Op. 09

 

CROSS-PURPOSES

OR

THE ADULTERY CLUB

OR

ROLLING AT THE BALL

 

Long Prose

 

Copyright © 1979-2010 John O'Loughlin

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CONTENTS

 

1.    Chapters 1-10

2.    Epilogue

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CHAPTER ONE

 

With a look of pained scepticism on an otherwise quite straightforward face, Stephen Jacobs, friend and only guest that evening of fellow-writer James Kelly, said: "I can hardly agree with you that Plato was a realist.  After all, he considered the Ideas to be of primary importance and the objects, insofar as they had any reality at all, to be merely secondary.  Unlike his great pupil Aristotle, he didn't put the Ideas in the objects but kept them separate, thereby emphasizing their superior nature.  So how can a man who considers the Ideas superior to the diverse components of the material world, which are deemed to be merely imperfect copies of the originals, possibly be a realist?"  He leant back in Kelly's armchair with a less sceptical expression on his clean-shaven face and fumbled in the left pocket of his dark-green jacket for some cigarettes.  Without giving Kelly a chance to respond, he proceeded to ram home his point with the aid of a cigarette, the idea of which, he ventured to suggest, would have been more real to Plato than the damn cigarette itself.  "Fortunately, cigarettes hadn't been invented in the fourth-century B.C.," he went on, "so no-one would have been granted an opportunity to question the superiority of the Idea on their account."

     "Yes, but the point is that, for Plato, the Idea was external to himself, it was something which had a kind of life of its own," countered Kelly with an air bordering on supercilious defiance.  "The Idea wasn't something that he extrapolated from reality but, rather, something he believed he had discovered in the external world, where it had a prior existence to him."

     "Really?" exclaimed Jacobs as he lit the cigarette in his hand with the aid of a glossy lighter and returned the no-less glossy packet of Gauloise Longues to its customary pocket.  "That's almost too funny for words, old chap.  I mean, what's an idea if not something related to one's mind, to the faculty of thought?  Can you imagine the idea of a wheel floating about in space with more reality to it than the wheel of a car or a motorbike?"  He deeply inhaled some tobacco from his cigarette, as though intending to throw up a dense smoke-screen between himself and the idea of a wheel hovering somewhere in the immediate vicinity.  "But even if the Idea was external to himself," he continued, having exhaled the incipient smoke-screen in the general direction of Kelly's armchair, "even if that was the case, he'd still be an idealist for attributing more reality to the Idea than to the material object derived from it; for attributing more reality to the idea of a wheel than to the wheel itself!"

     "Perhaps he would," conceded Kelly, who was almost choking in the detestable smoke his guest had unconcernedly bombarded him with, "but he'd still be less of an Idealist than, say, William of Occam, the fifteenth-century philosopher who placed the Ideas firmly in the mind instead of in the external world, like Plato, or in the mind of God, like Plotinus.  You might call him an idealistic realist, if you like."

     "Or a realistic idealist," suggested Jacobs, before flicking some ash which had fallen on his lap onto the carpet and then proceeding to rub it in with the heel of his right shoe without the slightest show of embarrassment or remorse.  "But he was quite mistaken to consider the Ideas external to himself, and, in my opinion, equally mistaken to consider them superior in reality to the objects around him.  If Aristotle wasn't entirely right to put the Ideas into the objects themselves, he at least showed more common sense than his early mentor where the claims of Idealism were concerned.  His was a more realistic touch."

     "Yes, I suppose you're right," murmured Kelly, who looked as though he had just been defeated by Alexander the Great and was about to be executed for political treachery.

     For a while, however, silence supervened between them, since neither man knew what to say next, nor had they any real desire to continue the conversation along the same paradoxically intellectual lines, each of them at cross-purposes with the other.  Although they both professed to being philosophers in preference to anything else, they were obliged to admit to themselves that there were times when the subject of philosophy was virtually anathema to them, times when they would rather have discussed the weather or the results of the latest football matches, tired as they were of dragging their professional lives into their social relationship.  It was as though they had to keep reminding themselves of the professional basis of their friendship from fear that it would automatically crumble for want of solid support, since it was philosophy which had brought them together in the first place.

     Now that they had come to a pause in their philosophical discussion, however, they suddenly found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to stare the basis of this friendship in the face, which didn't seem as solid a thing as when they had first entered upon it, some four years ago.  But it was the thirty-nine-year-old Stephen Jacobs who, with his talkative nature, re-opened the conversation on a note of sympathy for Plato for having had enough sense to think an actual rose superior to a painting of one, even if he hadn't had enough sense to think an actual rose superior to the idea of one.  "You might be able to sell a painting of a rose at ten-thousand times the price of an actual rose," he continued, "but even so, the actual rose cannot be improved upon - any more than you can improve upon the beauty of an actual woman with the aid of a canvas, a brush, and a set of oils.  It's nature which has the better of art, irrespective of what certain artists might think.  Consequently it seems to me that a realistic perspective relating to the value of art will always be found somewhere in between Plato and, say, Wilde, rather than at either extreme.  Then one wouldn't have to consider a painting inferior to the Idea it endeavours to portray through the object or, conversely, superior to the object it endeavours to improve upon through the Idea."  He flicked some ash from his half-consumed cigarette into the small ashtray which stood conveniently close to-hand and bowed his head, as though to aid himself think about something he desired to keep private.

      "Yes, I quite agree with your realistic perspective," admitted Kelly smilingly.  "If one could always strike a balance somewhere in-between idealism and realism, one would certainly save oneself a lot of unnecessary deceptions!  It seems that we're only just beginning to shake off the idealism of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, etc., by accepting the external world as something which actually exists as it is in itself rather than wholly dependent upon the shape our minds choose to give it.  We appear to have been labouring for too long under the deception that our minds are really quite different from the world around us.  Obviously, there has to be a subject/object relationship, but not to the extent of making the object entirely dependent upon the nature of the subject.  Even Plato wouldn't have approved of that, insofar as he found the object to be a pale copy of the Idea, which was external to the subject."

     "Indeed, eighteenth-century idealism is quite a different proposition from Platonic Idealism," rejoined Jacobs, raising his head again.  "One can hardly expect the minds of Locke, Hume, Berkeley, etc., to be content with re-stating everything Plato thought on the subject, even though there are some similarities here and there.  For instance, instead of the Idea we have the thing-in-itself, which was of course unknowable but more real, for all that, than the material object associated with it.  In both cases, there is something beyond appearances which makes the apparent a relatively inferior phenomenon.  The only notable difference is that, in the case of eighteenth-century philosophy, we impose a limitation upon the object through being unable to grasp the thing-in-itself, whereas the limitation imposed upon the object in Plato's case is solely a consequence of the object being inferior to the Idea, which, as you correctly said, he considered external to the subject.  It transpires, however, that the concept of thing-in-itself is just as shaky, these days, as that of the Idea, for which we have no real sympathy."  Stubbing-out his cigarette in the ashtray, Stephen got up from his armchair and walked over to James Kelly's bookcase, which stood against the longest wall in the room and held merely a few hundred books.  He wanted to look up a passage in Hume relating to the unknowability of the thing-in-itself but was distracted from this objective by the sight of a book, resting on top of the small bookcase, which his friend had evidently been reading recently.  "So you're into Arthur Koestler again," he observed, picking it up and scrutinizing the author's small photograph on the back cover.  "Janus - A Summing Up, eh?"

     "As a matter of fact I've been re-reading it," replied Kelly enthusiastically.  For Koestler was pretty much his favourite philosopher these days, and the book in question unquestionably one of the master's finest.  "As you may know, Koestler developed a theory of 'holons' - a name he assigns to phenomena which are simultaneously both wholes and parts, the phenomena in question being complete in themselves, and thus wholes, but also dependent upon larger wholes, and thus parts.  A phenomenon, be it a material object, an organization of material objects, an event, a psychological process, or whatever, can be an autonomous whole one moment and a dependent part the next, depending on the context.  There's no clear-cut division between wholes and parts, particles and wavicles, because there's nothing which is entirely one or the other.  For example, we are autonomous wholes to the extent that we are individual human beings, but we're also dependent parts in a larger whole, which is human society.  If we try to live merely as autonomous wholes, divorced from the society to which we belong, we'll soon find ourselves starving to death.  And if we try to live merely as dependent parts, as tools of society, we'll probably find ourselves starving to death just as quickly, since we won't be in a position to feed ourselves - not, as in the first case, because we haven't earned the money, but simply because we'll have no desire or time to look after ourselves once we have earned it."

     "Yes, that sounds reasonably plausible," sighed Jacobs while flicking through the book in his hands.  "There's a parallel of sorts with Whitehead here, the diverse kinds of phenomena you mention having intimate connections with Whitehead's 'actual entities', which cover more than the merely material aspects of life.  He thought the world an 'extensive continuum' of events having 'extensive connections', or overlappings.  That doesn't appear too far removed from what you've just explained to me regarding the 'holon', if I've understood you correctly."

     "Unfortunately I must confess to a rather scant knowledge of Whitehead's philosophy," said Kelly, blushing slightly, "but I can tell you that Koestler's philosophy is closely related to the philosophies of Parmenides and, perhaps to an event greater extent, of Hegel."

     "Oh, in what way?" asked Jacobs who, though no stranger to Koestler himself, had next-to-no-knowledge of either philosopher.

     "Well, he contends that the combination of parts into a whole is greater than and different from the sum of the parts which form that whole, thereby concurring with both Parmenides and Hegel to the detriment of any behaviourist/reductionist credo," Kelly promptly replied.  "And he goes on, like Hegel, to develop a tripartite system of logic as opposed to a purely dualistic one, which leads him to emphasize the 'extensive continuum', if you like, of humour, science, and art.  He defines humour as the 'ha-ha!' reaction, science as the 'aha!' reaction, and art as the 'ah ...' reaction, returning to a dualistic framework to ascribe self-assertive tendencies to humour and, at the other end of the spectrum, self-transcending tendencies to art.  Science is defined as signifying a subtle combination of the two tendencies, a kind of hybrid coming in-between the two thoroughbreds, as it were.  Now anything which has a self-assertive tendency can be identified, in returning to the 'holonic' viewpoint, with the independent whole, whereas anything with a self-transcending tendency should be identified with the dependent part.  So you can see that humour pertains to individualism, whereas the keynote to art is to be found, as earlier affirmed by Schopenhauer, in self-transcendence, in acknowledgement of something greater than oneself.  But if one is to take this triad of humour, science, and art seriously, then it should be fairly obvious that, contrary to popular belief, science and art are not opposites but next-door neighbours, so to speak, in a tripartite spectrum beginning with humour, which is therefore the logical antithesis to art.  It seems that we've also deceived ourselves for far too long on this matter, as on so many other matters, for that matter."

     "So it would appear," mumbled Jacobs, whose face was partly hidden from Kelly by the book he was busily scanning, as though in search of some hidden revelation.  "And so Koestler has effectively demonstrated that there's a place for both dualistic and tripartite reasoning in the world; that the one needn't necessarily exclude the other?"

     "Precisely," confirmed Kelly with some considerable satisfaction.  "It's simply a question of knowing when to employ one or the other modes of reasoning, not of castigating that which you foolishly assume to be mistaken.  In this respect, Koestler has achieved a greater synthesis than most of his philosophical forebears, who either emphasized triads at the expense of duads, or duads at the expense of triads.  Although one could also argue that Koestler has put tripartite thinking on the philosophical map at the expense of dualism, which is no mean achievement, and one, I feel sure, that can only gain greater recognition and credibility as time goes by."

     Stephen Jacobs sceptically nodded his head before saying: "Wasn't Huxley thinking along tripartite lines in The Human Situation?"  He cast his gaze in the general direction of the Aldous Huxley section of Kelly's meagre bookcase, then went on: "I seem to recall your telling me something about that book a few months ago, though I still haven't got round to reading it yet, despite the fact that it was published some time ago.  "Perhaps you'll let me borrow it sometime, James?"

     "By all means, take it with you this evening.  It's something you ought to have borrowed when I first mentioned it to you, though you seem to have a marked talent for procrastination where books of that sort are concerned."

     "It's an old family weakness, I'm afraid," confessed Jacobs, smiling.  "Still, I do get round to reading them eventually, even if I'm not as keen as you on some of the more recent philosophical publications.  I suppose I'm more old-fashioned really, and tend, in consequence, to react against them."

     "A statement which seems to imply that I'm also old-fashioned, only less so than yourself," deduced Kelly, smiling in turn.

     "Well, there may well be a grain of truth in that implication," conceded Jacobs thoughtfully, "though I didn't exactly intend to convey such an impression.  I suppose a course in Wittgenstein's linguistic philosophy would add more precision to my utterances."

     "Provided you could understand his linguistics!" joked Kelly.

     There ensued another silence while Jacobs continued to flick through the pages of Janus - A Summing Up.  However, when his eyes alighted upon the name of Konrad Lorenz, he halted in his flicking tracks and uttered an exclamatory 'Aha!' sound, which was evidently in confirmation of something he had been assuming for some time.  "I imagine Koestler got some of the inspiration for his 'haha!' - 'aha!' - 'ah ...' spectrum from Konrad Lorenz," he at length remarked, noting the positive reference to the latter on the page before him.

     "What makes you say that?" asked Kelly, feeling slightly puzzled.

     "Well, I've recently been re-reading Lorenz's Behind the Mirror, a work which does, incidentally, have some bearing on what you were saying about Platonic idealism a little while ago," Jacobs replied.  "It seems the compromise between idealism and realism you were advocating is the very thing that appeals to Lorenz who, in opposition to the idealistic lopsidedness of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century philosophy, is given to the view that the material world isn't really all that different from the world as we see it, but corresponds to reality as it actually is.  Instead of making the world dependent on our particular consciousness of it, as traditional idealism usually does, Lorenz contends that our consciousness corresponds to the world and was evolved in harmony with it, so that what we see isn't necessarily a distortion of reality but, rather, that reality reflected in our minds.  The fact, however, that we're given to assimilating only a fraction of total reality doesn't, of course, invalidate his contention, since what we do assimilate as Homo sapiens is real enough in itself.  It merely corresponds to a different reality than to, say, fish reality, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the assimilation of rain, snow, sunlight, wind, flowers, trees, etc."

     "So I was right in thinking that we've finally got round to believing in the reality of the external world!" exclaimed Kelly mockingly.   "Though I guess you could say it had to wait for an age of materialism, with its cameras and televisions, to give it due credit as a logical entity.  I suppose Christianity was largely responsible for the hold-up by insisting on the superiority of the Otherworld to the detriment of this one.  Yet some people would still argue that conceptual subjectivity is intrinsically superior to perceptual objectivity, and that the modern world has simply regressed from the civilized plane to the barbarous one.  But isn't Lorenz's contention more a straightforward appeal to materialism than a compromise between realism and idealism?"

     "I don't think so," Jacobs replied.  "He's simply getting us away from the stupid or, depending on your viewpoint, highly civilized idea that the world would cease to exist if we weren't there to witness it."

     "Like, presumably, what Berkeley said?" conjectured Kelly.

     "Yes, though he was shrewd enough to point out that it would continue to exist as an idea in the mind of God," confirmed Jacobs.  "However, the important thing to remember is that any objective comprehension of things presupposes a subject who comprehends; that there's a subtle interaction between subject and object which inevitably implies a compromise between them.  Unlike the earlier-mentioned idealists, however, Lorenz doesn't accept the contention that our minds distort external reality.  On the contrary, he endorses the correspondence they have to it.  That's the difference, and that, believe it or not, is an important advance in the history of Western philosophy!"

     "One would think it crawled along at a snail's pace," said Kelly, who was by this time almost ashamed of being philosophical.  "Either that or it has been pursued almost exclusively by intellectual cranks hitherto!"

     "I could hardly agree with that remark, James, which I'm sure you don't seriously mean!" exclaimed Jacobs with a show of surprise.  "Still, we do have our moments of amusement and exasperation at its expense, I'll grant you.  But Konrad Lorenz is a scientist, not a philosopher, and a scientist, moreover, who doesn't think too highly of idealistic philosophers.  We can at least be grateful to science for continuing to support our faith in external reality, even though it is becoming progressively weirder with the passing of time."

     Having returned the Koestler tome to its resting place on top of the small bookcase, Stephen Jacobs glanced at his wristwatch and informed his friend that he would have to be leaving.  He had an appointment with his agent the following morning and consequently wanted to get an early night.  Since it was already 10.30pm, he couldn't expect to get to bed much before 11.00.  But he had enjoyed Kelly's company, particularly as, due to ill-health, he hadn't seen him for over a month and had been especially looking forward to discussing philosophy again.  His other friends were all such natural enemies of metaphysical and kindred speculation that it was a relief to have someone like James with whom to talk once in a while, someone above the common run who would add a little intellectual variety to an otherwise monotonous round of inconsequential chatter.  Such, at any rate, was the general impression he endeavoured to convey to his fellow-writer before turning on his heels with the Huxley lectures tucked safely under his arm.

     "Good luck with your appointment tomorrow," said Kelly, opening the door of his Highgate flat.

     "Thanks old chap," Jacobs responded smilingly and, with a gentle wave of his free arm, he was off down the flight of stairs and out, via the communal entrance, into the wet night.

     'Oh well,' thought Kelly as he returned to the study and began to survey its heterogeneous contents with an air of dejection, 'I suppose I won't be seeing him for some time.  Which is probably just as well, considering he resents not being able to show off his philosophical knowledge to me as much as he'd ideally like to, in view of the fact that I'm usually better informed and even more up-to-date than him.  I think he has the impression that he ought to know more about philosophy than me, bearing in mind that he's three years my senior and has been studying it for a couple of years longer.  But how hard and how often has he really been studying it?  And who has he been studying anyway?   He thinks he's a philosopher, but he's really a philosophical artist, a man who leans in the direction of philosophy from a sort of literary base.  He doesn't have a Ph.D. and is consequently without a chair of philosophy anywhere.  But how many genuine philosophers don't have that?  Almost every great philosopher on record was a lecturer at one time or another - even Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.  Though the former resigned his chair and the latter taught philology even after he'd been awarded an honorary Ph.D. by his university.  But at least he ended-up with a doctorate, which is more than either Stephen or I have acquired.  Still, why should one be ashamed of being a man of letters instead of a bona fide philosopher with no literature to his name because he is sufficiently preoccupied with his university post and the writings which pertain to or supplement it?  What's wrong with being a philosophical artist?  That's what I'd like to ask Stephen Jacobs, though if I did it would almost certainly humiliate him, even make him take umbrage.  For he thinks he's a philosopher.  But philosophers don't write literature; they confine themselves to lecturing on and writing about philosophy - assuming, of course, that they hadn't been sacked from their university, like Bertrand Russell, or induced to resign their post, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, for one reason or another.  Admittedly, Stephen writes philosophy or, at any rate, something approximating to it.  But he can't earn his living from that; he has to write literature as well.  So, in a sense, he's probably ashamed of having to compromise himself against his deepest intellectual predilections.... If he was genuinely a philosophical artist, on the other hand, that sort of thing wouldn't particularly bother him.  He'd be nicely poised between literature and philosophy, glad to take refuge in the one whenever the other became either too oppressive or too restrictive.  But because he secretly yearns to be a philosopher, and has little taste for literature, he finds the idea of being a philosophical artist beneath him.  Yet he's neither a genuine philosopher – much less an artist-philosopher/philosopher-artist - nor a genuine artist.  He's a total misfit.  A failed philosopher and a bogus artist!  That's the way I see him anyway, and that's the way I believe he is, even though he'd be the last person to admit it.  For if there's one thing he's a genuine master of, it's the art of self-deception!  Of that, there can be no doubt!'

     By now James Kelly was beginning to feel slightly more pleased with himself than he had done all evening.  He was taking revenge on Jacobs for all the humiliations the latter had wittingly or unwittingly inflicted upon him throughout the course of the evening by means of this barrage of analytical thought, which he aimed at his colleague's professional integrity with the express purpose of smashing it to bits, if only in his perverse imagination, and thereby firmly establishing his unquestionable intellectual superiority over the man.... Not that Jacobs was a permanent thorn in his side.  On the contrary, he could think of plenty of people who would have created a less favourable impression on him.  But, all the same, he knew that their friendship wasn't particularly sincere, that it didn't run very deep.  For one thing, their temperaments weren't entirely congruous, Jacobs being no less critical and moody than he was easy-going and optimistic, while, for another, they wrote quite different books and lived in quite separate worlds.  Naturally, they did their best to pretend that these worlds weren't all that far apart whenever they were in each other's company.  Nevertheless, there were times - as had occurred more than once this very evening - when the effort of maintaining mutual regard proved too much for them and an embarrassing silence interposed itself between their respective pretences.  Needless to say, such occurrences were by no means unheard of in human relationships; there were always contradictory or even antipathetic elements endeavouring to undermine the basis of even the most solid friendship.  Even so, there was a limit to how many of these elements one could be expected to tolerate before things became too burdensome and one was accordingly obliged to sever ties.  Fortunately, however, things weren't quite that bad between them at present, though that wasn't to say they couldn't have been a lot better!

     'As for me,' Kelly continued to reflect, as he sat down in the armchair recently occupied by his guest, 'I have the advantage of being at one with my vocation of philosophical artist, of being an intellectual hybrid simply because, on the one hand, I don't want to be exclusively an artist and, on the other hand, I've no desire to establish myself as an academic philosopher, a man with a Ph.D. and lecturing post at some university who is thereby enabled to write uncommercial treatises in his spare time.  Admittedly, one could also be a philosopher without such qualifications if, by good fortune, one had been endowed with a sufficiently large private income to enable one to exclusively dedicate oneself to the writing of aphorisms, monologues, dialogues, etc.  But the vast majority of philosophers aren't so fortunate, with the inevitable consequence that the money they make from teaching philosophy enables them to continue writing it.  Yet I have no desire to teach philosophy and, even if I were wealthy, I doubt very much that I would want to confine myself exclusively to writing it either, since I value the creative potentials of literature too highly.  And, conversely, I value thought too highly to be content with limiting it to a literary guise and diluting it in the interests of plot, characterization, description, etc.  Besides, you can never get to the ...'

     His digital watch suddenly bleeping 11.00pm broke the train of his thought and induced him to take cognizance of the time.  He decided he would go to bed early himself, since he had no desire to subjectively exert his brain any longer.  If the habit got out-of-hand, as it threatened to on occasion, he might not find either the time or the inclination to write at all.  After all, there was quite a difference between being a thinker and being a writer!  And, by a similar token, there was quite a difference between inviting a moody creep like Stephen Jacobs over for a Sunday-evening chat and being invited to dinner by a charming man like Douglas Searle, who wasn't a writer at all but a successful publisher with a penchant for the arts.  Mr and Mrs Searle would certainly make life more interesting for him than ever Jacobs could!  Besides, there would be some other guests there who, like himself, were bound to relish the Searles' hospitality to artists.

     'June the nineteenth,' he muttered to himself a moment before the curtain of sleep drew across his waking consciousness and plunged him from thoughts about his dinner invitation with the Searles into the dreamful depths of his unconscious.  It was now June 14th.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

It was a warm dry afternoon as the bright-green Citroën drew to a halt not far from the village of Merstham, in Surrey, and the driver got out and pointed in the general direction of the hill which she and her two female companions, Carmel Daly and Sharon Taylor, were intending to climb.  Within a few seconds the remaining occupants of the modest little car had joined her and were smiling at each other over a large hamper of provisions, which they agreed to carry between them.  When the owner of the Citroën had locked both its doors and windows, the three of them set off in the general direction of their destination, where they intended to have a salad picnic.

     "What a relief to be able to stretch one's legs again!" exclaimed Jennifer Crowe while glancing back at her companions, who were struggling along with the copiously packed hamper a few yards behind her.  "It was only an hour's drive, but it seemed like an eternity."

     At twenty-eight, she was not only the oldest of the group, but the only one who had been to this part of Surrey before.  As they walked along, their eyes surveyed the surrounding countryside with all the avidity of people who have been cooped-up in the city for too long and could hardly believe that they were re-establishing contact with nature's vast panorama of bushes and trees, fields and hills, crops and flowers.  Fortunately, there were only a few small harmless-looking clouds in the sky, as the sun shone down brilliantly onto everything around them.  The land across which they were walking was deserted except for a few birds, and every now and then the flapping of ponderous wings could be heard as some large crow emerged from the trees to their left and flew across the open spaces beyond.  There were still over two hundred yards to go to the top of the hill, which they fancied would make an ideal spot not only for their picnic but subsequent sunbathing as well.  Yet already they had quickened their pace in an eagerness to reach it and were panting quite heavily, especially Carmel, the youngest and plumpest of the three, who wasn't used to such strenuous exercise.

     "Not far now," Jennifer announced with a reassuring glance back at her companions, who seemed to be rather labouring under their burden.  "Here, let me take a hand in carrying that!" she offered, moving towards the hamper.  But her generosity was emphatically rejected by both Carmel and Sharon, who professed not to be under any difficulty with it.

     "When did you last come here?" asked Carmel by way of diverting attention from her obvious lack of stamina.

     "About two years ago," replied Jennifer, with a thoughtful look on her face.  "My boyfriend drove me here then, though the weather was nowhere near as fine as today.  We thought it was going to rain, so we returned to the van - he had an old Ford thing at the time - and, well, you can guess what happened next!"

     A spontaneous response of knowing laughter erupted from her two companions, who also nodded approvingly.

     "But we'd have preferred to have enjoyed ourselves on the crest of this hill," Jennifer went on, "because it isn't every day that the return to nature can be so complete, if you see what I mean."

     Again there were nods of approval from both Carmel and Sharon.

     "He must have been quite upset by the sudden change of plan," Sharon ventured to speculate, as the crest of the hill loomed larger, just fifty or so yards above them.

     "Well, you know what men are like," sighed Jennifer with a knowing look on her face.  "They don't care where they get it really, provided that they do eventually get it somewhere.  It was my idea to lure him here, my dream to be humped in full view of nature's gaze, to have such a beautiful and romantic setting.  And so I was more disappointed than him when the sky became overcast and it looked as though we'd end-up doing it in the rain.  It was his idea to return to the van, not mine."

     The trio fell silent as, arriving at their destination, they looked about them for a suitable spot to decamp.  There were a few trees and bushes in the immediate vicinity, which gave a degree of privacy to the area and would have provided some protection, depending where one sat, from inquisitive eyes, had there been any such eyes to spy on people who were intent upon harmlessly enjoying themselves.  Fortunately, however, no-one else was around at present, and it was principally this aspect of things which brought a sigh of relief from Jennifer's ample lips.

     "How nice to have the place entirely to ourselves!" exclaimed Carmel, as soon as they had decided on a suitable place to sit.  "My God! when one thinks of the millions of people crawling over one another like ants in London, and then finds oneself blessed with this solitude on a warm summer's day in mid-June amidst the beauty of the Surrey countryside, it just doesn't seem possible."

     "Yes, it's just as well we chose a weekday," remarked Jennifer while taking a large plastic groundsheet from the wicker hamper and spreading it on the grass.  "I doubt very much that it would be this quiet at the weekend.  Let's keep our fingers crossed that we don't get any unwanted visitors."

     "A remark, I presume, which excludes everyone but handsome young men," opined Sharon, taking some plastic cups and plates from the hamper and setting them down on the groundsheet.

     "Yes, I suppose you're right," said Jennifer, "though, under the circumstances of this rare treat to country life, I think we could even do without them, don't you?"

     Her companions smiled approvingly at what sounded like a rhetorical question and duly busied themselves with the preparation of their salads.  They had brought a decent-sized lettuce, an uncut loaf of brown bread, a cucumber, half-a-dozen tomatoes, a half-pound of cheese, a dozen or so small boiled potatoes, a beetroot, a few hard-boiled eggs, and some coleslaw.  They shared out the responsibility for preparing their food in a thoroughly democratic manner, and were soon tucking-in to it.  For liquid refreshment they had a large flask of orange juice, which all agreed to be the most suitable drink for the occasion.

     "Look!" exclaimed Sharon, while they were in the process of casually taking-in the view from their vantage-point high above the fields.  "There are a couple of blokes over there between the hedges, can you see them?"  She pointed in a north-easterly direction.

     "No more than fifteen-year-olds, by the look of it," said Jennifer, who was particularly good at distinguishing people from a distance.  "I don't think they'd relish our company somehow."

     "It looks as though they're heading towards that cluster of trees," observed Sharon, drawing their attention to a small copse to the north-west, some 150 yards away.  "Seems to me they're not interested in us, anyway."

     "Just as well," murmured Carmel before swallowing a mouthful of fresh lettuce.  "They'd only spoil our picnic."

     "Two young guys heading for the protection of those trees?  It makes you smile rather, doesn't it?" Jennifer commented, offering Carmel an ironic wink.

     "They might be going beyond them, seeing as there are so many trees and bushes over there," Carmel speculated.

     "Oh well, what does it matter to us?" sighed Jennifer as she poured herself a beaker of orange juice.  "Let's forget about them."

     After the main course, the girls each ate an apple and a couple of digestive biscuits, and when all the used knives, forks, beakers, and plates had been packed away in the hamper again, they decided it was high time for some sunbathing, the real raison d'être of their excursion.

     As usual, Jennifer led the way by taking off her denims and white cotton vest, followed, in quick succession, by Carmel and Sharon, whose striptease act involved the removal of a pale-blue mini skirt.  Then when all three were stripped down to their bikinis, they applied suntan lotion to their bodies and stretched out on the towels which had been brought along for comfort's sake.  It was now almost 2.00pm and the sun was beating down on them with all the intensity of a brilliant mid-summer's afternoon.

     "Let's hope it continues to shine like this!" enthused Jennifer as the glare from above forced her to turn her head to one side and speak with her eyes closed.  "We could certainly do with a little colour on our bodies."

     "Especially after last winter," sighed Sharon, who was lying in-between the others with her back to the sun.  "It's a wonder we aren't all blue now."  The vehement buzzing of a large bee suddenly interrupted her for a few seconds, but the busy insect didn't pay any of them much attention and the sound of its buzzing soon faded back into the distance from whence it had so unexpectedly come.  "Are there any intruders in sight?" she asked Carmel, who was applying some additional suntan lotion to her shins.

     "What kind of intruders?"

     "Human ones.  Men in particular."

     There was a short pause while Carmel briefly surveyed their surroundings.  "None that I can see."

     "Good," sighed Sharon, who immediately began to unclip her bikini top and pull her bikini bottoms down as far as she could without giving everything about herself away.

     "Would you like some more lotion?" asked Carmel when she had taken care of her shins.  And, without bothering to wait for a reply, she proceeded to vigorously rub some oil into the newly exposed parts of Sharon's back and buttocks.  A faint smile crossed its recipient's lips as she felt Carmel's middle finger sliding backwards and forwards a few times in the trough between her parted mounds of quivering flesh.

     "Thanks," she murmured, once the massage was completed.  "Let me know when you need any assistance."

     "You'll need medical assistance if you get stung or bitten on the backside!" warned Jennifer, who was laying on her back with the minimum of social respectability still covering her most private parts.  "I've got an ant crawling over my left tit at this very moment."

     "Oh, don't!" protested Sharon while showing her right-hand neighbour a look of repugnance.  "You'll spoil my self-confidence."

     "A hungry ant which finds its way into the valley between your mounds of bum will spoil it even more," Jennifer remarked, to the audible amusement of Carmel, who was still dressed in a more orthodox fashion - top and bottoms of her green bikini clipped securely in place.

     "She'll have to learn modesty the hard way," Carmel managed to joke.

     Silence mercifully descended on them for a couple of minutes, before Sharon ventured to inquire of Jennifer whether, in returning to the subject of her boyfriend, she had ever had sex in the open.

     "Quite a few times actually," she admitted.  "Provided the weather's not too extreme, it can be a most refreshing experience!  In fact, it was about this time last year that David and I last had it off in the open.  We were on holiday for a few days near Burford, in Oxfordshire, where a friend of his happens to live, and, on one of those gorgeous days, we got together on the edge of a cornfield and followed the course of nature for an hour.  An hour tends to suffice him, as a rule, though I've known him to spend three hours playing around with various bits and pieces of my anatomy."

     "What, in the country?" gasped Sharon disbelievingly.

     "No, unfortunately not!  I think the open makes him feel insecure, afraid, perhaps, that some copper will suddenly turn up and say: ''Ere, 'ere, 'ere, what's all this, then?' or something of the sort, before carting us away for indecent exposure.  That would be terribly humiliating."

     "You're not kidding!"

     "Still, it hasn't happened yet, so, providing David keeps his head and doesn't become too careless where he chooses to take or have me, as the case may be, it shouldn't ever happen."  Jennifer readjusted her sunbathing position and requested Sharon to rub some more lotion into her back.  "Now it's my turn to let my bikini down a little," she joked, noticing that Sharon was tactfully rearranging her bikini in conformity with the administrative role just thrust upon her.  "I hope I didn't drag you away from your position before you'd had enough of it," she added almost sarcastically.

     "No, it was becoming a shade uncomfortable in any case, lying on my stomach for so long," Sharon confessed.  "It's a pity we didn't bring something softer than towels to lie on, if you see what I mean."  She vigorously massaged her friend's freckled back with both hands, noting the satisfaction this brought her.

     "Any intruders in view?" asked Jennifer in imitation of Sharon.

     "No human ones that I can see.  What about you, Carmel - can you see anyone?"

     "Only a scarecrow in that field over there.  It seems too good to be true, that we should still have this hill to ourselves."  Having said which, Carmel turned over onto her stomach and requested a similar massage from Sharon.

     "Sounds like she wants to do a striptease act, too," declared Jennifer as she heard Carmel unclipping her bikini top in turn.  "We are being promiscuous today!"

     "So it would appear," laughed Sharon before turning from the bare back of the one to the equally bare back of the other, which she then proceeded to massage in a similarly steady but comprehensive manner.  "I've never seen so much of your respective bodies before," she commented, with a faint tone of sexual arousal in her voice.

     "Then make the most of it while the opportunity still prevails," Jennifer joked.  "For you won't see us like this very often, you know."

     Carmel had tied up her long black hair to prevent it from being blown across her back by the stiff breeze which occasionally raked the hill, to the detriment of a uniform tan.  Of the three women, she was the only one with straight hair, the only one who could tie it up with any degree of success.  The others had wavy hair of a fairly coarse texture which, because of its considerable length, was more difficult to manage and therefore could not be disposed of in quite the same fashion.  For her part, Jennifer had contented herself with resting her head on as much of her long black wavy hair as could be gathered up into a sort of pillow, while Sharon had divided her own hair, with the aid of strong elastic bands, into two thick strands, which were now tickling Carmel's back as she bent over it to administer the suntan lotion.

     "Phew! Is it hot!" exclaimed Sharon as she felt the sun burning into her shoulders.  "It's a shame we don't have weather like this more often."

     "That's precisely why we can't afford to waste any time today," responded Carmel, momentarily opening her eyes to the spectacle of Jennifer's prostrate body.  For a moment, Sharon's shadow hung over it and then disappeared, as the lady in question returned to her former position between Jennifer and herself.

