincere contrition.  Too great a mental constraint, conceived under duress of imagining oneself being listened-in to by the Omniscient, would almost certainly lead, sooner or later, to a hypersensitivity in the matter, a fear of sinning or losing track of one's sins, and even, at a more advanced stage of the neurosis, to the possibility of a full-fledged religious psychosis and the persecutory concomitants thereof of eschatological paranoia.

 

     'Yes, that was it!  So even if I hadn't exactly fallen into the religious trap, I had fallen into the unrequited trap and virtually elevated the source of my distress to the status of a goddess.  Even if I hadn't fallen into the traditional delusive trap, the one I had fallen into was no less exacting, encouraging though it was to know that my delusion precluded any possibility of an imminent conversion to institutionalized madness.  Fortunately, however, I had no reason to split my mind into two or three parts, having absolutely no desire to play a question-and-answer game with an imaginary interlocutor.  The consciousness I frequently had of imagining myself being listened-in to by a particular woman was sufficient to enable me to sustain my thought patterns, to augment them, to coerce them into supplying self-evident descriptive explanations of my varying circumstances, in order to put her in the picture, as it were, and simultaneously justify my actions.

     'Thus if, during a day's clerical routine, I paused to rest awhile, it was usually because I felt mentally fatigued.  Now although it would have been perfectly feasible to have thought "Jesus, I'm tired!" at such a moment, I would have thought it largely on the understanding that Julie was listening-in to me and consequently required to have the situation explained and even justified.  However, since I was concerned to keep this delusion under tight control, and thus refrain from allowing it to develop into a veritable madness, I kept a fairly constant check on it and finally succeeded, after numerous frustrations and self-criticisms, in keeping it down to a tolerable level, thereby acquiring the freedom to observe my deceptions with more than a hint of ironic detachment.

     'Well, so much for all that!  Whatever happens to me in future, I think I ought to get up fairly soon because, quite apart from the lateness of the hour, my empty stomach is beginning to protest in a rather disagreeable manner.  I'll tidy up my room, find something to eat, play a few tapes, take a short stroll around the neighbourhood, and just get used to the idea of leading another life, a life different from the one to which I've grown accustomed in recent years.'

     Thus, with an ardent desire to enacting his intentions, Michael Savage clambered out of bed and, after briefly scrutinizing the weather, immediately set about the conquest of his various domestic duties.  He spent the rest of the morning in a lighter mood in a brighter room, glad it was a warm, dry Saturday and that he didn't have to worry about going to the office today.  In fact, now that he no longer had an office to go to anyway, he already felt himself to be a different person, no longer a discontented clerk but, at the very least, an incipient writer and man of destiny - someone, in short, who had just changed worlds.  And, as though to underline this fact, he read and posted to Gerald Matthews the short story he had promised him, which, though still untitled, went as follows:-

 

I had just removed her brassiere and was in the preliminary stages of fondling her quite copious breasts when, to my profound consternation, the damn telephone rang.  "Now who-the-devil can that be?" I asked myself as, reluctantly extricating myself from Sharla's grip, I hurried out into the hall, picked up the receiver, and straightaway heard a gruff voice asking: "Hello, is my daughter there?"

        "She is indeed!" I impulsively replied.

        "Ah, could I speak to her a moment?"

        "Er, certainly.  Just a sec."  I turned towards the piano room, the door to which was still slightly ajar.  "Sharla!" I called.

        "Yes?"

        "Your, er, father wants to speak to you."

        "Oh, damn him!" she groaned, automatically putting on her vest.  "What-on-earth can he want?"

        It wasn't a question I could answer there and then, so I patiently held the receiver against my chest until, arriving breathlessly in the hall, she was able to take it from me and say: "Hi dad!"

        Fearing that my presence beside her wouldn't help any, I ambled back into the piano room, where her bag, coat, shoes, miniskirt and underclothes lay strewn across the floor, and her perfume permeated the air with its delightfully sweet scent.  Indeed, everything about her was delightfully sweet.  Even the room itself, ordinarily so drab and formal, seemed to have taken on a romantic dimension which lent the furniture a mysterious poignancy, as though it had acquired the semblance of life and was now a silent witness to this evening's amorous events.  Fortunately for me, however, Sharla's high intelligence permitted her the equivalent of two lessons in the space of one, so I never had to fear that her musical education would lag behind or be seriously undermined in consequence of my weekly devotions to her sexuality.  In my view, she was potentially a distinction candidate, the next and final examination grade almost bound to lead her to studying piano at one of the country's principal music colleges.

        "Okay," her voice came from the hall, "but I won't be late home, in any case.  Yes, thanks for letting me know.  Okay, bye then."  She replaced the receiver with a peremptory slam and swiftly tiptoed back to where I lay, ruminating on the couch.

        "Well, is anything amiss?" I tersely asked, while fixing her with a searching look.

        "He wanted to know if everything's okay,” she drawled, still a little under the influence of our bottle of medium-sweet wine.

        "What a silly question!" I asseverated, my hands instinctively groping under her vest for the milk-laden globes which were now generously advancing towards me, compliments of Sharla's graceful return to the couch.  "What did he really say?"