     Lying on her back with an arm across her brow, Sharon retreated from the outside world into the sanctuary of her fantasies, from which she had briefly emerged the moment before.  Prior to asking Jennifer whether she had ever had sex in the open, Sharon had dreamt of having it there herself, of being sacrificed, as it were, on the altar of nature with complete abandonment to the imaginary hero of her heart!  How and where she would meet this man she cared not.  But it was certainly an ambition of hers to be taken into the country by such a man and humped among the buttercups and daisies, the bushes and trees, the butterflies and bees.  To be sure, she had a number of sexual ambitions to realize, including one of being fucked by two men at once - one underneath her and the other on top.  She sensed, however, that she would never realize them all, that there would always be disappointments and frustrations in store for her.  All the same, it seemed not improbable that she would subsequently lose interest in some of these ambitions and acquire an interest in ones that hadn't yet crossed her mind, ambitions that lay too far into the future or depended on a different context from the one she was currently living in, and were therefore beyond the range of her existing imaginative powers.

     'I almost envy Jenny her relationship with David,' she mused, as she lay perfectly still between her fellow-sunbathers.  'How beautiful it would be, to be humped on this hill on such a fine day, with the birds and insects to witness one's delight.  I dare say she gets what she wants whenever and wherever she fucking-well wants it - unlike me!  And yet I'm better-looking than she is.  I'm better-looking than both of them are actually, though I doubt whether they'd admit it, the lying bitches!  But, at twenty-four, I deserve more luck with men than I've had this year!'  She sighed in instinctive dismay.

     "Finding the heat too much for you?" asked Jennifer, incorrectly interpreting it.

     "No, I was just thinking actually," Sharon confessed, reluctantly turning her head in Jennifer's direction.  She felt painfully ashamed of herself for having got wrapped-up in her thoughts at their expense.

     "Sorry to disturb you," murmured Jennifer with a wry smile on her lips.  "You shouldn't torture yourself with thoughts on such a fine day, you know!"

     "No, I guess not."  The silence once more mercifully interposed itself, before Sharon informed them that she would have to relieve herself behind one of the nearby bushes.  It was over five hours since she had last taken a pee.

     "You'd better avoid the bush I peed behind shortly after we got here," said Carmel, who was apt to treat such things as a joke.  "Though it should be dry there by now."  She watched Sharon's retreating figure disappear behind a large bush some 40-45 yards from where they were sunbathing.

     "Psst!" hissed Jennifer, raising herself on one elbow.  "Let's play a practical joke on her."

     "What, like hiding her miniskirt behind a bush?" Carmel suggested.

     Jennifer shook her head.  "No, let's pretend we're having sex, so that she'll find it difficult to believe her eyes when she returns."

     Carmel blushed at that prospect, though she was all for a bit of fun at Sharon's expense.  "But what'll we do?" she innocently asked.

     "You leave that to me!" snapped Jennifer and, before her companion could utter another word, she had moved closer to the other girl and thereupon applied her mouth to one of Carmel's nipples.  Carmel uttered an involuntary whimper of shocked surprise in response to Jennifer's tongue, but managed to put an arm round her friend's waist all the same.

     "Let's hope this looks convincing," Jennifer whispered, as Sharon emerged from behind the bushes away to their left.

     "Good god! what are you doing?" she exclaimed, arriving back to her towel, only to find their bodies entwined in a semblance of passionate sex.  "Don't tell me you're ..." But the rest of her remark was prevented from emerging into vocal clarity by the impulsive amusement which overcame Jennifer at the pathetic spectacle of Sharon's obvious bewilderment.

     "Don't worry, love," she said, while disengaging herself from Carmel's body.  "We're only joking."

     "Some joke!" protested Sharon, whose face suddenly broke into a broad smile of comic relief.  "But you had me fooled for a moment, I must say!"  She waited for Jennifer to move back to her towel, before taking up her former position in between them.  "I think I'll feel safer if I just sit rather than lie between you two lecherous lesbians," she added, looking disapprovingly from the one to the other.

     "In that case, we'll go for your tits," joked Carmel, who stretched out a hand and grabbed Sharon's nearest breast with a force which almost dislodged her bikini top.

     "Oh, no you won't!" she cried, while making to defend herself by wrenching the other girl's fingers away and covering her breasts with her hands.

     "That's only because she wants to hold them herself," chuckled Jennifer over her shoulder.

     "Yes, what a provocative picture she'd make for someone with a camera!" averred Carmel with a sardonic grin on her face.  "She's behaving quite erotically."

     Sharon dropped her guard, smiled guardedly, and lay down on her stomach.  The joke went off as quickly as it had come on, and they were all rather bored with it and privately ashamed of themselves for behaving like adolescents.

     'It's true what they say about women behaving stupidly when they're not in men's company,' Sharon mused, once the context of sunbathing had enveloped them all again.  'And men act just as stupidly when left alone with one another.  Some kind of relief from the usual sexual tensions, I shouldn't wonder!  Still, you can't altogether blame them.  There are times when you positively need the company of your own gender.  Times when you're only too relieved to get away from the opposite sex.'

     She shut her eyes and listened to the brazen sound of crickets in some nearby grass, which had the effect of making her conscious, once more, of the sun on her back and of the steady breathing of her friends, who had returned to their private lives again and were now soaking-up the sun's rays and perhaps - who knows? - fantasizing about men.  And, just as consciously, she found herself wondering what Jenny's boyfriend would be like in bed, and whether Carmel's boyfriend, Martin, whom she had met only once, would have taken a fancy to her, had he met her first.  Somehow she preferred not to think about her own relationships with men over the past few years because, with the possible exception of a brief fling with a young actor she felt genuinely fond of, they had all been somewhat disappointing.

     Indeed, of the seven or eight men who'd had the audacity to barge into her life during that time, the last of them, whom she was obliged to break-up with after a mere three days, had been the most abominable.  In fact, he hardly knew how to make love at all, so preoccupied had he been with avoiding premature ejaculation!  But ever since she got rid of him on the pretext of having to work in a theatre up north, she hadn't managed to find herself a successor, not even an incompetent one.  And that was over four months ago!  Really, she was beginning to feel sorry for herself, being left on the shelf for so long, particularly as she was so good-looking and still relatively young.  Apart from one dreadful year, when she was nineteen and had spent six months without sex in consequence of a serious illness, this last year had been the worst of her adult life!  She feared that if things didn't improve soon she would have little option but to give-up acting and become a visiting masseuse, or maybe even something worse.

     No, perhaps that was going a bit too far!  All the same, she might have to make herself more amenable to people whom she wouldn't ordinarily have considered worthy of herself.... Like, for instance, some of the older men at the theatre, whose advances she would ideally have preferred to snub.  But as for Jennifer and Carmel, what could they do to help her?  True, their practical joke had been a little lacking in taste.  But, even so, it engendered connotations upon which she didn't care to dwell.  There was something ironic about it, something which suggested the possibility of her succumbing to lesbian activities under pressure of prolonged celibacy.

     For a moment, she had a vision of Jennifer's vagina above her nose and of her tongue methodically working its way backwards and forwards between its goose-pimpled labia.  She didn't know what Jenny's vagina exactly looked like, but the impression she now formed of it in her imagination was so vivid ... that she felt a sort of revulsion in her stomach and was obliged to turn her head in the opposite direction, so that the others wouldn't notice anything amiss.  Although Sharon had never indulged in lesbian activities with anyone before, she felt somewhat insecure, stuck in-between the predominantly naked bodies beside her, both of which belonged to highly attractive women.  It was as though she feared the power of the imagination would carry her away with herself, resulting in her crawling over one of these bodies and doing things to it which she would never have considered herself capable of at other times, times when she was well-sexed and therefore not vulnerable to the temptations of lesbianism in such a blatant manner.  She looked at Carmel, the prettier of the two, but her face gave nothing away.  It was a mask of sensuous impassivity, of complacent repose.  No doubt, her boyfriend would be eagerly awaiting her return to London that evening!  And he would take special note of her tan, congratulating her on it and then inquiring, as he removed her clothes, why she hadn't taken her bikini bottoms off as well, so that she could have gone uniformly brown all over?  As it happened, both halves of her bikini were still in an orthodox position, perhaps in testimony to her lack of confidence in ants.

     "What time is it?" asked Jennifer, breaking the long silence which had fallen between them.

     Sharon glanced at her tiny wristwatch and informed her that it was already 4.30pm.  "I guess we'll have to be making a move soon," she added.

     "Yes, I expect so," Jennifer sighed.  "It may not be as easy driving back to London as it was driving out of it this morning.  Still, we don't have to work this evening, so there's no real hurry."

     This allusion to the Hampstead theatre where they all worked as actresses caused Carmel to titter to herself, and, on being asked by Sharon what was so funny, she repeated a few of her lines from 'Daybreak Tears', their current theatrical venture, in which she had to confess to being madly in love with a man who, in private life, she wholeheartedly loathed.  "'But I shall never leave you, come what may.  For I am too madly in love with you to allow anything like this to come between us ...'  And I have my arms round his neck - imagine it! Round the neck of a man I'd sooner strangle."

     "Well, at least it gives you an excellent opportunity to assess your progress as an actress," opined Jennifer stoically.  "It's to your professional credit that you manage to conceal all but the faintest traces of disgust whilst in his arms.  One would think that you actually liked him."

     "That's not good enough, since I'm really supposed to convey the impression that I'm madly in love with him!" Carmel retorted.

     Jennifer smiled sympathetically.  "Very few people would spot the difference, so you needn't worry yourself too much about that!  The fact remains that you still manage to pull off the act pretty well.... Frankly, you ought to be grateful to the man for testing your professionalism to the limit of its objective endurance."  She paused a moment to reflect on her own position, then continued: "But I have a role which, in many respects, is the reverse of yours.  I have to shout at a man who, in private, I'm really quite fond of.  You remember Act Two, Scene Three, when Gerald has drunk a little more wine than is good for him and subsequently makes a drunkard's attempt to seduce me in front of my husband?"  She waited for Carmel's acknowledgement of this esoteric information which, when it finally came, took the form of a vaguely amused nod.  "Well, let me tell you that I have considerable difficulty living up to the hatred required by the lines: 'Why, you raving lunatic, what do you think you're playing at, fumbling under my skirt!  Keep those sweaty hands to yourself, you lecherous half-wit!"

     A titter of laughter escaped, with this remark, from Carmel's ample lips, for she remembered the look on Gerald's face when Jennifer had first fired those lines at him point-blank, so to speak, and the embarrassment which overcame him when his reactions were censored by the producer for being too subjective and thus insufficiently impersonal.  Had he actually been drunk, the poor fellow, he might have found it less difficult to live up or, rather, down to the part.  But his acute sensitivity regularly got the better of him in those early days of rehearsal and became something of a standing joke among the cast, who were of the express opinion that he needed toughening.  Only Jennifer, to Carmel's recollection, refused to treat his discomfiture with levity.  But then that was because she was mainly responsible for it in the first place!

     "It would make the lines easier to play if I had actually been drinking before reciting them," the latter confessed while toying with her hair.  "He's such a nice guy really.  But on stage one's acting comes first, so I endeavour to overcome my personal misgivings and simply bellow them at him."

     "And he endeavours not to take them too seriously," Carmel deduced.  "Still, your acting does give one the impression that you actually loathe the guy."

     "Thank goodness for that!" exclaimed Jennifer.  "Anyway, my conscience compels me to compensate him off-stage for all the abuses to him on it by being as sweet as possible.  If it wasn't for the fact that he's already happily married, he'd probably have been in my bed some time ago."

     "Instead of which, he's only recently been in it,” chuckled Carmel, only to receive a wry smile from her colleague.

     "Are his hands really sweaty?" asked Sharon as she turned her head back in Jennifer's direction.

     "No, very dry actually.  And he's neither a 'raving lunatic' nor a 'lecherous half-wit', as you well know."

     "The vicissitudes of the acting profession," Sharon concluded.  "Oh well, one could do worse.  I'd rather be the actor or actress than the playwright any day."

     "Try telling him that!" said Carmel.

     The sun was less intense now as evening approached and, following Jennifer's suggestion that they all get dressed again, the three young actresses reached out for and began to inspect their respective items of clothing, Carmel being especially careful to be on guard for the possibility of ants hiding in her cords, which were black and therefore an ideal nesting place for them, whether or not they might subsequently take to biting her backside.  Not surprisingly, she was the last dressed, having also, along with Jennifer, relieved herself behind a nearby bush.

     When the women had gathered up their towels and packed them away in the large wicker hamper, they gave their surroundings a farewell glance and, with a tinge of regret on their suntanned faces, set off down the hill in the general direction of Jennifer's car.  The task of carrying the hamper, now much the lighter for the absence of provisions, was accepted by Jennifer and Carmel, who decided to lag a few yards behind Sharon on the down-hill route.  However, when they had got to within a hundred or so yards of the car they noticed two young males sitting on the fence by the side of the footpath.  As the three women drew nearer, the youths began to grin at them and whisper to each other.  Finally, as though the close proximity of the women were a cue for action, they unleashed a barrage of verbal abuse to the effect of: "Fucking Lesbians!  Bloody Lesbians!  Lesbian cunts!" and other such sharp phrases which had the effect of making the two hamper-carriers lower their eyes in rapid shame and blush violently.  A few sticks hurtled after the women once they had passed their tormentors, one quite large stick hitting Jennifer squarely on the back.

     "The little brats!" she yelled and, letting go of the hamper, she turned on her heels to confront them.  But they were already off the fence and scampering up the hill from whence the threesome had come.

     "Are you alright, Jenny?" asked Carmel as her companion bent down to pick up the opposite side of the hamper again.

     "Yes, I guess so," she sighed.  "Though I suppose I shall have a bruise across my back for the next few days."

     "They were evidently the two young men we saw crossing the field in the direction of that clump of trees a few hours ago," Carmel deduced.  "They probably spent most of the afternoon spying on us with the aid of those binoculars the taller one had draped around his scraggly neck.

     "The frigging little brats!" reiterated Jennifer while rubbing the lower part of her back with her free hand.  But, as she reached her car, she couldn't help noticing what looked like a 'tough-luck!' smile on Sharon's rosy face.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

It was Douglas Searle in person who opened the front door to admit James Kelly to his little gathering of choice guests.  It wasn't yet 7.30pm, the time at which Kelly had been advised to arrive at Mr Searle's imposing residence, but most of the others were already there and, with the assistance of some alcoholic refreshment, eagerly preparing themselves for the meal to come.

     "Delighted to see you again!" he declared, as Kelly stepped through the open doorway and met his host's outstretched hand half-way.  "What a fine evening it is!"

     After exchanging a few trivial remarks, James Kelly was escorted into the lounge and summarily introduced to each the other guests, all but one of whom he had met before.  That was Susan Healy, a short twenty-six-year-old art teacher with blue eyes and fair hair who had recently become Keith Brady's latest girlfriend.  Kelly knew from experience that Brady, the chubby painter over ten years her senior who now stood proudly, and therefore protectively, beside Susan, had a special talent for finding himself new women and losing them just as quickly.  But perhaps this one, being familiar with art, was his bride-to-be?  Knowing Brady, James fancied he would probably find himself being introduced to a different girlfriend the next time he was ushered into the lounge by Mr Searle.

     "Still hard at work with your writings?" Brady asked him as soon as he had got over the shock of meeting a new face.  But before he could even nod his head a hand had grabbed one of his arms and another voice, more seductive than Brady's, was congratulating him for his healthy appearance.  It belonged, he soon realized, to Paloma Searle, Mr Searle's half-Spanish wife, who had been in animated conversation with one of her guests when he first entered the room.  Her dark eyes sparkled with joy at the sight of his face, which had, in the meantime, become somewhat flushed.  At thirty, she was a woman of considerable charm and eloquence whose 5' 8" of shapely flesh, dark hair, and gently aquiline nose were chief among the many qualities which especially appealed to Kelly's aesthetic sense at this moment.  He hadn't seen her for over three months and felt quite flattered to receive a glass of wine from her hand and to be offered a seat beside her on a comfortably padded couch.  The smell of her perfume tantalized his nostrils as he immersed himself in her lively eyes, listening, as closely as the general hubbub in the room would permit, to the melodious flow of words which cascaded, like confetti, from between her moist lips.  She could only find time to congratulate him on the publication of his latest novel, however, when duty beckoned her away to the kitchen, where the chicken salad apparently required a few final touches.  She had already prepared most of it, but seemingly still had some more work to do.  His eyes followed her across the room, like a hungry dog intent upon collaring a succulent bone, as she made for the door, noting, with especial pleasure, the seductively curvaceous shape of her calf-muscles, tastefully outlined beneath a pair of dark-green nylons to which her purple miniskirt formed quite a contrast.

     "So you're back here, too!" boomed out Trevor Jenkinson's bass voice above the softer voices socially at large on the airwaves.  "It seems they have a weak spot for writers."

     The tall, greying man who had just taken Mrs Searle's place beside James Kelly happened to be a writer himself, albeit of a more conventional kind.  His twenty-something years in the profession had resulted in the publication of some fifteen crime novels, none of which Kelly had read, though he vaguely knew the titles of a few of them.  Had it not been for the man's affability and unpompous manner, Kelly would probably have felt intimidated by his professional seniority.  But his easy-going personality, so much in tune with James Kelly's own, precluded any such intimidation with an ease which the younger man could only admire.  Here, anyway, was a writer who had outgrown his professional egotism and virtually come around to regarding his reputation with indifference, if not downright repugnance.  How different from Stephen Jacobs!  There were times when his aura of self-importance so overwhelmed and disgusted one that one would have dared to tell him that his work was by no means as good as, largely on the basis of its superficial success, he imagined it to be.  But that would simply have resulted in Jacobs regarding one as insulting and summarily taking his leave of one in order, presumably, to seek better understanding elsewhere!  There was no toppling him from the pillar of professional self-esteem upon which he had elected to sit, compliments, in no small measure, of a public-school and Oxbridge background.

     "Yes, I think his wife's rather fond of you," Jenkinson was saying in a more confidential tone-of-voice.  "She likes to see younger men about the place."

     Not wishing to comment on that, James Kelly finished off the wine in his glass before asking: "Are you reading anything particularly interesting at the moment?"

     "I'm always reading interesting things!" replied Jenkinson in what seemed to the younger man like a slightly ironic tone-of-voice.

     "But don't you ever read boring things by mistake?" asked Kelly incredulously.

     "Never!" averred Jenkinson.  "If I did, I wouldn't be a writer now, would I?"  Which rhetorical statement was duly followed up by: "Fact is, even the worst things tend to interest me for one reason or another, even if only to the extent that I want to find out how bad or wrong they are."

     "Really?" gulped the younger man innocently.

     "Yes, well, I guess you could say that I grew out of my youthful aestheticism some time ago," Jenkinson confessed in a tone of scarcely concealed pride.  "I used to plume myself on reading only the best, er, novels, I suppose you could say - you know, the ones which are most, ahem, classic."  There was a short pause whilst he knocked back the rest of the wine in his glass, before continuing: "Well, I must have read just about everything there was to read in that category by the time I was thirty-five.  But, since I couldn't give-up reading altogether, I decided to try a less aesthetic line and embrace the sort of, er, novels which more discriminating writers would prefer to avoid.  Still, I'm not bored by them - at least not to the extent that I get bored by second-rate music, art, and drama, the last two of which I really can't abide at all on account of the fact that I've become too conceptual to tolerate anything so damned perceptual and fundamentally autocratic!"

     Kelly thought he could empathize with that statement, baffling though it was, as he chose to say: "But you can't be reading second-rate novels all the time.  Surely there must be some new first-rate ones?"

     The older man paused to reflect a moment.  "New classics, you mean?  Yes, I suppose I do read something approximating to the classic every once in a while.  It’s hard to tell really."

     Kelly was about to say something about the book he was currently reading, which wasn't a novel at all, when Mrs Searle suddenly appeared in the doorway and informed everyone that dinner was ready.  The last guest had just arrived in the guise of Rachel Davis, a relatively good-looking journalist who had apparently been held-up in the traffic.  She was now talking to Douglas Searle who, in response to his wife's prompting, immediately began to usher everyone in the general direction of the dining room.

     "Oh well, I could use something to soak-up the bilge water a bit," confessed Jenkinson ironically, as they came within sight of the food.  "I haven't eaten anything since lunch time."

     There were eight of them in all, Mrs Searle appointing the six guests their places as they arrived at the elongated rectangular table.  The Searles elected to sit at opposite ends of it, as presumably was their custom, with the guests facing one another three abreast along its length.  At a squeeze it could have sat ten people, but, for purposes of convenience, eight was considerably more satisfactory.

     As the proceedings got under way, Kelly found himself seated near Mrs Searle at the end of his row, so to speak, with Keith Brady to his right and Gordon Hammer, a forty-eight-year-old concert pianist with balding head and drooping moustache, directly opposite.  At the other end of the table, the host was flanked by Susan Healy on his left and by Trevor Jenkinson on his right, while the remaining place, in between Jenkinson and Hammer, was taken by Rachel Davis.  Surprisingly, they all found the chicken commendable, despite its toughness, as the preliminary forays on it momentarily got the better of their conversations and imposed a modest silence upon everyone.

     "Very nice," admitted Brady by way of congratulating Mrs Searle on her culinary handiwork.  "There's nothing better than a chicken salad on such a warm evening."

     "Indeed not!" confirmed Susan in response to her boyfriend's lead.

     "Please feel free to help yourselves to more wine when you're ready," Searle informed them all, generously drawing their attention to the eight large bottles of quality German wine which stood at regular intervals along the table.  "There's no shortage of plonk here."

     "Worse luck!" Jenkinson exclaimed in mock-ironic fashion.

     "Very nice wine," said Brady, who had just taken his first sip and was belatedly making a show of savouring the bouquet.

     "Hmm," agreed Susan over the brim of her untouched glass.

     Gordon Hammer was staring across at Kelly with a look that had the latter wondering whether his presence was being resented.  "Had any luck with your writings lately, James?" he somewhat arcanely quizzed him, at length.

     "Depends what you mean by 'luck'," Kelly blushingly replied.  "I haven't had a best seller yet, if that's what you mean."

     "As long as you're making some kind of intellectual progress, that's the most important thing!" the pianist declared, to Kelly's evident relief.  "What are you writing about at present?"

     "Er, a sort of philosophy actually."

     "Philosophy?" echoed Hammer, while raising his bushy grey brows in a show of gratified surprise.

     "At least that's a sort of moral or intellectual progress over fiction!" commented Jenkinson from his end of the table.

     "Weren't you something of a philosopher once, Douglas?" asked Hammer, turning his quizzical attention towards their benevolent host.

     "It depends what you mean by 'philosopher'," the latter dutifully responded, albeit with a slightly embarrassed look on his clean-shaven face.  "I seem to recall dabbling in maxims for a year or two in my undergraduate days, but, other than that, I can't profess to having written anything overly philosophical, probably because I'm not abstract or metaphysical enough and, alas, am more interested in making money than in advancing Truth."

     "Were the maxims ever published?" Kelly asked.

     "Of course not!" laughed Mr Searle.  "In fact, I don't think I even bothered to submit them to an agent actually.  Quite apart from their lack of commercial appeal in a country besotted with trashy fiction, I wasn't exactly what you might call a twentieth-century La Bruyère."  He scooped up his glass and imbibed most of its contents in one swift draught, as though to underline the fact.  "How about you - is your philosophy aphoristic?" he rejoined.

     James Kelly felt obliged to finish chewing a large piece of cold chicken which he had already directed into his mouth, before replying: "Partly."

     The terseness of this response must have slightly puzzled Mr Searle, for he quickly went on to ask: "Why only 'partly'?"

     "Because I couldn't stand writing nothing but aphorisms or maxims," Kelly revealed.  "Besides, although my maxims are uncomfortably close to La Rochefoucauld at times, and thus of a character which should shock and provoke people, I don't have the good fortune to live in an age when philosophy of that nature is in vogue, as I'm sure you can appreciate."

     "A pity if you happen to have a talent for maxims," declared Hammer.  "Incidentally, I used to know a majority of that old bastard's maxims by heart, you know."  He scratched his sparse pate with a finger of the hand holding his fork, before bursting out with: "Isn't there one that goes: 'Men would not live long in society were they not one-another's dupes'?"

     Irreverent titters of laughter erupted from various quarters of the table, while Susan Healy felt obliged to blush with some embarrassment at what she imagined the maxim to imply.

     "Yes, I believe so," confirmed Kelly with a straight face.  Though, in reality, he felt quite embarrassed by Hammer's blunt choice of maxim, which seemed unduly cynical even by La Rochefoucauld's notorious standards!

     "Do give us an example of one of your maxims, James," requested Mrs Searle with an encouraging smile.

     "Yes, do!" Hammer seconded.  "But since I'm in no mood to be bored, make it scandalous!"

     Kelly took a deep breath, as though to gather courage or inspiration from the air, and intoned as casually as he could manage, under the circumstances: "A woman will not thank you for having a wet dream while she is in the bed."

     A burst of spontaneous amusement greeted Kelly's maxim from all corners of the table except Hammer's, since the pianist had failed to grasp it.

     "What nonsense!" he protested, with an almost Dalian show of facial exasperation.  "And you call that philosophy?"

     "On the contrary, I've specifically chosen one which was, er, literary," retorted Kelly, before taking a sip of nerve-bolstering wine.  "A purely philosophical one might have given you all mental indigestion," he quipped after a sharp gulp.

     "But isn't it unlikely that a man would have a wet dream while sleeping with a woman?" objected Brady rhetorically, to the tune of renewed amusement from most sections of the table and his girlfriend in particular, who contrived to blush diplomatically in the process.

     "I guess it depends on the sort of woman he happens to sleep with," Kelly pithily averred.  "I'm confident there are men who have stained their woman's lingerie in that fashion."

     "Presuming, of course, that their woman was actually wearing any at the time," Mrs Searle half-smilingly contributed to the debate. "Some women ..."

     "Pray, tell me," Hammer impatiently interposed, while pushing his near-empty dinner plate to one side, so that it overlapped with Rachel's dinner space and caused her to adjust the position of her own plate accordingly, "has such an experience ever happened to you?"

     It wasn't a question James felt competent to answer, but he did his best with a denial which was duly supplemented by words to the effect that whenever he had had the relatively good fortune to experience a wet dream, there hadn't been anyone else in his bed.

     "Then on what authority did you write such a maxim?" Hammer pressed him, with a triumphantly quizzical expression on his sardonic face.  "Surely one must base these things on personal experience?"

     "Ideally one should," admitted Kelly, back-pedalling, "though literature can't always be based on that, particularly when one lacks the experience in the first place but is nonetheless possessed of an imaginative urge, or daemon, which demands to be placated with a near-tyrannical insistence ..."

     "The poor fellow!" Hammer guffawed.

     "Be that as it may," Kelly rejoined with impatience, "if one uses one's imagination, one can see perfectly well that a woman would rather have a man's semen in her vagina than over her lingerie or back or wherever, so what's the matter with writing something to that effect without having personally experienced a wet dream whilst a woman was in the bed?"

     "Nothing, if you don't mind self-denigrating yourself in such a perverse fashion," Hammer guffawed anew.

     "Isn't it possible that a man could have a nocturnal emission without actually spurting semen all over his bed partner?" Mrs Searle suggested speculatively, only to precipitate a hearty laugh from her husband.

     This time Kelly had need of an ego-bolstering gulp from his wine glass, before replying: "I dare say it is.  Although there's no reason to assume that his partner between the sheets or under the quilt or whatever would be particularly grateful to him for wasting his semen at her expense.  You see, the maxim is based on commonsensical probability, which is why it has a ring of credibility despite its purely imaginative origins."

     "More a tinkle than a ring," averred Brady, as he turned towards his left-hand neighbour at table.  "For I'm damned if I can believe that a man would have a wet dream with his woman right next to him.  It wouldn't be particularly flattering for her to wake up in the morning only to discover that her husband or whoever had come all over the sheet in the night instead of all over her or, preferably, inside her."

     Susan Healy managed a perfunctory titter in spite of a qualm about the propriety of such a notion in the company of hosts who, as yet, were a relatively unknown factor.

     "James' maxim is rightly based on probability," Jenkinson waded-in with effect to rescuing his fellow-writer from the quicksands of ego-sucking vanity.  "One is simply asked to believe that if, by any chance, an experience of that nature were to occur, the most likely reaction from the female - providing she wasn't a prudish old puritanical hag who rejected sex anyway - would be one of disapproval or, at the very least, disappointment that better use hadn't been made of the semen in the first place.  That seems feasible enough to me, at any rate."  Having said which, he helped himself to some more wine from the nearest bottle, and straightaway set about eagerly consuming it.

     "One can see why," Hammer commented in a lightly sarcastic vein, showing Rachel a wry smile in the process.

     "Yes, I can't help but feel that it's a rather implausible probability," said Brady, who hadn't experienced a wet dream of any description for a number of years on account of the fact that his member rarely had any sperm to spare on such celibate luxuries.

     Implausible or not, there was a merciful lull in the conversation while Mrs Searle, assisted by the rather taciturn journalist, cleared away the dinner plates and then served dessert in the somewhat nebulous forms of jelly and ice cream, the latter having meanwhile melted to a degree which titillated the imaginations of more people than the hapless James Kelly!

     "So what have you been painting lately?" Mr Searle casually inquired of the painter, in an attempt to get the conversation moving again.

     "I'm afraid it's a bit difficult to explain," replied Brady, whilst attacking the wobbly dollop of elusive raspberry jelly in the dish before him with both spoon and fork.  "It's a kind of abstract-surreal thing in which there's a clock without hands standing on the top shelf of a bookcase without books, while the bookcase itself stands atop a coffin which is floating in a sort of pond of, er, blood."

     "Charming!" exclaimed Rachel Davis in ironic perplexity, making a most uncharming spectacle of her pallid face.  "Must you continue?"

     "Well, with due respect to our charming host, I was only replying to his question, my dear.  Had he asked me how I'd been painting lately, I could have told you about airbrushes instead."

     "Don't tell me we've got a squeamish journalist here!" Hammer guffawed.  "My goodness, girl, there are more revolting things than that in your newspaper every frigging day!"

     Brady blushingly took umbrage at the pianist's derogatory adjectives, which seemed to imply that his work was also revolting, only less so, but held his tongue while Rachel defended herself from her right-hand neighbour with a comment to the effect that one didn't have to read them whilst eating one's evening meal.

     "In fact, one doesn't have to read them at all," declared Jenkinson, before taking a copious gulp of alcoholic slurp from his half-empty glass.  "I can always manage with just the pictures."

     "They're bad enough!" opined Hammer with an expression of unmitigated disgust on his world-weary face.

     "Anyway, getting back to what I was describing for Douglas' benefit," resumed Brady impatiently, "there are a number of mechanical ducks with large silver keys jutting out of their backs, who are paddling about on the unmentionable fluid ..."

     "What colour are these ducks?" Mrs Searle wanted to know, for no apparent reason.

     "Er, all different colours actually," Brady replied.  "One is blue, another green, and a third, which I'm still in the process of completing, is going to be a mixture of bright orange and turquoise."

     "How clashingly exciting!" cried Mrs Searle with a screech which must have effected Hammer, for he banged his glass down on the tablecloth so forcefully that at least half its contents spilled over the rim onto his starched cuff.

     "An orange and turquoise duck!" he protested, ignoring the physical inconvenience of this latest social gaffe as best he could.  "Whatever next?"

     "Well, I did say they were mechanical," stated Brady defensively.  "They're not real ducks."

     "No ducks which are painted on a canvas could possibly be real!" objected Hammer, this time being content to merely slap the table with his other hand.

     "No, not in any literal sense," Brady conceded with an air of petulance.  "But they can still look real.  Anyway, what I've superficially described is only part of the overall ... composition."  His gaze reverted to Douglas Searle in search of the understanding which was manifestly not to be found on the opposite side of the table.  Graciously, the host consented to a friendly nod.

     "How long will it take you to complete the work?" he inquired in the slipstream of a large spoonful of dessert.

     "Oh, I should have it finished by the end of the month," Brady nervously confessed, fidgeting slightly in his chair.  "I've been working on it for just over five months actually, so it's been a fairly long job.  In fact, I'm quite looking forward to a change of subject-matter."

     Hammer muttered something derogatory under his breath, before adding: "I bet you bloody-well are!" 

     However, recalling what he had once read in an essay by Wyndham Lewis entitled 'Super-naturalism verses Super-realism', the 'Super-real' being Lewis' term for surrealism, James Kelly thought he could get his own back on Brady by saying: "Isn't surrealism a little out-of-date now?"

     "More than a little," the painter responded, slightly to Kelly's surprise.  "But since I know some people who are interested in buying surrealistic-looking paintings, I make a point of occasionally obliging them, even though what I do isn't strictly surrealist but abstract-surrealist, as I think I said, and therefore a sort of combination of abstract and surreal elements."

     "I doubt if I'd be able to spot the difference," said Kelly, who, in any case, was privately of the opinion that even abstraction was out-of-date and no more than a sort of petty-bourgeois climax or decadence, depending on your point of view, to a painterly tradition which had long been on the non-figurative run, as it were, from photography.

     Meanwhile, Gordon Hammer was keeping up his running battle with Brady by saying that some people would buy anything, particularly when they have plenty of money.  "I once knew a man who bought three surrealist paintings for the sole purpose of destroying them," he went on, undeterred by the painter's objections.  "The fellow was a socialist revolutionary who wanted to express both his contempt for money and distaste of modern art.  So he damn-well set fire to them all!"

     "How terrible!" cried Mrs Searle over a raised spoonful of raspberry jelly.  "I sincerely hope a similar fate doesn't befall any of your paintings, Keith."

     Brady's face turned a sickly pale, as though he had just puked up his dinner.  "Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has done anything of the kind to any of my paintings to-date," he gasped.

 

Following dessert, Mr Searle offered cigars to those who wanted them, Kelly being the only male abstainer.

     "That was a wonderful dinner, Paloma!" enthused Rachel Davis, as she helped Mrs Searle with the empty dishes.

     "I must say what a pleasure it's been, to be seated next to such a charming hostess," opined Hammer, who made a display of the fact by affectionately patting Mr Searle's wife on the shoulder.  "Her perfume simply inspires one to strange and giddy heights of rapturous applause."

     "Oh, do shut up!" Mrs Searle affectionately scolded him, playfully slapping his hand.  Yet there was an element of genuine appreciation in her tone as she graciously informed him, over a pile of empty desert dishes, that it wasn't every day she had the pleasure of having such a distinguished musician to dinner - a comment which brought a sly smile to Kelly's lips, as he reflected that the pleasure in question would soon turn sour if she had him there more often!  And that doubtless applied to the rest of them too, with the possible exception, he supposed, of himself.

     "By the way," said Mr Searle, who had been too busy competing with the billowing smoke from Trevor Jenkinson's cigar to notice his wife's blush, "an old friend of ours, whom one or two of you may know, is holding a fancy-dress ball in a couple of weeks' time, and has invited my wife and I, together with those of you who may be interested, to attend.  If any of you would like to avail yourselves of this generous invitation, the official cards for which I shall hand out to the interested parties later-on this evening, you are required to be at his West Hampstead address by eight o'clock on the evening of Saturday, July the Fourth."

     "Ah, so it's Mark Benson's affair, is it?" Jenkinson deduced.

     "Indeed it is!" Mr Searle confirmed with a gracious nod.  "Mark's having a bit of a fling in commemoration of his tenth wedding anniversary, and you are all invited."  He stubbed-out the paltry remains of his cigar in a glass ashtray, before adding: "When you turn up at his address, don't give your real name or say you're one of Douglas Searle's friends.  Just hand over your invitation card and tell them your fancy-dress name, assuming it isn't manifestly apparent."

     "In that case, they're bound to know who I am," Jenkinson remarked.  "Even if I were to wear a costume which was too big for me and several masks on my face, my voice and height would give me away immediately."

     "Well, they won't know who the rest of you are ... with the possible exception of Gordon," drawled Mr Searle under duress of a creeping alcoholic somnolence.

     "Did you say July the Fourth, Douglas?" queried Hammer, looking perplexed.

     "I did indeed!" confirmed Mr Searle, nodding.

     "Sorry to disappoint you, old stick, but on the Saturday evening in question I shall be the leading attraction in a piano recital at the Festival Hall," Hammer revealed in a slightly apologetic tone-of-voice.

     Mr Searle sighed disappointedly through the receding haze of cigar smoke, while his wife, no less disappointed, inquired of the pianist what he would be performing.

     "Oh, some newfangled compositions by composers whose names I can't even remember," he crossly replied.  "A cross between the atonal avant-garde and trad jazz, with a sprinkling of Tippett and Rawsthorne thrown in for good measure.  Damnably difficult to play!"

     "Have you ever played in public while drunk?" asked Kelly out of idle curiosity.

     "Goodness me, no!" exclaimed Hammer.  "But I have played on a few drinks though; just enough to warm me up and get me onto the ruddy stage in the first place.... However, don't let me distract you from the main issue any longer, Douglas, which has something to do with a fancy-dress ball, if I remember correctly."

     Mr Searle made an effort to clear his throat, which was only partially successful in view of the state it was in, and then drawled: "Well, I would be delighted if ... all the rest of you could turn-up ... on the evening in question ... and contribute to the fun by wearing ... suitable fancy dress.  There are, however, two conditions.  Firstly, the men must dress in infamous attire and ... give themselves an appropriately infamous name, while the women must dress in, er, famous attire and ..."

     "In other words," Mrs Searle interrupted with intent to clarify the matter, "the males are to dress in costumes associated with evil men or organizations, and the females, by contrast, in costumes associated with good women or organizations."

     Several gasps of disbelief broke loose from among the guests at this point, and Trevor Jenkinson, mindful of the fact that not all men were by nature evil or all women good, humorously objected by wondering why it was usually the men who had to play the evil roles?  "After all," he went on, "it seems to me that women are far more qualified than us to do that these days, in view of their liberated status and unequivocally objective assaults on the ..."

     "Oh, don't listen to that male chauvinist pig!" protested Rachel, fixing Jenkinson's drunken head with what some might have taken to be a mock-critical stare.  "I quite like the idea, actually."

     "I thought you would," smiled Mr Searle diplomatically.  "The women, then, are to go along as so many Florence Nightingales, and the men ... as so many Genghis Khans."

     "Not literally, of course," said Mrs Searle, who was still quite sober, "but certainly within the opposing contexts of good and evil.  Thus there are plenty of guises from which to choose."

     "I suppose one has to wear an eye mask," Brady suggested, with an air of knowing resignation.

     "Yes, a small black or white Zorro-like thing, depending on your sex, is the second condition," confirmed Mr Searle with laboured solemnity.  "I was about to mention that when my wife rudely interrupted me."

     "Only because you're too sodding drunk to be properly intelligible!" Mrs Searle protested.

     "Nonsense!" her husband retorted.  "I can make myself properly intelligible at the worst of ... frigging times."  He paused to recollect his thoughts, before asking: "Will everyone apart from Gordon be able to go, then?"

     With the exception of Trevor Jenkinson, who replied in the affirmative a few seconds after the others, there was a unanimous "Yes!"

     Douglas Searle seemed distinctly pleased.  "That settles it, then.  My wife and I will see you there, though you may not recognize us at first.  If you have any qualms about ... being seen in fancy dress on route to the Benson's house, I suggest you hire a cab prior to leaving home.  The driver may find you amusing, but not many other people ... will get a chance to have a laugh at your expense!"

     "I've got a car of my own in any case," Brady informed them all in a tone of pride.

     "Then don't hire a cab!" Mr Searle solemnly advised him, to the accompaniment of titters from Susan.

     Since James Kelly had never been to a fancy-dress ball before, the prospect of having to find a suitable disguise to wear caused him distinct misgivings; though he knew of a costumier in the West End who might be able to supply something suitable at a reasonable price.  Even Stephen Jacobs might be able to help him out if pressed into thinking about it, he reflected.  Besides, it was two weeks until the ball, so he would have plenty of time in which to come-up with an idea.... For an instant, he saw himself garbed in some diabolical costume with horns and tail, but this illusion was quickly dispelled by the sound of Mrs Searle's melodious voice asking him whether he'd had enough to drink.

     "Plenty thanks," he assured her, as she made to pour the remaining white wine from the nearest bottle into his empty glass.  His gaze remained riveted on her long hair and shapely arm as she withdrew the bottle and poured its contents into Hammer's glass instead.  A sudden uprush of sexual desire for her engulfed him at this moment, and he was hard put to restrain himself from reaching under the table for her nearest leg and caressing it.  Perhaps she would have appreciated such a gesture, even with her husband seated no more than a few yards away?  After all, it might have given her a perverse satisfaction to be surreptitiously admired in such palpable fashion in the presence of her legal spouse.  Yet he knew he wouldn't commit himself to that possibility but remain committed, instead, to the belief that it would disgrace him and scandalize her, irrespective of the evidently drunken condition most of the male guests were in by now and the unquestionable kindness and generosity of the hostess herself.  Thus when, after a few tense minutes had elapsed, they were all staggering-up from the table, he realized that he had been sitting on his hands, since they were now somewhat sore.

 

The participants divided into little groups of twos and threes as they ambled out of the dining room and back towards the lounge, where some of them were destined to remain for an hour or two or, at any rate, until such time as they felt in a fit state to return home, whether by car or taxi.  Douglas Searle and Trevor Jenkinson appeared to be leaning on each other's shoulders for mutual support, though it was virtually impossible to tell to what extent the one was physically supporting the other or whether, in fact, they were really supporting each other at all.  Brady had an arm round the bare shoulders of Susan Healy, his latest caryatid, and Hammer, who had come to a sudden standstill in the intervening hall, was boastfully displaying his long powerful fingers to Rachel Davis, demonstrating, it appeared, a piano technique which he hoped she would find time to write about in her paper. 

     As for James Kelly, he found himself listening once again, at the door of the dining room, to the entrancing sound of Mrs Searle's voice, which was saying some kind words in praise of his latest novel - a work of romantic import enigmatically entitled 'The Divided Lover'.  She confessed to being especially impressed by chapter eight, a chapter, however, which, in his inebriated state of mind, Kelly could barely remember having written, let alone recollect.  So he contented himself with nodding his head in apparent approval while simultaneously smiling into the cavernous eyes of his beautiful hostess, whose graceful body stood no more than a few inches from his own.

     "One would think you'd written the novel under the influence, if that's the right phrase, of Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza," Mrs Searle was saying.  "For there are certain passages in it which profoundly remind one of the technique employed by Huxley in what is, after all, generally regarded as his best novel.  And its leading character reminds one of Anthony Beavis here and there, particularly in his views on politics."

     "Really?" responded Kelly, feeling somewhat alarmed by the prospect.  "I'm afraid I shall have to disappoint you where the presumed influence of that novel is concerned, since I can't ever recall having read it."

     Mrs Searle was affected more from the almost triumphantly arrogant way James Kelly had stated this than from what was said, and blushed accordingly.  "Oh well, I guess I was deceiving myself," she confessed.  "Still, I'm probably justified in drawing analogies between the two novels all the same, even if Huxley's happens to be the greater."

     From where he stood, Kelly had no difficulty noticing her seductively prominent medium-sized breasts, the upper halves of which were exposed to telling effect by the low-cut vest she wore.  He felt a momentary impulse to congratulate her on the effect they were having on him, but immediately quashed this wild notion by awkwardly inquiring if she still wrote poetry, since he remembered her having mentioned something about occasional poetic leanings a number of months ago.

     "Yes, I write short lyric poems whenever I get the desired inspiration, which, alas, isn't all that often these days," replied Mrs Searle, who lowered her eyes in shame and began to blush again, albeit ever so endearingly.

     "I wouldn't mind taking a look at them sometime," Kelly murmured, while thinking to himself that her blush was all the ignition a man would need to spark off his engine and put it in top gear, so to speak.  "I'm sure they'd prove most interesting," he weakly added.

     Just at that moment, however, there was an almighty commotion from the lounge in consequence of the mutual drunkenness of Trevor Jenkinson and Douglas Searle, who had fallen over each other and overturned a coffee table and a couple of wooden chairs in the process.  As Mrs Searle and her admiring guest quickly headed in their direction, Brady was vainly attempting to wrench Mr Searle back to his unsteady feet, though his effort to do so only resulted in his being dragged to the floor by the latter's outstretched hand, to the patent amusement of those already on it.

     "Can't they stay on their bloody feet," sneered Hammer, as he leant against the lounge door and peered-in at the chaotic and vaguely obscene spectacle before him.  "They won't get me down there, anyway.  Here, James, you're a fit-looking young fellow!  See what you can do."

     But when he got to the door, Kelly was too mesmerised by the sight of Susan Healy being pulled to the floor by her plump boyfriend, and having over two-thirds of her sexy legs exposed, to be of any immediate use to anyone in that regard.

     "Anybody else to come down?" chuckled Jenkinson sarcastically, as his attention veered towards Rachel Davis and Mrs Searle, who were standing closely together just inside the door, and whose embarrassment was plain for all to see.  In fact, Mr Searle was almost looking up his wife's miniskirt from where he lay helplessly spread-eagled on the carpet.

     "You can try him, if you like," giggled Rachel, while Kelly took hold of Jenkinson's outstretched hand and, as though bracing himself for a tug-of-war, methodically pulled the drunken author back to his feet, and this in spite of his own manifest lack of sobriety.

     "You damn spoilsport!" growled Brady as he, in turn, found himself being hauled back to the semblance of upright respectability and gently pushed in the direction of the leather-backed couch upon which Jenkinson was already sprawled in seemingly sybaritic abandon, like a Roman patrician.  "Anyone would think James preferred bloody standing to lying," he ironically grumbled, taking hold of his girlfriend in passing and giving her a playful slap on the backside.

     But the effort of pulling the third man to his feet proved too much for Kelly and, before he could let go of Mr Searle's hand, he found himself lying face-down on the floor, to the vengeful amusement of Jenkinson and Brady, who almost fell off the couch in their sarcastic approval of this unseemly spectacle.  However, he wasn't there long, because Rachel Davis and Mrs Searle combined to pull him to his feet, leaving Mr Searle to struggle for himself.  And it was Mrs Searle who used this physical assistance as an excuse for grasping Kelly at the waist with both hands and offering him temporary support against the unsteadiness of his legs.  Her breasts heaved perceptibly as he leant against her with one arm draped about her neck and the other one wrapped gently round her waist, as though they had just concluded an exhausting dance, and, despite her husband's close proximity, she couldn't prevent herself from smiling into Kelly's eyes and blushing anew in the process.  It was a wonder to him, at this moment, that he didn't proceed to fuck her there in front of her still spread-eagled husband and the other inebriated guests, but he simply thanked her instead and modestly helped himself to a comfortable seat.

     Later that night, Kelly was able to return to his flat with the knowledge that Mrs Searle, or Paloma (as he now preferred to think of her), had not only bid him goodbye with the words "I specially look forward to seeing you again on July the Fourth" on her lovely lips, but had used them, moreover, to kiss him on the cheek as, leaving after the others, he parted company with her in the presence of no-one but themselves.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

The Thursday morning of the following week brought James Kelly to the West End in order to discuss a new project with his agent, and later that day, with business concluded more or less to their mutual satisfaction, he decided to visit the nearby National Gallery in Trafalgar Square - a thing he hadn't done for several years, largely because, as an Irish citizen, he considered it irrelevant to his nationality.

     Arriving at the gallery in an optimistic frame-of-mind, he headed straight for Room 45, where the Impressionists were exhibited.  In consequence of anti-Christian sentiments he always preferred to start his tour of the rooms back-to-front and to follow an anti-clockwise direction, thereby guaranteeing himself the maximum of patience and concentration for the secular works, which he feared might not get investigated at all were he to begin the other way around, as presumably most visitors to the National did, and thus wade through medieval Christendom first.... Not that he was entirely prejudiced against the religious paintings.  For there were, among their considerable number, some he still quite admired on account of the brilliance of their colours and the precision of their details.  But, generally speaking, he was more drawn to the secular than to the religious works, which was why he invariably began at the end.

     On this occasion, however, with the exception of a brief glance en passant at Seurat's Bathers, Asnières, which he admired more for the degree of perseverance required in the execution of its pointillist technique than for its simple subject-matter, he ignored the Impressionists altogether and proceeded straight to Room 35, in which a number of Canaletto's Venetian scenes were hung.  It struck him as being singularly appropriate, as he stood respectfully in front of View of the Grand Canal, Venice, that this great artist should have been born with the name Canal - a name he subsequently modified - in view of his considerable predilection for depicting the leading canals of Venice!  Chief among the many qualities which appealed to Kelly about this painter's work was its in-depth perspective, its ability to conquer the flat planes of the canvas with a three-dimensional illusion which, as one followed the lines of the buildings on either side of the canal along to that point in the far distance where they appeared to converge, almost beguiled one into taking it for reality, so accomplished was the resultant artistry.  With Canaletto, one didn't merely view a painting which depicted a Venetian scene; one virtually became an integral part of it, a passenger, as it were, on a gondola heading downstream with hundreds of fellow-passengers in front of one.  And to make the illusion more complete, the buildings on either side of the canal weren't invariably spotlessly clean or new-looking but, with few exceptions, betrayed various stages of dilapidation: the painter having meticulously endowed certain walls with quite severe attacks of mildew or paint erosion.

     On the other side of the room, the Regatta on the Grand Canal, Venice presented a much more intricate spectacle to the eye as, with mounting humility in the presence of such skill, Kelly took especial note of the great crowds taking part in the regatta where, in the foreground, every figure had been given a carefully defined costume and a no-less carefully defined physiognomy.  There could be no question of any of the numerous participants being confounded with insignificant blobs of paint, as in the case of much twentieth-century art, where the conceptual took precedence over the perceptual and emotional subjectivity accordingly prevailed.  This was not decadent art, still less anti-art, but painterly art-proper and, as such, the depiction of everything had to be highly meticulous, in accordance with the more concretely objective criteria of that age.

     Passing on through the nearest rooms, it soon became apparent to James Kelly that the National Gallery was playing host, as usual, to large numbers of foreign nationals of mostly Continental origin who wandered from painting to painting in small groups and talked between themselves in respectfully subdued tones, occasionally halting to inquire of a uniformed attendant, as best they could, where one could find a certain painting or gallery.  It was indeed pleasing to behold all these French, Italian, Spanish, and German tourists who were only really there, after all, because of the large amount of art which their ancestors had produced and which, by some quirk of historical fate, now reposed in England's foremost gallery.

     The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin, one of those ancestors who happened to be French, brought Kelly's wanderings to a temporary halt in Room 32, which appeared to be the largest in the entire building.  Although the actual subject held no great appeal for him, it served to remind him of the Poussins he had viewed in the Louvre, a few years previously.  He recalled that virtually the entire length of a ground-floor gallery had been devoted to the works of this singular genius, who obviously held a special position in the hierarchy of French classical art.  In addition to the 'Golden Calf' motif, which could also be found in the Louvre, Kelly now unearthed some fragments of memory associated with classical ruins - a subject which seemed to figure rather prominently in Poussin's vast oeuvre.  But he had to admit that the colour schemes usually adopted by this master, with their ochreous mixtures of brown, red, pink, and pale orange, usually depressed him after a while, as did his rather down-to-earth choice of subject-matter, and this occasion was to prove no exception! 

     On the other hand, The Preaching of St. John the Baptist by Van Haalem (1562-1638) providentially provided him with the antidote he required to disperse the depressing effects of Poussin, whose matt tones were now eclipsed by the brilliant colours of this magnificent painting.  There was nothing of late-Christian austerity or melancholy about this colourful outpouring of religious fervour, as the great prophet confidently announced the glad tidings of Christ's Coming to a motley crowd standing in a forest glade which, bathed in luminous light from the open spaces beyond, was distinctly suggestive of the Supernatural, so ethereal was the overall impression.  For James Kelly, paintings of this nature partly redeemed religious art in his eyes, made them appear precious to an otherwise irreligious or secular temperament.  Even if, from the vantage-point of late-twentieth-century secularism, one despised traditional religion, with its objective faith in miracles and superstitious clinging to outmoded beliefs, of which the concept of a unitary Creator was the most fundamental in Kelly's estimation, one was constrained to admit that it had inspired a wealth of extremely beautiful art, and some of that art, no matter how irrelevant from a contemporary standpoint, was deserving of due recognition.

     Abandoning the small central area between the two main parts of Room 28, Kelly immediately headed towards Room 22, wherein he wanted to gaze at The Toilet of Venus, the divine cynosure of which suggested a likeness, in his imagination, to the supple body of Paloma Searle, whom he had never seen nude but was inclined to suppose, from recent experience, the possessor of a similarly shaped body herself.  However, he had only just set foot in this particular room when he caught sight of a young woman with long wavy-blonde hair who was viewing the work in question.  Freezing in his tracks, he gazed with rapture upon the hair and shapely calf-muscles of this fair person, whose physical appearance, seen from behind, almost surrealistically connoted with the Adoration of the Golden Calf he had viewed only a few minutes before.  Dismissing the connotation as frivolous, he discreetly approached the real-life woman, so that they were standing side-by-side in front of the Velazquez, and endeavoured, with a slight turn of his neck, to peer into her face, which at that moment was presented in profile.  However, this slight movement was insufficient to distract her attention from that part of the painting in which its subject's face is reflected in the small mirror held up to her by a cherub positioned at the foot of the luxuriously draped bed upon which the goddess of love reclines.  But before he could muster the courage to risk another glance at her, she had taken leave of the painting and was heading towards the exit.

     Panic-stricken at the prospect of losing sight of her, Kelly automatically abandoned his intention of studying the Valazquez and, slightly self-consciously, followed her at a discreet distance.  Once more, he had time to note the seductive contours of her pale-stockinged legs and the volatile texture of her hair, before she came to a gentle halt in front of Rubens' Rape of the Sabines in Room 20.  Not wishing to follow her directly to that turbulent painting, which was hung in the middle of the nearest wall between two other works by the same artist, he brought himself to a halt beside The Triumph of Julius Caesar and gave its vibrant colours, painted in the manner of Mantegna, a cursory inspection.  But although this was one of the paintings he had particularly intended to view, his gaze soon reverted to the unknown beauty, whose attention he so desperately wanted to attract.

     This time, however, he was more successful.  For she turned a pair of inscrutable eyes upon him just long enough to enable him to discern the extent of her facial beauty.  His heart leapt excitedly, as his mind registered its full impact.  But he was unable to prevent a feeling of acute self-consciousness from marring an otherwise objective appraisal, and quickly returned his attention to the Rubens again.  He suddenly felt the urge to swallow hard, but was afraid he would only make a noise which would compromise him and increase his embarrassment.  Ironically, the perfectly representational painting in front of him had been transformed into a jumble of nondescript shapes and blurred colours, akin to abstract expressionism, under pressure of his emotions, which threatened to break out of the prison of skull containing them and explode in all directions at once, bespattering both viewers and paintings alike with bits of his brain.  At that moment he needed to sit down to recover his aplomb, but the few seats in the room were already occupied.  An elderly couple came from nowhere and stood next to the woman who had ignited his emotions, tantalizingly blocking his view of her.

     Turning away from them, he strode across to a painting directly opposite the one he had been trembling in front of and, with considerable difficulty, managed to decipher its title.  Ordinarily he would have had no trouble distinguishing the broad outlines of The Judgement of Paris.  But since the thunderbolt of love struck him, he found it difficult to even recognize it as one of Rubens' paintings, regardless of the fact that he had stood in front of it on at least three previous occasions and noted the turbulence and, to his mind, excessive flabbiness so characteristic of this master's buxom females.  Today, however, he was conscious of only one thing - namely, the desire to make the blonde his girlfriend that very day!

     A second or two later he became freshly conscious of a slim figure in a white vest and matching miniskirt passing closely behind him - oh, so closely as to gently brush the arm of his sleeve!  A faint aroma of sweet perfume lodged in his nostrils as she turned the corner and disappeared from sight.  Overcoming his timidity vis-à-vis the room's attendant, who stared directly at him as he broke away from the Rubens, he followed the young beauty, at a discreet distance, into Room 15, where she subsequently came to a respectful halt in front of Correggio's The School of Love.  Unable from shyness to follow her directly to it, he took up a parallel position in front of that same master's Ecce Homo, the other side of one of the room's exits.  He was conscious, as he came to a halt in front of this painting, that the young woman was perfectly aware of the fact he had been following her.  For she stared across the intervening space at him a moment, before returning her attention to the canvas in front of her.  As he in turn returned his attention to the Correggio, he noticed, out of the corner of his right eye, something bright and, turning his head towards the wall which formed a right-angle with the one in front of him, he beheld a portrait entitled A Blonde Woman, whose long wavy-golden hair and impassive face, painted with what appeared to be consummate skill by Palma Vecchio, struck him as profoundly akin to the woman he had just followed into the room.  Admittedly, the eyes were brown instead of blue, but in so many other respects the face bore a remarkable resemblance to that of the real woman who stood no more than eight or nine yards to his left.  Perhaps this was a lucky omen, an indication that he ought to make her acquaintance in this very room and thereby achieve the initial part of his romantic objectives?  He didn't really know what to think.  But, correspondences aside, he realized that he would have to act pretty soon if he didn't want to lose her and perhaps spend the rest of the day regretting his indecision!

     Glancing back over his shoulder, he noticed that the young beauty in question had taken up a position in front of Bronzino's alluring Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, the far side of the room.  This intriguing allegory, in which Venus is being kissed and fondled by Cupid, while Time, in the guise of an old winged greybeard, holds up the pale-blue drapery upon which the goddess poses and Folly clasps his demented head in what appears to be jealous disapproval, was easily the most erotic of all the nude paintings in the National Gallery, forming, for most people, the undisputed cynosure of the room.  It occurred to James Kelly that if he could muster the courage or willpower to go across to the painting and make a show of admiring it, he would have an excellent opportunity to attract her attention with a smiling glance, and thus make it perfectly clear to her that he was interested in doing something similar.  From then on, everything should follow like clockwork.

     Calling upon every shred of willpower at his disposal, he crossed the room and stationed himself beside the blonde.  With a brief inspection of Venus' naked body behind him, he stole a glance at her latter-day counterpart, whose lips had formed into a gentle smile.  Could it be that she was smiling from pride at being admired by such a handsome young man as himself, or was there something about the painting which amused her - say, its overly erotic proceedings?  Naturally, it wasn't a question he cared to dwell on there and then.  What mattered was finding the courage to say something to her and somehow get a conversation under way.

     Already the words were on the tip of his tongue and, just as he was about to open his mouth and allow them to tumble out, along came a middle-aged man in expensive-looking clothes who stationed himself immediately to her right!  He swallowed hard to quell the incipient tumble of admiring words and simultaneously stifle the anger and frustration mounting inside him, as the incident brought a fresh rush of blood to his face.  It was as though he had been caught red-handed in the act of doing something dishonourable.  For even the painting, ordinarily one which would have added some amusement to his aesthetic appreciation of its graceful outlines, now caused him to feel uncomfortable in light of his seductive intent.

     Confined for the nonce to the cage of his psychological discomfiture, he kept his attention focused on the dove beneath Cupid's right foot at the bottom left-hand corner of the painting, in an attempt to conceal his embarrassment from the other viewers.  What he actually saw of it was little more than a blur, but at least this stratagem provided him with something to cling-on to in the face of his shameful predicament.  But why oh why did that idiot have to come between him and his intentions at the vital moment!  How could he possibly be expected to commit himself to making the young beauty's acquaintance in front of a middle-aged intruder whose respectful demeanour created the distinct impression that such a thing wasn't done in galleries, least of all in galleries of this magnitude, where classical and religious art ruled supreme?  Admittedly, he had never attempted to pick anyone up in a gallery of any description before, since a certain moral misgiving about the whole idea of 'picking up' female strangers had often installed itself into his consciousness at critical times, making him mindful of the risks involved, and having more than a little to do with his unwillingness, as a cultured person, to be seduced by appearances alone, which would somehow have struck him as somehow cheap and superficial.  Ideally, one waited for the right female to come along, and one only got to know her by degrees, as the regular contacts one had with her blossomed into an amorous relationship.  In the meantime, one just had to be patient and play the waiting game.

     But there were times - and this was evidently one of them - when one was literally overwhelmed by the stunning beauty of a delightful stranger who happened to cross one's path and, no matter where it was, felt literally compelled to 'pick her up'.  At such times, the power of beauty, the promise of real sexual fulfilment, seemed to overrule any abstract ethical conceptions one might ordinarily have adhered to, in consequence of which one found oneself committed to securing her companionship on the grounds that such beauty precluded the likelihood of psychological incompatibility and accordingly rendered preliminary associations irrelevant.

     It seemed an eternity to James Kelly as he stood in front of the Bronzino and continued to stare at the white dove, not knowing what to do next.  Although he had only been there little over a minute he felt that if he didn't act immediately, either by wrenching himself away from the painting altogether or, preferably, turning towards the 'Venus' beside him to unburden his heart to her, the situation would become too conspicuously embarrassing and people would become cynically suspicious of his motives for standing where he was, in such close proximity to the young woman in question.  Then they would follow him through the room with disapproving eyes or whisper between themselves in sarcastic derision at his lack of cultural reverence.

     Confined to the cage of his personal subjectivity, Kelly could only speculate along these rather paranoid lines.  For in this unbalanced state-of-mind it simply didn't occur to him that other people might not give a damn whether he said anything to the female by his side or not; that they might even take them for lovers anyway, and be more interested in viewing paintings than listening-in to other people's conversations.  He was much too self-centred to think anything of the kind, so preoccupied had he become with the struggle going on inside him between the desire to avoid making a fool of himself and the much more positive desire to obtain what he was after.  And, not surprisingly, it was the latter which was winning out, since he now resolved to speak to the woman regardless of the consequences.  The smartly-dressed bourgeois tourist had been reduced, as this resolve took shape in a moment of supreme defiance, to an insignificant foreigner whose opinions didn't matter and who, in any case, stood about as much chance of 'picking up' the blonde at his expense as he would stand if, as a balding English tourist with a burgeoning paunch, he was attempting to 'pick up' some beautiful Italian woman at the expense of a handsome young Italian in some Florentine or Rome gallery.

     Clearing his throat for the benefit of the beautiful stranger, he turned his neck to the right and ... but no! How could it possibly be?  For he encountered the middle-aged tourist and another, younger man whom he hadn't noticed before!  His expression immediately changed to horrified amazement at the sight of them and, tearing himself away from where he stood, he hurried across to the centre of the room to get a better view of his surroundings.  Of the twelve or thirteen other people there, not one of them was wearing a white vest or displaying a beautiful pair of firm legs beneath the rim of a tight-fitting miniskirt.  He recalled that he had been so embarrassed, on first sighting the middle-aged tourist, that he had endeavoured to conceal it from the young woman by riveting his attention on the furthermost corner of the painting from her.  And, during that time, she had evidently taken her leave of it and exited the room!  But in which direction?  After all, there were three exits to choose from here, which made it trebly difficult to come to the right decision.  It was unlikely, anyway, that she had returned through the one which had served them both as an entrance to the room, so that left two.  Since a poker-faced attendant was standing by the exit in front of him at that moment, he decided to try the one to his right.

     Taking no interest in the paintings exhibited in the adjoining rooms, he kept his eyes peeled for the woman whose beauty had so captivated him earlier that afternoon.  He passed through at least four rooms in quick succession, but without visible success.  She was nowhere to be seen!

     Too annoyed with himself for having lost track of her, yet too intent on finding her again to be particularly disconcerted by his swift passage through successive rooms, he gave the greater part of his attention to scrutinizing the visitors encountered en route, ignoring, where possible, both attendants and paintings alike.  Only in Rooms 9 and 10 did he allow his preoccupation with the elusive beauty to be shelved awhile, as some of the paintings there captured his attention.  In Room 9, for instance, The Family of Darius before Alexander stopped him in his tracks for a moment as, with slightly less than his customary attention to detail, he granted this huge masterpiece by Paolo Veronese a sort of reverential inspection.  Nearby, Tintoretto's St. George and the Dragon managed to arrest his attention in like fashion, whilst, on another wall, the same master's Origin of the Milky Way returned him to something approaching his usual self, as, forgetting the cause of his recent tribulations, he permitted his gaze to wander over the entire range of this highly imaginative canvas, noting, in particular, the golden stars which spurted from the breasts of the naked mother of the Milky Way who, raising herself on one hand from the luxuriously draped bed to the left of the painting, receives the attentions of a suckling child held up to her left breast by a father-figure, presumably God, whose nudity is wrapped in salmon-pink drapery.  In addition to four cherubim, one beheld two pheasants to the lower right-hand side of the canvas and an eagle, or other bird of prey, carrying in its talons what at first sight looked like a crab but which, on closer inspection, transpired to being a sort of bushy-tailed monster with pointed limbs and a sharply protruding tongue - in short, the Devil.  The entire scene, set in the heavens, with clouds above and below the naked woman, was suggestive of some strange surrealism peculiar to the sixteenth century.  The colour combinations used in its composition were still extremely impressive.

     Stationed there with hands in his jacket pockets, Kelly found himself wondering why none of the nudes he had seen on canvas that day seemed to possess any pubic hair, but generally presented an appearance of innocent sexlessness.  The erotic content had been narrowed down, in the vast majority of cases, to the breasts and thighs, so that only a mild stimulus resulted.  Obviously, it was necessary for the gallery not to create a public scandal or give offence to various people by displaying anything highly erotic.  And it was evidently just as necessary not to encourage the wrong sort of people into the gallery for the wrong reasons, including a desire to masturbate in front of something or someone.  Somehow a golden mean had to be established in the interests of both gallery and public alike.  But, even so, Kelly wasn't completely satisfied by this conviction as to the real reason for the absence of pubic hair from such nudes as presented their lower abdomen to public scrutiny.  Heading towards Room 10, he convinced himself that it was simply not the done thing, in religious art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to depict pubic hair on canvas.

     However, the despondency which had earlier engulfed him at not being able to find the young woman he had lost track of in Room 15, temporarily palliated by the genius of Tintoretto, now returned to him in full measure, and it was as much as he could do to adopt anything approaching a receptive frame-of-mind as he stood in front of Mantegna's Agony in the Garden - a work which, on previous occasions, had never failed to impress him.  Of the two paintings by this title hung to either side of the nearer of the two exits from the room, it was the Mantegna rather than the Bellini which he had a special fondness for, even though the latter was unquestionably a significant work.  However, much as he could still appreciate its brilliant colour-scheme, his disturbed state-of-mind made him somewhat critical of the fact that the wonderful aesthetic effects created by its highly engaging colours, reminiscent of the Van Haalem noted earlier, were at distinct loggerheads with the theme the painting sought to convey.  Instead of being made conscious of Christ's agony, one's attention was arrested by the beauty and technical mastery of the composition itself.  And the same criticism could also be levelled at Giovanni Bellini's version, though perhaps to a lesser extent, in view of the sombre clouds which hovered ominously above the Saviour's head, like some dark bird of prey, and the less-vibrant tones employed in its execution.  He felt quite certain, at any rate, that had a modern artist like, say, Francis Bacon or Eduard Munch tackled this subject, the agony of Christ's suffering would have been conveyed to the viewer in no uncertain terms!

     Taking his leave of the manneristic works in question, he reluctantly allowed himself to be seduced into admiring Mantegna's The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome.  There was something about the silver figures before his eyes which mitigated the despondency he had been plunged into anew, in consequence of his unappeased desire.  Perhaps the fact of their being pertinent to an engraving rather than to a painting had some significance in this respect?  He couldn't tell, but he was grateful, all the same, that the work of this leading fifteenth-century artist had an effect on him akin to a mild soporific.  However, he hadn't entirely abandoned all hope of finding the young woman and introducing himself to her.  Admittedly, he wasn't as keen now as he had been, a few minutes before, to hunt through successive rooms in search of his sexual quarry with a near-philistine disregard for their time-hallowed contents.  He had virtually resigned himself to having lost her.  But there were still a number of rooms to investigate and, for all he knew, she might well be in one of them.

     He had arrived at an area between rooms with a winding staircase leading to the downstairs galleries.  Never having visited them in the past, he thought it worth his while to check things out anyway, in the hope that, even if his quarry wasn't there, he would encounter something he hadn't seen before.  But despite his interest in a few of the exhibits, he couldn't draw any real relief from this change of scenery.  In gallery A, which was by far the largest, he found himself walking between numerous rows of paintings hung on elongated wooden supports, thereby enabling the gallery in question to exhibit hundreds of works in the immense space between the walls, which, in any case, were almost entirely hidden behind paintings.  Conscious of the many attendants on duty there, Kelly feigned interest, as best he could, in the exhibits, turning his gaze to left and right as he went up one row and down another, so to speak, and briefly stopping in front of one of them every so often.  On the end of a row to the left of the gallery, a work entitled The Worship of the Egyptian Bull-God, Apis genuinely intrigued him.  But, although he would have ideally preferred to give the gallery as a whole more attention than he actually was doing, this Fillippino Lippi notwithstanding, the recollection of his real motive for being there spurred him on to taking his leave of it.  Yet the golden-haired woman was nowhere to be found in any of the adjoining galleries either, and, of all the colourful paintings being exhibited, he could only bring himself to halt briefly in front of two - the first, in gallery B, entitled Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures, which was attributed to the Flemish School Ca. 1620, and the second, in gallery F, entitled The Toilet of Venus, from the studio of Guido Reni (1575-1642), which, though manifestly inferior to the one upstairs, nevertheless intrigued him on account of the fact that he hadn't realized there existed another version of this theme, but had been content, for some curious reason, to regard the Velazquez as the only one of its kind!  And neither had he been aware that, in addition to Nicolas Poussin, there was also a Charles Poussin, an engaging example of whose work had been put on show in one of the downstairs galleries.  But he couldn't permit himself to linger any longer in this particular department of the National Gallery since, at that moment, the sensual desire to set eyes on the real-life 'Venus' again was much stronger than the aesthetic desire to contemplate any number of representational paintings, for which, in any case, he had much less enthusiasm, these days, than formerly.

     Once upstairs, however, he felt his heart sink at the immensity of the task before him, of the vast number of rooms he would still have to traverse in his endeavour to find her!  He had already walked backwards and forwards from room to room and gallery to gallery with no success and, not altogether surprisingly, his legs were less fresh now than at the beginning.  By the time he got to Room 8, he had resigned all hope of achieving his objective and, with a sigh of defeat, he slumped resignedly onto one of its soft-leather seats.  In front of him, da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks appeared more melancholy than on any previous occasion he could recall - in fact so melancholy, that he could hardly bear to look at it!  He felt doubly cheated for having lost the woman who had, wittingly or unwittingly, seduced him into following her in the first place and, through his obsession with her, deprived him of a studious appreciation of a number of paintings which, despite their manifest antiquity, weren't entirely without some contemporary relevance.  It seemed to him, as he sat with bowed head, that the afternoon had been thoroughly misspent; that he should never have elected to visit the National Gallery in the first place.  In consequence of which, the only sensible thing to do now, in order not to prolong the agony, was to apply the coup de grâce to himself and leave the place without further ado!