        Her long spidery fingers crawled nimbly over my stomach and up and down my chest.  "A friend of the family has invited my parents over to dinner at the last moment, so they'll be out when I get back.... Which means that my father has hidden the front-door key in one of the two small lanterns affixed to the wall either side of our front door."

        "But don't you have a key of your own?" I asked, astounded.

        "They still won't entrust me with one," she sighed.

        "How silly!" I exclaimed.  "Why, you're almost eighteen."

        "And old enough to be my piano teacher's favourite pupil," she enthused.

        I smiled impulsively, as much from relief as from genuine amusement.  "Yes, but at least I'm a private teacher and not a schoolmaster."

        "What difference does that make?" she cried.

        "Less scandalous, of course."

        "The hell it is!"

        I had to smile in spite of my attempt at seriousness.  "Look, this is a perfectly natural state-of-affairs actually.  Let's just say that both of us are pupils in the art of making love."

        "But you're always teaching me," Sharla protested, clearly no easy girl to convince.

        I sighed faintly and said: "Not as much as you may imagine, sweetie."

        "Well, that's not the impression I get," she smilingly retorted.

        "Frankly, you're a very precocious young lady who knows, as well as anybody, that the recently-perfected transition from the keyboard to the couch considerably enhances your enjoyment of these piano lessons," I averred, "particularly when you can spend part of your fees on the quiet and boast to various classmates at school of having intimate connections with a handsome music teacher nearly ten years your senior."

        "I don't boast!" Sharla incredulously exclaimed.  "Whoever told you that?"

        "Now, now, don't blush, baby!"

        "I'm not b-blushing," she stammered.  "I never tell other girls anything about you."

        "Ah, but they tell me," I smiled, teasing her.

        "What d'you mean?" she cried.  "No other girls ..."

        "Alright, I was only joking," I admitted, the back of my hand caressing her cheek in a pacificatory manner.  "But you do tell a few friends."

        She lowered her large plum-like eyes in apparent shame.  "Okay, only my closest friends," she blushingly confessed.

        I smiled but said nothing as we lay motionless together on the couch, basking in the gentle warmth of each other's bodies.  I ran a hand through her black, wiry hair and then ever so tenderly kissed her on the lips a few times.  Eventually she responded in kind and our kissing became more intense.

        "The time always goes too quickly when I come here," she at length sighed, coming-up for air.

        "Indeed it does," I sympathetically agreed.  "It's a pity you don't come here more often."

        "Humph!  I might be able to if you weren't always so busy giving piano lessons to other girls every night," she complained.  "Don't you ever take an evening off?"

        "I don't teach at the weekend," I obliquely replied.

        "Then why can't we arrange to see each other on Saturdays or Sundays as well?" she asked a touch petulantly.

        "That might be possible," I conceded.

        Smiling, she drew herself up closer to my face and brought her big dark eyes directly into focus with mine, or so it appeared from the way I saw her pupils contract so rapidly.  "Do you have other girls like me?" she asked with a directness that momentarily embarrassed me.

        "Unfortunately not, Sharla," I confessed, in what was probably an overly frank sort of way.  "The others are mostly too young, too plain, or too thin.  Besides, I couldn't afford to let that many people keep a part of their piano fees as recompense, since I'm not exactly rolling in money, you know."

        "But you do have a girlfriend besides me, don't you?" she asked in a tone of voice and with a facial expression which suggested she already knew the answer.  So, to save myself extra complications, I gently replied in the affirmative.  "And you see her at the weekends?" she went on.  Again I replied in the affirmative.  "Humph! That explains it," she solemnly concluded.

        "Explains what, Sharla?"

        "Why you won't see me then."

        "Not entirely," I responded half-smilingly.

        "Then what?" - She seemed on the verge of tears.

        "Don't upset yourself," I gently chided her and, sliding my hands down her back and over her rump, proceeded to comfort her as best I could.

        "What time is it?" she at length wanted to know, looking a trifle concerned.

        "My goodness, it's nearly 8.50!" I exclaimed, glancing at the watch and scrambling to my feet.  "I've another pupil at nine."

        "What a drag," she drawled.

        "What, having another pupil?"

        "No, getting dressed!"

        I smiled as, reaching for our respective clothes, the pair of us sought to cover our nakedness as quickly as possible.

        That done, we briefly returned to the piano and to the Schumann piece which still stood, as though to attention, on the stand where it had been abandoned some time before.  If it had presented her with a few minor problems it was mainly because her legato technique was still insufficiently pianistic, depending too much on the sustain pedal.  I therefore suggested that she spend some of the following week practising scales in order to make her fingers work harder, since they were still rather too lazy and stiff for comfort (in marked contrast, I reflected, to the way they behaved on the couch).  "In actual fact, it would be better if, for the time being, you ignored the pedal markings altogether," I continued, growing in confidence.  "For the pedal is fast becoming a crutch, and not exactly the most helpful one either!"

        Thus after a few amendments to her Schumann technique, a brief display of scales, and a couple of aural tests, I set her free, saying: "And don't be late next week!" as a final piece of advice which, however innocently intended, was bound to sound ironic to Sharla.

        "Oh, don't you worry about that!" she smilingly retorted and, much to my delight, planted a firm farewell kiss on my lips before regretfully taking her leave of me.

 

 

LONDON 1976 (Revised 1977-2010)

 

 

CHANGING WORLDS

 

 

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