     Forcing himself up from the seat with this in mind, he ambled towards the exit, scarcely bothering to pay any attention to those around him.  To the left and several yards ahead of him, in one of the smaller rooms, a middle-aged woman was being informed by a stern-faced attendant that it was illegal to step over the rope to take a closer look at the paintings.  Undaunted, the woman then blandly informed the attendant that she had absolutely no intention of touching or damaging anything.  But the attendant, trained to do a specific job, still requested her to step back over the rope.  Not taking any notice of him, the woman continued to inspect the small painting before her eyes, and the attendant, growing sterner by the second, persisted in requesting her to step back over the rope and thus abide by the rules.  As Kelly passed by the room he heard the attendant call for the supervisor, and felt a bitter anger growing inside him at the stupidity and unreasonableness of the offending viewer.  It didn't occur to him that she might be short-sighted, but it certainly occurred to him, as he took a passing glance at her, that it was just the sort of futile scene to mark the climax of an altogether futile afternoon.

     When he arrived in the commercial area, however, his glum state-of-mind suddenly took a turn for the better, and he decided to buy a postcard of The Toilet of Venus to commemorate the occasion of his first setting eyes on the young woman who happened to be staring at that painting at the time.  In addition, he bought a few other postcards, including Van Huijsum's Fruit and Flowers, which circumstances had prevented him from viewing in the flesh, as it were, of the actual work.  Then he headed for the exit and, pushing his way through its swing-doors, came to an abrupt standstill just outside.  For the person who caught his attention at that very moment was none other than the woman for whom he had been frantically searching all afternoon!  And she was not staring-out over Trafalgar Square or looking at other people.  Standing with her back to the railings, she was staring directly at him!

     As though at a command from her eyes he was beside her and mumbling an invitation to a meal somewhere.  She smiled her acceptance and, within a couple of minutes, they were walking down the steps together and proceeding in the general direction of Charing Cross Road.  He soon learnt that her name was Sharon, and that she was an actress.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

The Fourth of July arrived so quickly that James Kelly could hardly believe he was actually on his way to Mark Benson's house that Saturday evening, as the taxi ground its way through the busy streets of North London.  Had he not met Sharon when he did his chances of acquiring the costume in which he was now somewhat shamefacedly attired would have been extremely remote.  But thanks to her theatrical connections she had secured him access to this costume free-of-charge, and solely on the condition that he didn't damage it or allow anyone else to steal it from him.

     Although there was little about this particular costume to suggest that he represented a necessarily infamous personage, its eighteenth-century design, in particular the black tail-coat and white breeches, suggested the likelihood of some fictional character - the character, in his case, being none other than Mephistopheles.  With a wig of curly-red hair and two small plastic cream-coloured horns protruding from it in the vicinity of his temples, Kelly felt confident that his choice of role would meet with general approval and secure him the confidence of his fellow 'rogues'.  In his tail-coat pocket he had secreted the small black eye mask that he intended to wear only when the taxi arrived at its destination.  In the meantime, he didn't want to draw undue attention to himself from people in the street, though, God knows, he looked silly enough as it was!

     As for Sharon, he was slightly upset that she hadn't been able to come to the fancy-dress ball with him, since he felt confident that her presence would have met with considerable approval, especially from other males.  But if she had to act on Saturday evenings, then there was nothing he could do about it.  He had promised, anyway, to tell her all about the event afterwards.

     Arriving at Mr Benson's address he hastily put on his eye mask, paid the cabby, who seemed not to find anything particularly amusing or eccentric about his appearance at this juncture, and hurried across the driveway to the front door of the large detached house.  There was a good deal of noise coming from behind it, which Kelly gratefully noted as he self-consciously rang the bell.  Almost immediately, the door was answered and a figure wearing a white eye mask and dressed in what he supposed to be an angel's costume, with golden paper halo, large golden cardboard wings protruding from behind, and a long white gown, beamed a welcoming smile at him from the other side.

     "May I have the pleasure of knowing who you are, sir?" the 'angel' requested.

     Kelly held out his invitation card to her and, not without a degree of ironic amusement, announced his role-name.

     "Welcome Mephistopheles!" cried the 'angel', taking his card and ushering him into the hall.  Then turning to the guests already assembled there, she in turn announced his adopted name and, grasping hold of his hand, led him in the direction of a lively living room which contained, in addition to numerous guests, a long table crammed with refreshments.  There was sporadic applause as he made his entry, and one or two people clapped him on the back.  The 'angel', having ascertained what he would like to drink, duly poured him a glass of red wine and informed him that all but a few of the rooms in the house were open to his curiosity, since it was both impossible and undesirable to fit all the many guests solely into the downstairs ones.

     "You wouldn't happen to be Mrs Benson, by any chance?" asked Kelly as he received his glass.

     "I oughtn't really to tell you that," the 'angel' replied, taking him by the arm.  "But if you promise to keep it a secret...." She smiled and faintly nodded her head.  "Sylvia actually," she added with a playful wink.  But before he could ask anything else, she had excused herself on the pretext of door duty, leaving him to fend for himself.

     Feeling a bit bashfully self-conscious in the living room, where at that moment he appeared to be the only one with anything approximating to a diabolical appearance, Kelly wandered out into the spacious entrance hall in Sylvia's wake and was just in time to see another guest being announced to those still assembled there as "Count Dracula!"  The newcomer wore a long black cape over matching trousers and had the temerity to acknowledge her announcement with a display of counterfeit fangs, which hugely impressed everyone.  His face, coated in a white powdery substance, assumed an expression of calculated repugnance when the 'angel' boldly offered him her neck to kiss.  To everyone's surprise he kissed her hand instead, commenting that he only nourished himself on other people's blood in private, when they were least expecting it.  The voice wasn't one with which Kelly was familiar.

     Farther along, in a large room the other side of the hall, he encountered a number of masked people standing round a snooker table where, it appeared, a game of snooker had just come to a conclusive end.  The winner, dressed in Nazi uniform, was being congratulated by several onlookers, among whom was a figure garbed in a cowboy outfit, with a black kerchief covering his nose and mouth, who patted him on the back.  The loser, standing dejectedly with cue in hand at the other end of the table, sported a high conical hat and long white beard, which gave him the distinct appearance of a necromancer.  A woman dressed in what looked like nineteenth-century nurse's uniform was knowledgeably preparing the table for the next frame.

     "And who-the-devil are you supposed to be?" a tall hooded figure demanded of Kelly as he turned to leave the room.

     "Er, Mephistopheles," the young man answered, feeling somewhat intimidated by the height of the figure who was now peering down at him from under a capacious hood.  Then, suddenly, he recognized the voice and shouted "Trevor!" in delighted surprise.

     "Shush!" exclaimed Jenkinson, while offering him his hand to clasp.  "We're not supposed to give one another away, you know."

     Kelly duly apologized.  "Well, my goodness, you're the last person I'd have expected to see dressed-up like that," he added, smiling.  "Who exactly are you?"

     "A leading member of the Spanish Inquisition," Jenkinson evasively confessed, driving a current of boozy breath up Kelly's nostrils.  "One has to aim high here." He turned towards the snooker table.  "You see that chap in the Nazi uniform?  Well, he's none other than Field Marshal Goering."

     "Really?"

     "Ja, though if you want to meet still higher-ranking members of the Nazi Party, you'll have to hunt around a bit.  I bumped into someone coming out of the upstairs toilet who described himself as Adolf Hitler a few minutes ago."

     "You did!?"  Kelly had almost forgotten that this was only a fancy-dress ball, so convincing were a number of the disguises.  He glanced uneasily towards the rather plump figure in pink uniform before returning to his senses, as it were, and asking his fellow-writer who the lady in the nurse's uniform considered herself to be?

     "Oh, that's Florence Nightingale," replied Jenkinson preparatory to emptying the contents of his beer glass down his throat in one loud gulp, and this in spite of the overbearing presence of his hood, which he somehow contrived to hold in place all the while.  "She's the wife of that fellow in the conical hat.  In fact, you wouldn't think she was wearing a uniform at all but for that zany little hat on her head.  Frankly, I'm not at all convinced that Florence Nightingale would have dressed like that.  Still, you could hardly take the woman for a nun or an angel now, could you?"

     Kelly couldn't disagree with him there.  "Surprises me she knows as much about snooker as she appears to," he murmured, just as the woman positioned the final ball for the next frame.

     "Probably on account of the fact that her husband's a fanatic," averred Jenkinson, casting the person in question a deferential glance.  "She knows where to put his balls alright!" he added, with an ironic chuckle.  "But let me tell you something."  He lowered his voice and drew himself closer to Kelly's nearest ear.  "They play for each other's wives."

     The younger man drew back, as though from a blow on the face.  "I don't quite understand," he confessed, with a puzzled frown.

     "That chap in the conical hat had just lost his second successive frame to 'Goering' when you came in here," Jenkinson revealed in the same low tone.  "Now when a man loses twice in a row there's only one way that he can prevent his rival from taking his wife for the night.  He must win the third and fourth frames.  If he loses again - and they always play at least three frames each - then he has no option but to sacrifice his wife to the victor.  If 'Goering' wins the next frame he'll have another woman to sleep with tonight.  If he loses, however, the chap in the conical hat will get another chance to retain his wife."

     "I simply can't believe it!" exclaimed Kelly, whose astonishment momentarily overrode his disgust with Jenkinson's boozy breath.

     "Well, believe it or not, it's a fucking fact nonetheless," insisted Jenkinson, frowning.  "They form a kind of once-weekly wife-swapping club."

     But for the black eye mask he was wearing, the look of amazement which Kelly focused upon the participants described to him would have been highly conspicuous.  As things stood, it was only moderately so.  "And how m-many of them are there?" he at length stammered.

     "Just three," Jenkinson revealed.  "To gain membership of their club one has to be a very competent snooker-player, someone who'll offer the others real competition.  And, needless to say, one has to have a wife who is both highly attractive and genuinely desirable to the other competitors.  Obviously, the circumstances are so special as to preclude all but a few couples from taking part, since the women must be willing to be, er, sacrificed in the event of their husbands losing the battle, and therefore they must have a liking for their husbands' competitors, who must also have a liking for them, so that mutual sex is desirable.  Thus active membership of the club has been confined to three couples at any given time, though I understand there is currently a waiting-list of prospective couples numbering eight."

     "Eight couples?" cried Kelly, patently astonished.

     "Shush! Keep your ruddy voice down," hissed Jenkinson.  "Not everyone in this room is familiar with the proceedings."  He glanced around them to reassure himself that no-one had overheard or was listening-in, before continuing: "The club's founder-member, who incidentally is the one disguised as Jessie James, started the ball rolling, as it were, just over three years ago.  He's an excellent snooker player and, so far, hasn't lost more than three matches in succession.  Now a match is usually comprised, as I've already intimated, of three frames.  If you lose five matches in succession you automatically forfeit your membership of the club, since there must be a strong element of competition involved if the wife-swapping business isn't to become too predictable.  Now since the time of the club's foundation, seven competitors have been knocked out of it and seven fresh ones have taken their places.  The chap dressed as Goering, who incidentally is Mark Benson, has been a member of the club for little under six months, while the one in the conical hat has only been a member about four months.  As things stand, he had lost four matches in succession during the past month - one match a week.  Now if he loses this one he'll have to withdraw from the club and the remaining two members will be obliged to elect a suitable successor.  You can begin to see why he looked so despondent, after having lost the second frame, and why the victor was being so heartily congratulated.  For the prospect of a new member is always something that particularly appeals to the club's founder, who relishes the chance of sleeping with a different woman for a change."

     "Do they play only one match a week?" asked Kelly, with a puzzled expression on his masked face.

     "The maximum is two matches," replied Jenkinson before casting a glance in the direction of the snooker table, where the third frame had, in the meantime, just got under way.  "But if you lose a match, then you only get to play one.  The victor plays a second with the other chap, which gives him the opportunity of sleeping with two extra women if he wins.  If he loses the second match, however, he sacrifices his wife, though he still has the consolation of sleeping with the wife of the man he beat in the first match.  The advantage of winning both matches is that it puts him in a position where he can also win two matches the following week, since he gets to play first.  The chap he then plays is determined by the toss of a coin.  On the other hand, if he wins the first match but loses the second one, he plays the fellow who beat him first the following week.  That makes it possible for one of the two winners of the previous week to win two matches, whereas the first loser only gets a chance to win one, since he plays second."

     "I'm not sure I quite follow all that, but I think I've got the gist of it," admitted Kelly, feeling thoroughly perplexed.  "What particularly puzzles me about winning two matches, however, is the prize of one's sleeping with two extra women.  Surely that would create a lot of problems?"

     "Not that I'm aware of," said Jenkinson sotto voce.  "Though it isn't absolutely necessary for the victor to sleep with three women at once - that's to say, with his wife and the other two on the same night.  Sometimes he may choose to do so, but the club rules are sufficiently flexible to permit him to sample his prizes, as it were, one at a time.  In other words, he can sleep with his wife on the Saturday and with one or both of the other women on a different night in the following week, or vice versa.  It's not imperative for him to sample both prizes on the same night.  He can choose any night he pleases before the next round of competitive snooker is due to start, which is to say, before the following Saturday.  But he must inform his rivals when he wishes to sleep with their wives on the evening of his snooker victory, so that both they and the women concerned know exactly where they stand with him and can arrange things accordingly.  Otherwise matters might become too complicated."

     "I can well believe it!" Kelly hastened, with a gasp of surprise, to assure his senior literary colleague.  "Is a two-set win a regular thing, though?" he then asked sceptically.

     Jenkinson appeared to be lost in thought a moment.  "I'm afraid I can't tell you for sure," he admitted, smiling vaguely, "since my usual informant doesn't make a point of telling me everything.  But I do know that it has happened on a number of occasions, and that the victor has usually taken his rivals' wives the very same night, as though to enhance his victory and deprive them of sex at a time when, in all probability, they least wish to be deprived of it."

     "Who's your informant?" Kelly wanted to know.

     "I'm sworn to secrecy," Jenkinson confessed.  "However, I can tell you that he's in this room and has kept his mouth shut ever since you entered it."

     "He has?" gasped Kelly, looking about the room for a clue.  "It must be one of the club members, then - possibly the one in the outlaw's costume."

     "Anyway, getting back to what I was saying," continued Jenkinson,  with a nervous laugh, "the competition between the rivals is usually so intense and evenly balanced that an outright double victory is relatively rare, the most common outcome being a single victory for one or two of the competitors.  It often happens, however, that a set, or both matches, ends in stalemate, in which case no wife-swapping takes place."

     "Presumably if a player fails to win by two frames?" Kelly conjectured.

     "Yes.  The situation here, in the match before us, is 2-0 in the 'Nazi’s' favour.  If the 'wizard' pulls it back to 2-1, they'll have to play a fourth frame.  If that ends 3-1, then the 'Nazi' will take the 'wizard's' wife, the 'nurse', for the night.  If it ends in a draw, however, the 'wizard' will retain his wife and no further frame will take place between them.  Now a 3-1 victory will give the 'Nazi' a chance to pull two wives by battling with the third member of the club in the second match of the evening.  But if the other chap manages to sneak a draw, the toss of a coin will decide who goes through, as it were, to play it.  Thus one of them could get to play the founder member without having won anything for his pains in the first match - a thing which does occasionally happen."

     "I see," Kelly murmured after a moment's thoughtful reflection.  "One gets the impression that, with so much at stake, they make it an incredibly tough competition."

     "Oh, absolutely!" conceded Jenkinson noddingly, once again taking pains to hold his hood in place.  "A player who isn't sufficiently up-to-standard will be out of the club within five weeks, assuming he loses five successive matches.  Now no-one who is admitted to the club wants to be ejected from it in such a short space of time, and, as I intimated earlier, no-one is admitted to it who isn't a very competent snooker player or whose wife, even if he happens to be such, is insufficiently attractive or unwilling to take part, if you see what I mean.  Unfortunately the chap who had already lost four successive matches, and looks to be in the process of losing a fifth, isn't as good a player as he was once cracked-up to be.  He has merely postponed his exit from the club since joining it by drawing two matches and winning one.  He had lost four successive matches by the end of his first month's membership, but was saved from immediate disgrace by drawing the fifth.  Now whereas a win erases any succession of defeats from 1-4, a draw only erases one defeat, so he was still in the danger zone, as it were, by having three successive defeats to his debit.  However, the draw must have given him some confidence in himself, for he won the next match and thereby erased the remaining defeats."

     "But now he looks on the verge of being ousted from the club?" Kelly observed.

     "That's right," Jenkinson confirmed.  "Unless, however, he can pull off another miracle and draw this match.  You can see that his wife - despite the camouflage afforded her by the tiny mask she's wearing - doesn't look particularly happy at present.  She has evidently found the system to her sexual advantage!"

     "She's quite an attractive woman," opined Kelly, as he scrutinized the masked face of the woman in nurse's uniform.  She had taken up a position the opposite side of the snooker table and was now occupied with adjusting the score on a specially designed scoreboard affixed to the wall there.

     "Right enough," Jenkinson smilingly agreed.  "But there are others just as attractive where she came from!"  He drew Kelly's attention to a young woman with pale blonde hair who was wearing, besides the obligatory white eye mask for females, a white blouse, a white miniskirt, a pair of virgin socks, and white trainers, reminding the young writer of the girl he had met outside the National Gallery just over a week ago.  "She's supposed to signify a certain mythological virgin," he continued, turning back to Kelly, "but she's really a married woman who could be next in line for club membership if the 'wizard' loses this match and her husband gains admittance in his place.  As things stand, he looks the most likely candidate, since his wife is so attractive.  Now sometimes they simply admit the man with the prettiest wife, but as a rule they strictly adhere to the principle of competitive entry, the first snooker player among the four or five leading candidates on the list for full membership ultimately being chosen.  Naturally, they don't consider anyone who is a really brilliant player, a world champion or professional, since he would quickly dispose of them.  Only a very select number of candidates are considered, and these are generally well-known to themselves."

     "How extraordinary!" exclaimed Kelly in the teeth of a certain incredulity which was now pressing him to doubt the veracity of most of what he had just heard, particularly in view of his senior literary colleague's progressively more inebriated condition.  "You're not kidding me by any chance, Trevor?" he hastened to add.

     For once, Jenkinson's face seemed on the point of losing its customary composure.  "My dear old mate, I may be a trifle tipsy, but I'd hardly put myself to the sodding trouble of revealing so much complicated information to you if I were!" he exploded.

     At that moment an almost parallel explosion of noise from the assembled spectators indicated that 'Goering' had won the match 3-0 and thereby vanquished the 'necromancer', whose countenance, such as one could see of it, now bore all the hallmarks of total defeat.  Shaking his head from side-to-side, this unfortunate individual seemed on the verge of tears, as the victor received hearty congratulations from those standing around him.  A man dressed as a pirate, with a long black beard, a black tee-shirt bearing the skull-and-crossbones in contrasting white, a red kerchief tied round his head, and a pair of knee-high black leather boots, was also being congratulated by various people, and, after offering a few words of perfunctory condolence to the loser, who in the meantime had relinquished his cue and regretfully shaken hands with the victor as though to seal his fate, he proceeded to throw his arms around the neck of the young woman dressed in all-white, whose face immediately became radiant with pleasure.

     "Seems as though I was right about the 'vestal virgin' and her husband being the next members of the club," declared Jenkinson, as he extracted a large cigar from the inside pocket of his flowing robes.  "The husband's the one dressed as Blackbeard, by the way.  You can't miss him.  Had old greybeard been a genuine wizard, instead of some chap in fancy dress who goes by the name of 'Saruman' or some such nonsense, he might have managed to prolong his stay in the club with the help of a little black magic.  As it happens, he and his wife have lost their permits."

     "Can't they ever win them back?" asked Kelly, whose eyes sought out and found the woman dressed as Florence Nightingale.

     "Only if the competition to get into the club eases-up a little in the near future, which, entre nous, it doesn't look like doing," replied Jenkinson, who commenced to light his cigar with the aid of a large red match.  "As a rule, once a couple lose their place they don't get it back.  Admittedly, there haven't been that many couples involved in the club to-date.  But the fact is that the members don't want pushovers in their game, and anyone who loses five matches in succession can hardly be described as tough competition.  The chances now are that if this 'Blackbeard' transpires to being a useful competitor, we won't see a change in the club's membership for some time."

     Kelly proffered a politely incredulous smile.  "It would be interesting if the founder-member got knocked out of his club, wouldn't it?" he speculated a touch roguishly.

     "Yes, it would indeed," chuckled Jenkinson.  "But knowing the quality player he is, that seems rather unlikely to me.  After all, one doesn't have to be a world champion to avoid losing five straight matches.... Though it hardly needs emphasizing that there's no better incentive for improving one's game than to risk sacrificing one's wife to another man for the night.  And that's the chief reason why the level of play is generally so high."  He took a few philosophical puffs on his cigar and picked up his empty beer glass from the small table by his side.  The celebrations over the 'Nazi’s' victory were dying down now as another woman, dressed in nun's attire and wearing the obligatory white eye mask, laid out the variously coloured balls on the snooker table for the commencement of the next match, which was due to take place between 'Goering' and 'Jessie James' as soon as the former had been given a chance to refresh himself and thereby restore his mind to something approaching competitive fitness, following the sapping exigencies of the preceding duel.  As she bent over the table to arrange the brightly coloured balls in their respective positions, Kelly thought he recognized a familiar nose and mouth.  But before he could suggest anything of the kind to Trevor, the latter had mumbled something about more beer and turned towards the door.

     Realizing that his wine glass could also use a refill, Kelly followed his senior colleague back in the direction of the living room, where at that moment a jazz-funk recording had prompted a number of people to dance.  This being the case, it was with some difficulty that both men made their way towards the booze, which, mercifully, was still in plentiful supply.  Helping himself to more wine, Kelly noted that some of the guests were wearing similar costumes to each other; that women garbed as nuns or angels could be seen dancing with men dressed as Nazis or pirates, and he remarked on this observation to Jenkinson, who, oblivious of the dancing, was thirstily downing some of the stout he had just poured himself.

     "Never any shortage of duplications at these fancy-dress charades," the latter belchingly responded, as soon as he could bring himself to observe the goings-on with a modicum of equanimity.  "Largely down to a lack of imagination on the participants' part, I suspect.  Still, it can contribute, in a paradoxical sort of way, to one's enjoyment of the thing."   He drew lustily on his cigar whilst intently observing the aquiline profile of a nun who danced close-by in the company of the infamous vampire whom Kelly had seen proudly arriving at the ball shortly after his own rather more uncertain arrival.  No doubt, 'Count Dracula' would find somewhere juicy to bury his fangs later that evening!

     Jenkinson having decided to return to the snooker room, James Kelly once more found himself abandoned and therefore back to square-one, so to speak.  But this time there was more going on than before, and consequently he contented himself with investigating the various costumes and endeavouring to ascertain what famous or infamous personage, real or fictitious, was being represented in each case.  Given the stylized nature of most of the costumes, he had little difficulty in figuring out the majority of them, although he was unable to attach any specific names to the various 'nuns', 'Nazis', 'angels', and 'pirates' who regularly commanded his attention.  No doubt, they could have supplied him with one had he bothered to ask each of them individually - a thing, however, he had no intention of doing!  But among the couples who particularly impressed him was a tall man disguised as a werewolf, who danced on the edge of the whirling throng with a slender nymph-like creature of distinctly youthful appearance.  They formed quite an eye-arresting contrast!

     Several minutes later, vacating the rather gaseous upstairs toilet, Kelly found himself confronted by a 'nun', the very same 'nun' whom he had earlier seen preparing the snooker table for the next match.  The woman was ascending the stairs as he was on the point of descending them and, from where he stood, he had no difficulty in discerning the sharp nose of Mrs Searle.

     "Paloma!" he cried, as she approached him with a gracious smile on her lips.  "I thought I recognized you in the snooker room a while ago."

     She had got to the top step and stood gazing fixedly into his eyes a moment, as though to make sure of his actual identity.  Then, evidently satisfied, she motioned him to follow her and, without looking back, swiftly led him up another flight of stairs to a locked room on the second floor.  Taking a small key from a pocket in the side of her costume, she deftly unlocked the door and, with a brief glance over her shoulder to make sure that no-one had followed them or was lurking nearby, boldly led him into the room.  Then locking the door behind them, she returned the key to its allocated pocket and straightaway removed her eye mask.

     Seeing that the room was otherwise empty, Kelly did likewise, and the two of them stood facing each other a moment.  Without giving him time to say anything, she threw her arms about his neck and glued her mouth to his.  A wave of sensuous excitement surged through him as he felt the pressure of her energetic lips pressing importunately against his own.  Lifting her off the ground, he carried her to the small double-bed that stood, as if to attention, in the middle of the room, and threw her down upon it.  She reached up to him and drew his head towards her.

     "But Paloma!" he protested, as soon as he could disengage himself from the sensuous crush of her lips.  "What about your husband?  Surely we can't ..."

     "My husband's much too preoccupied with other matters to have either the time or the inclination to think about us," she almost caustically reassured him.  And again she pressed her mouth to his.  "Oh, James, I want this so much," she murmured.

     "But isn't it a little ...?"  However, the temptation was too much for him, and already his hands were instinctively groping her costume for the buttons which would enable him to free her from it and get at the real woman concealed beneath.

     "Don't waste this valuable opportunity, James," Mrs Searle was mumbling, as his hands impatiently divested her of her outer garments and he beheld, to his utmost astonishment, a pair of black stockings topped with white suspenders and a matching G-string!

     "My God, woman, I can't believe it!" he gasped, struck by the contrast between the primness of her nun's attire and the seductiveness of what she was wearing underneath.  "Where one might expect to find a chastity belt one finds a G-string!"

     "I'm full of pleasant surprises," averred Mrs Searle, drawing him down upon her lips again.  "And I think you will be, too," she added, as she felt the last flimsy obstacle to her most private parts being peremptorily wrenched from her groin by an impatient 'Mephisto', whose newly awakened penis was already tickling the inner sides of her thighs in a flagrantly lascivious manner.  All it now required, to start the ball rolling in earnest, was an imperious thrust into the submissive trough of sexual delights beyond, and Kelly wasn't long in supplying one as, freeing himself from the last impediment to his goal, he clawed his way inside her with a series of rapid thrusts which caused her to squirm in a confusion of pain and pleasure, tightening her grip on him all the more.  Only when he was fully inside her, however, did he hesitate an instant, as though to take stock of his position and assess the best way to proceed.  But spurred-on by the momentum of her vaginal contractions, he took a firm grip on her buttocks and launched himself anew with a vigour which took even Paloma by surprise, so that she sighed in delirious abandon and thrashed about from side-to-side like some kind of demented fish which had just been hooked and was desperately flailing around for a way to escape its captor.

     But there was no escaping James Kelly as he reeled her in with fresh resolve and mounting determination, his carnal passion inflamed by her frantic bucking, which had the effect of making him even more determined to remain in control of their passionate coupling, come what may.  He would not be defeated by this wild creature, who would soon be tamed by him into accepting his every move and completely abandon herself to his will as, gripping hold of her ankles from behind, he pinned her legs back over her shoulders for a final assault on the cavernous depths of flesh which seemed to swallow him like some all-devouring mouth into which he feared he was about to be sucked - hook, line, and sinker!  He swooned in a flood of hot semen which gushed out of him in a succession of spasmodic jerks so rapid in their intensity that it seemed as though they had been propelled by some inhuman force akin to a bolt of lightning, and which had the cataclysmic effect of triggering a like-response from her in the form of a clitoral thunderclap which shook their respective bodies from head to toe as, finally and utterly, she offered up every last drop of passion to him in one long rumble of orgasmic oblivion - the fiery nexus of a storm which had reached a peak and could only fade away in ever-decreasing cycles of rumbling.  Exhausted, its perpetrators slumped into each other's arms in the redemption of post-coital quietus, recipients of a peace which, though fundamentally worldly, was akin to heaven in its complacent beatitude.  Indeed, which was nothing less than heaven-on-earth!

     Ten minutes later Kelly's chest was serving as a pillow for the beautiful woman's head, the body of whom had so thoroughly captivated him, only to free him from preoccupations with sex and return him to something approaching sexual innocence again.  It wasn't long, however, before his mind began to resurrect its former anxiety over the situation in which another man's wife had landed him.  Remembering his glimpse of her in the snooker room, he wanted to know whether the figure in cowboy gear who had been playing snooker at the time was her husband, and pressed her accordingly.

     "Yes," she admitted with a faint sigh, which was unmistakably one of regret.  "That's Douglas alright.  I suppose Trevor told you all about our little club?"

     "Not all about it but quite a bit, I'm afraid," Kelly almost guiltily confessed.  "I learned, anyway, that your husband wasn't in the habit of losing."  He paused to reflect a while, then continued: "Am I correct in assuming that the wife of the defending player is always responsible for arranging the table before a frame takes place, and then of keeping the score whilst it's in progress, so that the prize for the attacking player is constantly before his eyes?"

     "It depends what you mean by 'defending' and 'attacking' players," she replied, momentarily shifting her head to a more comfortable position on his chest.  "But you appear to have grasped the general principles of the arrangement.  As Mark Benson, the one in the Nazi uniform, had won the first match, he was given the privilege, as it's somewhat esoterically known, of having the second player's wife on points duty."

     "Then how did you get away?" Kelly asked.

     "Simply by adhering to the club's rules," she explained.  "In normal circumstances, I'd have to take care of the score.  But in the relatively exceptional circumstances afforded by someone's imminent departure from the club, the wife of the loser has to keep the score of the second match as well.  She is merely spared the duty of arranging the table before the first frame.  Thereafter she also arranges it."

     Kelly was fairly nonplussed.  "Why doesn't she arrange it for the first frame as well?" he not unreasonably wanted to know.

     "Because the competitor with the advantage, the 'attacking' player, likes to see the wife of his opponent before the commencement of the frame," Paloma revealed.  "Ordinarily he would have her service throughout the match, even if he was 2-0 down.  But in this case, with the loser expelled from the club, it's only necessary for her to appear at the very beginning.  The loser's wife is given double duty as a kind of humiliation for her and punishment for him, since neither of them has any further duties to perform thereafter."

     "What strange rules!" cried Kelly, whose high-pitched tone indicated genuine bewilderment.  "So the poor 'wizard's' wife is presumably doing double duty at this very moment?"

     "Yes, I expect so," replied Paloma smilingly.  "They began the first frame a minute or two before I encountered you on the stairs, so I'd imagine they're now playing the second or third.  After which, there may be a fourth."

     "And that would presumably leave the score at either 3-1 or 2-2," conjectured Kelly, whose right hand was at that very moment straying over Mrs Searle's nude back and on down to the curvaceous bulge of her right buttock, where it came to a temporary halt at a reasonably discreet distance from the more patently erogenous zone.

     "Yes, theoretically it would," she confirmed.  "Although, as a rule, frames between Douglas and Mark aren't easily won.  There's very rarely a 3-0 victory for either man."

     "Yet I understand that your husband is generally the more successful player?" revealed Kelly, recalling what Trevor Jenkinson had told him.

     There was a short pause while Mrs Searle shifted the position of her head again and emitted a faint, albeit meaningful, sigh for Kelly's dubious benefit.

     "So what's his record against Mark like?" he  pressed her, once he realized that she had no intention of replying to his previous comment.

     "Of the last twenty matches between them, my husband has won eight, drawn nine, and lost only three," she reluctantly obliged.

     "I see," he said tactfully.  "A statistic which leads one to surmise that he has sexual access to Sylvia Benson's body more often than Mark has access to yours.  And, on top of that, he has the 'wizard's' wife quite a few times, too, I shouldn't wonder."

     "Had the 'wizard's' wife," Paloma corrected.  "The last opportunity fell to Mark this evening."

     "Ah yes, so it did!" admitted Kelly, frowning slightly.  "Hmm, things begin to add up, you know."

     "Do they?"

     "Yes, so it would seem!"  He gently kissed her head and, turning her over onto her back, so that he was looking down at her on raised elbow, began to scrutinize her face, which at that moment assumed an enigmatic smile.  "You're going to be rather tired of sex if Mark beats your husband tonight and thereby gains physical access to you," he concluded.

     "Not too tired," she declared.  "But the chances are fairly high that Mark won't beat him tonight; that, on the contrary, the match will either end in a draw or Douglas will beat Mark and thereby gain physical access to Sylvia instead."

     "Won't he make love to you as well, if he wins her?" Kelly pressed her, determined to extract every last crumb of relevant information about this whole corrupt business from his over-generous hostess, who was about as far gone in extramarital infidelity as it was possible to go, short of ceasing to be decadent and becoming barbarously promiscuous instead!

     "No, I shall be obliged to sleep alone in my bed while he sleeps with her in an adjoining room," she almost matter-of-factly confessed.

     "That must make you feel somewhat jealous," Kelly deduced.

     "At first it did," she admitted, blushing.  "But I suppose I'm used to it by now and, besides, it makes it easier for me to be here with you."  She drew him closer to her and kissed his lips a sufficient number of times for him to feel his earlier lust rekindled to something approaching a flame as, desiring to repay her still more sensuously, he forced his tongue between her lips and began to chase after hers with a view to ensnaring and finally subduing it - a thing he wasn't to do without a struggle which lasted several minutes.  For she turned her head this way and that in a tantalizing display of female teasing, which culminated in one of the most passionate kissing bouts he had ever experienced.  In fact, it turned him on so much that he felt obliged to transfer his tongue to her nether lips and go in search of her clitoris with a probing rapacity which caused her to buck and pant anew in head-on confrontation with the most exquisitely tortuous oral pleasure she'd had the good fortune to experience in as long as she cared or dared to remember.  Yes, it was something of a moral vindication for her to be there with him that night and, as this latest assault on pleasure ran its frenzied course, to be wrapped in a warm embrace such that put her husband firmly in the carnal shade.  For it was James Kelly who had really defeated Douglas Searle this evening, and she had no compunction about letting him know it.

     "But how did you get the key to this room?" he asked with a tongue which ached so much that he thought he wouldn't be able to eat with it, never mind talk properly, for several days to come.

     "Through Sylvia," she replied.  "She has more sympathy for me than anyone else, and quite understandably so, when one bears in mind the extent to which she is implicated in any inconvenience or embarrassment which may befall me in consequence of Douglas' snooker excesses!"  At which point Paloma Searle felt obliged to chuckle to herself, before continuing: "Anyway, she promised to keep it a secret, which is probably just as well.  Though my husband is hardly in a position to make a moral fuss, is he?"

     Such a patently rhetorical question needed no response from James Kelly, who merely contented himself by running his overworked tongue across the expanse of Mrs Searle's taut breasts a few times, her responsive nipples duly responding in a sexually responsible manner.  In fact, the curve of her body fascinated him, as did the various scents emanating from its light-brown skin.  Ideally, he would have liked to make love to her all over again, to screw himself into her throbbing trough as deeply and lastingly as possible, until such time as there was no more life left in him and, as a spent force, he  hung limply inside her, like a somnolent baby in its mother's all-encompassing arms.  But, on second thoughts, that struck him as unmanly and ultimately self-defeating; for in that flaccid state it seemed to him that he would be more like a weak male animal being squeezed to death by a ravenous pythoness than a conquering hero seeking sanctuary from the conquered.  Anyway, metaphysical qualms aside, he knew that he had experienced more sexual pleasure in one night with Paloma Searle than in dozens of nights with anyone else, and that there was a limit to everything, pleasure included.

     "I must say, I find this whole business of the snooker club somewhat crazy," he at length confessed.

     "I suppose it is in a way," Paloma conceded.  "But it's what my husband wants and, frankly, I prefer him to have his way.  It would take too long to explain everything now, and time is one thing there isn't much left off.  But, well, let's just say that our marriage wasn't particularly successful before he began the snooker racket in response to a dare from Mark one day."

     Kelly was distinctly puzzled by this comment.  "Is it any more successful now?" he asked.

     "In some respects I'd say it was," she hesitantly replied.  "You see, Douglas is essentially polygamous, so the possibility of sleeping with two other women once a week goes some way towards catering for his needs.  Before he started the club, life was more difficult for me than at present, even though I sometimes still get jealous when he sleeps with another woman, especially one of the club's new members.  For instance, he used to swear at me and bugger me and flirt with his secretaries and do all sorts of things which he has since ..."

     "Outgrown?" suggested Kelly, in the teeth of his impatience with her hesitation.

     "No, not outgrown, exactly, so much as learnt to modify or redirect into other channels," she corrected.  "Strangely, our marriage is now on a better footing than it has been for a number of years.  He has the possibility of actually winning himself another man's wife every week and, believe it or not, the excitement which results from that has done a lot to stabilize our relationship and make it more tolerable.  And the same is generally true of the other couples' relationships as well - marriages which were all on the rocks before Mark came-up with the idea of the club, and Douglas and I made it a reality.  The men, apart from the one who is beaten at snooker more often than he wins, are generally happier, and the women ... aren't exactly opposed to a change of bed-partner once a week, providing they can actually get it."

     "But you don't get that change as often as the other two women involved in the arrangement, and are consequently left on the wife-swapping shelf, so to speak, more often than suits you," Kelly deduced from the wistful nature of the smile on her lips at that moment.

     "Quite true," Paloma admitted.  "But at least I know who the other women are, which is a damn sight better than being in the dark about who one's husband fucks behind one's back when it suits him, the double-crossing promiscuous bastard!  So the 'Adultery Club', as we tend to call it, does have certain advantages which perhaps a less decadent society would fail to appreciate.  Besides, when a man is not cut-out for a strictly monogamous existence, it would be a sort of crime to force strict fidelity to one woman upon him."

     "I suppose it would," said Kelly who, though he had never really thought too deeply about the matter before, was of the belief that monogamy was the centralized ideal of Western civilization and thus something relatively moral in relation to polygamy, whether that polygamy was official, and hence pertinent to an absolutely barbarous age, or effective, and hence symptomatic, like extramarital infidelities, of a civilized decadence.  Having thought which, he glanced at his wristwatch and suggested to Mrs Searle that, having just turned 11.00pm, it was high time they put in another appearance downstairs, before people began to grow suspicious of their absence and to miss them - assuming that wasn't already the case.

     "Yes, I guess so," she agreed.  "I expect Douglas and Mark are into the final frame by now."

     "Doesn't that excite you?" Kelly teased her.

     She smiled up at him again and, draping an arm around his neck, said: "Not as much as you do, sugar.  Besides, the chances are that my husband won't lose.  He takes it all so damned seriously."  They got up from the bed and began to dress.  "Oh well, I guess I'm going to have to play at being a nun again, and you're going to play ... who?" she asked, glancing at his wig, which had lost much of its former Faustian elegance and was now barely covering his pate.

     "Mephistopheles!" he asseverated, feeling genuinely amused by his role for the first time all evening.  "A Mephisto who, as a token of his esteem for the dear 'nun' who seduced him into committing a sinful act with her, would like to keep the G-string which he removed from the good lady's body during the tempestuous course of his lascivious temptations."

     "I suppose I shall have to accord you that privilege," she declared, as her nun's attire fell into place over her dark stockings, thus concealing any evidence of its absence.  "But don't you dare show it to anyone downstairs, otherwise that'll be the last time I'll grant you such a favour!"

     After they had dressed, put-on their respective eye masks again, and rearranged the bedcovers, Mrs Searle unlocked the door and, peering out to ensure that no-one was lurking in the shadows, signalled Kelly to follow her.  Once the door was secured behind them, she gave him a quick peck on the lips and instructed him to count to fifty before following her downstairs.  Then, with a final adjustment to her nun's habit, she turned on her heels and quickly descended the top flight of stairs.

     When, at a discreet interval, Kelly returned to life on the ground floor, he found the fancy-dress ball even livelier than before, thanks in large measure to the significant quantities of alcohol which had been imbibed by 'good' and 'bad' alike, though especially the latter, in the meantime.  People were still dancing in the living room, though he was at pains to recognize any of the dancers he had seen there earlier that evening.  Prominent among them, however, was a plump figure dressed up, to judge by his blue tunic and three-cornered hat, as Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he fancied to be Keith Brady.  Yet despite his close proximity, the figure in question paid him no attention but continued to dance with a young woman garbed in an expensive-looking early-nineteenth-century dress to which Kelly could attach no specific historical personage, though he conjectured the likelihood of Napoleon's consort, the Empress Josephine.  Not wishing to be dragged into the dance himself, however, and finding very little wine left in any of the decanters, he opted to visit the snooker room in order to discover what, if anything, had happened since his last visit, nearly an hour ago.

     Fortunately for him an even larger gathering of people than before was to be found there, and Kelly trusted they would serve to camouflage his probable embarrassment in the presence of Douglas Searle and immediate company.  As it happened, the final frame of the match had been decided a few minutes earlier, while he was in the living room, but he hadn't heard the congratulatory outburst which had issued from the onlookers on account of the volume of the sound system, which was still spinning discs in the dancers' funky service.  The match had ended, he now learnt, in a 3-1 victory for 'Jessie James', 'Goering' having pulled himself back from the brink of defeat at 2-0 only to succumb two frames later - which meant that the latter's wife would have to be loaned to the victor for the night.  Though the loser did have the consolation of sleeping with the 'wizard's' wife, whom he had of course acquired, compliments of the first match.

     On hearing the score Kelly could only emit a barely-concealed sigh of relief; for he was only too pleased that, in consequence of his victory over Mark Benson, Mr Searle wouldn't be sleeping with his own wife later that night.  There would be little possibility of his suspicions rather than his passions being aroused by Paloma, if he was destined to sleep with another woman instead.

     "So you're back here again!" the 'leading member of the Spanish Inquisition' bellowed in his ear.  "I thought you'd gone home or something."

     The last part of that sentence didn't create a particularly favourable impression on James Kelly, but he assured the hooded figure, whose breath reeked more sharply of both booze and tobacco than it had ever done before, that he had absolutely no intentions of going home.

     "Don't tell me you've been listening to jazz-funk all this time?" rasped Jenkinson from behind an intensely disapproving mien.  "I thought you didn't like it."

     "On the contrary, I find it most stimulating," confessed Kelly who, though momentarily bewildered by the potency of the taller man's breath, was doing his best to lend credence to his claim by launching into an impromptu display of bodily self-realization for his literary colleague's baffled benefit.

     "Well, you've missed a damn fine set of snooker all the same," averred Jenkinson, who took hold of Kelly's arm as much to stop him from dancing as to prevent himself from losing his balance and tumbling to the floor in the proximity of such a bewildering spectacle.  He pointed in the general direction of Douglas Searle with a finger which wavered on the end of an unsteady arm and said: "That chap's gone and done it again.  Got himself the little 'angel' with cardboard wings for the night.  You can see how delighted he is, in spite of the double disguise of eyes and mouth.  After all, how many guests take their host's wife back home with them once the party's over, eh?  First-rate hospitality, I call it!"  His grip tightened on Kelly's arm, as he made to steady himself and protect his tenuous incognito as best he could.  "One of these days you ought to get married and join the club, James.  You might profit from it, mate."

     "I don't think I'd want to join it," the latter confessed.

     "Ah, that's what they all say!" growled Jenkinson in sceptical dismissal.  "The trouble with us writers is that we're all too moral-minded.  We reserve such immorality as we may be capable of mustering from what's left of our imagination, after the media have taken their daily toll on us, for our wretched books, and have nothing much left over to spare on our private lives.  We put so much effort into saying and doing deplorable things in print, that our actual lives are deplorably conservative.  The only time we're genuinely interesting is when we're being read, and that, as you ought to know, isn't every day!"

     "One gets the impression that you only say such things under the influence," said Kelly, whose arm was increasingly bearing the burden of Jenkinson's inebriated condition.  "Perhaps you'll recant it all tomorrow morning?"

     "Provided I actually live to see the frigging morning," Jenkinson guffawed with uninhibited gusto.  "But, first, I think I'll have to get home.  What d'you say about hiring a taxi for the pair of us?"

     Despite his disgust with Jenkinson, whose condition was no credit to his Torquemada disguise, James Kelly didn't think that a particularly bad idea in the circumstances, and before long - the formalities of phoning for a cab having been attended to with a modicum of competence - a cabby had arrived and they were able to take their unsteady leave of the place.  With a farewell smile from Mrs Searle to take back with him, Kelly was satisfied that the evening had been relatively successful, and not the complete and utter waste of time he had at first feared.

     For his part, Jenkinson was feeling too drunk to have anything much to say in the taxi.  But he did manage to keep his beer down and to desist from further smoking all the way to his Crouch End house, which was of some relief to his fellow-passenger.  Once Jenkinson had been virtually shoulder-lifted to his front door, however, the cabby was free to deal with Kelly's address, and shortly after midnight the latter found himself slowly ascending the communal stairs to his small flat on the first floor.

     Later that morning he dreamt that Douglas Searle, still garbed in his outlaw costume, had just beat him in a snooker match and thereby acquired access to Sharon's carnal favours.  Realizing what was about to happen he shouted: "No, you can't fucking-well have her!" and threw himself upon the masked assailant, who immediately drew a revolver from his holster and was about to fire at Kelly when the latter woke-up in a panic, to find himself lying in a pool of sweat in his single bed!  He realized, after a couple of uncertain seconds, that he had merely experienced a nightmare and was consequently still alive and well!

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

"What sort of a lover was he?" asked Jennifer Crowe, staring intently at Sharon.

     "Not a particularly imaginative one," the latter confessed after a moment's due deliberation, her left hand stroking the corresponding arm of the green armchair in which she sat, compliments of Jennifer's hospitality.  "He tended to be a bit too self-conscious for my liking.  Didn't really let himself go enough.  It's as if he were afraid of making a poor impression on me all the time."

     "You mean he was always on his guard?" Jennifer conjectured.

     "Yeah, but then most men usually are, especially when they haven't known you that long," Sharon confirmed.  "No, there was something else about him which worried me, something I hadn't encountered in men before.  It was a kind of distrust of people which carried over into his sex life and prevented him from properly expressing or revealing himself.  I think he was afraid that I might have been secretly deriding him behind his back."

     "And were you?" Jennifer asked.

     "No more than he deserved!" Sharon averred, while gazing through the window of her colleague's lounge at the two beech trees outside.  "His chief problem, the way I saw it, was premature ejaculation."

     "No small problem!" declared Jennifer, lighting herself a mild cigarette with the aid of a blue plastic lighter.  It was a habit of hers to smoke indoors rather than outdoors.  "And what did he do to compensate you for it?" she asked.

     "Not enough, I'm afraid," Sharon sighed.  "In fact, I got the distinct impression that, before he met me, he hadn't had a girlfriend of any description for quite some time.  Unfortunately, he couldn't be induced to tell me anything much about his previous sex life.  But from what I was able to gather, it can't have been particularly intensive."

     "Poor bloke!" guffawed Jennifer, exhaling tobacco smoke in Sharon's general direction.  "Did he indulge in oral with you?"

     "Yes, but not very enthusiastically, I'm afraid.  Never for longer than five minutes at a time."

     "Could be he preferred his imagination to your body, then," Jennifer conjectured.  "Writers are often like that - you know, sort of imaginative bums who remain content to fantasize and don't even have the sense to buy an instamatic camera or a camcorder in order to put their fantasies into practice."

     Sharon saw fit to giggle at James Kelly's expense.  "I don't honestly know," she said.  "But one thing I do know is that he had another woman besides me."

     "Oh, how did you find out about that, then?" asked Jennifer, smiling.

     It wasn't an easy question to answer in one breath, but Sharon made an indirect attempt at doing so by asking Jennifer whether she remembered her lending him that eighteenth-century costume from the theatre wardrobe the previous month, "You know, the one he imagined - God knows why - would grant him a Mephistophelean credibility?"

     Jennifer nodded by way of a positive response.

     "Well, you'll never believe it but ..." Sharon hesitated a moment to contain a burst of laughter which was threatening to rise to the surface at her verbal expense ...

     "Go on!" urged Jennifer impatiently.

     "... when I got the costume back from him the day after the ball, guess what I found in one of its pockets?"

     Jennifer had no idea and said so.

     "A white G-string!" exclaimed Sharon almost hysterically.

     "You're kidding!"

     "No, seriously, that's exactly what I found there," said Sharon, calming down again.  "He must have forgotten about it or something."

     "Oh, how stupid!"  It was evident that Jennifer enjoyed hearing this as much as her friend and colleague enjoyed telling it.

     "Yes, that's just what I thought," Sharon rejoined.  "But he'd apparently had so much to drink, the previous night, that he overslept the next day.  For he'd only just woken up when I called on him at 2.00pm,  and evidently hadn't got around to remembering about the G-string, let alone removing it in good time."

     "How odd!" exclaimed Jennifer, who hesitated a moment before conjecturing: "And so you took the costume back home with you and presumably discovered the item in question later on?"

     "Yes, that very evening in fact.  But he must have remembered it was there either then or during the following day.  For when I next called on him, a day or two later, his first reaction was one of acute embarrassment, and his subsequent behaviour certainly suggested that something was bothering him.  He must have been secretly hoping that I hadn't investigated the coat pockets, since he made no confession or attempt at explanation.  Still, he managed to act the innocent fairly well in spite of his uneasiness.  In fact, so well that I could almost have recommended him for the acting profession!"

     "Don't say that!" protested Jennifer ironically.  Then, having quickly inhaled and exhaled some more tobacco, she asked: "So what became of the ill-fated G-string?"

     "First of all I mended it, since it was torn in two places, and then I tried it on for size."

     "Really?" Jennifer seemed quite surprised.  "And did it fit?"

     "Yes, perfectly.  Besides, I wanted to see how I'd look in it."

     "And how exactly did you look?"

     "Like someone I thought would appeal to James!"

     Jennifer's body was convulsed with sardonic laughter.  "I see," she said at length.  "And did it?"

     "Unfortunately I didn't really get a chance to find out," Sharon confessed.  "For the next time we saw each other, which was the following Thursday afternoon, he had a friend with him, a guy named Stephen Jacobs, who completely distracted his attention from my body by keeping us talking for over three hours.  Finally, when I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he offered to drive me to the theatre in his car."

     "He what?"

     "The guy evidently imagined he'd be doing James a favour by saving him the necessity of escorting me to the nearest bus-stop."

     "And had James intended to do any such thing?"

     "Of course not, but that's really quite beside-the-point," Sharon declared.  "Anyway, this friend, who also describes himself as a writer, drove me to the theatre by half-seven.  Then, realizing he had nothing else to do, he decided that he'd like to see the play.  Well, not particularly being in a position to refuse him, I managed to get him free admission.  However, before we parted company, he decided he wanted to see me again after the performance to discuss the possibility of having one of his own plays performed by our company at some future date.  Since it was half-eleven when he next saw me, he offered to drive me home and, being tired, I accepted.  On the way, he talked about this play he'd mentioned, which he claimed would be a money-spinner, and also began talking about James, saying complimentary things about him both as a person and as a writer.  Becoming interested in finding out more about him in this way, I invited Stephen into my flat and plied him with questions concerning James' background, habits, work, and so on - you know, all the sorts of things I probably wouldn't have succeeded in getting from him personally.  Well, we became so involved in conversation that the next time I looked at the clock it had gone 1.00am.  A minute or two later Stephen decided he wanted to use the loo, so I directed him to it.  Whilst he was having a pee, I found myself wondering what he would be like as a lover, whether he'd be better than James.  For, in spite of some misgivings, I couldn't help noticing how good-looking and well-built Stephen was.  Then I heard him flush the loo, and when he returned to the room again ... my goodness, he was completely nude!"

     "Oh really?"  Jennifer's face assumed an appearance of delighted expectancy.  "So what happened next?"

     "He advanced towards me with a lecherous smile on his lips and, before I could do or say anything, dragged me to the bed and began to vigorously kiss and fondle me."

     "I see," said Jennifer with a slight show of relief, her expectations having been partially vindicated.  "And did he suffer from premature ejaculation, too?"

     "On the contrary, the only thing he seemed to suffer from, after he'd had his lustful way with me, was a surfeit of sex," Sharon replied.  "I hadn't been so thoroughly screwed in years - in fact, not since I was seventeen.  There was scarcely a position in the Karma Sutra that he didn't know, though he preferred to stuff it in arsewise on account of the fact that I'd been wearing a dress, the autocratic bastard, and before he was through with me, I must have had about twenty orgasms."

     "Don't boast so, Sharon, you're making me quite envious!" exclaimed Jennifer, as she set about extinguishing the smouldering embers of her cigarette in the ash stand which stood equidistantly between the circle of armchairs in the middle of the lounge.  "So what happened the following day?"

     "Stephen said he wanted to see me again at the earliest convenient opportunity, so I said to him: 'What about James?', and he asked me whether he was a better and more knowledgeable lover than James.  Naturally, I said 'Yes, you are', and added that I'd be only too glad to see him again ... except for the fact that I didn't want to upset James, who professed to being in love with me.  He said he didn't want to upset him either, because they'd been fairly close friends for several years and had always trusted and confided in each other, but that he would have no alternative but to advance his relationship with me if it promised to bring us closer together, to our mutual benefit.  In this he of course had my sympathy, though I didn't stress the fact, since I had no idea how I could possibly break with James after he'd been so kind to me.  Besides, I hadn't known him more than a few weeks and hoped his love-making would improve with time, bearing in mind how shy and reserved he generally is.  But Stephen wasn't satisfied with a compromise.  He wanted me for himself, with no secrets and no restrictions on when and where we should meet."

     "Quite understandably," Jennifer opined.  "Few men can tolerate sharing a woman with someone else for any length of time."

     "Well, while Stephen was making his intentions clear to me," resumed Sharon, blushing slightly, "I remembered about the G-string and mentioned it to him, telling him how and where I'd found it and why I was wearing it on the day he met me.  All of a sudden his face lit-up with pleasure at the prospect of exposing James' relationship to its original owner.  For he felt certain that an affair was still going on and that, by skilful manoeuvring on his part, he could bring it to light and lay a trap for James which would give me a credible excuse to sever ties with him on that account.  The problem was how to induce him to talk about this other woman without arousing his suspicions that a trap was being laid, and this was something Stephen thought he could solve with the aid of the G-string.  By producing it in James' presence and stressing the fact that it had been found in the tail-coat pocket of the costume he wore to the fancy-dress ball, Stephen would have a pretext for inducing him to talk about its previous owner.  Of course, he'd have to pretend that I had given it to him at the theatre.  But that needn't imply he was going to tell me all about what he'd learnt afterwards.  On the contrary, the information gleaned in this way would be strictly between friends - a joke at the lady's expense which Stephen was keen to share, having been entrusted by me with the unenviable task of returning the said item to James in consequence of feminine delicacy, or some such ruse, on my part.

     "However, in addition to finding out as much as he could about James' clandestine affair," she went on, after a pause, "he intended to draw him into revealing when the woman was likely to next visit his flat, so that, with the requisite information, I'd be able to turn up while she was there and catch them red-handed, so to speak.  Then I'd have a sufficiently cogent pretext for breaking with him over his double-dealing, and thereby put my seal to a relationship with Stephen instead."

     "How ingenious!" enthused Jennifer, smiling.  "But you couldn't have know for sure that he actually did have another woman at the time?"

     "No, how true!" admitted Sharon.  "After all, someone could have slipped the G-string into his pocket as a practical joke, which might have led us to assume that he hadn't removed it by the time I arrived at his flat, the following day, simply because he had no idea it was there.  But the fact that he looked so embarrassed and seemed so uneasy, when I next saw him, suggested this wasn't the most likely case.

     "Anyway, to return to the gist of my story," Sharon went on, "we supposed he had another woman, and when Stephen did actually visit him with the G-string the following Monday, over a week after its discovery, our supposition turned out to be correct.  Not only did he boast of having gone to bed with someone by name of Paloma Searle at the fancy-dress ball, but he also boasted that, since then, she'd written to him on at least three separate occasions, informing him how much she loved him and requesting to see him again at the earliest convenient opportunity.  He told Stephen that, although he was more in love with me, he wasn't averse to 'a little extra pussy on the side', as he crudely put it, since this Paloma person apparently provided him with the chance to experiment with sexual techniques he'd have felt ashamed to try out on me!  He also informed Stephen that she was the half-Latin wife of a wealthy director of some arts magazine who had influential connections in the publishing world, and whose friendship he accordingly wished to retain.  Paradoxically, he felt that he could only do this by satisfying the woman's demands since, if he refused her, he feared she would turn her husband against him - an eventuality he was only too keen to avoid!  So, in a spirit of ironic resignation, he had arranged for Paloma to visit him the Wednesday afternoon of the same week.  Now as I usually visited him on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, he not unreasonably considered the Wednesday a safe enough time to entertain her."

     "I see," sighed Jennifer.  "So, presumably, you were able to turn up when she was there?"

     "Yeah, though he'd taken the precaution, the crafty sod, of hiding her in his sitting room before unlocking the door to me!" chuckled Sharon maliciously.  "However, I had little difficulty discerning items of female clothing scattered across the floor the other side of his bed, and in less than a minute, with more concrete evidence of his two-timing behind me, I was heading back downstairs again, ostensibly furious at having caught him red-handed with another woman.  Of course, he tried to stop me, to reason with me, to excuse himself, etc., but I had absolutely no intention of listening to him, and, after following me to within a couple of yards of the front door of the block in nothing but his dressing gown, he gave up the pursuit and returned shamefacedly, I should imagine, to this Paloma creature."

     "What was she like?" asked Jennifer, slightly shifting position in her armchair.

     Sharon hesitated a moment in order to establish, in her mind's eye, the picture she had briefly acquired of Paloma, before replying: "Rather attractive actually, though I must confess to not having looked at her for very long.  Anyway, when James opened the door to me he was somewhat flushed, not merely embarrassed but breathless, too.  Since he was wearing a woollen dressing-gown and revealing a pair of hairy legs from the knees down, it occurred to him to pretend to having just had a bath.  Knowing this to be a blatant lie, however, I pushed past him and immediately discovered that the sheet on his bed was all damp and creased-up, the way sheets tend to be after people have been bouncing around on them for any length of time.  And when I went across to the far side of the bed I discovered some items of woman's clothing sticking out from under it, where they'd evidently been hurriedly and rather incompetently hidden when the doorbell rang.  Seeing me pick up a pale-blue slip and matching panties, he advanced towards me with the brightest blush I'd even seen on any man's face and stammered something about clothes he'd bought for me the day before.  Not paying any notice to this bullshit, I quickly made for the door to his sitting room, the 'study' as he pompously calls it, and when I opened it ... what did I discover there but this Paloma bitch, who blushed violently and endeavoured to cover her naked breasts with her hands.  She was wearing nothing but a pair of dark-blue stockings and ... the white G-string!"

     Jennifer was convulsed with sardonic laughter, which temporarily prevented her from inquiring of Sharon how Paloma came to take possession of her G-string again, though inquire she eventually did.

     "Evidently by finding it lying around when she was pushed into the room by her panic-stricken lover, who must have left it there after Stephen had returned it to him the previous Monday," Sharon conjectured.

     "Well, at least she wasn't entirely naked," said Jennifer, who then lit herself another mild cigarette.  "So what happened next?"

     "I threw the slip and panties in my hand at the compromised bitch and slammed the door shut on her!" revealed Sharon excitedly.  "Then I headed for the door and bade James a curt farewell!"

     "I see.  And then he followed you downstairs?"

     "To no avail.  But I'd give anything to know what he said to this Paloma creature after he returned to her.  He hardly mentioned her in the pathetic letter he subsequently sent me, begging me to forgive him and telling me how much he was still in love with me, etc."

     "And did you reply?"

     "You bet I did!  I made it perfectly clear to him that I had no desire to see him again so long as he retained sexual relations with his G-string woman.  And ..."

     A sharp buzz on the doorbell interrupted her at this point and, as Jennifer went to answer it, Sharon declared that it was probably Stephen Jacobs, as arranged.

     "Well, hello!" cried Jennifer, admitting the tall figure in question to her flat.  "We've just been talking about you, actually."

     "Oh, really?" said Jacobs by way of a vaguely surprised response.  Then, catching sight of Sharon, who had advanced towards him, he embraced her with a tight hug and a loose kiss. "I hope you haven't been saying anything nasty about me," he joked as, pressing her body against himself, he stared down into Sharon's upturned eyes with a faintly mocking expression on his handsome face.

     "Of course not!" she said, returning him an innocent smile.  "We've only been saying nasty things about James Kelly.  By the way, how is he?"  She led Stephen to the armchair she had just vacated and, when he was comfortably seated, unthinkingly sat herself down on his lap.

     "He wasn't in a very happy frame-of-mind when I saw him this morning," revealed Jacobs, putting his arm round her waist.  "Which isn't altogether surprising really."  He paused to stare into Sharon's inquisitive eyes a moment, before adding: "Are you really interested in hearing what went on between us?"

     "Only insofar as it concerns you," replied Sharon.  "You didn't tell him about us, I hope."

     "No, I could hardly do that!  But he was suspicious all the same."

     "Oh, in what way?"

     "He thought it rather odd that you should have appeared at his flat when you did, a couple of days after I'd returned that damn G-string to him and inquired about its original owner," Jacobs felt obliged to confess.  "He said he couldn't help linking my visit to yours, the latter tying-up with information he'd divulged to me regarding Paloma.  Naturally, I didn't wish to admit anything, so I simply told him that he was imagining things.  But his suspicions persisted nonetheless, and by the time I left, little under an hour later, I got the distinct impression that our friendship was over.  He didn't even offer to loan me one of his books - a thing he almost invariably did in the past.  And when I returned the Huxley book he'd lent me the previous month, he didn't even bother to discuss it with me; merely asked whether I'd enjoyed it and straightaway returned it to the shelf.  Naturally, I made some eulogistic comments about it, in spite of not having liked any of its contents very much, but that didn't appear to interest him, either.  For he quickly changed the subject to you again, telling me how much he loved you and how he couldn't bear the thought of losing you."

     Sharon's face turned pale with these words, but she made an effort to conceal her anxiety by asking Stephen whether James Kelly's suspicions might not have been aroused by his second visit, which had come a mere week after the first?  After all, Stephen had already made it perfectly clear to her that he didn't visit James more than once a month, and, since the latter didn't call on him more regularly either, the two friends only saw each other bi-monthly, as a rule.

     "No, I can't see why that should be the case," answered Jacobs thoughtfully.  "For when I returned the G-string, last Monday, I informed him that I'd forgotten to bring the Huxley book but would make a point of returning it the following week.  So he was expecting me today.  Still, it's quite possible this more recent visit didn't have anything like the effect I'd hoped it would.  For I felt fairly certain that, providing I kept a fairly straight face and didn't look particularly guilty, it would establish my ignorance of the affair in his eyes.  But the way things turned out, I can only conclude my face wasn't as innocent-looking as I'd hoped."

     "Never mind," whispered Sharon, taking his head in her arms and kissing him on the brow.  "Now that you've returned the book and faced the music, as it were, you know exactly where you stand with him."

     "I'm not so sure," said Jacobs doubtfully.  "You see, if I break with him altogether, he'll know for certain that I'm involved with you and simply haven't got the guts to visit him.  But if I don't break with him, I'll have to go through the torture of continually deceiving him, which, considering we were close friends, doesn't exactly appeal to me.  Admittedly, we wouldn't have to see each other more often than in the past.  But, even so, it would bother me.... Had he actually accused me of taking you away from him, it might have been better for both of us.  But since I didn't confess to anything, we're still supposed to be friends.  So I'm in a rather unenviable position!"

     "You could always break with him on the grounds that his attitude towards you wasn't exactly what one would call friendly," suggested Jennifer, entering the debate at length.  "After all, what's the point of having an unfriendly friend?"

     "No, there's no reason for me to expect a man who has just lost a woman of Sharon's quality to be particularly happy," responded Jacobs for the benefit of his hostess.  "Besides, what kind of friend would I be to break with him as soon as his company became oppressive.  Anyway, the past three years haven't been entirely pleasurable where his friendship was concerned, I can tell you!  There were plenty of times when I could have backed out before.  But partly because I didn't have other friends of his intelligence, and partly because I didn't have the courage to reject his invitations, I continued to brave his company.... Our talk rarely centred on anything but philosophy, by the way, for which he has a special aptitude.  Now as a thinker he's undoubtedly profound, even at times revolutionary and world-shattering.  But as a friend ... no, I'd long ago given up the idea of expecting too much from his friendship, for which, for reasons best known to himself which I haven't dared to inquire into, he has only a modest talent.  He lives in a world of thought, not people."

     Stephen Jacobs reached inside his jacket pocket for his customary French cigarettes, for which Jennifer, though declining the invitation to smoke any herself, quickly procured a lighter.  Sharon found the fumes somewhat disagreeable and coughed a number of times, in spite of having made every effort to avoid showing signs of being inconvenienced.  Privately she loathed the smell of these cigarettes which Stephen was in the habit of puffing, as though to puff himself up to some sophisticated international stature, even though he rationed himself to no more than ten a day.  Their relationship would have been more agreeable to her had he not smoked at all!  But considering he was such an accomplished lover, it seemed to her that she was in some measure compensated for this inconvenience by his physical prowess.  Now James, on the other hand, didn't smoke at all, there had never been any risk of tobacco contamination from him.  But, for all his abstemious virtue, born as much from a fear of provoking facial boils, so he had told her, as from moral conviction, he wasn't exactly the best of lovers.  He was really somewhat perfunctory, and his premature ejaculation certainly hadn't been the answer to her coital prayers!  Somehow the dream partner she secretly craved, the man who was able to combine good habits with good loving, always remained a dream, an elusive ideal which was unlikely to materialize in reality, since reality was usually a combination of contradictory and often antipathetic elements, whereas her dream almost invariably focused on the pleasant aspects of life at the expense of its unpleasant or negative ones.  There would always be some drawbacks with the men in her life, and, in all probability, they would sooner or later discover certain drawbacks with her.  Thus she had no real option, she felt, but to brave the dreadful fumes without complaint.  Later, when their relationship had deepened, she thought there just might be a chance of getting Stephen to smoke a milder brand or even to give up smoking altogether.  Yes, if he cared enough for her and perhaps for a child he might subsequently wish them to have, there would be a chance of inducing him to break the habit and come clean, as it were, for both their sakes.  Meanwhile, she would have to be patient and resign herself to dating a smoker, to please him as much as possible, to make him feel wanted.  Otherwise she might quickly find herself back to square-one again, with or without James.

     "I don't know about you two, but I could use a coffee," admitted Jennifer, getting up from her chair.

     "Yeah, I could use a drink too," seconded Jacobs, as he peered up at her through the smoke-screen of several vigorous exhalations.  "Two sugars, please."

     "Ditto for me," Sharon requested without thinking.  For, of course, Jennifer knew all about her preferences by now.

     Seizing the opportunity of the latter's temporary departure into the kitchen to say a few personal things to Sharon, Stephen Jacobs confessed to finding the combination of her low-cut vest and prominent brassiere highly seductive.

     "I trust you're going to behave yourself while my friend is getting our coffees," commented Sharon, before offering him a sly smile which appeared to contradict herself.

     "I'm afraid not," he smiled in turn.  "You really oughtn't to sit on my lap in such seductive clothing in another person's flat.  You're a constant spur to my baser urges."  He slid his left hand two-thirds of the way up her right thigh and gently squeezed its flesh.  "Would Jenny object to me squeezing your leg?" he asked, his gaze focusing on the newly exposed part of the thigh in question.

     "She might do," replied Sharon, who was prepared to treat this question lightly.

     "And would she object if she caught me caressing your backside?" he ventured, becoming bolder.

     "Most probably," she smiled.  "But you mustn't allow yourself to get caught doing anything which would cause her to become really jealous, otherwise she might pour our coffees over our heads when she returns."

     "So you're going to restrain me, I take it?" chuckled Jacobs.

     "If I have to."

     "I must confess to finding you highly tantalizing," he admitted, as he withdrew his wandering hand from the edge of her quivering backside and returned the rim of her pale-green miniskirt to its former, less immodest position.

     "You've left your cigarette smouldering in the ash stand," Sharon informed him.

     "That's because I had more pressing concerns on my mind,' he ironically rejoined.  "However, you won't have any excuses when you're alone with me later-on this evening."

     "Won't I?"

     "No."  He stubbed out the remains of his cigarette, before adding: "I won't permit you any!"

     Sharon showed him a wry smile.

     "Two coffees coming up," declared Jennifer, returning to the room with a large blue mug in each hand.  "I hope they're not too strong."

     "I could drink it at any strength," said Sharon, getting up from her lover's lap to receive her mug.

     "Me, too," confessed Jacobs, who immediately put the rim of the remaining mugful of coffee to his nostrils to savour its aroma.  "When I'm thirsty I can drink virtually anything, even a glass of stout," he added.

     There was a short silence while Jennifer Crowe briefly went back to the kitchen for her own mug.  When she reappeared, Sharon elected to say: "I suppose we'd better leave for the theatre as soon as we've drunk this.  Provided there isn't too much traffic congestion, we should get there by seven-thirty."  Then turning to Jacobs, who had become aware that it was now 7.00pm, she said: "I hope you won't mind watching the same play again tonight."

     "Actually I'd rather just drop you off at the theatre and then pick you up afterwards, if you don't mind, considering that I'm somewhat behind with my literary commitments at present, and would be glad of a little extra time to myself for once."

     "Suit yourself," said Sharon, whose face barely concealed her disappointment.  "But don't forget to pick me up at the right time afterwards."

     "Slender chance of my forgetting to do that!" he averred.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

As the train bore him closer to Paris, James Kelly's thoughts became less concerned with his recent amorous misadventures at the hands of Sharon and more concerned, by contrast, with the prospect of what lay in store for him in that vast city.  He had not been to Paris in several years but, despite the passage of time, many of his previous experiences still remained fairly vividly etched in his memory and seemed to be growing progressively more so, the nearer the train drew to it.  He hoped, anyway, that a month or two in a different environment would prove efficacious in easing the burden of his current melancholy state-of-mind, and perhaps even cheer him up a bit.  For he couldn't bear to stay any longer in London and face-up to Paloma Searle under pressure of Sharon's absence.  Neither could he tolerate the sight of Stephen Jacobs, whom he had begun to regard with hostile suspicion.  But Paris was an altogether different proposition, especially as it held no contacts for him and he would consequently be as free as a bird there.

     On arriving at the Gare St. Lazare he straightaway headed for his hotel, conveniently situated nearby, where he had reserved a small attic-room for a modest sum.  He didn't know whether he would spend all his time in Paris there, but, for the time being, it seemed as conveniently central a location as any.

     As soon as he was safely ensconced in his modest room Kelly began to unpack his zipper bag, in which he had secreted, in addition to the bare necessities and a change of clothes, three novels - these being Sartre's Nausea and Roussel's Locus Solus, as well as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.  Of the three, he particularly admired the Roussel, a work of outstanding originality for its time, which he considered to be one of the great masterpieces of modern French literature.  Taking the slender volume in his hands, Kelly raised it to his lips and planted a reverential kiss on its cover.  He was genuinely grateful that such works existed, that true creative ingenuity and individuality had not ceased to be possible in the twentieth century, despite the barbarous march of commercial history which had dragged the bulk of literary productions along in its cinematic wake, transforming an essentially conceptual genre into a quasi-perceptual one which wreaked of literary decadence when, in more representatively contemporary fashion, it didn't wreak of something worse!

     He felt in his pocket for the letter Sharon had sent him shortly after catching him with Paloma Searle, and reflected that he ought to write to his agent in order to inform the old sod of his temporary exile in Paris.  'I don't suppose there's much point in writing to anyone else,' he thought, putting her letter to one side and taking a writing pad from his bag.  'I daren't write to Paloma in case she gets it into her lewd head to follow me here.  If she's really as deeply in love with me as she claims, that wouldn't be impossible!  And what would her husband do then?  No, a few lines to my agent should suffice.'

     After he had written and posted the letter, he went in search of a place to eat.  The Wimpy Bar on the Rue de Clichy corner of the Boulevard de Clichy, not too far from his hotel, caught his eye and he decided to eat there in preference to any of the more indigenous establishments, where the food would be French and therefore less than appealing to him on his first day in Paris.  Feeling quite famished after his tiring journey that day, he permitted himself a double egg burger and chips, together with a glass of ice-cold milk.  Then he set out for a leisurely stroll along the boulevard as far as the Place Pigalle, which seemed like a sanctuary from the clamouring vortex of the garish enticements nearby.  Finally he returned, via a more circuitous route, to his hotel, where he spent a cadaverous hour between the pages of Locus Solus before turning-in for the night.

     The next few days he mostly preoccupied himself by wandering round the sun-bleached streets, drinking bocks at fairly regular though discreet intervals to quench his rapacious thirst, dragging out his meals as long as possible, respectfully and almost penitentially visiting museums or art galleries, milling around book shops, making fresh philosophical notes in his latest notebook, and sitting in either the Bois de Boulogne or the adjacent Jardin d'Acclimatation, where a variety of animals could be seen in the small zoo, along with the many attractive flowerbeds and the playground facilities for children which, when coupled to the better-than-average lavatory facilities, made it one of the more attractive places in Paris.  In the evenings he gravitated, like a moth to flame, towards the Boulevard de Clichy, where he had discovered a relatively inexpensive Self-Service decorated with paintings of the Moulin Rouge variety.  Here he allowed himself to be seduced into sampling some French food, which he painstakingly selected from among the many colourful dishes on display beneath their protective transparent covers.  But out on the boulevard itself he didn't allow himself to be seduced into sampling the favours of the various prostitutes who patrolled their respective beats with a view to soliciting the many single tourists whose slow and often bemused procession up-and-down the busy boulevard gave them ample time to assess the potential clientele and to casually proposition the more promising ones.  Au contraire, he ignored them on three accounts: firstly, because he had no desire to have sex with a stranger at present; secondly, because he had a rather irrational fear, bordering on paranoia, of being fleeced behind the scenes by latter-day coquillards, or robbers; and thirdly, and most significantly, because his love for Sharon, still gnawing remorselessly at his heart, acted as a kind of deterrent which precluded him from taking all that much interest in other women.  Under normal circumstances he might have been capable of having sex with a prostitute, though he had never done any such thing before and privately felt a kind of moral and even physical repugnance towards the idea, bearing in mind the possibility of one's succumbing to a variety of sexually transmitted diseases.  The only time that he imagined he would be most likely to succumb to one would be during a lengthy period of celibacy, when his resistance was possibly somewhat weaker and the temptation to have illicit sex presented itself to him with greater insistence.  But, otherwise, he couldn't see himself as another Henry Miller, hell bent on having his desires fulfilled as often as possible irrespective of the quality of woman involved!  To him, quality was everything, or very nearly so, and one's choice of woman depended not on a momentary impulse, but on the nature of the feelings she engendered in one over a period of time.  Where there was no genuine love, there could be little but sexual aridity, if not sterility, and a purely physical relationship, here today and gone tomorrow, wasn't something that particularly appealed to James Kelly, however divorced from Catholicism he might otherwise consider himself to be!  Indeed, it wasn't something that had particularly appealed to Henry Miller either, if his thoughts in Tropic of Cancer while watching his associate, Van Norden, tackling a whore from the foot of the bed were anything by which to judge!  However that may be, Kelly had not come to Paris to sample the whores but to escape, for the time being, from his previous connections, and in that he could boast of some success.

     One evening, however, he encountered an American while sitting in a small public garden not far from the Place Pigalle.  The guy, a young man with evenly cropped hair, beard and sideburns, who wore a pair of round-lensed metallic spectacles on a slightly aquiline nose, was seated on a nearby bench, spreading cottage cheese on a large french roll with the aid of a jack-knife.  When he had finished spreading the cheese in a slow methodical fashion he returned the jack-knife, duly folded, to his rucksack and began munching on the roll.  In the meantime Kelly had taken out a map of Paris from his zipper-jacket and was busily scanning some of the streets in the vicinity of the Boulevard St. Germain, when the American suddenly asked him, point-blank, whether he had been in Paris long.

     "No, just a week," he replied, momentarily startled by this verbal intrusion into his mental processes.

     "Ah, so you're English!" the American exclaimed.  "I figured you might be ... something about you that's decidedly not French.  Nor American, for that matter."  He took a lusty bite on his roll and, while munching, continued: "I've just been here a couple of days myself.  Came up from Rome for a short break."

     "Really?" Kelly weakly responded, half-turning towards him with a view to correcting the American's assumption of English nationality from an English accent, but then thinking better of it and, swallowing his long-undermined Irish pride, simply asking: "Were you on vacation in Rome, then?"

     "No, I live there actually.  Been there a couple of years in fact, working for a newspaper.  But I'm thinkin' of checking out soon, before I get stuck in a rut."

     "What made you decide to live there in the first place?"

     "Looking for a change, I guess.  Had a friend who lived there and he got me the job.  Hardest thing was learning the language, takin' a crash-course in Italian.  But I like to keep moving, sort of working round different countries.  I've worked in England, Germany, France, and, with some luck, I may have a job in Holland by the year's end.  As long as I don't have to go back to the freaking States, I don't mind which European country I work in, really."

     "What part of the, er, States do you come from?" asked Kelly, becoming more interested.

     "California."  The American took another bite on his roll, chewed the bread into a pulp, and then resumed: "When I quit college I was all for gettin' out of the States, finding myself a niche in Europe.  Berkeley was okay for awhile, but by the time I graduated I'd had enough of Cali."

     "It sounds strange to hear that coming from an American," remarked Kelly, who had put away his street map so as to give the guy his undivided attention.  "Most Europeans seem to think that, earthquakes aside, California is one of best places in the world."

     The American chuckled through his roll.  "It depends where you live, I guess, and how.  Anyhow, I'd had enough of it."

     "Did you get to see many rock bands while studying at Berkeley?" asked Kelly, unconsciously slipping into American phraseology.

     "I reckon I must have spent as much time listening to rock music as studying literature," the American smilingly averred.  "But that's all past.  I don't listen to all that much rock these days.  Je préfére le jazz moderne actuellement."

     "Really?" Kelly responded, as a couple of heavy-looking Frenchmen in black leather jackets and matching shades passed closely in front of them.

     The American glanced down at his watch and confessed that he had a rendezvous with an Italian friend in a minute, but that his new acquaintance was welcome to come along if he thought he could use some company for the evening - an invitation which Kelly gratefully accepted, in view of the fact that he hadn't had much company since arriving in Paris and didn't particularly relish the prospect of returning to his small room on the cinquième étage too early, from which the noise of tinny motorbikes and explosive cars was all too audible through the slanting attic-window above.

     Thus, before long, he found himself sitting at a small circular table outside a café on the Boulevard de Clichy in the company of the American, who had meanwhile introduced himself as Paul Steiner, and his Italian friend - an attractive young woman with short brown hair and matching eyes whom he called Maria.

     "Trois bières ici, mon ami," Steiner requested of the waiter, who seemed familiar with him.  "So what d'ya do for a living?" he asked, turning back to the table.

     "I'm a writer actually," revealed Kelly, who then went on, in response to further curiosity, to inform Steiner that he kind of alternated between literature and philosophy in the manner of what Roland Barthes would have described as an artist/writer, and that he was currently working on a sort of dualistic philosophy which had evolved from a variety of sources, including Nietzsche, Hesse, and D.H. Lawrence.

     "Sounds kinda interesting," was Steiner's response to a rough outline of the philosophy in question.  "I like the idea that things are interrelated, so that goodness sorta depends on the existence of evil and vice versa.  What you're effectively sayin' is that if we make life too painless we reduce our capacity to experience pleasure; that too great a dependence on all the modern conveniences and time-saving devices of the late twentieth century may only serve, in the long-run, to turn one into a sort of fancy vegetable, contrary to what Socrates was when he felt the keen pleasure that resulted from the removal of his frigging manacles.  But, even so, without the 'mod cons' we'd have less time to spare on the good things in life and would simply be back where our ancestors were, struggling to survive.  I mean, that's the chief flaw, the way I see it, of Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which endeavours to cast doubt over the need for such 'mod cons' and time-saving devices.  But if you don't have them, you're simply a naturalistic bum who lags behind the times, since acquiescence in the artificial achievements or appliances of modern technology is what makes you truly modern.  You can't be hip without 'em."

     "No, I guess not," conceded Kelly, glad to hear what sounded like sense from someone at last.  "However, the alleged interdependence of pleasure and pain is only one aspect of my philosophy, and not the most important aspect, either.  For it seems that as one ascends, as it were, from the body to the psyche, the interdependence of antitheses becomes harder to sustain, since we're then dealing rather more with absolutes than relativities, in accordance with the more extreme nature of the psyche in its relation to the planes of time and space and, for all we know, both anterior and posterior universal phenomena, such as would accord with the theory of multiple universes."

     "Phew! That’s getting pretty deep," exclaimed Steiner, as the waiter returned with their beers and humbly diverted attention away from the universal psyche towards more mundane matters.  "By the way, Maria doesn't speak any English, so she won't have a fucking clue what we're talkin' about.  In fact, she's a stupid bitch who both bores and depresses me!  Anyone would think she was dumb!"

     James Kelly felt distinctly uncomfortable as Steiner proceeded to passionately disparage his girlfriend, telling him how frigid and critically minded she was.  He didn't like the idea of the guy putting her down like that in front of a complete stranger, and was afraid of compromising himself by appearing to agree or sympathize with him at her expense, even though he was of the understanding that she couldn't speak a word of English.  He avoided looking at her while the American continued to pour out his grievances, which had presumably been bottled-up for several months, in increasingly bitter torrents.  Taking a sip of his bière d'Alsace, he attempted to distract Steiner from his diatribe by commenting on what he elected to regard as its pleasant taste.

     "A bit watery in comparison with English and German beers," opined Steiner, evidently in no position to be seduced from his critical frame-of-mind.  However, there now ensued a merciful lull in his conversation while he downed most of the 'watery' beer in one lusty draught and appeared to sink into the surrounding ambience with less than cynical intent.  For her part, Maria just sat in front of her beer with a vacant look on her pretty face, as though completely unaware of what had been going on in her companion's devious mind.  After Kelly had reflected that Steiner's demeanour connoted, in some respects, with Henry Miller, whom he obviously had more than a passing knowledge of, he heard the American ask: "What d'ya say about visitin' a brothel with me in a minute?  I'll ditch this bitch and take you to a safe little place near the Rue Lepic."

     Frankly, Kelly didn't know what to say, since he hadn't considered any such eventuality before, and Steiner's invitation, coming straight out-of-the-blue, drove a mixture of fear and excitement into his soul.  On the one hand, he was possessed by a vague desire to visit such an establishment for the opportunity of experiencing something which, although new to him, was in reality as old as the hills and thus a dying-breed, and, on the other hand, he had a marked fear of, coupled to a certain physical revulsion for, what he would probably encounter there.  "I really d-don't know w-what to say," he bashfully stammered, after a few seconds' anxious deliberation.  He felt doubly humiliated in front of the Italian woman, who seemed to be showing signs of impatience with his perplexity.

     "Come on, it ain't an expensive joint!" coaxed Steiner, already on his feet and rearing to go.  "I've been there before and found it pretty reasonable."

     "Well, provided ...” But his qualms weren't easy to express to a man who was obviously so uninhibited as Steiner, and so he tactfully abandoned the idea of elaborating on them and meekly got to his feet.

     "Good for you!" responded the American, reaching down for his rucksack.  Then, turning to Maria, he informed her in Italian that he was about to head towards the Bois de Boulogne for the night and requested her to meet him at 11.00am the following morning, so that they could visit the Louvre together.  Kelly said Arrivederci to her in the wake of Steiner's terse Chow, and, somewhat apprehensively, set off with him in the general direction of the Rue Lepic.  As they ambled along the crowded boulevard, Steiner began to talk about his preference for dark-eyed women with small breasts, whose buttocks, he claimed, were usually larger and more seductive.

     By the time they reached the establishment, about twenty minutes later, James Kelly was so obsessed with the frantic condition of his pulse that he could barely hear, let alone understand, what was being said to him by the increasingly voluble American.  He almost lost his nerve at the door, where a group of shady-looking Frenchmen were loitering ... presumably in consequence of having been refused entry into the building for reasons best known to themselves.  As he followed Steiner through the half-open door, Kelly found himself thinking of Baudelaire, whose youthful brothel-visiting habits were almost as legendary as those of the author of Tropic of Cancer, and whose memory was now serving to throw a little bohemian dignity, it seemed, on his own visit.

     "Nous voudrions regarder vos femmes, madame," Steiner was saying in simple French to a burly-looking middle-aged woman with garishly bright lipstick who was standing just inside the door at that moment, evidently from having repulsed an invasion of undesirables from without.

     She cast a pair of sharply appraising eyes over the two foreigners and, satisfied that they were suitable prey, admitted them with a perfunctory jerk of her predatory head, the sharp nose of which protruded menacingly in Kelly's direction a moment.  As he meekly trailed behind the American, some of the loiterers outside, evidently disappointed or envious, hooted sarcastically, and one of them bawled out "American jerks!" in their wake, which hardly bolstered Kelly's ego.  At the end of a short corridor they turned left into a brightly lit room where several women of various colours and builds were milling around in various states of undress or scanty dress, depending on one's point of view, ostensibly there to serve drinks to the few men who sat at small tables scattered about the room and were either playing cards or just smoking and talking to those girls nearest to-hand.  "Les voilà, messieures!" the madam declared in a cautiously ambivalent tone, once the two newcomers were safely across the threshold.

     At the sight of them all, Kelly couldn't prevent himself blushing with shame.  For he had never been confronted by such a spectacle before and felt painfully self-conscious now that they were all standing proudly in front of him, like an army regiment waiting to be reviewed by a passing officer.  With his previous experience of the place Steiner quickly came to a passable decision and pointed out a medium-built brunette with dark eyes, whom the madam called Louise.  For his part, Kelly was still struggling with shame and could barely look into their eyes, let alone come to a selective decision.  However, not wishing to be left behind with them while Steiner headed for the stairs to the upstairs rooms, he managed to point out a brown-skinned young woman of slender build, whom he considered the best of a bad job.

     'Oh, why in god's name did I ever allow myself to get dragged into this mess!' he mused as, having paid the madam his fee in advance, he followed the girl, by name of Mireille, up a dimly lit flight of creaking stairs and around the corner into a small scantily furnished room with a grubby-looking bed smack bang in the middle of it, like an oasis in a desert.  'How-on-earth am I going to enter into carnal relations with this sexual sewer through whom probably thousands of men have already flowed in a steady stream of spermatic effluence?' he mused on, becoming ever more petulant.  Nervously he began to undress, while Mireille removed what little she had been wearing and thereupon spread herself across the bed like some transfixed martyr awaiting the stigmata.  He couldn't think of anything much to say to her by way of relieving the psychic tensions which had accumulated inside him downstairs, and the few words she said hardly made any conceptual impression on him, so obsessed was he with keeping his nerve while he self-consciously removed the last items of clothing and bashfully surveyed his exposed member.  He was almost praying, as he stoically mounted her, that she wouldn't give him the pox or the clap for his pains, but he didn't have the gumption to ask whether she was clean or to make a preliminary inspection of her vagina.  His vanity or cowardice interposed itself between his public actions and his private misgivings and, endeavouring as best he could not to show any disgust, he abandoned himself, after preliminary fumblings, to the mechanics of copulation, edging himself into a trough of man-devouring flesh which seemed, in its cloying dampness, to betray the presence of several previous ejaculations.  At first its cold stickiness revolted him, but it wasn't long before things began to warm up a bit and he was able to perform with something approaching pleasure, as he rode her backwards and forwards along the canal of carnal terrain and simultaneously nibbled at her taut teats, which became correspondingly harder the softer she became elsewhere.

     'How revoltingly sticky she was!' he reflected, after the experience had petered-out in a futile orgasm and he was released from any further commitments on that score.  'If there's one thing I must do tonight, it'll be to scrub my cock free of all the cunt grease she has unwittingly inflicted upon it!  She's probably been in steady demand all evening, the little slut!'

     Once dressed again, he followed Mireille downstairs and headed straight for the front door.  He had no desire to inquire after the American, who was probably still being served upstairs and in no hurry to come to a swift conclusion.  He simply pushed his way past the remaining loiterers outside, who seemed to have lost interest in him in the meantime or not to recognize him, and set off back down the street with a view to returning to his hotel toute de suite.  He felt he had been cheated in more senses than one, that it would have been better had he not encountered the goddamned Yank in the first place, and thus been spared the degrading ordeal of having to mechanically copulate with a complete stranger.  But time could not be reversed, and what had happened had to happen, irrespective of his personal preferences.

     Back at the hotel, however, his mood slowly began to change for the better, as he took a bath and washed the remaining impurities from his skin.  He even felt vaguely proud of the way he had handled Mireille, the first coloured girl he had ever been to bed with, and retrospectively respectful of her for the way she had put him at ease and used such seductive skills as she possessed to bring him to a state of sexual readiness and confident penetration.  All in all, the experience hadn't been as bad as he thought it would be, in the circumstances, and he was less pessimistic now about the long-term fate of his penis.  Despite his private misgivings, the American had opened a door for him which he wouldn't have opened himself, and, now that Steiner was safely out-of-the-way, he would be able to carry on without that gnawing curiosity concerning prostitutes and houses of ill-repute about which Paris traditionally had a reputation second to none, even if, these days, that reputation was mercifully less justified than previously.  Now his life would revert to its former mode, free of sexual entanglements!

     During the next few days he avoided the Clichy area altogether, from fear of bumping into Steiner again, choosing for the site of his evening meal a little restaurant in the Rue d'Amsterdam, not far from his hotel.  Since he was becoming more familiar with Paris, and growing tired, moreover, of the long walks he had initially set himself, he worked longer in his room, confining himself to his philosophical notes in the morning and sometimes staying-in during the afternoon to re-read one or another of the three novels he had brought with him - old favourites which he had never read in France before.  In addition to these, he had acquired himself, largely in response to an essay by Cyril Connolly he had read some time before, a volume of Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté, the mostly grotesque surreal collages of which both repelled and fascinated him.  But his own work gave him more pleasure than anything else, especially his notes on Nietzsche, whose belief that man was something that had to be overcome ... in favour of the Superman, the 'meaning of the earth', etc., held a peculiarly challenging fascination for him which he was determined to interpret and develop in his own uniquely transcendental way, borrowing from a variety of more contemporary sources, including the French thinker Teilhard de Chardin, such theories as seemed to confirm the Nietzschean belief that man was a bridge to the 'great noontide' of perfect transcendence, and blending and eclipsing them through a synthesis which would place him in the forefront of contemporary thought - a luminous beacon of apocalyptic insight lighting the way towards a world which put the contemporary one decidedly in the moral shade.  Democratic humanism may have been a  good, depending on your point of view, but the sort of theocratic super- or, rather, supra-humanism which he had in mind, compliments in part of Nietzsche, would be infinitely better - of that there could be little doubt!

     One morning, about a month after his arrival in Paris, the manager of the hotel handed him a first-class letter.  Since he had not sent word of his exile to anyone but his London agent, he automatically assumed it would be from him.  A childish excitement thrilled through him, as he returned to his room with the letter in-hand.  Perhaps it would contain news relating to the placement of his latest novel?  Optimistically he opened it with the aid of a paperknife and began to read its contents, which, to his surprise, ran:-

 

Dear James

     Sorry to disturb your stay in Paris with the following news, but I have been requested by Douglas Searle to get in touch with you regarding his wife, Paloma.  Unfortunately, she committed suicide on Sunday.

     As she was known to you, and was believed to have been in touch with you during and after the anniversary celebrations at Mark Benson's house, you have been invited to attend the funeral.  It is to take place at 11.00am. on Friday, August 28th.  I would be grateful if you could attend, since Douglas is deeply distressed and would appreciate all the support and information from friends and colleagues he can possibly obtain.

     We don't as yet know the real motive behind Paloma's suicide, though Douglas suspects it may have had something to do with the running of the club I informed you about during the course of the aforementioned celebrations, and the admission of two new members to take the places of those who were recently ousted from it.

     Let me know by immediate reply if you can't make it.  If, however, you intend to come, be at Douglas Searle's house not later than 10.00am on Friday.

 

Yours sincerely

Trevor Jenkinson

 

P.S.  I received your hotel address from Sean, who apologizes for not having acknowledged your letter of July 25th.  He was apparently under the impression that you would be back from Paris within a couple of weeks.

 

     'My God!' thought Kelly, as he read and re-read the phrase "she committed suicide" over and over in unbelieving horror.  For a second he felt like vomiting, so cataclysmic was the shock to his nervous system.  He slumped to the floor, as though struck by a thunderbolt.  His heart seemed to be on the point of exploding.  Her, Paloma, dead ... and dead because...?  The thought that she may actually have killed herself over him seemed too preposterous to entertain.  In fact, it was positively grotesque!  But what else could he assume?  After all, she had made it perfectly clear to him that her husband's club was of benefit to their marriage, an organized form of extramarital infidelity which worked to their mutual advantage, despite its intrinsic moral culpability - arguably more a legacy of and response to the age than an arbitrary debauch imposed upon it by morally irresponsible people.  How, therefore, could she have committed suicide over that?  No, it wasn't the club, or the admittance of a fresh couple in the wake of the 'wizard's' departure.  It was he, James Kelly, the man to whom she had confessed to having fallen madly in love, the man to whom she had written tender and flattering letters, begging for a chance to see him again at the first convenient opportunity!  And it was his prolonged absence from London that had induced her to do away with herself, to put an end to her misery and shame in the teeth of her unrequited passion!  It was he who, by declining to reply to her or disclose his whereabouts, had driven her to assume that he had left his flat to get away from her and be safe from her passionate entreaties and declarations of love.  She was in love with him all right, but he could never return that love because of his feelings for Sharon, who had effectively induced him to break with Paloma in the first place by catching them together that Wednesday afternoon and storming out of his life in a fit of leave-taking jealousy such that had put an end to their relationship, pending the severance of his amorous connections with Paloma.  Well, he had severed amorous connections with her all right, but now she had severed connections with her own life.  Not only had he unwittingly deprived Douglas Searle of a wife, he had effectively deprived him of his club.  For how could it continue to exist without Paloma there to play her subordinate part in its continuance?

     'Oh God!' thought Kelly again, as he stared at the sloping ceiling above him, which seemed, at this moment, to reflect the warped state of his mind.  'Why didn't I write to her?'  But, of course, he knew perfectly well why he hadn't written.  And he knew, too, that if he didn't return to London to attend the funeral he would be conspicuous by his absence, and perhaps more implicated in the tragic circumstances surrounding the reasons for her death than was possibly already the case.  Besides, he needed to keep on good terms with Mr Searle, whose professional influence was not without some significance to him.  Doubtless Trevor Jenkinson, Gordon Hammer, and Keith Brady would all be there on Friday, expecting him to do his bit to lend moral support to a man who would have more need of it than most.  Yes, he would have to return to London that very day, if he didn't want to put his friendships in jeopardy.  And he would have to destroy the evidence of Paloma's professed love for him as soon as he got back to his flat.  It wouldn't do to keep her letters, now that he could never reply to them.

     Stuffing Jenkinson's letter into a pocket of his jeans, he hurried across to the Gare St. Lazare to find out the times of the next trains to Dieppe.  There was one at 11.30 later that morning, but that wouldn't give him much time to gather his things together and settle-up with the hotel.  The afternoon service struck him as more convenient, so it was that, having reserved a second-class seat on the 15.00 to London via Dieppe and Newhaven, he returned to his room and began to pack. [This novel, originally written in 1979 and drawing on experiences from a visit to Paris of 1974, was conceived well before the Channel Tunnel and EUROSTAR came to pass and I have accordingly not compromised information pertaining to 1974 by subsequent developments. - Author's note.] Since the funeral wasn't for another couple of days, he realized that he had plenty of time to get back to London.  But, even so, he was grateful that fate had enabled him to reserve a seat that day rather than the following one, insofar as his return home would not only enable him to destroy Paloma's letters all the sooner, but also give him more time to prepare himself for the ordeal ahead and how best to tackle it.

     With belongings packed and the hotel manager duly informed of his imminent departure, he dashed off a brief letter of commiseration to Douglas Searle.  Then he rushed out to post it and, realizing that he still had a few hours to kill before his train was due out, spent an hour or two walking restlessly about the streets.  Following a light meal in his usual restaurant he returned to the hotel, settled-up with the manager, and collected his zipper bag.  By the time he got to the station it was 2.50pm and the train was already standing at its platform.  Once in his seat, he fished out the letter he had received from Sharon in London, over a month previously, and read:-

 

Dear James

        I was very upset when I arrived at your flat on Wednesday afternoon and found you with another woman.  I couldn't believe you were seeing someone else behind my back.  You always gave me the impression that your love was genuine.  Perhaps I was mistaken?  Whatever the case, I have no wish to see you so long as you continue to amorously befriend this other woman.  I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but I really don't see how I can be expected to share you with anyone else after what we've been through together.  I trust you'll understand.

 

Yours

Sharon Taylor.

 

     Yes, Kelly understood all right!  For it was only just beginning to dawn on him that, now Paloma was dead, Sharon would have no reason to assume he was still 'amorously befriending' her.  If he could make the news of Paloma's death clear to her in a letter, there was a very real possibility that she would bury the hatchet and come back to him again.

     A thrill of excitement surged through him as he re-read her letter in order to ascertain the exact reason for her not wishing to see him.  It was simply because of Paloma!  And now that the unfortunate creature was out-of-the-way, and in the most definitive terms ... he might just be forgiven.  Yes, indeed he might!

     Obsessed by the prospect of reconciliation with Sharon, he took out his writing materials and hurriedly set about penning a reply.  He would explain everything, not just Paloma's suicide but the nature of his previous relationship with her - the fact, namely, that he had been drawn into it against his will and had only resigned himself to it from fear of what she would say to her husband, at his professional expense, if he didn't acquiesce in her desires.  He would explain the position of her husband in relation to his professional and social life, and, above all, underline the fact that he hadn't been in love with Paloma; that, on the contrary, he loved only Sharon and felt genuinely perturbed by the compromise which had been forced upon him, to the detriment of his true feelings, by Paloma Searle's unreasoning demands.  And, once again, he would ask her to forgive him, to understand that he cared for no-one else.

     As for Stephen Jacobs, he would make no mention of him since, despite strong suspicions to the contrary, he had no concrete proof, as yet, that Jacobs was seeing Sharon in his absence or, indeed, had ever had sexual relations with her.  Besides, to jump to conclusions would only compromise him still further and possibly alienate Sharon even more, making it difficult for her to take his letter seriously.  No, there was no need to drag Stephen Jacobs into his affairs!  He would simply content himself by saying how much he missed his friends whilst in Paris, and how he was looking forward to seeing them all again, now that Paloma Searle's suicide had made it possible for him to return home.  Finally he would request Sharon to meet him on the Sunday after the funeral outside Kenwood House, Hampstead, at 3.00pm or thereabouts.  Then they would have an opportunity to discuss things face-to-face and perhaps even come to a new and better arrangement for the future.

     Yes, he dashed off the letter with great enthusiasm and even literary ingenuity as the train bore him farther from Paris and closer to Rouen, closer to Dieppe, and, via the sea-crossing, Newhaven, and London.  He had no time to stare at the lush green countryside through the carriage window, so obsessed was he by the gravity of the thoughts which flooded his mind, like some unholy visitation.  Only when he had finished the letter did he feel a degree of shame for his preoccupation with Sharon at Paloma's expense.  But this feeling gradually receded into the depths of his soul once more as he realized, for the first time, that he had really wanted to leave Paris and return to London, not because he particularly disliked the city (though he had to admit there were certain aspects of it he didn't much admire), but primarily on account of the fact that he wanted to be closer to Sharon, closer to the source of his love.  Paloma's suicide now seemed to him a sort of blessing in disguise, the pretext for which he had been secretly yearning to enable him to abandon Paris, and, as such, he couldn't prevent his thoughts from centring on his beloved.

 

      

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

James Kelly was still somewhat flushed from his embarrassing encounter with Douglas Searle and the subsequent handshakes he had been obliged to offer several of Mr Searle's relatives, when news of the arrival of their cars prompted him to peer through the front windows of the lounge and optically verify the fact.  Altogether, there were five black saloons parked outside in addition to the hearse, which was to convey the remains of Paloma Searle to the Enfield crematorium to which Mr Searle had acquired access in the absence of suitable burial facilities.

     Having been under the impression there was going to be a burial Kelly had asked the widower to which cemetery Mrs Searle's corpse was about to be conveyed, only to learn that it wasn't going to be buried at all but cremated instead.  Although he had initially considered burial, Mr Searle realized that Paloma's suicide would undoubtedly complicate matters, especially as, née Gomez, she had been born a Catholic.  He had accordingly taken the undertaker's advice and opted for cremation.  The coroner, witnessed by the local GP, had subsequently verified the cause of her death as arsenic poisoning and, satisfied with his findings, had duly furnished a medical certificate.  The fact that the Searles had not been regular church-goers was another factor in determining the choice of cremation, thus enabling the deceased to be disposed of without drawing undue attention to their atheistic past and perhaps even bringing his name into public disrepute.  Consequently if the idea of burial had initially presented itself to Mr Searle's grief-stricken imagination as a more dignified and even romantic means of disposing of his late wife, the realities of modern life, the sinful nature of her death, and the almost total disregard for Christianity to which he had hitherto professed in his obsession with money, quickly combined to quash the idea and open the way for the Enfield crematorium.  The executor had thereupon obtained a copy of the cremation regulations from the local undertakers and, following the coroner's inquest, arranged to have his late-wife's corpse resolved into lime dust on Friday, August 28th. 

     Of the assembled relatives and friends only the executor's father, Edward Searle, had expressed overt disapproval at the fiery prospect in store for his deceased daughter-in-law.  But, sympathizing with his son's bereavement, he had cut short his criticism of cremation with a gesture of resignation intended to convey the impression that what must be must be.  And as though to apologize to his son for having thus expressed himself, the old man endeavoured to console him with words to the effect that 5lbs of Paloma's ashes were better than no ashes at all!

     "It looks like we're going to be under way soon," a voice to the right of James Kelly murmured, betraying a slight relief.

     "It does rather appear so," agreed Kelly, as he recognized the chubby face of Keith Brady, who was standing next to him.  "I imagine it will take us about half-an-hour to get to the crematorium - assuming we'll be travelling at funeral speed."

     "The hearse is bound to ensure that!" rejoined Brady, allowing a vague smile to play around the edges of his fleshy lips.  "Strangely, this is the first time I've ever taken part in a funeral actually."

     "Me too," confessed Kelly.  "And I hope it'll be my last."  But, almost immediately, he regretted having said this, since it seemed to betray his personal guilt concerning Paloma's death, and reminded him moreover of the three additional letters she had sent to his home address whilst he was away in Paris, thereby making a grand total of six!  "Do you know why we're going to the Enfield crematorium in particular?" he asked Brady, to distract his thoughts from them.

     "Simply because that's the nearest one, I believe," the painter replied.  "The London Borough of Camden doesn't appear to possess one."

     Although there were some other voices at large in the room, the predominating atmosphere of mournful silence sufficed to restrain Kelly from asking or saying anything else, and it was with a feeling of relief - relief, above all, from the oppressive proximity of Douglas Searle - that he followed the other mourners out to the waiting cars, where the widower proceeded to allocate them all their respective places - the relatives naturally taking the front two cars behind the hearse, and their friends the rest.  Thus it happened that Kelly subsequently found himself being allocated a place in the fifth car, in the company of Trevor Jenkinson, Gordon Hammer, and Rachel Davis, who, as soon as they were under way, began to relax a little and to open-up on the subject of Paloma's suicide.

     "By the way," said Jenkinson, turning his attention upon Kelly, who was seated next to him, "both Gordon and Rachel are acquainted with the existence of Douglas' club."

     "Douglas' club!" exclaimed the younger man, hardly daring to believe his ears.  For he remembered that, at the fancy-dress ball, Trevor had been careful not to disclose the identity of the snooker player in the outlaw's costume.

     "Yes, didn't I tell you in that letter I sent to your Paris hotel?" Jenkinson declared.

     Kelly almost heaved a sigh of relief, as the truth of this statement dawned on him.  Yes, Trevor had alluded to Douglas Searle's connection with the club as a possible motive for Paloma's suicide - a connection he had kept silent about at the ball in order, presumably, not to betray the latter's disguise.  So there was no reason for Kelly to suspect that Trevor and Paloma had been secretly in league with each other over his private affair.  "Ah, yes, of course!" he at length admitted, his face betraying a degree of embarrassment.  "In fact, I had concluded the 'outlaw' to be Douglas anyway."

     "Well, now there's little you don't know about the damn club you needn't be surprised that things have turned out the ill-fated way they have," Jenkinson remarked.

     "No wonder Douglas is so bloody upset!" commented Hammer gruffly.  "And not only him."  He paused for effect a moment, then continued: "Did you notice the look on Sylvia Benson's face when she arrived with her wretched husband this morning?"

     "Yes, I did indeed," admitted Jenkinson.  "And I couldn't help noticing the looks on Peter and Catherine Wilson's faces, either."

     "Who are they?" asked Kelly, feeling somewhat out-of-his-depth.

     Instead of replying, Jenkinson waded-in with: "Do you recall that chap dressed as Blackbeard at the ball?"

     "Yes, perfectly."

     "Well, he and his wife, the 'vestal virgin', were celebrating their admittance to the club, following the expulsion of the 'wizard' and wife," Jenkinson reminded him.  "They foresaw a rosy future of organized adultery for themselves ..."

     "And now that future no longer exists," interposed Hammer, "seeing as the founder and leader of the club is without a wife and cannot therefore continue to participate in it.  And without him, the club's finished."

     A brief silence supervened as their car drew-up behind the one in front at a traffic light turning red.  Then, once they were under way again and the fourth car had duly pulled farther away from them, Hammer drew Kelly's attention to the fact that it contained Peter and Catherine Wilson.  "We wouldn't want them to overhear our conversation," he chuckled dryly, drawing notice to their own two open windows, which had been lowered on account of the sweltering August heat.  "But I shouldn't think that Matthew and Susanna Boyle would be greatly distressed by it."

     "Matthew Boyle was the defeated 'wizard' at the ball," Jenkinson almost academically informed Kelly, whose ignorance of the fact had been total, "and Susanna was the one in that old-fashioned and slightly ridiculous nurse's costume.  So, as might be expected, the news of Paloma Searle's suicide probably didn't have anything like the same negative impact on them as on the existing and new members of the club.  Naturally, they did their best to appear upset, to offer sincere condolences, etc.  All the same, I bet you anything they were privately revelling in malicious pleasure from contemplating the disappointment on the faces of Douglas Searle's accomplices, particularly in light of the fact that they hadn't received a very congenial farewell at the Bensons' anniversary affair!"

     "But couldn't someone else take over the club's leadership?" Rachel Davis asked with an almost rhetorical intonation.

     "Yes, there's always that possibility," Jenkinson reluctantly conceded.  "But it strikes me as rather unlikely.  After all, Douglas was more than just the founder and leader of the club, he virtually was the club, the spirit and drive behind its continuance over the past 2-3 years, and without him it's difficult to see how it could effectively continue to exist.  Admittedly, something analogous might eventually take its place.  But it would almost inevitably be less successful than its predecessor, and would probably disintegrate after a few months, if not weeks, for want of serious support.  Can you imagine the Nazi Party without Adolf Hitler?  No, of course not!  Well, it strikes me that it would be just as impossible to imagine the Adultery Club continuing without Douglas Searle."

     "Here, here!" cried Hammer, slapping his right hand down on the thigh parallel to it.  "I thought I'd made that point perfectly clear to you a few moments ago," he added, casting Rachel Davis a faintly reproachful glance.  "Anyone would think you bloody-well wanted the damn thing to continue!"

     A wry smile played across Rachel's heavily rouged lips, in spite of the obvious effort she was making to suppress it.  "Well, none of us could profit from the damn thing," she averred, taking out a large white handkerchief from her bag to divert attention from her emotional excitement.

     "Three bachelors and one spinster," Jenkinson observed.  "Let's hope we shall never have need of such a club ourselves."

     "Poor Paloma," murmured Rachel, after she had blown her nose.  "To think she did away with herself over that."

     "We're not absolutely sure why she killed herself," Jenkinson rejoined.  "But the pressures of living with the club seem to be the most likely explanation."

     Kelly sharply turned his face towards the nearest window, in an effort to hide the guilty feeling which overcame him on hearing this conjecture.  He was almost expecting Trevor Jenkinson to say something sarcastically ironic to him, but his literary rival merely continued by saying: "When you bear in mind the number of snooker victories that Douglas acquired at the expense of his opponents, it stands to reason that she must have felt somewhat jealous of the other women's relationships with him.  Of course," and here he confidentially lowered his voice in order not to give their driver a chance to overhear anything, "Mark did get her into bed from time to time, but not very often.  For the most part, she was left helplessly on the matrimonial shelf while Douglas enjoyed the fruits of his victories.  Evidently the admission of Peter Wilson into the club was the last straw, bearing in mind the startling attractiveness of his wife, Catherine, and the likelihood that Douglas would have even more incentive to excel at snooker than before."

     James Kelly had stopped listening to Jenkinson's conjectures, since the memory of what Paloma herself had confessed to him, when they were alone together in the second-floor room of Mark Benson's house, coupled to the recollection of the letters she had subsequently written him, left the young man under no illusions concerning the real motive for her suicide.  If he had still been in some doubt when he arrived back from Paris, the third of the letters she had sent to his London address left no room for such a luxury whatsoever.  It expressly stated that she would have no option but to do away with herself if he didn't reply to her and thus ease the emotional pain which had steadily accumulated in the meantime.  Had he been there to receive the letter when it arrived, apparently a week before her death, he would have assumed that she was bluffing, overreacting, trying to wheedle him into replying to her through vain threats.  But such an assumption would have been proved wrong, dreadfully wrong, and there was nothing he could now do but accept the fact of her suicide for the reality it was - the horribly scandalous reality which both shocked and amazed him.  Her, an intelligent married woman, committing suicide over him!  It didn't appear to make sense, but there it was.  A lot of things in life didn't appear to make sense, but there they were, and one had no option, short of committing the ultimate sin, but to live with them.  To some extent it was his fault that she had poisoned herself, and to some extent it wasn't.  Maybe someone else would have led her to do the same thing, had it not been him.  He didn't know.  But, now that she had done it, he knew full-well there was no point in torturing himself over the affair, in crying over spilt milk.  Indeed, had he dug beneath the fragile veneer of sentimental concern with which he felt compelled to camouflage his true feelings at present he would have discovered an emotion akin to pride that a beautiful woman, the wife of a successful businessman, should have done away with herself over him - a pride resulting from the realization that he was one of the few people in the 'privileged' position of having recently been the motive which drove such a woman to suicide.  Had Jenkinson or Searle or Brady or Hammer ever been such a motive?  Was this pride ever likely to capture their souls?

     "... a terrible death," Jenkinson was saying, as Kelly returned from the distant planet of his morose reflections to the mundane reality before him, "and one which reminds me of Madame Bovary, whose heroine spent tortuous hours writhing on her bed while the arsenic cut deeper and deeper into the wellsprings of her tormented life.  Now Douglas, who discovered the catastrophe too late to be able to do anything about it, admitted that many of the symptoms described by Flaubert were also to be found in his wife.  To tell you the truth, I'm rather glad it was all over by the time I arrived.  I expect Paloma purposely chose such a suicide on account of the fact that she'd been re-reading that novel shortly before deciding to take her own life."

     The phrase 'a terrible death' cut into Kelly's consciousness like a knife going through butter, and the vague emotion of negative pride that he had been on the verge of discovering, the moment before, was duly eclipsed by the remorse which now descended on him like a ton weight for the unspeakable pain he had unwittingly caused Paloma to suffer.  For an instant he felt like confessing everything, confessing to the guilt which had once more welled-up, like molten lava, inside him - and just at a time when he was on the point of establishing his innocence in his own eyes!  But his courage failed him, or maybe his common sense came to the rescue (he had no idea which), for he merely glued his face to the car window and tried to focus on the buildings across the other side of the street.  Guilty and innocent, innocent and guilty by turns on an incessant roundabout.  Was it ever any different?  No, life was always a combination of vicissitudes, a dualistic balance, a dichotomous relativity.

     "It looks as though we've arrived," Rachel observed, as their car came to a gentle standstill behind the one in front.

     "Indeed it does!" confirmed Hammer, peering out towards the stern façade of the crematorium.  "Oh well, I suppose we'd better prepare ourselves for the worst."

     They alighted with due decorum on the pavement side of the car and slowly ambled towards the hearse, where the pallbearers had already lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and were now advancing at a measured pace towards the crematorium's main entrance.

     "A job for the young," Jenkinson remarked sotto voce, as they trailed mournfully behind the others at the tail-end of the cortège.

     "All we need now is the Heroide Funèbre," Hammer opined in a reverential whisper.  But this allusion by the concert pianist to Liszt's Symphonic Poem No. 8 was largely wasted on the three people by his side, who weren't in the least familiar with it.

     Once everyone was safely inside the building, the formalities proceeded more or less according to plan, with no delay and scarcely any sentiment.  In fact, they were disposed of so efficiently, by the officiating officials, that more than a few of the assembled mourners now experienced a sense of anti-climax, so great were the tensions and expectations which had accumulated in their breasts over the preceding hours!  No sooner had they resigned themselves to being where they were and to participating in the disposal, through incineration, of a female corpse, than the coffin had been consigned to the furnace and its contents assisted towards total dissolution by a process which seemed akin to a factory production-line, the only difference being that the end-product would be an urn of ashes rather than a car or a motorbike.  Rather than being consigned to an eternity of earthly or watery dissolution through burial on land or sea, Mrs Searle's corpse had been conveyed to a frenzy of fiery destruction which, though incontrovertibly hellish, would be over and done with in the twinkling of an eye, comparatively speaking.  They need only wait for the urn of sanctified ashes on the far side of the conveyor-belt process, as it were, for them to have no further business there and to take their dignified leave of the place - as was soon to transpire, with relief that it was someone else's corpse and not their own which had tasted the flames' diabolical wrath, so to speak, and been reduced, in judgmental fashion, to a few pounds of common ash.

     However, since the return journey was conducted at a slightly quicker pace than the outgoing one, it wasn't long before they arrived at the classy little restaurant in Hampstead which Mr Searle had booked in advance, for the benefit of both relatives and friends alike.  Even old Edward Searle, who seemed the one most aversely affected by the cremation on account of his moral preference for burial, appeared to have acquired a new lease-of-life from the more familiar surroundings in which he now found himself, as the prospect of tucking-in to some dead animal's cooked-up flesh presented itself to his cadaverous imagination as something greatly to be relished.

     "I don't suppose the sombre experiences of this mournful day will prevent us from eating our fill," remarked Hammer, as he took his place at table and proceeded to scrutinize the menu. "The living are always under obligation to eat."

     As in the cars, so in the restaurant, the participants were divided into relatives and friends, similar arrangements applying as before.  Thus James Kelly still found himself in the company of Gordon Hammer, Trevor Jenkinson, and Rachel Davis, albeit with the addition, now, of Keith Brady and Susan Healy.  At the next table, the Bensons were seated in the company of the Wilsons and the Boyles, whilst at the third and farthest table from the door Douglas and Edward Searle sat facing each other in the company of their four relatives - Mr and Mrs Gomez (Paloma's mother and father), and Mr and Mrs MacNamara (her brother-in-law and sister).  Their dinners, ranging from beef and chicken curry to roast lamb and pork, were duly ordered, and a few large decanters of red wine, to boot.

     "Well, I suppose one ought to be grateful that one is still alive," Brady murmured to no-one in particular.  "Poor Paloma won't be eating roast dinner again."

     "Poor Paloma's a figment of your imagination," contended Hammer, the fingers of each hand spread out before him on the white tablecloth, as though he were seated at a piano in some vast concert hall and about to launch both himself and everybody else into a musical rendition of autocratic power.

     "Yes, I suppose you're right," conceded Brady, smiling wryly.  "I wonder how many people have been cremated in this damned country since 1885, the year it all began."

     "Devil knows!" Jenkinson exclaimed.  "But I'd rather we didn't discuss such matters over lunch, if you don't mind!  Let's change the subject."

     There was an embarrassing silence at their table while they racked their respective brains for an alternative and possibly more fitting subject to discuss, but, curiously, it was Jenkinson himself who first profited from his suggestion by inquiring of Keith Brady whether he had now finished work on the painting he'd been attempting to describe to them, back at Douglas Searle's house, in June.

     "Yes, quite some time ago actually," admitted Brady, suddenly looking relatively pleased with himself.  "In point of fact, I began work on another abstract-surreal one shortly afterwards, which I think will turn out even better than the one in question."

     A brief titter erupted from Rachel Davis, who did her best to feign respectful curiosity, in the teeth of her habitual disrespect for Brady's art, by asking him to describe the new work to them.

     "Do you know Roussel's novel Locus Solus?" he asked, by way of an indirect response.

     "Never heard of it," Rachel blandly confessed.

     "It's the most famous of the novels inspired by surrealism," Kelly informed her, before going on to tell Brady that he had been re-reading it recently.

     The painter raised his bushy brows in a show of delighted surprise for this unanticipated admission.  "Well, I'm endeavouring to paint the exhibit of Chapter Three," he explained, primarily addressing himself to Kelly.  "You'll doubtless recall that Chapter Three has to do with the large diamond-shaped transparent vessel containing the aqua micans liquid in which are immersed the dancing girl with the long golden hair, the remains of Danton's face, the hairless Siamese cat, the metal horn, the seven bottle imps, the vertical starting-post for the hippocampi's race, the hippocampi themselves, the golden ball compounded of, er, Sauterne wine, and ..."

     "You're actually painting all that!?" exclaimed an astonished James Kelly.

     "Well, I'm endeavouring to," admitted Brady.  "What d'you think of the idea?"

     "Why, it's one of your most enterprising ideas to-date!" averred Kelly enthusiastically.  "If you can succeed in that, you ought to try painting scenes from other parts of the book as well.  I'd certainly like to see it when it's finished."  He stared at Keith Brady with something approaching genuine admiration, a thing he had never felt towards the man before.  Did this plump fellow, whom he was apt to regard as a superficial womanizer and simple hedonist, actually possess literary tastes similar to his own?  It seemed unlikely and yet, despite his preference for non-representational art, he was nonetheless quite impressed by Brady's choice of subject-matter.

     "Aqua micans!" snapped Hammer, whose right-hand fingers were now performing a kind of demonic tango on the tablecloth.  "This conversation is becoming a wee bit too esoteric for a simple musician like me!"

     Kelly had no desire to commit himself to an elucidation of Roussel's literary masterpiece, especially now that their food had arrived and he was all for tucking-in to his beef curry.  The prospect of being drawn into an exposition of the chapter treating of artificially resuscitated corpses was the last thing that appealed to him under the circumstances of his healthy appetite at this moment, as he mixed everything, peas and rice included, into a kind of abstract medley for which his fork alone would suffice.  Besides, what with Paloma's own corpse having been cremated little over an hour ago, it was wiser to drop the subject altogether.

     "Were you the bloke dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte at the fancy-dress ball?" he asked Brady, whose long aquiline nose more than suggested the possibility.

     "Yes, I'm afraid so," confirmed the latter blushingly.

     Muffled laughter escaped from Susan Healy, who confessed to having been the Empress Josephine.

     "I'm rather relieved that I wasn't there," Hammer declared.  "It appears to have been a veritable madhouse!  Trevor told me, a couple of days later, what you were all disguised as.  I could scarcely believe my ears!"  Having said which, he directed a slice of well-forked roast pork into his large open mouth.

     "Well, I don't suppose we'll ever have to dress-up like that again," conjectured Kelly, as soon as his mouth was free of a large chunk of curried beef and in a position to be used for speech again.  "By the way, I didn't see you there, Rachel."

     The journalist looked as though she had just been accused of a public indecency as, blushing, she explained that circumstances had prevented her from going.

     "I invited her along to review the recital I was giving at the Festival Hall," intervened Hammer, "and she enjoyed every damn moment of it, or so she told me afterwards, in spite of the fact that the works I'd been commissioned to perform were about as atonal and avant-garde as it's possible to get, short of not being music at all but some sort of diabolic noise!  Few recitals can have been more intensely discordant than the one I was obliged to deliver that Saturday evening, I can tell you!  And I loathed every damn moment of it!"

     "Whom would you have gone to the ball as, had circumstances permitted you?" Kelly asked Rachel out of idle curiosity.  But since she shrugged her shoulders in a show of bewilderment, he put the same question to Gordon Hammer.

     "Probably Franz Liszt.  Either him or the Phantom of the Opera!"      Subdued titters duly emerged from various quarters of the table.  The idea of Hammer dressed-up as the Phantom of the Opera seemed too preposterous for Kelly to swallow, and by a curious paradox he almost choked on the large chunk of beef he had just forked into his mouth.  Even Jenkinson managed to find the idea vaguely amusing.  For despite the determined effort he was making to remember the nature of the occasion which had brought them all together in the first place, he couldn't prevent his natural ebullience from bubbling to the surface when prompted, as at present, by sufficiently stimulating implications.  Besides, the general hubbub throughout the rest of the restaurant, particularly that section of it which had not been reserved for the funeral party, indicated, quite clearly, that the cremation was effectively a thing of the past, with little or no applicability to how things now stood.  Even Mr Searle's relatives had given-up any pretence of trying to appear mournfully solemn, as they grappled with the self-indulgent mechanics of eating their respective dinners.

     "What, exactly, would the Phantom have looked like?" asked Kelly, once he had recovered something of his former poise.

     "More formidable than Mephistopheles!" jeered Hammer, drawing his bushy brows together in a show of strength.  "But too many people wouldn't have known who or what he was, so it probably wouldn't have been in my best interests to expose myself to their cultural ignorance."

     "I quite agree," Kelly sympathized.  "I got rather tired of people asking me who I was supposed to be."  An involuntary shudder ran through him, as he recalled his demonic appearance of July 4th.  There, in his mind's eye, lay Paloma Searle, stretched out on the bed in the upstairs room with her nun's attire up round her neck and a white G-string dangling from between her thighs.  And now?  Her flesh had been reduced to a few pounds of common ash, nothing more.  Good God! at the thought of this he suddenly wanted to vomit, so distasteful was the juxtaposition of ideas which assailed him, separating him from his companions at table and causing his hands to tremble uncontrollably.

     Following a desperate impulse fuelled by an overwrought imagination, he staggered-up from the table and rushed out into the street.  A panic overcame him as his mouth filled with vomit.  He had no time to look around him for a suitable place to spew.  It came gushing out of him, all over the pavement in front of the restaurant - bits of chewed-over beef mixed with the pulp of vegetables and rice and, for all he knew, his fried breakfast.  It gushed out of him in a series of violent eruptions, causing him acute physical distress.  Never before had any such deplorable thing happened to him!  With vertiginous head he leant against the wall next to the restaurant's entrance, gripping his badly strained stomach in a posture of unmitigated agony.  People in the street stopped and stared aghast at him, their faces riddled with a mixture of pity and disgust.  His embarrassment and humiliation pinned him to the wall as he gasped for breath and tried not to notice what had happened, from fear of provoking more of the same.  If only he could hide somewhere, run away from this ghastly scene, recover a shred of his customary aplomb.  His right hand accidentally encountered some sick which had fallen onto his jacket and, immediately, a spasm of disgust swept through him, almost causing him to vomit afresh.  He fumbled in his breast pocket for a paper tissue but merely succeeded in transferring some of the spew on his hand to the interior of the pocket in question.  No, he never kept tissues there ... how could he forget?  He pulled one from the right-hand front pocket of his black cords and began to wipe his hand clean and to dab the contaminated part of his matching jacket with it.  People were still staring at him, now seemingly more in anger than in pity, and one woman with a pram had to cross over to the opposite pavement to avoid pushing its wheels through the puke.

     A familiar voice crying: "Goodness me, James, are you alright?" sprang out of the confusion of jumbled sounds all around him.  He had some difficulty recognizing Trevor Jenkinson through his tear-drenched eyes.  "Here, let me fetch you a glass of water ..."

     "No, I'm alright," he insisted, his voice hoarse and catching in his throat from the vomiting.  But Jenkinson had already disappeared back into the restaurant for the water, duly reappearing with it in no time at all.

     "Here, sip this slowly and steadily," he advised, lifting the cold glass to Kelly's slime-smeared lips.  "It'll soon make you feel better."

     The younger man obeyed like a frightened child, gripping the glass in his free hand.  An icy coldness flowed through him when the first drops of water slid down his gullet and entered his hard-pressed stomach.  But his breathing had become calmer and a slight feeling of relief was already insinuating itself within him, as he leaned against the wall of a nearby shop towards which he had been gently led.

     "There, you'll soon be back to normal again," Jenkinson was saying, as he held his fellow-writer by the arm.

     "I d-don't know what the fuck c-came over me," stammered Kelly, his face ghostly pale and his lips trembling from shock.  "One moment I was f-fine, the next m-moment ..."

     "Don't worry," said Jenkinson, who produced a clean white handkerchief from his breast pocket and, taking the half-empty glass of water from Kelly's trembling hand, motioned him to use it on that part of his jacket which had suffered most from the volcano-like upheaval of the moment before.

     "I can't p-possibly return to the r-restaurant now," mumbled Kelly, before applying the handkerchief to his tear-soaked eyes.

     "Would you like me to hail you a taxi - assuming you feel well enough to brave the ride, that is?" suggested Jenkinson.

     "Yes, I haven't all that f-far to go," admitted Kelly.  "In fact, I'm f-feeling a lot b-better already."

     Jenkinson soon managed to draw the attention of a passing taxi and then helped his still-trembling and pallid-faced fellow writer to climb aboard.  Finally he gave the driver Kelly's address and generously slipped a tenner into the man's hand to cover expenses.

     "You're sure you can manage on your own?" he asked, leaning on the open door a moment.

     "Yes, I won't die," Kelly managed to smile.  "Thanks for your c-concern, Trevor.  I really appreciate it."

     "Don't mention it, me old mate," responded Jenkinson, with a little dismissive wave.  "I'm only sorry you couldn't stay for the rest of the meal, even though the presence of all those vicious jerks is a good enough reason to throw up, if you ask me."

     Kelly was wondering whether to return him the handkerchief, but, considering the soiled state it was in, he thought better of that and just smiled back at Jenkinson in comradely fashion while the latter closed the door.

     'Damn it!' he thought, as the taxi drew away from the curb and from the one person who meant anything to him at that moment.  'Of all the things to happen!  Why on earth did I have to think of Paloma the way I did!'

     He lay back on the warm seat and gently closed his eyes, but his head was swimming too much.  Moreover, his mouth tasted horrible and his breath reeked of vomit.  He opened the nearest window to let in some fresh air, and took a few deep gulps.  He felt incredibly weak, like all the energy had been sucked out of him with the vomit.  The 12-15 minutes it took the taxi to reach his flat seemed like an hour, so afraid was he that he might throw up again.  But he arrived home without further loss of self-esteem and, hurling himself down upon his single bed, proceeded to weep like a child.  All the humiliation he had been obliged to bottle-up in the taxi came pouring out of him in a flood of bitter tears.  What were they to think of him for having made such a public exhibition of himself in full-view of them all right outside the restaurant?  At that moment, while he lay convulsively with face buried in his tear-drenched pillow, all he could think of was death, suicide, the need to follow Paloma's example and put an end to it all once and for all!  For in spite of his own self-pity he couldn't help seeing, in his mind's eye, the haunting spectre of the coffin on a raised platform in front of a pair of velvet curtains, then the curtains drawing apart as it slowly slid towards the furnace, and, finally and most poignantly, the gaunt figure of Douglas Searle turning towards him with an expression of severe reproof on his haggard face - an expression which cut to the very depths of his soul.  No wonder his guilt had taken a physical turn for the worse later that day!

       

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Stephen Jacobs scooped up a handful of hot sand and, lifting the waistband of Sharon Taylor's bikini bottoms with his free hand, threw it between her buttocks.

     "Stephen!" she exclaimed, as she felt its sharp impact on her soft skin.  "Do you have to?"  She turned over onto her back and stared up at him with a look of contemptuous reproof on her well-tanned face, which for several hours had been playing host to a pair of large plastic sunglasses.  "You really are a monster!" she averred as, grabbing a handful of sand in turn, she made to throw it at him.  Before she could, however, he had caught her arm and was pinning it down above her head.  Then he pinned her other arm down in like fashion and, climbing astride her body, proceeded to leer down at her with a vaguely sardonic smile on his lips.  She tried to wriggle free beneath him, but his strength and weight were too much for her and, after a vain struggle, she relaxed into a posture of meek submission.  He continued to leer down at her as before.

     "Doesn't the little lady like having warm sand up her arse?" he teased, relaxing his grip on her wrists a little, now that his physical triumph had been consolidated.

     "No, she bloody well doesn't!  It damn well hurts!"

     "Poor little girl," he laughed, planting a couple of consolatory kisses on her lips.  "She doesn't like sand up her pussy, eh?"  He scrutinized her facial features, as though expecting to find something he hadn't seen there before.  At times her face reminded him of a map, but one that could indicate any number of different places depending on the mood it was in.  "Does she prefer the other business, then?" he at length asked, after he had grown tired of his visual exploration.

     "What other business?" she sternly queried, pretending not to have the foggiest idea what he was talking about.

     "You know, last night's business," he answered.

     Sharon smiled drily and lowered her eyes in apparent shame.  "I don't know what-the-hell you're talking about," she said.

     "Oh, yes you do!  That's why you've lowered your telltale eyes again.  They always give your secret thoughts away."

     "Do they indeed?"

     "Unfailingly."  He paused to casually survey her large breasts, the upper halves of which were partly hidden by her dark-green bikini top.  "But you must have had the idea on your mind for quite some time, secretly wondering what it would be like to experience for real."

     "You're a horrible pervert!"

     "What about all the conventional things I do to you?" protested Jacobs, with a vague air of outraged innocence.  "Don't I give you more pleasure than James Kelly ever did?"  His face had suddenly become less bemused, almost triumphalist.

     "You don't really love me," said Sharon accusingly.

     "What makes you say that?"

     "I know it!"

     Jacobs pressed his lips down on hers in an attempt to contradict her accusation, but she quickly turned her head to one side to prevent him from properly kissing them.

     "Frigging bitch!" he snapped, releasing his grip on her wrists and returning to his former position by her side, from which he sullenly stared up at the clear blue sky, where a few noisy gulls were frantically circling overhead in search of refuse.

     "If you really loved me, you wouldn't do such nasty things," Sharon at length rejoined.  "You're only interested in manipulating me."

     "Weren't you in need of some manipulation when I first met you?" countered Jacobs, his gaze still fixed on the azure dome above, as though to draw inspiration from its vast expanse of translucency.  "Didn't you find James somewhat - pedestrian?"

     "I hadn't known him all that long when you came along," Sharon evasively replied.  "In fact, I hardly knew him at all."

     "That's scarcely surprising," Jacobs remarked.  "After all, he's not exactly the sort of person one gets to know very much about."

     "Really?" said Sharon sceptically.

     A few young people passed nearby, casting them a respectful glance.

     "Let's not spoil the fun of being here together on such serious conversation!" objected Jacobs as soon as the coast was clear again, so to speak.  "You take yourself much too seriously."

     "That's only because you leave me no real choice," declared Sharon, getting up from her towel in order to shake the sand from her bikini bottoms.  "Or perhaps you're deluded to think that?"

     Jacobs laughed sarcastically.  "You're the one who's deluded, my dear," he added, before reaching out a hand for his latest packet of Gauloise Longues and extracting a cigarette from it, for which he then went in search of his customary metallic lighter, which had almost got buried in the sand.  "You don't mind if I smoke, do you?" he asked, his mocking facial expression and pessimistic tone-of-voice betraying a degree of sarcastic irony which he had been determined to inflict upon her for some time.

     "Suit yourself," retorted Sharon, as hot sand fell from between her legs and landed on a corner of her towel.  She slapped her backside a number of times to dislodge the rest.

     "Would you like some assistance?" asked Jacobs ironically. 

     "No thanks, I can manage perfectly well," said Sharon coolly.

     "Funny woman!"  A cloud of tobacco smoke rose from his mouth as he spoke, lingered awhile in the air, and was gently wafted away on the breeze.  "You have one of the most seductive-looking arses I've ever seen," he opined, staring up at the curvaceous outlines of her quivering buttocks no more than a few feet from where he lay.  "In fact, it's so fucking seductive that I almost find it painful to watch."

     "Then turn your stupid face away," Sharon coldly advised him.

     "You make it difficult for one to avoid watching it," he confessed.  "One can hardly blame men for acting the way they do, when one sees exactly what it is they're up against!"

     "That's a rather strange generalization to make, isn't it?" Sharon commented.  "One would think that all men were lecherous bastards like you, and all women ... hyperseductive or something.  Fortunately, that just isn't the case."  She had sat down beside him again.

     "Why 'fortunately'?" he wanted to know.

     "Because, otherwise, the world would be an impossible place to live in, that's why!"

     "I find it quite impossible anyway," said Jacobs matter-of-factly.

     "Then why-the-fuck are you living in it?"

     "You tell me!"

     A broad smile suddenly illuminated Sharon's countenance, in spite of her rhetorical turn-of-mind at this juncture, and, impulsively, she planted an ironic kiss on his navel, which looked more suntanned than the rest of him at that moment.  Then she lowered her head to his hairless chest and closed her eyes.  For some reason the regular beat of his heart made her think of sex, the way it thumped away in seeming oblivion of the world around it.

     "How am I going to smoke the rest of my cigarette with your hair up my nostrils?" Jacobs not unreasonably complained.

     "I'd rather you didn't smoke at all, since it can't be doing you any good," Sharon blurted out.

     "Now, now! I don't need any preaching, thank you!"

     'Perhaps I ought to have said "either of us any good",' she thought, reluctantly abandoning the comfort of his chest for the comparative safety of her towel.  'But I don't suppose that would have dissuaded him, considering he's such a selfish pig anyway!'  Suddenly she felt a persistent itching in her anus, a discomfort doubtless owing something to the previous evening when, evidently desiring to extend his carnal power over her, Jacobs had decided to bury his inhibitions, along with his penis, and bugger her like some demented sodomite.  Never before had anyone done that to her, never before had any man rubbed petroleum jelly into her rectum and then, taking her from behind, sunk his well-lubricated prick into its tiny opening.  And it had hurt - so much so that she had been on the verge of crying-out in pain.  Now the niggling discomfiture brought about by the occasion was troubling her peace-of-mind, making her feel both ashamed and degraded.  Had James Kelly ever done any such repugnant thing to her?  No, he certainly hadn't!  The only thing he could be accused of - apart from an almost fetishistic obsession with G-strings and suspenders - was a tendency to voyeurism, which was in a sense both strange and regrettable for a man who was so intellectually conceptual and generally sensible.  True, he had indulged in a fair amount of oral sex with her; he obviously liked to scrutinize her vagina close-up, as though such optical intimacy, linked to his voyeuristic shortcomings, confirmed his influence over her, or perhaps even taught him something new about the female anatomy which fantasy or study had signally failed to do.  But was that perversion?  Not when compared to what Stephen Jacobs had done, the filthy sod!  Oral sex was perfectly natural, if, at times, a little lacking in good taste or elevated judgement.  But the anal violation of a woman...?  One would have thought he was sort of gay or something.

     'I remember James telling me, one evening, that he found the concept of homosexuality a contradiction in terms,' Sharon continued to ponder, as she lay perfectly still with her face turned towards the sun and away from Jacobs, 'the main reason being that, strictly speaking, the rectum isn't a reproductive organ but an excretory one and therefore can't be anything but violated in a sexual context, since he insisted that sex was between one reproductive organ and another for purposes, conventionally, of reproduction.  Now when a rectum is substituted for a vagina, the ensuing phallic penetration is a violation of its rightful function, and hence a form, according to James, of anti-sexual perversion.  Also he considered homosexuality revolting on account of what he called the excremental odours and stains which were likely to result from outright sodomy, with or without a plastic sheath.  But if, unlike herself, he regarded homosexuality as a sort of anti-sexual barbarity peculiar to a materialistic age and society, then his view of the anal violation of women was as a kind of perverse heterosexuality - a sort of anti-sexual civility more applicable to a decadent age or society which approached materialism from its own necessarily more naturalistic  liberal base rather than in the unequivocally materialistic terms of the outright homosexuality of those societies which were effectively less civilized than barbarous.'

     As Sharon mused thus, wondering how far James Kelly might have been right, she was suddenly struck by the thought that Jacobs could be acquiring a perverse satisfaction from degrading her.  She recalled that he had sworn at her during intercourse, a couple of nights previously, and that he had sworn at her again last night whilst in the process of violating her rectum.  Then, this morning, he had further humiliated her by throwing sand between her buttocks and forcibly pinning her arms down after she had attempted to retaliate.  Was it not beginning to add-up to something sadistic?  She imagined him leering down at her bare rump with whip in hand and a black eye mask on his face.  Or perhaps instead of a whip he would be brandishing a leather belt?  The exact details weren't important.  What mattered was the fact that he had already given her ample proof of sadistic tendencies.

     But was it likely to end there?  She feared that, despite his promise not to sodomize her again, he would probably do so, and next time without even bothering to adequately lubricate himself in advance!  Hadn't he joked with her about the 'business' that very morning?  A shudder of disgust and revulsion swept through her at the thought of what he might subsequently get-up to at her expense!  There could be no doubt that he took a perverse pleasure in degrading her, in extending his sexual power over her.  After all, she was an extremely beautiful and highly intelligent young woman, one of the most promising stage actresses of her generation, a university graduate, the daughter of a professor - in short, a lady.  And he...?  Well, he was superficially a gentleman as regards looks, speech, education, and social position were concerned.  But as for being 'gentle', as for the literal interpretation of the term, there was, as yet, little proof of that!  Even the first time they had made love together, that night he drove her home from the theatre, his mode of introducing her to his sexuality had been anything but conventional.  And since then, he had become increasingly fond of removing her clothes in an impetuous manner whenever he desired to appease his sexual demon.  So much so that, on a number of occasions, he had actually torn garments in his impatience to get at her!  And sometimes he hadn't even bothered to remove her clothes first; he had simply thrown himself upon her and proceeded to wrench things out of his way!

     Yes, the true nature of his relationship to her was becoming increasingly clear.  He was indeed flattering himself over the liberties he could take with her, the things he could force her to do or impose upon her, whether she liked it or not.  And she was half-playing along with him, she wasn't altogether averse to granting him certain liberties, considering that she had never known such a man before and, if truth be told, was really quite fond of him in spite of the obvious disadvantages - disadvantages which were partly her own fault for having allowed herself to be imposed upon in the first place.  But there had to be a limit, and she was beginning to wonder whether it hadn't already been reached.   If he continued to flatter himself at her expense, what would become of her?  Might he not get it into his devious head to do more daring things next time, to compromise her, say, in front of one or more of her colleagues at the theatre - for instance, Jennifer - as he had intimated doing that very afternoon he first visited the latter's flat.  Then he had merely squeezed her thigh and caressed her rump while Jennifer was getting them coffee.  Might he not do something similar while she was in the room next time?  And would it simply be to make her jealous?  No, probably not!  Most likely his real motive for behaving in such a fashion would be to degrade Sharon in front of her friend and feast on her reactions.

     'The beast!' she groaned to herself, still deeply sunk in the tortuous subjectivity of her thoughts.  'If only I had realized all this sooner!  If only I hadn't been misled by his friendship with Kelly into taking him for someone similar; into assuming that he was kind, considerate, thoughtful, tasteful, patient - all the things he first appeared to be!  How wrong I was to leave James for the sake of this proud brute, this sexual autocrat who imposes his will on me like a beast-of-prey, irrespective of how I'm likely to feel about it.  Even if James did have a few sexual problems, even if he was a bit unadventurous with me, at least he didn't go out of his way to damn-well humiliate me!  On the contrary, he virtually worshipped me.'

     For the first time in weeks she felt ashamed of the way she had behaved towards James Kelly on the Wednesday afternoon of her unexpected and unwelcome visit to his flat.  She saw, in her mind's eye, his face go through the spectrum of apprehensive feelings which she had engendered in him from the moment she set foot in his flat to the moment she left him standing helplessly in his dressing gown at the foot of the stairs leading to the communal entrance.  And how he had begged her to listen, implored her to understand, beseeched her to have pity on him, as he desperately followed her downstairs.  To no avail!  She had an act to pull off and, talented young actress that she was, she had pulled it off admirably; so admirably, in fact, that her real emotions, her real feelings of jealousy and anger at having caught him in such a compromising position, only came to the surface afterwards - a long time afterwards, as she lay in Jacobs' bed, the following day, shortly after he had left for the West End ostensibly on some literary engagement.  And now, in all probability, James would be having his suspicions on the matter, he would be thinking it odd that she should have turned-up when she did, on a day she was usually otherwise engaged.  Yes, he would almost certainly have linked her visit with that of Jacobs' a couple of days before, and, without too great a stretch of his not-inconsiderable-imagination, come to the conclusion that he had been purposely set-up for her to knock down with the minimum of inconvenience to herself.  Well, there would be no alternative for him but to pick himself up and find someone else.

     She felt the pressure of a hand on her stomach, a hand that swiftly crawled up to her right breast and gently squeezed it, like it was some kind of putty or dough to which the hand in question had an inalienable right.  She opened her eyes to confirm its source and discovered Stephen Jacobs leaning over her, his eyes lustily focused on the breast in question.

     "So you're not dead, after all," he observed, once her reaction became sufficiently apparent to him.  "You've been very self-contained recently, haven't you?"  He squeezed her breast a little harder, lightly thumbing its ample nipple, then continued: "I suppose you've been thinking nasty things about me."

     She smiled up at him in an attempt to disguise her true feelings.  "Why should I do that?"

     "Perhaps you're disappointed in me for not having taken you to a less-deserted part of the beach?" Jacobs conjectured solemnly.  "Maybe you wanted the company of other people - men who would admire your sexual anatomy in broad daylight and thus give you the satisfaction of imagining yourself being fancied?  Or maybe you're annoyed, on second thoughts, that I haven't inserted my big hard doggy into your small soft pussy while we've been lying here, amid these sand dunes, and were therefore wondering whether your ambition to be humped on a beach would ever be realized?"

     "Don't be such a vain fool!" protested Sharon.  "I wasn't thinking any of those things."

     "How curious!"  He had abandoned her breast and was simply staring down at her with a mildly quizzical expression on his sun-inflamed face, which seemed to be rising like dough.  "Anyone would think you represented the triumph of mind over matter.  But, then again, you are a B.A., aren't you?"

     "Well, what's so bad about that?" she retorted.

     "Nothing's bad about being a Bachelor of Arts when one is in fact a bachelor," declared Jacobs.  "But when one's a spinster ... well, I'd have thought an S.A. more appropriate.  Haven't the feminists cottoned-on to that yet, or is it that they prefer women to be Bachelors of Art instead?  Shame on them!"

     "Certain things do tend to be rather male-biased," remarked Sharon, who had begun to find the subject slightly amusing in spite of its underlying seriousness.

     "Oh, I'm perfectly well aware of the fact," rejoined Jacobs, showing vague signs of amusement himself.  "All the same, you'd think that someone would have the intelligence to advocate S.A.s for single women.  Anyone would think that only men took degrees."

     "I suppose if, according to that logic, I had an M.A., I ought to be a Mistress of Arts instead of a Master, right?" deduced Sharon.

     "Perfectly," agreed Jacobs.  "But, as things stand, you'd have to rest content with being a Master.  So you must belie your gender, my dear, otherwise ... the status quo will condemn you for sexist subversion!"

     "Fight for the right to sexual autonomy!" cried Sharon, brandishing a tiny fist in the air.  "Protest against B.A.s for women!  Realize, if you're a spinster, that B.A.s are irrelevant."

     Jacobs smiled in tacit acknowledgement of his companion's gesture of defiance, though he wasn't altogether convinced there was really any justification for setting-up a dualistic alternative based on gender, bearing in mind the apparently unisexual trend of society these days.  Nevertheless, just for the hell of it, he went on to claim: "The status quo needs to be constantly stirred up, if it isn't to stagnate into a malodorous swamp."

     "It's alright for you though, considering that a Ph.D. isn't really such a bad thing to have," concluded Sharon, turning her face towards him a moment.

     Jacobs was overcome by a momentary sense of guilt and blushed accordingly.  For he recalled having boasted of such an accomplishment to Sharon shortly after he first met her, back in July.  In reality, he no more had a Ph.D. than any other doctorate, but, because of his philosophical predilections, he liked to pretend to the contrary where certain people were concerned, girlfriends not excepted.  He recalled, too, that the play he had informed Sharon about, after having driven her to the theatre that first night of their affair, was also a lie.  In truth, he had never written a play in his life; he had simply hoaxed her in order the better to win her admiration and confidence.  "I suppose a woman with a Ph.D. ought to be a doctress," he at length remarked, tactfully changing the subject.  "After all, if you're an actress rather than an actor, why-the-devil aren't women doctors doctresses?  It doesn't appear to make sense."

     It did really, since it wasn't necessary to distinguish female doctors from their male colleagues the way a female actor, or actress, often needed to be distinguished from her male counterpart in either theatre or film.  Nonetheless, Sharon graciously feigned complicity by simply saying: "Life is full of paradoxes."

     "Quite so!  And yet there are still fools in this world who consider man to be a rational creature."  Having said which, Jacobs betook himself to her side again with a gruff humph.

     Released from his threatening proximity, Sharon Taylor once more closed her eyes upon the world.  She wanted to feel the sun's rays caressing her body, to forget about Jacobs, sadism, gender, etc., and become merely a receptacle of pleasant sensations.  For, at that moment, thoughts seemed to her like a stain on the mind, a mental disease, a prison from which she longed to escape.  If she could banish them from her consciousness, she would be free.  But for how long?  Already she found herself relapsing into speculations about the chances of her holding thought at bay for more than a couple of minutes.  Already her mind was generating fresh thoughts which would quickly turn sour and poison her, dragging her back from the pure sensations for which she yearned with one part of her mind to the all-too-familiar conceptual terrain of her intellect.  Alas! it seemed the only way for her to get away from them was to dream, to conjure-up visual images from the depths of her psyche in order, temporarily, to rescue herself from the torrent of verbal concepts which were now threatening to engulf her afresh.  And there suddenly, as though on a role of film, James Kelly flickered into view the night he had first made love to her, the very same man who had earlier introduced himself outside the National Gallery (of all places!), invited her for a meal, taken her back to his flat afterwards and ... why was she daydreaming about him in particular?  She searched for another image, one that was less troublesome, but soon found herself reverting to James again by a roundabout route, to his casual manner of dressing, the greeny-blue colour of his large myopic eyes, the modest size of his circumcised penis (evidence of an Irish-Catholic origin), the nobly circular shape of his dark-haired head.... Was there no-one else?  Suddenly she felt a weight on her body and, opening her eyes in excited surprise, saw Stephen Jacobs' face descending towards her, felt his lips pressing against hers, felt his arms encircling her waist and grip her tightly around the back.  She clutched him to herself, as though afraid he might just as suddenly release his hold on her and plunge her back into the vicious circle of thoughts and dreams from which his actions were now providentially rescuing her.  For the first time since the beginning of their relationship, she whispered little endearments to encourage his desire.  She wanted him to have her there on the beach, between the sand dunes, under the brilliant sky, beside the foaming sea.  Yet, to her utter amazement, he pulled away from her as soon as it became apparent to him that she was becoming sexually aroused.  She couldn't believe it!  Had he done it on purpose?  Was he simply torturing and humiliating her again, arousing her desire only to abandon it no sooner than he had worked it up to a fairly promising pitch?  She was on the verge of tears and, in a desperate impulse to hide her frustration, she wrenched herself completely free of him and turned over onto her stomach, preparatory to burying her face in her hands.  How could he do this to her?  What kind of a monster was he?  She had never felt so humiliated before, not even the previous night!  A flood of tears fell from her eyes and trickled down the sunglasses onto the towel beneath her hands.  Her body became convulsed with sobbing.

     Then she heard Jacobs asking, as though from afar, "What's the matter, Sharon?"

     She made no attempt to answer, for she was sobbing bitterly.  Her voice could not have articulated an explanation at that moment, even had her mind been prepared to formulate one.

     Taking hold of her by the shoulders, Jacobs turned her onto her back and repeated his question.  Then, anticipating an answer, he made it perfectly clear to her that under no circumstances could he have responded to her arousal the way she had apparently wanted him to, since they were still on a public beach and, although there were few people in the immediate vicinity, he couldn't risk causing a public scandal by giving way to her lascivious objectives there and then.  He said this with such an air of sincerity that, in spite of herself, she almost believed him.  Yet, deep down, she didn't think much of his excuse and found it difficult not to say so.  True, the part of the beach they were on wasn't entirely deserted, but the few people whose voices or radios could still be heard, from time to time, were hidden from sight by the numerous sand dunes which characterized the spot they had specifically chosen.  Provided she kept her voice down, what was there to stop him from making love to her, then?  Surely he wasn't afraid of lowering his swimming trunks because of the vociferous seagulls which were still circling overhead, evidently in search of scraps of food?  What did they care about him or his privates?

     "Believe me, Sharon, I had no intention of tantalizing you," Jacobs was saying, as though for his own benefit.  "I just didn't have the courage of my desire."  He hesitated a second, in an attempt to gauge what kind of effect his words were having on her.  "I've never humped anyone out in the open before, least of all in a place as open as this, and I just didn't have the courage or conviction to do it now."

     Sharon sensed that he was lying, but managed to keep silent all the same.  She had averted her face from his gaze, as though from a dangerous beam, and was now staring blankly in the direction of a nearby sand dune.  She hadn't heard him indulge in confessions of cowardice or weakness before, and was half-fearing that it might be a new strategy he was employing to further degrade her.  How unflattering it would be to learn that she was the girlfriend of a coward, a failure, a weakling, etc., as he might subsequently advertise himself.

     "I'll make it up to you this evening, I promise you that," Jacobs was going on, through partly clenched teeth.  "Come now, show me a smile!  Prove to me we're still friends."

     Sharon made an effort to comply with his request, but she was feeling so much emotional pain that her mouth barely moved.  Then turning to face him, she spat out: "Haven't you hurt me enough already?"

     "Hurt you?" echoed Jacobs, momentarily stunned by the anger of her retort.  "I don't honestly know what you mean."

     "No, I didn't think you bloody-well would!"

     Jacobs felt genuinely puzzled and his lips trembled a little.  But he soon came to grips with the situation by informing her that he hadn't intended to hurt her, neither then nor at any previous time.  And, as though to confirm the fact, he ran his hand through her long hair, so much in harmony with the sand, and planted a tender kiss on her brow.  "I'm not as bad as all that," he murmured, when she had recovered from her self-pity to an extent which made it possible for her to tolerate his attentions.  "There are plenty of people worse than me."

     "Like James Kelly, for instance?" she suggested.

     "I shouldn't be at all surprised," Jacobs opined, nodding.  "After all, he was deceitful enough to have another woman when you were ostensibly his only girlfriend, wasn't he?  Now you can't level any such deceitfulness at me!  There's only one woman in my life, and that's you."

     'Unfortunately for me!' thought Sharon, lowering her eyes to avoid his scrutiny, which she considered perfectly capable of penetrating beneath the surface protection of her sunglasses.  But he had turned away from her, in any case, and was now staring out to sea at the vast expanse of sparkling water which could be glimpsed through the valley of sand dunes on either side.  A number of people were happily swimming about in it, their arms briefly appearing above the surface only to plunge straight back down and propel them a yard or two farther in whichever direction they happened to be going.  Then they would suddenly come to a halt, as though to reassure themselves they hadn't swam out of their depth or lost their sense of direction, and, after a brief rest, set their arms in methodical motion again - usually in the direction from which they had just come.  Farther out to sea, a couple of yachts could be discerned in what must have been competitive racing, their sails straining forward under pressure from a stiff breeze, and, farther out still, a large cargo ship was slowly disappearing into the nebulous distance of a horizon where sea and sky became virtually indistinguishable in their mutual conspiracy against the eye.

     "I think I'll plunge-in for another swim," announced Jacobs, as soon as he was done with surveying the sea's human contents, some of the nearer of which were attractively female.  "Fancy another dip?"

     "No thanks," responded Sharon, momentarily raising her gaze to the level of his bare chest.  "I'd rather just sunbathe a little longer, if you don't mind."

     "Keep an eye on my things, then," Jacobs requested.

     She watched his tall figure, now light-brown, recede into the near distance.  Then, after applying some fresh suntan-lotion to her arms and stomach (the very same lotion she had used that day in the Surrey countryside with Jennifer and Carmel), she lay back to face the sky, whose azure dome, in the expanse of ethereal translucency, was still untarnished by any cloud; though a small high-flying plane was leaving a trail of cloud-like smoke behind as it relentlessly powered its way through the air.

     'How typical!' she thought.  'One gets a flawless sky, and then some lunatic has to come along and mess it up with his trail of artificial cloud!  One would think they get a perverse pleasure out of it.  Just as Stephen Jacobs seems to get a like-pleasure out of messing-up my life, the dirty little pervert!'  She didn't want to think any more about that subject, however, since she had frankly had her fill of it for one day, and desired only to forget about Jacobs as much as circumstances would allow.  But, in forgetting about him, she soon found her thoughts reverting to James Kelly instead.

 

  

CHAPTER TEN

 

The past two weeks had been more oppressive to Kelly than any he could remember, and for no small reason he was amazed that he had actually lived through them and not followed Paloma's example by doing away with himself in the meantime.  To begin with, there had been the letter from Trevor Jenkinson on August 26th concerning Paloma Searle's suicide.  Then the humiliating experiences of the 28th, when he had actually thrown-up his dinner outside the restaurant and been obliged to take a taxi home.  Following which, his hopes of a rendezvous with Sharon Taylor outside Kenwood House at 3.00pm the following Sunday had been completely dashed on the rocks of the latter's enigmatic absence.  Fortunately, he had recovered sufficiently from the previous Friday's ordeal to be able to keep his appointment.  But Sharon had not turned up at the appointed hour.  She hadn't even turned up two hours after it, by which time Kelly was in the blackest of moods, having sat and wandered around outside Kenwood House for approximately three hours to absolutely no avail!  Could it be that his petitionary letter, hurriedly scribbled-out while travelling back from Paris on the afternoon of August 26th, hadn't reached her in time?  He searched his memory to ascertain whether he had put a first- or a second-class stamp on the envelope, which he had posted as soon as he got back to London later that day.  He felt certain he had used a first-class one, since he knew there was little time to spare and was in the habit of using such stamps anyway.  Surely, then, it would have got to her by the 29th at the latest?  And if she had meant what she'd said in her letter about not wishing to see him so long as he continued to befriend Paloma, surely the news of that woman's death would have prompted her to change her mind about him or, at the very least, grant him the single rendezvous he had so earnestly requested?  After all, she was under no obligation to see him on a regular basis.  And even if she thought he had been lying about Paloma's suicide, he would be able to prove the authenticity of his statement by showing her Trevor Jenkinson's letter or, better still, giving her Douglas Searle's telephone number, so that she could personally verify the fact.  But she hadn't even written to say she couldn't come!

     Bitterly disappointed, and thoroughly humiliated by her failure to turn up, Kelly had decided to visit her in person that very same day and force her to listen to him.  Perhaps his letter hadn't reached her, after all?  The thought that it might have been delayed in the post or even gone astray sufficed to give a fresh boost to his intentions, and so, shortly before 6.00pm, he was ringing the bell to her Highgate flat.  In vain, however.  He rang again, this time more persistently, but still no answer.  He shouted her name through the letter box.  No good.  The silence prevailed.  He was almost mad with anger and frustration.  Turning on his heels, he sped down the three flights of creaking stairs like a man fleeing some murderous pursuer, his mind obsessed by one thought: Stephen Jacobs!  She must be at Stephen's place!  Naturally, he had no concrete evidence to prove she was in fact having an affair behind his back.  Even so, the chain of events leading to her break with him, just over six weeks previously, clearly pointed in that direction.  And if his hunch was correct, he would have it out with the bastard the moment he arrived at his address.  He would see for himself exactly what the situation was and take it from there.

     As soon as he was within striking distance of the high street, he hailed a taxi and gave the cabby Jacobs' Finchley address.  But no sooner had he got to the latter's front door and rung its bell a couple of times than he was beset by the fear that Stephen might also be out - a fear which turned out to be fully justified as, several futile ringings later, he turned away from the bright yellow door and slowly walked away from the building, his head bowed under pressure of the bitter disappointment which had once more descended upon him, like some famished vulture, and ravaged his hopes.  Having optimistically dismissed the taxi on arriving at his ex-friend's address, he was obliged to walk to the nearest high street and hail another, this time with the express objective of returning home.  Crushed and defeated, he arrived back at his flat in a condition of nervous prostration and went straight to bed.

     During the next few days the disappointments of that last Sunday in August weighed so heavily upon him that they prevented him from continuing with his work.  He stayed late in bed, only getting up to eat and fetch provisions from the local shops.  He had no desire to write to Sharon again, to arrange another meeting which he felt sure she was bound to snub.  His feelings were so low that he could scarcely even read, let alone write.  But as the hours of inactivity became increasingly difficult, making him fear for his sanity, he managed to persevere with Salvador Dali's Hidden Faces - a novel which strangely suited his melancholy predicament in its sympathetic treatment of the unrequited love of the Comte de Grandsailles for the beautiful Solange de Cleda.

     By the beginning of the second week in September, however, he had sufficiently recovered from his depression to be able to recommence work and, starting with a few maxims of the sort which spring rather more from imagination than experience, he gradually worked-up an appetite for his philosophical notes again - a number of which he hoped to develop into short essays.  In addition to the notes on Nietzsche compiled during his weeks in Paris, he had begun a series on Spengler and Koestler, the latter's 'holonic' and 'triadic' theories being chiefly of interest to him at present.  Indeed, had not the three literary works he took to Paris testified to a certain tripartite inclination which had subconsciously manifested itself within his mind in response to Koestler's influence?  Even Aldous Huxley had advocated, in The Human Situation, a tripartite view of people as developed by W.H. Sheldon, the American psychologist, which categorized them as either endomorphic (fat), mesomorphic (medium-built), or ectomorphic (thin) - three alternative physiological constitutions which he had correlated with equivalent psychological predilections at the expense of the purely psychological isolation of mind from body generally advocated by early-twentieth-century psychologists.

     Clearly, in Huxley's view, the mind couldn't be separated from the body and treated as a kind of 'thing-in-itself', completely independent of the nature of the body to which it was linked.  There were physiological influences to bear in mind, and these influences also had 'minds' of their own, so to speak.  They weren't wholly dependent on the function of the brain but, to paraphrase Koestler, functioned as subautonomous wholes in an 'holarchic', or open-ended structure which endowed each member with a life of its own, a theory to some extent resembling the one put forward by the sixteenth-century alchemist Paracelsus, who attempted to extract curative juices from different parts of the body through an appropriate application of his special powders, called 'placets', to the 'lives' within a life.

     Be that as it may, let us now proceed to the evening of September 10th, a day which had provided James Kelly with his most productive results since returning from Paris.  It has just gone 8.00pm and he is seated in his study, flicking through the pages of Stendhal's De l'Amour  for further information on the 'crystallization', or fifth stage of love, to which he has recently succumbed.  He is thinking how beautiful Sharon was, how perfect her shapely limbs and long wavy hair, how harmonious her gestures, how pregnant with meaning her words!  He is full of admiration for her, this female with whom he is proud to have fallen in love.  Yet his admiration is clouded by the sadness of unrequited love, by the frustrations into which her absence has indomitably plunged him.  He feels remorse for the way he behaved towards her on a number of occasions, when he hadn't shown her as much affection as he now feels he really ought to have, and this remorse is tempered by the recollection of his former relationship with Paloma Searle, by the double-dealing into which unmerciful fate had inexorably led him.  But there was no longer a Mrs Searle to corruptly seduce him.  He had made that fact perfectly clear to Sharon in his letter.  Why, then, hadn't she responded?  Surely she knew he was genuinely in love with her, that he hadn't been bluffing?  Yes, she ought to know that fact by now!  So why, then, hadn't she contacted him?

     He got up from his favourite armchair and returned De l'Amour to its customary shelf on the bookcase.  Then he went over to his writing desk where there were still some twelve letters in the tray - the backlog from his stay in Paris - waiting to be answered.  He had no desire to reply to any of them that evening, since his eyes were smarting from the exigencies of his literary fate.  It was evident that further attention to print or words wouldn't make them smart any less!

     Gathering his writing materials together, he opened the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk when, suddenly, his attention was arrested by the spectacle of Paloma's handwriting on the front of an envelope resting on top of a small pile of letters held together by a broad elastic band.  He realized, with a certain dismay, that he still hadn't destroyed her letters to him, contrary to his intentions on the way back from Paris.  His vanity had got the better of him at the last moment and, instead of tearing them up and consigning them to the wastepaper bin, he had simply locked them away in his desk.  Now the handwriting on the top envelope imposed a connotation of suicide upon his mind as he stared down at it, as though entranced.  He picked up the pile of letters and immediately noticed something white at the bottom of the drawer - the G-string which Paloma had allowed him to keep as a memento of their first night together!

     Placing the letters on top of his desk, he picked up the G-string and automatically put it to his nose.  But he was unable to detect any traces of her scent on it.  In fact, it seemed to smell rather more of elastic bands and paper than of anything else.  Then, as he returned it to its current abode, he recalled that she had made temporary use of it on the afternoon Sharon had paid them an unexpected visit, only to return it to him before leaving.  How she had managed to find it so quickly after having been pushed, nude and trembling, into the study, he couldn't quite understand.  But he was thankful she had at least been wearing something when Sharon barged into the room to verify her suspicions that someone was in fact hiding there.  And how Paloma had scolded him afterwards!  Scolded him for not having told her that he already had a girlfriend!  He had never witnessed such a scene of jealousy before.  Yet when Paloma broke down sobbing on his shoulder, it was as much as he could do to prevent himself from following suit.  Was she going to desert him, too?  No, anything but!  Being madly in love with him, she was simply going to intensify their relationship to a point which made it imperative for him to flee across the channel in search of refuge.  It was as though she sensed it would be necessary to do this to win his love from Sharon.

     Yes, she had learnt quite a lot about his true feelings for the actress that day, more than he ought, perhaps, to have told her.  He realized, now, that events might not have taken such a drastic turn, had he lied to her about his true feelings for Sharon instead.  In view of the extent of his love for her, however, honesty had got the better of him, and he gave-in to Paloma's probing interrogation like a helpless child before an implacable parent.  He told her everything she wanted to know: where he had first met Sharon, how long they had been going out together, what she was like as a person, what she did for a living - a whole range of disclosures about which he now realized he ought to have kept silent.  But the difficult situation in which he had found himself, that afternoon, made him feel sorry for Paloma, and as though to apologize for the inconvenience and pain which Sharon's unexpected intrusion had clearly caused her, he complied with her questions, providing answers which were subsequently to lead to her suicide.

     Oh, if only he could have foreseen the terrible consequences of his honesty that day!  If only he could have detected in Paloma's futile struggle to wrench his love away from Sharon the germs of a future tragedy!  But his obsession with the actress had prevented him from seeing anything but the need to get back on amorous terms with her, to regain her companionship, and somehow get away from Douglas Searle's habitually adulterous wife.  To do this he had gone abroad, not anticipating that his absence from London would lead Paloma to the false conclusion that, contrary to her expectations, he had eloped with Sharon and left her severely in the lurch.  The proof of this terribly false conclusion was contained inside the top envelope of the six letters which lay stacked together on his desk - a letter which made it sufficiently clear that, under the circumstances of his betrayal, she had no further desire to live.  And from that moment death had followed as inexorably as night the day!  Now he would never hear from her again, and, in all probability, he would never hear from Douglas Searle again, either.  For that man somehow knew of his wife's feelings towards him.  He knew only too well that Kelly's inability to satisfy his wife's demands and acknowledge her last letters had led to her suicide, and there could be no doubt that his attitude towards him on the morning of the cremation had been decidedly cool - so cool, in fact, as to preclude anything but the most rudimentary civilities from taking place between them.

     Yes, James Kelly would certainly have to resign himself to living without Mr Searle's hospitality in future.  And as for Jenkinson, Hammer, Brady, etc., it seemed doubtful that he would ever see any of them again, either.  For he hadn't seen them since August 28th, the day of Paloma's cremation, and, in view of the unsavoury fact that guilt had conspired to upset his stomach and compelled him to take his leave of them all in such an abruptly undignified manner, he didn't particularly relish the prospect of seeing any of them again, Jenkinson not excepted.  There was accordingly little likelihood that his past friendships would be resurrected, not even the one with Stephen Jacobs, which had died for quite different reasons.  In fact, he had neither seen nor heard anything of Jacobs since that Monday in July, when the latter had paid him a brief and rather disquieting visit ostensibly to return the volume of Huxley lectures borrowed the previous month.  On that ill-fated day the suspicions which Kelly entertained concerning his friend's relationship with Sharon had prevented anything like a spontaneous or friendly conversation from taking place, and Stephen, having quickly sized-up the situation and done his best to brave it out as best he could, had quietly withdrawn in an aura of guilt.  And so, without his past friends and girlfriends to visit or be visited by, life was becoming a rather solitary affair for the writer of philosophical notes!

     Having locked Paloma's letters and G-string away in the bottom right-hand draw of his desk again, he ambled across to his bedroom on the opposite side of the corridor.  It was barely 9.00pm, and thus much too early for bed.  What was he to do with himself?  He thought it might be expedient to play a few rock albums, considering he hadn't listened to music so much recently and had no desire to put additional strain on his eyes by watching TV.  But, before he could choose an album, the sound of his doorbell halted him in his tracks, so to speak.  Who could that be, he wondered?  He hadn't been expecting anyone.  A sudden feeling of dread pervaded his soul at the thought that it might be Stephen Jacobs.  He hardly dared move.  But the doorbell rang a second and lengthier time, and he didn't have the stomach to ignore it.

     When he opened the door, however, he had the shock of his life.  "Sharon!" he cried, as his startled eyes beheld the very same woman he had been thinking of earlier.  "What b-brings you here?" he stammered, gesturing her into his flat.

     "Your letter, James."

     "My l-letter?" he repeated, scarcely able to believe his ears, never mind eyes.

     "I understand Paloma Searle died," Sharon went on.

     "But didn't I w-write to you about that f-fact over two weeks ago?" stammered Kelly in bewilderment.

     Sharon Taylor was unable to prevent herself blushing.  "I'm afraid I only got round to reading your letter yesterday, as soon as I'd returned from holiday," she confessed.  "You see ..."

     "Holiday?" interrupted Kelly on a wave of surprise.

     "Yes, I spent a couple of weeks down in Devon for a change," Sharon revealed.

     "Oh, I see!" sighed Kelly, who had literally slumped into the sitting-room's one remaining armchair, his legs having virtually lost their ability to support him any longer.  "I had imagined ...” But he couldn't force the rest of what he wanted to say out of his mouth, so resigned himself to asking her whether she had enjoyed herself.

     "Yes, most of the time," replied Sharon smilingly, "although my holiday companion was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help to me.  Fortunately, the weather was excellent and the beach we frequented just right for sunbathing but ... well, I would doubtless have enjoyed it more had I been with you."

     "I take it you went with Stephen Jacobs," said Kelly bluntly.

     Sharon reluctantly nodded her head and momentarily lowered her eyes under pressure of the shame which this embarrassing admission caused her.  "I couldn't really refuse him," she sighed, after a few seconds' silence had supervened between them.  "He was so domineering."

     "Actually, I had figured Stephen was involved with you quite some time ago," revealed Kelly, his voice trembling with suppressed emotion.  "However, I suppose I deserved what I got for having allowed myself to get caught-up with Paloma Searle for all the wrong reasons.  I think I told you all about how that happened in my letter, didn't I?"

     "Yes, more or less," admitted Sharon, blushing.  "But I also deserved what I got for having allowed myself to get drawn into a relationship with Stephen."

     "Oh?"

     Sharon was blushing more forcibly than before and was evidently in some difficulty bringing her emotions under control.  "He's a sadistic pervert!" she at length declared.

     "Really?" gasped Kelly, who didn't quite know what to say.  "How d'you mean?"

     "It would take too long to explain and, besides, I don't think I'd want to go into all the sordid details," was all Sharon would say.

     "You're not still seeing him, by any chance?"

     "I haven't completely broken with him yet, though ... if you really meant what you said in your letter, then I'd be more than happy to carry on from where we left off, before anyone else came between us."

     Kelly could hardly contain his delight, so excited had he become all of a sudden.  "You mean it?" he exclaimed.

     "Of course I do!" responded Sharon, clasping his outstretched hand in both of hers.  "Why shouldn't I mean it?"

     He had risen to his feet and drawn her closer to himself in a gesture of physical reconciliation.  They stood, for a moment, staring into each other's eyes, their arms entwined.  Then their lips met in one long passionate kiss which completely dissipated the remaining distrust and reserve between them.  "I really can't believe my luck," he at length gasped, coming up for air.  "I had completely given-up all hope of ever seeing you again."

     "That was very silly of you, Jim," remarked Sharon teasingly.  "After all, you do love me, don't you?"

     "Passionately," he confessed, squeezing her more tightly against himself.  "You're the only woman I have ever loved."  Then, releasing her from his embrace, he stood back to admire her appearance.  "Weren't you dressed like this the first day I set eyes on you?" he observed, recalling the all-white attire she had worn to the National Gallery that fateful day in June.

     "I thought it would make a favourable impression on you," she smiled.

     "Hmm, it does indeed," he admitted, "insofar as it induces me to believe that our relationship has started right back at the beginning again."  He drew closer to her and put his arms round her waist.  "But what you told me about Stephen doesn't make such a favourable impression, I'm afraid.  In fact, it leads me to the conclusion that the only sensible thing for you to do now, to ensure he doesn't continue molesting you, is to move into my apartment until such time as the air clears a bit and he loses further interest in you.  What do you say?"

     "Do you really think you'll have room for me here?" asked Sharon doubtfully, casting her gaze around the tiny room which, though amply filled with books, furniture, and other cultural artefacts, was as tidy as any room she had ever beheld.

     "Under the circumstances of my love for you, I'd have room for you anywhere, even in a place the size of a telephone booth."

     "I hope you won't live to regret your words!" said Sharon smilingly.  "But if that's what you really want, then I can only say yes."

     Once more they met in a passionate embrace, as Kelly proceeded to smother her face with kisses.  "There's nothing that would make me happier than to have you living here every day," he enthused and, getting down on his knees before her, he began to kiss her feet, which were bare except for a pair of lightweight shoes.  Then, just as he was about to lift the hem of her tight-fitting miniskirt to kiss her on the thighs, the sound of the doorbell intervened, causing him to start back in surprise.  "Now who-on-earth can that be?" he irritably exclaimed, scrambling to his feet again.

     "I hope it isn't Stephen," she groaned, as he went to open the door.

     "If it is him, he'll get what's bloody-well coming to him!" Kelly shouted back to her from the hallway.  There was a pause while he turned the lock, then an exclamation of unequivocal surprise as he recognized the caller and involuntarily stood back, as though in dread.

     The tall figure of Douglas Searle, dressed in a black suit and matching tie, lost no time in availing himself of Kelly's impulsive and quite unexpected hospitality, nor in buffeting him along the hallway to the sitting-room-cum-study where, at sight of Sharon, he halted and smiled.  "I take it I have the pleasure of meeting Miss Sharon Taylor, the actress," he observed.

     Sharon nodded and cautiously smiled back at him, though neither of them approached the other close enough to shake hands.

     "Our mutual friend, Stephen Jacobs, told me you would probably be here this evening," Mr Searle remarked, principally to Sharon.  Then turning fully to face Kelly, who now stood with his back to the sitting-room's door, he added: "Paloma told me quite a lot about your relationship with this young woman, who is really every bit as beautiful as I'd been lead to believe.  However, since my wife's untimely demise I've been waiting for an opportunity to level the score, as it were, and thanks to the co-operation of our mutual friend, whom I learnt about through Paloma and whose invaluable information has enabled me to catch you together at such a convenient time, that opportunity has now arrived.  Whereupon he drew a small revolver from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and, pointing it directly at Kelly, continued: "I sincerely regret having to do this, James, but since you were largely responsible for destroying my wife and club through your clumsy and deceitful actions, I'm left with no real alternative."

     "But, Mr Searle, I had no idea ..." Kelly was prevented from finishing his apologetic excuse by the impact of a bullet in the chest, which caused him to slump to the floor.

     "James!" screamed Sharon as the crippling effect of the bullet wound registered in her mind.  But before she could scream again or even take a step towards him, a second bullet from Searle's revolver had struck his chest with mortal effect.

     "Oh, my God!" she groaned and, overcome by shock, collapsed to the floor, where she lay in an hysterical heap until a third bullet from Searle's gun cut short her mental agony by piercing her heart.

     Satisfied that both of them were dead, Douglas Searle returned the revolver to his jacket pocket and began to ransack the room with intent to finding his late-wife's letters.  He had unlocked virtually every drawer by the time he got to the one containing them.  Taking them out of their envelopes, he quickly read each one through from first to last before setting fire to them with the aid of a cigarette lighter.  The envelopes were also destroyed in such fashion.  Then noticing the white G-string in the same drawer, and recognizing it as the one Paloma had worn to the fancy-dress ball, he set fire to it in turn and contemptuously dropped it into the metallic wastepaper bin, watching intently until the flames had completely engulfed and consumed its smouldering remains - much the way that his wife's corpse had been engulfed and consumed by raging fire at the crematorium.  Finally, satisfied that no further evidence of the affair between his wife and James Kelly was still at large, he took out the gun again and, pressing its barrel against the roof of his mouth, pulled the trigger to devastating effect.

                                 

                                          

EPILOGUE

 

Arriving back, the following week, from a literary engagement in the South of France, Stephen Jacobs' attention was arrested by a large caption on the front page of his local newspaper which read: TWO MURDERS AND ONE SUICIDE - WIDOWER'S REVENGE.  Reading on, he discovered that the three victims of the affair were none other than James Kelly, Sharon Taylor, and Douglas Searle.  "Oh my God!" he exclaimed, as he read the stark details of the crime and the presumed circumstances surrounding its perpetration.

     He remembered the telephone call Douglas Searle had made to his Finchley address, shortly after his return from holiday with Sharon, when the caller had introduced himself as a friend of James Kelly who, in consequence of various personal circumstances in the recent past, was keen to play a practical joke on the writer.  For he had unwittingly collaborated in the crime by taking the older man into his confidence and duly furnishing him with the information he required to track Sharon down on the night she went to visit James.  He had been under the impression that Mr Searle was merely intending to embarrass and frustrate Sharon by being at James' place when she arrived.  For her hope of reconciliation with the writer would have been considerably thwarted, if not permanently undermined, by the presence of so imposing and influential a man!

     Fortunately for Stephen Jacobs, however, his latest little sadistic gamble, played at a discreet distance, had the potential of working out to his advantage.  For he had been at cross-purposes with himself for too long and would now have an opportunity to straighten things out, at last, with Jennifer Crowe, the girl he had been really interested in all along, whose loss of Sharon's friendship, following her tragic death, would be more than adequately compensated, he felt confident, by the gain of his, especially as he would play her as he had played no other woman before!

 

                          

LONDON 1979 (Revised 1980-2010)

 

 

CROSS-PURPOSES

 

 

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